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|Rapture(Shadowdwellers #2) by Jacquelyn Frank|
“Deal. And don’t ever give me a reason not to trust you, K’yindara. I know I don’t feel it yet, but I’m trying, and Darkness help you if you ever betray me for any reason. You don’t know the meaning of the word ‘penance’ until you cross me.”
“Deal.” She gave him a succinct nod.
“And what’s the second thing that would make you bite, K’yindara?”
“If you ask me to, of course.”
“Of course,” Magnus sighed. He stepped back and looked down at her body. “Are you going to get dressed now?”
“Are you?” she countered, impishly eyeing the damage she’d done.
“Yes, brat.” He pushed her away and started for the door.
“Daenaira,” she corrected. “Or Dae. Brat is so passé.”
The information stopped him in his tracks and he looked back at her with an inscrutable look on his face.
“Fine,” he said, continuing into the bath before calling back to her, “and if the wood of my scabbards warps, Daenaira, I’m taking each one across your backside.”
Dae snorted softly at that, not believing it for a minute.
She was so tense he could have snapped her in two.Magnus watched Daenaira out of the corner of his eye because she hadn’t moved from the spot exactly one pace behind him and a little to the right. She had followed him into the dining hall and looked like she wanted to bolt ever since. Well, to him she did. To anyone else she looked quite placid. But placid on Daenaira was just wrong. He had the damp hair to prove it.
When she had dunked him, he had wanted to wring her neck so badly his palms had itched. He’d been ready to blow up, to do everything she was probably expecting him to do, no doubt proving to her that people were the same no matter who and no matter what. Then he had realized that he was supposed to be better than all of that. He was supposed to be gaining her trust. Instead, he was doing exactly like she said, trying to train her like a child that needed to behave. No chains, no electrocution, same intent.
Gods, had he felt like an ass.
Now he had her swimming in the deep end of Sanctuary society when he should have taken it easy on her this first night and dined alone with her in his rooms. He was really racking up points for being a thoughtless idiot today. The idea made him frown. He was supposed to be better than this. It was too late now, though. She had to be introduced to everyone now that some of them had seen her. Besides, he wanted her to have the freedom to walk around Sanctuary unquestioned as soon as possible. She shouldn’t feel confined to her rooms.
Dae stood very still, her eyes on the crowded room as her heart raced at the sheer volume of people. She hadn’t anticipated this. Such a wide array of such beautiful men wearing the violet slacks and tunic of priests, and all those well-heeled women at their elbows in midnight blue. She felt like an imposter. A pretender.
“Well, Magnus, who is this?” one of the handsome men asked, smiling down at her.
She instantly disliked him. Disingenuous and perfect, his smile rang false.
“M’jan Shiloh, this is K’yan Daenaira, my new handmaiden.”
“Drenna has blessed you,” Shiloh said expansively, reaching to seize her hand. She jerked both hands behind herself and stepped closer to Magnus’s back, hating herself for the reaction. “Shy little thing, isn’t she?”
“It’s her first night. I remember being overwhelmed myself,” Magnus said easily. “Dae, this is K’yan Nicoya. She is M’jan Shiloh’s handmaiden.”
Now Nicoya was familiar. Just the surety and superiority of her smile told Dae exactly who she was. All she was missing was the nine-tailed cat. Tall, majestic, and beautiful, she was definitely the queen bitch in charge. Daenaira stayed right where she was, very carefully guarding her tongue and other impulses. She could make enemies just as well later as now. Meanwhile, she let Nicoya think she was as delta as they came.
Things were not looking very promising so far.
“M’jan Cort and K’yan Tiana,” Magnus continued.
Dae never lost track of a single name or face. Nor did she greet anyone differently than the rest, despite how easily she felt she could read most of them. In the end, there were a few she liked, a few she did not, and surprisingly a few she couldn’t get a bead on. One such was the priest named Sagan. He had no handmaiden, and from what she gathered he hadn’t had one for some time, and it was a point of interest to everyone else but the tall, silent man. He had clearly heard it all before and didn’t give a damn what anyone else thought. His idea of greeting her was a cool nod before continuing on his way. She couldn’t decide if he was being rude or if, for the first time, someone had gotten the picture that she wasn’t in the mood to be slathered with social graces.
She didn’t understand the handmaiden named Greta at all. That the veteran handmaiden was hostile toward her was clear. She didn’t even hide it from Magnus, which was probably pretty ballsy. Dae could actually respect that. However, she didn’t care for being judged without having even done anything yet. She liked to earn her contempt the old-fashioned way…by pissing people off.
K’yan Hera was going to be interesting. She was the first woman Dae had ever met of such an advanced age that she actually had developed silver streaks in her black hair and crow’s feet by the corners of her eyes. Dae wondered how old exactly one had to be before they started showing it like that. Had this woman been a handmaiden for every single one of those years? There had to be some kind of retirement plan, didn’t there? But besides her agedness, the human equivalent of nearing fifty as Dae understood it, she had a keen smile and a sparkle in her eyes that gave Daenaira the feeling she had been sized up to perfection at first glance and, thankfully, given a measure of approval. All without a single word spoken or a hand shaken.
One she liked, though, was M’jan Brendan. She quickly realized that he was the closest thing Magnus had to a best friend in this place. The two men came together and for the first time, she felt Magnus’s body relax. He became easy and friendlier. Brendan teased her for hiding.
“Magnus, where’s your katana?” Brendan asked as they were eating at the same table later that evening, lifting a brow in clear surprise to find Magnus’s entire weapons belt missing.
“Being cleaned,” he said without missing a beat.
Daenaira choked on her wine as she tried to swallow a laugh at the same time. Brendan caught the undercurrent but for the life of him couldn’t figure it out. He sprawled back in his seat, relaxed and casual as he eyed the newest handmaiden.
“You surprise me, Magnus. I’ve never seen a priest take another handmaiden so fast. It’s been a year since I lost Nan to Crush, and I still can’t find a replacement.”
“Perhaps you shouldn’t be replacing her. You should be finding a new companion.”
Brendan instantly sat up with surprise and a laugh. “I’ll be damned. She can talk.”
“Only when I have something important to say,” she noted.
Brendan looked to Magnus, who gave him a single-shouldered shrug.
“I see,” Brendan countered, “and you know this after a single evening of being a handmaiden?”
“No.” She paused a beat, just long enough for him to get cocky. “I’m not a handmaiden until I take my vows. I just know this because I am a sensitive woman with a brain. Excuse me.”
She stood up and left the table, keeping her smile hidden until she was out of the dining hall. Once she was out of sight, she breathed a sigh of relief to be hidden from so many staring, contemplating gazes. Dae had paid careful attention to the route they had taken to the dining hall, and she moved quickly to backtrack. She didn’t know where the more public bathrooms were, so her only choices were to go back into that organized chaos and ask someone for help or to just go back to her room.
It was probably silly for her to practice avoidance. After all, she had grown up in a full and rowdy crowd far more dangerous than this one. It had just been a few years since she had been with so many people.
She was on the stairwell when suddenly there was a flash of brilliant and burning light. She screamed, terrified as any ’Dweller would be, as she was scalded and blinded. The burn was sharp and quick and then gone. A strobe of some kind. Her heart was pounding as she stumbled back down to the last landing, trying to keep her footing and hear what was happening around her. How far was she from the hall? With all those people in it, if she screamed for him, would Magnus hear her? Their senses were keen, but this was stone, earth and sheets of marble in her way.
She heard a step behind her almost too late. She threw her back to the wall as a fist blew past her, glancing off her already bruised cheek, which pissed her off mightily. Dae heard cloth as the punch overshot, and she reacted, in an automatic lock of her muscle and bone, trapping the arm to her body. Now she was completely oriented to her attacker, although not knowing their height would throw her off for a moment. She wasn’t certain, but she thought it was a woman. A beefy woman or a lean man, she was too blind to tell. She went for the gut, the closest and surest target. She launched herself upward as she yanked down on the arm she held. Her knee hit badly for both of them. She bit back a curse and took satisfaction in the stagger and groan of her opponent.
Right up until she was grabbed from behind, her head nearly wrenched off her neck. Now this was a man, she knew, the sheer strength of him yanking her up off her feet and a wall of muscle against her back. Then she was thrown down onto the floor.
“Keep watch!” he growled, purposely roughing up his voice, she knew. She struggled to figure out where his legs were, desperate to orient herself to his body as his hand closed around her windpipe. He said nothing else, and didn’t have to. She felt him shove at her skirts, the damn dress making his plans so easy it infuriated her. She kicked out, clawed out, but made no purchase. He was sighted, pinning her, and too quick.
Tired of fighting her flailing legs, he rolled her over as he bared her backside to the cool stairwell air.
Not while I’m conscious, she thought viciously.
Turning her had forced him to relinquish his grasp on her throat, and she could breathe. She sucked in air and tried to think. She felt his weight then, heavy and oppressive, and hot flesh pressing to her below the waist.
Thanks, asshole, that’s all I wanted.
She shot her hand back, grabbed a handful of whatever she could, and twisted mercilessly. His scream was absolute nirvana. When she didn’t let go, digging her nails in to boot, his partner jumped in and kicked her in the head.
Stunned, she rolled on the floor until she suddenly dropped off the landing and down the next set of stairs. She all but threw herself into the tumble, not even stopping to get a breath when she hit the next landing. She stumbled for the door, shoving through it and onto the dining hall floor.
Brendan was gaping, he knew, as the not-so-shy girl exited the room.“Boy, she’s got you pegged,” Magnus remarked, pausing in his meal to grin at his friend.
“Yeah, huh? I think I’m jealous.”
“No, you’re not,” Magnus returned calmly, although Brendan knew there was nothing calm about it. It was a warning, plain and simple. It made Brendan frown. The Magnus he knew would never have been that insecure. It infuriated him, thinking of how screwed up everything had gotten with Karri. Poison! The idea of a man like Magnus being left to die that way! It was unconscionable. The man was a warrior and should die as a warrior, not at the deceitful hand of the one woman he had trusted the most.
“Probably not,” he agreed. “I like them a little more on the loyal and bubble-headed side. Like Nan was.”
“Nan was a fantastic lady. Darkness keep her safe.”
“I know. And I miss her like hell.” Brendan shed the emotions that came with the thought by smiling. “Especially around bath time.”
“Bren.” Magnus chuckled.
“Well, she had a way with a sponge,” he said unrepentantly.
“Keep it up, I’ll have you doing penance for besmirching the dead.”
Brendan wisely changed tack, although he went for the throat when he did. “How do you feel about Daenaira?”
Magnus knew Brendan was just about the only one who would have dared ask the question. He supposed it needed asking, though. “I’ll let you know when I know her for longer than five seconds.”
“You don’t even have a feel for her yet? Where’d she come from? She’s not a student here. I would remember, err, her attributes.”
“Bad edit, my friend,” Magnus warned him. “A little respect, please.”
“You’re right. Sorry. But, uh, I was talking about her hair color, my friend,” Brendan said with amusement.
Magnus looked up in surprise. Brendan had a huge grin on his face, enjoying having his trap walked into so neatly. Magnus had no choice but to smile a bit sheepishly. “Yeah. She’s got quite the, uh…”
“Hair color,” Brendan added helpfully.
Both men chuckled.
Brendan watched his friend freeze for three of the longest heartbeats on record, and then they were both on their feet and running. Magnus touched his hip as he ran, but there was no weapon there. Brendan grabbed for his backup, a Lithe dagger, and slapped it into the other priest’s palm. They both tore down the hall toward the main stairwell, hoping to Drenna that she called out again because everything split off from there. Then Magnus came up short.
“No. She doesn’t know this way. She wouldn’t wander.”
He doubled back, cursing himself for not thinking straight. It was only another corridor to the back stairs, but it seemed like miles as his heart raced with dread and worse.