Disclaimer: Recognizable characters, events, and lines are from the novel Hawksong, by Amelia Atwater-Rhodes. They are used without permission, for no profit, for entertainment purposes only. Elements recognized as not belonging to AAR (among them being the title of this work, Karashan's convenient cousin, and my OC) are mutated from Rudyard Kipling's short story "Rikki Tikki Tavi." I think he's been dead long enough that it's not an issue but, to be safe, I don't own that either.
Spoiler warning: This story will contain spoilers for Hawksong as well as Snakecharm!
Rating: This story is rated PG-13/T or equivalent, for romantic themes and violence.
Note: I was watching Chuck Jones' animated version of Kipling's tale when the idea for this story amused its way into my brain. In the process of writing, the original silly idea grew far more serious (and much much longer) than the humorous tale I had first imagined, but please enjoy it still.
Additional notes at end of chapter.
It was too late to back out of this, but I could not yet force my mind to accept the arrangement I had agreed to and all it entailed.
I was startled from my reverie by a knock on the door to my room.
I went quickly to answer it, expecting Rei.
It was Erica.
"My lady," she said with a bow, and continued delivering her message with obvious reluctance. "Karashan wishes to see you. She says it is urgent." Erica's eyes flickered sideways. "She is waiting in the courtyard."
I sighed. I had told Rei to tell her to stand down from forming her plans for attacking the serpiente; knowing Karashan she wanted to confirm the order in person. But... "The courtyard?" I repeated.
Erica nodded. "Yes, Tuuli Thea. She has a visitor she would like that you should meet."
Erica lowered her eyes and shifted her feet, perhaps caught, as I was, between the sudden thought of the visitor currently on his way to the Keep, and the remembrance of the previous visitor I had greeted in the courtyard. The two incidences were not unrelated, on more than one level, and I had a sudden odd and unpleasant feeling that this unforeseen guest was also connected to what had me so nervous this day. "Visitor?"
Erica hesitated again and I sighed internally in frustration; obviously this visitor was not avian or they would have been waiting in the second floor reception hall, but getting this message from her was as difficult as trying to convince myself of the reality of the arrangement I had agreed to and I felt suddenly tired. It had been a long day.
"He is a visitor from a distant land, my lady." Her voice had started out still hesitant, but Erica continued more firmly, "I will tell Karashan that you will meet with her later. "It would be better, in any case, to wait." She bowed and turned away.
"Wait." In my head I ran through what she had said - and also what she wasn't saying. Karashan was ultimately dedicated to fighting the war; this visitor was probably related to that in some way. Erica didn't herself have the authority to tell Karashan to wait, but she was subtly giving me her advice: she didn't think I should meet Karashan without Rei at my back. That was a troubling thought, unless she meant merely that I should wait until the ground party Rei was escorting was here; the arrival of Zane would make whatever Karashan had to say about the war more obviously pointless than it already was.
But... Sitting in my bedroom worrying was getting me nowhere; I certainly wasn't going to be able to get any rest until I heard from Rei. And... I had to meet Karashan. I had to convince her that there was another alternative to the endless fighting and death. If I couldn't convince her, then how could I hope to convince the rest of my people? "I will meet with them. Have the Royal Flight standing by."
She eyed me for a long moment before she bowed her head. "Yes, Tuuli Thea." She shifted and she was gone in a flurry of wings.
I sighed. Perhaps I was making more trouble by not waiting for Rei, but I had to deal with Karashan on my own.
I met Karl as my escort at the end of the hall and we flew down to the courtyard together. The display of arms was less than had greeted Irene Cobriana, but half the Royal Flight was present as well as a goodly portion of Karashan's own Flight. I was pleased to note that there were enough members of my guard missing that Rei's absence was not immediately noticeable; despite her recent rise to the position, and the tumultuous political environment that had lately engulfed us all, Erica was showing an admirable level of awareness of the situation and a good head for strategy.
Karashan and a cloaked figure stood in the middle of the courtyard. Karashan stood at parade rest and looked extremely pleased with herself. The other figure - a man, I saw as I neared, with sandy hair - was leaning casually on a long polearm he was using as a staff. There were grooves in the top end of the staff for the fixation of a blade, though it was currently empty; an absent part of my wondered what kind of blade it was this man usually wielded. He seemed far too comfortable with the length of wood.
I noticed Erica falling in behind me, opposite Karl, as I approached the pair. "Karashan," I greeted. "Who is this visitor you have brought to meet me?"
She bowed. "My Tuuli Thea, as we discussed before your coronation, the only way to truly succeed against the serpiente is to do something completely unpredictable." She frowned, remembering, as she said, "Our tactics, our soldiers' abilities are all well known to our enemy. I thought, perhaps, if we could have a fresh viewpoint - one, also, that does not come with a falcon's strings attached - it would give us that edge we need to finally win this war and eliminate our opposition once and for all."
The desire in her voice sent shivers running down my spine and, combined with my own nerves, made my response harsher than it should have been. "I thought Andreios made it clear to you that I had formed a different plan and that we would not be going forward with your attack."
She paused, blinking for a moment as she tried to comprehend my unwarranted hostility. "Tuuli Thea," she began, "even if you have a different plan for the current attack I feel certain that we shall have need of this man's expertise in the future." She gestured to her companion. "My lady, may I present Tavi, hunter from the east." The man bowed his head to me. "My cousin Darzee tells me great tales of the services he has performed in their land."
Tavi smiled humorlessly, the gesture revealing ivory-white eyeteeth almost too long for his otherwise human mouth, and said in a rough voice, "If you know Darzee you know not to listen to him too much. Though should you require any demonstration of my abilities I would be glad to give it." He looked up at me and I saw for the first time that his eyes were red - red as a cobra's, and far colder. I shivered again.
"Karashan, I fail to see what you think this man can offer us." I congratulated myself that my voice was even, though I could not repress the edge of enmity in it. "I have already taken measures that will bring an end to the war." I frowned. "I apologize if, when my plan was presented to you, it was not made clear how pivotal it was going to be to finally resolving our conflict."
Her smile faltered but Karashan rallied. "My lady, you have not seen what he can do! Tavi is a master with the glaive but he is also, like us, a lifelong enemy of the serpiente."
"I don't-" I started with impatience, but was silenced by the hunter himself as Tavi shifted his form. Erica dove between me and the visitor, but Karl knew immediately that I was in no danger.
Tavi was small, but long and supple, and covered with light brown fur the same color his hair had been. His eyes were still red and he bushed his long tail, shaking it back and forth. "A mongoose," Karl said wonderingly. I glanced at him and he elaborated, "Common ones live in areas near here but I never knew there were shifters of that type. They hunt snakes, and nothing else."
Karashan practically beamed at him and fixed me with a look that seemed to say that she had been trying to get me to understand this very thing. "Tavi has never failed to kill a cobra," she added to Karl's words. "Without their king, the disorganized serpiente will be far easier to destroy."
As it had done only yesterday, my blood turned to ice. "Karashan, may I speak with you privately?"
Confused, she nodded. "Of course, Tuuli Thea."
We took to wing, retreating to a second floor balcony where I could still keep an eye on the courtyard. Erica followed, but hung back enough to give us the illusion of true privacy.
"Karashan," I asked, almost unable to keep the desperation from my voice, "Can you see no possibility for peace between us and the serpiente?"
She frowned and when she spoke her voice was weary and older than her face. "The serpiente are deceitful, my lady. We can never trust peace with them; they will use it to destroy us. You know as well as I how they betrayed Alasdair. You know as well as I how they have fought dishonorably. With their guile they will promise anything, but they will never keep their word. Even if you believe they are sincere when they speak, you cannot trust their actions once you take your eyes from them."
I flinched, Karashan's last words echoing my own thoughts too closely. And... I looked down at the sandy haired hunter standing in the courtyard. He had shifted back and was talking amiably with Karl. There was much promise in what Karashan had brought me. This Tavi never failed to kill a cobra... and I would be free of what I had promised, what I wasn't sure I wanted to do.
But, as I looked down at this Tavi, in my mind I held a dying boy's hand in my own and sang to him softly. I turned to Karashan. "This hunter of yours may bring an end to war, but he will not bring an end to the killing." I closed my eyes. "He will not bring an end to the death of children."
I opened my eyes and looked at Karashan. She was silent for a long moment. "As long as they are not the children of our people, I can accept that," she said slowly. "The children of serpents grow up to be snakes themselves."
I shook my head. "There will be no more killing while I am Tuuli Thea." My voice was firm, and Karashan looked at me with respect.
But there was still a caution in her voice. "My lady, how can you be sure?"
I raised my chin. "I have taken Zane Cobriana as my alistair."
Her dumbfounded silence was the only answer to this statement that I received as Rei landed beside us. He looked windblown and frazzled and not in the least bit pleased. I was also not particularly pleased to see him at the moment; I had hoped I could finish with Karashan before his party had arrived.
"What is going on?" he asked shortly, his eyes fixed on Karashan.
"Karashan was just about to take her guest out of my Keep," I responded, just as short. "He is not welcome."
"What guest?" Rei queried, his gaze roaming the balcony and settling on me as if searching me for injury.
"In the courtyard, the..." I turned to look down and realized that the courtyard was empty. My heart stopped beating for a moment as I whirled back to Karashan. "Where is he?" I demanded.
She was more frayed than I, and had had less time to deal with it.
In the face of her stuttering silence I turned to Rei instead, repeating, with a different direction to the inquest, "Where is he?"
He knew what I was talking about and answered quickly, his eyes darting between me and Karashan. "Seventh floor, as you recommended, in the northern rooms."
I took to wing almost before he had finished, and before he could catch up. I landed on the seventh floor and was moving toward the guarded door as soon as my feet touched the ground. The guard saw me coming and tried to stop me but I brushed past him and into the room.
Zane was standing by the balcony door, watching as the sun set. He whirled at my hasty entrance, tense, only relaxing marginally when he recognized me, his hand still reaching for weapons that had been removed from him. I scanned the room but did not see the hunter and managed a deep breath.
"Danica?" Zane asked, his voice clipped and tense.
I opened my mouth to respond, but the light sound of footfalls on the balcony interrupted me. Zane's attention was pulled there, but the sudden appearance of Karashan and Rei behind me had him backing up against the wall warily, his eyes flashing between us.
The footfalls on the balcony belonged to Tavi. The hunter must have scaled the Keep, though I could not imagine how that was even possible, and he had taken the time to affix the blade to his weapon; the glaive blade was over a foot long and curved slightly, with a wicked looking serrated hook on the back edge. It shone with the gleam of freshly applied am'haj as he pulled the weapon from where it had rested over his back as he climbed. His eyes lit on Zane and flashed with eagerness as he grinned.
Zane recognized him. Not personally, but he knew what the hunter represented, where he had come from. I saw that recognition in the sudden tightness of his features, and then his eyes turned to me and they were full of despair and betrayal.
He thought I had done this. That I had brought him here to kill him. But... why should he think otherwise? Hadn't I considered the possibility? Hadn't I wanted to have a way out of our deal? My own feeling of culpability kept my denial from falling from my tongue readily, and Zane bowed his head, sagging back against the wall in defeat. He had given everything within him for our peace and if I would betray him now, then there was nothing left. He'd said he would slit his own wrists if it would end this conflict, and here, now, he agreed with Karashan that there was no other way. Faced with death he didn't fight, but accepted it.
"No!" I cried out, though even I did not know what it was I denied - Zane's acceptance, the very existence of the hunter who was advancing with his weapon, or the appearance of half a dozen of the Royal Flight on the balcony behind him, led by Karl.
Even if I didn't know what I was doing, it didn't seem to matter. Rei commanded his Flight to stand down, and, looking puzzled, they obeyed; either my shout or the last vestige of his tenacity startled Zane into movement. Grabbing the nearest object - a low table - he threw it at his advancing opponent, and disappeared.
I knew that he hadn't actually disappeared, but my mind almost couldn't follow to the next obvious conclusion and, as Rei pulled me back from the dusty black coils that whisked over the floor, I truly wished he could have disappeared instead. The cobra hissed, hood flared and garnet eyes focused on his opponent. His jaw was parted to reveal the most slender, deadly white fangs I could imagine. Nothing I had seen or felt or believed about Zane prepared me for that, and, startled out of my immobility by Rei, I retreated willingly.
Tavi shifted as well, the slender brown-furred body a blur as he dodged and dove around the cobra, never staying in one place long enough to fall prey to one of Zane's strikes but also unable to get a good hold on the cobra with his own long, white fangs.
A murmur rose from the watchers at the balcony as the cobra struck again and again fruitlessly, each strike and each writhing dodge moving the combatants wildly around the open space of the floor. Despite the fact that the whispering must have been fear induced, there was no evidence of fear in the room. It was hidden deeply behind calm faces, and in that moment my own fear spiked hard. I feared what lurked behind the placid faces of my people; I wondered how I would ever be able to convince them of the truth of peace. And, could I convince myself? Even supposing I hadn't been raised to hate the serpiente, witnessing near eight feet of cobra wrestling across the floor in front of me was a thing that I thought would still have kept me spellbound with fear, and I wondered why I thought that peace with this was something I wanted.
But I couldn't be someone who hadn't been raised the way I had. Just as I couldn't be someone who hadn't seen what I had seen in my life - someone who wasn't haunted by dreams of dead children, dreams that I had bound myself to prevent.
"Stop this now!" I demanded.
No one listened to me. I glared at Rei.
He shook his head without looking at me, watching the twisting battle closely as he commented, "If anyone tries to separate them they could do more harm than good." His eyes flickered to the members of his Flight and I knew he was also worried that if he sent anyone to interfere it would be by the blade of one of our own that Zane's death would come.
I turned to Karashan. She still looked thunderstruck, but her eyes were following the fight without trouble. "You brought it here; get rid of that thing."
Her gaze turned to me for a moment before again fastening on the combat. "Darzee told me that nothing would distract Tavi once he had begun." She actually sounded regretful. "Do you hear me, cobra? You will have to kill him."
I stared at her, taken aback. She was rooting for Zane? Something had changed in her mien since our conversation on the balcony only moments before, but I wasn't quite sure what it was.
Zane hissed again, in pain this time, and the fear that was in me was for him as I saw that the hunter had caught him by the back of the neck, low, right at where the hood spread. The mongoose's teeth dug in deep, and he tried to brace his slim body against the wall to get better purchase. Zane shifted and, human, grabbed his attacker, throwing him against the far wall, hard. Tavi shifted as well and as he brandished his glaive I knew why Zane had sought to keep the battle in their other form; in his serpent form he had the edge, but now just a cut from the blade Tavi held would mean the other man's victory.
Zane was bleeding heavily from the wound on his neck, as well as multiple other smaller cuts and scratches the hunter had inflicted, but he managed to grab the glaive by the pole as Tavi thrust it at him, and they wrestled for control of it for a moment before Tavi won, sending Zane staggering backward. Zane turned the stagger into a roll away that brought him out of the range of the weapon, the primary purpose of which was to keep the hunter himself out of the reach of Zane's most potent weapon. Black scales rippled over his skin as Zane eyed the glaive's blade warily.
But... am'haj was not a problem for me. If I couldn't trust any of the others to protect Zane, I could at least do so myself. I started forward, but Rei grabbed me and pulled me back all the way to the door. "Are you crazy?" he hissed in my ear.
I struggled, but it was Karashan who moved forward this time. "Cobra," she called. "Take my sword." She placed the blade on the floor and spun it toward him.
Zane stopped it with a booted foot and picked it up by the handle. Though it had not been freshly coated I knew his caution was well placed; every blade in the Keep had been soaked in the falcon's poison at some point in its existence.
The hunter took the moment of Zane's distraction to move in closer, but overconfidence was his undoing as he overextended himself and Zane moved in under the reach of his opponent's blade. He used his sword to sever the glaive's long pole in half, and, as the bladed end clattered to the floor, loud in the suddenly silent room, Zane moved inside the hunter's guard. With an almost caring gesture he embraced the hunter close to him and, as black scales rippled over his skin and his eyes blazed brightly red, bared long, white fangs against Tavi's shoulder. I watched, breath leaving me completely, as black coils twined around the hunter's body, and those ivory fangs sank in to the soft flesh of his throat. Tavi's jaw gaped wide and his eyes stared at nothing as he twitched and fell to the ground, lying still.
Zane pulled away from the body suddenly and, mostly human, stood, staggering backwards. He leaned heavily on his borrowed sword, his skin still black as he drew rapid, shallow breaths through a mouth still filled with too-long fangs. He watched those around him warily, and with good reason I thought.
I shook myself free of Rei and ran to his side. Zane turned dark, red eyes to me and then, abruptly, collapsed against me. With his body pressed against mine I could feel the rapid beating of his heart, and my hands thrown around him caught in the rough folds of his shirt, already soaked and heavy with his blood.
I heard a gasp from the Royal Flight as Zane fell against me; I heard the sound of bow strings being pulled back and the rasp of metal as blades were drawn. "No!" I shouted again, pulling Zane down and turning away to shield him with my own body. "Zane Cobriana is my alistair," I said, and wondered at the depth and strength of my voice when my breathing wasn't much slower than Zane's at the moment.
As I had hoped, that information stayed the bows long enough for Rei to confirm. "Stand down," he said to them as he moved toward me. "You should get out of here," he said more softly to me. I glared at him, but he clarified, "We're going to have to clean this up. You should take Zane somewhere else, while I explain your big secret to everyone in order to keep him from being killed."
I nodded. Rei traded looks with Karashan that I couldn't read and she came forward to offer her hand to help us to our feet.
I turned to Zane. His breathing had quieted somewhat and he was watching Karashan warily. When she held out her hand he returned her sword. She smirked and took it, but said, apparently out of nowhere, "I have killed, and I have seen even more die. Not everyone accepts his death, but for those who do there is a moment between acceptance and finality - in that moment that person will speak the truth, because the truth is all that is left to them." Her eyes were fixed on Zane and I noticed she met his gaze without flinching. "I saw you in that moment. When there was no room for deceit left in you I saw that you wanted peace between us, no matter the cost." She bowed her head. "I have misjudged you. I am sorry."
I could only blink at her in shock as her words rippled through the watchers, but Zane's voice was clear as he answered. "When two warriors have wielded the same blade, there is no need for apologies," he said, silky tongued as always; I caught that he wasn't talking about borrowed swords, but I wondered who else had. He dropped his eyes without trying to hold her gaze, and Karashan nodded.
"Only promises for tomorrow."
I breathed. I couldn't believe it. Karashan... my most ardent warrior, accepting peace? But there were more pressing issues. "Erica," I called to the sparrow lingering in the doorway, "Get Betsy, please. We will be in my room." I stood, offering my hand to Zane. He reached out to take it, only then apparently realizing that he was still covered in the scales of his demi form. Oddly enough, I realized that I had forgotten it as well. Our eyes met over our outstretched hands and as I did not flinch from him he placed his hand in mine. I felt his skin return to flesh and it made a shiver of oddness ripple down my spine; it was an unusual sensation, but not so entirely unpleasant as might have been expected.
Between us, Karashan and I pulled him to his feet and, rather quickly at that point, took him from the room.
Betsy was waiting for us in my room and we lay Zane face-down over the couch so that she could see to the wound. It was deeper than I would have thought it would be, two heavy fang marks edged with the marks of smaller teeth, and was still bleeding freely. I touched Zane's hair softly, barely noticing that my other hand was still caught in his. "There's no poison?" I asked, worried. It was more blood than I had ever seen from a wound that wasn't mortal.
Betsy shook her head vaguely, focused on her work, but it was Zane who answered me, his voice low and husky. "No. The children of Ichneumon are not known for having poison of their own." His eyes closed and he sighed softly, a pleasant sound that I would not usually have associated with the work Betsy was doing. I realized with an unpleasant jolt that, through his serpiente ability, he was feeling my concern for him and my affection; I was completely relaxed - I had lowered my usual facade, and I had done it as unconsciously as I had reached for his hand earlier. I touched his hair again, this time with wonder directed at myself. What had happened that I trusted so quickly that this one I had been raised to believe my enemy wished me no harm? Was it something that had happened as he slept against me in the night, forgetting in that restfulness that we were ancient foes and acknowledging unconsciously that we were not so different? Or was it, as Karashan had said, that in his acceptance - not of our apparent betrayal, but of his own death - I had seen something which I could not doubt the honesty of?
He opened his eyes, as if aware of my thoughts, and I looked into them. They were so strange-looking, so unlike the golden and brown I was used to seeing in the faces around me. There was the possibility of danger in them, of being caught, but a part of me seemed insistent on pointing out that there was no more danger there than there was in the strength of Rei's arm; I was convinced that neither would hurt me.
As if to think of him summoned him, Rei appeared in the doorway. "Tuuli Thea," he said softly as he entered and glanced worriedly at Zane. "Word of the fight has spread quickly, as well as the news of your declaration of alistair. The serpiente guards who came with us are... upset." He paused and I knew that the word he had used was a gross understatement. "They want to see Zane." I looked at him sharply and he shrugged. "The rumors are flying fast and many of them place him dead." He glanced at the cobra but still spoke to me. "I... had to restrain them, to keep them from hurting more of my guard."
Zane's fingers tightened around mine and I didn't have to look to know that his eyes were dark with anger. "Show them up here," I commanded. Rei hesitated. I sighed. "Bring your whole flight too if you need to, but bring them up here. They should know that he's not dead."
"He needs to rest," Betsy said, speaking finally. I could see that she had stopped the bleeding, but Zane was still very pale. "And he should eat as well; something with lots of iron."
I wouldn't mind rest as well; it was full night by now. But, I knew, it was going to be awhile before I was able to seek my own bed. "He'll rest better with his own guards here," I said firmly. "And if he is well for the moment please go yourself and have something prepared for him to eat." She looked at me oddly but nodded, rose, and left. I hardly noticed; I was hoping that peace would still be a salvageable thing after this attack. Zane would perhaps believe that I, at the least, had not intended him harm, but would the other serpiente believe it as well? And could they trust it to be true of all of my people when even I could not? Assuring Zane's guards that he wasn't dead would be a place to start.
But even as I thought these things, I realized I couldn't leave him until they arrived. Zane's was the only authority they would recognize; mine being a far second as Naga, and that of any other avian being worse than non-existent. I would have to explain the entire situation to them before I could safely leave them alone with other avians. But I needed to know what was going on in the rest of the Keep as well. "Rei, what else requires attention?"
"He's already gone," Karashan murmured, and I looked up to see she was right. "If there are rumors flying wildly, I will go myself to assure your mother of the truth, and do my best to combat other hearsay with the same." She looked at my face for a long moment before saying, "With your leave, my Tuuli Thea."
Surprised at her volunteering, I nodded, and she also left. I was alone with Zane for the moment, but he appeared to have drifted into a doze. He did not rouse as I removed my hand from his now lax grip and lightly touched the back of his neck, my fingers ghosting over the bandage there. If there was anything I knew was true, it was that life was a fragile and transitory thing. I had lost so many people; I had held some of them as that life passed from them, as breath and heart stopped. I had promised to Karashan that I would put an end to the killing, but I could not do it without this man's help. I thought he must have known it, must have read some truth of his own in me, or how could he have rested so easily under my hands?
All too soon Rei returned, with almost the entirety of the Royal Flight and Adelina and Ailbhe behind him. I winced internally; I'd forgotten that Adelina was one of the guards who'd come with them.
The serpiente were still bound for their trip up through the Keep, and Adelina's eyes were spitting fire. Otherwise her face was a mask of icy calm that dissolved when her searching gaze found Zane; she saw only one thing in the stillness of his face. "Zane!" she cried, and in that one word I understood instantly why she hated me so very much. It wasn't just about my being an avian, and as I stood from my position at Zane's side I motioned for Rei to let her go to him.
Rei cut her free, and Ailbhe as well, and both moved instantly to their Diente's side. His eyes had opened at Adelina's voice and he tried to smile reassuringly as she knelt beside him, her brother standing behind her and watching the roomful of avians warily.
"What is the meaning of this outrage?" Adelina asked, her voice cold with fury, as her eyes fixed on me.
"Adelina," Zane said warningly, adding, as he turned to catch my eye, "Not that I wouldn't mind knowing what exactly just happened, and whether I should expect it to happen again." He pushed himself slowly to an upright position and leaned back against the couch. Betsy had cut his blood-soaked shirt off to get it out of her way, but sitting there half naked, bandaged and bloody, he still managed to look regal. And dangerous.
The members of the Royal Flight filling the room shifted restlessly as he moved, their eyes upon him. Ailbhe was watching them in turn, every muscle tensed, and Adelina even spared a moment from death glaring me to cast her murderous eyes around the room.
I sighed. I couldn't do anything with this much tension in the room. "Zane Cobriana is my alistair," I said, meeting the gaze of each of my protectors in turn. "If you can't handle it, leave this room." None of them moved, so I threw up my hands in a rare show of temper and shouted, "Rei, get rid of them!"
No one spoke, but when I looked up again my guard had been reduced to five, including Rei and Erica. That left one for each serpiente and two left to guard me. I knew that was the best I was going to get, so I moved across from where Zane was sitting, far enough away that my remaining guards wouldn't suffer an aneurysm, and took my own seat.
"Several days before my coronation," I began, addressing the entire room, "after our abrupt return from the Mistari, Karashan said at council that she had a plan for a major offensive. I... managed to get her to delay - indefinitely, provided I could come up with an alternative plan." I looked across to Zane, meeting his eyes. "It was the day before the coronation when I realized that your visit had not been the dream I thought it was and I came then to speak with you." His eyes were heavy on me and I looked away. "Having secured my alternative, I told Rei to inform Karashan that we would not be needing her plans. Which," I spread one hand in a gesture imploring understanding of her mindset, "she apparently took to mean that she should summon a fabled hunter from some distant place where her cousin lives. I met him earlier today in the courtyard. I had retreated to a higher balcony to discuss the matter with Karashan and when I looked back he was gone." I looked again at Zane. "I came immediately to find you. I... I didn't want this." I wasn't sure he would believe me; I wasn't sure I really believed me. I did know that I didn't want anyone else to die, even him, but I had almost been willing to let myself be talked into turning a blind eye to it as long as it saved my people, and I was afraid that if anyone truly set to trying to talk me into such a deal again that I would let them. There was no reason he should trust me; and I had to fight myself mightily to keep a sudden ironic smile from my face after my own earlier thoughts on Zane's own trustworthiness. The result of that fight was me pulling back behind the shield of my avian reserve, and I saw Zane frown slightly. But...
"I believe you," he said, though Adelina hissed softly at his side. He closed his eyes, tired. "Adelina, go back and tell my mother and Irene what has happened. I would not leave them waiting upon word, and I'm sure the wildest rumors have spread that far already."
"But-" she began to protest; he held up a hand and, despite his tired and pale features, she didn't argue and bowed her head, nodding slowly.
"Rei, give her anything she needs to speed her journey." He started at my words, but nodded. I looked at Adelina. "I would offer to have one of my people fly you there if I thought you would accept."
Her lip curled in revulsion and I could see her vehement refusal on her lips, but Zane's voice was the one I heard. "Do it."
She whirled on him. "No," she said in a voice that implied she thought he was more than slightly crazy.
He locked eyes with her. "It's the fastest way. For Charis, you will do it."
Her whole body vibrated with the need to refuse, but, miraculously, the words never breached her lips. Again she merely nodded, a tight hard gesture. She stood and fixed me with eyes that still burned with hatred and I marveled at how much she was willing to sacrifice. I wasn't sure if she was doing it because Zane had asked or if it was for his mother, but either way I marveled.
"Rei," I said without looking at him.
His voice was thoughtful when he responded. "Before I go, we should conduct the ceremony."
I did look at him then. "It's the middle of the night." I glanced at Zane, barely able to sit up straight. "It can wait till morning, at least." We'd meant to have the alistair ceremony tomorrow anyway.
Rei shook his head. "Dani," he said, and I knew he was serious. "Until he takes the vows only your word protects him. I... If you're set on doing this, I'd rather not leave it to any chance."
I looked at Zane. His eyes were bright on me and far more awake than he had seemed moments before, but he did not speak. I sighed. "Alright, but if we are dispensing with other protocols then we will do only what is needed to protect him, and we will do it here. We can have the full ceremony in a couple of days."
Rei nodded. "Then all you require is myself, and as many of your people as can be gathered, though there is no required amount." The words were oddly pessimistic, as if there was a chance that the Tuuli Thea would not be able to muster the minimum number of people required so a limit had not been set. "And," he reminded me softly, "you should probably call for your mother."
My mother... By the sky, I hadn't had a chance to speak to her since this had all begun.
"I am here." The voice of Nacola Shardae echoed through the room. She was standing in the doorway, flanked by Gerard and Karashan. Her expression was flat and completely closed as she scanned the room. I had not expected her to be pleased, but the coldness in her eyes as she at last met mine cut me deeply.
I turned away from her. "Rei, begin," I commanded.
I stood, and, with Ailbhe's help, Zane rose and came to stand near me.
"Tuuli Thea Danica Shardae," Rei's words echoed through the room and through me. "You have chosen this man as your alistair, as your protector, of your own free will and without coercion."
"I have," I answered, and if my voice was not so penetrating at least it was unwavering.
Rei turned intent eyes upon my potential alistair. "Are you willing to swear upon your own spirit and the sky above that you will protect Danica Shardae from all harm?"
"Upon my own spirit, I will so swear." Zane appeared completely unperturbed, and I wondered how much of that was just him being moments from passing out.
"And do you swear you will never raise voice or hand against her?"
Zane blinked, as if surprised by the wording, and there was a significant pause before he responded. "I swear," he began, then wavered slightly and leaned on Ailbhe, who raised a hand to grip his Diente's arm. In the silence of the room I thought I heard my mother make a soft sound of deprecation. Zane's hand curled into a fist and he started again, "I swear I will honor her and respect her, and she will never have reason to fear me."
I blinked. It was an odd response, but I could tell that my mother's apparent belief that he would be unable to fulfill that particular vow had stung him.
Rei didn't miss a beat. "Danica Shardae is Tuuli Thea, and so what you swear to her, you swear to all her people. Will you protect the Tuuli Thea's people as you would your own family, and risk all that is necessary to defend them?"
Zane was gripping Ailbhe's hand tightly by this point, but his words were clearly spoken, and his eyes were intent. "I swear by Anhamirak, that I will do everything within my power to stop the bloodshed among the Tuuli Thea's people. By the tears of the goddess, I swear it."
Ailbhe and Adelina both were staring at him. As if we had verged into a completely different ceremony, Adelina murmured in response to his words, "By the goddess, let it be so."
Rei ignored her. "Danica Shardae, Tuuli Thea, you have chosen this man as your alistair. Zane Cobriana, you have sworn to defend Danica Shardae, you Tuuli Thea. Upon the words you have spoken, you are bound for life."
There, it was done. We were bound by avian law, promises made and given.
I was staring at Zane and I didn't notice until it was too late that Rei and Adelina were gone. Betsy had apparently arrived during the ceremony and was pressing Zane back down on the couch and feeding him something from a bowl in her hands.
Ailbhe was shifting uncomfortably; I imagined he felt rather outnumbered and too tired to deal with it. I sympathized and, with a breath to collect myself to face my mother's protests, waved the collected watching avians out of the room. "Go, sleep now," I commanded, trying to smile reassuringly, but only achieving tired. I followed them to the door, expecting that my mother would want to speak privately, but she only swept icily down the hall with everyone else.
Erica remained by the door with me as I wearily watched my mother's departing back, but she slipped back into the room as I lingered. As much as I had anticipated Nacola's disapproval, the cut hurt. Thankfully, I was almost too tired to feel it.
I turned back to my room to find Betsy finished and gone and Zane, apparently asleep already, lying across my bed. Erica and Ailbhe stood to either side of the door; as I moved away from it and into the room they slipped outside, Erica pulling it shut behind her.
I must have walked to the bed but all I remembered was suddenly standing over it, looking down at Zane's unconscious face. It was only hours till dawn and, having dealt with what needed to be dealt with immediately, I was almost beyond thinking. Too tired to even walk around the bed, I crawled over his still body and lay down on the other side of the bed. He wasn't quite as unconscious as I'd thought because he turned toward me, curling against my back. I sighed, rolling my eyes, and fell asleep between that breath and the next.
*Specific lines taken directly from the novel Hawksong (pagination from the edition that I own): Opening italicized lines, p.147 (Chapter 12, after the first break) ; Rei's and Danica's words from the alistair ceremony are directly reproduced, p. 153 (Chapter 13), while some of Zane's have been altered slightly to fit the changed situation.
*Speaking of the alistair ceremony, I've always found the second vow to be a slightly strange one; it seems redundant, since in the first vow the alistair has already sworn to protect the woman against all harm. So, I've kind of interpreted the second vow as a specific exhortation against spousal abuse, and that's why it became this story's reinterpretation of Zane's outrage at Nacola's near accusation in the book.
*Ichneumon: This is the Egyptian word for mongoose. I know Tavi is supposed to be from India (where the original Kipling tale is set), but if the Kiesha'ra can have their origin story be set in Egypt and use Indic words like Naga, then my Egyptian word for the made up originator of my Indic character makes total sense.
*According to a Wikipedia link, apparently mongooses are resistant, if not completely immune, to snake venom. That is contradictory to the Kipling, who implies in his story that mongooses are as susceptible to the venom as anyone. It might be fictional, and scientifically 100 years out of date anyway, but since I'm basing this story off of Kipling I'm going with his version.
*I was slightly obsessed with glaives for a couple of months earlier this year, when I was researching a character for different story I'm working on, so... that's why Tavi uses one. There's no connection to the Kipling story, or to the Kiesha'ra. Google it if you don't know what one looks like, cause they're pretty cool looking.
*While there is a high incidence of Chuck Cunningham Syndrome in this series, the complete disappearance of Karashan in the middle of the story in the first book has always particularly annoyed me. Where does she go? When she suddenly becomes inconvenient to the plot she, what, becomes invisible? That, and my fangirl desires to see: 1) Zane kicking some ass, and 2) Danica confronting a full-on transformed Zane, are the genesis of this fic actually being written, though Chuck Jones' animated short did inspire the plot point that pulled it together.