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CHAPTER 38

Lucian huddled in a corner with his knees drawn up to his chin and his eyes wide open. An unlit torch lay next to him, a flint ready. In the heavy blackness, he couldn't see a thing.

The gown Mirin had last been wearing was clutched in his hands. He rubbed it against his cheek; it held her scent. Here in the dark he could almost pretend that she was still with him. But he felt only his cold bony hands beneath the fabric, not her softness, her warmth.

He sniffled and swiped at his eyes, his nose, with the gown. He must be quiet. "Quiet!" he whispered. "Shhh!"

Was that a sound? He froze, his brilliant eyes huge and wild. He held his breath. Silence. "It's nothing, nothing." He let the breath out with a shiver. "Nothing!" He pressed Mirin's gown tightly against his mouth to muffle his giggles.

She hadn't found him yet. The other one. The one with the high, sweet voice. "It was never the Defender of the Faithful," Lucian whispered, "it was the other one, the girl, who Kroelich sent to defeat me." He stifled a laugh. It came out as a sob.

Tears spilled from his eyes; he choked them back. "Damn that old weasel. He knew I was there in his mind. He knew! Somehow he shielded his thoughts from me. But how? He is not Chosen. How?" The stone floor was cold, very cold, yet Lucian sweated. How could his plan have been spoiled?

Everything had been going so well. He'd carried Mirin to the shaft he's selected so thoughtfully beforehand and arranged her artfully upon the stone floor. Every detail had been perfect: the ripped gown that exposed one perfect breast, the bindings that drew attention to the slender ankles, the veil of golden hair that hid the beautiful face until the most precipitous moment.

He himself had found it difficult to resist her vulnerability! But when he'd stepped back to admire his work, viewing it from every angle, he shook his head. She looked too healthy; he had to make sure. Chewing his thumbnail, he thought of how best to embellish the scene.

Of course! Something was missing; that something was blood. He snatched up a dagger and considered where he should make the cut. But her skin was so flawless, so white! He stroked it and sighed. No, he simply couldn't. His Chosen must be perfect.

With a shrug, he drew the dagger across his own wrist. The blood spurted out; his eyes grew wide and he giggled nervously. Perhaps he had cut too deep! Frantically, he clamped his other hand over the wound, held it tight for a few moments, then slowly peeked beneath the palm. Hah! Not to worry, he wouldn't bleed to death at least.

And, almost providentially, he thought with a grin, the blood had found its mark. The gown was stained with it. With a flourish, he smeared it on her breast for that extra touch. Too obvious! He gently turned her face-down. Better.

His ears had picked up a sound. Of booted feet? With a last, long caress for his Chosen, he'd scuttled down the shaft to the niche he'd so fortuitously scouted many days before. Unable to resist, he'd peeked around the corner for one last look before he'd doused the torch. Ah, yes, she was perfect!

He'd waited. Not long. He heard heavy footsteps, then his hiding place had been brightened a bit by the light of a torch. Sighing with relief, with anticipation, he'd drawn back further and smiled.

He hadn't been able to see; he'd dare not move. But he could well hear. And hear he did: the heavy tread, the heavy breaths of the Defender. A gasp. Lucian had grinned in satisfaction and rubbed his hands together.

But what was this? He could swear he heard a sob. The temptation to peek around the corner was so hard to resist, he pushed himself further back into his niche. What was going on? Yes, it was sobbing. What was wrong with the man?

The sobbing stopped. Lucian let out a sigh and rolled his eyes. This was difficult enough without this added element of prolonging the drama on the part of the Defender. Take her, man! Lucian swiped at the tears that were dripping onto his cheeks.

And then he'd heard the voice. It was not the Defender. It was not Mirin. A high, sweet voice cried, "Gabriel," and Lucian shivered. The Defender was not alone.

What should he do? What could he do? He cowered in his hiding place and scarcely breathed.

He'd heard the voice again. Yet again, but more faintly. Then, silence. And he'd waited. So long. In silence.

At last he'd crawled out of the niche and stood. Still silence. With trembling hands, he'd lit the torch. The shaft was empty. He followed it to the first branch. When he turned the corner, he almost dropped the torch. The owner of the voice lay there on the stone.

He'd run back here, back to his home, his tomb chamber. He'd huddled in this corner ever since. She'd be here soon, the one with the high, sweet voice. Trembling with anticipation, he felt a thrill of dread.

He was going to start giggling again, or perhaps he was about to weep. So many plans he had made; such an intricate web he had spun. How he'd relished the thought of trotting the fallen Defender of the Faithful back to Avacar, broken and bruised. How he'd looked forward to destroying the High Patriarch, simply crushing his mind on the steps of the High Temple. How he'd anticipated watching the proceedings in triumph with his beautiful queen, his Chosen, at his side.

The thought of her perfect body sent a shiver through him. Where was she now? Was she lying in that great hulk's arms? A mad laugh escaped his lips. "Oh, how I should like to see!" See her, with her beautiful body, her exquisite face, her glorious hair, her voice that drove him mad, her eyes that any man, even he, Lucian, could drown in, see her cringing at the clumsy touch, the heavy breaths, the rude pawing of the Defender!

Lucian's almost bit his lip right through to keep from screaming. He'd been a fool. "Mirin, dearest, Mirin!" The tears coursed down his face. "I didn't need for you to do this. I need you here. Please understand! Please come back." He sobbed uncontrollably. "Don't you see, dearest, I had to make sure. I couldn't take the chance that the Defender might, just might, as far-fetched as it seems, ruin our happiness, our future!"

He buried his face in his hands and wept until he could cry no more. "Nothing! It was all for nothing."

He mopped the tears off his face and struggled to his feet. He must make ready now. He must. He mustn't think of Mirin, couldn't let himself. But how long had it been? Surely long enough to have done the deed! She'd be back soon, leading the Defender of the Faithful like a whipped dog on a leash. She must. "Please, please, come back, my Chosen," he whispered into the dark as he clutched her gown to his breast.

He swallowed a shuddering breath. He twisted his mouth into a grin and narrowed his eyes. "I've better things to do right now, haven't I?" His voice seemed very loud in the chamber, in the dark, and he had to stifle a giggle. "Yes, I must make myself presentable." Another would be here soon. He must be ready for her.