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|Ecstasy(Shadowdwellers #1) by Jacquelyn Frank|
The exception being moments like these where she took her impromptu naps in her sitting room.
“She will take umbrage if we have this conversation without her,” Magnus noted.
“Then she will take umbrage,” Guin relented with a single-shouldered shrug. “I’ll not wake her. She has slept poorly since we left New Zealand, and not at all since Trace came in with Baylor’s crest of office ’round his arm.”
“That was three nights past.” Magnus frowned, that ever-mysterious gleam in his strange gold eyes giving Guin no clue to his thoughts. But luckily for the guard, the priest almost always spoke his mind. “No sign of Trace as yet?”
“None.” Guin joined him in his frown. “If he is in ’scape as we suspect, his time must be running low. He will start to succumb to euphoria. If he waits too long, he will lose grasp of how to return to us.”
“It is hard to say,” Magnus argued. “Time moves so differently there. What is days to us could be a matter of hours to him.”
“Yes. And he knows that. He also knows we had plans to move the entourage yesterday.”
“Now that is very unlike my son,” the priest agreed. “I have faith that wherever he is, for however long he is there, he has the sense to take care of himself. There is time yet before I will become genuinely concerned as far as euphoria matters.” Magnus did not point out the obvious, that there were far more treacherous delays than Shadowscape euphoria that might occur. Again, the priest had faith in his son’s skills when it came to defending his life. After all, Magnus had taught him everything he knew.
“I do not like disruptions that keep us stagnant,” Guin complained. “The longer we remain still, the easier it is for enemies to ferret us out.”
“However, if the enemies are like Baylor, if they are members of our own Senate as Trace has reported, then it hardly matters where we go and when. The Chancellors will always end up back in the vipers’ nest every time session is held.” Magnus finally took a seat, thoughtfully studying the bodyguard for a moment. “Has she given you leave to investigate yet?”
“No,” Guin groused, his feelings about it clear in the snap of his voice. “She will not let me leave her. I cannot figure it out. I can’t see if she is afraid to be left to the talents of another guard, or if she is in denial about this whole possibility.” Guin looked at his charge, his craggy features smoothing with a moment’s compassion. “She is devastated by this, you know. She thought we were finally getting past the deceptions and the assassinations. It is so important to her that this monarchy be accepted so it can start to be effective.” His dark gaze flicked back to the priest and he shifted almost imperceptibly in his seat, as if with discomfort. “You should have been there, at the Nightwalker conference. She was so delighted, so proud of her part in bringing the Nightwalker breeds closer together. If we begin to squabble internally again, it will ruin the other breeds’ trust in us that we can control our people.”
“I understand quite well,” Magnus said. “She speaks often of the Demons and their King, Noah. She longs for what he has managed to create with his people. The balance, the trust, and the wholesome readiness that tells her he has full confidence that his race supports him. He is a true monarch, respected and revered as such, yet an earthy companion to those he leads. This is what she longs for, for herself and her brother. She doesn’t want to hear that it will take a great deal of time and patience to achieve that. I believe she finds it disheartening these days.”
“The war was long. Clan against clan, sometimes cousin against cousin.” Guin was almost defensive of his mistress. “It is no easy pill for her to swallow, knowing she was responsible for instigating the largest civil war of our history.”
“It was overdue and necessary, as you well know. This race was running wild and stupid. We were little more than mischief-makers and fornicators. We played, we caused trouble, we fucked, and we rolled into our beds thinking we had accomplished something.” Magnus sat back with a slowly released breath. “We were rotting away beneath ourselves, the foundations of a once-organized society crumbling down around our idiotic ears. It was time for someone of royal blood to stand up and take responsibility. It was time for us all to grow up and do so. There were hundreds from many powerful clans who agreed with that, and they realized that these twins represented our breed’s best and worst tendencies. They represented the best chance of getting as many of our people to identify with them and put faith in them as there had ever been before.”
Magnus leaned forward in his seat, resting an elbow on his knee.
“Karri, my handmaiden, once asked me why these dissenters fought so hard against a royal regime and the progress and order a government could bring. Being a woman of faith, she was really asking what they were putting their faith behind.”
“And what did you tell her?”
“I said that as far as I knew, they weren’t using faith for motivation. That is why we ultimately won, and I believe that with every fiber of my being. Everyone who fought for Malaya and Tristan was investing faith in them. Everyone who fought against them simply wanted things to stay in chaos the way they had been. They were like spoiled children who wanted to stay out and play, refusing to come in when called. The child will bargain and argue and fight to stay out amongst its toys, but after a while even a child realizes that all it is doing is standing outside wasting time and energy arguing rather than playing like it wants to.”
Guin chuckled dryly. “So, they can either continue to fight and never get the time to play…or they can step in line and begin to enjoy themselves again, albeit on the parent’s terms.”
“Something is better than nothing. The opposing lines were bound to crumble when they began to realize they were destroying the very thing they were fighting for.”
“I see your point.” This time it was Guin that moved forward, his granite-colored eyes a measure in seriousness as they met the priest’s directly. “So explain these senators who defy us. These are learned people, logical thinkers who supported us through all of this. Why, suddenly, is there dissention?”
“I was hoping she would release you to find that out, Guin,” Magnus said. This time, though, the bodyguard caught the meaning behind the glint flashing over the priest’s hard features.
“You suspect something,” he confronted him.
“I suspect a great many things,” Magnus returned evasively. “But what I sense overall is that this insurrection is very differently motivated then a bunch of whiny children who want to play past dawn because they don’t know what’s good for them. We have weeded out the pests and brats, so now it’s time to face the bullies, I think.”
“Bullies…” Guin turned his attention to his sleeping charge and Magnus watched the guard’s hands curl with repressed fury around the arms of his chair. “You mean, I suppose,” he gritted out, “that now that the twins have done all the hard work, some bituth amec thinks to coup the throne away from them.”
“It’s one of the possibilities I have strongly considered,” Magnus agreed a bit vaguely. “I’ve heard things, and I don’t like what I hear. However, we’ll discover nothing unless your mistress releases you to do what it is you do best. You must find the heart of this insurrection and cut it out.”
“I will,” Guin promised fiercely. “You must help me convince her.”
“I will do my part, but after that it will be entirely up to you. I have another issue pressing me at the moment and it must be handled, so I will have to return later.”
“More pressing than the stability of all of our people, Magnus?” Guin was flabbergasted, his astonishment all over his normally staid expression.
“There is a Sinner on the loose in Dreamscape. I believe he upgraded to rapist last night. Until I hunt him down, no one is safe and no one can be protected.” Magnus let his eyes drift over Malaya’s sleeping posture to make his point. “You can only protect her body in this realm, Ajai Guin. The Sinner who illegally steals his way through dreams could seize her, rape her, and kill her before she would even be able to open her eyes. You would not be the wiser, even if you stood watching her for every moment of it.”
The heavy wood of Guin’s chair creaked in protest as he tried to contain the emotion Magnus’s suggestion sent exploding through him. There was loyalty, the priest thought, and then there was Guin. What the bodyguard felt, his passion, belief, and mission in this world, was centered completely on the life and well-being of Chancellor Malaya. Magnus was not privy to all the deepest details, but Malaya had made her impact on Guin a very long time ago in such a way that it was said his entire path of life had changed. There were rumors he had once been a thief, or that he had been a mercenary who had sold his sword to anyone who would pay for it, regardless of reason, as long as the price was right.
How they had met was a mystery even to Malaya’s confessor. What had transpired to seal the life-hardened male to the faithful beauty known for her devoutness and optimism for the future of her people was completely unknown to all but the Chancellor and her guard. After nearly five decades had found the duo inseparable and undefeated, despite numerous attempts to take both their lives and their loyalties away from one another, several truths had become quite well known.
No one came near Malaya without crossing by Guin first. This included her priest and even her very own twin. Any attempt to bypass this arrangement was usually met with steel and death. And Guin’s blade, known to be the deadliest in all their society, often made mortal wounds without bothering to ask questions first. The bodyguard’s short fuse was legendary, equal only to his astounding keenness to do his mistress’s bidding. There were those who called him “The Beast,” the implication being that only Malaya’s beauty held claim on taming him.
So Guin took any threat to Malaya as a personal affront. When the master swordsman finally flicked his steel-cold stare back to Magnus, he was all but vibrating with the need to kill.
“Rest easy,” Magnus reassured him in a low, steady tenor meant to speak to the warrior rather than merely placate him. “This is what I was born to do, and it will be done. Even now my divine senses are coming in tune with any flaws or disruptions he has left behind. Soon, tracking him will be a matter of small effort.” Magnus rose to his feet, his hand resting on the hilt of his blade with purpose. “Trust me. Night will not fall again before this Sinner is made to repent.”
Guin also gained his feet, but he moved to Malaya’s side and lowered into a crouch on powerful legs until he was more level to her. Magnus watched with amazed fascination as the big brute turned kitten gentle just before reaching to brush the thick curls of her hair back from her smooth cheek. The burnished tone of Malaya’s skin seemed almost pale in contrast to the dark, scarred hand that stroked against her and caused her to stir at last. For a moment, for just a moment, Magnus thought there was something…some quality to the way Guin turned his knuckles against her sleep-softened face that crossed the hard-to-define lines of emotion between devotion and…and more. But the priest dismissed the impression as quickly as it came to him.
After all, devotion was pretty much all he had ever been familiar with himself. It would be nearly impossible for the priest to recognize what he had never really known.
Ashla sat at the window, as if looking out at the darkness beyond, except she had her eyes closed. Her cheek and forehead touched the chilled glass, but she was ignoring the sensory information. In fact, she was turning the burn of cold into the burn of heat in her mind. Closing her eyes tight enough, concentrating hard enough, she could make herself imagine sunlight streaming in on her and the brilliance of the room she knew lay under the cover of shadows behind her. She had adjusted to the darkness enough to see where she was going without breaking limbs or killing herself, and when the moon and stars appeared she could even make out finer details, but she missed colors. Oh, she could figure them all out most of the time, usually with a great deal of focus and debate in her mind, but she missed the brilliance of sunlight on color.
Now, as she concentrated, she could imagine sunlight on red velvet ottomans, or the glint of it on gold gilding. There were azure blues in the bedroom she slept in; teals and sea greens in the huge bath of the Plaza suite.
A distant sound reached her and like the sharp crack of a whip, her thoughts turned to her new and strange companion. What would Trace look like in sunlight? she wondered. Would there be flecks of color within his obsidian eyes, that she simply couldn’t see in the dark? What of his midnight hair? Would it be that purest jet, still, or would light strike it blue-black? Most of all, she wondered about the color of his skin. Most of the time she was convinced he was of Hindu Indian heritage, but sometimes the smooth duskiness of it seemed tinged with the reddish bronze that distinguished Native Americans. She had fished gently about it, trying to get him to give her small hints or clues by accident, but he was on his guard, apparently, now that he had already made slips of the tongue, and had become the least forthcoming individual she had ever met in her life.
They had spent the better part of two days together in the suite, sharing living space, meals, and even conversation. She had learned nothing and a great deal about him. He spoke at least one other language besides English, but she had no clue what it was. He was embarrassingly well educated. Embarrassing to her, because she had barely made it out of college. Not that she wasn’t smart, but she just had never been inclined to book smarts. Trace could quote dozens of famous writers, their works coming to him like old, well-worn monologues. He had clearly spent a lot of time on philosophy and social anthropology because he tended to dissect things in his mind down to their basest elements. But when she asked simple questions like where he had attended school, where he’d grown up, and more, he evaded answering.