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|Ecstasy(Shadowdwellers #1) by Jacquelyn Frank|
When he saw her sitting and laughing with Karri, he was doubly relieved. Despite Magnus’s warning, he knew that he had not meant Karri should be suspected. Priest and handmaiden had been together since Trace’s boyhood. He had been about eighteen when she had been Chosen. She had been not much older herself.
Ashla felt him before she saw him. But it wasn’t the usual effervescent call that warned her. This was an alarm, plain and true, and she knew before she met his eyes that something was terribly wrong. She put down the box of confection candy she held, apologizing to Karri with her eyes as she rose quickly to her feet and raced across the courtyard to meet Trace.
“My father has been poisoned,” he said without preamble. He raised his eyes from her to include his father’s handmaiden in the announcement. “A traitor in this house has him in his grasp, just as sure as they thought to have me.”
“I will get my herbs,” Karri said, her face folding into an awful distress as she put the back of a hand to her mouth and ran as quickly as her sari would allow.
“She will catch up to us,” Trace said, taking Ashla’s arm and urging her forward quickly.
“Don’t worry. I know I can do this,” she said, grabbing for his hand in firm reassurance.
“Magnus doesn’t think so. Not without costing your life. I am afraid he might be right.”
“Trace, I can do this.”
Her amazing confidence brought him to hesitate, turning her toward him so he could search her steady eyes for a moment. Where, he wondered, was all her fear? Darkness knew, he was terrified. She couldn’t possibly realize how dire the situation was. Nothing, absolutely nothing, could bring Magnus to his knees. Didn’t she understand that?
Just then, Ashla reached up to him, caressing the side of his face with gentle self-assurance. “I will not let your father die, Trace.”
And in that brief moment, he could almost believe her.
Ashla was afraid, but that was to be expected, and it wasn’t the crippling fear she had seemed to always suffer. Maybe that was because, for once in her life, this thing inside her wasn’t the worst of curses. After already saving Trace’s life twice, she knew she was grateful for it for the first time, too. Trace had, and still was, saving her life in return. Every day of his careful wisdom and his volatile hunger for her was changing her. Just as darkness and food were reforming her starving body, his affections and righteous demand that she respect herself as he did were reforming her spirit.
The more time she spent with Magnus, too, the more she saw the dynamic that had formed his charge into such a good man. He had been very kind and extremely patient with her as she had spent these weeks asking every raw question there was. Neither he nor anyone else in Sanctuary had ever complained. He had clearly made her a priority, though why such an important man would spend so much time tending to one sick half-breed girl was beyond her. K’yan Karri or any of the other handmaidens would have served just as well, she was sure.
She kept hold of Trace’s hand, sensing how badly he needed even the smallest comfort. Just that small physical connection intensified her sense of his raging emotions. The fear she had seen, but there was also a tremendous guilt and no small amount of anger. He felt responsible for this somehow. Since she knew he would never do anything to harm Magnus, she wondered why.
It would be all right, though, and it made her feel settled and good that it would be because of what she could do. She would heal Magnus and everything would be fine. Maybe she’d get a few more days of feeling like total shit out of it for herself, but it would be worth it if it returned something to Trace, who had already given her so much.
She had been to the palace before, but she still couldn’t get over the sudden grandeur of it. The entrance was nondescript mud-colored plaster to smooth the man-made edges of haste left behind by the miners of the long past, but once you stepped over the threshold it was like the grandest and most magnificent buildings in the human world. She always imagined this was what the Taj Mahal would look like on the inside. She couldn’t say for sure because she had only ever seen pictures of the splendid exterior, but those smoothly sculpted minarets and the gold and marble so artfully laid in accent were very much like the floors and walls she now rushed past, only much darker.
The situation in Trace’s office had worsened dramatically in their absence. It was written across the faces of those who were there as they all looked up to Trace on his hasty entrance. Ashla felt the sinking of his heart and could even taste his terror on her tongue. He all but dragged her as he fell to the floor beside Magnus.
The priest’s coloring was frighteningly pale. He was drenched in a sickly sweat and shivering in violent tremors. He was fighting for consciousness, his pride the only thing letting him succeed. His body clearly wanted to curl into itself, but Magnus refused to obey the need. He had, however, allowed Malaya to slide her lap beneath his head, her touch the only comfort he could find. He was furious with himself for being so brutally stupid. He should have expected this deceitful sort of trick from those low enough to plot in the shadows with the use of hired swords. But he had resisted the idea of corruption beneath his own roof just a little too long. He had wasted energy trying to figure out if something else could possibly explain it. He had sulked at the forge, shaping his son’s new blade with a fury, as if his speed and temper would give the blade the power to protect where he could not.
He cursed softly when his son drew the tiny blond healer down beside him. He didn’t want this. Better he should die than be responsible for the death of an innocent. The feel of his blood writhing painfully through his veins told him how unique this weapon inside him was. Trace was mad if he thought someone so frail could take on such a demon.
But before Magnus could protest with the force he wanted to, the poison sank its fangs into his vulnerable brain and sent him into seizure.
“Holy Light. Drenna, save him!” Malaya cried out as the giant of her spiritual world snapped into a contortion of muscles so violent she expected to hear the sound of breaking bone any moment. She protected his head as the men reached to contain him. The floor beneath them was so hard! So painfully hard, she thought with distress. But none of them could stop what was happening. Not Guin, her most powerful protector; not Trace, their dependable expert on all solutions. And she with her useless visions, who had seen this coming, yet had been unable to understand. She had seen Guin’s face, but it had never been Guin. The supplication, the act of being on his knees, was representative of the prayer position Magnus so frequently guided her to. Guin himself was a backbone of strength, just as Magnus was a backbone of spirit. And Magnus had certainly found her traitor and now lay low before her. If he died, it would literally be cutting off the head of the strongest institution in their culture. Even now, she could feel in her heart the ripple of shock and destructiveness this poisoning could fashion now that there were deceivers in the temple.
But they were all powerless to do anything about it, and Malaya had never known such a horrible feeling in her life. She felt as though her very spirit was dying in her lap, her faith shattering and her purpose withering. She looked up, seeking her twin, knowing he had arrived. The Chancellor knew he could see and feel straight to her heart because the look that crossed his steady features was anything but steady. He was beside her in a flash. Everyone else focused on Magnus, but Tristan buried his hands into her hair and turned her eyes to him. Another of her great men, on his knees now in front of her.
“This will not defeat us,” he whispered fiercely to her, his eyes, perfectly matched to her own, radiating the savage strength and will that was unraveling within her. He fed it to her with all of his might, his hands tight around her head with his intensity. “This will not destroy what we have made here. Claro? Sedna, istu veenima, K’yatsume. Do you hear me, beloved?”
“Yes. Tristan, help him, please.”
Tristan knew he could not. The realization that he would fail his sister when she no doubt needed him most brought him low, humbling him. All he could do was lay his own dark hands on the dying man before her, joining all those others of power that tried to hold back what was coming.
And in amongst so many dusky hands and sienna-skinned arms, there appeared two of soft, pale white. The contrast was stark as she reached to quickly slide them each back to points farther away from the center of Magnus’s body. Then she quickly unbuttoned and stripped aside Magnus’s shirt. When Ashla reached the undershirt, she turned to her lover and simply held out her hand. He was already there, the tanto’s handle fitting into her palm carefully.
The blade made her nervous, but it cut through the fabric like air. She handed it back quickly, Magnus’s writhing body making her afraid of a sudden accident should one of the men lose grip of him. She needn’t have feared. They weren’t going to let that happen.
The Shadowdwellers watched with morbid curiosity, fascination, and hope as Ashla shucked off the outer drape of the handmaiden’s sari she wore. It left her in a half-shirt and skirt, which she promptly hiked up around her thighs. She threw her leg over the priest, something she might have resisted had she a choice, but she wasn’t thinking about any of that as she settled over him.
“No! Don’t!” They all looked up as K’yan Karri rushed into the room. “Do not put yourself at risk, Anai Ashla! Let me do this! Magnus would never forgive himself if anything happened to you!” She hurried to them with her box of herbs in hand, kneeling with them all. “Please! Ajai Trace, I beg you! I will not let him die and will spare your woman in the process. Trust me!”
Trust no one.
Trace would have been torn between the options the two women presented had Magnus’s last words not sang so sharply into his mind. It upset him to doubt Karri. She was the closest thing to a mother he had, her closeness to Magnus as natural to his father’s presence as his katana was.
Why should he distrust this woman who he had grown up with, but trust an alien who knew so little of them? Because he felt lust for her and she gave him such pleasure? No, he knew it was more than that; more even than the Sainting between them. He knew to the depths of his soul that his beautiful Ashla would not let his father die, even at the cost of her own life. The idea of losing her paralyzed him with a fear unlike any other, made him want to choose the safer methods of Karri’s herbs, but he knew their world could not afford to lose Magnus. Though his desire to be selfish was overwhelming, Trace had given up far too much of himself for this culture and political structure he so devoutly believed in. Too much to stop giving now.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered to Ashla, his eyes full of his devastation and terror. Full of his sacrifice.
Ashla did not misunderstand, although Karri did. The handmaiden sighed in relief and moved closer, but was surprised when the half-breed girl didn’t make way for her. Ashla paused just long enough to touch Trace’s desperate features. She knew he was not telling her he regretted making her leave, but that he regretted needing her to stay. He was trading her life for his father’s; she could see he was convinced of it, and her throat tightened in empathy at the pain she felt roaring through him.
She prayed, for his sake, that she survived this.
Ashla turned back and laid her hands on Magnus’s bared skin.
“Wait. What are you doing?” Karri demanded. “Trace, you are killing her!” she cried in near panic. “Don’t make her do this!”
“K’yan! Shut up!” Malaya shouted with sudden ferocity, making the other woman jolt back in shock.
“K’yan, I know you have come to care for Ashla, but you must trust my choice,” Trace rasped hoarsely. He wasn’t very convincing because he barely trusted his own choice. “Ashla, hurry.”
Ashla was already doing that. She ignored those around her as she breathed softly through her lips, touching Magnus in a sure, slow movement. She closed her eyes, her fair head tilting and sending her little fall of curlicues bouncing over her shoulder. Her expression was one of concentrating, of seeking. Her fingers moved up to his mouth and Trace watched as his father’s clenching jaw relaxed, opened, and gave her entrance. She ran gentle fingertips over his teeth and tongue.
“He ingested it,” she said softly. They had suspected as much, but her surety convinced them. Trace watched as her fingers came back down his throat, following the poison’s path to his belly. “Very recently. It is quick and brutal. It toys with his emotions. Desire intensifies to lust. Anger explodes to rage. Trepidation to full terror.” There was a sob, soft and desperate, from Karri, but she covered her mouth to prevent any further sounds.
Ashla bent forward, laying her cheek to Magnus’s chest over his poisoned heart, her small hands covering what she could reach of him, drawing the sickness into herself. Her eyes opened and she focused on Trace, her breathing picking up in tempo. She stroked gentle hands over the priest’s head, and suddenly the seizing stopped. Magnus relaxed into oblivion with a long, rattling sigh.
“Jei li,” Trace whispered, his terror choking him as he realized she had committed them to this course now. She was absorbing into her tiny body that which had laid low the strongest man Trace knew.
It was a mistake. She could never survive.
“No,” she whispered to him when he would have moved to snatch her away. He wanted to stop it. He had to stop her! He couldn’t lose her. His heart, he knew, would no more survive this than it would the loss of Magnus. How could he have thought he could make this choice? How did he dare think it was his right? “I made this choice,” she said as she sat back up again, exhaling long and slow as she reached out to Trace. She caught the back of his head, leaning in to kiss his cold lips.