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Category: Erotica/Erotic Fantasy/Romance
Description: Odan can't imagine a woman less suited to this mission, but he is reluctantly impressed with how hard she works to succeed at it. Delicate, haughty, with aggressive and decidedly fiery tendencies, she's not his type. Until she is. Vivienne has hidden her true self for years, afraid to lose control of her future. As Odan strips away her masks one by one, she is surprised to discover she loves the world he opens up. He's maddening, but tender, with a sexy, solid strength. Vivienne and Odan both know the burdens of leadership, living lonely lives of power and isolation. As they train together, their respect for one another grows ? as does their attraction. Furiously working to bring down the lizard birds terrorizing the Cities, they make a beautiful, deadly pair. This enrages the darkmages who control the birds. Vivienne will have to flare brighter than she ever has before, even if it burns all her disguises away.
eBook Publisher: Atlantic Bridge/Liquid Silver Books, 2010
eBookwise Release Date: July 2010
55 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [472 KB]
Reading time: 307-430 min.
One week since Spirit Within
Odan faced the delicate woman with deep misgiving, making no attempt to hide his unease. She stood in the center of a midday sunbeam shining with stunning force through the diamond-paned crystal windows. Of course, she must have posed there on purpose. Her outfit was a study of rich orange, canary yellow, cloth-of-gold, and the chocolate fur of ... watercoasters. He held down a growl, closing the door behind him softly. Silence ruled as he waited. Deep within, his groundbear awoke, lifting his pointed snout and scratching uneasily. Groundbear always ignored humans. Odan's misgiving deepened into dread.
"You look less than excited to meet me, Skymage Odan." The Flame Curate Vivienne moved with a rustle of silk and velvet over the thick, jewel-toned carpets. Away from him, thankfully.
He stayed put by the deeply carved door, stained dark with age. He had no intention of engaging his new partner if she attacked. Was she trying to test him? Retreat would be the wiser course if it came to that. "Your eyes are bleeding green with your magecraft, Lady. I would have concern for any potential partner I met showing such a lack of control." Keeping his balance ready, he tracked her slow drift toward the apparatus-laden table warily.
"My eyes have looked thus since I was ten. I assure you, I have total control. You'll have to quiet your concern and take my word for my honor. Just as I will quell my concern about partnering with a man who presents himself so disrespectfully." She paused before a crucible set of glass vials and piping. It was well-used, murky with residue and reeking of metals. "If we fail this assignment, both our peoples will suffer from the split this will force between us. Yet you stand there insultingly half-dressed."
His stomach twisted and danced with dismay. Fuck. She was one of those. Human to a precise degree, and more concerned with protocol than efficiency.
He decided not to touch the most serious dig in her little diatribe, the one about taking someone's word for their honor. His people defined honor, were assigned by her Royal family to patrol her people's lack of it, but he wouldn't assert his to her. There was no reason to be defensive. "The Truxet are not human, Flame Curate. It is best you learn that right now. I do not follow your ways. At times, I do not even follow your laws. By judging me through your own standards of culture, you insult me. You've had two days to prepare for this duty. And yet I see you are utterly unprepared to partner with me. Have you ever even spoken with a Trux before?"
Her fingers were long and pale as they measured black sand into a cup the size of his big toe. "Of course I have." She set the cup down with a thump. "Indeed I have."
Odan couldn't believe she'd turned her back on him. It could be an insult or poor tactics, but either way, it did not reflect well on her.
She'd gone completely still, as if frozen. Even her hair was hidden by some sort of stiff veil. Was she trying to appear like crowned royalty? Or was she frightened of him?
Her hand clasped the edge of the table so tightly he could hear her knuckles crack. She turned. "Your representative has met with our High Guild. Clothed." She barely restrained a sneer.
The Trux representative to the Mage Guild, Rafe, a bear and earthmage, lived in the Royal City much of the year. For this meeting, he'd traveled to Second City's northern forests to assist. He'd met with Odan just briefly to share what he knew about his new partner, High Guild Flame Curate Vivienne. Rafe told him she was haughty, powerful, and fiercely intelligent. Since all of those things applied to any member of the High Guild, Odan had rolled his eyes at the man. Laughing, Rafe added she was a chemist, and gorgeous. Odan didn't see her beauty, personally. Even presented as a fiery jewel in a glistening display, her power-drenched eyes and cold arrogance dominated his perception.
"Tomorrow I'll take you into the field. I will give you a book, and highly recommend you read it before we leave. Just as you are dressed to display your position, I am as well. If you understood my people, this serious and arduous partnership would go more smoothly."
"Are you implying you understand mine? From the distance of your mountains and caves? Shall I give you a book as well?" Her full lips quirked, openly mocking him.
Gritting his teeth, he restrained himself from name calling so early in their relationship. "I would happily read your assigned book. Anything to assist this mission." He was proud his words came out so mild, making hers seem all the more viperish.
She sniffed and stalked to a bookcase. Reaching for a thick binding on a low shelf, she blew the dust from it. Not a favorite of hers, then. She held it out to him, imperiously summoning him to her position. When he merely looked at her, she raised one thin, arched brow. Fuck. Remember the mission. Forcing himself to settle down, he advanced past the table littered with apparatus and reeking of poison to take it from her white hand.
Glancing at it, he offered it back. "I've read The Royal History of the Kingdom of the Seven Cities."
He stepped next to her, deliberately standing shoulder to shoulder with her. She shrank from him, shifting away. He glanced quickly over the titles. The shelf at eye level was all herbalist and chemist tomes, the upper seemed to be general books on firemagery, and along the bottom, the usual collection of patriotic and historical fare.
He squatted. He smelled cleanser on her hands, a light, herbal ladies' lotion, and a faint whiff of burning telling him she'd probably been experimenting before meeting him, despite her Court robes. Groundbear was agitated at her proximity, turning in a tight circle inside him. His nose twitched, but he couldn't quite grasp what was wrong with her overall scent when he was working to read so quickly.
He tapped each spine. "Major Battles of King Tomas, The Illustrated Guide to the Extended Royal Family, The Marriages of the Royal Family for Both Love and Power, The Collected Set of the Seven Cities' Guild History, Geography of the Seven Cities ... ah." He paused, pulling one from the shelf. "This is one I haven't read." He stood, and she took an even larger step back. It was petty, but he was pleased after her little display of attitude in making him come to her. He slanted it, showing her the cover. "Will this aid me in understanding your people?"
She glanced at the cover, and he despised how the flowing mist of green mage power obscured her feelings. She may as well as have been wearing a mask, the way the haze shifted and writhed over her eyes. The title read Etiquette and Procedure for Husband Hunting. She blushed, then her full lips quirked, and unlike before, the tilt was charming. For the first time he glimpsed a likable woman.
"Yes, that would do." She turned and moved back to her laboratory table. "You may send yours to my private rooms." Her voice grew distant and stiff again. "I've arranged for us to share the evening meal together. I thought we could discuss our plans for the next three days. And it is three days of preparation I agreed to, not one."
Fighting to keep his face blank, he tucked the book under his arm, understanding he was being dismissed. In the middle of the afternoon, with four hours yet until the evening meal. Despite the fact another attack was likely imminent.
He knew she wouldn't bend, but he couldn't stop himself from stating the need. "The afternoon--"
"Is scheduled. I'm a very busy woman."
Setting his jaw, he strode to the door, his gaze jumping about the opulent room. The thickly cushioned seats, the gem-encrusted mosaic set above an exquisitely tiled fireplace that burned with real flames, not magelight. Traveling with this woman would be a nightmare. Before he bullied her into actually working with him, he needed to take Rafe by the ear and figure out if there was anyone remotely more appropriate for such a critical, violent mission.
He reached for the golden doorknob, and her voice stopped him.
He turned to face her, spine stiff, shoulders squared for whatever parting salvo she was sure to offer. She'd moved to the window, and the stark summer sun there made her seem a statue. Her profile was doll-like, her features fine, regular and small. Her lashes lit gold, and for the first time, he wondered what color her hair was under that fur and tapestry headdress. It draped her forehead, behind her ears, and down the middle of her back. Her brows were light brown, but with those pale eyelashes, her hair could be many colors.
She didn't look at him when she spoke. "What bothered you about my dress, when you first came in?"
He blinked, truly shocked she had the honesty and confidence to discuss his initial reaction. There had been many things bothering him about his first impression. Her eyes glowing with power. His summoning to her territory for this introduction. The way she'd vainly arranged herself in a natural spotlight. The unseemly wealth he cared nothing for. Her expectation that he would submit to her superior ways, and her faulty priorities, worrying about her schedule when nothing was more important than stopping the growing advance of the darkmages. He chose one, rather than the whole crushing truth. "You trimmed yourself in the skin of the animal of one of our Clans."
She looked at him, startled. The sharp, bright green swirled across her eyes. Her slender fingers feathered into the thick, soft band at one wrist. "It is?"
That she didn't even know the name of the fur she wore eased something in him, even as it exasperated. "It is the fur of a watercoaster."
She stroked it, contemplating it sadly. "I love to watch the river wolves. They seem to have two natures in one body. They are playful, coasting and frolicking in water, and yet also deadly, skilled hunters who work in a pack. But their fur seems so oily and slick when I see them."
"It is oily when wet." City-bound humans were so blind to the Wild's ways, it pained him. Yet her observations cut to the heart of truth regarding one of the more human-friendly Clans, and he was impressed she could see them clearly. Many only saw adorable innocence in watercoasters, which was entirely inaccurate. All of the eleven Truxet Clans were predators.
She nodded. "Are the matching creatures of your ... Clans, sacred then? Not to be hunted?"
"The animals who are cousin to our beastspirits are not sacred. But we also do not hunt them for food, sport, or fur. Sometimes for necessity, if they decide to settle too near a clanhome, but mostly we respectfully let them be."
She walked forward, so controlled under her floor-length dress she seemed to float. Moving right up to within a bodylength of him, she stopped. It was positively bizarre, how her eyes glowed and shifted with rising, raw power. They'd been like this since she was a child? It made her seem like some quivering magebeast about to explode into action at any moment, unstable and unpredictable. If she was a youngling in his Clan, he'd reprimand her. Actually, he remembered he had scolded her, and it hadn't worked.
"What Clan are you?"
Shock lanced through him. "You weren't told?"
She shook her head. "Rafe assures me your people want this mission to succeed as much as ours, so I assume you are a highly trained skymage."
He debated whether or not to tell her his status as Champion. And decided she likely wouldn't respect a title not of her culture anyway. More gently, he added, "Our Clans are such a part of us we never introduce ourselves without naming them. I have been remiss."
He gave her the respectful woman's greeting of his people, tucking his chin, and bowing his shoulders by folding in from high on his waist. "I am Odan, a Groundbear, and a Council Skymage." His Council status was why he was skirted and bare-chested, although he was well aware most men wore shirts in the Cities. Quite frankly, his clothes had been the last thing on his mind.
When he lifted, she seemed to be searching his face, studying him for the first time. He returned the look, noting her rounded cheeks, her tiny, perfectly formed blunt nose, delicate jaw, and large eyes with light lashes. Her brows were elegant arches, her skin flawless but too pale. The only unsophisticated thing about her was her wide mouth. It would have dominated her face if not for her eerie eyes. The lips were plump, pouting, and deeply curved to the point of lushness.
He knew she would see no matching polish on his face. He was tan, although not darkly so, and scarred, at a few places on his left cheek, his chin, and across his lower lip. His hair never lay straight, and like most groundbears, wasn't particularly silky. It was more bushy and frizzy, the color of oak bark, a grayish-brown. His eyes were nice, women said, easily shifting from blue to gray. Standing three handspans taller than her, she had to tip her head back to look up at him, even at her distance.
"I don't know what that animal is."
Her hesitant offering was an apology for the whole sorry meeting. He bowed to her again, accepting it, and offering his own. "I will send a drawing with the woman's guide to your room, if you'd like." And when she found out his beastspirit was a gritty burrower, she would no doubt be appalled.
She nodded, again hesitantly, like she wasn't sure she wanted to see it after all. He waited, but she didn't say anything else, so he held back a sigh of irritation and said simply, "I'll see you at dinner." Maybe. Unless he could get her unassigned.
He left, and this time she didn't stop him.
Striding through the narrow, wooden halls of this grand Mage Guild compound in Second City, he managed to work off only some of his irritation by the time he blew into Rafe's room.
"Rafe! This is a disaster. She's worse than a pampered princess. How on earth did you agree to this? Just because she's at the top of their political rank doesn't mean she's the best person for the duty."
Rafe looked up from the table where he sat looking at a letter, drinking tea. His handsome young face showed initial surprise, but softened into amusement. Vivienne would approve of his velvet jacket, fitted to his wide shoulders, and his fine woolen trousers. He even wore a jeweled ring on one hand, a human affect. "There wasn't anything to agree to. The High Guild was presented with our Council's petition to hunt the beebees in the City, and they insisted on assigning one of their own to the venture. They outmaneuvered us when they had Vivienne assigned by personal Royal decree. Unless we wanted a lengthy political war by challenging the decision, we had to agree."
"What were they thinking! That proper lady in battle! The first time she sees a beebee, she'll cry. Or yell at it for not being properly dressed." Pacing to the tea set, he poured a cup and gulped it down. The dry, herbal taste was unfamiliar, vaguely bitter.
Rafe lounged back in his chair, crossing his ankles. At least he still wore Trux-style leather boots, made for stalking in the Wild. "Tell me what you really think of the Flame Curate," he chuckled.
"What I thought when I first met her doesn't even bear repeating." Odan leaned against the wall of the small room. "This isn't a game. There was another beebee attack last week." Three humans killed in Seventh City, and four Truxet wounded. "We need to stop them."
Odan's gut crawled with too-familiar frustration. Out there, moving freely through the Seven Cities, darkmages had found a way to hide from the Truxet, to build their power in a distant, unknown location. It was a source of rage and outrage among all his brother warriors that they'd failed to find this nest, failed to even discern it until one of the first kidnapped hawks had returned to them two weeks ago.
Odan had been given the assignment to hunt the darkmage's mysterious new pets, and couldn't wait to finally go on the offensive.
"That woman," he jabbed angrily in the general direction of her private study, "will be nothing but a hindrance. It's outrageous I had to wait two days to meet her and now she wants to train for three days, to 'prepare'!"
"She's the most powerful firemage I've ever met." Rafe shrugged. "And I'm not saying she's the most powerful human, I'm saying I've seen her do things that would astound at Autumnal. She's got control you'll need fighting in the Cities or the forests. Vivienne has a gift we'll use to burn the lizard birds to Ash. Enhanced by your Air, I have no doubt whatsoever they will die."
Springing up to pace around the small room, Odan sneered at the lovely tapestry of the Six Elements, the framed painting of laughing children, and the delicately painted wooden slat walls. Humans put such emphasis on such things, then turned a blind eye to what really mattered--honor. "This isn't about catching and killing a few beebees, although I can't say I'm not looking forward to it." Maybe he'd let himself imagine one he killed to be the one who had taken some of the kidnapped hawks. One of the ones who'd brought them to be tortured and killed to power the disgusting darkmages. "Right now only the Royals, the Mage High Guild, and our people know the beebees are targeting humans who have had contact with Truxet. I need to have an effective partner so we can prevent the beebees from attacking anyone else."
In fact, it had been their first human target, a young girl adopted by a sandcat, who had named them Big Birdies. The Truxet warriors had decided to shorten the name to beebees, although the humans were calling the mage-created creatures lizard birds.
Rafe tossed back his tea with a sigh. "Exactly. We have to stop them before the City populace knows they've been sent to attack anyone who's had contact with us. The hysteria and panic will create such a backlash that the Royals will be forced to ask us to vacate the Cities, playing right into the darkmages' hands."
Images played through Odan's mind, of dark-cloaked figures with bloody hands striding boldly through the streets, killing freely, gleefully, growing more powerful. "They'd ask us back soon enough. The fact is, we're more resistant to darkcraft. We can sense it and withstand it to a much greater degree." His fists clenched and unclenched. What kind of horror had Fynn faced before he'd died in that first, failed foray into the darkmage's secret Fortress? Fynn, his brother-in-arms, a good fighter and better friend. One who knew the bittersweet path of an alpha Council warrior. They would never recover his body. "I need someone who will take this mission seriously. We don't have time for an afternoon off, let alone three days of polite maneuvering and 'preparation'. Surely there's someone else."
"It's easier to hold than it is to take. We don't want to be in a position to siege the people we need. Second City's Flame Curate has been assigned. There's an even bigger play going on here than control of the Cities. This is not the time to be closed out of the loop, out of favor with our allies, because you got your fur ruffled about your partner."
Odan stopped pacing to meet Rafe's hard eyes. "Fuck." It was easy to consider humans weaker, inferior, and less civilized. But for thousands of years, the Truxet had borne no women of their own. None. Every mate painstakingly wooed from her family, Guild, and City was human. "Fucking darkmages." Unmentioned openly, it was on every warrior's mind. The darkmages weren't just fighting to rule the Kingdom of the Seven Cities. They were working to destroy the eleven Truxet Clans entirely by cutting off their access to women.
Rafe nodded. "Just so."
Odan rolled his shoulders. "This is more than me not liking her attitude. She's not a warrior. I don't like the idea of any woman standing before a dark-sent mage-creature, but I've met a few human women who have trained, and could handle it. She's not one of them." More dejected now that he'd been reminded again of the masterful maneuvering the darkmages had set in place, Odan sat across from Rafe. "The woman I met upstairs is an academic. A coddled, pristine--"
Rafe was shaking his head in disagreement and interrupted. "She's not going to wield a sword, but she's tenacious, determined--"
Odan interrupted in return. "She couldn't even stand her ground when I pushed into her personal space, Rafe!"
The man leaned forward, his face sharp and eager. "Really? Did she seem guilty? Did she sting any of your instincts?"
Odan was taken aback. "No, not guilty." His groundbear had been so interested in her. He shook his head. "It felt like shyness, or disapproval."
Rafe relaxed and shrugged. "After your first training session, tell me again she's not right for this duty. Then I'll take your petition before the High Guild, and prepare a request for Royal intervention. In the meantime, keep your senses wide open."
Odan sighed heavily, glowering at the man who sat there looking all too human and soft.
Rafe grinned. "I want to see your face the first time you see her work. She can throw more fire than you can imagine."
Odan worked his jaw. He knew the man understood the stakes. The beebees had to be stopped before they started a backlash against the Truxet who patrolled the Seven Cities. Currently, the Truxet presence forced the darkmages to work in the shadows. If they were driven out of the cities over fear of the beebees, the darkmages would easily overpower human City guards. Odan didn't understand where Rafe's relaxed acceptance of such an unsuitable partner placement came from. "Aren't you old enough to know it's not the size of the cock that matters?"
Rafe burst out laughing. "Aren't you?"
Leaning forward, Odan glared at him. "I don't care how big or how perfect a fireball she can throw. When a tree-sized creature is slashing at her, screaming for her blood, moving faster than thought, she won't have the ability to react with trained response, to improvise in battle. I doubt very much she has a killing instinct. Many humans don't have the dominance and aggression needed to truly want to win a physical fight. I'm not irritated because of her gender. I doubt her skills and attitude."
Rafe stroked his chin thoughtfully. "You're having dinner tonight in the High Guild's private meeting room."
Odan groaned. "I suppose."
"I want you to keep on alert. Also, ask her to play her juggling game with you."
Enough was enough. Surging to his feet, he stomped toward the door. "Sure. We'll play games while the darkmages work toward banishing us from the Cities, while reports of dozens more missing humans come trickling in. I'm sure I'll be very impressed with her juggling. I haven't done it since I was fourteen, after all."
He wasn't in the mood to listen to any more of Rafe's platitudes. "No, you'll have to excuse me. I have a book to drop off at the Flame Curate's rooms, and one to read myself."