Thorn Queen (Page 13)

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Ysabel couldn't be coaxed out of her room, no matter how hard I tried. I even sent Shaya to do it, seeing as she tended to be a bit more personable than I was. No luck. Ysabel remained firmly entrenched and would only ramble over and over about how she was going to tell her lord about me and escape this accursed place.

Evening wore on, and I couldn't drag myself back to Tucson. My feelings were in turmoil. I'd never expected to feel guilty about anything pertaining to Ysabel, but there it was. And as more time passed, I didn't just feel bad about inadvertently suffocating her. As soon as I'd realized what I had done, I knew I had to cease practicing this kind of magic immediately. Storm King had used it to kill his enemies in horrible ways. Kiyo had warned that delving further and further into my powers would put me on a path I might not be able to turn away from.

And yet…that was the problem. I knew I had to stop…but I didn't want to.

Sure, I didn't want to learn air magic to kill. But after touching that power…I couldn't stop thinking about it. I found my mind spinning, analyzing the air around me and how easy it would be to manipulate it. What had started as a seemingly small lesson from Ysabel was quickly moving into larger and larger implications as I grasped more of air's patterns and how it worked. It was like I didn't even need a teacher. My own nature and pull toward magic was running away and creating its own lessons.

My conflicted ruminations were interrupted when a letter arrived via the Otherworld's equivalent of the Pony Express. It was from Leith. As I'd suspected, he'd devoured the engineering books. What I hadn't expected was that he'd already developed a plan for how to implement some of the irrigation systems and was going to accompany some workers out to Westoria in the morning to get started-unless I had any objections, of course. If I didn't, then he would be honored if I would come out to meet them.

He also added in his letter that he had investigated the towns near the Yellow River crossroads. None of them had any reports of missing girls. It figured, I thought. I either had enough bad luck to be the only monarch with runaway girls-or I possibly had an enemy specifically targeting me. Considering the number of gentry who resented my rule, the latter wouldn't have surprised me.

Regardless, I decided I had to go out to see Leith tomorrow. Even if it was just an elaborate attempt to woo me, he was still going to an awful lot of trouble with this. Plus, I hoped that if I spent the night here, Ysabel might finally emerge.

So, I stayed over, giving me the opportunity to meditate with the land. While I noticed no ostensible difference in the morning, there was a strange, intangible feel to it…. It seemed healthier. Like always, I couldn't exactly articulate why. Perhaps most disturbing of all, I found that staying over wasn't quite the agonizing ordeal it used to be.

I was preparing to head out to see Leith when a guard announced that a rider was approaching. I wondered if it was a messenger-or possibly Leith himself. Instead, it was someone quite unexpected.

Dorian.

The castle servants fell all over themselves to welcome the Oak King, and he swept inside as though perfectly entitled to it. Which, I guessed, he was. Nonetheless, I had no time for his antics today and greeted him with hands on my hips.

“Not today, Dorian. I have things to do.”

“As do I,” he said. He had that typically laconic tone to his voice, but there was an oddly serious-and impatient-look in his eyes. It was not an expression I'd seen very often. “I've come to see my subject. I knew you wouldn't welcome her with open arms, but honestly, my dear, your attempts at murder shock even me-no small feat.”

My jaw nearly dropped to the floor, both because of his assumption and the fact that she'd somehow gotten a message out to him. “Wha-? Dorian, it's not true! It was an accident. I didn't realize what I was doing.”

“May I see her?” he asked, not acknowledging my plea.

I could hardly deny him that, and he hurried off to her room without another word. She admitted him-no surprise there-and I found myself pacing the entire time they were together. It had been bad enough that Ysabel had thought me capable of assault. But somehow…the idea of Dorian thinking badly of me? Well, it struck me harder. I shouldn't have cared what he thought-God knew I was mad at him more often than not. Yet, I realized that deep inside I wanted his good opinion. I felt sick to my stomach that I might have lost it.

When he emerged, his face was still serious. “I believe I have convinced her that your intentions weren't murderous.”

I sagged in relief-more, I think, because he appeared to believe me. “Thank you.”

“The question now is: do you want her to stay?”

“Will she?” I asked, startled.

“She obeys me,” he said simply. “She'll stay and continue to teach if I tell her to.”

“I don't want anyone here against their will…”

“I've assured her of her safety. She won't live in-much-fear of you. So, that's no longer the issue. The issue instead is if you want to continue with her teachings.”

“I can't-not after…” I stopped, realizing I was unsure of the words leaving my lips. I didn't want to be like Storm King. I didn't want a natural affinity for learning ways to kill people. And yet…I couldn't stop thinking about the way I'd felt wielding that kind of power. Controlling water had given me a rush; air had doubled it.

Dorian's gold-green eyes were watching me very carefully. “I see,” he said. “Then I'll tell her she'll be staying a little longer.”

I started to protest but couldn't. He returned to her, stayed a few more minutes, and then joined me in my parlor where I had resumed pacing.

“Well, then,” he said briskly, “that is that.” The grim set to his face was gone, and I found myself grateful to see the return of his usual mien. “I noticed you were about to leave. Off to free humans from your subjects?”

“Off to free my subjects from me.”

I explained my task, and his features lit up with interest. “How convenient that I'll be traveling in the same direction. Unless you'd like me to wait here until you return?”

No, the last thing I wanted was to encourage Dorian to make himself at home in my castle. So, I grudgingly conceded that he could go with me, partly because I still felt guilty and grateful over his intervention in the Ysabel incident. One bright side to him being with me was that Rurik decided I didn't need an entire retinue for the trip. He alone accompanied us, and I wondered idly how Dorian managed to go wherever he wanted without an entourage. I didn't like to think he was a more authoritative ruler than me.

“Don't give me a hard time about this air thing,” I warned. “I don't want any spiels about how I'm embracing my heritage and approaching my destiny.”

Dorian smiled, eyes on the road ahead of us. “I don't need to tell you things you already know.”

“Of course…I suppose if I did get a better grip on my magic, I might be able to get rid of those fucking fire demons.”

“You see? I told you I don't need to say anything. You're finding ways to rationalize your use of magic all on your own.”

“Hey, this is a serious threat. You can't tell me you'd be all casual if you had demons running loose in your kingdom.” I frowned. “Or would you? I got the impression a lot of rulers don't bother themselves with that kind of thing.”

Dorian's eyes took on that serious glint again, despite the small smile on his face. “Aeson didn't bother. Don't generalize to all of us. You know better. If I had demons in my land, I'd lead a group out myself to obliterate them.”

I wondered if Dorian could. My potential power might be greater than his, but at the moment, his control and skill made him a more dangerous force than me. A ruler in the Otherworld had to be powerful, or else the land wouldn't accept them. It was a wonder I'd been found worthy.

“Do you want me to help you?” he asked when I remained silent. “I'll go with you the next time you strike.”

“What would that cost me?” I asked with an eye roll.

“Why do you assume everything I do has an ulterior motive? Isn't it enough I'd want to help you?”

“I don't know,” I said, not liking how his words made me feel bad. Was I attributing more insidious motives to him than he deserved? “I don't trust anyone around here.” Westoria was looming in the distance. “I don't even trust Leith's engineering generosity. He's not doing this for the sake of trade.”

Dorian's eyes lifted to the approaching village. “That,” he said, “we can both agree on. No matter how much you beat yourself up over those demons, you have more than enough strength to bind the land to you.” I hated his uncanny ability to guess my thoughts. “When Katrice dies, the Rowan Land will either pass in entirety to someone with the power to control it, or it will divide itself and be subsumed into other kingdoms.”

“Shaya said the same thing-and that Leith thinks being hooked up with me would help keep it in the family.” I shook my head. “One land's bad enough. I don't have the power to control two.”

“You'd be surprised,” he said ominously.

Our arrival was greeted with the same wonder and awe I'd had before the demon incident. Apparently, yesterday's food shipments and Leith's presence today had reestablished my awesome reputation. Dorian seemed to have an effect as well. As we dismounted and walked through the village, the residents' eyes followed both of us, filled with admiration and wonder. Glancing at Dorian, I could understand their feelings. He strode through the dusty town just as he had my castle, confident and majestic, even after a hot and wearying ride. He looked like, well, a king, and even I couldn't help but admire his good looks. Beside him, I felt frumpy and insignificant.

Then, I tried to pull back out of my glum thoughts and imagine what we must look like to these people, both of us tall and red-haired. We looked good together, I knew. I was in jeans, but I'd cleaned up this morning, and my hair was down. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see where the sun lit it up, giving the red a golden hue that complemented Dorian's truer red. My tank top was blue, a good color for me, and I had on my usual gemstone jewelry. Perhaps most importantly, we carried our titles as king and queen, and to these people, I realized we were probably the equivalent of a Hollywood couple on the red carpet.

“Your majesty! I'm so glad you could-” Leith had come running up to us and came to a total standstill when he saw Dorian. After a few stunned moments, he made a polite bow to the Oak King. “Your majesty. Also a pleasure.”

I could tell Dorian was delighted to have ruined Leith's plans for a romantic interlude. “Well, I hated to part from Eugenie this morning, so I thought I'd come along and see what's new.”

I had to restrain myself from elbowing him. His wording implied that we'd woken up together. Our former relationship was no secret, and Dorian had pitched his words loudly, so that some of the gathered villagers would hear. No doubt this would be all over the Otherworld by tonight. Leith looked even more dismayed than before, and I tried to smooth things over.

“Why don't you show us the project?” I asked him. “I don't think I can thank you enough for what you've done.”

Leith brightened and eagerly led us forward. As we walked, Dorian murmured in my ear, “Believe me, he's more than sure you could thank him enough.”

“How come you can allegedly do things for me without ulterior motives but no one else can?” I hissed back.

Dorian only grinned as Leith headed toward the village's edge and showed us his handiwork. There was little to see of his irrigation system at this point. Mostly people were digging and laying out the foundation. Leith did his best to explain what it would develop into and even showed us blueprints-quaintly written on parchment. I followed them a little but could tell they were gibberish to Dorian, despite his polite and confident smile.

Zealous or not, a prince of the Rowan Land was not about to do manual labor, and once the tour was done, he sat down with Dorian and me at the mayor's house. Davros seemed only too happy to keep offering his home as my hangout and eagerly served us wine before leaving his esteemed guests to discuss whatever it was royalty talked about.

“This is only the beginning of what we can do,” Leith said, positioning himself so that Dorian wasn't in his line of sight. “I'd love to come visit and discuss more ways to work through this. I've got some ideas on how to construct buildings that will reflect light better. Have you ever considered redesigning your castle?”

“Yikes,” I said. “No. That'd be a big feat.”

“Not as big as you think. Not with the right help.”

I shook my head with a smile. “Let's just focus on the people first.”

Leith smiled back. “Sure. But I will come by some day to show you some palace ideas-just in case you change your mind. Or, better yet, you should come visit us. Mother would love to show you the hospitality of the Rowan Land.”

“Or, better yet, you should throw the Thorn Queen a party,” said Dorian, deadpan. “I'm sure she would love it.”

This time, I did elbow Dorian. Leith didn't notice. Dorian knew perfectly well I dreaded Otherworldly social events-particularly when the focus was on me.

“Really,” I began. “That's not-“

“Of course!” said Leith. “We haven't had a grand ball in quite a while. We could invite hundreds of people….”

I decided then that elbowing wasn't severe enough. It was with great restraint that I didn't actually kick Dorian. He placed his own elbow on the table, resting his chin in his hand, appearing quite entertained.

“You'd have to outdo Maiwenn's party, to truly show Eugenie honor,” said Dorian. “That's going to be hard to do. Of course, Maiwenn has an unfair advantage with her maternal glow, eh? Eugenie was just telling me on the way here how all this baby talk is kindling longings of her own.”

I choked on my wine.

“I love children too,” Leith told me. “I can't wait to have some-once I find the right woman.”

I was spared more of this when one of Leith's workers came in, anxious over some mishap. Leith looked devastated at the thought of abandoning me-and also embarrassed over me witnessing a flaw in his grand plans. “I'm sorry,” he said. “I hate to leave you. I'm sure this will only take a moment.”

“Actually,” I said, rising. “We should probably get going as well.”

“Must you?” he asked, face falling further.

“I'm sure I'll see you soon.”

“Yes,” agreed Dorian. “You should get moving on that ball. Or maybe I should just throw one for her….”

Leith totally fell for the baiting. “No, no. I would be more than honored to.” He swept me a bow, and I let him kiss my hand. “I'll have news for you soon, I promise.”

I smiled and expressed my thanks and allowed him to kiss my hand again when he insisted. As soon as he was gone, I turned on Dorian. “Are you trying to push me into his arms or away?”

“Ironically, doing one causes the other.” He stretched and stifled a yawn. “Were you telling the truth? Are you ready to leave?”

“Yeah, I think so-“

“Your majesty?”

Davros stuck his head into the room, wearing his usual apologetic look. His eyes flicked nervously from Dorian to me. “I'm so sorry to bother you…I know you must be busy and…”

“What is it?”

“She's been found, your majesty. The missing girl? Her parents tracked her down last night but were afraid to tell you…she seemed so distraught. I only just found out myself. I told them you'd want to know-“

“Of course, I do.” I was already moving toward the door, Dorian fast on my heels. “Where are they?”

Still bobbing his head in obeisance, Davros hastily led us to a small home on the opposite side from Leith's construction. He beat impatiently on the door. “Open up! The queen is here.”

Almost a minute passed before the door opened. The woman who had accosted me on my first visit peered out, eyes wide. “Your majesty,” she said humbly, inclining her head. She didn't seem to recognize Dorian. “We-we didn't know you were here.”

“I want to see her,” I said impatiently. “Let me talk to her.”

The woman hesitated, fearful of me but also fearful of something else, apparently. Davros was undeterred. “This is the Thorn Queen! Let her in.”

With a gulp, the woman stepped aside. I found myself in a small but clean cottage, dimly lit thanks to all the curtains being drawn, though all the windows were open to allow a breeze. The woman's husband met us as we walked through the kitchen, his face pale and afraid.

“Your majesty…forgive us. We were afraid to tell you. We were afraid she'd run away again.”

“I'm not going to hurt her. I just want to talk to her.” It was a bit depressing, between Ysabel and this family, knowing everyone was terrified of me. Ironically, before I'd known about my gentry heritage, I'd been proud of the fear I inflicted on Otherworldly inhabitants. “Please take me to her.”

I felt Dorian's hand on my shoulder and his breath warm against my ear as he whispered, “You do not need to say please.”

With a quick exchange of looks, the couple led us to the back of the cottage, into a tiny bedroom. It too was darkened, and I could make out a slim girl lying on a bed. There was a washcloth on her forehead that fell off when she sat upright at our approach. She cringed against the wall.

“Who is it? I told you I didn't want to see anyone….”

“It's all right, Moria,” said her mother. “This is the queen. She's come to talk to you. She's not going to hurt you.”

The girl wilted even more, blond hair covering half of her face. “No, no…She's come with the others, come with her human blood to bind us and kill us and-“

“Moria,” I said gently, holding my hands out as one would under a white flag. “She's right. I'm not going to hurt you. I just want to talk to you. It won't take long.”

“They all say that,” Moria said, eyes wide with tears. “They all say they won't hurt you…all the humans…you're no different…they all say they aren't….” She lapsed into muttering too low for me to hear, her hands clinging to the covers.

“I think,” Dorian murmured to me, “that her experience has left her…ah, a little touched. I doubt you'll get anything useful from her. There's a healer at Maiwenn's court who's particularly good with sickness of the mind. You should send for her.”

I had a feeling he was right but had to make one more attempt. “I just want to know where you've been. Who took you. I want to make sure it doesn't happen again. Tell me who it is, and I'll stop them.”

“No,” she breathed. “You're the same…the same as him…the Red Snake Man.”

“Red Snake…” I still had demons on the brain, and an image of their red and black mottled skin came to mind. Were they snake-like? “Moria, were you taken by demons? Or some kind of…” Hell, in the Otherworld, any monster you could imagine pretty much existed, as Smokey had shown us. “…um, snake monster?”

She shook her head frantically. “Our own kind don't hurt us. It's only yours…you're all the same…the human blood…all marked the same….” Her eyes left my face and lowered. For a disorienting moment, I thought she was staring at my chest until I realized her gaze was on my arm. I absentmindedly touched the spot. It was where my snake tattoo coiled around my arm. Moria squeezed her eyes shut. “All the same…”

I stiffened. “Did he…are you saying the person who took you had a tattoo like this on his arm?”

“The Red Snake Man,” she whispered, still refusing to open her eyes.

“Did he banish you? Did he force you to this world? Or did you come back on your own?”

“Iron…iron everywhere…”

I stared off at nothing for several seconds. “I'm done,” I said, turning to her parents. “She can rest now.”

I left the house as swiftly as I'd come in, Dorian matching my pace. “What's going on? That meant something to you.”

I nodded, heading toward where Rurik stood with our horses. “I think I know who took her-and maybe the others. Not bandits or a monster. It was a human.”

“How do you know that?”

“Because of the tattoo.” The Red Snake Man. I'd seen a red snake tattoo just the other day-on Art. He'd had that on one arm and a raven on the other. “It's another shaman, one who lives very close to where the crossroads around here opens up in my world.” He was also the shaman who had told me to my face he knew nothing about gentry girls. I came to a halt by the horses and absentmindedly stroked the side of mine. She looked back and sniffed me. “But why? Why would he take a gentry girl? Or more than one? His job is to get them out of our world. I could see him banishing them out of the human world….That might traumatize her, but that doesn't sound like what happened. She disappeared from this world. She made it sound like she didn't want to be in the human world.”

Dorian snorted. “Eugenie, where in your jaded existence did you pick up this naïvete? If a human took one of our girls, it'd be for the same reason we'd take one of theirs. For the same reason any man would abduct a girl.”

I blanched at his implications. “But more than one?”

“He wouldn't be the first man to prefer-ah, how shall we say it? Variety.”

I couldn't see it of Art, not the Art who happily tended his garden and offered us beer and pop. He'd known Roland for years. They'd worked together. Was Art truly a kidnapper and rapist? Or was the girl just traumatized from being banished? It could be a pretty horrific experience.

I grimaced, feeling a sharp twisting in my stomach. I'd come too close to rape already in my life to treat even a hypothetical situation lightly. Was Moria a victim? Were there others like her out there? Maybe it wasn't truly Art…and yet, her words had dark implications. The human blood. A mark like mine. The Red Snake Man. The crossroads to Yellow River. He had to be involved; I just didn't know how.

I gave the horse one last pat and then mounted. “I have to get home,” I said, turning back to Dorian and Rurik. There was some mistake here, some mix-up. Art wasn't involved in this. He couldn't be, at least not in the way Dorian had suggested. “I have to talk to someone. Immediately.”

I waited for the requisite Dorian joke, but none came as he mounted his own horse. “Then we go different ways. Be careful, Eugenie.” For some reason, frankness and concern from Dorian was more disconcerting than his usual banter.

“If I'm right about this, then it's a human matter. Should be a cakewalk compared to what I deal with around here.”

Dorian shook his head. “I'd have to disagree. Give me demons and restless spirits any day over human deceit. But if you need help, I'm here. Just ask.”

Again, there should have been a joke here. I glanced away, troubled by the way he looked at me. “Thanks. Hopefully it'll be a simple matter.” How exactly? That I didn't know. I wasn't sure that roughing Art up would really accomplish anything-if he truly was at fault here. “See you later, Dorian.”

He nodded by way of a farewell. Then: “And of course, my dear, you may kill as many humans as you like, but please try not to harm any more of my subjects. If you can help it.” There it was, at last. The joke.

“Noted,” I said. I attempted a glare, but there was a smile on my lips as I did.

I set a hard pace back to my castle and the gateway that would bring me back to my own world. Crossing over at the Yellow River one would have been faster, but I needed to go to my home in Tucson and prepare myself before facing Art. Rurik matched my pace easily and mercifully stayed silent. He'd watched me and Dorian together the way a child watches his or her divorced parents, in the hopes that Mommy and Daddy might make amends someday.

My whirling thoughts made the trip go fast-as did the land's quick route today-and we were greeted with a commotion when we reached the castle's outer borders. A group of guards came tearing toward us, and my heart seized. What now? A siege? Demons? Kiyo? Yet as they got closer, I could see that the guards almost looked…enthusiastic.

“Your majesty! My lord! We found her.”

Rurik and I drew our horses to a halt and climbed down. I felt my legs scream and knew I'd be sore later. I wasn't so practiced a rider that I could ride like that without consequences. I ignored the pain and turned to the guards.

“Who?” I demanded.

“We have her. The girl. The runaway girl from Westoria,” said the guard, clearly pleased at his success. Rurik and I exchanged puzzled glances.

“That's impossible. We already saw her.”

The guard shrugged. “We found her out near the steppes, by the Rowan Land border. She matches the description and was clearly afraid of us. She tried to run away.”

“Take me to her,” I said helplessly. Had my guards found another of these kidnapped girls? It would certainly provide more information.

He led us inside toward one of the little-used rooms, explaining that they hadn't wanted to put her in the dungeon-although her fear and desire to escape had required a guard. His expression turned uncomfortable.

“We, um, also had to bind her in iron. She kept attempting magic. They're still not able to fully stop her.”

A guard like this could never handle iron shackles without causing himself intense pain. Sometimes, though, prisoners would be bound in bronze cuffs with a tiny bit of iron affixed to them. It required delicate handling by the captors but was usually enough to stunt the prisoner's magic.

We reached the room, and the men on duty stepped aside for us to enter. There, across the room, a slim young woman had her back to us. Long blond hair cascaded down her back, and I had a weird, disorienting sense for a moment as my brain grappled with the possibility that Moria had somehow made it here before us. Then, as the girl slowly turned around, the torchlight began bringing out glints of red in the golden hair that little Moria hadn't had. I realized what was happening even before I fully saw my prisoner's face.

“You have got to be kidding me,” I said.

It was Jasmine.