A LITTLE NIGHT MUSE (Steel Born 2)

A Little Night Muse by Jessa SladeA LITTLE NIGHT MUSE
Steel Born #2

Harlequin Nocturne Cravings
January 2013

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Convicted of treason, Adelyn has been banished to the sunlit realm of humans—a fate worse than death for a musetta who exists only to inspire other phae. To reverse her exile, she must find a pair of lovers who have fled the court and return them to face the Queen’s wrath. But once in the mortal realm, she meets a man who unveils her hidden desires…

When Josh Reimer discovers an ethereal beauty at a cabin near his ranch, he decides the neighborly thing to do is take her in. Adelyn inspires a passion unlike anything he’s ever known and he vows not to lose the magic they’ve found together—even if that means she must choose between her home and their love.

Chapter 1

“…For the crime of treason against the phaedrealii, the court of our steel-born Queen, the punishment is—and seriously, this should surprise no one—death.”

As the goblin chamberlain made the pronouncement, Adelyn stared down at her clasped hands where the iron chains burned. True enough, everyone knew the penalty for treason. It was easy enough to remember. The same sentence was meted out for sedition, insubordination, noncompliance, obstructionism, incompetence, various forms of folly, and—sometimes—yawning in the presence of the Queen.

So, no, Adelyn wasn’t surprised. But terror squeezed her heart. With each frantic beat, crimson welled from her blackened wrists to smoke against the manacles. Even looking at the dull metal brought tears to her phae eyes.

Phae blood in every rainbow color—red like her own, yellow, green, purple, even black—had been shed in the Queen’s court. But Adelyn never imagined she would be the one in chains. She was best beloved of all the musetta who served as inspiration to the phaedrealii courtiers. How had she fallen so far?

Though she could not flee the iron agony, one tear did escape. She ducked her head to hide her emotion, but the droplet traced a cool path down her cheek. For a heartbeat, it trembled at the edge of her jaw, refracting shards of light. The sparkles danced across the nearest courtiers who leaped back, swatting at the unseemly display as if they could knock away her forbidden expression of feeling.

The tear fell. It struck the marble floor not with a splash but a chiming ping.

The faceted emerald teardrop bounced away from her gilded slippers—less gilded after what seemed like an eternity in her iron-clad prison cell. Cursing courtiers scrambled from the stone’s path. No one wanted to be touched by her disgrace.

Between the fleeing bodies darted one of the chamberlain’s imps, freakishly fast on three crabbed limbs. It snatched the rolling emerald between its rubbery lips. A single bulbous eye boggled at her before the imp tipped back its head and swallowed. Then the wretched little monster burped.

No shining proof of her innocence would be allowed. Not that Adelyn believed her guilt or innocence was at all relevant.

“Take her away.” The chamberlain’s peg-toothed sneer reflected in the blank screens of stolen smart phones strung around his scaly neck. “She is nothing to us now.”

As one, the courtiers in all their phae glamour furled their wings or tightened the luxurious falls of their cloaks or closed their eyes. Shutting her out. Their whispers chased to the far edges of the hall like the distant hiss of a retreating tide.

As if the terror wasn’t bad enough. For a musetta like her—desired for her power of inspiration that compelled thoughts and dreams to dizzying heights—such rejection burned worse than iron.

Hands reached for her, but she strained away, tearing the spider silk of her veils. She had wrapped herself in the fluttering scarves—an age ago, it seemed—to emphasize her dusky-skinned, dark-haired beauty. Now the pale veils only served as a stark backdrop for her blood. “You can’t send me away!”

“Silence,” the goblin barked. Everyone knew the last words of the condemned held particular power.

Drawing in a deep breath, she forced down the pain of her scorched wrists and the humiliation of exposing her knack of jeweled tears. Every reluctant eye was on her now. Musetta inspired music and poetry, art and science, the wildest flights of fancy.

But she could also inspire fear.

Adelyn took no pleasure in the stark faces, but she would not let them pretend as she had pretended she was untouchable. She swept her gaze around the hall, slashing at the phae with a glare as edged as a shattered jewel. “Any of you could be next.”

Adelyn had time for nothing else as she was pushed into the dark corridor that led to her death.

Her tears—mere water now, her knack drained—blinded her. Unbalanced by her bound hands, she stumbled. The rip in her veils dipped forward over her breasts. Stupid gilded slippers had no traction.

A sudden burst of illumination flared beyond her tears.

Musetta.” The voice of her looming death—low and rough, as she might have guessed six feet deep would sound—froze her in her tracks.

The Queen might be capricious and terrifying, and her goblin chamberlain was petty and horrendous, but the Queen’s vizier existed in a dark realm all his own.

Adelyn closed her eyes, hoping death took her quickly. The vizier’s grim countenance was known to send courtiers into fits of madness. And those were phae who weren’t convicted of treason.

Musetta, look at me.” A note of compulsion forced her eyes open.

She clamped her tongue between her teeth to stop herself from begging for mercy. The Queen had no mercy. And no mercy’s name—at least as it was screamed by hopeless phae in their last moments—was Raze.

Swathed in a gray samite[H1]  robe, his hulking figure was a drear wall, his glare equally gray above cheekbones as whetted as the exposed steel of the athame hanging from his belt. Amongst beings who could conjure any masquerade, his stark—and, frankly, uninspired—presentation seemed a mockery, as if he had never left the Iron Age behind. It vexed Adelyn’s musetta power to no ends; a muse did not do gray.

Not that she would say so aloud, not to Raze the Ruiner.

A glint in his half-closed eyes made her think he read her thoughts, despite her determined silence.

Musetta.” His voice sliced, slowly and dagger-cruel, through the word as if he might trick—or torture—her into sharing her real name. With such precious insight he could twist her into whatever he wished. “You find yourself in desperate straits.”

She lifted her chin to an angle between elegance and disdain. “Straight as an executioner’s blade.”

He laughed. “The Queen’s death sentences are—like most words from phae lips—open to interpretation.”

Adelyn bit her tongue again. She would not beg. As inspiration personified, she could not be moved by necessity or entreaty.

Though she longed to let her wrecked golden slippers move her far, far away.

The Ruiner crossed his arms over his chest, his gray-gloved hands gripping his biceps with knuckles aimed her way. “Don’t you wish to hear your options?”

She scowled at his malicious teasing. “Musetta I am, but I will not incite you to more enthusiastic methods of murder. Specifically, my murder.”

Raze drummed his fingers. “The Queen wants you out of her sight. Death would do. But exile accomplishes much the same results.”

Exile? Her heart twisted in her chest. “Exactly the same results for me. I cannot leave the phaedrealii.”

Raze snorted. “Many musetta have journeyed out of court. Where do you think humans find their inspiration?”

His offhand reassurance gave her no comfort. “I never wanted to inspire humans.”

“And yet you’ve done it so well,” Raze purred. He fingered the torn neckline of her veils. “You are everything a man could want to inspire him.”

She leaned away, holding her breath against the stink of lightning that clung to him. Out from the gap of his sleeve, a hairy gray spider as big as the vizier’s hand scuttled over her breast. She gasped as it pattered across her skin, but Raze’s grip trapped her.

The spider gathered the edges of the tear. With a few pumps of its spinneret, it laced the rip, then it vanished up Raze’s sleeve. Adelyn sagged back, and this time the vizier let her go.

He glanced over his massive shoulder. “William, come. And bring the key.”

A hysterical sob congealed in Adelyn’s throat. “Why is he here?”

“He wanted to see you off. And to tell you—”

William elbowed Raze aside as only one of the Queen’s lovers would dare. “Sweet muse, I had no idea it would end like this.”

“You are fucking our Queen,” she snapped. “Yet you wrote a poem to my eyes. How else would it end?”

William’s cherubic blonde curls bobbed as he ducked his head, though his ravenous gaze on her was anything but saintly.

Raze tsked at her. “Poor boy, he just couldn’t help himself. You are musetta. You inspired him.”

She never bothered with humans. Why waste the breath of inspiration on creatures that breathed only a hundred years or so? Making her place in the phaedrealii was hard enough since musetta had no real value themselves except what they inspired in others. Now she fastened her gaze on the iron key dangling from William’s fingers. She pitched her voice as musetta did, echoing the smooth slide of rich fabric or fine wine. “Free me, William.”

William hesitated. As a mere human, he shouldn’t have resisted her voice. Shouldn’t have wanted to. But her influence had waned under the shackles and the fear that pulsed like her iron-poisoned blood.

Raze chuckled. “William wants to keep you here. He forgets a musetta can’t be imprisoned.”

William scowled at the vizier, bold in his passionate idiocy the way the Queen preferred her human lovers. Somehow they kept that callow foolishness, no matter how long she ensnared them. “I know she can’t stay. The Queen is so angry.” Awareness flickered behind his eyes, then vanished in a phae haze. “But I’ll make her forget.”

Raze waved one hand. “Everyone forgets. Makes it damn hard to get anything done around here. But before you tra-la-la along, unlock the musetta.”

Adelyn couldn’t hold back a moan of relief when William fumbled at her bindings and the manacles fell away. The phae who had survived the Iron Age were resistant to more refined versions of the ore, but even the steel-born phae avoided raw iron. Tucking her burned wrists against her belly, she glared at William. “Thank you. If only these ode-worthy eyes of mine had never glimpsed you.”

His mouth twisted. “Sweet muse—”

“You doomed me. Also, your cadence was off and your rhyming sucked.” She put all the musetta force into her voice. “Go.”

He went with a wrenching sigh, as if she had torn the exhalation from him.

Raze laughed again. “You are unkind, musetta.”

She held out one wrist in mute evidence.

The Ruiner shrugged. “I have nothing against cruelty. It might help in the task I’m giving you.”

Adelyn stared down at her slippers. “I don’t suppose you want to write a poem?”

“Hardly. I need you to find a thief.”

“I am no Hunter.”

“All the Hunters I have sent have…not returned. This particular thief is a Hunter himself. He took one of the Queen’s sylfana and is hiding in the sunlit world. I want you to find them.”

Adelyn shuddered. “If he kills your Hunters—”

“He won’t kill you. Quite the opposite. Your helplessness will inspire him to bring you closer. When you find him, contact me. Our Queen wants words with the missing Hunter and his sylfana. Perhaps words of a poetic nature, though I doubt it.” He smiled, inviting Adelyn to share his amusement.

She never wanted to hear another poem ever. “Why would I help you?”

“Because you must, to end your exile and return to the phaedrealii which justifies your existence. Your choice, musetta.”

She stared down at her mangled wrists. Somehow, the damage felt deeper. “As you command.”

“The Queen’s handmaid will prepare you.” Raze grasped her chin to tilt her face upward. “Do not fail me, musetta.”

“Is that not one of my choices, then?” She could not turn her face away, but she closed her eyes.

Raze left when the Queen’s handmaid arrived. EveStar brought Adelyn a satchel with salve for her wounds and spores to open the way between the worlds. Tiny will-o’-the-wisps orbited around them as they headed down a little-used corridor, and Adelyn wondered if she’d ever see that serene, flawless glow again. Her sob sent the closest wisp spinning on the eddy of her breath.

The handmaid peered at her. “Is this your first foray to the sunlit world, child?”

The sunlit world. The name sent chills across Adelyn’s skin. She clutched her veils around her, but the spider silk felt as light and revealing as…well, spider silk. “My first exile, yes.”

EveStar smiled vaguely. “Such an adventure.” The handmaid’s ethereal golden beauty was rightly called timeless. She was one of the few to endure the Iron Age and the brutal court battles that spawned the steel-born phae. The Queen kept her as a reminder of a lost era. And maybe as a warning. None of the iron-born left the phaedrealii. Ever.

Adelyn’s burst of envy at EveStar’s pristine silk slippers was eclipsed only by her desire to stay in the court too. “I am hunting a Hunter who will likely slaughter me.”

The handmaid clicked her tongue. “Why, I’ve heard a dozen phae have chased after the runaways, never to return. And now a musetta sweet as yourself is cavorting with a dark Hunter? How times have changed.” The soft gold of her eyes glinted with something much harder, something angry.

Unease twisted in Adelyn’s belly. Rumors of insanity haunted the iron-born. Some whispered the handmaid pierced herself with iron to burn off the cold guilt that so many had perished when she had not. “Nothing really changes here,” Adelyn soothed. “Which is just as it should be.”

“Maybe you should change, considering,” EveStar shot back.

Adelyn stiffened in shock. “You know better than most, the phae were devastated in the last upheaval. These fugitives can’t risk revealing us again.”

The handmaid’s vague smile returned. “Change yourself? Is that what I said? Ah, words are slippery as serpents. I meant, be sure to change your glamour, child, lest yet another human sees you and falls in love.”

Adelyn winced at the reminder. Damn her eyes for inspiring that odious ode. And damn her pointless preoccupation with pretty slippers that kept her from asking the handmaid about the sunlit world. After all, EveStar had walked among humans back when the phae had been known and feared and revered. Now she never left the phaedrealii; how was Adelyn, small and steel-born, supposed to survive?

Before Adelyn could ask that plaintive question, the corridor ended in a small, empty chamber.

The end of the road. And the beginning of one.

While wisps drifted in dreamy helixes, EveStar eased the satchel from Adelyn’s tight clutch. The handmaid sprinkled a pinch of spores in a circle. “May you find what you’re looking for, child, what you truly seek.”

Adelyn saw nothing past the rapidly sprouting spores. Tears blurred everything else. When the mushrooms were knee high, a gust of otherworldly air whirled through. Her breath hitched on the overwhelming fusion of wet dirt, hot metal and air chilled to a biting edge. Would she ever again feel the sanctuary of the court’s magic around her? Her thighs twitched with the desire to run. But there was no place to hide in the phaedrealii. Which left her no choice.

Clamping one hand over her nose and mouth, she stepped into the circle, into the sunlit world.

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