Thorn Queen (Page 16)

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I tossed and turned that night, surprised I didn't lapse into the alcohol-induced coma I'd kind of hoped for. I finally woke up with the sunrise and decided to leave before too many people noticed. Only a few servants were up and around, for which I was grateful. I didn't want to see Shaya's concerned look or listen to Dorian and Ysabel flirt over breakfast. I didn't want to think about what the two of them had done last night-or why it bothered me so much. I was Dorian's friend. That was enough.

Before leaving, I stuck my head downstairs in the prison. The night shift of guards was still awake and alert, and Volusian kept his emotionless watch in the cell's corner. Jasmine was curled up in a ball, fast asleep, though I could see dried tears on her cheeks. Unguarded in sleep, she seemed very young.

I transitioned back to Tucson, bearing one of the worst hangovers of my life. Despite the fact that it was later in the morning there, my house was as still as the castle had been. Considering the way the cats and dogs watched me expectantly, I had to assume Tim hadn't gotten up to feed them yet. I let the dogs out in the backyard and told the cats they'd have to wait. As for me, I downed two glasses of water and half a bottle of aspirin practically, before collapsing in my room. My own bed provided the comfort the castle's couldn't, and I slept heavily for two hours.

I felt a lot better when I got up, and a shower improved things further. The smells of French toast wafted out to me, and my tormented stomach welcomed the thought of food. I headed out to the kitchen to tell Tim to serve up a double helping and found that he wasn't alone. A girl in her twenties sat at the table, giggling and wearing his Homeland Security T-shirt. Tim stood at the stove with the aforementioned French toast, bare-chested in sweatpants and several beaded necklaces.

“Oh, hi,” squeaked the girl.

“Eug! What are you-er, greetings of the morning, Sister Eugenie.” Tim held up his palm. “I did not realize you were home.”

I rolled my eyes, having no patience for his routine this morning. I poured myself a cup of coffee. “I hope you've got real maple syrup.”

He handed me over a plate of French toast, fresh off the stove. I think it had been intended for his lady friend, but he knew better. I found the maple syrup in the refrigerator, doused the toast liberally, and then headed back out to the living room without another word to either of them. A few minutes later, Tim scurried in, looking sheepish.

“You know you aren't supposed to bring them home,” I said.

“Yeah, I know. It's just…well, I didn't actually think you'd be home with the way things have been lately.”

“Not unreasonable,” I conceded. “But that doesn't change the rules. You stay at their places.”

He nodded. “Can she at least finish breakfast before I kick her out?”

I chewed my own food, thinking about what I had to do today. I swallowed and sighed. “You can let her stay all morning. I'm leaving soon anyway…I'll probably be gone most of the day.”

Tim brightened with unexpected pleasure. “Really? Oh, sweet. Thanks, Eug. You're the best-“

I handed him my empty plate. “Just get me a refill, and we'll call it even.”

Since telling Lara to keep my schedule open, I now had days with no plans-which proved terribly convenient today. I was going to drive out to Yellow River again to talk to Abigail and Art and try to make some sense of this red snake business. There were too many questions and loose ends surrounding it all, and I needed to start tying some of it up so that I could get on with my life.

The downside of a drive like that was that it gave me lots of time to think. Lots and lots of time. It was a clear day, and there were no major cities along the way. It was just me, my mind, and the open road. I kept thinking about how Kiyo and I had last driven this trek together and the sex that had followed at the hotel. I thought about him and Maiwenn now, celebrating the birth of their daughter. I thought about my breakdown with Dorian and my fears that Kiyo wouldn't want me anymore.

I'd brought my cell phone with me and had it sitting on the passenger seat, volume up high. I didn't want to miss a call from Kiyo…because surely he'd call to tell me about his daughter as soon as he could, right? If I hadn't heard anything, it meant he was still in the Otherworld, which-as one might imagine-didn't have the greatest cell coverage.

We'd visited Art first last time, but when I got off the highway, I found I was closer to Abigail's. So, I drove through Yellow River's modest downtown-past the sex-toy store-and parked outside her building. It was afternoon by now, and people were out and about, with tourists in particular poking their heads into the antiques store beneath Abigail's apartment. I found the little doorway by the store's entrance and headed upstairs, wondering if I'd be overrun with cats.

But I wasn't-largely because I never made it into the apartment. I knocked several times and even called Abigail's name once. When that didn't pan out, I dialed the number Roland had given me. I got her voice mail but nothing more.

“So much for that,” I muttered. Maybe it was just as well. Art was the one who held most of my attention anyway, what with his tattoo and all. He was the one who needed to be questioned.

So, I left the town for the suburbs, and in full daylight I could really take in how cute Art's neighborhood was. The houses were large and new like his, and his neighbors appeared to love their lawns just as much. I didn't see Art outside, but a large red SUV in the driveway boded well for him being around.

I knocked twice on the door, and for a moment, I thought he too must be out and about. Just as I nearly rang the doorbell, he finally opened the door. His hair was damp, like he'd just come out of the shower, and he held a pair of hedge clippers in one hand.

“Eugenie!” His face split into a grin. “This is a surprise.” The smile momentarily faltered. “Is everything okay? Roland…?”

“Fine, fine,” I assured him. “I just wanted to ask you some more questions.”

“You drove a long way for that,” he mused, stepping outside and shutting the door behind him.

People had an easier time lying over the phone, but I could hardly tell him that. “I had the time and thought it would make things simpler.”

“Sure. I'm happy for the company…so long as you don't mind hanging out with me while I get a little work done?” He waved the clippers by way of explanation.

“No problem.”

He offered me something to drink first, but I was still holding on to coffee I'd bought at a gas station and declined. I sat down on his front step while he began trimming some of the thick shrubs flanking the front of the house. They were thick and heavy-leaved, filled with pretty yellow blossoms. They seemed to want to consume the house, and I was reminded of Sleeping Beauty's castle, and the thorns that had surrounded it. He didn't cut their overall height but mostly seemed concerned with making them look neat.

“I stopped by Abigail's on my way here, but she didn't seem to be home.”

“I think she's in El Paso for a few days,” Art said. The muscles in his arms bulged, raising his T-shirt's sleeve and showing me the coiled red snake. “Her sister lives there. They're close, which is good, but I sure could have used her help with a banishing the other day. You should have come by then. It was a gentry girl, actually-you were looking for those, right?”

“Yes,” I said, startled. “I take it you managed to send her back on your own?”

“Yeah. She wasn't that tough. More scared than anything else.”

I sipped my coffee, trying to make sense of this new development. I may have very well indeed jumped to conclusions about Art's kidnapping role. Maybe Moria had just been banished after wandering here. “Do your jobs ever actually take you to the Otherworld?” I asked.

He gave a gruff laugh. “Not if I can help it. Those transitions are a bitch, even with that crossroads. I haven't actually been over in…I don't know. Years.”

“Huh,” I said.

Art paused in his clipping, giving me a puzzled look. “Why do you ask?”

“I've heard stories-that is, gentry rumors-about some human over there who kind of sounds like you.”

“Like me?” His confusion grew. “That's a little weird.”

“It was a human with a red snake tattoo.” I didn't mean to sound accusatory, but a tiny bit of it slipped into my tone.

“Why on earth would I lie about crossing over?” he asked. He wasn't angry, exactly, but some of that friendly demeanor had cooled a little.

“Whoa, hey. I didn't say you did.” I tried not to sound too defensive. “It was just weird that there were sightings of someone who looked like you near where your crossroads lets out.”

“The gentry I've banished are probably getting confused and thinking I was in their world when I kicked them out of this one…it's honestly hard to understand how any of them think. And you know how disorienting banishing is.”

“Yeah, I know. I'm just saying the story I heard was weird.” Art said he'd kicked a gentry girl out, but Moria sure had sounded like she'd escaped.

If I thought his attitude was cool earlier, it was frigid now. “I find it equally weird that a shaman is chummy enough with gentry to be listening to their stories-and concerned about them. Why does it matter to you if humans are over there anyway?”

“Because those humans might be harming gentry.”

“And?”

“And it's not right.”

He snorted and returned to his trimming. “They're gentry, Eugenie. They're not like us. And from what I hear, you're not all that gentle with them anyway.”

“When they're in this world, yeah.”

“Any world, Eugenie. They're literally not human. Why do you care so much?”

“None of your business.” The harsh words were out before I could stop them. Art paused again and this time turned to fully face me.

“And it's none of your business where I go and what I do-in either world.”

My heart lurched in my chest. “What, are you saying it is you? That you have been over in the Otherworld recently?”

“I'm saying I'm done with this discussion. You're not welcome here if you're just going to toss around ridiculous accusations-accusations that don't even matter.”

“It matters to them.”

“I think you're asking the wrong questions here. You need to examine your motives and figure out why you're so eager to defend those who have no regard for us-and why you're picking fights with your own kind.”

I shot up, careful of the coffee. “I'm not picking a fight.”

“Then get out of here before there is one.”

We stood there, locked in antagonism, and I wondered if it would come to a fight. I was armed, and he wasn't, though he was bigger and better-muscled. No, that was stupid. Why would he fight? He hadn't confessed to anything, only grown hostile at what he read as me accusing him of things he didn't consider crimes. That didn't make him guilty-but it didn't make him innocent either. Something just didn't feel right here.

“Fine,” I said, backing off. “I didn't mean to upset you. I'm just trying to figure things out and make sure no one's being wronged.”

He smiled, but it was a far cry from the easy grin that had greeted me. “What in God's name would you do if someone was? Come on, Eugenie. Don't overinflate your sense of obligation-or importance. There's no shaman police. You don't have any jurisdiction or right to dictate what I or anyone else around here-or anywhere-does.”

“Noted,” I said, heading toward my car. I was afraid if I stayed, I was going to say something I'd regret. Regardless if he had a role in all this, I didn't like the callous way he treated gentry-particularly since it was similar to the attitude I'd once had. “I'll send your regards to Roland.”

“Make sure you do,” called Art. “And maybe you should have a talk with him about some of these ideas while you're at it. Roland knows what's right.”

I bit my lip and got in the car without further comment. So. No real answers here, but something felt wrong about Art. He was too guarded and hostile, and despite his claims about not having been to the Otherworld recently, the rest of his comments made it seem very plausible that he could be lying.

Yet, I realized what also bothered me as much as his reticence was his attitude toward the gentry. Roland's was similar, albeit not as harsh, and he'd warned me away plenty of times. Kiyo also wanted me to keep out of gentry affairs-inasmuch as I could-which was rather hypocritical, considering his involvement. I was enmeshed, whether I liked it or not, and had accepted that my views on the gentry had changed. They were odd, and I didn't always approve of them, but in their hearts, I knew they were people not all that different from me, full of the same feelings and hopes. I couldn't understand how Art or anyone else could think girls disappearing was unimportant-even if they were gentry.

It occurred to me as I drove away that Art hadn't invited me inside either time. Coincidence? His meticulous yard certainly suggested he spent as much time outdoors as within. And yet…would I have found some evidence in there to shed more light on his activities? Damn. There was nothing to be done for it now, not with Art still there and suspicious of me.

As I drove back through town toward the highway, a backup plan came to me. What had Art said? That Abigail was out of town for a few days? As of yet, I had no evidence whatsoever to suggest that she was involved with any of this Otherworldly intrigue, but she was an associate of Art's. Maybe there was something to be unearthed at her place.

So, I parked outside her apartment once more and slipped in past the antiques store. My athame, wand, and gun were my usual tools of the trade, but I did carry a few little-used ones, such as a quartz crystal for reading energy. I also had a small lock-picking kit I kept in my bag. Imps, trolls, and other creatures of that ilk sometimes tried to lock themselves away from me. If Abigail's lock wasn't particularly state of the art, I should be able to get in.

It wasn't, and judging from the lack of beeping, there was no alarm system within either. The closest she had was her herd of cats. They swarmed around me in a furry, slithering mass, less hostile than hungry. I wondered who fed them when she was gone. Uneasily, I decided to make this search quick, lest an unsuspecting pet sitter come trolling around.

Searching wasn't easy since the place was still cluttered with books, incense, and candles. My task was made more difficult by the fact that I had no clue what I was looking for. I lifted and moved things as best I could, hoping the place wouldn't look ransacked. In spite of the mess, I was again struck by how nice the apartment was, how it had been expensively restored. The floors were true hardwoods-no laminate here-and all the molding and crownwork was elaborate and beautiful. This place couldn't be cheap, and it seemed a shame she'd let her pack-rat habits get the best of it. Not that I was one to talk.

I concluded my search with a quick scan of the bedroom. It was less messy and hence had less to browse. Her duvet was a patchwork of brightly colored silks, and the closet was filled with scarves and gauzy dresses. A jewelry box on her dresser displayed a stunning collection of necklaces and rings, and beside it was-so help me-a pair of handcuffs. I almost laughed, trying to imagine New Agey Abigail into something kinky. Maybe I hadn't been the only one to visit the sex-toy shop. Of course, whereas mine had been cheap and lightweight, these were industrial-strength steel ones, like cops would use. If she was into kinky stuff, then it was pretty hardcore.

I drove back to Tucson after that, arriving in early evening. My autopilot sense of direction started to take me home, and then, at the last moment, I called Tim.

“Has Kiyo called or stopped by?”

“Nope. But one of his cats threw up on the living-room floor.”

“That's not quite the same.”

We disconnected, and I checked my cell phone for the hundredth time. Nope. No missed calls there either. With a sigh, I turned toward Saguaro National Park and its easy-access crossroads. If Kiyo couldn't emerge from the Otherworld and into this one, then perhaps he'd sent some sort of message to the Thorn Land. I felt stupid and desperate, like a girl waiting by the phone. But what else could I do?

Unfortunately, the Otherworldly news was no better.

“No, your majesty,” said Nia. Her voice was anxious and apologetic, as though she herself was personally to blame. “There's been no word.”

I thanked her and figured that if I'd gone to the trouble to come here, I should find Shaya and get some sort of update. When I went searching, however, it was a most unexpected visitor I found instead: Girard, the dark-skinned courtier and metalsmith from Maiwenn's party.

“Your majesty,” he said with a bow, as flamboyant as ever. “I was hoping I'd see you before I had to leave.”

“Before you had to…what are you doing here?” I asked, more perplexed than displeased by his presence.

“I've come to bring you this.”

Like a magician producing a rabbit from under his cape, Girard held out a stunning necklace. The chain was made of exquisite, swirling links that rippled like water, and a pear-shaped sapphire ringed in pearls hung from it.

“Oh my God,” I gasped, taking it from him. “This is incredible. Did you make this?”

“Yes, your majesty.” His voice was modest, but he was clearly pleased by my regard.

“Who's it from?”

Recalling the comments others had made about his political aspirations, I half-expected it to be a gift from him. Then, suddenly and hopefully, I wondered if Kiyo had sent it as a token of affection since he had to spend so much time away from me. I wouldn't have put it past Dorian either, but he would have presented it himself.

“It's from Prince Leith of the Rowan Land.”

Of course. I should have known. Leith accepting his fate last night had been too good to be true.

“His highness adds that he'll also have me make a crown to match if you would like. He sends this with his greatest love and devotion.”

“I'm sure he does.” I sighed and handed the necklace back. “Well, a crown is definitely out of the question, I'm afraid. And actually…I'm really sorry, Girard, but I can't even keep this. I hate for your work to go to waste.”

He took the necklace and deftly slipped it into one of his many pockets. “It's no trouble at all. I understand how romantic affairs go-or rather, how they don't go. His highness will be sad, but I enjoyed the chance to work on something new for a change, so it was worth it, even if it won't grace your neck.”

I recalled how he lived at Katrice's court. “What do you usually work on?”

He made a small face. “Her majesty Queen Katrice is partial to animals and collects figurines, jewelry…anything depicting them. Last week, I made a crystal squirrel. It was lovely, of course, but it's the fifth squirrel I've made this year.”

I couldn't help but laugh. “Well, I guess I'm glad for this, then. Maybe…” An idea suddenly came to me. “Maybe I can give you another project away from her menagerie. Do you have the time?”

Girard bowed low. “Of course.”

“I heard you can work with iron to a certain extent. Here's what I need….” I described my problem with Jasmine and how I needed more flexible restraints that contained as much iron as he could handle. Theoretically, I could have brought over human handcuffs, but I wanted special ones not only for mobility but because I needed bronze or copper somewhere on them so that my guards could touch them if need be.

Girard listened thoughtfully, nodding as I spoke. “Yes, of course I can do this. I can have them for you tomorrow.”

“Whoa, I didn't expect-“

He threw back his head and laughed. “Your majesty, you forget that we don't forge and work metal like humans do. I order the metal to bend, and it does. The rest is in skill and patience.”

I supposed he had a point. I thanked him profusely, telling him that Shaya would settle the price with him later. Once he left, I then set out to find Shaya myself, still needing a report.

Before I could, I was intercepted again-this time by Ysabel. She was alone, which I took to mean Dorian had returned to the Oak Land. That was something, at least. I didn't want him camping out around here-particularly after my teary-eyed weakness last night.

She came to a halt before me, arms crossed. Whatever fear she'd had from our last lesson seemed to have completely vanished. Maybe Dorian's visit had reassured her. Or maybe she figured she had little to fear from someone who'd spent all of last night moping and drinking away her sorrows.

“My lord says I still cannot leave until we've worked together at least one more time.”

“Bummer,” I said and started to pass her. “I've got to find Shaya.”

She blocked my way again. It was deja vu of the last time she'd accosted me about this. “Shaya's gone right now. The sooner we get this over with, the better. I know you have nothing else to do with your time right now either. You're simply waiting for your kitsune to throw you some sort of bone.”

Alright, now she'd pissed me off, largely because she was right. “That's not true. I have plenty of things to do. Besides, I don't know if I really need your help anymore. I think at this point it's all just practicing on my own.”

With my mind, I reached out, feeling the different types of air around us. I stayed well away from her but pulled together several groups. Now that I understood their individual natures, it wasn't that hard to combine them into larger gusts. I blasted the air through the hall, creating a gust of wind that rivaled the one she'd smugly showed me that first day. Her expression showed disdain, but I swear, there was fear in her eyes again. I remembered what Shaya had said, that I was learning too quickly and too well.

“That is…acceptable,” Ysabel said at last. “But it was clumsy. And you can't combine it with water yet to truly control the weather.”

She was right on that, but I felt I had a good enough understanding of both to just keep practicing. “It'll come with time. I'll be fine on my own.”

“My lord said one more time…” That scornful expression faded now, replaced by uncertainty. “There is something else…something…well, you haven't even come close to it yet.”

“I inherited storm magic. Water and air. What else is there?”

“Follow me, and I'll show you-if you can handle it.” There it was, the old attitude. It was almost comforting.

She took me back out to the courtyard we'd been in last night. A servant I'd seen around the castle was painstakingly setting more tiles into the ground, expanding the patio area. We stood well away from him, and Ysabel continued keeping her arms crossed over her chest, posture still rigid and defensive.

“I'll be glad when this is over and I can return to the Oak Land. It's obvious my lord misses me.” Her eyes glinted wickedly. “He made love to me last night with a passion I've never seen before. It left me screaming and aching in ecstasy.”

I rolled my eyes and stopped myself from saying, Yeah, because he was thinking of me. “Let's just get this over with so you can leave and get all the screaming and aching you want. What else was there I needed to know?”

“There's something else in the air,” she said. She bit her lip in thought, trying to articulate her meaning. “I can feel it, but I'm unable to touch it. Probably you can't either.”

“Can you be a little more specific?”

“It's always there…it's like the pieces of the air are…prickly. Sharp to the touch. There are more of them, though, before a storm.”

I stared stupidly for a moment, and then the human part of me put it together. “Lightning…you're talking about making lightning,” I breathed. What was the scientific term? “Those are charged particles.”

The term meant nothing to her, but she'd nodded when I mentioned lightning. Eagerness flared up in me, and I immediately felt out around me. Sensing all the air molecules was easy now. The only two I could name were oxygen and carbon dioxide. All the others had their own unique feel, but I couldn't say if they were nitrogen or hydrogen or what. After a few minutes of groping with my mind, I shook my head.

“I don't feel anything like that.”

Ysabel seemed pleased by this. “Like I said, you likely aren't strong enough.”

“It's a clear day,” I pointed out. “There probably aren't any around.”

“No, they're always there. There aren't many today, but I can feel them.”

I set my lips into a hard line, trying again. It was just like the old days with Dorian: endless waiting, save that he would have tied me up. Ysabel probably would have too if I'd let her, if only to use the chance to slit my throat.

Air, air, air. Every particle unique, yet none of it had the sharp, prickly feel she was describing. Distantly, I remembered the one time I had summoned a storm. I'd been caught by an elemental gentry, on the verge of being raped while my mother lay injured. In my crazy desperation and panic, I'd summoned a storm that nearly leveled my house. I had little memory of how I'd done it, though. The whole thing was a blur, like some kind of dream that-

All the hairs on my arms suddenly stood up. There. There, mixed in with other air above us was something…well, to put it bluntly, electric. It felt prickly, just as she'd described. I reached for it, trying to control it as I had the other particles, but it was slippery. It was like oil running through my fingers, and I understood now why she couldn't do it. It was a very different phenomenon. Steeling myself, I tried again, and for one heartbeat, I drew them together into a knot. The smell of ozone filled the air, and then I lost my grip. No flash of light, no thunder.

But Ysabel's face was aghast. “You…you did it. You shouldn't have been able to…”

“I didn't really do anything.”

“You shouldn't have been able to do that…not yet…. I can't even touch them.”

Too fast and too easily. Just like my father.

“I'm nowhere near to being there yet.” I hoped I sounded reassuring. “This is going to be harder.” I couldn't say how I knew; it was just something I felt. Wielding air, creating wind…that would come with practice. Lightning was a different beast. But when I did…

I suddenly shivered and was astonished at the exultation that ran through me. If I could learn to create and control lightning…Jesus Christ. That kind of power was unimaginable. It was a large part of what had made Storm King so feared. Being able to do that would be unbelievable. Amazing. Exquisite. Being like a god…

I snapped myself out of those thoughts, aghast at what I'd been thinking-again. Talk about megalomania. I was no god. Craving that kind of power was wrong; everyone said so. Well, those from the human world, at least. Yet, if I could summon lightning, I could blow a fair number of those fucking demons out of existence. Surely that was a good use of my power. Unfortunately, what I'd said to Ysabel was true. It was going to take awhile, and until I developed some other amazing weapon, those demons were going to keep coming back and-

I froze, suddenly forgetting about the phenomenal power I'd just touched. I had a weapon right in front of me, something that might seriously get rid of those demons once and for all. Unfortunately, it was not an easy one to use.

“Son of a bitch,” I said. “Jasmine.”