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“Damn it,” I muttered to Dorian.
He simply squeezed my hand tighter, his smile growing bigger. I wasn’t afraid of Ysabel, not at all. I didn’t think for an instant she could hook Dorian back in, and magic-wise, she was no match for me. She’d actually helped teach me control of air and wind – her specialty – and I’d quickly surpassed her. Nonetheless, she was sharp-tongued; I was certain dinner with her would be an onslaught of snide and passive-aggressive remarks. Rurik’s blunt nature made him good at throwing out barbs of his own, so I was hoping he might assist me.
Once we sat down, though, I soon learned Ysabel wasn’t the only one I had to worry about. Other nobles of no consequence were there, but a new face took precedence. Her name was Edria – and she was Ysabel’s mother. She had an attractive, matronly look about her, though her hair and eyes were dark. Ysabel was blue-eyed with rich auburn hair that made her stunning. Ysabel’s body went a long way to contribute to her allure as well. What the two women definitely had in common was a crafty, sly demeanor that told me both had few scruples when it came to furthering their own interests. And it was clear that my being with Dorian was not in their interests.
In public, gentry etiquette dominated, and Edria was the picture of politeness. “Your Majesty, it is an honor.”
“Thank you,” I said, settling next to Dorian on a very cozy and ornate love seat. It squeezed us together, something I knew he didn’t mind as his eyes continued to rake over my body. Our legs were so near each other’s that I made the concession of letting mine drape slightly over his. Our seat was pulled up close to the table, so the long, heavy tablecloth hid this boldness on my part – as well as the hand he rested on my thigh.
“I’m surprised to see you here, Your Majesty,” said Ysabel demurely. With the way her breasts practically spilled out of her dress, I wondered how I could have felt self-conscious about my tight bodice. “I thought you were busy managing your land and your … human matters.”
“It’s not surprising at all,” remarked Rurik, just before reaching for a giant drumstick. He took a huge, savage bite, but waited until he swallowed before continuing with the next remark. It was an improvement on past manners. “She and my lord can hardly stay away from each other.” I smiled at the use of “my lord.” Even after Dorian had sent Rurik to serve me, the soldier still thought of Dorian as his master.
“Of course,” said Edria, rushing in when Ysabel’s expression turned frosty. “It’s just, from what we’ve heard, you aren’t interested in these types of functions. Indeed, I hadn’t expected to meet you in such … lovely attire.”
“Very lovely,” said Dorian. He’d dragged his eyes from me at last and gestured for a refill on his wine.
I didn’t necessarily like having my appearance discussed – even if the discussion was positive – but praising me gave me a boost in status. “I’m surprised you were surprised,” said Rurik, this time speaking with his mouth full. Well, we could only expect so much progress. “Everyone’s heard how beautiful my lady is. Men far and wide want her, but of course, she would only accept the best for her consort. As would my lord.”
From Rurik, this was almost charming, but not to the mother and daughter duo. “My understanding,” said Edria delicately, “is that more than your, eh, looks add to your appeal. You and your lady sister are both valued for your future children. I can already see she has a number of suitors.”
I glanced across the room at Jasmine, sitting by Shaya. Jasmine had a genuine smile on her face, but whether it was from being out and about or because of the men who had gathered and seemed to be paying her compliments, I couldn’t say. I forced away a frown.
“My sister and I have no intention of having children,” I said, turning back to my companions.
“How unfortunate,” said Edria. Her eyes darted ever so slightly toward Dorian. “How unfortunate for everyone.”
“Your Majesty,” said Ysabel, “have you met my children?”
I flinched in surprise. I’d forgotten she had kids. Mother and daughter might insinuate that the prophecy was half of my attractiveness, but I knew that Ysabel, after losing her husband, had come to Dorian’s court seeking a powerful man through the use of both her beauty and her fertility.
I followed her gaze toward a small table by the fireplace. Most of its occupants were young. It was like a kids’ table at Thanksgiving. I hadn’t seen many gentry children and could make a good guess at Ysabel’s progeny based on their red hair. She confirmed as much.
“That’s my daughter, Ansonia.” In human years, I would have pegged Ansonia to be about ten or eleven. Her brilliant hair was piled in braids on her head, and she was giggling at a puppy that kept nudging her feet, undoubtedly seeking handouts. “Beside her is my son, Pagiel.”
He was a serious-looking young man, contrasting sharply with his laughing sister. Relatively speaking, he looked a little older than Jasmine. His red hair was darker than Ansonia’s, more like Ysabel’s, and his blue-gray eyes regarded the puppy’s antics critically, as though deciding if he approved. At last, a tiny smile appeared on his face, transforming him and making a couple of nearby girls his age sigh adoringly.
Ysabel had clearly pointed her children out as a slam against me, yet I caught sincere affection in her eyes as she regarded the two. I’d always thought her coming to court to push herself off on some guy was bordering on prostitution, but there was more to the story. Her husband had died, leaving her family in financial trouble. It made her actions more understandable, though I still thought she was a bitch.
“Children are such a joy,” said Edria, looking at Dorian again.
I looked at him too as he gazed at Ansonia and Pagiel. Long study had taught me that his eyes held the secrets to his true feelings whenever he wore that lazy, mysterious expression of his. And now, hidden in those green depths, I could see the glint of admiration and longing. A strange feeling welled up in my stomach, and for the first time, I could honestly believe Dorian wanted kids with me just for the sake of parenthood and no other agenda. I felt unexpected guilt over this.
As though reading my thoughts, he turned his attention on me. His smile warmed me, and whatever wistfulness his eyes had betrayed was replaced now with love – love quickly mingling with lust as he took in my appearance again. In fact, his desire seemed even stronger than it had been when I first entered, and I suddenly wondered if he’d make a serious attempt at exhibitionism after all. But no, with a deep breath that seemed to summon his control, he respectfully looked back at his guests.
Yet, under the table, I felt the hand on my thigh tighten, his fingers sliding over the smooth silk of the dress. Chills ran over my flesh, but I also politely kept my attention on the others.
“It was amazing how easily Ysabel conceived her children,” Edria continued. “If poor Mareth had lived, I have no doubt they’d have a dozen by now.”
I considered pointing out that if Ysabel was so fertile, then she would have surely gotten pregnant when she and Dorian were lovers. It seemed in bad taste to me, so I said nothing. Such topics weren’t out of line for gentry, however, and Rurik again jumped in to defend my honor and point out exactly what I’d been thinking.
“But you’ve been with others since then,” he said. “And you haven’t had any more children.”
Dorian’s hand began skillfully gathering the fabric of my dress’s skirt so that it rose up my leg, soon bunching up and exposing my thigh altogether so that his fingers now touched bare skin. I had a feeling he wasn’t paying much attention to the conversation anymore, despite a very convincing look of interest as he kept his eyes on everyone except me.
Ysabel glared at Rurik. “I haven’t had that many lovers.” Promiscuity wasn’t an insult among gentry, but in this case, playing down her sex life was intended to explain why she had no other children.
Meanwhile, Dorian’s hand had moved to my inner thigh, slowly and carefully moving up so that he betrayed nothing to the others. When he reached my underwear, his fingers stopped, as though pondering this obstacle. I’d picked something thin and lacy, mostly to be alluring for later bedroom activities, but it apparently proved convenient now. He gripped the edges, braced a moment, and then jerked so hard that the fabric ripped. In the noisy room, no one heard, and I just barely swallowed a gasp. I gave him a small glare that he either ignored or didn’t see. I suspected the former.
“Sometimes the gods simply wait for the right opportunity – or rather, the right man.” Edria’s eyes darted to Dorian who smiled at her winningly. His chin rested in the hand not under the table, his elbow propped up. “Clearly, Mareth was the right union then, and I’m sure the gods will smile approvingly on Ysabel’s next husband.” Her tone and look left no question about who that would be.
Rurik snorted in disgust. “I believe the gods have their hands in our affairs, but they’re not interested in every detail – certainly not what goes on between the sheets.”
Or under the table, apparently. Dorian’s fingers, now with free access, slid all the way up between my legs. Whatever disapproval I wanted to convey was contradicted by how wet he found me. The inane smile he was giving Edria changed to something a bit more smug. With well-practiced skill, one of his fingers began stroking me, immediately finding the spot that ignited me and burned with pleasure. My heart rate sped up, both from arousal and from anxiety that someone would notice.
Then, as though wanting to flaunt his audacity, he actually managed perfect conversation while still working to get me off. “Well, if Ysabel wants a new husband, we can certainly arrange that. I have a number of nobles who’d be happy to take her as a wife – or even a consort if she didn’t wish to be tied down yet.”
The teasing fingers between my legs had now set the rest of my body on fire. I felt my nipples hardening and regretted the thin silk of the dress. Fortunately, no one seemed to be paying attention to me, though that might change, seeing how quickly I was building to orgasm.
Dorian’s suggestion wasn’t what Edria had wanted to hear, and the grateful expression she put on was clearly forced. “You’re too kind, Your Majesty. But it would be so wasteful to give such a fertile woman to some minor lord. Surely a gift like Ysabel’s deserves … royalty.”
The aching, tingling ecstasy created by his touch was ready to explode. And to my chagrin, I wanted it to. It was a need I had to have fulfilled. Completed. So, it was a shock when his finger moved down from my clit, sliding into me instead. It created a different kind of pleasure, but the move was frustrating, considering how close I’d been. I spread my legs slightly, giving permission for him to return, but he continued thrusting his finger into me. His motions grew harder and faster, but only the slightest movement of his body gave any sign of what he was doing, and no one seemed to pick up on it. There was something thrilling, something dangerously erotic about knowing he was doing this to me with so many potential witnesses.
“You’re right,” Dorian said, face turning serious, as though he was truly considering Edria’s words. “And I know a couple of kings who might be interested. Rurik, do you remember … does the Lotus King have a consort?”
“I’m not sure,” said Rurik, clearly enjoying Dorian’s game. “He’s the one who has the gray streak down the middle of his beard, right? And the slightly pointed ears?”
“That’s the one,” replied Dorian.
And then, without warning, Dorian’s finger – so, so wet now – slid out and returned to my clit with such fierce rubbing that I came almost instantly. I’d been ready and aching, and that touch was all it took to push me over. My body twitched as waves of bliss radiated through me, and Dorian continued to stroke me, long after it was needed. At last, he pulled away and even went so far as to neatly pull my skirt back before returning his hand to his own lap.
A very pleased smile tugged at his lips, though his attention was all on Ysabel. “Would you like me to make an introduction?”
Her expression was cold, her response stiff. “You’re too kind, Your Majesty. I’d hate to inconvenience you.” I hadn’t paid much attention to her but realized now that she’d been paying attention to me. I was pretty sure she was the only one at the table who realized what had happened – and she wasn’t happy about it.
“No inconvenience at all,” he said. “I’ll see what I can arrange.”
Edria went out of her way to move conversation away from her daughter being hooked up with someone who wasn’t Dorian. I barely heard any of it, and when dinner finally ended, I returned with Dorian to his room. My post-orgasm languor gave way to anger almost the moment he shut the door behind us.
“What the hell do you think you were doing?” I exclaimed. “You had no right to do that!”
Dorian made a scoffing noise as he carefully removed and folded his heavy cloak. “You didn’t seem to mind. Besides, you’re lucky that’s all I did, what with you showing up without warning in that dress.”
“Hey, I don’t have to consult you on my fashion choices.”
“No, but you should expect consequences.” He moved swiftly toward me, hands moving to my waist. “It was only out of respect for your silly human prudishness that I didn’t just take you openly. Really, you should be grateful.”
“Grateful?” I exclaimed. I sounded outraged, but in truth, the closeness of his body was arousing me again. Jesus. It was like I was always in heat.
“Grateful,” he said, a glint of fierceness in his eyes. “Especially after the favor I did you. A favor you now need to repay.”
The hold on my waist went tight, and he pushed me down onto the bed. I could easily have resisted – we both knew who’d win in a hand-to-hand fight – but I was more than willing to play this game, particularly when he swiftly pulled off his pants and showed the long, hard erection that had undoubtedly been ready to burst the moment he saw me in the dress.
I was still wet from earlier and desperately wanted to feel him in me, thrusting as hard as he had with his finger. But to my surprise, it wasn’t my legs he went for. Instead he came forward and knelt, one leg on each side of my head, and pushed himself between my lips. I made a sound of surprise at this, a sound muffled as he filled my mouth and began sliding in and out.
He was so big, I could barely contain him. He knew and seemed to exalt in it, his eyes holding mine as he forced my mouth to pleasure him. “You can take it,” he said, pumping steadily. “You will take it. I told you: you owe me.”
It was rough and fierce, but we both knew I didn’t mind when Dorian played dominant. Besides, this change in our sex life was kind of a turn-on. Gentry, while not opposed to oral sex, almost always preferred intercourse because of their obsession with children. Somehow, the thought of him exploding in my mouth, on my lips, drove me wild.
I could feel him swelling, see the lines of tension as his climax grew closer. His lips parted slightly, a small moan escaping. Then, just as I was certain he would come, he pulled out and shifted his body down and deftly pulled off my dress. With a tight grip on my legs, he pushed my thighs apart and thrust into me with a hardness that made me cry out and arch my body. It was only a few seconds, hard and fast, and then he came, his whole body spasming as he released himself into me, proving he still had the usual gentry urges.
When he was finally spent, he collapsed beside me, sweating and panting. I found his hand, my own body exhausted for different reasons than his. I rolled against him, kissing his neck and tasting the salt of his skin.
“I thought for sure you’d come in my mouth,” I murmured, letting my finger toy with his nipple.
“Wasteful,” he murmured, running a hand over my hair.
“Is it?” I pushed myself up, looking down into his eyes. I kept my voice low and dangerous. “Are you saying you wouldn’t like that? Letting yourself come in my mouth, filling it up, forcing me to taste you … swallow you? Or maybe you want to come on me? Spread yourself all over me?”
There was a slight widening of his eyes, a rekindling of his desire. He gave me an enigmatic smile. “Maybe. Maybe next time.”
I gave him a playful push. “Tease.”
He yawned and took off his shirt. “It’ll give you something to wonder about and look forward to, something more cheerful than the battle’s outcome.”
“What battle?” I asked. I’d been feeling tired too, but his words jolted me to alertness.
“Tomorrow,” he said. He shifted me off of him so that he could pull the covers over us and then took me back into his arms. “I received word earlier about some Rowan movement tonight. I’ve sent an army to meet them, and I’ll join them myself in the morning. It’s near my villages at the river’s bend. I think Katrice hoped to take them by surprise, but a spy tipped me off.”
“Which army did you send?” We had them divided into units.
“The first and third.”
“Both?” I exclaimed. “That’s huge.”
He shrugged. “So is hers. We have to answer in kind. Besides, those villages are crucial. They supply a lot of food – to both of us.”
I repressed a shiver. Those villages were full of civilians as well. Dorian’s civilians, farmers and fishermen who could have been looted and killed if he hadn’t gotten the warning. He and I were allies, but again, I couldn’t shake the guilt of my own people being in danger over this dispute – let alone his.
“I should go too,” I murmured. “I should help.”
Dorian stroked my hair. “No need to put us both at risk. Besides, don’t you have more mundane human tasks?”
Yes, I’d promised Lara more jobs tomorrow. “They’re not as important – not like this.”
“Only one of us is needed,” he said firmly. “Honestly, probably not even that. We have good leaders, but the fact that one of us always shows up boosts our armies’ confidence – and demoralizes hers. She won’t set one dainty foot near the battlefield. So stop fretting. We’ll take them. We have greater numbers.”
He kissed the top of my head and took my silence as acquiescence. Soon, I felt him sleep, with that ease so many men possessed after sex. Not me. I was a longtime insomniac, and this was the kind of thing that could keep me up all night. I was tired of the armies endangering themselves. I was tired of Dorian endangering himself. I wanted the killing to stop. Kiyo had acted like it was so easy. If only that were true.
After a while, I gave up on sleep altogether. I slid out of Dorian’s arms and got up from the bed. Knowing my party would stay overnight, I’d packed casual clothes but nothing more. Searching through his wardrobe – twice the size of mine – I found a thick green satin robe. It was way too big but served fine as a cover-up. I left the room, needing to walk off my thoughts.
The castle halls were silent now, all the revelers having gone to bed. I walked barefoot along the stone floor, trying not to trip over the too-long hem. A few stationed guards nodded as I passed, murmuring, “Your Majesty.” I’d long ago learned that while some of my human behaviors would always baffle the gentry, most of a monarch’s actions – no matter how bizarre – weren’t questioned. No one thought much of me wandering around in Dorian’s robe.
I reached a set of glass doors that led out to one of Dorian’s exquisite courtyards. I knew it’d be chilly there, but sitting outside suddenly seemed like a good idea. Another guard stood there watchfully and opened the door at my approach. I knew this courtyard and knew where a gorgeously colored mosaic-tiled table stood in the corner. It was dull in the night, but as I sat in a chair, the spot gave me a good view of the garden and the thick stars above. Flickering torches set on poles were scattered around, just enough for guidance but not enough to ruin the night’s charm.
The beauty and peacefulness soothed me a little but couldn’t shake away my worries about the war. I’d spent so much of my life fighting that I’d thought I was immune to blood and killing. I now knew there was a very big difference between an individual kill and death en masse. One – usually – had a point. An individual kill punished the guilty party. Armies dead on the battlefield punished no one except the innocent.
“My lady Thorn Queen?”
I jumped at the hissing voice that spoke to me from the darkness. At first I saw nothing and wondered if I had a ghost on hand. Then, a dark shape materialized from between some trees. It came closer, revealing a wizened gentry woman. She was small, shorter than Jasmine, but her white hair was thick and lustrous, her clothing rich. She came to a halt before me.
“Who-who are you?” I asked. My words came out harsh, mostly because of my surprise.
She took no offense. Again, a queen’s behaviors weren’t questioned. “My name is Masthera.”
I shivered, not from the night’s chill. There was something unsettling about her. “What are you doing out here?”
“I’ve come to speak with you, Your Majesty. You’re worried about the war. You want to end it.”
“How do you know that?”
She spread her hands out. “I am a seeress. I sense things that are, sometimes things to come. I also offer advice.”
This chased a little of my fear away. “Seeress” was a fancy way of saying “psychic,” as far as I was concerned. When you dealt with the supernatural as often as I did, you ran into a lot of so-called psychics. Most were frauds, and I suspected that was as true among gentry as humans.
“Have you come to offer me advice?” I asked wryly.
Masthera nodded, face grave. “Yes, Your Majesty. I’ve come to tell you how to end your war – without any more bloodshed.”
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