Thief of Light
Some desires are impossible to resist...
Book 2 in the Four-Sided Pentacle series
Berkley Trade, November 2009
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When the Lady's dark velvet voice spoke in Erik's dream, the power of Her will vibrated deep in his bones. He struck out, jarring his arm as his fist hit the wall next to the bed.
But he didn't wake.
Anger and dread banged about in his chest. "Choose?" he rasped. "Choose what?" Gritting his teeth, he tried to lever his eyes open, but they were sealed shut. The goddess had him cornered in his own body.
Twenty years ago, My Lord and I gave you a great gift. Or had you forgotten?
A Voice so enchanting, so compelling, it captures the beating heart of all who hear it. And what did you do with this blessing, hmm?
The Lady's tone dropped to the ear-aching pitch of thunder in the mountains. You made of it a curse. In your vanity and your lust, you spoke a command to an unwilling soul.
"You don't need to remind me, Great Lady. I know what I did." Every muscle in his jaw - his neck, his shoulders - locked tight.
Do you, indeed? A huff of displeasure. We see little evidence of this.
Out of the corner of his eye, Erik saw the movement of a graceful, star-dappled hand, the palm so big he could have curled up in it to sleep.
Or to die.
In the waking world, men trod warily around Erik Thorensen, with his massive shoulders, his chest muscled like a warrior's. The Dark Lady could snap him in two with the flick of a thought.
Should he risk it? Hell, why not? All he had left to lose was his life.
Bracing himself, he said, "Why not see for Yourself?"
An impatient exclamation, and the Lady was rummaging around in his head, turning his soul inside out to look at the underside, inspecting all the dirty little nooks and crannies. When Erik groaned in involuntary protest, She withdrew, but without haste.
Another voice, so deep as to be almost below the threshold of human hearing, rumbled, Well?
The Lady turned to Her Lord. No better and no worse than many others. Either the goddess shrugged, or every star in the cosmos shifted in its cold bed. His soul remembers, but his conscious mind chooses to forget. Her voice dropped. He doesn't think of her if he can help it. Only in his dreams.
Nightmares, more like. Erik squinted into the sparkling nimbus that marked the presence of the Horned Lord. He caught the impression of a vast, nebulous figure, antlers spanning the stars. Without being obvious, he tried to angle himself toward that huge male presence. His heart hammered in his chest, fast heavy beats that hurt.
"I can't-" Hiding from the gods was useless. He'd learned that lesson at seventeen. "I have to live in my skin, face myself in the mirror, day after f**king day." Vaguely, he was aware his cheeks were damp. Must be sweat.
He raised his head a little, resentment burning a sullen hole in his belly. "It's the way I function, stay sane." F**k it all to hell. Say it. "What use is a broken tool, even to the gods? My Lord, when I was a boy and You gave me the Voice, You said You had a task for me. "
The Lord's rumble of anger thundered through every cell in Erik's body. He grunted, squeezing his eyes shut, willing himself to endure.
But the Lady sounded amused. Only you, Erik. Only you would dare. Little one, you cannot bargain with Us. The sensation of Her smile tingled over his skin, both fond and terrible. The day will come, my dear, when you encounter one you cannot charm, cannot control.
"So?" he panted, still fighting for breath. "Doesn't matter about anyone else. I have my own rules, and they work for me." Cautiously, he sat up. "I live. Exist."
Last chance, growled the Horned Lord. Choose.
Erik set his stubborn jaw. "I want my life to have been worth something. Whatever it is You want, I'll do it. Just tell me."
You misunderstand, purred the goddess. You've already committed yourself to Our service. The promise you made as a boy cannot be undone.
"Then what-?" He shook his head. "Never mind. What is it I have to do?"
The Pattern is what it is. Beyond Our touch, said the Lord. You will know your life's work when the time is right. The weight of the god's attention was like a solar flare crisping his skin.
"Soon? It will be soon?"
I am not in the habit of repeating Myself.
Erik resisted the impulse to roll his eyes. "It's all a trifle . . . cryptic." Nothing like going in blind.
Enough! The goddess moved abruptly, and a freezing wind ruffled Erik's hair, chilling the sweat on his chest. You cannot know more of your destiny without affecting the balance. It is a different choice We offer you tonight.
Shit, shit, shit. Despite himself, Erik's hands shook. He laced his fingers together into one big fist, the knuckles white.
Listen well, Erik Thorensen. If it is truly your desire, you will never again compel another with your Voice. We will take it from you.
His heart leaped. Gods, yes! No more rules, no more boundaries, no need to censor every word he spoke, constantly alert lest he . . . slip.
Inexorably, the Lady continued. By your own actions, Erik, you besmirched the blessing of the Voice. You used it to steal a soul dear to Me.
Judge and jury.
The blessing and the curse cannot be separated. If We take the Voice, you will lose everything. No more of the music, my dear, the music that makes your soul soar.
He couldn't make a sound, but a full-body shudder raised all the fine hairs on his skin. Because the music was all he was-Erik Thorensen, also called Erik the Golden-that, and the easy, unruffled charm he wore like armor.
When he concentrated, the Voice flowed out of his deep chest like a stream of purest, golden air. It made people think of silk or the best chocolat liqueur from Concordia or the glorious, sliding friction of sublime and endless sex. It was a miracle, that Voice. The rest of the time, he was still a damn fine singer, if a trifle run-of-the-mill.
"No." All he could produce was a hoarse rasp. "No."
Despite the way he'd corrupted the gods' gift, music brought his soul as close to the warmth of human connection as any artifice could do. His magnificent baritone gave him passion that was real, more satisfying than any sex he'd ever had. It kept him sane, focused on the here and now. Without the Voice, there'd be nothing left that was Erik. He'd be a shell that walked and talked, a big golden body women would desire for its own sake. Nothing more.
Hell, there were dark nights of the soul when he suspected he'd already reached that state.
A huge forefinger stroked the length of his naked spine from nape to buttocks, excruciatingly lightly. Erik shivered.
You're lonely, murmured the Lady. Aren't you, little one? And yet women tumble in and out of your bed, smiling as they leave.
"Yes," he said. "But it means nothing. They mean nothing."
You don't enjoy sex? asked the Horned Lord. How is this? You control the women, the bedsport. You get the release you need, and all of it on your own terms.
"True, my Lord, but I want . . ."
What? A growl like thunder. More?
Erik gritted his teeth. "I presumed."
You wield your charm like a weapon. The threatening pressure of the Dark Lady's disapproval rolled heavily down his spine, bringing with it a drifting scent of ice and ancient stone and warm woman. What need do you have of anything more?
Pressing his lips together, Erik shook his head.
Answer My Lady's question, rumbled the Lord. Or would you prefer I peer into your miserable soul Myself?
F**k, he'd never survive it.
Erik cleared his throat, the heat rising in his cheeks. "There is no one who cares for me, who knows me. The real me." Humiliation washed over him, a warm, greasy wave. He clamped his mouth shut.
Audiences adore you. You have friends, said the Lady. Grayson, for example.
"I suppose so." Erik ran a hand through his hair. "Gray's a good man, but we're not close, not really."
It helps if you don't hold people at arm's length.
Hell, She was teasing him.
"I have to," he snapped. "In case I-" He broke off, sucking in a rasping breath. "It's the price I pay for the Voice. For the music."
She'd have to be your match, Erik. So she can fight you every delicious step of the way.
The woman whose love you crave, the lover whose trust you desire. The very thought of her makes you hard with longing, doesn't it?
"Don't be stu-" Erik bit his tongue in the nick of time. "She doesn't exist. Anyway, she'd have to know. And once she did . . ." He dropped his head, breathing hard. Then he shrugged. "Ah, well."
The Lady's tone softened, became almost regretful. A moment ago, you chose to keep the Voice, the power to compel any woman to your will. Why not use it?
Insult the Dark Lady and he'd be dead before he hit the floor. But couldn't She see? Or was She testing him? "Great Lady, You know as well as I do that love compelled cannot be real. How would I know the difference between what she gave me and what I just . . . took?"
You are finely caught, are you not? The Horned Lord sounded thoughtful, and not particularly displeased.
Use the Voice to command what you so deeply desire, and by its very nature, you can never be sure you have it. Neither trust, nor love.
Correct, said the Lady. And yet, We offer you a choice. Think again, Erik. Shall We take the Voice from you?
The Lord's deep tones: Be very certain, Erik. All or nothing.
Silence fell, so profound Erik thought he could hear the small bright tinkling that was the crystal song of the stars. Or it could have been the mental speech of the gods.
"Without the music, I am nothing, no one," he snarled. "I'll keep the Voice - the blessing and the godsbedamned curse."
Caracole, Queendom of the Isles,
On the stage of the Royal Theater, a chorus of devils and angels sang their hearts out, but Prue McGuire listened with only half an ear. She didn't particularly enjoy opera.
"A demon king?" she'd snorted to Rosarina as they settled into their seats before the curtains opened. "The plot doesn't make sense." Frowning, she scanned the program. "Why does he carry her off when she wants to go with him anyway? It's plain silly."
Like the experienced courtesan she was, Rose had given an elegant shrug. "Who knows?" Her beautiful lips curved. "It's opera."
As the queen and her entourage swept into the Royal Box, Prue put her head next to her companion's. "I got us a discount," she murmured over the sound of the applause.
Rosarina patted her hand. "And these excellent seats in the bargain." She surveyed the dozen or so exquisite young people in their box with maternal pride. "Well done, dear."
"It was an investment," said Prue. "We'll get more clients out of this, you'll see."
"Not that we need them." Her friend and business partner waved a graceful hand. "But never let it be said I argued with a bookkeeper about profit." Casting Prue a twinkling, sidelong glance, Rose flicked the playbill with one finger. "They say the Unearthly Opera Company's really very good, and this Erik the Golden is something quite exceptional." The twinkle became a naughty grin. "In every possible way."
"Rose!" She did her best to look scandalized.
"Don't Rose me, you wicked woman." A slim finger tapped the dimple quivering in Prue's cheek. "Not with a dead giveaway right here." The orchestra struck up and the curtains swished open. "Shut up and enjoy, sweetie."
But Prue spent the first scene writing a tutorial on compound interest in her head. She'd rather die than admit it to her friend, but she'd come to find teaching the apprentice courtesans even more fulfilling than balancing the ledgers.
And every extra cred went into her strongbox. For peace of mind and her daughter's future. Despite herself, her breath caught.
With some difficulty, she wrenched her mind away from the brutal slum the people of Caracole called the Melting Pot - the way her nerves had quivered at every shift in the shadows, the hilt of a small kitchen knife cold as death in her palm, her daughter's tiny fist clutching her sleeve.
The music was catchy. Tapping her fingers on her knee in time, Prue pulled in a deep breath, forcing herself to relax. It was over. Finished a lifetime ago. Slowly, she exhaled, stealing a glance at Rose's perfect profile.
By the Sister, she'd done better than merely survive! In Rosarina, she had a dear friend and a partner both. Prue smiled her satisfaction. Every courtesan at The Garden of Nocturnal Delights was the owner of an independent business with but a single product - themselves. How she loved it when it all came together for them, comprehension dawning on those beautiful, clever faces. Rose wouldn't tolerate stupidity, no matter how gorgeous the package it came in. Still, compound interest . . . Not the easiest of topics . . .
So when the demon king appeared in a clap of thunder and a cloud of smoke, she was completely unprepared.
* * * * *
When the lights came up for intermission, she was still trembling on a deep, visceral level that dismayed her more than anything had in years. Erik Thorensen had come striding out of fire and brimstone and clasped the shrinking heroine to his chest. And yes, he was a marvelous-looking man, his hair loose on his shoulders like dark-spun gold under the stage lights, the neatly trimmed goatee a shade darker. His eyes were such a vivid blue they pierced Prue all the way to her soft, silly soul. He was big too - so big only the athleticism of his tall muscular frame prevented him from looking blocky. Gods, exactly the physical type she preferred, right down to the mischievous glint in his eye.
But Prue had spent almost two decades surrounded by the most beautiful people on the world of Palimpsest. She was accustomed to perfection, even to the delightful frisson of sexual dominance Erik projected so effortlessly. He was a fine actor.
But merciful Sister, that voice!
He'd glanced directly at their box and his face had lit up with a grin that had pure devil in it. Then he'd opened his mouth. From the first effortless bar, her foolish heart had tumbled into his keeping. Every note was round, rich, deeply masculine, filling the auditorium as if supported on smooth columns of air. Utterly enthralled, Prue had found herself leaning forward, her mouth hanging open, trying to breathe him in, keep him forever, hers alone. She felt feverish, tingling, her breasts tight and her sex swollen and slippery, as if he were stroking her naked body with velvet.
Even worse, the costume, in an old-fashioned style still worn only by the oligarchs on Green IV, suited him to perfection. A pair of over-the-knee boots emphasized the power of thighs and buttocks encased in tight cream breeches. Prue's mouth watered.
The tenor hero had pretty well disappeared in comparison. During one of his uninspiring arias, she managed to tear her eyes away and glance to her left. "Gods," gasped Rose, a flush mantling her cheeks. Her hand closed hard over Prue's forearm, the fingers digging in. "Have you ever-?"
"No." Every face in the theater was rapt. "Sshh. He's starting again."
The tenor had won the duel that ended the act, and the demon king lay wounded, his pain and heartbreak throbbing in a cascade of low, exquisite notes. Tears prickled behind Prue's eyes. Godsdammit, he was good! No, not good - superb, superlative, magnificent. All through the thunder of the applause, the stamping of feet, the shouting, she sat frozen, putting herself back together, a piece at a time.
She could do better than this. She wasn't some silly girl to lose her head and heart to a handsome singer. She was Pruella Takimori McGuire, business manager of The Garden of Nocturnal Delights, a woman for whom numbers held no terror. Rose's friend and silent partner, Katrin's mother. That helped, the thought of Katrin, serious and steady, only nineteen, but so deeply in love with her Arkady. He was a good boy. That had her grinning ruefully, trying to relax.
Unfortunately, the second act was even worse. Or better.
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© 2009 Denise Rossetti
Rose graphic courtesy of Corbis