Iron Crowned Excerpt

Iron Crowned (Dark Swan #3)

UK: 31st March 2011
US: 22nd February 2011
“We didn’t need your help,” I said.  “We were doing just fine.”

The fox was no longer there, as I’d already known.  It had transformed into a tall, muscled man, with deep, golden-brown skin and black hair that barely touched his shoulders.  He was a kitsune, a shape-shifting Japanese fox from the Otherworld.  Actually, he was half-kitsune.  His mother had been the kitsune; his father a mortal from Arizona.  Power-wise, it made little difference.

“Yeah,” said Kiyo, crossing his arms over his chest.  He needed no coat and simply wore a burgundy t-shirt.  “You seemed to have it all under control.”

“We were about to,” I retorted.

“Actually, mistress,” said Volusian deadpan.  “Your death was probably imminent.”

“Oh shut up,” I snapped.  “You’re dismissed.  Go back to the Otherworld.”  Volusian vanished.

I turned back to Kiyo.  “What are you doing out here anyway?”

He shrugged, and I worked hard to ignore the effect his physical appearance always had on me.   

“Same thing as you.  I’m on Wil’s mailing list.  When I heard about the Bigfoot sightings…”

I sighed and turned back the way we’d come.  “I don’t need your help.”

“I wasn’t coming to help you.”  He caught up with me easily.  “I was coming to kill a demon bear.  You just happened to be here first.”

Considering the trouble Volusian and I had had, I doubted Kiyo could have taken out the demon through brute force.  Kiyo was strong, yeah, but hardly all-powerful.  Unfortunately, he was all-bravery.  He rushed into impossible situations, ready to defend others—even at cost to himself.   

He’d always been reckless that way—except for once.

And that was the core of our problems.

Kiyo and I used to date, wrapped in a deeply romantic and physical relationship.  His continual disapproval of my Otherworldly relations had begun to fracture things between us.  The final break had occurred after Leith had raped me.  Kiyo had come to rescue me but had refused to punish Leith.  Kiyo had advised a tamer course of action: letting Otherworldly justice take its course.  Dorian, however, had opted for on-the-spot justice: he’d run Leith through with a sword.  Kiyo and I had broken up shortly after that.

“You were outclassed,” I told Kiyo.  “There are a billion other creatures running loose right now.  If you want to help, go after them.”

“Ah, yes.  I forgot,” he said.  “Tucson’s former caretaker is too busy playing queen.”

I came to a halt and glared.  “I’m not playing at anything!  Controlling the Thorn Land wasn’t my choice, and you know it.”

“That’s true.  It was Dorian’s choice—one he tricked you into.  Yet, somehow that doesn’t matter, and now it’s okay for you to shack up with him and wage war.”

I started moving again, marching through the woods in a haze of anger.  When we’d broken up, Kiyo had been sad and withdrawn.  Over time, he’d gotten his spunk back and now—whenever we ran into each other—didn’t hesitate to express his opinion of Dorian, the war, or anything else Otherworldly I was involved in.

“The war wasn’t my choice either,” I said at last after refusing to respond for several minutes.

“Stopping it wasn’t exactly out of your control either.”

“So what are you saying?  That I should just stop now and surrender?”

“No.”  His calmness was annoying.  “But there must be a peaceful way to end it.  To negotiate something.”

“Don’t you think we’ve tried?” I exclaimed.  “How bloodthirsty do you think I am?  Every diplomat we send is either given unreasonable demands or met with death threats.”

“I like the use of ‘we.’  I wonder how seriously Dorian is taking the peace process.”

I could see the parking lot through the trees ahead.  Good.  I needed to be away from Kiyo.  His presence was stifling.  It stirred up too many feelings, too many feelings I didn’t want to deal with.

“Dorian isn’t running this by himself.  We’re in it together, and we have tried to settle with Katrice.”

“And as that’s failed, you’re now going to march in with your allies and take her land with overwhelming force, expanding your empire.”

We reached the gravel lot, and now I turned on Kiyo in full anger, hands on my hips.  “We don’t have any allies.  And I don’t want another kingdom!  I sure as hell don’t want an empire!”

He shrugged.  “Say whatever you want, but everyone knows you’re looking for people to join up with you.”

“And Katrice is doing the same,” I said smoothly.  “I hear she’s visited the Willow Land quite a bit.”

Ah, that broke him.  Kiyo’s smug, cool façade faltered.  “Nothing’s decided,” he said stiffly.

“But your girlfriend’s no fan of Dorian and me.  She’s afraid of us.  How long, Kiyo?  How long until she—and you—fight against us?”  I was gaining ground; he was on the defensive.  He and Maiwenn the Willow Queen had once been lovers; they’d even had a daughter together.  I’d never believed their “just friends” claims since the break-up.

He took a step forward, leaning toward me and fixing me with that dark, dark gaze.  “She’s not my girlfriend.  And we’re staying neutral.”

I gave a shrug as masterfully casual as the one he’d given me earlier.  “If you say so.  And I like your use of ‘we.’  Except, you don’t really have an equal share in it, do you?  You just run along and follow her orders.”

“Damn it, Eugenie!”  He clenched his fists.  “Why do you have to be so—”

He couldn’t finish, and as we stood there, so close, I became aware once more of his body and the memories of our time together.  I remembered what that body could do in bed.  I remembered the way we’d laughed, how easily we’d connected.  The Otherworld consumed so much of my time lately, but I was still half-human.  The human part of me called to other humans.

And as he looked down at me, the anger softening a little, I had a feeling he was thinking the same thing.  If he had any lingering attraction, the animal attributes in him would make this doubly awkward.  My physical appearance would trigger sexual attraction that much more quickly.  Even my scent could arouse him.

He looked away.  “Well.  None of that matters.  You should go home.  You’re freezing.”

“I’m fine,” I said automatically, like I wasn’t shivering and covered in goosebumps.

“Of course you are.”  He glanced back at me, a small, wry smile on his face.  “Be careful, Eugenie.”

“With what exactly?” I asked.


With that, he shape-shifted back into a fox—a smaller, normal one—and scampered off through the trees.  Naturally, he was too hardcore to have driven up here.  Suddenly feeling weary, I got out Tim’s keys and turned toward the car.  I’d done what I needed to, that was what counted.  I didn’t want to think about Kiyo or war or anything like that.  I wanted to go home and rest before the next job.

A tingling along my spine made me drop the keys as I felt an Otherworldly presence appear behind me.  I spun around, pulling my wand back out as I did.  There, before me, was a ghost.  It was female, looking like she’d died in her mid-thirties.  Her translucent form washed out any color, but her hair was curly and shoulder-length, her clothing casual.  Seeing a ghost outdoors was rare; they tended to be attracted to material things.  Still, location didn’t matter.  They were dangerous.  I pointed my wand at her, banishing words upon my lips.

“Wait, don’t!” she cried, holding up her hands.

Pleading ghosts weren’t uncommon.  “Sorry.  This isn’t your world.  You need to move on.  It’s for the best.”

“Please.  Not yet.  I need to talk to you, Eugenie Markham.”

I frowned, wand still poised and ready.  “How do you know my name?”

“Because I’ve come to ask for your help.  I need you to find out who killed me.”

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