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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 chaosAhnmik and Anhamirakbegan 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 unguarded."Hanlah'ni-aona'pata'rrasatoth-rakuvra'pata'Diente." 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 to avoid.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 every word.""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 Opalwhose father was human, leaving Opal with the stigma of mixed blood in addition to no magicand 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 of."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 daughternot the son of his younger sistershould 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 hereand 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 madthe Halls of shm'Ecl, where I had spent many yearswas 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 Courtand 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 lifeexcept 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.