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|Ecstasy(Shadowdwellers #1) by Jacquelyn Frank|
“Thanks,” Ashla said, feeling as stupid as she did every time she made one of these faux pas. “So he lived in Sanctuary?”
“Yes. He is Magnus’s son.”
“His son! But…isn’t he a-a priest? Aren’t they supposed to be celibate or something?”
“Trace is Magnus’s foster son. We rarely make that distinction, though, as it is considered rude. Magnus sees Trace as he would his real blood, and so should we. As for celibacy, Magnus is no more or less restricted from sexual congress as any married man is, barring religious events that require he be. Sex is a very natural instinct and serves great purpose in life. It makes no sense for a religious leader to give guidance about sex, family, and relationships when he has none of his own. Instead of a wife, however, he is given a handmaiden.”
“You mean—you have to have sex with him whenever he wants to just because you are assigned to him as his handmaiden?”
“No! Oh no. Consensual sex is paramount in all relationships. I am not obliged to sleep with him any more than he is obliged to sleep with me. It only means that until death dissolves our religious bond of priest and handmaiden, I am simply his only choice, should he desire to expend sexual energy. He is also my only choice. However, we both reserve the right to decline at all times. It is hard to explain without getting into great religious detail, and you don’t look like you have patience for that today.”
“Honestly, you’re right. I’d rather you tell me what you know about Trace so I can try and figure him out a little. I doubt I will have any success, but…I still want to try.”
“Well, what would you like to know?” Karri threw a covert look toward the main temple.
Here was the challenge, actually. Ashla didn’t want to fish for information from someone else. She wanted to ask Trace this stuff, or at least be able to hang out around him long enough to figure some of it out for herself. That would have been nice.
Just the same, she found she couldn’t ask any of the personal questions burning in her mind. What happened to his parents, making him a fosterling? How old was he when this happened? How old is he now?
“Is he married?” It was such a gauche-sounding and stupid little query that her face burned with embarrassment. “Joined, I mean. You call it ‘joined,’ right?”
“Yes. Just like your human weddings, joinings are great celebrations, usually involving the whole city. And no, Trace is not joined. He isn’t the type.”
“The type?” she echoed.
“To settle into a monogamous, familial relationship,” the handmaiden explained. “He is too much engaged with his duties and the development of the government. He is career obsessed, I think you call it.”
That was easy enough to see, Ashla thought with a sigh. She remembered the fight with Baylor and all he had said so heatedly to the other man. It was clear Trace was devoted to his role and his loyalties to his government.
“Well, does he have children?”
“No. It is considered shameful to bear children without a joining. It must seem old-fashioned, I know, but the shame is attached to the inconsiderate parents who ought to have taken precautions against it. Shadowdwellers enjoy sex freely, Ashla, and we choose our desires openly. There is never any shame in that. However, we also believe a child is best raised within a strong family unit with joined parents to guide it. It is shameful to spread seed or give birth without taking great care in planning the results. Especially when it is so easily preventable in today’s society.”
“I see.” She flushed, thinking of how reckless she had been with Trace before she had realized she hadn’t been so reckless after all. Trace, of course, had not been concerned about it. She had been little more than a ghost to him. A wraith couldn’t get pregnant, so what was there to worry about? “So…sex is neither taboo nor special? I-I mean, you’re used to enjoying each other and moving on.”
“That is usually the case among single Shadowdwellers, yes. We live much too long to limit ourselves and our experiences. You will see. You will live a long life, too. And there will be many among us who will find you fascinating and exciting.”
“You mean a freak,” she snapped suddenly, standing up with restless anger as she folded her arms around her clenching stomach. “Like all those stupid erotic stories about making love to an alien. Just because I look and act different, men around here are going to want to nail me, just to say they did it with the half-breed!”
“Well, of course we are all fascinated by you, Ashla. It is hard to resist curiosity over the unique. There is also great honor to be gained if you can claim to have given great pleasure to such an extraordinary being. But—”
“Oh my God! I think I’m going to be sick.” She turned away and covered her mouth as tears burned hot in her eyes. Was that what had happened? Did Trace have his bragging rights now? Was he just coming around now to point to his butterfly in a jar and show her as a great conquest?
“I’ve upset you,” Karri said worriedly. “This wasn’t my intention. Please, I apologize, Anai Ashla. There are many women here who would love to be the center of such attention. They would thrive on having so many lovers to experience.” Karri stood up and wrung her hands as she came up behind Ashla. “It is not just you, Anai. For instance, a woman who has had Trace for a lover would have incredible prestige in the eyes of other men and women. In our culture, the women would respect her and the men would desire her for themselves. The same would be true for any man who the Chancellor Malaya chose for a lover. For a woman so powerful and highly placed to select him would give him high desirability to others, and the respect of his peers. This is to say nothing of the experience itself. Trace was trained from his youth in the ways of pleasure and gratification. Magnus saw to it he had the very best tutors. We are all trained in the ways of lovemaking when we are young, but such valuable education as Trace or the Chancellors received is only given to an elite class.”
Ashla wished the handmaiden would shut up. Karri meant well, but the more she said, the more of a nightmare this was becoming. She didn’t want to think about all the lessons and women and prestige Trace had gained or given throughout his already extensive life. What he must have thought of her! With her ridiculous awkward experiences and her admitted failures at achieving orgasm. Ashla couldn’t decide what was worse, thinking of his amusement at that, or thinking of how easy it had been for him to use his “lessons” on her to make her perform on command. How smug and blasé he must have been!
“Excuse me, I’m not feeling very well.”
Ashla rushed out of the courtyard. She didn’t want to burst into blubbering tears in public. She was enough of a sideshow as it was. And she absolutely wasn’t going to let Trace watch her—
As though just thinking his name had conjured him, Ashla ran full-force into his body, and his hands and arms immediately closed around her. She squeaked in utter dismay as she became trapped in an instant in the place she least wanted to be.
What was worse was how incredibly good it felt to feel his strength around her again. His hands fitted to her arms and back in smooth sweeps that made her whole body groan with relief. He also smelled even better to her now than he had in Shadowscape. Everything came sharper and deeper, as if her senses had only been half complete and torn apart between the two ’scapes. His warmth, the scent of leather and exotic male musk, and as she looked up, even his eyes seemed a richer, more velvety black.
“Jei li,” he said softly, his eyes searching her face with such intensity and sincerity that she almost forgot everything she had been feeling an instant ago. But all it took was a single thought, a single understanding that he had been “well educated” in the ways of women, and she shoved away from him with a cry.
“Ashla, what is it?” he demanded, refusing to let her go even as she squirmed so violently she was likely going to injure herself.
“Let me go! Just go away!”
“What did she say? Ashla, tell me what Karri said to upset you!”
“I’m not telling you anything!” she screamed in his face. “Why should I? Why do you care? You haven’t even talked to me for over two weeks! You lied to me. You…you used me! I was so stupid!”
The furious roar came an instant before Ashla was plucked off the ground and thrown over a leather-clad shoulder. She screeched and kicked, not caring if it sent her crashing on her head. It would probably feel better than she felt right then anyway. She had never been so mad, though God knew she had been hurt that much and more before. Most of all, she was furious with herself for walking right into the lies and the bullshit all over again, proving she would never, ever learn her lesson.
Through the fury of her flying hair, Ashla saw a door slamming closed behind them. Then she felt herself sailing through the air and landing on a soft surface. She scrambled for footing and posture, but she felt him grab her by her chin and face and shove her back down as he pinned her arms behind her back and forced her legs still beneath one of his.
“I said enough!”
“As appealing an idea as that would normally be, I think not,” he retorted dryly. “Now why don’t you calm down and tell me what in the searing Light this is all about?”
“It’s about you being a total pig! Get off me!”
Ashla had never realized how good it would feel to simply scream at somebody. Just demanding what she wanted instead of tucking tail with a whimper and running away was such a rushing and different experience. Granted, she wasn’t getting anywhere, but it still felt better than begging the world’s pardon that she was breathing its oxygen.
“Did you just call me a—?”
“Pig! Swine! A filthy, disgusting animal!”
Trace pushed the wild curls of her hair off her face. Her eyes were shut tight, but there was no mistaking the cold fury on that normally meek and docile face. Something about it just made him want to smile, but she would probably pop a stroke if she caught him at it.
“Fine. If we agree on that for the moment, would you care to go into more detail?”
Her eyes flew open and she stared at him incredulously. “Are you humoring me? Oh! Get off my legs! I swear I am going to kick your nuts through the roof of your mouth!”
“Given that choice, I think I’ll stay right where I am, thanks. And seeing as how I am bigger, heavier, and stronger than you, I’m guessing I can wait out this little snit and stay right here until you answer my questions. What do you think? Wait!” he said when she opened her mouth wide to reply. “I know. I’m a pig. Want to tell me what I did to earn such voluble praise from you?”
“You’re a liar! And a-a con artist! Your entire sex sucks! You only think with your dicks and don’t give a shit who you hurt in the process!”
“I beg your pardon?” he demanded, the vibration in his voice a warning of his rising temper to those who knew him. “Like women are any better? Deceitful, evil sickness wrapped in pretty packages. Using wiles and sweetness instead of swords to cut us deep. You sidle in close with your painted perfection and practiced tricks, and then stab us in the back once you are sure we are at our most vulnerable!”
“Oh, that’s rich, coming from a trained whore!”
“What did you say?”
The furious roar rushing against her was like nothing she had ever felt or heard before. She watched with stunned, wide eyes as his eyes shot black lightning through her, his entire powerful body bunching up over her in a threatening cloud of muscle and fury.
She was shocked he didn’t hit her, because he certainly looked like he wanted to. Actually, he looked like he wanted to beat the crap out of just anyone. Or everyone. A sensible fear finally spoke up inside her, warning her too late that she had gone too far. Ashla found herself with a finger pointed in her face and a looming maelstrom of masculine outrage right behind it.
“I have borne more nightmare reality than you will ever be able to comprehend because I refused to whore, Ashla Townsend, so do not ever speak to me in such a manner ever again! No one would dare accuse me of such a thing, and I realize now I want no part of anyone who does!”
He sprang back from her, almost as sharp as a crack of thunder as the length of his coat snapped with the turn of his body. Ashla sat up, breathing hard as he stormed in long strides toward the door.
“Why did you have sex with me?” she demanded loudly. “Because I was easy and convenient or because you wanted a thrill with a strange, white-skinned blonde?”
Trace stopped short and whirled around on a heel to face her again. If anything, he looked even madder. Ashla bit her tongue and wished she’d just let him walk out. She wasn’t good at confronting people. Hell, she never confronted people in the first place!
“I cannot believe the things you think of me! What, in all of this time, have I done to make you think these things of me?” he challenged her. “Was it when I nursed you well, or when I saved your ungrateful little backside from oblivion that you became so convinced of my treacherous nature?”
Ashla flinched at that. Especially when he began walking back toward her again.
“Answer me!” he bellowed in a sharp burst of fury.
“She said that it would give you prestige because you slept with me!” she yelled. “That men here would want me because I’m unique and d-different! Everyone stares at me! They whisper and talk in a language I can’t understand like I am an exhibit at the zoo! I hate it! I hate all of this! I didn’t ask to be different!” She broke in a sob. “I don’t want to be different!”