Monday, September 30, 2019

Iron Crowned Chapter 6

I glanced around uneasily. I knew there had to be guards on watch in the garden and wondered what it would take for them to come tackle a crazy old woman. Unless she openly jumped me or something, I had a feeling I was on my own. â€Å"Unless your power extends to some kind of mind control over Katrice, I don't see how that's going to happen,† I said finally. She crooked me a grin. â€Å"No, that's not a gift the gods have chosen to bestow on any of the shining ones. Even they know the limits of mortals.† I pulled the robe more tightly around me. Seeing as I couldn't sleep, I might as well humor her. â€Å"Then what's your plan?† â€Å"You need to find the Iron Crown.† â€Å"The what?† â€Å"The Iron Crown.† She said it in a grand, ominous way †¦ one that really deserved an echo chamber to give it its full effect. â€Å"Okay,† I said. â€Å"I'll bite. What's the Iron Crown?† â€Å"An ancient artifact. One worn by the greatest, most powerful leaders in the shining ones' history. Leaders feared by all, who ruled many kingdoms.† â€Å"I have a crown. A few of them.† Only one was my official â€Å"crown of state,† but designers had crafted me others to coordinate with my outfits. â€Å"Not like this one,† she said. â€Å"Let me guess. It's made of iron.† She nodded and looked like she was waiting for me to be impressed. â€Å"Sorry. Like I said, short of mind control power, I'm not going on some magic object quest. My life is already like a Dungeons and Dragons campaign.† Masthera frowned. â€Å"Dragons haven't lived in the Otherworld in centuries.† â€Å"Forget it. Thanks for the, er, advice, but I'm not interested.† I shifted uncomfortably. â€Å"I should really get to bed.† Masthera leaned forward, undaunted. â€Å"You don't understand, Thorn Queen,† she hissed. â€Å"Only a few are capable of completing the tasks required to gain the crown. Most would not even be able to wear it.† That was easy to figure out. â€Å"Right. Because it's made of iron. I don't think an ability everyone already knows I have from being human would be that impressive.† â€Å"Queen Katrice would think so. Many of her people would too. Her armies might revolt. She herself would be afraid and back off.† â€Å"All because of the reputation of a crown that doesn't have any power?† I asked skeptically. â€Å"Where is it?† â€Å"Far away, in a place unknown.† â€Å"Oh good grief. If no one knows where it is, then how am I supposed to get it?† â€Å"That's part of the challenge. Find it, and you end the war.† I eyed her carefully. â€Å"If this is such a great idea, why not bring it to Dorian? Your king?† â€Å"He knows of it,† she agreed. â€Å"He's old enough to remember the legends. But he couldn't wear it. Only you.† Now she eyed me carefully. â€Å"Your father sought it – and failed.† I stiffened, my voice turning to ice. â€Å"Is this part of the prophecy? Some way of marking me as the conqueror's mother? Is it something I'm supposed to give to my hypothetical son?† â€Å"No,† she said. Her demeanor turned humble, but those eyes still looked shrewd. â€Å"It is merely a means to help you end your war.† â€Å"I've heard enough of this ridiculousness.† I stood up. â€Å"I'm going to bed.† Masthera started to call after me as I strode away but then bit off her words. I wondered if she had accepted my refusal or simply feared the guards' responding to continual harassment of me. I returned to Dorian's room and slipped back into bed with him. His arm unconsciously wrapped around me, and although it took a while, my troubled mind finally calmed enough to allow me some brief sleep. It was his movements that woke me a few hours later. I sat up in bed, watching as he dressed. Through the windows, the sky was barely a pinkish purple. â€Å"You're going to meet the armies already?† I asked quietly. From a chaise, he lifted a breastplate made of fine copper chain. Normally, he had attendants dressing him, and I knew he was doing it alone so that a group of people traipsing through his room wouldn't wake me. Watching him fumble at fastening it, I hurried over to help. â€Å"Katrice's forces will attack as soon as they have enough light. They may have already. It's only the unfamiliar terrain that stopped them from doing it overnight.† I finished hooking the chainmail, trying not to think about how rare it was for him to wear any sort of armor. It was a sign of the danger he walked into, even if he avoided the front lines. â€Å"I wish you weren't going.† He gave me that easy smile and rested his hands on my bare hips. â€Å"Me too. I'd much rather be back in bed with you. Stay a couple hours. I'm sure I'll be right back.† That brought a smile to my lips, though I felt no humor. â€Å"Yes, I'm sure that's all it'll take.† He released me and turned to a cabinet on the wall. Opening it, he revealed a number of weapons. One of them was an exquisitely made copper sword, crafted by a metalsmith in my employ named Girard. Dorian touched it reverently, then slipped it into a scabbard he fastened around his waist. While dangerous in and of itself, the sword possessed an extra threat because of Dorian's connection to the earth and its elements. He could infuse it with power. â€Å"Dorian †¦Ã¢â‚¬  I hesitated, afraid to ask my next question. â€Å"Have you ever heard of the Iron Crown?† â€Å"Of course.† He finished fastening the scabbard and glanced back up at me. â€Å"Why?† â€Å"I ran into a woman named Masthera last night, who told me about it.† â€Å"Ah, Masthera,† he said fondly. â€Å"Every court should have a seeress. Her predictions are right about half the time – which is quite remarkable. You should see the farce of a seer they've got over in the Maple Land. I'd be humiliated to keep someone like that around.† â€Å"Hey, focus,† I chastised. â€Å"This Iron Crown. Masthera claims it could end the war. That by winning it and proving our – er, my – power, I could make Katrice back down.† The smile faded as Dorian frowned, looking deep in thought. â€Å"That's a very real possibility. And you could wear it, couldn't you?† A sense of wonder lit his words. â€Å"The iron wouldn't bother you. In legends, some shining ones could wear it through strength and force of will. But you'd need none of that. It'd just be in your nature.† I could hardly believe he was speaking about this seriously. â€Å"And you think she's right? This crown – with no power except a reputation – could end the war?† â€Å"Well, it's not the crown's reputation, exactly,† he said. â€Å"It's the reputation you gain by fighting the many obstacles to get it. Show you can do it, and you show your power.† It was similar to what Masthera had said. â€Å"If others have possessed it – â€Å" â€Å"Not for ages,† he interrupted. â€Å"Okay, even if it hasn't been for ages †¦ why would I have to quest for it? Wouldn't the last owner have just kept it around? Passed it through the family?† His smile came back. â€Å"It doesn't work that way. The crown won't stay with anyone unworthy. Once its owner passes, it returns to its home – a home that kills many who seek it.† â€Å"You didn't answer the earlier question,† I pointed out. â€Å"Could it end the war? Peacefully?† He sighed. â€Å"I don't know. Maybe. But as much as you fear me going out today †¦ I'd worry more about you going after this trinket.† I caught hold of his hand. â€Å"You wouldn't help?† I teased, though I still wasn't buying any of it. His free hand cupped my face. â€Å"I would if I could. And maybe I could. If the legends are true, you pass through iron fields to get to it. Hardly any of the shining ones could do that. I might be able to, with my abilities†¦. I'd stand a better chance than most.† I didn't like the tone of his voice. It sounded as though he was actually considering this. He might connect with the elements of the earth, but iron was still beyond him. â€Å"I could bring Volusian,† I said, wanting to distract him. â€Å"If something happens to him, no harm done, eh?† Dorian's face stayed serious. â€Å"No, the legends are quite clear. The Iron Crown's lair is blocked to the dead.† â€Å"Well, none of it matters,† I said. â€Å"The whole idea is ridiculous.† His face lightened, and he pressed a soft kiss to my lips. â€Å"Which is why I leave now.† My heart sank, knowing the inevitable had arrived. I hurriedly put on my jeans and shirt so that I could see him and the accompanying soldiers off. I knew the armies they would join were massive, but as he rode off toward the rising sun, his group seemed so frighteningly small. When he was out of my sight, I went to summon the rest of my own party. It was time for us to go home. Most had enjoyed their â€Å"night out,† but my mood that morning soon set the tone for our journey back. The one small comfort to my dark morning was that Jasmine hadn't gotten impregnated. Shaya assured me that my sister had never left her sight throughout the night and that Jasmine hadn't actually even tried anything sinister. She had simply been content to be away from my castle. Eyeing her tight iron cuffs and the chains that connected them, I felt a small pang of guilt. I quickly banished it. Those constraints had to stay. After that, it was time for another Tucson jump. I first summoned Volusian and sent him to Dorian's side, both for backup and later reports. I knew Dorian wouldn't welcome my minion, but his having a fighter that couldn't be killed would certainly make me feel better. Once that and other household affairs were settled, I went back to join humanity. The scene at my house was nearly the same as yesterday. A quiet morning, with Tim cooking in the kitchen. Only, today he was dolled up in full costume. â€Å"You're Lakota,† I said, once he'd recovered from the shock of my abrupt arrival. â€Å"What happened to Tlingit?† He shrugged. â€Å"The Tlingit are cool, but your average stereotype-loving tourist expects this.† He wore tassled buckskin pants and a long feathered headdress. His bare tanned chest looked like it had been oiled, and it had beaded necklaces hanging on it. Studying him, I reconsidered. He wasn't true Lakota either. Just some amalgamation of stereotypes, like he'd said. â€Å"Why are you dressed up so early? Morning commuters aren't going to stop for poetry slams.† â€Å"It's Saturday, Eug.† â€Å"Is it?† I asked, startled. My timing was all awry with my double life. â€Å"There's a cultural fest out by the university, just begging to hear my beautiful insights on nature.† He flipped some sunny-side up eggs onto a plate with a flourish. â€Å"A cultural – ?† I groaned. â€Å"Tim, the local tribes will be there. You know they'll try to beat you up again.† He flashed me a grin. â€Å"Be a pal. Come protect me.† â€Å"Can't. Too much stuff to do.† A knock at the back door astonished us both. We didn't get a lot of visitors. Hoping it wasn't a missionary, I opened the door and gaped at what I found. I couldn't have been more surprised if Katrice had come calling. It was Lara. She smiled at my shock. I almost never saw her in the flesh. She worked out of a home office, most of our correspondence being handled by phone and e-mail. â€Å"Come in,† I said, still amazed. She stepped into the kitchen, just as tiny, blond, and cute as I remembered. A big stack of papers was in her arms. â€Å"I don't like the looks of that.† â€Å"It's your – â€Å" Lara came to a halt when she saw Tim. Her eyes widened. He flipped his last egg onto a plate and glanced up at her. His eyes registered equal amazement. And in that charming, con-artist way of his, he instantly slipped into character. â€Å"A beautiful blossom has joined us, her petals brilliant and unfurled in the morning sun.† He was using his awful ‘How, white man' voice. Hastily, he pulled out a chair at the kitchen table. â€Å"Join us. We'll feast and enjoy Mother Earth's bounty together.† Dazed, Lara walked over to the table and sat down, unable to take her eyes off of him – his chest in particular. â€Å"Thank you.† â€Å"It is my honor to – shit! The cinnamon rolls!† Tim dove backward, grabbing a mitt and opening the oven, from which smoke was pouring out. Lara turned to me conspiratorially as he groaned about the state of his baked goods. â€Å"Eugenie, why is there a hot Native American chief cooking in your kitchen?† she whispered. â€Å"Well,† I said, suddenly realizing the two had never actually met. â€Å"He's neither a chief nor Native American. That's Tim.† â€Å"That's what – ?† Her baby blue eyes opened even wider. â€Å"Are you sure?† â€Å"Positive.† Tim meanwhile was scraping blackened bottoms off of his cinnamon rolls. He held one up for my inspection. â€Å"It's fine,† I said. He turned to Lara, putting his smile back on. â€Å"I beg your pardon a thousand times for this unworthy feast I must set before you. Such a delicate, beautiful creature like you deserves – â€Å" â€Å"Oh for God's sake,† I exclaimed. â€Å"Will you cut the bullshit, Tim? This is Lara.† â€Å"This is †¦Ã¢â‚¬  The cinnamon roll dropped off his spatula, back onto the pan. â€Å"Are you sure?† I sighed. Both seemed at a loss for what to say. Lara's mouth moved, no words coming out for several moments. Finally, she blurted out, â€Å"I brought tax paperwork.† Tim swallowed. â€Å"I †¦ That's pretty cool.† I moved past sighing or groaning. Now, I was fighting hitting my head against the table. â€Å"No, it's not. Can we get on with breakfast?† â€Å"I †¦Ã¢â‚¬  Tim finally recovered himself. â€Å"Sure. Of course.† He looked at Lara. â€Å"Do you like eggs and cinnamon rolls?† â€Å"I love eggs and cinnamon rolls.† He promptly built her a plate and handed it over. â€Å"Hey!† I said. He shot me a glare. â€Å"Be patient a sec. We have a guest. You should be more polite – especially since she went to the trouble of doing your taxes.† â€Å"I pay her to do my taxes.† Lara bit into a cinnamon roll. In his daze, Tim had forgotten to cut off the bottom. â€Å"This is the best thing I've ever tasted. How is this even possible?† She gave him a shy smile. â€Å"Good looks and cooking skills.† He smiled back, nearly dropping the plate he handed to me. â€Å"I have all sorts of skills.† â€Å"Oh my God,† I said. Until this moment, I'd thought nothing was more annoying than their phone bickering. I suddenly wished they'd get into an argument now. â€Å"Besides,† he added, joining us with his own food. â€Å"You've got mad tax skills. I could never do that.† â€Å"That's because you don't have an income or actually file taxes,† I said. â€Å"Hey,† he shot back. â€Å"Don't judge. You obviously can't do your own.† â€Å"I don't have to! That's why I pay someone.† With great effort, Lara managed to drag her eyes over to me and remember her job. â€Å"They're all done. I just need you to sign them. I wasn't sure you'd ‘get around to it' if I mailed them.† I nodded. As far as the federal government and state of Arizona were concerned, I was a self-employed contractor who did assorted home repairs. Which wasn't that far from the truth. â€Å"That was really nice of you,† said Tim. â€Å"Taking time out of your Saturday for that.† â€Å"I take my job seriously,† she replied. â€Å"Besides, I didn't have any other plans.† â€Å"Really?† He leaned forward. â€Å"Do you want to go over to the university's cultural festival with me? I'll be reading poetry there.† She gasped. â€Å"I would love that. I bet your people have some really amazing insights on the world.† â€Å"He's not – † I began. Lara turned back to me, her business face on. â€Å"Make sure you sign these while we're gone. And you know your schedule today, right? Three jobs?† â€Å"Yes, yes. While you guys are out slumming with college kids, I'll be fighting for my life.† Tim stood up and set his barely touched plate on the counter. â€Å"We can go whenever you're ready.† She handed him her equally untouched plate. â€Å"I'm ready now. Just let me run to the bathroom first.† The instant she was gone, Tim turned on me. â€Å"Why didn't you tell me she was so nice? All this time, you've let me think she was a total bitch.† â€Å"I've told you a hundred times she wasn't a bitch! You're the one who decided that, after talking to her on the phone. You only think she's nice now because you've seen her and want to get her into bed!† Tim gave me a grave look. â€Å"Eugenie, that is not the kind of woman you have a one-night stand with. She's a goddess among women.† â€Å"Unbelievable,† I said. When Lara returned, I noticed she was wearing lipstick and had neatened her hair. â€Å"All set.† I scowled at the dirty plates Tim had left on the counter. â€Å"Don't forget to do the dishes when you get back!† I called as they headed out the door. â€Å"Don't forget to earn a living while we're gone!† he called back. â€Å"This mortgage doesn't pay itself.† â€Å"Neither do you,† I muttered. But they were already gone, lost in the throes of infatuation. Considering all the things that had happened in my life, you'd think nothing could surprise me anymore. Clearly, I was wrong. Turning around, I set to washing the dishes myself, deciding that kicking some supernatural ass was exactly what I needed.

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