Twilight fulfilled, p.9
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       Twilight Fulfilled, p.9
 

         Part #18 of Wings in the Night series by Maggie Shayne
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Chapter 9

 

  His beautiful Brigit slept on the floor, in a well-cushioned, jewel-colored nest. Her oversize pillows were made of silk and satin and velvet. Her blankets were the softest to be had. Chenille, the servant had called them when she'd brought them into the bedroom. He liked the fabric well.

  What he did not like so well, Utana mused, was the lovely warrioress's moody silence and lack of eye contact. She had brooded near the window-glass for a while, and then spent nearly an hour in the adjoining bathroom. Long enough that he had begun to worry, but when he'd tapped on the door, she had been snappish, assuring him that escape from his suite of rooms was quite impossible, something she said he was probably too dense to have figured out for himself, and that he needn't worry.

  He'd mulled over those words ever since. Why would his vizier take precautions to prevent his royal guest from escaping his own room? Was he not free to leave this place by means of the front door, should he so desire?

  Wearing a short nightgown, she'd emerged at length, her hair wet, her skin damp and fragrant from the bath. He'd wanted her more than ever, but she had only wrapped herself in a chenille blanket and nestled into her cushions. Within minutes she had gone to sleep. And no wonder. He sensed her exhaustion.

  Perhaps, if he were honest with himself, he might admit that it was wrong to keep her here, a prisoner. She was far too important a woman to be treated in such a way. The would-be savior of her people. She must be held in very high esteem. He could only imagine what purpose she must suppose he had in holding her captive this way. He hadn't told her the real one.

  He needed her here with him. She had known instantly what had taken him the better part of three days to even begin to suspect-and had still been unsure of. That Nashmun was deceiving him, using him to achieve his own ends. Brigit had known immediately that all the honored guests posing as world leaders at tonight's celebration had been liars, as well. Actors, she'd called them. Pretending to be kings and pres-ee-dents and foreign dignitaries of all sorts.

  He'd allowed himself to be fooled. And the force that had fooled him had not been any great powers of deception on the part of his fork-tongued vizier. No, it had been his own ego. He had wanted to believe the world of modern man honored and respected him. And so he had.

  Even though he'd told Brigit that he had known the truth from the start, he had not. Though he should have. He was ashamed, and angry.

  She knew. What was more, Nashmun was aware that she knew, thought her to be a part of his charade, one of the actors in his employ. Having not yet seen her face unclothed and recognized her from their brief, unpleasant acquaintance in the past, Nashmun believed her to be on his side. If they could sustain that illusion, Brigit might well gain access to information Utana might not be able to gather on his own.

  He had no wish to remain here longer than was necessary. He'd been growing bored with the luxury already, even before he'd been made a fool of. He wanted only to regain his strength and was already well on the way to doing so. And then he needed to find the fleeing vahmpeers and commit the hateful act he'd been commanded by the gods to perform. He had to immolate them.

  But perhaps, if he were lucky, the Anunaki would grant his desperate pleas and allow him to let this one live.

  And perhaps her brother, too. For she would never wish to live if her twin did not.

  Yes, he decided. He would petition the gods to spare James, as well. And in the meantime, Brigit was going to stay here to help him. Whether she liked it or not. Because a very strong suspicion was maturing within his mind. When the time came that he wanted to leave this place, Nashmun was going to try very hard to keep him within his control. To hold him here. A prisoner.

  And Utana did not like being a prisoner.

  He watched Brigit for a while longer as she slept, the notion of going to her in her nest of soft pillows niggling at him. The chambermaid had brought the nightgown that she wore. A soft, thin white gown that left her long, lean, firm arms bare, with ruffles at her shoulders and more along the hem, which came only to the tops of her thighs.

  He had been planning to ask that more clothing be brought for her, but now he thought better of it. He would choose her garb himself.

  In the morning.

  Stripping off his robes, he slid naked into his bed. Alone. And he lay there trying to sleep for two full hours before giving up in frustration.

  He decided to walk outside, in the gardens behind the palace, and clear his head. He needed the night air.

  Surging from his bed, he dragged a luxurious robe of red satin from the back of a nearby chair and pulled it on, looping the sash and yanking it tight, even as he strode toward the door.

  "Where are you going?" she asked.

  He froze, her voice stroking over his skin like a physical touch. "I'm going outside to walk amid the gardens. "

  "Can I go, too?"

  "No. "

  She sat up, the blanket falling around her as she did. "Why not?"

  His hand stilled on the doorknob. "Brigit, I am not accustomed to explaining my decisions, only to having them obeyed without question. "

  "Well, you'd better get used to it, pal. " She rose and strode right up to him, which was almost funny, her being so small, her bare feet tiny and not much good for stomping, and her only power against him no longer hers to wield. "I'm going with you," she said.

  He stared down at her. "The reason for my walk, Brigit, is to ease my frustration. Since you are the cause of it, your company would defeat the purpose. Do you understand?"

  She frowned at him. "You're the one making me stay. How am I the one who's frustrating you?"

  He shot his hand out to clasp hers, then brought it to his groin to press her palm there, only briefly. Just long enough so that she felt his hardness. He saw her eyes widen.

  Then he let go, and she jerked her hand back as if she had been burned.

  "I have come to understand that taking a woman by force is considered the height of bad behavior-a crime, in fact, in your odd and twisted time. Even, I am told, for a king. "

  She took a step back, and he could see that she was shaken by his words, even though she rolled her eyes and made a disgusted sound in her throat. "You're such a pig. "

  "I am not a pig. I am a man. And I want you very much. I dislike intensely your society's insistence that I not take you until you consent to the act. It is maddening, even though I know it is only a matter of time until you do. "

  "In your dreams. "

  He smiled slowly, reached out to trail a finger over her cheek. "Those would be pleasant dreams, indeed, lady. "

  She turned and flung herself back into her nest. "Fine, go walk it off, then. For future reference, in my time, cold showers are considered an acceptable alternative. "

  He nodded. "While I am out, I will command Nashmun to send someone out to purchase clothing for you. It will be here waiting by the time we've had our morning meal. Is there anything in particular you require?"

  My suitcases are in my car. It's parked in a pull-off about two miles north. But if you tell them that, they'll know I didn't arrive in that van full of belly dancers.

  I'll get your belongings myself. I will tell them I went shopping.

  They'll never let you leave. Haven't you figured it out yet, Utana? You're as much a prisoner here as I am.

  He kept his emotions hidden, though her words troubled him, confirming, as they did, what he had come to suspect. Even if that were true, they could not keep me against my will. You underestimate me, harem slave.

  She sucked in a breath, shocked, he knew, by the way he had referred to her.

  I'll return within the hour, lady. And I will bring your things to you and prove to you that my situation is not as dire, my vizier not quite as duplicitous, as you presume. Until then. He bowed to her with exaggerated formality.

  She called him something, a word he had not heard before: asshole. He
told himself to find its meaning in the library downstairs before he returned. And then he left, closing his bedroom door behind him and turning the lock.

  "King Utana?" asked the attendant who stood outside his chamber door.

  There was always one stationed there, never the same one twice, and always male. They had a similar energy about them, these doormen. They smelled of authority, like enforcers. And their appearances were similar, as well. They wore short, cropped haircuts. Each also bore a tiny earpiece with a curling wire that ran behind his ear and vanished into the collar of his stiff modern suit. They always wore the suit. It was always the same. A white shirt beneath a jacket of darkest blue that matched the detestable pants. They adorned themselves with a sash of sorts, around the neck, always either blue or red. What had Nashmun called them? Neckties, yes. Neckties. As far as Utana could see, the odd things served no purpose except adornment, and he could not fathom why, as there was nothing remotely attractive about them.

  No matter.

  "I am going for a walk in the gardens," he told the man he had come to think of as one of his personal guards. Now he wondered if the man were there to protect him, or to keep him from leaving. "Do not let anyone in or out of my chambers until I return," he ordered, eager to see what the man's reaction would be.

  "King, I'm not sure that's such a good idea. "

  "I did not ask what you thought about the idea. " Utana nodded at the chamber door. "Keep her safe. I will return within the hour. "

  "Yes, sir. "

  With a sharp nod, Utana walked away down the long corridor to the head of the curving staircase that swooped downward. He felt the guard's eyes on him the entire way, but the man did not move to stop Utana from leaving. Feeling a bit of relief that Brigit had been wrong in her assumptions, he started down the stairs, then paused, as he heard the doorman speaking again.

  Utana stood very still and listened, his hearing far more acute than his chamber guard must be aware. Though it was puzzling, too, as Utana sensed no other being nearby to whom he might be speaking.

  "The First is on the move," the guard said.

  The First. That obviously referred to himself, Utana thought. But to whom was the man speaking?

  There was a crackle of static, and understanding dawned. He'd heard that crackle before, when the servants of this palace communicated with one another by means of the ingenious devices attached to the cuffs of their jackets.

  "Says he's going for a walk in the gardens," the guard said a second later. "Back in an hour, he says. " There was more crackling, and then, "Right, will do. "

  Utana frowned, listening, but there was no further discussion, and his guard did not come after him but remained at his post, as Utana had instructed.

  Or as the person he'd been reporting to had instructed?

  Utana moved down the stairs then, no longer quite as confident in his ability to come and go as he pleased. He was beginning to suspect that Brigit's words had been correct, and he was eager to put them to the test.

  He crossed through the massive domed room at the base of the stairs, which served as both entry hall and the central hub of the palace, with other sections extending from it in all directions save one, where the entrance was. It was like the body of a giant spider, with legs extending all around.

  Utana took the hallway that led to the rear, following it past its countless doors all the way to the end, and then exited, finding the doors unlocked.

  He stepped out into the palace's rear gardens, pausing to look around. But he saw no one, sensed no other presence there. The only sounds were those of the fountain's gentle cascade, rippling and splashing and peaceful, and the cries of a pair of night birds, calling out one to the other. Caroo, caroo, caroo.

  The nighttime air touched his face, and he inhaled the scents of late-blooming flowers and fresh breezes. It was good here. And he felt no presence. No one had followed him. No one waited to try to stop him from leaving, should he so desire. It was a relief to know that. True, Nashmun had his reasons for wanting to befriend him. Surely his desire to rid the world of the vahmpeer race was motivating him. But that did not make him the evildoer Brigit believed him to be.

  Utana wandered the garden's paved footpaths for half an hour, wishing to the gods that the path was one of well-trod earth or grass, or even sand. This hard false stone on which he walked, which they called "pavement," was unnatural and hardly soothing. He needed his feet on the earth.

  No matter.

  He spotted the tall arching gate at the far end of the garden. He would go through it, and then around the manicured lawns to the front of the palace and the street beyond it, to find Brigit's car and her clothing. But first. . .

  He paused, finding for himself a spot near the center of the garden that seemed isolated. Stepping off the pavement, he sighed in relief as his bare feet felt the cool earth against them.

  So much better. A few more steps off the path and he was amid an abundance of rosebushes, standing in a small circle of grass more or less in their center. White blossoms surrounded him, and the night air was thick with their fragrance.

  Perfect.

  Utana stood there in the natural circle formed by the boundary of the thorny foliage and opened his arms. Tipping his head back, he stared up at the night sky, which was as thick with stars tonight as the garden was thick with roses. Indeed, the white stars and the white roses were very much alike. Both sacred to the moon, both formed in honor of the Queen of Heaven, Inanna, and in her image. As the beautiful Brigit herself must be. Oh, her hair was pale. Not raven, like Inanna's. But her beauty, bravery, spirit, even her temper, rivaled those of the Morning Star herself.

  "Ancient and Mighty Anunaki," Utana said softly, "hear my plea. I, Ziasudra, Utanapishtim, Flood Survivor, your faithful servant, priest of the Ancient and Mighty Gods, King of Old, I call upon you. Hear my words!"

  He paused, feeling the air, sensing that his gods were near. They heard him. He felt the tingling energy of their attention.

  "Enki, Lord Earth, Enlil, Lord Air! Hear me! Anu, of the Heavens, Utu, Sun God, Nanna of the Moon, Inanna, Queen of Heaven and of the Morning Star, Ninmah, Mountain Lady! Give heed to my cry!"

  The wind lifted, and a tiny swirl of fallen rose petals rose with it, forming a spiral in the air before him, then raining to the ground again.

  They were here. They were listening!

  "I ask you again for your mercy upon my people, who have done you no harm. Indeed, the sin committed was mine alone. And for that I have suffered, surely more than any man has suffered before. I ask you yet again, Ancient and Mighty Ones, the Seven Who Decree the Fates, I beg of you, humbled as a servant at your feet. " With those words, he fell to his knees. His heart seemed to swell within him, and tears to burn in his eyes. "Spare them," he begged. "Spare me this bloody task which you have set before me. Punish me further if you must. But spare the vahmpeers. Or at the least, the moonlight lady and her brother, James, who bear only a hint of the stain of the condemned, and that through no fault of their own. "

  He bent his head as the rush of his desire went forth from within him, leaving him weak and empty. "I will do anything required to make it so. Send me a sign, that I might know your will. As always, I shall humbly obey. "

  He opened his eyes, nodded once, confident his gods had heard him at last, and that they had been pleased with his prayer, the roses, the scents. Yes, they must have been pleased. Soon they would send a sign. Their answer.

  Utana walked back onto the paved footpath and approached the arching garden gate. He reached for the latch.

  As his hand touched the metal, a blast of energy hit him with a shower of sparks. The impact sent him flying backward, his feet leaving the earth as his body arched, and then he landed, his back slamming into the paved walkway, driving the very breath from his lungs. He lay there, face up on the ground, gasping for the breath that had been stolen away from him and feeling as if
his palms were on fire.

  His body seemed alive with a tingling, zinging energy almost too strong to bear, and his head pounded and throbbed as bursts of white light exploded before his eyes.

  Was this the answer his gods had sent to him, then?

  It was not the reply he had hoped for.

 
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