Summer Reading Trail ~ Her Dark Soul, first chapter

Her Dark Soul

A man trapped by magic, an enigmatic guardian, and a virgin who will bind them all…

Ordered to secure a precious box from the priests of Fausta, Marek isn’t told a virgin ward is part of the deal. Ash’s innocence and need drive him to touch her, taste her, to take the twisted power in her flesh and energize his own. But hidden players force Marek into doing something unthinkable.

Lucas’ soul has been trapped for four hundred years. His new master demands he invade Ash’s dreams and take her virginity. If he does, the treasure she guards will open. He’s happy to obey. However, he finds her guarded by a man unlike any he’s known in his long life.

Ash should deny the fire in her blood, remember who and what she is, but something inside her finds both men irresistible. As their lives intertwine, they’re driven to find pleasure, using their unique blend of sex and magic to fight an enemy who would consume them all.

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Excerpt:
(c)2010 Kim Knox

Chapter One

They’d sold her.

When the sun broke the horizon, a stranger—a custodian—would come and take her from the temple. Ash stared at the quiet colonnades surrounding the small courtyard. The central fountain splashed water into the pre-dawn darkness and the light breeze swept cool air across the marble floor, bringing with it the familiar scents of chamomile and wild jasmine. She’d taken her first steps between the great ceramic pots lining the courtyard. The memory of the cool marble beneath her bare toes, bright sunlight, the laughter and joy as she toddled to Rani tightened her throat. This was her home.

Ash sank onto a cold stone bench, her thin shift little protection against the chill of the dawn air. She’d grown up in the Temple of Fausta, worshipped the goddess for the good fortune that had taken her from the Street of Cries. Without Rani plucking her from the clutch of abandoned newborns, she would have died like so many other unwanted and exposed babies. Chance had been with her that day.

She ran her hand over her tightly braided hair and the knot in her stomach twisted tight. She should’ve remembered that her goddess was a fickle creature. The priests had read the signs and she was no longer needed to serve Fausta. She bit her lip, denying the tears that burned in her eyes.

“Ash.” Rani’s soft voice carried on the dark air. A wry smile lifted her mouth. Yes, he could never sleep. He lifted an oil lamp, its yellow light washing over the stone steps leading down from Ash’s room. “You have to come inside.” He tugged the wool cloak tight around his narrow shoulders and shivered. “It’s too cold to be sitting out here on all this stone.”

He swung the lamp around the courtyard, stretching its light to the shadow-heavy corners. “And it’s not safe. Those thieves…” His soft voice took on a hard edge, one she’d never heard him use before. Rani was the essence of calm, but the desecration a few days before had all the priests rattled.

“Breaking into the sanctuary. Almost killing a ward.” He pulled in a shaking breath. “May the dark half of the goddess’s heart find them.” Rani’s curse hung on the chill air. He pressed a long hand to his smooth jaw and closed his eyes. His lips moved, silent, quick and she knew he whispered a counter-prayer over his own fortune.

He was the one who found little Kia in the sanctuary, her veins cut. Why she’d been out of her room, no one knew, but she was new to sleeping alone in her cell. She had wandered in the night, looking for the safety of her old shared room, and discovered the thieves instead. Only Rani’s inability to sleep had saved her, the goddess’s whim taking him to the sanctuary on his night walks.

The goddess had added a further kindness. Kia had no memory of the night. Still, anger tightened Ash’s body. Why would the thieves attack a child? The Temple of Fausta didn’t hold anything precious enough to warrant it.

Ash pushed herself to her feet and her leather sandals slapped against the marble as she crossed the courtyard. She curled her fingers into her palms, the pain of her nails in her flesh denying the twisting emotions gripping her. Anger, fear had her thoughts spinning.
Her gaze darted over Rani’s wrinkled face, the lamplight casting heavy shadows over his beardless jaw. He was the only parent she had ever had. And when the sun rose, she would never see him again. Her chest hurt and she wanted nothing more than to bury her face against his shoulder, but she couldn’t. She had to accept the whim of her goddess. They all did. “I couldn’t sleep.”

Rani took her curled fist, his long, smooth fingers easing hers free. “I was there for the reading, Ash. The fall of the pattern…” He squeezed her hand. “I would not see you go from here. Never.” He pulled in a heavy breath and his lips pressed together. “But the thieves—and what they did—forced us to consult the goddess.”

“And I have to go.”

“The marked ward, yes.” He twitched her a smile, but a heavy shadow darkened his blue eyes. “Kia…” He let out a long sigh. “She’s recovering…but the nurse doesn’t know whether she’ll remember. It will be a blessing if she doesn’t. And then tomorrow I must go to the Street of Cries and bring another to the temple.”

The duty of choosing always hung heavy on him, Ash knew that and she wanted to ease his pain. She’d been the first baby he’d saved. The marked ward, as she was known in the temple. The ward with the strange birthmark chasing down her spine. Others had stains marring their flesh, but they were nothing compared to the swirl of pattern covering her skin. “Then something good comes from this, from my leaving.” She turned back to the wide steps and Rani’s lamp lit the way. The dark archway led into a short corridor and the door to her cell.

The first prayer bell rang in the still air and her stomach turned over. Her need to follow the other wards into the great hall, to prostrate herself and begin the first prayer itched under her skin. Since she was four years old, it had been the start of her day. Doors creaked and Yeva and Tamina stepped out of their cells, tying back their hair and stifling yawns.

Yeva blinked, her dark gaze darting from Ash to Rani. “Ash…?”

Rani hushed her and stepped aside. “Find your way to the great hall.” He waved them past him.

Both women gave a brief nod and trotted down the steps to disappear into the shadows. The chatter of younger girls, their quickly hushed giggles and the soft murmurs of the priests filled the quiet air. Ash ached to follow, to find renewed comfort in the long days of prayer, of chanting and singing to ensure the good fortune of the emperor and the city of Bukhara. And not to think about the stranger, the man who would take her away from her safe world.

“Ash?”

Rani had felt the tremor she’d tried to suppress. “Who is he, Rani?” She paused. They’d kept her safe from the city beyond the high temple walls. From one of the ornate bell towers, she’d squinted down into the chaos of Bukhara and every day thanked her goddess for sparing her from it. The city was wild, decadent, and that was her greatest fear. She was untouched. “What will he expect from me?”

“Marek is a custodian.” He pushed open her door and hung his lamp on a hook beside the door. The light illuminated her small cell, her bunk, the stand with her washbowl and the low trunk that had held all she owned. Her clothes and the few trinkets given to her down the years now sat in a cloth satchel on her bed. “You packed. Good.”

Her mouth curved into a brief smile. “It didn’t take long.” Ash’s nerves had her palms damp, but she had to ask him the question that had been eating at her since he’d told her she had to leave. “Rani, am I going to be his whore?”

The old priest stiffened. “He’s a custodian. A man of magic.” He picked up her satchel, tugging at the straps to secure the contents. “One trusted by the emperor’s house for years.” He gave her the bag, his fingers delaying on the back of her hand. “One trusted by us.”
“That doesn’t mean he won’t…” She waved her hand, or tried to with the weight of the bag filling her arms. “You know. The slaves talk…and I’ve seen the way the new ones look at us, at the wards. It’s a hunger.”

Rani stroked his hand down her arm. “I trust him,” he said. “Custodians are bound to their oaths. To break it would mean expulsion, even death. He knows that you are to remain untouched.” He gave her a smile that she wanted to find reassuring, but her fear made that impossible. “Selling you to him is simply a part of the custodian ritual. It means nothing. He knows part of his duty is to protect you.”

Ash wanted to believe him. She did. But she couldn’t. The memory of how new slaves had raked their gaze over her body, heat and hunger burning in their eyes, still gripped her, had her stomach tight. One man, Tavio, lean, strong and brown from the fierce summer sun, had watched her as he worked in the market garden. His wiry muscles, the beauty of his sharply angled face drew her to him. He was so different from the pale, soft smoothness of the eunuch priests. His difference pushed an illegal desire through her flesh. She wanted to taste him, to press her mouth to his skin, to feel his strangeness under the light caress of her fingers.

Ash dug her hands into her bag, Tavio still thick in her thoughts. “He’s a man from Bukhara,” she murmured. “Will expect what a man expects.”

“He’s a custodian.” Rani turned her towards the open door and grabbed his lamp. “You’re a job.”

“Why?” She walked forward and the warmed breeze of the early morning brushed her face. Already long shadows cut across the courtyard. It was dawn. Time for her to leave her home. “And why him, Rani? What did the readings say?”

“Ash…” He said her name with that familiar hint of disapproval and a tear broke from her eye. She pulled in a sharp breath. Rani’s fingers squeezed her shoulder. “Wards are the flesh of the goddess, the priests her thoughts. You know I can’t share more.”

“I know. And you know that I still had to ask.”

“Yes, I do.” He pressed a light kiss into her hair and Ash closed her eyes, denying the run of yet more tears. “Marek will take care of you.”

“For how long?”

Rani paused. “That too is in the hands of the goddess.”

“Will I ever come home?” The silence stretched and Ash knew his answer. The hollow pain in her chest threatened to swallow her, but she fought it. A ward accepted the whims of her goddess. No, she would never come back to the temple. “Then we should go to meet this custodian.”

She slung the satchel over her shoulder and turned into the courtyard. Birdsong greeted her, starlings swooping in the pale sky. All outsiders were met in the atrium at the front of the temple, a guarded entrance and the only access in and out of the temple. Ash headed for it, her chin lifted and Rani at her shoulder. The slap of her sandals echoed as she walked the familiar interconnected corridors, across empty courtyards, past the open door of the youngest wards’ cell. One of the wet nurses smiled at her as she rocked the bundled Phemie to sleep, but then her gaze fell on Rani and the smile faded.

Ash focused on finding the main doors. Slaves stood at the great brass rings fixed to the center of the heavy, black wood. In unison, they moved, gripping the rings and straining against the weight of the door they guarded. Wood groaned and the slow scrape of the door against the worn marble ran a chill through her blood.

The atrium, lit by the yellow light of oil lamps, lay beyond.

“I must leave you here.” Rani’s fingers pressed into her shoulder and Ash skimmed his knuckles. He wasn’t supposed to have a favorite. And he didn’t…officially. Still, they shared a bond.

“Send me word of Kia, Rani.” Ash knew she asked the almost impossible. The temple followed strict rules about contacting the outside world. “Please.”

“You are best to put life here from your thoughts, forget us. It will be easier. Trust that Kia is in the hands of the goddess and that She has given you a new path. You must accept Her will.” His silence stretched and Ash listened to the pained beat of her heart. “The first priest will come soon. Go.”

His fingers slid back from her shoulder and an empty ache filled her belly. Now she had to leave him, leave her life. Forget them. Ash put one foot in front of the other, needing all of her strength to cover the short distance to the open doors. And she obeyed Rani’s wish. She didn’t look back.

The wide doors framed her and then she crossed into the atrium. Metal hinges groaned, their slow grind and the creak of the wood following her. The doors thudded into place. Ash pulled in a tight breath and fought down the need to cry. She was a ward in the Temple of Fausta, a holy woman. This…custodian…would never take that away from her.

She stared around the high, blank walls. A corridor stretched away to end in a single, wide door. The city lay beyond.

“Ah, here and on time. Good. Good.” A small door opened behind her and the first priest, Nelek, bustled through, accompanied by two large slaves. He held a wooden box tight to his chest. “Marek Savada has been sighted approaching the temple.”

Ash gave the first priest a low bow. She knew she shouldn’t question him, no one questioned the First Priest of Fausta, but her time of obeying him was almost at an end. “Who is this man, lord?”

Nelek’s pale eyes narrowed and fixed on her. She weathered his hard glare, while her stomach tied itself in knots. “Marek may not be so sympathetic to your constant questions, Ashsara.”

Yes, he always used her full temple name. Nelek wanted no familiarity with the wards. Never had as he rose through the ranks to the highest position in the temple. “I would like to know more about the man who will own me.” She gave Nelek a polite smile. “Is that so wrong?”

He let out a slow sigh and his fleshy fingertips drummed against the wooden box he held to his chest. “Marek has been a custodian for decades, has the ear of the emperor’s house and is respected. Bad blood runs through some of the breed of custodians. But Marek, while not a prime within his Order, is not one of them. We, indeed the whole of Bukhara, are very lucky to have him. You must trust in him, Ashsara.”

Decades. The word brought an unexpected ease to her nerves. He was an old man and an old man’s needs faded. “And the box, lord?”
“I decided a long time ago that I would only answer one of your questions a day, Ashsara.”

Heavy thumps sounded against the outer door and Nelek waved one of the slaves towards it. Ash resettled the strap of her satchel against her shoulder. Her insides still twisted, but the knowledge that Marek was an old man lifted some of his threat. The slave struggled under the weight of moving the heavy bars and the other slave scurried forward to help him pull back the thick door. Light inched into the atrium, a long slice of gold, growing with every heavy breath from the slaves, with the squeal of metal, and the groan of wood, until the door thudded back against the stone wall and opened the temple to the city.

A tall man, as tall as the eunuch priests, was a dark shadow in the high archway. Ash bit her lip. He stood straight, his outline against the brightness lean and strong. An old man the goddess had smiled on? Was that…

All thought wiped away as he strode towards them. Ash sucked in a quick breath. The first thought that burned back into her brain was that he wasn’t old. Far from it. She willed her mouth shut, because she wanted to let it gape and simply hang there. Marek the custodian was a man in his prime, with an angled, male face browned by the sun. His eyes and thick hair were the same color, as dark as shadow, matching his heavy wool cloak and solid leather boots. The memory of Tavio paled beside Marek’s beauty and Ash’s face reddened as she felt the unexpected heavy pull of need low in her flesh.

“Marek.” Nelek hustled forward and gave him a short bow. Marek returned it with a fluid, physical grace that had Ash’s heart beating hard. “Everything is prepared.”

Marek’s dark gaze moved away from the First Priest to slide over her, impersonal, assessing, and Ash couldn’t help herself, she held her breath. “Nothing was said about a ward.” His voice was as dark, as strong as the rest of him and undercut with a hint of anger. “This changes everything, Nelek.”

“The goddess has spoken.” Nelek’s light voice sounded pleasant, reasonable, but Ash knew him. He had risen to his high position for a reason. Very few got the best of the First Priest of the goddess Fausta. “And the emperor has placed his seal upon this action.”

A muscle jumped in Marek’s lean jaw and his gaze, which had never left her, narrowed. Her stomach turned over at the flare of bitter anger burning in him. “Show me.”

“Marek, you doubt—”

“Show me.”
The words were a low growl that lifted the hairs on the back of Ash’s neck and tingled down her spine. Her birthmark burned and the unexpected reaction forced her to bite at her cheek to keep back her gasp.

Nelek clicked his fingers at one of the slaves. The man gave the priest a quick nod and ran back through the smaller door into the priests’ compound. Within moments, he returned with a scroll, around which curved the blood red and gold of the emperor’s seal. Marek took it, broke the seal and scanned the contents. He frowned.

He smacked the scroll back into the slave’s open palm and moved past Nelek. Ash’s heart hammered as he approached her. He stopped close enough for her to breathe in his scent, a mix of leather, unknown spices and male skin. He leaned in. She willed her spine straight, though her fingers crushed the woven strap of her satchel as his mouth hovered over hers.

“Marek!”

Ash ignored Nelek’s shrill voice. Marek’s dark eyes speared her, and she almost lost herself in their endlessness. Her lips parted and she tasted his breath, sweet, hot, and the temptation of his mouth flared her body with desire. The need to tease her tongue over his full bottom lip, to see if he could possibly taste as good as he did in her wildly spinning imagination, drove heat hard through her flesh, tightened her breasts. She ached to press herself against the lean hardness of his body, for him to—

“And this is the best ward you have?” His words spoken against her skin, his lips catching hers in a light caress, broke a gasp from her. “I could bend her over and fuck her right here.”

Ash’s cheeks flamed and she staggered back from him, her spine hitting the cool stone of the atrium wall.

Marek lifted an eyebrow and his eyes gleamed, his gaze roaming over her body as hot and sharp as any of the slaves who had watched her. “Yank up your robe.”

Two strides and he was almost pressed against her. His male scent, the strength of his body, pulsed through her, bringing with it a raw panic and a mortifying need. They’d said he wouldn’t want this, that the custodian would protect her. His lips teased the shell of her ear and liquid fire flickered low in her belly.

“Want me to breach you, ward?”

Ash cried out as he cupped her, his fingers pressing against the hot, aching flesh between her thighs. “All right, let’s give the eunuch a show.”

“Marek!”

Nelek tugged at his arm, but Ash knew it was as if the first priest tugged at iron. Marek shoved the priest away. His finger curled and the sudden sharp flare of almost overwhelming pleasure arched her into him. “Are you a ward?”

He growled the words against her lips and the ache for him to kiss her, the surge of unknown heat tearing up through her flesh made her heart pound. She didn’t want to talk, she wanted to taste him, thread her fingers through his thick hair and crush his mouth to hers.

“Are you?” His finger pressed a slow circle into her flesh and she had to grab at his shoulders, her breath little more than pants. “Show me. Show us all.”

She found his mouth, her teeth grazing his bottom lip, teasing him, tasting him. A tremor ran through her body. He tasted… Her thoughts called out to her goddess. He tasted incredible. Sweet and spiced and the strange prickle of his bristled chin sparked fire in her veins. The pulse low in her belly deepened, expanded, the heat surging…but it wasn’t pleasure. She cried out and a violent wave smashed into Marek, throwing him away from her. He staggered back but a dark grin cut his mouth.

“All right, she’s a ward.” He straightened his long cloak and his attention fixed on the box Nelek held. “But this is still not what we agreed.”

Ash stared at Marek, her body weak, boneless. What had just happened? He’d had his hand… She stared down her shift and blushed at the wet stain and creases marring the white material. Ash pressed her trembling fingers to her lips and tasted him, the first man she had ever kissed. “What did you do?”

Marek ignored her and took the box. The wood almost glowed now, a patina that she was certain hadn’t been there as Nelek held it. “Get her a cloak.”

The first priest nodded to a slave, who darted back into the priest compound. Ash watched him run before she pushed herself away from the wall. Her legs trembled, feeling more like water than flesh. The slave reappeared, breathing hard and with a white cloak draped across his strong arms. He presented it to her with a low bow.

Ash blinked, still disoriented. A wild fire had burned in her flesh and brought with it a strange sense of power. But then something had changed, distorted it and flung that fire at Marek. That made no sense. Was impossible—

“Put the cloak on.”

Marek drawled the words, as if talking to a child, and her pride kicked in. Ash gave the slave a short smile and slid the cloak around her shoulders, quick fingers fastening the large buttons to the front and at her shoulder. Still Marek frowned at her.
“White,” he muttered. He pointed to the slave beside her. “Put her hood up.”

“I can—” But the man was too eager to obey the custodian and arranged the heavy hood over her hair. “What difference does it make?”

Mark snorted. “None, obviously.” He let out a tight breath, reached for the clasps on his own cloak and shrugged it off his shoulders into the waiting hands of the second slave. “She has to wear this.”

The first slave made quick work of removing her white cloak. Within moments, she was covered in heavy, dark wool and her heart beat hard. His scent, the warmth of his body shrouded her, the sense of him being wrapped around her and her inability to escape him burned the blood under her cheeks. And the man watched her. She couldn’t help the slide of her gaze down his body. His lean torso, emphasized by the long, dark leather tunic with its heavy chest buckles, flared more heated thoughts. Ash didn’t understand her instant reaction, her instant need for this stranger. She had to fight it. “I demand—”

“Silence.”

The order was a low growl that skittered down her spine and ignited the twists of her birthmark. Ash clamped her jaw together, an involuntary action, and she stared at him as he turned to Nelek. Anger burned under her skin. How had he done that? Stopped her mid-sentence?

He dug into the breast pocket of his long tunic and retrieved a coin. It caught the light and the harsh glare of brass stung her eyes. Marek pressed the coin into Nelek’s palm. Payment. For her. “You’re new to your role. If we are to do further business, in the future I must be forewarned.”

Nelek’s fingers closed over the brass disc. “We act only as the goddess directs.”

“Of course you do.” Marek snapped his fingers at Ash and she stumbled forward. He gripped her hand and the contact surged through her. Hot, callused fingers dug into her palm, breaking the spell he had wrapped around her.

Spell. Her heart jumped and her breath caught in her throat. He practiced magic?

“Ready?”

Ash found herself under hard scrutiny. She fought to focus. Everything about the man had her thrown off balance. She’d heard whisper of magic-users from the slaves, the wet nurses, but never thought… Had that been him? Had he magicked up the riot of whatever-it-was tearing from her flesh? Well, damn him. He wouldn’t get that chance to play with her again. A little voice at the back of her mind laughed at her. Yes, she was ignoring the tightness of her breasts, the hard pinch of her nipples, the throb low in her flesh that came with simply wearing his cloak.

Ash gritted her teeth and lifted her chin. He would not control her. “I do as the goddess directs.”

Marek raised an eyebrow and his beauty, the remembered taste of his skin on her tongue, ran hot through her thoughts. “You’re a dangerous ward,” he murmured. “Too free with your power.”

“I’m ready to leave.”

“And they chose not to share that knowledge with you.” He glanced back to Nelek and a frown further wrinkled the first priest’s face. “Let us hope this is a wise decision.”

Mark turned and drew Ash after him, as if she were some animal on an unseen rope, her borrowed cloak dragging over the stone floor. She bunched it in her hand and walked at his side. She wasn’t some recalcitrant child to be dragged behind him. Ash let that prideful anger sit in her thoughts. It pushed down the fear of what her life now was with this man.

She stepped out of the arched doorway and the heavy door thudded shut behind her. Marek’s hand hardened around hers. Had he felt that unwanted tremor? Ash gritted her teeth and again willed one foot in front of the other. She had walked away from Rani. She could cross the narrow yard to the outer gate.

The air tasted different, the acrid burn of smoke and the thick stink of the city heavy in her lungs. Her throat tightened. Somehow, the air inside the temple remained pure, untainted. Her thoughts jumped. More magic? She’d never believed and yet her life seemed to be shrouded in it.

Guards in shining steel-plate armor saluted and two of them cranked pulleys to lift and part the heavy metal doors. The screech and thump of the mechanism set her teeth on edge. She had only ever watched the doors opening from one of the highest bell towers, the intricate slide of metal over metal a silent show. Now, she waited, her heart in her throat as the last barrier of the temple parted before her.

The vast area of Emperor Square stretched out before them. Wagons trundled along the deep grooves cut into the stone, worn down by the centuries. Three men on bow- backed nags clopped around them, wicker panniers heavy with fish. Already, the first- hour crowd milled through the first stalls, the noise of their chatter, of men and women unfolding benches and the hawkers’ voices echoing across the square. It was the third day of the month and the surrounding farms brought their produce in to sell, setting up their carts and stalls between the temples and tall civic buildings.

A man crying out the virtues of his leeks and onions faltered as he caught sight of them. His face blanched. Laughing children staggered to a gasping halt at her side. Then swift murmurs passed through the crowd. People fell back in a slow wave, none of them taking their attention from Marek. Ash glanced at him, wanted to see what had the sharp scent of fear clinging to the people, but she saw only his stark beauty, gilded by the slants of light as the sun climbed over the Basilica of Pluvius.

A man stepped out of the crowd, tall and dark like Marek. He wore the same leather, buckled tunic, though his was pitted and stained. “Out in the first hour, Marek Savada.”

“I’ve no time for this.”

“I warned you—”

“You didn’t warn me, Jasha.” Marek side-stepped the man, the crowd of people shrinking back, still needing to keep their distance. Street soldiers in burnished armor moved through the knots of people, but they stopped at the edge of the crowd. Whatever was happening was not their business. None of the citizens of Bukhara seemed eager to leave the square. So much for her protection. Marek pulled danger to him. “You got drunk and mouthed off. Now you feel obliged to act out your drunken threat.” He paused and the strange silence of the square hung heavy. “Don’t.”

“You’re a canker within the Order. Unnatural. Unwanted. You survive only on your reputation.”

But Jasha was turned on his heel as Marek walked straight past him, Ash trotting fast at his side. A gaggle of women stared, leaning in to get a good look at her under her heavy hood. Ash jerked away.

“My reputation is deserved.” Marek snorted. “You’ve not lived in the city long enough to know this.”

“Face me.”

Jasha’s low growl ran a chill over her skin, but it didn’t stir the dark birthmark on her spine. That seemed reserved for Marek’s voice. But still, his threat tightened her gut. Marek’s hand remained fast around hers and she drew a strange comfort from it.

“I will take what you hold.”

Marek stopped and Ash could almost feel the weight that settled on him. “Don’t do this, Jasha.”

“You can’t ignore this challenge to your right to be a custodian.”

Marek closed his eyes and for a long moment, he simply breathed. “Fine, if this is what you want.” He half-turned to face Jasha, but his attention fixed on her. “Hold this.” He eased his hand free of hers and presented her with the shiny, wooden box. His fingertips brushed hers and a spark of heat surged, forcing a gasp.

“Stop doing that!” she muttered.

A smile tugged at Marek’s mouth. “It’s not me.” But then he frowned. “Hold it tight to your chest.”

Ash pressed the side of the box against her cloak and dug her fingers around its sharp edges. The wood was cool against her palms and wrists and she had the strange sensation of a pattern against her skin, though the box was plain. “What is this?”

“That’s not your concern. Keep it safe.” He pointed to the cobbles, marking a place two feet away from him. “Stand there.”

Ash resisted the urge to roll her eyes. “Any more orders?”

“Yes, don’t interfere.” Marek faced Jasha, rubbing his hands together. He straightened his shoulders. “I’m giving you the chance to walk away, Jasha.”

The man laughed. “Is this what all the others have done? Turned and ran? You’re nothing more than a first-rank custodian leeching from the Order.”

“I have that rank for a reason.”

Jasha raised his hands. Light flashed and arced between his palms, and the stink of hot metal filled the warm morning air. As one, the crowd moved back and Ash had the need to scramble back with them. What kind of magic was this?

She tore her gaze from the stark, blue-white light writhing over the other man’s palms and stared at Marek. Or what she could see of him as she stood behind his left shoulder. She thought she caught the bright burn of light sparking over his fingers too. What were they going to do? Lash each other with whips of lightning?

Jasha sprang forward. Marek blocked him with a raised arm. Light surged over them, and the hollow ring of thick metal echoed. Marek grabbed at his upper arms, bunching the leather of his opponent’s stained tunic. “Stop this now.” His order was little more than a growl as he fought to hold him, both men’s boots scuffing over the uneven cobbles.

Jasha bared his teeth, his face twisted in anger. “No.”

He pushed hard against Marek’s chest, but the custodian was already moving, his leg and then his foot smashing into Jasha’s shin. The low clang of metal rang out and Jasha lost his balance. Marek was ready for him and shifted his weight, hurling the man to the right and down. Jasha’s cry cut short as he slammed into the hard stone of the square. No metal clanged and the surge of lightning around his hands flickered and died.

Marek crushed his foot against the man’s throat. “I have proven my right to hold.” The words came out harsh, tight, his chest heaving as he pulled in needed air. He twisted his boot heel and Jasha’s fingers scrabbled at its worn leather. “Say it.”

“You…”

Marek bent down, his face close to the sweating man. The stink of light churning over his hands drifted across the silent air. “Yes?”
Ash, her heart in her throat, strained to listen to his gurgled whisper…but she couldn’t catch the words. The watching crowd was with her, leaning in as close as they dared to witness Jasha’s defeated admission. Whatever it was, it satisfied Marek who lifted his boot and yanked the man to his feet.

Jasha rubbed at his neck, his face still red and sweaty. He gave Marek a short bow. “Marek Savada.” His pale gaze flicked over her and then he broke back into the tight thong.

“Well?” Marek addressed the crowd and as one, they scattered. He turned back to her and took the box from her bloodless fingers. “Time to go.”

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