Chapter Four

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The long table stretched off into infinity and beyond, loaded with enough gourmet delicacies to make any celebrity chef weep and hand in his spatula. The opulent spread could have fed a hundred people easily.

As she entered the dining hall, Guin squinted suspiciously down the rows of glistening roast meat, oozing puddings, shimmering jellies, vast tureens of creamy soup and endless ranks of little fiddly things in pastry shells. The spectacle of almost farcical excess was at once tantalizing and somehow grotesque.

Guin swallowed, remembering the bloody mess on the bed upstairs. No way in Hell am I gonna eat any of this.

Thesul stepped forward and pulled out a chair. "Won't you sit?"

Guin hesitated. "I'm not hungry."

He smiled gently. "Ah, but you must eat. You are my honored guest. It would bring shame upon my house to have you go hungry."

"More shame than kidnapping your 'honored guest'?" Guin asked, forcing herself to hold his gaze. "Or having me beaten to a pulp? I think your guy cracked one of my ribs, by the way."

Thesul sighed heavily and nodded. "I apologize unreservedly for the inexcusable conduct of my employee. He has been dealt with. And I assure you that your bones have mended. In Alavard, we have the very finest healers. The very finest of everything, in fact."

Guin glanced at the lavish feast. "Yeah. I can see that."

Once more, Thesul indicated the chair he'd angled toward her. "Please. Sit."

Play the game, Guin reminded herself. He's got your friends locked up somewhere. You have to play along until you can figure out how to beat him.

Slowly, she walked to the chair and sat. Thesul smiled and reached down to brush a stray lock of her hair behind her shoulder. Guin gasped and jerked forward, one arm raised instinctively to block any further contact. They stared at one another for a moment—then Thesul withdrew his hand, still smiling.

Heart once more hammering in her chest, Guin watched the young man carefully as he moved around the table to sit across from her.

He's trying to unnerve me. Invading my personal space. Implying threats. Taunting. I need to figure out exactly what he wants. He definitely wants something from me, and he probably won't touch me if he thinks he can get it nicely...

Guin took a deep breath, trying to calm her frantic pulse as her brain added in a tiny voice, I hope.

She folded her hands in her lap and waited.

Thesul picked up a decanter and poured a long stream of amber liquid into a crystal goblet, then settled back to stare at Guin with the glass balanced on his fingers.

"I suppose you have questions," he said after a moment, his tone light and conversational.

"You could say that." Guin picked up a table knife and began fiddling with it, never taking her eyes off him.

Thesul nodded and sipped his drink. "Well, I am entirely at your disposal. Ask away."

Guin took a deep breath. "What do you want?"

Thesul's gentle smile widened into a sharp-toothed grin. "I want many things," he replied. "You'll need to be more specific."

Guin swallowed and tried again. "What do you want from me?"

"Ah." Thesul took another sip, then replaced his goblet on the table. He leaned forward and folded his hands beneath his chin, staring at Guin with those dull, dark eyes. "You are mistaken. I want nothing from you, Guin."

"Then what?" Guin asked.

"I want you."

Guin's fingers tightened on the table knife.

Thesul's eyes flicked to the blade, then slid back up to her face. "Does that prospect frighten you?"

Guin didn't answer.

Thesul sighed. "Guin. I cannot conduct civilized discourse on my own. You need to supply the other end of this conversation." He tilted his head to the side. "Again, I ask—does the idea of being wanted frighten you?"

"No," Guin said at last. "No, I'm not frightened. I'm freaked out. There's a very distinct difference."

"Could you perhaps elaborate on what that difference might be?" Thesul asked, raising a perfectly sculpted eyebrow.

"It basically means I'm not scared of you, exactly," Guin said. "But I'll still stab you if you come close enough."

This time, Thesul's grin verged on a leer. "You know, they told me you were a child. I am pleasantly surprised to find you anything but."

"I was told you're a pervert and murderer," Guin retorted. "Can't say I've seen anything to convince me otherwise."

Thesul burst out laughing. The sound was unexpectedly loud. It rang through the dining hall, echoing off the marble pillars. He slammed one palm down on the table, making the crystal rattle and chime.

At last, his laughter died away and he raised his gaze to meet Guin's once more. "Oh, Guin. You have no idea what I am."

"You're the flash bastard who's keeping my friends locked up," Guin shot back. "That's all I need to know."

"Hmm." With a smile still lingering on his lips, Thesul steepled his fingers and asked, "Your friends. You call them that, do you?"

Guin nodded.

"Interesting." He gave Guin a quizzical look. "But did they not take you from your world by force? Have you not been dragged across this land on a hopeless quest, strung along on false promises and driven forward by threats?" He shook his head ruefully. "That is hardly what I would call friendship."

Guin opened her mouth to reply, but found she didn't have the words.

Noting her lack of retort with a shrug, Thesul continued, "I am sure these friends of yours have told you many things. Things that, perhaps, bear some slight resemblance to truth. All the best lies do, you know. That is what makes them so very convincing. But they are still lies. You can hardly be blamed for believing them. But I assure you, they have not told you everything. Not at all. Because, you see, it is they who want something from you, whereas I..." He leaned forward. "...I only want you. You and you alone, as you are, to be and do as you choose. To embrace yourself. To be what you were born to be."

His final words melted into silence.

Guin still held the knife. She pressed the blade into her palm just hard enough to indent the skin without piercing it.

"Tell me where they are," she said quietly. "Let me see them.'

"Oh, rest assured, I fully intend to do so," Thesul agreed. "But first, I want to tell you what they have not seen fit to share. And then, perhaps, when you understand the truth, you will see that your loyalty has been gravely misplaced." He indicated the feast with a tilt of his chin. "Are you certain you won't eat anything?"

"Like I said," Guin replied. "I'm not hungry."

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