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CHAPTER 25

"He knows," whispered Lucian.

Mirin slowly turned to where he sat cross-legged on the floor of the chamber. Although they were seeing something far away, far beyond her, his green-gem eyes were bright. His forehead, the red brand stark against his white skin, glistened with sweat. The long, slender hands were clenched into fists upon his knees.

"He knows." This time his voice wasn't a whisper, and now his lips curved into a smile.

She knew she should turn away. If he focused, he would see her; he would be angry. Mirin didn't want him to be angry. She wanted only to be loved.

No man had ever loved her so. Had any man ever loved her? So many men had claimed they did, had offered her their wealth, their time, their souls. Yes, everything but their name, everything but their respect, everything but their control. She shuddered as she thought of their hands upon her: so greedy, so brutal, so coarse. Maddox of Yorgren, Second Lord of the Council, had groveled at her feet, but to him, to all of them, they were still the feet of a whore.

Mirin felt tears stinging her eyes, but she dare not raise a hand to wipe them away. Lucian would make her his queen when he ruled the world, and she would sit at his side in her robes and her jewels and look down upon the folk of Brennor; the most expensive whore in Avacar would hold the fate of every man in Brennor in her hands. They would grovel at her feet, and they would not be the feet of a whore. Because she was Chosen. By him.

Lucian's emerald eyes were glittering now, and his lips had drawn back; his perfect white teeth shone in the torchlight. He threw his head back and shouted, "Yes!" His long red hair, damp now with sweat, hung down his back, and his chest heaved and shuddered, and his hands opened to move back and forth, back and forth, upon his thighs.

She must look away! But she could not; she needed to be loved. He would adore her, worship at the shrine of her body, perform the sacred rites with the greatest devotion. The tears spilled down her cheeks.

She dare not interrupt him. She would make him angry; he would punish her. She didn't want to be punished. She wanted to be loved. The power which she knew she should develop, knew she should covet, knew she could wield, was as potent as a drug, as irresistible as a charm, as unattainable as the Defender of the Faithful. Lucian shone with it; he surged with it. Mirin trembled with the need to touch him, to be touched. Because she was Chosen. By him.

She knelt before him.

The green eyes focused on hers.

She shivered, and her eyes widened, and she licked her lips. But she didn't look away. She couldn't. She would be punished, yes, but then she would be loved. She would be hurt, yes, but then she would be loved. And then, for a few breaths, for a few heartbeats, she would wield a power even greater than his. For a few brief moments, the most powerful man who ever lived would be her slave. As she was his.

Mirin waited, holding her breath, for the emerald eyes to harden, for the mouth to turn down, for the hand to strike.

Lucian smiled.

Mirin let out the breath.

And suddenly, Lucian reached out to pull her into his arms, and they were warm, and gentle, though he hugged her tightly to his breast. She looked into his eyes, and they were as bright as a small boy's with a new puppy. His smile widened. "He knows, my love!"

Mirin smiled back. "Who knows, Lucian?"

"The High Patriarch, dearest!"

"You touched the mind of the High Patriarch of Brennor?" She drew away from him.

"Of course, my love." He kissed the tip of her nose. "He is only human, you know."

"What is it he knows?"

"Why, dearest, simply that his precious Holy Church is about to be destroyed."

Mirin shivered; he laughed and drew her close to whisper into her hair, "He knows of me. He knows of my intentions. He knows he must stop me."

"But, Lucian, how?"

He giggled. "It seems my recent activities have attracted some attention."

"You should not have revealed your name!"

Lucian sighed and shook his head. "Perhaps." For a moment, his mirth fled, and his beautiful eyes brimmed with tears, and he whispered, "I was not forgotten after all." He drew a deep breath. "My illustrious saga is well known to the High Patriarch."

Mirin tenderly took his hand and lay her cheek against it. "Oh, Lucian, what will happen now?"

He laughed and kissed the top of her head. "Why, he will have to kill me."

"No," Mirin cried. She sought out his eyes; they burned with emerald fire.

"At least he will have to try."

"Then we must run away!"

Lucian lifted a strand of her hair and wound it about his finger. "No, I don't think so, my love."

"But we must!" She searched his face, but his smile had not wavered. "You don't know how powerful the High Patriarch is, Lucian. He'll send an army after you!" She grasped his hands tightly and stared into his eyes. "Even you cannot withstand the Defenders of the Church."

"I suppose you're right, dearest." His chin fell to his chest.

"Then we must flee!"

His head shot up. His mouth was twisted; his eyes were as brittle as gems. "No, I don't think so, my love." He wound the strand of her hair more tightly around his finger and pulled her face to his.

"But..." She was silenced as he bruised her mouth with his kiss. No longer did he hold the strand of hair. He was working his magic now with his hands, and Mirin shuddered. She could not speak; she no longer wished to. She wanted only to be loved. She felt dizzy, weak, as she fell back, as he touched her, as he kissed her. The power built in her, and soon, very soon, she would wield it, and he would succumb to it. Soon, very soon. She closed her eyes.

He stopped.

She opened her eyes.

He pushed himself away.

She reached out her hand to him.

He shook his head. "No, I don't think so, my love."

She gasped and stared.

He fussed with his robes, smoothing, rearranging them, then ran his fingers through the tangles in his hair. "I have a great deal to do, you know." He stood gracefully and smiled down at her.

Mirin saw the green eyes glinting in the torchlight, the elegant mouth curl.

"As you tried to point out, dearest, I must deal with the situation." His voice was as bright as his eyes.

She shivered. Her breaths were slowing now; her trembling had stopped. She licked her lips. "And how will you deal with it, Lucian?" She forced herself to smile. He would see her strength. He would know her power. "Will you defeat an army?"

He threw back his head and laughed. "Oh, no! You see, I won't have to."

"But you said..."

"I said, dearest, that he must try to kill me."

"Yes, and you said you won't flee."

"No, I won't." Lucian tossed his head and smirked. "I don't need to."

Mirin's smile fell away.

"You see, the High Patriarch must proceed with great caution; he dare not let the secret out. Imagine if the common folk were to learn the truth of the Chosen. Imagine if they were to find out that these Chosen were no miracle, that they were simply born lucky, and worse yet, that their precious Church and their precious gods had absolutely nothing to do with it. Imagine if they were to discover they'd been lied to for a thousand years." His eyes crinkled with delight. "And they would find out, my love, oh yes, they would indeed find out, human nature being what it is."

Mirin nodded. "So what does the High Patriarch plan to do, Lucian?"

He rubbed his hands together and bared his teeth. "It seems, dearest, that the High Patriarch has enlisted the services of an assassin to do his dirty work, though, needless to say, the poor fellow isn't being told the whole story."

Mirin's eyes widened. "An assassin!"

Lucian's head bobbed up and down and he chuckled. "This man is to seek me, find me, kill me. Quite simple, isn't it? The deed is done; no one's the wiser."

"But that is madness! You said the High Patriarch knows of you, of your power. How could he possibly think that an assassin could defeat you?" She dropped her gaze. "You would destroy him with a thought."

His laughter echoed through the chamber, harsh, loud.

Mirin covered her ears.

Lucian knelt before her and gently took her hands. "It seems this assassin is a personage of no small renown in these parts, believed to possess remarkable skills in both killing and healing." He winked. "An odd combination, don't you think, my love?"

She raised her eyes to his. "Only one man in Brennor possesses those skills, Lucian," she whispered as she saw again the image of the tall man on his black horse. "The Defender of the Faithful."

His eyes sparkled. "Yes, that's it, that's the man! So Brennor now employs an official assassin..."

"Gabriel of Morevale is no assassin," cried Mirin, pulling her hands away. "He is Defender of the Faithful of Brennor," she whispered.

"Defender of the Faithful, eh? And what, may I ask, is a Defender of the Faithful?"

"There is only one Defender, Lucian. The sword of the Church. The symbol of justice." A tear stole down her cheek. "The protector of all the folk of Brennor." Lucian's eyes had grown hard. "And, yes, his touch holds the power to heal." She could not stop her tears. "He is the best, the finest man in Brennor, Lucian, revered and loved by all."

Lucian sneered. "And you, dearest, have you 'loved' this Defender? I'm really not concerned with your reverence."

Mirin blushed with shame. "The Defender of the Faithful is consecrated to the gods, Lucian, bound by a sacred vow of chastity."

The emerald eyes twinkled. "How sad for him, my dear," he said as he pulled her into his arms.

Mirin stiffened. Chastity! The Chosen were celibate; it was the price they paid for being the favored of the gods, for wielding their power. Staring blindly, she didn't even notice what Lucian was doing to her body.

But Lucian was Chosen! Until this moment, she had not seen. Until this moment, she had not cared. Until this moment, she had not believed. Lucian had spoken the truth. The teachings of the Church were nothing but a myth! Perhaps there were no gods, just as he said. Her life, the life of Gabriel of Morevale, the lives of all the folk of Brennor, had been lived in the shadow of a lie.

"Lucian," she whispered, "Gabriel of Morevale is Chosen."

He murmured, "Of course he is, my love," but his hands were warm and sure, and his breath was hot and urgent, and his eyes burned with green fire.

He had spoken the truth. She was Chosen. By him.