RELEASE DATE: 11/2018
PUBLISHER: Dreamkeeper Publishing
SERIES: Archans of Ailaut
GENRE: Science fiction, romance, alien, warrior
HEAT LEVEL: Steamy
LENGTH: Novella, 40K (150 pages)
CO-AUTHOR: Danae Ashe
EXCERPT. . .
Her escort to dinner opened the double doors that led, presumably, to the dining room. Bethany stepped in, glancing around to take in a room much smaller than she had anticipated. Her father’s dining room was a grand area on one of the higher floors, surrounded by windows so there was a view on all sides.
This room was cozy. Almost more of a den, despite the heavy dark wood table in the center. She stood just inside the threshold as the doors closed behind her, watching the Archan. His back was to her as he stared at a fully stoked fire. Despite the flames, the room wasn’t hot. The chimney must have had a silent ventilation system, sucking up heat as well as smoke. That, and a chandelier above the table, cast the low light in the room. It felt intimate.
She cleared her throat. He knew she was there, of course. And with the arrogance of winged things, was likely waiting for her to speak first.
“Archan.” Her tone remained polite, if icy. “I am here, as requested.”
There had been a dress laid out on her bed when she’d emerged from her bath, a silent summons. A long, simple sheath of silk in a rich burgundy, with a fitted bodice and flowing skirt that swirled around her legs, revealing glimpses of flesh as the layers parted and settled with her steps.
She’d considered shredding the thing, but had gritted her teeth, remembering that her goal was to make him see her as a person. She couldn’t quite bring herself to seduce him, as her mother had suggested. But she could try and be cordial, perhaps even amusing. Or at least a decent conversationalist.
Deshua turned, and stared at her for a long moment. “I’m surprised. I thought you would fight me.”
“You’re master here. Why would I defy you?”
He gestured to the table where a bottle of wine and two glasses sat. “They’ll serve shortly. Would you like some wine?”
No, she would not. But she gave the proper response. “Yes, thank you.”
Stubbornness kept her still as he poured the glass, glanced at her and then after a moment approached, offering her the wine.
Bethany took the glass, sipped. “It’s good.”
“I’m glad you like it. Do you plan on standing there all night? I prefer not to eat standing up.”
He was teasing her, albeit in a grave, somber faced way. Did he ever smile, crack a joke like a normal person? She kicked herself mentally. He was an Archan. They weren’t normal. They were barely people—even Core had said so.
She lowered her eyes, not wanting him to see the thoughts running through her head, and walked towards the table. He pulled out a chair for her and Bethany started for one second, surprised by the old fashioned courtesy. She took the seat and he tucked her in, taking his own. She was seated at his left. Traditionally, the place where a wife or mistress might sit. The right was reserved for his second, his Vicelord, if he had one.
“So what do we talk about?” she asked. “We don’t have much in common.”
“No.” His word was soft, but sharp. He continued to stare at her, as if he were cracking the bone of her skull and attempting to get to the meat beneath. What was he looking for?
“Well, you know I’m a scientist, I work in the city.”
After a pause, he followed the neutral conversational thread, though the way his eyes focused on her was far from casual. “You have some medical training.”
“Yes, basics…I deal with diseases, mostly.” She frowned. How did he know she had basic medical training?
“There are no diseases on Ailaut.”
“There are. But angels are mostly immune to them.” She shut her mouth, wincing.
“Your father didn’t teach you to use that word.” His lips curved in a slightly mocking smile.
But he didn’t appear upset at her accidental use of the pejorative Archans hated, so she relaxed, though not much. “Sorry. I…think like a human sometimes.”
She refused to let this be a one-sided conversation. “Where did you grow up?”
He sipped his wine. “Nowhere you would have heard of, or been to.”
“The point, Archan, is small talk. Words people exchange over dinner so they’re not relegated to staring at walls and commenting on the food.”
Deshua surprised her, and laughed softly. “I’m unused to small talk. My people don’t ask me these kinds of questions.”
She looked down at the table, her fingers wrapped around the stem of her glass. “I’m going to be here a long time. I’d like to know something about the man who is my jailor.”
A beat of silence, two, his laughter gone as if it never existed. “Do you feel jailed?”
Her mouth curved in a mocking smile, echoing his previous expression. “I’m a scientist, Archan. I know I’m not free, though you offer a prettier cell than I had any right to expect.”
He set his wineglass down as if he was done with the social pretense of enjoying the vintage. “You did nothing wrong. You’re a pawn.”
The words stung. They were truth, nothing she hadn’t thought herself many times, but she still flinched to be labeled a pawn. It made her feel like a bug.
“I hurt you. I apologize.”
Her eyes rose, met his. “You didn’t say anything we both don’t know. I’m your prisoner. My life here is at your whim. It isn’t my nature to avoid facts.”
Bethany stood, setting aside the glass and pushing from the table. For lack of a place to go, and because she didn’t want to lose dignity from pacing in circles, she approached the fireplace, stood in front of the flames, and watched them flicker across her bare arms.
“Are you afraid I’ll hurt you again? The first time was a mistake.”
He was at her back. She stiffened slightly, then shrugged.
“Answer me, Bethany.”
She turned. “I think it’s inevitable. You hate me—if not me, personally, you hate my father. Eventually I will displease you, and…I was raised by an Archan. I know their ways.”
There was anger in his eyes, and something else she couldn't quite name. “I am not Nimian. I am not a monster.”
“He isn’t a monster. He’s an Archan.”
Deshua sighed. “Falco asked me not to punish you for your sire’s sins.”
“Falco?” Her mind raced. He must have known then.
“Yes. He told me you healed Furia’s paw.”
“That was her name? I didn’t know. He—” she paused. “He told you?”
“He can communicate if he chooses. Any of the pack can.”
She stared at him. “The stories are true then. Of animals who can speak like men.”
His return stare was inscrutable. “They’re true.”
And more, if she read the wariness in his eyes correctly. His tone didn’t invite further inquiry, however.
“Why would he care about me?” Core had said something, about Falco’s family being the one that was harmed by the actions of her father. The implication being that if he didn’t seek revenge against her, no one else had a right to. Not even Deshua.
The dining room door opened and staff entered, carrying trays of food. She noticed a cart in the hallway laden with more food, which they brought out on a second trip. She stared at the table.
“There’s enough food here to feed a host.”
“They know it’s your first time dining with me. They wish to demonstrate the dignity of our hall.”
“Well, I’m duly impressed.”
She hadn’t realized she was hungry until the staff began lifting lids, exposing scents of spiced sauces, roasting meats, yeasty carbs…her eyes closed. “Oh, Skies. This smells wonderful.”
“I hope you’re just as pleased by the taste.”
Gathering herself, Bethany glanced at him and saw the ghost of an indulgent smile on his lips. “What happens to the leftovers?”
“Hmm. We’ll be eating them for several days.” He seated her again. “Anmerie has ways of turning things into new dishes. And the families of those who don’t live in the Skyhall will benefit as well.”
Bethany smiled. “I bet many covered dishes will find a way out the kitchen door tonight.”
She settled in the chair, rubbing her hands together. “Well, wastefulness is a sin. Let’s start, shall we?”
Conversation was pleasant enough, both of them tacitly agreeing to keep topics on neutral subjects. He asked questions about her life, her friends, her work. Listened to the responses, weighing everything she said. It was what she wanted—if he would see her as person, rather than Nimian's daughter, her position here would be safer. Safety meant freedom of movement, which meant one day possibly leaving. So they engaged in light conversation, until he shed the pretense.
“Why did you heal Furia?”
They were at the end of the dessert course by then, and she supposed she should be happy he’d allowed her to push aside the tangled skein of their lives and motives for even an hour.
“I’m not a healer, but that’s an aspect of my work. Why wouldn’t I heal her?”
Because her father wouldn’t have, his eyes said. She was tired of being compared to her father. “As long as you refuse to see me as a separate individual from my sire, you will always be confused over my motives, Archan.” There. A polite enough response, not quite a verbal fuck you.
“Are we able to escape the influence of genetics? Of upbringing?”
“My mother raised me. An immigrant from Earth. A woman born to working class parents who boarded a ship to come to a new land looking for opportunity. She happened to catch the eye of an Archan.” A story for another time. “Most people are shades of gray. Archans…tend to shade on the darker side of the spectrum. After all—how can one escape the influence of power?”
His brow arched. “Are you implying I’m a tyrant?”
“No.” Surprisingly, it was the truth. “I’ve seen no fear in your people. They seem to live their lives, the Skyhall a peripheral concern.”
“Except when taxes are due.”
Her brows drew tighter. “Was that a joke?”
He shrugged. “If you like.” They stared at each other.
“Well, it’s just that your delivery was so bland, I couldn’t tell.”
“I will endeavor,” was his grave reply, “to improve my comedic timing.”
Bethany nodded, pushed away her dessert plate. “I’m completely satiated. Your chef is a gem. The fare I get usually is much plainer, though certainly still delicious.”
Deshua laughed. “I suspect Anmerie cooks for us what she cooks for her family each night. It’s simpler.” He shrugged, wings rustling. “You may assume I grew up in…luxury…but I did not. Even the plain fare would have been sumptuous to us as children.”
The Archan rose, pulled out her chair. She turned, but he didn’t move away.
“I’m grateful for the care you showed Furia.”
“I don’t want your gratitude!” It was a snap response. Being owed a debt by an Archan was never comfortable. One never knew when they would repay, or how.
His eyes glinted. “That’s unfortunate. You have it.”
She hesitated for a long moment. It was a gamble, to ask the question on her mind. “Archan, what did my father do?”
Any lingering warmth, reserved or no, fled. His expression smoothed to stone, eyes wintry. “He didn’t tell you?”
“No.” She feared it was something horrible. Her teeth scraped at her lower lip. “Will you tell me what caused my imprisonment?”
Deshua stepped away. “Ask Nimian.”
“I don’t want to ask Nimian. Did it have something to do with the wolves? Core said—”
“Core should remain silent.” He didn’t shout, but the hoarse words were a whiplash through the room, riding a bitter wind of chilling power.
Bethany stumbled back a step. Her bottom bumped against the table, hard, and she knew she’d have a bruise. She swallowed anger. Humiliation that he’d frightened her, bitterness that she was susceptible to the fear. Resentful that any person of power felt the need to frighten someone with no resources to fight back. “I’ll go now.”
It was a small miracle her voice remained steady. She walked several shaky steps towards the door before he spoke.
“I apologize for frightening you.”
She whirled, the dam of her composure breaking. “You need to learn to control your temper, damnit!”
“My temper?” It was a subtle taunt.
Her hands curled into fists. “I have no defense against you. No power. What do you get out of being a bully?” At that moment she didn’t care if he smacked her down. Her mother would be disappointed. No one could endure so much without cracking, at least a little.
“Nothing.” His reply was quiet. “I take no pleasure in abusing women. I wouldn’t have hurt you.”
“If you don’t want to abuse me, then let me go. I helped Lord Falco.”
“And I will pay the debt owed you.” He held her eyes for a long moment. “It wouldn’t be wise to release you from my protection at this time, Bethany.”
Her mouth tightened, because he needn't tell her the reasons why. But it was still a choice he was taking away from her. There was an inflection underneath his words though, as if he was hoping she would not follow up on the line of questioning.
“Will you ever let me go?”
This time, his response was cold, definite. The first had been a courtesy, an opportunity for her to pretend, gracefully, that she wasn’t captive. Some people may have preferred the gentle lie in order to accept their circumstances in lieu of going mad. She was trained to address facts, however, not fantasy.
“No,” he said, speaking the truth aloud they both already knew. “I don’t release what is mine.”