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CHAPTER 33

Mirin stared at her reflection in the looking glass. Her skin was so much whiter now: it made her lips seem redder, her eyes deeper violet, her hair brighter gold. She was beautiful, she knew.

She tossed her hair back, turned her head this way and that, considered her appearance from every angle. Not a flaw. Perfect. She had never looked better.

She brought her hand to her face, felt her cheek. It was soft. She ran her fingers across her lips. They were warm, moist.

Lucian was watching her, she knew. She turned the mirror to catch his reflection. His forehead was creased in a frown, his mouth drawn down. He licked his lips. The emerald eyes, glittering like gems, seemed to burn into hers.

Lucian did not look well. He wasn't sleeping much; dark circles framed his beautiful eyes. Once obsessively fastidious, he now wore rumpled robes, stained and torn. And he forgot things: to eat, to wash, to shave. Bright red stubble sprouted from his alabaster-smooth skin. His silky hair was tangled.

She glanced down at herself. Her appearance had not suffered from this strange existence. Her body, like her face, was whiter, softer. And it was unmarked; Lucian had been very careful lately.

With this body, this face, she could have any man in Brennor. Even the Defender.

Mirin shook her head and slowly lowered the mirror. Her eyes had begun to burn again with tears. She turned and saw the diaphanous white gown lying on the sepulcher. Soon she would put it on. Dressed like a virgin bride, she would be ready for Gabriel of Morevale. She almost laughed. Instead, she had to fight to keep from sobbing out loud.

"Did you hear that?" whispered Lucian.

Mirin quickly wiped her eyes and turned to him. "What..."

"Shhhh!" He cocked his head and held up a finger to silence her. "Yes, it must be." A smile lit his face.

"It must be what?"

"There!" Lucian shivered and his lips drew back to expose his teeth. "Yes! Don't you feel it?"

"Feel what?" Mirin had felt something, a draft. No, it couldn't be.

"Fresh air! Someone has opened the door, my Chosen." Lucian clapped his hands in delight. "And that someone can only be the Defender!"

No, thought Mirin, it cannot be. Not now. Not yet. But she knew he was right, as he always was. She couldn't help herself; she burst into tears.

Lucian's smile was wiped away in an instant. "No, no, no, we can't have you doing that now." The emerald eyes bored into hers. "Not now!"

She tried to bite back her sobs, tried to cut off her tears. "But, I cannot..."

"You can and you will." His voice was low and cold.

"Why...," she sobbed.

"I have explained why, Mirin, time and time again. I've explained it so many times you should know it by rote." He took a step toward her. "There is no more time."

She was shaking now, and she couldn't stop. The Defender of the Faithful of Brennor was here, and Lucian was angry with her, and she couldn't escape and she didn't want to and she did. The tears poured down her face.

Lucian had been stiff with rage, poised for punishment. Suddenly, his face softened, and he glided across the room to put an arm around her shoulders. "Dearest, my Chosen, you must do this for us. Remember that. Only that."

But she could not remember only that. No, she remembered, too, a tall man with a gentle smile, and a pretty young mother transfigured by his blessing. Her shoulders slumped and her head fell and she could not stop crying.

Gently, so gently, Lucian lifted her chin. With his other hand, he tenderly wiped the tears from her cheeks. "Ah, my Chosen, my love. How hard it is to do this." His green eyes sparkled in the torchlight. "So hard."

Oh, yes, it was hard. Not just for her, thought Mirin. No, for Lucian, too.

With a sigh, he glided across the chamber, then returned with a glass filled with amber liquid. "Here, dearest," he said, "drink this. It will calm your nerves."

Mirin stared at the glass. "I don't need it, Lucian." She needed only to be done with this.

"Oh, but I think you do." He wet his finger with the liquid and smeared it on her lips. "It is only wine." His smile was dazzling. "A very fine wine, I might add."

Mirin nodded. Her lips parted.

He held the glass to her mouth and let the wine trickle in, drop by drop.

She licked her lips and swallowed.

"Yes, my Chosen, drink," Lucian said as he cupped her head with his hand and tilted it back. "Yes!"

His emerald eyes shone on her; she could do nothing but obey him, please him. She drank, deeply.

He smiled.

Mirin smiled back and reached up to him.

He abruptly stepped away. "Now, dearest, it is time," he said, glancing meaningfully at the gown.

Her arms fell. Her shoulders slumped. Yes, it was time. She grasped the amulet that lay upon her breast. "Are you certain this will work, Lucian?" If only, she prayed, he would abandon his plan. If only he would love her.

"Oh, yes, dearest, quite certain." His green eyes were hard; one foot tapped a rhythm on the floor.

As Mirin slowly pushed the chair back and stood, she felt a wave of dizziness wash over her. She saw Lucian's arms crossed on his chest, his foot tapping more insistently.

She took a deep breath and began to cross to the sepulcher where the gown lay. With every step the dizziness increased. Halfway there, she turned to Lucian. "I, I don't know what's wrong with me." She swayed on her feet. "I think I might faint."

"Yes, you do look a bit pale, my love," said Lucian, quickly reaching her side. His arm slid around her waist and held her firm. "I shall help you!"

Leaning her head on his shoulder, Mirin struggled to focus on her goal: the sepulcher, the gown.

"Just a few more steps." To her ears, his voice was as light, as lively, as a giggle. "Yes, here we are!"

Her eyes were closing; she felt so sleepy. Her arms felt so heavy, too heavy. Her legs buckled.

But Lucian was strong. His grip was sure as he lowered her to the stone. "Now, my love, I will prepare you to meet the Defender."

Mirin blinked. There were many emerald eyes, glinting with merriment, swimming in her sight. She tried to lick her lips; she tried to speak.

"Shhhh, now, let me attend you, my queen," murmured Lucian as he slowly, slowly, pushed the gown she was wearing up her legs, over her hips, her breasts, then gently pulled it over her head.

She felt she was dreaming. Lucian was speaking, but she couldn't understand the words. He was touching her. She could feel his mouth and hands move over her body, but it was as if she were wrapped in a heavy shroud; his tools were not working their magic. What was wrong with her?

She felt a tickle at her ear.

"Sleep now, my Chosen," whispered Lucian.

Sleep! No, she couldn't sleep!

Her eyes must have spoken; she certainly could not.

"Yes, you must," Lucian crooned into her ear. "Only then can I be sure that he will take the bait."

She tried to fight the numbness that was coursing through her body like a drug. A drug! In the wine. Her eyes spoke again.

"Yes, dearest, I had to, don't you see." Lucian slipped the white gown over her limp body.

No! She wanted to scream.

"Really, Mirin, we must make certain that he is vulnerable to..." There was a pause. "To the amulet. We must appeal to this Defender’s high purpose. We must give him something to heal." Although Mirin could not feel it, could feel nothing, she still heard, faintly, the sound of the gown being ripped.

Her eyes refused to open at her command. Even thought was becoming too much effort.

"There, that's much better," she heard Lucian say from very far away. "A few more touches and you'll be perfect."

Perfect. Yes. She would be queen and...

"Sleep now, and know that soon you will return to me, my Chosen."

Sleep. Soon. Yes. Now. She was Chosen. By him.