Wolfcry Page 16

go into the northern hills, even though the crows who attacked me were caught. Avians are being just as careful over here." He looked thoughtful for a moment. "It's odd. There were never a lot of birds around the nest, or out in the market with us in the evening, and we complained about the few who did show up. Now almost all the avians vanish at sunset, and I kind of miss them." He glanced back at someone I couldn't see over the crowd, and added with a half smile, "But then, I seem to have compensated."

"Oliza?"

At the excited cry, Salem, Urban and the other serpents stepped aside to reveal one of the last people I had expected to see there: Marus. His jaw was darkened by a bruise that couldn't have been more than a day old, and he looked tired, but that wasn't half as shocking as the fact that the big clothes he was wearing had obviously not come from his home. They were serpiente clothes  -  a dancer's clothes  -  borrowed to cover an avian's more slender frame.

He stared at me with as much shock as I felt looking at him. When he realized he was doing so, he started to try to control the reaction, and then he shook his head as if recalling that members of the nest were made nervous by avian reserve.

"Marus, what are you  -  "

"Doing here?" he finished for me. "I seem to have moved in." Urban stepped forward. "I know you two will need to catch up  -  when you have some privacy  -  but first, Oliza, Betia, come in, sit down; Betia hasn't even been introduced to anyone. You both look exhausted and hungry. Betia, welcome to Wyvern's Nest. My name is Urban; I'm a friend of Oliza's. This is Marus, another friend. You've met Salem. No one else really matters." A few people objected to the quip, but Urban continued,

"Sit down, sit down."

Within moments, half of Wyvern's Nest was sitting or lying somewhere near me, many leaning against me, Betia or Urban. The wolf didn't seem to mind the familiarity. Marus had claimed a spot at the edge of the crowd. The serpents seemed reluctant to sit too close to him. I was still just amazed that he was there.

The time for questions would come later. For now, bread, wine, fruit and meat were passed around and shared by every member of the nest; Betia ate well, and I found that my appetite had also returned.

After the meal, the request was made: "Come, Betia, convince your lover to dance for us."

someone teased. "It isn't fair at all that we taught her, but she'll only let you see." My face felt hot. "She's not..."

Betia laughed a little, shaking her head. She leaned forward and kissed my cheek as she grabbed my hands and pulled me to my feet. Her brown eyes glittered with a devil-maycare recklessness that warmed me to my toes. If it would make her smile that way, I would dance all night.

The dancers and my mischievous wolf companion all but dragged me onto a low dais at the back of the nest.

I must have danced a half dozen times, performing a few sakkri and then moving on to simple one-scarf melos dances before, finally, someone called for a harja

-  specifically, Maeve's solo from the Namir-da.

"Absolutely not!" I said, laughing. A melos could be innocent; a harja never was. The intre'marl from the Namir-da was representative of Maeve's seduction of Leben; the metaphor was not hard to recognize.

There was a sound of disappointment from the audience.

"Someone else perform," I insisted, sliding off the stage near Betia. She swung me about in a fairly good mimic of one of the moves I had performed earlier. "I thought you were tired."

I pointed out.

She laughed, but the sound was cut off by a yawn that she tried to stifle, turning it into a little squeak.

"That's enough, people; you'll dance your princess to death at this rate," one of the elder dancers said. "Oliza, Betia, everyone else, get some sleep." There were some grumbles, but people began relaxing, lying down in twos or more. Someone dragged a blanket over Betia and me, and several dancers curled against our backs. I remembered how often a serpiente nest had been compared to a pile of kittens or puppies, and wondered if the wolves ever slept this way. Betia seemed just as comfortable with the crowd as she had alone with me.

Chapter 19

Despite having danced myself into exhaustion the previous night, I woke early. Loath to disturb Betia, who was still sleeping deeply, I extracted myself carefully from the pile. Bodies shifted instinctively to compensate for the sudden chill, closing the hole without anyone waking.

I found Urban sitting by the fire, munching on bread and cheese. He offered some to me.

"Morning, Oliza. Beautiful performance last night."

"Thanks."

"I'm sorry about what happened, before," he said hesitantly. "You disappeared, and all I could think was that the last memory I had of you was  -  " He broke off, then blurted out, "I'm sorry for pressuring you. I didn't realize..." He glanced over his shoulder at Betia, and I suddenly understood why he believed I had pulled away.

"Just a friend, Urban. Really," I said.

He raised one eyebrow. "After that little display last night? I've never seen you act that way around a man, Oliza."

I blushed. "I'm royal blood, Urban. I'm in line to the throne. And a royal pair bond has to produce heirs."

Urban cursed, and my mind returned to the argument I'd had with my parents. The dancers would hate any decision that they thought had been made for political reasons instead of love, which meant I couldn't discuss my indecision with any of them  -

especially Urban. I had walked away from him once, and there would be no undoing that.

My gaze drifted to Betia, who was still sleeping, curled in the arms of a dozen dancers, and from there to a more solitary form.

Urban saw who I was looking at. "Marus approached me the first time I left the nest, a couple of weeks ago. Between his objections to my behavior at Festival and the fight at Salem's coronation, he felt he shared responsibility for what had happened to me, and then for your leaving. He was in bad shape about it and wanted to make amends, so I invited him back to the nest."

"And he moved in?" It seemed a little extreme.

Urban looked down. "He came by a few times. But when I went by his house to meet him one day, his parents forbade him to go with me. They argued, loudly enough that I could hear it from the next room. His mother kept shouting about how it would look, how he would never be considered a suitable alistair by any lady who knew he associated with serpents  -  dancers, especially  -  how their friends would be horrified... I'd never heard avians raise their voices that way. Marus and I left anyway, and when he went back later that day, they wouldn't let him in. That was about a week ago."

"He's been staying here ever since?" I wondered if talking to Marus's parents would help any or only hurt the situation more. They had both been soldiers during the war and were very conservative, as were many of the avians of their generation.

"Not all of the dancers welcomed him with open arms," Urban said. "I think a lot of them still believe he was one of the avians who attacked me. More of them think he's here just to impress you. But Salem and Rosalind have championed him, and no one has the guts to accuse him of assaulting me when I keep saying I trust him." I realized that Marus had done exactly what I had told Nicias my mate must; he had crossed Wyvern's Court. He hadn't been accepted by everyone, but here he was anyway, in the dancer's nest.

"Looks like someone was less forgiving," I commented, recalling the bruise on Marus's cheek.

Can I love Marus?

I wondered. I looked at my raven suitor and tried to imagine spending every day with him. Tried to imagine someday looking at him the way my parents looked at each other. I knew he was kind, and well-spoken. Perhaps he even had the traits he would need to be a king. But even as I tried to let my imagination run wild, I felt no attraction to him. I had never felt the urge to do any of the crazy things that I had seen my peers do in their attempts to impress the ones they loved.

Such as getting onto a dais with professional dancers of the Obsidian guild, or performing a melos in the nest in defiance of all the potential difficulties, and dancing for hours.

Urban grinned, not privy to my thoughts. "One of the others made the mistake of harassing Marus while Salem was around. Salem is such a dancer that sometimes it's easy to forget that he's a cobra, but he has a protective streak a mile wide, and when you trigger it... well, he never needed to raise a hand to the other guy. Just stared him down with the kind of Cobriana glare that they say used to make opponents in the battlefield drop dead from terror." He shook his head, still looking amused. Once Betia was awake, we left the nest so that I could show myself to the rest of my court before my meetings in the Rookery. That early in the morning, the crowd was primarily avian, so our greeting there was much more subdued. The relief in the avian population was apparent in their smiles and in the warmth they allowed into their voices when they welcomed me home, most of them sparing no more than a passing glance for Betia. Wolves in this market were common enough.

Serpiente tended to have late evenings and late mornings, but there had always been a handful who were early risers: a flautist, who had discovered that, though they did not dance, avians did enjoy music; a baker, who sold spice rolls and meat pies; a weaver, famous for his melos, who had found a morning niche creating more subdued designs that had since become fashionable as cloaks and shawls in the avian court. That day, there were so few serpiente in the market that I might as well have been in the Hawk's Keep.

Two of my Wyverns, a crow and a sparrow, were taking turns circling above to keep an eye on things. I knew they would keep their attention on me as long as I was in the space they were guarding. Their movements were what drew my attention to Arqueete, the baker, who had drawn her stall off to the very edge of the market. She smiled tiredly at me. "Oliza, good morning; you are a sight for sore eyes, even though you look as if you've lost a stone of weight since I last saw you. No matter; we'll fatten you up soon enough," she promised. "And is this the wolf I've heard so much about?"

News always traveled fast  -  none faster than gossip carried by dancers.

"Yes, this is. Betia, this is Arqueete; she has been feeding me every morning I've been home for as long as I can remember."

"Someone needs to; you eat like a bird. Betia, you're staring longingly at one of my pheasant pies. Go ahead and have one; no one else is eating them. Consider it my thanks for finally convincing our Wyvern to dance the rrasatoth."

"Where is everyone?" I asked as Betia nibbled at the meat pie Arqueete had shoved into her hands.

She shrugged. "Most of them stopped coming out here right after Urban was attacked  -

and a good thing it was, since there were dozens of fights over the next couple of days. Then about a week ago Salokin stepped away from his stall for just a minute and came back to find that someone had ruined weeks' worth of work," she said, referring to the weaver. "The rest of the serpiente refused to come out here before noon after that. They all get enough work helping prepare for Namir-da, fortunately."

"And how have you been?"

"Managing," she said. "I refuse to be chased off by a bunch of ruffians causing a ruckus. Sive comes by most mornings and buys breakfast for herself, and speaks highly of me to her associates, so that helps some."

Our conversation was cut short by an avian woman, who cried out with an uncharacteristic display of relief, "Milady Shardae! Finally, you're back. We all feared we might never see you again."

"Princess, how wonderful that you're home," an older avian gentleman said. "At last, you can put a stop to this madness."

"I am going to  -  "

"He isn't talking about fights in the marketplace," Arqueete interrupted. "I've been listening to him preach since the day you disappeared. He is convinced that those three birds they arrested are innocent."

"Innocent?" I echoed, staring incredulously at the avian man. "They confessed."

"Of course they did!" he said. "With an alistair to the Shardae line accused, what good man wouldn't step forward to protect  -  "

Arqueete offered, "I would believe they confessed to protect Prentice. I would believe he is guilty.

Everyone knows  -  "

"It was an absurd accusation," the avian woman who had greeted me a moment before said. Voices were beginning to rise as everyone tried to talk over everyone else. "It is obscene to think that Lady Sive's alistair  -  "

"Lady Sive's alistair," Arqueete shouted, "would rather lock his mate up in a golden tower than let her have a life."

"Prentice only wants to protect her."

"Protect her from what?

Salem would never let any harm come to her. He watches her like she's his own  -  "

"The cobra watches her a little too closely for anyone's comfort." I imagined that this group had been having this same argument for more than a month; certainly nothing would be settled by my adding to it. I hoped I could lay some of this debate to rest after I spoke to the criminals myself.

I was just about to announce my intentions when Betia stepped deliberately into the middle of the argument. With feigned obliviousness, she nodded thanks to the serpent for her breakfast. I smiled as I realized that she had positioned herself just right: close enough to the serpent to seem friendly, but far enough from the avians to seem polite by their standards.

I took advantage of the moment of peace she had brought to say, "I have plans this morning to speak to the three men who were convicted of the assault. If a mistake was made, I will fix it. If indeed they are guilty, I hope you will trust the judgment of your Tuuli Thea and her heir. Now, if you'll excuse me..."

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