Thorn Queen (Page 18)

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The village I'd passed earlier was called Marmant, and I had to get directions from Maiwenn's guards to make sure I didn't accidentally take some twisted Otherworldly path in my attempt to return. I rode there with troubled feelings, still replaying the events with Kiyo and trying to decide if our assorted arguments today had qualified as true fights. I soothed myself a little by reaching out and manipulating the air, creating gusts and eddies and attempting to see how big a blast I could make. At one point, I made a scrubby tree bend pretty far, but it tired me out. I had to practice more to sustain true gale-force winds, and lightning still remained out of my grasp.

The people of Marmant greeted me with that same mix of fear and awe I had come to expect. Word of the changes being wrought in the land was getting around, so they were grateful and allowing themselves optimism at last. Yet, my fearsome reputation always lurked on the horizon, so they spoke gingerly around me, fearful of enraging the dangerous monarch who had forced this dangerous land upon them.

“How is everything?” I asked, hoping I seemed concerned and nonthreatening. Rather than a mayor, this town had a council of five that made decisions, and they'd invited me inside for a private meeting. They were ordinary-looking men and women-still with that peasant feel so common in the Otherworld-but there was an air of competence around them. “You've got water and food now?”

“Yes, your majesty,” said a middle-aged woman who seemed to be the speaker of the group. “Thank you, your majesty.”

“Good. I'm sorry it's been so hard on you. Things should be better now.” There was a brief silence in the group, one heavy with unspoken meaning. I looked from face to face. “What?”

“We don't want to trouble your majesty…”

“Trouble away. It's what I'm here for.”

This got another round of exchanged looks. It was still apparently an odd concept for these people.

“Well,” began the woman, “near the outskirts of our town's boundaries, there have been some attacks.”

“What kind?”

“Bandits, your majesty.”

“Son of a bitch,” I said. We'd known the group had moved, but they'd been quiet thus far, allowing me to hope I could take Kiyo up on his offer and deal with them before they caused more trouble.

“We actually have many fighters and strong magic users,” she said with some pride. “But we could not stand against their monsters.”

“You mean demons.”

She gave a nervous nod.

“Son of a bitch,” I said again. This had to be dealt with, and at this point, I really was willing to be a bastard and hold a gun to Jasmine's head. “Don't worry. They're going to be taken care of. Soon. Very soon.”

The woman looked startled at the menacing tone in my voice, but her words were grateful. “Thank you, your majesty.”

“Anything else I should know about?”

This time, it was a man who spoke up. “We don't want to trouble you…”

I groaned. “Just tell me what it is.”

“We heard your majesty has been seeking missing girls.”

I straightened up. “Yes. What about it?”

“One of ours disappeared two days ago. My neighbor's daughter, Markelle.” A small, wry smile crossed his lips. “She's a wild one, often wandering off where she shouldn't. But she hasn't come back…and she always does….”

I felt my fists clenching and forcibly relaxed them. I didn't need to scare these people any further. “Aside from the bandits, have you seen anyone else lurking around? Humans, maybe?”

He seemed even more afraid to discuss this topic. “We see humans sometimes, your majesty.” I think he thought mentioning my own kind would anger me. “It's not uncommon. Often there are humans who…ah, give chase to some of the denizens of this world.” Shamans like me, he meant. “Usually, they leave us alone once they've found their quarry.”

I thought back to Jasmine. “Any soldiers or warriors of the gent-shining ones?”

“Occasionally. I presume they're deserters from King Aeson.” Not a bad theory, actually. “But we see none of them regularly. There's no one in particular who keeps returning.”

I leaned forward, some part of me feeling like everything was about to fall together. “But there is a human you keep seeing, isn't there? Especially since the girls began disappearing?”

He nodded.

It was here. Everything was here. “A man, right? A man with a red snake tattoo?”

“No, your majesty.”

“I-what?” I froze for a moment. “Then who?”

“A woman, your majesty. A woman with graying hair that she wears in a long braid.”

I stared at him for several seconds, and then I laughed. This seemed to scare them all more than if I had burst into a rage.

“Abigail,” I said at last, more to myself than them.

“Your majesty?”

I waved a hand at them. “Never mind.”

Abigail. Fucking Abigail and Art. Working together to…what? Abduct gentry girls? But why? I'd toyed with the idea of Art as some kind of sick rapist, but where did Abigail fit in with this? Surely that would hold no interest for her. With a sigh, I pushed the questions to a small box in my mind, needing to wrap this up and get back to the human world. I needed to have that talk with Roland.

“Anything else going on I need to know about? You've got copper nearby, right?” Finding water and food was naturally essential, but it was copper that was going to truly change things in the Thorn Land. It was what all our trade agreements were being based on. “How's the extraction going?”

“Slowly until today, your majesty,” the woman admitted. “Our magic users are skilled in many things, but we have few who can work with metal. Much of our labor has been manual.”

I frowned. “Why did things change today?”

“Why,” she said in surprise, “because you sent the Oak King to us.”

“The Oak-wait. You mean Dorian?” I exclaimed. “He's not here now, is he?”

They were all clearly surprised at my surprise. “Yes, your majesty,” said the guy who'd spoken earlier. “He's out with the workers now. I thought you knew.”

I stood up, still full of shock. “I have to see him. Excuse me.”

They all murmured polite farewells and nearly knocked each other over with bows. I didn't stick around to return the formality. Instead, I headed back out into the bright afternoon sun, lightly jogging to where I'd seen the workers on the far side of the village. At first, I saw no indication of Dorian. Men and a few women were digging diligently, sweat rolling down their faces.

Then, suddenly, I heard a slight rumbling, and the ground trembled. Huge chunks of rock rose from the earth, a few of them glinting in the sunlight. They lifted in a cluster and then slowly drifted off to the side of the work site, gently coming to rest on a pile of similar stones. Turning, I looked to the opposite side of the area and finally found Dorian, his hands moving in the air as he guided the ore. His clothes were simple today, but that hair burned and rippled in the sunshine like liquid fire.

His face was filled with concentration as he watched the rocks, but once they'd come to a halt, he broke into a smile as he strode forward. “My lady Thorn Queen, what a delight.”

I let him kiss my hand for the sake of appearances-seriously, why were the gentry so into that?-and then pulled him out of earshot of the others. “What the hell are you doing here?” I exclaimed.

“Why, retrieving my copper.”

“That's not what I mean!” He shrugged and wiped sweat off his brow. His devil-may-care expression aside, it was clear he was tired. I grabbed hold of his arm and led him back toward the town. “Come on, get something to drink before you get dehydrated. And start explaining.”

“I heard there was some difficulty with your copper, and I decided to come help, seeing as it benefits me too. My sword is in need of replacement, you know-and that's not a metaphor. The metaphorical one is just fine. Besides, you don't honestly think I can let you take all the glory as being the most helpful monarch around, do you? You're making us all look bad.”

“Dorian,” I groaned. Because there was really no other response.

If people had fallen all over me when I arrived, the two of us together created quite the stir. Again, I was reminded of some celebrity tabloid couple. We returned to the council hall, at which point I used my queenly authority to get some privacy and some refreshment. It was a bit startling to see how quickly my orders were obeyed.

Once we were alone and Dorian was sprawled in a chair, I truly got a good look at just how exhausted he was. “How long have you been out there doing this?” I asked, pouring him water from a pitcher.

“Most of the day. And I'll take the wine, my dear.” He nodded toward a nearby decanter.

“It'll dehydrate you further,” I scolded, handing him the cup of water. He scowled but drank it down eagerly. I watched him, still perplexed. “But why? You don't need the copper that badly.”

“Perhaps not. But you do.” He finished the water, and I gave him a refill. “Thank you. Waited on by a queen-truly the dream of many a man.”

I pulled over a chair of my own. “You didn't need to do it,” I protested. “You've practically killed yourself.”

“Hardly. Give me and my stamina some credit.”

“I still don't get it.”

He finished this cup too and then gave me a look that was both exasperated and amused. “Eugenie, why do you keep having such a hard time believing I'd do things for you?”

There was earnestness in his voice, and I realized we kept having this conversation over and over. Out of everyone in my life lately, it seemed like he was the only reliable one. “I don't know why. I'm sorry. I just run into few people who give something for nothing. Mining isn't going to get me into your bed.”

“Well,” he said cheerfully, “nobody knows that for sure, but even if not? It doesn't matter. You need it. It makes you happy. End of story.”

I looked away. Dorian truly was my friend. “Thank you. It does make me happy. One less thing in a sea of problems today.”

He handed me the cup. “Get me wine this time, and tell me what your problems are. You can even sit on my lap.”

“No thanks,” I said, but I did get him the wine.

“I saw you and the kitsune pass earlier, actually. Is that part of your problem?” He answered his own question. “Yes, yes. Of course it is.”

I was a bit surprised to hear myself pouring my thoughts out to him again. I didn't even have the excuse of being drunk this time. “I saw the baby today.”

“Cute?”

“Very. And it just made me feel…I don't know. Kiyo thinks it's jealousy, but it's more than that. I just can't explain it.”

“Kind of a questioning of your own life and the choices-or lack thereof-before you?”

I looked up, startled, and met his eyes. They were unusually serious. “Yes, exactly.” Dorian remained silent, and I found myself rambling more. “He's having a hard time getting all of it lately-the magic, the girls, the demons…he doesn't like me spending time over here. Neither does Roland.” I couldn't help a smile. “Hell, neither do I. But…I have to. I have to put things right around here.”

“I know you do,” he said, face serious.

“Dorian…what would happen if I got a crown?”

This made him a smile a little. “It would make you look even more beautiful.”

“No, I'm serious. Kiyo says it's a bad idea. That it would make all this real.”

“It's already about as real as it's going to get, my dear.”

“That's what I told him! But I don't get the big deal. You never wear a crown.”

“Not often. But I have one, and I was crowned and all my people swore fealty to me. That's what a crown would lead to. You want one for ornamentation? Sure, that's easy. But put one on and walk out among your people-especially in a city like Highmore-and say, 'This is who I am, I am your queen…' Well, that's what the kitsune fears. You're already queen. No crown can affect that. But you accepting one and declaring your authority is when you truly believe you're a queen. And as far as Kiyo is concerned, that's where the danger is.”

“Wow,” I said, nearly as surprised to have such a thorough explanation from him as I was by the content itself. “Are you afraid of it?”

He snorted. “Hardly. I don't need a crown to know you're a queen. It radiates off of you. But I would like for you to know you're a queen.”

If dealing with all the crap I had on my plate didn't make me think I was a queen, then I didn't really know what else would. I let the crown issue go and instead recapped my latest intel about the bandits and Abigail. “I can't figure out her role here. You mentioned before that Art's motives would be…uh, understandable. But why her? Unless she's just enough of a pal to help him score some gentry action.”

Dorian was still in his pensive mode. He'd poured himself yet another glass of wine and handed me one too that I sipped sparingly. “Let me ask you this. Why do men of the shining ones so often abduct your women?”

“Easy,” I returned. “Because we're more fertile. You guys might have sex in public, but it doesn't usually result in anything. A guy who wants a kid has better luck with a human.”

Dorian nodded. I had a feeling he'd already made some leap of logic and was prompting me here to figure it out myself. “And what about humans? Are you hoping for children each time you make love?”

I laughed, thinking of my stock of condoms and birth control pills. “Hardly. We go to a lot of trouble not to. Too easy for us.”

He leaned toward me, green eyes shrewd. “Then think about it. You understand why we would want humans. Why would humans want us?”

I studied him, trying to catch up to what he'd already thought of. A few moments later, I got it. “Because you'd fulfill the opposite need. A human could have sex with a gentry girl and not worry too much about her getting pregnant. Or getting a disease.”

Gentry were healthier than us in that regard. It seemed to go along with them having such long life spans-

“Oh God. That would be part of it.” The more I followed his logic, the clearer and clearer it became. “You guys live longer. Gentry girls would stay young and beautiful for a long time….”

The horror of it was setting in. Until that moment, I had thought there were few sexual crimes worse than gentry guys consistently trying to rape me to get me pregnant. As shocking as it seemed, I was wrong. If this were true…if this idea that Dorian was suggesting was true…well. That was worse. Gentry girls taken because they were the ideal sexual partners: young, disease resistant, hard to get pregnant-even with a human. I almost laughed. It was like Tim's poem about the maiden who'd come from another world, whose beauty and youth were so great that mortal men had coveted her.

The question was, how did the gentry girls feel about this role? A lot of girls wanting to get pregnant might wholeheartedly embrace human lovers-literally and figuratively. But Moria's traumatized state suggested her stint with Art hadn't been welcome…

I stood up and rubbed my eyes. “Oh God,” I repeated. “The stuff…all the stuff…”

“What?” asked Dorian, understandably confused.

Dropping my hands, I looked back at him. “These shamans, Abigail and Art. They live well. They have more possessions…nicer things than they should for the jobs they have.” Art's giant house in an upper-class neighborhood. The shiny SUV. Abigail's luxurious-albeit messy-apartment. Her extensive jewelry collection. “I don't know how, but they're making money off it. Off these girls.” I slumped against the wall. “And I don't know what to do about it.”

Dorian rose and came to stand by me. “You'll stop them.”

I shook my head. “It's not that simple. Art was right-there's no shaman council. I can't report them to anyone, certainly not human authorities. There's no accountability, no laws that apply here.”

“They're breaking your laws,” he said, leaning toward me. “Therefore you have every right to stop them. Treat them as you would any other criminal in your land. Kill them.”

“I can't!” I exclaimed. “I'd have to actually catch them here, and so far I haven't been able to. And I'm certainly not going to go to Texas and kill them there.”

“Why not? If a murderer from my kingdom killed someone in yours, I wouldn't bat an eye if you came to slay him.”

“It's different. They're…”

“Human?”

I hated to admit, but yes, there it was. I had chased Otherworldly monsters from my world back to this one and never hesitated to kill them or banish them directly to the Underworld. But somehow, the thought of intentionally tracking humans and killing them…

I didn't need to voice my answer for Dorian to understand. Exasperation flared on his face, this time mixed with…anger.

“Damn it, Eugenie. You just told me you had to put things right! Which is it? Or does it only depend on what's easy at any given time? What your mood is? Who you like better that day?”

“It's not that easy!” I exclaimed. “You don't understand. You can't understand. I'm caught between two worlds here, with two sets of loyalties. I've spent my entire life being human-being part of that world. You can't expect me to throw all that away and betray my own kind.”

He opened his mouth to retort and was interrupted by a faint roll of thunder. Whatever words he'd been about to utter disappeared, and he laughed. “Do you hear that? That's you, Eugenie. Your anger.”

I shook my head. “I can't control thunder and lightning yet.”

“Not control, no. But you can summon it unconsciously. Do you think there's anything in this land that isn't tied to you?” He gestured around us. “All these people here…all the people in this village looking at you with adoring eyes…they are your own kind too. This is what I meant when I said you're the only one who doesn't seem to realize you're a queen yet! All these people are looking to you to protect them and do what's right. If you can't do that, then you might as well back off and do what the kitsune and your stepfather want you to do.”

“Dorian, I can't kill in cold blood!”

He gripped me by the arms, voice calm but infused with anger. “You can do whatever it is you have to do! You are a queen. Forget all this talk about Storm King's grandson. Right now, you are his heir. You are on the verge of becoming one of the most powerful rulers in this world, which means you don't have the luxury of being squeamish. You can rule with love, but you have to rule with ruthlessness too. You are going to go down in history, Eugenie, as one of the greatest monarchs we have ever seen. And it is going to start with this-this wrong that you're going to right. If you can't do it, if you can't stop those who are hurting your people, then you might as well stop the rest of this charade. Go out there and tell those people you can't do anything for them, that you can't feed them or protect them because they aren't your kind and aren't worth bloodying your hands for!”

He was shouting now, breathing heavily. I stared at him, eyes wide, filled with a little of that fear I always got when his temper rose. Moments like these reminded me of just how powerful Dorian was physically and magically. His lazy, lean appearance was deceptive; I'd seen him fight. Between that and the power he wielded, I hoped there would never come a day when we were truly antagonists. Outside, I heard thunder again.

It took me several seconds to muster an answer, and when I spoke, my voice was very small.

“I can't,” I said. “I can't tell them that.”

“I know you can't,” he whispered.

And then, still gripping me, he leaned down and kissed me. More astonishingly, I kissed him back. It seemed like all the emotions that had consumed me recently-all the rage and confusion-were poured into that kiss. My teeth bit against his lips, and when he shoved me against the wall, I welcomed the brief pain. Our hands were all over each other as we kissed, mine running the length of his body while his more aggressively hiked up the dress I'd earlier regretted wearing. In a matter of seconds, it was pushed over my hips, leaving my legs bare. With one hand still holding the skirt up, his other pushed between my thighs, slipping underneath the thong I'd put on this morning in the hopes of getting intimate with Kiyo.

Those clever fingers slid into me, stoking a wetness I hadn't thought could come on so fast. My small exclamation was muffled in his crushing kiss as he alternately thrust his fingers into me and pulled out to tease and dance with my clit. It was the latter he eventually settled on, circling and stroking as heat built between my legs and made all my muscles tense up. Then, the burning flood of sensation exploded, and I came with another cry that his kiss smothered, a cry that faded into a moan as my body trembled and spasmed from the shock waves of heat and electricity still shooting through me from his touch.

My orgasm created no pause in the action, though. The hand that had just brought me such pleasure moved from between my legs to his pants as he began to unfasten them. His mouth finally left mine, moving on to my neck, his kisses hot and fierce. He shoved his pants down, and I felt him against me, hard and ready as he pressed his hips to mine. My hands were tangled in his hair as I tilted my head back to receive his kisses, but his hands, busy as always, were prying off my underwear. The reality of what was happening sank in.

“Wait…” I murmured, lost as his mouth bit against my skin. “No, we can't…I can't…”

“You can,” he breathed in my ear. “Let me…let me do it. Let me bury myself in you. Let me spread your legs and take you like I did before. We are gods in this world, Eugenie, with no other lovers who are our equals. No others who are worthy of this joining.” The thong was on the ground now, and I could feel his erection pressed against my skin, so, so close to sliding in and doing all the things he promised. He rested his hands under my thighs and hoisted me up against the wall so that my legs wrapped around his hips.

“Dorian…” I gasped. “I'm with Kiyo….”

“So? You're a queen. Do you think you can't have as many lovers as you like?”

“It's…it's wrong. We can't…”

“We can,” he said, voice low and full of promise. “And when we do, this land will be reborn….”

Afterward, I would never be entirely sure if I would have let him do it. I like to think I would have stopped him. I was in love with Kiyo, after all, and loyal to him. Surely I would have said no and shoved Dorian aside. I wasn't in love with him…or was I? In those moments before we'd kissed, I'd felt like he truly got me and understood the things in my head. I think I'd probably loved him since around the time we'd met; I certainly never lost the attraction. Still, that didn't make cheating on Kiyo right.

Whatever decision I would have made was taken from me when there was a knock at the door.

I jerked away from Dorian and hastily shoved my skirt down. He more casually turned away to pull his pants back up, seeming in no particular hurry. The door opened, and the lead councilwoman stuck her head in. Even with Dorian's back to her and me dressed, it had to have been obvious what was going on-particularly with my underwear on the floor. If she found it shocking, though, she didn't show it, and I recalled how free the gentry were in public.

“Your majesties,” she said politely, “there's a storm coming in, and the workers were wondering what the Oak King wanted to do.”

Dorian, decent once more, turned around and gave her a laconic, charming smile. “A storm? Really? How truly unexpected. Well, tell them to bring as much of the ore as they can into storage before the rain and cover the rest up. I'll come check on it in a moment since I have a feeling the Thorn Queen is about to depart with some haste.”

The woman gave a quick curtsey and shut the door once more. “You're right,” I said, jerking my thong back on. “I'm leaving.”

“Yes,” he agreed, still smiling. “Because that's your normal course of action when something happens that you don't know how to process.”

“That's the thing,” I growled. “Nothing happened here, okay? None of this did.”

His eyebrows rose. “Really? Because I could have sworn that something happened when my hand was between your-“

“No!” I would have approached him with clenched fists to drive home my threat but was afraid of what would happen if I was close to him again. “This didn't happen. This was anger and confusion and me in a weak place, okay? I appreciate what you've done here with the copper-really. And for the advice on the girls. But that's it.”

I turned, not wanting to look into those green eyes or see that smirk anymore. I didn't want to admit that loving two men was just like the rest of my life, ripped into two worlds. I needed to get out of here and get back home-though I wasn't sure which home I meant. Dorian didn't try to stop me, but his voice rang out after me as I hurried out and rain began to fall outside.

“Don't forget what I said, Eugenie. Crown or not, you are a queen, so don't be afraid to do what you have to do. Love and ruthlessness. Those are the keys.”