CHAPTER 1 - Fire
Serpiente who held to the old myths believed
that the world began in fire. Out of the numb void came passion
and heat, and Will too strong to be denied. Order and chaos--Ahnmik
and Anhamirak--began their eternal dance, and from the embers of
their battle, the world was born.
So perhaps it was not surprising that the
world would end of that same heat.I was pulled from my musings as
the door opened, drawing my attention to the small two-room building
in which I had been sitting cross-legged before the hearth, perhaps
for several hours. I looked up as a trio of falcons entered the
candle shop, their steps uncharacteristically light and their expressions
Cobras change kings, Spark observed with some amusement, as easily
as the white Lady's heir changes lovers.
The four falcons who frequented this shop
at the edge of the avian hills of Wyvern's Court were in hiding,
criminals who would probably be executed if they ever showed themselves
in the white city again. Though Spark, Maya, Opal and Gren disguised
themselves as simple avian merchants in the public areas of Wyvern's
Court, here they switched back to the falcon language ha'Dasi.
I enjoyed hearing the language of my home,
even spoken by these exiles. Some of the serpents of Wyvern's Court
tried to use it, but ha'Dasi always sounded stunted and twisted
to me when it came from the tongue of a snake.
Opal emerged from the back room, his eyes
heavy lidded from sleep. Without sparing a glance at me, he asked,
"Hehj' hena?" What happened?
Gren, the owner of the candle shop, answered
in the same language. "Oliza Shardae Cobriana," he announced,
"has just abdicated the throne of Wyvern's Court. She and some
wolf have run off in the woods together, leaving Salem and Sive
holding the bag.
"The words stole my breath, not because
they shocked me but because they left me with a powerful sense of
deja vu. Months before, I had seen a vision of the wyvern princess
dethroned. The image had been unclear, and all I had been able to
do was go to Oliza and warn her: "You are about to do something
that changes everything." I had hoped to make her think through
her actions.Instead, I had triggered the very events I had sought
Around me, the falcons continued their conversation.
"Changing leaders like autumn leaves is better than letting
one rule for a thousand years," Gren observed.
"It makes you wonder, though, how easy
it might be to put someone on the serpiente throne who would turn
this land in a more favorable direction." Maya looked pointedly
at me.This was not a new argument, and Opal dismissed it before
I even needed to reply. "Makes you wonder, perhaps," he
scoffed. "One would think that several days of punishment by
the Empress's Mercy would have taught you not to speak treason with
"The Heir gave me to her Mercy for conceiving
a child," Maya spat. This was the crime that had led to her
flee from the falcon island. "If that is treason--"
"Which it is," Opal said, interrupting,
"seeing as the Empress forbids kajaes from breeding."Kajaes
were falcons born without magic, freaks in a city whose inhabitants
breathed power and worked spells as if they were weaving baskets.
But Ahnmik's magic was poison to new life; the royal house had had
only one child in the past thousand years: Araceli's son, Sebastian.
Kajaes children were conceived more easily.
Almost as easily as quemak, mongrels like
Opal--whose father was human, leaving Opal with the stigma of mixed
blood in addition to no magic--and of course me."If that is
treason," Maya said softly, "and is deserving of what
I suffered for it, then do you think I fear a cobra's punishment?
Besides, I speak only of replacing one cobra with another. It's
nothing new for serpents.
"Sometimes I envied Maya for the fire
of her hatred. Though kajaes, and therefore powerless to make any
change, she maintained an incredible passion that I was no longer
able to feel, no matter how I tried.
"Sebastian's child guards the new serpiente
king," Opal pointed out. "Nicias sees us all for what
we are, and don't think he doesn't watch us carefully. You don't
think he would stop you if you tried to--"Maya uttered a curse.
"Then we get rid of him--""At which point you consign
to the Ecl the false queen you wish to place on the throne,"
I said softly, interjecting. This argument was old, and I was bored
of it. "But not until I teach you agony the Mercy never dreamed
Silence crashed down. Unlike these four,
I was not harmless kajaes. I had the full ability to carry out my
threat, if I chose."Salem Cobriana is beloved by his people,"
I said. "The dancers adore him, because he is the first in
more than eight hundred years to be raised in the nest nursery.
He follows their most ancient traditions and knows them all as well
as any dancer. He is supported by the previous Diente, by the beloved
princess Oliza, and by the avian Tuuli Thea. Most serpents tolerate
me, but only because I do nothing that offends them . . . that they
know of," I added. If they knew I spent my free hours with
falcons and the white vipers of the outlaw Obsidian guild, they
would tolerate me far less. "Sive Shardae, on the other hand,
can barely stand to be in the room with me--""Who cares
what the hawk thinks?" Maya asked, challenging me."Everyone
who does not wish to return to war," Gren answered for me.I
nodded. "And as you mentioned, Salem will now be guarded by
Nicias Silvermead. I will kill any who touch the falcon prince.
That is, if they aren't first killed by either the Wyverns or the
serpiente palace guard."Maya tossed her head. "You are
forgetting that you are the rightful heir to the serpiente throne.
You are Anjay Cobriana's only daughter--""And Salem is
his nephew," I said. "You are forgetting two very important
things. First of all, the serpiente would rebel and dethrone any
who dared challenge their beloved king. No matter what my birthright,
they would never allow me to take the throne from the one they want
there."Again Maya argued. "There are traditionalists among
the serpiente who think you should be queen. I have heard them speaking.
Whether or not they approve of you specifically, they think that
Anjay's daughter--not the son of his younger sister--should take
the throne. You are the oldest and the first in line. Blood may
not matter to a serpent as much as it does to a falcon, but a cobra's
blood still matters.""The second and most important thing
you are forgetting," I said, ignoring the valid but irrelevant
argument, "is that I have no desire to be queen. Breathing
is a bother to me. Why would I wish to rule?""Think what
you could accomplish," Maya said, impassioned. "Imagine
a world where the serpiente followed you. Imagine if you could rally
your Nicias to our cause, or--""I could, what, topple
the white towers?" I asked. "Survive, Maya. That is all
you and I can do. And for some of us, survival takes enough effort.
Let it be.""If nothing else," Maya said, "you
would be able to protect those of us who are here. We would be able
to live our lives without constantly fearing that the serpiente
will discover us and send us away, or that the Empress will remember
us and have us dragged back to the island to be put down like feral
dogs. If you would not or could not fight Ahnmik on the island,
you could fight the Mercy if they came for us here. The serpiente
army would be able to win if you showed them how to fight a falcon.
We're all kajaes. Our children would have no magic. They would be
no threat to this realm. As Diente, you could give us a chance to
have normal lives."Tears glistened in Maya's eyes, no doubt
as she remembered the infant the Mercy had ripped from her the moment
it was weaned of its mother's milk.Had my own mother ever cried
this way? I thought not. Darien of Ahnmik had shown more compassion
to these kajaes, whom she had smuggled off the island beneath the
veil of her own magic, than she ever had to me, her own misbegotten
child."Go to Salem, while he is holding his first child in
his arms and feeling how precious it is," I said to Maya. "Or
go to the Tuuli Thea Sive, when she is first a mother. Tell that
monarch your story, and speak your plea.""Trust a hawk?"
Maya replied incredulously. "Or a cobra? What would stop them
from turning me in?""Honor?" I suggested."Cobras
have no honor."I couldn't help smiling a little, though most
wouldn't at that thought. "I am a cobra," I answered Maya.
"Quemak, remember? And the other half of my blood comes from
one of the Empress's Mercy. Not a good lineage for a woman you would
like to place in power.""You're a gyrfalcon," Gren
argued. "And your mother isn't just one of the Mercy; she is
Darien, to whom we all owe our lives--""Darien,"
I said, "who tortured your mother, Opal, for her dalliance
with a human. Darien, who--""People change. They learn,"
Opal asserted. "Darien most of all. She wants to--""My
mother wants a lot of things," I said. "She speaks about
a great many dreams as she stands in the white city, by the right
hand of the Empress, while we rot in this mongrel land."I tried
to turn away, but Maya gripped my hand."Hai, please, try to
imagine--"" 'Try to imagine' a world where she cares,"
Opal spat. "Imagine a world where our mongrel cobra has the
courage and conviction of her mother. But the Empress long ago wrote
that a quemak child will have cowardice and treason in her blood--""The
Empress says a lot of things about quemak, things that may serve
her agenda more than the absolute truth," Maya snapped. I tried
to pull away, and she held more tightly. "Hai, listen to me!
Imagine a world where a mixed-blood falcon like you isn't automatically
branded a dangerous traitor. Imagine being able to study your magic,
take your wings, and dance--"I tore away from her, aware that
my garnet eyes were flashing with rare temper. "I had that,"
I said. "And it wasn't something my mother gave to me. My Empress
raised me, when the woman you praise was otherwise occupied. When
my first sakkri made me scream until I lost my voice for days, Cjarsa
bent her own laws and let me grow my wings and dance so I could
focus my magic on the present and perhaps not see such horrors again.
What did that leniency get us? I lost control, lost my wings and
endangered the woman who had raised me, all because my quemak arrogance
convinced me that I could be more than my cobra father's mistake.""You
are--""And now here I sit," I continued, "in
a room full of criminals, listening to treason. So tell me, Maya,
how was Cjarsa incorrect?"Bitterly, Maya said, "You speak
very highly of your Empress, yet you are the only one of us who
is willingly here in Wyvern's Court. If you love the city so much,
why don't you go back to it?""Give it a rest," Opal
said, placing a hand on Maya's shoulder as I turned to leave. "Sometimes
the Empress is right. People change. Snakes don't."I did not
slam the door as I left. There was no need. We had had many arguments
about this here--and we would have more.It was true that I would
be allowed to return to Ahnmik if I chose. Empress Cjarsa might
send someone to carry me, since I did not have wings of my own anymore.
Then I would once again be able to walk in a land where the walls
glistened with magic and the roads sang a melody no voice could
reproduce. I could live out the rest of my days in a land where
even the prison of the mad--the Halls of shm'Ecl, where I had spent
many years--was so beautiful to behold, it could bring tears to
a mortal's eyes.So, too, could a cuckoo be raised by robins. I loved
the white city, but in it, I would be that cuckoo, put into the
nest by a mother more interested in using me as a political excuse
than in nurturing me. If I returned, I would be Darien's pawn to
use against my Empress, and that I could not stand.CHAPTER 2I was
not the only citizen of Ahnmik who had chosen this exile. Nicias
Silvermead was the acknowledged heir of Lady Araceli, who was heir
to none other than the Empress herself. Yet the beautiful royal
peregrine had chosen to stay in Wyvern's Court to serve the now
abdicated wyvern princess, Oliza.My loyalty to the Empress Cjarsa
kept me from the white island, but my connection to Nicias kept
me in Wyvern's Court--and indeed, in this reality.I had languished
in my silent madness for years before Nicias found me hiding from
the pain of a shattered body and ruined dreams. His vows to the
Cobriana line and royal falcon blood helped him pull me from that
void, and for that salvation, I both loved Nicias and hated him.
Ahnmik's reluctant prince had given me the world . . . or as much
of it as I could hold. Visions of Ahnmik, shards of Wyvern's Court,
fragments of pasts and futures other than my own. I still felt trapped
within Ecl's numbing ice, able to watch others live but not quite
able to feel that life--except sometimes when I beheld Nicias's
love for this land and its people. His passion for Wyvern's Court
drove me now from Gren's candle shop to the marketplace, to see
what would happen next.***Before I had even descended the northern
hills, I could hear shouting.I took another step forward, and suddenly
the noise was replaced by absolute silence. I looked over the market
that had just been filled with anxious, frightened and angry avians
and serpents, and saw nothing but mist and the pale shimmer of falcon
magic.I squeezed my eyes closed, trying to clear the vision from
my mind before it could overwhelm me. This time I succeeded in chasing
away the sakkri, and I was grateful for that. Too often I became
lost in other times and places, especially when I walked through
the center of Wyvern's Court. Anhamirak's magic swirled so thickly
there among the avians and the serpiente, it frequently robbed me
of any scraps of control I might have had.The shouting returned,
and I entered the market.