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My breath stilled for an instant as I watched the blade slice a hairsbreadth from the fair skin of Oliza Shardae Cobriana, nineteen-year-old princess of Wyvern's Court.
"Relax." The reassurance came from the cobra beside me, Oliza's only cousin, Salem Cobriana. "I've seen her perform this blade dance a hundred times in the nest." He shot me an amused look as he added,
"With dulled blades."
The dagger went up once more as Oliza sank to the ground, closing her eyes and bowing her head before clapping her hands behind her back to catch the weapon one final time.
Members of the audience approached the dais, where Oliza remained perfectly poised as her fans placed flowers and small gifts in front of her. This had by no means been her debut, but it had been her first time performing the jaes'falnas--the blade dances that her parents had almost forbidden her to learn.
After seeing her perform, and seeing just how sharp the performance blades were, part of me wished they had.
A serpiente dancer could, and often did, risk her life in pursuit of her trade. Oliza Shardae Cobriana, however, was not just a dancer, but heir to two thrones. Her mother, Danica Shardae, was the avian Tuuli Thea, and her father, Zane Cobriana, was Diente to the serpiente. Oliza's reign would mean the merging of two monarchies that had, until our parents' generation, been at war for thousands of years. But first Oliza had to choose her king, a decision for which all of Wyvern's Court waited anxiously, and one that had led many a young man to try to court her.
Oliza smiled at me, meeting my gaze just long enough to express her exhilaration before a petite golden-haired girl managed to slip through the crowd to stand next to me. Surprise washed over Oliza's face when she saw the unexpected guest, and she quickly came toward us.
"I can see why your parents objected to your studying these dances," Sive Shardae remarked, admiration clear in her voice despite her chastising words. "My mother would never have allowed it." Sive was three years younger than Oliza, but was the younger sister of Oliza's mother. Though still very avian in her mannerisms, she had made a point of stepping away from her avian tutors and spending more and more time with the serpiente in the past few years, learning their ways. She had not bridged the gap between the two cultures as completely as Oliza had, but that she was here at all spoke volumes. Twenty years earlier, a young avian woman would not have been permitted to walk alone through the market--much less watch the "scandalous" dances of the serpiente.
She's not quite alone, I thought as I scanned the crowd. Sive's alistair, Prentice, was standing just beyond the edge of Oliza's audience, his gaze never leaving his charge. I watched him carefully, for out of this group, he was always the most likely to cause a disturbance.
The raven had made his distrust of serpents very clear, and he became especially irritable when Sive insisted on spending time with the dancers. Serpiente hugged and flirted casually with almost everyone, but Sive's alistair bristled at having to tolerate that kind of attention being paid to his pair bond.
Salem, leaving on his way back to the dancers' nest, greeted the raven politely. Prentice nodded curtly at the serpiente. He had argued with Salem in the past, but that day they managed to walk by each other without raised voices.
Progress, at least.
"Ridiculous," Oliza said to Sive, oblivious to the frosty moment between the two men. "No one has died performing a blade dance in sixty years."
Sive looked at me as if seeking reason, before realizing that Oliza was teasing her. Sive's scandalized expression made her appear even younger than her seventeen years.
It made me think back to when I had been a child and my parents had first brought me to see Wyvern's Court. I remembered the day fifteen years before as vividly as if it was playing before me that moment.
I stood beside my parents, trying to mimic their careful attention as they watched Oliza and her family. My mother, Kel Silvermead, was captain of the Royal Flight, one of the elite guards who protected Oliza's mother, the Tuuli Thea; my father was her second-in-command. Their attention never strayed from their charges, but mine shifted momentarily to the rolling hills and gentle valley where architects had been laboring for years.
Oliza's grandmother, Nacola Shardae, was there, with a nurse next to her holding the sleepy infant Sive. Salem, exactly twenty months older than Oliza, suddenly pulled away from his mother and father to whisper something in the princess's ear.
Without warning, both royal children took off down the hill. Adults tried to follow, but Oliza and Salem thought it was a great game to hide in the empty market stalls from their parents and guards, deaf to all the worried shouts.
Oliza touched my arm, startling me from my memories.
"You look skies away," she said softly. I realized suddenly that the crowd had dispersed.
"I was thinking about our first day here," I said, though I knew that wasn't enough of an explanation. It was not my habit to let my mind wander--not when I was with Oliza. I looked around uneasily and tried to account for the missing minutes.
"I hardly remember it," Oliza admitted, not noticing my disquiet as she led us from the market. This was our ritual; we walked and talked until we reached the woods, and then, beyond the edges of the court,
we changed shape and spread wing. "We were so young. I just remember you finding me, after I got lost in the woods. No matter what kind of trouble I got into, it seemed you were always there."
From the Hardcover edition.