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|Rapture(Shadowdwellers #2) by Jacquelyn Frank|
Dae didn’t know how to respond to that news at first. Winifred had threatened her for years with everything from abandonment to hiring someone to slit her throat, so she narrowed her eyes suspiciously on the bitch.
“And don’t try any of your tricks, you little hellion.”
Winifred shook her chubby wrist, making the wicked cat she held in her fist rustle, the whip’s nine tails giving off an almost musical tinkle as the metal tips clinked together at the ends.
Apparently, Wini was feeling benevolent today. Usually she was compelled to use the hurish to keep Dae in line. The cuffs of the hurish were around Daenaira’s ankles and throat even now, rubbing and chafing them raw, especially so soon after the last dump of electrical voltage Winifred had used on her. It had been so powerful it had burned Dae’s skin, which of course made the chafing even worse.
Winifred usually held the remote for it at the ready, though this time Daenaira could see the outline of it in her apron pocket. Still, Wini wasn’t as fast as all that. She was being uncharacteristically brave; almost cocky, Dae thought, her eyes narrowing even further.
“I said get up!”
Dae shrugged and got up. She was still exhausted after their last go-around, never willing to sleep so long as she knew the household was awake and slithering actively beneath her. When day came and all Shadowdwellers went to sleep for those hours, then she knew she could rest a little easier. Auntie Winifred and Uncle Friedlow slept like two fat, dead pigs once they got started. Although there had been that one time when Friedlow had tried to trick her…so she slept light all the same.
She walked across the room, coming up short when her chains pulled her up to a halt about three feet from the door. Friedlow showed himself then and Daenaira immediately smelled a rat. She stepped back quickly, crouching and readying for whatever the pig had planned. But he rarely made his stupid attempts at her anymore. Too many knees in his soggy little crotch, she figured. When he held up the key to her wristlets, she couldn’t help but arch a brow. His hands were shaking, making the key ring jingle tellingly, and she took satisfaction in that. Safe in the doorway, his wife sneered at Dae.
“We’ve sold you. You’re someone else’s problem now. Maybe they can get a decent night’s work out of you for a change.”
Sold. Gods. They had threatened it endlessly, but she hadn’t ever thought they would really do it. They could be lying, but she sensed all too keenly that they weren’t. Daenaira wasn’t stupid enough to think the next place she ended up in would be any better. Her motto in life? Things could always get worse.
She thought about getting a last lick in as her slovenly uncle unchained her. But there was the cat and the hurish to consider, and she was really damn tired. Besides, she would probably need her energy when she got where she was going. Dae was surprised, though, when he took the entire cuff off each wrist, as well as sliding the chain loose of its loop. Usually they dropped the chain but kept the cuffs on to keep her readily available for lockup in case she decided to start trouble. Still, Wini had that remote, and she was already nervously fiddling with it. The stupid cow was going to set it off accidentally on purpose again, if she knew her.
Daenaira moved forward when her uncle backed well out of her way to let her pass. Just for the fun of it, Dae shouted in his direction at the last minute, making the idiot nearly piss himself. She paid for her amusement, though, when the nasty k’ypruti to her right sent the cat flinging at her with an arm that had gotten a lot of practice over the years. Thankfully, the bits on the end nabbed mostly the fabric of her dress as Winifred yanked back, but Dae caught at least two on her left arm in the back, the short sleeve abandoning little chunks of her skin to it. The sting of the lash she could handle, especially through cloth, but gods, did flaying hurt! Daenaira felt fury rushing through her like breaking daylight, and she rounded on Winifred with a snarl.
She stopped when the remote appeared quickly.
Flaying was one thing, but Winifred held death in her hand, and that was something else. Dae backed off quickly and even let the cow stick her foot in the small of her back and shove her out of the hall with it. What choice did she have?
As usual, none at all.
When she emerged to the front of the house, she immediately noticed two male strangers standing in the front hall. They were uniformed, a livery of some kind fortified with leather. Like most Shadowdwellers, they wore black, but there was a distinctive violet embroidery on the edges of their coats. Probably the mark of their house. A noble house, by the look of it. They certainly weren’t wearing a sari made of quilted-together pieces of Winifred’s old outfits. They looked at her and she saw surprise register on their faces. They traded perplexed looks and she rolled her eyes and sighed. She was used to it, actually. She was the only redheaded Shadowdweller most people had ever seen. Sure, the red was so deep it was close to the usual black the women of her breed were born with, but not close enough. It was just enough difference to trigger Shadowdweller night-vision to read it as black-blood red. She always wondered what it would have looked like if she could have ever stood in sunlight. Or any light, for that matter. But no ’Dweller could bear any light other than moonlight. Maybe a single candle…but anything else and they would burn to ash.
That was what made the hurish so deadly. The higher the voltage, the brighter the arc of the electricity that shot around the metal delivery system. Winifred could have burned off her feet past a certain point, if she hadn’t been afraid of killing her in the process. That much voltage and poof, there went a perfectly good set of cheap muscles and hard-laboring spine. Gods knew their lazy asses never did any of the work. They enjoyed the money made off the sweat of her brow as she did the laundry Winifred took in from the nearest high houses that couldn’t be bothered to do it for themselves. It was a lovely convenience that freed up time for other things.
Lovely for them, at least. Lovely for her aunt and uncle. Not so lovely for her. Especially since slavery, she knew, was illegal. But their isolation from most of the city and the control methods they used on her allowed them to get away with it. They never let her off the property. Never told her about the outside world. All she knew, she had learned before she had fallen into their hands. That and what she had gleaned from the laundry she had done. She would know when someone had sex, lost their virginity, was wounded in a fight, or sometimes even what they did for a living. But it was a small cross section of information from a smaller cross section of the populace, so she supposed it wasn’t all that important.
But this was completely unexpected. They must have gotten an incredible price for her, otherwise why give up the only source of livelihood they had? Unless she was going to be replaced by someone younger and cheaper to feed…easier to whip and beat into submission.
She had never been easy.
However, the fact that her newer owners were wealthy made her stomach knot with apprehension. A noble house willing to get caught owning a slave had a lot more to lose than a merchant laundress did. That meant they had more resources for hiding it out in the open, and far deeper desires for the use of their property than just making her wash clothes to keep them fed. It meant they weren’t afraid of much of anything.
Daenaira quickly began to size up her competition. It didn’t look very promising for her side. Both men were big and well developed. They were both armed in several ways that were obvious, and even a few that others wouldn’t notice right off. They were trained fighters. Guards, if she had her guess. Still, if she was ever going to get out of this bright light, she was going to have to do something before she got to her new location.
And that was when Winifred hit the switch to the remote, getting her last lick in. The voltage was extreme, and Dae knew it right away. Her whole body seized with it, the skin around her ankles and throat burning even as the guards began to move forward to catch her.
Everything went numb and wild and then…blissfully…black.
Daenaira awoke to the sensation of being rolled over.She tried to focus, her eyeballs feeling fat and swollen as they often did when she had been badly shocked. She saw the unmistakable silhouette of a man leaning over her. A really big man. She reacted before she was even fully conscious. She palmed out hard, catching softness and grinding it into the hardness of bone. She felt the answering spray of blood spattering against her and figured she’d gotten his mouth or nose at the very least. She would have preferred an eye, but she took what she was given.
She rolled out from under him, dragging her wobbling, uncoordinated muscles into something like a crawl. She didn’t realize she was on a bed until she fell off it. She grunted and cursed when she hit the floor. A bed! It figures! Well, the perverted prick should have tied her ass up, because there was no way she was going to allow—
Strong hands wrapped around her arms from behind. He hauled her to her feet, for which she mentally thanked the moron as she got her vacillating strength underneath herself. It was probably only a matter of time before he jolted her into a coma, but she would be damned if she was going to be conscious for what he was planning. Grounding herself on braced feet, she windmilled back and around to the left, her elbows rising high and whipping out of his grip. One caught him hard in a cheekbone, and the second came full around to his lower jaw. She heard the harsh sound of teeth clacking together and an angry bellow of pain just before she swung her fist into his throat.
I’m dead, I’m dead, I’m so dead, she thought frantically even as she added insult to his injuries when she watched him fall gagging onto his knees and hauled back to kick him full force in his crotch. But before she could commit, she was grabbed from behind, whirled around, and belted hard across her face.
It was a good punch. Enough to stop her dead, seeing as how she was working on borrowed strength to begin with. She felt blood explode out of her mouth even as fiery pain burned across her cheeks and sinuses. She’d be shocked if she didn’t lose a tooth, she thought, even as her body flung back with the momentum of the punch’s follow-through. Off balance and flying, she hit the floor in a skid. The smooth surface sent her skating several feet before she bumped to a stop against something.
The roar burst into the room like holy thunder. Head spinning, stomach sick from it, half blind and half deaf from pain and worse, Daenaira knew she had never heard anything like the power of that voice in all her life. It was like the rising roar of a mighty lion, the power of which you never understood if you only ever heard it from a distance. But this was the voice of a beast who knew he was at the top of the food chain. He knew he was king.
She felt something move against her and realized she had come up against the feet of the voice’s owner. In fact, they had stopped her progress across the floor. She curled her body instinctively, readying for the kick in the ribs or back that would follow, bracing as best she could even though she knew she should relax instead. It hurt less if she could make herself relax.
Remembering that helped and she let herself go lax, though remaining curled to protect her vitals.
“What in the burning Light of day are you doing?” the terrible voice demanded from above her. “Get out of my sight! Go before my katana meets my hand!”
The threat was clear enough, except she didn’t know where she should go. Regardless, the way she was feeling, she didn’t want any more trouble. Dismissal was just as good as winning in her book. She rolled onto her hands and knees and tried to crawl, but she couldn’t support her own weight. Even a baby could crawl, and yet she couldn’t drag herself an inch. Plus, she was drooling blood all over the place, and she had learned the hard way that bleeding on things was frowned upon.
She barely noticed the sound of receding feet, but she did hear the echoing clack of a shutting door that told her she was in a hell of a big room. She still couldn’t move, so she was fairly close to the angry male above her when he crouched down. She saw him looming near her in silhouette only, details blurred completely away. She heard the creaking sound of leather from his clothing, and the telltale tap of wood against the floor. Hollow wood, with something inside it.
A sword. The threatened katana, no doubt. But on the plus side, she hadn’t heard the sound of drawn steel, so she still had time to get her act together if she was lucky. Daenaira tried again to move, and again remained in a motionless pile.
She felt the heat of him as he leaned over her, reaching across her back. Dae should have kept still, just like she always should keep still and never seemed to manage it, but instinct made her grab the arm of the hand about to touch her, her nails gouging deeply into—
Holy Light, she thought with a mental gasp, is all of that muscle?
It was more like flesh made steel! She could hardly get her hand around the width of that thick bicep. Gods help her if he was left-handed, because if what she was feeling wasn’t his sword arm, she was completely screwed.
To her never-ending surprise, she felt his opposite hand come to rest on the one she was digging into him. Winifred liked to cut Dae’s nails off when she was out cold after a battle. She must have forgotten, because Dae made pretty good purchase. The thing was, instead of ripping her away from him, he simply held her fingers under his, keeping her from stripping his flesh but tolerating her injury to him.
This guy could be a bigger degenerate than she had anticipated. If he liked getting hurt…
She took note of the thick, hard calluses on the hand covering hers. There was years’ worth of hard work at something; it was not soft and fat like her relatives’ had been. Not in the least. Yet, she slowly became cognizant of the gentleness of his touch against her fingers. She suspected a trick, but for the life of her, she couldn’t figure out what it was. Eventually she just let go, collapsing into an exhausted pile of panting, dizzy flesh. As if she’d never even touched him, he continued to reach for her, cupping her shoulder in his wide palm. Slowly he rolled her toward him, letting her flop loosely onto her back.