Adonia woke with a start, her hands clutching at her neck as she sat upright in her bed. Her eyes darted about the room or a moment before her heart settled. Another nightmare. She sighed as she let herself fall back onto the silk cushions. No matter how many nights pass, he is still there when I fall asleep. She let her fingers trace a section of the scar that reached from her waist all the way up to the bottom of her ribcage.
"Oh Rahim, you wretched creature." She frowned up at the ceiling, covered in finely woven tapestries depicting wild birds and horses. Pity and anger were woven together in her voice. "You've damned us both."
She tried to imagine where he was now. Perhaps forced to beg for food in some far away city- no doubt miserable with guilt- or even lying dead; murdered by thieves. Adonia winced and took her hand away from the scar. I can't let myself think of him anymore.
She rose from her bed and stood on weak legs. Yawning, she pulled on a silk robe as she crossed the room and settled before her long mirror with a frown. She had paled and lost weight. Dark circles framed her green eyes and her dark hair hung in long messy tangles. Three weeks had passed and her wound had healed, but she felt like a bird with broken wings.
She had began pulling a brush through the neglected strands of her hair as there was a knock at her bedroom door.
"Come in," she called.
Rhea entered, balancing a tray holding bread, cheese, and a cup of steaming red tea. "I saw the servant carrying this to your room and I said I would bring it to you." Her voice was level and impassive, but Adonia knew Rhea was more than happy for the excuse to come and check on her. "Has your appetite returned?" she asked as she placed the tray onto a short hexagonal table carved from dark wood with its edges gilded with gold.
Adonia shrugged. Truly, the food did not appeal to her, but she took a bite of bread to please Rhea, who gave a satisfied nod.
"Good," Rhea said. "You need to gain your strength back. The court grows restless," she said. "I've already heard a rumor that the Sovereign is dead."
Adonia stifled a grim laugh. "I might as well be." She ignored the sharp look Rhea gave her. "I've done nothing but brood for the past few weeks."
"Brooding does not suit you, Adonia." Rhea rested her fists on he hips, looking as if ready to lecture Adonia like a child, but Adonia raised a hand to silence her before she could go on.
"Tomorrow, I return to the council." She paused and brought the cup of tea to her lips. Its rich fragrance spoke of pomegranate juice mixed in, and the taste sang of it. "Even if I must be carried in."
Rhea let a small smile flash across her face. "Very well, but it is better if you can walk on your own. Today, maybe fresh air would do you well." She tilted her head slightly and a small section of her black hair fell into her face. "Do you think you may be well enough to fly Kiraga?"
Adonia bit her lip thoughtfully. "Maybe, but I will fly her either way. No doubt she has grown restless."
"Then we should go." Rhea crossed her arms over her chest and lifted her chin slightly. "After you eat."
Adonia smiled with a small shake of her head. "You should be the one who is obedient to me, not I to you," she said, but she took another piece of bread from the tray anyway.
"I'm not your servant, I'm your body guard," Rhea said. Her tall stance and dangerous grace made the thought of her as a servant laughable. "My duty is not to grovel."
Adonia stepped through the gilded gates that led into the palace gardens, Rhea trailing behind her. She was dressed in riding pants, and her hair was captured in a long braid that nearly reached her waist. She paused briefly in the gateway, letting the breeze bring the scent of flowers to her before moving on.
The sound of songbirds and the splash of fountains stirred the air. In the center of the carefully tended flowers and winding stone paths stood what had once been a gazebo. Adjustable panels had been built onto it so that it could serve as a mew for Kiraga. She sat inside, perched on her stand as she preened her caramel feathers.
A man leaned against the mew, peering in at the large eagle. His hair was long and dark and his eyes had the same look to them as a wolf's.
"Good morning, General Haemon," Rhea called to him as she and Adonia approached.
He gave a start at the sound of Rhea's voice, and quickly folded himself into respectful bow when his eyes met Adonia's. "Good morning," he replied in a low voice.
"How is she?" Adonia asked as she pulled on a thick leather gauntlet.
"Bored. And I don't think she likes me well." He spoke gingerly, as if calculating whether or not the Sovereign was well enough to hunt with the massive bird. After a pause, he said "It's good to see you again, Your Majesty. For too long we feared you wouldn't return."
She waved her hand dismissively. "I am not broken so easily." She slid one of the panels open and stepped inside. Kiraga screeched excitedly as she stepped up onto Adonia's gloved arm and let her slip a hood over her head. "Thank you for taking care of her for me. There are few others I could trust her with." She told Haemon as she stepped back out.
She smiled fondly as Kiraga stretched out her wings to their full seven-foot span. The eagle had been a gift sent from her father, an acclaimed falconer, when he received the news that his daughter had been raised as Sovereign. Adonia barely remembered her father now- she had been taken to study at the palace when she was six, and had never returned to her childhood home- but she remembered the birds he had raised and trained.
"It was my honor," Haemon said with a slight bow.
"Why don't you join us, Haemon?" Rhea suggested. "I can have a servant sent to ready your horse."
He shrugged. "If Her Majesty does not mind."
"You are welcome to come along," Adonia said as she gently stroked Kiraga's feathers with the knuckles of her free hand.
Their horses stood saddled and bridled at the East Gate, each attended by a patient stable-hand. Adonia used her free hand to pull herself into the saddle of her tall black stallion. He pranced anxiously as Kiraga opened her wings to hold her balance on Adonia's arm.
When Adonia straightened in her seat and took the riens from the stable-hand, Rhea already sat oh her honey-colored horse and Haemon was just mounting his own. With a grin Adonia touched her heels to Xerxes flanks and trotted through the wide gates.
The three rode together to a small open field that laid to the east of the palace walls. A gentle breeze lifted the loose ends of Adonia's hair as she undid the leash that kept Kiraga attached to the gauntlet. Haemon and Rhea both rode in opposite directions, attempting to flush out game from the dry grass. When Adonia lifted the hood from the eagle's head, they both watched impatiently for movement.
"Ho!" Haemon called as a large hare sprang away from his horse's feet. Adonia stood in her stirrups and lifted her arm up and Kiraga was up in the air in an instant, her sharp eyes locked on her quarry. The wind carried her to it, and at the last moment she swooped down and pinned the hare to the ground. Adonia felt an wave of excitement as she urged her horse forward at a canter, ignoring the pain that came from her side with every lurch. She swung down from the saddle as soon as they reached Kiraga, and seconds later Haemon and Rhea were there as well.
Kiraga hunched over her kill, wings spread over it like a feathery dome. She had already torn a large chunk of meat from the hare, but she gladly took the small piece of meat Adonia offered her as a reward. While Kiraga swallowed it down, Adonia took away the dead hare. "Let the cook have Kiraga's catch prepared." She held the inert mass of bloodied fur to Haemon, who took it with some hesitation.
The Sovereign rose with the eagle once again perched on her arm and the hood replaced over her head. She was more aware of the pain in her side, but she did not let it show as she climbed back onto her horse. "I would hunt longer, my friend, but I am not in the best of shape," she muttered to Kiraga as she turned Xerxes back toward the palace.
When they returned to the East Gate, the three dismounted and gave their horses to the servants to be unsaddled and groomed.
"Thank you again, Haemon, for taking care of Kiraga while I was recovering," Adonia said gratefully. She felt a tinge of pain as her mind drifted toward the reason she had to recover in the first place.
"It was my honor. She will be glad though, to be in your care again." He stretched his fingers toward the eagle, but she bit at his fingers when they neared her. " I fear Kiraga is not very fond of me," he chuckled quietly.
Adonia's mind moved to different troubles. "Do you have any word from the council, Haemon? They have sent very little word to me since my absence."
"What I've heard is troublesome," he said as they began to walk back toward the garden.
"I have only heard rumor of what has been spoken within the council, but it seems like there are secrets growing within their meetings."
Adonia bristled. "What kind of secrets." When Haemon shrugged and shook his head, she glanced at Rhea. "It is well then, that I already decided to join them tomorrow."
Rhea gave no reaction aside from a hardening in her jaw, but her eyes seemed eager.