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A Flicker of shadow against the sun made everyone in the serpiente market pause in their business and look to the sky. The fluttering of wings and the sight of a diving sparrow chilled me.
Erica Silvermead, the sparrow who now shifted into her human form in front of me, had been guarding the front door of the palace. Her presence here meant that our dangerous visitor had arrived.
Politely excusing myself from the merchant I had been speaking with, I followed Erica into the palace.
Once we were alone, she confirmed my assumption. "Syfka, speaker for Empress Cjarsa, is at the gate. She has requested an audience with you and your pair bond."
I would have liked nothing more than to order the guard and the Royal Flight to ban Syfka from our lands, but insulting the falcons would be suicide. While the serpiente retained only ancient dances and half-remembered stories from the days of Maeve's coven, the falcons' powers were still strong. Their royal house supposedly consisted of the four falcons who had once practiced among the Dasi, kept alive by a combination of Ahnmik's and Leben's magics.
If the legend was true, Syfka was one of those four and, as such, a creature whose might was too great to fathom. Even if it was false, Syfka represented an empire we could not risk slighting.
I nodded reluctantly, taking a detour to find my mate.
We caught Danica just as she was leaving the synkal, where her lessons were held. She was languid from exhaustion, but she smiled upon seeing me, and my heart warmed just from the sight of her golden hawk eyes lighting up. Then she saw my worried gaze, and her expression suddenly mirrored my own.
"Syfka is here?" she asked.
"At the gate."
Danica shuddered, but joined Erica and me on our hasty walk toward the entryway. "Syfka was never an enemy of my people during the war, but she made it clear that falcons held no respect for avians no matter how similar our second forms may seem. Whatever she is here for now, I suggest we deal with it quickly."
"We're in agreement, then."
Ailbhe, the head of the palace guard, was waiting with our visitor by the doorway. The white viper stood at strict attention, tension wavering in the air around his silent form, his gaze fixed not quite on the falcon, but never moving far from her.
Syfka radiated an aura of heat that rivaled even Danica's constant warmth. Her hair was pale gold, and in the front it faded to silver; her eyes were crystalline blue, set in milk-pale skin. Wings rose from her shoulders and cascaded down her back, with the golden undersides and brown, gray and black markings of an aplomado falcon.
She was stunning, and like all falcons, she had a magnetic air that could draw mortals to her like moths to fireultimately to meet with the same demise, if they dared offend her. Right now she was standing formally with her left hand clasping her right wrist behind her back. It was the respectful pose of a soldier, but Syfka's expression told me clearly that the respect was not for me.
As her eyes met mine, it was easy to believe this creature was as ancient as myth. She gave a nod that might have served as a bow, if it had been accompanied by anything other than obvious disdain. "Zane Cobriana, Danica Shardae, I appreciate that you are prompt. I am looking for one of our people, who I have reason to believe is in this area."
"A falcon?" I could not help frowning. "Not among the serpiente. Danica?"
My mate's expression remained calm, though I knew her well enough to feel her agitation and anxiety building. "You are the only falcon who has visited our lands in the last decade," she answered.
Syfka looked amused. "The falcon could have altered its form, its coloring," she explained, her voice patient, as if she was speaking to a young child. "I hesitate even to offer a gender, as that could feasibly be hidden, too. Unless you'd seen the person's falcon form, there would be no way to know."
"Then why ask us?" I replied, irritated by her patronizing tone only barely more than by her request. I struggled to keep my voice from revealing my annoyance. "If there's no way for us to tell whether someone is a falcon, how can we help you search?"
Syfka nodded toward Danica. "Though it seemed unlikely, I thought the criminal might have asked for asylum from the Tuuli Thea, since some on the island know of our past alliance with the avian people."
"May I ask what he or she has done?" Danica inquired.
"That is not your concern." Syfka's words were brisk.
I might have argued, had I thought the falcon was someone I knew, but I doubted that was the case. Someone trying to hide was unlikely to befriend the king of the land.
Danica also held back any protests she had. If we discovered the so-called criminal, we might dispute Syfka's words, but for now we might as well work with her.
Danica echoed my thoughts. "So many people pass through the court every day that a newcomer could remain unnoticed for some time unless he introduced himself to the Tuuli Thea. I can, however, see if my guards have noticed anything unusual."
"I will speak with the serpiente," I added. "If there are any newcomers in these lands, the dancers at least will know of them." While the Cobriana were the heart of the serpiente, the dancers were its blood; nothing went on in the royal house, the market or the most distant serpiente lands that the dancers did not know about eventually.
Syfka nodded curtly. "See that you do. I want this done quickly, so I can leave this equakeiel." The last word was in the old Dasi language, spoken in falcon lands, of which I knew a little. Syfka's description of our lands was not flattering.
"If you are so displeased to be here," I suggested delicately, "you are welcome to leave and let us conduct this search on our own."
"You would never recognize a hidden falcon without my assistance. Your kind is as blind to Ahnmik's magic as a worm is to the sun." I heard her add under her breath, "You notice it only when it scalds you."
Abruptly she returned to falcon form and took to the sky.
I will return shortly to see to your progress.
The words whispered through my mind like a line of lyrics heard even after a song has ended. I had no doubt they came from Syfka, and the sense of her even so briefly inside my mind left an unpleasant chill.
Beside me, Danica went pale, her body swaying. I moved closer, and she caught my arm, drawing in a slow breath as she closed her eyes.
"Are you all right?"
"I'm fine," she answered. "I was just a little dizzy for a moment." Danica shook her head as if to clear it. "I spent most of this morning practicing with A'isha; perhaps I overtaxed myself."
I glanced from Danica to her guard; Erica looked as worried as I felt. Then again, the sparrow's whole frame had already been taut as a wire. Facing a falcon, against whom all her fighting prowess would not let her win, had left her visibly tense.
Syfka had asked for our help, even though she had dismissed our ability to give any. Harming us now would be sabotaging herself. Wouldn't it?