The flames had been singing to her, so loudly Cenda could almost catch the words. She tugged at the heavy fabric of her gown. Five-it, the small chamber was stifling! But Krysanthe had lit the fire with her own hands and closed the windows tight to keep out the night air. Outside, below the sill, lay the vegetable garden of the Wizards’ Enclave, the plants pushing slowly through the soil in the chilly dusk of early spring. She couldn’t stand having the healer cluck over her like an irritated hen. There’d been enough of that since—
Without taking her gaze from the flames, she shifted in the big shabby armchair, tucking her long, narrow feet under her, unlacing the front of her gown. She could let the fire die so the room cooled, but she didn’t want to.
No, no, keep the fire. Cenda ripped the gown off over her head. Absently, she tossed it aside. Beneath, her lanky body was clad in nothing more than a shift, worn thin and soft with frequent washings. Ah, that was better.
Resting an elbow on the broad arm of the chair, she propped her chin in her palm and returned to the contemplation of the cheery blaze. Yellow and orange ribbons leaped and writhed, dancing for her, crackling, hissing. Was that Elke’s high thread of a baby voice, singing a nonsense song? The one about the fishie in the lake. Are you lost, little fishie, are you lost? Where’s your mama, little fishie, where’s your mama?
They’d both liked that one, though not even a mother’s love could persuade Cenda her daughter had had anything but a tin ear.
Are you lost, little one? Where’d you go without your mama?
Cenda blinked, the tears sizzling on her cheeks. A log shifted and sparks leaped. She seemed to see Elke’s sturdy little body, running away from her, down that long shimmering tunnel, the curls bobbing, Booboo the furrybear toy clutched tight in one chubby hand.
Faithful Booboo. She didn’t need to turn her head even a fraction to locate him, because he sat on her pillow, keeping her company through the interminable nights.
In fact… Cenda uncurled her legs, wincing at her stiffness. How long had she been sitting before the fire? Shadows had pooled in the corners of the room. She rose and took two steps to the bed, almost upsetting the unlit lantern on the small side table in the process. Absently, she steadied it with one hand, even as she smoothed a palm over Booboo’s well-chewed ears. “Look, sweetie,” she whispered, picking him up and hugging him to her chest. She sank back into the sagging embrace of the chair. “There she almost is, my darling. Do you think I’m mad?”
Booboo refused to be drawn, so Cenda set him on her lap and leaned back, losing herself in the flames again. Yes, there was the curve of Elke’s cheek, the twist of a curl, fat little hands, fingers spread like a starryfish. In a strange way, the pain was welcome, the piercing agony of regret better than the odd numbness that had afflicted her for months, so that life went on around her, separated by a gray veil behind which people moved and spoke and existed. And touched her not at all.
A bright eye winked from the other side of a burning log. Cenda watched with complete attention, holding her breath. If she concentrated, she might see Elke’s face. A flame flickered like a tail, like an animal darting into the undergrowth. Cenda blinked. A tiny lizard lay on the log, its body sculpted of moving flame, miniscule claws gripping the charred wood.
“Oh,” she breathed, no more than the smallest exhalation.
The little creature tilted its head to one side, watching her carefully. Its eyes were the same shade of blue as the heart of flame.
Great Lady, what a sweet dream!
The seconds tiptoed past. From deep in the Enclave, Cenda heard the Moonsrise chant, the strange five-beat rhythm familiar, haunting. Her fellow wizards, the Pures, would be filing out into the twilight to raise the Dancers, to pay homage.
She hummed along under her breath. She could hold a tune, but only just. Choir Master used to insist she mime the more complex passages, but the flame beast didn’t seem to mind her vocal deficiencies. Its head bobbed and it crept closer along the burning log. “Pretty thing,” crooned Cenda, abandoning the chant, “sweet pretty thing.”
A second lizard crawled from between two glowing coals and Cenda’s smile widened, her fingers buried in Booboo’s fur. She was undoubtedly mad, but what did it matter? Singing softly, completely off-key, she gazed dreamily at her strange audience, her long body relaxed in the chair, one foot tapping time.
Now she had three, sitting on the tiles of the fireplace, each a jewel of flame, no longer than her middle finger. Steadily, they advanced, until the first reached the threadbare rug. At the first touch of a tiny claw, it began to smolder and Cenda laughed, the rusty sound so loud in the quiet room it startled her. “Watch the furnishings, little one.”
The fire lizard quivered, but held its ground. Then it made a dash for Cenda’s bare toes. She yelped and jerked, but she couldn’t move fast enough. A leap, a scramble and the little creature was sitting on her foot, hanging on with its talons, tail extended for balance.
Cenda froze. It didn’t burn. Sweet Lady, it didn’t burn!
That was— That was— She swallowed.
Pinpricks dug into her flesh, but the fire lizard’s body felt hot and smooth, like sun-warmed stone. Its little sides heaved and she could swear she felt its heartbeat flutter against the top of her foot. “Sshh,” she soothed. “Sshh. I won’t hurt you, I promise.”
Very slowly, she leaned down and extended her hand, the way she would to one of the Enclave’s cats. An excruciating pause and the creature stepped onto her longest finger, as delicately as a maiden lady. It paced across her palm, advancing until it reached her thundering pulse. There it lowered its head, nosed her skin. Apparently satisfied, it curled up in her palm and appeared to fall asleep.
“Goodness,” said Cenda, lowering her hand gingerly to her lap, next to Booboo. “Goodness.” How Elke would have loved them!
Sharp as a blade in the guts, it all came crashing back. My darling, oh my darling. My baby. A vise made of bitter regret closed around her chest. She couldn’t catch her breath.
Something tickled up the back of her calf. “Hey!”
The second lizard skittered over her knee and made a dash across her thigh, leaving a pitter-patter of scorched tracks on her shift. The third followed, right behind. Together, they made a leap for her forearm and curled around it, an improbable pair of exquisite bracelets. Completely bemused, Cenda watched their heads lift, the sapphire eyes glowing as they stared deep into her soul.
At her back, the latch clicked. A brisk voice said, “Five-it, Cenda, what do you think you’re doing? It’s freezing and you’re sitting in your— Aaaargh!”
* * * * *
Grayson of Concordia, known in a hundred dives on a hundred worlds as the Duke of Ombra, lay naked in the velvet dark, long fingers wrapped around his aching erection. Temptation besieged him.
It was never as good as when Shad did it.
He’d held out against Shad’s cool touch for almost a year this time, since long before he’d arrived on the small, crowded world of Sybaris.
Which was why he’d closed the rickety shutters and drawn the dusty curtains right across. No shadow could exist in darkness this total—Shad couldn’t exist.
He wouldn’t have to look at him, a man-shaped slice of midnight stretching over the floor and up the wall of the cheap inn room. He wouldn’t have to feel the shadow Magick smear his soul, remember the horror in his mother’s eyes that sunny winter’s day on the way home from Devotions, the first time she’d seen his shadow move.
All by itself.
The flick of her fingers in a warding gesture, her choked whisper. “Abomination!”
But his body didn’t care. It was never as good as when Shad did it.
Infinitely preferable to take care of his own needs. He slid his fingers up and down, dragging the satiny skin over the blood-engorged hardness beneath, his balls drawing up in anticipation.
Noises filtered up from the street below. Stumbling footsteps, a wandering, reedy tenor, clearly affected by alcohol. A woman spoke sharply, the singer grunted as if in pain or shock, a door banged. Gods, what a place!
Likely she’d been right, his mother.
Looking back, he’d done so many murky things to stay alive—starting with the price he’d paid to stow away at fourteen. His mouth twisted. His coltish, raw-boned beauty had proved a useful commodity, but Judger God, it had hurt! And it had soiled his soul, all the way to the bedrock of his masculinity. Perhaps it was fortunate he hadn’t got his full-growth ‘til later or he would have killed the first mate. He didn’t know any more.
And now— He gripped the threadbare covers. His breath came a little faster. The inn was perfect for his purposes, for all that it was so shabby, only a short walk from the Wizards’ Enclave. She would be there now. Sleeping, unaware. His commission on the pleasure planet had begun.
Gray’s lip curled. Pleasure planet! He knew he was fastidious, but he’d never seen such a slattern of a world. Whores for every taste, every purpose. All sexes, all colors, all ages. A tawdry smorgasbord of misery and sleaze.
The Technomage Primus of Sybaris had a commission for him and she wasn’t renowned for her patience. A kidnap. The target was reputed to be a fire witch, though he’d never heard of such a thing. Ah shit, why did it have to be a woman? But conscience was a luxury he couldn’t afford, not if he wanted his dream, his life whole and clean.
A double game, a game of dodge and deceit and shadow. Ah, but he walked a razor’s edge of risk!
The tension had destroyed his erection. One problem solved. Gods, he needed air! With a sigh, he rolled toward the window, reaching out to pull the curtains and push the shutter wide. A few hours ago, he’d grabbed an ale jug and climbed up six flights of narrow stairs to the flat roof of the building so he could watch the dusk draw down over Sybaris. Ironically, the lights scattered below shone like glittering baubles, jewels in the velvet dark. But he knew what lay concealed beneath the kindly cloak of night—an endless stretch of teeming, festering cities, gambling hells, brothels and taverns. The single dark patch on the far horizon was Remnant One, fifty square miles of the last native feather forest. Remnant Two, renowned for the exquisite beauty of the Rainbow Lakes, wasn’t visible.
A Technomage flitter hummed past, skimming a couple of hundred feet above the slums, a sleek winged shape across the face of the moon. The first of the Dancers, the five famous moons of Sybaris, had risen already, high and silver over the planet’s blowsy shoulder, ribbons of light streaming into the narrow room and over Gray’s lean bare torso. He sensed movement behind him. Ignored it. Which moon was that? Arabesque?
A cool fingertip touched the back of his thigh, almost shyly.
Gray reared up, so quickly the bed frame creaked in protest.
His shadow lay behind him, half on the bed, half on the floor. As he watched, it coalesced, gaining density until it sat up, next to his hip. Shit, not now! Why was it Shad was at his strongest when Gray felt unclean? When he felt wrong?
“No! I don’t want—”
The eyeless, featureless head turned toward him, a black silhouette against the wall. His straight blade of a nose, the lock of hair that fell over his brow, the stubborn jut of his chin. Yes, you do. Not even a whisper in his mind, more like a thought, suddenly apparent, seeming to spring from nowhere, the way thoughts did.
Gray came up on his elbows and glared down the length of his body, knowing what he’d see. No more than a blink and he’d swelled again, his shaft so high and full and fat, it strafed his navel, barely quivering. A shadowy hand reached for it, the fingers closing over him with absolute certainty.
Gray grunted, with shock and horror and pleasure. Shad’s grip was cool, smooth, hard.
Fuck, it was always perfect! How could it not be, when Shad was the other part of himself? The worst part, the darkest part, the soiled underbelly of his soul he tried so desperately not to expose.
Gray grabbed for his shadow’s wrist, even as a slick palm cradled his scrotum and a knowing thumb rasped over the sweet spot under the head of his cock. The seed boiled, pressing hard against tender skin. “Stop,” he groaned. “Stop!”
We need. Shad pumped, exquisitely deft, milking and squeezing exactly the way he liked. Both of us. His shaft slipped through the black fist, appearing and reappearing, the ruddiness of lust washed pale by the moonlight.
Gray arched and shook, helpless, fingers gripping the bed clothes. Ah fuck, it was fine! Fuck, fuck, fuck! His brain gone foggy and slow, he thought, Once, just this once, then never again. I promise, I’ll be good, I’ll—
A confident fingertip slipped between the cheeks of his ass and the thought shattered, lost in a maelstrom of physical sensation. With a choked cry, the Duke of Ombra spurted all over his stomach, the orgasm so brutal, so gorgeous, only his head and heels touched the mattress.
Ah, Judger God. Tears stood in his eyes.
Gray fell back panting on the pillows, one arm thrown over his eyes. A whisper of movement and a soft cloth swiped across his belly, cleaning him as if he were an infant. Get the fuck away from me, he rasped.
Because— Shit! Gray snatched the cloth and waved Shad away.
His shadow retreated a few steps. You’ll miss me.
Gray snarled. Like hell I will.
Squeezing his eyes shut, he thought of old Deiter standing in the precise center of his tower room in Nakarion City on Concordia, the chalk lines glowing an eerie green on the polished floor.
“I can cure you of your shadow, Grayson, my friend,” the wizard had murmured in his cracked old man’s voice, shrewd eyes gleaming with gentle malice. “But it will cost.” And he’d named a price that made Gray’s blood congeal. His very soul to save his soul. A bargain with the devil.
His mind gone quiet and clear, the way it used to do in battle, he’d stepped forward, scuffing the lines on the floor, chest to chest with the old wizard. He’d wrapped his fingers in Deiter’s tripartite beard and hauled him up until they were nose to nose. “Deiter,” he’d said, almost tenderly, “if you’re lying to me, I will kill you.” A little shake. “Do you understand?”
“Yes.” The old man’s breath smelled of wine. “But you’re not a killer.”
Gray bared his teeth. “Not by inclination, no. But I’ve done almost everything in my time. I was a mercenary before I was a musician. Play me false and I won’t hesitate.”
Releasing his grip, a finger at a time, he stepped back, leaving the wizard standing. He threaded his way through the cluttered room—the rows of jars containing strange floating objects, the bundles of dried herbs, the skeleton on a stand, the grimoires shackled to the dusty desk. It reminded him of a stage set for a rustic pantomime—Wizard’s Lair. Wondering where Deiter did the real work, he turned at the door for a last glare. “Remember, old man. Don’t cross me.”
“Don’t be foolish.” Deiter straightened his robes with an irritated rustle and flapped a hand. “Begone.”
And they had gone, he and the Duchess, his antique lap harp, all the way to Sybaris, holiday destination for the crass and gullible, happy playground for the criminally inclined.
To play the double game. Dodge and deceit and shadow.
|Four-Sided Pentacle Universe:|
|Kaminski Family Stories:|
The Amorous Adventures of Alice
Rackety Kate and the Pirates
© 2009 Denise Rossetti
Rose graphic courtesy of Corbis