Hawksong Page 9

"Thank the gods she did."

"As it is, I cannot stay long," I was forced to admit. "My guards do not know where I am, or else they would never have let me be here."

And if they knew how the palace guards had "welcomed" me, they would do anything in their power to keep me from ever returning, I thought.

Zane's expression took on a hint of surprise, and his voice was resigned as he said, "I forget how much power the Royal Flight has over its queen." He shook his head.

"Adelina never hesitates to protest when she thinks I'm likely to get myself killed, but the guard doesn't dare try to stop a cobra from doing as he wishes." Recalling how Zane had cleared his guards from the room with one word, I had no doubts as to the truth of his statement. Catching the glimmer of anger still in Zane's gaze, I was equally certain as to why the guard was so obedient to its prince.

"You're being announced as Tuuli Thea tomorrow, correct?" Zane asked, in an abrupt change of topic.

"Yes," I confirmed, slightly surprised that Zane knew the details so well. I allowed my expression and tone to carry the question, knowing that Zane would answer or not as he thought appropriate.

Zane caught the inquiry in my voice and explained, "I've people loyal to me who have access to the Keep. They keep me informed."

I swallowed a feeling of unease at the thought of the serpiente having spies in the Hawk's Keep. More unnerving was the knowledge that they would need to be avian, or else they would have been caught long before now. Zane might have been able to sneak around the Keep at night by using the stairway, but it would be impossible to follow the goings-on in the court without the ability to fly.

"And who are these ears of yours?" I asked, unable to keep the suspicion from my voice.

"If we manage to succeed in ending this damn war, I will gladly introduce them to you," Zane answered smoothly. Though he did not say it outright, the second meaning to his words was clear. If we did not end the war, he would keep his spies in place. I had been aware that Zane's attempt at peace might be a ruse, but I had been willing to risk that on the chance that he might be sincere. It had not occurred to me until that moment how carefully Zane must have laid his plans before inviting the avian royalty to join this negotiation dance.

With painful clarity, Zane's earlier words reverberated in my mind. Irene made me wait one more night before I decided you were not going to come. Thank the gods she did.

If I had not come this night, would his spies have killed me in my bed? Or would Zane himself have done the honor, ending my life with the cobra's poison that he had once assured me would stop my heart more swiftly than I could draw breath to scream?

Suddenly I was sure that if the time allotted to me had run out, Zane might have attempted to end the war by eliminating the leaders of the other side  -  namely my mother and me  -  with methods far more sure than any of Karashan's plans. As if reading my thoughts in the silence I allowed to pass, Zane stated coolly, concisely,

"If I give you my word, Danica, you can be assured I will keep it. I want bloodshed no more than you do, but I will do what is necessary to end this war. If that means accepting the Mistari's suggestion, then I will go down on bended knee this moment and ask you to be my Naga. If that means listening to any other suggestion you have... so be it." He concluded, his tone never changing, "And if it means taking the Hawk's Keep down stone by stone with my bare hands, then without hesitation I will begin." I stood, moving away from the intensity in his gaze. If I refused to listen... would I even be allowed to leave?

"I came here to talk about peace, not to receive threats."

"I gave my word you would be safe if you accepted my invitation," Zane assured me, not rising from his seat, as if attempting the impossible feat of appearing harmless. "If you turned around right now and left, neither my guard nor I would stop you."

"And afterward?"

Zane closed his eyes for a moment, and when he opened them again his expression was as remote as the morning star. "I hope we can end this war with peace, not a bloodbath," he answered. "I've reached the point where I honestly think I would slit my own wrists if I thought it would end the fighting. Unfortunately, the palace guard would not react well to losing its last prince, and again we would have a slaughter on our hands." He shook his head and finished bluntly, "You are an attractive woman, Danica, but I do not love you. I do not think I ever can. I look into your golden hawk's eyes, and no matter how stunning the form they accompany, I think only of your warriors murdering my loved ones. Since you recoil every time you accidentally find your own gaze fallen upon Cobriana garnet, I suspect you feel much the same way."

"Are these statements going somewhere?" I inquired, voice detached.

"I wanted to make sure there were no misunderstandings between us before I asked my next question," Zane answered immediately. He stood, and I braced myself to keep from flinching as he moved toward me. "I have considered our options, and elected to attempt the least bloody first." Graceful as the serpent that lived inside him, Zane went down on one knee. "With the understanding that there may never be anything between us but a shared desire for peace, and my word that I will never force upon you any duty beyond the political expectations of the position,

I implore you, Danica Shardae, to agree to be my Naga."

I felt my heart skip a beat, and for several seconds my voice caught in my throat. He couldn't want an answer now... but of course he did, or he would not have asked. Zane waited silently, still as a statue, as I alternated between animalistic terror, the desire to flee, acceptance of my responsibilities and the knowledge that if I said no now, I would need to return to the council and prepare for battle.

How could I possibly consider saying yes when I knew that with as little hesitation as he had gone to one knee, Zane could stand and slip a knife between my ribs?

How could I consider saying no, when agreeing now might end this war?

"I don't know how in the world I could convince my protectors to back my decision," I admitted, and my voice was nearly shaking. The rest of the council would follow the Royal Flight, but I felt certain that Andreios would be the first to protest my endangering myself with this agreement.

"Yes or no is all that matters," was Zane's swift response. "We'll work out the details later."

I took a breath, felt my throat constrict and had to swallow hard twice before I could answer, "Yes. I agree."

Zane stood, catching my right hand as he did so. He laid a gentle kiss on my knuckles, then turned it over and pressed another ring into my palm.

The style matched the Cobriana signet ring, though this one was smaller, designed to fit my slender fingers. The metal was the same cool silver, but instead of the traditional black stone, this had been set with a rare golden onyx, with bands varying from pale honey to warm marigold. I knew it must have come from the Mistari's original homeland in the east.

"I have informed my people that I will announce my Naga on the new moon  -  two nights from now. I know it is the evening after your coronation as Tuuli Thea, and if necessary I can push it back, but it seems wise to make our move as soon as we can." I nodded, and as it occurred to me, I added, "There will be protests, but if we go through with the announcement here before I inform the court of my decision, not only will I have the title of Tuuli Thea behind me, but it will be too late for even the Royal Flight to forbid me. It is a high crime for an alistair's vows to be broken." No one would dare order the Tuuli Thea to withdraw her promise, even if it was given to the Diente of the serpiente. I could stall picking an alistair easily enough, though it would be trickier to bluff Karashan into delaying. But it would only be a few days, long enough to seal the pact on the serpiente side; I would do it, whatever it took.

"How are your people likely to take the news?" I asked hesitantly. My main concern was that someone might attempt to kill Zane if I tried to take him to the Keep and acknowledge him as my alistair; I hoped I would not be dodging weaponry when Zane made the announcement here.

"They won't like it; they'll think I'm more than a little crazy. There will be those who will worry you are going to put a knife in me one night, and some who will think a strange avian magic has twisted my mind," Zane answered easily. "But you're beautiful, and there's no reason for them to think I'm not madly infatuated even if you are a hawk. That being so, they frankly cannot afford to take the announcement badly. One can be skinned for harming the Naga or her personal guards, which for you will include the Royal Flight. They'll be wary of picking fights with avian soldiers, at least for a while." Skinned?

I shuddered at the thought, though I certainly did agree that such a threat would be a strong deterrent to anyone intending harm.

I nodded, accepting Zane's reasoning. "I need to get back to the Keep before the Royal Flight comes looking for me," I stated, lifting my bruised body carefully from my seat.

"Can you be here at about midday after the ceremony at the Keep?" Zane asked. "That will leave some time to prepare you for meeting the serpiente court." The concept of standing in front of a large group of hostile serpiente, relying only on the promise of Zane Cobriana to keep me safe, made my blood run cold.

"That should be fine," I responded, my voice sounding distant to my ears. I almost felt like I was dreaming again, but even my mind could not have created a scenario as terrifying as this one.

Chapter 10

BY THE TIME I RETURNED TO THE KEEP, it was nearly dawn, yet I had barely returned to human form before Andreios was standing before me and demanding to know where I had been.

I used the pretense of catching my breath as I thought quickly and finally settled for the closest thing to the truth I could manage. "When I spoke to the flight leaders, I mentioned the possibility of a less direct solution. I have been finalizing the details of that solution." Rei's eyes widened as I continued, "I have a plan, but it is discreet. In the meantime, I want you to tell the flight leaders to stand down. I don't want a move made beyond what I have already triggered. I plan... to turn the serpiente's plot back upon them."

I knew all the ways he could take the words, and I knew he would never translate them to mean that I had agreed to go along with Zane Cobriana's plans. Karashan thought the serpiente were standing down to draw us into a trap. Let her think I was using the same plan.

"Are you sure?" was all Rei asked.

I wanted to tell him the full truth, but revealing the real plans would rum them. Neither my mother nor the Royal Flight would let me get away with this madness. That very fact was what tempted me the most. If I told them and they stopped me from going through with the insane agreement I had made with a cobra, I could tell myself that it wasn't my fault. At least until I walked the next bloody battlefield, or took the throne and, like my mother, lost children to the war. The first blood I saw would be on my hands, as would any spilled afterward.

I kept my fears to myself. "I am sure," I said. "Give Karashan the orders: not a move." He nodded, and we parted ways. I returned to my bed to get some much-needed rest before the coronation that evening.

The ceremony was simple: a few words spoken to the court by my mother of my strength and courage and faith in the future, words that felt hollow in my ears as terror beat in my heart. From her own neck my mother removed a pendant of a golden hawk with wings spread, a solitary symbol on the end of a carefully woven gold and silver chain. I was wearing the necklace the Aurita had given to me; the piece hung high enough that I could wear the hawk pendant at the same time, so that each decoration seemed made to wear with the other.

I addressed my people, and saw my mother frown when I finished without speaking of my alistair. However, it was not until the Royal Flight knelt before me to swear their allegiance to the new Tuuli Thea that the horror of what I had promised Zane was made real to me.

"Gerard Halsan." Speaking his name, the older man knelt before me, taking my hand and speaking the words he had recited when he had sworn his allegiance to my mother before me. "To my Tuuli Thea goes my faith and my trust. To her blood goes my blade, my bow and my fist, ever to defend her and her km. To her I swear my loyalty, and to her I swear my life ever before hers."

My life ever before hers.

These two dozen men and women, their lives before mine. I prayed they would never need to give those lives. I prayed I could stop the war before they were called to sacrifice themselves for another helpless queen.

I knew every name and face among the Royal Flight. Some of them, like Karl and Andreios, I had grown up with; some of them, like Gerard, had guarded my mother before I was even born.

The list went on, coming at last to Erica

Silvermead. The newest member of the Royal Flight, the low-born sparrow who had shocked Andreios with her ability. If I had to guess, her name would be high on my list of Zane's possible spies; she had come out of nowhere. But I knew the assessment was not quite fair. Erica had barely been accepted into the Royal Flight, and she had only been in the Keep for a few days; Zane had implied that his spies had been in place for a while. There was just something about the sparrow that unnerved me. However, Rei seemed very proud of how well she fought, so I did not speak my unease. As Erica swore her vows, her voice rang sincere.

The last to stand before me was the commander of the Royal Flight himself. Andreios stood respectfully, but in his eyes was a look akin to pain, a question he would not ask. Still, he smiled at me as he approached and went to his knee.

"To my Tuuli Thea goes my vow to tram those under me, to lead them well, so our wings may be hers if she falls, so our eyes may be hers in darkness, and our talons may be hers in danger. To her blood goes my blade, my bow and my fist, ever to defend her and her km. To her I swear my trust and my loyalty. To her I swear my life ever before hers."

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