Wolfcry Page 17

I understood now how my mother could have feared that a serious punishment would turn criminals into martyrs. I heard similar concerns about Urban's attackers as I continued through the market, as well as questions about my own absence. Repeatedly I assured people that the rumors surrounding my disappearance had been exaggerated, that the culprits would be found and that the mercenaries would be taken in for questioning as soon as my guards returned with them. Among the avians, there was no doubt that a group of guards with wings would succeed in finding a group of lions on the ground.

As in the nest, I saw nobody who was afraid, or intimidated or angered by my return  -

at least not visibly. Avians were better at lying with tone and expression than the serpiente were, but even so, nothing here felt faked.

Betia stayed by my side the whole time, appearing interested in all the goings-on of the market and never wandering off out of boredom as I had the same conversation again and again with my subjects. Just as she had accepted the closeness of the nest, she seemed comfortable among avians.

I thought of her as a forest spirit, a woman from a world completely different from mine, who could flutter among dancers or merchants as if her feet never needed to touch the ground. No matter where we were, she radiated calmness and acceptance. The wolves had a harder life, yes, but I realized suddenly that they also had a simpler one. They were a people of the seasons, who followed the migratory herds, traded with every culture they encountered and lived at the whims of Fate. The difference between the southern and northern hills of Wyvern's Court, a dissonance that had been the focal strain of my life, was to her as easy to accept as the changing seasons. I wished that the people of Wyvern's Court could accept each other so easily. The wolf I liked least stepped through the crowd. I saw him just in time to reach back for Betia's hand.

Velyo's blue eyes widened a little when he saw Betia, and then more when he saw our hands clasped together. Her knuckles were white from gripping my hand so hard, and I could feel her pulse racing where we touched, but she stayed by my side.

"Oliza.

And

Betia," Velyo greeted us, his tone amused. "Well, this explains a lot."

"What do you want?" I asked, trying to keep my voice calm so that we would not attract more attention than we already were. The two avian guards drifted a little closer, keeping an eye on the stranger close to their princess, but they responded to my apparent calm and did not make their presence obvious to Velyo.

"I heard an interesting rumor," Velyo replied, "about you and one of my wolves."

"I would love to discuss rumors with you," I said as I moved past him, keeping my body between him and Betia, "but I have other obligations."

"You might want to be careful of the company you keep," Velyo warned. I paused, glancing back, even though I knew better. "You're the princess of this land, soon to be queen. You have a reputation to maintain."

"My reputation is neither in trouble nor your concern. Now, if you'll excuse us  -  " I felt Betia's grip on my hand loosen as she tried to pull away. "Betia, it's all right. He can't hurt you."

Velyo chuckled. "Maybe it would be best, Betia, for you to come back with me, before you cause trouble for your... friend."

"She's no trouble," I said, nearly growling. Nearby avians were starting to look concerned, and I struggled to keep my composure.

Before Velyo could make any more snide comments, Nicias dropped to my side and returned to human form. "Oliza, Valene's lesson should be over in a few minutes. You wanted me to come find you."

"Thank you, Nicias."

Perfect timing. Finally I would be able to do something productive. I wanted to put an end to the destructive rumors I had heard that morning. My mother was a wise woman, and I trusted her judgment; I doubted she would have been fooled by a false confession. Also, as much as I disliked Prentice, I knew that he had enough honor never to have let other avians sacrifice themselves to protect him.

"I'll watch out for Betia while you're busy," Velyo said. I couldn't bring Betia to the meeting; I needed to be the heir to the Tuuli Thea, not just a woman with a friend.

However, I wasn't about to leave Betia with the alpha who had abused her.

"Thank you, but that won't he necessary."

"Wyvern," Velyo said, his voice dropping somewhat, "you are aware that you have no authority over my wolves?"

I stepped closer to Velyo, so that my words would be heard only by him. "She. Isn't. Yours. Anymore. Do you hear me?"

"And she's yours?"

he hissed. "I am trying to look out for you, Wyvern. Even Betia knows she's going to bring you nothing but trouble."

"She saved my life."

I said. "And she  -  " She had never done anything to hurt me, and I believed with all my heart that she never would.

I couldn't begin to put into words all that Betia had done for me. How could I explain how it felt to have a friend who didn't care that I was Princess Oliza Shardae Cobriana?

How could I describe the way she had given me courage and helped me find the faith and hope I had lost after Urban had been attacked? There was no way to explain how much it meant to me that she had walked into my world and never cringed from it, that she had drawn me up to dance, challenged me, accepted me.

"Your face is as easy to read as hers." Velyo sighed. His voice was almost pitying when he said, "You aren't one of my subjects. I don't care what your preferences are. But I know what it is to be a leader. You are the monarch of this land; you are your parents'

only child. You need a king, Wyvern."

"What does that-"

He put a finger against my lips. "You are not just a woman, and your heart is not free to be given away. You need a king, or your parents' bloodline will die. Stop fooling yourself, and send her away."

"Oliza?" Nicias touched my arm. "We need to go." I nodded woodenly.

Stop fooling yourself.

To Betia, Nicias suggested, "If you don't want to be alone in the market, you can wait with Hai and me in the library."

She nodded, her eyes on me. Her resigned expression stayed in my mind as I hurried to my meeting.

Chapter 20

I had to put the look in Betia's eyes, and my reaction to Velyo's words, from my mind. I couldn't afford to think about it right then.

My body tight and my face stony, I stepped into the conference room where Urban's attackers were supposed to be. I was going to need every bit of reserve I had to deal with these three calmly.

I had thought that I was prepared, but what I found in the conference room was almost as horrific as the attack itself. One of the "men" waiting for me couldn't have been more than sixteen years old. The oldest  -  who, I assumed from the similarity of their features, was the boy's brother  -  was probably near my age, and the third boy a year younger.

I had expected older men, perhaps soldiers  -  people with memories of war and loved ones lost. These three couldn't ever have seen a battle. Two of them were too young even to have lost a parent or sibling in the war.

These were our vicious assailants?

A few days before, when Nicias had told me what my mother had sentenced these boys to, I had felt it was too mild. Now, having seen them...

I thought about the child who had reached toward Urban at Festival, and how her mother had pulled her away. "Who was really to blame here?

I looked at the youngest boy. He was pale, and though his expression was controlled, his fingers were trembling. "What is your name?"

"Shane, milady," he said, in a voice so small I could barely hear it. "Shane Tenahe."

"Brin Tenahe," the eldest said when I looked at him. Unlike his brother, he stood and spoke confidently, as if utterly certain he had done no wrong.

"Luke Redine." The third boy was soft-spoken but shared his friend's poise.

"I heard a rumor, on my way here, that you each confessed out of the nobleness of your innocent hearts. Looking at you, I almost wish it was true  -  but I don't think it is."

"I did come forward because I heard that Lady Sive's alistair had been questioned," Brin said.

I.

Had he confessed for himself, or for all three of them? "I would never allow my actions to harm the royal house."

"We would never," Luke said.

"Would never..." I trailed off, thinking of everything that had occurred since Urban had been attacked  -  all the violence, and guards in the marketplace. "I imagine none of you were alive during the war."

"We've all heard about it," Luke said.

"Have you?" I challenged. "The stories of forest floors so soaked with blood that the trees began to die? The stories of black smoke from the pyres, and the stench of burning bodies so constant that the living stopped even noticing it? The stories of children killed, of..." So many horrors. "We have all heard the stories, but I

have never been tempted to relive them. You were the first ones in twenty years to pick up a weapon and nearly kill someone who wasn't even your enemy anymore." I had almost dismissed the younger brother as a child, almost as much a victim as Urban, but he was the one who stepped forward to defend their actions.

"The war never ended," Shane said. His voice wavered a little, but not just from nerves.

"Some people say it did, but it didn't. The only thing different now is that people turn a blind eye. We used to live in Wyvern's Court, but we had to move back to the Hawk's Keep because our sister grew old enough to draw serpiente attention and it did not feel safe for us to stay."

"Shane-"

He shook his head when both of the older boys tried to interrupt him. "My pair bond still lives here," he continued. I forced myself to reevaluate my first impression. He was young, but avian boys were raised with an intense emphasis on responsibility and the protection of their families and pair bonds. "I understand that the serpiente have different customs, but why does that give them the right to abuse her? Why does the fact that it is 'their way' mean I cannot take my lady for a moonlight walk without our being propositioned by strangers? Do you know what that is like? I am her alistair, and I am told that I must tolerate her constant fear.

"She is fourteen, and she cannot walk through the marketplace alone after dusk unmolested. I fear what would happen to her if she dared step onto the southern hills. There is one small area of this court that is unpolluted by serpiente  -  the northern hills

-  and I will be grounded before I allow a dancer to skulk about in the shadows there.

"Now, if I have spoken too frankly, if I have offended my lady Shardae  -  my lady Cobriana Shardae, Arami

-  then I will accept the consequences. I am tired of being silent, and accepting."

"Was this the world we had worked so hard to make? This fury had not been bred by war; it had been created in the cradle of Wyvern's Court.

I looked at the older boys.

"I have no pair bond," Luke said, "but I too have family, and friends, and have heard similar complaints."

"Are you telling me that there have been physical assaults by serpiente in Wyvern's Court, and the royal family has not responded?"

"There does not need to be physical violence for people to be harmed," Brin said. "In accordance with our Tuuli Thea's wise sentence, we have been coming here for almost a month now, and we have not ignored everything we have been told. I am aware that most serpiente probably consider their actions casual flirting, that they may have no idea that their 'friendly' jests can ruin reputations, relationships and lives. They don't understand that the pretty girl they just stole a kiss from, such as my brother's pair bond, has possibly never been kissed, has never had someone grab her that way and isn't blushing because she is coy but because she is terrified. They're like... real birds of prey, snatching mice. Maybe they aren't malicious, maybe they don't mean any harm, but that doesn't help the mice any."

I resisted the impulse to rub my temples. At least I knew they had not confessed falsely. I considered and threw out a dozen possible responses.

Finally I sighed. "I understand your grievances. I know that Wyvern's Court is still a work in progress. But violence is not the answer."

"We committed a crime," Brin said. "I know that. Violence might not be an answer, but at least it made people recognize that there was a problem." I took deep a breath and let it out slowly.

"I have another meeting to attend," I said softly. "Gentlemen..." Could they be used to help find... Their meetings with Valene had to help, somehow... or... or nothing. I had no ideas. "I'll speak to you again another day."

Chapter 21

I drifted from the conference room to the library with my head aching and a heavy feeling in the pit of my stomach. I paused in the doorway to watch Hai, Nicias and Betia for a moment. Nicias looked amused, and Betia was smiling brightly. Hai was wearing her customary detached expression.

Hai noticed me first; she looked up and said, "We were discussing looking into the future."

"You were?"

"And the ethics of looking into someone else's past, or future." She shrugged. "Nicias moralizes like a serpent. Betia listens well, though she doesn't talk much. Or at all." I wondered what Betia might have said on the subject, or whether there was more wisdom in remaining silent while the two falcons debated.

Betia stood and hugged me in greeting; I leaned against her, desperate for some kind of support. Suddenly a pang went through me.

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