The Shadows(Black Dagger Brotherhood, book 13)(29) by J.R.Ward
“I can make that happen,” he said.
s’Ex closed his eyes and rolled his hips under the sheets. “When.”
“You gotta do something for me first.”
Those lids lifted slowly, and the black eyes glittered. “It doesn’t work like that.”
“Actually, it does.”
“Fuck you.” iAm held that gaze steadily. “I need to get into the palace.”
s’Ex shut his piehole. Then he shoved his tremendous torso upright, the covers falling down, pooling at his waist. In the light from the bathroom, the tattoos that covered every inch of his flesh glowed like they were fluorescent against his dark skin.
“Not what I thought you’d say,” he murmured. “Without a gun to your head.”
“What I need from you is a guaranteed out.”
“So you’re going to steal something.”
“I just want access to the library.”
“Lot of recreational reading out here in the human world.”
“And I need to go now.”
s’Ex stared at him for a while. And then he yawned like a lion, great fangs flashing as his jaw cracked from the strain.
“Now,” iAm said.
“The palace is closed for mourning.”
“You got out.”
s’Ex made a noncommittal noise. “What kind of information are you looking for?”
“Not relevant for your purposes.”
“The hell it isn’t.”
“Look, I need to go now, and I have to be back before dawn. This is an emergency. I’m not asking to stroke you.”
s’Ex frowned. “Like I said, the palace is closed.”
“So you’re going to have to sneak me in.”
“Why the fuck do you think I’m going to help you.”
iAm smiled coldly. “Get me in and out, and you’re fucking that Queen of yours.”
“Ours. And if I want to screw her, all I have to do is slide into her bed.”
“You think you can still stand to do that now?”
“Don’t romanticize me,” s’Ex said grimly.
iAm shrugged. “Whatever. Bottom line is, you’re never going to get Trez at this point. I’ve got to try to help him.”
If Selena died? Everybody was going to lose him. Shit, all iAm had to do was think of his brother bolting from that exam room, racing out into the corridor with a gun up to his temple, ready to pull the trig.
s’Ex stared up at him for the longest time. “What the hell is going on?”
“I’m giving it to you straight. Your interests and mine are aligned. I don’t want my brother dead and neither do you. We’ll fight over what happens to him at the end of this, but right now? You need me to get him through a certain crisis.”
“Put a definition on ‘crisis.’”
iAm looked away. “Someone who’s close to him is sick.”
“Not him, though?”
“Do I look sick.” iAm met the executioner’s eyes again. “Look, you and I both have a management problem with him. You think I like trusting you? If there were any other option, I’d be getting it in. But like you know firsthand, you got to deal with what life gives you. And I need that goddamn library.”
The s’Hisbe had a long and distinguished history as healers. And as Shadows were, like symphaths, an evolutionary offshoot of vampires, it would seem logical that this Arrest disease might have shown up at some point in his race’s past—and if it did, it would be in that library.
If they were lucky, the healers might have some kind of treatment—at which point, stop number two was going to be the s’Hisbe’s extensive pharmacology vault. The Shadows had been synthesizing drugs from plant and animal material for centuries, titrating all kinds of compounds to deal with diseases and disorders—and as with record keeping, the healers were meticulous about their trials and studies.
His people had brought rationalism into medicine long before humans ushered out mysticism and embraced scientific thinking.
Maybe there was hope. He had to find out.
“I do not want to rely on you,” iAm said roughly. “But I have to. Just like you are going to have to do this for me if you want any chance of getting Trez in line. He will be dead within the hour if that female dies.”
“Female?” When iAm said nothing more, s’Ex cursed. “The two of you are a huge pain in my ass, you know that.”
“I feel the same way about you and your Queen.”
“Ours. You’re a member of the s’Hisbe no matter where you choose to live.”
It was, of course, total bullshit about Trez going back to the Territory and falling in line with that astrological chart of his. That was never going to happen. But iAm had to use whatever leverage there was, and s’Ex was probably drunk enough not to look too closely at the motivation involved here.
And what do you know, it worked.
With a curse, the huge male threw off the covers and got to his feet—and for a moment, iAm checked out those tattoos. Christ. The executioner’s flesh was covered from throat to ankle, shoulder to wrist, with white markings, the only absent places his face and his cock and balls. Even iAm had to be impressed. The “ink” was actually a poison that discolored the skin. Most males prided themselves on withstanding the pain and sickness of a small symbol of their families on the shoulder or the name of a mate over the heart.
The fact that s’Ex had lived through all that was visible confirmation that he was a badass. Or a masochistic psycho.
Leaving the guy to get dressed, iAm went into the living area. As he approached the glass sliders, he looked out over the nightscape of Caldwell: the speckled illumination randomly spaced in the skyscrapers, the twin lanes of red taillights and white headlights wrapping around the curves of the Hudson River, a plane or two blinking high over the horizon.
In and out, he told himself. That was how this had to be.
And if there was a God, he’d be able to find something that would help Selena.
“Turn here?” Layla asked as she leaned into her sedan’s steering wheel.
She put her directional signal on, and as the Mercedes let out a little chck, chck, chck, she remembered Qhuinn teaching her the where’s and when’s of all the driving business. Safe guess that he never would have thought she’d use the skills to take Xcor anywhere.
“Where are we going?” she asked. The headlights were showing little more than a narrow dirt lane with a lot of autumnal trees choked up tight against the “road.” A short stone wall seemed to keep the arboreal aggression back, although what little shoulder there was was overgrown with brambles and long grass.
“Not far. ’Tis but a few kilometers the now.”
Was this it for her? she wondered. Was this the night when her paranoia turned well-founded, when Xcor took control of the situation in a way that not only harmed her, but her young and Qhuinn—who were both total innocents in all this?
Dearest Virgin Scribe, she needed to get out of—
The headlights swung around and what she saw made her heart stop and her foot pop off the accelerator.
It was a little cottage, which, in spite of the overgrown landscaping, was utterly charming. The front door was painted red, and with its two bay windows and pair of dormers on the second floor, the place seemed to be all wide-eyed and smiling. There was also a big fluffy tree to the left with golden leaves the color of sunrises she had seen only on TV or in books and magazines, as well as a slate walkway that led up to its welcoming visage.
“Do you like it?” he asked stiffly. As if he were afraid of the answer.
“Maybe this is naive,” she whispered. “But it looks like nothing bad could ever happen in there.”
“It is the caretaker cottage of the main house. The latter, which is down that lane there, has been abandoned, but an old doggen lived here up until a month ago.” He glanced over at her. “Let us go inside.”
She got out without turning the engine off, but Xcor took care of that, reaching over and silencing the purr as she walked in front of headlights. As the illumination was cut off, she saw that there were candles glowing inside of the house—or at least that was what she assumed was creating the flickering golden light.
At the door, she touched the paint. It was well-weathered, cracked but not chipped. Candy-apple red, she thought. And no doubt, it had been a high gloss when it had first been applied.
“Open,” he told her. “Please.”
The latch was made of brass that was old and worn, but polished in the places where hands had gripped. A subtle creak was released as she pushed at the surprisingly heavy panels, but the sound was more a chipper greeting than anything sinister.
It wasn’t candles. It was a fire.
The living space was open and paneled in a reddish wood, the hearth made from river stone of various sizes, shapes, and colors. The floor was bare, with wide panels that talked as she walked over them, chattering as if they had missed having company. Breathing in, she smelled the sweet smoke of the fire and an underlying clean, woodsy scent.
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