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Thorn Queen Chapter Three

Once I stopped hyperventilating from all the attention on me, I immediately realized Nia had been right about the dress.

Like always, the gentry dressed like that they were going to a Renaissance Faire that served ecstasy.Satin, velvet, silk.Even a little leather here and there.

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Lots of jewelry, lots of skin. The glittering array dazzled the eye, the colors shining, rich, and vivid.

I wore a sundress meant to have sort of a vintage look. Made of tan gauze scattered with a design of tiny yellow flowers, it had an empire waist and a clingy little skirt that went to my knees. The straps tied behind my neck, and most of my back stayed bare, all the better to show off my tattoos: a woman’s face within a full moon on my neck and a line of violets on my lower back. The dress’s color looked great with the dusky, light auburn of my hair.

Unfortunately, while the shabby-chic peasant look might be expensive and very much in vogue in the human world, dressing like a peasant in a place resembling the set from an epic medieval movie made you look like, well, a peasant.

“Oh my God,” I hissed to Shaya as we walked through the room. “I look completely out of place.”

“Be quiet,” she snapped, in a rare display of the consternation she probably actually always held around me. “You are queen of the Thorn Land. You destroyed one of the shining ones’ most powerful kings. You have the right to wear whatever you want, so act like it.”

I swallowed my retort and hoped she and her tough love were right. As it was, I had to resist the urge to cling to her hand like a child. That inept social upbringing of mine made navigating this kind of attention painful. Shaya had promised to stay by my side and ensure my etiquette, though that had allayed my fears only marginally. With a great force of will, I tried to follow her advice and look haughty and unconcerned by my appearance.

“You must go to Maiwenn first,” she murmured, “and then most of them will come to you for introductions. You’ve been a great source of curiosity, and this is your first public appearance since taking the crown.”

“Got it. Maiwenn first.”

The Willow Queen appeared to be surrounded by a throng of people. We headed toward them. On the way, I received an assortment of nods, curtsies, and bows. The room held a handful of monarchs, my peers, but every other noble held a rank lower than mine. A few of those we passed offered greeting. I suspected I might have met them at a ball I’d attended last spring. Most simply gave me polite murmurings of “Your majesty.”

We reached Maiwenn’s circle of admirers. I meant to hover on the edges, but the people parted for us, soon giving Shaya and me a front-row view.

Maiwenn sat in an ornately carved wooden throne, its whirling designs accented here and there with gold. She herself was golden, with lustrous, tanned skin and long hair that looked like spilled sunshine. A gown of teal velvet-the same color as her eyes-showed her maternal curves to great advantage. Yet, her greatest ornamentation, in my opinion, was the striking figure of Kiyo standing nearby, one hand resting on the back of her chair. He wore gentry clothing tonight, simple black slacks and a long-sleeved white silk tunic that he probably could have worn among humans without question. His eyes, warm and dark, met mine briefly before turning back to the person addressing Maiwenn. Heat flared between him and me in that moment, and electricity coursed through my body as I remembered last night.

“-best wishes for you and your child, your majesty,” the man was saying. “Truly this is a joyous occasion, and we pray to the gods for good fortune and good health.”

I pondered his words, recalling Kiyo telling me this was less of a baby shower and more of a luck ceremony. The gentry did not conceive often, nor did they bear children easily. Infant mortality was high. Old superstition held that a party like this, with so many well-wishers, would imbue the child with luck and ensure prosperity.

The man finished his spiel and gestured to a servant to bring his gift. The servant handed over a small golden chest, about the size of a shoebox, which his master opened with a flourish. A few oohs sounded from those gathered, and I craned my head to see what it held. A glitter of red met my eyes.

“This is my gift to your son or daughter: the finest rubies from my land, polished and cut to perfection.”

I blinked and glanced around, wondering if I was the only one who found that gift ridiculous. What the hell was an infant going to do with a crate of rubies? Choke on them? Those things definitely needed a Not For Children Under 3 warning on them. No one else shared my view, and the group seemed to be in agreement on the gift’s value. Kiyo, however, caught my eye, and I saw the faintest of smiles play over his face as he guessed what I was thinking.

The man left, and all eyes swiveled to me. We hadn’t arrived first, but apparently my rank bought me cutting rights. Following Shaya’s earlier instructions, I stepped forward and kissed Maiwenn’s cheek. She kissed mine in return.

“Eugenie, I’m so happy to see you again.”

She looked it, too. I don’t know if it was faked or not, but she was one of those people who could always look happy and make you think she really cared about you. I suspected most of her kindness was sincere, but she had to have the same uneasiness around me as I did with her, given our respective relationships with Kiyo.

Glancing at his dark looks and her golden ones, I suddenly had a vivid image of them in bed together.

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I wondered if he’d been as wild with her as with me. I wondered if she’d liked it.

Pushing that picture out of my head, I attempted a return smile. “Thank you for inviting me. Sorry I’m late.”

She waved a dismissive hand. “You didn’t have to come at all. I’m just glad you’re here.”

I didn’t have any elegant speeches, so I kept my words simple. “I’m…very happy for you. I hope things go great with you and the baby.”

I glanced over at Shaya, who’d been holding my backpack. She handed it to me, and I noticed then that the number of watchers had increased, eyes curious as to what the half-human queen would give. The Kiyo Love Triangle was no secret; gentry gossip spread around the Otherworld faster than any human tabloid could have kept up with.

Producing a teddy bear, I handed it over to her. She took it, eyes surprised as her hands ran over its smooth, sable-brown fur. I’d paid a lot of money for it. It was some kind of designer brand I’d been told was much coveted among upper-class suburban moms.

“It’s, um, a toy,” I explained, immediately feeling idiotic. The gentry weren’t technologically advanced, but even they could figure that one out.

“It’s lovely,” she said, touching the seams. “We can’t match this kind of workmanship. Thank you.”

“Oh, and well…I honestly didn’t think there was anything else I could give that the baby wouldn’t already have. So, instead, I made a donation in its name to a children’s charity. Or rather, once we know its name, I’ll finalize the donation.”

Forgetting the teddy bear, she looked up at me, clearly perplexed. “I don’t understand.” Those gathered apparently didn’t either, judging from the curious expressions.

“I, um, well, gave money to a group that helps sick kids. They’ll use that money to take care of them, and it’ll be…” I grasped for something gentry-friendly. “…it’ll be done in your baby’s honor.”

A supreme look of delight flooded her gorgeous face, and I knew without a doubt she wasn’t faking it. She understood, and she liked the gift.

“It’s very generous,” Kiyo explained to her. The smoldering message his eyes gave me indicated he had a few ideas of how to express his gratitude for the present.

She put her arms around the teddy bear, holding it to her ample chest while her eyes gazed off with thought. “Acts of such kindness…done in the baby’s name…” She turned that radiance back to me. “Acts like that cannot help but generate good will from the gods. Thank you, Eugenie.”

A murmur of considering whispers stirred behind us. She and I exchanged a few more remarks, and then I yielded the floor to the next well-wisher.

“Was that okay?” I asked Shaya as we walked away.

“Extremely.” A wry note hung in her voice. “I doubted your gift, but now I think you understand this custom better than we do.” She switched to a lower tone. “Ah, this is Katrice, the Rowan Queen, coming toward us.”

I looked up with interest, having passed through the Rowan Land so many times during my Otherworldly journey. Katrice looked about fifty or so in human years, which meant she could boast a few centuries. Only a little silver laced her thick black hair, and her dark eyes glittered with a keen intellect. A dress of red and white satin covered her stout figure.

“Oh, oh, oh! This is her at last! The Thorn Queen. My dear child, you have been too absent from our gatherings.” She put her arms around me and kissed my cheek. It was a bit more slobbery than Maiwenn’s kiss. A little overwhelmed by her presence, I returned the gesture. She smelled like roses.

“It…it’s nice to meet you.”

“You are so lovely! Look at her, Marlin. Isn’t she lovely?”

She grabbed the arm of a man who looked about twice her age, his wispy gray hair barely covering his head. His eyes indicated he wasn’t really at the party right now.

“What?” he asked.

Katrice raised her voice. “Lovely. Isn’t she LOVELY?”

“Loverly,” he muttered, staring off to my left.

“Duke Marlin, the queen’s consort,” Shaya whispered.

“Look at you, look at you!” Katrice continued, still bubbling over. “How could a little thing like you have killed Aeson? Hmm? Old Tirigan Storm King would be so proud.”

I jerked with surprise, taken aback by the callous reference to both my slaying of Aeson and my father’s name. Not noticing my reaction, she gestured frantically to a young man passing nearby. He had slim good looks and raven-black hair tied back in a ponytail. He too wore red and white, and I remembered once seeing the Rowan Land’s flag, a rowan tree bordered in red and white. Apparently, they were a patriotic group.

“Darling, darling! Come meet the Thorn Queen.” Smiling, he hastened to her side and gave me a courteous nod. “This is my son, Leith. Leith, Queen Eugenie.”

He took my hand and kissed it very properly, as was the custom. “A pleasure, your majesty.”

“Likewise.”

I studied him, curious at seeing a gentry prince. With all the gentry reproductive issues, none of the other monarchs I’d met-aside from Maiwenn-had any children. They tended to be solitary rulers.

He looked so nice and friendly-and like he wasn’t currently make plans to get in my pants-that I wanted to make conversation, but I was never very good at initiating that kind of thing. Katrice took the dilemma out of my hands.

“Isn’t she beautiful, Leith? I was just saying how I can scarce believe she killed old Aeson. Can you believe that? What was it that I heard, my dear? That you drowned him?”

I cleared my throat uncomfortably. “Um, no, not exactly. I sort of summoned all the water out of his body and blew him apart.”

“Oh!” She clapped her hands together as though it were the most wonderful thing she’d ever heard. “Oh! Oh! Isn’t that fascinating? And so clever!”

Apparently noting my discomfort, Leith hastily said, “Mother, I’m sure the Thorn Queen would prefer to discuss more pleasant topics. This is hardly the place to talk about death.”

I flashed him a grateful smile. We did indeed move to more mundane topics, and I found he managed a conversation far more effectively than his mother did. “I saw your expression over the rubies,” he teased. “You don’t think the baby will appreciate those?”

I made a face. “Maybe if they can decorate a crib with them. Or maybe make a mobile. Are those kinds of gifts normal?”

“I’m afraid so,” he said, still smiling. “As I heard you say, there isn’t much this baby won’t get from Maiwenn. Most of these nobles are more interested in making the queen happy, not the baby-hence all the useless gifts.”

“Why, Leith,” scolded his mother. “That’s ridiculous. I’m sure Maiwenn’s child will absolutely love the crystal dinnerware we brought.”

When I finally excused us, Leith kissed my hand again and spoke in a voice too low for Katrice to hear.

“I’m sorry about her. She doesn’t always think before she speaks.”

I laughed. “It’s okay,” I murmured back. “She’s a queen. That’s her job.”

More loudly and properly, he said, “I hope you’ll come visit us. Mother’s been dying to receive you at our court.”

“Sure,” I agreed. “One of these days.” I tried to reciprocate the politeness. “You should come visit us too. I’m not around much, but you’re welcome whenever.”

He brightened, as did Katrice who actually stayed silent for a change. “Thank you, your majesty. I’d love to. I’ve heard amazing things about your land. They say it’s very fierce. Fierce, but beautiful.”

Shaya laughed softly as we departed. “Oh, you don’t know what you’ve done.”

I stared at her. “What do you mean? I think I handled that well, considering that woman’s endless chattering.”

“Don’t let her surface fool you. She’s shrewder than you think. And powerful. Unfortunately, her son is not.”

“Leith? What do you mean? Magically?”

She nodded. “His magic is almost nonexistent. He won’t be able to inherit her kingdom.”

“Whoa…” Considering how long gentry lived, I’d never thought much about inheritance issues. “But he seemed pretty competent. Very intelligent.”

“He is. Extremely so. He’s an inventor of sorts. He’s created things that have revolutionized their kingdom-and the others, slowly. He most recently created tools to print text in books the way your people do. It’ll save a fortune in scribes.”

“Like a printing press? Wow.” Who knew? Leith was like a fairy version of Gutenberg. Cool. Maybe the Otherworld was well on its way to the Industrial Revolution. “And that doesn’t count for anything with ruling?”

“No.” Shaya didn’t sound sympathetic in the least. Magical strength was the greatest measure of a gentry’s worth, which is why my bastard father had been held in such high regard. Those who believed I would match him one day regarded me similarly. “Ingenuity alone is not enough to inherit the throne or bind the land. However, his odds might improve if he had a powerful consort.”

I suddenly tripped on my own feet when I caught her meaning. “What, you mean me?”

“By their estimation, you’re a good match. Powerful, already ruling a kingdom. Your human blood and ability to conceive makes you extremely attractive, your role in the prophecy doubly so.”

“Christ. You people are nuts.”

She seemed to be enjoying my dismay. “Like I said, Katrice is shrewd. She wasn’t lying when she said she wanted to meet you. She’s probably planned this for a while. You inviting Leith to visit fulfilled her dreams. Just wait, he’ll come soon.”

“How come you guys have no concept of ‘just friends’ around here? Why is every guy I meet a potential mate? Leith was nice enough and cute, but I mean…come on.”

I supposed I shouldn’t have been surprised, really. The gentry had much looser sexual mores than humans-as a few couples in the room’s corners were currently demonstrating-so they probably treated everything as a possible romantic encounter. Considering the wights’ less-than-romantic bid for my affections earlier, I should have been grateful for Leith’s more civilized courtship. Still, I found it all wearying.

Shaya introduced me to a number of other nobles that afternoon. Most blurred together. I simply smiled and nodded a lot, fantasizing about being home in bed with Kiyo. Near the end of the party, one new person actually caught my attention.

The first interesting thing was just how dark his skin was-a rarity in the otherwise Caucasian gentry of this portion of the Otherworld. His black hair hung around his face in a shower of tiny braids, perfectly setting off the burgundy satin cloak around him. He bowed low over my hand, sweeping his cloak away with a flourish.

“Your majesty,” he said with a faint French accent. “It is an honor and a privilege. The stories of your beauty do not do you justice. I am Girard de la Colline.”

I accepted his hand kiss with astonishment. “You must be from very far away.”

The Otherworld mirrored my own world in geography. The residents here, near Arizona, spoke variations of American English. I wondered idly if those who ruled now had supplanted an American Indian version of the gentry.

“Such a journey is well worth it to be in your presence, but sometime, if you like, I would be honored to tell you stories of my homeland. Its beauty is enough to make a man weep, though I’m given to understand that the terrible beauty of your own kingdom can make men weep as well-for different reasons.”

I laughed. “I suppose so. Those who respect it can survive it; those who don’t…well, don’t.”

“It sounds just like its queen.” He inclined his head. “I also have a small talent with metalwork, if you would ever like anything crafted. I live in the Rowan Land now but would happily take a commission if you require one.”

I thanked him for the offer and said I’d think about it. When we left him, I turned to Shaya. “I liked him. But let me guess-he wants to woo me and father my child, too?”

“Oh, he wouldn’t be opposed to it, but that’s not his short-term goal. He really is quite a gifted artisan-he’s even got a little human blood in his ancestry, which lets him somewhat touch iron. But a man like him…well, he’s a courtier. He hangs around nobility and tries to find connections that might help him rule a kingdom of his own one day.”

“Which, my dear Shaya, is a very kind way of saying he is a schmoozing bottom-feeder who will do anything to further his own political aspirations. I will agree with you on his artistic talents, however. Why, we should have him make our good friend the Thorn Queen here a proper crown and solidify her title.”

That smooth, laconic voice sliced my heart in two, and I froze. Turning around slowly, I met a pair of long-lashed green eyes flecked with gold and hazel, all framed by a sweep of long, fiery hair that rivaled the trees of autumn in his kingdom.

Dorian, King of the Oak Land.

“Your majesty,” exclaimed Shaya happily, giving him a low curtsey. “How are you? How is your domain?”

Dorian smiled and lightly chucked her chin. “Are you afraid my household has fallen apart without you? I confess, it does run a bit less smoothly than before, but we endure what we must. I have no doubts your new mistress has more need of your services than I, so I shall suffer longer for her sake.”

He gave me a pointed look. I said nothing. Shaya glanced between the two of us, her happy mien turning nervous. “If you’ll excuse me, your majesties, I’m going to find some refreshment. I’ll return momentarily.”

I sincerely doubted that, but she departed too quickly for me to protest. I wanted to follow her but was now trapped.

A bit of his showmanship dimmed, but the wit and lazy amusement that constantly cloaked Dorian remained. He always behaved as though he were on a stage, both in his mannerisms and his melodramatic-and often wry-commentary. I guess as a king he kind of was on stage during his life.

“Well, Eugenie, here we are.” Dorian carelessly smoothed down the black velvet of his robe. Gold and red patterns danced around the hems. “You are a vision of sublime beauty, as always.”

“Oh come on,” I exclaimed. “Not from you, of all people. I’m the most shoddily dressed person in this room.”

“No. I saw a scullery maid dressed nearly as badly. A crown really would go a long way to establish your standing. But, barring that, your dress is actually lovely and well-made, even if plain. Wait and watch: you’ll see women wearing copies of it soon. The fact that you can still draw eyes while wearing it is a testament to your beauty and presence. You achieve what most of these trumped-up, painted women cannot, no matter how many layers of heavy, rich fabric cover them up.”

I gestured toward his robe. “You’re covered up in a fair amount of heavy, rich fabric yourself.”

The edges of his lips curled up. “If they bother you, I can remove as many of these layers as you like.”

I rolled my eyes, but the damage was done. With those few words, I once again saw his naked body, smooth and perfect in the moonlight, hovering over mine as I lay bound to his bed. It had been one night, one night only, but it was a night I’d had little luck in forgetting for the last three months. Seeing Dorian stirred it all up again, filling me with confusion over the way my body had responded to such domination.

Long before that night, Dorian had been one of my first allies in the Otherworld. He’d supported Storm King-and would have loved to knock me up-but had stood firm against any notion of rape. He’d wanted me of my own free will. In the end, he’d helped me defeat Aeson and had shown me the fundamentals of using magic.

“Did you give Maiwenn something?” I asked abruptly, steering us elsewhere.

He scrutinized me a moment before answering. “Yes, of course. What was it? Ah. Yes. Bolts of lovely cloth that I’m sure she can do…something…lovely with. My steward picked it out. A paltry present compared to yours, or so I hear.” His eyes tracked across the room to where Maiwenn and Kiyo laughed with some woman I didn’t recognize. “Look at them. Their child will be something to see, don’t you think? They make a very striking couple. I should commission a painter to do a family portrait once the baby arrives. Something they can all treasure for years to come.”

I stiffened. “That’s why you wanted to talk to me, huh? You haven’t changed, Dorian, and I’m not going to stay here and play if you’re just going to try to bait me. I didn’t want to talk to you anyway.”

Dorian gave a long-suffering sigh. “You always think so little of me, Eugenie. I wished to speak with you because I wanted to know how you’ve been. I’ve missed you. How do you like being a queen? Your land hasn’t perished…yet…so I’m taking that as a good sign.”

Still irked by the Kiyo jibe, I fixed him with a glare. “I didn’t want to be a queen at all. It’s your fault I’ve gotten into this. If you hadn’t tricked me into claiming the land, I’d be in Tucson right now and away from all of this.” The sting of what he’d done, binding me to the Thorn Land, still itched within me. I wasn’t sure if I could ever forgive him for that.

“Not true. You’d still be here, moping around while your lover receives gifts for his child, just as you are right now. And men like the young Rowan prince would still solicit you because whatever other titles come and go, you will always be Storm King’s daughter.”

“I don’t really want to be that either.”

He spread his hands out, palms up, in a gesture of helplessness. “That I cannot change. All I can do with that is help you to develop the powers you inherited, but you’ve already refused my aid there.”

I looked away. “I don’t need your help.” Aside from the grudge I held against him, I couldn’t shake the feeling that more of his “help” would result in me in his bed again.

He took a step toward me. “Have you been teaching yourself?”

I didn’t answer.

“You have been, haven’t you? Or trying to, at least. Odd, considering I distinctly recall you saying you were satisfied with the level of magic you’d reached through my training.” He smiled. “How is that going? Perhaps you’d like my help again?”

I jerked my head back toward him. Too much at this party had ground me down already, and his serpent’s tongue was the point that threatened to break me. “No. I don’t need your help. I don’t need anyone’s help, okay? I’m happy with what I’m teaching myself. If I advance, fine. If I don’t, fine. It doesn’t matter to me.”

He laughed, a soft and deadly sound that poured over me like honey. “Eugenie, Eugenie. You may lie to other people, you may lie to your kitsune, and you may even lie to yourself. But do not lie to me. I was the one who first taught you to control your magic. I’ve seen how you crave it, how you glow with the rush of that power. I know how it makes you feel because I’ve felt it too. I can see in those lovely violet eyes of yours how passionately you want to tap more of that magic. It’s consuming you.”

“As usual,” I said in a low voice that matched his own, “you’re imagining more than is actually there.”

“And you, as usual, are denying what is there, not to mention your own nature. You are what you are, Eugenie, and the sooner you accept that, the sooner you can begin doing great things.”

“This conversation is done,” I snapped, turning away.

Dorian’s hand closed around my wrist, and he pulled me toward him with an unexpected harshness. I don’t think he’d meant to do it quite so hard. I let out a small gasp as those fingers tightened against my skin. I wasn’t trapped by any stretch of the imagination, but for half a moment, I could believe I was. The painful restraint on my wrist sent shockwaves of heat through my body, and the scent of cinnamon drifted around me, standing this close to him. My breathing had grown heavy, and I willed it to slow down.

He hadn’t expected that reaction. A slight widening of his eyes showed rarely expressed surprise. Leaning his face toward mine, his thumb stroked the skin on my arm while the rest of the fingers maintained their hold.

“Just like old times, hmm? It seems you haven’t entirely lost your taste for restraint. Yet, like everything else, I’m sure you deny yourself that as well.”

“You think so?” I asked nastily. “You should try fucking Kiyo. Lots of restraint there.”

Amusement lit his face, contrasting with the dark desire in his eyes. “Since I’m presuming you don’t mean you finally bought him a leash, let me say simply that there is a big difference between allowing an animal to ravage you and allowing yourself to be ravaged. One is common. The other is art. It is planned. Crafted, even. Only capable of being done by a master.” His next words came out so conversationally, we might as well have been discussing the weather. “As it is, I’ve been planning out what I’d like to do the next time we make love. I think I want you to lie on your stomach, with your hands bound to the front of the bed. We’ll have to shift your hips up a bit, put you on your knees just a little, but otherwise you’ll stay prostrate, almost like you’re bowing in humble obeisance as I kneel behind you and take you.” He paused. “Unless you have other suggestions?”

I broke from his grasp and backed up, surprised to find I was shaking.

This was Dorian. The same dangerous, presumptuous, and scheming Dorian I’d first met months ago, no matter the sweetness and charm that poured off of him. He had no right to speak to me like that, not after I’d parted ways over his trick with the Thorn Land, not after I’d told him I wanted to stay with Kiyo.

And yet, he had once been my friend and my teacher and my ally in battle…and my lover. And as I stood there staring at him, I could imagine everything he’d just described. I could feel it. And, God help me, I wanted it. My whole body tingled with the arousal his words wrought.

“I have to go,” I said. It took two tries for my dry mouth to get the words out. “I have to find Shaya.”

He inclined his head politely. “Of course.”

I turned and walked away, but not before I heard him call after me.

“Eugenie? Don’t forget, if you change your mind, my offer still stands. For all things.”

I bit my lip so as not to retort and was so focused on maintaining control that I nearly ran into a woman heading in the direction I’d just come from. She was gorgeous, with red hair that stood out like bright flames against her fair skin. She wore a puff-sleeved dress that matched the sky blue of her long-lashed eyes and reminded me a little of Cinderella’s ball gown. Of course, Disney would have never allowed that much cleavage. The woman stepped gracefully aside, just barely avoiding a collision. And then, to my complete and total shock, she sidled up to Dorian and wrapped herself around him, pressing her lips to his cheeks.

“Ah, there you are,” he said happily. He returned the kiss-except, well, it was on her lips. And lasted awhile. With tongue.

I stood there, frozen, urging myself to ignore them and keep moving. Yet, I couldn’t. Dorian, seeing me still there, gave me one of his grander smiles. “Queen Eugenie, a moment. Have you met my charming young friend yet?”

That, of course, was one of Dorian’s more annoying habits. He knew perfectly well I’d never met her but enjoyed playing the innocent.

“I haven’t,” I said stiffly, crossing my arms over my chest.

“Queen Eugenie, may I present Ysabel, one of my subjects in the Oak Land. She’s been spending some time…in the castle.” I took the subtext to mean that said time was specifically being spent in his bed.

Ysabel bowed, giving me a polite “Your majesty.” Yet, when she straightened up, I saw the look in her eyes was anything but polite. There was a distinct hostility there, and it was directed at me. I was a bit taken aback until I realized what it was. Jealousy. This woman was insanely, adamantly jealous of me. She pressed herself closer to Dorian, almost possessively, her hands roaming over his body in the way that was so commonplace among their kind.

“A pleasure,” I replied. I turned around to leave again, having no desire to watch Ysabel grope Dorian. If she wanted to make me jealous, she was wasting her efforts. Dorian and I were finished. There was nothing more between us, nor would there ever be again.

“Dorian’s latest lover,” Shaya explained later.

“Yeah, I kind of figured that out.”

“My understanding is that he went an astonishingly long time without a consort ever since…” She didn’t finish. She was referring to when Dorian and I had been involved.

“How long is a long time?” I asked.

“Mmm…a couple of weeks.”

“A couple of weeks after we broke up? That’s a long time?”

“For King Dorian? Yes. I believe she’s his fourth since then, but she bears a distinct resemblance to all the others.” Shaya looked at me meaningfully.

“So?” I asked, not getting the point.

“Always fair skinned. Always redheads. Violet eyes are harder to find, though, so he’s settled on blue.”

It took me a few moments more to catch on. “Wait. Are you saying Dorian’s been taking lovers that look like me?”

“It could just be a coincidence,” she said diplomatically.

“Jesus Christ,” I said, suddenly freaked out. Had I really made that big of an impression on him?

Shaya paused a moment, face thoughtful. “I don’t think Ysabel likes you very much.”

“I kind of figured that out too. She was trying to make me jealous.” Then, in case there was any question, I added, “But I’m not.”

“As you say,” replied Shaya, voice and face perfectly pleasant.

I couldn’t tell if she believed me or not, but it didn’t matter. I knew the truth. I really wasn’t jealous of Ysabel and Dorian.

Well, not much, anyway.

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