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|Rapture(Shadowdwellers #2) by Jacquelyn Frank|
Magnus was wrong, though, when he assumed she had had no sexual education. Not formal, perhaps, but a bar rat got to see more than her share of bawdy behavior between waitresses, customers, and even her own mother. She had seen expert methods of flirtation and temptation, not to mention that last-minute flip of denial. What men liked to call a tease. What they loved to call a tease. They stomped and growled about it, but they always hung around for more.
It wasn’t that she wanted to be that mean or anything, or even that she wanted to play the tease, because frankly she shouldn’t tempt fate when this arrangement was actually beginning to appeal to her a bit more.
“I am very young,” she noted as she moved a little closer to him, because she was enjoying his warmth and because the rich scent of him reminded her so much of a time when big, brawny men had been really nice to her. “Don’t you think it’s unfair to ask me to decide right now what sacrifices I am willing to make for the rest of my life? Especially sacrificing things I have never experienced? Aren’t you concerned that I will always wonder what I’m missing? Aren’t you concerned I won’t abide by your rules and decisions or I will become tired of them?”
Dae couldn’t have realized how close to the raw wound in Magnus’s soul she was striking, but she found out instantly when he grabbed hold of her arms with sudden and barely leashed violence. He drew her up so hard and high against his body that she clacked against him like a loose marionette. Then everything settled and there was only the bruising force of his grip around her and the fast, hot rush of his breath against the right side of her face and neck.
“Oh, yes,” he said softly, his voice so even that she could feel the rage broiling beneath it in each and every breath. “Believe me when I tell you, I have considered this quite a lot. In fact, I agree that you are young and uneducated in some of the ways of the world and that you are in no position to decide loyalties and faith when nothing in your experience seems to have generated either one in your heart. Light, I don’t even know if you believe in our gods.”
Daenaira felt the touch of his lips then, firm and warm and dry against the sensitive edge of her ear. It gave her a queer and powerful chill that coiled in a rapid spiral along the outer edges of her body.
“But,” he continued tightly, “my beloved goddess of Darkness, in her infinite wisdom, has plagued me with visions of a girl with strange red hair and the face and form of a beautiful warrior. She didn’t even wait until that…” He swallowed what he was going to say, and she felt the repressed fury shudder through him. “My previous handmaiden was five minutes from death the first time Drenna showed you to me. She wasted no time at all before driving me all but insane with the need for you. You were Chosen, K’yindara, and not by me. And you considered this fate for a week before you agreed to it. Knowing now what your alternative was, I can only imagine you thought very carefully about it if you considered saying no and risking yourself for a few more years in your relatives’ house.”
“You never asked me a thing!” she gasped.
“I did. I entered Dreamscape while you slept and I found you there. I made my proposal, and you turned me down quite quickly. You made me woo you, my little K’yindara. Every night I came and spoke with you, quelled your concerns and answered your questions. I spoke to your soul, sweet girl, and all but begged you to come to me. Anything. I would have done anything to ease these visions of you as they haunted me in ways I can’t even begin to describe. I know you don’t remember this, and Drenna designs it this way, so now I will have to woo you all over again here in Realscape where it will count just as much. But make no mistake, this was your choice and you have already made it. The price was paid and I doubt you will ever fully realize which of us bled the most for it.”
There was pain. Oh, so very much pain in those last words that Daenaira physically felt it shredding through her. Yet his voice and tone never wavered, never changed. She sensed in that moment that, though their worlds were so vastly different, they were far more similar than it appeared.
“You asked me everything about this before?” she queried softly, unable to resist the urge she had to reach and touch his tension-hardened cheek. She drew back, all but kissing his lips when they slid past so close to hers. She made him look into her eyes and discovered the dark gold of his were filled with what he did not allow his voice to reflect, though she doubted he realized it.
“Not every last thing, but the essentials.” He eased the grip of his hands a little as his anger came under control. “I asked for your unwavering loyalty in return for mine. I asked if you would give all of your faith to this religion and the gods it represents. I asked if you would help ease the path of a man with a life far more difficult than outsiders will ever appreciate, taking on many of those difficulties with just as much responsibility as I do. I asked everything of utmost importance to us both, and you blessed me with your agreement. Your soul is sure, even if your mind is not.”
“And what about my body?” she couldn’t help but counter, even though it wasn’t all that important to her in her present state of mind. However, she had never narrowed her mind to possibilities. “Did you ask me if I was willing to sacrifice the needs of my body? And I do not condemn you by saying this, because I am one of those outsiders who has no idea how difficult a path you travel. However, I am smart enough to realize that people are the most trying creatures on earth, and we drain energy from one another in wasteful useless ways, and that would make those who need that energy from you pay a price. So, you see? I can comprehend your reasons, whether I agree with them or not…and I don’t know either way as yet. But did you ask my soul if I was willing to ignore the needs of a woman for five hundred years?”
Daenaira heard and saw him swallow, and she knew his answer.
He had been too afraid to ask.
“I’m sorry,” he said hoarsely, his voice finally reflecting his emotion. “I should have. I filed it under loyalty and faith, though, and thought I could leave it at that. But I should have known better. Gods…and after everything that…I should have known.”
“All right, then,” she said gently, soothing a thumb over his lips and using her touch to comfort him as she had not done since her mother had died. “Let us say this much then, M’jan Magnus. Let’s say that you have expressed your desires and intentions to me, but at this moment it is merely a suggestion and not a dictate. Believe me,” she added quickly when she felt his jaw lock, “at the moment I have no interest in sexual congress or anything remotely close to it. I clearly will have enough to do as I learn how to be what I agreed to be.
“But it is wrong for you to hand down a dictate to me for the rest of my days as if you were god Herself. You are a man of power and I respect that, but you are not Darkness or Light, you are flesh and bone. Your rights to deny me are only yours on a moment-to-moment basis, and mine to deny you are the same. Just like everybody else. Out of respect, however, I will try to control myself.”
The last she said with amusement dancing in her eyes and twitching at her lips. When Magnus saw it, he pushed her away with a click of his tongue for her teasing, but she saw his lips jerk with a smile in spite of himself.
“Gods, I can see you are going to test me to my limits,” he shot at her, trying to come off sharp but not fooling her in the least.
“I will consider it a part of my daily duties,” she said cheekily.
“Come here,” he said, grabbing her elbow and dragging her back to his room. “Let’s get those damnable cuffs off your feet. Not to insult, but you are in desperate need of a bath and some decent clothing.”
Trace stared at his foster father as though he had completely lost his mind. It was one of those rare instances where the royal vizier couldn’t think of a single diplomatic thing to say. So, because this was his father, Trace went with his knee-jerk response.“Are you fucking kidding me?”
“Ajai Trace,” Magnus warned him, even though they were in the privacy of his office. Respect was an issue that transcended soundproofing.
“I am sorry, M’jan, but you just cut ten feet off of my guts.”
“Well, now you know how I felt when you told me you had gotten Ashla pregnant out of wedlock,” Magnus returned dryly, shuffling aside some papers on his desk but not really seeing what they were. He had dreaded this conversation with his son exactly because of this reaction.
For Trace, the remark about his wife was a low blow, albeit an accurate one. Shadowdweller tradition placed a great deal of shame on those who were thoughtless and sexually careless enough to create a child while having no plans to provide a sound home environment in which to raise it. But to be fair, in his case, there had been extremely extenuating circumstances.
“M’jan, that is hardly fair,” he complained. “I didn’t even know she was real! And I was in the throes of Shadowscape euphoria at the time!”
“Don’t argue with me, Trace, or I might have to remember that you broke the rules and had sex in the women’s dormitories knowing full well it was prohibited. You grew up here. You were practically born knowing it was against temple law. And don’t you still owe me penance for that?”
“So, tell me why you decided to get a new handmaiden.” Trace altered the conversation quickly, his face flushed under his dark skin. “After what Karri did, I’m not sure I like the idea of a woman so close to you. Touching your food, responsible for your health and your battle gear?”
“It isn’t as though I have a choice in these matters,” Magnus returned. He looked up and met his son’s darkly troubled gaze. “I am following Drenna’s wishes in this.”
“Are you sure? Are you sure it’s not M’gnone fucking with you?”
“Trace!” Magnus barked. “Do not speak His name aloud! Gods, what is wrong with you?”
“Nothing.” Trace shrugged. Then, with sarcasm, “I guess after watching the last faithless whore you called a handmaiden poison you, my wife, and my unborn child nearly to death, I kind of have a few trust issues, okay?”
Magnus sat back with a long sigh. “Tell me about it,” he muttered. The priest couldn’t help but remember, as he always did, how Karri had had the gall to poison him and then in the next breath attempt to seduce him while waiting for it to take effect. A small fact of the day his son was not privy to. But the emotional and physical enhancer she had chased her poison with, combined with decades of his hard-won discipline, had worked against her in the end.
But to this very day he couldn’t see what his son had seen those moments before Trace’s blade had cut her throat. For two hundred years he had lived almost every single day at the side of a sweet-natured healer with the face and freckles of an innocent young girl. When he tried to conjure the vindictive and unfaithful harpy who had shouted private, personal information to his son, the Chancellors, and all their company, he simply couldn’t create what he needed.
“On the other hand,” he said slowly to his son, “I could use an ally here. She is not what you might expect, and I don’t think anyone else will easily figure her out. Also, I cannot condemn her for another woman’s crimes. But being new to the temple, and to Sanctuary, she may be just the resource I need to find out once and for all who is behind the sedition I feel slithering through my house.”
Trace watched his father scowl blackly, the thunderous look of anger almost painful to see. Magnus had been betrayed in the worst ways. Trace knew his father’s faith had been shaken to its very core, and he hated to see him this way. Despite his ruthlessness when hunting down Sinners, his father was a forgiving man who loved nothing more than to guide others to better lives through advice, penance, or teaching. Mostly teaching. Trace might have wondered why Magnus had aspired to such a high administrative position when it was clear he wanted to mold the youth of their species more than anything, except he knew his father had a driving need to control those gifts from a level where he would make the most powerful impact. It wasn’t about making himself happy.
It had always been about the care of others over the care of himself. Until recently, he had followed his faith and allowed the woman assigned to him to care for him wherever needed. How hard it must be for him, to be filled with such doubt now. Was he questioning everything he stood for, as he stood there and watched pieces of it decaying out from under him? Trace hoped not. He prayed his father saw quite clearly that the body was sound, that it was only the virus that needed to be destroyed before any more damage could be done.
He wished he could do more to help, but Sanctuary was no longer his home, and he had heavy responsibilities awaiting him elsewhere. He had a family being created; a government to guide as it, too, fought the disease of corruption; and very dear friends who were in just as much turmoil as his father was, which brought him to the original purpose of his visit.
“I heard Tristan came to see you,” he said casually, although he knew his father would never buy the uninterested act. “He is not the religious one between the twins.”
“He is not devout as Chancellor Malaya is, no,” Magnus agreed. “That doesn’t mean he does not have faith.”
“Yes, but…” Trace frowned, knowing how infantile he was going to sound no matter how he put this. Magnus was his father, after all, and he knew him far too well. “You wouldn’t care to tell me what he felt you could provide for him that I, his vizier, could not, would you?”
Hmm. Jealousy? From his son? Magnus was almost amused at the petulance edging Trace’s tone, except he knew the vizier was a supremely confident man who had suffered many difficult trials as he had helped the current regime reach its place of security. Taking that into consideration along with the strange visit from Chancellor Tristan earlier that day, he began to get a sense of the troubles in the upper government that had nothing to do with politics and everything to do with people just being people.