The Queen’s Crown – K. M. Shea

Here’s the thing about grief and betrayal: you think you’re over it, or at the very least that you’re managing it, and it will slam into you all over again. I was sitting in my assigned seat at the massive table, attentively listening and fulfilling my role as the fae representative for the Regional Committee of Magic. This was the third meeting I’d taken part in—which was pretty unusual because it was barely midJanuary, and I’d just gotten sworn in at the beginning of the month. But we’d had the first meeting of the year, which was basically just to wave our hands and pretend we had goals, and an emergency meeting, and now this was the first planned meeting I got to actively participate in. We were on our last item of the meeting—approving a new recruit to the supernatural task force the committee had founded last year. I was dutifully reading the recruit’s resume as I listened to her answer a question from Killian, when raw grief decided to show up for the fun. Rigel’s gone. It’s been nearly two months; he’s not coming back. He really did try to kill me. The thought ripped my heart in half, and tears stung my eyes—even though I was tired of crying. After all these weeks you’d think I’d be over it. That he tried to kill me wasn’t shocking. Rigel was a fae assassin. The first time I ever saw him he tried to kill me. But I’d thought we’d become friends of a sort, and because of his neutral stance in the Night Court, I’d asked him to marry me, and he became my consort.

That was when I turned total idiot and fell in love with him, sometime between when he defended me from shadow monsters and stayed up with me when I couldn’t sleep at night. It still wasn’t certain that he set up the trap between our rooms that had nearly killed me, but it was absolutely obvious that he’d disappeared from my life, leaving me with a broken heart. The abrupt wave of grief swirled in my chest, and I felt physical pain from it as I stared unseeingly at the recruit’s resume. Don’t cry, don’t cry, don’t cry . I should be over this by now. I am over this. It’s not worth crying over—I don’t love him anymore. But I did. That was one of the unique things about being half fae half human. Fae couldn’t lie, but as a half blood I could—I could even lie to myself.

It’s fine. Everything is fine. I scowled down at the resume as tears heated my eyes. Pretty soon they were going to slip free, and I’d ruin the makeup Indigo had applied on me this morning. Not today! I straightened my back and abruptly swiped the black handbag that leaned against the legs of my padded leather chair. I yanked a fistful of papers from its depths and slapped it down on the table. I’d learned early on that work was an excellent distraction, particularly when I was stuck out in the open, like I was now in the committee meeting. I blinked away the tears as I started reviewing the new budget numbers my accountants had sent me. I checked over the expenditures with a grimace. When I’d first been dumped—unwillingly—with the job of Night Queen, the Court had been teetering on the edge of bankruptcy.

Things were better now, but we were still trying to pay off the debts previous monarchs had made, and I was running out of things to sell. Grief stabbed me through the heart, and the faint reminder that the fae I loved—my husband—had abandoned me was a bitter taste in my mouth. But I could feel the painful sensations start to fade. They wouldn’t go away for good. They’d just lurk at the back of my heart and surface when I least expected and least wanted it. In the meantime, I’d use the necessary monotony of reviewing numbers to beat it back. I worked my way through three pages before Killian Drake called my name. “Apparently hiring a recruit isn’t crucial enough for our lovely fae representative to pay attention. Queen Leila, are you working on private work, again?” I looked up from my sheets and peered across the horseshoe shaped table, where Killian Drake—Eminence of the vampires—sat as the vampire representative on the Midwest Regional Committee of Magic. His red eyes flashed, and with his dark hair he looked like the handsome and brooding vampire humans often depicted in their books and TV shows—except he was about a thousand times more lethal.

“I wouldn’t have to work on my own stuff if you stopped asking her questions and just approved her recruitment,” I blandly said. Most people were afraid of Killian, but I walked a fine line with him since my parents lived next to his ginormous mansion, and I was good friends with his wife. Yeah, it’s a small world. Killian smirked. “But Queen Leila, this recruit happens to be a vampire slayer! I think my detailed concern is understandable.” I ruffled through my papers. “Yeah, except she says in her resume that she’s been trained as a vampire slayer, but not employed,” I said. Killian raised his eyebrows. “A slayer is born a slayer—practicing or not—it’s an inherited bloodline.” Here was the thing about supernaturals, we came in a lot of flavors.

The ones who really ran the show—AKA the ones who sat on the Regional Committees of Magic across the world—were the fae, vampires, wizards, and werewolves. But in reality there were tons of different shifters—everything from dragons to werecats—and there were lots of different fae—from humanoid nobles like myself all the way down to pixies and trolls. Wizards were another special case—they were humans with the ability to use magic. Most typically they could use elemental magic, and they swore fealty to a specific wizard House. But there were offshoots of wizards—like werewolf hunters and vampire slayers. Slayers and hunters came from specific family lines, and they inherited specific magic traits that your average wizards didn’t have. Traits that made them ideal killers for their specific targets. Which was why Killian was putting on a show about this recruit. I glanced at her, but she didn’t seem rattled. She stood with an almost military-like precision, her shoulders straight and her hands clasped behind her back.

When Killian glanced at her, she spoke. “I am a slayer—and I come from a slayer family. But given the low demand for our particular set of skills, I have trained to handle all supernaturals.” “And you applied for the police position because?” Killian asked. “Because I want to protect,” she said. “I want to defend the humans and supernaturals who can’t fight for themselves.” Killian narrowed his eyes. “That sounds very noble of you. How disgusting.” The slayer in question—Jade, according to her resume—didn’t even blink at Killian’s comment.

Rigel would admire her stoicism. Pain flooded my heart again. Contemplating how I could best ignore the shivering sensation in my chest, I glanced down at my accounting papers. “If we could retain your attention, Queen Leila, I would feel ever so honored,” Killian drawled. “Killian,” Hazel growled in warning from where she crouched behind Elite Bellus. Since the wizard rep sat a few spaces down the table from me, Hazel, as his protegee, sat with him. Hazel—Adept Hazel of House Medeis—was my friend, and also Killian’s wife. Naturally this made the dynamics on the committee unique, and it had also severely freaked out the werewolves and fae, because now the vampires and wizards were a lot more likely to team up. To humans, we supernaturals appeared to get along. And I guess we did, sort of.

It was more like supernaturals agreed not to fight one another—we had enough problems already since magic was dying out; we didn’t need to add more issues. But as a rule, supernaturals didn’t work together. We stuck with our own kind and struggled to survive as magic continued to fade, leaving us scrambling as we tried to figure out what was wrong and fix it. Killian and Hazel had changed all of that when they fell in love. I’d tried to change it in my own small ways, too. “As the fae representative it is vital that Queen Leila participate in our meetings so she might accurately represent fae interests. Even in matters as small as hiring officers for the new task force,” Killian said. I sighed and slapped my fingers on the tabletop. “I wouldn’t have to bring work from home if you were efficient and said what you meant instead of being all vampire-y mysterious and asking a dozen questions you really don’t care about.” Killian looked at me with interest.

“Exactly what are you saying, Queen Leila?” “That these meetings are dead boring, and they’d be at least an hour shorter if you got to the point faster,” I said. Pre-Dominant Harka, the werewolf representative on the committee, made a choking noise, her eyes wide as she gaped at me. Hazel, however, stood up. “Well put! The wizards support this statement by Queen Leila.” “No, no.” Elite Bellus, her boss, stirred in his chair. “Although Queen Leila is very clever, we do not—in fact—officially condone her statements!” Hazel rolled her eyes, but when Killian winked at her from across the table, she glared at him. “Very well. I suppose I can hurry things up.” Killian abruptly swiveled his chair to face Jade again.

“Up until now you’ve worked with your family—which has been contracted by other communities to help clean up supernatural problems. Why are you leaving your family?” I blinked in surprise. That…is actually a really good question. Jade slightly ducked her head, acknowledging the question. “My family is interested in carrying on with their contracts and allowing things to continue as they are. While I enjoyed working with my family, I believe that supernaturals can accomplish more together.” “And you believe that can be done here, in Magiford?” Killian asked. “Yes.” “Why?” Jade met the vampire’s gaze. “Because of the marriage of you and Adept Hazel Medeis.

” “I see.” Killian sank back in his chair. “Very well, then. I make a motion that we vote on approving the new hire.” “Seconded,” I said. Jade’s employment was unanimously approved, and the meeting ended pretty fast. I gathered my papers and carefully slid them into my oversized handbag. I grabbed my empty coffee cup and tossed it in the trash bin by the door of the meeting room, where Indigo was sitting with a few Curia Cloisters aides. “Ready to leave?” I asked. Indigo peered up at me from behind the black frames of her cat eye glasses.

“I’d say yes, but I believe someone wants to talk to you.” She flicked her eyes behind me. “Leila!” Hazel hustled across the room, making the ponytail her blond hair was gathered in swing. “I won’t keep you, but I wanted to thank you again for your help with my pony.” She really had to crank her neck back to look at me since she was barely five feet tall when wearing heels. “I love her more and more every day.” “No problem. Helping Killian pick it out was the highlight of my month,” I said, truthfully. Seeing the deadly vampire surrounded by fuzzy ponies had been hysterical—especially because he’d been meticulous about picking out the perfect one. He’d gotten it as a wedding gift for Hazel when they were married in early January.

He had claimed she said she wanted one, but even though Hazel was pretty stoked with the gift she’d been so confused about it that I was pretty sure it was a misunderstanding. “You should drop by Drake Hall the next time you’re at your parents’,” Hazel said. “So you can see the pony—and we can have frozen wedding cake! I went a little overboard and ordered too much for the reception. We had to convert one of the fridges for the blood bags into cake storage.” I grinned. “Sounds great.” “Excellent! Let me know when to expect you. Then I can make sure we’re there and not at House Medeis. But I won’t keep you any longer, have a great day!” I waved to the firecracker wizard as she zoomed off—this time zeroing in on Jade, the new hire. I glanced around the meeting room.

I should be a good fae rep and mingle, but I just wanted to go home and either see my pets, or sink into my huge bathtub that was almost big enough to swim in. “Okay, Indigo,” I said. “Let’s head home.” “I’ll text Azure to let her know to pick us up at the front door.” Indigo typed away on her cellphone. I was touched to see she’d put on the blue Doctor Who phone case I’d gotten her for Christmas—even though Indigo was a brownie, she adored human entertainment. Superheroes, Lord of the Rings, Doctor Who, she loved it all. Actually, she’d become my companion—a paid position that basically meant she was my zookeeper—because she wanted the salary to buy more merch. “Thanks.” I bumped the door open and held it for her as she typed away.

As a brownie, Indigo was slender and petite. Stretching at her tallest, she was maybe waist-high to me, though when she threw her thick russet hair up in a bun it added a few inches. Right now she had it loose. It dripped over her shoulders, and her bangs brushed against her glasses. She impatiently pushed it over her shoulder as she put her phone away. “She’ll be waiting for us.” “Thanks!” I tried to sound bubbly—there was no sense burdening others with my grief, it wasn’t like they could make Rigel appear or magically make it so he hadn’t tried to kill me. But I might have come on a little too strongly, because Indigo suspiciously peered up at me. “Do you want to stop at King’s Court Café for one of your blasted coffee drinks?” She shuddered in horror—as a fae, Indigo was a diehard tea drinker and abhorred coffee. “That is incredibly tempting, but it’s almost five in the afternoon.

I’ll be up all night if I drink any now.” I pointed to a fancy pendulum clock as we passed by it, navigating our way through the Curia Cloisters—which was basically like a magical town hall, except it served the whole Midwest. “A fair point,” Indigo said. “We’ll just have to have snacks when we get back. I made unicorn cupcakes before we left.” I almost immediately started drooling, and had to swallow hard when I heard someone call my name. “Queen Leila?” I turned around, surprised to see a middle-aged man—a human—standing in the middle of the hall. Judging by the keycard that hung from the lanyard tucked into his sweater vest, he was a Curia Cloisters employee. “Yes?” I smiled at him, hoping he didn’t have more paperwork for me that I needed to go over. Why did no one warn me about the huge amounts of red tape and paperwork I’d have to deal with as part of this fae rep gig? He nervously shifted.

“If it’s not too much, and if you don’t mind…that is…” Indigo raised her eyebrows at him. “Yes?” she prodded. “Could I take a picture with you?” He awkwardly held up his phone. “My daughter thinks my job is boring, but she’s a huge fan of yours. If I can get a picture with you…” he trailed off again. “Of course. Here, let’s take a selfie.” Since I was a couple inches taller than him— thank you, fae blood—I took the phone, switched it to the right set of cameras, then stretched my arm out in front of us. “Say Night Court,” I joked. “Night Court!” he said.

I took a few pictures for him, then passed the cellphone back. “Thank you!” He beamed at me. “Of course! I hope this earns you some points with her.” I waved, and—feeling kind of awkward—edged my way down the hallway. “It will,” he assured me. “Thanks again!” He bowed to me, then looked down at his phone—probably going through the pictures I’d taken. Feeling oddly shy, I hurried down the hallway at double the speed. Indigo had to jog to keep up. “You know, you’re the only fae monarch I know of who frequently gets stopped to take pictures.” “I’m also the only fae monarch who goes out into society with the rest of the world,” I said.

“Give yourself some credit—it’s more than that,” Indigo scoffed. “You’re practically a local celebrity given how frequently you’re trending on social media.” “It feels weird,” I said. “Like I’m an imposter or something.”

.

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