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|Ecstasy(Shadowdwellers #1) by Jacquelyn Frank|
“Well, well. What have we here?”
The snide speculation made Ashla cringe, but instincts she didn’t understand caused her to lay her shaking fingers to rest against the grip of the sword by her toes. She wasn’t going to use it, just…she would make sure it stayed out of his easy reach. Her gaze shifted to the other male and she was surprised and unexplainably grateful to see he had straightened and, as though in no pain at all, swiftly grabbed up his own sword and slid sturdily into the space between Baylor and herself.
“Come now, Trace,” Baylor drawled slowly as the other man’s blade tapped its tip to the jutting point of his chin. The implication was clear. One wrong move and his head would be singing farewell to his neck. “Look at the fear in her eyes. Look at how the Lost one trembles. Don’t you get it? It means she can see us.”
Trace was almost certain it was a trick of some kind. Everyone in their world knew well enough that the Lost couldn’t see a Shadowdweller. There was one exception, but even that required a ritual, a priest, and a damn good reason to want to make that kind of contact, which on its own was a preposterous likelihood. Still, Trace had glimpsed the cowering Lost girl shortly after they had come in through the window. Her reaction at the time would be understandable. She couldn’t see them, but she would certainly see the exploding glass coming toward her.
Trace let his gaze flick to his low right and back again, taking a quick mental picture of the female. It was impossible to miss her, really. She was everything his people weren’t. Fair. Blond. Wearing white. Fearful. In fact, he couldn’t seem to help himself as he looked back at her once more, getting a better look at just how light and white she seemed. Even her eyes were bright and the fairest shade of blue he’d ever seen.
And they were staring straight at him.
Wide, frightened, but inarguably fixated on him.
“Impossible,” he muttered aloud.
“Ha! Proof of your idiotic stubbornness,” Baylor mocked him.
“You will shut your treacherous mouth, my friend,” Trace ground out angrily, using the press of his blade on Baylor’s throat to force the other man to sit upright onto his heels. Even despite his quick obedience, the highly honed tip of the blade cut into his skin and started a river of blood flowing down his thick throat. As for Trace, his roaring temper had shifted from betrayed anger to a storm of fury. “Do you think this is how this will end? Do you really think I will merely take you into my custody and march you to your fate at the hands of my regents? After you follow me here to engage my ear in whispered plots and backstabbing sedition meant to pit one regent against the other? A sister against her brother? Oh, no, Baylor,” Trace assured in a voice that ground to a low and slow resonance of threat, “I am my Lord Chancellor’s vizier, and it is I who advises him, but while I would have you hanged publicly to be made an example of, Tristan would not see you as the threat you truly are.
“His Grace,” he continued bitterly, “suffers from the overconfidence of power and strength. A flaw only time will rectify. Also, there is his unshakable foundation of his trust in his sister’s loyalty, a factor which makes him laugh off plot-makers like you. It is a mistake many young regents have made. He forgets that voices like yours will always find the ears of the discontented and disloyal whether they succeed at their intended goal or not.
“Their reign is far too youthful to be given such a test, and our efforts at peace with the other Nightwalkers would distract him from realizing that. So no,” Trace assured the kneeling man, “this will not end civilly. It will end with my sword severing those seditious vocal cords of yours and keeping you from ever whispering your ill words to a single other ’Dweller.”
“It is against the law for one ’Dweller to take the life of another!” Baylor reminded him with a sneer. “A law you instigated, if I recall! How steady do you think this political body will ever be when its own lawmakers cannot abide by its own rules?”
“Do not quote my own laws to me, traitor,” Trace hissed through clenched teeth, pushing forward on his blade until Baylor squawked in protest. “Or do you forget that an attack on any of the ruling body is considered an act of treason and war? In war, the law is suspended with circumstance and proof of cause.” Trace leaned forward to close the distance between their gazes. “Do you forget the dagger you plunged into my back so soon?”
The gasp from the girl on the floor was unmistakable, and Trace cautiously kept pressure on his blade as he glanced toward her again. Sure enough, her eyes were tracking anxiously over the length of his back as if in search of the dagger he had just mentioned.
By the Dark, Baylor was right! The Lost woman could see him! She could hear everything they were saying. It was impossible, his logical mind demanded once again in knee-jerk denial, and yet…
Trace looked away. He didn’t have time for distractions. He knew Baylor couldn’t give a damn about some perceptive Lost. He was just using her to waste time and seek advantage. If Trace waited much longer, he was going to end up giving it to him. He doubled his grip on the hilt of his katana and braced his feet against the steadily increasing weakness of his body. He saw Baylor’s entire body tensing exactly like his own was, preparing to act in order to save himself. But Trace knew Baylor was waiting for him to pull back for a swing before moving, and it was a moment of advantage he refused to give, even if it made his task harder and more gruesome in the end.
Trace took a breath, and with a deeply ferocious cry to vent his anger and frustration, he plunged all of his weight forward onto the top six inches of his blade. It was his meticulous maintenance of the thing that did the best part of the work. Before Baylor could so much as flinch in realization, the finely honed blade sawed into flesh and critical arteries. The traitor’s gasp of understanding actually bubbled from the cut in his throat, the wet intake of air and blood the only sound in the end. Baylor’s hands reached around the blade that was killing him in a last-ditch effort to struggle, but he only succeeded in cutting himself to the bone of his palms.
Trace went to pull his blade free and step back, wanting to let the body fall where it was, as it was, but suddenly his legs turned to rubber and every muscle in his body relinquished the strength he had struggled so hard to maintain. He fell to his knees. Hard. His grip on his sword fumbled and released and a moment later he felt himself tumbling over the hardwood floor.
He knew it was because of the heavy wetness of his own draining blood that this was happening. Frankly, he was surprised he had lasted this long, never mind come out on top of a fight with a brute like Baylor. Trace had to admit it had been utter dread more than anything that had driven him. He had feared that Baylor might succeed in his unlikely plans to drive a wedge between the brother and sister regents. He had feared for the Shadowdweller people as a society if he did.
Then, even as he was aware of the edges of his consciousness fading, Trace felt the shaking touch of warm hands on his shoulders, turning him over gingerly while struggling with his weight. Golden hair, tickling in feathers against her skin, surrounded the woman’s head like a nimbus when she leaned over him. The cut was short enough to be a boy’s cut, he noted numbly. Why would such a beautiful woman, with hair of such an amazing color, want to cut it all off? He had never understood humans, even when they weren’t Lost. Or women, for that matter, of any race. The odds were definitely stacked against him understanding anything about this situation.
“L-let me help you,” she stammered, leaning over to cup his face between two soft hands. The skin of her palms brushed beneath his nose briefly, and Trace was caressed by a warm, sweet scent. Like honeysuckle and lilacs. Another anomaly, he noted, because the Lost should have no scent, nor warmth. Those were living human traits. The Lost were just lost; souls without the flesh traits of their bodies. But even if he were hallucinating, why would he concoct details like that? Trace didn’t think the warm scent of lilacs and humanity was something his own imagination could easily conjure up.
Trace faded after that thought, but found himself jerked back to awareness shortly after when the force of tearing fabric jerked at his body. He lifted his lashes despite their incredible weight and tried to focus on the woman who was struggling at stripping off his shirt.
“Leave me be. I’ll be fine,” Trace grumbled.
Well, it wasn’t entirely true, but it wasn’t as if she could do much to help him. He just needed to be left alone for a while. Just long enough so he could catch his breath, regroup, and find the strength to Unfade.
Trace gave no thought to the fact he was completely deluding himself and that he was in very real danger of dying. He also dismissed the knowledge that unconsciousness alone might send him spiraling out of his Fade, and even his pain-numbed senses were warning him that it was still daylight in Realscape. If he lost his grip on the secure darkness of Shadowscape, he would be burned up alive within a matter of moments upon returning.
So much for the idea that his breed was supposed to be immortal. He’d never understood the word “immortal” in that context. Their longevity of youth and the intense hardiness of the species as a whole might make them long-lived and quite difficult to kill, but at the moment he was living proof—or rather dying proof—that mortality was indeed possible. Be it the act of bleeding to death, a beheading, or sprawling into sunlight, his breed was most certainly capable of dying.
Trace knew there wasn’t much the Lost one could do for him. He didn’t even know why he could feel her in the first place. Also, the little thing was shaking like a leaf with her trepidation. Understandable, granted, considering all she had just seen, but nothing that would inspire him to set his faith in her. Not that he was known for setting his faith in the unpredictability of women lately.
Trace found a pocket of strength within himself, just enough to allow him the advantage of using her existing fear against her. He burst upward beneath her, making her squeal out a scream as he rolled her hard to the floor, following her with the weight of his considerably bigger body pinning her down. Her small hands clutched the front of his shirt, her fists tight against his pectorals, and she instinctively dug her heels against the wooden floor for purchase. This allowed him the unexpected and pleasant comfort of a cradle of soft thighs covered in silk as a resting point for his hips.
He found it strangely provoking, the way she shook so hard and gasped for breath beneath him. The push of the gown she wore accented the extraordinary symmetry of her rising and falling breasts. That scent, that sweet and innocent aroma of tender flowers and springtime warmth arose from her skin to envelop him. To his astonishment, he realized for the first time that this truly was a real woman he held trapped beneath him. This was no wraith, no Lost soul only. She felt of soft flesh and heated blood, as alive and vital as he was…for the time being. He held her helpless and vulnerable, despite his own weakening stamina, and there was something indelibly primal to that understanding that sent shockwaves of stimulation racing along the surfaces of his flesh.
The thought was actually sexual, Trace realized with a stunned inner laugh at himself. Of all the times! Here he was, on the brink of mortality, and all he was thinking of was how delicate and helpless this little blond mouse was…and how undeniably provocative she was because of it.
His goal in pinning her to the floor had been to scare her to death so that she would run away screaming and leave him to drop dead in peace. But his desires changed on the fly, and suddenly he was heavily distracted by the bright white and gold of her hair. He reached up for it, fondling one of the silky soft curls between his fingers.
“It never ceases to amaze me how this color seems to glow even in the dark and dim,” he murmured, also finding the texture to be supernaturally refined, almost as delicate as cobwebs.
“Please…d-don’t hurt m-me,” she stammered in between chattering of her teeth. “I…I can help you!” Her fear was both perplexing and bemusing, but even more so was her offer of help in spite of it. Trace supposed she was bargaining with him, offering him something to make her of value to him so he wouldn’t want to do her harm. It was actually quite clever of her.
“What do they call you?” he demanded suddenly, the hardness of the command in total counterpoint to the fingers still gently stroking her hair.
“Ashla,” she said obediently.
Her compliance mystified him. Had she been a Shadowdweller woman, he’d be nursing a few choice bruises by now, not to mention having his ears rung with tart insults. Trace wasn’t used to a woman like this. She seemed fragile enough to break. Small like a child. And yet…
“Ashla. You must leave this place. Do you understand? It is not a safe place to be right now.” Perhaps for more than one reason, he mused. The possibility that Baylor had arranged to meet companions did exist, and they could turn up at any time, but Ashla’s threat might be more immediate than that. Trace pressed a palm to the wooden floor, making to push himself up but succeeding only a little. Still, it was enough to allow him a long appraisal down the length of her curving side.
By the Dark, he groaned inwardly, I must be losing my mind. An effect of blood loss. Something. Anything. What else could explain this hard surge of predatory need pumping through him? The force of it on his already drained system made him light-headed, and he could feel the room beginning to spin.
“You need to go,” he rasped, using one last effort to roll his weight off her. The last thing he wanted was to trap her beneath him as he fell into dead weight and then eventually death. The little Lost rabbit wouldn’t be likely to survive such a gruesome and endangering experience.
He sprawled over the floor to her right, closing his eyes when everything around him lurched and spun wickedly. Damn, he thought bitterly, this is an annoying way to die. Never mind the anticlimactic resolution to his fight with Baylor and the fact that he couldn’t warn his regents of bubbling trouble, but to never have a chance to figure out what it was about this woman that so tantalized and intrigued him, that felt like the true tragedy.