Perhaps in the summer months we should visit the Lake District and try to muss his clothes during our travels. You might also enjoy Brighton, or a few weeks in London (although not too far into the summer, I hope). Or perhaps you would like to remain in Derbyshire? Our previous summer passed so pleasantly here, I should not mind another. But I shall accede to your wishes on this matter, my young lord.
Your loving aunt, Emily
A smile hovered over her mouth as she folded the letter and sealed it. Robert might consider her an eccentric guardian, but he would have little doubt of her affection. Would that she'd had the same from her father…
A gleam in the darkness caught her attention and she turned. Colin lay on the bed watching her hungrily, his eyes reflecting the lamplight. His lips were pulled back in a ghastly smile, revealing long, pointed canines. He turned his head and sank his teeth through his sleeve and into his bicep.
I should let him kill me, she thought.
Emily buried her face in her hands and wept.
A Guardian may choose to Ascend at any time; however, after one hundred years have passed, they may also choose to Fall the alternative added as a reward for service.
— The Doyen Scrolls
Anthony landed neatly atop the city's tallest spire. Around him, Caelum spread out in a circle of coruscating buildings and temples. Its shining marble columns and towers speared into the cerulean sky, piercing a blue that had never been darkened by clouds.
Anthony no longer raised his face to capture the sun's warmth, is he often had in England; without the cold and rain for contrast, its rays did nothing more than bring light. And now that he could see clearly on the darkest of nights, he did not even need that.
But he could fly, and for that he loved the unchanging sky.
The tip of the spire was not wide enough for perching; balanced on one foot, he waited, currents of air drifting across his wings.
The city's edge shimmered in the distance; it pulled his gaze, as it always did. A dark line marked the abrupt cessation of ivory stone—beyond it, a waveless ocean stretched to the horizon. He had explored its endless breadth and depths, but both the sky and the deep had been empty, and his splashless dives had disturbed nothing.
But Caelum thrummed and pulsed with life. Behind silent marble walls, thousands of Guardians watched, waited, and protected. They passed through the Gates and came back with Earth's odors clinging to them.
Anthony had learned to avoid those who were newly returned.
Like all new Guardians, he had to wait nearly one hundred years before he would be allowed to traverse those Gates: one hundred years of studying his new abilities and training to fight their enemies; one hundred years for everyone he'd known to die; one hundred years to forget the immediacy of being human. Until then, reminders of his past were as painful as they were alluring, and he preferred not to torture himself with them. It served no purpose.
Suddenly restless, he glanced away from the edge of the city, his eyes searching the ground below. Though hundreds of yards in the air, he could see the individual veins of color within the courtyard tiles, but he was not interested in the stone. Movement near one of the archways opening into the courtyard caught his attention—two Guardians held each other in an intimate embrace.
Two males, he realized. They kissed, and though Anthony was struck by the gentleness with which they touched each other, he had to look away. It was not unusual in Caelum to come across lovers in the public areas, but even after eight months, he had not grown accustomed to witnessing sexual acts performed between couples of the same gender. Over time, his shock and disgust had faded into mild discomfort, but he reasoned that he was, and maybe always would be, a product of his upbringing.
After all, he had not become accustomed to the idea of a male and female publicly displaying themselves, either. If a member of the ton had ever been so bold, he would have been expelled from society. Even if it took place behind closed doors, public knowledge of a liaison between unmarried lovers could have ruined the couple.
Emily had known that risk, but she had still pressed her lips against his.
Before that night, he'd dreamed of her touch countless times. Afterward, he could only look back with shame that his one opportunity with her ended in a mechanical coupling that had brought pleasure to neither of them. He still didn't know why she'd chosen him, but no matter her reason, their joining had likely failed her idealistic expectations. The image of her, eyes red-rimmed and her chemise stained with his semen, declaring that her faith in love had vanished, had been pinned like an insect into his memory.
No. He shook himself, forcing thoughts of Emily, of London, from his mind. Dwelling on what had been could only lead to unhappiness, could only bring frustration and regret. Here in Caelum, there were no titles or possessions, and value was not determined by birth or profession. He had a multitude of lifetimes ahead of him, and he would not spend them aching for a past that had rejected him at every turn.
With a deliberate shrug, he unrolled his wings and focused on the weight of them—they were heavy, but no more a burden than one of his legs or his arms. He tested the breeze against his skin and breathed the sterile air deep into his lungs.
Then he folded the white feathers tight against his body and plummeted.
He kept his eyes open as he rushed toward the ground. The wind created by his descent whipped his hair behind him and tore his shirttails from the waist of his breeches. The wildly fluttering hem cracked against his buttocks, startling a laugh from him before the torrent of air made him swallow it.
At the last possible moment, he snapped his wings wide. They caught air, and his trajectory changed sharply, vertical to horizontal. The effort wrenched his muscles, and he strained to hold himself aloft as he skimmed a foot above the courtyard tiles. His knees scraped; he cried out in surprise and tumbled over, skidding to a halt against sturdy, robe-covered legs. The brown wool smelled faintly of smoke.
Hugh's legs, Anthony realized with dismay as he lay on his back, stunned. This stunt will likely earn me a stiff lecture. He smiled in amused anticipation of it, particularly as the lecture would come from someone who looked a very young eighteen. Hugh's face, surrounded by boyish curls, could have been any youth's in a Botticelli painting, and yet his eyes bespoke his real age—they were too patient to have belonged to even the most mature boy.
Appearances, Anthony reminded himself, arc almost always deceiving. It had been one of the first lessons he'd been taught upon entering Caelum, and one of the hardest for him to absorb. As a physician, he'd been trained to trust what he observed and to act accordingly. As a Guardian, he had to learn to distrust it, along with many other things he'd taken for granted when he was human.
Instead of lecturing, his mentor only looked down at him thoughtfully and said, "Perhaps we should move on to the lessons for tactical aerial combat."
The unexpected response to his reckless dive, combined with the thrill of his relatively successful landing, had Anthony shaking with laughter.
Hugh's expression didn't change; if anything, it became more sober. He watched as Anthony picked himself up and waited until his laughter had passed.
"Michael has summoned us."
Anthony paused in his attempt to tuck in his shirt. Michael had transformed him, brought him to Caelum, and then left him in the care of his mentors. Anthony hadn't expected to see Michael again until his hundred years had passed and Anthony received his first assignment.