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|Ecstasy(Shadowdwellers #1) by Jacquelyn Frank|
He didn’t go far before heading for the dark tunnels of the subway. Unlike the subways in the “real” New York, there were no yellowed fluorescents and no sparking flickers of electricity from passing trains or friction from brakes on rails. Nowadays, most of these smaller lights went unnoticed in a city, but no light was too small for notice to a Shadowdweller. Only the moon and stars and perhaps the faintest of candle glow was tolerable, but he need not worry about any of it in Shadowscape. In truth, in Realscape, the subways and other tunnel systems like them were a common resource for traveling the human cities that reeked with light—provided one avoided the light-flooded stations and hubs the humans used.
Trace leapt down onto the track, ignoring the speed and efficiency of the trains out of habit. He did very little in Shadowscape that he wouldn’t do in Realscape. It wasn’t unheard of that something might trigger a spontaneous Unfading. Generally, it happened to youths and weaker ’Dwellers, inexperience and low power resources often denying stability of the Fade state. For Shadowdwellers of Trace’s astounding power, however, even severe injury would not jolt them from their Fade. That didn’t mean that injury and another added stressor wouldn’t, so he took great care as he crossed the length of the city belowground.
Trace paused as a train blew past him on the next track. The vibrations it sent rocketing under his feet were familiar, and, even wounded as he was, he was completely unconcerned about the danger flying by so close to him at such deadly speeds.
He skipped lines some time later, his stride increasing in length and speed as his body continued to heal itself. By the time he exited the Hunt’s Point station, he was practically feeling spry.
Now he finally took the opportunity to Unfade.
Because he was so powerful, and because his Fade was so definitive, it took just as much effort to escape the freedoms of Shadowscape as it did to enter them. The key, however, was in sensing light. Or rather shadows. He knew, obviously, to avoid the physical objects that were known for shedding light in Realscape. But it was always important to check for the unexpected. Shadowdwellers had many special senses and abilities, but none was keener than the sense for light and the bodily alarms that went off in anticipation of coming into contact with it. Trace searched himself for these before committing completely to the Unfade. This was what would warn him if he was Unfading into danger.
It was almost always heartbreaking to leave the perfect darkness and liberty of Shadowscape. There was nothing to fear in that world so perfectly made for his kind. At least, not for a while. It was like the twinge of onrushing tears out of the blue, the sensation of releasing his hold on that ’scape. It smarted through his sinuses and behind his eyes, and a weight he didn’t feel in Shadowscape insinuated itself back into his chest as he Unfaded into Realscape. His extremities went a little numb, but then sensation rushed back like they were waking from a cramped sleeping position. All of this took place over a span of sixty seconds, and with each ticking moment, sound and the vibration of the real world ebbed into him. Sirens, the rising blare of a passing horn, and even the rousing yapping of provoked dogs—all of it rushed into him, reminding him of how the city could truly be when its population was actually using it.
Then, on the next breath, the transition was over.
But this was all old hat to a man of Trace’s longevity. He had learned to Fade and Unfade sometime just before his adolescence, some two hundred-odd years ago. In that time since then, he had skipped dimensions so often and for so many reasons that it was no different to him than using a revolving door to transition from inside a building to outside of one. So as soon as he was back to walking the shadows of the full human city of New York, he continued to his destination.
It only took five minutes for him to find the dingy façade of brick and broken glass he was looking for. To the outside world, it was no different than any of the other abandoned tenements that had become harbors for the homeless and those who were helplessly addicted to crack, crank, or ice. He stepped carefully over the refuse such people left behind them. But in this building, there was an end to the space they could access. After the width of a single room on all sides, outsiders were met with a thick wall of cinderblock and brick. Beyond that, Trace knew, was a second wall just as thick. This was a Shadowdweller safe house. There were only two ways in, and you had to know them to find them. The first was a common way, the entrance he was headed for. The second was an escape, used only in moments of extreme danger or threat of discovery. There were houses like this one all over the world, hidden in plain sight and maintained by caretakers who chose to remain native to the cities in order to provide safe havens for traveling Shadowdwellers who needed to plan their way through them so carefully.
Trace found the entrance after climbing on top of a broken wall. He thrust a hand between etched bricks, the instructions in ancient Shadese, a symbolic language that appeared to be meaningless graffiti to the average outsider, if an average outsider should even dare to enter a neighborhood such as this one. He checked behind himself, all his night-bred senses telling him the nearest human body was rooms away. Reassured, he grabbed the lever behind the brick with his fingertips and with just a squeeze released the latch. The heavy brick wall pivoted away from him on a fulcrum, the weight of it becoming insignificant. It swung only wide enough to let him squeeze into the narrow tunnel between the double walls. He then had to slide sideways several steps before finding the second latch.
As the final doorway swung open, Trace stepped into a completely altered existence. Unlike entering Shadowscape, however, this was more about material improvements. It was like stepping into a sultan’s home, lush with riches like velvet and beaten gold for ornamentation. Trace entered the main parlor with a relieved sort of sigh, but kept back from being seen by the general population milling about in conversation.
There was a significant crowd in the room. This was to be expected, since the entire royal household and most of the Senate was migrating north at the present time. Of course, not everyone could be contained in the same safe house, and there would be carefully planned cycles as they all passed through and moved on, but it was posh and prestigious to claim travel with the Chancellors themselves, so it was a much coveted time and place to be. Senators, priests and their handmaidens, and quite a few other upper-class members of their society were blended together. It made the rather large parlor seem much smaller than it was.
It also reminded Trace of just how close-quartered danger could be to the royals at that very moment. The very idea chilled him through as he ran suspect eyes over senators like Garamond and Ethane, who were notorious for siding against the Chancellors whenever they could draw breath. But those were obvious choices and it would be foolish to focus there alone. As it had been during the clan wars, he was going to have to suspect everyone, from Declan the treasurer to Killian the head of security. Drenna help them if it was someone like Killian, though. As trusted as he was? As close as he was to the very safety of the twin regents?
Trace caught a familiar pair of eyes across the room. It was easy to spot the house’s hostess, really. She was the only one in the room who wasn’t dressed in dark blues, browns, or blacks. Instead, she had chosen a brilliant peacock blue satin dress that fell in luscious folds from her slim body. She could afford the luxury of the flashy colors because she rarely traveled outside of her environment of the safe house.
“Valerina,” he greeted her as she crossed the room quickly to approach him. Her gray-black eyes roamed his obviously worse for wear body with concern, her brows drawing down expressively.
“My Lord Vizier,” she returned, “you are injured. I will fetch you aid.”
She raised a hand, ready to snap one of her attendants to attention, but he caught her wrist and eased her arm back down. His dark eyes slid over the others in the room, taking note of who was watching them with interest already.
“That isn’t necessary,” he assured Valerina. “I’m almost completely healed.”
“You will forgive me for saying so, Ajai, but that is bullshit.”
Trace couldn’t help the half-hitched grin he turned onto her. She lifted a wry brow and gave him a look that reminded him quickly why he liked the sharp-witted woman. She was no-nonsense through and through, and few got away with trying to deceive her. They were good qualities in a woman entrusted to protect untold numbers of ’Dweller lives over the years.
“Be that as it may,” he countered, “I have my reasons to use a little discretion.”
Discretion and secrecy were other topics she understood well and negotiated with regularity. Her entire life was a well-kept secret from the human world that surrounded her, after all. So, without another word, she turned and led the way to a curtained alcove. She gestured to the door hidden behind the damask fabric.
“Take the hallway to the end, Ajai Trace, and use the door on your left. You will find my private bath within. While you make use of it, I will have Raul go to the secured quarters and retrieve some clean clothes from your wardrobe. And before you argue,” she continued sharply, holding up a hand to ward him from doing just that, “recall that discretion is your aim. If you enter secure quarters looking like you do and come into the presence of the monarchy thus, you will defeat that purpose.”
“But of course,” he agreed after a moment, reaching to take her stubborn hand out of the air and turning it gently up to his lips for a kiss of respect to match his short bow. This brought a smile to sleekly painted lips, the glistening garnet color flattering the clean white of her teeth and the sparkle flashing in her eyes.
“I’ll not have you dissatisfied in the slightest while you are in my house, Ajai,” she said, the statement more like a reprimand that he should even hint otherwise.
“I find the possibility simply preposterous, Valerina. Thank you.”
Why did you leave me?
Why did you shun me?
I never shunned you!
Yes, she said, you did. You all do. You always do. You are all the same.
I am many things, my little mouse, but ordinary is not one of them. I am like nothing you know.
Yes, she relented. You are a man who uses a sword to kill. I have never known anyone like that.
Trace awoke with a jolt, water raining down on him hot and sharp like a shower of needles. He had fallen asleep on his feet, his exhaustion catching up with him and forcing him into a brief state of dreaming thoughts. Voices dimly whispered in his mind, a barely caught memory of barely realized concepts and visions. His head hurt, ringing with all the effort he had put into the past hours.
And for inexplicable reasons, he couldn’t get the image of the young and vulnerable Ashla’s final expression of stricken hurt and tragic dismay out of his head.
“Damn,” he muttered, reaching to shut off the taps with hard twists of frustration. Yeah, it had been a hell of a day. And it wasn’t over yet. Now he had to find the regents and break the bad news. He was already dreading the conflict. He never knew what Tristan was going to take seriously and what he was going to blow off. It was Malaya he would have to count on, the female Chancellor proving to be the more grounded of the twins. That wasn’t to say Tristan hadn’t earned his place at the head of the Shadowdweller people, but as Trace had remarked to Baylor, the new monarch suffered from an overabundance of confidence.
Trace walked out of the shower and found the clothing Valerina had promised him resting within immediate reach. He didn’t waste any more time than necessary, pulling his clothes on before he was even decently dry. The purpose of the bathing had been to not draw attention and to not alarm anyone by dragging his exhausted carcass into the inner chambers covered in encrusted blood and looking like death warmed over. By the same token, he wasn’t out to impress anyone with his grooming.
He quickly exited the bath and found his way down the twisting hallways. In as much as these buildings had once been run-of-the-mill squared-out apartments, it was Shadowdweller style to make a labyrinth of anywhere they lived. The theory was the more corners, the more hidden places they could create, the better to escape light or danger when it came. It had worked too often for them to ever consider changing their ways.
Killian was hanging around the guards who were in charge of keeping everyone out of the royal suites, probably checking up on them to make certain they weren’t having any trouble keeping others away. Senators and the like loved to throw their weight around in attempts to get private audiences with the monarchy. However, Killian’s men were well trained and quite used to standing up in the face of power threats, the likes of which they could sometimes hand out.
“Ajai Trace.” Killian greeted him as he approached. He was smiling, but Trace saw the smile waver and then hold in false position as he got closer to him. Killian had been in and broken up too many brawls in his day not to notice when a man had had a serious shit-kicking handed to him. Despite his healing, Trace knew he was pretty banged up still. But he warned Killian off with a look, and the other guards didn’t seem to take notice as he brushed past them.
Killian would have to get caught up later, Trace thought.
He entered the deepest rooms of the craftily constructed safe house, soft and silent in his barefooted steps, partially from habit and partially with automatic respect. He’d begun to hear music and laughter shortly after crossing the barrier that marked the denser line of security in the depths of the house. Now, as he drew closer to the source, both grew in volume and merriment.
When he pushed open the door to the Chancellors’ private lounge, he immediately saw the source of this enjoyment. The music was a low throb of steady drumbeats and the overlay of tubular bells, as well as various types of harps and a sitar. Together the overall effect was powerful and playful, a thread of low sensuality marking the beat as it did in most of their music. This was mostly because, next to darkness, the thing they most treasured was the joyous freedom of dance. It had a marked place in their culture, crossing between the genders without prejudice. It had a place in almost every interaction of note, such as special occasions, celebrations, acknowledgments, and flirtations. They used dance to celebrate victory and declare war. They used it to prelude birth and to mourn death. It was even used in some more intricate forms of sex.