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Of a Feather

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The saxophone faded as Wimsey stepped outside. He cast a glance backwards, but Miss Dean was safely under the wing of a plump middle-aged man in the guise of Poseidon. One would hesitate to trust the King of the Deeps with a boy her age, but he would keep the line with Miss Dean, and charm her for long enough for Wimsey to get to work. His feet crunched on the gravel path, and a pair of intoxicated young ladies, one in flowing gauze and the other in a rather nicely tailored suit, brushed past him on their way indoors.

There were revellers here too, a quiet couple taking refuge in the shrubbery, a rowdy party of young men shouting, another noisy group offering libations of champagne to the fountain. He saw the oyster-coloured silk of Dian de Momerie in that third group, and considered the correct approach, the correct way to advertise his presence.

An unexpected movement in the corner of his eye made him take a sharp step backwards. There was a winged figure on the lawn scarcely two feet away from him. He had taken it for a statue, until the wings moved and the figure half-turned. Someone drew back a curtain in the house, and light spilled out. The figure was in a close-fitting costume much like his own, but solid black, and could have been a slim young man or an athletic woman. The wings were the most striking part of the costume, almost four feet high, jointed and half-folded back in a natural birdlike pose. They were black-feathered, glittering faintly in the light like a starling.

He put out a hand and brushed his fingertips against the feathers, and the winged figure turned sharply. It was a man, elegant and fine-featured, bright grey eyes catching the light.

"I beg your pardon," Wimsey said.

"Not at all." His voice was soft. The wings moved again, folding back completely, and Wimsey raised his monocle.

"Remarkable," he said.

The man laughed. "It's mere trickery," he said, and the wings extended to their full reach in demonstration. As the feathers brushed his arm, Wimsey thought he heard a faint trill of birdsong, a nightingale in the bushes. He looked around, and frowned. The nightingale was a shy and retiring bird, not likely to linger near this cacophony.

The wings folded again, and again he heard the trill of song, and this time he recognised what he was hearing, without the use of his ears. It was no clever mechanism that brought movement to those wings, but something stranger and subtler by far, something he had encountered before.

"Sweet bird that sing'st away the early hours," he said. "I see. What brings you to this party? Has my dear Inspector Murville found another nest of dangerous illusionists here?" Parker had assured him there would be no police here tonight, but these men were a law unto themselves.

The wings fluttered, and the young man stepped back. "I am here privately," he said. "Lord Peter, is it? I've heard of your work."

His eyes were clear, his hands steady. Wimsey hoped it wasn't dope that had drawn him here. Parker would have difficulty enough unravelling this dope-ring without an uncanny police officer betraying his duty. But there were other illicit but less harmful pleasures a man might seek out here.

"May I?" He reached to the wing again, and at the man's nod, he ran a hand over the point of its elbow, the long pinion-feathers that marked the edge. It was beautifully constructed. The young man shivered at the touch, and Wimsey drew back.

"Inside," he said, "you will find a man dressed as Poseidon. Tell him the Harlequin vouches for you, and he'll help you find what you are seeking, without risk of encountering the wrong sort." An uncanny police officer in the grip of a blackmailer would be no better than one who smuggled dope.

The Nightingale's fine lips pursed with irritation. "I've no need--" he began, but stopped at Wimsey's frown. "Thank you," he said instead, then paused and gave Wimsey an unmistakeable look. "Unless perhaps you--"

Wimsey stroked one feather with a fingertip again, and the man's eyes fixed on him, widening. Whatever enchantment he was using to animate the wings evidently gave him sensation in them too. "I'm afraid I have other business--" he began, with a reluctance that surprised himself.

A tall laughing vision in oyster satin danced by, trailing an entourage of shouting young men. Wimsey looked up, and saw she had noticed them and was staring. "I will fly to thee," he murmured, and closed the distance between them.

He'd misjudged the Nightingale, he thought then: the young man's slim elegance was as much of a mask as his own. A strong arm caught him and held him a careful step away. "So I perceive," the Nightingale said, "but I trust that is not serious." A jerk of his head towards Dian de Momerie. "Or else I should be warning you of the wrong sort."

"I am never serious," Wimsey responded, and the wings bent forwards and folded around him.

"Duty, not pleasure, then?" said the Nightingale. "We shall give her cause for jealousy, if you wish."

He was held by arms and wings together, and the Nightingale with incredible delicacy brushed the tip of his wing against Wimsey's cheek, then hesitated. "This is not your usual taste."

"It is the Harlequin's tonight," Wimsey said, and kissed the Nightingale, recalling all his teaching on this art. His companion had no such teaching, it was clear, but his enthusiasm and generosity were more than sufficient. Wimsey had thought to compare the experience to kissing a woman, but found himself wholly distracted instead by the wings, which were more delicate and sensitive than he had expected. In such an ecstasy...

Reflected in the glittering windows of the house, he saw Dian's face, her eyes fixed on them, and let his fingers slide through the feathers, mirroring the actions of his mouth. The Nightingale swayed in against him, trembling as any bird caught in the hand. Worth two in the bush; for a minute he was tempted to give up on Dian and instead carry off this Nightingale for a far more pleasurable evening. The young man mumbled some incoherent endearment into his mouth, and Wimsey realised the danger in promising far more than he might give. Gracefully, he let the intensity fade, and saw the Nightingale recover his earlier self-possession, and folded back first one wing, then the other. Wimsey permitted himself to preen a few errant feathers straight as they both recovered their breath.

"You appear to have achieved your end," said the Nightingale, and if he felt disappointment he gave no sign of it. Wimsey laughed, as he was supposed to.

"You've wits in your tongue," he returned.

"I'm pleased to be of service." Tiring of the game, the Nightingale went on more steadily, "She's gone behind the shrubbery now. With a somewhat disreputable pirate. I presume she wishes you to take notice."

"Sadly, I must deny her that pleasure," Wimsey replied. "But I have left a young friend alone too long now. I have been most charmed to make your acquaintance tonight; sweet Nightingale, farewell."

The Nightingale moved his expressive wings and made a slight bow. Then he caught a pinion between his fingers and pulled, his only reaction to what Wimsey supposed to be a painful sensation a single blink. "Take this," he said. "I am not working here tonight, but I am happy to aid those who are. If you are in need of assistance this evening, I will know."

Wimsey accepted the gift with a matching bow, finding himself regretting the absence of wings to flourish in return. "Thy liquid notes portend success in love," he said. "Or in some similar endeavour, tonight. Thank you." Lacking pockets in the costume, he slid the feather into the breast of his black and white tunic, and smoothed the fabric to avoid spoiling the line. It seemed warm against his skin.

When he looked up, the Nightingale was gone.

"Dive, Harlequin, dive!"

It had not been his plan. Advertisement was the key, and he had intended to serenade the girl with his penny whistle from the top of the statue. But in climbing as in copywriting, it was only as he made the attempt that he could see that his earlier plan would not do. Haunting music was an advertisement for a different paper; in this one he needed drama.

He was almost at the top of the excrescence of a statue, pulling himself from curly-headed cherub to curving dolphin and up over the topmost basin.


The water was too shallow. It was beyond the ability of any man to dive into it, under the laws of nature. At least, under the usual laws of nature. But he knew the world held more than that. He put a hand to his breast for a moment.

Nightingale, he thought, if you could spare me another moment of your time I would be grateful.

He reached the shoulders of the highest stone cupid, and drew himself upright, poised, waiting.

On the lawn below, behind the baying and jeering crowd, he saw a winged figure. The wings reached out to their fullest extent and beat, once, and the feather tucked inside his costume fluttered.

Wimsey made the dive, knowing that however good he was, it could never be good enough in the shallow water. As his outstretched fingers broke the surface, he heard a trill of birdsong, and it was as if a great hand had caught him, breaking the force of the fall, guiding him into the water with inhuman perfection. He kept his eyes open, and saw the stone base of the fountain curving away and deepening before him to allow him to pass.

And then he was surfacing, his feet beneath him and his chest heaving, uninjured. "Thank you, sweet Nightingale," he whispered. He sprang out of the water to complete his capture of Dian de Momerie, and did not permit himself to look again for the Nightingale.