Wolfcry Page 12

"They should be," he replied frankly. "I am their leader, and I have control of their lives or deaths. It is a weak leader whose people do not respect him."

"My people respect me," I spat. "Respect and fear are not the  -  "

"Aren't they?" he asked. "And do they?"

I was filled with cold rage, and I spoke the words I knew I should not. "What you tried to do to me  -  what I suspect you did to Betia  -  would carry a death sentence in Wyvern's Court. How long do you think you would survive if I told my guard? That is not because they fear me; it is because they care for me."

"How long do you think you would survive if you declared war on my people?" he said. He held out a hand to me, challenging. "We both know that you won't do it. So why don't you play nice and come back to the camp with me? Your people have been looking for you, frantic as a child missing his blanket. They were not happy to learn that you were traveling alone."

"Thank you," I said, hating to acknowledge his help but knowing that he had not been obligated even to tell my people that I was alive. I did not take his hand, though I tried to force myself to appear calm as I walked back to the camp.

I was not so furious about what he had tried to do to me. I despised him, but I had no authority over him. I could not change his world when I was trying to fix my own. But I hated him for Betia. I had no doubt that he had frightened her into her wolf form, and even as I walked to Kalisa's camp, I was gnawed by the terror that this might have been too much for her. If she fled into her wolf form now, she might never return. I stroked the melos she had given me, which was still tied at my waist. Though the colors were not the vibrant reds, greens and blues traditionally used, any of my people would recognize it for what it was. I thought about hiding it before I ran into any serpiente, so that I wouldn't have to face their questions, but I couldn't. I might have lost Betia already. I would not put away my only remembrance.

The Vahamil camp was quieter than I had ever heard it, and I quickly realized that Velyo was the reason. His own people watched him with fear; Kalisa's watched him with wary disdain. Kalisa herself greeted him with a polite nod as she stood and walked toward me. Her movements were tight, and they betrayed that she was still in some pain, but her expression was one of welcome and relief as she grasped my hands in her own.

"Kalisa, it is so good to see you," I said to the alpha. "I had heard that you were injured."

"It remains to be seen if I will continue as alpha of the Vahamil," Kalisa replied.

"Frektane's presence has intimidated many of my challengers  -  but only because he has hinted that he is interested in the position. Velyo is not someone I would wish as my successor." She glanced at Velyo, who had gone to speak to one of his wolves.

"Fortunately, unlike Frektane's, my position rests on a little more than brute strength. My people are far better off, due to our relationship with Wyvern's Court. Your parents'

support has been a great help to me during my recovery." She admitted, "Seeing your parents as terrified as they've been since you disappeared has been heartbreaking. I am very glad to see that you are all right and will be back home soon. We are still a couple of days away by land, but it would not be a long flight."

I shook my head. "I can't fly."

"Velyo was right, then, about the drugs? But they will wear off eventually." I nodded, though I knew that the drugs were no longer holding me in this shape. I had recovered my cobra form when the drugs had worn off; my wings would not be coming back.

"In the meantime," Kalisa said, "I will send one of my fastest wolves to tell your guard where they can find you. Whoever was responsible for taking you away will probably feel threatened by your return. I think it would be best if you wait until your guards are with you before continuing on your way, I wouldn't travel alone through these woods until the villain is found."

It seemed to be sound advice, though if Velyo had offered it, I probably would have refused. "Thank you," I said. "Can you give me any word on what else is going on in Wyvern's Court?"

I worried that other violence might have followed the attack on Urban, such as serpiente retaliating against those who had harmed one of their own  -  especially while my parents and I were gone.

"We haven't been in the area recently," she answered. "Your guards came here to ask if we had seen you, but we knew nothing until Velyo arrived. I was horrified to learn that you had been taken through our land without our knowledge." Looking up from his discussion with another wolf, Velyo said to Kalisa, "I may disagree with your belief that it is not necessary to patrol the border you share with Wyvern's Court, but it is hardly the Vahamil's fault that their neighbors can't keep track of their own princess. Especially when all the pack's resources were dedicated to the welfare of its alpha."

Kalisa refrained from responding, and Velyo, apparently bored of the discussion, turned and left us again.

"Two alphas is too many for one camp," Kalisa said softly after he had gone. "Blue-eyes is a little too eager for me to pass on my authority. The Frektane pack has always been ambitious enough to keep the rest of us on guard."

"He treats his own people like dirt," I said, tact leaving me. Kalisa shook her head. "The northern packs need to be a little harsher to survive the winter," she said, though the expression in her eyes did not match the tolerance in her voice. "It isn't my place to question how Velyo runs his pack, only how I run mine."

"But you let them winter with you."

"Should I punish the Frektane people because I don't like their leader?" she asked.

"Leader? What about his father?"

"Dead," Kalisa informed me. "Shortly after you left."

"Frektane did not seem that unwell when I saw him," I said, wondering if Velyo had added patricide to his list of crimes since we'd last met.

"This isn't really a conversation for you, Wyvern," Kalisa replied, confirming my suspicions. "Pack business is pack business, not meant for the ears of Wyvern's Court." I nodded, accepting the dismissal. Unlike among the Obsidian guild, here I would always be Oliza Shardae Cobriana. When Kalisa spoke to me, it was queen to princess, and that was not a relationship that allowed for idle talk.

"Just... be careful," I couldn't resist adding.

"I always am."

Time passed differently among the wolves than inside Wyvern's Court. The days were marked only by sunrise and sunset, and the meals by when a hunter returned. The mellow rhythm was a poor match for my anxiety and frustration. As long as I was with the wolves, I knew that Betia would not come back to me. I was the only one she seemed to trust. And as long as I was away from Wyvern's Court, I would not be able to eat or sleep without the queasy feeling that my world might be crumbling.

Chapter 16

A flurry of wings woke me early on my third morning with the wolves. I opened my eyes to see the descent of ten avians, including a peregrine falcon and a golden hawk. I was desperate to see my own people again, and I hurried to meet them. With a falcon's ability to dive swiftly and gracefully, Nicias landed and returned to human form first. He practically lifted me off the ground as he hugged me with truly serpiente abandon. I noticed a couple of avians averting their gazes as they landed around us, but I tried to ignore them. Birds would forever look away at displays of affection, just as serpents would forever indulge in them. Some things would never change.

Someone behind Nicias cleared her throat, and he sprang away from me to give her room. The other avians  -  a half dozen from my mother's Royal Flight, and the rest from among my Wyverns  -  also stepped back, fanning out protectively around us but giving us space.

My mother hugged me so tightly, I feared for my ribs; I hugged her back just as tightly.

"We feared the worst," she whispered, refusing to let me go. "Are you all right? Can you fly yet?"

"Yes and no," I answered, trying to keep up with her quick, anxious questions. Though she had been raised avian and was perfectly capable of assuming their poise, my mother was making no attempt to be calm just then. "I'm fine, mostly, but I can't fly. Did any of you see a wolf on your way here?"

"We saw a lot of wolves," my mother answered, stepping back with a puzzled expression. "Kalisa's people?"

"No, a..." I sighed. She wouldn't have known Betia from anyone else. "We'll look for her later. What's going on back home?"

"You are coming home, right?" my mother asked suddenly.

"Of course. How could you think otherwise?"

She relaxed. "Someone went to great lengths to convince us you left willingly. I can't stay long; there are too many destructive rumors going around in Wyvern's Court. Not to mention your father wanted to go tearing off after you. Nicias can explain everything you need to know. I just had to see you alive and well, and hear from you that you are coming home."

She glanced back at her guards, who were standing at attention. Kel, the sparrow who led the Royal Flight, was quietly conferring with Nicias; he was nodding, listening to her without ever taking all his attention from me. I wondered where Gretchen was. Nicias excused himself from Kel and crossed toward us. "I apologize for hurrying you two, but Kalisa's runner said that it was lions who kidnapped you." He looked at me for confirmation.

"Yes, the mercenaries who came to Wyvern's Court."

"That being so, I would like to send a few people to track them as soon as possible." He did not add aloud that he could not do that when all the avian Wyverns were needed to guard me, and the Royal Flight was needed to guard my mother.

My mother nodded, grasping the problem quickly. "Of course. Oliza, we can speak further when you get home; I need to let your father know that you are okay before he goes and does something foolish.

For the gods' sake be careful."

she said imploringly before hugging me again.

"I will be."

"Fly with grace," she bid me before nodding to Kel and shifting back into her hawk form. About half of the remaining guards from the Royal Flight followed her, and the rest stayed with the small number of my Wyverns who were left.

I turned to Nicias then. "Now, tell me what is going on."

"People are frantic," Nicias said, as soon as we had some privacy. "When we found the note  -  "

"A

note?"

"In your handwriting," he continued, "explaining that you had left of your own free will. People saw it before the guard did, and half the court was sure  -  You didn't run, right?"

I shook my head, a little dazed. It was the perfect scheme, convincing people that I had left willingly, so that there would be no conflict when Salem and Sive took their respective thrones. But who?

"Who?" I asked aloud.

Nicias shook his head. "We don't know yet. The runner Kalisa sent told me only what they knew  -  that you had been taken by mercenaries, and that you had been drugged and couldn't fly. Now that we have found you, we will find them. Their leader will know who hired them."

"And if Tavisan won't tell you?"

Nicias hesitated, reminding me that some falcons were more than capable of finding the information they desired in someone else's mind.

"I'll bring him back to you," Nicias answered finally. "It will be up to you to decide how we deal with him."

"What else am I going to find when I get home? What happened with Urban?"

"There haven't been any serious injuries since the attack on Urban," Nicias said, "but the marketplace has been volatile enough that I've had to assign a couple of my Wyverns to monitor it during the day." I closed my eyes and concentrated on my breathing. I was a child of peacetime; imagining soldiers policing my home made me sweat. "The three avians who attacked Urban came forward and were arrested. They were all from the Hawk's Keep and had come to Wyvern's Court to visit family during Festival."

"They just confessed?"

"I understand that Prentice put some pressure on the avian community. Your mother dealt with them."

"Severely, I hope."

"Serpiente law would have indentured the three of them to Urban for twice the time that he was unable to work  -  in this case, until he could dance again  -  but Urban wanted nothing to do with them. Your mother claimed the time instead and has required them to spend two hours each morning in Wyvern's Court with the scholar Valene, learning about serpiente culture, history, myth and language."

"A fine and cultural tutoring?" I said, incredulous. What could my mother have been thinking? "If they had assaulted an avian, they would have been exiled from the court, possibly grounded. But they can beat a dancer and get away with it?"

"If they had assaulted an avian," Nicias said, "other avians would have been calling for their blood. As it is, your mother feared that exiling them would turn them into martyrs."

Martyrs. What kind of world did I live in, where there were people who would defend three men viciously beating someone? "I want to speak to them when I get back to Wyvern's Court."

"You will have a lot to handle once you are home. Your mother  -  "

"I

need to speak to them," I said. "I am sure my mother has addressed the issue to her satisfaction, but I need to look into the eyes of the monsters who would attack a young man just for walking on the 'wrong' side of the court."

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