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|Damien(Nightwalkers #4) by Jacquelyn Frank|
Syreena was the one who stood in the nude, but she realized that to Elijah, her sister was the only one standing undressed before him.
"Hello." He greeted Siena softly, his gentle tone taking about ten pounds of armor from his imposing appearance.
Siena's return greeting was nonverbal. She released her sister and glided eagerly into Elijah's opening arms. He hugged the Queen to his body, making her seem somehow much smaller and far more delicate by the reverence with which he did so. It was an impressive trick of perception. Syreena realized then that, as outrageous as it seemed from what she knew of them both, they had somehow become tamed to each other.
Which was not to say that they were either of them tame in any way. Suggesting such a thing to Queen or Consort would very likely earn a demonstration otherwise. It meant only that they were quickly finding a rhythm with each other that allowed one to flow in while the other flowed out. A tide that was powerful, volatile, and potentially dangerous, but a concerto of movement within itself. They were the very definition of what the Demons called an Imprinting; what humans called a soul mate. A perfect match. A meeting of life forces that transcended the limitations of the body.
Syreena could not help but envy them. She was happy for them, but she was also jealous, and she could not help herself. Siena had never tended toward domestication. Quite the opposite, in fact, swearing up until the day of her wedding that she would never marry, refusing to expose her heart and the responsibilities of her throne to the influences of a male. Syreena had always known that her sister's attitude had come from being raised by an irrational and bloodletting warlord of a father. The Queen had not wanted to repeat their mother's mistakes by risking marriage.
In truth, it had always been Syreena who had expressed wishes for a warm home, a loving mate, and a household of children in the letters the sisters had shared over the decades. Lycanthrope royals were allowed only one true mate, could have no other than that soul that existed out in the world somewhere only for them. Once they chose a lover, it was the equivalent of exchanging lifelong vows. It was supposed to be a bond without equal that would last through eternity, from one lifetime into the next.
And Syreena longed for it with all of her heart at times.
"Well, in spite of the fact that you two share a telepathic connection, I am certain that Elijah's stay at Noah's court these past two days has left you with a bit of catching up to do. So I will leave you both."
Syreena bowed out and away from their presence with haste, grateful that they were so close to her chambers. She made a quick escape into her suite of rooms before either of them could protest.
"Damn," Siena muttered.
"What is it?" Elijah asked, taking her face between his hands and tilting her head back so he could look into her eyes and divine her thoughts.
"Oh, nothing," she assured him. "I just realized that she never answered a question I had asked her. I will make her do so…at a later date."
Elijah grinned broadly as her ideas for what to do in the interim filled his mind.
"Someone missed me," he teased.
"Someone missed me," she countered even as his hands moved possessively over her back, drawing her ever closer to his warmth and his heart.
Damien entered his home after his hunt, levitating down over the compound walls and landing on a third-floor balcony. The balcony led to a brightly lit library, and he entered, curious to see who had beaten him in the time it took to hunt and travel back to the Santa Barbara mansion.
He came around the shelves to the cozy sitting area several steps down into the center of the room. Sitting with her feet tucked up under her in a comfortable chaise, a book lying open in her lap, was Jasmine. She had not aged a day in nearly five hundred years, her skin still perfection, her black sweep of hair and dark eyes still as full of hidden, mysterious thoughts as ever. She was the one true presence he could not, try as he might, make himself grow tired of.
That is, she was the only surviving such presence.
Jasmine was one of the best hunters of his entourage, so it would not surprise him at all if she did hunt and return faster than he could, in spite of the fact that her hunting grounds were in Southern California.
But he knew just by looking at her that she had not hunted. Her body was chilled, not flushed with fresh heat. Yet she looked as if she were quite comfortable with her book and not intending to go out anytime soon.
She looked up, clearly knowing he had arrived long before he had even cleared the compound walls. His presence was not one that went unnoticed to any Vampire of moderate skill. Since her skill was superb, she would have been aware of him the moment he entered the county, if not quite sure exactly who he was.
"Why have you not gone out?"
She closed the book, not even taking the care to mark her page. "I will. Are you suddenly my keeper, Damien?"
"Not suddenly. You have been a part of my household long enough to know I am everyone's keeper." He stepped lightly down, pushing aside a stack of books on the table across from her so he could seat himself directly at her eye level. "You are melancholy again," he noted directly.
"Don't they call it depression nowadays?"
Her glib tone did not sway him. He frowned slightly. "We are not human, Jasmine. Never were, never will be. Human terms will never quite suit us."
"I suppose not," she agreed. "And I am not melancholy. Nor am I bored," she added quickly when one of his dark brows picked up questioningly. "Don't worry. You won't find me causing mischief in order to entertain myself."
"Then explain to me why you are behaving so moodily."
"I believe I was born that way," she rejoined, leaning a little closer to him, the ends of her black hair skimming the tops of her shoulders as she did so. "When have you known me to be anything other than moody?"
"There is moody…and then there is this. I know you, as you say. You will start to neglect yourself, fall into torpor, and I will not see you for an entire century."
Jasmine actually smiled at that. He really did know her too well. The Prince was her oldest friend; her mentor, in fact. They had coasted over many centuries together, survived where their companions had not. She should be surprised if he did not know her.
"I would not be the first to do so. And you do not pester any of the others of us who become disenchanted with the present world and decide to go to ground for a while. Why am I earning your special form of concern? Why do you always pester me about this?"
"Because I miss you when you leave me, Jasmine. Do I need to say that?"
"Perhaps. It is nice to hear it." The slim beauty reached out with her long nails to run them down his face fondly. "I am well," she reassured him with a sigh. "Perhaps I am in need of something to occupy me after all. I do not know."
Damien smiled suddenly, transforming his serious features in a way that took years off his already permanently ageless good looks.
"It just so happens that I may have just the thing," he told her.
The sound of footsteps echoed in the caverns leading to the newfound Library hidden within them as Syreena approached the entrance. The traps had been removed, the trick of the locks disengaged for the time being. The stone that had protected the mysterious Library had been moved aside as scholars from differing Nightwalker species warmed the lonely shelves with the beginnings of a continued presence.
She stood at the opening for a moment, taking in only her second view of the remarkable room. The smell of must and mildew was a little less, she noted immediately. Leaving the cavern open had allowed fresh air to circulate in. It was a relief to her senses and probably those of all the other Nightwalkers.
The first step into the cavern took her from stone to a thin but intricately woven carpet. Though it was stained with the centuries and the dampness caused by neglectful trickles of water that had broken through the original seals put up to protect the Library, the craftsmanship of the red and gold rug was still apparent.
Immediately to the left and right along the walls were the first shelves of books. There was not an inch of wall space wasted. Whether they were carved directly out of stone or made of wood and secured into stone, there were shelves covering every inch of the walls, from floor to ceiling. On those shelves, packed in densely, were books ranging in both height and thickness, some of them quite tiny, others quite enormous. At first glance, Syreena could only read about one out of every ten titles. That was remarkable to her because she could read and write quite a few languages, both human and Nightwalker.
The main aisle was large enough to fit a row of tables comfortably down the center of the red runner, the books running the walls on either side for easy access. Someone had already lit several kerosene and oil lamps, setting them at acceptable intervals. The torches that thrust out from intermittent spots in the walls themselves were also lit and burning brightly. Almost too brightly. Syreena could feel the burn on her eyes.
This was as far as she had ever seen into the Library. The day they had first discovered it, they had been pressed into other matters and had not had the luxury of exploring it. Anya, the General of the royal Elite Guard, had been the only one to come back and run through it in its entirety, strictly as a safety measure, just in case the traps and such did not end at the door.
There were already two Monks and a Demon in the room. Syreena was positive there were more in the parts of the chamber that were out of her sight. She supposed they were just starting anywhere, grabbing the first book they came across. No one, as far as she knew, could understand the markings carved into the walls above the bookcases that were no doubt some sort of filing symbols.
They should probably appoint some sort of a librarian, she mused. Someone to coordinate the effort, keeping them from doubling back on their own work. Someone to track the volumes and be responsible for keeping everything complete. Someone to arrange for the repairs to the cavern that would be necessary to keep the water from flowing in and ruining any more of the volumes than it already had.
But while Nightwalkers could agree to share these findings, she would bet money that it would be nearly impossible for them to agree on something as individualized as assigning a librarian. Still, she would have to make the suggestion to Siena. The Library was in their territory, after all. Perhaps if they assigned someone without even asking if they should, it would become accepted as the norm and go unquestioned.
Syreena's speculations halted as a Nightwalker she could not immediately identify entered her perception. She was tiny, barely over five feet, and though she was quite pretty, she seemed terribly unsure of herself. She was creeping along the cases as if she were trying to tune out the fact that anyone else was even there.
She was not Demon. Demons were tall and tanned and dreadfully gorgeous in a very stalwart way, as a rule, and while she was very beautiful, the little thing was delicate and almost frail looking. Neither was she Lycanthrope or Vampire. Lycanthropes could always sense their brethren, and Vampires had no circulation to speak of. Not after a certain age, at least. It was clear to Syreena's senses that she had a rapid little heartbeat and a very efficient bloodstream.
Who else besides these three would be studying in a Nightwalker Library?
Syreena entered the room fully at last, making a straight line for the stranger. Her target noted her approach instantly and a look Syreena could only describe as panic seemed to cross her fine-boned features. She drew back, huddling against the bookshelf as the Princess stepped up to her.
That was when Syreena realized what she was.
"Hello. I am Syreena." She greeted the frightened girl gently, extending a hand of greeting. "You are Mistral, are you not?"
Syreena had only seen one other Mistral in her life. She was astounded that she was seeing a second. Mistrals were utterly reclusive. They did not associate with anyone other than themselves, and even then, outside of living in tiny villages together, they rarely gathered. They were xenophobic, they terribly feared crowds, and they very certainly feared those of any power.
The young Mistral female nodded in confirmation of Syreena's guess. She would not speak, the Princess knew. Female Mistrals were referred to as Sirens for a very good reason. The music of their voices alone was enchanting, dazing any who listened. It was an adequate defense mechanism. More than adequate. Like the ominous rattle of a poisonous snake, its effect was universally paralyzing. But also like the wise snake, she would rather slink away than face a challenge. However, Syreena was willing to bet that if put to the screws, one of the Mistral breed could do more than enough damage to an enemy. This would be easy to do to a mark that was entranced by their speaking voice alone, not to mention the utterly enamoring effect should they decide to sing.
It was fortunate that they were a dedicated nonviolent species.
The small-boned girl reached out and took Syreena's offered hand, shaking head to toe the entire while. As they shook in greeting, Syreena marveled that the girl had come there at all. She had not realized Siena had extended the invitation to the Mistrals, never mind that they would accept. This girl, despite her cowed shivering, had to be uniquely brave to have volunteered for this duty.
Syreena released her hand and glanced at the tables not too far away from them. She gave the girl a half smile and reached for one of the sheets of paper she saw sitting in a stack. She nodded to the pen clutched in the other female's fingers.
"What's your name?"
The Mistral actually smiled. She took the paper and, using the book in her hands as a lean, scribbled a quick response.
"Aria," it read.
Syreena liked her instantaneously. She knew it was a bias but did not care. Mistrals were shapechangers, too, but they only became birds. Lycanthropes ran the entire panoply of the animal kingdom. However, since they shared a like animal species in their transformed states, Syreena suspected they might enjoy some common experiences and insights. A bird's-eye view, as it were. It would just be a matter of gaining the little woman's trust enough that she would weed much of the enchantment out of her voice, like a snake keeping its unnerving rattle still, and allow a conversation. Siena's relationship with another Mistral named Windsong had taught Syreena that such a thing was possible.