The Shadowed Crown: A Reverse Harem Epic Fantasy (Kingdoms of Sky and Shadow Book 2)

Chapter One

Himika

I didn’t want to see the look on Aurekdel’s face. But there was no hiding what had happened.

Aurekdel was my husband. Aurekdel had been crowned the king of the dragons. He was the one who was supposed to lift the curse of my fragile bones with his blood.

Now we all knew why it had failed.

“I suppose we have to tell him,” Seron said. His face was pale, with a resolve I couldn’t quite read.

“Seron…um…shouldn’t we talk about this?” I asked. “You healed me. You’re the true king.”

Oszin, the head of my guard, scratched his head. “Do you mean to say that you and King Aurekdel were switched at birth? Really?”

“I think we should wait to discuss this until Aurek gets here,” Seron said. He suddenly walked away from both of us, and crouched by the pool of water inside the rocky cave.

Oszin looked at me. I looked back at him with my eyebrows raised.

“What the hell?” Oszin whispered. “Switched at birth? Aurek and Seron don’t even look a thing alike.”

Truthfully, I didn’t know what to think. I had come to this strange underground world, of rock and crystal and shadow, under the pretense of marrying the man who would heal me. Aurekdel had ruled over the dragons since he was a little boy. His people adored him, and he was dedicated to his role, despite the blindness he had suffered as a child. At first I didn’t like him—he did have a whiff of arrogance, and on our wedding night, he had invited his loyal champion, Lord Seron, into the bedroom with us. Nevertheless, he proved to be a man who actually cared for my feelings and allowed me to choose a champion of my own as well. Oszin completed my trio of protective men.

However, Aurekdel’s seed didn’t heal me like the prophecy said it would. I had remained fragile as glass, unable to fight or produce heirs.

It was only now, when Seron and Oszin thought I was lost in the battle in the great swamp, that they lost control of themselves. They made love to me when Aurek wasn’t even here. This already seemed against protocol.

The moment Seron lost himself inside me, my entire body grew warm, an ecstatic feeling flooding me as my body filled with strength. I was still buzzing on it.

“Himika…” Oszin took my hand. “How do you feel, anyway? Are you really healed?”

I would never forget that moment, or who had given that moment to me. “I feel amazing.” I looked at my hands.

“Are you feeling any aches or pains? After effects?”

“No!”

He threw his arms around me. “Then, can I swing you around?”

“Yes! And you never have to ask again. You can swing me anywhere.” I winked.

He whirled me in a circle and the moment my feet touched the floor, I yanked on him, pulling him on top of me. My back pressed into a smooth rock, while patches of moss cushioned the ground. I suddenly felt like I could do anything. I kissed Oszin before glancing at Seron with concern. He was still crouched at the water, looking at his reflection.

“I don’t know what to do,” I whispered to Oszin. “Should I talk to him?”

“I already feel poorly equipped to deal with the business of kings,” Oszin said. “But he seems like he needs to think it over by himself. What about this other guy?” He glanced into the shadows where Ezeru, the rock dragon who kidnapped me, had gone to sleep alone. “Moth, you gave me such a scare. I was afraid you’d be killed or injured or worse.”

“Worse than killed?”

“Well…you know what I mean.” He gripped my arm. “I mean, if these traitor dragons assaulted you…”

“You can stop worrying about that now,” I said. “I’m going to learn how to protect myself. And Ezeru isn’t so bad. He didn’t really want to kidnap me. He just had to find a way to escape his own people. When he says he’s going to help us, I believe him. I know I used to be naive; maybe I still am. But I saw how tenderly he treated the other rock dragons. Compassion isn’t easy to fake.”

“Oh yeah? I hope not.” I knew Oszin would rather I not learn how to fight, but he didn’t say anything. He still looked a little worried. He was used to thinking of me as a fragile girl.

Aurekdel was the one who gave me fighting lessons even though we both knew there wasn’t much I could do. He understood how I felt.

Suddenly my stomach churned with worry over the whole situation. Aurekdel’s entire identity was wrapped around being the king, but he really wanted to be a warrior. His blindness weighed on him. He and Seron would never be able to switch places.

Seron could become the king, but Aurekdel could never be the champion.

Where would that leave my marriage? Aurekdel and Seron’s friendship? Or the dragon kingdom?

Some hours later, the royal caravan caught up to us. We heard voices approaching in the caves, and lights appeared around the corner. I saw Aurekdel approach just behind the royal guard, and my handmaiden Raia patted his arm excitedly and waved at us.

I was shaking with nerves.

He looked vulnerable here, in this unfamiliar place. At the same time, he was the king. No one would doubt this. He carried himself regally, projecting calm confidence, shaking off Raia’s attempt to guide him and tapping his cane around the guards.

“Himika!” he called.

“Here, my lord.”

He came straight to me and pulled me into a careful embrace, still mindful of my fragile bones. “Are you all right? What’s with this ‘my lord’ business? Who is with you? Seron…?” He turned his head to Seron, obviously aware of his precise location somehow or other. Maybe he knew Seron’s scent.

Then he paused and gripped my arms with both of his hands. “Something’s different.”

Before he said anything, I just knew he could sense that my bones were no longer made of crystal.

Seron grabbed Aurekdel. “We need to talk immediately,” he said in a low voice.

“Is my queen all right?”

“She’s fine.”

Aurekdel nodded, with a slight frown, and then turned to the other dragons who were crowding into the cavern. “Lord Seron and Guard Oszin have safely rescued the queen. We all need a rest now, so please make camp while Lord Seron and I have a private briefing. Do not disturb us. I need to understand how this happened.”

Aurekdel, still gripping my hand, started off down the pitch dark passage where Ezeru had settled in for a rest.

“Wait,” Seron said. “Not that way.”

“Oh?” Aurekdel stopped. “Why not that way?”

“There’s a better spot to talk over here.” Seron looked around. Clearly he wanted to talk about us before we got into the matter of Ezeru.

We were in a medium-sized cavern where the rock surface, seeping moisture, sloped down to a fresh water pond that fed the aqueducts. The other dragons were already started to crowd in and set up camp, filling water jugs and laying down sleep mats, gathering some dead grasses to feed the campfire we had already started.

We weren’t home. We weren’t even in one of the proper dragon holdings. We had no meeting room. We had no room at all.

“Why not that way?” Aurekdel repeated.

“Ezeru’s down there,” Seron said.

“Ezeru.” Aurekdel repeated the name, each syllable sharp. “The Traitor King’s most dangerous pet. So he is here, then. And he didn’t harm Himika? What did he want with her? Just what happened here?”

“That’s why I want to talk to you in private!” Seron snapped. “Trust me. I handled the situation. But I don’t want to bring him out until we’ve had a chance to talk. I’m going to tell the guards not to let anyone down that passage.”

We moved to a tiny, dark corner of the cave. Seron shooed off a few children who ran over to see what we were doing.

“There’s no easy way to say this…” Seron began. “When we found Himika, I—ah—”

“You had sex with her,” Aurekdel prompted. “And you lost control. And somehow, it healed her.”

Seron looked annoyed. “How did you know?”

“As I touched her, I could sense that her bones had changed. Her very step has more confidence. I knew by some baffling circumstance, she had been healed. The rest, I can only presume because of the way you’re stammering with embarrassment. It isn’t like you to lose yourself in amorous intent, is it, Seron?” He smiled faintly. “So…is it true, my gem? Are you well and whole?”

It was so dark I could barely see his expression. “Yes,” I said softly. “Seron…”

“Your parents,” Seron said, “might have been Tiriana and Morlis.”

Aurekdel breathed in sharply. “You are saying that you healed Himika because you are the true king?”

Seron paused. “I don’t want anyone to know. I don’t think it matters. Blood doesn’t matter. You’re the king.”

Aurekdel reached a hand out sideways until he found the wall, and his claws scraped against the rock. As the king, he was the only dragon in the court who kept his hands in their dragon form at all times. It was a mark of his royal blood. The simple crown of the dragon kings, made of shaped crystal, hooked around his horns and came to points on his forehead. “Our nurse…,” he said. “She…lied to the court? She took two children away from the court during the attack, and brought them back three years later with different names? Is this truly what you believe has happened? Why?”

Seron lowered his head. “I think—”

“Did she do it because I went blind?” Aurekdel’s voice was barely a whisper. “Because blind dragons are good for nothing but weaving baskets?”

“No,” Seron said. “I think—”

“Did she do it because she wanted power?” Aurekdel asked more fiercely. “I remember how the other women didn’t like her much. They said she was haughty.”

“Listen to me!” Seron said. “Ezeru just told us that Tiriana didn’t die in the battle years ago. She was taken by the Traitor King. And when Morlis vanished, he wasn’t kidnapped. He was going to her. He gave himself willingly…and they both committed suicide.”

“Suicide?”

“They left a note. It says ‘long live King Aurekdel’. But before that, Morlis said some things to me I didn’t really understand. He told me that I was a gentle boy and that Tiriana didn’t want me to be your champion. He said…they were trying to protect me. It made no sense. I didn’t know what they were trying to protect me from. I think I understand. When we were kids, you were the natural leader. Your mother saw that, and she felt you would make a better king at a time when the country needed someone with confidence to stand in front of a crowd and bear the burden of the crown.” Seron swallowed. “That wasn’t me.”

“You’re trying to protect me now,” Aurekdel said. “Seron, you are a good friend. You’ve been robbed of your birthright, and you’re telling me that my…conniving…mother…” He trailed off, speechless.

“It is not an enviable job,” Seron said.

I was having a hard time figuring out what they both thought on the inside. Especially Seron. I had seen a spark in him now and then that suggested otherwise.

On the other hand, I knew that having the rule of a kingdom on your shoulders was a heavy burden. My brother had tried to run from it in various ways all his life.

“So, Morlis left before the truth came out,” Aurek said. “We would have had no choice but to throw him in prison. Truthfully, by law, he should have been executed. Sticking a blind peasant on the throne and telling the true king to serve him!” His laugh was a little twisted.

“I think he wanted to spare us that decision,” Seron said. “I think that’s why…”

“Is this…really true?” Oszin was at my side but he hadn’t said a word until now. Neither of us knew that much about all of this business. “Wouldn’t people have noticed that you don’t look alike, even as babies?”

“No,” Seron said. “We’re both winged crystal dragons. Like all crystal dragons, we were born colorless and took on pigment as we developed an affinity for certain types of crystal around our second year.”

Oszin and I exchanged another brief glance of, That’s weird. Sometimes we both felt very human and very clueless.

“I suppose there is no way she could have planned this crime in advance,” Aurekdel said. “Or was she in on the attack?”

“No,” Seron said. “I don’t think that was it. I think that during our early exile, as she saw how you led and I followed, she did what she thought was best. When we returned to the fortress and you took the throne as a child, there is no way I could have managed that role the way you did. And you know that, Aurek. She was like a mother to both of us and she was trying to save the kingdom.”

“You think she was a heroine?” Aurekdel demanded. “For lying to both of us?”

Seron slowly dropped to one knee in front of Aurek. “My king…I think we must continue on as before. We’ll find a way to explain the queen’s recovery to the people and attribute it to you. I don’t want to take your place. And I don’t really want to speak of this ever again. Even if I wanted your position, the upheaval it would cause would play right into the Traitor King’s hands and put every dragon in the realm at risk, and neither of us want that.”

Aurekdel’s mouth set. Even in the shadows I saw the pain in his expression. He cursed faintly. “Gods, Seron, you are…more noble than I deserve. You make me look bad.”

“That’s not my intention.” Seron stared at the ground and I saw his eyes briefly blaze. “There is only one thing I want.” His hand moved to my waist, shifting the thin layers of fabric of my dress. I could feel the warmth and strength of his hand burning against my skin.

“Yes?”

“Himika…by rights…” He swallowed. “Himika is well now. She can have children, and no one would be able to tell the difference between my children and yours. I want the chance to have…her children.” He looked like this was very difficult for him to admit.

My skin burned at this reminder that in the end, I belonged to the king of dragons. I was here to give him heirs, the same as every other royal marriage. As long as I was cursed, I was too fragile to bear children, but now that I was cured, everyone would expect it of me. The dragons as well as my people back home. Although my brother had not mentioned it, he was the emperor. His wife, the priestess Phoebe, had four other guardian-husbands and any one of them would make a good match for my children.

The prophecy said this marriage would unite the land of the humans the dragons once again. What better way?

I had never wanted children.

Maybe it was because of what my father had done to me. I thought of childhood as a time of pain and suffering. A time when adults lied to you.

But my feelings had shifted, the moment I saw Seron gently handing a toy lizard to a little boy to comfort him about the dangerous journey from the fortress Hemara to the palace of Irandal the court had to make every year.

“You want her children,” Aurek repeated.

“Yes…my lord. I do.”

“In secret? Do you want to tell them that I am their father, then? The same way Tiriana and Morlis lied to us?”

“I…” Seron’s hand scraped up a handful of his black hair. It was long, always tied back, but plenty of strands always worked their way free around his face. “I don’t think we would ever know for sure which were mine, and which were yours. But every time she bears an heir, I want to know it could be my own.”

“Well, if they’re seven feet tall, I suppose we’ll know.” Aurek turned to me. “Does Himika want children?”

“I’m a queen,” I said. “It isn’t something I can refuse.”

“I suppose not. But we should at least pretend to talk it over.”

“It’s something I have always desired and never thought I could have,” Seron said. “Unlike Morlis and Tiriana, you would make a good father, and at any rate, all of us would raise them. I realize it is presumptuous, but it’s the one thing I want. Not the crown. Just the thought of a woman I love bearing a child born of both of us, seeing that child grow and learn. I want that.” He said the last words softly. He seemed nervous. But his hand was still firm against my skin, and the longer that hand remained in place, the more my body heated for him. The more I wanted to feel him inside me again, and I started to feel a desire to see him as a father, and know that it was something we had shared.

“It’s not presumptuous, if you’re the true king,” I said, just as softly. “I love all of you. If I could, I would have children with all three of you. I hardly know what to say now. It seems like a fair compromise for this very…unforeseen situation.”

“Very well,” Aurek said. “That settles that.”

Aurek seemed to be taking this very well.

I already knew he was good at hiding his true feelings.

There’s no way this actually settles it, I thought, with a bad feeling stirring up inside me. But then, Aurekdel and Seron seem to love each other as much as they love anyone. So maybe it really is that easy.

“What about this other matter? Ezeru?” Aurek asked. “Tell me everything that happened, and then I want to meet him.”