The Shadows(Black Dagger Brotherhood, book 13)(33) by J.R.Ward
The Territory was north of Caldwell, on the transitional lands between the peaks of the Adirondack Park and the flat area around Plattsburg. Masquerading as an artists’ colony, the two-thousand-square-acre property was bordered by a substantial concrete wall that was as tall and stout as an oak all the way around. The few humans in the communities around the parcel were long used to the presence of the “artists” and seemed to take a perverse pleasure in protecting the sanctity of the property and the “art” that was being done in their midst.
Which worked for the s’Hisbe.
The irony, of course, was that a mere twenty miles farther north, on the far side of a mountain? The symphaths had established their presence as well.
The proximity made sense. Neither subspecies was in a big hurry to fraternize with anyone else—the sin-eaters didn’t respect humans or other vampires any more than the Shadows did so the more isolated, the better. Accordingly, there had never been any envoys or diplomatic ties between the two nations. They were as separate as two strangers sitting side by side on a bus, asking nothing of each other except to be left alone.
He couldn’t believe he was going back in.
Leaving his own clothes where the ones provided had been stashed, he strode off. The leather thongs on his feet were more like gloves than shoes, and as he traveled over the rough ground cover, he felt the nuances of fallen sticks, random rocks, and uneven earth. The advantage was silence: Except for the occasional snap and pop, he was as quiet as the moonlight that fell from the heavens.
It was not long before he came up to the retaining wall. Rising high, the vast construction was streaked with dirt stains and random vines, and here and there, fallen limbs were cocked at odd angles against its flank.
He wasn’t fooled by the supposedly dilapidated appearance, however, and as he dematerialized up and over, he had forgotten how broad the thing was.
Re-forming, he took a moment to orient himself. It had been so long since he’d set foot on his people’s land, but he shouldn’t have worried that anything had changed: Unlike the face that was shown the outside world, the bulkhead on the Shadow side was pristine, the concrete pale and sun-bleached and perennially washed, not even grass blades growing out of place around its base.
And no unruly forest. Absolutely not. The trees that were permitted to grow were spaced like chess pieces on a black-and-white board, each with their own delineated spot, even the branches clipped to stay within their boundaries. The lawn was likewise kept clean as a carpet. In spite of autumn ushering in a change of color and the inevitable leaf-from-limb departures, there was not a single fragment of anything marring the rolling expanse.
iAm had often thought the Territory was like a snow globe, a constructed version of reality existing in an artificial encapsulation.
The impression still stood.
Picking up his pace, he jogged over the brown grass. Soon, the first of the settlements appeared, the housing units little more than pup tents made of wood that were painted black and roofed with tin panels that were left silver. Like the trees, the shelters were placed in orderly rows, no lights glowing inside, no smells of cooking, no talk percolating out of them. This was where the servants of the palace resided, and they used the flimsy constructions as places to sleep and fornicate only. Otherwise, they were fed, clothed, and bathed in the staff wing of the Queen’s grand enclave.
The walls to the palace appeared some distance thereafter, and they were even taller than the first barrier. Faced in white marble and polished to a high shine, they were maintained scrupulously on both sides, hand-scrubbed during the day by groundsmen on thirty-foot-high ladders.
Assuming things were still done like that. And come on, nothing changed here.
Falling in parallel to the wall, he continued along until he came to a sunken doorway marked with symbols.
Right one on the first try.
Checking his watch, he waited. Paced back and forth. Wondered where s’Ex was.
No one was around. This was the back of the palace, far from where the aristocrats and middle class lived out in the front of the Territory—then again, because of the mourning period, all citizens were expected to be indoors, on their knees, offering their respects to the night sky for the Queen’s loss.
So even a frontal approach probably would have been fine.
The plan was for the executioner to open the door and sneak him through the maze of corridors to the library. As iAm was dressed in servant garb, there would be no questions asked. s’Ex had always had free run of the palace and the staff, thanks to his position as the Queen’s primary henchman—
The blow came from the back and caught iAm on the skull, ringing his bell so hard that shit went blackout in a split second.
He wasn’t even aware of falling face-first to the ground. And there was no time to curse the fact that he’d made a mistake trusting that male or try to go for one of his weapons.
Back at the Brotherhood mansion, Selena emerged from the underground tunnel and had to take a breather to reorient herself in the grand foyer. It seemed like a hundred years since she had last been in the grand space.
How had things ended up like this? she thought as she went around the base of the ornate staircase.
On one level, she hadn’t expected to be alive, much less mobile—or even partially mobile. On the other hand? She had gone from rushing to tell Trez how she felt about him … to ripping his head off, as the Brothers would put it.
“…First Meal the now. And following preparations, we shall…”
At the sound of Fritz, the butler’s, voice, she started her ascent. Her legs were weak, her muscles straining to activate joints that remained stiff and painful. In order to maintain her balance, she had to grip the gold-leafed balustrade with one and then, as she got closer to the top, both hands. Her robing, which had been cleaned at some point, seemed to weigh a hundred pounds.
A surge of relief hit her as she got to the second floor without being spotted. It wasn’t that she disliked Fritz or his staff or any of the Brotherhood; she just felt rather exposed. Part of what had helped her deal with her disease had been keeping it a secret. Then, when she was around others, she could pretend that she was just like them, with a long life expectancy, and priorities that involved normal things like work, and sleep, and food.
Now? Everyone was going to know.
There was no privacy in the mansion—and that was fine. The people were lovely and supported one another. It was just … it had taken her years and years to come to terms with her illness.
The others were going to catch up with her reality quick, and she did not want to be pitied.
Going over to the head of the hall of statues, she paused at the discreet door to the left. Opening it with a shaking hand, she confronted yet another set of stairs, and had to wait a moment to gather her strength.
She ended up taking them slower than the main stairs. Then again, there was less of an imperative to run and hide. The only other people who used these were the First Family, who lived in a triple-locked and insulated space that no one but Fritz was allowed access to … and iAm and Trez.
iAm’s bedroom door turned out to be wide-open, a lamp glowing in the far corner illuminating the tidy, empty space with its antiques and fine fabrics.
Trez’s was shut.
Selena knocked, and then put her ear to the panels. When there was no response, she knocked again.
Maybe he hadn’t come up here?
She knew he had dealings in the human world, but he’d seemed so exhausted as he’d left the clinic. It seemed only reasonable that—
Swallowing hard, she said, “It’s me.”
Long silence. So long that she wondered whether he’d cracked a window and dematerialized out of the room just to avoid her.
But eventually his voice came again: “Are you okay?”
A minute later the door opened, and she had to step back. He was so big … and so very naked—although it wasn’t like he was showing anything. He’d put a robe on, the bare, dark skin of his chest revealed in the V between the lapels.
It was impossible not to imagine what the rest of him looked like under there.
“Are you all right?” he repeated.
For some reason, she got frustrated by his concern. Which was insane. He was being polite and solicitous … it just made her feel like all she was was this disease inside of her.
“I, ah…” She glanced around. “May we do this privately?”
In lieu of answering, he moved aside and indicated the way in with his arm. After she was over the threshold, she heard the door lock click into place.
“I want to apologize.” She stopped at the windows and turned around. “I’m sorry. My emotions are raw right now, and my candor got away from me.”
Trez crossed his arms over his chest and leaned back against the exit. His face was inscrutable, his dark eyes grave, his brows down.
As the silence stuck around, she cleared her throat. Shifted her weight back and forth. Filled the time looking at the messy bed. The black clothes draped over the chaise longue. The shoes that had been kicked off over by the closet. The towel hanging off the top of the open door into the marble bathroom.
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