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|Pleasure(Shadowdwellers #3) by Jacquelyn Frank|
“Come on, let’s get out of here in case some genius finds the hidden stairs,” Xenia urged them. “I think we have had more than enough excitement for one night.”
Guin couldn’t agree more.
Guin’s ears were ringing, the sound growing louder and louder, loud enough to nearly drown the ambient sounds of the Senate members who were murmuring loudly. Some spoke in sage agreement, others in outright astonishment. Those who were taken by surprise had probably been left out of the loop on purpose, just for the advantage of shock value and the fact that a bell, once rung, could never be unrung.
It was the sound of that proverbial bell that rang in Guin’s ears as he watched from his position of stiff attention within the Chancellors’ balcony as Malaya stood at the podium with perfect posture, her figure straight, proud and radiant with the calm elegance of the office she had fought so hard for and had proved so often that she deserved. She was superbly dressed in a gown of body-hugging sheer amber netting that covered her from throat to ankles. It was the lazy drizzling of tiny ropes of lace in honey gold that gave her a semblance of modesty. The lace covered the netting everywhere and, at first glance, made the gown solid and austere. Conservative, one could say, despite the slit in the skirt that traveled most of her leg on the side where he stood, baring the perfection of her smooth mocha-colored skin. However, if you were as close to her as he was, you could see the teasing array of dusky and intimate places on her body kept just barely out of focus and revelation by all of that lace.
Behind her, sitting at stiff attention, was her twin. He had been amused and casual, joking with Xenia as the Senate proceedings for the day drew onward, but now…now, like Guin, he was tight with tension and emotion, mostly anger, as the echoes of the speaking Senator’s address faded from the rotunda ceiling.
None of those in the balcony were actually in shock at the nature of the proposal they had just heard, because they had been expecting it for some time. It was merely the understanding that the moment of reckoning was at hand that held them so straight and still.
Except for Guin, who had dreaded every instant of what was going to happen next more than anything.
“My Lady,” the Senator drawled to fill in the silence from the royal box, “I can read the law to you if you like.”
My Lady. The devious bastard hadn’t even given her the respect of calling her K’yatsume. The fury that rolled through Guin at the obvious insult to Malaya begged for release and a target, and while he remained motionless, he flicked an acidic glare at Senator Jericho for the slight.
“The law reads,” Malaya spoke up with a clear, calm voice, “‘Within the royal house of the Shadowdwellers, tradition and honorable ideal must dictate that any female ruler wielding the power of the monarchy must take a proper mate. This is done to quickly ensure succession and to fortify the female’s position in the eyes of men and enemies who might deem her an easy target for overthrow otherwise. To avoid discontent, civil war, and detrimental unrest among the people she guides, the female will show her willingness to abide by this law of peaceful intent and the respect she holds for the traditions of her people.’”
This time it was the Senate that fell silent under Malaya’s steady and accurate recitation of the law they had meant to take her off guard with. They had meant to catch her ill prepared and unawares, hoping to steamroll her into capitulating to their desires. But these Senators had no real power over her, and she was proving that to them with her preparedness and her consummate sophistication. Guin watched with pleasure as her soft, shiny lips curved into a half-smile of amusement.
“Senators,” she said with resonance, “surely you do not mean to beat me with the dusty scroll of a law that is 1,846 years old and, clearly, a tad outdated.” She wrinkled her nose as she held up two fingers with a small space between them, eliciting laughter from her listeners. “I am always the first to hold tradition in the esteem and honor it is due, as all of you have seen me do time and again, but this was meant for a time when we were savage little clans fighting each other for power and when other Nightwalkers were our territorial enemies. I have no obligation to take this law seriously when you see my brother and I are firmly seated in the Chancellery, and all of Our challengers who were courageous enough to confront Us directly have been long defeated.”
That made Guin smile broadly. There was no missing the backhanded insult she had just slapped down on her enemies who had been insidiously trying to infect the Senate against her and her brother for months now. Already two attempts had been made on the life of the royal vizier Trace, who now stood alive and well behind the chairs of office looking equally amused. An attempt had also been made on the life of Malaya’s priest and close personal friend, Magnus.
Guin had to fight back the shudder of emotion that overtook him every time he remembered that k’ypruti assassin who had reached to stab a poisoned weapon into the Chancellor he protected. He relished every reflex and instinct he’d been given that had allowed him to see and to know what was going to happen even before that creature had moved to make Malaya her mark. He had been happy to spill Karri’s blood, even in spite of her being a so-called holy woman, delighting in making her pay for her crimes against Malaya.
“Madame, as you often like to point out to us, it was not that long ago that we were savage little clans infighting for power and plunged into civil war,” Jericho pointed out, once again omitting her rightful address but still making himself appear respectful. It was the old clan chieftain’s way of feeling powerful and on equal footing with the beauty who had soundly beaten his ass in war. “Yes, there is peace now, and yes, the clans are dissolved…for the most part. But your monarchy is only a decade free of the challenges of the war. This law—and I stress the term law, My Lady—provides you with a time-honored method of securing your reign. So many of us here depend on you so greatly for your traditional heart and the respect you have always given to our religion and our cultural practices, in order to keep us from dissolving into the chaos of some of the human societies we have seen. The Americans are a prime example. The more they shed the respects and traditions of their cultures, the more violent and contemptible their behaviors have become. Especially as pertains to women.”
“For you to so casually dismiss a single deference to custom,” Senator Angelique spoke up, adding a female voice to the argument almost as if it had been practiced, “is to begin a domino effect throughout the people. They will think this is a permission to take liberties that will incite danger in the community. If the Chancellor flouts tradition and law, what example does it set?”
“I would never dismiss any matter this Senate brings to me ‘casually,’ and I resent the implication, Senator Angelique. As has been pointed out,” Malaya said sharply, “I am renowned for being a woman of traditional values. But I am also one with a progressive streak. It used to be law that a wife submit to the beatings of her husband without any interference from outsiders, but I thank Drenna that this law was seen for what it was and was abolished.”
“K’yatsume, that is like comparing Light and Dark. This law of securing succession is no different than any other royal protocol, and certainly it hurts no one,” another male Senator injected.
“It hurts my sister’s right to choose her mate!” Tristan exploded suddenly from his seat, surging to his feet and approaching the rail of the balcony to address the assemblage. “It damages her right to her emotions. She has an inalienable right to find love for herself. To make the best choice possible without pressure and direction from all of you! Not a one of you would cede to such a dictate if it was turned on you. You think to marry her off like some worthless daughter who drains household resources and is a burden to you. What you risk is haste and poor choice and introducing a foul influence into a monarchy that is working just fine as it is. As you say, we are fresh out of war. There is time now to slowly come to issues of family and succession.”
“She can choose whomever she wants for a mate so long as he is worthy of her,” Jericho countered. “She can choose someone she loves and will be able to trust. I think it is you, M’itisume, who fears the influence of an outsider within this knitted clique of the royal household. Are no others worthy enough to join that clique? Are you so far above us all?”
“I never said—”
Tristan was drowned out by the rush of loud protest that sounded uniformly angry. Guin moved closer to Malaya and saw Xenia doing the same with Tristan.
“Senators! Senators, please!” Malaya’s call for attention lowered the fury to a dull roar. “I never said I would not give your proposal its due consideration.”
“Laya!” Tristan hissed in protest, the instant rage in his eyes a perfect expression for the emotion Guin felt kicking him in his gut.
“Hush,” she hissed back at him. Louder she said, “I will accept a proposal from the Senate as to what or who will determine a ‘worthy’ mate, and a suggested timeline for when I can expect myself to fall in love.” Her light, teasing sarcasm made her audience ripple with chuckles. “And I would like to consider examples of proof that this is a working law. Also, I will appreciate a list of candidates for this applied marriage.”
Guin spat out the angry oath under his breath and Malaya turned her head to throw him a dark, warning look. In that moment he was so angry at her he came extremely close to flipping her off. But he had never disrespected her in public and he wouldn’t start now. No matter how much she pissed him off.
“But, Senators,” she added clearly and carefully, “this is only a proposal that will help guide me in my decision to accept or reject the need for this law. This is in no way a foregone capitulation to your wishes. At the very least it will open the law up to modernization. Is this satisfactory?”
Of course it was. The Senate had made headway in their agenda and it made them happy. Now the benefits and detriments of the old law would be citywide gossip and opinions would pour into the royal household. Malaya and Tristan would quickly get an idea of what majority public opinion was leaning toward. And while they ruled with a strong autonomy from both the people and the Senate, they couldn’t ignore their desires completely. Everything had to be taken into consideration. That meant that there was a chance that Malaya would submit to this ridiculousness.
And that was what Guin could not stomach. Just knowing she was contemplating the possibility had already driven him from her side once because he couldn’t control how it made him feel. Three weeks ago he had abandoned her safety to others for the first time in fifty years and had gained a distance so he could figure out how to keep himself sane in the face of this.
He had tolerated so much in those fifty long years of loyal and dedicated service to his mistress. He had learned to live closely with her every minute of every night. He had learned to blind himself to her stunning beauty as he saw her in every state of dress and undress imaginable. He had put up with her dangerous insolence and defiance during the wars and her insistence on joining pitched battle alongside her brother. Guin had borne fifty years of other men, albeit rare and carefully chosen, in her bed, where any one of them could do anything to hurt her. And since he was never to leave her side except when she was asleep in the privacy of her chambers, Guin had learned to watch and protect her with stony calm while she tried to sate her sexuality on men he thought were so much less than worthy of what she needed.
Here he drew a line at his patience. All he had borne and everything he had suffered these five decades had been with the goal of striving for her eventual happiness. When the war had finally come to an end and they had truly begun to see the city flourish with peace and the quibbling decrease among former clans, she had begun to grow into that happiness. He had seen it in her beautiful whiskey-colored eyes, the warm brown-gold sparkling with it so very often. The bodyguard had seen it in her constant smiles and the way she had begun to lavishly enjoy her life, this in spite of the fact that her beloved Rika was dying of the horrible Shadowdweller disease known as Crush.
But those freshman pleasures had been ripped out of her the day Tristan had confessed to knowing the Senate was going to spring this on her soon. She had had only three weeks to prepare herself for it, and Guin had been unable to stand by and watch as she readied herself for the possibility of accepting the dictate and throwing away every chance of happiness for herself that he had spent years of his life fighting to give her the opportunity for.
It was because she was riding the fence on the choice that he could keep his feet firmly planted beside her once more. He had returned to her a week ago, afraid to leave her alone any longer when so much danger lurked, unwilling to trust her safety to others. But he had sworn to himself that he would walk away the moment she let others choose her mate for her. Because as hard as he had strived to prepare her for better times, he could never simply stand by and watch her become a victim of a loveless union.
He had lived through it once before and knew what it could do to a woman. Malaya was far too precious and beautiful to be destroyed in such ways. So now, his only recourse was to fight some more. Fight with her. Force her to see that love and contentment trumped tradition. He had no idea who would ever be worthy of her, who could give her those things he craved for her, but he would see to it that she craved them for herself if it was the last thing he ever did.
“You should have let me demand that they try to press that ridiculous law on me as well,” Tristan growled hotly as he kept pace with his twin sister. “Let us see how everyone reacts to the idea of forcing a king to marry!”