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|Pleasure(Shadowdwellers #3) by Jacquelyn Frank|
“But you did him anyway.”
“Yes. Unlike you, I can talk to my victims without turning into a devotee.”
“Had you spoken with her and learned what she was, even you could not have found it in you to destroy her. And you know what they say…”
“If you can’t kill ’em, protect them from the rest of the killers?”
“Yeah.” Guin chuckled. “Something exactly like that.”
“Seemed to have worked for you,” Talon remarked with a shrug. “Who am I to judge?”
“I’m glad you feel that way, because I am going to ask you for a very big favor.”
“I hope you mean expensive. On your part, that is.” Talon chuckled.
“I can pay you whatever you ask. I know how this works and the price list hasn’t changed much over time. However, this is a bit off list. And a bit out of the ethical…at least for you.”
Talon frowned at that information. “And when you think of unethical, you think of me?”
“No. When I think of the only one I can trust down here, I think of you. You won’t just take my money and then waste precious time dicking around.”
“Hmm. So who do you want dead that you can’t get to for yourself?”
“No, her I am going to find one day on my own. I need you for something more complex than just a common mark.”
“I need you to take out an entire guild.”
“Bloody hell.” Talon hissed. “It was nice seeing you,” he spat as he stood up sharply.
“A woman and a newborn baby, Talon. That’s the mark they accepted. If you can live with that, then go.”
Talon hesitated just as Guin knew he would. For all his cold-blooded exterior, Talon had his scruples. He came from the school that said children were innocent and incapable of true crime or anything deserving of ultimate punishment. Anyone who accepted a hit on a child was the scum of the earth and deserved to be hunted down himself.
“The woman who arranged this contract has already killed a baby. I’ll take care of her for myself. But two months after this female mark I speak of gives birth, she and her baby are to be cruelly killed. Not just killed, Talon, but murdered in such a way that the husband and father will come home to find the pieces of his family everywhere.”
“Gods,” Talon ejected, sitting down again hard, his fist banging on the table. “I’m no damn saint, the gods know that, but there are ethics even for men like us. When I was young I was eager for any excuse to hunt and kill a target, but never a child. Never a pregnant woman. Never an innocent. I know you felt the same and that is what turned you away from us. You were tricked that night into believing you were hunting a dictator, a woman who was hungry for power, wealth, and the desire to crush the Shadowdwellers under her heel. When you recognized Malaya for what she truly was…”
“Talon…just take the job. Research the truth of it as you like. I will give you all of the particulars. You have six to eight months at the very least, provided she doesn’t miscarry. Don’t delay. It won’t be easy. There are three guilds who would take so low a deal, and you must find the one who took this particular one. Then you will need to know every assassin member and kill them to the last man. If you do this, you will be seen as a betrayer to your own kind if they discover who is responsible for it. That’s why this offer comes complete with a career change, should you desire it. I have friends in the upper levels who could use a man of your talents. Except this time, you would be working on the proper side of the law.”
Talon laughed at that.
“And all my sins will be forgiven?” He shook his head. “I seriously doubt that.”
“It depends on who is doing the forgiving,” Guin said quietly, taking an absent swipe at the condensation on his mug.
“Brother, you have found your religion. I, on the other hand, have no faith in anything but myself. Only I can forgive myself for the sins on my head, and frankly I don’t think I deserve it. I’m glad you found a way to feel otherwise, but even so, look where you are now. Back where you started.”
“Only until this is all resolved. Then my life will be topside, far away from here or New Zealand. There are other fights out there in need of a good warrior and I intend to find them.”
“You’re going to live in the human world of light? Dangerous way to survive, brother. Are you letting a woman chase you from the dark?”
“That’s my business. Yours is to say yes or no to this offer.”
“Aye. Give me a turn to think it over. I know I can pull it off, there’s no doubt there, but pulling it off anonymously is a trick in these close quarters. I have to decide if I want to throw away everything I know just for a pretty penny.”
“Fair enough. But it’s not a bad reason to do it. After all, I did it just for a pretty face,” Guin said wryly.
“Speaking of…” Talon trailed off as he looked to a point over Guin’s shoulder.
Guin tensed tightly in dread. He whipped around in his seat and saw the richly cloaked woman who entered the tavern and heard the silence that fell over the patrons. Since over half of them were lowlifes and scum, Guin swallowed the choke of shock and fear strangling him and surged to his feet. He saw her lift her head and the first thing he latched on to was the warm whiskey of her eyes. His heart thundered in his chest as he realized she was the center of all attention, as always. No one could ever seem to help themselves when she walked into a room. Any room. Cloaked as she was or not, her presence alerted everyone in a wide radius that something incredible was in their presence.
In this case, it also helped that she was obviously wealthy.
It made her an instant target.
Malaya pushed back the hood of her cloak, untying it at her throat and sweeping it off. She handed it to the young and fearful Fatima, who stood shaking behind her. However, Malaya reflected no such fear. As usual, she had perfect faith in herself and those she called her people.
“Good night,” she greeted several men who were openly staring at her. “I was wondering if you might know where I could find—”
“Fuck me,” Guin barked sharply, drawing her attention instantly. He was striding across the room with all speed, coming up on her hard.
“Oh! There you are,” she greeted him, smiling pleasantly as if they’d simply had an appointment to meet in any safe eating room.
“What are you doing here?” he demanded in a furious hiss. “Are you out of your mind? Where’s Killian? Your guard?”
“Um, back at home.”
“You gave them the slip? How in Light did you manage that?”
She smiled wider, the slyness in her eyes so wicked and beautiful it hit him in the gut like a punch. He reached out and grabbed hold of her arm, turning her around to march her right back out the door. She wriggled free of his grasp and turned back to the tavern, walking right into the middle of the room.
“What an interesting place.”
“A dangerous place,” he said hotly, reaching for her again only to be eluded by her grace and speed as she turned again. She met the eyes of a male patron and smiled at him.
“Hello. Will you buy me a drink?”
“Hell yeah,” he said, turning to look for the serving girl.
“Hell no,” Guin countered sharply. “I’m taking you out of here before people start to realize who you are.”
“Why shouldn’t they know who their Chancellor is?” she asked him, the stubborn glint in her eyes letting him know exactly how aware she was of where she was and the trouble he thought she was inviting. It was why she had raised her voice.
Murmurs and whispers flew through the room, and it took all of five seconds.
“Well, if it isn’t the proud bitch from upstairs,” someone drawled. “Look at her slumming with us regular ’Dwellers.”
“I’m hardly slumming and you are hardly regular,” she countered. “I hear you’re a collection of assassins, thieves, and assorted ne’er-do-wells. It takes talent to be all three. More so to avoid the city guard while you’re at it.”
Her cheek and confidence made some of them laugh.
“Yeah, but we’re not like you and all your ‘third power’ friends, lady. We’re just the nobodies who died and killed in the wars while you and the rest of the upstairs squabbled.”
Malaya frowned. “I know that. Everyone I know or knew died and killed in the wars. We were all fighting for our beliefs, one way or another. But that’s over now. My side won. Get over it.”
“Ooh,” the room chorused.
“That’s easy for you to say, living rich and happy in that palace of yours.”
“Oh yes, it’s a very easy life having others up my ass watching every move I make, every shower I take, and everyone I bed. Not to mention having a room full of resentful men and women telling me I have to get married and even trying to pick the groom for me. Then I have to become a sperm receptacle until I become pregnant. And, as you know, pregnancy is so delightfully trying for our women. But far be it from me to resent dying in order to secure succession and keep the political balance protected so you no longer have to kill and die for the whims of others.”
Malaya reached for the drink the man had bought for her and she slid onto the tabletop for a seat as she looked down at him in his chair.
“So tell me your name,” she invited him.
“Jory,” he replied, seeming terribly eager to be getting her attention. Guin couldn’t say that he didn’t know the feeling.
“Jory. What an excellent name. From the Dubough M’nitha Clan, no?”
“Yes,” he said in clear surprise. “How did you…?”
“Well, that’s easy. You have the M’nitha sigil tattoo on your left arm and you tie your hair in the double braid. Both are original marks of your clan. I am curious. Other than your traditional markings, do you still keep clannish tendencies? I expect that most of your clan is also your blood in one way or another, but does that line in the sand still exist, do you think? The one between your clan and its old enemies?”
“Some, yes,” he replied, probably not even realizing how easily she had drawn him into the conversation and brought him right past all defensive “none of your business” stoppers. “Some are let go. After years of war, we’re mostly glad to have life quiet again. But no matter what your type tries to put onto us, clan will always be clan.”
“I don’t doubt that at all. And there is a lot of good to be found in that bond. You keep an eye on each other, and that makes a community.”
“What clan am I?” a big, brusque man at the next table demanded of her. Guin moved closer to her, folding his arms over his chest and keeping an eye on the room as he watched her work her brand of magic.
“Fordid M’nifritt,” she shot back.
“What about me?” another shouted.
“Shayle K’yun.” She began to beat them to the punch, hopping onto her feet and pointing to them one by one and never once missing a clan. By the time she had reached the last patron, she was finishing her second beer and everyone was completely enchanted.
“How do you know all this?” Jory asked her.
“A lot of study. How could I dare to rule you and not know all about you? Before the war I visited every clan that let me. I spent years learning about you before I ever considered putting you in a war.”
“Why the war? Why a throne?” someone asked.
“The war was not my desire, I simply knew you all wouldn’t lay down your way of life without argument. I would have been surprised if my people had been so acquiescent. We’re fighters born and bred, even if it does get us in trouble sometimes. But I hope you feel your lives are improved. I hope my brother’s city has given you the shelter and comfort from the light that you need. If anything is missing, you can tell me now.”
“Democracy,” Talon spoke up dryly from his seat, earning a dirty look from Guin.
“For now, that’s true. But we didn’t have it before the war either. In time I believe that we can grow to the point of either democracy…or so harmonic a way of living that a monarchy won’t matter. Forced to breed or not, I want to raise good children to guide your future. I want them to be like me, someone who tries to be as fair and informed as possible.”
The debate and complaints lasted a good hour. But by the end of that time, Malaya was seriously tipsy and began trading limericks Guin had taught her with the laughing patrons.
“I hear you like to dance, K’yatsume,” someone suggested. Guin took note that “lady,” “bitch,” and other derogatory titles had disappeared and “K’yatsume” had grown in their stead. He knew she had won over one of the toughest crowds in town and he admired her for it, but dancing was out of the question. When she leapt off her latest table seat to comply with the request, Guin was there scooping up her arm and stopping her.
“Sorry, friends, but the Chancellor has to go now,” he said, drawing her close as she pouted and leaned her curvy warmth into his, her hands sliding over his sides.
“But I want to dance,” she argued softly, her eyes shining with intoxication. However, the way she began to touch him indicated dance wasn’t all that was on her mind.
“Another day, K’yatsume. It’s time to get you back home.”
“My home? Or do you have a new home? Anyway, you’re not responsible for me anymore.” Guin was ready for her when she tried to pull free and she made an angry little sound in her throat when she couldn’t escape him.