In shadows: Prologue

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“I couldn’t possibly acccept this,” Vassannah raised her eyes from the small velvet box containing a precious stone in a thin gold chain. “Illona, I … I couldn’t. Really.” She smiled, closed the box and put it down on the long oak table in the middle of the meeting hall. They were alone in there, for now. “I am … well, flattered, I guess …”

Illona let her bodyweight wander from one hoof to the other. It looked as if she was about to move, but she just stood there, trying to find something to say or do. She raised her hand halfway but stopped, then she furled her brow.

“Am I … ” She exhaled and uttered a short laugh at the same time, looking nervous and slightly embarassed. “I’m missing something?” She finally moved, turned around quickly and moved up to the chair at the end of the table. She paused, trailing her hand over the back of the chair before she sat down with an exasperated sigh. She shot a sharp glance at Vassannah with one arm resting on the table, the other hanging limp in her lap. “I thought … the other morning, you and me. Making love?”

“It was just sex, Illona.”

Illona twitched, ever so slightly, quickly blinking. She leaned back against the back of the chair, raising her eyebrows while saying: “I … I don’t understand. We … I … I walked back an forth outside for almost an hour and … ” She trailed off.

Vassannah managed to hid her somewhat irritated sigh behind a faint smile as she grabbed the jewelry box from the Karabor bazaaar and walked up to Illona. It wasn’t the first time someone she slept with had mistaken sex for love.

“Please,” Vassannah said. “I really can not accept this gift. It would … well, you know.” She placed the box in front of Illona.
“I don’t know,” Illona said, a testy tone in her voice. She raised her eyes at Vassannah. “What would it?”
“It would make me feel like a whore,” Vassannah said. “Mind you, there’s some people in this damned garrison who wouldn’t think twice about calling me that – and worse.”

Vassannah turned around and headed for the door. She didn’t get very far. The box slammed into the door post, making her flinch with a short, sharp cry. She spun around with a shocked gasp and a misplaced short laugh. The jewel hit the floor with a tiny ‘plink!’, the gold chain coiled around the precious, black stone. It sparkled in the dull light from the fireplace. Just a few minutes ago Vassannah had almost managed to flip Illona across the table, their mouths locked, arms trembling, huffing hot air through their noses. That was then, of course. Illona had evaded the hug, fumbled out the box and handed it to Vassannah with an embarassed, stuttering whisper. Truth be told Vassannah couldn’t remember what had been said.

“You … ” Illona stood up, very slowly. Her hand gripped the side of the table for a moment, as if she wanted to support herself. Then she let go of the table, her hand bunched up into a fist. “You ..! You! Slut!”

“That’s one of the things people call me,” Vassannah said. It was supposed to sound cold, but instead she twitched her head back, flinging her white hair in an almost proud gesture. Then she laughed a few strokes ending with a sighing “Eh …
“Just sex!?” Illona said. Well – shouted. “Just! Sex!?”

“Girl, c’mon!” Vassannah stiffled a laugh. “Illona, seriously? You’ve never fucked someone just for the hell o–”
“You!” Illona slammed her fist into the table so hard she broke away splinter from the side of the table. She was wearing her armor. She always wore her armor – even if she was on leave. A few days earlier, while Vassannah slithered down her naked body, she had said it made her feel secure. “Just like you,” she had whispered, gently pushing Vassannahs head further down and closing her eyes with a faint gasp. Now the shrapnel of wood skittered across the stone floor and came to a halt right in front of Vassannah feet, next to the broken box.

“You come here, to my world! From wherever or whatever darkness I don’t know and I! Don’t! Fucking! CARE!!!”

She grabbed the backof the chair just as she took a big stride towards Vassannah, stopping only to fling the chair topsy turvy with a short and stiffled angry scream.

“You’re playing a dangerous game now … ” There was a very dangerous tone in Illonas voice. Vassannah picked up on it immediately. It wasn’t the first time she had heard someone utter words of anger in that particular tone. A slap would follow, it always did. But not this time. Instead, there was a single word, uttered through clenched teeth, trembling with scorn, with rage – with hate. “man’ari!”

A slap wouldn’t have hurt as much as that single word. They both knew it the second the word was spoken.

Then it was too late to take it back.

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