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|Pleasure(Shadowdwellers #3) by Jacquelyn Frank|
“Acadian…” she breathed softly, the word like calling down a curse.
“You saw her face?”
“No. I saw her hands. She wears these artificial claws, Guin. Made of a brutally sharp steel but…just dull enough so when she rakes it up your spine you feel everything ripping. Oh gods…she’s a monster.” Then she hitched in a shaking breath and drew away to look at his chest. “It was you,” she cried, her voice shattering in pain. “It was your skin! She had you chained like an animal and…”
“Shh, Laya, it’s okay.” He tried to calm her as her breathing raced into panic.
“No, it’s not! No! You can’t leave me. She’ll get you if you do! You know I’m right! You know I’m right!” She made a terrible sound of pain as she threw her arms around him and held him tight. “My life for yours. She kept saying it. ‘His life for yours, little queen,’ she said. And she held those awful things to your throat. She’ll kill you.”
“You know these can just be representations of something else, K’yatsume. This doesn’t mean—”
“It means one way or another it’s going to come to my life or yours! If you stay or if you go! No matter what we do…It’s my worst fear, Guin. My very worst.”
“Your worst fear is something happening to Tristan,” he corrected her raspily.
“No. My worst fear is someone I love…anyone I love…trading their life away because of me. Don’t you see? This is why you are here. Why I would choose no one else to protect me.”
Because she didn’t love him enough to be afraid of risking his life for her? When he died, was she afraid someone she cared about more would become exposed? The idea sent all the air out of his lungs as if he’d been kicked in the balls.
“Because I’m expendable,” he said a bit numbly. He had thought…she’d always made him feel as if he was much more to her than that. Had he been wrong all this time?
“No, you idiot! Because you’re such a bull nothing could kill you.” She reached out and smacked him in the back of the head. Rather hard. “But as good as you are, I know she’s going to find a way to get to you. Or someone will. You can’t trust anyone,” she insisted, giving him what would have been a shake if he weren’t so solid. “You hear me? You have to be careful with everyone. Including me! I know neither of us can imagine how I could possibly betray you, but anything can happen. Everyone has their price. Maybe not money…but oh, she knows, Guin. She always knows how to find it. She knows how to make anyone pay. All she does is wait. Patiently. She waits until she finds it and then she cuts it out and keeps it.”
“Honey,” he said, “you’re rambling.”
“You’re not listening!”
“I am! And I already know your price. Everyone does. You would trade your very soul for your brother’s well-being. It’s not me you need to keep an eye on, it’s him. If anything will make you trade your life away, it will be him. We’ll talk to him and Xenia in the evening. We’ll work this out, Malaya. He will be protected.”
What he said made sense, but the shift of understanding did nothing to calm her. But she knew what would.
“You can’t leave. It’s only safe when you are here. You’ve saved my life too many times for me not to know that. Please, Guin, I’m begging you…As a friend, I beg you not to leave me. Not now…not ever. I swear, I’ll die an old maid if it means you’ll have to stay. I’ll never get married and you’ll never be able to leave!”
Guin had to laugh at her. They both knew her logic was ridiculously flawed. She pouted and beat a fist against his chest.
“I mean it. Stay with me. I’ll do anything you want if you’ll just stay.”
Anything he wanted? Hmm. Dangerous thought, that. Very dangerous. And therein lay the trouble with staying this close to her. He could make no promises unless he figured out how to get help keeping his act together. If he’d managed through all those years before, he had to be able to continue somehow.
“I’ll stay…for now,” he promised conditionally, cutting off her cry of delight with the hasty stipulation. The pout returned in force and he smiled as he reached to pop his finger across her bottom lip where it stuck out. “Stop that. It won’t work on me like it does on Tristan.”
“Well something works on you,” she said in a huff, “and one of these days I am going to find out exactly what it is!”
That was precisely what he was afraid of.
“Baby? Honey? Darling? Sweetheart?”
Magnus groaned when the rapid-fire endearments preceded his religious wife’s entrance into his room. His handmaiden Daenaira was a great many astounding things, but she was not known for being sugary sweet. When she approached him like this, it usually meant she wanted something and he wasn’t going to like it.
“What did you do?” he demanded straightaway, trying to dodge her when she came up to touch him. “No touching. You keep all those wicked appendages of yours to yourself until after this conversation is over. The last time I let you do something like that you made me miss a lecture!”
“But you don’t have a lecture. In fact, you have exactly three hours free right now.”
“Three…? No, I have a meeting.”
“With?” She smiled like a cat looking at cream. He became increasingly suspicious.
“A couple who needs marriage counseling.”
“Yeah, that would be me and you,” she informed him matter-of-factly.
“Us?” He frowned. “What’s wrong with us, K’yindara?”
“Okay, here’s how this works,” she said, starting to strut before him as if she were giving a lecture, her midnight blue sari so flattering on her body it was impossible not to be riveted to every movement she made. Magnus wondered if finding a woman sexy in religious uniform could be considered a little sinful. He smiled. It sure felt that way. Luckily he was a priest and he was able to decide it was perfectly allowable. At least it was for him. If anyone else looked at her that way…
“How what works?” he asked absently.
“Well, there’s a potential for good news, bad news, or fucking awful news. Either way, I figured we’d need some time to hash it out.”
Magnus sighed at her phraseology. She was still very new at the whole handmaiden role, but she needed to learn to curb that street-smart vocabulary very soon.
“You know, most people actually have this thing where they get straight to the point,” he countered dryly.
Magnus choked on his own breath and instantly felt the room spin as his blood pressure suddenly shot through the roof to meet the demands of his seizing heartbeat.
Daenaira quickly jumped to give him her body to hold on to and she helped him sit down on the bed.
“You see? See why going straight to the point isn’t always such a good idea? Anyway, what did you expect? You’ve been a veritable sex maniac since we started this whole thing. And since you hadn’t had sex in like two hundred years and didn’t plan on having sex for another two hundred years at least, you didn’t see the point in drinking that birth control tea that you men use. My sex education didn’t start really ’til I got here. Least not the formal stuff. So it took me a while to figure out exactly where babies come from…”
“Dae, you have to stop talking right now,” he insisted hoarsely.
“You’re not happy,” she said with a frown, crossing her arms defensively beneath her breasts. “I just can’t tell if you think it’s bad news or fucking awful news.”
“Neither. None of it. Gods, Dae, I just need a minute.”
Magnus began to catch his breath, his vision focusing once again. He saw her unhappy body language and instantly felt like a complete jackass. It wasn’t even as though he’d never been a father before. He had raised his foster son, Trace, from the time he was a toddler.
But this would be his first blood child. Something he’d never, ever thought about having. Until Dae, he had quite contentedly decided on a life of celibacy, preferring to focus his energies totally on his work. He had lived that life for over two centuries. Then she had come to him, a gift from Drenna, as well as a very hard lesson he’d needed to learn. A part of that lesson was learning that men make plans…and the gods laugh.
Also, a pregnant handmaiden was considered an outrageous blessing to a lot of their people. She would be swamped with people who would just want to touch her. Which, actually, was very bad because she hated to be touched by strangers. Because she’d spent almost half her life under the whip of abusive slavery, it had taken him a long time to gain her automatic trust in touching.
“Come here, jei li,” he said softly, reaching to draw her down into his lap. “The bad part about this,” he said, “is that you are so very young for this. Not so much your maturity, but your physical body. I watch my son struggling with a frail woman carrying his child and it makes me fear for you as well.”
“I am not frail,” she said indignantly.
“No.” He chuckled. “I think I have proven that to myself many times over.”
Dae blushed warmly when she took his meaning, that sly smile of hers returning. “I think the penance chamber alone…”
“Yes, brat.” He clamped his hands on her hips when she suggestively wriggled her bottom against him. “But pregnancy is hard on our women, no matter what. It’s one reason why we are so strict about avoiding babies out of wedlock. It’s a tough ordeal to handle alone.”
“But I’m not alone,” she countered, sliding an arm around his neck. “I have you. And M’jan Brendan,” she added impishly.
“Oh. Now I know you like that penance room much more than you should. I’ve a mind to turn you fanny up, Dae.”
“Hmm. Need help?”
The next thing she knew she was across the bed and pinned beneath his weight. He held her hands down tightly and glared down into her eyes. “This is a serious issue, Dae, and you’re choosing right now to be a cock-tease?”
“Well, I set aside three hours for a reason, you know. Five minutes to tell you, five to argue or whatever, and the rest for everything else, especially being a cock-tease.”
She followed this up by drawing her knees up until her thighs framed his hips. This artfully shifted her pelvis and settled him perfectly for the aforementioned teasing.
“You know, I owe M’gnone a tribute of apology. All this time I thought it was Drenna that sent you to me. Now I realize it was a trick of the master of Light. I’m burning in a sweet hell every single day with you!” he declared hotly.
“I think we should have a boy,” she mused. “I’m more of a boy mommy, don’t you think?”
It took exactly five hours for the news to reach Acadian. Most of her spies in Sanctuary had been destroyed or routed out, the religious house wiped nearly clean when, mere weeks ago, she had been only a breath away from setting her daughter into the power of Magnus’s religious throne. Since Sanctuary and religious law worked completely independent of the royal household and common law, no one had true power over the people of the city unless they controlled both.
And that breeding bitch had ruined everything just when it was falling into Acadian’s grasp. Years of plotting and manipulation, ruined! However, as infuriating as that had been, it was nothing compared to the black rage Acadian felt toward Daenaira for having killed her daughter.
So now she was pregnant, was she? Fermenting her own child? Acadian had been waiting for just such an equalizing opportunity. She would take a lesson from the Christian religions and apply it to the couple who had sat over her daughter before that k’ypruti had stabbed her Nicoya through her throat. An eye for an eye. A child for a child. The question to savor for a moment was, which would hurt her the most? After birth? Like Nicoya had planned for Trace’s wife? Perhaps mid-pregnancy? Oh yes, there would be danger then and the mother might even lose her pathetic life. But death wasn’t the goal. Not for Daenaira. No. Suffering was what she craved. Suffering was what that whore had asked for.
And if there was anything Acadian knew best, it was how to make someone suffer.
Which brought her attention back around to her main targets of interest. She had enjoyed watching Tristan writhe in pain for his sister for all of those months as he agonized over how to tell her what her fate was going to be. She had purposely seen to it that the information had been leaked to him just at the end of the last Senate session before migration back to New Zealand. It had given him a whole season to stew and sicken himself over it as he felt winter approaching and migration back to Alaska and an active Senate coming back into play. He had responded to the mental torture much more wildly than she would have expected. Tristan wasn’t one to be easily influenced.
Unless it concerned his precious sister’s comfort.
Malaya was a slightly tougher nut to crack, Acadian mused. While she had equal weakness where her brother was concerned, she was a very proactive personality and it was just about impossible to get her to feel defeated. It had been a bit irritating to see how calm and composed she was in the Senate as they handed that law down on her. Tristan’s reaction had been slightly more amusing.
Ah…but an unexpected treat had burst into brilliant life just then.
That loyal thug of hers, the one who made it an inconceivable prospect for anyone to come close enough to kill Malaya, he had had a most unexpected reaction. She had heard him utter his profanity under his breath, expressing quite passionately how he felt about Malaya considering capitulating to tradition. Acadian’s spies also reported some terrible arguments between them. She had added this to the unexpected and sudden absence he had taken recently, and it began to create a rather tempting picture of discord and sweet possibilities.