“It is natural to be bell-shocked,” Jessyn said as Ray poured out a vodka for himself and, at her nod, a glass of Arrion’s favored Shiraz for her.
“Shell,” he said, handing her the wine. “Shell-shocked.”
“That makes no sense.” Jessyn said. Then she sighed and sipped her wine. “Still, you have every right to be—”
“Curious,” he cut in as she set the goblet on the bar and started to turn it around on itself. “I gotta admit, it wasn’t something I was expecting.”
“Nor I,” she said, staring at the wine glass as if it held the secrets of the universe. “But I am sorry for it.”
“Why?” He placed his hand over hers, halting the endless spinning of the glass on its axis.
“You mean, beyond breaking the laws of my people? Or beyond entrapping a man against his knowledge or his will?”
“I don’t know if you noticed, but if there was any entrapping, it came from both sides.”
“Perhaps, but that does not negate the first issue, that this bond flies in the face of every law the matriarchs have laid down. Never mind the bond also interferes in with my service to House Szado.”
That had his curiosity sitting up. “What is your role, exactly?”
“I am a Nhaiad, sworn to use my training to collect secrets from those the Lady chooses.” She paused, then in a rush added, “As she chose you.”
He felt the flush of embarrassment from her but admired the way nothing showed in her expression.
“I figured as much,” he told her, wondering if she could sense the jab to his ego at her confession, in the same way he’d sensed her shame. “But it wasn’t all duty, was it? I mean, the Jedi mind trick, coming to my rescue with Mollin? That wasn’t all the job.”
“No.” Her eyes turned toward the window. “And yes.” She glanced his way. “The Lady did not appreciate the way you were taken—it was a direct defiance of her will. But even without her approval, I would have come after you, no matter the consequences. And that,” she said, “is the problem.”
“Because this,” her hand waved at the air between them as she spoke, “should not have happened. And now it that it has—the best outcome is that the Lady considers it to her advantage.”
“And the worst?”
“The worst is we find ourselves condemned, as my mother was condemned before me.”
“Wait.” He eased back. “Your mother?”
“Siane Breeshandra,” she said. “As I told you, interspecies relationships are forbidden for my kind. Coupling is allowable—impossible to stop, in truth. But my mother was never much one for rules. Even before she left Rasalka, loved a human, and made a child with him. All three are a crime to my people, and punishable by death.”
“You’re half-human?” he asked, then continued before she could respond. “But you’re alive. Did your Aunt Mariska step in?”
“My aunt.” The word emerged as a hiss. “Hardly. Mariska Breeshandra is a political creature. She was prepared to see her seven-year-old niece put to death—tearfully, mind—so the Matriarchy could see how she suffered for the law. It was Fayla Szado who stepped in to defend me. And to an extent, she succeeded.”
“To an extent?”
“To earn my life, I was to be given to the Nhaiad Academy, where I would be trained in service to Fayla’s House.”
“And your mother?”
The slightest pause and then, “The Lady says she died with honor.”
“Christ.” He moved now to pace around the room, needing to burn off both their emotions. “Wait,” he said, pausing. “You’re here, your mother died, but what about the father? Shouldn’t he have been around?”
“I believe he would have,” she said. “If my mother told me the truth about him, he would have. But that would require him knowing where we were. And Siane made sure he never would. In truth,” she added with a shrug, “not having a father is the most Rasalkan aspect of my parentage.”
As baffling as that statement was, Ray knew this wasn’t the time to dig into the disposition of males in Rasalkan society.
He returned to face her, to take her hand. “If you don’t mind my saying, your aunt sounds like a real witch.”
“My aunt is the quintessential example of Rasalkan aristocracy—covetous, ruthless, wholly self-serving, and treacherous. You would do well to stay out of her path. But you won’t,” she added, looking up to meet his gaze, “will you?”
Ray thought about Al-Kar and Booth, both up to their murderous eyeballs in Black Rose business. “Some things you can’t dodge,” he told her.
“No,” she said, tipping her head, “as we have discovered. But later, remember I warned you.”
“That the two of us, and what we are becoming, is dangerous.”
Reaching out, he took her hand. “Do I need to remind you what I do for a living?”
And if her laugh was half a sob, at least it was also half a laugh, and Ray accepted both as he pulled her close and into his arms.
FYI, The Libra Gambit, Book 2 of The Zodiac Files, is now available. Pick up your copy before 11/10/22 to get it at the discounted price of $1.99!
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