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|Ecstasy(Shadowdwellers #1) by Jacquelyn Frank|
“Immediate investigation?” Trace pushed, unwittingly irritating his increasingly uncomfortable mentor. “In the middle of migration? You knew she was different. How did you know?”
“Is it urgent you know this now?” Magnus demanded irritably. “I see no relevance in how this will help you both to heal.”
“Magnus,” Trace said, the soft use of the priest’s name his only rebuke and response to that.
Magnus sighed and looked at his foster son.
“The Sainting. You swore you had experienced the Sainting with her. You know it is a connection that fascinates me. Since I have never known you to exaggerate or swear to something that wasn’t so, I had to believe you felt something. Something powerful. If you were Sainted, then I knew there was a good chance she was not fully human. Or rather, that she was part of us. Also…” Magnus hesitated a moment, something he almost never did. “The Sainting makes you vulnerable, Trace. The idea of you being joined that deeply to a being lying on the border of life and death was intolerable. Do you have any idea how often Sainted friends take their own lives when the other dies? I have studied this for decades now. If they survive the original sacrifice together, forming that depth of bonded companionship to its fullest devotion, half of them will chase their companions to the grave when the time comes. Perhaps more than that. I don’t have the most accurate of records to go by. People know the stories, but the facts are often lost in poetry and lyric. But the fact remains…”
Trace actually smiled at that. “You were worried about me.”
“Of course I was!” Magnus said gruffly as he gained his feet and paced for a short turn. “You can grow as independent of me as you like, Ajai Trace, but no matter how high in this world you place yourself, you’ll not escape your roots with me!”
“I have no desire to do so,” Trace assured him.
“Well, then, don’t act so surprised. It’s insulting. I have my reasons for not exposing my feelings in front of those who work with me, but you and I know the truth of it. At least, I should hope you do.” Magnus stilled with a deep sigh, looking steadily at the other man. “You are my son, Trace. Blood or no blood, you are my son. I fathered you for decades where you barely left my sight, and I will father you until you step into your final Darkness.”
“I know, M’jan,” he acknowledged softly, giving his foster father a heart-touched acknowledgment. “Thank you for all you have done for us.”
“Thank me when she is well, my son. She has a way to go yet.”
Guin walked through the enclave quickly in search of Trace.
He didn’t like to leave Malaya for any reason, especially after the second attack on Trace. The dreadful fact was that the streets of the commune could be littered with conspirators, and any one of those close to the upper government could find themselves unexpectedly dead. Every face he encountered, whether he knew them well or not, was shaded with threat in his mind. Since his mistress had not yet given him leave to investigate deeper, all he could do was remain as vigilant as possible.
Guin took the main thoroughfare into the relay tunnel. An old mining shaft from over a century past, the cave entrance had been transformed into the smooth walls of a tunnel that transitioned the sparse exterior commune to the larger and more intricate interior.
Here mine shafts and tunnels that had been exhausted in the search for precious metals had provided the infrastructure to the underground city the ’Dwellers had built of it. It went into the mountain range for miles, and each man-made passage that had been hacked roughly open had since been transformed by engineers and builders into ash-plastered and boot-blackened curves. They led into the naturally warmer belly of the earth, the one true blackness on the planet and the one place where the threat of light had been totally removed.
As Guin strode through, he was crossing the equivalent of a biodome constructed under rock and stone. It had its own independent water supply from underground rivers and lakes, heated water from hot springs, as well as a supply from the freshwater Elk’s Lake that stretched out about a half mile below their elevation. With the exception of lights, every modern convenience that was not light emitting, or alterable into such, could be found. Plumbing. Electricity for heat. Even communications technology. It was not, perhaps, flawlessly provided and perfect in its supply/demand quotient, but it was close enough to keep them safe and comfortable. They had learned how to compensate for the rest with things like black fire or natural resources.
There was only one place in the entire ’Dweller city where light could be found, and that was the hydroponics stations. They were set in the lowest and most distant sections of tunneling, and security limited access to it to both protect the products growing in it and those who might accidentally wander in during a “daylight” event. Timers did what Shadowdweller hands could not, and just to be certain, heavy doors sealed it all away. Tristan likened it to humans toying with nuclear power. It was dangerous and deadly, but efficient and necessary in its way. Despite the migrations, there were those who never moved from the city. Since there were so many to feed, and the ordering of supplies and moving them in were restricted by weather allowances, it made sense to be as independent of the outside world as possible.
Despite what Malaya thought, Guin was not as well known as she assumed. She mistook Trace’s more congenial presence for Guin’s, when it came to that, at times. No one acknowledged Guin who wasn’t a guard, which was very different than all the calling out and waving that went on when he was beside Trace or either of the royals. Even the guard acknowledgment was about knowing who their master was, as opposed to anything of a friendly sort. Not that the bodyguard took any offense.
Guin simply wasn’t the friendly sort.
He chose his companions on very rare and careful occasions.
At the moment, it was Trace he sought. The vizier had become increasingly distracted since the recovery of the blond half-breed girl, and now he was becoming increasingly scarce as well. Guin hardly understood the man’s behavior. Before Baylor’s attack, you could not have found another man more focused and dedicated to his work, except perhaps for the man who had raised Trace. Now, at a time when he was probably most needed, his attention was wavering. Not that he was entirely neglectful or anything. He just wasn’t there all the time anymore. Guin didn’t like change. Not in schedule, routine, or in people. It disturbed the careful plans and patterns he used to predict safety and the behaviors of others at any given moment.
And why was Trace nowhere to be found today? If Guin had his guess, he’d be exactly where he had been every day this week.
Sure enough, as he entered into Sanctuary, he found Trace in his usual spot, leaning against one of the polished columns edging the rear exit of the temple proper. Guin crossed the vast flooring in a clipped rhythm of steps, his boots as sharp as his patience was short these days. Between Trace, Malaya, and Tristan acting so out of logic and character, not to mention traitors milling about with sedition on their minds, who could blame him for being a bit on edge?
Guin was completely disgusted when Trace either didn’t notice his approach or outright ignored it, in spite of the fact that he came up directly behind him. Instead, the vizier continued to keep his full attention on the rear courtyard. As always, the scrawny little half-breed human was engaged in some useless activity or another, and Trace was just standing there watching her. He never approached her. Never even let her know he came there each and every day. He just stood and stared, thinking Light knew what, wasting time and focus best spent elsewhere.
“The next time you let me come up on you like that, I am going to yell at the top of my lungs,” Guin threatened testily. “At least then she’ll know you’re standing here like some moonsick cub.”
“Thank you for the warning. The next time you come up on me like this I will have to remember to run a dagger through your throat,” Trace responded dryly. Then, to prove his point, he reached down to slowly slide his blade back into the sheath rigged into his boot.
Okay, now that impressed Guin. The bodyguard tried to remember seeing the vizier move. He realized that he couldn’t recollect any movement at all. That meant either he had been too busy grousing in his own mind, or the vizier had been armed all along. Since Guin hardly thought he could ever be that distracted, he realized the tanto had already been in Trace’s hand. That struck him as odd, considering where they were. Also, the vizier had grown up in Sanctuary. Why wouldn’t he feel completely safe here surrounded by memories and people from his boyhood?
“Well, at least you aren’t as stupid as you are behaving,” Guin muttered. “Why don’t you go and say something to her? Why do you just stand here every day?”
Trace turned his head very slowly and narrowed his eyes on the bodyguard. “Fine advice, coming from you,” he shot back.
Guin felt a sickening rush of chill dread as he met the other man’s meaningful eyes. Well, he supposed he should have known better. After all, Trace didn’t advise the most powerful people in their world for no reason. It was his uncanny insights that had made him invaluable for years. The worst the war had ever gotten for their side had been when Trace was Acadian’s prisoner. They had been crippled those eleven months, like a powerful hunting beast suddenly losing a limb. They would have eventually learned to survive, but it would never be the same and it would have taken much longer than they could spare. Tristan’s plan to recover Trace, the moment they had learned he was alive and being held prisoner, had been the most critical act of winning the war, in Guin’s opinion. Trace had not recovered fully from his ordeal until the war had officially ended, so it hadn’t been so much his contribution as it had been the morale change that had made the difference. But even injured to his soul with the horrors of torture, Trace had still played a critical part in the war’s final resolution and Malaya and Tristan’s assumption of power.
That had been why Guin had started to call him a friend. That and the fact that despite eleven months at that witch’s mercy, Trace had never once given away a single piece of intel that would have endangered Malaya.
That meant more to Guin than all the rest.
“Fine. I’m a pot and you’re a kettle,” he muttered. “It isn’t the same, though. She isn’t untouchable and out of your league. If anything, you are out of hers. I mean, she’s just a half-breed, Trace. She isn’t even—”
Yeah. That was stupid, Guin thought quickly as he found himself suddenly being shoved back into the huge antechamber behind them. He regained his balance quickly, though, pausing to rub at his chest where the vizier had struck him quick and hard.
“You watch your tone, Ajai Guin,” he warned with a snarl and a pointed finger as he closed the distance between them rapidly. “I don’t care what they say about the way you fight, I will cut your heart out if I can find it!”
Other than Xenia, Trace was the only one he would ever take a threat like that from remotely seriously. Again, he made Magnus the exception from that; however, the priest would never make a threat of that kind to anyone who wasn’t a Sinner. Guin was many things, but he was no Sinner.
“Look, I only meant to stress it’s different from my situation, okay?” He backed up, taking a defensive posture, holding out a warning hand while laying another on the hilt of his blade. “Come on, Trace, you don’t even have your katana. What are you going to do, spit on me?”
“And disrespect the temple? No. But anywhere else and I would have by now.” He moved forward again and Guin was forced to step back or engage him.
“Don’t be so damn sensitive!” Guin barked in frustration. “We have better things to do than pick fights with each other!”
Luckily, Trace was a creature of habit and logic. Both of those agreed with Guin’s point, and he stood down and folded his arms across his chest, though he still glared at him.
“Why did you come down here?” Trace demanded.
“I needed to clear some things up. I haven’t gotten to ask you for myself and I don’t trust secondhand accounts.”
“Clear what up?”
“The assassins at the post office.”
“Oh.” Trace frowned at the memory and within seconds was turning to look back over his shoulder. Guin looked too, but all he saw was the half-breed girl parked on a lounge with a book in her lap. She was currently reading through her closed eyelids, which Guin considered could be mildly intriguing…for about half a second. What was the point in watching the half-breed sleep? “What about them?” Trace asked as he started to walk back toward the column he favored.
“We never found the body of the one you killed. That means they dispose of their own dead so they don’t get tracked back. So I was thinking the assassin had to be someone noticeable.”
“You think it was another senator.”
“Maybe. Or something like that. I’ve been looking, but until session starts…Have you noticed any conspicuous absences?”
“No. Not yet.” Trace finally turned his attention to the conversation and to Guin. “And I injured the other one. I was looking for a while to see if anyone favored their side, but after a couple of days they would have healed.”
“If that. The scar will last a while, though. That’s good thinking. But here’s my thought. How many assassins use dipped blades, do you think?”
“How should I know? You and I don’t exactly have Shadowdweller underworld connections, Guin.”
“Well, since the end of the wars and you passing those laws about murder penalties, assassins don’t announce their trade anymore. But you have to suppose certain tricks are common with those from certain guilds. In the wars, we always knew the Siyth clan by how bloody they would leave the kill.”