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|Rapture(Shadowdwellers #2) by Jacquelyn Frank|
She shrugged it off nervously, realizing she couldn’t change anything now. Then she looked down into the water. It was glittering gold. Gold tile lined it completely, except where she could see little lines of jet demarcating a set of stairs leading down into the steaming pool right next to her. A shelf of tile had been constructed nearby, a little above water level, and here there were bathing products like soap and shampoo. Fresh cloths stood ready, as did the towels to dry off afterward. All of that hot water and space…just to take a bath.
She looked around and saw no sign of the bed from earlier, or the blood she’d shed. But there were two alcoves on opposite ends of the room. Hurrying as best she could on persistently unsteady legs, she made her way to where her sense of direction said she’d come from. Sure enough, through the alcove was an archway leading into a vast bedroom, furnished and decorated in midnight blue and gold. The colors, she realized, of a handmaiden’s uniform. The low bed was plush and beautiful, its coverlet made of rich velvet in midnight blue, intricate knotted designs embroidered around it in gold thread. Velvet and satin pillows filled most of the large surface of the bed, and she guessed she was supposed to fill the rest. There was everything else a woman could need. Vanity, dressers, a closet and clothing preparation area that included a steam ironing system and several bookcases. There was an adorable conversation area in front of a fireplace. A fireplace! Another one of those things only the wealthy could own because of the complications of venting such a thing in an underground city. Then again, if she was in Sanctuary, they were on the level just below the surface. Or, at least, they could be. Sanctuary was probably several levels on its own. The royal palace was also on the upper levels, as were the Senate and many of the noble houses and merchant services.
The city was miles wide and very deep, a convoluted arrangement of space, pathways, and everything a city needed. But every Shadowdweller knew that their entire society was run from this level. Religious, political, and financial. If it was key to their culture’s survival, it happened here. The only exception, she supposed, was the hydroponics factory in the very bowels of everything. Since it was the only place where light was used, it was locked down and secured and only those brave enough to work close to that many lightbulbs were allowed in. Of course, not while the lights for growing the foods they cultivated were on. That would be the equivalent of an accident at a nuclear plant for their species. Anyone caught inside when those lights came on would literally be toast.
Dae noticed a lot of bare surfaces on the shelves and little tables in the room. This included large gaps in the books on the shelves. The mantel was bare of any trinkets or décor. Anything of a personal nature or touch had been completely removed. This, she realized, had been a dead woman’s room. Magnus’s previous handmaiden. Dead six weeks, all sign of her packed up and shipped off, and now…now here she was, supposedly to take her place.
No way. Nuh-uh. Not her. She was a lot of things, but a holy woman wasn’t one of them. Besides, it was just the same as the past eight years! Handmaidens were servants to the priests they were assigned to. They waited on them hand and foot, as she understood it, like some sort of religious geisha, and were bound into that servitude for their natural lives. There was no leaving until…
She looked at those bare places again and felt a terrible sense of panic clawing up her chest. It was just a prettier prison, she realized. She’d been sold into slavery all over again, except this time it was publicly acceptable. Light, they even called it an honor and a privilege! Like an obscene lottery, women wept and screamed for joy when they were “chosen.”
How in Light had she been chosen? No one had even known she was alive except Winifred, Friedlow, and their twisted friends who also had slaves and had as much to lose as they did if they ratted them out.
“This is insane,” she whispered to the starkly lovely room.
She turned around to look at the exit on the other side of the bath. Shuffling and limping quickly across the room, Daenaira burst through the archway and into…
Three times the size of her large room, there was no mistaking that this was Magnus’s bedroom. Not for a minute. Firstly, there was an entire corner filled with sword racks and weaponry displays, as well as everything needed to care for them. Like the metal polish she had smelled on him earlier. Sharpening stones, hammers, cloths, and more. The displays were artwork in and of themselves, made of rich woods or marble. However, none of it compared to the weapons themselves. Whoever supplied Magnus with his weapons was a true artist. From scroll-worked pommels and woven wrapped hilts to gleaming etched metal in the finest, minuscule detail, she had never seen anything like it. The sheer variety was breathtaking, and she didn’t even know what half of the things were.
Checking if she heard anyone approaching, Dae figured it would be a while before he returned. After all, he was counseling the Chancellor. The very thought made her giggle nervously. Yeah, right. She was going to go out in public by the side of a man who counseled the royal twins. Drenna, what a mad idea! A handmaiden who cursed a blue streak, belched when she ate, and could sing bawdy limericks with the best of them, courtesy of the barroom her mum had run before her death. She’d practically grown up sitting on a bar rail and stool. She’d gotten drunk for the first time at the tender age of seven because some idiots had thought it would be funny to give her a drink every time her mother disappeared into the back room. Four years later her mum had died when one of the warring clans had decided to burn the place down because they knew they were losing the war and they felt like doing as much damage as possible on the way down. Then she had ended up with her “loving family,” and now here.
She walked to a glass display cabinet that seemed reserved for throwing weapons. Sharp metal gleamed in everything from the plain to the intricate. Shurikens, saw-stars, bolos, glaves, arrow-stars, clockers, and about a dozen she couldn’t even identify. There was even a boomerang, the inside edges of which had been made blade sharp, which meant you could only catch it on the outside edge or you’d lose a hand. Dangerous stuff. Deadly stuff.
She realized this meant Magnus probably knew how to use every single killing blade there. Light, there was even a case of handguns. The human weapons were deadly dangerous to use for their breed. The muzzle flash alone burned their retinas and blinded them, limiting how many shots they could get off with accuracy. It also burned if you didn’t wear gloves, she’d heard. It was why blades were the weapon of choice for Shadowdwellers, even in this technological age. A decade after the end of the war, however, swords seemed to be mostly a show of fashion. For the common man, at least. For men like Magnus, it was a calling.
Dae moved to a velvet-covered tray and couldn’t resist peeking under the cloth.
“Holy Light,” she gasped, folding back the fabric and displaying the silver tray and the wicked set of sai and daggers on it. They were breathtaking and just about the most beautiful weapons she’d ever seen—and growing up a bar rat in the middle of a war, she’d seen a heck of a lot. Licking her lips, she picked up the heavy steel with a sense of reverence. The leather-wrapped hilts were brand new, showing no wear whatsoever. The counterweights in the pommels were round and just heavy enough to perfectly balance the triple-pronged weapons. The long center prongs weren’t sharpened, although they weren’t usually meant to be. The two shorter ones, however, were frighteningly sharp points. That was odd, considering they were meant for guarding or to catch a longer blade. She’d always been told they were a weapon of defense more than anything, but certain masters could do anything with them they set their minds to.
Dae turned one in her hand, her fingers fumbling a little since it had been so long. However, after a minute she was twirling the weight back and forth in a nimble touch, just the way Crazy Conrad had taught her day after day as he had played around with her through several beers. She actually smiled when she remembered him laughing at her when she’d been seven years old trying to manipulate steel weighing more than her whole arm. But she had grown. Fast. And because she had played with sai and other sharp toys to the amusement of the warriors kicking back around her, she’d grown strong.
“You need a lighter weight.”
The sai dropped onto the tray with a crash and she whirled around to face the priest. Gods! He hadn’t made a single sound! It was astounding someone so big could move that quietly.
And then she remembered to be insulted.
“I do not,” she snapped. Then a bit primly, “I just need some practice.”
Drenna, she was a proud little thing, Magnus thought as her stubborn chin rose and she tried to look down her nose and meet his eyes at the same time. Interesting trick, he mused, considering he was a fair eight inches taller than she was.And he wasn’t about to let her think she could get away with being stubborn unless she was right. She was going to need to defend herself in a great many ways in the future, and it was best she learned how to choose the best battles.
“A pound, at least,” he corrected her as he reached past her to neatly rearrange the tray she had disturbed and then cover it back up. “Heavy enough to guard, but a bit lighter so you don’t limit what you can do with it. You can use heavier ones to practice with to build your strength in your fingers and wrists, but for application, you will need custom made.”
“Custom made,” she echoed. She burst out in that snorty giggle and Magnus resisted the need to smile at the sound of it. “Yeah, I’ll run right out and order that.”
Sarcastic little thing, he thought.
“I will make them for you.”
That seemed to shut her up. She gaped at him, open mouthed and silent as she tried to find a comeback. He was beginning to think her mouth was going to be her best weapon. He watched as she looked back at all the arsenal around her and then set wide eyes back on him.
“You made all of these?” she demanded.
Not asked, demanded. She was damn bold for a supposed slave. He dreaded to think of the kind of trouble she had caused herself because of it. Although all he had to do was look at the collar around her throat that he had mistaken for common jewelry to know the answer. He supposed, though, that was the point of the thing. If it looked like a necklace, no one would question seeing it on her. No one would realize they were walking past someone suffering under bondage. Magnus had since noticed the red chafing around her wrists, and he realized she had probably been chained up during daylight sleeping hours.
“Yes. There is a forge beneath the school. I will show you sometime.”
“Yeah. About that…” She cleared her throat and wiped her hands nervously on the pitiful rag she was wearing as a sari. He’d never realized such a traditionally beautiful fashion could ever manage to look so ugly until he had seen this one. This city had its less fortunate souls, just as all cities did, but even their most impoverished people were finely dressed compared to this outfit. “Look, not that I want to go back where I was, but there’s been some kind of mistake. I mean, surely you can see I’m not handmaiden material.”
He folded his arms over his chest, leaning a hip against the weapons ledge next to him, and took his time perusing her tall, shapely young figure. She was lean and strong, her arms especially well developed for a woman, probably from some kind of hard labor. Her callused, rough hands supported that. She clearly hadn’t owned shoes in years, her feet coarse and dirty, and he’d glimpsed knees just as toughened. He was willing to bet she was sporting a few bruises as well, and not just from her tussle with the guards earlier.
The thought made him frown with dark anger. He owed that guard for hitting her. Oh yes, there’d be penance to pay for that. And if he found out that either of them had tried to mess with her sexually, he was going to have them castrated. He might even let her do it, since she seemed to have a taste for it. He grinned when he thought of the way she had made him aware of just how vulnerable he had left himself to her with the nudge of her foot.
“I see nothing of the kind,” he responded easily, moving away from her in order to search his maintenance drawer for something to cut that damn collar off. Just looking at the thing made him feel surly and jaded toward his own people. He had already sent guards to fetch her miserable relations, though he fully expected they had hightailed it by now. Still, it was daylight for the next few hours, and there was nowhere they could go outside of the city. He would find them. And when he did, they would suffer just as she had.
He’d bet they had been damned shocked when the guards had come to the door offering a bride price for a girl they weren’t supposed to have. Thank Drenna they had persisted. If they had left, he’d hate to think what those two would have been capable of doing in order to cover their tracks. The very idea made his stomach churn with righteous anger.
“B-but…” she stammered, showing insecurity for the first time, “I’m not…I mean, I can’t…I’m rude! A-and coarse.”
“Manners are learned, just like anything else. You are smart enough.”
“No, I’m not!” she argued heatedly, her hands on her hips as she grew angry at the compliment. “I’ve never even been to school!”
Magnus dropped the cutters with a crash and turned to face her.
She smiled smugly, and for a minute he thought she was having him on. Then he realized it was because she thought she had won her point. Which meant she was telling the truth. She had said something similar earlier, but he had thought…
Again, he didn’t have to touch her to know it was the absolute truth, although there was still that urge. Ever since Karri’s betrayal, in fact, he had found it harder and harder to take someone at their word without reaching to touch them in order to verify the truth. However, she understandably didn’t like to be touched, and he had already promised her not to do so without her permission. That would have to change quickly, of course, because priest and handmaiden came into constant contact with each other throughout the course of an ordinary day, but for the time being he was willing to take the time to earn her trust of touch.