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|Rapture(Shadowdwellers #2) by Jacquelyn Frank|
“Now, you know that anything Tristan says to me in temple remains in confidence.”
“Drenna! M’jan, I can’t accept that!”
Trace lurched to his feet and began to pace, not realizing and clearly not caring when the painstakingly crafted wooden scabbard of his new katana smacked hard against the chair he had abandoned. On principle Magnus should have laid into him for that, but he forgave him when he saw how agitated he really was. His son’s well-being would always be more important to him than the gifts he had given him.
“You know you have to, otherwise you wouldn’t be so angry. And you knew what I was going to say.” Magnus rose to his feet and rounded his desk, stopping to lean back against it as he watched Trace pace. “So it begs the question, ‘Why did you come here’?”
His son frowned, stopping still and running a hand through his short black hair. He had never liked to wear it in the long tradition as so many men did. The quirk made Magnus smile softly.
“Is it Tristan’s behavior that is really bothering you? Or perhaps you are finding your new life as a husband and father-to-be more stressful than expected?”
“Hey, Ashla is an angel,” he snapped defensively, pointing rudely at his father, “and don’t you suggest otherwise.”
“I wasn’t. I was asking about how you were handling it, not how she was contributing to it.”
But Magnus suspected therein lay the problem. Something that his son confirmed only after a minute of silence.
“M’jan, she is tying me into knots,” he confessed in a rushed whisper, as if it was wrong for him to even think it. “She is constantly sick from the baby, and you know how thin she was to begin with, and I feel like I’m watching her get the life sucked out of her all over again. I feel like…” Trace swallowed. “You’re right to lecture me for being an irresponsible ass. She is too frail to be pregnant. It should have waited. For more than one reason. She has the confidence of a whipped puppy half the time, and she cries, completely convinced she is not going to be good enough to be a mother. She is terrified she won’t be healthy enough to carry to term or that because she is a half-breed of human and Shadowdweller, something will be wrong with the baby. She thinks because her mother was such a twisted nightmare, she won’t know the right way to love the baby.” Trace looked up with incredible angst and fear in his dark eyes, taking his father’s breath away.
Gods, his son loved this woman.
For the priest, it was the most amazing transformation he had ever seen in his life. This alone was what had helped him to maintain his faith in the twisting mess that the world had become so recently. But watching his son transform from a victim of torture who couldn’t bear the touch of a woman, to a man in love who couldn’t live without the woman who had stolen his heart, was enough to prove that all things happened for a reason. Even the deception of a handmaiden whose acts of treachery had forced Trace to see and admit to the feelings he had developed for a pale, blond half-breed girl who needed him just as badly.
“Son, she is breeding. You cannot attach too much rationality to feelings that are being exacerbated by hormonal fluxes. Not that you shouldn’t find them genuine, but they will seem so much sharper to her than they realistically should. As to her health…”
That was a separate issue. All of the healers in Shadowdweller society were—like all the teachers—priests and handmaidens. Without knowing who had been tainted by the foulness permeating his house, neither Magnus nor Trace could find it in himself to trust anyone with the care of a woman and child of great importance to a priest who had clearly been marked for a fall.
Which made him incredibly glad that his new handmaiden was clearly a scrapper. He had been terrified of making an innocent girl vulnerable to the vipers hidden around them both, and he had resisted it as long as possible, but as he had told her, in the end he’d had no choice in the matter. Now he was struggling with how much to tell her to keep her safe, and how much not to tell her to keep her safe. He had already gotten the sense that she was people savvy enough to watch herself very carefully, and she wasn’t going to trust anyone lightly…
But he wanted her to trust him. And more importantly, he wanted to be able to trust her. Drenna, he wanted that more than anything. It was bad enough that his existing relationships were crumbling down around him because of his shattered ability to trust. He needed to reclaim himself. He needed desperately to nullify Karri’s collateral damage.
Most of all, he needed to find the miserable bituth amec who had twisted Karri away from him in the first place.
Magnus could only hope that, in the end, he wouldn’t discover that he was looking for himself. Karri had blamed him with her last breath for turning her against him, citing rejection and loneliness and who knew what else because she had grown tired of her celibate life. Honestly, he couldn’t blame her at all for the needs of her carnal self. He was no more immune to them than she had been. The difference was, he had given precedence to his work and the followers he guided and it had all seemed worthwhile to him. Karri had not found that same satisfaction of the spirit, and instead of being honest with him about it and giving him a chance to resolve the issue, she had pretended as if nothing at all were bothering her or hurting her.
She had lost faith in him.
Then she had turned on him.
“Ashla is herself a healer, Trace. You have to trust her body to care for itself the same way it cared for you and for me when we were ill. The sickness will hopefully pass soon, and then you and I and the entire royal household will no doubt stuff her with good things until she is as fat and round as K’yan Julie was when you were young.”
The reference made his son chuckle in memory of one of his favorite handmaidens. It served to remind them both that there really were very good women in Sanctuary, and they shouldn’t condemn them all for the acts of one. But caution was regretfully necessary now. Two attempts on Trace’s life, one on his own, and Karri’s aborted attempt to kill Chancellor Malaya had seen to that. That was to say nothing of damage like what Ashla had gone through. The little half-breed healer took on the properties of the illnesses she healed before her body purged them, and her delicate constitution had made that a dicey trick on more than one occasion. She was now prohibited from doing any healing until the baby came.
Magnus smiled softly, catching his son’s curiosity.
“My granddaughter,” he said in answer to the unspoken query. “She will be my first grandchild, and I am eager to begin training her for religious duty.”
He was teasing, and it was obvious, so Trace chuckled.
“I think she will be more inclined to politics,” he informed his father.
“Hmm. I suppose we will have to wait and see.”
“I suppose so.”
Trace was no fool. He knew the sound of a gauntlet hitting the floor when he heard it.
Daenaira inspected herself in the floor-length mirror very carefully.For the fifth time.
“Light, you’re a vain bitch,” she muttered to herself.
In actuality it was more about never having put on a new, tailored sari before. When you wore a rag, it didn’t really matter what it looked like. However, she had been given a brand new midnight blue sari, the uniform of a handmaiden. It was made of a beautiful and fine velvet that gleamed against every curve of her body before draping over her shoulder. The long-sleeved blouse she wore with it ended just beneath her breasts, hugging her snugly every inch of the way. The low scoop of the neckline wasn’t exactly shy about cleavage either, especially considering she had a pretty generous amount to work with.
The underskirt holding the pleats of the sari was gossamer soft, brushing against her legs like delicate air and making her wince whenever it caught against the rough calluses of her knees. She would have to see if she could find a cream to help ease and soften the rough places on her body. She was highly aware of their ugliness, and the other handmaidens she had peeked out at now and then were all so soft and beautiful and feminine. Their hair shone, where hers was dull and stripped from the harsh soap she had been forced to use. To hide it, she had tightly plaited the mess and curled it into a cobra knot on the top of her head. Those other women had no flaws or bruising that she could see, and even those who forwent slippers to go barefoot had the prettiest and smoothest feet Dae had ever seen. They also wore black kohl to outline their dark, lovely eyes. She hadn’t tried to use eyeliner since she’d gotten into her mother’s at age ten and had made quite a mess of herself.
On the vanity there was a pretty new pot of the stuff and an application brush as well, but she was afraid she wouldn’t do it right and would look foolish. Twice as foolish, she thought grimly as she touched the scarring and burns at her throat. She had a feeling they would always be there, for the rest of her days, always reminding her of exactly where she had come from. She had seen some of the women wearing jewelry, so she would probably be able to cover it up with something one day. But ornamentation cost money, and she didn’t think handmaidens got paid for their work. They were paid in the things they needed, and those needs were provided quite lavishly. Every single touch in her rooms and her small new wardrobe was finely done and generous, but not in the least vulgar. The only actual gold and precious elements she had seen so far had been artistically inlaid into the pommels and scabbards of the weapons collection of her priest.
And what a priest!
The great and venerable M’jan Magnus, spiritual leader of all Shadowdwellers and, most especially, the twin Chancellors who now ruled over them. The mighty and terrible Magnus of whom she’d heard frightening tales from her spot on the bar rail. Tales of unrepentant Sinners and a ’Dweller priest, deadly and devoted, hunting them down and gutting them. Warriors of all clans had feared the wrath of Magnus. Others had marveled over his skill when they had seen him in actual battle. She remembered hearing such amazingly varied accounts of him; it was as though he were a myth, not a true being.
Well, he was real enough. She had felt the reality of him on every level available to her at the time. He was more volatile in temperament than she would have imagined for one so wise and experienced. She also knew better than to poke a stick at a cranky bear, so she would try and tread carefully until she figured things out a little.
On the whole, she had to look at this whole thing as a decided improvement. Warm room, new clothes, no chains and no zapping. She still wasn’t certain it wasn’t just a prettier form of slavery, but she believed what he had said to her about Dreamscape, and she had been comforted by the way he had apologized to her and relented about his heavy-handed dictates. It wasn’t the topic she took issue with, she just didn’t want him thinking he could make unilateral decisions and she would step in line like some—well, a slave. Dae was well aware that she only had as much power in this place as that man allowed her to have. However, the trick would be in the way she made him want to manage her. This could quickly degrade into anger and fear and some vicious fights if either of them wasn’t careful with the other. She could sense quite easily he didn’t trust her any more than she trusted him. For the moment, though, they had both decided to trust each other enough to give this thing a test run.
Magnus cleared his throat and nearly made her jump out of her skin. She turned with a gasp to look at him. How in Light was he able to sneak up on her like that? Better yet, was he willing to teach it to her? All ’Dwellers had remarkable hearing, as well as a bevy of other keen senses. To fool them was an amazing trick, one she absolutely had to learn for herself.
“You look very nice,” he complimented her evenly. “The blouse seems to fit.”
“It’s a bit snug,” she corrected wryly, smoothing a self-conscious hand over her breasts, making certain the sari draped to hide the lush swell of her cleavage.
“It’s supposed to be snug. A woman’s body is one of the most beautiful things we have on this planet. Do you know what the sari represents in our culture?” When she silently shook her head, Magnus continued. “Traditionally, it was to do the two most important things every woman should receive. The underclothing is sheer and snug, flattering the shape and displaying lovely charms that deserve to be shown proudly. The sari is meant to protect those charms, while at the same time symbolizing that every woman should always be draped in comfort, protection, and a fine cloak of queenly grace.”
Magnus slipped around behind her and looked into the mirror with her. He met her eyes even as he reached around her to smooth the sari back into its natural fall, instead of hiding her. It brought the heat of his big body cradled up against her back, brushing her as he moved and somehow making her very aware of his fingertips traveling across her breast as he followed the drape of the sari to her shoulder. In a way, he was almost embracing her, with his arm crossing over her like that. Daenaira felt suddenly trapped by all of that strength and ominous power, her skin rippling with chills and heat in turn as she broke from him and turned around, bumping back into the cold wall mirror as she crossed her arms over her bare midriff under the sari.
Magnus looked at her, his golden eyes looking puzzled for a moment. Then understanding seemed to dawn as she heard him swear softly under his breath.
“I’m sorry. I promised I wouldn’t do that and I keep breaking that promise. I hope you can forgive me if I tell you…”
No. He couldn’t tell her about the familiarity of his visions of her. Visions were just possibilities; he knew that even though he had never had them before six weeks ago. It was as though Karri poisoning him had unlocked some kind of shuttered door within him, and now everything was rushing to show itself to him. She was rushing to show herself to him. But Chancellor Malaya was a true precognitive, and he had seen her struggle, from an up-close perspective, with comprehension of the things she saw in her mind over the years. They could be tricky, taunting things, visions. They were always truth, but it was often imagery of truth and other unreadable or unreliable representations.