|Home > Jacquelyn Frank > Shadowdwellers > Ecstasy (Page 40)|
|Ecstasy(Shadowdwellers #1) by Jacquelyn Frank|
Ashla could taste his guilt and devastation as sure as she could feel the wicked heat of poison filtering slowly through her veins. She knew the pain would begin soon, that she had very little time. She kissed him until his mouth warmed to hers and then crushed against hers in desperate expression. He dragged her from astride his father, wrapping her into his arms and against his chest. He kissed her still, the heat between them putting the burn of poison inside her to shame. His hand burrowed through her curls, his tongue tunneling between her parting lips. They kissed as if it were the last time they ever would, both of their hearts straining with pain of impending loss.
“I need you to survive,” he gasped against her, his beautiful dark eyes spilling sharp sudden tears into their kiss. “I need you to live, jei li. Like Darkness, I need you. Don’t leave me.”
“I don’t want to leave you,” she said, his emotion overwhelming her until her whole soul smarted with its clarity of understanding.
He loved her.
This man of deep passion, deep loyalty, and even sometimes militant devotion loved her. Ashla knew he gave nothing of himself easily or on a whim. He only threw himself into those causes that were justly deserving of all he could give them. And though she did not feel that deserving, he still loved her.
She wished she had the time to tell him she loved him, too.
But she didn’t.
Trace was still kissing her when her body jerked with its first cruel spasm of pain. She threw her head back, making a low sound that he had actually heard her make before…though it had been in pleasure that time. His soul screamed in denial as she jolted again and again. Her eyes went wide, tears of pain to match the horror of it leaking out of their corners and racing down her face.
“Hurts,” she whispered, clutching at him in desperation.
“Baby? Oh, honey, don’t,” he begged her, even though he knew it was a fruitless plea as her body bent fully back in a hard seizing of muscles. Only his strength supported her, her clawing fingers tearing his shirt, destroying its usefulness as her anchor. He couldn’t bear to subject her to cold, hard marble, and he tried to contain her to himself. The other men helped him, their big, gruff hands so tender as they arranged her gently back against his chest, giving her legs room to kick and flail.
“Karri,” Trace said roughly, looking up to find the handmaiden over his father, weeping as she touched his face, a vial of herbal extract in her hand. “Come help me! Magnus will be well now.”
“I have to be sure,” she cried. “I have to give him this. It’s the only way to be sure!”
“Karri, he doesn’t need it! I need your help!”
He saw her thumb flick off the small cork to the vial as she ignored him.
That was when he remembered that no priest was served so much as a drink of water without his handmaiden’s lips touching it first. She served him everything, and she tasted everything that she served. It was a tradition as old as time.
Magnus had realized this as he lay incapacitated. That was why he had warned them at the mention of Karri’s name not to trust anyone. He had suspected her himself.
But Karri? Sweet and plainly pretty Karri was one of the senior handmaidens, devoted to her work and her priest, most of her two hundred years spent behind Sanctuary walls. Why would she ever want to betray that life? Why would she want to murder Magnus, who had Chosen her, raised her up, and given her more than she could ever have dreamed of?
The why, he realized, was unimportant. Even with his dying Ashla in his lap, he twisted and reached for the wakizashi and its scabbard, drawing the weapon with singing speed. The pitch of the blade in the air was only thrown off when the super-sharp tip came to rest at the back of her neck after severing half her braid.
“Move so much as to breathe and I will take off your head,” he warned in a low, slow threat. Malaya gasped, horrified that he would dare to do something like this. “K’yatsume, remain quiet and still,” he instructed her carefully. “Guin, if I meant your mistress harm she would be dead already.” The remark stopped the guard’s hand on the hilt of his own weapon and Trace met his eyes steadily even as he clutched his love to his chest and felt her dying. “M’itisume, K’yatsume, I have found my father’s viper. Take the venom from her fingers before I am forced to shed blood upon you both.”
Like a frozen photograph, no one moved for the longest time, save the seizing girl in the vizier’s lap. Then Malaya reached out the flat of her palm to Karri.
“Give me the vial, K’yan. Whatever he thinks, it can be disproved simply and you will have nothing to fear. Let us not test his emotions. He has been through much.”
The patronizing words grated down Trace’s spine like Acadian’s claws. However, he couldn’t care less so long as the snake at his father’s breast was defanged and removed.
“It’s not poison,” Karri insisted with an aghast laugh. “Ajai Trace is clearly out of his mind! How many years have I worked by his father’s side? I am a healer!”
“You are a murderous bitch,” Trace hissed sharply. “Back away or die!”
Karri turned her head slowly against the wakizashi’s blade when the foul name slapped at her from him. She narrowed her eyes on him.
“Your father thinks you are so perfect!” she spat with scorn. “If he heard you speak to me in such a way, he would have your head!”
“You, little viper, will tell me nothing about my father that I do not already know!” He turned his wrist slowly, turning the sharp blade up tight beneath the back hinge of her jaw.
“You think so? Know him so well, do you?” She was mocking him, her sneer ugly and alien to the woman he knew. “Did you ritually bathe him every day? Lay out his clothes and dress him? Taste his food and then serve it to him? Were you his maid and squire every minute of every day for two centuries? He is a proud man, a beautiful warrior, and deserved the best maiden to serve his every insignificant need so he could lay all his focus on those that were deadly and great! He chose me for that! He made me his!” She drew a wild breath. “But then he cut out my heart, serving it to me again and again and again.
“There is one woman, and only one, whom he might take to his bed, and that is his handmaiden. How many times did I offer myself, only to be turned away? Rejected! What is wrong with me? Am I ugly? Deformed and unpleasant? Am I cursed or a Sinner? No! I did everything! I was perfect! Yet he would not touch me! He was never even tempted! Not for two centuries! Two hundred years! Did you know that about your father? That he is a eunuch, for all his masculine swagger and bravado?” She laughed at him in a bark of disgust. “Or so I thought, all of this time. I even pitied him for his sexual dysfunction! I thought I was the only one who knew he suffered in such silence. I pitied myself as well. A handmaiden is just as bound to her priest as he is to her. I may take only him to my bed and no other. Since he couldn’t make love to me, I thought of it as Drenna’s test. Darkness was testing my worthiness by giving me so difficult a hurdle to overcome.
“And I have faced it. Decade after decade I faced it. I battled with need, temptation, and the desolation of feeling unwanted as a woman. I did it for the love of our gods and because, damn him, I loved your father with all my soul!”
“Loved,” Trace bit out, his arm as steady as ever to his sword.
“Oh yes. Although even now I know my heart is his, it is no longer ignorantly his. I saw him, one day, when he was in the privacy of his rooms. I was shown the truth that day. I watched him take himself in hand, watched him lie back and fantasize about gods know what! He easily brought himself to orgasm not once, but three separate times within the hour. Three times! He turned to his own hand like it was an old and beautiful lover, rather than me!”
Karri’s pain and hurt could be heard in the harsh break of her voice as she bent forward into sobs, cutting herself on the end of Trace’s blade. “Imagine how I felt,” she begged hoarsely. “To be so made a fool of. So shunned and rejected!”
“So you poisoned him? Thought to murder him?” Trace hissed.
“No!” she shouted back at him. “I was told it would arouse his passions. It would break through whatever was keeping him so reserved and controlled! All I wanted was him to need me. I wanted him to love me with the desperation you have for her!” Karri pointed to Ashla, who was slowly going limp against him. “I had been forbidden from ever taking another lover by religious law, so what choice did I have?”
“This doesn’t explain the poison in your hand, witch,” Trace urged her, watching with satisfaction the trail of blood that began to drip down her neck.
“When I fed Magnus the aphrodisiac and failed to seduce him this morning, I was angry. I told him about your little escapade in the women’s dormitories just to spite, and he was livid. I knew he would seek you out. When you came in crying of poisoning, I knew—I knew I had done it. I swear I had not meant to! But none of you who are so perfect would ever believe me! I found the one who gave me the potion and made them give me an antidote!”
“Made them? How would you make someone so treacherous give you an antidote?” Trace demanded fiercely. “You are no warrior. No fighter.”
“Don’t you see? It was an accident! A mistake. They would never have hurt Magnus. No more than I would have! It—it must be some kind of allergic reaction.” She looked at Magnus, desperate to believe her own lies.
Trace burst out in an animal’s sound of fury. “Look! Look, you deceitful bitch! Look at my love and tell me again this is no poison!” Trace’s entire body shook with his rage, the vibration traveling up the tang of his blade with a hum. “Tell me again,” he begged her. “Tell me, so I can cut your lying throat.”
“Not until she tells us who the maker of the poison is,” Malaya stipulated.
Hearing the Chancellor’s bloodthirsty tone visibly shocked the handmaiden. She looked to Malaya with pleading. “K’yatsume, it’s all just a mistake! I beg you, you know I would never…”
Then Karri made another mistake—she reached out in supplication to touch Malaya.
It always awed Malaya, the sleek speed which which her big bodyguard could move. Guin leapt over Magnus, his hands a blur as one pushed Malaya safely into her brother and the other spun Karri around at the shoulder. When Guin landed on the opposite side, he turned slowly, the threat neutralized now so haste was no longer required.
Karri’s body fell to the floor at his feet, her throat finally laid open by Trace’s blade, which he had pushed her onto. The handmaiden looked surprised as she searched for breath, her hand going to her gushing wound.
“Guin! She needs to tell us who it was!” Trace cried out.
“While she kills Malaya?” he countered sharply as he knelt beside the dying woman. He picked up the hand that had been reaching for the Chancellor, turning it over and pulling her wrist back. The sharp movement sent a spike of steel spitting out from the long-sleeved blouse beneath her sari. It was thin and painted black with venom. Malaya gasped in righteous indignation. She had believed Karri! She had begun to think it was all just a misguided woman’s mistake!
“That’s an assassin’s blade!” Trace was overrun with confusion and outrage. “How is she an assassin? She’s a handmaiden! An herbal healer at that! Magnus never taught her how to fight. She served him every day! When would she—?”
“She wouldn’t. She didn’t. Look.” Guin turned her wrist and showed the strap securing the weapon. “It’s secured wrong and in haste. The ties are tied from my direction. Someone put this on her.”
“Guin, careful! The poison,” Malaya breathed as the sharp spike came too close to him for her to bear.
Guin ignored the warning, leaning over the maiden dying on the floor. Life was half gone from her eyes, spreading quickly over the tiles beneath her. “Tell us, unfortunate girl, who led you to this. You spoke the truth, I believe, when you spoke of your fury and hurt. But someone else knew of it and manipulated you with it. Someone spoke softly in your ear, feeding your rage and desire for revenge. Who? Who twisted your mind away from your priest, girl?”
“I l-loved him,” she croaked.
“Guin! I swear I will mutilate her if I don’t see an end to this now!” Trace exploded. “I cannot bear to hear her say how she loved my father again!”
“That’s just it,” Guin said grimly as he looked up at them all. “I don’t think she means Magnus anymore.” He looked down again, watching the last of her life ebb out of her eyes. “You were lucky,” he ground out to her. “Had I to do it over again, I wouldn’t have let you find your time in the Light so quickly. Burn, treacherous creature. You will spend eternity becoming cinder and ash.”
Trace drifted gentle fingertips over Ashla’s clammy and gray face, his brow wrinkled in distress to match the rattling labor of her breathing.
He had wanted her in his bed. If she was going to die, he wanted her here, where they had loved each other so thoroughly. Here, where he could hold on to her in peace. He wanted to do something to help her, but he trusted none of the healers. His father lay quiet in another room, recovering with sleep. Sanctuary awaited Magnus’s return, trembling silently at the coming fall of what Trace knew would be his righteous fury. Magnus would find any other deception in his house, of that Trace had no doubt.
He kicked off his boots, stripped away his weapons, and climbed into the bed beside Ashla. He drew her chilled body against him, fitting her to his chest and rolling under her. He was her mattress now, his warmth her blanket. Her head settled beneath the constant brush and rebrush of his lips, his breath sharing its steady stream with her. Their touching hearts beat out of time with each other in a staccato cacophony of death in chorus with life.