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 (6 page)

BOOK: The Princess Who Tamed Demons
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I know, what a cheery tale, right? As a little
girl I don't think that I got to listen to the same stories as most
girls my age.
No wonder you aren't normal, Najika.
But all
that aside, my father's words each time he finished that tale had
etched something in my mind.

Hatred is an ulcer, Najika. It
will eat at anything of value, not just the bad. Better to discard
it when you can, even when you have bitter enemies.

As I woke up from my fitful sleep, stretching
my arms wide, I asked myself the simple question—was that the
lesson I needed to heed in the here and now? Because I had to
admit, this hatred I felt for Agwen didn't do what I'd originally
believed it would. At first I thought this hatred was the solution
to my fear, that it would speed up my recovery. Now, though, as I
felt it almost impossible to focus on anything but the need to see
Agwen and throw her failure in her face,
now
I wasn't so
sure. I felt more entrapped than empowered.

But I couldn't discard that heated fury even
though I knew it was counterproductive. If only logic could have
banished my emotions so easily….Too bad life didn't always work
that way. I sat up and did an internal status check, taking stock.
I soon discovered that the pain had lessened to a distant ache, and
then only when I was actually up and about trying to move too
quickly. It had been three days since my near-death experience
while in the form of an animal. Three days of being cooped up, then
force-fed soup and foul smelling potions which the hook-nosed
healer had assured me would 'purge my system.' I wanted to purge
his
system.

Physically I wasn't in top form, and
emotionally? Emotionally I was exhausted. Despite it all I was
still determined to escape this one-room prison. I smelled less
than fragrant too, and that gave me an idea. Even though Bronwyn
and Drake had been hovering over me like a pair of overprotective
mother and father demons, there were certain things any
reasonable
person had to provide for a person in
recuperation. Relying on an assumption I hoped was right, I knocked
lightly on the sturdy oaken door to my 'cell.' A palace knight
dressed in the livery of Sir Amir's elite personal guards peeked
his head in. His breastplate had the emblazoned mark of a sunburst
with three stars above it, the symbol of the Gold Knight's royal
family. He had a neatly shorn black beard and deep-set midnight
eyes to match it. His skin had a dusky, sun-weathered look to it,
as if he'd seen one too many long campaigns. Although his skin
looked cracked in places, he couldn't have been much older than
thirty-five years of age.

"My Lady Najika, how may I be of service? You
are to return to bed and rest."

I frowned at him, trying to decipher the
contradiction in those two sentences side by side.

"Which is it? Oh, and might I at least have
the courtesy of knowing your name?" I was used to the other palace
knights by now and could recognize most of their faces. This
stiffly formal man was an enigma.

"I am Sir Pheru, Overseer of the Palace
Knights. I have strict instructions not to allow you to wander, my
Lady. I hope you will forgive me. My Lordship and yours were
equally insistent."

Great. So if Drake was the warden in this
well-intentioned prison, I'd just met his right-hand man. Time to
put my assumption to the test.

"Pleased to meet you, Sir Pheru. Believe me
when I say, I don't plan on wandering. What I
do
plan to
accomplish is a calm, rejuvenating bath. I request that you escort
me." My tone made it clear as I offered him my arm—this wasn't so
much a request as a command. He looked at my more than a little
bedraggled appearance, scanning up and down before bowing
stiffly.

"As you wish, my Lady. I will take you to the
Queen's personal bath chamber and inform the servants to bring you
fresh towels, linens, soaps, combs, fragrant oils—anything you
might require. Will that be amenable?"

Amenable? I almost planted a huge kiss on the
knight's face in gratitude, willing to overlook his scratchy beard.
Instead, with a sizeable effort of self-restraint I gave Pheru a
subtle nod with a polite smile to bolster it.

"Yes. That would be most welcome. Please, lead
on." I tried to sound sufficiently regal. I was still not
accustomed to the formalities of queenliness, and I seriously
doubted I ever fully would. Still, it didn't hurt to
practice.

Sir Pheru led me down one hallway to the next
and the next. The walls were all alabaster-white, like most
structures in Tajma. It resisted the sun's heat as well as anything
could under the constantly blazing sky. As we walked I admired the
full-length mirrors on the ceiling above. The walls to each side
were the real feast for the eyes, however. There the detailed maps
of the Gold Kingdom's landmarks and provinces had been painted to
emulate masterpieces from some of the more talented cartographers
in all of Arkor. It felt good to be distracted by some of the
beauty around me, even though describing maps as 'beautiful' would
have had some people giving me an odd look.

Soon we were at our destination, and I offered
Sir Pheru my hands in the Tajmari custom. He took each of them and
kissed the backs of them reverently, standing stiffly afterward and
giving me his sober attention. Part of me wondered if he ever did
smile.

"My Lady, please wait here while I have the
servants prepare the bath for you."

"Yes," I murmured, looking away. The way he
stared at me, like an injured bird, made me
uncomfortable.

He turned and was about to walk away at the
same brisk pace all knights seemed to adopt, then turned abruptly
back instead.

"Sir Pheru?"

"Lady Najika, although it is not my place to
say such things, I will say them anyway." He took a fortifying
breath. "I am very glad that al-Sham's plot failed and that you are
safe." His eyes darkened, going distant for a moment, as if he
visualized his hands around the Vizier's neck, tightening and
squeezing. Finally his focus came back to me. "Your safety and
security will be my utmost concern for the remainder of your stay,
Lady Najika. Please do not hesitate to come to me for any help
whatsoever, though I may not know everything, certain feminine
topics included"—he had the modesty to blush now, and I couldn't
help myself from responding with a shy grin. "I do pride myself in
knowing those who
do
know of such things, and most of the
women servants have more wisdom between their ears than many of my
headstrong knights. You will be looked after as if you were the
Queen herself, if you so desire it. That is my promise to you, even
though I am officially in the service of his Lordship and Ladyship
only."

I took his meaning properly. These words were
meant for me alone, and not to be repeated. He could be reprimanded
for making promises he wasn't permitted to give. If all of it
seemed overly rigid or stratified, the precarious foundations for
power in all the feudal Kingdoms demanded it. I nodded and
whispered my thanks, watching him depart until I realized that I
was chewing on my lip—a decidedly
un
-queenly habit I hadn't
yet weaned myself off of.

I turned to admire the imposing doors of Queen
Caerra's bath chamber, emblazoned with her distinctive motifs.
Their panels were carved with silver butterflies, golden foxes, and
lush vegetation outlined in filigree gleaming all the shades
ranging from watery moonlight to burnished topaz. Two servant girls
opened the ivory doors, bowing and scraping even as I yearned for
the informal friendships I had with my household staff back home.
The servants were both beautiful young women, their hair pooled
intricately atop their heads with a honey-colored comb and pins to
hold the elegant monstrosities in place.

"This way, Lady Najika." Each of them spoke
like cultured mice, discernible but meek in all mannerisms. I
wondered what their lives were truly like as they ushered me into
the bath chamber, and wished I could be candid with them as I would
with my own servants back at Castle Crag.

I gasped then as the beauty hit me like a
refreshing breeze on a scorching day. Four large stained glass
windows on the east wall reduced the sun's light to a softer
greenish-gold glow which still managed to sweep through the room
like a purifying aura. I stepped over to the marble steps, my mouth
still open in awe, eyes wide at this best kind of
surprise.

In the Black Kingdom we had large tubs which
the servants heated singly. Here though,
this
was a
different beast. I looked around, a question mark apparently drawn
across my face. This 'bath' was more like a pool or a small lake,
half the length of a grand audience chamber and just as wide. The
servant who had spoken earlier picked up on my surprise right
away.

"My Lady, there are thermal vents beneath the
palace. The palace's chief engineer has created a system by which
we can divert water from the nearby river and efficiently heat it
at the proper time. I am sure that his Lordship or the Queen could
tell you more."

"Thank you. I will have to ask." I spoke
faintly, too distracted to pay full attention to my words as I
stripped out of my rumpled clothing, snagging a nugget of
melon-scented soap from one of the baskets along the bath's thick
marble railing. I descended the gold-veined marble steps, groaning
as the scalding water climbed up my knees, to my waist, eventually
all the way up to my shoulders. I dunked my head in the water,
sputtering and feeling the weight of the world vanish for a few
precious heartbeats even after I came up for air. My hands smoothed
back my long, dripping hair and the sound of the water trickling
reassured me for reasons I couldn't quite put into
words.

I was about to begin lathering myself up with
the soap when a hand touched my shoulder. I stiffened, chest
heaving as panic spiked.

"It's me, Najika." Drake's big hand gently
rubbed away the taut muscles in my right shoulder, and his other
hand went to work fervently on my left. It still infuriated me that
he could move with such liquid grace, and so damned silently! Or
had I just been inattentive? Either way he had scared me
three-quarters to death. I opened my mouth to berate him, but the
words died in my throat as he gently took the soap from my
hand.

"May I?" His hand, poised with the soap,
perched above my shoulder.

"I suppose."

He guided us toward the shallower end of the
pool, near the water's edge, and I stifled a loud groan of
contentment as his hands began soaping my shoulders and back. His
hands continued to cover new ground with devastatingly luxurious
strokes. The servants had left, and we were completely
alone.

"May I?" His tone was a little less innocent
this time, and I saw that the soap in hand now hovered above my
chest, still glistening after being submerged in the
water.

"If you absolutely can't control yourself," I
said, throwing him a look. I pressed my back against his chest as
he soaped up the front of my torso as gingerly as he'd done my
shoulders and back. His massaging, caressing, muscle-melting hands
worked on me like a genius sculptor knowing exactly where to touch,
where to reshape.

I found myself thinking back to the first time
we'd met, when I had been on the run from Queen Agwen. I had been
washing myself in a lake, and Drake had frightened me then too,
only much more thoroughly back then because he had looked
positively demonic with his full suit of shadow black armor and
carrying a great-sword adorned with the head of a dragon, its fangs
bared.

"A gold crown for your thoughts," Drake
whispered in my ear.

"It'll cost you at least two." I sighed,
melting further into his arms. "I was thinking about the first time
I saw you."

I heard Drake's chest rumble with more than a
little mirth. "What?" I asked.

"I'm just remembering the expression on your
face. You were naked and I was bristling in my full battle gear. I
had you at quite the disadvantage."

"You did," I said accusingly. "A true knight
gentleman would have
warned
a lady of his approach. You made
a scoundrel's impression that day. It felt good to reverse the
tables on you later, putting the edge of my blade against your
neck." I said it with a vicious note of glee.

"Technically it was not
your
blade. I
hadn't gifted it to you yet."

I snorted. Queens rarely got to sneeze or
snort, let alone be human. In public they always played the role of
'Lady,' all grace, perfection, and elegance. But here and now, here
with Drake, I could be myself.

Another rumble, and tiny tremors tapped
against my back. "Now what's got you so amused?" I
huffed.

"Oh, I was just marveling that even after our
rocky beginning, you eventually agreed to marry me."

"You do have a big sword," I quipped, and this
time we both laughed at my awful attempt at humor. He firmly rubbed
the tops of my shoulders, my head bobbing back and forth with the
movement while my neck and limbs sagged, loose and totally relaxed.
We lapsed into silence for some time, each of us immersed in our
own swirls of thought.

A lot had happened since our first encounter
at the lake. Just over a year, and somehow it felt like two
lifetimes ago. I sighed, dipping my neck as his hands caressed
spots he knew would scramble my senses. He seemed to have winnowed
the soap away and was just massaging now, more fervently attacking
every knot in my body. I had come into this bath to get
clean
, not to receive a full-body massage—and yet it was an
oversight I could forgive, if he was willing to keep this
up.

BOOK: The Princess Who Tamed Demons
6.19Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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