Iron Crowned

Dark Swan Series #3 Paperback

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Shaman-for-hire Eugenie Markham is the best at banishing entities trespassing in the mortal realm. But as the Thorn Land’s queen, she’s fast running out of ways to end the brutal war devastating her kingdom. Her only hope: the Iron Crown, a legendary object even the most powerful gentry fear…

Who Eugenie can trust is the hardest part. Fairy king Dorian has his own agenda for aiding her search. And Kiyo, her shape-shifter ex-boyfriend, has every reason to betray her along the way. To control the Crown’s ever-consuming powers, Eugenie will have to confront an unimaginable temptation--one that will put her soul and the fate of two worlds in mortal peril…

Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

Don’t confuse fairy queens with fairy princesses.

Where I come from, girls who want to be fairy princesses usually dream about gossamer wings and frilly dresses.  Pink dresses, at that.  I’m pretty sure rhinestones are part of being a fairy princess too, as are cute wands with stars on top that grant wishes.  Fairy princesses expect lovely lives of luxury and lounging, ones that involve small woodland creatures waiting on their every need.

As a fairy queen, I can admit that there is a bit more involvement with woodland creatures than one might expect.  But the rest?  A total joke.  Fairies—the kind I deal with, at least—rarely have wings.  My wand is made of rough gemstones bound together, and I use it to blast Otherworldly creatures out of existence.  I’ve also whacked a few people in the head with it. My life is dirty, harsh, and deadly, the kind of life no frilly dress could withstand.  I wear jeans.  Most importantly, I look horrible in pink.

I’m also pretty sure that fairy princesses don’t have to deal with this kind of crap first thing in the morning.

“I have killed…Eugenie Markham.”

The words rang out loud and clear through a dining room filled with about thirty people eating at round wooden tables. The ceilings were vaulted, and the rough stone walls made it look like part of a medieval castle because…well, it kind of was.  Most of the morning diners were soldiers and guards, but a few were officials and high-ranking servants who lived and worked within the castle.

Dorian, King of the Oak Land and my bondage-loving Otherworldly boyfriend, sat at the head table and looked up from his breakfast to see who had made such a bold statement.  “I’m sorry, did you say something?”

The speaker, standing on the other side of the table, turned as red as the uniform he wore.  He looked about twenty-something in human years, meaning he was probably a hundred or so in fairy—or gentry, the name I preferred—years. The guy bit his lip and straightened his posture, making another attempt at dignity as he glared at Dorian.

“I said I killed Eugenie Markham.”  The man—a soldier, it appeared—looked around at the faces, no doubt hoping his message would inspire horrified reactions.  Mostly his words brought about good-natured confusion, largely because half of the people gathered in the room could see me standing in the hall outside.  “I have killed your queen, and now your armies will crumble.  Surrender immediately, and her royal majesty, Queen Katrice of the Rowan Land, will be merciful.”

Dorian didn’t answer right away and didn’t look very concerned.  He delicately patted his mouth with a brocade napkin and then returned it to his lap.  “Dead?  Are you sure?”  He glanced over at a dark-haired woman sitting beside him. “Shaya, didn’t we just see her yesterday?”

“Yes, sire,” replied Shaya, pouring cream into her tea.

Dorian brushed autumn-red hair out of his face and returned to cutting up the sugary, almond-coated pastry that was serving as his most important meal of the day.  “Well, there you have it.  She can’t be dead.”

The Rowan soldier stared in disbelief, growing more and more incredulous as people continued to either regard him curiously or simply ignore him altogether.  The only person who seemed mildly concerned was an elderly gentry woman sitting on the other side of Dorian.  Her name was Ranelle, and she was an ambassador from the Linden Land.  She’d only arrived yesterday and clearly wasn’t used to the wacky mishaps around here.

The soldier turned his attention back to Dorian.  “Are you as insane as they say you are?  I killed the Thorn Queen!  Look.” He threw down a silver and moonstone necklace.  It clattered against the hard tiled floor, and the pale, iridescent stones just barely picked up some of the morning light.  “I cut this off of her corpse.  Now do you believe me?”

That brought some silence to the room, and even Dorian paused.  It was indeed my necklace, and seeing it made me absentmindedly touch the bare spot on my throat left by the necklace’s absence.  Dorian wore his perpetually bored expression, but I knew him well enough to guess at the maelstrom of thoughts swirling behind his green eyes.

“If that’s true,” Dorian replied at last, “then why didn’t you actually bring us her corpse?”

“It’s with my queen,” said the soldier smugly, thinking he’d finally gained ground.  “She kept it as a trophy.  If you cooperate, she might release it to you.”

“I don’t believe it.”  Dorian peered down the table.  “Rurik, will you pass the salt?  Ah, thank you.”

“King Dorian,” said Ranelle uneasily, “perhaps you should pay more attention to what this man has to say.  If the queen is dead—”

“She’s not,” said Dorian bluntly.  “And this sauce is delicious.”

“Why don’t you believe me?” exclaimed the soldier, sounding oddly childlike.  “Did you think she was invincible?  Did you think no one could kill her?”

“No,” admitted Dorian.  “I just don’t think you could kill her.”

Ranelle tried again.  “My lord, how do you know that the queen isn’t—”

“Because she’s standing right there.  Will you all shut up now so I can eat in peace?”

The interruption—and end to this farce—came from Jasmine, my teenage sister.  Like me, she was half-human.  Unlike me, she was totally unstable and was consequently eating her breakfast while wearing loose but magic-stunting handcuffs on. She also had headphones on, and the breakfast debate must have been overpowering her current playlist.

Thirty faces turned toward where I stood near the doorway, and there was a mad scramble as almost everyone shoved back their chairs and tried to rise for a hasty bow.  I sighed.  I’d been comfortable leaning against the wall, resting from a hard night’s journey as I watched this absurdity unfolding in my Otherworldly home.  The gig was up now.  I threw back my shoulders and strode into the dining room, putting on all the queenly airs I could.

“The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated,” I announced.  I had a feeling I’d messed up the Mark Twain quote, but in this crowd, nobody knew the reference anyway.  Most thought I was simply stating the facts.  Which, really, I was.

The Rowan soldier’s flushed face suddenly turned white, his eyes bugging out.  He took a few steps backward and glanced uneasily around.  There was really nowhere else he could go.

I gestured for those who were standing and bowing to sit down as I walked up to my necklace.  Picking it up from the floor, I eyed it critically.  “You broke the clasp.”  I studied it a few more moments and then turned my glare on him.  “You broke it when you ripped it off my neck while we were fighting—not when you killed me.  Obviously.”  I just barely recalled grappling with this guy last night.  He’d been one among many.  I’d lost him in the midst of the chaos, but apparently, Katrice had decided to send him here with a story after he’d capture this “evidence.”

“You look amazing for being dead, my dear,” called Dorian.  “You should really come join us and try this sauce that Ranelle brought.”

I ignored Dorian, both because he expected me to and because I knew I didn’t look so amazing.  My clothes were ripped and dirty, and I’d accrued a few cuts in last night’s battle.  Judging from the haze of red I kept seeing out of the corners of my eyes, I had a feeling my hair was frizzy and sticking up in about a hundred different directions.  It was already turning into a hot day, and my stuffy castle was making me sweat profusely.

“No,” gasped the Rowan soldier.  “You can’t be alive.  Balor swore he saw you fall—he told the queen—”

“Will you guys stop this already?” I demanded, leaning in close to his face.  This made a few of my own guards step nearer, but I wasn’t worried.  This loser wouldn’t try anything, and besides, I could defend myself.  “When is your goddamned queen going to stop turning every rumor about Dorian or me dying into some huge proclamation?  Haven’t you ever heard of habeas corpus?  Never mind.  Of course you haven’t.”

“Actually,” piped in Dorian.  “I know Latin.”

“It won’t work anyway,” I growled to the Rowan guy.  “Even if I were dead, it’s not going to stop our kingdoms from trampling yours.”

That pulled him out of his stupefied state.  Fury lit his features—fury spiked with a little bit of insane zeal.  “You half-breed bitch!  You’re the one who’s going to be blighted from existence!  You, the Oak King, and everyone else who lives in your cursed lands.  Our queen is mighty and great!  Already she’s in negotiations with the Aspen and Willow Lands to unite against you!  She will grind you with her foot and take this land, take it and—”

“Can I kill him?  Please?”  This was Jasmine.  Her gray eyes looked at me pleadingly, and she’d taken the headphones off. What should have been teenage sarcasm was actually deadly seriousness.  It was days like these I regretted keeping her in the Otherworld, rather than sending her back to live with humans.  Surely it wasn’t too late for reform school.  “I haven’t killed any of your people, Eugenie.  You know I haven’t.  Let me do something to him.  Please.”

“He’s under a truce flag,” replied Shaya automatically.  Protocol was her specialty.

Dorian turned toward her.  “Blast it, woman!  I’ve told you to stop letting them in with immunity.  Wartime rules be damned.”  Shaya only smiled, unconcerned by his mock outrage.

“But he is protected,” I said, suddenly feeling exhausted.  Last’s night battle—more of a skirmish, really—had ended in a draw between my armies and Katrice’s.  It was incredibly frustrating, making the loss of life on both sides seem totally pointless.  I beckoned some of my guards forward.  “Get him out of here.  Put him on a horse, and don’t send him with any water.  Let’s hope the roads are kind to him today.”

The guards bowed obediently, and I turned back to Katrice’s man.

“And you can let Katrice know that she’s wasting her time, no matter how often she wants to claim she’s killed me—or if she even manages it.  We’re still going to see this war through, and she’s the one who’s going to lose.  She’s outnumbered and out-resourced.  She started this over a personal fight, and no one else is going to help her with it.  Tell her that if shesurrenders immediately, then maybe we’ll be merciful.”

The Rowan soldier glared at me, his malice palpable, but offered no response.  The best he could manage was to spit on the ground before the guards dragged him off.  With another sigh, I turned away and looked at the breakfast table.  They’d already brought up a chair for me.

“Is there any toast?” I asked, sitting down wearily.

Toast was not a common item on the gentry menu, but the servants here had gotten used to my human preferences.  They still couldn’t make decent tequila, and Pop-Tarts were totally out of the question.  But toast?  Toast was within their skill set.  Someone handed a basket of it to me, and everyone continued eating peacefully.  Well, almost everyone.  Ranelle was staring at all of us like we were crazy, which I could understand.

“How can you be so calm?” she exclaimed.  “After that man just—just—and you…”  She looked me over in amazement. “Forgive me, your majesty, but your attire…you’ve clearly been in battle.  Yet, here you are, sitting as though this is all perfectly ordinary.”

I gave her a cheerful look, not wanting to offend our guest or project a weak image.  I’d just arrogantly told the Rowan soldier that his queen would never gain any allies, but his comment about her negotiating with the Aspen and WillowLands hadn’t been lost on me.  Katrice and I were both scrambling for allies in this war.  Dorian was mine, giving me the edge in numbers right now, and I didn’t want to risk any chance of that balance being altered.

Dorian caught my eye and gave me one of his small, laconic smiles.  It warmed me up, easing a little of the frustration I felt.  Some days, I felt like he was all that was going to get me through this war I’d inadvertently stumbled into.  I’d never wanted it.  I’d never wanted to be queen of a fey kingdom either, forcing me to split my time between here and my human life in Tucson.  I certainly hadn’t wanted to be at the center of a prophecy that claimed I’d give birth to humanity’s conqueror, a prophecy that had driven Katrice’s son to rape me.  Dorian had killed him for it, something I still didn’t regret, even though I hated every day of the war that had followed in its wake.

I couldn’t tell Ranelle any of that, of course.  I wanted to send her back to her land with an image of confidence and power, so that her king would think allying with us was a smart move.  A brilliant move, even.  I couldn’t tell Ranelle my fears.  I couldn’t tell her how much it hurt me to see refugees showing up at my castle, poor petitioners whose homes had been destroyed by the war.  I couldn’t tell her that Dorian and I took turns visiting the armies and fighting with them—and how on those nights, the one who wasn’t fighting never got any sleep.  Despite his flippancy, I knew Dorian had felt a spark of fear at the Rowan soldier’s initial claim.  Katrice was always trying to demoralize us.  Both Dorian and I feared that someday, one of her heralds would show up telling the truth.  It made me want to run away with him right now, run away from all of this and just wrap up in his arms.

But again, I reminded myself that I had to brush those thoughts away.  Leaning over, I gave Dorian a soft kiss on his cheeks.  The smile I offered Ranelle was as winning and upbeat as one he might produce.  “Actually,” I told her.  “This is a pretty ordinary day for us.”

The sad part?  It was true.

 

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