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|Noah(Nightwalkers #5) by Jacquelyn Frank|
"Perish the thought," he assured her, his eyes turning serious again only a heartbeat after his words had. This time, she allowed him the pair of minutes he took to order his heavy thoughts. "I have struggled with myself for quite some time about the matter of seeking you out, Corrine," he began at last. The King paced away from her briefly, and then turned to look at her. Corrine watched as he rubbed his hands together, as if warding off a chill. The concept of a Fire Demon catching chill was preposterous. She bit her lip, held her tongue, and somehow managed not to overstep herself. "Since we found you and Isabella, we have only been able to find three other Druids. Can you tell me why? What do you think is the cause?"
The question was pretty much out of left field, but if Noah was headed in the direction she suspected he was, it perhaps wasn't so off topic.
"I have only a theory," she responded willingly. "No one knew Druids still existed. Every Demon thought Druids had been annihilated in the war a millennium ago." Corrine knew he was familiar with the history, so she kept it brief. "But when Jacob met Bella, and the night Kane touched me for the first time, triggering the birth of our dormant Druidic DNA, we all learned differently."
"A hard lesson," Noah observed.
"Yes," she agreed. She tilted her head down with a half smile on the corner of her lips, the expression seeming more ironic than amused. "As you know, once a Druid's genetics are triggered, they must remain within relatively close proximity of that Demon who will become their perfect Imprinted mate. Since Kane and I were separated right after our first contact, I was deprived of his key energy and suffered for it.
"With Bella, power acquisition was nearly instantaneous. With me, because of the energy starvation that Gideon likens to brain damage, it took a year or so before we even knew that my key talent was the ability to quest for the hidden Druid hybrids destined to be perfect mates for the Demons fate designed specifically for them." She gave him a wry little smile. "So the first part of my answer is centered on the setbacks I suffered when I first became Druid, since there really is no other way to determine the unique Druidic dormancy that's hidden amongst millions of humans."
Corrine exhaled a deep sigh.
"The rest of the blame, however, lies at Demon doors," she said. "I'm at full power now, Noah. I have been for the better part of a year. I've made no secret of what my main Druidic ability is. Still, I have to wait for your Demons to voluntarily come to me in search of their mates." She flicked a frustrated glance over him as he stood there as the ultimate representation of his people. "They've been inexplicably recalcitrant. Why only three other Druids, you ask? Because there's only been three Demons who have come to request my help. I can't chase Demons down and force them to let me seek their mates. I need them open and willing in order to aid me in the success of my search. And those three Demons who did come to me? They reeked of the mental and physical desperation of Beltane and Samhain.
"I'm convinced that they came to me only as a last-ditch effort at avoiding doing something rash that would attract the punishment of the Enforcers." She exhaled a short, bitter-sounding laugh. "I suppose I'm looked on as the lesser of the two evils. Better to be saddled with a Druid mate than to find the Enforcers bearing down on you." She shook her head. "I don't understand it! In human culture, we spend our lifetime seeking and longing for the perfect soul mate, most of us never knowing anything close to it. We're left hurting and jaded as we fail over and over again. But here your people have a guaranteed path, through me, to finding that very thing, and they approach it like complex dental work or a plague! Maybe you can explain that to me, Noah, because I know I don't understand it.
"Am I wrong when I say you were all raised on fairy-tale stories of the glories of an Imprinting?" She realized she'd struck a chord when the King no longer met her eyes and shifted his weight uncomfortably. "If I were suddenly told that stories like Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty were absolutely true and all I had to do was knock on a certain door to find my Prince Charming, I would fall all over myself to do it." Then she smiled and blushed, memories of waking for the first time to find herself tethered to a perfect man scudding through her mind. She recalled the undeniable craving for unity with Kane. "I'd never heard of the Imprinting," it provoked her to say passionately. "It wasn't part of my folklore. Yet now I accept it in my life with enormous pleasure and gratitude. Why is it your people can't?"
The King didn't respond immediately to the sharp scrutiny in the question. Instead, he looked directly at her at last and reached to touch two fingers to her chin, making her turn her eyes directly up to his. She looked into the smoke and jade swirls of emotion as he studied her for a long, silent moment. Corrine somehow managed to remain still and relaxed under that unnervingly penetrating gaze. She had no idea what he was looking for, nor how he was searching for it, but she suspected it was important that he find it before answering.
"You let me lead myself quite neatly into your little trap, did you not?" he accused softly, but without any real malice.
Corrine didn't pretend at ignorance.
"Noah, you're their King and you're unmated. If you won't come to me when you so clearly long to, so clearly need to, why would any of your subjects do otherwise?"
"Have I been that obvious?" he asked, his tone tight with his tortured feelings on the topic, his hand reflexively tightening around her jaw.
"I would have to say…only since your Warrior Captain married the Lycanthrope Queen. He was the last highly positioned bachelor you kept close to you. First Jacob; then Gideon and your sister; and then when Elijah fell in love with Siena, it wasn't long before you started grumping around the castle."
"Damn it," Noah cursed softly, releasing his hold on her roughly. He paced away from her, running an agitated hand through his hair.
Corrine was abruptly aware of her husband's telepathic presence flaring to alertness in her thoughts. He was protesting the way Noah was treating her, but she pushed him firmly away, scolding him to mind his own business, that her discussion with Noah was a private one. Kane backed off with impressive immediacy, respecting her desire to respect his King.
"You have to understand," Noah said at last as he stared out of a nearby window, "it has been a very long time since the Imprinting has become an issue any of us have had to give any true thought to. For centuries it has been as rare as…as…"
"A snowball in hell?" she offered.
This time Noah wasn't inclined to laugh or let himself be eased by her humor. His fingers curled into a fist that he pressed against the window frame. "Hell." He laughed mirthlessly. "The human concept of hell has always amused me, especially considering the fact that 'demons' are reputed to be its main occupants. I am forced to admit that there is some truth to that imagery today, Corrine. I fall asleep every day at sunrise, but I get no rest. This is because I visit my own personal hell, where agonizing beauty, pleasure, and a gluttony of satisfying emotions lie always just out of sight and reach. I dream of her. Every time I close my eyes, I dream of this woman you are meant to find for me. I have dreamed of her every single day for six months straight."
Corrine winced visibly as he imparted this information with such clear pain. She'd had no idea that it had come to this awful form of torture. To suffer the elusive dream of your perfect mate for half a year must indeed be akin to hell for a species who felt as deeply and powerfully as Noah's did.
"Why wouldn't you come to me sooner?" she finally asked him, knowing beyond any shadow of doubt that this was what had finally brought him there.
"Because I am a King, little Druid. You come from a culture where that no longer means as much as it does to us, but surely you have gotten a better idea of it as you have lived with Kane."
"I have. Enough to know that not one Demon under your rule expects you to remain single and alone for the sake of your reign." Corrine braced her feet apart and settled her hands on her hips. "In fact, every Demon I know would scoff at that notion. Don't blame this on your people, Noah. I may not be an expert on your society, but I do know that nothing would please them more than to see you give your heart into the hands of your Imprinted mate. So let's skip the bullshit and come to the real point of why you've lain in bed, day after endless day, torturing yourself rather than coming and asking me for help."
"Damn you, woman," he barked, banging the window frame so hard with his fist that the glass rattled. "Has your husband taught you nothing of how you should speak to someone in my position?"
"Oh, kiss my ass," Corrine blustered as her famous familial temper got the better of her. "If you're just going to spout the cloud cover of protocol and all that high-handed crap, then I would prefer you not waste my time!" She stepped closer to him, in spite of the fact that his temper had caused the air around him to heat up considerably. "If you were any kind of a monarch you would jump at the chance to set a good example for your suffering people. And they are suffering, Noah. The longer they remain unmated, the more likely it is they will cave to their instincts and find themselves breaking laws and putting innocents in danger. You're a remarkable leader and scholar. Where is your intelligence when it comes to this? Kane tells me you've hunted for centuries to find the cure for the suffering that overcomes your people on the Hallowed nights. Well, it's here, Noah," she said vehemently, thrusting her fingers against her breastbone. "It's inside me! Come to me. Make them come to me!"
"What? What excuse is it now?" she barked.
"No excuse," he assured her quietly. "Just confession. Confession of the one truth behind all of the questions you ask with such righteous merit."
"Which is?" she prompted.
"Fear," he responded with a sigh. "Pure and simple fear."
"Fear?" Corrine gaped at him for a beat. "What in God's name could you possibly fear from the Imprinting? Noah, are you blind? Haven't you seen the scope of the new love surrounding you these past three years?"
"Yes, yes," he said with impatience as he turned to look at her at last. "I have eyes and sense. I see you all, revolving around me like little planets, deep in your own little worlds made up in the space between your locked gazes and impassioned bodies. I watch until I am black-sighted with jealousy, Corrine!"
"Noah, please…forgive me," she begged earnestly, her pretty brow furrowed in confusion. "I don't understand. I truly want to understand, but I don't. What is it you fear? Why be jealous when I can give you our joy for yourself? You are so brilliant, but I see no logic here!"
"I am afraid…" He hesitated, the phraseology unfamiliar and bitter to his taste. "I am afraid I am too late."
"She has suffered. She has been through some great pain and I was not there to spare her," he confessed quickly. "I do not know what it was, or even if she suffers still, because her emotions are always so volatile. I am afraid of bringing her to me, of thrusting her into this existence. Being my Queen is not an easy life, Corrine. She will be in danger-especially in light of recent events. She will become a target. Yes, she will be accepted by most, but those who do not accept can be brutal with their opinions, as you no doubt know from your sister's experiences. I ask you, how can I, in good conscience, bring an already tortured soul into my world for my own selfish needs, knowing all of this?"
"Noah," Corrine said with soft surprise. "Noah, you will bring her here so you can love her. There is no hardship in the world that can't be made better with the type of love the Imprinting can bring! You said yourself, you don't know if she is still suffering. Would you leave her there, will you let it continue, knowing you can stop it?"
Noah made a distressed sound and his eyes darkened to gray. The thought was unconscionable, and it tore through him like thousands of sharp, shredding tines. In a single sentence Corrine changed his misguided ideas of nobility to horrified realization. He was suddenly overwhelmed with the feeling that he had wasted time. Now he realized that time was a black enemy and he was in a deadly race with it.
"Tell me how," he demanded. "Corrine, help me."
The Miserable Princess
A Demon Fairy Tale
As nice as love stories about the Imprinting sounded, Sarah was very practical for a Princess. She knew her father was looking for a miracle, just as she knew she was the one who would end up going mad from his desperation to fix the odds more in royal favor. At the moment, that meant propping her up prettily in her throne, displaying her like a frilly trophy to be won. It was like being set afloat on a raft in a sea of greedy piranhas, and Sarah was not stupid enough to dangle a single welcoming toe into the water, lest she get chewed up and spit out into a form nothing like herself. So Sarah set her mind to the task of being so cold and so disinterested that no one would dare approach her.
Just then the Enforcer walked onto the playing field.
An immediate chill rippled outward from the place where he entered the arena, both through the participants and the crowd in the stands above. It was clearly visible as it shuddered through them all, every adult and child, the murmur that buzzed loudly all around her. The hostility and, yes, outright hatred everyone felt for this powerful man who enforced the King's laws and extracted harsh, mortifying punishment for those who broke them was palatable.