Iron Crowned Chapter 4
Distracting your enemies by saying shocking things is a classic way to get an attack in. If this ghost had wanted to catch me off guard and move in, this would have been her chance. Instead, she just hung there in the air, staring at me. I forced my jaw closed and kind of wished Kiyo had stuck around to hear this bizarre development.
Finally, I said, “That’s not what I do. And anyway … I mean, wouldn’t you kind of know? Wouldn’t you have seen it?”
“No,” she said mournfully. “Whoever did it shot me in the head before I could see. They made it look like a suicide.”
I grimaced. Weak ghosts often appeared in their final state, as they’d looked at the time of death. This one was strong and able to appear as she remembered herself, for which I was grateful. I wouldn’t have wanted to see her after that gunshot.
“Well, I’m sorry for your … loss,” I told her, wondering why I hadn’t already banished her. “But private detective work isn’t my thing.”
“I can’t go to one!” she cried. “Or the police. Only you can see me. All the other ghosts said you were the one to go to.”
“All the other – what, do you guys have a country club or something?”
“Please, Miss Markham,” she begged. Her eyes were so, so sad. “I have to find out. If someone dangerous is walking around, I have to know. My family has to know.”
From what I knew, family was usually behind most homicides. “Look, you’re obviously strong. You have to be in order to move around like you do and come outside. It makes sense. If you’re this upset about what happened, then you’re bound strongly to this world while the, um, murder’s unsettled. So, the odds are, you probably could appear to someone else. Wouldn’t work on most humans, but you might get someone close to you to see you and hear you.”
“But would they believe me?” she asked bitterly. “They’d think they were imagining things. You’re the only one who knows this is real.”
I shook my head. “Sorry. I don’t investigate this stuff. Certainly not for ghosts. You’re getting my best offer here. Otherwise …” I held up the wand. “You move on to peace.”
She scowled and disappeared. Yes, a very strong ghost, one who should have already been in the Underworld right then and there. I shouldn’t have stopped to talk.
But what was one more ghost when I was already letting so many slide by? Kiyo’s accusatory words came back to me. I felt like I was doing a half-ass job in both worlds, too divided to give either my full attention.
Nonetheless, I made the most of my day in Tucson. I knocked off three more jobs for Lara, much to her relief. Jobs meant money, meaning both of us got paid. She’d hinted in the past that our drop in work was creating financial problems, enough that she might need a second job. That made me uneasy because a second job could easily turn into her only job. Finding an administrative assistant who could schedule and bill supernatural appointments wasn’t that easy.
I came home at last to an empty house, with a note scrawled from Tim saying he had “a gig” tonight and that there was fettuccine alfredo in the refrigerator if I wanted it. Eating in front of the TV, I selfishly felt resentful that he’d go out on one of the few nights I was home. But why wouldn’t he? He certainly had a life, one I was hardly in. What really brought me down was that on a night like this, I once would have been over at my mom’s eating dinner. For a second, I stared at my phone and considered taking the plunge. But, no. If she wanted to get in touch clandestinely, she would. Calling now would risk me getting Roland, who would hang up on me. Or most likely not answer.
Frustrated, I decided I didn’t want to stay here anymore. It was weird, especially since I’d wanted to come home so badly earlier. Yet, I felt like I wasn’t welcome in my own house. I showered off the day’s fights – no gentry baths for me – and headed right back to the Otherworld. I almost never came and went the same day, but suddenly, my kingdom seemed like the only place I had friends at the moment.
They were surprised to see me back so soon. I found Shaya and Rurik playing chess in a formal sitting room, leaning together and laughing as she planned her next move. Both jumped when they saw me.
“Your Majesty,” said Shaya. They’d instantly gone from casual to formal mode.
“Sit, both of you. You should know better.” I sat as well, sinking into a down-filled love seat that I’d inherited from the castle’s previous owner.
Shaya and Rurik returned to their seats, relaxing somewhat. “We didn’t think you’d be back for a while,” said Rurik, ever blunt.
Shaya looked twitchy, like she wanted to get up, despite what I’d said. “Should I have the kitchen start preparing dinner?”
“No, no, don’t bother.” It was common among gentry monarchs for every meal to be a full-fledged banquet, particularly dinner, hosting the full court. With my schedule and the fact that I didn’t even keep a full court – just the essentials – that was not the case around here. My kitchen staff had it easy, and I certainly didn’t want them to get in a sudden panic over a meal they would have normally started on hours ago, had they known I’d be there.
I stared off at the empty fireplace, which had been unused since I’d taken over. Had the Thorn Land shifted into winter, we might have needed it. A kingdom’s seasons bent to its monarch’s will, and although Tucson was in winter right now, my subconscious apparently thought summer was the proper state.
Shaya and Rurik regarded me patiently, wondering what it was I wanted, if not dinner. I wasn’t sure myself. I fumbled for something to say. “News or messages on the war front?”
“No,” said Rurik. Not surprising. Ranelle had probably only just gotten home. She was likely feasting with the Linden King right now.
I met Shaya’s eyes. “It’s probably dinnertime at Dorian’s, huh? Or close to it.”
She tilted her head thoughtfully. There were no clocks in the Otherworld, but she had a good sense of the time. “I would imagine so, Your Majesty.”
“Do you think he’d mind unscheduled visitors?”
“You?” Shaya laughed. “Hardly.”
I glanced between the two of them, feeling a smile creep onto my lips. “What do you say? Should we go crash his party?”
“Party crashing” might not be a colloquialism among the gentry, but it didn’t take Shaya or Rurik long to figure out what I meant. Both sprang to action. I couldn’t travel alone during wartime, so Rurik had to assemble a military escort for us. Shaya left to alert the civilians who’d go with us and make herself ready for a royal visit. Both of them were excited, I could tell. Humans and gentry weren’t so different, in a lot of ways. Once at Dorian’s, Shaya and Rurik would have few official duties. This was the equivalent of an Otherworldly night on the town.
In my rooms, I found my handmaiden Nia anxiously awaiting me. Gentry magical skills ranged greatly. I controlled weather. Dorian could rip apart the earth. And Nia? Her talent was in beautifying others, in hair and clothing. Like those of my cooks, her skills were often underutilized.
“Let’s get ready,” I told her.
Her face lit up, and she practically ran to the wardrobe. “Which would you like, Your Majesty?” Her hand hovered near a black cocktail dress from the human world, then moved to a gauzy blue sundress. Then, she hesitated altogether and glanced at me questioningly. It wouldn’t have been out of character for me to show up at a state function in the jeans I already wore.
After my earlier loneliness, I was excited to see Dorian – almost desperately so. He seemed like my only connection right now, and I suddenly liked the idea of surprising him. “The peach one,” I said.
Nia nodded, her fingers skimming the dresses. Finding no peach, she frowned and rechecked them. Then, her gaze went to the other half of my wardrobe, where the gentry dresses she and others had had made for me hung. Her eyes widened as she pulled out a peach silk dress she’d probably never thought would see the light of day.
“Your Majesty!” was all she could gasp. It was like Christmas morning for her.
With coppery hair, I had to be careful with what colors I wore, but this was a warm enough shade of peach that it worked. The fabric was shining and fluid, like some living thing. The dress was one long piece, clinging around the torso and then flaring and falling like water from the waist to the floor. Gold ribbons laced up the back, decorated with aquamarines. Straps, also made from strings of aquamarines, hung loosely off my shoulders around my upper arm, trailing more streams of silk beneath my arm and giving the illusion of sleeves. For all intents and purposes, it was a strapless dress, leaving my arms, shoulders, and a healthy amount of cleavage exposed.
“I think I need a bra,” I said, eyeing the way the thin silk wrapped around my chest.
“But that’s how it’s worn!” said Nia. Gentry, in fashion and other ways, didn’t always share the same taste as humans. Nia knew this, and I could see in her face she was terrified I’d do something human to ruin this dream-come-true of finally dressing me properly.
“Fine,” I said. “But keep my hair down.” Hopefully it would give me some coverage. Lack of a haircut had my ends just barely touching my shoulder blades lately.
Nia took this as an acceptable compromise, going over every lock of my hair so that it was smooth and slightly curled at the ends. Aquamarine barrettes (the gentry loved jewels too) were placed strategically throughout my hair, and she forced more jewelry on me in the same color scheme. After a bit of cosmetics, Nia deemed me fit to be a queen. I planned on bringing her to Dorian’s and was about to tell her we should go when a strange and unexpected thought came to me.
“Nia … can you get my sister ready too?”
“Your … your sister, Your Majesty?” She was equally surprised. “Is she coming?”
I thought about it, wondering the same thing. I never let Jasmine leave the castle and its grounds, for everyone’s safety. Yet, I couldn’t shake the thought of how bored and lonely she seemed. Plus, I’d forgotten her Twinkies.
“Yes,” I decided. “She’s coming. Be fast.” Nia nodded and headed toward my door, off to whatever closet she always produced endless stores of dresses and jewelry from. Jasmine had once been the mistress of this castle’s former king; for all I knew, her wardrobe was still here. “Nia?” I called. The gentry girl paused. “Long sleeves.”
Nia nodded again, catching my meaning. It was no secret among the gentry that the Thorn Queen kept her sister a prisoner. That didn’t mean I wanted her chains flaunted, however. And when my whole entourage met up to leave, I could see that Nia really was magically gifted with beauty. Jasmine – who looked utterly stunned by this unexpected field trip – wore a dress made of pale green velvet. It was floor-length like mine but had long bell sleeves that did a good job of hiding the chains. The dress was more modest than mine too, but I had a feeling Nia hadn’t done it to protect Jasmine’s fifteen-year-old modesty. Most likely, Nia didn’t want the queen’s sister to draw more attention than the queen herself. The minimal jewels on Jasmine proved as much, and the looks from my own people showed that I was definitely attention-getting. I doubted they’d ever seen me dressed up like a full-fledged gentry woman.
Riding a horse in that dress was a pain in the ass. It wasn’t the first time I’d done so, and I was glad the skirt wasn’t as snug as the top. I was also glad our route was short tonight. The Otherworld folded in upon itself, taking travelers through ways that seemed impossible but which often proved the most direct path. These paths also cut through other kingdoms – often my neighbors’. Knowing this, our party was on high alert as we rode, everyone tense. To my relief, the road didn’t take us through the Rowan Land – as it frequently did. The only transition between my land and the Oak Land was a brief stint in the Willow Land. Not comforting, but safer than enemy territory.
Once Dorian’s castle was in sight, my group’s mood lifted, and the party-crashing spirit returned. His home was exactly what you expected from a castle, multi-turreted and made of heavy dark stones, with stained glass windows. As always, it was autumn in the Oak Land, and although night prevented me from seeing the orange-leaved trees, the smell of harvest and touch of fall chill on my skin reaffirmed for me what season it was. Scattered on the castle grounds, I spotted small clusters of peasants around campfires, watching us curiously. Like me, Dorian had war refugees seeking aid from their monarch. The sight of their faces twisted my stomach, and I forced myself to look away.
Servants took our horses, people scrambling at our unexpected arrival. Guests dropped in all the time for dinner – especially at Dorian’s – but we were VIPs. I walked briskly toward the banquet hall while groveling stewards scurried at my side, promising proper accommodations for my companions and checking on anything else we might need. I came to a halt when I reached the banquet doors. Even I with my bad human etiquette knew I had to be announced first.
A herald swung open the door, revealing light, color, and noise. Dorian had about a hundred people in there tonight, gathered around various tables on chairs and couches. Most were gentry nobility. Some were his soldiers. Others were creatures of the Otherworld, types I fought when they crossed to the human world. As I’d guessed, dinner was already being served, with servants scurrying around and the guests chatting and eating.
That all came to a halt when the herald’s voice rang out: “Her Royal Majesty, Queen Eugenie Markham, Called Odile Dark Swan, Daughter of Tirigan the Storm King, Protector of the Thorn Land, Beloved of the Triple Moon Goddess.”
I would never get used to all those titles. Conversation dropped, and then there was the usual screeching of chair legs as people hastily stood up. Once I would have cringed from this, but I knew what was expected now. I began to stride forward but stopped after two steps. Most of my soldiers had stayed at the doors, and none of the rest of my retinue would be announced since I had no high-ranking nobility with me. Almost. I glanced at the herald.
“My sister, announce my sister.”
His eyes bugged, and I could guess his confusion. Not only was that kind of a weird request coming from me, it was also hard for him to manage since Jasmine didn’t have any official titles. The guy was fast on his feet, though. That was his job.
“The Lady Jasmine Delaney, Daughter of Tirigan the Storm King, Sister of Eugenie the Thorn Queen.”
That got a few surprised glances. I smiled at the herald. “Thank you,” I said softly. “Only next time, announce my name before our father’s.”
He blanched. “Y-yes, Your Majesty.”
I entered the room at the head of my party, startled I’d said that to the herald. Where had that come from? A need to diminish Storm King? A desire to tout my own importance? Whatever the reason, I already regretted the words.
A long walkway stretched through the room, and halfway down it, Dorian emerged from the crowd and stood to meet me. I reached him, and he took my hand, giving it a long and languid kiss. Among the gentry, that kiss was perfectly acceptable for receiving one’s lover or a visiting monarch.
“My dear,” he said, lifting his eyes. They swept over me in that clever, efficient way of his. To all those watching, he was as calm and in control as always, his lips curved into the devil-may-care smile normal for him. Still, I could imagine his surprise. He hadn’t expected to see me this soon. He certainly hadn’t expected to see me in full queenly glory. I might have been Christmas morning for Nia, but for Dorian, I was dessert being served before dinner. “You and yours are very welcome.”
It was a formality, one that returned the guests to their seats and declared my party was under Dorian’s hospitality, meaning no one here could do us any harm and vice versa.
“I guess ‘soon’ does mean all sorts of things,” he murmured. He glanced toward my cleavage. “All sorts of things.”
“Hey.” I kept my voice as low as his. “Are you looking down my dress?”
“My dear, I want to do much more than look down it. Much, much more. And I want to do it now. I don’t suppose,” he added, “that your transformation came along with an embracing of many of our other superior customs?”
He was referring, of course, to couples scattered about the room who had promptly returned to amorous activities after I was announced. People made out, took off clothing, and even had sex with ease in public. Some guests watched, but most went on with their meal as though nothing out of the ordinary were happening.
“No,” I said firmly.
“Are you sure?” he asked, leaning closer. “No one would take it amiss. Indeed, many would find it reassuring to see their king and queen consummating their relationship. It’s a sign of dominance and power.”
“I’m here for dinner,” I said sweetly. Underneath my prim attitude, his words and his body language were already getting to me. You would have thought we’d last had sex a year ago, not this morning. I might not consent to his exhibitionism, but if I said I wanted to go to his bedroom right now, he’d immediately turn around and walk out with me.
“Dinner, it is,” he said regretfully. “Perhaps I’ll serve you something special. And I’m sure you’ll enjoy our guests tonight.”
He began steering me toward the hall’s front. His throne sat on a high pedestal, and below that was the head table where he’d been dining. My eyes fell on the aforementioned guests, and I nearly stopped walking. Instead, I glanced behind me and called, “Rurik?”
I’d given instructions for Shaya and Rurik (and a handful of guards) not to leave Jasmine’s side. They were seeking out their own table, and even though they were halfway across the room, Rurik heard me and turned. With a sharp head nod, I gestured for him to join us. He crossed the room swiftly, arching an eyebrow when he saw the dinner guests and understanding why I’d want one of my own people around.
There, sitting at the head table and watching me with cold blue eyes was Ysabel – Dorian’s former lover.