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|Noah(Nightwalkers #5) by Jacquelyn Frank|
"I have called this Council meeting with one purpose only," he said directly, his deep voice filling the stone room and ringing back to him from the vaulted ceiling. "It is time we altered Demon law, Councillors, to suit the vast changes our society has undergone since the first Druid was discovered and accepted into our culture." He did not look at Isabella as he referred to her, the act too hard for him in that glaring moment. He would face that reckoning later, when there were not so many witnesses. "I have watched the centuries fall by just as many of you have, and we all know too well the price we pay every Samhain and Beltane because it is stamped on our genes that it be so.
"I have glorified myself in the past as a scholar dedicated to finding a solution to the cruel pressures we endure during those Hallowed moons." Noah paused to lay a hand on the smooth wooden surface of the Council table, leaning forward so he could meet all the attention focused on him. "Many of us have cried out with suffrage, cried foul when the Enforcer put us to the screws, and simply cried because sometimes the agony is just too much for a soul to bear." The Demon King straightened as the slap of his hand on the table resounded in the room.
"I tell you now I feel nothing but shame toward myself, toward us all, for enjoying the role of the victim too well. We have had three years in which to initiate changes and have barely made efforts to do so. If you think it is my recent transgression that makes me say this, you would be right. But even before that incident, the Druid Corrine had begun to open my eyes to our indolence.
"It comes to this: We have the means to put an end to this tragedy, and I am determined to make it the law to do so. As it stands now, the Enforcers are a necessary evil and they are vilified for representing the possibility of what we might become. That begins to end this very moment." Noah heard Isabella make a surprised sound, the squeak catching in her throat, and his mouth turned up at one corner as he looked directly at her. "The law is as I speak it now. Every unmated member of Demon society who is of Elder age will utilize Corrine's skills to find the Druid mate that is to be Imprinted upon them. Only this will cure our culture of its madness, and so it will be done. In the future I will expand the law to include adults. Of course, all are free to do so at any time or age if they wish it. The only reason I do not make it universally mandatory is because I do not wish to overtax our Druid, who will hereby be referred to as our Matchmaker. It takes much effort, I realize now, to be a living divining rod."
He paused to take a slow, calming breath.
"I once said that Isabella would be the first note in the call to save us from ourselves. I realize now that, as she is the note, her sister is the symphony. It is the responsibility of every member of this Council to set an example by being among the first to approach the Matchmaker in this matter."
The silence broke at last, nearly the entire table erupting in protest both large and small.
"Noah, you cannot do this," the Body Demon Peter protested, his chair scraping back loudly as he jumped up. "You have no right to command us to do something that should be a personal freedom for every living creature in the world. No intellectual being should be forced to find a mate!"
"Every being is forced to find a mate," Noah countered sharply, the bite of his retort like a slap in the face. "You have never crossed that maddening line, Peter, so you do not know what I mean. Let me assure you that every creature of the world is stamped with the drive to find perfection in companionship. It is encoded in every fiber of our beings. It is because we have taken the unnatural course of solitude that Demons are being forced by nature, by these Hallowed moons and their madness, to follow our internal compass toward our intended partners no matter what the cost.
"Believe me, Peter, you do not want to pay the price I have paid. I walked this world so desensitized to the needs of my soul and my body that I failed my most perfect Destiny and dispatched my mate to her death. I refuse to see that happen to another of us. I am ruler of this race, and I will force this dictate upon you. And as with any law, those who do not obey will face my Enforcers. I will press the matter with severe ramifications that will far outweigh the penalty that already exists. A punishment I must now suffer that will add to a pain that if I could share it-" He broke off, swallowing visibly but refusing to break contact with the dozen pairs of eyes watching him with bated breath. "I could pardon myself from this if I wished, but what kind of leader would I be if I did not expect myself to follow the laws I set down for all others?"
"Noah, no one here expects you to suffer the humiliation of-"
"Please," the King cut in, his voice hoarse and pained. "Those of you here who call themselves my friends will not tempt me any further on this matter. Jacob and Isabella will see I am justly served for my transgression. To be quite frank, no one deserves the right more than they do. This meeting is adjourned."
There was no more argument and, mercifully, not even a sound of debate or speculation. Noah turned from the table and crossed back to the door. He halted before going through it to turn slightly back to those behind him.
"Bella, Jacob…you will attend me."
The King closed his eyes when, after a moment's pause, he heard the sound of two chairs pushing back across the marble floor. He finally crossed the threshold, refusing himself any urges he had to look back.
"Noah, I beg you to reconsider," Jacob argued quietly after the last Council member had left them alone in the Great Hall of Noah's castle.
As he pressed his monarch, Jacob observed his unusually subdued wife out of the corner of his eye, trying to get a bead on her thoughts and feelings. She was shutting him out with exceptional strength, however, shunting him away from their telepathic connection. It was a level of ability he had not realized she had. Even so, it was completely lost on him why she would decide to use it against him in that sensitive and crucial moment. He could have used her input, support, or feedback. Whichever she was willing to offer up.
He continued watching as his wife moved in one direction while Noah moved in the other to stand closer to the fire.
"Jacob, it is your duty to not only uphold the law, but to hold those who break it accountable. I am not an exception to that rule and, as I have already stated, I will not hear argument otherwise."
"You will hear it," Jacob said sharply, advancing on his sovereign. "I have been your Enforcer for four centuries, and no one knows better than I how and when to enforce the law. The reprimand you are seeking for yourself is intended to sway future weakness from occurring. It is designed to halt the temptation toward innocents who would fall victim to the potential danger of a Demon out of control. This edict was never meant to reprove those who are striving only to seize their one true mate in life. Especially when taking into consideration that once you do become mated to that person, there is no longer any threat of this insanity overtaking you. By our very own laws and traditions, you have the right to claim what you have claimed. Laws that I helped you draw up, I might add."
"No one has the right to do so in a way that endangers the innocents around them," Noah bit back.
"Then consider Kestra if you will not consider yourself," Jacob said grimly, his voice echoing in the stone room. "If you undergo standard procedures, you will be left physically and emotionally devastated. To penalize yourself would mean punishing this innocent. She is becoming a Druid now. You know what that means. She will need to feed off your energy. She needs your full strength if she is to survive such a taxing alteration of her genetic code and physical being. None of us knows what this might do to her, to you both, if you persist on this path."
"No," Noah murmured. "No. I cannot walk away from this without being answerable for my actions. If not standard punishment, then you must devise something in its stead. I demand your compliance in this, Jacob."
Both men looked up when Bella finally spoke, her soft voice-usually so full of her vibrancy and humor-wintry and dead as it fell on them. She had her arms folded tightly around her midriff as she advanced on the Demon King, the bite of her step a warning come too late to her husband.
"I will punish you," she hissed at the Demon King, her hand suddenly flying at Noah's face and striking him so hard that the slap reverberated through Jacob's very bones. He could only imagine how it had felt, knowing how powerful Bella was in spite of her compact appearance. But as Noah recoiled from the surprise of the blow, the male Enforcer knew the psychology behind the strike was what would cut to the quick.
"You are never to go near my child again! Do you understand?" Isabella gritted the dictate through clenched teeth, her full fury and outrage finally, after all these hours, taking aim at their first solid target. It was a brutal, tangible thing. "Never! You will not even look at her! Do you hear me? I trusted you! Trusted you with her life and her safety like I would never have trusted anyone else, and you betrayed me! You betrayed her and used her for a wild experiment that could have-" Bella choked on her emotion, her tears finally spilling as she fought for her voice. "How could you do that? How could you put my baby in such horrific danger? She loves you! I loved you!"
She raised her hand to strike the stunned King again, but her husband caught her by the wrist and halted the forward-flying motion of her body. Noah turned away from them both, reaching out to steady himself against the stone of the fireplace as the Enforcer enfolded his violent wife into the unyielding frame of his body.
"Enough," Jacob whispered into her black satin hair as he pressed his mouth to the ear hidden beneath. "Enough, my love."
"It will never be enough," Bella rasped hoarsely. "I will never forgive you for this, Noah! When I think of all the things that could have gone wrong, it makes me want to scream! I had to stand there and sweet-talk and coddle you while my baby and my sister sat huddled in a corner, beside themselves with terror! You make me sick!"
His mate was screaming so violently by then that it did not surprise Jacob when Gideon's hand appeared out of nowhere and touched Isabella's shoulder. The Ancient medic did not give her any opportunity to fight him, even if she could manage her power enough to attempt to drain his abilities. As hysterical as she was with the emotion that only a mother in defense of her child was capable of, she would never have been able to concentrate.
So Gideon sent the chemistry of her body careening out of balance, tricking it into thinking it was desperate for slumber. The sleep command hit her like a ton of bricks and Isabella collapsed against Jacob mid-accusation. Jacob felt Magdelegna brush past him, hurrying to her brother's side with the ready compassion that was so much a part of her nature.
Noah felt her touch and shrugged her off so hard that she stumbled back several precarious steps.
"Do not comfort me, Legna! Just stay away from me!" he growled savagely. "Leave! All of you. Your duties are finished here."
Noah finalized the order by snapping into a vicious flurry of flame that burned hard and brilliantly, making them all flinch and protect their eyes.
When their vision cleared, the King was gone.
Kestra woke the next evening with a sigh.
Her clear blue eyes flickered open halfway, and beneath her she felt soft sheets and the plush down of a feather bed. She made an irresistible sound of pleasure. The pillows and the comforter that spread over her were all made of the same incredible softness that could only be down. It was, she began to realize, the very first night in months that she had slept through. There had been no dreams of a shadowy, arrogant lover tormenting her relentlessly with his teasing and touching, wakening her in a sweat.
She rolled over, looking up at the sheer white fabric that crisscrossed the canopy of the enormous bed, the center of the X anchored into the ceiling that was far above the actual posters of the bed itself. Dim light was streaming in from nearly all sides, but it was all muted, silvery colors, speckling patterns over the ceiling, the bed curtains, and the long canopy. Her eyes flicked through the dark to the source, finding two banks of windows on the connecting corner walls, all of which were stained glass. Most of them were a random collection of shapes and colors seemingly dashed together haphazardly on the window glass. A couple of the others had intricate, more defined designs, beautiful motifs in colored glass of a forest and another of a village of cottages.
Kestra put her hands on the mattress and began to slide herself upright so she could better view her surroundings, trying to shed the haze of sleep enough that she could remember what country she was in and what hotel would have such a fabulous old room.
She froze midmovement, however, when she caught sight of a wing chair drawn up close to the edge of her bed, facing her as if someone had been observing her for long hours. She quickly scanned the room, taking note of every dancing shadow created by the fire roaring in the fireplace nestled in a corner of the room. She was struck by the inescapable feeling that someone was there, watching her, even though she saw nothing at all in the shadows.
The mystery ended abruptly. The person made a distinct movement, making her suddenly aware of his location and imposing, half-lit silhouette. Kestra's knee-jerk reaction was one of hostility and defensiveness and she quickly worked up a threat, the words readily bubbling up to her lips.
And there they froze.
As he turned his head slightly and she felt him assessing her even through the dark and shadows, she was flooded with memory, instinct, and emotion all at once. She opened her mouth but couldn't speak. Information and questions overloaded all the nerve conduits in her brain.
Noah said nothing; the only sound in the enormous room was the snap of the fire and her rapidly pitched breathing. He turned his eyes away from her after a painful moment. He had moved away from her only moments before she had awakened, his abilities warning him about the changes in her wakening energy. Before that cautious removal, however, he had steadily occupied the chair she had noticed.