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|Ecstasy(Shadowdwellers #1) by Jacquelyn Frank|
“Trace,” she whispered in protest, raising a hand to cover her mouth as tears rimmed her eyes. “I can’t bear the thought. I…I thought it was over. The killing and death. Cousin against cousin. These past years I was growing content that we had all survived. Now I feel like it’s unraveling before my eyes. Baylor is dead, and you nearly lost in the battle. Rika grows weaker and, though she refuses to admit it, I know she is afraid time is growing short for her. Tristan…”
Trace’s eyes narrowed to hear her speak of death and Tristan in the same phrase. “What of Tristan?” Had he missed something critical during his time of recovery? This was why he hardly ever left the royal household to itself. Things could change on the turn of the wind and everything caught up in a maelstrom.
“You above all others know him just about as well as I do, Trace. This cavalier attitude of his, the amusements, the women, and his laissez-faire approach to his personal life is not right. I trust you to guide him properly, and my faith in you and the man I know my brother to be carries my confidence in him through, but I am concerned. Aren’t you?”
“Of course I am. I suppose I’m hoping time will work this out. Sometimes we need to be allowed to make our mistakes and even to act like an ass.” Trace smiled when she laughed through her tears, her elegant fingertips sweeping the telltale drops away quickly. “Don’t worry. I won’t let him embarrass this household, and I won’t let him become a danger to himself, this government, or any of its people. Not that I think it would happen anyway. I think…I believe he is doing what we are all doing. Now that we have settled into a routine and into security of position, we are left with time to remember the wars and all we saw and did in them. We have time now for grief, for regrets, for answerability to our mistakes. For all of us here, mistakes meant lives lost. It is a burden we all bear differently. This is Tristan’s way of coping.”
Malaya nodded, probably already having suspected as much. But it was good she had finally voiced her concern to Trace. He had wondered when she would reach her tolerance for the change in her brother. Overall it was such a minor difference, and restricted mostly to his personal life, but he was a public figure now and all behavior became meat for critics to feed on. Tristan had done nothing wrong as yet, but projecting a playboy image wasn’t the best thing to do for a young monarch who wished to be taken seriously. Trace would have to focus on this more in the near future.
“And Guin?” he prompted her, bringing them back on point.
“Guin.” She said his name softly, almost as if he were a puzzle that baffled her. “I admit I loathe the idea of sending him on a fool’s errand that will probably get him killed. However, I understand that someone will have to do this and someone’s life may well be lost in the process.”
“Are you placing more value on his life than on someone else’s?” Trace asked candidly.
“No,” she swore. “My heart breaks for every life, whether known personally to me or not. It’s just…I can’t explain it any better than to say I know in my heart that to send Guin into that pit of vipers is to bring death into this house. And I do not necessarily refer to Guin, but I cannot be more specific.”
Intuition. It was a tricky thing. Especially in Shadowdweller women of significant power. Intuition must always be heeded. Trace believed that. Unfortunately, it had a bad habit of being vague and unspecific. Still, Malaya was being quite specific at the moment, and that raised a serious flag with him. Her majesty’s intuition was not like an average woman’s. It was far more pinpointed. But if she was being vague, he had to believe she had her reasons. He only wished she would share what those were.
“Then your choice seems sound to me,” he told her. “However, it should now be up to you to choose a replacement Guin will trust in his stead, or you will never contain him. He will not disobey you until the very moment he is convinced you will die if he doesn’t. Your life is his only loyalty in the end.”
“I know. I think I already know who to suggest. Thank you, Ajai. You have calmed my spirit.” She gave him a heart-touched bow, a sign of enormous respect. “Let me know if I can ever do the same for you.” She straightened and met his eyes as she cocked her head to the side. “And Trace, you might keep in mind that we women are more forgiving than you might expect…or deserve. But whatever you think of yourself, you are not meant to be infallible. None of us are. You can strive, and that is good, but you will never succeed, and that is to be expected.”
With that, Malaya leaned in to kiss his cheek in warm, brief affection.
As she walked away from him, Trace touched the spot of warmth she had left behind on his face, smiling with bemusement. It never surprised him how wise Malaya was for her age, but it always amazed him how uncanny her timing could be. It wasn’t even the advice that marked him most, although it played its part. It was…it was just the way she had managed to reel him in from his alienated feelings of a self-made pariah. What had happened in Shadowscape did not define all he was as a man. She had reminded him of that just now as she had jolted him back into the importance of his place among them.
And he knew that, as soon as he found the opportunity, he was going to find a way to resolve what he owed to Ashla Townsend.
Ashla was now quite sure she had gone completely out of her mind.
Maybe it was loneliness driving her over the edge, or perhaps she had just started out nuts from the get-go, but either way she was pretty well convinced she’d lost all of her marbles and they were falling with little plunks through a sewer grate somewhere.
She was in Alaska.
The how and why were once again completely fuzzy, but now, instead of being lost and lonely in the vast emptiness of New York City, she was lost and lonely and freezing her freakin’ ass off in the emptiness of Alaska.
Why she would ever do something like this was completely beyond her comprehension. The clothing requirements alone were totally unacceptable to her. She loved dresses. However, a dress in an Alaskan winter added up to a hell of an updraft, and she just wasn’t that much of a slave to fashion. The clunky boots weighed a ton, the wind blew her around like a dust mote, and she had, like, two percent body fat somewhere on one cheek of her ass. That meant she got really cold really easy even in what others deemed warm weather.
This was ridiculous.
Her insanity was beginning to get on her nerves.
Okay, so maybe there had been a subconscious imperative telling her to just get away from New York for a while, an attempt to rob herself of the temptation to constantly look around for…for a man who wasn’t going to come back.
They never came back. It was simply a fact of life she should be used to by now. She was a freak, always doing something weird or something wrong, and no doubt by the time he came around from whatever illness it was he had suffered from, he’d be looking back on his time with her like a man with a bad hangover looked at his time spent with some ugly chick at a bar.
It was harsh, but it was for the best that she got it through her head. She had to stop hoping for useless, unachievable nonsense. Especially now, in this unpopulated wasteland of a world that was the dregs of Alaska.
She would have thought maybe her subconscious imperative would have gotten her to West Chester, Ohio, at the farthest. She had gone to a friend’s wedding there once and it had been a nice, peaceful little place.
Well, facts were facts and there was little use griping about it. What she needed to do, really really fast, was to find an airport and brave one of those creepy planes and get the hell out of the freezer. Luckily, these sorts of things were listed in local phone books. She just had to hope they had an airport in Fairbanks, Alaska.
The campground on the outskirts of Fairbanks was closed to the general public, but the Shadowdweller entourage was an exception. The owner never understood why these people always came just as the snow began to fly, but he didn’t much care when they were paying him what amounted to a fortune and they didn’t even want the electricity turned on.
Trace was busying himself easily. There was always a lot to do with a large company of people who were growing tired of being confined all day and all night, and it made for delicate tempers.
As he helped arrange the camp in a protective circle with Tristan and Malaya at its center, he started to think about the enclave at Elk’s Lake that they were heading for. The completely isolated terrain was only reachable with special vehicles made for traveling mountainous snow and ice. When the pipeline had been built in the seventies, it had brought droves of human settlers into areas that had been only for the ’Dwellers’ and the human natives’ for the longest time. It had forced the Shadowdwellers to move north into terrain that was a bit more inhospitable to the average human. At first it had just been clans forming their little territories on one mountain face or another, but most of that had been destroyed in the wars. Since they had reconstructed into a total colony, they had fortified and condensed their resources and skills into a single entity.
Much of it was constructed belowground, an entire city carved out of the face of the mountain that bore the upper lake called Elk’s Lake. It was the type of environment only the hardiest of souls dared to conquer, never mind form complex developments for a migrating society. But it ensured isolation and privacy and no questions asked. To the human who thought to be curious, they were nothing more than a wildlife and geological survey station.
More importantly, it was home to the Senate and was the official political seat of their people. Trace was quite certain that whatever had been brewing over the summer months while session had been exited was bound to rear its head shortly after the royal household arrived. But that was a few days’ journey yet. It gave him time to focus on the potential storm and how he would have Tristan ride out his part of it. However, he had a feeling that it was going to dissolve into Guin and Xenia’s territory of worry and control in the end. He prayed it wouldn’t get quite that close, but after his deadly encounter with Baylor, he wanted to remain prepared for every possibility.
These thoughts were probably why he jolted when a hand fell on his shoulder. Without thinking he grabbed hold of the hand and twisted as he turned around.
“Magnus!” Trace let go instantly, but he could tell the priest wasn’t offended or affected by his aggressive movements. “M’jan, where have you been?” Trace demanded of him.
“A little side journey,” Magnus responded. “And now, it is your turn.”
“I don’t know what you mean.” Trace indicated around the busy campground. “I’m a bit occupied at the moment and I’m hardly able to leave. What journey?”
“I have recovered one of our people from human hands.”
Trace felt everything grind to a sudden and quiet halt. Not that any activity around him actually stopped, only he completely quit noticing it as he stared at his father. A Shadowdweller in human hands was a terrible danger to their entire race. It was shocking to Trace that he had heard nothing about it before now, in spite of his illness and relative isolation. Their culture was still clannish, and almost no one would go missing without family or clan noticing and a ripple of alarm radiating through the community.
“What damage has been done?” he demanded.
“The exposure to humans is virtually nonexistent, and you will understand why in a moment, but I am afraid the damage to our kin is extensive.” Magnus took Trace’s arm and began to lead him toward the rear of the campground. “Now, normally I would never suggest that a ’Dweller coming down fresh off a bad euphoric experience return to Shadowscape so quickly, but this is a unique circumstance and I require your help specifically.”
“My help?” Trace was incredulous as he was led to the Sanctuary section of the caravan. They passed by Killian, who was standing attentively just outside of one of the larger trucks in the ministers’ section of the convoy. Magnus guided Trace forward, and as he stepped inside he immediately felt the sensationalist emotions and interest radiating around the room. M’jan Shiloh was there with his handmaiden Nicoya. M’jan Daniel, who was another high-level priest, was there as well. K’yan Karri and about a half dozen other handmaidens milled about or were settled in soft, supplicating prayer. All were crowded into that single space and just standing there and staring at him intently as he arrived. “I don’t understand. With all of the priests and handmaidens here, what could I possibly provide that your experience wouldn’t—”
“Now you understand?” Magnus asked softly when all of Trace’s logic and reasoning froze in midstream, clogging his every system as he stood and stared at the body laid out carefully on a floor bed before his feet. “There is always an explanation for even the strangest things, Trace,” Magnus gently reminded him, “no matter how impossible or improbable it may seem.”
“You said…kin,” Trace choked, forcing the words out of his shock-riddled body.
Different but the same. It was Ashla. Really Ashla. Her physical body, lying in a false sleep, her hands folded neatly just below her breasts as if she were ready to be laid to rest, and the softest, slightest rise and fall of her chest. He had an overwhelming urge to laugh fondly at the beautiful blond length of her hair, the curls an unruly tumble and very likely the reason she had preferred to keep it short. Before he could curb the impulse, Trace was on his knees beside her, his fingers stroking through the precious mass of curling silk and light.
“This hair…this skin…” He slid his fingertips down to trace the pale, gaunt shallow of her cheek. It made him ache to see her so thin. She had been so slender to begin with, but this state had stripped her of every spare store of fat and muscle she’d had. Trace turned eyes that burned with emotion onto the priest. “These are not kin. And one so frail and delicate? When have you known our women to be so?”