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|Rapture(Shadowdwellers #2) by Jacquelyn Frank|
She had known penance priests like Magnus were all but undefeatable, but knowing and seeing were two separate things. In the training hall he was a thing of deadly and brilliant beauty. He never went all out while in class, but even as he slowly walked his students through every movement, explaining the why and the where of it, it was mesmerizing to watch the fluid control he had at his command. He could fly while his students were barely learning to crawl, and it showed. But it was his patience that had really impressed her in the end. Not just with his students, but with her.
He went out of his way to carefully respect her dictate to keep his distance. He never lost his temper with her, no matter how much she snubbed him or ignored him, so long as she never disrespected him in front of others, which she would never do. He deserved her anger, not her scathing disrespect. Not when the damage it could do would touch far deeper beyond just him.
Dae was nervous as they emerged from Sanctuary for the first time since she’d gotten in that fight with Killian and his men. The memory made her smile now because, after learning what a rascal Killian was, she knew it had served him right. He’d been showing off having sex with one woman, and within an hour had been sniffing after another. Casual sex was one thing, but that was just so wrong somehow. Well, to her it was. She realized that there were large groups of their society that lived completely unreserved sex lives. There were very simple rules. No one gets pregnant and no one gets hurt—hurt encompassing sex without permission to sex by deception. All were considered dishonorable and, like all other rules, when these were broken, they came with a price of penance to pay.
She realized Magnus looked on her treatment of him as a penance he had to pay for his confusing and hurtful behavior, and that if he was just patient enough, he could reach the end of his punishment and life would go on for the better. But he was forgetting that punishment was not the goal of penance, something she found ironic, actually. Penance was meant to be a deterrent for future repetition of the flawed behavior.
She did not have much faith that he understood just how and why what he had done was so wrong. For someone so wise, he was having a hard time seeing the big picture. He had intended to fit her into his life, a silhouette trimmed to perfect dimensions before being placed over the picture of his last handmaiden. Life and people just never worked that way. People and relationships were inconvenient. That’s just the way it was. Sectioning himself off to minimize that inconvenience just proved how out of touch with that Magnus really was. He didn’t want to get messy? Well, life was messy. She was messy. And she wasn’t in the mood to be shaped into a tidier version of herself. She would grow and she would change naturally, but not unnaturally.
Fuck him if he didn’t like it. He could just stay all tidy by himself. He could try to trim the fat to make Sanctuary perfect, thinking he could just snip off a few threads and that would fix the tear running through it, but it wasn’t going to work that way. Not that she believed he didn’t know how to work hard to achieve a goal, but simply that he was still struggling with denial of how bad things really were because he was much too close and too personally invested.
Dae felt bad for him when she realized that. The pressure he was under had to be incredible. She knew he wasn’t the type to confide in others easily, and probably less so now in the face of finding traitors in the ranks, so she worried at what kind of weight must be lying oppressively over him. She had even felt guilty when, during religious instruction, Hera had explained so soundly why the dynamic of priest and handmaiden was crucial when it came to the handmaiden relieving her priest of as many mortal worries as possible. Without her, Magnus had no one to help relieve his burdens. Especially because he was at the top of the food chain here. One sign of weakness and there were others like that slimy Shiloh snapping at his heels for his position.
She had never been to the palace before, so Daenaira was a bit overwhelmed at their arrival as its large, shadowy beauty loomed up all around her. It was opulent and artistic, cool and beautiful. The urge to drop behind him was thwarted by Magnus when he slowed his step to match hers, keeping her by his side. He didn’t look at her or comment, but she knew he was aware of her sudden intimidation. His silent actions, however, made it clear that she would get to be as equal to him as she had demanded, whether she liked it or not.
Magnus knew his way and had absolute freedom to pass the intense security she saw everywhere. She, however, was not looked on without heavy suspicion. The legacy, she realized, of his previous handmaiden.
Magnus entered Tristan’s rooms without hesitation, knowing the monarch was waiting for him. He realized immediately that the exterior sitting room was empty, leaving the bedroom and bath for choice. He listened for a moment, then walked to the bedroom and tapped at the door.
“Yes, Magnus,” Tristan bid him impatiently.
The priest entered, and just the thickness of the air in the room told him a couple of key things. First, Tristan’s tension was at an all-time high. Second, the Chancellor had spent quite a few hours trying to purge himself of that tension in his usual way, in the body of a willing female.
Magnus swept his eyes over the room, pausing on Xenia, the Chancellor’s impenetrable bodyguard, who stood leaning back against a wall looking deceptively bored, her arms crossed over her armored breasts. Then he found Tristan in his bed, thankfully alone at the moment, but clearly naked beneath the careless cover of a single sheet.
A cover that disappeared a minute later as Tristan got to his feet and walked across the room to the bathroom.
“I called for you an hour ago, Magnus,” he said irritably as he passed his newly arrived guests along his route.
“Certainly enough time to dress yourself, M’itisume,” Magnus returned tightly as he glanced at Daenaira. She was standing steadily and outwardly unaffected. She would never show the fact that she was not used to the utterly uninhibited way of living the royals were used to. They lived with twenty-four-hour guards and servants who had long ago eradicated a sense of modesty or privacy from them.
“Hmm?” Tristan reappeared, the point lost on him in an instant as his thoughts crowded it out as unimportant. “I do not often call for you, M’jan, I realize, but rarely would you make my sister wait so long.”
“Then consider this the rare occasion, M’itisume. I had a pressing issue to handle before I could attend you.”
This time Magnus heard Dae react. With a soft indrawn breath, she realized he had put off the leader of their society just so he could brush her hair. To her credit, she recovered quickly from her surprise and redrew her expression of neutrality.
Tristan sighed, rubbing at the back of his neck as he reached for his robe.
“Of course. Forgive, M’jan. I know whatever it was must have been important to you.”
“Yes,” he replied carefully. “It was very important to me.” He cleared his throat for segue. “M’itisume, I do not believe you have met K’yan Daenaira as yet. She is my handmaiden.”
Not new handmaiden, just handmaiden. The lack of distinction was, to Dae, in and of itself a distinction. It was the first time he had not tacked “new” in front of the description, and for some reason it pleased her a great deal. Meanwhile Tristan turned with surprise as he closed his robe, noticing her for the first time, apparently.
“No, I have not. Greetings, K’yan.”
“M’itisume,” she greeted him with a heart-touched bow of respect. And that was about the end of her abilities in royal protocol! She hoped to Drenna she wasn’t asked to do anything else other than stand there!
“Killian told me you had joined with a new handmaiden, Magnus. She is every bit as lovely as she has to be to get Ajai Killian in so much trouble. Women, you see,” he directed to Dae, “are my head guard’s favorite pastime.”
“Unlike yourself, of course, M’itisume,” she responded with a sly smile. And the instant she said it she recalled who she was talking to and her eyes shot to Magnus in despair.
But Tristan laughed out loud, his bodyguard chuckling in the background. “Damn me, I must do something about my reputation,” he noted with amusement, his jet eyes glistening with humor. “I like her, Magnus. No shy little miss, this one. Honest. Speaks her mind. We could use more of that around here.”
“Speaking of,” Magnus said, “was there something on your mind, Tristan?”
“Yes,” he sighed, striking a hand back through the sleek black curls of his shoulder-length hair, “back to business, right?” He frowned, the expression creasing his handsome face so deeply that, for the first time, Daenaira became aware of the scar flawing his left temple near his brow. “M’jan, I believe my worst fears are about to come to pass.”
“Worst?” Magnus quantified, a raised brow marking his opinion of the monarch’s drama.
“Well, damn near bad as!” he exploded in sudden temper. “You and I both know they are just doing this to destroy this house! Enacting some archaic law over us! And me, knowing about it since I was warned at the end of the last Senate session, and I still haven’t grown the spine to tell her! Every time we walk in the Senate I am terrified that this will be the night. It’s getting to the point where I—I can’t make myself walk outside of this room. I know it is childish and cowardly, but she will not go without me, and they will not bring it up without us both being there.”
“M’itisume, allow me to tell her. We have discussed this before. I am as close to your sister as you are, in the sense of her reliance on me. But you know she needs to hear this from one of us before she hears it in the Senate, because once they drop this demand on her, she will ask us both if we knew anything about it. Your behavior alone will make the answer obvious. She will feel betrayed when she realizes we left her out of our confidence. She will have to face enough as it is without that added weight.”
“M’jan, they are going to force her to marry, and there is nothing either of us can do about it. Malaya is a woman who respects tradition and they know that. They are using that! They think to force a husband on her, tearing us apart and dividing our strength. Tell me this doesn’t reek of these traitors we seek! If they have the power to get a majority vote in the Senate, then you and I both know this means the corruption has reached a depth we may never recover from.”
“I know nothing of the kind,” Magnus retorted evenly. “M’itisume, just because a small group is clever enough to talk a flock of traditionalists into agreeing does not mean all is lost. If anything, it will reflect the fact that there are still some tender egos left behind after the thrashing your sister and you gave them in the war. This is a power play. They want to see if you will cede to them on matters of tradition. This is where Trace will be best to advise you, or Rika, but you and your sister can discuss how far you are willing to let them take this.”
“I am not letting them sell my sister like some kind of a regal prostitute for the sake of their campaign to ruin our standing! I am not going to ask her to marry for convenience. If she had wanted to join and breed babies, rather than focus on the needs of this society, than she goddamn well would have done it!”
“M’itisume,” Dae scolded him softly.
“Your pardon, K’yan Daenaira,” Tristan said irritably but with sincerity.
Dae was unaware of how she had just shocked Magnus into total silence. Daenaira correcting someone’s use of language? It was all he could do not to burst into laughter. Somehow, he managed to control his countenance. However, the struggle left a silence she felt compelled to fill.
“If I may say so,” she said politely, although Magnus could see she had begun to fold a repetitive crease into the fabric of her sari, a habit she had developed that signaled when her temper was roused. “K’yatsume Malaya is as powerful and as important as M’itisume is. Yet, because she is female, she is being held to an archaic chauvinism while your unmarried state is being ignored. They should either mind their business when it comes to your personal lives, or they should demand joinings of you both.”
“Gods! Now that would be my worst fears come to pass!” Tristan choked, staring at Magnus as he pointed at the handmaiden. “Isn’t there something inherently contradictory about a handmaiden feminist?” he demanded.
“One would think,” Magnus observed, the effort to keep his expression even completely foiled by the amusement in his golden eyes. “However, Dae has a unique way of asserting her desires for equality into the traditions of her role.”
“Hmm.” Magnus could see Tristan’s mind dipping swiftly toward the licentious. “I could see the advantages in equality when it came to certain traditions,” he mused.
“So can I,” Dae shot back, giving the ruler a cheeky wink that all but knocked Magnus back on his ass. Drenna, he absolutely was not going to blush! Not at his age and not because of a girl with two seconds of sexual experience!
Gods, he couldn’t wait to get her back to Sanctuary.
“This should be your action,” he said succinctly to the Chancellor. “You must tell your sister or have me tell her. Then you must tell Trace. Trace, Rika, and Malaya can join you as you sink your minds into how you will respond to this when and if it does come.”
Tristan sighed and sat down on the edge of his bed.
“I know. You said as much last time.”
“I don’t understand your hesitation, Tristan. Nor is it like you to shy from your duties or your troubles. Might I also add that you’re driving my son mad every time you choose to speak with me rather than confide in him?” Magnus knew why this was, though. Tristan was trying to make an inside ally of him, knowing Magnus would be the first one his deeply religious sister would call on to help counsel her past her shock and any fallout of emotion she might have toward Tristan for keeping this from her for so long.