Wolfcry Page 3

The Vahamil had flourished under Kalisa's leadership, but if she was perceived as weak, under their laws any wolf would have the right to challenge her. She might have said she was sending for the rulers of Wyvern's Court to introduce us to a potential heir, but it seemed more likely now that she had called for her allies to try to protect her own throne.

My mother must have come to the same conclusion at the same moment, because she nodded and said, "We will go tonight. Our alliance with Kalisa has always been valuable to all of our people. It is important to make sure that any potential heirs appreciate that. Oliza, would you please give our regrets to Salem and the nest for needing to leave so suddenly?"

"Of course."

"Do you need me to stay in Wyvern's Court?" Irene offered reluctantly. She and my uncle, Galen, had intended to leave for the serpiente palace immediately after Salem's reception that night. From there, they were headed east and wherever Fate took them. Their plans had been nearly half a year in the making, since Irene had announced her intent to take advantage of this era of peace by traveling the world with her mate. My father shook his head. "Oliza will be here."

I often acted in my parents' stead when they were away. As they often reminded me, I would inherit the throne as soon as I chose my mate and was ready to claim it. In the meantime, I needed to live up to my position.

"I'll send for the members of your guard to travel with you," Nicias said to my parents.

"I imagine you will want to leave immediately."

"That would be best."

"If you do not require our escort," Tavisan said, "I would like to respectfully ask your permission to remain in Wyvern's Court and visit your market tomorrow to replenish our supplies. We did not have time to trade with the Vahamil." The lions had occasionally passed through our lands for various jobs and had never caused trouble, so I said, "As long as your stay is peaceful, you are welcome in our market."

"Thank you, milady."

Irene stayed to confirm plans with my parents, assuring me that she would return to the reception before going on her way, and I started back toward the southern hills. If the events in Wyvern's Court had been anything other than the initiation of a cobra into the dancer's nest, I would have asked to go with my parents, but I understood why my remaining there was important. The dancers were the heart of the serpiente; it was essential to make clear that Salem could join them and still be part of the royal house. Serpiente celebrations frequently lasted until dawn, but anxiety about Kalisa had stripped me of my energy. I wondered how early I would be able to leave without causing concern.

The first person I saw was not Marus or Urban but a young woman with the black hair and garnet eyes of the serpiente royal house  -  a cousin I had learned of only a few months before, when Nicias had brought her back from the falcon island of Ahnmik. She seemed to be watching the dancers from the edge of the crowd.

"Good evening, Hai," I said. "It is good to see you out and about." When she did not reply immediately, I thought she had not heard me, and I wondered whether I should speak again. Hai was the only daughter of my father's oldest brother, but she had been born and raised on Ahnmik. She could pass as Cobriana, but I knew she considered herself a falcon, like her mother.

The combination of these two heritages had nearly driven her mad. When Hai had first arrived at Wyvern's Court, she had been comatose, and most people had assumed she would never recover. Even now that she was awake, it was evident that her mind was still not completely right.

"Oliza," she said to me after a moment. "Don't patronize me."

"I didn't mean to. I simply do not see you in the market much. I'm sure Salem is pleased that you are here."

She shrugged. "I'm sure the cobra has other things on his mind... like flirting with a pretty hawk and waiting for her alistair to hit him."

I sighed, deciding to end the conversation while it was still sane and mostly civil. I had known Hai to break into periods of complete incoherence.

"If you'll excuse me, I need to find Marus."

She nodded and replied loftily, "You're excused."

It didn't take long to find someone who could point me toward Urban and Marus. My two well-known rival suitors' attempting to dance together was a spectacle even by serpiente standards.

Aside from his jumping whenever Urban moved closer and they accidentally touched, Marus seemed to be dealing well with Urban's instruction. Every now and then one of the young men would murmur something, usually too soft for me to hear but clearly less than flattering.

Watching them gave me some hope. Neither looked exactly happy, but I would have been shocked if they had. After all, they were not just from opposite sides of the court, they were rivals. However, the competition seemed to have driven both of them to do something they otherwise would not have considered; Urban had issued this challenge, and Marus had accepted it.

Urban noticed my presence. He smiled at me and then moved a little closer to Marus to say something that made the raven blush. A moment later, the sound of a familiar, belllike laugh drew my attention to where Sive and Salem were still dancing together. Prentice looked as if he was on the verge of reclaiming his pair bond, but Rosalind was doing her best to keep him occupied.

I looked away from Urban and Marus only for an instant, and in the next moment, I heard a sound that could only have been a punch connecting with skin. I spun around just in time to see Urban stumble back, one hand going to his bleeding lip. Serpiente tempers being what they were, I had time to take exactly one step forward before Urban retaliated with a blow that sent Marus to the ground.

"I forgot. You're a bird," Urban spat. "You wouldn't recognize a come-on if it bit you."

"And you wouldn't recognize a lady if she slapped you," Marus retorted as he pushed himself up.

"Sure I would  -  one just did."

Marus made another move toward Urban, but Salem grabbed the raven's arm. That prompted Prentice to come to Marus's defense, and practically the entire population of the southern hills to come to Salem's.

Recognizing the possibility for real violence, I took a deep breath and let out a wyvern's shriek. It was sharper than the hunting cry of a golden hawk and more dangerous than the hiss of a king cobra, and it made everyone freeze in their tracks.

"Salem, do you really want to let your reception turn into a brawl?" I asked. My cousin shook his head and took a step away from Marus and Prentice. "Do you want that to be the memory your parents take with them when they leave tonight?" I was aware that my voice was less than warm, and

I didn't care. "Prentice, perhaps you should talk to Sive before you put her in the middle of a riot." Prentice's eyes widened, and he turned his head to locate his pair bond. Sive had pressed herself against the edge of the dais, trying to get out of the way of the crowd. "Marus. Urban. What happened?"

"Oliza, he..." Marus hesitated, as if realizing that his excuse was not enough to justify the fight. "I lost my temper."

"So I saw." I sighed. I doubted that Urban was entirely innocent. No doubt each of them had been trying to bait the other. Marus had just been unlucky enough to throw the first punch.

Marus stepped forward. "Oliza, you didn't hear  -  "

"Don't bother," Prentice said. "You're an avian and you hit a serpent. That's all anyone here cares to see."

"Prentice!" Sive exclaimed.

Prentice looked at his pair bond briefly, but his next words were for me. "Are you going to say otherwise?" he challenged. "Tell me it matters to you that the snake was making intentionally inflammatory remarks."

Urban protested. "I wasn't  -  "

"Or are you just going to say, 'That's their way,' and ignore it," Prentice continued, "the way you always ignore the culpability of serpents when their behavior becomes more than one of us can stand?"

"Thank you," Marus said respectfully to Prentice, "but you don't need to defend me. I could have walked away. I shouldn't have hit him." The words obviously pained him. I suspected that this, like the apology he had offered back on the avian hills, was a bow to my sensibilities and not an admission of his own beliefs.

"Urban hit back fast enough," Prentice muttered.

"Prentice, I think it's time we left," Sive suggested, taking his arm. "This is a private matter, and it seems to be under control."

As they left, I noticed that sometime during the argument the rest of the serpents had backed off as well.

Marus shrugged. "Even I know enough about serpiente culture to know that you don't hit one without expecting to be hit back."

"Either of you have anything else to say?" I asked.

They both shook their heads. "But I'm not going to volunteer to help any of your other suitors in the future," Urban said. "I don't know where I came up with that idea in the first place."

The night had been a fabulous disaster. Most serpiente would continue to celebrate for hours yet, but Urban spoke for all of us when he announced with obvious frustration,

"It's been a long day. I'm going to bed."

He and Marus exchanged one last look, too tired to be quite hostile, before he turned back toward the nest.

"I'll see you in the morning, Oliza," Marus said hopefully. I nodded, and he changed form and took wing back to his home in the northern hills. I used the disruption both as an opportunity to pull Salem aside and summarize what Tavisan had told us and as an excuse to leave early without offending anyone. I had spent many nights curled in the arms of the dancers, enjoying their warmth and company, but that night quiet solitude was all I wanted.

Chapter 4

At the last moment, I changed my direction so that instead of immediately going to the Rookery, I stepped into the forest beyond the northern hills. I needed to calm down before I would be able to sleep.

I was not surprised when Nicias landed by my side a moment later. He was my guard, and he would not leave me alone, especially while there was any rumor of unrest among the nearby wolves. He gave me distance as I picked my way through the darkened woods, lost in thought, but he came to me when I sighed.

"What happened?" he asked. "I saw your parents off and then flew over the southern hills just in time to see you come out here."

I briefly described the fight, trying to keep the bitterness from my voice. After I was done, Nicias let a few moments pass in awkward silence before asking softly, "Do you want to talk, or should I give you space?"

Though I knew he could not go far enough for me to be truly on my own, I appreciated the offer of privacy.

We had been friends for so long, I chose instead to tell him the fears that I rarely shared with anyone. "I love the serpiente, the dancers, the silken melos scarves and the Namirda," I said. "I love the avians, their singers, the sky, the poetry and the philosophical debates in the northern side of the marketplace. I love both sides of Wyvern's Court...

enough to admit that despite their sitting on opposite sides of a single valley, intended to be one society, they might as well sit on opposite sides of the world. They are two completely different civilizations, and neither wants to change to accommodate the other  -  and I don't feel I have the right to tell them to." Nicias looked away, and I regretted how frustrated I had sounded. I tried not to burden others with these fears. I might have apologized, but before I could, he said, "You're right. But we've come so far by not killing each other. There has to be a way." Thoughtfully, he suggested, "Your parents went to the Mistari. Perhaps an outside perspective would help again?"

"Perhaps, but what if the tigers agree with all the others? The wolves don't understand why we bother to try; Kalisa and I had a long discussion about this when her pack was visiting the market a few months ago." Kalisa and I had always gotten along; I respected her. I hoped she was not as badly injured as the lions' message had indicated. "Kalisa said they respected our efforts but it isn't natural for two people who are so different to mesh. And the falcons?" Nicias winced.

"Think it can't be done," he said, as he had many times before. That was one of the very few things he had told me of his days on Ahnmik.

He would tell me the rest, if he ever thought I needed to know. Nicias had seemed older since he had come home from the falcons' island four months before. When he had returned to Wyvern's Court, he'd had wounds that spoke of torture. Those injuries had since healed, but whatever he had learned had marked him permanently.

He had continued studying magic, but I had never met his teacher, and he seemed reluctant to speak of her. I had put enough together from his vague references to know that she worked with him from the city of Ahnmik, without needing to come physically to Wyvern's Court.

"What if I go to the Mistari, and they say the same thing?" I challenged. "It can't, or shouldn't, be done? People see the Mistari as almost infinitely wise. If I brought that message back with me, it would fracture the court further. I can't risk that kind of damage." But doing nothing meant risking the kind of damage that could have occurred that night. "Maybe I should just give it up," I said, joking. "Shock everyone and elope with a falcon."

There had never been anything between Nicias and me beyond friendship, and yet he tensed, moving away from me.

"Don't, Oliza," he said.

"Wyvern's Court isn't something I should joke about," I said, concurring. "I just get so frustrated."

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