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|Damien(Nightwalkers #4) by Jacquelyn Frank|
It did not follow that Siena would accept or allow the censure. She certainly would not have allowed Silas to strike her, had he been insane enough to do so. But Syreena was merely a younger Princess to them, heir to the throne only until Siena produced her first child. So, though it galled her until her stomach roiled with bile, they did not hold her in the same regard or esteem.
It did not even seem to matter to them that she had the potential to become one of The Three herself one day.
Though she never showed it outwardly, that really ticked her off.
She muttered a native curse, tossing her hair over so that only the brown side showed. She shook her head and body in a quick little shiver, sending the strands in a quick coating of her skin. Hair turned to feathers in a heartbeat, clothing dropping forgotten to the ground as a peregrine falcon took flight out of them.
Syreena flew through the closed caverns of the monastery dungeon quickly until she gained ground level. Then she winged quickly out of an entrance, leaving the cavern of The Pride behind her in a matter of minutes.
Siena turned her head when the sound of beating wings reached her ears. She watched from the corners of her eyes as the familiar falcon swooped into the chamber she used for prayer, transforming on the spot so that the Princess landed at a slight run of feet instead of talons. The Queen of the Lycanthropes rose from her meditative position on her knees, pausing briefly to shake the thin gown she wore into proper place.
Syreena stood in her nude human form, regarding her sister, whose long golden curls of hair hid the features of her luxuriant body far better than the sheer scrap of cloth she was using for a dress. Nudity meant nothing to either of them, nor any of their genus for that matter. A Lycanthrope could not change form in restrictive clothing, so they wore little to none of it. What they did wear was easily discarded either just before or during the change.
"How did it go?"
Syreena had not told Siena that The Pride had beckoned her, but neither was she surprised that her sister had found out. She was Queen, after all.
"Let's just say I won't be invited to tea anytime soon," Syreena responded glibly, giving her sister a half grin that Siena could very much appreciate.
The sisters were as opposite as they could possibly be, at least in outward appearance. Where Siena was tall and carved out like a voluptuous Amazon, Syreena was petite, slim, and often referred to as willowy. Where Siena was golden-haired, golden-skinned, and a seductive beauty, Syreena looked more like a cunning calico cat with her bi-colored hair and opposite-set harlequin eyes. Siena had grown up in the thick of court intrigues and the freedom to mesh with the other Nightwalker races. Syreena had grown up in the monastery, secluded and sealed up from the real world from the moment everyone realized how different she was.
It was not that she had been shunned or outcast. Quite the opposite. She had been overtreasured. Lycanthropes loved a good mutation, especially a powerful one like hers. She had been sent to The Pride not only for training and education, but to protect her from those who would use her as a weapon to gain power. More specifically, to gain the throne her father had held until only fifteen years earlier that, upon his death, Siena had ascended to. Siena had demanded Syreena's return that very same day, extracting her from her sheltered existence in order for her to take her place as heir and to use her learning skills as a diplomat and chief advisor for Siena.
They had been veritable strangers the day the Princess had come home, in spite of the constant exchange of letters between them over their century apart. Though Syreena had initially felt like an outsider, Siena had seemed to merely flip a mental switch that made her an immediately loving and doting elder sister.
Syreena had found it easy to love her, a fact that continued to baffle her to this day. Though the Monks had guided and cared for her, they were not known for their overflow of affection or emotion. She had not realized she could love until Siena had taken her so easily into her heart.
"I hope they were not so foolish as to be too harsh with you," Siena said thoughtfully, crouching slightly to extinguish the incense she had been burning for her prayer.
"If you are referring to my rather bloated lip, I would not worry about it." Syreena touched the swollen area and shrugged matter-of-factly. "It makes for a tender beak when turning into a strong breeze or thermal, but otherwise causes no harm."
"I do not like the idea of anyone striking you," Siena responded, moving closer and inspecting her sister's otherwise unbruised body for a brief moment. "You should be afforded the same respect that they would show for me."
"I reminded them of that." Syreena chuckled, her harlequin eyes twinkling with triumphant mischief. "If The Three wore shorts under their robes, you can bet they would be in a mighty big twist at the moment."
The remark made Siena laugh out loud. Syreena was such a staid student, full of respect for her upbringing and all the lessons she had learned in the monastery, so this was a rare side of irreverence.
"Well, I am afraid to ask you this favor, then."
It was not like Siena to hedge, and Syreena narrowed her dual-colored eyes on her sister. "Ask anyway," she said.
"I would like you to join the scholars who are going into the Library. Most of them will, of course, be Monks of The Pride. However, since you have one foot in the monastery and one foot in the court, it makes you my best selection in bridging the gap between those two disparate interests. You will have the respect for study and religious tradition that so pleases The Pride, and you will balance that with your perspective of my interest, which I know is never too far from your heart."
"That sounds easy enough," Syreena said dryly, giving her eyes a dramatic roll.
"Ease, I suspect, will have very little to do with anything that is even remotely connected to the Nightwalker Library," the Queen noted, a curl furrowing through her brow. "There is one other reason I wish to send you."
"One I suspect has something to do with the fact that I can usually manage to end up on top in a fight," Syreena said helpfully.
"Every Monk of The Pride can fight, I realize, though they usually do so only to protect themselves and their own interests. I am not concerned with shielding them, for you all can do that for yourselves. I also take note of the fact that you personally are far more a pacifist than you are a warrior. I have learned that much about you these past fifteen years. Discounting, of course, your recent incident on my behalf."
"Of course," Syreena agreed, giving her sister a wicked smile.
"In spite of all these factors, I am forced to consider the fact that we were forced to destroy an encampment of necromancers, hunters, and the Demon traitors that was little more than one hundred feet above and away from the cavern the Library is located in. Then there is the additional fact that this is in our territory and we will be hosting other Night-walkers in this expedition for knowledge. I need someone who has had at least some exposure to other Nightwalkers, someone who will take their safety and well-being into consideration. I cannot post military there. Not if there will be Demons about. The peace between Demons and Lycanthropes is far too young after so many centuries of war, and we Nightwalkers tend to have very long memories. Though the Demons will be scholars, there is still too much potential for a volatile outburst of some sort.
"Also, there is no way of knowing what information the Library will reveal. Issues may arise that could turn a scholarly debate deadly. There are just too many random, uncontained factors. You are the only one I know who will have the power and, clearly, the fearlessness it will take to stand up to members on all sides. You are not afraid of The Pride, which makes you unique among us. I admit even I cannot boast that bravery one hundred percent. You are not poisoned against Demons, and you are fully aware of my desire to maintain this peace with them. You have always defended and championed my political desires. Neither are you afraid of the Demons.
"What I am saying," she continued after taking a breath, "is that you are the next best thing to being there myself. I trust you and need you to do this."
"I understand," Syreena said, giving her sister a wry little smile. "I am Princess of this court, but I am queen of riding both sides of a fence."
"You say that as if your ability to care for multiple aspects of a situation is a bad thing," Siena countered, coming closer so she could study Syreena's features thoughtfully. "I have found it to be the most valuable thing about you."
"Yes, I know," Syreena agreed quietly.
What Siena did not realize was that this was true of everyone. Everyone found great value in Syreena and everyone coveted her dual-sided nature. The trouble was finding a point of reconciliation. Not with Siena, because Siena would care for her and respect her even if she grew twenty heads and twenty personalities to match. However, no one in their society, the Queen included, saw Syreena as a single being. She was always a singular one. They enjoyed one of her aspects or the other, but, other than the uniqueness of it, rarely both as a whole.
The court delighted in her mysteriousness. The Pride exploited the fact that they had discovered all of her inimitable talents along with her. The Monks wished to parent her into submission, the public wished to have her wed and bred into it.
Even Siena was guilty of the need to label her and tuck her neatly onto a categorized shelf. It was merely that the Queen's shelf was larger than most, perhaps able to accommodate the unexpected. To everyone else in Lycanthrope society, Syreena was admired as, say, a wild horse would be admired by the humans who captured it. Intelligent, yes. Even a bit dangerous. Something of power and beauty, meant to be broken to ride and bred for her bloodlines and genetic superiority. Serving dutifully the causes of others, never allowed to simply travel her own way.
If she had a self-created way.
In all fairness, Syreena didn't even know if she had a direction of her own. She didn't know if she was a single being, or always two halves, rather than a whole.
"Hmm?" She looked up, aware that she had lost track of her sister in her pursuit of her own thoughts. "I am sorry, what did you say?"
"I asked you if something was bothering you," Siena said, changing the question on the fly. She had seen the frown and confusion warring in the depths of her sister's harlequin features.
"Nothing out of the ordinary," Syreena brushed her off, seeming to shake off her thoughts as she shook back her hair.
Siena was not fooled. Lycanthrope hair was a living appendage, with blood flow, tensile ability, and even nerve endings. The toss of Syreena's head was their cultural equivalent to rubbing or shaking out one's hands, as if warding off a chill.
"Then tell me the ordinary," Siena invited softly, reaching to take her sister's arm and lead her into the depths of the cavern castle that made up their royal household.
"I was just wondering if I was up to the task you are setting before me," Syreena half lied. "You will be purposely standing me in potentially troubled waters. I am more used to avoiding such obvious situations of conflict. I am better suited to advising you what to do, putting you or others on your behalf into conflict." Siena laughed when Syreena gave a rueful chuckle. "Perhaps it will do me good," Syreena said a bit more brightly. "It may temper my readiness to throw others to the wolves in the future."
"That is the voice of a true philosopher, always hungry for a learning experience." Siena paused for several moments as they turned in the direction of Syreena's quarters. "Are you happy here, my sister?"
Syreena stopped, turning to look at the Queen with surprise. "Of course I am. Do you doubt my adjustment?"
"No. It took you some time, but you have adapted to royal life and responsibility quite well. But that isn't what I asked you. I want to know if you are happy…personally. In your heart."
Syreena smiled at Siena, linking their arms and guiding her forward once again.
"I am not as happy as you are," she teased her. "I do not have a handsome new husband making me happy every night"-she paused a purposeful beat for her own mischief-"and every morning, too, I am told."
Siena threw back her head, laughing with delight even as she allowed herself a bit of a blush.
"Damn, I hate being Queen sometimes. I cannot even use the bathroom without someone taking note of it." She self-consciously reached to fluff the thick, golden filament coils of her hair. "I think my attendants are already accounting for my breeding cycles in anticipation of an heir."
"Should I be watching as well?" Syreena asked archly.
"No." Siena chuckled. "Please. I will be staying quite far away from Elijah when I enter my heat cycle. At least for a few years."
"Ha! Now there is a trick I would like to see. Elijah has never struck me as the sort who would relinquish a hard-earned prize for two weeks, even if it is only twice a year. And you have never been through a mated heat cycle before. As hard as it is to keep from the bed of the opposite sex when you are without a mate, I hear it is nearly impossible to tolerate with one."
"And yet I am determined to forebear. Elijah and I must learn to live with one another before we think to bring children into the fray."
"How like my wife to view everything as a battle."
Siena and Syreena both came to a halt as the mocking comment rushed past them on a sudden cavern breeze. In a blink, the Demon warrior coalesced out of his element, metamorphosing from wind to flesh in a heartbeat, standing before them with all the assuredness of the cocky, powerful being that he was. He was a giant man, as golden blond as Syreena's sister, and roped head to toe with the musculature of a well-seasoned warrior. He wore faded denim jeans and a long-sleeved silk shirt the color of deep turquoise. The dye set off the bright green of his eyes as they roamed the figure of his wife boldly and appreciatively.