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Dulce's Champion (Jaguars of Brigantia Book 1) by Lisa Daniels (1)

Chapter 1

 

As soon as the drunken man turned to call his friend over to the table, Dulce moved his drink a little closer to the edge of the table.  She then pushed her drink between her and the man.  Crossing her arms and sighing, she frowned at her mead and waited for the scene to unfold in front of her.  The man’s friend staggered toward them, at least as drunk as the man sitting at the table, and the way his eyes seemed unfocused suggested that alcohol was not the only thing affecting him.  The man sitting too close for her comfort turned to introduce Dulce to his approaching friend, but the guy staggered into the table.  With a grimace, Dulce knew that she was going to have a bruise where the table hit her arm.  Some of her drink sloshed on the table, but miraculously neither of the drinks were entirely spilled.  As the table finally seemed to settle, the seated man moved quickly to gesture to Dulce, knocking his own drink over the edge.  The sound of the glass smashing on the floor was barely acknowledged by the other patrons.  Immediately, the two men began arguing about whose fault it was that the drink had smashed. 

Forcing a smile on her face, Dulce refused to wince at the pain as she felt a couple of shards from the glass embedded in her leg.  The dress really wasn’t very practical as it didn’t go down far enough to protect her calves when she sat.  Her first venture out into the world in more than a year was proving to be far more painful than she had anticipated.  There was at least one thin trickle of blood making its way down her leg, but in her current predicament there wasn’t much she could do.  It was best not to call any attention to herself in public as seers had become very much the scapegoat of the nation’s decline.  The fact that they had held high positions for hundreds of years, and humans believed that seers had spent much of that time oppressing the nonmagic users, made seers incredibly unpopular.  Nor could she fight off one man through strength, let alone two.  Her best bet was to simply try to be friendly and wait until what she knew was going to happen—if she could remain patient enough.  It was proving far more difficult than she had anticipated.  The only reason she was able to smile through it was that she was able to nudge things along a little faster, although clearly it was costing her more than she had anticipated. 

A thin man quickly appeared to clean up the mess.  The staff at His Highness’s Last Breath always payed attention to what was happening in the establishment, something that made Dulce feel momentarily grateful.  She had chosen the establishment because she would be largely ignored.  However, she had not been able to tell exactly how obnoxious the man would be.  The staff member slightly turned his head to her, his eyes never leaving the two men whose argument had not yet become physical.  “Would you like some assistance, my lady?”

The words were jarring as they hinted at what she was.  Her eyes bore into him as she read the details of the young man, then Dulce gave him a thin smile.  “Thank you, Zax, but that won’t be necessary.”  Cursing herself silently, the seer wished she could take him up on the offer, but what she saw in the young man’s eyes told her that this was the person she was out there to help. 

Great, after fighting back the dreams for the last year, the only person willing to help is the one person I can’t ask.  Figures.  Looking back at the men arguing at the table, she waited for the inevitable as the fight seemed to be going nowhere. 

Out of the corner of her eye, she could see the server raise an eyebrow at her.  Obviously getting some assistance with the two fools would be amazing, especially since he knew what she was and was still willing to help.  Yet she had declined, and that meant there was nothing he could do about it.  Deciding to simply focus on the task at hand, he cleaned the glass up without another word.  He finished up and left as the two men finally returned their attention to the lady at the table.  Apparently forgetting that it had been his glass that had smashed on the floor, the drunken man picked up Dulce’s drink and downed nearly half of it.  The other man seemed to lose his balance a bit and he staggered backward into the table behind him, making it impossible for the patrons at that table to ignore the altercation any longer.  The three men at the table stood up and pushed the man who had bumped into their table.  At about the same time, the drunk who had interrupted Dulce’s peaceful evening began to stare at the drink, something in his mind starting to remember something important about the mug from which he had just drunk. 

“Well… shit.  That wasn’t mine.” He didn’t even look at Dulce as he slapped his hands on the table.  Trying to fight back what he knew was inevitable, the man let out a groan that sounded like a cow in labor. 

Dulce watched as the man sitting next to her started to slump in his seat.  His friend was too busy fighting with the other table to notice.  Pushing her chair back, the seer stood, dropped a few coins on the table for the drink she didn’t get to enjoy, and headed toward the door.  The sounds of shock behind her barely registered as she exited with a grim smile on her face.  Her footsteps were almost imperceptible as she walked around the side of the establishment and headed toward the cemetery on the outskirts of the town. 

“Was it really necessary to poison him?” A male voice drew her attention from the shadows. 

Not even stopping to look at him, Dulce replied, “He tried to drug me.  It wasn’t my fault he got drunk enough to forget.”

The waiter who had cleaned up the mess stepped out of the shadows.  “They will be looking for you now.  It wasn’t enough to kill him, and plenty of people saw you.” He fell in step beside her.

Waving her hand, Dulce dismissed his words.  “Neither he nor his friend will even remember what I look like.  Nor will they be willing to do anything after he recovers because the receipt for his purchase of that particularly nasty drug was done in triplicate.  Even if they had my name, they will be too afraid to do much of anything.  It isn’t exactly a common poison.”

“What if other people in the establishment are willing to come forward?”

“No one even noticed I was there.  It was only when he hit the floor that anyone took notice of the man, and by that point I was no longer at the table.”

“I saw what happened—I am a witness.  Are you not concerned that I will do something?  I am obligated as a member of the people to report the misbehavior of seers, and I cannot say that what you did was anything but inappropriate.” The man’s voice only trembled slightly as he made the statement, which wasn’t exactly a threat, but it wasn’t too far from one.

Dulce stopped and turned slowly to look at him.  Reminding herself that this was the man who was willing to help her, and the reason why she had finally come out of her solitude, Dulce momentarily closed her eyes.  She pushed back the hood, fully aware of how he would feel as her reddish-orange eyes bore into him.  “You won’t.” A cloud passed by overhead, partly obscuring her face.  Her dark chestnut hair bounced around her shoulders as she steadily kept his gaze. 

The waiter was clearly uncomfortable, but he gritted his teeth and said exactly what he was thinking, “This is exactly why people hate your kind.  You act like you know everything, and you don’t appear to have any regard for how your actions affect others.  Cold, heartless women—that is the impression that you seers give the people.”

Dulce raised an eyebrow and took a step forward as the moonlight burst out from behind the cloud.  “Are you offended that I know how you will act, that you currently falsely believe that you are standing up for the people trying to intimidate me?  Does it bother you that I don’t have to worry about the small things the way that you do?  Exactly what is your problem with me, specifically?  Or is your mind simply so narrow, so brainwashed, that you can only see a seer in front of you and not a person?”

The man took a step back, but attempted to glare at her as he did.  “Are you just bitter that your kind has fallen from grace?  Just when our country needed you the most, you seers walked away, as if you were not also affected by our decline.  How many wars did we fight because of seers?”

Dulce folded her arms across her chest, causing the velvet dress to sway gently beneath the movement.  Mild annoyance passed through her thoughts as she knew that her dress now had blood on it too.  She watched as the man could not help but look down for a second to take in her nearly perfect form.  Silently cursing herself for moving, she waited until he looked back at her face before replying, “Juniper, Calyna, Tress, Bianca—they all tried to help, knowing that it would end with their deaths at the peoples’ hands—the very people they were trying to help.  Phillia, Pedra, Stella—they are now waiting in a prison where two of them will die of starvation and one will be dragged out by the public and lynched before the week’s end.  They all tried to help, and that is how your people respond.  For centuries, you humans have prospered from what seers gave you and the country, the wars as much by human design as seer, but you refuse to acknowledge it as such because you are too weak to admit you were wrong.  Spare me your lecture about how we have wronged humans.  Ishtar is run by humans, not seers.  They are simply using your fear and bias to spread propaganda.

“As for my treatment of the man in your establishment, if you were a witness, you would know that he forced himself on me.  I was simply trying to take in the fresh air and enjoy a drink when he started to harass me.  He added a drug to my drink when he thought I wasn’t looking, and planned to take me back to his place to do—” She sighed because the waiter was really looking uncomfortable at that point.  “Though you have given me no reason to do so, I will spare you the details of what he had planned.  It is sufficient to say that what he intended was criminal.  All of the harm that came to him and his friend were purely of their own doing, despite my having grounds to do so much worse.”

The man frowned, “Why didn’t you report them or something more normal than allowing him to take his own poison?  Surely there was a better solution than what you allowed to happen.”

“Really?  How would the guard have reacted to a seer reporting something like that?  Would they have done anything to the man, or would they have locked me up for simply existing?”

The man opened and closed his mouth a few times.  Rubbing his hand across his mouth, he finally asked, “If it is so dangerous to be out here, then why come out at all?  Why not stay hidden like the rest of the seers?”

“His trying to do me harm is my fault?  Because I decided to spend some time out instead of be reclusive?” The man looked really uncomfortable as her eyes shone in the light.

“No, no! That’s not what I was—”

Dulce took a step toward him, “And seers are not hiding, we are waiting for things to calm down so that we can act when needed.  And I left because no matter the risks, I have been trapped in the same little hovel for more than a year.  I was starting to see things well beyond what I should, and knew that fresh air and a miserable evening were better than having to watch any more visions.  Besides, I had someone I needed to talk to, and that wasn’t going to happen if I stayed put.” She wanted to push on, but that moment was not the right one to mention he was the reason she had left.  At that particular moment, she wasn’t even sure if she wanted to tell him, given how he had verbally attacked her when she had done nothing wrong.  He would only hold out for a couple more minutes, and her best option was to simply wait until he felt too ashamed to continue with his questioning.  But he was also giving her less reason to help him.  Dulce began to reconsider if she should actually help him.

Of course, the man had bristled a little at the way she had spoken about humans, but since Dulce had pointed out everything that he had been willing to overlook by a human, he was rethinking what to say.  Finally, he looked away.  “You shouldn’t lump all humans together.  We didn’t all agree with what has been happening.”

Dulce sighed, “I am aware of that, but many of you harbor the same resentment.  You are out here threatening me instead of getting the guard to arrest the criminal.  Though you think of yourself as a good man, you are more comfortable threatening a seer than with accusing a fellow human.  In the future, you should always go after the wrong-doer, not the easier target.”

The man found it nearly impossible to look her in the eyes.  For a few moments he seemed at a loss for words.  Knowing that nothing further would come from prolonging the encounter, Dulce pulled her hood back up.  Fighting back the urge to talk to him, and giving in to her desire to let him just suffer for being so biased, Dulce forced herself to smile.  “Have a pleasant evening.”

She was striding away from him when the waiter finally muttered something after her.  Dulce could not quite hear what he said, nor did she care.  She was never going to see him again.  She wasn’t going to speak to him again.  She wasn’t going to…

Damn it.  She knew what was going to come next, and the desire to help the man who had been willing to step in to help her finally won out over the desire to let him learn a very cruel lesson.  For the way he had treated her, he really did not deserve the future that was going to befall him if she kept quiet.

With a sigh, Dulce balled her fists.  Turning around, she called out to the man, “Yes, Zax, she is too good for you, but she is waiting for you to ask.  She will say yes, and you should treat her very well because time is fleeting.”

The man turned, his expression a mix of hope and apprehension.  As the words sank in, she could watch him clenching and unclenching his fists.  “I am not sure how to take that.”

 “The wedding will be stunning, and the marriage will be wonderful.  Do you really want to know anything else?” she asked him, knowing what he would say, but giving him the choice. 

The man’s eyes moved up and took in the moon.  “So we will be happy?”

“Yes.”

“But our time is limited?”

“Yes.”

 “Does she fall for someone else?”

 “No.”

The man sighed, “Do I want to know what happens?”

“It depends on how strong you are.  However, whatever your choice, you have no reason to regret as long as you appreciate and treasure her.  Misfortune is inevitable for everyone.  The question is, do you want the burden of knowing what will happen?”

The man thought for a moment.  “I don’t know if I can be happy knowing what is coming.  Won’t it just make me more anxious as the date comes?”

Dulce held up a hand and waved him closer as she took several steps toward him.  All resentment from moments ago had left.  When they were close, she placed a hand under his chin and looked into his eyes.  “You are strong enough, but your happiness will be marred.” She released his chin.  “Not knowing will bother you a little, but it will provide the incentive to treat her better and to appreciate the little things.”

“Why did you decide to burden me with this?  Can I ever really be happy knowing that it won’t last?  Are you tormenting me for having… offended you?”

“It was a bittersweet gift, and the real reason why I came out tonight.” She looked up toward the moon as she let the words flow without her having to consider them.  “The visions have become rather insistent that I stop ignoring them, and your future has been the loudest.” She took a deep breath, and avoided mentioning what she knew was waiting for her when she returned.  This had been her last evening out because the Unwashed had found her, and she knew they would be at her home even as she gave her last prediction.

Regretting that things had gotten so bad that she couldn’t even enjoy her last walk, Dulce gave a small smile.  Then she looked back at Zax, “You can prevent the future by not marrying her, but you will never be as happy as the time when you were married to her.  And she will end up being married to a wealthy merchant who treats her terribly because that is her father’s idea of a proper match.  It is as close as you will ever come to the knight you always wanted to be, and the person you care for the most will be happy for the rest of her life if you do ask her.  Would you rather I left you to ignore what you want and let the other future unfold?  As for giving you the burden, if you had married her without my warning, your own feelings of inadequacy would have driven you to feel unhappy.  You would have grown apart and, despite the way you have treated me, that was not the fate that you deserve.  Faced with the options, this is the best way to make you both happy and to prevent a few other… undesirable outcomes.”

The man swallowed and looked down at his feet.  “It doesn’t feel like a gift.  But then I guess that is exactly the problem—by forcing me on this path, I can only believe that you are right.” His expression was pained. 

Dulce gave him a thin smile.  “Imagine having to live with this knowledge every day, for everyone you encounter.”

The startled expression on the man’s face etched itself into her mind.  “I—I—I can’t imagine.”

Dulce nodded, then turned and started heading to where she had been staying since leaving the capital. 

Zax’s voice behind her was much louder, “I suppose I should thank you.  Which one are you?”

Closing her eyes for a moment, Dulce couldn’t help but bite her lip because that was the one question she had dreaded.  Everyone knew the names of the seers who once served the nation.  Turning her face, she knew exactly how he would react if she gave her name.  Instead, she simply responded with, “Trust me when I say you really don’t want to know.”

The man’s voice sounded suspicious, and she took in the mistrust that was clear on his face.  “Oh, I see, you must be Harmony.  Out trying to put humans in their place and—”

Dulce’s mouth spread into a thin line.  Entirely unwilling to let the man talk so ill of her teacher, Dulce clenched her teeth.  “No, human.  I was trying to spare you from feeling guilty, but clearly I should not be taking your feelings into account anymore as you have no concern for mine.  No, little man, I am Dulce.” With that she spun on her heel and began walking away as fast as she could.  It was not necessary for Dulce to be a seer to know how the interaction would end once he knew who she was—everyone knew who she was in Ishtar. 

The Dulce?” The man’s voice was fading as she had moved quite a ways from him as she walked rapidly away.  She knew what the man wanted to say, and sure enough she could just make out his apology as she walked away.  “I am sorry.  I am so sorry.”

Shaking her head, Dulce kept walking, having no words for whatever the man felt he should say.  For her, it was always the worst part of being a seer—people knew more about her life than she wanted them to know.  It was only after she had crested the top of the hill and began to walk down that Dulce finally felt like she could breathe.  Placing her hand on her chest, she closed her eyes, which meant that she missed the shadow moving along the hill with her. 

When she opened her eyes, Dulce looked up at the sky, letting her feet take her toward the next place where she needed to be.  It had not been a complete lie that she had needed to escape her home for a little while.  Dulce had wanted to enjoy the evening before facing the Unwashed.  She had not been as cautious as she would have been a few years ago because at this point she wasn’t sure she wanted to keep going.  The seer could have packed up and moved because she knew when they were coming, having encountered one of them less than a week ago and read his future back then.  Visitors were not common at the cemetery, and she had really just been confirming her suspicions when she approached him.  The future Dulce had seen neither shocked nor scared her.  Looking into his eyes and seeing her dead body was almost a relief.  It was only knowing what she was expected to do that pressed her to live through each day, and finally drove her to go into town one last time. 

When things had started to sour, she had been the first to volunteer to stay and work to calm the humans, knowing it would mean her death.  That had been about a year and a half ago.  If she had not been tricked into leaving, she would have gladly been one of the seers to stay behind to help and die.  But Stella had ensured that her close friend had made it out; it was Stella who would be lynched instead.  There was nothing Dulce could do to help her because seers had limited magical abilities and no physical strength.  The agreement with the jaguar shifters had been mutually beneficial as they had been on the verge of extinction at the time.  Where the seers could determine future paths and outcomes of different actions, the jaguar shifters had a unique blend of physical strength and agility.  However, they did not have any magical talents beyond shifting.  Tiger shifters would adapt the abilities of the mystics they accompanied; assassins were agile with their own brand of magic, giving them freedoms that neither of the other cat shifter types had.  Jaguar shifters were limited to their strength and prowess.  But the shifters had started to disappear when Ishtar began to crumble.  Without their champions, seers lost a lot of their strength because on their own, they were easy targets.

Dulce’s best friend had once been a jaguar shifter, and he had died a little over two years ago, just as things really started to turn for the country.  When Darinon had died, Dulce had become despondent and self-destructive.  She had taken every dangerous task, every potentially fatal assignment, yet she always survived.  She was the only one to survive.  It had earned her a reputation for being a champion of Ishtar.  When she had disappeared a little over a year ago, many people thought she had died, and her friends were fine with letting that be the story so that Dulce would not be hunted down.  It had left her alone and with nothing but her regrets, uncertain how long she would have to continue with her miserable existence. 

It was really the curse of a seer.  She could always tell everyone else’s future but her own or any cat shifter’s.  For whatever reason, all cat shifters were outside of a seer’s visions.  Dulce had not seen Darinon’s death, and so she had sought her own without success.  The once cheerful and gregarious woman had become bitter and reclusive over the last year, a change that no one else had witnessed. 

As she neared her home, contemplating letting the Unwashed finish her off, Dulce was taken by surprise as a figure emerged from the shadow of one of the large tombstones.  Her eyes wide, she turned to see a menacing figure moving gracefully toward her.  The low, smooth voice caught her entirely off guard, and she could not help but smile. 

“You shouldn’t have gone out,” the figure said, his movements quickly closing the gap between them.