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|Ecstasy(Shadowdwellers #1) by Jacquelyn Frank|
The logic should have been a comfort, but it simply was not.
Not while he could feel the smooth, bare warmth of the skin of her back beneath his fingertips and against the whole of his palm. Not while the drip of her tears stained and wet the fabric of his coat. And, he would swear by both the blessed Dark and the burning Light, never could that logic survive when her sweet scent, so laden with the aroma of spring lilacs, drifted up to embed itself into his sensory memory so deeply he knew he would never be able to forget it.
“Why?” he demanded hoarsely. “You had to know this would happen! Why would you do something so stupid? Why would…” Trace’s voice broke along with the last vestiges of any attempted bravado and composure. He sat down hard on the pavement, his legs sliding beneath her as he drew her up tighter against his chest. He hugged her to himself far too strongly, but he couldn’t seem to curb the need or the impulse. His heart was racing until his blood hissed like steam being forced through metal piping. The sound of it all thundered in his ears.
“The wound was mortal. You could have died,” he managed at last, his words spurting out between hard, harsh breaths. “And you so small…so…”
“Weak,” she finished for him, the word muffled against his shoulder.
“No! By the life of my liege, no! Who that is weak would do such a thing? Who, if they are so weak, would survive the doing? How can that logic stand?” Trace’s hand curved up over the back of her head, his fingertips lost amongst roots of gilding and glitter, the possessiveness of the hold wholly intentional this time. “You saved my life, and now I know it was at risk of your own.”
Yes. He was sure of it. Even if nothing else was true in this realm for her, the fact that she had intentionally put her life on the line, while believing the whole while that she could die, meant everything. That she had succeeded and survived meant everything to him. Now, at last, he understood the wild rip and ebb in the tides of his emotions…as well as hers.
In Trace’s faith, it was believed that to willingly risk one’s life to save another was the ultimate in sacrifice. If, by some chance, they survived the circumstances of the event, the sacrifice and the saved would be forever bonded to one another. Trace had been witness to several ’Dwellers who had formed bonds like this during the clan wars. Like the ethereal force of connected spirits that accompanied twin-born children, the bonded became a rhythm in specific tune with each other. They always became fast friends, no matter if they had been beforehand or not. They always knew when the other was in need.
Magnus and the other priests called them the Sainted.
But all of this applied to the Shadowdwellers only, as far as Trace understood it. What did that make of his undeniable connection to the spirit of a human woman? And even if he stretched this explanation to define that much, what explained the wholeness and dimension she presented in Shadowscape when no other human could?
There was also one other thing about the injuries she had sustained Trace needed to consider, but he closed his mind off to it for the moment.
He was afraid of all he didn’t know about what it meant to be Sainted. For all he had been raised in Sanctuary with a priest for his foster father, the topic of the Sainted was one of the mysteries of his religion. Magnus would know. As always, his father would have answers where Trace did not. But at the same time, Trace knew what he was feeling, and the surety in his mind that he was on the right track was undeniable.
“I couldn’t watch you die,” she whispered softly. “I could never be that cold.”
She shuddered against him, and he immediately understood that she believed that he was that cold. After all, she had watched him murder a man with deliberateness, even while verbally flouting the laws of his own society. It took no imagination for him to understand what she must think of him.
“But even you must have a sense of self-preservation, Ashla,” he said quietly. “Where does the risk outweigh the value you place on your own life? If not in the saving of a stranger you consider no better than a common murderer, then where?”
Her reply took time in coming.
“I learned a long time ago not to judge anyone too quickly or too thoroughly, Trace. What I saw as murder, you saw as justifiable homicide…at least from what I heard.” She lifted her head with a little sniffle and met his gaze, displaying the deep carving of wisdom within her eyes that he had somehow overlooked. “I know nothing about you or the life you come from. I am hardly qualified to pass sentence on you at a whim just because I stumbled into a five-minute cross-section of it. Can’t you see how wrong that would be?”
“Yes,” he said softly, his hand sliding around the side of her head until he cupped her ear against his palm and stroked his thumb along her distinctive cheekbone. “Especially when your sense of fair play saved my life. Others would not have done what you did. I’m not certain I would have done what you did, and I like to consider myself a man who is well versed in seeing all sides of an issue.”
Trace set her back a few inches so he could gently revisit the ugly wounds on her body that matched the ones still healing on his own. He inspected each unsightly place with feather-soft probes of his fingertips. None of them bled, none of them were swollen with infection, but all of them were tender enough to make her flinch in spite of his extraordinary care.
“They are just sore,” she explained with a placating touch on his hand. “It’s nothing like they felt when you received them.”
The addendum of that single word floated insidiously through his mind, and Trace knew instantly that she was editing the truth to ease his conscience. Trace was fiercely thankful for whatever it was between them that was tattling on her omission. He reached around her slim body to splay his fingers over her entire back, her smallness making him feel as though he were cupping a fragile butterfly in a single hand. He drew her close even as he lowered his lips against her ear.
“But at the moment you take them on, the wounds feel every bit as real as the moment of their inception when you absorb them into your body, don’t they?”
Her response was only a short nod, but it was enough. Trace’s eyes slid closed as regret trickled through him. He had watched hundreds of lives come and go, hundreds of ’Dwellers willing to accept pain and worse for the sake of their beliefs and their Chancellors, but never had it been like this for him. He knew he should feel gratitude, but it was almost impossible in that moment. Wounds he had barely felt in the heat of the battle, and had paid little mind to since, came back to him with a force and power he could hardly stand. Now he remembered every detail of them. Now he felt the flaying of flesh under the speed of sharp instruments. Now he truly felt a mortal blow to his body.
He at least had had his breed’s strength and supernatural power at his beckoning. Ashla had not. She still did not have them.
“Where are you sleeping?” he asked her softly.
Her reaction to the question scraped harshly against him. She suddenly scrabbled with clutches of slim fingers to gather her torn dress back over her body. Trace’s hands caught hers with quick gentleness and he drew her back to the warmth and protection of his body.
“It’s okay,” he tried to reassure her as she refused to look up at him. “In this place, we have only ourselves to count on. No doubt, you have done a fine job for quite some time. But jei li, you are injured and in pain, and these wounds could turn wicked before you recuperate enough to heal them on your own. You need help.”
“I took ibuprofen,” she argued. “I cleaned out all of the glass. I didn’t need help.”
I didn’t need your help. The stubborn implication was clear, but Trace wasn’t insulted at all. Her pluck came in spurts, and he knew she was afraid of the loneliness echoing in vast quantities all around them, but it was more than fear and bullheadedness that fueled her. He had no idea what she was trying to prove to herself and why, but he wasn’t going to let her go off by herself again.
“Look, I have two days before I have to go—”
“Go!” she gasped, her eyes darting up now and widening with her true feelings at the prospect of being left alone again. “But there is nowhere to go! I’ve been everywhere, and there’s nothing! Except…Well, I went to LaGuardia, and…it was just…all those planes, taking off and landing empty, with no pilots that I could see! I wanted to try it, but it was just too creepy. They were like these great big mechanical ghosts. Everything is like that. Everything works without explanation or even logic. The things I see are impossible. I tried staring at these tomatoes in a bodega, so I could watch what happens to them. I guess I expected them to float away or something crazy like that. I mean, I knew things were being changed constantly. But you have to blink, you know? And when I did, it was suddenly different and I had no better explanation.” She stopped suddenly, seemingly realizing that she was rambling in her anxiety. “Where will you go?” she asked at last, her shoulders slumping and her breath decompressing out of her in dejection.
Ah. The million-dollar question. Trace still didn’t know how he should answer it. She was under more than enough duress at the moment, and he couldn’t see his way clear to telling her that she was no doubt lying just about dead somewhere in the real world. He could also empathize with the way she struggled for understanding and knew he could provide answers that would resolve all of her questions. His urges to be honest with her warred with his fierce new need to protect her.
“I will explain what I can…but later. Right now we need to get you into fresh clothing and somewhere comfortable where you can rest. If you won’t tell me where you are living, then we will find another place for the time being.”
“No, I…” She fell quiet for a very long moment, searching herself quite deeply by the look of it. “I suppose it doesn’t matter. I’m at the Plaza.”
That made him smile at her.
“The Plaza?” he echoed. Then he shrugged with his grin. “You know what, if it were me, that’s probably where I would stay, too.”
“They have big windows,” she argued a bit petulantly.
“Yeah. Wouldn’t want to miss those Manhattan sunrises,” he teased her as he gathered her comfortably to himself and rose smoothly to his feet. He hesitated just long enough to glance down at his weapons. He hated to do anything that would disturb her further, but the fact was it wasn’t safe for either of them to walk around Shadowscape unarmed. By herself she would be completely dismissed, but because of his presence she would be in danger. Just looking at her proved she could be harmed physically.
Once again Trace quickly forced himself to shut away the insidious whisper within his mind that wanted to contemplate the worst. It wanted to consider his knowledge that what happened in one ’scape, happened in all ’scapes. But…for all that he had seen and done in the world, Trace simply couldn’t bear the concept of what had to be happening to her defenseless body in Realscape every time she suffered injury in Shadowscape.
He knelt and swept up his swords.
Magnus strode into Malaya’s sitting room without knocking, and the guards posted outside knew better than to gainsay his entrance. The priest was the only other person besides Guin who had unquestioning access to the Chancellor. Even Tristan was not given that freedom of access to his sister. Malaya had the power to bar him from her rooms and presence if she wished it. They had agreed on that when they had agreed to rule as perfect equals. She would not have him bossing her around or forcing conservative edicts on her that would undermine her image in the eyes of others. But they had also agreed that neither of them could bar their bodyguards without the other’s approval.
Magnus’s access, however, was unique. Tristan was not as deeply religious as his sister was, but he did understand her passion for her faith. He also liked the priest a great deal and respected him as a warrior and a learned man. Because he knew Trace’s foster father so well, he had not thought twice about the access Malaya gave him so freely. What was more, he encouraged it. Between her bodyguard and Magnus, she was twice as safe and protected.
Magnus found his student asleep on her chaise, her work stacked neatly on the near table but a pen still clutched in her hand. The priest glanced over at Guin, who sat nearby attentively. It was very likely that all of the papers on the table had still been in her lap when she had drifted off, and that Guin had removed them thoughtfully for his mistress.
“You can never seem to get the pen,” Magnus observed.
“Mmm. She grasps the thing like a prized trophy, even in sleep. Wrestling her for it would wake her and defeat the purpose,” the gruff guard pointed out.
“Just as well. I wish to speak with you.”
Guin raised a black brow and then extended a heavily callused hand to the empty seat across from him. The bodyguard was dressed completely in a dark charcoal gray, a few shades shy of black and proven to be more effective in a wider range of shadows than the more absolute color. Quite often Guin’s best talent was in the way he managed to make his six-foot-six frame a part of the background even to other ’Dwellers. He was well known, certainly feared with good reason, and had a reputation for his savage loyalty to his mistress, and yet he could still sit close to Malaya in crowded rooms without attracting too much attention to himself. He was juggling a fistful of dangerous balls between the hand of duty that protected Malaya, and the one that understood she needed as much liberty to move and breathe as he could safely manage.
It was an exhausting concept to Magnus, despite the many things he was used to juggling in delicate balance himself, but at least he was given time to himself and time to sleep in peace. Guin did neither of those things. The guard almost never left her in care of anyone else, and his bed was always at the base of her sealed bedroom door. Had it been his choice, the guard would have probably preferred to be on the opposite side of the door where he could get to her more quickly in an urgent situation, but it was the one issue of protocol that he could not touch. Honor, as well as Malaya’s reputation, forbade him from being in her chamber while she slept.