Author note: Hello, all!
Disclaimer: I own this story and my OC, not the series in general.
Danica stood beside Varik with thinly concealed anxiety. The weather was perfect for a long flight, and both the hawks were eager to be on their way, though they went in separate directions. Behind them the serpiente were preparing their horses. Charis had kindly offered to share with Hannah, who inwardly bristled at the thought she wouldn't be allowed to fly.
Gregory had seen the look and cocked a brow, tapping her on the head with his palm. "When we near the palace grounds, you won't be able to just fly through. Birds, especially hawks, are scrutinized heavily and killed on sight."
"That's barbaric," Danica muttered. She had turned as well to look at them. Her eyes were tormented.
It was harder than she thought to see her kin off. This time knowing what waited at the end of the journey. For Danica, it was a return to all familiar things, and the responsibility to tell her people the war was ended through sacrifice. For Hannah, it was to what the elder sister imagined a barbaric place filled with fear and misery.
Hannah didn't seem perturbed. She spoke softly to Gregory, who didn't seem as though he were giving his full attention to her. His eyes were on the black beast before him as he stroked its dark mane and checked it over.
Zane answered her very simply indeed. "If a cobra slithered near your keep, would you say you wouldn't kill it on sight?"
Her brow cocked haughtily. "It is completely different. A cobra would be very suspicious, if found in a clearing with trees surrounding it. A hawk however is to be found wherever there is sky."
The only plus to this was Danica was able to send both Andreios and Cole with Hannah. Andreios was strong, as was Cole. She prayed nothing happened, though if it did she knew the two crows would be prepared to protect her sister at all costs.
Gregory had spoken with finality in his tone that brooked no argument when he said it would be his duty to protect Hannah after they had mated before the crowd. The ceremony would then be repeated in avian style, two weeks later. The keep and palace were within a few paltry days of each other, thankfully.
Danica didn't announce it but she planned to have heavy patrols on the borders, in case things went wrong and Hannah fled.
Finally, it was time to be off. The Disa stepped forward and kissed Hannah on the cheek, before turning to Danica. "You are being very brave, Tuuli Thea. Have faith that this will work."
Danica knew her eyes were piercing. "If it does not, my kin is lost. There can be no greater thing, at this point. You ask for my faith… yet all I can do is mourn already for the future I see."
"Shardae," Varik muttered suddenly. "Why do we not simply take Hannah home then? Cole will become her Alistair, he already agreed."
Danica flicked an impatient and dismissive hand, her eyes on the Disa. The tiger's eyes were calm and gentle, yet filled with wisdom. Danica tried to take strength from them, that this course was correct. She thrust her inner turmoil aside almost desperately but she had little hope. She knew her dreams would be filled with these nightmares, these thoughts that plagued her ever since she agreed to this.
She would see Hannah dead in her dreams. And that broke her heart.
"Hannah, I would speak with you." A little later Danica called to her sister, who turned curiously.
She followed her sister sedately to a farther corner. Gregory closed his eyes when he saw it, the way the Tuuli Thea spoke with her hands to gesture in near desperation. Second thoughts were very obviously rupturing inside her.
"Less than two weeks now, old man. And you'll be a Nag." Zane slung his arm over his shoulder.
"A Nag and an Alistair. With a hawk," he muttered.
"A hawk you swore to protect over our people," Zane reminded him. There wasn't rancor in his voice but it flashed in his eyes, a little question there.
"What else was I to say? And I believe I would. The game has changed now, Zane. This isn't us sheltering a hawk until her sister takes the throne and is hopefully kinder in her outlook than Nacola was… is. This is that sister coming to us with her own demands for her sister's safety. Without those met, she would have tore Hannah out of here by her pin feathers!"
"I suppose you are right."
They set off not long after.
Upon the nearing of the palace, Zane whistled sharply to get the attention of the three circling birds above his riding party.
Two crows as dark as the night and one golden brown hawk with white underbelly. It had been unnerving to say the least, to see them above them after being lost in thought.
They descended swiftly, Hannah shifting to human form about a foot from the ground. She landed on her feet with ease. One crow landed without any ceremony, shifting to reveal Andreios, looking slightly sick with his charge. The other crow had folded his wings and plummeted to the ground, turning to human form with only a few inches to spare.
Gregory was rather disappointed he didn't snap his neck, before brushing the thought aside and dismounting.
Andreios was scolding them both. "You could break your necks doing tricks like that."
Cole and Hannah exchanged a glance filled with amusement. The crow however deferred to his commander. "I'm sorry, sir."
Andreios looked at Hannah. "Shardae?"
Hannah gave him an exasperated look. "Oh, come now! You only take that tone when you are trying not to be amused. But you only say my surname when you are annoyed. You can't use both at once, that isn't even right."
Andreios raised a brow archly. "It became my right when the Tuuli Thea entrusted you to my care. I doubt she intended for you to break your fool neck."
As if the words were ice, Hannah closed off. Gregory was mildly annoyed at it. Hannah had looked happy and for a brief moment, like a mere girl and not a hawk he had once sworn to kill. Now she was back to being reserved and formal.
He didn't quite like how much control Cole and Andreios, or the Royal Flight in general, had over Hannah. Why had the hawks surrendered so much control to their personal guards?
He threw on a cocky face and laughed. "I found it amazing myself; wouldn't you agree Zane, Mother?"
Zane tossed him a look that said very clearly that he knew what his younger brother was about. Charis however smiled. "I'm amazed at it, myself. I could never be so daring to just let total control go and fall."
Hannah relaxed a little in their approval. Gregory smiled with unknown softness and stood before her. He unfurled a cloak and tossed it over her, going so far as to tie the strings and pull the hood up over her golden locks, securing it tightly. Cole seemed tense, and Gregory exchanged a briefly sly look with him.
He spoke as he worked on making sure Hannah was secured. "You two should be fine, seeing as your hair and eyes aren't golden. But Hannah we will have to hide until after tomorrow."
"We'll be busy I'm afraid, preparing the feast and ceremony to announce her as Gregory's Naga." Zane gave her a look. "I'm sorry, but I'll have to ask you and your guards to remain in your rooms until after that. But Irene will keep you company."
Hannah was prepared to nod, if only Gregory's long fingers weren't still tugging on the cloak hood. Andreios was quick to speak.
"In fact, we had intended to stand guard outside Shardae's door."
Zane looked at him calmly, though his eyes burned. "That won't be possible."
"Why not?" Cole turned dangerous in an instant, coming to stand by Hannah. Gregory felt a slow smile bleed onto his lips.
Charis felt the tension of males gearing up to fight. Hannah did as well, but she was merely standing there, her gold eyes flickering to and from Gregory and Cole, brows furrowed.
She cleared her throat. "Might I speak? It will not be possible because it would look far too suspicious. All the guards and palace workers know where the royal family sleeps, which is where we will be stationing her, with rooms that interlock with my daughter Irene's. Guards positioned at her doors would bring far too much attention to the fact there is something we don't wish to be seen yet."
Andreios thought this over and agreed silently that it would be odd. Yet, Cole couldn't give up so easily. "Then we can guard her within her rooms."
Charis was quick to cut him clean off. "Would that be appropriate? While serpientes are more apt to take a lover, you surely realize that is the conclusion that would be made on Hannah should anyone see you three together, and remember it after the ceremony."
"Enough," Hannah said suddenly. The words by Charis had spurned her on. "I'll be fine. I have met Irene before and she seems lovely."
"Hannah!" Cole protested.
"I trust them, Cole, and you need to as well." She rounded on the crow that stood stone faced. Andreios merely looked grim. "We all need to trust for this to work."
Things went smoothly after that. Gregory remounted his horse, pulling Hannah in front of him, and pushing closely against her. She stiffened at the oddness of being body to body with him and leaned forward a little. A knowing smile spread on his cheeks and he leaned to whisper in her ear.
"Feeling alright, Hannah? I wouldn't want the cloak to fall off and reveal just what the Cobriana line is bringing into the cities midst."
"Perfectly fine," Hannah said with forced sweetness.
They continued on after Andreios and Cole were given mounts. The horses obviously knew they were close to home for they picked up the pace, seeming to brim with the knowledge they were near to their stables. The speed quickened almost imperceptibly.
They ran into a border patrol, which Zane dealt with swiftly. Then the heavy gates were opening and Hannah had her first view of the serpiente markets. Noise assaulted her, chatter everywhere, and further off the beat of drums and a myriad of other instruments.
Color was bleeding everywhere as well. The serpiente truly were a showy people, as Gregory had said. Women and men dressed in jewel colored cloth, with scarves and flashing jewelry. Women with toned skin revealed by dresses designed to be enticing to the male eyes.
Even the children were noisy here, running around in groups. Scents distorted the air and Hannah was made aware of the fact serpientes were not vegetarians. The meat smelled divine but Hannah rejected the temptation. The only meat the Avians ate was the occasional fish or rabbit. Hannah herself existed on a diet of mostly fruit, bread, and cheese.
Gregory leaned down again. "What do you think?"
Hannah blinked a few more times, trying to make sense of the almost orderly chaos of the place. Already, though it be her first look, she sensed that she wouldn't have imagined the serpiente courts any other way. It would be odd to see this place empty.
"It's very lively." It was a safe answer and Gregory grunted, steering his horse expertly through the crowds.
A few serpientes called out to the returning royal family, some even being so daring as to pat at the horses, which must have been used to such for they didn't shy at all.
A woman appeared, forcing Gregory to tug on the reigns of his horse before it trampled her. Hannah noted the white and gold ensemble she wore, the way it clung tightly to the muscled skin. A turn of her body and her hips would be plain to see, her breasts spilling from the barely there top she had. Her arms were bare except for the wispiest of see-through scarves, which Hannah noted connected to her dress near the hips if she let it flutter from her pale arms.
Her aquamarine eyes sparkled, and her wild mane of chestnut curls bounced with her every move.
Gregory let go of the reins with one hand, placing it on Hannah's stomach almost absentmindedly. "Hello there, Serena. Come to dance at market?"
The girl laughed with her very being, seeming to swell with energy and daring. Something Hannah found alarming and yet intriguing. This woman seemed to have no morals. When she noted the eyes look at her, she dropped her gaze, shifting backwards into Gregory who tightened his grip.
The woman turned a little too sultry for Hannah's tastes. A small laugh escaped her lips. "Yes, and now I have found my perfect partner. It's been so dreadfully boring since you ran off to that peace meeting."
"You mean me? Sorry, I have things to do." Gregory said it politely.
"Hmm? Surely, you aren't too busy to spare a dance with an old friend. I'm sure your muscles are screaming to let loose, being around boring birds for so long."
A thought seemed to occur to her. "You met the youngest didn't you? What was she like? I must confess I haven't ever seen a hawk before. They say that the hawks are pretty as a jewel, but cold as stone, is it true? You must tell me everything."
Hannah knew she was soon going to lose her composure. The woman was now leaning forward, her long fingers gripping onto Gregory's thigh with possession. Gregory merely laughed.
"I have things to do. But later, perhaps…" He trailed off purposefully and the woman smiled slyly. "I'll see you at Sha'Mehay."
"Of course, Prince Gregory!" She simpered it playfully and he laughed.
He watched Serena dart swiftly through the crowds and leap elegantly onto a dais. Her hips caught the wild beat the drums were playing almost instantly. The cloth she used as a scarf fluttered around her as she dipped and turned, every move fluid. It wasn't a sacred dance, but rather one she invented in those very seconds, letting her body naturally guide her.
A wave of longing hit him, to be able to move so freely. But he had a job currently and he sighed, promising himself that he would visit Sha'Mehay later and find a partner there for some fun. Perhaps not Serena herself, probably Aisha. He needed to speak with her anyway.
They made it through the rest of the crows without incident, the horses being safely stowed away. Gregory gripped the hawk around her waist to lift her from the horse, again noting the complete lack of real weight she had.
"You seem tense, my darling," he said mockingly.
Hannah merely clicked her tongue and made to follow Zane. Charis had already ushered the two other Avians in their party ahead. They waited anxiously inside the palace, waiting for Hannah to appear.
Gregory grabbed her wrist casually however, halting her. He swiftly pulled her back into the stables and against the horse they'd been riding. The beast only whickered in curiosity before returning to munch on the hay it now had access to.
"What?" Her voice was harsh, but she knew it had to merely be the stress of this whole ordeal.
Gregory however had another idea. It was one that made him smug and fill with laughter. "Jealousy is certainly adorable on you."
"Jealousy." Hannah repeated dryly, her brow cocking. "You really do have a huge head, don't you?"
"Merely calling it as I see it. What catches my attention though is a question. Are you jealous of the attention she showed me, as I suppose would be your right, or are you jealous to see just how free a woman can be, knowing a frigid bird like you could never hope to copy her?"
Her hand moved of its own accord, cracking across his cheek with purpose. It didn't do much damage but he clenched his jaw and grasped the fingers of her hand tightly to prevent another attack.
Too much stress, far too much mocking on his part, had frayed the tight leash Hannah kept around herself. Gregory infuriated her. In those seconds, she came close to hatred, as her palm striking across his pale cheek made a satisfying clap of noise. Gregory watched from the corner of his eye as she raged, and then it all vanished, that damnable emptiness surrounding her and her face closing off.
"You're disgusting. You call that display womanly? I call it a desperate plea for attention. As for jealousy, you delude yourself. I am a hawk, a Shardae by birth. I would never be lowered to such a pathetic existence as to be jealous of such a shameless display."
He hummed. "Yet you say nothing of being jealous she paid me attention?"
Hannah faltered for a brief moment but then she let her prideful scorn lead her again. She wrenched away. "I didn't. Because, despite the fact I never would have chosen it myself, I am to be yours. And I refuse to be shamed in public. Unless of course, it is acceptable to keep paramours on the side after a serpiente is mated. Just remember to drop that thought when in my home."
Gregory now grits his teeth, and she saw she had hit a sore spot. "Keep in mind serpientes mate for life, and for nothing less than love."
"But we aren't. And I doubt ever will be."
"And why ever not," he asked in boredom.
Hannah folded her hands before her. "You said yourself you hated me. I'm not going to try to change that."
"Things change," he muttered to himself, and Hannah luckily didn't catch it.
But had they? He certainly enjoyed baiting the hawk, which was what this was all about anyway. And he could admit he was softer on her. He didn't hate her, but he still knew he didn't love her either.
Hannah had kept speaking and he focused on her again. "- I know we have a lot to work out. We are very different, you an I, as are our people. We will both have to make compromises. I don't know… how well I shall handle the things a serpiente male needs, so if a paramour makes that… easier on you than-"
Gregory smirked. It was obvious the hawk had taken the things Charis had said to heart and was now worried about how he would fare with a mate who couldn't sleep in the same chamber as him, let alone the same bed. He was tempted to take her to Sha'Mehay and let her believe that they would both be sleeping in the pile the dancers made on the floor. That would be amusing.
Without thought, he tugged Hannah forward, enclosing her in his arms. She halted her speech, her hands coming up on instinct to shove him away. Recalling the situation they merely, and with great hesitation, settled on his chest instead.
Gregory pressed a kiss to her ear, his breath warm there, making her shudder. He smiled. "What you suggest is something no male would do. As for the rest, this isn't so bad. We'll work out sleeping arrangements and the like between us, and come up with our own way. Does this hug make you uncomfortable, honestly?"
Hannah thought a moment and then let her body relax into the solid strength of his. "A little. Though I think it's mostly your breath on my neck… it's warm."
"As it should be, little hawk." Gregory pressed a kiss to her temple. "The rest will come. Believe that, Hannah."
Author note: ending with a little fluff. The next chapter we get into actually announcing Hannah and Gregory as mates, Hannah gets some advice from Irene, and Gregory deals with the dancers' guild and Aisha. Maybe even some more… jealousy! On which persons part though?