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|Ecstasy(Shadowdwellers #1) by Jacquelyn Frank|
“And the Svedde clan always strung theirs up,” Trace added thoughtfully. “So how do we find out which assassins’ guild uses poisons? As you say, they no longer announce themselves, and they certainly won’t announce themselves to us.”
“I can find a way around that, I think.”
“So that has me asking, once again, why are you here? What do you need me for?”
“I need you to tell me exactly who knew you were going into Shadowscape that day.”
Trace frowned as he thought about it, and not for the first time.
“Everyone in the Sanctuary RV. They were the only ones who knew why and when and where. Anyone else who watched Magnus fetch me would have had to make an extremely wild guess, considering I was still fresh off euphoria. But…”
“But there were only priests and handmaidens there,” he said as he turned back to look at the sleeping blonde once more.
Suddenly, everything clicked in Guin’s mind. Trace’s long visits down to the temple, his in-hand dagger, all of it. He wasn’t just mooning after the girl, he was protecting her. Trace believed someone in Sanctuary was a traitor.
“Who was there? Be specific.”
Trace listed everyone quickly, again proving he had thought this over many times already.
“And Magnus, of course.”
The look Trace shot him said he had total faith in the loyalties of his mentor. Guin was inclined to agree, but he didn’t have the luxury of being certain of anything without proving or disproving it first. It was simply the methodical way to do it, and the only way he could ensure Malaya’s absolute safety. Especially when he considered the access the priest had to the Chancellor. No one save himself, Tristan, and Rika had the access Magnus did.
And no one was quite so deadly, either.
The fact of the matter was that the priest was a trained killer, and he had trained others to do the very same thing. The man before Guin was his best example. It was true, there was usually a higher calling for those he trained, and all of Magnus’s work was the work of the gods, but it wouldn’t be the first time in the long history of their people when a zealot’s mind had turned good works into a personal and warped crusade. In all truth, Magnus was the leader of a powerful army of men and women, all with special gifts and all in charge of the education of most of the city’s young people.
Darkness and Light spare them if Magnus ever decided to turn on them with that power at his beckoning.
Guin highly doubted anything of the kind, of course. He had spent the past fifty years in close quarters listening to the man’s wisdom as he had counseled Malaya through the most difficult times in her life. He couldn’t claim a single instance where Magnus had tried to control the mind of his young charge rather than let her control herself. It was one of the things that had come to change Guin over these last decades. He had been a man of very little faith in anything but his sword until Malaya had found him and shown him her world, where so many outstanding people were working together to make a better place for their breed on a planet overrun with humans and light.
Trace was wrong about one thing, though. Guin knew much more about assassins and their workings than he was given credit for. Some things had changed, but others never would. The guilds would probably always exist and they would always kill for a price or their own cause. It was one of the remaining thorns in the new regime’s side. Guin had no doubt that if anyone could defeat the ancient brotherhood it would be these people, but it wouldn’t change traditions, codes, and people who had been around since time was time.
“If you don’t mind, I am going to work my way through that list of names, though I may need your help with it. You know this world far better than I do,” he acknowledged, glancing up and around at the temple ceilings and their gleaming tiles.
“I did. Not so much now. Time has gotten away from me, Guin. It’s playing nasty tricks, too. When I was raised here, I would have sworn that the touch of corruption could not ever breach these walls. I guess I just assumed that because Magnus was so highly placed both here and in the royal confidence, it was still impossible.”
“Magnus’s weight of power and responsibility may be the very reason why this has escaped his notice. He spends more time counseling the royals and their entourage since the recovery after the war than he does here. With good cause. It did a lot of damage to morale and spirits, as you are well aware.”
Trace ignored the reference. “Even so. Magnus trained most of these people. I know what that is like. I can’t imagine ill and wickedness coming out of such devotion and discipline.”
“People change. Times change. And every single man and woman in here comes from a clan, Trace. They say you can never shed the grains of your birth, nor your loyalty to your clan.”
“Is that what you think?” Trace queried. “That this is a clan-motivated uprising?”
“I told you, I will dismiss only what I can disprove. Until then, everything and everyone is under suspicion to me. Present company excluded.”
“Yes, I doubt I’d poison myself,” he retorted dryly.
“I’ve seen everything, so that wasn’t what excluded you.”
“What does?” came the astounded query.
“Your girlfriend over there,” Guin said, surprising him visibly.
“How do you figure?”
“Two reasons. First, you’re so distracted by her that you couldn’t possibly coordinate an overthrow of the government that you actually helped create.”
“And the second?”
“That you wouldn’t overthrow the government you helped create. You had your chance to do it the way you wanted and you were very exacting about the horse you backed. If the war didn’t change your loyalties,” he noted, stressing “war” instead of “Acadian,” “then nothing will.”
“I don’t know about that,” he said with a grin. “There’s always the love of a good woman to change a man.” He gave the guard a sly look.
“Don’t be a smart-ass.”
Ashla was very much aware of every moment Trace spent watching her. The connection that had formed between them was stronger now than it had been in Shadowscape. Like a homing beacon, it told her when he was coming, when he was getting closer, and especially when he was there. The feeling was like sparkles inside her, the internal equivalent to soda pop bubbles up her nose. She wondered why he didn’t feel it, too. If he had, then he wouldn’t think she was ignorant of his presence, would he? Or maybe he was gambling that she hadn’t figured out what the feeling meant yet.
Either way, he never approached her, never announced himself, and never so much as stepped out of hiding to wave at her. He simply stuck to the darkest corners, spent his time watching over her, and then left.
Ashla had no idea what to make of him.
She played along for two weeks, pretending not to notice a feeling that all but overwhelmed her, and tried not to keep mulling over why he was keeping his distance, because all of the answers she arrived at were so disheartening and disappointing. In the end, they all boiled down to the same thing. He was checking up on her to see she was okay, easing his conscience for the mistakes he had made with her, and pushing her off onto others.
Even after these weeks, she still felt like she was in the wrong body. Hell, the wrong everything. Her hair was longer than she’d kept it since childhood, she was wearing strange clothes that ranged from religious uniforms to what amounted to harem outfits. She felt cold all the time because she was still thin, and in the beginning her atrophied muscles had made movement all but impossible. Her natural healing talent had quickly helped cure almost all of it, except the thinness of her bones and body. Magnus said that was something only time out of sunlight and good foods could cure. And even that was his best guess, she could tell.
No one knew quite what to make of her, either. They tended to whisper a lot around her, or outright speak another language. Ignorance of Shadese was something she was going to have to rectify if she was going to hang around with these people in the future.
She wasn’t exactly sure about that part yet, either. Of course, she had no worthy family to return to, and her only friend was dead. Her job and anyone she knew was gone by two years. Magnus had been kind and righteously pissed off as he’d relayed all he had experienced with her mother, but she was used to her mother’s zealot opinions about her, so she hadn’t reacted much.
Sometimes she thought she was in a state of shock still from all of this. Oh, she was very glad that the world wasn’t really devastated by some mysterious global phenomenon, but considering how isolated she was feeling again in spite of being surrounded by people taking care of her, she wondered if she was going to feel that way no matter what she did. She was learning about new races—or rather, very old ones. Learning that Demons, Vampires, and Lycanthropes were real unnerved her a bit, but Magnus said they were good guys for the most part, and she was inclined to believe him.
She was figuring out other things, too. The political structure, Trace’s importance there, the migrations—she had even realized that she was staying in some kind of a religious house, and the very handsome and kind Magnus was some sort of a priest.
Kind of a waste, if you asked her. The man was beautifully handsome and amazingly magnetic, both attributes probably making him the spiritual leader that he was. He was patient, kind, and incredibly considerate. Intelligent, too. She had actually thought him to be quite the hottie early on, until she had realized he was a religious figure. She had sighed and labeled that under the “All the best ones are gay, married, or…” category. To think that he wouldn’t pass that on to a child or make someone a fairly lucky girl was just a shame. Then again, maybe their priests were allowed to have sex. She wasn’t sure. Everyone seemed pretty austere and tightly wound up in tradition and protocol, so she tended to doubt it.
But she had also never seen a priest walk about fully armed before, and she never saw Magnus without his beautiful weaponry. She had recognized the artistic exquisiteness of the scabbards as being very similar to the ones Trace carried. Both men seemed to favor Japanese-style weapons.
The one thing she was certain of since coming back to her “full” existence was that there was a great deal for her to learn and explore now. Knowing that there were whole cultures in the world that had “freaks” just like her in them made her feel a lot less alone than she ever had before. She just wished she didn’t look so obviously like an outsider. She always drew attention when she passed by, even though she had not gone outside of the Sanctuary proper yet. All of the attention and furtive whispers felt a little too much like…like her childhood; like she had felt every day of her adult life as she had concealed parts of herself she had been raised to dread. She didn’t like being an anomaly, and here she couldn’t hide it like she had been able to among humans.
It made her worry her lip as she thought to Trace again. He had said and done a lot of things in Shadowscape, and she wondered if he was regretting all of that now. If he was such a public figure, maybe it wouldn’t be such a great idea to be seen hanging around a half-breed girl like her. Apparently it was an unspoken law that Shadowdwellers and humans were an off-limits combination. She was the product of some kind of felony or something, as if she didn’t have enough problems. To top it off, she was pale and blond in a population that was consistently dark-skinned and ebony-haired. She was a minority of one, and she was deeply out of her element.
Not to mention the women around her were giving her a serious complex. They were incredible. Tall, strong, and curvaceous, they had a dramatic dark beauty that was enhanced by the East Indian way they dressed. Exotic silks in deep colors adorned smooth skin ranging in shade from mocha to burnt sienna. They had amazing complexions, black and russet khols to draw out their sultry eyes, and though they were from a conservative culture, they had powerful wills and decided opinions on what they wanted.
Ashla was none of those things. Not even close. If Trace was used to women like that, what had he ever seen in her?
“Ashla,” Karri greeted her warmly as she entered the courtyard from the east. “How are you this evening?”
“Feeling at a bit of a loss,” she sighed honestly.
“Really? About what?” The handmaiden quickly sat down beside her, laying a comforting hand on her knee.
“About Trace,” she answered baldly, figuring she didn’t have anything to lose at that point. Besides, Karri was kind of like a nun, wasn’t she? There was probably some confidentiality clause or something.
“Ah. I saw he was here again. He still hasn’t approached you?”
“I don’t think he wants to,” she said with a shrug. “He doesn’t strike me as the shy type, so I have to assume he just doesn’t want to.”
“No, Trace is anything but shy,” Karri agreed knowingly. Too knowingly, in fact. Ashla felt a sensation of quick and hot jealousy whip around in her belly as she stared at the clean and simple beauty of Karri. She wore the midnight blue sari of a handmaiden, as she almost always did, with her hair drawn back into a tidy plait. She wore bangles and a collared necklace of gold, also as most of the others did, and her nails were painted to match her uniform. She wasn’t heavily adorned and wore no make-up, but she was still young and pretty. “He grew up here, you know.”
“Here? You mean here here? In the temple or whatever you call it?”
“Temple or, most often, Sanctuary. Sanctuary is all inclusive, and temple is more directed toward the central building.”