Read The Princess Who Tamed Demons Online

Authors: J. Kirsch

Tags: #romance, #murder mystery, #magic, #political intrigue, #survival, #fantasy mystery, #assassination plot, #multicultural relationship, #queen detective, #scholar detective

The Princess Who Tamed Demons (2 page)

BOOK: The Princess Who Tamed Demons
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"Divide and conquer," I said, flashing my best
I promise not to get into trouble
grin.

Drake's eyes narrowed, but he knew better than
to do anything stupid, and talking his wife out of something she
was excited about
definitely
fell under that
category.

I was fully aware that Drake and I socializing
as separate entities would come across as scandalous to many of the
gentlemen in this kind of crowd. And yet…well, this may have been a
diplomatic mission which called for some sensitivity, but diplomacy
went
both ways.
The Great Amir and his subjects might as
well understand that if they valued the friendship of the Black
Kingdom, they would have to meet us part-way. Besides, the
troublemaker in me was looking forward to ruffling some feathers
and maybe obliterating a few patriarchal assumptions. A girl could
hope.

I sauntered ahead to the left of the fountain,
spotting my first victim—a weathered Tajmari merchant wearing the
obvious all-white robe and turban. He sported a bedraggled beard
which was almost as snow-white as his outfit. The man's eyes
widened as I boldly approached him and reached out my hand for him
to bestow his kiss in the time-honored Tajmari way. He bowed
stiffly, gently kissed my hand, and then stood up again, his eyes
darting to my husband's figure even as Drake disappeared around the
other side of the fountain. When it finally sank into his head that
I would have no male escort, I gave him my winning
smile.

"I am Queen Najika of the Black Kingdom.
Pleased to meet you." The man managed to look thin and beaten by
the elements without seeming frail, which was no small feat. He
also recovered admirably from my ambush. His pale gray-green eyes
sparked with intelligence as he repositioned his cane to support
himself more formidably, all the while appraising me much as a
shepherd might examine an approaching wolf.

"I am Harith. This humble merchant does not
often see women of your stature out on public display, Queen
Najika. Your reputation does precede you."

"Oh? Which part?" I had fought several battles
and vanquished an ogre-queen in personal combat. If he seemed
uneasy, I had a pretty good notion of why. But it wouldn't hurt to
hear him say it. Inside I was grinning ear to ear. I enjoyed seeing
him rattled. If that made me a terrible person, they could make it
a capital 'T'. I hadn't missed his jab about seeing me 'on public
display' either. To traditional Tajmari such words were a
calculated insult.

Good thing I wasn't traditional. Or
Tajmari.

"What do you mean?" I prodded.

"I only meant that, unlike many women, who
grow their families and care for them, you seem—how shall I
say?—more preoccupied with the affairs of warfare and statecraft.
One hopes that your husband, Lord Drake, finds the time to woo you
to the attractiveness of the more domestic but no less important
feminine virtues. I am sure that bestowing a proper heir on Lord
Drake would be every bit as valuable to the prosperity of your
Kingdom as the use of your other talents, would it not, my
Queen?"

The bastard had gall and could hold his own, I
had to give him that. His insinuation made me want to respond, and
heatedly
. I bit my tongue, vowing not to give him the
satisfaction.

Instead I laughed "Oh really, Harith! At your
age perhaps I too will see the sands of time as running faster than
they truly are. I am young and there is
much
I hope to
contribute before 'growing' my family, as you so delicately put it.
Who knows, a Kingdom or two might find itself transformed long
before my belly swells with child. Anything is possible, wouldn't
you agree?" My eyes twinkled with a combination of challenge and
mischief. He wisely backed down. Soon enough he was feigning
interest in a superbly sculpted manticore perched on a distant
table of appetizers. My eyes lingered for a moment on the beckoning
appetizers of every color, shape, and texture as I let him mumble
his excuses with a polite nod of the head.

I let him go. There were plenty of other fish
in the sea, and I planned to gut them one by one. After Harith, I
systematically progressed my way through quite a few tongue-tied
Tajmari officials—nobles, government clerks, barons, bigwig
bureaucrats, and a few other merchants who lacked Harith's mettle
and weren't used to conversing with a woman who hadn't had her
self-confidence reshaped like a piece of badly warped metal. After
some spirited verbal jousting with a sizeable number of shocked
males, I finally glanced toward the other side of the vast hall.
Although the feasting hall was broken up into three adjacent
chambers using partitions of flowing silk, there were gaps in the
partitions which allowed me to see Drake's formidable figure now
and then advancing toward the dais of the Great Amir and his wife,
nearly parallel to me.

You've had your fun, Najika. Time
to regroup.

Just when I was sure I would reach the dais at
about the same time as Drake, a soot-shrouded shadow of a man
blocked my path. He had an angular face, a nose that reminded me of
an oversized rat, and his eyes had this sharpened quality, the kind
you might expect when looking into the gaze of a restless beast.
Before I could say anything he took both of my hands, kissing the
back of each in turn before letting them drift back to my sides. He
then cocked his head and stared at me with an emotion I couldn't
quite place.

"So
you
are the girl originally from
the White Kingdom. The girl who killed her first husband and then
wedded another to call herself a Queen. How difficult it must be,
not knowing your place, foundering this way and that, putting
yourself in the center of conflict and usurping the role of a
strong husband. Tell me, is this the life you think will bring you
happiness?"

How did you explain in polite company that
your first husband had been a monster who tried to beat you and got
exactly what he deserved? Not to mention, I was too distracted by
his appearance to fully register his verbal karate chop. The
black-robed man had two tattoos, one etched along either cheek.
Each curved in the shape of a tall tree with gnarled lower branches
and sharp, elegant limbs swooping from its peak. I couldn't
remember the tree's name, but it was the rarest and most cherished
tree in the Gold Kingdom. I fought to recall it, trying not to let
my frustration show.

"Forgive me, Sir. You seem to have me at a
disadvantage. You know who I am but I do not know you."

Rat Face bowed and then took my hands again,
daring to bring them up for a set of cloying kisses.

"I am Ghayth, ossaqa of the Mosque of the Twin
Moons."

I had just met my first Verse-preacher, one of
the religious teachers who ran their own schools, had their own
followers, and oversaw their own temples like tiny fiefdoms right
under the Great Amir's nose. The Gold Kingdom may have looked like
all the other Kingdoms of Arkor on paper, with a supreme
Knight-Lord ruling over all. But the reality was another story, a
dicey one at that, and the arrogance in Ghayth's eyes proved it.
This was a man who feared very few, and I was not one of
them.

I tried to take a step back, but his hands
clasped mine more urgently.

"Forgive my opening outburst. I was overcome.
I only meant to say that although you are impressive in many ways,
if the stories are to be believed, that still does not hide what
you lack."

As if that made it any better. Humph.
"Overcome? By what?" My eyes narrowed as he seemed to look at me
with genuine regret.

"You are gorgeous and enthralling enough to be
sung of in the Verses." The Verses. I ransacked my brain. They were
the holy texts which the Verse-preachers used to control…err, to
'teach' their faithful.

"Yet my beauty is apparently not worthy of
being shown," I countered. "You would have me veil it and walk
around beneath a shroud like most of your women." I was being a
little too forward here.
Be
subtle, Najika. Use your
non-abrasive words.
Verbal jousting was one thing, verbal
assault quite another.

The man who called himself Ghayth looked
intently at me and his hand dared to reach up and brush a stray
hair behind my ear.

"Your beauty is most certainly worthy of being
shown, Lady Najika. If the djinn walked this land again, even
they
would be jealous of your perfection." His eyes
smoldered. "And if my heart weren't already pledged, I would
certainly welcome a wife such as you, one who could advise me with
an intellect as nimble as the fox of the desert." His good humor
abruptly dimmed. "But I would keep you as my own. No man but
I
would look on your face, your perfection. You would be a
treasure, and some treasures men are not meant to share." He seemed
to be trying to penetrate my soul with his stare now. "
Women
are especially such a treasure, Lady Najika. The Verses say so
without question."

"These Verses you speak of…I have not read
them," I admitted, buying time. His stare unsettled me. His
fervency made me uncomfortable. Here was a man with power who
seemed used to taking what he wanted, and the way he looked at
me….

He either wanted to kill me or make love to
me, and option number two sounded like it involved the slow death
of dwelling in a gilded cage.

"You should read them. The words of the Two
Creators might find fertile ground inside your heart, if you would
but open your thoughts to their sacred meaning. It is not too
late."

"Too late for what?" I said, holding back a
snort and a retort. "To save my soul?"

Ghayth shook his head. "No. To find
happiness." Happiness? Did this chauvinistic ass actually think
that women circumscribed into these narrow roles, these
diamond-encrusted prisons, were
happy
? Maybe he was just
that deluded. Too bad men with delusions could be as dangerous as
anyone else. More so, in fact.

I gasped as he took my wrist and drew my arm
to him, placing my hand over his heart.

"You and I come from different worlds, Lady
Najika. But know this—just as you may think it your role to
'educate' the 'backward' people of Tajma, I see in you a mind to be
won over. Let the battle of ideas begin, my beautiful Queen.
Remember this, though. Battles tend to spill across borders, and
ideas do not always like to be caged. The passion of belief does
not allow it, and according to the Verses neither do the Two
Creators."

I wanted to ask Ghayth more about these 'Two
Creators' he spoke of. I knew some of the basics about Tajmari
belief, but only the essentials, and there was so much that
outsiders didn't know. As dangerous as Ghayth was, to me he was
like an exotic predator, one I hoped would become endangered and
extinct, but not before I could understand the fascinating horror
of how something like him had managed to come into
being.

Curiosity
could
be a weakness, and
right now it was mine.

"I…."

"Do you feel the beating of my heart? That is
like the steadiness of true faith. The Verses have not only served
me, but served my grandfather's grandfather, down through the ages
of my ancestors. That sacred pact, that relationship has made us
quite strong. Strong not just in our beliefs, these so-called
'outmoded' traditions your people have such contempt for, but in
what we know we can achieve. With the Two Creators to aid me, there
is nothing that can intimidate me. Even your beauty and reputation,
Lady Najika, are like wisps of gauze trying to deny the full glare
of the sun. Sooner or later you will learn that this land is ours.
You will become one of us, you will flee us, or…." He let the
sentence hang, his mouth settling into a thin line.

"Or what?" I jerked my hand back, shaking it
as if heat had seared it.

He shrugged, his eyes cooling. "Or you may die
stirring up things that a foolish outsider has no right to stir
up."

"Is that a threat?"

"Threats come in all shapes and sizes, Lady
Najika. Take it as you will." He dipped his head in my direction.
"Now if you'll permit me, I must go. I will detain you no longer.
Enjoy your evening." He strode away through the crowd, robes
swirling between the dense presses of bodies in the feasting hall,
parting people in his path like a force of nature. I hated that
man, so why was this gnawing sensation in me whispering something
different?

You admire him. His certainty. You wish
you
could have that
.

I snapped out of it with difficulty, turning
to head toward the dais and still distracted by the aftereffects of
Ghayth's obnoxiousness. Ten to fifteen more steps and I would be
back at Drake's side. The conversation for the evening was about to
receive a major upgrade.

I had hardly taken two steps when something
with mouse-like agility bumped into me. I wobbled, nearly tripping,
steadied myself as I saw Reshi gaping at me as if he had nearly
destroyed a priceless artifact.

"Forgive me, Mistress Najika. You forgot this
in your room." The impeccably dressed servant boy handed me my
wedding ring, the metal band and its runes flashing in the light. I
gasped, ashamed that I had forgotten it. I was slipping it on my
finger already as I spoke.

BOOK: The Princess Who Tamed Demons
2.47Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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