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|Pleasure(Shadowdwellers #3) by Jacquelyn Frank|
“Hush. At least make an effort to sound more like a handmaiden, K’yindara,” he said softly against her ear through her free-flowing red-black hair.
“Well, look at him,” she whispered in return. “Something is wrong, Magnus, and not just the fact that he’s been through a great physical strain.”
“I know,” he agreed. “But Sagan will come to me about it in his own time and way. I just pray Acadian had no time to sink her claws into him. The idea that she walks among us, anonymous and free because none of us have ever seen her face, it sickens me. Especially for Trace’s sake. My son spent a year suffering under that cruel k’ypruti.”
“Sagan could have seen her, but with so much damage to his memory…”
“Leave that idea to the dust,” he told her. “He would have told us who she is pretending to be in a heartbeat if he had known. I’m satisfied to have him back. Safe and free and able to resume his place as penance priest. We have been terribly shorthanded without him.”
“I know. Ventan is slower with age. You are busy running Sanctuary. Jordan is raw and new and he is still learning his way. There should be five of you to chase down Sinners, to hear confessions, to dole out penance. With you being the fittest and most experienced, the heaviest burden falls to you, and you are worn and tired because of it. Even though you think you can hide it.”
Magnus clicked his tongue at her, squeezing her softness against himself in loving punishment for the way she saw too keenly the truth of things sometimes, despite the fact that his third power was the power to compel the truth from others.
“He’s bored. Take him for a walk. He is well enough and clearly he needs someone to talk to and you are the only one he would ever trust,” Dae added. “I will be in our rooms waiting for you.”
She ducked out from under his arm, skipping out of reach before he could grab hold of her by her sari and pull her back.
“Oh, and knowing that is supposed to help me to focus?” he demanded.
“No. But it will help you to expedite the conversation,” she said with a wink before trotting off with a laugh.
Magnus wasted no time in arranging to free Sagan from the infirmary. Despite any ulterior motives, Sagan did deserve his attention and he was happy to give it. The two priests walked out into the rear courtyard, the large area empty at this time of night because students were in their classes.
Once he was certain of their privacy, Sagan wasted no time getting to the point.
“I have defied one of the tenets of my priesthood,” he said, forcing himself to meet his superior’s eyes. He had expected surprise or even a frown of recrimination, but Magnus remained calm and all but expressionless.
“Not something I ever thought I would hear you say,” Magnus mused neutrally, “but if I have learned one thing throughout this fight within Sanctuary, it is that anyone can be tempted into doing anything if the circumstances are powerful enough. My relationship with Daenaira itself has forced me to see sides of myself that I can’t always control.”
“I have no excuses to offer. I did what I did willingly and, I admit, with a great amount of ease.”
Magnus took a seat straddling a marble bench and Sagan followed suit across from him. It kept them eye to eye and on equal ground.
“Are you saying you don’t regret what you’ve done?” Magnus asked.
No regrets. Not one…not until I left her. That is what I regret.
“I am sorry to have besmirched the sanctity of the oath I took. I love this temple and all it has given to me. I respect every law and rule to the utmost. But I disrespected this one and that’s what I regret.”
Magnus narrowed thoughtful eyes on Sagan.
“You regret breaking the rule, but I am hearing more. I am hearing that you don’t regret everything you did after crossing the line. You don’t regret the sin you’ve committed in the least.”
“There was no sin,” Sagan whispered.
“Then I am confused, Sagan. How can breaking religious law not be a sin?”
“Because it was meant to be.” When Magnus frowned, Sagan slid closer to him and became heated in his confession. “Fate and free will. Every man walks the line between fate and free will. You have said so yourself time and again. This was a matter of using my free will to absorb a moment of fate into my life. How can it be coincidence that this one precious being should be where and when she needed to be—so perfectly poised to become a part of saving my life? Why would she be so…so…” Sagan exhaled in frustration.
“A woman,” Magnus said with clarification dawning in his golden eyes. “You mean you’ve been with a woman outside of the sanctity of the relationship you are only supposed to share with a handmaiden.”
“Yes,” Sagan said softly, knowing by the tone in Magnus’s voice that he would never understand. So he ceased trying to explain.
“I should never have let you go so long without one. You needed a companion to keep you away from these kinds of temptations.” The head priest sighed roughly. He studied Sagan carefully. “But, Sagan, you have to repent all of it before I can give you penance and forgive the sin.”
“It was not a sin!” Sagan hissed through gritted teeth. “Do not call it that again or I swear to our gods I will hit you for it.”
Magnus was so taken aback by the sheer savagery of the threat that he could only stare dumbly at Sagan for a very long minute. He had never heard Sagan speak with such passion before. Granted, he showed his fury of emotion during a hunt for a Sinner and especially during the kill, but never outside of that. He was always placid and peaceful, for all his warrior’s ways.
“If you feel this strongly, Sagan, and if you believe our gods led you to her, then perhaps she is meant to become your handmaiden. If this is the case then there has been no sin. What is her power?”
“Magic,” he said with a fall of such seriousness in his inflection and his intent eyes that understanding hit Magnus in a rush.
“She’s human. Drenna, Sagan, she’s human? Mortal?” Then somehow finding the power to sound even more shocked. “A magic-user? A creature of such evil and you see no sin in this? What the hell did she do to you?”
“How quickly you assume,” Sagan mused carefully. “It makes me wonder, Magnus, how many of your other automatic assumptions are also flawed.” Then Sagan told him everything about the woman he loved. Everything he needed to know, that is. He didn’t need to know how she hummed as she created her fabulous meals, or how she would snore in her sleep only if he wore her out enough to sleep that deeply. He certainly did not need to know how sweetly she screamed in pleasure for Sagan and how, even now, he longed for the embrace of her body, her arms, and her kiss. “If magic can be good, Magnus, then maybe there is room for the belief that breaking religious law is not a sin.”
“You speak of two separate matters entirely. Religious law and the vows you’ve taken cannot be toyed with so easily.”
“Why not? Murder breaks religious law and is a sin—except when we do it! There is no sin on us when we priests take the life of a Sinner. Why is that? If every life is a precious thing, Magnus, then why don’t we deserve penance for taking one…no matter how evil it is?”
“Religion is faith, Sagan! You believe in what we stand for or you don’t. If you doubt what you are here to do and the rules you must adhere to, then you should renounce your position! But gods, I beg you not to do that. You are one of the finest priests I know. You were born to do this work and I need you now more than ever. This is a crisis of faith, M’jan Sagan. That’s all that it is. We can guide you through it if you let us. You have to start by—”
“Repenting of my sin? Never. Never, Magnus! Do you hear me? I love this woman down to the core of my soul and I cannot ever call that a sin. You will never hear it pass my lips and I will never drop penitent to my knees for it. If that costs me my place here, then so be it. I sacrifice it gladly.”
Sagan surged to his feet, stepping away from his confessor.
“Then why did you even bother to return, Sagan?” Magnus asked quietly.
Sagan laughed, the sound choking through his emotions as he kept his back to the other man. “I came back because this is who I am. This”—he raised his hands to encompass everything that Sanctuary was—“this is what has made me, and continues to make me, into a worthwhile being. Without this…I have nothing of myself to offer her. And because of this, I can offer her nothing of myself. It is an unbearable irony, Magnus, but I had to choose. I could offer her a shell of a man with no culture, heritage, or meaningful work to define him…or I could come back here to try and keep all of that with a hollow heart rattling around inside my chest. At least with this choice, she can move on to have the things she deserves in life if she chooses to. I couldn’t imprison her to the husk of a man who could give her no children, could never grow old with her, and could never follow her into the light of day.”
“Love wasn’t enough,” Sagan heard the older priest say.
It made him turn to him. In that moment he realized he could see something in Magnus that had not been there before. The priest was relaxed, more down to earth, and seemed genuinely at peace. M’jan Magnus was notorious for the way he held himself above exception, pressuring himself to set the ultimate example, to the point where it was intimidating sometimes to even be near him. There was something infinitely more reachable about him now that had not been there before.
Sagan realized with a jolt of shock that it was because Magnus had fallen in love with his handmaiden. He had seen how closely she was kept to his side, but it had not registered until then. Somehow Dae had penetrated the austere M’jan Magnus’s walls of strict expectation, and somehow Magnus had dodged all those dangerous, prickly spines to catch the new handmaiden close.
But theirs was a blessed union and Magnus was free to feel as he did. K’yan Daenaira was a Shadowdweller and was immortal; she lived a life in the beauty of darkness that she thrived on. If she ever became pregnant, the child would be fully bred.
“You understand,” Sagan realized with a sigh of relief so profound it nearly hurt.
“I do,” Magnus agreed. “I have learned recently that to feel love for another isn’t enough to make you worthy of the relationship. Dae showed me that. Then she showed me how to be what she needed me to be. Which, as it turned out, was actually what I needed to be for myself as well. So I do understand when you tell me why you returned here, even though I suspect you realized you would lose your place as priest with this unrepentant attitude. Sagan, to let go of all you have ever known is a very difficult thing. To stand up for this belief knowing what you will lose speaks deeply of your feelings. And to have left someone you feel this way for just on the hope she will be happier without you…well, I have to say it’s a little stupid.”
Sagan raised a brow in surprise. “Excuse me?”
“I am assuming she feels the same for you, else this wouldn’t be much in the way of a sacrifice. Am I right?”
“But she’s human? An exceptional human from what you have told me. One that many Nightwalkers would want to study. Do you really think she can be left alone where she is when she is so important to the war we are fighting against the necromancers? Do you think I can tell others about this ‘good’ magic-user and have them believe me without showing proof of it? And do you think she will not want to do anything that will save these other—what did you call them? Natural born Witches? You believe she will sit in solitude when she can offer us knowledge? Offer us hope, for the first time, of repentance and reclamation of the necromancers’ stained souls? No, Sagan. No. And if she is like you say she is, she will not run away from the chance to help others like herself. She could become a great teacher. The possibilities for her in our world are endless.”
Magnus stood up and looked hard into Sagan’s eyes.
“You are a man who thrives on doing good works and fighting for a just cause. But evolution is the way of life on this planet, Sagan, and it may just be that it is time you evolved away from this path among us and touched a wider world with your wisdom and your strength. I see a future for you that can give you both of the things you desire, and give satisfaction to your gods as well. Resign, Sagan. Pray for forgiveness for defying the rules you broke, and then return to her free of those rules. Bring her here. We will ready you both for a circuit through the Nightwalker courts. I must speak to the Chancellors about this. They must have a part in making this offer to the other Cultures. Do you have any idea what a powerful gift this will be for your people? The other Nightwalkers still look on us as their bratty younger siblings, always tagging after, causing trouble, and never keeping up. For the first time we will be in the lead. We will show the way to how she and others like her should be treated. We will prove ourselves equal to their high ideals once and for all.”
“Bring her here?” Sagan echoed.
Bring her there? To his world? Expose her to so much and so many others? Others who might want to hurt her for what she is?
But he could protect her. It was as Magnus said. It was a new purpose and if he accompanied her on this tour of the courts, it meant being a guardian and a diplomat…it promised to fulfill him in every way he could possibly need.
Including being with the woman he loved.
“She is afraid. She might not do this,” he breathed, his rising hope and excitement impossible to contain even as he tried to force himself to think of the worst-case scenarios. “She is mortal and delicate, her life so easily taken away if I fail to protect her.”