Iron Crowned Chapter 2
I retreated to my bedroom as soon as etiquette allowed, collapsing onto the bed the moment I entered. Dorian had followed me in, and I tossed an arm over my eyes, groaning.
“Do you think that display helped win us over with Ranelle or scared her off?”
I felt Dorian sit on the bed beside me. “Hard to say. At the very least, I don’t think it’ll turn her king against us. We’re too terrifying and unstable.”
I smiled and uncovered my face, looking into those green and gold eyes. “If only that reputation would spread to everyone else. I heard a rumor the Honeysuckle Land might join with Katrice. Honestly, how anyone could call their kingdom that and keep a straight face is beyond me.”
Dorian leaned over me, lightly brushing hair from my face and trailing his fingers along my cheekbone. “It’s quite lovely, actually. Almost tropical. I mean, it’s no barren wasteland of a desert kingdom, but it’s not half bad.”
I was so used to his jibes about my kingdom that there was almost something comforting about them. His fingers ran down to my neck and were soon replaced by his lips. “Honestly, I’m not worried about this Honeysuckle place. It’s other potential allies worrying me. Hey, stop.” His lips had moved down to my collarbone, and his hand was starting to lift my shirt. I wriggled away. “I don’t have time.”
He lifted his head, arching an eyebrow in surprise. “You have some place to be?”
“Yeah, actually.” I sighed. “I have a job back in Tucson. Besides, I’m filthy.”
Dorian was undeterred and returned to trying to get my shirt off. “I’ll help bathe you.”
I swatted his hand away but then pulled him over so that I could put my arms around him and hold him against me. I knew he wanted more than cuddling, but I didn’t have the energy. Considering his fastidious nature, I was surprised he consented to resting his head on my chest, seeing as how dirty and ragged the shirt was.
“No offense, but I’ll take human showers any day over some servant lugging water up to a tub.”
“You can’t leave without talking to Ranelle,” he pointed out. “And you can’t see her like this.”
I grimaced and ran my hand over his brilliant hair. “Damn it.” He was right. I was still bad at this queen thing, but I knew enough about gentry customs to know that if I really did want the Linden King’s help, I would need to look and sound good. So much to do. Never enough time. All so wearying.
Dorian lifted his head and looked back down at me. “Was it bad?”
He was referring to last night’s battle. “It’s always bad. I’m still not okay with people fighting and dying for me. Especially over one insult.” The living suffered from this war too. I often had refugees coming to me for food and shelter.
“Their kingdom’s at stake,” he said. “Their homes. And that was more than an insult. Letting it pass would make the Thorn Land look weak – like prey. It would make you open to invasion, which is the same as surrendering to Katrice. Your people don’t want that. They have to fight.”
“But why do yours fight?”
Dorian looked at me like that was a crazy question. “Because I tell them to.”
I left the conversation at that and called for a servant to fill the bathtub in the chamber adjacent to my bedroom. It was a tedious task I hated making them do, though Dorian would no doubt argue it was their duty to. The magic I’d inherited from my tyrant father gave me control over storm elements, so I could have summoned water straight to the tub, rather than making my servants haul it up one bucket at a time. The Thorn Land was so dry, however, that pulling that much water magically would both dry out the castle’s air even more and possibly kill surrounding vegetation.
The servants had their own entrance to the bath chamber, and as soon as we heard them hauling and pouring water, Dorian grinned and pulled me back to the bed. “See?” he said. “Now we have time.”
I stopped protesting. And as our clothes came off and I felt the heat of his lips, I had to admit to myself that I wasn’t averse to sex, not really. This war really did put our lives constantly at risk, and he had worried about me. Having me here, merging physically, seemed to reassure him that I truly was all right. And I took comfort in it too, being with this man I’d fallen in love with against all reason. I’d once feared and hated the gentry – and it had taken me a long time to trust Dorian.
Sex was surprisingly tame for us this time. Usually, we found ourselves caught up in bad, kinky sex, sex that was a game of power and control I both loved and felt dirty about. Now, I sat on top of him, wrapping my legs around his hips as I drew him inside me. A sigh of bliss escaped his lips, his eyes closing as I began to slowly move my body and ride him. A moment later, his eyes opened and held mine with an expression of such affection and lust that a chill ran through me.
It always amazed me that he found me so desirable. I’d seen his past lovers – sexy, voluptuous women with curves and cleavage reminiscent of classic Hollywood starlets. My body’s build was lean and athletic from all the activity I did, my breasts pretty nicely shaped – though hardly porn star quality. Yet, since we’d officially become a couple these last few months, he had never looked at another woman. It was me he watched, his gaze hungry even at the most unromantic times.
I increased my pace, tilting forward and rocking us so that more of my body rubbed against his, bringing me closer to orgasm. I came shortly thereafter, my lips parting without a sound as a sweet ecstasy wracked my body, and every nerve in my skin seemed to ignite. I leaned forward, kissing him, letting his tongue explore my mouth as his fingers stroked my nipples.
The door to the bath chamber suddenly opened, and I jerked my head up as a servant peered in. “Your Majesty? The bath is ready.” Her words were bland, and she disappeared as quickly as she’d come. My being naked on top of Dorian hadn’t seemed like any big deal to her – and probably, it wasn’t. The gentry had much looser sexual mores than humans, public displays being very common. It probably would have been weirder for her if she hadn’t found her monarchs immediately going at it upon my return.
This sexual ease wasn’t something I’d picked up, and Dorian knew it. “No, no,” he said, feeling me slow down in my shock. The hands cupping my breasts moved down to my hips. “Let’s finish this.”
Dragging my eyes from the door, I turned my attention back to him and found my arousal returning. He rolled me over, not holding anything back now that I’d come. He pushed his body into mine, thrusting as hard and fast as he could. Moments later, his body shuddered, his fingers digging in where he gripped my arms. I loved watching it happen, loved watching this smug, confident king lose his control between my thighs. When he finished, I gave him another long, lingering kiss and then slid over to lie beside him.
He exhaled in contentment, regarding me again with that mix of hunger and love. He wouldn’t say it, but I knew he always secretly hoped that somehow, some way, our lovemaking would result in me getting pregnant. I had explained to him a hundred times how birth control pills worked, but the gentry had difficulty with conception, making them obsessed with having children. Dorian claimed he wanted a child just for the sake of having one with me, but the prophecy about my firstborn son conquering humanity had always been alluring. Obviously, I wasn’t in favor of that idea – hence my emphasis on contraceptives. Dorian had ostensibly let go of that dream for my sake, but there were days I suspected he wouldn’t mind fathering such a conqueror. As it was, our alliance already made us dangerous. He loved me, I was certain, but he also craved power. Our united kingdoms put us in a good position to conquer others, if we chose.
It was difficult leaving him, but there was too much to be done. I retreated to the bath, washing both sex and battle off of me. Life and death. The tub was only big enough for one, but Dorian seemed perfectly happy watching me and lounging in the afterglow. He was less excited about my wardrobe choice. As queen, I had a closet filled with elaborate dresses, dresses he loved seeing me in. As a human shaman, I’d also made sure it was stocked with human clothes. He looked at my jeans and tank top with dismay.
“Ranelle would be more impressed with a dress,” he said. “Especially one that showed your lovely cleavage.”
I rolled my eyes. We were back in my bedroom, and I was loading myself up with weapons: charmed jewelry and an iron athame, along with a satchel containing a gun, a wand, and a silver athame. “You’d be more impressed with that. And anyway, it’d be a waste now.”
“Not true.” He got up from the bed, still naked, and gently pushed me against the wall, cautious of the athame’s sharp blade. “I’m ready again.”
I could see that he was, and honestly, I probably could have gone back to bed too. Whether that was from lust or a reluctance to fulfill my impending tasks, it was hard to say.
“Later,” I told him, brushing a kiss against his lips.
He regarded me suspiciously. “Later means a lot of things with you. An hour. A day.”
I smiled and kissed him again. “Not more than a day.” I reconsidered. “Maybe two.” I laughed at the face this earned me. “I’ll see what I can do. Now get some clothes on before the women around here are driven into a frenzy.”
He gave me a mournful look. “I’m afraid that’ll happen with or without clothes, my dear.”
When we finally managed to part, I headed off toward Ranelle’s room, my post-sex good humor fading. A little air magic left me with only semi-wet hair by the time I reached her. Once admitted, I found her writing a letter at her room’s desk. Seeing me, she leapt up and curtsied.
I motioned her down and took a nearby chair. “No need. I just wanted to have a quick chat before I returned to the human world.” Her face twitched a little at this, but ambassador training quickly moved her past how strange she probably found that. The ease with which I jumped worlds wasn’t normal for gentry. “I’m sorry for the grisly display this morning. And that I haven’t been around much during your visit.”
“You’re at war, Your Majesty. These things happen. Besides, King Dorian has been quite hospitable in your absence.”
I hid a smile. Ranelle was hardly in a frenzy, but it was clear Dorian had charmed her, as he did so many women. “I’m glad. Were you writing your king?”
She nodded. “I wanted to send him my report right away, although I’ll be leaving later today.”
Magic filled the Otherworld and the gentry, and there were those among them with the power to expedite messages. A magical e-mail, of sorts. It allowed gossip to spread fast and meant her letter would get back to her homeland before she did. I eyed it on the desk.
“What will you tell him?”
She hesitated. “May I be blunt, Your Majesty?”
“Of course,” I said, smiling. “I’m human. Er, half human.”
“I empathize with you. I understand your grievance and know King Damos will too.” She was carefully skirting the explicit details of Leith raping me. “But tragic as your situation is … well, it is your situation. I don’t believe it’s one we should risk the lives of our people for – begging your pardon, Your Majesty.” Delivering bad news obviously made her uneasy. My father, honorifically referred to as Storm King, had been known for his power and cruelty. I wasn’t as ruthless, but I’d had my share of frightening shows of power as well.
“No offense taken,” I assured her. “But … if I may also be blunt, your king is in a precarious situation. He’s growing old. His power will eventually fade. Your kingdom will be open for others to move in on.”
Ranelle went perfectly still. The lands of the Otherworld bound themselves to those with enough power to claim them. “Are you threatening us, Your Majesty?” she asked quietly.
“No. I have no interest in another kingdom – especially one so far away.” Distance was relative in the Otherworld, but the Linden Land did take a bit longer to get to compared to some of the kingdoms nearer to me, like the Rowan Land and Dorian’s Oak Land.
“Perhaps not,” she said uncertainly. “But it’s no secret King Dorian has wanted to expand his territory. That’s why he took you as a consort, right?”
Now I stiffened. “No. That’s not it at all. Neither of us have interest in your land. But your neighbors – or people within the land itself – probably do. From what I’ve heard, Damos would like his daughter to inherit.”
Ranelle nodded slowly. Inheritance was by power here, not by blood – but most monarchs still longed for family succession, if they were lucky enough to have children at all. I gave Ranelle a knowing smile.
“Her control of the land depends on her own power, of course. But if Damos helped us now, we could certainly help later against any … usurpers hoping to claim the Linden Land.”
Assassination, outright war. The methods were less important than my meaning. Ranelle stayed silent, no doubt turning this over in her mind. Was a promise like that worth committing their armies to? Unclear. But it was certainly worth bringing to her king.
“And,” I added casually, shifting us from that dangerous topic, “I’d be happy to negotiate very favorable trade agreements with your king.”
By which I meant my staff would negotiate it. I hated economics and the politics of trade. But, my kingdom had literally and figuratively become a hot commodity. My shaping it in Arizona’s image had created harsh conditions – but also brought along tons of copper deposits. Copper was the chief metal in a world that couldn’t work with iron.
Ranelle nodded again. “I understand. I’ll bring this to his attention.”
“Good.” I rose from my chair. “I’m sorry I have to go now, but definitely let anyone here know if you need anything else. And send my greetings to Damos.”
Ranelle told me she would, and I left her, feeling rather pleased with myself. I disliked these sort of diplomatic talks almost as much as economic ones, mostly because I didn’t think I was very adept. But that one had gone well, and even if the Linden Land didn’t join us, I felt certain Dorian had been right: they wouldn’t fight against us either.
I was walking toward the castle’s exit, intending to go to the nearest gate back to the human world, when I passed a certain hallway. I hesitated, staring down it as I waged a mental war. Then, grimacing, I altered my destination and turned the corner. The room I sought was easy to find because two guards stood outside of it. Both were Dorian’s soldiers, chosen because if anyone was going to father the heir to Storm King’s legacy, they wanted it to be their own lord. And everyone knew I was the mother he wanted, not the room’s occupant.
One of the guards knocked and then opened the door slightly. “The queen is here.”
I didn’t need permission to enter any room in my own castle but still waited for a response. “Come in.”
I entered and found Jasmine sitting cross-legged on her bed, attempting some kind of embroidery. Seeing me, she irritably tossed it aside. “This is the stupidest thing ever. I wish the shining ones had more fun things to do. I wish I could go horseback riding.”
That last part was spoken with a knowing tone, and I ignored it. Jasmine was under house arrest, and I wasn’t about to allow an activity that might let her slip her guards. I picked up the green velvet she’d been working on and studied her stitches.
“Goldfish?” I asked.
“Daffodils!” she exclaimed.
I hastily set it down. Really, considering the loose iron chains she wore on her wrists to stunt magic use, it was impressive that she could sew at all.
“I’m going back to Tucson,” I said. “I wanted to check on you.”
She shrugged. “I’m fine.”
Despite her young age, Jasmine had wanted – and still did want, I suspected – to be the mother of Storm King’s heir. The prophecy hadn’t been specific. It simply said his daughter’s first son would be the conqueror. That made it a race between the two of us – except I wasn’t playing. Her forced stay here ensured she wasn’t either. She’d hated me for this initially but had grown more civil after the war started. She considered Leith’s actions an insult to our family. It was bizarre logic, but seeing as it had stopped her temper tantrums, I welcomed it.
“Do you … need anything?” I asked. A stupid question to ask someone who wanted freedom.
She pointed to the iPod lying beside her. “It needs charging again.” It always needed charging. Normal battery life aside, the Otherworld interfered with electronics. “Books or magazines or something. I’d kill for a TV.”
I smiled. That one was out of my reach. “Sometimes I would too when I’m here.”
“How’d it go with that Linden lady? Is she going to help us beat up Katrice?” Jasmine’s moping face suddenly turned fierce. She had powers similar to mine, and while not as strong, they could still cause a lot of damage. If I’d let her loose, Jasmine would probably march right over to the Rowan Land and try to bring the castle down.
“I don’t know. I’m not getting my hopes up.”
Jasmine’s gray eyes turned calculating, making her seem wiser than her fifteen years should be capable of. “As long as you and Dorian stay together, you’re the badasses around here – especially you.” Surprisingly, there was no sneer as she said this. “But you’ve gotta make sure Maiwenn doesn’t join Katrice. You know she’s thinking about it.”
Yes, despite her often pouty and childish attitude, Jasmine was smart. “You’re right,” I said. “But thinking and doing are two different things. You said it yourself: Dorian and I are badasses. I don’t think she’s going to want to mess with us.”
There was something comfortable about being able to have a discussion with someone not using the gentry’s formal language construction.
“Probably not. But she’s scared to death you’re going to have our father’s heir.” Jasmine eyed me carefully. “You haven’t changed your mind, have you? You and Dorian certainly do it enough.”
“That’s none of your business,” I said, wondering if that servant had already talked about what she’d seen in bed.
“Tell that to Dorian. He brags about it all the time.”
I groaned, knowing it was true. “Well, regardless, I’m not having kids anytime soon.”
“You should,” Jasmine said. “Or let me. Katrice would totally back off.”
“And then Maiwenn really would come after us.” Maiwenn ruled the Willow Land and was very much against Storm King’s prophecy coming true. She also had a few other reasons for not liking my alliance with Dorian – or rather, her associates did.
“Yeah,” said Jasmine. “But you could still kick her ass.”
I rose and scooped up the iPod, putting it in my satchel. “Let’s stick to one ass-kicking at a time.”
An awkward silence fell. How odd that we’d just had a civil conversation. I’d grown up an only child, sometimes wishing I had a sister. The one I’d ended up with was hardly what I’d expected, but maybe I should be grateful for even this.
“Well,” I said at last. “I’ll see you soon.”
She nodded and picked up the velvet, scowling at it as though it had given her personal offense. I was almost at the door when she suddenly said, “Eugenie?”
I glanced back. “Yeah?”
“Will you bring me some Twinkies?”
I smiled. “Sure.”
She didn’t look up from her embroidery, but I was almost certain she smiled too.