The following is an excerpt of The Raven Before the Dove, the sixth book in the Flirting with the Zodiac series.
It was a dull and dreary morning, the first of Falun, which marked the start of autumn in the south. Gone was the summer sun; in its place came steely gray skies and rains.
Cirrus knew the rain was needed—the grass across the wide, rolling plain was brown and dead—but that didn’t mean he had to like it. The rains always heralded the return of his melancholy, which lasted through the darker days, until the sun returned with the flowers and the trees unfurling new leaves in the spring.
The court healer at Celadon said that was quite normal for an omega, but, even if he was the royal physician, what did an eagle know about a raven from the west? Not much, as far as Cirrus could tell; he and his retinue had been the only ravens at the court of the eagle king in the south in quite some time. Cirrus had fled there when he could no longer guarantee his safety in the west, at his mother’s court.
That had been several seasons ago now, and Cirrus’s retinue, although small to begin with, had dwindled. He was the only raven left now; Cormac and Corbin, the crow twins, tended to him. The others had flown or been killed.
Cirrus suspected those deaths had not been natural; rather, they were the work of his mother’s spies in the southern lands. Aquila, the eagle that King Prion had assigned to act as Cirrus’s bodyguard and guide in this new realm, said Celadon was secure, but Cirrus knew his mother. She was crafty and cunning, wiser than all other birds together. She would find a way in, no matter how much the eagle king tightened his borders.
That was how Altostratus had expanded her reach to subdue nearly all the bird kingdoms across Corvus. From the sweeping plains of the southwest to the jagged mountains of the north, from the ocean shores of the west to the great rivers of the east, she held dominion.
Only a handful of kingdoms held out against the great empress, the might of the Corvid Empire. Here and there were pockets of resistance against corvid influence, but the last great stronghold, aside from the eagles in the south, was Inverdale, the kingdom of the owls to the north. The owls were a strange lot, though, always keeping to themselves. It was why Cirrus had chosen to flee south. The eagles were a more welcoming flock.
Cirrus sat now in his chambers, overlooking the plains as they swept northwest toward the foothills of the Karacor Mountains. He peered out at the distant peaks, shrouded in mist and gloom, contemplating his looming heat. Then he turned his attention to his breakfast, tapping into a perfectly soft-boiled quail egg, thinking about how the lingon and the cloudberries soon would be ready to harvest in the western reaches. Those fruits didn’t grow so far south, and every winter, he was filled with the most wretched longing to return to his mother’s court and savor the tastes of his childhood.
He couldn’t, he knew; thus far, he’d resisted, but the desire to return to his natal nest grew with every passing cycle. And every winter, his mother entreated him to return to her, to let her take him under her wing once more. She promised everything—titles, jewels, fine clothing. She offered wisdom, a chance to read the tomes she’d forbidden him to touch when he was a fledgling.
He knew now why she had made those books verboten. He was a mage, same as she. At least, he would be with time and proper tutelage—which she had denied him. Here in the south, it was difficult to learn the spells and incantations. Much of that knowledge had been lost to the eagles. They were a warlike people, and they did not appreciate the art of words the way corvids did. That was not to say they were unintelligent; no, the eagles were very wise, and Cirrus had learned much from them.
But they did not know magic, and that was what flowed through Cirrus’s feathers. If he’d known enough, he could have conjured the lingon berries he so desired.
Altostratus knew all that. Now that he’d flown from her, she saw his education as a bargaining chip.
He knew she was false. He knew what she really wanted with him. He was nothing more than a pawn to her; he always had been. He saw no reason that should change, not now when she sought to strengthen her own position. Those under her dominion were restless; they began to question the empress’s wisdom in sending them into the teeth of a never-ending war, aligning them with Scorpius and Rasalas. It had been nearly a decade; Cirrus was fairly certain they’d been at war since he was still a child.
He was twenty now, and the war continued. Even here, the eagles felt the touch of it. Their people were kidnapped and forced into service in the west—sometimes as slaves on the farms and in the mills, sometimes as soldiers for the front.
The empress sensed the restlessness, and she sought to bring him back under her wing to consolidate her power. She would leverage his friendship with the eagles to expand her dominion. She would send the eagles to war, and so she would quell the restless people of the west for now. New allies, along with the assurance of the continuance of royal rule, would placate the masses.
Cirrus could see that would not be enough. They needed to withdraw from the cosmic war that raged beyond their galactic borders. And they needed to make peace with the other kingdoms. There would not be a Corvid Empire, a single raven ruling over all birdom.
His mother could not see this, not yet. Or perhaps she saw it and believed there were ways to avert it. No doubt she would say he was too young and too inexperienced to see the future clearly. He saw all roads leading to the same end; no doubt she would tell him she saw differently.
He’d just discarded the shell of the egg and readied the little silver spoon to crack into the next when he heard trumpets blare from the fortress below. They bellowed again, and on the plain, he saw something moving with great haste.
His heart leapt into his throat. Altostratus made her move at last.
The trumpets blared again. From below, he heard someone cry, “Open the hatches!”
There was a clank and a clamor as the great machinery that governed the hatches shuddered to life. The glass dome that surrounded the fortress pulled apart along its seam, two hemispheres slowly receding as the guards below heaved on the cranks, opening the gates wide to the heavens.
The blur drew closer, and Cirrus could see now that it was not a raven, as he’d feared, but an owl, broad wings beating the air as they soared effortlessly across the plain.
The thought made him just as nervous as the idea of his mother racing across the plain to lay siege to Celadon. What was an owl doing this far south?
He went to the window and peered out, watching as the owl raced through the partition in the dome, lifting their cruel talons, beating their wings backward to slow themself now that they had gained the fortress. They scarcely came to a stop before crashing into one of the guards as the owl resumed humanoid shape. The eagle clanked about in all their armor, and the owl wheeled wildly, before finally regaining their balance.
They turned and faced each other now, the owl bowing deeply. Cirrus frowned; he could not hear what they were saying from this distance.
A moment later, the captain of the eagles’ guard, marched to the rampart, flanked by two dozen warriors. His armor shone brilliantly; his red cape fluttered in the early morning breeze like a pennant.
There was a knock before the tower door squealed open, allowing Aquila to enter Cirrus’s chamber. Cirrus turned to him, eyes wide. The eagle warrior bowed deeply, his long, dark hair tumbling over his shoulder as he did so. “Your presence is requested in the Great Hall.”
He lifted his golden gaze slowly. Cirrus glanced out at the commotion on the rampart again. The captain was guiding the newcomer down the rampart.
Cirrus looked back at Aquila. “My presence?” he asked.
“Yes,” the eagle agreed, straightening up again. He tucked a lock of hair behind his ear. “It seems that our early morning visitor brings news from the west.”