Thorn Queen (Page 19)

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I returned to my castle in shock-and in a downpour. My control of water let me shift the rain away from me, but after a while, I didn't feel like wasting the mental effort on it. It felt kind of good after such a hot day, and besides, I had a few other things on my mind. Like if it was going to rain every time I got aroused. That was not cool. I guessed I could handle it so long as it rained other times as well. I didn't want the connection to be so obvious. Hey, it's raining! The queen must have gotten laid. Ooh…is that hail? Must have been into some kinky shit today….

I was also debating whether or not having a guy stick his hand up your skirt and get you off was technically cheating or not.

Okay, I supposed there wasn't much “technically” about it. I was getting caught up in gender stereotypes. If I'd gotten him off-say, like, by going down on him-there would have been no question of infidelity. So, this was no different. Fuck. How had it happened? One minute we'd been arguing…the next? Grope central. There'd been emotion and magic, and it had all happened so fast. I shivered, thinking of all the warnings about using strong magic. Was that to blame? Or just my own weakness? And at the same time, I couldn't also help but think that strong magic could solve a few of my problems.

Excepting, of course, the problem of whether or not I should tell Kiyo what had happened between Dorian and me…

“Your majesty!”

Nia went crazy when she saw my drenched state. She had a hundred remedies for me, but all I wanted was a simple towel and the jeans and shirt I'd arrived in earlier. Waiting for the servants to draw hot baths around here took too much time and effort; I could get back to Tucson and into my own shower or sauna much more easily. And after still being unnerved by Dorian, I was particularly anxious to return to what I saw as safety. Though lately, I was starting to think no place was safe anymore.

Before leaving, I exchanged brief updates with Rurik and Shaya. I told Rurik that we had a date for demon hunting, and that Jasmine would indeed be going with us. His feelings on that were mixed. He knew her power was useful, but secretly-or, well, not so secretly-he was part of the camp that felt I should kill her. He seemed a little reassured about her, at least, because Girard had brought the custom cuffs as promised. They provided greater mobility for her but were even more limiting for magic. Judging from Jasmine's dismayed reaction, Rurik felt they'd been successful.

Well, that was something, I supposed. And from the look on Shaya's face, Dorian's help with the ore was a good thing too-even if it had come with strings attached.

“That was very kind of my lord,” she said. Both Shaya and Rurik often used the honorific “my lord” when discussing Dorian, as though he were still their master. I considered their old loyalty endearing but wondered if they'd ever feel like they truly worked for me. “It's expedited things immensely. You can't imagine how quickly things will move once the ore is processed.” She grinned, eyes gleaming as all sorts of plans and organizational thoughts swirled in her mind. “You must have been very pleased at what my lord did for you.”

Well, “pleased” was one way of looking at it, I supposed.

Oh, and I was happy about the expedited ore too.

A strange feeling settled over me, that same one I got each time Dorian did something nice for me-sexual gratification aside. I had no idea what his role in my life was anymore, save that he was helping me a lot. Judging from Shaya's face, this was a big favor he'd done for me. An idea for repayment came to me.

“Shaya…is Girard still here?”

She nodded. “I gave him a room for the night, so that he wouldn't have to travel in the rain. Is that all right?”

“Yeah, yeah. I just want to talk to him for a sec.”

She led me to his room, and like before, he was overjoyed and overeager to see me. Seeing him reminded me of Leith, which gave me a small pang of regret. I still felt badly about what had happened with the Rowan prince, but there was nothing to be done about it. I couldn't return his feelings. Girard, fortunately, was a different matter. He wanted prestige and position for his talents, and I was more than willing to give that after explaining to him the project I wanted to commission.

“Yes, your majesty. I can most certainly do that. Why, I can start sketching right now.”

No doubt he was happy to work on something that wasn't part of Katrice's woodland animal collection. I left him to it, gushing with praise and how much it would mean to me. Girard was a nice guy, despite his ambition, and I decided I'd rather surround myself with those wanting job promotion over getting me into bed.

I returned to Tucson at last, grateful to find the house quiet. Tim was out, but he'd left me macaroni and cheese-the good homemade kind with bread crumbs on top-and a note:

Bitch receptionist called and wants to make sure you don't forget your job tomorrow.

I hadn't forgotten the job tomorrow, but the reminder was a good one with as much as had been going on lately. One of the cats rubbed against my leg as I microwaved my dinner, and I absentmindedly scratched her on the head, wishing it was actually Kiyo's fox form circling my ankles. I didn't like the way he and I had left things, even if they'd ostensibly been friendly. There was still tension between us, and I couldn't shake the feeling that he just wasn't understanding me lately…and that Dorian was.

Argh. Dorian.

As I tossed my clothes on the bathroom floor-including that damned thong-I couldn't help but think of him again. Stop it, Eugenie. You're obsessing. Surely…surely I would have said no if we hadn't been interrupted earlier, right?

Right?

And Kiyo, Kiyo…what was I going to tell Kiyo? Just because we were having friction in our relationship, it didn't mean I had license to do what I'd done today. I had no respect for lies or any other subtle dishonesty. I didn't like that behavior in others. I didn't like it in myself.

But after standing in scalding water for twenty minutes, no real answers about anything came to my mind. I finally emerged, my skin sufficiently plump and pink, and toweled off. After that, it was into comfy pajamas: blue and gray flannel shorts and a white cotton tank top. It might have been raining in the Thorn Land, but here it was dry and hot. Night had cooled the air somewhat, and I'd opened all the windows to air out the house. As a light breeze blew in, it took everything in me not to start tinkering around with the air. I could sense every particle, and the thought of controlling them sent a shiver through me. No, I scolded myself. I'd done enough today. I needed to have a no-magic-in-Tucson rule, I decided.

Establishing that magic and men were issues that were not going to be solved tonight, I set out to work on another. It wasn't quite ten yet, which meant Roland would be up. Sprawling on the couch in front of the breezy patio screen door, I dialed him on my phone.

“Eugenie,” he said with delight. “We've been wondering what happened to you. You haven't been returning calls. Your mother was worried, but I told her you were probably just busy.”

I smiled. It was nice to have Roland in my life, someone who understood the ups and downs of this job. “I have been. Really busy.” I almost started to offer him the overflow of jobs I'd had Lara turn down for me and stopped myself at the last minute. If he knew I wasn't keeping up with my work, it would only trigger an alarm for him and subject me to questions I wasn't ready to answer.

“Did you ever talk to Art and Abigail?” he asked.

“Yeah,” I said, “and that's actually why I was calling you. I think…well, I think they're trafficking in gentry girls or something.”

There were several moments of silence.

“Trafficking? What does that mean, exactly?”

“It means I think they're abducting girls and…I don't know. Either pimping them out or selling them or something equally disgusting. It's like a fairy sex trade.” One of the cats, a calico, came and made herself comfortable on my stomach.

“Eugenie…I've known Art for almost ten years. I've known Abigail longer. What you're saying is absurd. You have to be getting bad information.”

“They've both been sighted in the Otherworld, right around where their gate opens! I even talked to one girl who all but identified Art! She was totally traumatized, Roland. And both Art and Abigail live better than they should be…”

“That's not evidence,” he said. “They're probably doing good business.”

“In a town that size? Even with a gate like that, they can't have enough work to afford the stuff they have. You and I have a ton more jobs than they do, and we don't live that well.”

“It's a moot point. This whole thing is far-fetched, and your evidence is sketchy. I mean, have you seen gentry girls tied up in his house?”

“No,” I admitted. “Largely because he won't ever let me inside. Which is also suspicious.”

“No, Eugenie, it's really not.” Roland sounded tired. “Look, it sounds like all you've got is circumstantial gentry evidence. And you know how they are.”

“I know that their people are being taken against their will and possibly having horrible things done to them.”

“Key words: their people.”

“Are you saying it's okay for girls to be sold into a sex trade? After what happened to Mom?”

“How can you ask me that?” he exclaimed. “But this isn't the same thing. We're not police who work both worlds. We protect humans. There must be someone over there whose job it is to protect them.”

There is, I thought. Me.

“Can you at least talk to Art?” I asked.

“And what? Ask him if he's kidnapping gentry girls?”

“Well…maybe you could pose it a bit more delicately.” I squelched a yowl of pain as the cat leapt up off me and onto the back of the couch. Her hair puffed up, and she twitched her tail in agitation. Not surprising. Both dogs had just entered the room.

“I can't ask him that,” said Roland. “And what if he says yes? Then what are you going to do?”

Dorian's words came back to me. Kill them.

“Look, I don't know yet, but I just need to find out if-“

I heard a low growl from one of the dogs and was about to yell at them to knock it off. The cats and dogs didn't usually fight, but every once in a while, there would be a brawl. I couldn't see the dogs, though, and the bristling calico's attention seemed to be on the screen door, not the floor. I sat up and saw the dogs sitting right in front of the door, staring out into the night as well.

“Eugenie? Are you still there?”

“Yeah, hang on a sec.”

Balancing the phone on my shoulder, I stood up and instinctively reached for my weapons, which were on the coffee table. I shoved the wand and my silver athame under the elastic waistband of my shorts and took the gun and iron athame with my hands. One of the dogs growled again, and I slowly approached them at the door.

“Eugenie? What's going on?” Roland's voice was worried now.

“I'm going to have to call you back.”

I managed to disconnect the phone and drop it on the floor without losing the athame. Outside, the night was still, the only noises coming from the wind in the trees and the faint sounds of traffic on the far side of my quiet neighborhood. I closed my eyes a moment, reaching out to search for anything that didn't feel right in this world. Some shamans had this ability, but not many. The more time I spent in the Otherworld and among gentry, the more developed my senses became.

Finally, I caught it. The sense of something Otherworldly. The animals, God love them, had noticed before me. Whatever this interloper was, it was keeping to the farthest edges of the house's property. It had apparently been lurking for a while, which seemed odd.

“Ah,” I realized with a soft chuckle. “Stopped by the wards, huh, you son of a bitch?” I'd had a witch lay protective lines and spells all around the house when the attacks on me first started. It was kind of a magical home-security system. It wouldn't keep out everything, but it definitely thinned out a lot of my nuisances.

I could have simply ignored whatever was out there, but the idea of Otherworldly creatures loose in my neighborhood didn't sit well with me. Sliding open the door, I slipped outside, every nerve in my body on high alert. I walked the perimeter of my backyard, keeping inside the ward's lines. My house was on a cul-de-sac, backing up to a small stretch of open, scrubby land before giving way to the next neighborhood over. I doubted whatever this was would be out in the front of the house, where it would be in sight of neighbors.

Ah, no-not an it. They. I could sense more than one. Standing on tiptoe to peer over the wooden fence, I nearly missed his eyes on my first sweep. A rock elemental-that is, one of the gentry who lacked the strength to travel to my world in his full form. He was blocky and unwieldy looking, his stone body mottled black and white. I had only a second to make my assessment before he charged. His weight and strength cracked the wooden fence, and then-he hit the ward. It was like an invisible wall that bounced him back.

His disorientation gave me what I needed. I dropped the gun and reached for my wand. Silver bullets weren't as effective against gentry as steel ones anyway, and I certainly wasn't going to fire off shots and possibly get the police called if I could help it. I channeled my will into the wand, ripping open a path to the Otherworld. My snake tattoo burned on my arm as I summoned the power of Hecate. I recited the incantation to finish the ritual. The elemental felt the magic of the banishing seize him but couldn't fight it. He was too weak. In a moment, he dissolved from this world, sent back to his own, leaving only a pile of rubble behind.

Another shape appeared beside where he'd been, and I saw the dim lighting shine off water. Another gentry who hadn't been able to cross in his true body. He'd appeared as a water elemental, a man-shaped body of liquid that dripped and sloshed with each step.

Stupid, stupid, I thought. Whoever he was should have known better. I didn't need a wand for this. My own magic would rip him apart-

A hand suddenly jerked me backward, and I felt a knife at my throat. The hand gripping it was solid and flesh but tingling with magic. A powerful gentry, then. One with enough power to cross my wards and come over in body. Without hesitation, I kicked backward, dodging out of his grasp skillfully enough that the blade only nicked me. I turned to face him, glad I'd held on to the iron athame. He was no one I knew, young and good-looking, even with a scar on his cheek. He was well-muscled from physical activity, and the leather armor he wore over his red tunic suggested a possible military or guarding profession back in the Otherworld.

In a weird flash, Jasmine's words came back to me. I know the difference between a bunch of gross beggars and trained soldiers.

A coincidence, I decided. Any gentry brave enough to come seek me in my own world would likely have to be a good fighter. We circled, and there was a small smile on his face as he waited for an opening. I wasn't afraid. One-on-one combat I could handle, and I had long since developed the ability to banish while fighting. It was tricky but hardly impossible. Of course, as he lunged and I ducked, I realized I didn't need anything so complicated.

Almost like an inhalation of breath, I sucked the air from around us, creating a miniwhirlwind that pulled the dust and sand from within my yard. I blasted it forward at him. He cried out as the sand blinded his eyes and immediately started rubbing them-which wouldn't do him any favors. I was about to start the banishing when I faintly heard the sound of chanting and a tingle of shamanic magic. Startled, I turned to find the source and instead saw the water elemental come charging through the opening in the fence his friend had made. Someone had broken the wards.

I held out my iron athame to block him, though I knew it would only give me a few seconds. That was all I needed as I began to work the water magic that would tear him apart. A blow to my back suddenly shoved me forward, straight into him. Despite being made of water, he was solid, and his hands instantly grabbed hold of me. I twisted my head back and saw that the other gentry had recovered himself enough to come striding forward, though I could see tears streaking his face from where the sand had stung his eyes.

I tried breaking free of the elemental's grip but couldn't match that physical force. Again, I summoned water magic and heard him groan in pain as his substance began to rip apart. Then, the other gentry was on me, punching me again and breaking my concentration. He started to reach around me once more with the copper blade, and then I heard a startled cry of pain from him as he was pulled away from me.

I didn't look back to see what had happened but instead completed the magic on the water elemental. He exploded in a downpour that soaked me-great, twice in one day-and I immediately turned to see what else had happened. The other gentry was distracted, squaring off with someone else: Roland.

Roland's own athame was out in his left hand, and he was simply relying on the strength of his other fist-which was considerable-to sock the gentry in the face. The gentry was strong, though, and got a few good blows in on Roland. Seeing my stepfather take those punches kindled an anger in me. Rather than begin a banishing, I called to the air again, sucking it from around the gentry just as I had Ysabel. Eyes widening, he dropped the blade, his hands going to his throat in an instinctive gesture to draw breath. There was none to be had, though. I leapt on him, knocking him to the ground and delivering a solid punch to the face in exchange for what he'd done to Roland.

Around us, I felt the tingling of a banishing. Roland was opening up a hole to the Otherworld. He chanted the words and then snapped, “Eugenie, get away!”

I did, jerking backward lest I get sucked in with the choking gentry. Power crackled around him, and a moment later, he disappeared, shoved back to his own world.

Silence fell. I was sitting on the now-muddy ground, soaking wet with my heart pounding. Roland walked over and extended his hand to help me up. “What are you doing here?” I asked.

He snorted. “You can't end a call like that and not expect me to show up.”

“True,” I said. I was weak and woozy from the combat and the magic, and my bare legs were skinned up from the fight. I'd need some soap and antiseptic. “Thanks.”

Roland shrugged, not needing my thanks. Even in the dimness, I could see the angry look in his eyes. “What the hell did you think you were doing?”

Seeing as I'd just done several things, I wasn't entirely sure which he was referring to. “What do you mean?”

“That.” He pointed to the spot where we'd banished the gentry. “You were…you were using magic to choke him!”

“I was keeping him subdued while you banished him,” I growled, unwilling to admit I was kind of freaked out myself. It had all happened so fast. My only impulse had been to incapacitate the gentry. The means had just sort of happened. Realizing what I'd done-again-gave me a sick feeling. I'd sworn I'd never do it.

“Pinning him with the athame would have worked! Where the hell did you learn to do that?”

“I've picked up a few things here and there.”

Roland's face was a mask of fury. “You have no business using that kind of magic, Eugenie. None.”

My own anger was growing. “In case you've forgotten, that magic is in my blood.”

“No,” he said softly. “I haven't forgotten. Which is why it's so important you don't use it. What else can you do? How long have been using this kind of power?”

“It's not important. I can do a few things-things that have kept me alive when assholes like this come try to rape me-and it's not a problem. I can control it.”

“You need to stop this. You need to stay away from the gentry. You're getting too involved with their world, with their magic….”

“It's part of who I am. You can't change that. And if you didn't want me taking drastic steps, then why'd you break the wards?”

Roland frowned. “I didn't. I thought that gentry had.”

“No, he crossed them, but his buddies were locked out-for a while, at least. Then I heard someone undoing them. It was our kind of magic. I thought it was you.”

“Why on earth would I do that?”

“Then some other shaman did.” The accusing tone in my voice provided no need for elaboration.

“Stop this. Art and Abigail aren't out doing what you think. They certainly wouldn't break the wards so gentry could attack you. You think they're out in your neighborhood right now? One of the gentry must have done it. You were probably distracted.”

“Have you lost all faith in me? All you keep saying tonight is that I'm wrong, that I'm mistaken. Roland, I know what shamanic magic feels like. Just like I know what gentry magic feels like, especially considering-as you keep pointing out-I use it all the time.”

I'm not sure which part of my tirade did it, but I could tell he was done with the conversation. There was something weary in his face that made him look older than he was. “I'm not going to stand out here in the dark and argue with you, Eugenie. All I can ask is that if you can't control yourself for my sake, then think of your mother. Otherwise, do what you want.”

“Roland…”

But he was already walking away into the night, and as I watched the man I'd always regarded as my father leave, I uneasily wondered whose daughter I truly was.