One of the hybrid races, avian-human. Most authorities believe the Aetherii were created as aerial scouts by the Firsters, using the magical craft referred to in the ancient texts as "gene-splicing". (See Firsters - Magic) Aetherii are winged and tailed. Plumage and skin may be any color found in Nature. Various other physiological adaptations suit them for a life lived partly on the wing.
Excerpt from the Great Encyclopedia, compiled by Miriliel the Burnished.
The Prince's Palace
She didn't think she'd ever seen such a pretty man - or one more accomplished. Vastly entertained, Liseriel the Gray stepped deeper into the shadows and folded her arms, watching him flirt with a plump matron encased in gold-shot velvet while his eyes carried on an entirely different conversation with her bulky, four-square husband.
This was the master thief Jan had spoken of, she was sure of it.
That was all they knew of him, his name. And that he’d been an assassin once. Her lip curled. Likely he still was.
Brilliant. Light-fingered. Deadly.
"You're the most observant person I know," Jan had said. "All our intelligence indicates he'll be at the Prince's birthday celebration tonight. He won't be able to resist. He has expensive tastes, this Michael."
His hard mouth had curved without humor."Find him for me, Lise. The Prince has finally lowered himself to ask the Winged Envoy for help. It's an important breakthrough in the trade negotiations."
As Head of Security, Janarnavriel the Noir was the Winged Envoy's to command, and for his second officer, Jan's word was law. So Lise had merely nodded in her usual cool manner, concealing her pleasure at the offhand compliment.
Which was why she was currently lurking in a window embrasure in the main ballroom of the Palace, her gray wings furled about her like a cloak of shadows and her tail curled neatly around one booted calf, watching the Grounded flirt and plot and drink themselves insensible at the Prince's expense. The Aetherii were by nature a spectacular race, still enough of a novelty in the mountain city of Sere to bring passersby to a dead halt in the steep cobbled streets, mouths open, but Lise prided herself on her ability to be unobtrusive. It was as much her stock in trade as her eye for detail and her hard-won warrior skills.
The man appeared to be a gilded youth, the line of his jaw clean and beautiful, his hair a thick golden blond that gleamed with health. Lise narrowed her eyes. A wig, but a very good one. Human hair, she judged. There were rings flashing on his slender fingers, sapphire drops in his ear lobes. He'd spared no expense, she had to give him that. A perfect little lordling, and all in excellent taste. So what if she could see the hard disks of his nipples beneath the ultra-fine silk of his shirt? Or if the merchant was darting discreet glances at the taut ass cupped so lovingly by the satin breeches required by court etiquette?
Michael was wearing makeup, expertly applied - not unusual for men at the Sereian court. Coupled with the classical purity of his features, the fine elegant shape of cheek and nose and skull, it gave him a disturbingly androgynous air. He looked... She had to think about it...
Available. Deliciously, dangerously available.
He was deceptively lean. Lise measured the width of his shoulders and her gaze dropped to consider the muscle in his thigh. Oh yes, there was power there all right, coupled with perfect, almost unnatural control. His purpose kept him on a tight leash, this thief.
Her quarry detached himself from the merchant couple and drifted over to delight a group of half a dozen bright-eyed society ladies. With no little amusement, Lise observed the fluttering of lashes, the imperceptible tilt of their bodies toward him. They made a delightful picture, all youth and firm smooth flesh, colored silks and sparkling stones.
Lise's brows drew together as Michael offered his arm to a dainty dark-haired piece wearing a small fortune in emeraldas. Green fire dripped from her ear lobes and flashed in her cleavage.
In the minstrels' gallery, the orchestra struck up a fanfare and the Prince's party paused in the vaulted entrance to acknowledge the spatter of polite applause. The Prince of Sere was respected, but not greatly loved. Lise watched his thin lips curl the slightest bit as he raised a languid hand in acknowledgement.
Rip the Veil, Michael had disappeared! Out of the corner of her eye, she caught the pale gleam of his golden head, passing through the tall carved doors out onto the dimly lit balcony, his palm resting lightly on the back of the girl's waist.
By the gods, he was good! But so was she.
Fading back into the darkness, Lise stepped across the window sill. Half-spreading her wings, she drifted across the courtyard garden, no more than another shadow in the night. Small creatures froze instinctively, trembling with terror, as her shadow passed silently over their heads like a highhunter on the prowl. She glided to a gentle landing on a rustic path behind a thick bush, aware that all the small rustlings and squeakings had stopped.
Michael wasn't pushing the pace, she noticed. The young woman's hand rested lightly in the crook of his arm, her skirts frothing over the steps as the couple descended the curving stair down to the short swathe of velvet lawn. They looked pretty together - as if they were meant to be - the blond head bent attentively toward the dark.
He slowed to a halt as they reached the path. "The stars are beautiful tonight," Lise heard him murmur. "Look." With gentle fingers, he tilted the girl's chin up, brushing a cascade of ringlets back behind her ear as he did so.
In that, he was right enough. Lise glanced up at the Veil of the night sky. The single moon of Phoenix shone like the thinnest of sickles, sharpened to a razor's edge. Over its shoulder, glittered a scatter of pinpricks - what the Grounded liked to call stars. To the Aetherii, they were rents in the Tattered Veil, glimpses of the all-consuming fire that was the primeval cosmos.
Michael indicated a small gazebo, situated a few yards farther on down the path and bowered in an exquisitely perfumed climbing vine. The blooms shone like tiny ghostly faces.
"Come sit with me a moment." His voice was a light, beguiling tenor, full of warmth and promises unspoken.
The young woman tilted her head back, her profile perfectly presented to his gaze. "Sit?" Her gurgle of laughter was throaty, enticing. "Is that what you call it?"
Lise's feathery brows arched. So the Hautlady wasn't new to the game.
The young woman paused, searching Michael's beautiful face. Then she said with decision, "The dice and the brandy will not hold my lord's attention much longer. Ten minutes." Her teeth gleamed and her rounded face looked suddenly hard in the wash of lamplight from the ballroom. "He knows me too well."
She moved closer, pressing a plump breast against Michael's arm. "What can you do for me in ten minutes, pretty man?"
For answer, Michael scooped her up high against his chest and strode toward the gazebo. As they disappeared into the shadowed interior, the Hautlady's giggle cut off with a gasp, as if hard lips had slammed down on hers.
How would it feel to be so totally self-absorbed, to think only of yourself, first and always? Didn't the woman have any concept of ignore duty and honor, let alone dignity?
Gods, how tawdry. Would the thief take his pleasure first? Probably. Her lips twisting with distaste, Lise folded her arms and settled down to wait him out. There was only one entrance to the small ornate structure and she had it under surveillance.
Idly, she watched the stars twinkle, a dark wraith of a cloud drifting by to catch on the cruel hook of the crescent moon. If the gods chose this instant to rip the Tattered Veil aside, the world and everything in it would combust in a fireball of cosmic proportions - over so quickly that after the first searing gasp, there would be only oblivion. On nights such as this, when wickedness like Michael's was abroad, the gift of the gods' mercy looked frail indeed.
How satisfying it would be to catch him red-handed, the thieving bastard, and turn him over to the Palace Guards. Maybe rough him up a little first. Jan wouldn't care in the slightest. Lise smiled without humor. She'd never met a Grounded male who didn't loathe the fact that she was as strong - if not stronger - than he was. An Aetherii's muscles had to be powerful enough to support their full body weight in the air. A second heart, tucked behind the first, supplied the huge wings with extra blood - gifts of endurance and sheer brute strength.
Lise rolled her shoulders, feathers rustling with impatience. Her tail lashed so violently, she had to clamp it against her calf lest she betray her position. Godsdammit, she was looking forward to this!
The cloud wavered and broke. The night grew colder and darker, and she shivered, despite the jacket and snug-fitting trews of gray velvet. Shadows deepened over the gazebo, the garden settling into silence.
Not even the rustle of silk, the sound of an amorous whisper...
Lise's head jerked up, her eyes widening.
Liseriel the Gray burst into the gazebo at a dead run, her hearts in her throat.
Obviously unconscious, the Hautlady lay draped over a backless settee, her skirts decorously arranged. No sign of the assassin. Her belly churning with dread, Lise laid the back of her hand against the woman’s bare throat. Warm skin, a pulse beating strongly.
She released a shaky breath. The gods be thanked.
Shit! The gaudy emeralda necklace had disappeared. As had the matching earrings.
The woman moaned, raising a fluttering hand to her head.
Lise ignored her. Think, think! The place only had a single exit. She turned a full circle, urgency stinging her professional pride like a swarm of angry bitemes.
How the hell--?
Her glance strayed upward - to the hole in the roof where the stars shone through. The cunning bastard had planned it. How far in advance had he removed those tiles? Furthermore, the couch was the only piece of furniture in the small space. Calculating the distance between it and the ceiling, her brows rose. Michael must have leaped up from the end of the couch, grabbed the edge of the hole and levered himself through. All without a sound.
He must have excellent upper body strength for a Grounded. Not to mention agility and nerve. But then Jan had warned her, hadn't he?
"Ow." A pause while the Hautlady pawed at her neck. Then she let loose with a stream of curses a guttersnipe would have been proud to own.
Grinding her teeth, Lise brushed past the woman, ignoring her stifled shriek. Out in the midnight cool of the garden, she darted silently to the wall that marked the end of the courtyard garden. He hadn't returned to the ballroom, she'd bet her life on it. Desperately, she scanned the dim, quiet street below. Winding down the mountain, away from the brightly lit Palace, it was lined with tall, narrow buildings, the shop fronts tightly barred and shuttered. On the upper floors, the good merchants of Sere slept the well-earned sleep of the enterprising and successful.
Fifty yards away, a shadow shifted, so quick and lithe, she could have imagined it. But she hadn't. He'd removed the wig, and either reversed the coat or found another, but godsdammit, she knew that silhouette, the economical way he moved. Her teeth bared in a wild hunter's grin, Liseriel the Gray pulled herself up onto the top of the wall, spread her wings and took to the air. Like all Aetherii, she was too heavy to lift herself from a standing start, but any high point was her friend. Noiselessly, she glided down the street, keeping to shoulder height.
Her quarry would head for the slums, she was sure. All she need do to intercept him was bank the slightest bit and veer down this alley, and then--
Strong hands grabbed her tail and jerked, sending a shocking whiplash from the base of her spine all the way to her skull. Before she could recover, Lise's back collided with a hard chest, her tail was released and a forearm made of steel crushed her throat.
Faster than thought, her hand flashed to the long bladed dagger in her belt, but a chilly razor-sharp edge pricked the soft skin behind her ear, and a pleasant voice murmured, "I wouldn't."
She'd been unforgivably careless. All Pinion warriors were trained to fight with hands, feet, wings, tail - whatever weapons they had available. Liseriel the Gray was a Second, she could have broken his arm with a punishing wing strike, strangled him with her muscular tail, gutted him with her blade... But the man had her securely pinned, his warm breath an infuriating intimacy against her neck, the point of his knife pricking a vulnerable artery.
Slowly, Lise let out a long breath, allowing her wings to drop. She could beat herself up later - after she'd reduced Michael to a bloody pulp. For now, her life depended on her gift for calm under pressure.
"Mmm." He pressed himself even closer, until not even a sheet of paper could have passed between them. From chest to hip, the hard planes of his body undulated against her plumage. "Your feathers feel gorgeous, much softer than I expected."
Lise fixed her eyes on the sickle moon. "You're not surprised to meet an Aetherii in the dead of night?"
He wasn't aroused. They were so close, she would have felt it. No, he was playing with her, the bastard, his voice empty of all save cruel amusement.
"You've been watching me all night, birdy. Why should I be surprised?"
Rip the fucking Veil, she must be losing her touch. "I'll be more careful in future," she said dryly.
The blade pressed a little harder into her skin, a tiny slice of pain. "You think you have one? A future?" A warm trickle of blood slid down her neck.
"Killing me would be an exceptionally bad idea." Could he feel her hearts galloping out of kilter in her breast?
"I'm not so sure."
Gods, how could he sound so cold, so empty, when he was sealed against her spine, his flesh as warm as any lover's, his breath as sweet?
"You didn't kill the Hautlady."
Lise gave the ghost of a shrug, all the movement the firmness of his grip permitted. "A little. You're a trained assassin. Child's play."
In the silence, the faintest echo of sprightly dance music drifted from the Palace. A dog barked once from further down the street.
Finally, Michael said, "Even for an assassin, death is a serious business." He leaned forward, mouthing the delicate point of her ear, then nipping sharply so she choked on a yelp."Business being the operative word. The best assassins are very, very expensive. You may tell Janarnavriel the Noir I have no current commissions."
Lise stiffened. He'd even pronounced the name correctly.
His wicked chuckle gusted warm over her skin, sending a hot chill down her spine that raised all the fine feathers on her body. "Ah, birdy, how could anything as impressive as you remain inconspicuous?"
She moistened dry lips. "I don't think that's a compliment."
"It's not, Liseriel the Gray, it's not." Veil-it, how did he know her name?
Michael's voice turned to ice and the point of the blade twisted, making her hiss with pain. "Unless you wish me to carve you a set of gill slits, you will remove your tail from around my leg. Now."
Her vision hazing with fury, Lise complied, but she did it as slowly as she dared.
The body behind her relaxed infinitesimally. Another chuckle, another hot chill. "You owe me recompense, Liseriel. You've been decidedly inconvenient."
"Good," she said through gritted teeth.
"Glad you agree," he said blandly, and her blood congealed.
Oh, shit, what--?
'A feather, I think."
Shock made her twist in his grasp, catching a glimpse of his shadowed profile, the sweep of extravagant lashes, underlined with a thin sweep of black, the dark hair tied back. "Veil-it, what do you want with a feather?"
This time, his amusement sounded genuine. "Use your imagination."
Lise choked, a scalding flush running up under her skin. Godsdammit, she couldn't remember the last time she'd blushed.
"Tell me," he purred. "Is it true Aetherii have no body hair?"
"Go to hell."
"After you, birdy. Now, which pretty feather do I want, hmm?"
Lise pressed her lips together. Being plucked hurt. Not that she'd give him the satisfaction of showing pain, the bastard. But he'd see the blood, and know.
Without warning, he shoved her toward the wall of a building. Instinctively, Lise braced herself with her hands, the stone cold and rough beneath her palms.
"Bring your left wing closer, my dear." The knife pressed almost lovingly against the large artery in her neck. "Slowly."
Grudging every movement, Lise shifted the wing.
"Don't breathe. Don't even twitch."
Michael's free hand stroked from her velvet-clad hip, up over her waist, her ribs, leaving a trail of the hot chills she'd noticed before. His fingertips traced all along the roots of her wings, curiosity and even wonderment in his touch. "You have openings in your coat. It's specially made?"
Lise snorted. "Of course."
Now he was stroking along her primaries, where the feathers were almost as long as his forearm. Lise began to tremble, furious at her own weakness.
"Sshh," he murmured absently, his fingers busy, examining each plume in turn. "I wish it wasn't so dark. I can't see the color variations properly. The closer they get to your body, the lighter they are. Are all your feathers gray?"
When she didn't answer, Michael took a step forward, pinning her between his unyielding body and the unforgiving wall. Her cheek pressed painfully into the stone.
"No," she gasped.
"Tell me then," he said impatiently, fingers still busy, testing, caressing.
Lise squeezed her eyes shut. Oh gods, he'd be wonderful at grooming, his touch both confident and sensual, not too light, not too firm. Aetherii groomed each other's plumage with featheroil on a regular basis, as a gesture of love or of friendship. But he couldn't know what it meant. He was a thief at best, an assassin at worst, self-confessed and unrepentant.
"All the grays from dark to very pale, then shading to cream, shading to... to..." She ran down, her breath giving out on her.
"Keep goin'." He tugged one feather gently, abandoned it and went on to the next. "Shading to what?"
She was going to choke to death on her embarrassment and rage. "P-pink."
When he snickered with delight, she wanted to kill him. His hips were jammed hard into her buttocks, the evidence of his interest now a red-hot brand against her. So he hadn't used the Hautlady. Perhaps.
Lise forced herself to be calm, to think. What did it matter if Michael found her feathers erotic? He wouldn’t be the first Grounded to be captivated by the sensual beauty of Aetherii plumage, not by a long way. They even had an ugly word for it - featherslut. If ever there was a time to use his distraction, it was now.
She drew a preparatory breath, but before she could take action, he said, "This one." A brisk tug and the feather came away in his hand without pain.
Thanks be to the Veil, he'd selected a plume she was about to lose anyway. She'd been going to treat herself to a long bath followed by a session with the featheroil on her return tonight. Michael had merely forestalled her to the tune of a single feather. A relieved breath whistled out of her before she could prevent it.
His hand appeared before her face, holding the feather. "Will this one have the cream and pink on it?"
Gods, was there no end to this humiliation? She nodded as best she could.
Michael leaned his entire weight against her, from hips to nape. Luxuriously, he ground his cock into the cleft of her buttocks. "I hope so, Liseriel the Gray, or by the Twister, I'll be back for one that does."
Another leisurely rub. "Unfortunately, my dear, I still have things to do."
Her hearts leaped, her fists clenching. The moment he drew back...
Long fingers caressed her neck, stroking, pressing. Harder and yet harder against a major artery. Merciless. No, no... Her vision dimmed. Shit, n-no...
"Goodnight, Liseriel the Gray." A chuckle. "Ye did right well, you know. For an amateur."
As the world swayed and darkened, those clever hands cradled her face, turning her away from the grit of the wall. Smiling lips pressed against hers, firm and soft together, flavored with expensive wine and something she couldn't define. Cynicism? Regret?
"Sleep tight, birdy."
Her knees loosened, but even as she struggled against the tide, Lise's last memory was of strong arms lowering her to the cobbles.
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