|Home > Jacquelyn Frank > Shadowdwellers > Ecstasy (Page 6)|
|Ecstasy(Shadowdwellers #1) by Jacquelyn Frank|
As if to demonstrate, a beautiful, lithe dancer swirled across the floor in a billowing frame of dark red skirts heavily embroidered in gold. She was not wearing paj, the traditional matching trousers that more conservative ’Dweller females always wore beneath their skirts, so the speed and whip of her dancing became a display of warm, brown skin along long, supple legs. She wore a snug bolero, also in red, with sunflowers of gold embroidered painstakingly on the fabric. Without an under-or over-blouse, the lean muscles of her midriff were on display, as was the lushness of her cleavage. Her flawless skin was gleaming with perspiration from her exertions, the salty dampness wetting the black curling hair along her temples and neck.
Trace glanced to the occupants of the room: the six musicians discreetly separated from the rest of the room by a bamboo and paper partition; the two bodyguards who dogged the steps of the royal twins with every waking moment; and the Chancellors themselves.
Tristan was sprawled back in relaxation amongst an arrangement of pillows on the floor, all of which were made of fine, rich fabrics for his comfort. He was sipping wine from an elegant etched glass with gold inlay and delicately bejeweled with the family crest’s four-point stars in precious faceted rubies. Those rubies matched the armband of office around Tristan’s significant left biceps, the thick gold cuff making no mistake of the power and prestige of its wearer.
The sister band to match it was gleaming on the arm of the dancer who was gliding and reaching in a breathtaking display of skill and physical endurance by one of the most graceful women Trace had ever known. Trace had no problems with Malaya’s enthusiasm for dance, especially when he considered how happy and healthy it kept her, and the pleasure it gave him and others to watch her. However, he thought with a frown, he did take issue with the immodesty of her dress. As a figurehead for her culture, she was expected to uphold a careful balance between the modern world and the traditional one. In this instance, a woman was a thing of exceptional and treasured beauty, but according to tradition she should never allow her dignity to be compromised by being seen in provocative dress in public, thereby opening herself up to criticism and aspersion. The saving grace in this instance was that her audience was limited to himself, her brother, and their bodyguards, who were used to seeing both royals in all manner of dress and undress. Malaya was simply amusing herself and her twin; she wasn’t out to rock and shock the rest of their conservative, traditionalist culture.
At least, not at that moment.
Malaya was deeply proud of her heritage and the traditions of their society. She wore full formal dress more often than not, she demanded ritual respect from those around her, and she was devoutly religious. That being said, she had a fierce modern streak running through her that came screaming to the surface every so often. Trace imagined she sated that voracious need for female freedoms by doing things like…like dancing in brief, provocative clothing when in relative privacy.
The music stopped and Malaya dropped to the floor in a graceful but heavily panting bow, her folded legs beneath her as her palms and forehead touched the cold marble floor in a gesture of submission and respect aimed at her brother. Again, this was tradition. Had it been Tristan dancing, he would have ended similarly in respect to his sister. Tristan rang the stone of his ruby and platinum ring against the rim of his chalice in salute to his sister.
“Damn me into Light, Laya.” He chuckled as he sat up and reached for the pile of rich, silky curls that spilled all around her head on the floor. “You’re bound to please your mate beyond speech when he first sees you dance for him. Would that I could find a bride so talented.”
Malaya lifted her head, shaking back the heavily curled strands with one of the rich laughs Trace was so accustomed to rolling out of her.
“So you say, my brother,” she teased him, “but no woman would have your arrogant ass unless she also had a great talent for patience. She must also like small children in the bodies of full-grown men,” she added primly, her folded hands falling into her lap.
“Aye,” Tristan agreed with a devilish grin flashing clean and white against his dusky coloring. “Just as you are going to need a man who can tolerate your cheek.”
“The only such creature is my twin before me,” Malaya declared, stretching forward to briefly give his cheek a warm, nuzzling kiss. Trace recognized it as her apology for publicly teasing him, if you could call the small gathering public. “So I am doomed, as you are, to an eternity of bachelorhood.”
“Excellencies,” Trace spoke up at last, finally announcing his arrival.
Twin dark heads turned in unison to regard him, and matching smiles appeared. It was uncanny, at times, how much alike they could look and behave, just as it was disturbing how wholly different the twins could be in both thought and action.
“Ajai Trace!” Tristan surged up to his feet with ease and speed to greet him with enthusiasm, clasping forearms with him in a firm, gripping familiarity. “Where in Light have you been? One moment you are at my side, the next I can’t find you for nearly two days. It’s not like you to be unavailable.”
It was hard to explain how time in differing dimensions worked, and even harder to understand. It wasn’t a fixed thing, time. At least, not between Realscape and Shadowscape. Shadowscape time wasn’t a fixed factor at all. You never really knew how time was passing in Realscape while you were there, no matter how you tried using technology to track it. What had seemed like no more than a day in Shadowscape to Trace had been two in the realm of the real.
“Forgive me, Tristan, it couldn’t be helped.” Trace wasted no time in catching the Chancellor’s eyes in a steady and serious exchange of intent. “We must talk, M’itisume.”
Malaya had gained her feet as well and her hands clapped together sharply, the echoing sound full of command as her palm cut downward in obvious dismissal. The musicians scurried discreetly for the nearest exit, while the bodyguards moved closer to their charges.
“Where is Rika?” Trace asked, noting the female vizier’s absence for the first time. She was to Malaya what he was to Tristan. There were no absolutes, of course. They often crossed advisory territory. However, for the most part, they each kept their focus on their own Chancellor. The truth of the matter was that their culture was sometimes too divergent when it came to the behaviors of its sexes. Each had critical protocols to adhere to, as well as pitfalls to avoid. Trace and Rika were experts in protocol, social graces and, for want of a better term, spin control. However, they were also trained in the arts of government, diplomacy, and the deadly skills of war. It was no easy position to qualify for, nor was it easy to maintain. But if Trace thought his job was a difficult one, he only need look to his regents to know there was one far more difficult.
Or in this case, two.
Xenia and Guin, understandably, held the next most complicated jobs. The most unusual thing about the bodyguards was the way their respective appointments flouted conventions. That both regents had chosen members of the opposite sex to protect them had stirred up quite a bit of a fuss, and even more snide speculation. It was dying down with time, as most sensationalism did, but it was still a much debated issue when opponents of the Chancellors ran out of things to squawk about.
But regardless of the gossip, no one could deny either warrior as being the best at what they did. Publicly, they were called “bodyguards,” but they often did much more than that. Not that placing their lives in the roles as shields to the two hottest political targets in their society wasn’t enough, but facts were facts. They were food tasters, inspectors of every detail the regents came into contact with, and always expected to know every detail about anyone who was to be in the royal presence. They were also bosom companions and confidants to their charges, the nature of their jobs making them the most readily available resource to confide in when things came up in the personal life of the Chancellers, who were afforded little privacy and even less trust of those outside the regime. Sometimes the warriors were, at the softest whisper of permission from their masters, private assassins. As the twins grabbed a firmer foothold on their reign, things like that were less necessary, but in the beginning it had been the only way to deal with the most aggressive enemies who had sought their heads.
But the clan wars were over now, for the most part, and for the first time in a great many decades the Shadowdwellers were united beneath a single ruling body. That wasn’t to say there wasn’t still opposition out there that endangered the stability of the Chancellery, and Trace’s encounter with Baylor had more than proven that.
“Rika wasn’t feeling well and she retired early,” Malaya informed him as she reached for the over-blouse she had shed before she began dancing. She slid on the embroidered charmeuse, pulling it closed around her chest. “What is troubling you, Ajai?”
“I have killed Baylor,” he confessed softly.
Trace was wandering the street in the dark, a habit he had when he was trying to think something through. It was like a deadly sort of game, or perhaps the Shadowdweller version of extreme sports. Striding from shadow to shadow, avoiding the rims of light that flooded the city streets. His steps were light and quick, his body movements as fluid as the inky sections of dark that protected him from certain agony—even death if he were exposed long enough or fully enough.
But it wasn’t this, nor was it Baylor’s treacherous attack on him that nagged at his thoughts and conscience. In truth, he couldn’t seem to get the haunting image of the fair and fragile Ashla out of his head. A large part of the issue, he supposed, was his indebtedness to her. The bald fact of the matter was that she had saved his life. And, as Malaya had wisely pointed out a short time ago, she had saved the lives of his regents as well. Had he died in Shadowscape, there would have been no one to warn them of the plot that brewed against them. There was very little information to work from as it was, but very little was far more than none at all.
As a religious woman, Malaya was also fascinated with the Lost woman’s ability to see Trace and his enemy, as well as her fascinating corporeal attributes. The Chancellor did not believe in coincidences, but she felt quite strongly about divine providence. To her mind, Darkness had provided the impossible for Trace at just that moment to help him, and it was very hard for him to argue. By the time he had left the royals, Malaya had all but asked him to return to Shadowscape and try again to seek this woman out, and perhaps some answers as well.
A preposterous idea, of course. The city, and all of Shadowscape for that matter, was far too enormous to ever hope to run into a single individual again without it being planned…never mind the fact that she would probably try to hide from him if she caught the slightest hint that he was looking for her. But if he could thank her for what she had done, maybe then his mind would rest a bit. Maybe then he could focus once again on the more critical issues instead of this grating regret for having upset her.
“Damn,” he muttered, running a hand back through his hair.
He stopped where he was, looking around himself and then at the sky. He could sense the coming day, the lightening of the area too miniscule for human perception but an ingrained alarm to all of his Shadowdweller senses. If he crossed into Shadowscape now, he would be trapped within it until the fall of darkness the next night. This, too, he would sense instinctively, which kept him from crossing out into light by accident because his perception of time had otherwise been toyed with by the alternate dimension.
Trace couldn’t believe he was actually considering doing this ridiculous thing. But apparently that was why he had returned to the site of his fight with Baylor. He had made up his mind long before he was aware he was even considering the action.
Trace closed his eyes, leaned back deeply into the darkest of shadows, and slowly began to pull that darkness into himself. He could feel the night entering him first, its weakening hold on the world easily felt in the way it vibrated through him like the tantrum of a furious child. Then there was the tart taint of light that trimmed the edges of the shadows, creating them as much as it destroyed them at whim. It cut through his palate like the rusty taste of blood on the tongue, filling him with an overwhelming urge to spit. It passed quickly enough, though, and soon all there was were the wraiths of blackness that tugged and pulled him toward Shadowscape. He held his breath, like a diver swimming through an underwater tunnel that led from one section of a cove to another one that lay hidden beyond it.
He surfaced in Shadowscape with a gasped draw for breath, a reflex when it took a while to cross. The process was drawn out, depending on how dark it really was around the traveler. The lights of the city and the dawn had pushed the limits of what was safe, and it had been much more taxing on his inner energy to leave from such an unsuitable launching point.
But he was safe now, the utter darkness of the ’scape a pure delight. It would rejuvenate him in time, to the point of euphoria. Of course, like anyone else, he would have to leave once he reached that point. There was a reason why ’Dwellers didn’t just stay in Shadowscape all of the time, and it fell under the category of too much of a good thing.
Trace looked around himself slowly, orienting his eyesight to the darkness it was intended for. In Realscape, Shadowdwellers were all a little bit “blind.” Unless there was perfect darkness as far as their eyes could see, the shedding of light caused an ache and even sometimes a blur in their eyes. They were prone to terrible headaches, quite often full-blown migraines. Still, those were minor weaknesses and were gladly endured for times like these, where perfect darkness spread the world out before them in brilliant, vivid colors and details. He imagined that this was what humans saw in their daylight worlds, only what he could see was probably much better. He had never heard of a human who could easily see for blocks at a time, see in infrared, and even have enough intuitive sight to know what was lying around corners…at least for the first couple of feet.