Wolfcry Page 15

She slipped out the doorway while we were both still frozen in shock. In the months since I had met her, Hai had barely even spoken to me, much less said anything intended to be helpful. This was now the second time she had offered to help me in as many meetings.

"Could she really do that?" I asked Nicias.

"I... I don't know," he answered. "She is powerful, but I didn't think she could control her magic to the extent she is proposing. Maybe I misjudged her there, too." He shook his head. "Her magic is unpredictable, and we've already seen that combining it with yours can have unexpected results.

Just because the falcons don't think your magic is enough of a threat for them to worry about doesn't mean that using it can't hurt you"

"I know you can't work the type of magic Hai was talking about, but if you were there, would you be able to help control it?"

He paused, thoughtful. "Most of my study the past several months has been devoted to working with Darien to try to control Anhamirak's power, for the binding spell. I can try to help keep Hai's and your powers balanced, but if that doesn't work, I should be able to stop it completely."

We were interrupted by Sive's entrance. Her expression warmed as she saw me. Even Prentice cracked a smile. I tried to do the same, but my thoughts were mired in the argument with my parents, and the strange conversation with Hai; it must have shown on my face, because Sive's expression mellowed before she had even reached me.

"Oliza, I had heard that you had met up with your wyverns and were on your way back, but it is good to see you with my own eyes. Are you all right?" Not yet, but I hoped I would be. "I don't plan to vacation via mercenary in the future, but I'll be fine. Thank you. And Prentice, I understand that I owe you thanks, as well, regarding the identification of Urban's attackers."

He nodded very slightly. "I was not blind to the fact that my name was on the top of your list. Finding the responsible parties was the only way I could clear my own name, in my queen's eyes, my lady's eyes, and anyone else's."

The response was not exactly what I might have hoped for, but what had I really expected, from Prentice?

"I have spent enough time with the dancers that I could anticipate how they would react," Sive said. "We hoped that action from the Shardae line would help convince the serpiente that, even with you missing, we had not just forgotten the crime against them."

"Thank you, again. I am glad that both of you were here while I was gone."

Chapter 18

After the conversation with Sive, I walked with Nicias along the outskirts of Wyvern's Court toward the dancer's nest. I needed to show my people that I was home, and I wanted to check on Urban.

Nicias had been right to accuse me of panicking after the conversation with my parents. The interlude with Hai and the more rational discussion with Sive and Prentice had calmed me, and now I needed to decide my path.

"The Vahamil are our allies, and though there is obviously a power struggle going on between them and the Frektane, neither pack seems a likely suspect. That leaves someone from Wyvern's Court  -  I hate thinking of my own people in that light, but I know I must  -  or the falcons. I know you feel that the falcons aren't behind this, but from what you've said, they seem to have a powerful motive to remove me. Do you really trust them?"

Nicias let out a short laugh. "

Trust?

Absolutely not. The falcons' god Ahnmik might not be evil, but he supposedly gave this world manipulation and deceit. If Darien had said she wanted to help me because she felt it was the right thing to do, it would have been a lie. She was in love with your uncle Anjay Cobriana; their child, Hai, is in Wyvern's Court; and Darien hates the Empress and Araceli for supporting the war. She wants to fight them, and that means she will do everything in her power to see you on the throne of Wyvern's Court. Like I said before, the royal house has agreed to give me a chance to protect your child, and I do not think they will go back on that agreement; if they did, I believe they would find a more effective means of doing it. I've been wrong about them before, but if I was in this case, Darien would let me know... simply because she is that vindictive."

"What about Hai? She has been here for months now and has rarely spoken to me. When she has, it has usually been incoherent or outright condescending. Now she has offered to help me the last two times I have seen her." The first time had been right before I was abducted. "Hai makes no attempt to hide her loyalty to Empress Cjarsa. Why does she claim to want to help me?"

"I don't know," Nicias admitted, "but she wouldn't do anything she thought would hurt you."

"Why not? I don't believe for a moment that she is loyal to me."

"The only monarchy Hai is loyal to is the one on Ahnmik... the one of which I am third in line to the throne." He cringed. "I like to believe that Hai's affection toward me is more than loyalty and magic, but even if it is, I doubt she would hesitate to turn on someone she loved if her Empress wished it. What I

know is that the only thing that allowed Hai to wake, and allows her to survive in our world, is her tie to me. Betraying you would be betraying me, and it would destroy her." I needed her help desperately. There was little I could do until I knew whether I had my wings. I had been straddling the line between heir and queen for years. Maybe my parents were right in saying that we had reached a point where my hesitation could hurt my people.

I needed only to decide.

"I know I need to be here," I said to Nicias with a sigh as I thought about the days I had spent in the Obsidian guild. Simpler days, without these hard decisions. "I am

Arami, and I

am heir to the Tuuli Thea, and I won't just forsake that. But is it so awful that I was tempted? I danced, Nicias, and it was so pure.

I wasn't queen-to-be. I wasn't competing and being backed into a corner by decisions I am not ready to make. And there was this incredible, perfect moment..." I thought about the instant after the hanlah

'melos. It had seemed as if anything was possible. It had felt like... I shook my head.

"I am the leader of Wyvern's Court, and if I have to declare a mate, I will."

I made this pledge without any idea as to how I would fulfill it. Nicias started to protest, but I cut him off with a motion. "I am terrified that what happened to Urban is just the beginning, that anyone I pick will be in even more danger. But what I've done so far hasn't worked. People believed that I had abdicated  -  even members of my own guard. The longer I procrastinate, the longer I wait to tie myself to Wyvern's Court, the more speculation and doubt will grow."

"Do you have anyone in mind?" he asked, neither challenging nor agreeing with me. I was grateful for his calm support.

"No," I answered. "Someone known by both groups. A serpiente who won't be lost without constant company, who won't panic if I ask for a moment of privacy.

Or an avian willing to learn to dance, and who won't be challenged by..." I let out a frustrated cry. "In short, a man who doesn't mind abandoning the culture that raised him, and is submissive enough to let me drag him about. That doesn't exactly sound like a good basis for a loving, equal relationship, does it? And what kind of king could such a man make?"

Nicias shook his head, but before he could say more, he tensed; his hand moved to rest on the knife at his waist as he took a step past me, toward something he had heard that I had not.

A moment later, we glimpsed a flash of white. Nicias unsheathed his blade and moved in front of me.

"If I meant harm, I would not be foolish enough to show myself to a loyal falcon." The voice was familiar to me. I put a hand on Nicias's arm to draw him back as the leader of the Obsidian guild stepped forward.

"Ciacin-itil."

"Cincarre,

Obsidian," I said. "Nicias, it's all right."

Nicias's expression was doubtful, but he stepped back a little.

"Don't worry, falcon. I do not plan to stay long. I am simply escorting a friend." He looked behind himself and called, "It's all right, dear." Tentatively, another figure emerged from the woods. My breath left me in a rush when I recognized her.

"Betia."

I pulled her into my arms as gratitude overwhelmed me, washing away the dread in the pit of my stomach. Betia was still in human form; she hadn't gone back to her wolf. She balked when I tried to draw her into the clearing, and I spoke quickly. "Betia, this is Nicias; I know I told you about him. He won't hurt you. Nicias  -  " But Nicias had already relaxed and put his weapon away.

He bowed slightly. "Betia, it's an honor to meet you." Betia gave a little nod, still watching him warily. However, she let me bring her forward.

"Are you all right?" I asked. "I was so worried about you! I will never let anyone hurt you, I swear it. Do you believe me?"

Her gaze flickered from me to the woods, but she nodded again, leaning against me in a way that betrayed her fatigue.

"Oliza," she whispered.

It was the first word I had ever heard her speak, and I spun her about joyfully and then hugged her tightly to myself, not even releasing her when the white viper spoke again.

"She came back to us shortly after you left," he said. "It was obvious that she regretted leaving you, but she did not want to travel alone through wolf territory to find you."

"Thank you," I said. "Thank you so much. Please, if you need anything before you go on your way  -  "

He shook his head. "I will be fine. You two..." He looked past me, at Nicias, as if debating whether to finish, and then concluded, "You should be together."

"Do you want to see Wyvern's Court?" I asked Betia. "Or first, how about a hot meal and a place to sleep?" She smiled, still holding on to me. Her body felt frail; she obviously had not been eating or sleeping well since she had fled from Velyo once again. "I'll take care of you," I promised.

I looked up, intending to thank the white viper once more, but he was already gone. Unsurprised, I turned to Nicias instead.

"For tonight, I'm going to take Betia to Wyvern's Nest. It's public enough that you don't have to worry about my safety, and I don't doubt they'll take her in. Tomorrow I want to speak to the men who attacked Urban, perhaps when they have their meeting with Valene."

"I can come find you shortly before their lesson ends."

"Would you please let Hai know that I would like to speak to her as well, at her earliest convenience?"

"I will let her know."

"Betia, how does an evening in the dancer's nest sound?" She nodded groggily, already half-asleep in my arms. I scooped her up to carry her, and she leaned her head against my shoulder. She was so terribly light. Nicias blinked in surprise. "Would you like a hand?"

"You need your arms free in case we run into trouble," I said. "I can carry her." He shrugged, smiling a little. "I'll speak to Hai. You take care of your friend." The three of us reached Wyvern's Nest without trauma. Betia found her feet again as we neared the entrance, though she put her hand in mine as Nicias left us and we stepped inside.

We had barely reached the door when we were greeted by a rush of dancers with Salem at the forefront.

"Oliza, thank the gods! I was starting to worry I was going to have to give up this life of hedonism and pick up some real responsibilities." He grinned and hugged me tightly.

"Well, you can relax now. Your future is secure."

He stepped back and regarded me with great seriousness before saying, "First I heard that you had abdicated, then that you had been kidnapped. There were rumors that Prentice  -  well, they were rumors. There were just as many people up north saying I was responsible, according to Sive. That's the burden of the second heir. But really..." His solemn expression cracked into a smile as he gestured at the melos at my waist. "If you were going to go off and elope, you really should have warned someone."

"I did not abdicate," I said loudly, so that everyone could hear me. "I did not leave of my own free will, but I have returned safely." I did not mention my inability to shapeshift; I would wait to see whether Hai could work this miracle she had implied was in her power. Because I knew that, like Salem, many of them were more curious about the melos than about the state of my health, I added, "And I have not yet taken a mate. The melos was given to me by a dear friend of mine, who saved my life more than once these past few weeks." I saw skeptical looks, but most seemed to accept that I was telling the truth, especially when I glanced at Betia to make it clear of whom I was speaking. "Salem, this is Betia. Betia, this is my cousin, Salem."

"Welcome to Wyvern's Nest, Betia," Salem said. "Thank you for bringing our Wyvern home."

She nodded in greeting, a little wide-eyed as she took in her surroundings. Wyvern's Nest was always filled with warmth, movement and music, but right then the air was also thick with preparation for the Namir-da. The holiday was only days away, and there was no force on earth that would stop serpents from celebrating. Betia jumped as someone else swept in front of us  -  Urban. Seeing him walking again brought tears to my eyes.

"Oliza, thank the gods," he whispered, hugging me tightly. "When you disappeared, I thought... But you're back now. That's what really matters."

"It's good to see you up. How have you been?"

He grimaced. "A little stiff, but the doctor assures me I'll get over it. I still take an escort from the Wyverns whenever I

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