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|Ecstasy(Shadowdwellers #1) by Jacquelyn Frank|
“Things get dangerous. I know,” Trace filled in. “Shiloh loves when Magnus isn’t around. The power to ignore you probably gives him a hard-on.”
“Yeah.” Killian chuckled dryly. “He can be a real bituth amec when he wants. I just don’t see the damn purpose. He will endanger every priest and handmaiden in those vehicles just to…what? Show he doesn’t have to listen to the second son of a minor clansman?”
“Perhaps. I take it as a reminder that, despite the war resolving, even priests once came from clans and can still hold grudges. But, Killian, I can’t do this for you. You have to find a way to snap his ass in line or he’ll keep walking all over you.”
“How do you propose I do that?” Killian asked with sharp irritability. “Sanctuary runs very segregate from the rest of us. You know that. Even Tristan and Malaya don’t have the power to tell them what to do!”
“Government shouldn’t rule religion,” Trace said automatically. “I appreciate your difficulty. Magnus is, of course, the better leader…but he isn’t here right now. You can either complain to Magnus once he returns or you can find a way to make your point.”
“Complain to Magnus.” Killian scowled blackly. “You mean tattle. Drenna, this sucks! When I agreed to head security, I didn’t realize how much bullshit stupidity it meant dealing with. I thought it meant using my sword and shield to protect the highest echelon of the new realm. Instead, it’s dealing with pompous priests and arrogant aristocrats who think they know better than I do because I’m lowborn dirt to them.”
“You are a war hero, Kill, and don’t you forget that,” Trace said sharply. “Don’t let them forget that.”
“Yeah.” Killian smiled slowly and Trace could see a powerfully wicked thought flitting through his charcoal eyes. “How much penance would you figure I’d owe if I pulled my broadsword on the cocky bastard and made him piss himself?”
“That depends on if there was anyone in the room to bear witness at the time,” Trace mused with a half grin. “Private humiliation is very different than a public one. But if you do either, you better pray nothing ever happens to Magnus. If Shiloh came into permanent power at Sanctuary, you’d be fucked.”
“I think I’d be fucked anyway. Thanks, Trace. If you’ll excuse me, I think I’m going to go polish my sword.”
Trace chuckled at the implied threat, though with Killian he knew he couldn’t be certain if he would or wouldn’t assert himself in that way. Killian liked to declass himself when it suited his arguments, but unlike Guin he had been born the second son, or some would say the spare heir, to a clan chieftain. That made him nobility. He could have easily become a senator or a civic leader of choice with an advantage like that. But it was true that when Shiloh was involved, dealing with Sanctuary could get difficult. In the end, Magnus was the final word when it came to it, but whenever he wasn’t available, church and state started to butt heads. Trace had tried to warn his father of the obnoxious traits of his subordinate and positional heir, but Magnus had yet to alter anything about the succession. True, it was not his choice alone, but his was the most powerful voice at Sanctuary. However, it was also true that Shiloh had never done anything except be a burr in the royal butt every now and again.
As he had said to Killian, it was a matter of him wanting to flex muscle and feel a little power. But Trace knew what trouble someone who enjoyed those kinds of things could turn out to be one day.
Trace walked back toward the Chancellors’ vehicle, his footsteps echoing in the vast dark and cold Canadian night.
Thinking about her was inevitable, and he wasn’t opposed to that. He wasn’t afraid to face the grievous mistakes he had made with her. But it was hard to reconcile what he had done with what he had felt about physical contact with a woman for twelve years. It had all happened so easily and so quickly. He had crossed the line without hesitation, and it simply baffled him. He wanted to blame it all on the euphoric condition, but he knew he couldn’t. He’d been perfectly sane the first time he’d reacted to her touch. She’d caused him terrible pain before healing him, and he remembered the violence it had sent searing in impulses through his mind, but it had skipped past him in a blink when she had begun to touch him.
Perhaps she had begun to heal him far deeper than he had given her credit for.
It was true, he had come a long way since his captivity. He had reconciled a lot, healed a great deal on his own. He trusted women all the time, Rika and Malaya for example, and he enjoyed great affection with his friends as well. He had been physically attracted to others, but…
Here the wall was built. Crossing into intimacy with someone was to share vulnerability with them. It meant exposing skin and scars, memories and sensations. It meant overcoming the simplest sensory triggers time and time again, and he simply hadn’t been able to do that. It wasn’t something he could spring on just anyone. He couldn’t subject an unsuspecting woman to the psychosis of his traumatic memories without preparing her very well beforehand, and even then there were no guarantees.
But the euphoria had skipped over it all, like a stone bouncing over calm water. He had dominated Ashla, controlled every movement she had made, every touch she gave or tried to give, his psyche’s way of managing his issues of vulnerability. His lovemaking had been crude and even perfunctory. He had taken years worth of satisfaction inside her and given nothing in return. The idea made him sick to his stomach.
He had known.
Oh, yes, he had known. Sitting in that chair and watching her, he had known she was just what he needed. She was something almost impossible to find among women of his breed. Submissive, easily controlled, too damn sweet and gentle for words, and all of this in spite of a past he could smell on her that was as tainted as his own. They had both survived, risen above what others had tried to do to them, but they weren’t healed yet.
A part of him had known that he would stay. He had coated it in an internal fight for honor, but she had been too perfect for a soul crying out for surcease. Succor had awaited him in a small, delicate little body, and he had known the woman within would be the perfect balm.
Trace stopped by the RV, leaning back against it as emotion tightened away the space in his lungs, suffocating the breath from his body. He had walked over the line on purpose. He had wanted to do right by her when he realized how she had been treated, but by then it was too late already. It had been too late the moment he had kissed her. At least he had brought her to her first orgasm before he had completely lost sense and control. But it was of no comfort as the following hours replayed in his head. It brought him an overwhelming mixture of remorse, accountability, and cold understanding, but it also brought an unexpected rush of adrenaline and memory-induced excitement. There had been nothing generic or homogenized about the way it had felt to touch her and taste her. He could still respond to the memory of her wet flavor and the feel of her in his hands. His heart raced and he closed his eyes around the recollection of the sensation of sliding into her. He groaned softly at the power of it, knowing it wouldn’t have been the same had it been anyone else.
No one would have been so giving. No one would have willingly sacrificed their own pleasure and even their well-being physically just to sate the sexual hunger of a madman. But she had somehow known the depth of his need. Beyond the euphoria, beyond the sheer lust, she had known there was a creature as damaged and desperate as she was, crying out for the slightest sign of loyal warmth and intimacy. She had known no one else would do for him, and she had realized only her flawless devotion and unquestioning surrender could have tied them together.
And he had repaid her for it by abandoning her to the dark loneliness she feared and suffered in. He hadn’t even left her with the warmth of half-decent sexual satisfaction to carry her through.
“Damn me,” he whispered, blinking back hateful emotions as he stared up at the stars. It was one thing to suffer, and it was worse to inflict suffering on another. On an innocent. And she was innocent. Oh, there was bitter knowledge and cold experience within her, but at her very heart she had remained true to innocence. She treated others better than she expected to be treated; she gave what she could and expected nothing in return. All she did was hope. She hoped for respect, or fairness at the very least. She had trusted him with an almost simple naïveté.
Trace turned his gaze to Malaya, giving her a grim sort of smile. “Checking up on me, K’yatsume?”
“Sua vec’a, Ajai. You are the last being among us who needs regulation, Trace. All I offer is my understanding, as little as it may be to your situation. But here I am just the same. My brother as well, though he will corner you in his own time and way.”
“No doubt,” Trace agreed. “There are those who think him self-indulgent and cavalier, but you and I know him better. His worst attribute is arrogance, and that will rectify itself in time.”
“Quite quickly, I imagine, once the proper woman gets hold of him.”
Trace chuckled at that. Malaya was convinced that every problem only needed a good woman to solve it. Especially problems with men at their core. It was eerie how often she could be right about that. Malaya’s perspectives and strong feminine politics in the face of their culture’s traditionalist values were quite a learning experience. But for centuries the women of his culture had danced in visible submission while ruling their households with iron wills. Malaya was only bringing this fact into a public venue.
“We will reach Fairbanks in the next two or three days. Elk’s Lake is only a day farther north. Then we will be home again. I have always loved to chase the dark like this, but I love to be home even more.”
“It’s the closest we can get to Shadowscape while in Realscape. Hardly perfect, because there is always some bit of light, but far safer than cities and long-burning bright summers in the south,” replied Trace.
“And no threat of euphoria, either,” she added. She tilted her head, examining his unhappy expression. “Trace, there is nothing for you to be ashamed of. No one could have predicted what would happen to you.”
“I had a responsibility to get out, K’yatsume. When I stayed I was being selfish and—”
Trace ended with a shake of his head, unable to find words to suit his thoughts and feelings. He had said it all before, to himself and to his regents as they had tried to draw him out of his silence the past few days.
“Well, anyway, I needed to talk to you about something else, Ajai,” Malaya said quietly.
It was a key phrase and tone that acted like a subliminal trigger to Trace. He had heard it and others like it so often through the years, and it defined the job that was so important to him. It had the power to shift him out of his self-recriminations almost instantly, guiding his mind and focus onto a completely different track.
“Of course, K’yatsume, anything you desire. I will do my best to be of service.” Trace gave her a heart-touched bow of respect, even as his eyes darted around to look for Rika. Malaya rarely consulted him without Rika by her side, and even that was a landmark situation. Whatever troubles there were that Malaya and Rika’s wits couldn’t solve together was either quite complicated or a personal issue one had toward the other.
“Rika and I are a bit at odds about something,” she said carefully, rubbing her hands together for warmth as she began to pace a short space in front of him. Malaya rarely showed such agitation in public, and Trace was immediately concerned for the normally composed monarch.
“Define ‘a bit,’” he encouraged her.
“An inch less than Guin and I are at odds about it,” she said wryly.
“Ah. This is about letting Guin hunt out the other traitors in the Senate.”
“Yes. I feel that if you and my brother agree with Rika and Guin, then perhaps the issue is with me.”
“Not necessarily in a negative way, K’yatsume. You and I have played the part of the tiny, dissenting voice among many before. It can often be the start of a resonating calling, as you have seen for yourself, if your belief in it is strong enough. If you are convinced that you are right, that your reasoning is sound and rational, it shouldn’t matter to you what the rest of us think. Of course, you should always be open to arguments. Stubbornness and commitment to conviction are two different things.”
“So what do you think? What does my brother feel on this? He keeps saying that I must choose what is best to my mind since Guin is my protector, but he says it with such a grim countenance. He is not pleased, though I can’t determine what he is most upset about.”
“I think that since Guin started campaigning to leave your side, it has forced Tristan to take the matter of this betrayal more seriously. It is often the case with your brother that whatever affects you and your well-being brings out the imperative in an issue for him.”
“Yes,” she agreed, her lips curling in a sly and contented sort of smile. That was fine as far as Trace was concerned. The twins had cause to be smug in the security of their love for one another. It was a deep blessing all around. Things would have been very different had their relationship gone the way of Cleopatra and her brother Ptolemy. “But you are avoiding giving me the answer I truly want. Please, I beg you not to be as evasive as Tristan is being. If he has asked you to keep countenance, then by all means I won’t goad you into breaking faith with him, but if he hasn’t, I could surely use some guidance here.”
“It is Guin’s duty—his calling, he would say—to protect you. There are many ways of doing that. Both by your side and away from it.” Trace reached to tag her arm, making her stop her agitated pacing so she would meet his eyes. “If your reluctance to send him away is solely based on your fear for his life, then you are trying to stop a train with a grain of salt. Guin will lose his life one day because he is trying to save yours. It is his destiny and the very definition of everything he stands for. Nothing you do can stop that unless you resign him from his position, and that alone would be enough to cut the life out of him.”