She was being watched.

The woman known only as Twenty-three felt her pulse quicken. The hair prickled on the back of her neck, and she tried to tell herself that the glance she felt was only passing.

It wasn’t. Someone was scrutinizing her.

She’d kept her head down as she lit the tall candles in the chapel, trying to be as nondescript as possible. She’d moved slowly, so as to not attract attention, but the weight of that gaze had made her want to run.

Someone knew her secret. Conviction made her heart race and her hands shake.

Twenty-three was a shade and shades officially had no secrets.

Shades - those humans who had failed the Sub Human Atomic Deviancy Evaluation - forfeited their citizenship and rights because of their birth defects. They became the property of the Republic and were destined to labor unseen for the collective good of the Republic’s citizens.
It was the duty of shades to remain invisible, the better to ensure that no norm was reminded of the existence of slavery in the Republic. But someone was keenly watching Twenty-three. Her mouth went dry - she knew how the Daughter Superior would react toward any shade who defied convention.

Twenty-three had to avoid suspicion on this night of nights. Her mind, for once, was clear. Someone had made a mistake in issuing her daily sedation for the past two days, because she hadn’t been given any. She didn’t care who or why.

Her chance had finally come.

Twenty-three was sick of lies and sick of servitude. The haze of indifference had risen slowly from her mind, leaving her with a clarity of thought that was shocking. She’d seen more in the last twenty-four hours than she’d noticed in the Citadel in years.

It was time to reveal herself.

The chapel was filled with strangers and the unusual hum of conversation. Once every four years, guests were allowed into the Citadel of the Daughters of the Light of the Republic to act as witnesses, and on this night, those guests had come.

Twenty-three knew that the Daughters would have preferred to have denied access to others, but the selection of the official Oracle of the Republic had to be witnessed by outsiders to appear legitimate.

Appearances were key, for the selection had already been made. This ceremony was a lie. Twenty-three shouldn’t have been surprised when she had stumbled upon the rehearsal the day before. This entire ceremony, which witnesses would endorse with their presence, would be a sham.

But then, she already knew that nothing in the refuge of the Daughters was as it appeared. The only mercy was no one knew that she had seen the truth. Sometimes it paid to be invisible.
Sometimes the shadows - or the shades - were the true witnesses.

It was wrong to feign the revelation of the true Oracle.

It was wrong to ensure that a false Oracle could take the honored place.

And Twenty-three, who had been told years before that she was destined to be the one true Oracle, found the deceit offensive. She wasn’t going to let the acolyte Teresa usurp the place that was destined to be hers.

It was time for Twenty-three to act. She felt awake and alive, vital, as if she’d rediscovered a lost key to herself. She’d almost forgotten the power of her undrugged body.

Yet at the same time, she felt naked and exposed, certain that someone would see the truth before she could prove her abilities. She feared that watchful gaze.

The eyes of the Republic, after all, were everywhere.

Cloaked from head to toe in black, veiled and gloved, Twenty-three should have blended with the shadows. She should have been invisible.

But the weight of that gaze was relentless.

She was keenly aware of the men who had allowed into the Citadel for this ceremony. At all other times, the Citadel was a refuge of women for women only. The low resonance of their voices in the crowd was foreign and titillating.

Was it a man who watched her? Something quivered deep inside her, something that she knew would have found disapproval from the Daughters. It was a seductive hum, a pleasurable tingle, and one that Twenty-three might have enjoyed under other circumstances.

She’d felt this sensation before, this buzz of awareness. That time, it had been accompanied by a pearly opalescent light, a light that ran like quicksilver and resonated with the same hum. She closed her eyes and remembered, shivering with delight.

Angelfire.

The source of her power and the root of her faith. The angels wouldn’t abandon her now, not when triumph and justice were so close.

Twenty-three returned to her place at the perimeter of the chapel, folded her hands and dipped her head. She was just another shade in the shadows, another anonymous figure in the line of similarly clad attendants.

Still, she knew she was watched.

Twenty-three straightened slightly and sought for the bold culprit. Her gaze collided immediately with that of a man, the only one who stared directly at her.

And only at her.

Twenty-three’s heart stopped cold.

He stood at the back of the assembled crowd, seeming to think that the others would overlook his presence. The idea was ridiculous. He was almost radiant in his vitality, his golden hair gleaming, his eyes glowing like sapphires. Amongst the poorly nourished and burdened citizens of the Republic, he was a magnet for every eye.

Never mind that he dressed with such verve. He wore a faux-leather cloak, so deep an indigo that it was nearly black, high black boots and long black gloves. There was a froth of white at his throat, a fine ruffled shirt with a striped silk cravat. His vest was sleek and zipped up the front, defining the muscled breadth of his chest, and made of faux-leather in midnight blue.

He had to be affluent, then.

Successful.

Of course. It wasn’t easy to gain a witness pass. It probably took creds or connections or both. There were senators in the crowd - Twenty-three had heard the Daughters bragging about their number this time.

But this man was no senator. He didn’t have the smug satisfaction of a politician, much less the bulk of one who ate frequently and well at the expense of others. Twenty-three doubted that this man would ever tell anyone what they wanted to hear. To the contrary, she suspected that he preferred to surprise people.

There was an intriguing hint of mischief in his smile.

And a knowing glint in his eyes.

The gem in the pin that held his cravat in place was large and faceted, large enough to catch the light at a distance. It was blue, maybe a sapphire, but couldn’t compete with the brilliant blue glimmer of his eyes. His fair hair was tied back in a queue, as luxuriant as spun gold. He was clean-shaven, and made no pretence that he was doing anything other than what he was doing.

He watched her openly.

Twenty-three knew he couldn’t truly see her. Her features were hidden behind her veil, but she feared that his bright gaze could pierce those shadows. She knew he couldn’t even see her eyes given the distance between them, but she felt as if he could read her thoughts.

As if he knew how she felt.

As if he could see the trickle of perspiration running down her bare back or smell the heat rising from her skin. Could he know that her heart was racing? That there was a shimmer spreading through her lower body? That she was awake for the first time in years? Twenty-three’s mind filled with questions but she couldn’t avert her gaze from his. Awareness strung taut between the two of them, increasing the hum in her ears.

Would he thwart her plan?

 

Excerpt from GUARDIAN ©2008 Claire Delacroix, Inc.

October 2009

ISBN#978-0-7653-5950-6

©1998-2009 Claire Delacroix, Inc..