Jeweled

JeweledBerkley Heat
ISBN-10: 0425236862
ISBN-13: 978-0425236864
Release Date: November 2, 2010

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Defined by magic. Ruled by desire.

In the Court of Edaeii, magic-imbued Evangeline is rewarded for her gift in manipulating emotion with a sapphire stone set into the perfect curve of her lower back. Her greatest rival in the royal court is the enigmatic Anatol, instilled with the power of illusion. He may better her in magic, but he is her absolute equal in passion.

They share something else—they’re both targets of low-born revolutionaries bent on overthrowing the palace of the privileged few. Rescued from the mobs by Gregorio, the brilliant revolutionary mastermind, they’re given sanctuary. But in this warm refuge, Evangeline soon finds herself torn between the magic of one man she has always desired, and the excitingly new and radical moves of another. For her, there is only one choice.

Evangeline, Anatol and Gregorio come together as one to explore the possibilities of love beyond reason, and to indulge in pleasure without limits.

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Excerpt

Chapter One

Enchantress. Manipulator. Magic-twister.

Evangeline was called all these things and more, but she’d never understood why. In truth she was a thief, tapping into a person’s emotional currents, stealing them, and redistributing them. She was a master at it—a master thief.

This day, of all days, she held on to the truth that she was a master even as her hands trembled with nervousness. In order to make the court believe it, she had to believe it. Normally she felt almost no emotion at all, but she’d spent her life building up to this day. Today a thin strand of anxiousness broke through her walls and played havoc.

If she was experiencing uncertainty and fear, she couldn’t imagine what the other adepts must be feeling. She wasn’t going to taste their emotions to find out either; her concentration needed to be on her upcoming performance.

A sphere from the current performance floated toward her and spun. Sunlight streaming in through the stained glass window shot cerulean, scarlet, and emerald through the crystal orb. She glanced at Anatol, the adept of light and illusion who wielded the sphere. His sculpted lips were pursed, midnight blue eyes narrowed in fierce concentration. Small, barely noticeable lines creased the smooth skin between his eyebrows. His hands were clasped neatly and held almost completely within the voluminous sleeves of his white robe, though the tense lines of his body revealed the necessary effort to control the orb.

Anatol Nicolison was a powerhouse of magic.

The Edaeii and their Court murmured in a delighted hush as the orb darted in front of them, down then up, as though sentient. The sound of the spectators rippled around her like a live thing, but she hardly felt it. The magic cast in the room brushed over her skin like velvet, overwhelming all other sensation. Sometimes the magic of the other adepts prickled, rubbed, occasionally even stung, but this power was a pure, clear note of brilliance dancing through Evangeline’s body. It was a testament to Anatol’s power and the reason she both respected and despised him. His magick seem to come effortlessly and he seemed to pay no price for it, unlike her.

A tinkling rang through the air, drawing her gaze back to the mental confection just in time to see the sphere dissolve into fat crystal teardrops that rained down from the center of the glittering theater to the delight of all gathered. The Edaeii and the court nobles laughed and clapped.

Evangeline studied Anatol a moment longer as he graciously accepted the delighted response with a slight smile and half-bow. That was practically effusiveness for him. He’d never been good at playing a crowd, though the strength and skill of his magic allowed him the luxury of reserve.

With an annoyed jerk of her head, she ripped her gaze away. Surely Anatol would be jeweled this day. Surely his future as J’Edaeii was now assured. There weren’t many who could sculpt light and awareness to such amusing levels of deception. Not even the newest mechanical wonders of their age, the rolling steam transport or the helium float were a match for what he could do.

He was beautiful, too. By far the most gorgeous of all the men at court. Tall, broad through the shoulders and narrow at the waist. He had the muscled body of one of the guards—lean and strong—but the mind of a scholar. And his magic…even she had to admit it was amazing.

Anatol was the full package with such dark blue, soulful eyes and that silky dark hair that made a woman wonder would it feel like brushing over her skin. He had a body that made a woman fantasize, period. Even she had wondered and she didn’t often think about sex for pleasure. Sex as a tool, yes. Fucking as a necessary evil, definitely. Not sex for pleasure. That was just a dream for someone like her.

A man that looked like Anatol could have anyone at court, male or female—a few of each at a time if he wanted. He could have anything he desired if he was willing to use sex to get it, yet he never did. She couldn’t think of one liaison that Anatol had ever been in. He was either very noble or very stupid, Evangeline didn’t know which.

Maybe he was just frigid. A pity. It was a waste.

A muscle working in her jaw, she glanced around—anywhere but at Anatol who now received fervent accolades from Czz’ar Ondriiko himself. Ondriiko sat on his jeweled throne, surrounded by fifteen descending stepped tiers. Upon each sat members of the Edaeii family. Roane, the dark haired, dark eyed second in line sat on the tier just below the Czz’ar. Tadui—a charming Edaeii who often sought her company because he wanted to fuck her—sat lower down.

On the gold and silver inlaid floor of the theater gathered the rest of the Court—those born high enough or were rich enough to have finagled an invitation to reside at Belai for an allotted amount of time. It was an enviable position that afforded one the ability to gain favor with the Edaeii family, maybe even the Czz’ar, which could get one all manner of niceties—wealth, power, control.

Though Czz’ar Ondriiko, himself, was not the all-powerful, virile man that a foreigner might expect of the ruler of Rylisk. Far from it. Pallid of skin and pale of hair, he cut a fragile looking figure on his throne. Right now his bright black eyes gleamed in his delicately boned face, revealing his love for all things magical. Indeed, he was obsessed with it for its own sake, never mind the value of it to his family line. All-in-all, he gave the impression of gentle ineffectualness. Far too good-natured to rule a vast country like Rylisk competently. But what could you do when power was handed down through families? The family tree was bound to produce a little weak fruit here and there.

Czz’arina Prademia sat to Ondriiko’s left. One would think she’d take an active interest in the proceedings, since she had been J’Edaeii before Ondriiko had taken her to wife. Instead she surveyed the theater with a bored look on her horse face. No, Prademia was not beautiful, but the strength of her magic far outweighed her personal appearance in terms of her overall value to the Edaeii. And she was a strong woman—likely the brawn behind Ondriiko. It was nice to know there was some.

Gold and silver laced the walls of the theater in a fetching pattern that incorporated the Edaeii coat of arms—a sword crossed with a magic-wielding rod that the Edaeii were said to have used long ago, before the magic was all but exhausted from their bloodline. The vaulted ceiling with its silver leafed pattern flowed into an entire wall of windows that gave an exceptional view of Belai Square and the city of Milzyr. The guards kept the square fairly clear of commoner riffraff most of the time, allowing for an uncluttered view of the cobblestone area and the tall buildings flanking it.

There had been much unrest in Milzyr these days. A fact that Evangeline was only vaguely aware. She could not be bothered with the common-blood squabbles occurring in the city. The turbulence had not reached Belai and never would. The Royal Guard would put the rabble-rousers down and keep them there.

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Anatol—finally—take his seat. They did not make formal announcements so as not to interrupt the enjoyment of the Edaeii. So, she, along with all the other adepts yet to perform, searched for Borco, the director of the ceremony and majordomo of Belai. The short and squat black-haired man hovered self-importantly on the fringes of the crowd. He looked at her meaningfully. Her turn.

She took a moment to compose herself. She’d come to Belai, the national palace, when she’d been four years old. Her entire life she’d trained alongside the other adepts to get to this point, this day.

Failure was not a possibility.

Unlike some of the adepts, her family had never had enough money to finance a trainer. In fact, according to Kisa, the sour-countenanced House Mother to the female adepts, her family had opposed the Edaeii’s desire to foster and train her for the J’Edaeii. As was the policy with recalcitrant and unwilling families, Evangeline had been forcibly removed from her family home and denied access to them.

According to Kisa, she’d cried a lot the first year she’d been here, though Evangeline didn’t remember that. Eventually she’d grown beyond such sentiment. How her family must have hated her to try and deny her this opportunity! She only had one memory of her mother. It was hazy and muted. Maybe it wasn’t even real. Still, there was warmth in that memory. When she’d been a child the warmth of that memory had contented her.

Then she’d grown up.

Borco jerked his head impatiently and she realized she’d been so nervous that she’d been rooted in place. What a horrible thing this anxiousness was. She couldn’t wait to be rid of it. She drew a breath, gathered her confidence and walked to the center of the chamber. Halfway across the floor she reached up and pulled the binding from her hair. Her tresses cascaded, thick and glossy—silver blond and curling softly to the small of her back. With a practiced—yet seemingly haphazard—shake of her head that accentuated her hair’s glory, she allowed it to fall in becoming waves around her shoulders. Her hair was the primary tool of her seduction—and this was every bit a seduction as well as a test of magical ability.

Everything was a seduction, in the end.

Evangeline stood in the center of the chamber and relished the rapt attention of the spectators. She would make them wait for her. With a slow sweep of her gaze, she took them all in. Multicolored brocade swathed figures, jewels shining at throats, wrists, and ears. The highest born in the realm were here to watch her dance. She, the daughter of a swine farmer. She, who’d come all the way from Cherkhasii Province. The name of that place never passed their lips unless it was accompanied by a sneer.

She struck her pose—the classic reverence—heel of her right foot touching the instep of the opposite. Right leg slightly bent, arms loose at her sides, shoulders thrust back proudly, yet her head drooping just a little, as though tragically bowed from the weight heaped upon her fragile shoulders.

Her hair, parted in the middle, hung like two curtains of light across her face. The dancing dress she wore was of a sheer pale pink fabric. Despite the chill in the palace, the design left her arms bare and pulled tight over her breasts, which were generous for her slender frame, and outlined her nipples. It draped taut yet flexible over her waist. The skirt hung long, to her ankles, though several long splits in the fabric allowed her freedom of movement. The slits went all the way to her upper thigh and revealed her legs when she moved.

The dress was alluring, but it was of little consequence. Lust was desirable and highly useful, but this day she was not endeavoring to elicit it in her observers. She was going for a far more memorable response. Her magic was of a subtle nature, and therein laid the danger. What if it didn’t impress enough? What if it didn’t astonish as Anatol’s illusions could? She had to ensure she made a powerful impact so she had the proper amount of emotion to work with.

Goosebumps pebbled her flesh, perhaps more from her fear than the temperature. Though she was cold all of the time. Apparently, that was one of the prices of her gifts, or maybe it was merely a physical reflection of her inner self.

Cold without to match the cold within? Cold, unfeeling, calculating and frigid. These were the prices of her gift. Usually no other emotion reached her to cause anything else.

She used the moments before the music commenced to focus, to open up and pull in what she would spin out as she danced. Movement was not required to perform her particular brand of magic, but dance made an impressive presentation. Her body was made for dancing, so she did.

She drew emotion in from those around her, like a spider drawing different threads, all the while protecting herself against the power of her own magic. Weaving, grasping, coiling, she let them find their respective places within her body. It always tingled, this preparation, and made her vaguely ill. It was as if all those emotions compressed her very being into a tiny fraction of her body. It was uncomfortable, that sensation of being squeezed out of herself. She was always relieved when she could start to move and channel the emotion out.

A thread of boredom here. A snippet of joy over there. Anticipation. Lust. Anger. Jealousy.
She continued to fill herself up with it all until there was barely room for herself. Just a sliver, pushed to the side and out of the way, even as she built up the walls to contain the threads and keep them safely away from that remaining slice that was Evangeline.

The music began and her heart started to pound. In her nervousness, just for a fraction of a moment, she nearly lost control of her threads. She gripped them tightly and drew a careful breath.

All those years came down to this…one fateful dance.

She’d selected a flute piece, simple yet sophisticated. Her body was lean and her muscles honed from day after day of strenuous practice and training. Releasing a deep breath drawn seemingly from the center of her soul, she began to move her arms. The sounds of the spectators faded away, and the music she heard as though it were miles off. Now things were at their very simplest. Nothing but her body. Her magic. Evangeline moved her feet in the way she’d practiced so many times. She didn’t have to think about it. She just danced—simple and involuntary as breathing.

Her left arm swept out and up. She rotated on the ball of her foot, following through the motion with the rest of her body. With a mental sigh she gave into it—the long stretch of her spine, the bend of her knee, the arch of her slender neck. She took one turn around the performance area in front of the Edaeii and then began to unravel the threads.

No one tracery of the magic she’d lifted returned to its original owner. Evangeline sent each to the person who currently experienced its opposite in order to induce the most dramatic response.

Even such a small amount of magic-imbued feeling could turn the tide within each individual so that the enthusiastic became apathetic, the uninterested became engaged, and the anxious became unconcerned. But to the Czz’ar she sent a special thread, woven using a little slivers of the emotion she’d drawn in. Bit by careful bit, she manufactured his response. After all, he had the final word on whether or not she would be jeweled. He required an exceptional reaction to her dance.

When most of her threads had been spun out, she gave into the fluid physical joy of the dance. She arched, leapt, twirled and spun until the last note of the song sounded. Then she came to her place before the Czz’ar and curtsied low.

Silence.

Panic scrabbled at the edge of her confidence. She stayed in place; etiquette dictated she must. Her breath came short and fast from her physical exertion and from her concern. The great expenditure of magic made her lightheaded and nauseous. She gritted her teeth and forced herself to remain standing. If she had the luxury, she would sleep well into the afternoon tomorrow.

“Rise.”

She stood as gracefully as she could, considering her nausea, and brought her gaze up to meet the Czz’ar. Tears streamed down his face and she breathed a sigh of relief. She’d succeeded.
“Beautiful,” he gasped through his carefully constructed sorrowful euphoria. The Edaeii and the Court broke into fervent applause.

He’d uttered one word only but she knew with certainty that she’d soon count herself among the jeweled.

The rest of the afternoon went by in a blur of magical performances. Mihail breathed temporary life into a heavy oaken chair, making it do a jig in the center of the room. Ellyn created fire in her palm and water in the other that she used to douse it. In an especially pathetic display, Siador altered his own voice and cast it across the room, pretending to be Borco. But then, it had always been clear Siador would never be J’Edaeii.

The jewelling ceremony came at the end of the afternoon, when the performances were finished. All the adepts stood to the side while Borco read a list of names. When Evangeline was called she walked to the area before the Czz’ar and the Edaeii and knelt.

They asked her to remove the top of her dress and she made a slow show of it, making sure Roane caught a definite flash of her full breasts and their rosy, erect nipples. Men loved her breasts. Along with her hair, they were her best feature. She dropped the top of her dress to her waist and demurely covered herself with her hands while the jewelling master inset the sapphire with a jewelling gun at the base of her spine. It stung terribly. She bit her lower lip until it bled so she wouldn’t cry out and disgrace herself—or worse, ruin the work she’d done to attract Roane.

As she rose she raked her gaze across Roane, the most eligible and sought-after of the Edaeii males. He watched her covetously, his dark eyes full of unmistakable lust.

Hiding a smile, she backed away. She wasn’t the only one he’d looked at that way, he’d had his eye on many of the adepts, but she intended to be the first in line. Roane’s sexual appetite was large and included both sexes. Today was the first day he was allowed to indulge since the adepts were off-limits to Edaeii. The jeweled were not.

In fact, the J’Edaii were looked upon as a pool of marriageable individuals. The Edaeii constantly sought to breathe new life into their nearly depleted magical bloodline and wished to distance as much as possible the unpalatable truth that many of the jeweled—like herself—came from humble beginnings. Hence the title and the jewel to set them apart. It washed away the commonness and made them fit for royalty.

The last of the adepts were jeweled and welcomed into the hearts and arms of the J’Edaeii. Anatol was included in that group, though men received a much smaller jewel inset on the back of their neck, under their hair.

The failures, the inept and inferior magic-wielders—if they even deserved the title—were sent, weeping, in most cases, from Belai. After that, the Czz’ar announced that the customary dinner and ball in honor of the new J’Edaeii would be held that evening.

A prayer was said for the newly jeweled, a supplication to Blessed Joshui that the magic within them might flourish. Evangeline knelt piously on the ornate floor and shuddered at the thought. If her magic flourished any more it might overwhelm her. There would be nothing left of herself inside her, only ragged hanks of other people’s stolen emotion. There was barely any of herself left as it was—though perhaps it was better that way.

After they were dismissed, Evangeline filed from the theater with the rest of the new J’Edaeii and back to their quarters.

She entered the small sitting room that connected four of the bedrooms in the House of the Adepts. It wasn’t actually a house, per se, but a wing of Belai. One floor—a block of thirty-six rooms—was dedicated to the female adepts. Another floor with a block of around thirty-two rooms were for the male adepts. There tended to be a higher number of magic-wielding females born in Rylisk. The sleeping chambers were cordoned off into little clusters of four rooms apiece. The two other floors of the wing were comprised of chambers for the trainers that lived within House, and, of course, there were many rooms for practice.

There was no place for education of the non-magical kind. She’d been taught to read and not much more than that. Magic was the priority here. Though she pilfered books when she could. She’d slept once with a trainer who had a whole collection just to get several history books. Now she had a small library of cherished tomes.

Katya and Melasann, two of the adepts in her quad, were too young to perform this day. Performance Day was reserved for adepts of twenty and older. Pauliane, the fourth resident, had failed in her performance and had not been jeweled. Evangeline hovered in the sitting room and listened to her weep as she packed her bags.

Pauliane’s magic was incredible when she performed well. She could shape shift items. An apple into an orange that would truly taste like an orange, for example. However her abilities were uncontrolled and unpredictable. She’d attempted to shift a raven into a dove this afternoon, but had instead ended up with a dead raven. Evangeline had almost felt sorry for her, standing there in the center of the theater with a dead raven in her hands. It had been written on her face; she’d known they would not choose her for the J’Edaeii.

Evangeline entered her bedroom, sat down on the bed and closed her eyes, finally giving in to her fatigue. She had to muster enough strength for the ball that evening.

Depending on what kind of family the adept had been born to, the rooms could be sumptuous or austere. Her bedchamber was definitely austere. The small area was furnished with a narrow bed with a thread worn blanket covering its thin mattress, a cupboard filled with clothing and a dressing table upon which sat a pitcher and bowl, her cosmetics and jewelry. Her one shelf with all her beloved books.

She hardly spent much time in her room anyway. All her spare moments were spent training. Her stipend money went to practical things like adornments for her body. She might come from a poor family, and her accommodations might reflect that, but her person would not. She’d made that vow to herself long ago when she first started to understand just how much worth lay in her appearance.

She was beautiful and had a gorgeous body—and she could use it like currency. To do that, it had to be embellished properly.

Evangeline opened her eyes, slid off the mattress and pulled the linen wrapped gown from beneath her bed. She’d saved a little of each stipend payment every year until she’d had enough to have the gown commissioned from Madame Huey to wear to the J’Edaeii dinner and ball.

Beyond her doorway, Pauliane went out sobbing into the sitting room where Katya and Melasann consoled her in low, compassionate voices. Evangeline brushed her hand over the gown and flirted—briefly—with the possibility of going to her quad mate. Instead she stood and laid the gown on her bed. It wasn’t as if Pauliane were her friend. She wasn’t friends with any of them. In any case, she doubted Pauliane would welcome her condolences. She was J’Edaeii now, after all, and could hardly identify with Pauliane’s failure.

She’d had a close friend once. Her name had been Annetka. They’d tittered and gossiped their way through adolescence together. Annetka had shared Evangeline’ talent for drawing—the only other thing she could do besides magick. As children they’d drawn pictures and passed them back and forth. Evangeline still had them tucked away in a box under her bed. When Annetka had died of an unidentified wasting disease, Evangeline had cried for months.

But she had neither time for such memories, nor to indulge in maudlin behavior now.

Soon it was too late to go and say anything to Pauliane. A personal assistant arrived to help Evangeline get ready for the ball. Sorna was a small brunette whose wide, dark eyes darted about as though she was nervous. Perhaps she feared magic? Many of the commoners did.

But Evangeline quickly learned that Sorna’s tiny hands could cajole and seduce her hair into a plethora of beautiful configurations. Sorna created four lovely styles that Evangeline would’ve kept on any other occasion, but tonight she was particularly picky. Evangeline finally declared satisfaction when Sorna piled her tresses atop her head in a cluster of small, smooth knots. One long, lustrous section trailed down from the back and over her shoulder to lie like a precious ribbon of light against her collarbone.

Before Sorna had dressed her hair, she’d assisted Evangeline into her gown. Now Evangeline admired herself in the looking glass. The gown had been hand-sewn by the best designer in all Milzyr. It was white tulle and appliqué-embroidered with a design of curling silver branches, with small blossoms accented with gold interspersed within the careful tangle. The gown left her arms bare and possessed a low décolleté, as was the fashion. It had a bell-formed skirt with a small train of sheer white material. The highlight of the gown was that her entire back—down to the very base of her spine—was revealed. She turned and looked over her shoulder. It displayed her jewel to glittering sapphire perfection. She smiled.

“Are you pleased then, miss?” asked Sorna.

“What? Oh, yes. I believe I am.”

“You’re quite lovely, miss. I’m sure you’ll be earning notice and quite a bit of it.”

Evangeline barely heard her. Instead she curtsied before her reflection, rose and did a little twirl. Her skirts shimmered and rippled like the surface of a pond on a breezy summer’s day.

“While you’re at the ball, myself and a couple other servants will see that your belongings will get to your new suite in the J’Edaeii wing. You’ll have to find Borco when you want to go to bed so he can get someone to take you there. I’ll be in the antechamber if you need me during the night.”

Evangeline would have completely missed everything Sorna had said, if the words your new suite in the J’Edaeii wing had not received her undivided attention. “Very well. You’re dismissed.”

Sorna bobbed in a deep curtsy. “Thank you. Enjoy yourself at the ball, miss.”

When Evangeline left her room, her quad mates were nowhere to be seen. It was just as well. She hurried down the corridor in her white silk slippers. She’d allowed Sorna to fuss with her tresses a little too long. She reached the staircase leading down to the main part of Belai, and to the grand ballroom, at the same time Anatol did.