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|Ecstasy(Shadowdwellers #1) by Jacquelyn Frank|
Trace’s dark eyes were pained and savage as he looked down into hers. To Ashla, it was almost like being stalked and targeted by a great jungle beast. The black of his lashes made his eyes lethally beautiful in the way a jaguar’s eyes could be beautiful, but a deadly sight to see unless it was through a very long lens.
His hand was suddenly riding up over her belly and breasts, then closing around her throat. Ashla worked hard to keep from smiling at the intensity she had wrought from him, but the satisfaction she felt showed in her eyes. He hovered almost nose to nose with her for a moment of intensity before the corner of his mouth curled up in an almost challenging little grin.
“That, little temptress, will not happen again.”
“Yeah, yeah, you said that before,” she sighed, rolling her eyes.
Her audacity floored him.
Her challenge aroused him.
Trace almost laughed when her expression changed to one of surprise as she realized he was firming up inside her. They weren’t in ’scape, and this wasn’t fueled by euphoria this time. This was one hundred percent pure, unadulterated lust for her that he had been holding in check for what felt like a lifetime. But now that the short game had been played…
“It’s time for the long game, jei li,” he taunted her in warning.
Malaya cursed softly in her native tongue, pacing her bedroom chamber nervously.
Something was wrong.
Every Shadowdweller could Fade, and most could skip through connected shadows, but every so often, a ’Dweller was born with a significant third ability that was different from most everyone else. For Trace, it was the ability to skip unconnected shadows; for Rika, it was the remarkable power of locus, which allowed her to sense or track specific psychic energy.
For Malaya, it had always been the redoubtable power of precognition.
And she hated it because it lied to her. Well, not lied, but played games with her. It presented itself in instincts or even dreams, flashing sometimes dire warnings or bracing information at her when she was asleep and unprepared for it. Sometimes, it didn’t wait for sleep to come and it rode over her in a vision with pictures of clarity and meanings as clouded as mud. They could be sharp, ringing and accurate, easy to understand and read. But here was the trick, because the next time everything would come sharp and ringing, but only accurate to a point. The power would create imagery in her mind using alternative representations, transposing objects and people so they became representatives of what would occur instead of the clarity of the actual occurrence.
For example, the dream she kept having about Guin.
She had said nothing to anyone, her fear so crippling that she dreaded that to speak aloud of it would solidify the reality of it. Time and again, with increasing frequency, the vision came to her. Always the same.
Her brave and rough Guin, falling to his knees in defeat, turning his eyes to her before declaring, “I have found your traitor, K’yatsume.”
Then that sound…that awful sound! The whine of steel ringing through air right before slicing through the neck of her beautiful warrior protector!
Thank Darkness, sweet with comfort, that it had ended there. Bad enough to watch him die over and over so horribly; she didn’t think she could bear the gore of it as well.
Malaya sobbed softly into her hand, her frustration and fear getting the better of her. Was it an accurate vision, or did it mean something else? It had been the driving force of her denial to release him. She didn’t want him to find out who the traitor was. It was probably fruitless and ridiculous, but if he was ignorant, then he could never speak those words to her, and then she could ensure his continued life. What use were her premonitions if she couldn’t prevent the tragedies she saw from forming? She had done it before, and she would do it this time as well. She didn’t care what it took. She didn’t care how furious he became with her. Of course, if he ever found out why she was keeping him tied to her side, furious wouldn’t be a powerful enough word to describe his reaction. She knew Guin and his temper quite well, thank you.
The vision couldn’t be accurate, she told herself as she paced a bit faster. Guin on his knees? Beaten? Impossible! Laughable! The behemoth who protected her was a legend on the field of battle. He was even more deadly in the darkest slips of shadows, using silence and stealth that belied all the bone and muscle he managed. No, it had to be something else. If it was, she dreaded it just as much. There weren’t many things to mistake such a mental representation for. The slaughter of that which she loved? Death to someone loyal to her? The destruction of that which made her feel safe and secure in this world?
Just then, Guin entered the room, carefully hesitating to give her the opportunity to demand privacy. Malaya quickly composed herself, brushing dampness from her cheeks and sitting down on a chaise with a flounce, facing away from him. She affected a sigh.
“I’m bored, Guin,” she complained with distracting energy just in case he had caught sight of her troubled expression.
“Well, don’t expect me to entertain you. I’m not in the mood,” he grumbled, making her turn to look at him. Guin had learned that he was free to speak to her almost any way he pleased as long as they were in private or company was limited to those in the upper entourage like Trace and Rika. He was never one for politesse, so he generally kept silent in company. But even with freedom to do so, he rarely expressed emotions of a moody nature. He rarely expressed emotions at all. He simply kept silent behind a stone wall of inexpressive features and muscle that stood at rigid attention.
So she was a little surprised when he moved to her side of the room like a storm and sat down on the edge of the chaise she occupied. He was every inch the picture of a man who had an issue to raise, and she feared she knew exactly which one he was going to go for.
“How is Rika today?” he asked instead, once again catching her off guard.
“S-she is better. Or as well as she can be.” Just speaking of her vizier’s unstable health saddened her. “She has not said so, but I believe she is completely blind now. Not even color to guide her.” Malaya swallowed. “She stopped beading. She could still do it when she could see color, but now…”
Guin nodded. He had noticed other similar things. It had pained him to watch the active, brilliant artisan in the vizier slowly wither away as blindness stole her best loved tools of artistic expression. How the sweet-natured Rika kept her spirits was beyond him. She never once complained. Never became angry at her fate. It wouldn’t do any good, except to maybe make her feel better, but he supposed raging in a temper was against her elegant, sophisticated mind.
Malaya wept for her good friend in her darkest corners and most private moments. Guin was too observant not to notice how she had covered up when he had entered the room. Some days, she didn’t want to be seen; others she would lean against him or curl into his lap as she sobbed openly.
But Guin didn’t realize he was mistaken and that it was him she shed tears over this time.
“I just saw Magnus at the forge.”
Guin was leaving her side a lot. It was not normal, and it was risky behavior on his part, but she knew he was torn between his restriction to her side and his duty to protect her. He was doing what she had asked him not to do in little snippets of stolen time. If she was with her brother and Xenia in the palace, he would excuse himself, leaving the other bodyguard in charge of both royals’ lives. Or he would send the good-natured Killian in to be with her, though he never did this if he thought they would end up alone together. He didn’t even trust the head of their own security forces.
Guin would never be gone more than an hour total in a day, but even her brother was beginning to frown on it, and Tristan had taken the threat of traitors with a minimum of concern.
Until they had poisoned Trace.
Now Tristan was a black, brooding presence, his usual joviality vanished, his boisterous sexual escapades confined to the deep privacy of his rooms where they had always belonged. He dogged his sister’s steps frequently, moving his work into her offices, which they had not done since the time during the wars. But it was actually nice having him at a desk across the room again, even if it was a threat that had brought him there. When this was over, she would insist that he stay this time. They simply worked better when they were together anyway.
“Repairing Trace’s weapon,” she said softly, toying with her necklace. When she turned her head, the delicate chain that strung from her pierced ear in a low curve to connect to the piercing in her nose would shimmer against her face. Guin loved the beauty of her unadorned face and form, but when she wore the chain that accented the prominent curve of her cheek in gold and drew attention to the black liner that rimmed her whiskey-colored eyes, he had to marvel at her. She always knew how to present herself perfectly. Be it looks or manners, she had that which he sorely lacked when it came to appealing to mass society.
“Yes. And quickly, too. Magnus does nothing with haste, as you well know.”
“He is worried Trace is still a target. That he is an unarmed target.”
“He is hardly that,” Guin assured her. “But the katana is Trace’s best strength.”
“But the point is,” she said, turning her dark eyes onto him, “Magnus is worried. Magnus is not known for fretting, Guin.”
“I know,” he agreed with a short nod. It had been his point, and he was glad she had already intuited as much. “His son has almost died twice. If not for the half-breed, Trace would already be dead. And…I am worried as well, K’yatsume.”
“You have said as much many times, Ajai.”
“Drenna!” he burst out, surging to his feet suddenly and rounding on her. He reached to grab the back of the chaise, trapping her between his arms as he loomed over her and nearly touched noses with her. “Did it not occur to you, K’yatsume, that after failing twice they might decide to move on to an easier target? Hmm? Think, you obstinate girl! Think who they will choose!”
“If you mean me, then all the more reason for you to stay close!”
“You think I mean you?” He laughed in rough and insubordinate mocking. “My, my, princess, you are self-important, hmm? And do you think you are an easier target than Trace when you have me attached to that shapely backside of yours?”
Malaya gasped softly at the crude behavior and remarks from him. She had never seen him so mutinous toward her before. Every muscle in his body bulged with repressed anger, even the exposed armband over his biceps looking ready to burst under the strain of them. Yet his breath came deep and rock steady as it poured warmly against her cheek and lips.
“Think!” he shouted at her, so hard and sudden that she jolted in shock and surprise. She swallowed nervously, for the first time truly facing the tiger she had held tamed to her side for so many years. It reminded her of the stories where those who raised such beasts always said they could never turn their backs on them and never forget that they were born and bred for the kill. Nothing that wild could ever be perfectly tamed. “Think of who is weakest among us. Who, if we lost her, we would suffer from the loss like a mortal wound pours out life’s blood!”
Guin knew by the appalled widening of her eyes that she finally understood. She wasn’t this dense and stubborn; it wasn’t like her. There was something else going on, and he could feel it deep in his bones. But unless she told him what it was, he would continue to stumble around in this inhibiting ignorance. It was enough to make him want to strangle his own charge.
His gaze drifted down her face briefly, settling for an agonizing moment on her sensually formed mouth. It, like everything else about her, was designed for one thing and one thing only. At least, to his mind. She’d been carved out of pure sexuality, forged in heat like a fine precision blade. At times like this, Guin could think of better alternatives to strangling her that could work just as well…if not better.
He looked back up to her eyes, swallowing as he heaved his mind out of that forbidden gutter before she took notice.
“Your blind Rika would be dead before she could scream,” he growled at her, being cruel on purpose. “A single saw-star and her delicate little throat would be laid wide open, severing everything straight to her vocal cords.” He meanly cut a hard finger across the middle of her arched throat to drive his point deeply home. “An assassin could come up behind her with a drawn blade, and with a single swing—”
She screamed in true terror, making him jolt back several inches in surprise. Malaya was not easily frightened, and he had fully expected her to all but kick his ass for his bullying tactics. He wasn’t expecting tears, a wrenching sob of dismay and then…
She threw her arms around his thick neck, scooping herself up tight against him, her body curving exquisitely flush to his even as he was still bent over her. Then she pressed her lips against his with a sense of desperation, the salt of her tears sneaking in to touch his tongue. Guin was so stunned that, for the first time in his life, he simply could not react. She could have run him through on the spot and he wouldn’t have been able to move the flicker of an eyelash to defend himself. His large hand spread over her back, holding her to him for an achingly sinful moment of realized impossibilities. Five decades of repressed emotion threatened to swamp him all at once, clamoring against the gates of reality and sense he kept them locked behind.
And then he saved himself, an instant before he would have turned the kiss back on her and given himself completely away. He realized she meant nothing sexual, and nothing beyond the friendship alone that she thought they shared. She loved him, he knew, but not…
He drew himself away from her painfully sweet mouth, reaching to stroke his hand back through her thick, beautiful hair as he slowly lowered to a single knee.