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|Rapture(Shadowdwellers #2) by Jacquelyn Frank|
“I wish we could slap a whole lot of penance on Winifred and Friedlow, is all. And they have friends. There are other slaves I saw. Oh gods! I never thought of them! In all this time! I should have—gods, I’m so damn selfish sometimes!”
“Hardly that,” Magnus said sharply. “You were a little busy surviving and adjusting. And you were angry with me. Why would you trust someone who hurt you like I did with that kind of information? We’ll fix it after we fix this for Henry,” he reassured her, reaching to rub a hand across her back.
“Touching, Magnus. Touching.”
Magnus and Daenaira both froze when they heard that voice echoing wryly around them. Magnus’s hand went to rest on his katana’s hilt.
“Draw that blade, M’jan, and your little tart will find herself missing an eye at the very least,” Shiloh promised.
Shiloh was an expert at thrown blades. Magnus didn’t doubt the promise for an instant, so he let go of the hilt and held his hand loosely at his side.
“And before you think about being clever,” Shiloh continued, the echo of his voice in the ’scape keeping his locus a mystery, “you might recall how close your son came to dying after feeling the touch of one of my saw-stars a few months back.”
Magnus gritted his teeth as the information filtered into him. Trace had been attacked in Shadowscape by an unknown assassin, nearly dying from the encounter. Dae looked askance at him.
“He dips his blades. Poison,” he responded softly.
“Racially engineered poison. Designed just for our breed to be as effective as possible. For which you can thank your former love slave—err, I mean handmaiden. That Karri, she certainly had a way with poisons. Oh, but you know that now, don’t you?” Shiloh chuckled. “Say, tart. How’s that fine boy doing? I must say I’m a bit irritated with you. I was quite close to finishing when you and Sagan came banging on the door. Watching the boy climax was a thing of beauty. I love a virgin, don’t you, Magnus?”
There was no mistaking the implication, and Magnus pressed his fingers tighter against Daenaira when he felt a tremor hurry through her. He didn’t look at her, though, being quite careful to continue scanning the horizon. He had learned long ago not to let Sinners bait him. However, he couldn’t deny the rush of fury skimming the underside of his skin at the potential confirmation that his and Dae’s first sexual encounter had been observed. The remark was too general, though, and he wouldn’t give it credence yet. Just the same, Shiloh would answer for the attempt on his son’s life as well as for his numerous other crimes. He was beginning to realize, though, that the penance priest was more valuable to them alive and talking than dead and repentant. He could be the key Magnus needed to unlock the hidden corruption in his house.
“Trace remarked how you fell back like a green trainee when he wounded you in Shadowscape that day you fought him,” Magnus countered. “I think you got cocky and you didn’t expect my son to be as good as his father.”
“If he were as good as his father,” Shiloh retorted, “he wouldn’t have gotten his bitch pregnant out of joining. But then, you were celibate enough for both of you, so I can see that as understandable.”
“Tell me, Shiloh,” Magnus said conversationally, purposely eradicating all use of M’jan, a title Shiloh had abdicated the instant he had betrayed trust, “how many children have you bullied into your bed, whoring out your handmaiden to pimp for you?”
“Just enough to satisfy, not enough to notice.” Magnus could almost hear his cavalier shrug. “Besides, Nicoya loves to whore. My dirty girl gets off watching me make a boy come against his will. The thrill, you see, is in knowing Henry will question his sexual preferences for the rest of his life because of it.”
“There is no shame in homosexuality. Henry will learn that.” Magnus drew a soft touch along Daenaira’s spine beneath her braid. She looked at him with the smallest shift of her eyes. He needed to remind her to keep an eye out for Nicoya, but he didn’t know how to best signal her. Tension coiled tightly through his frame as he readied himself to act in a split instant. If any of Shiloh’s blades broke either of their skins, it would be as good as a death sentence.
“Stop telling me what to do!” Magnus startled when Daenaira suddenly screamed at him, jerking away from him and railing at him angrily. “I’m not a fucking idiot!”
“Dae!” he hissed, his eyes on the streaming colors of an ever-changing horizon.
“No! You dragged me in here, got me into this mess. I’m not dying because of you! Frankly, you don’t mean that much to me,” she said snidely.
And then, with alacrity he hadn’t realized she was capable of, she ripped out of her Dreamscape Fade.
Daenaira materialized in Shadowscape an instant after she withdrew from the second tier of her Fade, leaving Dreamscape. She whipped her sai out of their sheaths quickly, checking around herself for the as yet absent Nicoya. She smiled when she found herself out of doors, in the center of a field deep with snow and cold.She wasn’t happy to have left Magnus, but she had so strongly sensed his fear for her well-being that she’d had no choice but to eliminate herself from all of his equations. He would have spent all of his energy thinking he had to protect her instead of focusing on his enemy. Now she prayed that Nicoya had been watching, and that she would follow her here instead of helping to gang up on Magnus. If Nicoya didn’t show herself soon, Dae would return to Dreamscape and try to approach the battle from a different angle.
“Now, that was very disloyal of you, K’yan Daenaira,” a familiar voice purred from the tree line some distance away. The vast emptiness of the area made her voice echo, however, making it hard to pinpoint her other than to realize she was somewhere to the left.
“I don’t owe that man any loyalty. I’m just here for the free food, warm bed, and the sex. Admittedly, that last one was an unexpected bonus.”
“Yes, I heard you gave it up to him. I heard he was surprisingly randy for a man who had shown no interest in it for two centuries. Then again, what man wouldn’t be randy after all that time?” Nicoya chuckled.
“Maybe Karri just wasn’t one of those women who inspired men. Certainly not like you,” she replied, “who has every pubescent boy in Sanctuary salivating for her.”
“They are adorable, aren’t they?” Nicoya appeared in the tree line, her charcoal slacks and T-shirt looking very relaxed and loose-fitting. Even so, Dae had to admit she could see why men found her so attractive. Not just because she was blessed in all the right places, but because she practically oozed her sexuality. She’d have to learn how to do that, Daenaira mused.
“I am curious about one thing,” Dae said conversationally. “If all you do is fluff up those boys for Shiloh, where exactly is your relief? What’s in it for you?”
“You think I do this for Shiloh?” She snickered at that. “Typical. We Shadowdweller women take so much pride in our strength, and yet we continue to play these subservient roles to the men of this backward society. Handmaidens? Please. Try whores enslaved for the purpose of keeping these so-called men of the gods from straying. We bow and scrape and kowtow to them like slaves. Ritual baths.” She snorted derisively. “More like cheap thrills. Oh, we can say no to sex, but that doesn’t keep them from getting off on having us naked in the water with them, stroking them off. Isn’t that right?”
Daenaira went carefully still, keeping her expression quite neutral. There was something about the snide assuredness of the query that made a chill walk down Dae’s spine. Nicoya had said that as if she had witnessed the bath she had shared with Magnus. Was it just because the same thing happened to many of the women in Sanctuary, or had she actually seen it happen in their bath? Were there more tunnels than the ones she knew about? Ones that peered into the privacy of their chambers?
Sickened by the possibility but knowing she could not show it, she nodded as if she agreed with Nicoya’s resentment. Anything to lure her in closer. But Daenaira had experienced true slavery. She knew all too well what the difference was between that and the life she had begun to live free of that. She believed that Magnus would never have forced her to become his handmaiden against her will. There had been a choice. They all had choices.
“Do you have a point?” Dae asked archly, twirling her sai nonchalantly in her fingers.
“The point is you don’t have to cater to Magnus to have food in your belly and clothes on your body. You don’t have to fuck him. And, if you play your cards right, you can turn the tables on him.”
Dae chuckled. “Make Magnus submissive to me? Oh, like Shiloh is submissive to you?” she asked dryly.
“Exactly like that,” Nicoya said with supreme confidence, her ruby-lipped smile flashing cold and white in the darkness.
Again, Dae stilled. Was Nicoya saying what she thought she was saying? “So you’re going to stand there and tell me that you are dominant over one of the most brutal, power-hungry penance priests in all of Sanctuary? A penance priest who is considered second in command to Magnus?”
“And no one the wiser,” the other handmaiden said smugly. “You see how perfect it is? He crawls on the floor for me, Daenaira. He comes on command for me, not the other way around. He takes those boys because it’s what I want him to do. I want to watch him destroy the men they will become. I want to watch and see how many times they will submit to the humiliation of unwanted homosexual sex, just on the hopes that they will get rewards from me.”
“But Shiloh said—”
“Do you always believe what a man tells you?” she snapped irritably. “Little fool. I thought you were made of tougher stuff than this. Cort couldn’t move for hours after the way you tore into him in the stairwell, but it was all worth it to him because I bathed his wounds. And Daniel…well, Daniel was Shiloh’s very first victim. He’s been mine since he was just a boy. Three men, Daenaira, at my total beck and call. Kissing my feet.” She gestured to her booted feet concealed under the chill snow. “I would watch them in the tunnels. And they knew I watched. Just like I watched you make Magnus lose total control earlier today…and that time in the bath. How do you think I discovered the tidbit that Magnus was giving no satisfaction to poor Karri? She would cater to him, flirt with him, do everything shy of begging or complaining to him. When I sent Cort to seduce her, she was so ripe to be fucked she let him do everything to her. Pain, humiliation, you name it, she let him do it. Anything, just to be touched. She was weak and an embarrassment to our sex.”
“So why bother with her?” Dae asked, her body so tight with anger that she had to force herself to continue her casual stance.
“Because I knew she could get to Magnus. It took time. She was such a—how did you put it? A lapdog? You know, faithful and loyal, so pantingly happy, looking at him in such adoration as if he could do no wrong?” Nicoya spat on the ground, obviously disgusted. “I enjoyed twisting her against that. I relished the day she poisoned Magnus on command. When I ordered her to assassinate whichever royal she could get closest to, I knew she would fail, but I needed a scapegoat. She’d outlived her usefulness. She was so pedantic. Of course, she fancied herself in love with Cort in the end.”
“And what was the point of making Greta believe she’d been targeted by Magnus?” Dae asked, taking a shot in the dark.
Nicoya laughed throatily at that. “Oh, you know—sowing general seeds of discontent. Besides, Daniel wanted her. I knew she coveted Magnus obsessively, so I sent Daniel to her as a reward to him for his loyalty to me. You see, deception is the key here, Daenaira. Shiloh, even now, has made himself out to be this incredible threat; this intense penance priest supposedly on par with Magnus. You’ve been here what, now? A week? Almost two? In all of that time, have you ever seen him spar with anyone else here? He taunts Magnus about Trace, but he had nothing to do with that day the priest’s foster son almost died.” Nicoya started walking across the field, and Daenaira saw the black sojourn blade she swept almost carelessly around herself. “I lost a perfectly good assassin to Trace that day. One of my stable, you could say. It’s amazing, you know, how often men who are powerfully dominant in their daily lives are so willing to submit to a strong, skilled woman at the first opportunity.”
“And you are a strong, skilled woman?” Dae asked, stepping back carefully to slow Nicoya’s progression toward her.
“Oh yes. You could be, too. I’ve seen you fight. You thirst for the blood of men. You have everything inside you to make them submit. Look at how easily you tamed the most powerful man in all of Sanctuary! And the gem of it is he doesn’t even realize it! But I think you do.”
Nicoya saw what she wanted to see, Dae thought grimly. Magnus had submitted to her to prove he had meant her no harm. But there was no denying her priest’s stunning dominance as a man and how easily he had dissipated her anger once he’d had her closed away with him. But if she looked at their interactions from the outside, she could easily see how Nicoya would think she had control of Magnus. The truth was, however, there was a certain measure of equality to be found in the way the power of their relationship constantly shifted between them.
What concerned Daenaira, though, were Nicoya’s implications that Shiloh wasn’t the deadly penance priest everyone thought he was. If this was true, then where did the reputation come from?
“Are you telling me that, in truth, you are the real penance priest?” she asked, the inflection of amazement in her tone not at all fabricated.