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CHAPTER 27

Mirin's eyes flew open.

Lucian, his head propped up on one arm, stared at her intently with his green-gem eyes. His forehead was creased in concentration, and he chewed his lip. The red brand was very bright.

He raised one eyebrow. "So, you are awake, my dearest," he whispered, his lips barely moving, his eyes unblinking.

She did not speak, did not move, barely breathed. The torchlight illuminated his elegant face, glancing off the noble lines, gleaming on the alabaster skin, and her hand began to reach toward him of its own accord. She clenched it into a fist and pressed it to her side. His hand extended toward her, and she drew in a quick breath. That long, supple hand could be so gentle, the instrument of exquisite tenderness, could be so rough, the tool of aching pain. She held her breath.

Lucian gently traced the curve of her chin. She let out the breath and trembled; his hand shook. "I've been thinking all night." His hand moved up to caress her cheek, to trace the curve of her lips. She longed to kiss the fingers.

His hand shook and his eyes burned and his breath blew hot and fast upon her face. But she did not move, though her limbs ached to encircle him, though her body fought to enfold him, to embrace him, though her heart cried out to be loved by him.

She would wield the power this time. She would accept his devotions, like a goddess she would. She would accept his homage, like a queen she would. He would burn and he would cry and he would plead and beg and he would ache. And then, and then, she would...

His emerald eyes shone upon her; their beauty took her breath away. A bead of sweat formed on her forehead, another. Her body shuddered. Her heart raced. She must close her eyes!

"I have made a decision, my love," said Lucian, softly. At last, he blinked, and Mirin saw tears in his eyes, sparkling in the long, black lashes.

She did move then; she reached out to touch a tear. "A decision about what, Lucian?"

"Why, dearest, how I will destroy the Defender, of course." He fell away from her and closed his eyes.

The tears trickled from the corners of his eyes. He bit the back of his hand, but a sob escaped, nonetheless.

"Lucian, what is it?" She reached out to smooth back his hair.

He opened his eyes. He opened his mouth to speak. He closed it.

"You must tell me!"

Lucian sighed. "Yes, I must." His voice was so low, so soft, that she had to turn her head to hear him, and his breath felt warm at her ear.

"Yes," he whispered, drawing the word out, changing it as he did, twisting it, infusing it with a heaviness, a hardness, that belied its sibilance. "Yes, I most certainly must." He took her head in his hands. He turned her face to his.

Mirin gasped.

The tears were gone. The softness, fled. A smile, no, a grimace, formed on his lips; it seemed it must cause him pain. The emerald eyes, their facets reflecting the light, cut like the hardest gems. His hands pushed, pushed, into her skull.

Tears burst from her eyes and she wailed.

"There, there, don't cry, my dearest." Lucian stretched his smile to its limit. "We can't have you soiling that beautiful face." He drew in a quick breath. "You must be perfect when our Defender first sees you, mustn't you?"

Mirin's eyes widened. She shivered in his grip. "What do you mean, Lucian," she whispered.

He threw back his head and laughed.

Her dread and pain, the coldness, turned to rage, hot and bright. In that moment, she wanted to strike him, to hurt him, to kill him. Her eyes burned. Her hands drew up into claws. "What do you mean," she repeated through clenched teeth.

The laughter ceased. The hands released their hold. "I mean, my love, that you are to be the instrument of his destruction."

The color drained out of her face. There was no air; she had no breath. She looked into his beautiful eyes; they again sparkled with tears. One trickled down his face, following the perfect line of his cheek. Her mind formed words. "But I don't have the power!" And then she spoke them, in a sigh.

"Oh, but you do, my Chosen, you do," Lucian whispered as he pulled her to him, and his hands, tender now, warm now, loving now, stroked her hair, and his lips, tender now, warm now, loving now, caressed hers. "Indeed, you do."