From his magnificent tawny wings to his wicked feathery tail, Miriliel the Burnished is masculine perfection.
Book 2 in the Phoenix Rising series
Ellora's Cave, 2007
The woman who swept into the candlelit jewel-box of a bedroom was beautiful.
So was the naked man chained against the wall.
Gathering her brocaded skirts in one slim hand, the woman swished across the room to face him. The diamond chips set in the high heels of her evening slippers sparkled in the buttery light of the candles.
"At last," she murmured in a husky contralto. Her painted lips curved with satisfaction. "Let me look at you properly, you precious thing."
Humming under her breath, she shrugged off her fur wrap and let it pool on the rug. The pelt was so deep and thick it quivered as though it still lived. She picked up a branched candlestick from the elegant dressing table and raised it high.
The blaze of light washed the snowy white of his flesh with gold, but it couldn't soften the uncompromising masculinity of muscle and bone. A silky sweep of jet black hair contrasted sharply with the alabaster solidity of his shoulder.
The woman stared, her gaze avid, the creamy mounds of her splendid breasts rising and falling in the décolletage of her gown. "An Aetherii," she breathed. "I almost thought they didn't exist." She glanced at a sheet of vellum lying on the dresser, frowning over the elaborate, illuminated script. "Jan-Jan-arn-gods, what a mouthful - Janarnavriel the Noir." A pink, pointed tongue crept out to moisten her lips as her eyes caressed his ridged belly, lingered over his genitals. "Well, however you say it, you're perfect."
The Aetherii raised his chin, resting the back of his skull against the crimson velvet draping the wall. He glared, his pupils huge, inky black in the pale, brutal beauty of his features. Dazed. A pulse beat rapidly under the pure white skin of his throat. He coughed and a chain clinked as he moved. "F**k you," he rasped. Though his voice was rough with pain and rage, the underlying tone had the resonance of a bell, cool and sweet.
The woman's smile widened and her face lit with delight. "Oh, don't worry. You will." She stepped right up to his body and trailed her fingers over the curve of a biceps and up onto his massive shoulder. "I wanted you both, you know." Her sigh gusted over his throat. "You looked so pretty, standing there together, you and your friend."
Every muscle in the man's body went taut. The woman hummed under her breath. "A matched set. You cool as ice, him--" She broke off and glanced at the vellum. "Miriliel the Burnished." Her giggle was oddly girlish, flirtatious. "What ridiculous names. But it suited him. Fire to your ice. Ah well." She shrugged, watching him intently from beneath her lashes. "Pity he's dead."
The Aetherii's head jerked round and he snapped at her neck, growling deep in his throat. Almost casually, the woman moved the candlestick she held in her other hand. Flame seared over his ribs and he flinched, swearing. The chains rattled. She licked her lips.
"Don't try that again," she said mildly, "or I'll cause you real pain." Her gaze lifted to fix on a point above him on the wall. "Magnificent."
Flaring above his shoulders, his wings arched, a glossy blue-black against the blood-red of the wall. As the woman reached out to rub a feather between her fingers, his plumage rippled in a long, rustling shudder of revulsion. His face twisted.
The woman laughed aloud and there was music in the sound. "Get used to it," she said. "You're mine."
"No," he snarled. He twisted his hips and like a whip made of muscle, two feet of tail flicked out to clamp over her wrist, bearing the candlestick down toward the floor.
The woman's breath came a little faster, but her expression of amusement didn't change. Wax dripped on the priceless rug. "Did you think I didn't know about your pretty tail?" she said. "All I have to do is wait. The more you fight the potion, the faster it works."
The Aetherii's jaw set so hard his teeth clinked. His black, tufted brows drew together in concentration, but slowly, the woman forced her arm upward. The dark eyes began to cloud, though he fought the drug with grim determination.
The woman freed herself and set the candlestick aside. Stepping forward, she slapped his cheek so hard his head rocked with the impact. "Not yet, sweetheart, not yet," she purred. "I'm singing tonight and I need..." She shrugged, smiling. "Well, what can I say? Call me greedy, but I've never seen such a tempting morsel."
Crooning deep in her throat, she drew a fingernail over the winged man's chest, between the slabs of pectoral muscle, detouring to circle a pale pink nipple. It peaked hard under her touch and she chuckled. "So responsive. The apothecary told me the addition of an aphrodisiac wouldn't kill a man if he were strong enough. And you are, aren't you, darling?"
The woman spread her fingers over his belly and pressed herself into his ribs, as confiding as a lover. Horror dawning in his eyes, the man looked down. Startlingly pale against the black downy feathers in his groin, his c*ck was swelling, filling. It rose and rose, a column of living ivory in the candle light. The smooth, domed head flushed the same delicate pink as his nipples, echoing the color of the plump balls drawn up tight between his thighs.
"No," he croaked. "By the Veil, no!" He thrashed in the chains, the muscles of his arms and shoulders writhing, his wings extending to their full span, almost the width of the room. Black feathers scraped across crimson velvet, their power constrained, desperate.
"By the Veil, yes," she mocked, patting his cheek. "What's the matter, precious?"
"You're cold," he whispered, his face blank with shock, a sickly grey undertone tingeing his alabaster skin. Blood trickled from under the manacles on his thick wrists and ran down his forearms but he remained fiercely erect. "Cold as the icy hells."
"Ah, well." She twinkled at him. "Now I've got you to keep me warm."
"Who? Who are--?" His eyes rolled. Doggedly, he shook his head.
"I'm Belladonna," she said, preening. "You will have heard of me."
As consciousness faded, the Aetherii made a supreme effort. He sneered. "Can't say I...have." Abruptly, he sagged in his chains.
The Ten Nations Fair:
The oldest and largest of the traveling fairs, operated by a population of several hundred Travelers. (See Travelers - Society and Religion) The Fair offers a diverse range of entertainments, prominent among which are a circus, a tavern and various sideshows. Despite a dubious reputation, there is much to enjoy for the visitor with his wits about him.
Excerpt from the Great Encyclopedia, compiled by Miriliel the Burnished.
Fledge stared at the pile of corpses. She took her under lip between her teeth, using the tiny pain to control her nausea. By Lufra, she loathed meat detail, but carnivores had to eat and SpurSergeant had paid the charnel house a whole bronze mark. Besides, you couldn't argue with a Hssrdan and expect to keep your fingers. Despite its age, SpurSergeant's armored jaw was powerful enough to crush bone.
Trying not to breathe, she rubbed her nose and turned to her hulking companion. "Bruise, do you think that one's big enough?" She indicated the nearest body, a dead herdbeast so decrepit, every rib showed under the battered hide.
Bruise grunted, his usual form of communication. With grim efficiency, he let down the tail of the cart and bent to sink long meat hooks into the animal's hocks, one after the other. Fledge winced. Fang and Mist, the Fair's fellwolves, were the most magnificent creatures in the world. She'd given them a piece of her wary heart when they'd been brought in as pups, two bedraggled bundles of fur with terrified eyes. Now they stood as high as her shoulder, their superb pelts shining with health.
But at times like this, she wished they liked vegetable stew.
The winch on the cart creaked and Bruise swore with the effort, his thick shoulders bunching as he took the strain, his features contorting so he looked more like a gargoyle than ever. The herdbeast lurched and slid, its stiff limbs waving horribly at the sky, the broad, bony skull bobbing.
What was that? It looked like... Waving a humming cloud of bitemes aside, Fledge took a step forward. A soft cry jerked out of her.
Beneath the herdbeast lay a highhunter, its glorious wings spread in a pathetic arc, completely limp. The very size of the raptor was awe-inspiring. It had to be three times bigger than any she'd ever seen, even when the Fair had traveled through the Mountains of Morn. Blood and dirt splattered its plumage, dulling what had once been the sheen of vibrant color - amber, russet, glowing apricot, smooth terracotta - all the hues of the living earth.
"Oh, no!" She'd always adored animals. Highhunters might be merciless predators, but they never pretended to be anything they weren't. Unlike people. Her heart turned over with rage and pity. What an ignominious end for a lord of the air. Heedless of the stinking mud, Fledge sank to her knees beside the corpse and stretched out a hand to smooth a cruelly twisted flight feather.
She saw an elbow.
Blinking, she froze. No, that couldn't be right.
Heart banging against her ribs, she leaned forward and gently moved the huge wing aside, the barest inch. It was heavy, rigid in death, and beneath it was a forearm. Attached to that was a hand, the long fingers curled loosely into the palm, seemingly in supplication.
Sweet Lufra, there was a man buried beneath the bird!
"Bruise!" Frantically, she began tugging on the wing, but for all her compact strength, nothing happened until Bruise lumbered over to add his weight to hers.
With a soggy thud, the raptor's body rolled over and the man's came with it.
Fledge let out a shriek. Bruise grunted as if he'd been gut-punched.
The wings grew out of the man's back, arching out of the massive musculature of his shoulders. Gods, they were a part of him!
Fledge squeezed her eyes shut. Bruise's rolling growl was a cross between a prayer and a curse. When she opened them again, he was squatting, peering at the man's - the creature's - chest. "Stabbed," he rumbled. "Heart. See?"
It was a fine chest, broad and strong, scattered with a fine down of tawny feathers instead of hair, but marred by a single puncture wound under the left nipple. A runnel of dark, clotted blood snaked its way over the unmoving ribs like a river on the way to nowhere in particular. Unspeakable filth smeared his skin and clotted the curtain of hair that shielded his face. It was light in color, perhaps brown, but so dirty it was impossible to tell.
Gingerly, Fledge laid her fingertips on the curve of a biceps. She gasped and snatched her hand back. The muscle was as hard as chilled marble. She stared at the long body, biting her lip, fighting the sting of tears. Why she should grieve she didn't know. He must be some sort of demon - wings, for Lufra's sake!
But he was beautiful. Even limp and dead, covered with stinking muck, his body was the very essence of masculinity. Slowly, her gaze traveled from the sumptuous plumage to the heavy bands of muscle on his chest, the ridged belly and trim hips. And lower.
Fledge's breath hitched. His c*ck was limp too, lying across a hard, hairless thigh. Defenseless. Nonetheless, Veryl would have been beside himself with envy. She pressed her lips together against the old hurt. Veryl could go to the outermost hell, the one reserved for utter bastards.
She shifted her gaze to his legs, sliding over muscled thighs and graceful calves, long narrow feet. There seemed to be no end to him. He'd tower over her, wrap her up.
She shook her head. Foolish Fledge. The man - creature - whatever - was dead. Gone.
Frowning, she pushed a brown curl behind her ear. It didn't matter what he was, she couldn't leave him on the butcher's pile, a fallen angel reduced to dead meat. She rose, shaking out her tattered skirts. This was what she wore when she worked in the menagerie and she thanked Lufra for her foresight. The hem was already brown with muck.
Steeling herself against the touch of the cold, clammy flesh, she bent and wrapped her fingers as far round his ankles as they'd go. "Bruise, please. Help me?"
The big man's grunt came out a decided negative. Fledge turned, her heart sinking. Bruise was part roustabout, part bouncer, all muscle, but he was nowhere near as stupid as he looked and he was about as biddable as a mountain.
She sighed, though she took care to hide it. Bruise had no reason to pay her any attention. She was less than nothing, just small, brown Fledge.
His heavy brow creased. "Demon," he pointed out. "Dead."
Carefully, she lowered the winged man's feet and straightened, marshalling her forces. "What would Naretta want us to do?" she asked, staring into her companion's small, dark eyes.
"Naretta?" Bruise was expressionless, considering. As far as Fledge was aware, Naretta was the only person in the world for whom Bruise had any regard whatsoever. But then, the Fair's beasthealer was his mother.
"She wouldn't leave him here." That she knew without a doubt. Naretta cared for all living creatures, with a clear-eyed love that had no illusions. Naretta would treat this, this - person - with dignity. "Look at him!" she flung out an arm. "Bruise, he's as human as you and me." She took a step forward and gripped a handful of the big man's shirt. "He's been tossed aside as if he didn't matter. But everyone matters! Everyone!"
Bruise stared down. She swallowed, feeling herself flushing scarlet. Goddess, he must think she was mad! Fledge, the story witch, was a small, quiet presence in the Fair, careful never to raise her voice, never to put herself forward. A finger at a time, she released her grip, smoothed the creases with a quick pat. Moderating her tone, she murmured, "I can't leave him, it's just not decent. It'll be dark soon." She risked a glance at his impassive face, her voice firming. "And if I don't come home, Naretta will come looking for me," she said. "You know she will."
Lufra only knew how Bruise's thought processes worked. After an interminable pause, he grunted, slid his meaty hands under the corpse's shoulders and heaved. Then he backed up the tail gate, the man's wings tangling around his boots and getting snagged on the sides of the cart. Fledge was left to take the weight of the long legs. With scant ceremony, Bruise dumped the body next to the herdbeast on the floor of the cart and clambered on to the driver's seat. As Fledge landed breathlessly beside him, he gathered up the reins and urged the sturdy herdbeast between the shafts into motion.
She twisted in the seat to look at her charge, her head buzzing with plans. The Fair was camped on the outskirts of the island city of Valaressa, spread out over four acres of Crown property on the mainland. SpurSergeant had paid dearly for the privilege, but in the Kingdom of the Leaves of the Sea, Valaressa was the jewel, a city of shining white towers, blue canals and smiling vice. It reeked of profit and the traveling folk loved it.
A Traveler's funeral. Ay, that was it. The cleansing flames. But they'd have to get it done quickly. If SpurSergeant found out... Fledge shivered as the cart lurched on to the bridge connecting the Leaf of the Butchers to the Leaf of the Tailors. The man's head lolled on his shoulders. His skull struck the side of the cart with a solid thunk, forcing a soft cry out of her throat.
Before she knew it, Fledge had vaulted into the cart, slid down and lifted his head into her lap. The curtain of hair fell back, exposing his features for the first time and she stared, poleaxed.
She'd never seen such perfection, would never have believed it could exist.
Shining through the grime and the blood, every feature was clear-cut and elegant - the straight, proud nose, the high, aristocratic cheekbones, the flaring arch of the strange, tufted brows, the long jaw. His skin was grey, his lips corpse pale, but, ah Lufra, he was beautiful! Gently, she brushed a lock of hair aside. His ear was neat and small, sitting close to his skull. It came to a delicately rounded point at the top.
Unearthly, that's what he was, like a work of art. She had to take him back, if only for Naretta to see him. The beasthealer would be enthralled.
Tears filled her eyes and she rebuked herself. Would her heart ache so, if he'd been as ugly as Bruise? Beauty gave one an unfair advantage, even in death. Her fingers moved in his filthy hair.
The cart rattled off the final bridge and swung on to the excellent road that led to the estate where the Fair was camped. The dead man's head rolled into her belly even though they were traveling smoothly. Then again.
His eyes snapped open.
Fledge squeaked in shock.
They were raptor's eyes, large and dark and round. Each iris was rimmed with a ring of yellow as hard as topaz.
His hand rose and clamped over hers, crushing bones. His gaze devoured her. The perfectly sculpted lips opened. "Nnngh," he said.
She could see him struggling to focus on her face. "Sshh," she murmured foolishly. "Sshh. It's all right." He groaned and his lids slid shut. Released from that compelling stare, Fledge drew a breath of relief.
As she did so, a snake coiled itself around her ankle.
Frantically, she hiked her skirts up so she could see what had attacked her. Her jaw dropped. "Holy Lufra!"
She couldn't believe the evidence of her senses. Firm and silky and strong as a cable, there was a tail coiled round her leg. It was feathered all along, a sleek, short covering, almost like scales, but the last six inches were clothed in a luxuriant tuft of longer feathers, mahogany shading to a lighter russet on the tip. Completely bemused, she ran her palm over it, her skin tingling with the smoothness, the strangeness. Her gaze traveled up its length, to where it disappeared under the man's - the creature's - buttocks.
The world teetered on its axis for a moment. Then it rocked back into place. But somehow, everything had changed profoundly.
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© 2009 Denise Rossetti
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