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 (3 page)

BOOK: The Princess Who Tamed Demons
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"Thank you, Reshi. That was very thoughtful of
you, and kind." My hand immediately felt the comfort of the ring's
weight, as if it held some secret enchantment. I didn't recall
taking it off. How weird.

"It is nothing, Mistress. Please, be safe. Do
avoid the darksea trout and do not imbibe too much either. We
servants see that too often, and then people say things they regret
and make fools of themselves. It is a bad business, and the more
important the person, usually the worse it is." I had seldom heard
Reshi string so many words together. Looking at his delicate face
with the somber-looking eyes trained on me like a loyal hound, I
felt that he had somehow adopted me and vice versa.

"I will see you in the morning, Mistress." I
thought of something after he'd slipped into the crowd, turning to
reply. When I whirled to see where he had gone though, I noticed
that he had already nearly reached the silk partition between the
central and the eastern banquet halls. A walking shard of night
blocked my view of him at just that moment—one of those damned
Verse-preachers garbed in his oh-so-original all-black—and
, Reshi was gone, as if the Verse-preacher's voluminous
robes had swallowed him up.

I felt uneasy again, though whether it was the
jitters from my impending introduction to the Great Amir and his
wife or something else, I couldn't truly say. Tomorrow I would
thank Reshi properly for braving the feast halls to find me. He did
deserve a reward, and something a little more substantial than
spiced candies, decadent as they were. There were rarities from the
Black Kingdom that Drake and I had brought to give as gifts to the
various dignitaries. Perhaps we had enough extra to spare one for
Reshi, and if we gave one to Reshi then surely we could spare one
for Daeshka too. If we could only—

"This glamorous creature is your wife? How
disappointing!" I heard Tyrziel Amir's booming voice, and looked up
into a fat face with a double chin and mirth-filled, watery

"Disappointing?" I nearly stuttered, mortified
at my lapse in awareness. Had he just insulted me? Apparently my
feet had been moving toward the dais quicker than my mind accounted

"Yes, disappointing! Now I will have to tell
everyone that the women of the Black Kingdom are as flawless as any
Tajmari beauty, sparkling not unlike our finest jewels." His grin
broadened as I realized that what I had assumed was an insult was
much closer to a honey-tongued compliment. I inclined my head with
respect as he kissed my hand and then introduced me to Lady Caerra,
his Queen. Although I could tell he was making artificial pains to
be courteous, his eyes did contain a sincere likeability. I sensed
that, whatever his capability for deception, his happiness at our
arrival here was genuine.

We feasted long into the night, making toasts
and clinking goblets as the acrobats and the musicians created a
feast for our eyes and ears to match the one prepared for our
stomachs. The night seemed to dwindle all too quickly, like sand in
its hourglass, and after three hours at the table the Great Amir
and Lady Caerra were ready to retire…at least

"Will you come with me to my sitting room?"
Lady Caerra whispered. I could tell that she wanted to ask me more
about my Kingdom, which to her might as well have existed on a
separate continent. Being equally curious about her, I was suddenly
alert despite the social fatigue starting to set in.

"Why not? The night is still

"Hmm? I do not follow." Oops. I was using an
idiom that didn't have any meaning in the Tajmari dialect. I tried

"I am still wide awake. I would love to join
you, Lady Caerra."

"Excellent!" Lady Caerra clasped her hands
together like a popular schoolgirl who had just decided who would
be allowed to attend her secret party. "Come along then. The men
can sit by the hearth and talk of their
hunt planned
for tomorrow." Her fingers fluttered dismissively. "Pointless
pursuit, if you ask me. Why kill something when someone can kill it
for you? We have royal hunters who can sweat like pigs in the sun
so we don't have to, but Tyrziel, ah, my husband always feels the
need to play the role of virile conqueror, whether it truly suits
him or not."

Lady Caerra's banter and avid wit tugged me
along as much as her hand on my arm, her chatter pausing just often
enough to be polite. I glanced back Drake's way, giving him an
apologetic smile. In return I saw a surprising wealth of meaning in
Drake's expression. He waved at me with a shy grin.
Go have your
girl-talk. Gossip to your heart's content
he seemed to say
wordlessly, happy that I was getting along so well with the Gold
Kingdom's Queen.

When we reached her sitting room, Lady Caerra
had wine brought up. The room was small, 'cozy' was probably the
right word. The length of it had been gilded with colorful ceramic
tiles which brightened the room like harnessed rainbows. Sculptures
lunged form the walls in lifelike magnificence. Gryphons, dragons,
eagles, wyverns, even giant bats….

"I am so fond of winged creatures, birds of
flight. My husband had the dazzling Orellio Truve sculpt the
marble. Are they not gorgeous enough to stop your

"They truly are eye-popping, my Lady." Since
she had reigned as a Queen far longer than I had, I addressed her
with proper respect.

She clucked at me. "Please, call me Caerra. We
are away from prying eyes and ears." Before I knew it, she was
explaining to me the history of the palace's architecture, which I
feared would be wasted on my ears. Architecture had
been yawn-worthy to me—I could still remember my tutor's lectures
as a little girl like a form of torture—but then Lady Caerra
sprinkled in tidbits that had me reassessing my

"And they say, you know, that the fourth tower
of the palace is haunted. I myself have seen a pale figure walk the
nearby halls at night." I didn't know whether to believe in spirits
or not, but I did remember my maid's ghost stories as a child. The
thrill of fear pricked my scalp, and I leaned closer, taking
another sip from the wine glass the servant had filled.

"Have you ever heard it speak?"

Caerra shook her head sadly, as if the spirit
was some long-lost friend. "It never does say a word, not even a
moan to be honest. And whenever it turns a corridor and I follow
it, it's gone. Not a trace! Some dust disturbed, nothing

We talked for a long while, and she turned her
interest from history to me, asking me a barrage of questions about
the Black Kingdom. What did we eat? How did our castle compare to
their palace? What did the people wear, women especially? All these
questions I tried to answer to her satisfaction, no easy feat, and
soon we roamed to politics and more personal matters. But something
began to bother me as the night wore on. I began to feel drowsy,
which seemed odd because I had been very moderate about my
drinking. Two glasses of wine, maybe three over the course of two
to three hours in the sitting parlor. My head swam, and suddenly it
seemed incredibly heavy on my shoulders.

"Lady Caerra…."
Najika, stand up! Go find
Something was definitely wrong. Wine never had this
effect on me. No wine should. I tried to move. My feet felt like
doorstops, my legs like mortared bricks. The wine had tasted odd,
but then again, it wasn't a vintage I had ever tried before. I
swore off even another sip, trying to ignore the fog in my brain as
Caerra said something which came across as ridiculously funny to

No, wait. This wasn't right at all. No wine
would do this…unless it had been drugged. I couldn't keep my eyes
open. I drifted down, down, and the floor rushed up to meet


Chapter 2

Day Two

The early morning sun bathed the lower half of
the desert mountains in brilliant gold, but I wasn't in a position
to enjoy the view. The sandy soil churned under my hooves, and the
call of the hunting horn behind me gave every muscle and sinew a
renewed sense of urgency. Last night I had lost consciousness in
the palace of Sir Tyrziel Amir, Knight and overlord of the Gold
Kingdom. I should have been safe. Drake and I were visiting him as
a diplomatic duo, firming up what we hoped would be a new alliance
between our Kingdoms.

And yet somehow in the intervening hours
between last night, when I'd feasted with Lady Caerra and the Great
Armir, and this morning, I had become something other than Queen
Najika of the Black Kingdom. I was no longer Najika at all,
apparently. I remembered the wine in Caerra's sitting room putting
me to sleep. I remembered opening my eyes and thinking it strange,
the way the world was shaded in hues of gray, the color drained
from everything. Suddenly I had felt unsteady legs—four of
them!—underneath me, and realized with horror that they were

This was not a dream, and I didn't have time
to internally debate the matter either.

I was being hunted. It didn't take a prophetic
genius to know that much. Shortly after recovering from the worst
of my disorientation I had seen knights on horseback pounding down
the distant slopes around the palace in my direction. How I had
gotten out here on these windswept sands, I had no clue. I jerked
back, looking at my pursuers. They wore leather armor instead of
plate, supple and better tailored to the swift entertainment which
most adult males seemed to find so enthralling—the hunt. Their
warhorses also revealed them for what they were, and whatever doubt
I'd had swiftly ended when the first arrow whizzed by my
fur-covered flank. I had bolted and kept running ever

The horn blew again as I charged into the tall
grass of the oasis in front of me, my hooves immediately plunging
into several feet of water. I heard also the baying of the
hounds—remembering the giant mastiffs with their lolling tongues
who usually slept in Sir Amir's great hall. The thought of their
jaws around me sent me into a panic, nearly making my legs flail
and tangle in the underwater stalks of grass.

Despite the fear shivering through my veins I
forced myself to a measured pace. I carefully lifted my hooves,
moving with an exaggerated step to keep them from getting mired in
the oasis' vegetative muck. The taller reeds temporarily hid me
from view, giving me a false sense of security, but I knew how
little it would achieve. I had hunted before with my husband,
Drake, and I knew that the hounds would be able to tail my scent

I struggled onto the embankment on the far
side, welcomed by more rocky soil. A desert plateau rose in the
distance and I ran toward it, knowing that it looked far, far
closer than it actually was. I ran for it in part because I had no
better goal in mind. At least my sense of sight was keen as my
animal limbs tattooed the earth with a steady drumbeat. I was
lithe, agile, and despite being the prey in this appalling farce,
my legs rippled with muscles and stamina.

Soon I was putting serious distance between
myself and the coterie of hunters. With the preciously bought time
I tried to answer for myself what was going on.
Who did this to
you, Najika? What do you remember?
It was hard to really think
back to last night, and being trapped in this animal body with its
different instincts and senses created an extra barrier distracting
my attempts at memory.

What I
remember was Lady Caerra,
the Great Amir's wife, inviting me to have a late evening drink
with her. We'd talked of various things in her artistically
rendered treasure of a sitting room, and we'd planned to end the
evening by walking out on her balcony to view the manmade waterfall
in the Queen's botanical gardens, then to admire the moonlight
shining on the chrysanthemums.

Despite my guarded tendencies, I'd found
talking to her deceptively easy. I'd opened up to her, and she
seemed to talk just as frankly with me about what our Kingdoms had
in common. About how her Kingdom, being on the edge of the desert
with a history and customs much different than most, had also been
treated coldly by most of the other Kingdoms. Somehow we'd strayed
from politics to more titillating topics, too. I might have
blushed, recalling some of the things we'd spoken of, including our
husbands' preferences in the bed chamber.

Perhaps the wine had been flowing too freely
by then, and thinking back on it, that probably wasn't helping my
recall. What I did seem to remember, vaguely, almost like an itch I
couldn't quite pinpoint, was that the wine hadn't tasted quite
right. At the time I'd chalked it up to the Tajmari climate.
Growing grapes in the drier soil didn't produce the same taste as
the lusher hills of the Black Kingdom's valleys. But with hindsight
I was more suspicious now, and part of me
, like an
animal knew instinctually right before it was to be slaughtered,
that whatever insidious effect had transformed me, that wine had
been the delivery system for it.

I heard two horn blasts, each one coming from
a different direction. They were trying to cut me off, to
manipulate which direction I could flee. I changed course,
zigzagging to confuse their pursuit, but there was only so much a
woman—or in this case an antelope—could do with only scrub and
cactus to cloak her.

BOOK: The Princess Who Tamed Demons
11.54Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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