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CHAPTER 29

"What a beautiful queen you shall make, my dearest!" Lucian's fingers lingered on her throat, caressing the diamond-encrusted necklace he had just fastened around her neck. He smoothed back her heavy hair, then his hands moved over her shoulders, down her sides, stroking the rich fur mantle he had draped over her. "So very beautiful!"

Mirin slowly brought her hand up to touch the heavy jewels. Her eyes widened as she caught sight of the amethyst ring on her finger. It looked so small, so lusterless now. When it had been given to her, she had been told it was the color of her eyes. Were they so dull also? Quickly, she drew it from her finger and let it fall to the floor.

Lucian threw back his head and laughed. "I see your tastes are richer now, my dear." She cringed as his laughter echoed through the chamber. "That is only right. A queen must appreciate, nay, must command, such finery!" His eyes were more brilliant than the gems at her neck.

He deftly parted the cape and slid his hands around her waist. "Yes," he whispered, "you will be my queen, my Chosen." He knelt before her and pressed his cheek against her flesh. "You will be a goddess." His breath was hot as his hands moved up her back and his lips brushed her skin.

She trembled. A queen, a goddess, she would be. She, the most expensive whore in Avacar. Never again would she be leered at, despised, reviled, shunned, scorned. Never again would she endure the brazen stare, the hooded wink, the sly jingle of a purse full of coins. She was Chosen. By him.

"Oh yes," he murmured, "all will do homage to you, my Chosen." He raised his emerald eyes. "As I do."

Mirin shuddered and reached down to stroke his silky hair; it blazed like fire in the torchlight. A goddess she would be. Untouchable, inviolate. No one would dare to smirk, to whisper, to touch her. She was Chosen. By him.

Lucian's eyes blazed, too, with green fire. "All will worship at your feet, dearest." He drew in a quick breath. "Even the Defender of the Faithful of Brennor."

Mirin stiffened.

Lucian smiled up at her and winked.

She licked her lips.

"Oh, yes, he will grovel before you." His eyes twinkled. "He will plead and he will beg, and that precious vow of his will be quite forgotten." Slowly, gracefully, Lucian stood and drew her head back by her hair and kissed her. "Oh, yes, my love, quite forgotten."

She turned her face away.

He pulled it back.

Her eyes sparkled with tears. "Why must I do this, Lucian," she whispered through clenched teeth. "Why?" Looking upon him, at the eyes that had grown hard and brittle, she was suddenly seized with rage. "Why didn't you just manipulate the mind of the High Patriarch? I know you have the power! You could have crushed him with a thought! And then you wouldn't have to kill the Defender, and I would not..." Her voice trailed off. She choked back a sob.

"Why? Because, dearest, that would not please me." He laughed; to Mirin's ears, it was a snarl. "And I do so like my pleasure, you know." His eyes narrowed as he raised his hand to trace the curve of her mouth.

"Is it not enough for you to kill him?"

"No, my love, it is not." A sharp fingernail pressed into her trembling lip, nearly cutting it. "And I will tell you why." Speaking calmly, matter-of-factly, he dragged his fingernail down her chin to the curve of her throat.

He held his finger there, poised like a dagger. "They branded me. They sealed me up alive in a tomb. They left no one to even remember me." The finger pressed harder into her neck, and his thin lips drew back in a leer. "No, nothing will ever be enough."

His face was misshapen with hate, his mouth pulled back in a rictus. The green eyes burned. "I have already set the destruction of this Church in motion. The clergy have fallen, the sheep have strayed, the folk, with justifiable cause, are questioning their precious gods." Spittle flew from his mouth. "But that is not enough, dearest, oh no, that is not enough! I could seize control like this," he snapped his fingers, "but it is not enough!"

"Before I destroy this Defender of the Faithful I will break him. Gods-given powers, indeed! I will shatter this illusion of the Chosen like a fake jewel." He was shaking with the force of his fury, but abruptly his voice became soft, almost pleasant. "Then again, maybe I'll just send him back to his precious High Patriarch, beaten, broken, disgraced." His mouth began to curve into a smile.

Mirin gasped. Her voice was very small. "Then you will let him live?"

He shrugged. "Perhaps. I might."

She sighed and blinked back her tears.

For a moment, his eyes narrowed. In the next, they brightened, and he giggled. "Surely there's some punishment for such a heinous crime, eh?"

Mirin's eyes widened. She began to shake. Sacrilege! That was the crime, the crime of which they would convict the Defender, condemn him, punish him. He would be brought before the Tribunal, face the Inquisitors, undergo the Ceremony of Disgrace. Because of her. The tears spilled down her face.

Why did she care? Why should she? And yet the image of the tall man ambling through the crowd, bringing his smile, his touch, his blessing, to the folk of Brennor would not leave her. She knew Lucian was right; there were no gods. But gods or no, Gabriel of Morevale was real. He was a hero. He was a healer. He was the one man in Brennor, including the High Patriarch, who she had never even considered as a customer. One way or the other, she was to be the instrument of his destruction.

"Yes, I think I might just send him packing." Lucian raised an eyebrow. "You'd like that better, wouldn't you, dearest?"

"No," Mirin cried. "No, no!" She tried to pull away from him, but he held her in an iron grip.

"Hmmm, you can't seem to make up your mind. We'll just have to consider the possibilities, now won't we?" he whispered in her ear. "Yes, we'll have to give it a great deal of thought." His hands were moving now, in all the ways, on all the places that drove her mad. His mouth moved, too, his lips and his tongue, and the emerald eyes were brilliant. "But for now, my Chosen," he sighed, "show me what you will do with the Defender of the Faithful."