Wolfcry Page 20

Mine to protect, before anything else.

"Both of our mothers are still alive; you would not need to take a throne immediately or even soon. I assume you would inherit it when an avian queen traditionally does, when you have your own child, years from now.

"Would you do it?"

She nodded slowly. "If I had to, Oliza. But you are the wyvern of Wyvern's Court. I could never replace you."

"I'm not asking you to replace me."

I found Salem in the market. This time I landed a little ways back. The cobra was engaged in lively banter with a pair of merchants, both of whom were looking rueful but honored by his presence.

He stepped back from them with a self-satisfied nod and quickly noticed me.

"Good morning, cousin." The lighthearted sparkle in his eyes almost made me forget my purpose, almost made me remember simpler times.

The burden I was about to put on him...

"What would you have done if I had never returned to Wyvern's Court?" He frowned. "You don't think I believed that nonsense about your abdicating, do you?"

"No, I don't," I said. "I'm just asking what if. If I was gone, what would you do?" Slowly, now visibly worried, he answered, "I'm no wyvern."

"I'm not asking you to be," I said. "Could you be Arami for the serpiente? Lead this generation, in peace, so that maybe in the future..." My voice was wavering. Salem began to pace, his garnet eyes flashing. "Oliza, you will be a good queen. No one cares more about Wyvern's Court than you do, and  -  "

"If I rule them, it will destroy them," I said. "I would be their queen if they would allow me, if Fate would allow me, but my first duty as their leader is to keep them safe. Could you do it?"

He sighed heavily, running his hands through his hair. "They like me, Oliza, if that's what you're asking. If anything ever happened to you, they would accept me as Arami, as Diente. But, Oliza  -  "

I didn't wait for him to protest any more. I returned once again to Wyvern's Nest. I kissed the doorway, knowing that I would probably rarely see it in the future. I could not be in Wyvern's Court without usurping power from Sive and Salem. I wouldn't be able to stand it.

There could be no indecision.

I was trembling as I walked into the nest, because I knew that I could not change my decision, no matter what answer

I received there. I could not keep Wyvern's Court or my place as its princess; I could not keep any of the things I had assumed would always be mine. I could only pray that there was something  -  someone

-  I loved that Fate would not rip from me.

Betia greeted me hesitantly. I caught her hands and pulled her to me. I sensed her concern and support for me, and they calmed my nerves as I kissed her. I remembered those simple words she had spoken, when she had promised never to leave unless I asked her to.

And then I went down on one knee.

"I don't know what kind of life we might have together," I said, never looking away from her warm brown eyes. "But I know I would protect you with the last scrap of my soul. I know I want to be there for you, to hold you, to dance for you, to hunt with you, to be with you no matter where Fate takes us, because it's the sound of your heartbeat that comforts me when I drift off to sleep, and I know I  -  I cannot offer you royalty. I'm not sure what I

can offer you  -  but myself. Hopefully that is enough, because I love you, Betia, and I do implore you to be my mate."

Tears gathered in her eyes, and my stomach twisted and my heart pounded in panic. I had to give up Wyvern's Court. The decision was made and set in stone, no matter what happened.

She knelt in front of me and squeezed my hand gently. "Wolves mate for life," she said softly. I smiled and said, "So do wyverns."

"I love you," she whispered. "I..." She shook her head and said again, "Words fade so easily."

Her lips touched mine, and she held me as if she would never let go  -  not even when her fingers found the feathers at my nape, or the sparks of red and gold in my hair. She had not pulled away from me in the closeness of the nest or objected to the calmness of the avian market; she knew every side of me, had listened to all my dreams and had never rejected any part of me.

She didn't have to say the words aloud.

Someone behind us whistled, which made us both recall at the same time that the nest was rarely empty. Even though I had paid it no mind when I had entered, there was a crowd watching us.

Betia laughed.

"I'm going to need to talk to them," I said apologetically. She nodded, not quite giving me up yet; she slid her hands down my arms to twine her fingers with mine again.

"Betia, you're the one who has been with me this entire time. You know what I'm about to do?"

She nodded. "Speak to your people. I will wait for you." Suddenly panicking again, I gripped her hands. "Am I doing the right thing? It kills me to give them up, but I really think this is the only way. I know what people will say. They'll accuse me of being afraid. Am I just a selfish coward giving up because it's getting hard?"

"Selfish coward?" she repeated with some confusion. "From the time I met you, you have spoken of Wyvern's Court with love, and pride, and a sense of home that I envy. You have spoken of yourself as belonging to them. Wyvern's Court is your world. It is you.

It..." She shook her head. "Words, words. I just know that it can't be selfish or cowardly to give up everything you ever thought you were, in order to protect them." We kissed again, quickly, and then looked up at the dancers, who had backed off enough to give us some privacy.

Urban took my glance as an invitation to step forward. His limp was a dagger to my heart, but it reinforced my determination.

"I'm sorry" was the first thing he said. Only then did I realize that much of the nest must have seen the pained look on my face in addition to the interlude with Betia. "I know we teased you two a little, but I don't think anyone really thought  -  " He looked stricken as his gaze fell to Betia, and I realized he was apologizing to her. Turning back to me, he said, "I take it this means you've made your decision?" I struggled to come up with an answer as he shook his head and said gently, "I can recognize a goodbye when I see one, Wyvern."

He thought I was saying goodbye to Betia and preparing to declare a mate. That was what the apology was for  -  Wyvern's Court's taking me from her. If only he knew how much I was really saying goodbye to.

"Would you help gather the serpiente in the market?" I asked him. "I need to make an announcement."

He nodded. "I'll tell the others. And I'll bring Marus."

"Thank you." I separated grudgingly from Betia. "I'll meet you there?" She nodded, and again I found my wyvern form. I stopped briefly to inform Nicias that I needed to address my people, and I asked him to gather the avians. Then I sought my parents. A courier, whose eyes were wide as he beheld my rumpled hair and harried expression, hurried to fetch them once I reached the Rookery.

"Oliza?" My mother sounded worried as she and my father came into the room. My father took one glance at me and then poorly suppressed a smile as he came to the obvious conclusion. He cleared his throat.

"I've made my decision," I told them. "I need to address our people. I'd like to do so from the market, unless you have another idea."

My parents looked at each other.

"Do we get to know the outcome, or shall we also wait?" my father asked, his smile suddenly a little more strained.

I hesitated. I wanted to tell them but was worried that they would try to talk me out of my decision. The images from the sakkri had already faded to a point where the strongest thing I remembered was the sense of absolute desperation. I remembered what I had thought of them, remembered that I had seen the devastation caused by every choice I made, but the specifics... the faces... they were disappearing. I was happy to lose the details; they had hurt too much. I was also happy that, unlike last time, I was not losing time  -  perhaps because Nicias had been there to balance the vision and cut it off cleanly at the end.

"I will speak to you along with our people as soon as they have gathered  -  which, hopefully, they are already doing. If you're willing to wait." They both looked worried now. I remembered the stories I had heard of the last such

"announcement," when my parents had told their respective people of their choices: to get married and unite the avians and the serpiente. Many people had been horrified. But in the end, the war had stopped.

"We can wait," my mother said, and I knew that it had taken all her avian poise to say that. She grasped my father's hand. "As long as you are certain."

"I am."

Chapter 25

Within the hour, I stood on a dais at the center of the market, near the glittering wyvern statue. I took a deep breath, seeking strength.

My eyes fell to the small group immediately in front of me: my parents; my mother's mother; Salem; Rosalind; Sive; Prentice; Nicias; his parents, Andreios and Kel; and of course, Betia.

Hai was conspicuously absent.

You are about to do something that changes everything.

Her words had begun all this, and now I wondered if she had known that it would lead to this moment. What had she wanted?

Had she spoken as a cobra, protecting Wyvern's Court, or as a falcon?

What I needed to do remained the same either way.

Behind my family and all around the dais was a seething mass of curious avians and serpiente, who had all hushed the instant I had landed and taken human form. In the sudden silence, I could feel my heart pounding and hear my blood rushing.

"Twenty-one years." I sighed and then cleared my throat before beginning again.

"Twenty-one years ago, in the sha'Mehay dancer's nest, the dream that would become Wyvern's Court began." My voice carried this time, ringing through the market. "The dream was inspired by a symbol, and by the word alistair: protector. It spoke of a beautiful world, a peaceful world  -  one in which serpiente and avians lived side by side long ago. More important, it spoke of another world in which they would do so again.

"I look into this crowd today and see vipers and sparrows, taipans and crows, and all these faces prove how far we have come." At that moment I saw Marus at the periphery of the crowd. He was staring longingly at his parents, who were standing farther off.

"Simultaneously, they prove how much further we still have to go." My people were watching me, their faces curious and excited. I knew that what I was about to say would change those expressions.

"I've been a fool."

Those who had been silent and attentive began to shift and grumble as they sensed that this announcement was not about to go the way they had expected.

"We dreamed of a world in which these two kingdoms would become one. But that's all it was  -  a dream, ruled by the logic of dreams.

"I love the southern hills of Wyvern's Court. I love their dance. I love their laughter, their comfort, their expression. I love their passion." I continued with just as much sincerity, "And I love the northern hills. I love the rhythm of the skies. I love the debates, the music. I love the simplicity, and the beauty of shy romance.

"I love this entire world.

"I love these two worlds.

"And that is what they are.

"Nearly two months ago, a young man, a dear friend of mine, was severely beaten for daring to cross the market from his world to the northern hills. More recently, another friend lost his home, his family, for trying to do the same.

"Every day in the market reveals the segregation and the prejudice that we have almost come to take for granted. We say, 'That's their way, not ours,' and we walk away ignorant. Or worse, we say, 'Well, at least we aren't at war,' when we are killing each other with fear and hatred. We ignore the slander because at least it isn't blades. We ignore the pain because, thank the sky, it isn't blood."

I fought the urge to pace on my dais. People in the crowd were averting their gazes as they recalled their own actions. Only Nicias kept his eyes on me. Marus's parents noticed him in that moment. But when Marus took a step forward, his mother turned her back on him.

"I am of you, of all of you, avian and serpiente. I have for all my life wondered how, beyond my very existence,

I can prove to you that we can live together. In my parents' time, the mission was to stop the bloodshed, but in mine, my goal has always been to stop the hatred.

"And I have never known how."

I paused to gather my thoughts, drawing air into my lungs, which felt constricted. Betia smiled up at me, her eyes holding absolute trust.

"These two worlds are different, so different that I do not know if they can ever be made one. I cannot say that one set of values is superior. I cannot say that a child should be raised one way or another. I cannot destroy one culture to assure that there is no strife.

"I should not. And I will not.

"So all I can do is give you to yourselves and let you live side by side, each generation trusting a little more."

I saw confusion in my people. My mother was gripping my father's hand so tightly that her knuckles were white.

"I would be your queen if you would allow me. I would be honored to lead you. But now, I do what I must."

What do you want from me? I had demanded of them once. I had prayed to the Fates for guidance, time and again, screaming to them,

How can I give peace when they do not want it?

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