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|Rapture(Shadowdwellers #2) by Jacquelyn Frank|
“How old are you?” he heard himself asking.
Gods. She was a child after all. Yet there was cold maturity in her eyes, and it probably just felt that way because he was…what? Fifteen times her age?
“Can you read?”
“Of course,” she scoffed.
“Yes,” she sighed impatiently. “My mum taught me. I have street smarts, just no real book smarts. I never came to Sanctuary before today.”
“No. You were a slave before you came of age to go to school,” he realized. Shadowdweller children were home-schooled until they came to Sanctuary for lessons at age thirteen.
That also meant she had never had any sexual instruction. At least, not the formal instruction every ’Dweller had when they came to Sanctuary. Their culture believed everyone should be taught in the ways and pleasures of the body, unlike humans, for instance, who kicked their awkward birds out of the nest to learn the hard way. This meant that, for K’yindara, anything she had learned had been likely done by back alley or by force.
Magnus had to turn away from her at the thought before she could see the rage in his eyes. Light, he couldn’t remember a time when he had been so easily enraged. He knew it had something to do with his previous handmaiden’s deceptions and the way the shock of her betrayal had struck him so very low, and that ever since then his emotions had been a stormy sea of unpredictability. However, he had been a priest of Darkness and Light for nearly his entire life, and he had spent centuries learning tolerance and forgiveness. He could overcome this jaded rush to fury he constantly felt.
“Are you a virgin?” he asked, grabbing the cutters and turning to face the shock on her half-swollen features. Despite her injuries, however, he already knew how pretty she was. He had seen her face over and over again these past weeks.
“I’m not answering that.”
“Why not? It’s a logical question. You had no formal education, so no sexual education, and you’ve been locked away since you were twelve. I am only wondering if your uncle got to you, or perhaps someone else.” Though he doubted it, considering how hard and dirty she liked to fight. Still, as she had noted, there were always other ways.
And that was when he realized why she was being so defensive, why he could all but smell her anger and fear rising hand in hand.
She didn’t know.
“You’re not sure, are you?” he asked gently as he came close to her and showed her the cutters. She picked up her blood-black hair and hesitantly turned her back to him, watching him cautiously over her shoulder. “You think it’s possible you were violated while you were insensate.”
She was silent, and he saw her wince as he worked the cutters under the tight collar. With one strong squeeze, the cursed thing snapped off. But not before the broken circuit sent feedback through them both. She cried out and he cursed, but the necklace dropped to the floor destroyed. Magnus tossed down the cutters and quickly touched his fingertips to the slender length of her throat.
“Bituth amec,” he hissed softly when he saw the blackened, burned skin that had been hidden under the collar. Yes, as a Shadowdweller she would heal quickly, except perhaps for a scar, but that didn’t make this any less savage to him. “I have a salve for this. It will numb and heal. It will be gone by tomorrow evening.”
“Thank you,” she said awkwardly, trying to brush his touch away. However, Magnus caught her fingers in his and squeezed as he turned her around to look at him. There was vulnerability hiding in those tough, angry eyes of hers.
“Answer me. Do you feel it was possible that someone was with your body sexually while you were unconscious?”
“I’m not sure. I always thought I would be able to feel that, but we heal so quickly I—I’m not sure. I never came up pregnant and I was just thankful for that. Counted my blessings.”
Magnus knew it was the truth because he had compelled it from her. In this, he couldn’t be ignorant. He had used his power to hear her confess what she didn’t want to talk about, and he was sorry he had to, but it was better for her if they spoke of it now.
“No one will do that to you here, K’yindara,” he assured her softly. “If they try, they will answer to me, and trust me when I say people avoid having to answer to me.” He gave her a wry smile. “Provided they survive answering to you first, of course.”
That made her shoot him a sly smile, her quick eyes appraising him as though she were trying to figure out if he was all right. Magnus could see she wanted to believe him, but life had taught her to do otherwise. Then something occurred to her and she jerked her hand angrily out of his before stepping back from him. She was cornered, so she banged into a cabinet.
“That’s total lying bullshit!” she hissed at him. “You said I’m a handmaiden! Handmaidens are supposed to have sex with the priests.” She made a snarling sound, like a furious animal. “Oh, I get it. You’re making nice to me so when you’re in the mood later I won’t say no! Well, forget it! No, in advance! Prick bastard!”
She shoved away from her corner and stormed out of his room, but he quickly caught up with her in the bath and snagged her arm. He had to react swiftly, though, when she whipped around to hit him. He caught her hand tightly before it struck his face, and then he jerked her up tight to his body and went face-to-face with her as he tried not to feel the sickness racing through his guts in the form of dread.
This is where it had all gone wrong before.
“No. No!” he said through his teeth, giving her a hard shake to get her attention. “First of all, no one here has to have sex with anyone. I could be your priest for five hundred years and you could say no to me every minute of every day of those years and I would have to abide by that. Do you understand?”
She made a huff of disbelief. Then she quietly studied him, those sly, sultry dark eyes of hers narrowing on him as she tried to pick out lies and deceit in him.
“But that would mean you couldn’t have sex for five hundred years. I’m the only one you’d be allowed to screw around with, and if I say no, then you get nothing. For five hundred years?” She snuffled out that adorably sarcastic laugh of hers, and he would have smiled if he weren’t dreading every inch of this conversation.
“That’s right,” he agreed tightly.
“That’s faith and religious law,” he countered sharply. “I do not pay lip service to my faith alone. I am, you will find, an extremely devout man. I did not become leader of this religious house because I liked to fudge the rules. I am here because I do not tolerate insubordination and sin from my followers. I can only tolerate it from those who have not taken religious orders. I will forgive—I am always open to those who genuinely repent for their sins—but I will not forgive easily and forgiveness is not achieved easily. People here work very hard for the pleasure of Darkness and the respect of Light. Those who don’t or who seek short cuts around the rules pay a mighty price for inciting my disapproval.”
The resonance of his voice was terrible, he knew. The power of his tone was one of his greatest tools, sometimes a stunning weapon. He could tell it was working as she stared at him with open surprise and wonder. And now, for the kicker.
“Now realize this, K’yindara, because it is so dire that you understand me. Are you listening?” He only continued when he saw her nod. “Good, because I want you to seriously think about what it means should that scenario happen in reverse. Five hundred years, K’yindara, with no sexual congress of any kind with any other man if I tell you I don’t wish to be with you. That means no sexual intercourse with anyone other than yourself for the rest of your natural life, because it is as much my right to say no for whatever reasons as it is yours.”
“Men don’t ever not want sex,” she observed meanly.
He should have waited, he thought with hollow realization. This was better done after some familiarity had grown between them. Some faith and some trust. However, it was becoming clear to him that his private life was already food for gossip in his own house. What he had once thought was between himself and a woman he had trusted for two centuries, was now spread as far and wide as it wanted to be…and probably inaccurately and for all the wrong reasons. This undermining of his strength and his position, he realized now, was the reason why there were traitors in Sanctuary.
“K’yindara, listen to me,” he said with a soft sort of warning he knew she would understand the seriousness of. He swallowed back all the residual dread and interfering flotsam of his mind. “I never had sexual relations with my previous handmaiden. There was never anything between us except for…the warmth and affection of a brother and his sister.” He all but choked on the description he had stupidly and blindly believed until six weeks ago.
Gods, he didn’t want to do this. He didn’t want to have another handmaiden. Not yet. He was too damn raw still. It was unfair to her and doubly so to himself.
But Drenna would not be denied. His goddess had plagued him relentlessly with visions of his new religious wife, driving him to distraction and making it impossible for him to do what it was that needed to be done to ferret out the corruption in Sanctuary. When Darkness had begun to show him dire danger and death cut across the face of his young maiden, he’d had no choice but to begin wooing her. He had stepped into Dreamscape, found her, and invited her to be his. K’yindara wouldn’t remember it, but she had agreed wholly and with an almost fierce enthusiasm.
“Wait. She didn’t let you touch her for two centuries, and you were okay with that?” Again, he saw her cynical disbelief. But even though she wasn’t the one with the power of truth, he was going to make a believer out of her.
“I would have been,” he said, meeting her eyes without so much as blinking, “but it wasn’t she who denied me, rather than it was me denying her.”
This was the second time he had made her gape-mouthed speechless, and he had expected something like this. He had been less than precise with Karri when he had explained his reasons for his self-denial, feeling it was a private issue and choice, the one thing he shouldn’t be required to share with anyone but himself and his goddess. It had led to disaster. This time, he was going to make it very clear so there were no surprises.
“Do not mistake me, K’yindara. I am a man with all the emotions and drives you might accuse me of, but I am also a being of higher reasoning and control. Lovemaking and sexual pleasures are quite beautiful and have a rich place in our lifestyles. There is no reason to shame such relations, or to fear them, when the right respect and admiration is involved. You would have learned all this had you been schooled. You would still be in school learning, come to think of it, at your tender age.
“But a long time ago, I made a personal choice not to bring the complications and extreme emotions of sexual relations into my relationship with my handmaiden. It was my belief that we are here to serve others more than ourselves. After hearing so many maidens and priests confessing to me in private of the troubles in their relationships with their religious partners, I had to ask myself how they managed to function clearly and selflessly through the night when they were obsessing over their home life. We are supposed to be different. Not a lot, but just enough above our followers to keep things clear in our minds and to focus on how to show them the best way through their lives. We are religious guides and mentors and fulfill dozens of crucial roles in this society. We haven’t the luxury of splitting focus or energy into selfish pleasures like sex.
“If it truly could be just about the physical release, then it might have a place, but it is impossible for two people to share such intimacy and then deny all the understandable emotion that comes with it. It is simply better, to my mind, to never cross the line in the first place. This way, no one has expectations, disappointments, or is hurt in any way, and focus can remain where it should be; on the well-being of Sanctuary and those who come here and need us.”
“And what about the natural needs of the body?” she asked him, her eyes narrowed in utter fascination.
“Masturbation,” he replied frankly. “A fair enough substitute.”
She nodded slowly, but he knew it wasn’t an agreement so much as it was her way of absorbing the information. “I see,” she said quietly. She stepped back, her mind obviously churning as she looked him over slowly. Actually, there was something discomforting in the way she assessed him. Magnus didn’t know why exactly, but it was as though she were pulling him apart by pieces with just the power of her mind. Then she came forward again, reaching out her hand, but hesitating with her fingertips only an inch from touching his stomach.
“May I touch you?” she asked, cocking up a thinly arched brow, a small smile teasing the corner of her mouth.
Magnus was shocked by the rigid scream of denial that locked through his entire body just then. It was so powerful it all but took his breath away. He furiously shook the weakness off, savagely wrenching control of himself back in hand.
I am in control of this, he told himself tightly. That faithless little liar will not have this victory over me! She will not own a single moment of triumph over me for what she has done.
“Of course,” he said, his voice even and calm.
She moved forward, her fingertips sliding over the smooth textured fabric of his shirt, the warmth of her touch quickly radiating beneath it and his next shirt.
Magnus knew the minute her palm came flush against him that he had just made a critical mistake.
“A handmaiden,” Daenaira said speculatively, “bathes her priest, I was told. She dresses him, undresses him, and tends his body and his wounds. She is a maid and a squire, seeing to all of his needs as a domestic wife and an assistant would, freeing him to fight for their beliefs and their people. My mother told me this. She said it sounded so romantic.”Dae smiled a little, taking a moment to feel the textures of his shirt, but more importantly to marvel over the absolute hardness of the rippled muscles beneath. He was very warm, almost hot, she could say. He radiated strong heat from even stronger muscles that processed energy and motion at peak efficiency. For male attributes, they were surprisingly appealing.