Wolfcry Page 2

Sive arched one golden brow. "No," she said, "I believe I told you that you did not need to attend, if you are so uncomfortable around serpiente. Since Salem, Oliza and her parents, Zane and Danica, will be there, I am sure to be quite adequately chaperoned."

"Marus?" I prompted.

He started to shake his head, then paused, taking a moment to evaluate my very serious expression. "This isn't just a friendly invitation, is it?" I shook my head and answered honestly. "Marus, you were upset that Urban kissed my cheek because you know that he is also courting me, and you fear it means that I allow him more liberties than I do you. Sive and I both told you that it meant nothing. I'll go one step further in telling you why:

"I'm not an avian lady, to be courted with poetry and flowers. I'm not a serpiente dancer, who can be impressed by a harja and a gift of a handmade melos. I am the wyvern of Wyvern's Court, and I cannot afford to choose as my king a man who is not able to accept both sides of me, and both sides of this land. If you are going to feel threatened by Urban, it shouldn't be because he kissed me. It should be because he came with me to the northern hills during Festival.

Avian merchants watched him as if certain he was going to steal from them. Alistairs and parents stepped between him and any lady or child he stood too near or  -  sky forbid  -  tried to talk to. In short, they treated him worse than they would have treated a beggar wolf from the forest. But he stayed.

"You say you are trying to court me. So, if you're going to feel challenged by anything, feel challenged by that."

What could he possibly say?

He drew a deep breath and then nodded. "Then... I accept your invitation."

Chapter 2

Even for someone raised partially in the serpiente nest, as I was, there were sights capable of stopping thought and even breath. A professional dancer who takes the stage to perform a harja for a man she desires is one such sight.

As we moved through the crowd, Marus followed me closely and tried to stay calm. We had almost reached Salem when I saw Rosalind Lakeyi step onto the dais. If her relationship with Salem had not already been common knowledge, it would have been made clear by the lingering look she sent his way as she rose onto the balls of her feet, stretching her spine and arching her back in a pose I recognized. It was the starting position for the solo in the Namir-da dance: Maeve's seduction of Leben, one of the most famous and most complex of the harja.

The dance was accompanied only by a single drum, which pounded like a heartbeat, driving the pulses of the audience faster as our minds and bodies were hypnotized by each dip and turn Rosalind took. At some point I heard Sive whisper, "Oh, my," and turn away, as if her instinct was to give the dancer privacy for such a display, but my gaze was as firmly locked as that of any cobra who swayed to the rhythm of the snake charmer's dance.

When it ended, we collectively let out a breath. In such a moment, it was easy to believe that our ancestors had possessed magic powerful enough to command the gods themselves.

"If I dance for you, will you look at me that way?"

I jumped at Urban's voice, then blushed at both his suggestion and my reaction. "You know I wouldn't let you."

An adult dancer could perform a harja or a melos at any time, technically, but it was almost always intended for someone special, and it usually ended with the new couple seeking a private alcove, and the nest elders sighing about young love. If I danced those steps, it would be taken as a sign that I had chosen my mate, or at least that I was ready to do so.

I longed to dance as freely as Rosalind did, but while friendly kisses were nearly meaningless among the serpiente, dance never was. I could let Marus steal a dozen kisses before I could let Urban get on that dais and perform a harja for me  -  much less stand up and perform one myself.

The decision I would someday make was too crucial. I wished I could base it on the pull of my heart, but there had never really been anyone who had drawn my passion in that way  -  not even my two foremost suitors.

I turned my attention back to Marus, who had gone pale. My guest started to speak, thought better of it, and then abruptly turned from white to crimson. Urban whispered to me, "I bet you his last thought was 'What would Oliza look like doing that?' "

I frowned and hushed him.

Prentice approached with Sive and, looking at Salem, asked dryly, "Is that appropriate?" My cousin had responded to Rosalind's performance in the only way serpiente would consider appropriate. Their kiss had gone on long enough for one of the other dancers to spin a melos around both their necks. Normally I would have assumed the gesture to be idle teasing, but the black silk melos had been decorated with intricate stitching in gold

-  a color that among the serpiente represented an eternal mated tie. I wondered if I would be hearing an announcement sometime soon.

Salem must have heard Prentice's question, because he focused his garnet cobra's gaze on the avian.

I stepped between the two men, clearing the way with mane chatter. The two of them had never gotten along.

"Salem, congratulations," I said. His smile warmed and he stepped forward to hug me. Behind me, Sive was whispering to Prentice:

"Behave."

"I will if he does."

"Thanks," Salem replied, looking around searchingly. "I saw your parents a couple of minutes ago."

"Then Rosalind distracted you?" I asked.

"I have my priorities straight. And it looks like you've brought your own distractions. Marus, this is a surprise."

"I hope I am not intruding," Marus said.

"Do you really?" Salem asked, teasing. Without giving Marus a chance to come up with a polite reply, he shook his head. "You are of course welcome, especially since I imagine that you are my cousin's guest. I have nothing against feathers. Speaking of, my blushing aunt, I seem to recall that you promised me a dance. Prentice, mind if I borrow your lovely lady a minute?"

Prentice looked like he minded quite a bit, but when Sive shot him a pointed look, he gritted his teeth and shook his head. In the spirit of the moment, I turned to Marus and offered my hand. "Care to dance?"

"No." His response was so instinctive, so abrupt, that we both laughed. Color crept up his face. "I'm no expert on serpents, but I know that almost everyone here learned to dance while learning how to walk.'"

"Not everyone." I nodded at Salem and Sive. This was maybe the third time Salem had convinced Sive to try dancing. She was abysmally bad, but Salem led well enough that she didn't embarrass herself. Despite Salem's keeping to dances that were tame by serpiente standards, appropriate for siblings or friends who weren't intimate, Prentice watched them with a scowl.

"I don't know how to dance," Marus said.

"I'll teach you." There were plenty of fairly innocent dances that were also simple enough for Marus to learn.

He was so nervous that I almost felt sorry for him as he followed me to the edge of the plaza where serpents were dancing informally. Had I not had so much invested in that night, I might have told him he could leave.

"I can't handle watching this disaster in the making," Urban announced as he jogged to catch up with us. "Marus, relax. If I can tell you're tense by watching you walk, you're going to have a lot of trouble dancing."

Marus looked mildly affronted, but before he could react, a shadow brushed across the ground. I looked quickly at the sky, where a single peregrine falcon was circling. His voice a little too hopeful, Marus asked, "Do you need to go?" The falcon was not simply any bird, but Nicias Silvermead, the second-in-command of the Wyverns  -  my honor guard on the few occasions when I needed one, as well as the rarely necessary police of Wyvern's Court. Gretchen, the commander of the Wyverns, was a serpent and had requested the evening off for Salem's reception. That left Nicias in charge, which meant that his seeking me out was for official reasons. Not a good sign.

My parents also must have seen the signal. They slipped through the crowd.

"Urban, Marus, good to see you both," my mother greeted the young men politely.

"Oliza?"

"Go," Urban said. "I'll take care of Marus while you're gone."

"Excuse me?" Marus chirped in surprise.

"I spent all day at your avian Festival," Urban informed him. "You aren't getting off so easy here just because there's an emergency. Give me your hand. By the time Oliza gets back, we'll have you ready for a dance."

They looked at each other for a moment, Marus shrinking somewhat with acute discomfort, and Urban's blue eyes shining as he challenged his primary competition. I could almost hear them both thinking, Is this really worth it?

I worried about leaving them alone together, but if Nicias was looking for me, then I had bigger problems than male egos.

"I'll be back as soon as I can," I told them.

"Do you have any idea what's going on?" I asked my parents as the three of us pushed through the crowd to clearer ground.

They both shook their heads, but the answer was not long in coming. As soon as we were outside the mass of serpents, Nicias dove to the ground, transforming from a falcon into a young man with blond hair that turned silvery blue at the front, and worried icy blue eyes.

Nicias and I had been friends since infancy. The only falcon in Wyvern's Court, he was as much an anomaly as I was as the only wyvern, and that bond had made us very close. That he was the only male my age who I knew would never try to court me also helped. He had gracefully offered to take over for Gretchen for the evening, without speaking a word of regret about not being welcome at the reception. Salem might not have anything against feathers, but many serpents were still uncomfortable around a falcon

-  even one born and raised in Wyvern's Court.

"Something wrong?" my mother asked. As always, Danica Shardae seemed to embody the blending of the two courts that I often tried to mimic. Her gold hair was pinned up with combs decorated with images of the serpiente goddess Anhamirak, exposing the hawk feathers at the nape of her neck and a necklace of twisted gold, with a pendant in the form of an

Ahnleh, an ancient serpiente symbol meaning Fate. The necklace I wore every day had a coin stamped with the same symbol; it had been a gift from the dancer's nest to my mother when they had ceremonially welcomed her into their ranks, shortly before my birth. Even though my mother was dressed like a serpiente dancer right then, she held herself with the calm poise of an avian lady while listening to Nicias's report.

"I'm not sure," Nicias said. "A pride of lions entered our land a few minutes ago. The leader says he has a message for the royal house of Wyvern's Court." All the lions I knew of worked as mercenaries. Wyvern's Court had never needed them, though they had offered to serve both the avians and the serpiente at various times during the long years of war and had occasionally been hired.

"Are they waiting in the Rookery?" I asked.

"In the courtyard, yes."

As we started toward the eastern cliffs, my mother hesitated, glancing back at Marus and Urban. "Is it a good idea to leave them together?"

"Probably not," I admitted.

"An avian and a serpiente dancing together to impress the recipient of their mutual affection," my father mused. "It is bold, but not the most surprising thing I've ever heard of young men doing in their efforts to show off. They will probably be fine."

"Probably?" I asked. The words were not as comforting as I would have liked.

Chapter 3

We entered the Rookery courtyard to find six well-armed men and women watching us with a neutral attention. Every time I had spoken to the lions, they had been the epitome of courteousness, but even so, the sight of their soldiers unnerved me. Their leader stepped forward and bowed. "Diente and alistair Zane Cobriana; Tuuli Thea and Naga Danica Shardae; Princess Oliza Shardae Cobriana. And Arami'ka Irene Cobriana," Tavisan greeted us formally as my father's younger sister  -  Salem's mother

-  stepped into the room.

"I saw the three of you leave and came in case I was needed," Irene explained when we all looked back at her.

"That's yet to be seen," my father said. "Tavisan, I understand you have a message for us?"

"I'm here on behalf of Kalisa, the alpha of the Vahamil pack," Tavisan said. The wolves'

territory brushed against the northern borders of Wyvern's Court. We had always had excellent relations with them. "My pride recently stopped in Vahamil land to trade. As you know, it is our way to ask the permission of the leader of any territory we stop in, so I requested an audience with the alpha. It was... not entirely what I had expected.

"Kalisa has been injured, severely. I was told that it was a hunting accident. It is possible that a successor will be chosen. Kalisa says she would like her allies to be present, so that if necessary she can introduce them to the new alpha and help ensure a continuing alliance between the Vahamil and Wyvern's Court." I

was told. Kalisa says.

He was being very careful with his words.

"Why does it take six soldiers to deliver a message?" I asked.

"I have given you the message, as I was requested," he replied. "Anything else I might tell you would be speculation."

I glanced at my parents, but they both nodded for me to continue. "Is there other information you feel we should know?"

"It seems odd that the Vahamil would hire an outsider to deliver such important news. Normally my pride is asked to carry messages only across terrain that those sending them could not easily cross  -  which is not the case with the wolves  -  or in times when one does not want to place an important missive in the hands of someone of questionable loyalty. I do not know exactly how precarious Kalisa's position is, or how many wolves are currently vying for leadership, but my impression is that there are not many she can trust."

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