*Whistles causally, drops off chapter, tries to run out the door*

Oh, hiya guys. Sooo…what's with the pitchforks and torches?

It's not that whole "not updating for months" thing, isn't it? Oh, it is that whole "not updating for months" thing. Yeah…I thought it might be.

Sigh.

I'm sorry about that, guys. I didn't mean to leave the story hanging. A lot has been going on, and writing fell by the wayside. I had a serious health scare, and oddly this story became talismanic to me. I kept thinking that I'd have to be okay cause this story was hanging out there and I had to finish it. Stupid? Maybe. But when you're waiting for an anesthesiologist to make you go night-night while having your legs strapped at an awkward angle to an operating table, any comfort will do.

I did learn some things though. One, the doctor says that you'll feel a slight pinching pain, kick her in the face while you still can. Two, it is possible to pass out from pain. Used to think that was just a plot device. It's not. And three, the absolute most beautiful word in the English language is "negative". I don't know why it's got an unpleasant connotation. It's such a gorgeously liberating word. Especially when the final pathology reports are stamped with it.

All right, enough with the whining. Am I forgiven? puppy eyes What if I tell you the next chapter is half written? Or that there's three chapters written in the next story? And it stars Jaxin? (And yes, I've read the newest Black Jewels book, but I like my version of their future better, so I'm keeping Jaxin and Tersa) Okay, no more delays. Here's the next chapter, and I expect to have the next one finished within the week.

Thank you for your patience and for coming back to my little world.

Chapter 12

Karla sighed and stretched a little as her eyes slowly opened. A lazy smile drifted across her face. She was still laying on the cushion of air, Jastian's arm wrapped around her bare waist and her cloak spread over them. So that was why all of her friends enjoyed their lovers so much. Well, damn, no wonder then. Every nerve ending in her body sizzled just remembering what Jastian had done. Karla was more surprised that her friends ever got out of bed if this was the same effect that they got from their lovers.

Jastian stirred, shifted, her arm tightening slightly. She leaned forward and kissed Karla's bare shoulder. "Morning," she muttered, running little kisses across Karla's back as she lay her head back down.

The first rays of morning sun were starting to creep in, Karla noticed. At some point last night she had let Galen know that she was fine, but it was getting late, and Jastian had plenty of camping supplies she kept with her. They would come home in the morning. Galen had nearly burst a blood vessel pleading with her to come back now, but Karla said she was fine and would contact him in the morning. She had to break the contact quickly because Jastian had just thought up something wonderfully inventive and Karla wanted to enjoy some new discoveries more than reassure her Master of the Guard.

And she didn't want to think about Galen as her skin goose-pimpled under Jastian's kisses. She shivered…oh, no WONDER that dumb bitch of a Queen had begged Jastian to be with her. If Karla had known Jastian could make her body do that she would have dragged Jastian to the nearest empty room when they had met and had her way with her. And Karla was quite proud to have been a very fast learner. Jastian was a great teacher, and from some of the noises Karla had wrung out of her, Karla figured she must have been doing more than a few things right.

Karla laid back down, snuggling close to Jastian. "So what happens next?" she asked.

Jastian cocked an eyebrow. "Lady, you are insatiable," she said with a grin. "I'm not a machine!"

Karla laughed. "I mean..." she started, and some of the humor faded from her eyes. "I've never been in a relationship at all before," she finally said. "So where does this go from here?"

Jastian appreciated Karla's discretion and not rehashing how Trista had tossed her to the side. She sighed. If it had been anyone else...but Karla was the Territory Queen. Sometimes discretion was the better part of valor. "Like I said earlier, I would prefer to keep my private life private. I'm not going to lie and sneak around and hide, but I don't need to advertise either."

"Some people will need to know," Karla said. "Galen is going to wonder why I suddenly need a guard day and night."

Jastian laughed. "As long as he doesn't ask for reports in the morning." She hesitated. "Other people are going to know as well," she finally said. "Servants, especially. And they talk. And then they talk to servants in other houses and gossip spreads quick."

Karla's icy blue eyes met hers evenly. "My servants are free to talk between themselves at will. But they know the consequences of gossiping outside the home." The cold outside couldn't match the chill in Karla's eyes and tone, making a little shiver run through Jastian. Trained by Lucivar and tested by combat, Jastian thought. Her servants are loyal because they know she is fair and kind...and ruthless with disloyalty.

Then Karla's eyes thawed and she smiled again. "I'm not worried about the servants," she said. "My housekeeper has hinted at me too many times that I need to take a lover. Even Cook has muttered about knowing all sorts of special receipies for dinners for two. My household wants me to be happy." She gave Jastian a wicked grin that would terrify anyone who had known her as an adolescent. "Of course, that means you're going to be in for it the first time we have a fight."

"Already planning our first fight?" Jastian said, obviously amused.

Karla laughed. "From what I hear, we have to fight every now and then so that we can enjoy the kiss and make up part later," she said wrapping her arms around Jastian's neck.

Jastian grinned, "Well, how about we practice that part now and work on the fighting later," she said, letting her hands start wandering.

Karla's only reply was a sigh as she melted into Jastian's arms.

It was late morning when they returned to Karla's residence. Karla had let Galen know they were well and would be on their way back after breakfast. The man sounded like he was on the edge of a nervous breakdown. Karla would have been amused except she knew that if something had happened to her, Galen would have had to answer to Lucivar, and no person in his right mind would want to answer to Lucivar.

Galen was pacing the main hall when Karla and Jastian swept in. The man looked like he'd been drug through Hell by the Hounds.

"Kiss kiss," Karla greeted.

"Lady," Galen greeted through clenched teeth. Karla gave him a grin that would make a man's blood run cold. It wasn't a vicious grin. It was sweet and innocent. Anyone who knew Karla and saw that grin knew to take cover.

"Oh, don't get snarly," Karla said. "I was…perfectly taken care of."

Galen wasn't a man that missed much. And he didn't miss the glance between Karla and Jastian. It wasn't a look between a Queen and guard, or even friends for that matter. His daughter had recently acquired her first boyfriend, and the looks she gave the young man when she didn't think anyone was looking was the same look Karla had given to Jastian. His eyes narrowed on them.

"Lady there are still those who supported the changes your uncle tried to force on this land," Galen said.

Karla let out a little huff of a breath. "Will you calm down if I promise to go upstairs and have a bath and something to eat?"

The Queen's triangle had privileges that no other man in the court had. They had access to the Queen at all times, and more often than not, they were the men that would set down their heels and force the Queen to do what was good for her. So long as Protocol was being followed, a good Queen knew when to yield in order to calm down riled males. Karla knew she had pushed her luck pretty far.

"Of course, Lady," Galen said. He gave Jastian a hard look. "Lady Jastian, your report in my office."

*Don't let him climb all over your ass* Karla said on a psychic thread.

*That'll be your job later* Most people wouldn't have noticed, but Karla's cheeks tinged pink as she climbed the stairs to her suite.

Jastian followed Galen to the Steward's office. The Steward was waiting for her, and neither man was happy. The Steward, a middle-aged Prince, sat behind a large desk. Galen sat in the other chair, leaving Jastian standing. She recognized the formality of the situation and understood she was being evaluated for disciplinary measures. Her chin lifted slightly, and she stood quietly, her posture indicating that she wasn't going to be apologizing for her actions the day before. To Jastian's mind, leaving was the right thing to do considering how close to the killing edge she had been when she first came back from Terreille. She knew what kind of punishments guards had risked in Terreille when they went against a Queen, or one of her court. Jastian couldn't quite get a sense of what the men in the room were going to do, and that was making her nervous. She didn't want to hide behind Karla, but she sure as Hell wasn't going to let herself get injured because the court hadn't been strong enough to hold the Queen.

"You are aware of the situation in Glacia?" Prince Marne asked. "That there are those who would remove Karla as Queen by whatever means they possess?"

"Yes," Jastian replied. She had decided she wasn't going to jump ahead. She'd answer their questions, no more, no less.

"And yet you drew the Queen far away from her court and guards?"

Jastian's eyebrows rose. "I didn't do anything. I needed to be alone, so I went into the mountains."

"You didn't send the Queen back," Galen said quietly.

"I told her to go," Jastian said. "Karla didn't want to." Jastian's eyes met Galen's. "And none of us here are capable of making a Gray-Jeweled Queen do something she doesn't want to do."

"You could have come back. She would have come with you."

"No," Jastian said too softly. "I couldn't come back." Not if you all wanted to live. The words were unspoken, but understood. A combat trained Black Widow wearing a Red Jewel could have done horrific damage had she been forced back before she could step all the way back from the killing edge.

"Lady," Prince Marne said, "Karla's strength was needed to save Glacia from becoming a nightmare," he said quietly. "And it's still needed. Many of those who supported Hobert were killed in the Purge, but there are many left who supported him. They blame Karla because they will never hold power in a land ruled by Protocol. There is simply no other Queen that has the power and connections to hold the land. And that is why we must protect Karla as one would a priceless treasure."

If the man had screamed at her for an hour, he wouldn't have been able to flay her better than those few calm sentences. Jastian swallowed hard. "I understand, sir."

Galen went to speak, but then lifted a finger. His eyes, and the Steward's, unfocused slightly as they were communicated with on a psychic thread. Jastian didn't know what was said, but Galen turned white, then red and Marne just wheezed. They both stared at Jastian for a long moment. Galen swallowed, made a strange noise, swallowed again, and finally said, "Karla wishes to see you."

Jastian accepted the dismissal, bowed, and left the office, pretending not to notice the Green aural shield that slapped around the Steward's office the second the door closed. She could have pushed through the shield and listened in, but the Queen had asked for her. Was it a Queen's command or a lover's request? Jastian headed up the stairs to Karla's suite, wondering which it was. Had Karla thought about things? Changed her mind? Jastian knew she was coloring Karla with another woman's actions, but it was hard not to be afraid. Trista hadn't been the first woman to change her mind in the light of day.

The door was unlocked and Jastian went into Karla's sitting room. There was a soft splashing sound in the bathroom and she went to the bathroom door. Karla was in the bathtub, bubbles up to her nose. Her eyes opened and she smiled at Jastian. "They weren't too rough on you were they?" she asked.

"They didn't have time to get going before you asked for me," Jastian replied. "What did you say to make them turn so many interesting colors?"

Karla's grin turned absolutely feral. "I told them that if they were done berating my lover, to please ask her to come to my room."

That certainly answers a lot of questions, Jastian thought. Karla's smile changed, becoming almost shy. She moved the bubbles a little with her hand. "You know," she said, "there's lots of room in here, and you were out in the cave all night too." Her cheeks turned pink and she looked down.

Jastian grinned. Who would have thought Karla could be shy about anything? But then again, she had never had a real lover before, and wasn't exactly an accomplished flirt. She gave Karla a sensual smile and vanished her clothes before slipping into the tub with her.

The next few days were spent in a sensual daze for Karla. There were the Winsol celebrations during the day and far more personal celebrations at night. The servants all quickly realized what was happening. Some were shocked, more that Karla had taken a lover at all more than who she had selected. Most were pleased that Karla had found happiness, but there were some that were downright scandalized. But one thing they all agreed on was that Karla had been happier in the last few days than she had ever been in her life.

Karla had planned on formally introducing Jastian as her lover to the coven and the boyos when they all met for Winsol. She had wanted to enjoy Jastian all to herself for just a bit before exposing her to the extended family. She knew that they would be surprised, well, some of them, Uncle Saetan not so much, but they would all be happy for her. Karla had slept comfortably in Jastian's arms, more at peace than she had ever been before in her life.

Until the night Lucivar barged into the bedroom and saw Karla and Jastian in bed together.