Chapter 1: First Meeting
Zane looked back and forth between his mother and Anjay, sensing their anxiety and sorrow, a damp and musky tinge in the air that Zane could almost taste as well as feel.
His father was dead. It was surreal and unbelievable enough that each time he remembered, it felt like a fact he knew from a history book about a different Cobra's life. It couldn't mean that his father who was weary but strong, grim but warm was never going to pick him up, laugh, hug him, comfort away nightmares when even Anjay and Sisal couldn't, watch him dance, help him train. Gone. And Anjay… Zane had seen the way Anjay had slumped against the wall in their room and cried when he'd had a moment away from their people, too much on his shoulders too soon and too sudden.
Zane looked between them one last time, vaguely aware that they were discussing Anjay's future of war and weariness and fear, before realizing he couldn't take it anymore. Ignoring the shouts from guards and family, Zane turned and ran through the market, ducking between his people and their brazenly colorful stalls. He knew they wouldn't stop him and that if he was followed, it would be only after a worrisome amount of time. They trusted him to stay safe on Serpiente land.
Zane left the market behind before sprinting through pathways between clusters of homes and across land cleared for farms. He didn't care about the underbrush catching on his clothes when he reached the forest, even when it took all of his reflexes to keep himself from falling when a vine wrapped around his ankles. He didn't stop until his lungs and muscles burned and he recognized the border that his father had set for him, carving an anleh in the wood and saying darkly, "If you pass this mark, you had better hope it's on your side."
Panting, Zane tumbled to his knees and pressed his fingers against the mark, picturing his father's face. The tree offered a welcomed sense of solidity when, exhausted from his flight, Zane slumped forward against it and rested his forehead against the rough bark. "A'le-anleh, father," Zane whispered past the lump of boiling hot tears seeping into his throat.
"What does that mean?"
Zane jumped and spun away from the tree in time to see a small figure drop down from the branches. Warm-blooded and too light to be a serpent, Zane didn't understand how he'd missed her or how she'd made it all the way here. Heart thudding, Zane shifted form just enough for his senses to heighten and to feel fangs heavy in his mouth, but not enough to let her know that he was ready for a fight unless she came close enough. "Who are you? How did you get here?" He asked when he finally found his voice.
She stepped closer. "I'm Eleanor." Zane thought for a moment that she must be incredibly stupid until her eyes widened and she froze. "You're a cobra."
"Yes." Zane hoped the simple response would make her run. Instead, she stepped forward again, ignoring Zane's warning hiss and prompting him to shift further so that black scales spread across his skin.
"Will you be my friend?"
"What?" Zane blinked, guard visibly down for a moment of shock that was replaced quickly with suspicion. Avians didn't make friends, that was impossible. They didn't have feelings or souls. They couldn't really care for someone. "We can't be friends. You… you're an Avian," he spat out the word like a curse," I should kill you. I'm supposed to kill you." He glared, hoping that if he looked fierce enough, she would go away of her own accord. He didn't have a knife on him, and biting her would put him close to any weapons she might have. Plus, Zane had never killed before, and he couldn't imagine it being a very nice situation, Avian or no.
Eleanor shook her head, though she of course seemed calm. Though he'd known enough to expect it, it still unnerved Zane that she could react so uncaring toward a threat on her own life. "No! We have to be friends," she insisted, "If we're friends, then our friends have to be nice to each other too. And then their friends will have to be nice to each other. And all the killing will stop. Especially your friends. They really have to listen to you because you're a prince."
Zane's brow furrowed and his eyes narrowed, his scales and fangs receding. "You really think that would work?"
"Isn't that how your friendships work?"
Zane thought about this for a moment. "Not really." If his friends wanted to fight amongst themselves, they did. If they didn't like each other, they made it known.
Eleanor cocked her head. "You're all very strange."
"We are not!" Zane replied hotly, "You are!"
Though Eleanor only blinked in response, Zane could feel the defensive derision she let off, though she dismissed it herself and moved on. "You still haven't told me what this means." She turned her back to him and traced the carving with a finger.
Her back is turned. You're supposed to take the first chance you have with an avian. There's nothing wrong with taking them off-guard to keep you and your people safe. Zane heard the thoughts in his own head, but ignored them, lightly and inconspicuously biting the inside of his lip. He took a breath, and, desperate to ignore the absurdity of the situation, clung to the distraction of explaining the mark. "The symbol means 'anleh.'"
"And what does that mean?" She turned back to him, and Zane relaxed, the guilty temptation from earlier gone.
"It means..." Zane trailed off to think, his thoughts hovering over the word 'everything' before discarding it. That wasn't quite right. "Fate," he finally settled with, "All of the powers in the entire world make up anleh."
There was a silence that was emptier and more impenetrable than it would have been if Eleanor had been one of his own people. It was as if when she didn't speak, revealing her thoughts, Eleanor ceased to exist. How did she speak without a soul anyway? Zane shifted his weight, backing away slightly, before she finally spoke, shattering the illusion of a heartless painting. "What do you mean by powers?"
Zane shrugged, relieved that her voice at least made her seem more real. "Gods, I guess. Life and death, nature, everything."
"That's really interesting." Her voice was serious, and she didn't smile, but a distance seemed to disappear at that moment, and Zane could tell she really meant it, and he could tell suddenly that she was happy. So he smiled for her. "I like you."
The admission puzzled him and something in that moment made him remember who and where they were. "You need to leave." If any of his people saw her, they would kill her.
She nodded without argument. "May I come back?"
"If you want." He couldn't very well stop her, after all. She was not one of his people and even if she were, it wasn't as though he could follow her around for her whole life and make sure she didn't. "But you should be careful. My people can hurt you easily," he added, slowly at first, but then more earnestly as he realized he cared enough that she stay safe, "Don't fly until you have to. We have archers."
Eleanor only smiled serenely and nodded before she was gone and the spot Zane stared at was nothing but shaking leaves. She hadn't even gone far enough for her heat to leave the spot when she popped back out from the canopy of leaves in the tree above him. "I forgot to ask. How old are you? And which cobra?"
"Seven. And," he hesitated before deciding that she would be able to figure it out anyway, especially knowing his age, "I'm Zane."
She nodded. "I'm seven as well. Fl—um, good-bye." With that, she was gone again.
She left him with a head full of confusion: What had she been about to say? How was it possible that he'd spoken to an Avian, actually enjoyed the conversation somewhat, and hadn't needed to fight? Still unable to fathom any of it moments later, Zane decided that there was simply nothing else to do but go home. He turned and began to walk, remembering why he had left in the first place and discovering that the conversation had helped him numb again the pain of his father's death. That meant that an Avian had comforted him. Suddenly, it seemed he wouldn't be surprised if he woke up the next day to the fires of Mehay swallowing up the earth.