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|Ecstasy(Shadowdwellers #1) by Jacquelyn Frank|
Trace’s anger bled away like water whirling in a rush down a drain. “Who told you that? Karri?” he asked, his voice rasping in the wake of their shouting match. “That it would give me prestige to sleep with you?” He stepped closer, his hands clenching into brief fists. “I am the royal vizier, Ashla! I damn well have plenty of prestige on my own! I don’t need to fuck around with you to get more! And to be quite frank with you, my performance with you was nothing to be bragged about. I failed you miserably as a lover. Worse than I thought, if this is truly what you think of me. I have one thing,” he said, his breathing harsh as he held up a single finger, “one thing that has never been taken away from me, and that thing is my honor. I lost everything. Pride. Well-being. Trust. Sensitivity. All of it, gone. All of it, except for my honor. No one questions my honor. Do you understand me? No one!”
“But that’s just it. I don’t understand! I don’t understand any of this world or you!” she cried softly.
“I know you don’t, and that’s the only reason I am still standing here,” he told her, pointing a shaking finger to the floor for emphasis. “The only reason.”
He turned away, running both hands back through his hair and down his neck. She watched him compose himself a little more before he shrugged out of his coat and threw it onto a divan. For the first time, she noticed she was in a very large room with a bed in its center and a great many chaises and divans scattered all around it. It was really quite beautiful, with all of its splendid silks in unusually brilliant colors. Everyone she had met so far dressed so darkly, even the décor reflecting a life lived in shadow. All of the color was completely dazzling and unexpected.
“Do you know what it means to be tortured?”
Ashla gasped, her attention shooting back to him sharply as her heart raced in mad fear. Her voice locked tightly in her throat and her pulse sprinted out of control.
Trace saw it all. Especially in the way her eyes widened all the way down to the black of her pupils.
“That was supposed to be a rhetorical question,” he said softly. He came back to the edge of the bed and reached to gently take her chin in his hand until she was looking up at him, tears dropping down her face with every blink. “But it isn’t, is it? You know the answer.”
She tried to look away, to shake her head…but she couldn’t, and it had nothing to do with his hold on her.
“Maybe torture is too strong a word for it,” she whispered.
“Maybe. But if it was, it wouldn’t have made you react like this. Don’t underplay what happened, jei li. It makes it harder to recover from when you don’t see it as it truly was. When you deny even the smallest aspect of it, it stays inside you and festers.”
“H-how do you know that?” she asked, already devastated because she didn’t want him to be able to answer that. She didn’t want anyone to know what she knew and to feel what she felt, but she especially didn’t want him to know it.
“Because there was a time when I was a prisoner of war, jei li,” he said gently, as if it could soften something so harsh. “For eleven months they tried to get information out of me.” He briefly closed his eyes and corrected himself. “For six months they tried to get information out of me. For the last five, I was just a whole lot of amusement.”
“Your nightmares,” she whispered. “That’s what they are from.”
He looked at her with momentary surprise, and then gave her a wry little smile and a nod. “I’m sorry. Did I keep you up?”
Ashla laughed at the absurdity of the question. As if it mattered if she had lost a little sleep when he had clearly suffered so much? She sniffed and grabbed the hand that held her with both of hers, pulling him until he sat beside her.
“No. You didn’t.” What an idiot she had been, she thought. How could she have thought such awful things of a man who worried about such insignificant details of her comfort? In fact, when she thought back on everything, those hours in bed with him had been the only time he had taken anything for himself. All the rest of the time he had been focused on her and concerned for her well-being.
And even in those selfish moments, he had been sick, she recalled suddenly. If he hadn’t been, he had said, he would have done right by her.
“Oh, God,” she said, covering her mouth in horror. “Oh, Trace! I’m so sorry!” She threw herself against him, wrapping her arms tight around his neck and crushing herself to him with all of her might. “I’m an awful person! Just awful! I’m so sorry. I’m just such a mess! I’m paranoid and neurotic a-and stupid! Just stupid!”
“Stop saying that,” he demanded softly against her cheek. “You aren’t stupid.”
Her sudden laugh took him by surprise until she pulled back and looked at him. “But I am neurotic and paranoid?”
He realized his omission and chuckled. “Well, just a little. But we all are, I think. Honey”—he reached up and cradled her slender face—“I want you to tell me what happened to you. If you can’t do it now, I understand, but it would help me if I knew.”
“Yeah. Help me to not get pissed off the next time you freak out on me like that.”
“Oh. Well, you need a lot of help, then, because that was a whole new world of pissed off you had going there. Not that I blame you.” She took a breath and sighed. “Look, it was just your average run-of-the-mill child abuse at the hands of a religious fanatic. I…” She stopped when she saw the look he was giving her. “Right. No underplaying.” This time her deep breath shuddered out of her. “From the first time she saw me heal with my hands at the age of five, my mother went completely off the deep end. Until Magnus told me why, I always thought it was just one of those random things—or maybe that I really was just so hateful that even my own mother couldn’t love me.”
“That is ridiculous!” he burst out. “That you should feel such things because you are the daughter of a dishonorable ’Dweller and an unfaithful woman?”
“She totally blamed me for her indiscretions. All those years!” Ashla was feeling her anger now even as she hurt. “I can’t tell you how many times she caned me until something in my body broke. She was never afraid of what doctors would say, because my rapid healing would cover her tracks. She would beat me and lock me in the basement. Chain me in the basement,” she corrected with a swallow, her hand rubbing at her throat telling him exactly how she had been tethered in the darkness. “She’d let me out days later, and if there were any remaining signs of the whipping, she would pass it off as my usual clumsiness. After all, she was a living saint in the community. Church, volunteering, four children and a husband. All of it. Who would ever suspect her of torturing her child?
“All the while, she had made me the family whipping boy. If my brothers or sister did something bad, I would get beat for it. ‘To teach them responsibility for others,’ she said. The whole time she did these things, she would shout prayer at me. She made me repeat the Bible over and over, especially the passages where Satan speaks. I guess by hearing me use the voice of the devil she could justify what she was doing.
“When they got older, she made my brothers beat me for themselves. Malcolm hated it, but he did it and just tried not to be as bad. Joseph loved it. He would get in trouble on purpose.” She laughed bitterly. “Apparently he’s all the rage in…in the BDSM world. At least, according to Cristine. She read some e-mails by accident or something.”
“That’s why when I said you were submissive you freaked out a bit.”
“There is a very huge difference between what your brother no doubt enjoys and the way a natural sub responds.” He ran two gentle fingertips down the side of her face. “It doesn’t mean you enjoyed what happened to you, and what happened to you didn’t necessarily make you this way. It also doesn’t mean that it is what you will like all the time.”
“I guess you know a lot about all kinds of stuff like that,” she said, looking down at her hands in her lap. “Karri told me that you had those classes on sex.”
“Ah. I see. That would be where the ‘trained whore’ remark came from.”
Ashla winced, hearing it come from his lips like that. “I’m sorry.”
“I know you are. I also know you don’t understand my culture any more than I can claim to fully understand yours. Those classes are a requirement for everyone raised in this world. We consider it dishonorable to send inexperienced men and women into the adult world, cutting them loose on their own to figure everything out. The tragedy of shame, pain, and destroyed confidence that can occur from a single episode of bad intercourse can last throughout a lifetime, affecting every single lover that comes afterward in a ripple effect. But I don’t have to tell you that, do I? You and your brutally bruised self-esteem at the hands of incompetent men prove my point far more soundly than anything.”
“Yes. I suppose they do,” she agreed quietly. “I hope you can understand why I was so upset, though. It sounded so…I don’t know. So full of artifice, maybe? It sounds so stupid now. But in my culture, we are taught to keep our sexual past a secret so no one gets jealous or…or feels like they are in competition.”
Trace laughed at that. “It’s always a competition. Pretending you’re an innocent virgin every time doesn’t fool anyone, least of all yourself. Men love to compete, and frankly so do women. It is poor etiquette to put a lover on the spot and ask for those comparisons, but if it is offered, that is something else. This is why we ’Dwellers aren’t considered adults until well after our thirties. Those are the mistakes of immaturity. It’s better to expend them and learn otherwise while in a controlled environment like this.”
He indicated the room around them.
“Like this? You mean, they teach sex in here?”
“Ashla, you can’t learn everything from books and pictures. Live example is the next best thing to practical experience.” He stood up and walked to a divan, sitting down to face her. Ashla realized then that all of the chairs in the room were facing the round bed in a staggered outward circular pattern to provide a large viewing range. The room could easily fit a class of thirty people.
Realizing suddenly what went on in the bed she was in, Ashla jumped nervously to her feet and backed away from it as if it were going to bite her. The reaction amazed and exasperated Trace. He could see the red flush of embarrassment all down the back of her neck.
Ashla nearly yelped when she suddenly backed up into him, not even realizing he had gotten up again. His hands closed around her arms and then gently rubbed them up and down. Trace could feel how thin she was, but already he could see improvement in her.
“The instructor walks around the bed,” he informed softly against her ear, “and the students watch while the models in the bed demonstrate things like position and technique. I was sitting right over there the very first time I heard and saw a woman come. It was the most incredible thing I had ever experienced in my life, and I have never forgotten it. What’s more, it wasn’t even a man who brought her to it.”
“I see.” He chuckled. “You only have heterosexual relations in your society?”
“Well, no. But I-I would have thought…”
“We see everything. Every kind of sex from masturbation to homosexual to orgies. BDSM, fetishists, and anything else you can think of as well as those you can’t even conceive of. It is our belief that this is the only way to know what truly arouses us. It saves us from misunderstanding and mistakes; mistakes that can be painful and degrading at times. Usually we find out very quickly what works for our minds, and then we choose classes to focus on. There are those which are mandatory, and those which are voluntary.”
“What if someone is like me. What if they are shy or if it upsets them to see something?”
“Mandatory doesn’t mean forced. And no one is introduced to a class like this one until they are deemed prepared enough. There are also things you don’t need to see to know you won’t like it. By the time you reach that level, though, you are usually choosing your own direction anyway. We would hardly expose an adolescent boy of twelve to an extreme sadistic display. I didn’t even begin to learn fetishes and the like until I was twenty or so. Believe me, it’s enough just learning the basics of heterosexual lovemaking.”
“I don’t doubt that.” Ashla tried to turn around, but he kept her still and facing the bed.
“The first time I ever saw a man penetrate a woman, I was sitting right behind us. I was so close I could smell the scent of her excitement.” Trace’s fingertips came up and slowly stroked down the side of her neck and collarbone. She was wearing a traditional Shadowdweller k’jeet, a woman’s high-waisted dress that gathered tight and low against the breasts before falling away in airy, thin folds of embroidered silk. It swept the floor and the toes of his boots, hiding her bare feet and legs. Traditionally, no undergarments were worn with it because it was a dress of privacy, for use in one’s home. Women who lived in the temple and Sanctuary wore them all the time, and since she was living there as well, no one had thought anything of giving it to her to wear. He wondered if she was wearing it in the traditional style.
“We are often called up to see things more closely,” he continued, watching her carefully as she stared at the bed. “Sometimes to touch.”