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|Rapture(Shadowdwellers #2) by Jacquelyn Frank|
However, he was no mere advanced fighter.
“I am already a queen,” she said as she came in close and rammed her knee up between his legs. He easily anticipated the tactic, turning his thigh into the blow and using his elbow to belt her hard against her cheekbone. Nicoya staggered back between the blow and not having both feet on the floor. He gave her credit for recovering quickly enough to parry his next few blows. “And I don’t have to be better than you,” she breathed with feral delight. “I only have to last longer than you do against the poison coursing through your veins. Very sloppy, M’jan, to let yourself be wounded. But you always say, better to let yourself take the light wound than the deadly one.”
And she had counted on that. Damn her, she’d used his own training against him. All those times she had lingered in the training hall, all the times she had flirted with him, making him uncomfortable and irritable because he had thought her a tease getting off on fucking with his head; it had all been a distraction to keep him from realizing she was studying his teachings and his skills.
“So let’s see who told you that you were a queen,” he mused, moving swiftly against her, tiring her overhead parries so she would take the easy low block when it came. He backhanded her as soon as she was open, sending her reeling and sliding over the floor on her ass. “Your twisted whore of a mother.”
She rolled with the punch impressively, gliding back up to her feet and shaking off the blow as she licked her own blood from her lips.
“Now, you see, that’s what I like”—she laughed, taking a moment to shake the kinks out of her body—“a man who isn’t afraid to beat the shit out of a girl. My father had a thing for women who could take a beating. The whips-and-chains type. Until he met my mother, that is. She showed him a whole new way of getting off. Unfortunately, she did it too well. He tried to get her to marry him by knocking her up. She just disappeared on him and never said another word. That man was Adrian of the J’ernnu Clan. Adrian, as you know, was one of the two sole surviving brothers from the royal line. Alexsander, the father of your precious twins, was the other. That makes me his firstborn child. That makes me equal heir to the Chancellery. Of course, after they are dead, it makes me the only heir. And since they were kind enough to reinstate the monarchy for me and have no heirs between them, that means I would ascend in their place.”
“I know you believe that to be true,” Sagan said with a dirty smile, “but you’ll forgive me if I doubt your claim. Besides, the twins aren’t dead.”
“Yet,” she stipulated, lunging into melee.
Sagan fought her off, but he could feel the beginning muzziness of the poison in his body. He had to end this before it struck him down fully. “Oh, and you think you have that figured out, do you?”
“No. I was concentrating on getting Sanctuary and studs like you tightly under me first. Mother is handling all the rest of it.”
Sagan had to dodge sharply when she used an acrobatic swing of her leg to tangle him up. His attention was fumbling, a metallic flavor flooding his mouth. The warrior cursed bluish, and Nicoya clicked her tongue at him in admonition. “Sagan,” she scolded, “we’re in the house of the gods.”
“Where more appropriate to strike you down?”
He was on her in a heartbeat, forcing her to use all of her skill and strength until, grudgingly, he had to admit she was as good as the reputation she had earned for Shiloh. Still, that wasn’t good enough. Not to his mind. Or it wouldn’t have been had he not been weakening so rapidly. Just the same, he staved off the force of the poison just long enough to slip in under her guard once more and slam an elbow so hard into her ribs that he could almost hear a couple of them snap. She staggered under the pain, gasping and looking surprised almost in spite of herself. Now, he knew, he would have her. She was a wicked swordswoman, but she didn’t take injury well.
Neither did Sagan take poisoning well.
Just as he was ready to press his advantage, weakness shuddered like a wave of paralysis rushing through him. He faltered, and she saw it, but he was already swinging the vicious khukuri for a maiming blow, if not a killing one. He went for her leg as her injured side forced her blade’s guard to drop.
But before he could hit, out of nowhere he felt the strike of a violent pain across the whole of his back. He heard a crack and fuzzily hoped it wasn’t any of his bones making the sound. His sword arm was suddenly and harshly lashed around the biceps, and he was jerked with amazing force away from the victory blow to his target. The owner of the vitanno whip that crippled and bound him was strong enough to jerk even his significant weight of muscle and momentum right off his feet. He crashed to the tiled floor, his head cracking forcefully in whiplash. Sagan, sickened and furious, struggled to free himself and return to his feet. However, before he could make his polluted body obey his commands, he heard two sharp steps and felt the newcomer to the battle shove a hard, booted foot against his chest, forcing him down onto his back.
“Mother! What took you so damn long!” Nicoya hissed. She recovered herself, listing into her injured side as she, too, came to stand over Sagan’s prone body.
“Don’t speak to me like that,” the other woman warned quite calmly, her cool grey-black tourmaline eyes inspecting her victim as if he were some unfortunate road kill requiring her morbid fascination. There was, Sagan realized a bit belatedly, some form of cleat on those heavy boots, the sharp points burrowing into the muscles of his upper chest. However, he was numbed to the sensation despite the blood he saw slowly staining his shirt. “Don’t kill him,” she said sharply when her daughter thrust the point of her blade into his throat. “I like him. I might play with him.” She contemplated him, seemingly measuring her capacity to enjoy him.
“Mother, he’s poisoned. He won’t survive.”
“I think I can fix that. He seems strong enough. He might recover eventually.”
“Acadian,” he ground out, his dark eyes spitting fury and hatred at the woman above him.
Acadian lifted a delicate brow and bent over him. “Hmm. You told him?”
“No. I don’t know how he knows.”
“Hmph. Some sort of telepath, no doubt. That could be quite challenging. Bind him for me. Morrigan and Davide are at the end of the hall.” She lifted her foot, kicking Sagan over hard onto his face so she could disengage the whip. She no longer needed it. The poison in Sagan’s system was quite thickly in effect. For all his power, strength, and skill, he had been defeated with the first cut Nicoya had made. “All that matters is that they lose yet another penance priest. This leaves only Magnus and Ventan.”
“And Magnus will be dead inside an hour. You were right about his handmaiden, Mother.”
“Of course I was,” she said with a rather bored shrug. She wrapped up her whip as her daughter narrowed cold eyes on her.
“Don’t act so superior, Mother. You may take credit for your orchestrations in the Senate, but this victory is mine.” She knelt to grab Sagan by his hair, pulling his head back to expose his face and unfocused eyes. “Sanctuary is mine.”
“You got sloppy and stupid. And don’t count Magnus out until you see the bastard dead at your feet. Get him out of here and go find out if that girl is following through. I can’t be seen here for this.”
She hooked the whip back beneath her Senator’s sari, concealing it. Then, without a word, she turned and disappeared down the hallway.
It took much too long for her to find Nicoya.Actually, it was Sagan she was tracking down after finding Henry in the infirmary and realizing he couldn’t be far away, given how long ago they said he had left. Then again, it was a very big place. Knowing every twist and turn was fine, but you had to know which spot you were looking for first.
Unfortunately, she encountered Nicoya shortly afterward. She was bloodied with a fat lip, nursing her side, and there was fury in her eyes as she approached her.
But there was no Sagan.
Gods, she thought, she’s killed him. Somehow she had done the inconceivable and had killed one of Sanctuary’s finest warriors in a head-on, face-to-face confrontation. Sure, she had killed Cort, but Daenaira was damn quick to admit she’d backstabbed him to pull it off; otherwise she wouldn’t have been likely to manage it.
“What are you doing here? I told you to wait for Magnus and kill him,” Nicoya hissed, storming up to her and giving her a hard shove in her shoulder. The handmaiden was injured, but there was no denying the strength in that powerful push as she staggered back.
“Yeah, well…” Daenaira hung her head submissively as she recovered her balance, and Nicoya exhaled in disgust. It was when the other woman was busy rolling her eyes that Daenaira struck up suddenly and palmed her so hard in the nose that her entire head snapped back. On the recoil, Dae snatched her sai into her hands, whirling the hilts outward and laying the center prongs along her inside forearms for a brace. “I guess I changed my mind,” she spat as she used the gem-set handle butt to clip her in follow-through up under her chin.
Dae invested all of her pain and fury over Brendan into the blow, trying not to think that she should have done this in the first place. She knew she would never have gotten past this woman’s guard without the established false trust she had orchestrated. Plus, Nicoya was injured, and she had to pray that would make all the difference.
Though, seeing she had likely defeated Sagan in spite of those injuries, she highly doubted it. Just the same, she had no other choices anymore. Or she was just too damn mad to think of them.
She gave no quarter to the stunned woman, knowing that to pause and let her recover even for a second could cost her her life. If she failed, she shuddered to think of what could happen to Magnus. The thought fueled her next blow, and she threw all of her body force into smashing her steel-lined forearm into the side of the traitor’s head.
“You stupid,” she hissed, enunciating each word to follow with a violent strike, “gullible, arrogant, deceitful k’ypruti!”
This last was delivered with a kick into the center of the other woman’s breastbone, toppling her back onto her ass. Nicoya’s supply of saw-stars spilled out of their pouch at the rear of her weapons belt. They skimmed like a fanning deck of cards across the floor, but neither women paid it any heed.
“Oh, bitch,” Nicoya growled contemptuously, “you’re going to die for that.”
“Yeah? Well, sure, after you die for what you did to Henry.” She advanced on her and was satisfied when the other woman scurried backward over the floor away from her approach.
“Is that right? And who is going to kill you for Brendan? My guess is Magnus!”
Nicoya’s hand touched a star, and grabbing it, she flung it at Daenaira when the cutting remark made the surety in her step falter. Fearless of what she knew was poisoned, she threw up a forearm to block the star, her black steel deflecting it easily. It had been a bad throw in any event. Still, the distraction served. Nicoya was on her feet and pulling her blade free of her scabbard. Black as the metal was, Dae could see the pitting and flawing in the blade from what had clearly been a heavy battle. The blade had been in near-perfect condition when she’d seen it pointed at her during their earlier encounter. It only confirmed her suspicions that, somehow, she had managed to defeat Sagan.
“You stupid, stupid child,” Nicoya spat disdainfully. “Don’t you see? They’ve already lost! Magnus is the only one left. Once he’s gone, it’s all over!”
“Oh, and what about Ventan? You think he’ll see he’s the only penance priest left to take Magnus’s seat and just hand it over to you? Or did you whore all over him, too?”
“Ventan is old and burnt out. Magnus doesn’t even give him hard assignments anymore. You think he scares me?”
“I think someone should!” Dae flipped her right sai around, leaving one to guard as she rushed her enemy. Since she had the lighter weapon and was uninjured, she had speed and agility in her favor, but she didn’t have Nicoya’s experience. The handmaiden’s sword punctured her thin skirt between her legs, tearing through the front and rear panel, just missing the insides of both her thighs, not to mention more intimate places. She could only save her skin, literally, by quickly catching the blade in her sai and holding it tight with a twist. Then she was kicking her leg high and “dismounting” the blade as it tore her skirt nearly in two. Sparks flew and burned her skin when Nicoya savagely yanked her weapon free.
Daenaira would hardly recall very much after that because, without realizing just how unwise it was, Nicoya took advantage of her turned back and rammed her into the nearest wall face first. She felt the cold, unforgiving surface hit her forehead and cheekbone above and below her left eye. The pain was sour and sharp as it stung all the way down to her chin and radiated back over her scalp. With a poisoned sword behind her, however, she had no time for being stunned.
But she had plenty of time for a growling wrath to come over her, considering how brilliant and fast it moved. Possessed by another part of herself, she turned to catch the lunge of Nicoya’s blade in the prongs of the sai. She deflected it with a hard flinging movement that almost ripped the blade free of her enemy’s hand.
Nicoya had found Sagan an exhausting, intimidating contestant with skill and power she would never have been able to match had he been one hundred percent, but she had expected the new handmaiden to be a far simpler target once she’d finally realized where she really stood. However, nothing had prepared her to fight a savage animal. Dae was tireless and relentless, her amber eyes aglow with rage. It was as though the girl had been born to fight as her movements became faster instead of more weary, and stronger, as if fueled by the momentum of her fury. She deflected her every sweep of the sojourn as if brushing away a pesky fly, and advanced. She advanced so much, forcing Nicoya’s retreat so far, that they traveled far enough down the corridor to begin attracting an audience of youths. One at a time, eyes began to fall on the epic battle between the women. They didn’t entirely understand what they were watching, but they did understand just by watching the scarlet wrath in Daenaira’s movements that it wasn’t a practice session. No one dared interrupt or intervene, but neither could they bring themselves to tear away from the drama of the mortal combat.