Sunday, September 1, 2019

Iron Crowned Chapter 13

The journey back was uneventful, the most notable thing being the afterglow that now burned between Kiyo and me – something I now questioned the wisdom of. My words had been true: I'd never stopped caring about him. But he'd been right too: what had happened between us back in the glade had come from my own outrage and need to get back at Dorian. That wasn't really a good reason to start a relationship. It wasn't even a really good reason for casual sex, and honestly, I wasn't sure what my status was with Kiyo at the moment. Deanna reappeared and followed along so quietly and obediently that I finally broke the silence to reassure her I'd keep my part of the bargain. Her drab face lit up, and I had to give her credit for not pushing the matter until I settled my other business. Kiyo and I went straight to Dorian's, once we'd crossed back into more familiar territory. My plan was to deal with him first and then jump to the human world. I thought it would be safer to have the crown there. Dorian's guards met me with pleased grins, and while they were surprised to see Kiyo, most seemed to know I'd been off on some secret mission. Coming back alive was a good sign. As soon as we entered the castle, I ordered a messenger to go to Katrice and inform her that I now possessed the Iron Crown and that if she wanted to talk surrender, I was all ears. As Dorian's consort, I had the power to order around his staff – but I had a feeling that would end soon. Kiyo and I were admitted into Dorian's exalted presence out in a courtyard, where he was making a long-tormented courtier named Muran play the harp. I knew for a fact that Muran had had exactly one lesson, and Dorian seemed quite amused watching the guy struggle through. This kind of thing was one of Dorian's greatest pastimes, and usually, even though I felt bad for Muran, it provided me with a little amusement. Today I felt none. When we entered the courtyard, Dorian took one look at our faces and promptly ordered everyone away – even his guards. He still wore that small, carefree smile, but I'd seen a subtle shift in the lines of his face. He knew something was up. His astuteness was what made him such a good ruler. â€Å"Well, here you are,† he said, sitting back in the gentry equivalent of a lawn chair. Except, of course, I'd never seen Home Depot sell anything so ornate and gilded. Normally when I arrived, Dorian kissed me, but his wariness must have held him back. â€Å"As beautiful as ever, my dear, if a little beat up around the edges. I suppose this means you either succeeded or just barely escaped with your life?† â€Å"We succeeded,† I said. â€Å"I've got the crown.† Again – that smile didn't change, but an eager light flickered in Dorian's eyes. He leaned forward. â€Å"I knew it. I knew you could do it.† He studied me up and down, his gaze finally resting on the bag over my shoulder. â€Å"May I see it?† â€Å"No,† I said bluntly. â€Å"No one's going to see it. It's going to be hidden away where it can't be used to start eating up people's lands.† Dorian's eyebrows rose, and he began to speak. I could already imagine a hundred variations of what was going to come out of his mouth, something along the lines of, â€Å"Whatever are you talking about, my dear?† I stepped forward, my control snapping as I cut him off. â€Å"Don't start! Don't even start with some sugar-coated denial. You've known all along what the crown could do! You knew it'd scare Katrice because it meant I – and by default you – could take over her kingdom!† Dorian hesitated, and again, I could guess at the thoughts spinning in his head. Denial or backpedaling? He finally went with the latter. â€Å"And what better way to push her into peace?† he said at last. â€Å"The point of a war like this is to eventually march over and subdue someone anyway. Isn't it much simpler and faster to achieve that same end through another way?† â€Å"A way that rips her land from her!† I exclaimed. â€Å"And sticks me with another fucking kingdom!† I stepped forward and had to forcibly keep myself from getting closer. I was so, so angry. So angry that this man I cared about could do this to me. I was almost angrier at him than Katrice at the moment. From her, at least, I expected betrayal. â€Å"And that's what you would have wanted to do – not just scare her. You would have found some way, some justification for taking that drastic step, just like you got me to go after this in the first place.† Much of the humor had faded from Dorian's face now. â€Å"And would you have gone after it if you'd known?† â€Å"No.† He shrugged. â€Å"Well, there you have it.† I was aghast. â€Å"That's it? How the hell can you be so lax about this? How can you act like it's okay to have tricked me from the beginning – you and that hag? How can you claim to love me and lie to me?† â€Å"I do love you,† he said. â€Å"More than you know. I did this for your own good.† â€Å"You did it for your own good,† I snapped. â€Å"I can't believe I fell for it again. You've done this before, and now I'm done. Done with you. Done with all of this. I don't need your help anymore. I'll finish this fucking war on my own.† â€Å"Eugenie,† warned Kiyo softly. He didn't contradict me, not in front of Dorian, but I understood the subtext. It was the point he'd made before: not to spurn Dorian's military help. Dorian scoffed, sharing that sentiment. â€Å"Of course you need me. If you can get past your hurt pride, you'll see that we're in this together. Use the crown however you want, but be reasonable so that the two of us can finally end this war.† My voice was low and dangerous when I spoke. I was furious that he could be so condescending, that he assumed he could just smooth this all over. â€Å"There is no more us.† â€Å"Now you're just overreacting,† he said. â€Å"We need to finish this war together, and we need to be together, period. We're meant to be.† â€Å"No,† I said. â€Å"We're done. It's over.† I could see from his face that he didn't take that seriously either. He didn't get it. His ego wouldn't allow him to. Before he could respond, Kiyo lightly touched my arm. â€Å"Be careful. Look what you're doing.† I glanced around. The wind was rising and falling, making the apple trees sway back and forth. Dark clouds began to gather above. It wasn't uncommon for my emotions to unconsciously affect the weather, but the fact that I could do it in a land under someone else's control was a sign of how much my power had grown. If Dorian had wanted sunny weather, it should have stayed that way. The realization of what I could do was heady. Nonetheless, I pushed back, calming the air and dissipating the storm clouds. But Dorian wasn't concerned about any of that. His attention had snapped to one small gesture: Kiyo's touch on my arm. I'm not sure how Dorian knew – maybe just the way Kiyo and I stood near each other – but in that moment, Dorian realized what had happened between Kiyo and me. And that, more than any of the arguments here, was what finally broke that laid-back attitude. His face turned to stone. â€Å"Oh,† he said to Kiyo, voice completely devoid of emotion. â€Å"I see. It's your turn again.† Outrage filled me at the insinuation that I could be passed around – a sentiment not unlike what Kiyo himself had expressed. Dorian allowed me no chance to counter. â€Å"Well, if that's how it's going to be, then that's how it's going to be. You may be right that there's no us, but we are still in this war together. My armies are too enmeshed, and I can hardly let Katrice think I'm backing down. Dareth!† Dorian's voice rang out, loudly enough that one of the guards behind the glass doors heard. He swiftly opened the doors and stepped outside. â€Å"Your Majesty?† â€Å"Please escort the Thorn Queen and her pet from the premises. They are denied hospitality. Do not admit them again. Should any of her household come, they may be allowed into my presence.† His eyes flicked to me. â€Å"Send Rurik as your proxy for all military matters. He was doing all the work anyway.† Dorian's attention went back to his guard. â€Å"You have your orders.† Dareth had trouble keeping the shock off his face. I had become a fixture around here, treated nearly the same as Dorian. After a few moments, Dareth composed his features, his loyalty to his king overriding any disbelief he might feel. He turned to me, expression formal. He gestured inside. â€Å"Your Majesty.† The respect was there, but the message was clear. I was being thrown out and could see Dareth practically praying I wouldn't resist. I didn't, and while a dozen parting retorts to Dorian filled my head, I shoved them aside. He thrived on that kind of attention. It would only make him feel more important, and I wanted it made clear that I really was done with him – even though the cold reality of what was happening made my heart break. Kiyo and I began to follow Dareth without comment, but then I paused. Reaching toward my neck, I ripped off the necklace I wore, the one with Dorian's ring. I tossed it at his feet, meeting his gaze with a message I hoped he understood. He did. His answered mine with green fury. â€Å"I said get out of here.† I turned away, letting Dareth take us to the castle's front doors. As soon as we were outside, I heard him giving instructions about the revoking of our hospitality. I imagined the other guards shared his shock, but I walked on without looking back. Once Kiyo and I had traveled far enough that the land shifted and put us in Maiwenn's kingdom, he turned to look at me. â€Å"Are you okay?† he asked, worry in those dark eyes. â€Å"Fine,† I said flatly. I was confident my anger was justified †¦ but leaving Dorian still hurt. He'd dismissed me so easily, once he'd realized I'd slept with Kiyo. I'd expected something †¦ something more emotional, I guess. Some sign that I'd meant more to him than a useful consort. I should have known better. â€Å"Let's go back to Tucson.† I'd kept Volusian and Deanna away while we'd met with Dorian but brought them both back now. I told Deanna to come to my home tomorrow and that we'd start working on her problem then. To Volusian, I gave orders to return to the Thorn Land. He would tell Rurik to go to Dorian and then wait until word came back from Katrice. I had no doubt that word of my being banned from Dorian's would spread around quickly enough; I didn't want to see the reactions of my people when that happened. Kiyo and I crossed back to Arizona at a nearby gateway, going to his place instead of mine so that he could redo my stitches. He was as good as any ‘real' doctor, and I didn't want to have to explain my new cuts and bruises to someone else. A slew of cats and dogs greeted me when I entered his apartment, making me feel oddly nostalgic. â€Å"Are you sure you're okay?† Kiyo asked later. I was lying stomach-down on his bed while his needle went to work on the cut. My cheek rested on a pillow, my only view being his dresser as I tried to stay still. â€Å"Fine.† â€Å"You keep saying that, but what went down was pretty serious.† I could imagine the frown on his face. â€Å"I didn't expect him to pull hospitality.† â€Å"He knows we slept together,† I said. â€Å"Guys get upset when their girlfriends do that.† I'd broken up with Dorian in my head the instant I found out about the deception, but as far as he was concerned, I'd cheated on him. Maybe I had. But betraying someone who'd deceived you didn't seem like that much of a betrayal. â€Å"Yes,† said Kiyo. â€Å"Yes, they do.† He tied off his thread and re-bandaged it all. â€Å"Please, please do not pull these out again. The fact that this isn't infected is a miracle.† â€Å"I won't,† I said, sitting up and carefully putting my shirt back on. â€Å"I don't plan on getting in any fights for a while. I'm staying out of the Otherworld until they really need me, and investigating Deanna's murder should only involve questions. Actually, I'm hoping to pass it off on someone else.† â€Å"She won't like that,† he said. â€Å"It'll get it done,† I said. â€Å"And she'll like that. Probably even faster than if I did it.† I started to stand, but Kiyo caught hold of my hand and kept me down. His expression turned sly. â€Å"You want to stay for a while?† I shook my head, smiling faintly. â€Å"I've got some things to do. Besides, just because we did what we did doesn't mean †¦ well, it doesn't mean things are the same again.† His mischievous smile faded. â€Å"You're right. A lot kind of got rushed. I suppose we should †¦ I don't know. Do you want to go on a date?† â€Å"A date?† I laughed in spite of myself. It seemed so out of place after what we'd been through these last few days. Too ordinary. â€Å"Dinner and a movie?† â€Å"Something like that. I could pick you up later, after your errands are done. Or tomorrow if you need a little more time.† A little more time? Maybe I needed a lot more time. I really didn't know. I might have jumped into bed – figuratively speaking – right after my relationship with Dorian had crumbled, but as I'd said, that didn't mean I was ready to establish something committed with Kiyo again. I'd had sex with Kiyo in the throes of my anger; I had more to think about now that I'd cooled down – and seen Dorian's face. My head told me we were through, but my heart already missed him. â€Å"Tomorrow,† I said. Kiyo nodded. â€Å"Fair enough. I should probably check in at the clinic anyway.† I honestly didn't understand the terms of Kiyo's employment. With his constant visits to the Otherworld, he didn't seem to have any regular schedule with the emergency vet clinic he worked at. He just seemed to show up whenever he wanted. It was more convenient than my own job for maintaining a dual existence between worlds. Confused feelings or not, I let him kiss me good-bye before I left. There was a part of me that wished I could just stay with him, hiding out in his bed and avoiding the rest of the world. Worlds, even. But I had too much to do. The first thing was to get home and change into clean clothes. I arrived to what initially appeared to be an empty house, but the cars in the driveway tipped me off. Sure enough, a minute or so after I walked inside, I heard Tim's bedroom door open. He emerged, wearing only jeans, his black hair standing in all directions. â€Å"Hey, Eug. Didn't expect to see you back.† â€Å"Apparently not. I take it Lara's in there?† He had the grace to look sheepish. â€Å"Ah, well – â€Å" â€Å"Hi, Eugenie.† Lara appeared in the kitchen beside him, her hair as messed up as his. Her clothes – including Tim's â€Å"West Coast Powwow 2002† T-shirt – showed signs of hasty assembly. She was blushing, but her embarrassment turned to surprise as she eyed my appearance. She still wasn't used to seeing me in real life. â€Å"Rough day?† â€Å"Days,† I said. â€Å"Oh †¦ I don't suppose †¦ I don't suppose you'd be interested in hearing about some job offers?† It was the first time she'd been hesitant to bring up work. I think she was finally starting to understand the grueling nature of my life and that back-to-back jobs weren't as easy as checking items off a list. â€Å"Not really. Not for a few days.† â€Å"A few – † She bit off her protest and meekly nodded. I walked around them, heading for my room. â€Å"I've got things to do,† I called back to them. â€Å"So you can go back to †¦ whatever it is you were doing.† Truthfully, I didn't want to do the task hanging before me. I wanted to find whatever baked goods Tim had squirreled away in the kitchen and then take that nap I'd longed for at Kiyo's. But, no. I'd made a promise to Deanna, one I had to honor, no matter how messed up the rest of my life was. So, after cleaning up and changing, I sat on the edge of my bed and picked up my cell phone. I stared at it for a long time, running my fingers along its edges as I procrastinated. Finally, I dialed a memorized number and waited. There was a good chance that no one would answer. I was calling my mom's cell phone, though, which gave me better odds than if I'd called her house number. I knew Roland had asked her to keep her distance from me, but after seeing me at the hospital, my mom would likely resist any directives like that – if only out of fear that I'd lost a limb or something. â€Å"Hello?† My breath caught, and I almost couldn't speak. Just that one word †¦ the sound of her voice. It sent a flood of emotions through me, and I forced myself to remember my mission here. â€Å"Mom?† â€Å"Genie? Are you okay?† she asked promptly. As suspected, she feared limb loss. â€Å"Yeah, yeah, fine. How are you?† â€Å"Fine. Worried about you – like always.† â€Å"I'm okay,† I said. â€Å"Really. But I need †¦ I, um, need to talk to Roland.† Long silence. â€Å"Eugenie – â€Å" â€Å"I know, I know. But I need his help with something. It won't take long. Just one question. Please.† She sighed. â€Å"Oh, baby. I wish I could, but he's made it clear †¦ You know how he feels about everything†¦.† â€Å"It's a human thing,† I said, only partially lying. â€Å"A job in this world. Please, Mom. Just ask him if he'll talk to me for a minute?† More silence, then another sigh. â€Å"Hang on.† I waited, nervously twisting the fabric of my bed's duvet. What would happen? The two most likely options were that either my mom would relay his refusal or they would simply hang up on me. But, no. It was Roland's voice I heard next. â€Å"Yes?† Cold. Wary. After everything that had just happened to me in the Otherworld, hearing his voice nearly broke me. I wanted to sob and beg him to forgive me. Beg him to love me again. My mom had undoubtedly done a fair share of that already, though. She'd clearly had no luck. I had no reason to believe I'd fare any better, so I made my tone match his as I swallowed back tears. Just business here. â€Å"I need a referral,† I said brusquely. â€Å"To a private investigator. One who isn't going to be freaked out by the stuff we deal with. I figured you must know someone.† â€Å"You need a P.I. to deal with some monster?† he asked harshly. â€Å"No, no. It actually should be pretty mundane – all human stuff. But considering what we do †¦ Well, I thought I should have someone prepared in case things get weird.† I didn't have any reason for Deanna to interact directly with a P.I. – or for me even to mention her – but I wanted to be safe. â€Å"Well,† said Roland. â€Å"Let's make it clear: ‘we' don't do the same kinds of things.† With great effort, I bit off the retorts that wanted to burst out of me. I wanted to explain for the hundredth time that I'd never expected – or wanted – to reach this level of involvement in the Otherworld. Again, I opted for directness. â€Å"Please, Roland,† I said simply. â€Å"This is for a human family. Just forget about me for a minute.† When he didn't respond, I thought for sure the anticipated hang-up would come. â€Å"Enrique Valdez,† he said at last. â€Å"You should be able to look up his number. I'll call too and give him a heads-up.† â€Å"Oh, Roland. Thank you so – â€Å" Click. There it was. I pulled the phone away and held it in front of me again, staring at it as though it were to blame for all my problems. A few moments later, I tossed it on the floor. Anger surged through me, quickly fading into sadness. My eyes fell on my travel pack in the corner, the pack containing the Iron Crown. That – and all it represented – was the source of my problems. I fell back onto my bed, staring up at the glow-in-the-dark stars stuck on my ceiling. Roland, Dorian †¦ I was losing the men in my life. Why, why had Dorian done that? Why had he let me fall in love with him, only to play me? Was that what love meant to him? Was that how all his relationships worked? He'd hurt me, hurt me so terribly, and the petty, dark voice that lived inside me said that if sleeping with Kiyo had hurt Dorian in return, it was no more than he deserved. Kiyo. Kiyo was all I had left now, and I didn't know if I could trust him either. Before I could ruminate very much on that particular woe, a cold presence filled the room. I sat up quickly, putting aside all my self-pity as Volusian materialized before me. â€Å"Mistress,† he said. â€Å"Volusian,† I replied. â€Å"What's going on?† â€Å"I've come with a message, as you requested.† As always, his words were emotionless, yet he somehow conveyed the feeling that he resented every one of them. â€Å"Queen Katrice has responded to your news of the Iron Crown.† That was fast, even for the Otherworld. â€Å"And?† â€Å"And, she has agreed to a temporary truce.† I shot up from the bed. â€Å"You have got to be kidding.† Volusian didn't respond. I'd long since learned that any comment I made about him joking or kidding was treated rhetorically. Volusian did not joke or kid. â€Å"It worked,† I murmured, more to myself than him. â€Å"I can't believe it. Dorian was right.† â€Å"Indeed. But I assume my mistress will not resume carnal relations with him.† I made a face. If there was anyone I hated discussing my sex life with more than Jasmine, it was Volusian. â€Å"No. It doesn't matter if he was right. He lied to me to make it happen. He should have told me the whole story. He used half-truth means to achieve his ends.† Volusian nodded solemnly. â€Å"I told you that long ago, that the Oak King's own agenda will always come first. As will the kitsune's. But, unsurprisingly, my mistress chooses to ignore the only sound advice given to her and instead listens to those who use affection for their own purposes.† The word ‘affection' was spoken with particular venom. â€Å"Kiyo and Dorian don't – Look. Stay out of this, okay? I never asked for your ‘sound' advice. Get back to Katrice. How does this truce work exactly?† â€Å"Hostilities will cease until all parties are able to discuss the current situation. How said discussion proceeds will be settled beforehand by messengers. You and the Oak King may meet with her directly, or you may have representatives do the negotiating.† I tried to picture myself in a room with Dorian and Katrice. Lovely. â€Å"And where would this happen? I'm sure as hell not going to the Rowan Land.† â€Å"That too will be negotiated during this truce,† he said. â€Å"A neutral kingdom is the most likely choice. Shaya would like to discuss that with you at your earliest convenience.† â€Å"I'm sure she would. Go back and tell her I trust her to set up whatever arrangements need to be made. If I have to go myself †¦ well, then I go. I'll check in with her soon, but come back if anything happens in the meantime.† Volusian waited, and I gestured him away. â€Å"Go.† He vanished, and I sank onto my bed. My eyes fell on the concealed Iron Crown once again, and I dared to wonder if maybe some good had come out of this whole mess.

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