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Potential excerpt

King deposited her on a large stool, and then swept out into another room flanked by two collar-wearing Eagle-Heads. She looked around, perplexed and feeling decidedly foolish. Here she was, in a chamber comparable in width, breadth, and height to Notre Dame, perched on a stool almost as if she were a baby in a high chair! She sighed, looked around, hands gripping the underside of the furniture. A long marble table stretched from one end of the room to the other, shot through with veins of pink and grey; rounded, settee-like chairs flanked both sides of the table, each extremely well-worn. Magelights sparkled from bejeweled sconces, a glittering chandelier that could have purchased a small country hung from the ceiling. It rotated slowly on its own, casting spears of light across the expanse.

As she turned her attention to the detailed frescos along the walls, two Vahazayi entered. The clicking of their deadly claws on smooth grey stone alerted her, and Jacquelyn spun around, gripping the back of the stool for balance. Upon seeing them, her throat went dry, her mouth dropped. They were huge, even by their own standards; crests brushed the top of the archway as they walked through it. One was a striking combination of turquoise and white, the other was tri-colored: brown at the top, black-faced and -breasted, with a white crest and tail. Staring was rude, but she couldn’t help it. The turquoise-white seemed to be in his early adulthood, bright-eyed and shining, the latter had grey-tinged plumage and soulful, hooded eyes. A slow smile crept onto the face of the younger Vahazayan as he and his companion sat right next to her.

Jacquelyn gulped as they settled; as high up as she was, her head didn’t even reach the long wingclaw on the bi-colored male. Her eyes shifted constantly as the long legs folded articulately on the massive settee.

“Greetings,” the bi-colored male rumbled congenially in Vahazayi.

Jacquelyn swallowed, trying to wet her parched tongue. “And to thee,” she stuttered, lips stumbling over words her brain hadn’t fully assimilated.

He smiled. Up close, she could see that though the body was young, the eyes were incredibly old. But they shone with such kind light that she felt herself relaxing in their presence. “Why not speak in your language, as it is easier for you to do?” he remarked to her. “It would do us good to learn it.” He inclined his white crest towards the other male.

Jacquelyn started. But … hadn’t King told her that only he had that ability? “You—you can do it, too?” she managed in English.

“Do?” the turquoise-white Eagle-Head queried, confused. The world came out heavily accented but audible. Quizzically, he turned his head briefly to his companion, who only shrugged heavy brown wings.

She waved her hands helplessly. “You know—understand me. King said only he had the ability.”

Two eaglelike heads turned and stared at each other, perplexed. The tri-colored male clacked his alabaster beak, slowly shaking his head back and forth. “How very … interesting,” he muttered, also in English. The words came out more fluidly, but still with that guttural accent. He inclined his neck across the other’s body to look Jacquelyn in the eye. “My Lady, we all have this ability to translate foreign languages.”


Akai, Lady.”

“It is not limited to one, as our Lord seems to have made you believe,” the turquoise-white Vahazayan told her gently. He reached out and carefully touched her shoulder with the pad of his right wingclaw. Age-old, grandfatherly warm grey eyes regarded her calmly, patiently. “If that were so, we would have many troubles in our line of work, eh, Ventrishika?”

The sombre-faced tri-colored male nodded. “Indeed,” he replied. “Though, it troubles me that our Lord would tell such a lie when she harbored him without a second thought. And risked her own safety to keep our secret.” Reaching up, Ventrishika touched the tip of one silver wingclaw to his beak, tapping in thought. The glints in his eyes slid slowly over to where Jacquelyn sat. “We know well that Arex’fay loves to impress people, Shekeira, perhaps this was such a case?”

Impress?” Impress her? she thought incredulously. What for?

The one who was called Shekeira only chuckled at her expression. “Such a lady we have before us, my friend. Perhaps Arex’fay is finally mellowing out.”

“Vaha preserve us,” he replied, shaking his head in wonder. “If only. Perhaps then we could have some peace.”

“Wait, wait!” Jacquelyn cried, holding up her hands. She reached up and tugged on one of Shekeira’s shining turquoise feathers. “What do you mean? Impress me?”

The young-seeming male smiled softly. “At ease, my Lady. We were but joking. But we do find it odd that he would tell you such a lie. I am sure he had his reasons, whatever they might be.” He paused, a thought lighting behind his eyes. “Ah, me. Forgive me for not asking your name sooner.”

Relief flooded through her as she slowly accepted the two Vahazayans’ response. “Jacquelyn,” she told them, “Jacquelyn Sandenbern. But you can call me Jackie.”

“Lovely name,” Ventrishika remarked. “I am Ventrishika Eagle-Head; my friend is Shekeira Eagle-Head. We are clan leaders here on Phoenixia.”

She tipped her head to the side, unconsciously mimicking the two avians. “Are you related?”

Shekeira smiled. “Oh no,” he told her. “Many of us who are spontaneous-born carry the surname of our type if we are not adopted into a clan or do not receive one based on merit from the Lord.” He held up a wingclaw to forestall her obvious next question. He looked around as others started to file in. “I shall gladly answer more, but let me finish explaining this before the meeting starts.” She nodded and he continued. “I was the one who introduced to our first Lord, Solarius, the concept of having clans to bind us as a people together. That having family would enrich our lives. Gladly, Solarius granted it, and thus the clans began. Each clan takes the surname from their clan leader—”

“Surely you are not peddling away our state secrets, Clan Leader Shekeira. As seniormost you should know better.”

All three turned suddenly to watch as a bulky sea-green Eagle-Head strolled through the archway. He paused to look down at Jacquelyn with dark charcoal eyes. Shekeira frowned, starting to rise, a wing slipping over her shoulder to cover the young woman. The feral glare in the other’s eyes never left as he crossed to the other side of the table and sat himself down, maintaining eye-contact.

Shekeira growled, a truly feline sound mixing with avian undertones. “If Lord Arex’fay deems her trustworthy enough to sit on this privy council, then I see her fit to have some understanding of how these proceedings work!” he snarled in Vahazayi.

“Now, now, Clan Leader,” the other said placatingly, raising both wingclaws in a gesture of mock peace, “no need to become hostile. You might scare Clan Leader Ventrishika into a premature burn.”

Ü shetier,” came the rejoinder from tri-colored Ventrishika. “Ei savaer ikcherie.

Jacquelyn couldn’t understand the swears, but they sounded severe from the way Ventrishika had spat them out.

“You are early, Swalecain,” Shekeira told the sea-green male. “You are never early.”

The other Eagle-Head crossed his wings over his chest. “I found it necessary to arrive before my usual time so that I could observe this heir to our old homeland.” There was no mistaking the sneer in his tone or the curl of his beak or nares.

Ei sa vaer,” Shekeira replied, sitting back down, but never removing the protective half-circle of his wing from Jacquelyn. He lowered it so that the edge of his wing draped over the back of her stool. “So it be.”

While the male called Swalecain was easily twice the bulk of Shekeira, Jacquelyn felt that he dared not challenge the turquoise-white. Gradually, she relaxed, feeling safe and secure in his and Ventrishika’s presences. If she had learned anything from King, it was that Vahazayi were immortal—they lived and died in cycles, burning their old bodies and rising anew and young from the ashes. Truly legends come to life. If this was the case, Shekeira was in his young stage, and Ventrishika nearing the end of his.

“Now,” Shekeira said, jolting her out of her internal ruminations, “what did Lord Arex’fay tell you about this meeting?”

“Nothing much, other than he needed me here.” She looked about as still more Vahazayi wandered in, noting that some were female: smaller in body size and singly-colored, their crests were shorter and they were longer in the leg. Some of them looked back at her with idly curiosity, but with none of the hostility Swalecain had displayed. They took their seats and chatted amongst themselves.

“Ah, how interesting.” Shekeira nodded distractedly to a few Phoenixes as they greeted him. “Well, this is the Vahazayan Council. Those you see around us are comprised of several different groups. You have the twenty clan leaders and/or their representatives. Then there are the three head-type representatives, of which Swalecain there is the Eagle-Head one.” To his credit, the sea-green said nothing. “Then five hand-picked counselors who have proved themselves to have indispensable opinions. And lastly, there is the General of the Army and the Second-in-Command. Sadly, we have had neither since Lord Arex’fay was chosen.”

“Both died with Lord Grawn’fay,” Ventrishika added.

Jacquelyn nodded as they spoke, eyes wandering now and again as the colorful, powerful Vahazayi entered the room. Her eye was drawn back to the archway as two Hawk-Heads parted to reveal a dull golden Eagle-Headed Vahazaya. Her feathers were pale—almost white—around the edges, her crest tilted back; but her eyes—they were haunted.

“Who’s that?” Jacquelyn whispered to Shekeira. Following her eye, the clan leader slowly turned his head. He acknowledged the female with a dip of his white-crested head and received the barest in reply.

Shekeira sighed and turned back to Jacquelyn. “My granddaughter, Ythé.”

“She looks so … sad.” The young woman looked back again at the tarnished Vahazaya, who had pressed herself up against the wall. She seemed so distracted, eyes unfocused as if she were intently watching something playing in her mind.

Shekeira leaned in close, his black-tipped grey beak a hairsbreadth from her ear. His breath smelled faintly of wood smoke, his feathers like cedar. “Millions of years ago, she fell in love with a gryphon. They became mates and resided on an interspecies planet. She bore her gryphonic lover two children, hybrids. When the ones they loved best began to die on that world, their children left for their own adventures. Soon, they too packed up and traversed the galaxies. We heard little of them over the millennia, but the most striking thing of all was that Ythé’s gryphon kept living.”

Ventrishika took up the tale. “He was my blood, descendant of my grandson Sular.” His eyes, too, began to unfocus, the pain of millions of years coming back to the front of his mind. “Dead all these years after choosing to live with his own gryphonic female on another world.” A small smile lit his face. “Complex, I know,” he told Jacquelyn, who had apparently been broadcasting confusion.

Shekeira quickly finished, “He passed on many years ago. Their love and his Vahazayan blood could sustain him no longer. And Ythé … she is a wanderer between worlds, is my granddaughter.” He reached back and touched the female’s drooping right wing. “Between reality and her mind.”

Copyright Melissa A. Hartman
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