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A suffocating sensation tightened Jayma’s throat, making it difficult to swallow. She leaned against her ward’s bedside, her legs trembling with the effort to stay upright. The parasitic creatures who had destroyed her life, the Anatta, had left her alone to watch Adin die.
She stroked her ward’s hot cheek, sliding her fingertips through his damp, copper hair lying in limp strands on his moist skin. He moaned, his head moving from side-to-side. Agony etched deep lines into his skin, giving his youthful features the illusion of old age.
He didn’t have much time left. Pain-filled wails, soft now, came farther and farther apart. Each ragged inhale and choked exhale tore him from her. Her own breath caught within her chest. When he died, she’d have failed to keep her promise. Failed to do her duty.
And you’ll be all alone.
She shuddered at the reminder she couldn’t escape, the horror she couldn’t ignore and pulled back her hand. Folding her arms about her waist, she held tight and rocked as anguish squeezed her heart. Unable to watch Adin’s suffering, she closed her eyes. He made a slight gasp and for a brief moment, silence hung heavily in the room.
A tiny noise, a whisper of fabric brushing against stone, grabbed her attention. Her eyes snapped open, and she pivoted. Her gaze swept the room. “Who—,” she croaked. “Who is there?”
Faint glow from two luminas cast numerous shadows on the pitted granite walls of the chamber. The flickering darkness mocked her attempts to see the secrets hidden beyond the reach of the light.
One of the darkest shadows moved. She flinched backward, placing her body between the intruder and Adin. The human-shaped shadow drifted into the light, materializing into a tall figure dressed in light-absorbing black.
Thoughts of her ward acted as a key and released the lock on her voice. Jayma drew in a breath and opened her mouth. To call for help? Scream? She didn’t have the chance to find out.
In the space of a blink, the stranger stood in front of her. Gloved fingers pressed over her mouth and an unyielding arm dragged her against him. The scent of leather mixed with the warm musk of the male raised bumps along her arms.
Oh yes, he was male. Very male. Even with her limited experience, the solid crush of his lean form left no doubt. The fingers on her lips drew back slightly. She gulped a shallow breath. Enough to take in air. Not enough to cry out. Even if should she wish for the Anatta’s presence.
Enough so she could— With a violent wrench, she broke his grasp and shoved his chest. At the same time, she stomped on the inside of his foot. He hissed a word she didn’t recognize but by the harsh tone suspected it was foul. The hand around her waist slipped, and Jayma pushed again, this time sending him stumbling back a few steps.
Righting himself, his stone-cold gaze locked onto hers. Her chest heaved, fear and determination fighting an equal battle for air. She whispered a brief thanks to the palace guard who had shown a lonely girl a few basic skills.
With only a faint flicker in his eyes to telegraph his intentions, the man leaped at her again. She whirled to evade him but was jerked to an abrupt halt when he grabbed her wrist, spinning her back around. This time, he yanked her against his body so tight she couldn’t move while one of his legs curled around hers and locked her in place. The heat of his body soaked through clothing into her skin. Panting, hers, filled the space between them.
Goddess save me.