Thorn Queen (Page 12)

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Kiyo took off as soon as we got back to Tucson, saying he had to go to work. He also added that I shouldn't expect him later that night since he'd promised Maiwenn he'd come visit. Normally, that would have set my mood plummeting-and I won't lie, I wasn't thrilled as it was-but after last night, I felt superior and confident in my position with him at the moment. Somehow, I doubted he'd be looking at Maiwenn with the same awe he kept regarding me after I'd ridden him to exhaustion last night. If the crossroads in Yellow River-which we'd visited before heading out of town-had only yielded some answers this morning, I would have considered the trip a resounding success.

“Nice of you to spend some time around here,” Tim told me when I emerged from the shower. As usual, he appeared to be cooking something.

“What's that?” I asked, watching him roll out dough.

“Cinnamon rolls,” he replied. “The second batch I've had to make, thanks to someone raiding the kitchen while they cooled.” He shot a glare over in the direction of one of the dogs-Yang, I thought-lying under the table. Yang looked extremely pleased with himself.

“Sorry,” I said, even though it wasn't exactly my fault.

Tim finished rolling out the dough and sprinkled the surface with a mixture of cinnamon and brown sugar. “And don't think you're going to change the subject about never being around.”

I found a Coke in the refrigerator and sat down, a little irritated over the scolding. “Well, sorry you miss my company, but I don't really see how it matters. Our deal is you live here rent-free in exchange for cooking and cleaning. Me not being here means you have less work. Besides, I've had things to do.”

He scowled. “Yeah, I suppose. But do your 'things' actually involve your job-the one that gets the mortgage paid? Your secretary called last night and said you missed an appointment. And you know, dealing with her isn't part of my rental agreement.”

Despite having never met, Tim and my receptionist, Lara, had an antagonistic relationship over the phone. I had no time to give to their drama today, though. The other news was too startling. “I did what?”

I took out my phone, which also doubled as my planner. In addition to two missed calls from Lara, I discovered I had indeed missed an appointment for a banishing last night. I'd been so fixated on my quest in Yellow River that I'd totally forgotten I had it.

“Shit,” I muttered, dialing Lara's number. As keen as I was on these missing girls, Tim had a point-my human jobs paid the bills. Not the gentry ones.

“What happened?” demanded Lara as soon as she answered. No hello.

“I got distracted by something else,” I said. “I'm really sorry. You think we can reschedule? Give them a discount or something?”

“Probably,” she conceded. “I mean, it's not like they've got many other options to get rid of a ghost. In the meantime, though, I've got some other pending clients.”

I hesitated. Normally, I wouldn't think twice about accepting as many jobs as I could. It was good for my bank account and a good deed for the world. With as much as the Otherworld was preoccupying me, however, I couldn't afford losing the time right now-or possibly missing another appointment.

“Reschedule the one I missed and book only one of the others. Tell the rest we have to wait-list them.”

Lara was silent for several seconds. “Are you serious?”

“Afraid so.”

She sighed. “Okay. You can still pay my salary, though, right?”

“Yes,” I laughed. “I haven't gone bankrupt yet.”

“Okay then.” She sounded only moderately pacified. “But for the record? Your roommate needs to learn some manners. He was a total asshole when I called last night.”

Before we disconnected, Lara made sure to remind me about two jobs I had later that day. She wouldn't get off the phone until I repeated the times and places back to her. I was just as eager to take care of them as she was, as sort of a mental retribution for the missed one from last night. I'd never forgotten a job before. My career might be an unusual one, but I still considered myself a professional and didn't want to start falling into bad habits as a result of all this Thorn Queen business.

And yet…as soon as I finished those jobs, I had to send myself back to the Otherworld. I only intended it to be a quick visit, though. I simply needed to check Shaya's progress and find out if the runaway girl had been located. Questioning her would make this whole search and rescue a lot easier and let me get on with my human life.

The news wasn't good, however.

“No sign,” said Rurik, once I hunted him down in the castle. I'd found him in a compromising position with one of the cooks. “We've got people scouring the area but haven't had any luck. We did, however, find where those bandits have relocated. Do you want us to go after them?”

I hesitated. I did want to round them up, both to take the pressure off the villages and see if they knew anything about the girls that my prisoners hadn't. In the end, I shook my head. If they still had that fire demon summoner, I didn't want to go after them until we had an overwhelming show of strength.

“No. Not yet. Just keep looking for the runaway.” I gave a sidelong glance toward the kitchen, into which the woman whose skirt he'd just had his hand up had disappeared. “You know, if it's not too much of an inconvenience.”

At least the news from Shaya was good. The supplies Dorian had sent me home with had been shipped out, and apparently Leith had contacted her to say that after going through the irrigation book, he had some ideas for us. Naturally, he wanted to meet with me again. I suspected an ulterior motive, but it was something I'd happily endure to keep the food coming. I at least felt like Leith's intentions were easier to understand than Dorian's-and that I was a lot less likely to yield to temptation along the way. I sent the young prince a message back, saying I'd love to meet with him. On impulse, I also asked if he had anyone who might be capable of summoning water demons. Once that chore was done, I made motions to go back to Tucson.

“Well? Are we going to get this done with or not?”

I turned around, surprised to see Ysabel standing there in the hallway, hands on her hips. I'd been heading out toward the courtyard to do a little communion with the land before returning home. The heat was sweltering, as usual, and most of the women around here had taken to wearing light, gauzy gowns, often with short or no sleeves-not unlike the dress I'd worn to Maiwenn's party. Ysabel had made no such concessions and stood clothed in a green velvet gown, complete with long bell sleeves. The color looked stunning with her hair, but I knew she had to be miserable.

“Get what done with?”

She threw up her hands in exasperation. “This…tutorial. Or whatever it is my lord sent me here to do.”

Oh, right. I hadn't forgotten Ysabel, exactly. I'd just kind of tried to pretend she didn't exist, in a feeble (and futile) hope that she might just disappear. No such luck.

“Sorry,” I said, returning her hard look. “I don't really have time.”

“You promised Dorian,” warned Ysabel. “And until you do this, I can't leave this godsforsaken place. I want to go home.”

I shrugged and turned away. “We can't always get what we want. Kind of like that song. God knows I haven't.”

I'd barely taken one step when a huge gust of wind shot toward my back, whipping my hair in front of me and rustling the tapestries on the wall. I immediately came to a halt and looked back at her. Her expression was both smug and hostile.

“What's the matter? Afraid you can't keep up with me?”

Charming. The old baiting tactic. She was hoping to get her way by playing on my pride. It was like the lamest trick in the book…except, well, it was kind of working. Okay, it was more than just my pride here. I was succumbing to temptation. With hardly any effort, Ysabel had just nearly knocked me over. It was more than I could do-much more-and her power nowhere near matched mine. If I had that kind of mastery, I could create hurricanes and blow apart buildings. Being in full possession of my magic would make me a god.

That shouldn't have mattered. I shouldn't have wanted that…but some secret part of me did. Well, not the god part. But certainly the rest. Power like that could help my people, I tried to convince myself.

“Okay. Let's get this over with then.” I acted like getting rid of her was my only concern-not that that wasn't a huge motivating factor.

This castle, I was finding, was filled with rooms-most of which didn't seem to have much use. Most of the servants and guards had their own quarters, still leaving a ton of rooms unoccupied and gathering dust. I really only had need of my meeting room and parlor when I was there, and the rest had thus far stayed unused.

The parlor was apparently being cleaned, so on impulse, I led Ysabel to one of the abandoned rooms. It had a river-rock fireplace that wasn't going to see use anytime soon, but the striped brocade furniture hadn't accrued too much dust. I flounced down onto a chair, arms crossed and posture defensive.

“Okay. Make this fast.”

Ysabel examined her sofa carefully before easing down and spreading her voluminous skirts around her. She crossed her hands on her lap, and if not for the expression on her face that said she wanted to rip me apart, I would have said she looked dainty and ladylike.

“Dorian says I'm to teach you to improve your power with air.”

“Something like that.”

She eyed me critically. “Before we begin, I want it made abundantly clear that I am not doing this by choice.”

“Really? I hadn't noticed.”

Her lips curled into a sneer at my sarcasm. “I don't know what Dorian sees in you. You think you're so clever and witty when really, you're just a plain, uncouth human.”

“Half-human,” I corrected. “And plain or not, your boyfriend-and, like, every other guy around here-would give up his right arm to get me into bed.” I really shouldn't have provoked her like that. Not only was it mean, it was also going to make this whole magic lesson probably even more unbearable.

“Believe me, it's through no charm of your own. It's only the prophecy and your alleged breeding ability, and once that's run its course, well…” She demurely smoothed the wrinkles out of her skirt, not that there really were any. “It's only your child anyone will have interest in, not you.”

“Sorry to disappoint you, but there isn't going to be a child.” Not as long as my doctor kept prescribing me birth control pills.

Ysabel looked up, face filled with skepticism. “Oh? Then why are you with the…kitsune?” She said kitsune like it was a dirty word. Dorian often did too, though he did it mostly to irritate me. I think Ysabel legitimately looked down on Kiyo. “If you really are a queen…” She looked skeptical over this as well. “…then why lower yourself by taking him as a consort? The only reason you would have is in the hopes of him fathering a child on you, just as he did Maiwenn. Clearly, he's proven his virility…which might be of particular concern to you. You claim you're trying not to conceive, but perhaps that's a lie to hide the fact that you can't.”

“What? That's insane!”

“Whereas I…” She ran her hands proudly along the sides of her hips. “…have already bore two children.”

Whoa. That was startling-and a point of pride for her, no doubt, considering the gentry fertility issue. “To whom?” For some reason, the thought that it might be Dorian bothered me.

“My husband. He was killed years ago in battle.” She frowned slightly, the first sign of soft emotion I'd seen on her. In a flash, her normal bitchy expression returned. “They live with my parents right now and are healthy and strong. My lord Dorian knows I can undoubtedly have more. That's why he cast you aside for me, forcing you to turn to the kitsune for your fleeting chances of offspring.”

“That's not what Dorian and I-never mind. Look, for the last time, I'm not with Kiyo to get pregnant, okay? I'm with him because I love him.”

She sniffed. “I find that unlikely. If you just wanted a lover for pleasure, you would pine for my lord. No other man can match his skills in the bedroom. When he binds my hands in ropes or paints my flesh, I find no greater ecstasy than-“

“Whoa, just stop,” I said, holding up both hands. This entire conversation was grating on my last nerve. “I do not want to hear any details about your sex life with Dorian, okay? That is not part of this deal. No part at all. I don't want to-wait. Did you say something about painting?”

A sly smile lit her features. “My lord has a great appreciation for art. Often, before we make love, I'll lie naked before him and let him use my body as a canvas. He will spend hours adorning my flesh with color and design, often using the paintbrush as a means to pleasure me and-“

“Okay, okay. I'm sorry I asked.”

As the words left my lips, though, it shocked me that I could envision what she was describing perfectly. Dorian's magic lessons had often involved tying me up-the necessity of which I was never 100 percent certain of-and he would spend a large amount of that time weaving the silken cords that bound me. He'd arrange them in interesting patterns and color formations, consumed by the process itself. Somehow, I imagined him being the same with paint. I could see his face lost in thought as he painted flowers or suns or whatever, his clever, sensual hands taking their time as they lightly touched my body….

No, not my body. Ysabel's. I had no part of this.

“Let's get this done with,” I said gruffly, hoping she wouldn't guess my thoughts. “Then we can both go home.”

“Very well then. So, you need my help because you're weak.”

“That's not entirely true.” Jesus Christ. It was all going to be like this, wasn't it? “I have a lot of power. I know how to control and use water magic-though I guess I could be better. Everyone assumes I must have inherited wind magic too, but so far…well, I've only been able to use it once.”

“You may simply be deficient,” she said lightly. Her eyes flicked to my chest. “Like in so many other ways. But we shall see.”

It kind of went on like that for a while. Every other sentence of hers was a barb. Yet, a lot of what she explained to me sounded similar to what Dorian had said, which at least gave me some confidence that she wasn't bullshitting me. In particular, she kept trying to describe how I could reach out and feel different types of air-just as Dorian used to encourage me to do with water. Unfortunately, it had taken a very long time to do that with water, and I felt a little pessimistic about history repeating itself.

“There are different types,” she kept saying. “Don't try to sense them all. Focus small.”

“What do you mean different types of air?” About an hour had gone by at that point, and I was growing weary and longing for Tucson. “Air is air,” I argued.

“Spoken like a savage,” she remarked. “Perhaps we should just end this and tell my lord we fulfilled our promise to try.”

I gritted my teeth. “Just explain it one more time.”

She shrugged. “There are different types of air.”

When she offered no more, I began to agree with her. It might be best to abandon this after all. A few moments later, though, she elaborated.

“There is different air around plants. Different air after we exhale. Different air when the land is foggy. Not that you'd understand that in this wretched place.”

My eyes widened. “Gas. Molecules. That's what you mean.”

Now she was the one wearing the confused expression.

“The different types of air,” I continued, excited in spite of myself. “You're saying the magic depends on feeling each kind…oxygen, hydrogen, carbon dioxide….”

I was speaking a foreign language. Ysabel seemed as confused as ever, but by this point, I was running away without her. It made sense. Dorian's entire teaching method had been built on baby steps. It had started with me sensing a bucket of water and culminated in me using the water in Aeson's body to blow him apart. Starting at the molecular level with air seemed daunting, but the human in me clung to the science.

And as I sat there, I began to expand my mind out, much as I did when preparing to use water magic. Air had always remained blank and untouchable, yet as I began to simply focus on a tiny part of it, it became more manageable. I thought about Ysabel's breathing-oxygen in, carbon dioxide out. The world slowed down to a heartbeat, one breath at a time….

I'm not sure how long I sat like that. I lost track of where I was or even if she said anything else to me. Only her breathing mattered. At last, I could sense the differences, the changes in the air coming in and coming out. As she exhaled, my mind scooped up the air-the carbon dioxide-leaving her lips and flung it as I would a ball. My control was imprecise; I had no real target. The air brushed past her shoulder, ruffling her hair.

“You…you touched it,” she said grudgingly, clearly surprised.

I was alive and burning with energy now, too consumed by what I was doing to answer her. Using magic always set my senses ablaze, made the world seem more vibrant and real. I wanted to do the trick again but decided to see if I could work it the opposite way and exert control over a different type of air-oxygen. I waited again to get a feel for her breathing, letting my mind actually sense the different particles in the air. When I felt certain I could grasp the oxygen, I did-just as she was about to inhale.

Ysabel began to cough, her hands going to her throat as she tried to draw breath. Sucking the oxygen away meant, well, that she couldn't inhale it. I froze in my surprise at the obvious yet not entirely unreasonable consequences-so much so that I couldn't stop what I did. I was just…stunned. I was controlling air. The magic burned through me, and her oxygen just kept flowing away and away. It obeyed my commands, and I didn't have the coherent reasoning to cut it off.

After several seconds that felt like years, the realization of what I was doing suddenly penetrated my higher reasoning. I finally cut off the magic, letting go of my hold on her oxygen. By then, Ysabel had fallen to her knees in a desperate attempt to get air-and probably because she was starting to lose consciousness too. At last, free of the magic, she drew a large, shaking breath, face pale and terrified. A few moments later, when she'd recovered herself, she looked at me accusingly.

“You-you tried to suffocate me!”

“No!” I exclaimed, aghast. “I…I didn't. I'm sorry. I wasn't thinking. I was just trying to control the air….”

She stood up, and where once her face had been pale, it was now flushed with anger. She was shaking. “You deceived Dorian. You already know how to use this kind of magic. This is all part of some elaborate plot.”

“No, no,” I said, standing as well. “I've never used it before-except once and only for a few seconds.”

“I don't believe you. What you just did…you couldn't have done that if you were as inexperienced as you pretended to be!”

What I'd done-aside from the fact it could have killed her-didn't seem like it was that big a deal. I'd sensed air and moved it. It was hardly a hurricane, and it had taken a lot of concentration-so much so that I didn't think I could repeat it anytime soon. I hardly had the effortless control she exerted over the wind.

“I'm sorry…I really am. I didn't mean to hurt you. It was an accident.”

Ysabel's only answer was a scowl, just before she stormed out of the room. As she passed me, I thought I saw both fear and tears in her eyes. Despite her bravado, I realized that what had seemed more like anger in her was actually terror. She was in the home of someone she saw as a rival, someone with a reputation as a warrior and a tyrant-and someone who had just tried to kill her. She was trapped here by Dorian's orders.

“A terrifying feat, your majesty,” a voice near the doorway said.

I took a few steps forward and saw Shaya standing just outside in the hall, her pretty face grim.

“It was an accident,” I said, surprised at the trembling in my voice. “I don't like her, but I don't want to hurt her.”

“I know.” Shaya's expression turned both gentle and sad. “But her fear isn't unfounded. You learned that too quickly and too well.”

“It was easy! It's the same as moving water around or any other type of air.”

“From what I understand, stealing someone's breath-denying them air-is harder than simply creating breezes. You're fighting against life itself. Those who suffocate others in this way usually require great strength and stamina. For you to be able to do it already…well, it's a testament to your power-and that's nearly as frightening as the act itself.”

The full impact hit me. “Wait…there are people who do that on purpose? Steal someone's air so they can't breathe?”

She shrugged. “Well, to those with the skill, suffocation's an effective weapon.”

“It's sick…it's an inhumane way to die.”

“I agree. And most people don't have that kind of strength, so it's not an issue. Among those who do have the strength, most would never consider doing it to another person, enemy or no.”

I groaned. “Well, if that's true, then she has to understand that I wouldn't purposely do it to her either. She has to believe that it was an accident.”

“I don't think you're going to have a lot of luck with that.”

“Why not?”

“Because while most consider such torture unusually cruel, there was one person who enjoyed denying someone their breath-and who frequently used it as a form of execution and entertainment.” Shaya's look was meaningful. “Tirigan Storm King.”