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Chapter 2: An Engagement, Interrupted, Part 4

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Though he expected exactly what he saw beyond the door, Denisius still felt a nauseating twist in his belly, like a knife being slipped into his gut. 

The room was enormous, comprising a significant amount of this level of the Tower, tall mullioned windows admitting faint light. Perhaps it had been a scriptorium or reading room. Now heaped piles of crates and discarded stacks of moldering junk filled the place, the smell of must almost overwhelming. The dust here had been greatly disturbed: much of the haphazard mess seemed to have been shoved to the sides of the room, clearing a space from the door to the broad stones before the windows. Candles were arrayed in a wide circle in crystal sticks, likely purloined from somewhere in the Tower's vast stores. A blanket had been spread in the center. 

But Denisius saw little of this at first. As he stepped into the room, all he could see was the pile of fabric halfway between the doorway and the circle of candles -- a gorgeous damask dress of gold and brocaded roses. He had last seen it at a concert he had attended at one of the Chalcedony Palace's salons, when Carala had worn it. They had held hands through the second half, exchanging smiles and shy glances to the strains of airy, lilting music.

But eventually he looked away from this and saw Carala herself.

She lounged amid the candles, draped along the form of a powerfully built figure, a man with closely cropped chestnut hair and a smirking, satisfied look on his handsome features. She wore only her corset and stockings, her pale thighs on display, anything else concealed by the firm hand of her companion, kneading hungrily between her legs as his lips skated along her throat. Her midnight hair tumbled about her shoulders as her head arched back, one hand curled along the nape of this Tacen's neck. The dancing light of the candles reflected the sheen of sweat on her body. Her breath came in short, stifled gasps as Tacen's fingers worked at her secret places, the muscles of her thighs quivering, her fingers clutching, even as doubtful words escaped her trembling lips: "No, you shouldn't, please, please don't, it burns, it hurts -- "

Unaware he was doing it, Denisius lunged forward, gripping the hilt of his sword in both hands, meaning to bury it in Tacen's heart. Before he could manage it, however, Varallo Thray announced them with a furious cry: "What is the meaning of this?"

Carala shrieked and shrank back, her eyes wide in shock. Futilely she tried to cover herself as her companion turned a sneer on Thray and Denisius. He rose to his feet with a languid ease, clad only in a pair of rough breeches, not bothering to hide the jutting shape of his arousal. "I hope you have a good excuse for interrupting us." 

Amazingly his tone was as casual as if he'd offered to buy them a drink at a tavern. With a smirk he lifted his fingers to his nose and inhaled, then licked them obscenely, peering over them at the Grand Chancellor. His eyes reflected the light of the candles, their mood inscrutable, his gaze moving carelessly from Thray to Denisius and his upraised blade, betraying neither concern nor fear.

"Identify yourself at once," Varallo Thray said, his tone icier than it had ever been with Denisius. "You insult the honor of the House of Marhollow and the Malachite Throne itself. If you're lucky, you'll be sent to the hangman before the torturer."

"My name is Tacen," the man replied, laughter bubbling up from his throat. "And this woman is mine, and piss for your House and piss for the Malachite Throne. Neither of you is leaving this room alive. Isn't that right, my love?"

Carala trembled, shivering all over as if seized by a fever. Slowly she turned her gaze on Denisius and moaned. "Oh gods, Deni, I'm sorry -- I -- I -- "

Tacen was laughing. Before Denisius's astonished eyes he slid his hands under the waist of his breeches and shoved them down, stepping out of them as they pooled at his ankles, brazenly naked and unashamed of the fact. The bony clutch of Thray's fingers drew him backward, but he needed little encouragement. Stripping nude was a novel strategy, he had to admit, and not one his sparring masters had ever addressed. 

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