Thorn Queen (Page 20)

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Tim surfaced the next morning after some liaison or another, and I decided not to mention that our wards had been broken. He handled my array of paranormal activities fairly good-naturedly, but that was largely because they usually didn't follow me home. So, I called the witch who'd originally laid the wards and asked her to come back and discreetly redo them, scheduling a time when I knew Tim would be out.

After that it was off to the first shamanic job I'd had in a while, fighting a nixie who'd taken up residence in some poor family's swimming pool. The ease with which I dispatched her was a bit alarming. Earlier in the year, Dorian and I had fought off a group of them that Jasmine had sent. Dorian had done the fighting, and at the time, they'd seemed overwhelming. Now, with my magic becoming more and more instinctual, fighting a water creature like this was ridiculously simple. Admittedly, I still banished her the old-fashioned way, not wanting to rely on magic more than I had to. I didn't agree with Roland about its use-though my fight with him still stung-but it was exhilarating recalling how easily I'd fought the water elemental. If I could only summon water creatures like Jasmine could, my life would be easier still.

And speaking of Jasmine, I summoned Volusian away from her later that evening. I was going to the Thorn Land shortly and felt confident that she wouldn't get knocked up before then. Well, I hoped so, at least.

Volusian appeared in the darkest corner of my bedroom, scaring off one of the cats that had been sleeping on my bed. “My mistress calls,” he said in his monotone.

“I have a job for you.”

“Of course.”

“I need you to go to Yellow River and check out the house of a shaman there. Do not let him see you-or sense you, if you can help it.” My vibe from Art was that while he could fight Otherworldly creatures, he didn't possess the same sensitivity I did.

“And what would my mistress like me to do once I am there?”

“Look around. Tell me if there's anything suspicious going on-particularly in regard to any gentry girls. Make sense?”

Volusian's look was scathing. “Certainly it makes sense. Do not confuse me with the other underlings who serve you.”

Once he had the address, he disappeared in that way of his, and I sighed. It might be worth enslaving another minion destined for the Underworld. It was easy enough for me, particularly if I got one who wasn't too strong. I didn't have a huge amount of respect for Volusian, but he'd been right about one thing. He was so powerful that his skills were better suited to protection and battle. A lesser spirit would suffice for all these errands I seemed to be sending him on lately.

That was a thought for another day. For now, it was back to the Thorn Land. I planned on spending the night there since I wanted to get an early start on our demon hunting. Kiyo had said he'd come at sunrise, and I didn't want to miss a moment of being with him.

When I arrived at my castle, I was a bit surprised to see a party going on. Well, not a true party, but Shaya, Rurik, and a few of the other head servants were hanging out in one of the parlors, drinking wine and laughing. Girard was still around and had joined them. Even Ysabel was there, looking happy for a change. None of them seemed to have expected me that night and most leapt up like naughty children. Shaya started to stammer something like an apology, but I silenced her with a gesture.

“No, no. Keep having fun.” I somehow always thought of them as utilitarian fixtures around here, but of course, they were only human-well, figuratively speaking-and entitled to their downtime.

After a few uneasy moments, they settled back down, and Rurik offered me a glass of wine. I shook my head. “You know,” he said, “that your minion disappeared.”

“Yeah, I know. I sent him on a task.”

“I doubled the guards on her when I heard.”

“Good. Let's hope she's managed to keep her clothes on in this short of time.”

“You should have killed her,” Ysabel noted darkly.

I ignored that and turned away, leaving them to their party. “I'm going to check on her myself.”

The bedroom Shaya had assigned Jasmine was one floor up and very cleverly chosen-not that I'd expect any less from Shaya. It was spacious and furnished but not so large that the guards within couldn't see her most of the time-the bathroom excluded. The room's one window was only a tiny slit, too small for anyone to get out of. Four guards stood on duty outside and four within. To my relief, Jasmine simply lay on her bed, reading one of the books I'd sent. Girard's new cuffs had a longer, thinner chain that gave her much more range of motion but was packed with iron. Those blue-gray eyes looked up at my approach, but the rest of her didn't move.

“Oh. You.”

I sat down on a narrow wicker bench and sent the guards outside with a curt nod. “I came to check on you.”

“Right. Because you care so much.”

“I do. Well, kind of.”

“The only things you care about are having the heir yourself and forcing me to get rid of your monsters.”

“Demons,” I corrected. “And believe me, the last thing I want is to have the heir.”

“I heard the guards talking. They said you've been hanging out with Dorian a lot. Why else would you do that? No one else would rather have our father's grandson. Well, except Aeson.” A grimace fell over her face at the mention of her old lover.

“Dorian's just my friend, something you'll understand when you're older.” Oh, Eugenie, you are such a hypocrite. “And you're better off without Aeson.”

Her eyes returned to her book. “I loved Aeson. You have no idea what love is.”

“Oh, I do. I know that it's the best high and the worst hurt all at the same time-not to mention confusing as hell.”

Jasmine looked back at me, still sullen but with a new sort of consideration. “What do you want? Are you just here to babysit me until that fucking imp comes back? God, I hate him.”

I started to tell her to watch her language and then decided there was no point. “I came to tell you we're going to take out those demons tomorrow.”

“At gunpoint.”

“I don't have a choice. They're terrorizing people. How can you not understand how serious that is?”

She shrugged with her typical apathy and pushed some of that long blond hair out of her face. “Your problem. Not mine.” Self-centered brat. She frowned for a moment, though. “Are they still taking girls?” She sounded almost concerned. Almost.

“I don't know,” I admitted. “I don't know if this group's connected or not. I actually think there are humans involved.”

The book slipped to her lap, forgotten. “Why would they do that? That doesn't make any sense.”

“I'll tell you when you're older,” I said dryly, which was silly considering all that she'd been through. “And you're certain…you're certain the group chasing you wasn't human?”

“Yes, for like the hundredth time. They were shining ones.”

“You said they were soldiers….” A startling thought came to me. “Leather armor? Red shirts?”

“That's how soldiers dress, isn't it? Well, maybe not the red shirt. Depends on who they work for, I guess. I don't remember the color.”

“Does it happen a lot?” I asked, recalling past thoughts about the similarities between the two of us. “Are guys coming after you a lot to…you know…”

“Get me pregnant? Yeah, sometimes.” There was a sad look in her eyes, a very vulnerable one.

“But…you don't always give in…”

“Jesus Christ, Eugenie. I won't sleep with anyone. What kind of a slut do you think I am?”

A considerable one, actually. But I didn't say so, and I wondered if she'd ever been raped. “Sorry. You just seem so anxious to have that baby.”

“Yeah, well, not with just anyone. And certainly not through rape.” She held her head up, a fierce look in her eyes. “No one does that to Storm King's daughter. It's an insult to our father's awesomeness.” Try as she might to deny her heritage, only the human part of her could have pulled up “awesomeness” to refer to a tyrannical fairy warlord.

“You know I don't quite share the same regard for him that you do.”

“I know,” she said. “Which is why you have such bad taste in men. You wouldn't catch me sleeping with a kitsune. I need someone worthy…like Aeson.”

I started to argue again that Aeson had been a despotic asshole but knew logic and love rarely worked together-particularly if my own life was any indication. I was saved from further commentary when a coldness settled into the room and Volusian appeared.

“Fuck,” said Jasmine. Man, did she have a mouth on her.

I stood up, crossing my arms and trying to look imposing. It was a common attitude I kept around Volusian so there would be no question of my control. “Did you go to Art's house?”

“Yes, mistress.”

“And? Did you find anything?”

“No, mistress. I could not enter.”

“What do you mean? Did he invite you out back for beer too?”

Volusian didn't blink. “The house was warded.”

“The house was warded,” I repeatedly flatly. “And you couldn't cross it?”

“They'd have to be some serious wards if he couldn't,” said Jasmine.

“Thanks, Little Miss Stating the Obvious.” I racked my brain, thinking of the local witch network. I didn't know them well enough, not like I knew the shamans. “Where the hell would he find someone that strong?”

“The wards were not the usual type found in the human world. They were laced with magic from this world as well,” continued Volusian.

“What? How would Art get gentry help to lay wards-especially if he's abducting them?”

“Maybe he put a gun to their head,” said Jasmine, in a fair imitation of my own dry tone. Another family trait, perhaps.

“I've got to get into that house,” I muttered. “I guess that's gotta wait like everything else, though. Well, thanks for trying, Volusian.”

“I neither require nor desire your gratitude, mistress. I want nothing in these worlds save your death.”

Jasmine laughed.

“Well, I'm sure you guys'll have a great time together.” I opened the door and beckoned the guards back in. With Volusian back, only two needed to be inside. “I'll see you both in the morning for demon hunting.”

After that, I considered joining the others for their impromptu party but decided that would be the same as a boss crashing her employees' happy hour. Instead, I made my way to my own room but was intercepted by Girard.

“Your majesty.” He swept me a bow in that flourish-filled way of his, making his cloak flare out dramatically. “I've made considerable progress on the project you requested.”

“Already?” I knew he had magic for this kind of thing, but still.

He smiled. “The queen asks, and I obey.”

From within the folds of his cloak, he produced a rolled-up piece of parchment, which he opened up for me. On it was a detailed diagram of a sword, and scrawled all around it were assorted technical notes about weight and composition. Those meant little to me. Mostly I noticed the sword's beauty, particularly its hilt.

“This is lovely,” I said.

“I should hope so. Fit for a king.”

In spite of myself, I smiled back. Dorian had left me in a miasma of emotions, but I'd been trying hard not to let that interfere with the honest favors he'd done me. And when he'd mentioned needing a new sword, I'd gotten the idea yesterday to have Girard make one. By all accounts, there were few more skilled, and his ability to touch iron made him particularly gifted.

Girard traced the line of the sword's blade and tapped the end. “I can work iron into the tip here, and it shouldn't harm the Oak King so long as he's holding the hilt. It also shouldn't affect his ability to control the rest of the blade.” As a master of the earth and its contents, Dorian could infuse copper and sometimes bronze blades with magical heat.

“But the tip will be deadly to his enemies,” I said. The idea to work iron into it had been mine.

“Considerably. I can begin production right away, but I'll need to get an understanding of his current sword's balance before I can finalize this one.”

“He'll be here tomorrow. You can talk to him then.” Dorian too had offered to help oust my demons.

“Excellent. And Mistress Shaya tells me you have the materials here that I could use, if I have your permission to do so. Otherwise, I can return to my workshop in the Rowan Land.”

I shook my head. “No, no. Use whatever you need here.”

His lips twitched in a wry smile. “That's probably just as well. Were I to return home…well, I suspect my lord prince would spend days asking me about you.”

I sighed. “Is he still upset about that?”

“He was, forgive me, quite heartbroken over your rejection of the gift and of him.”

“I didn't want that. I liked him-still do. I just wanted us to be friends.”

“In my experience, your majesty, men and women often have difficulty with that. It's not impossible-but not always easy.”

I thought about Dorian. “That's for damned sure. Well, thank you for this, and let me know if there's anything I can do to help with it. But seriously-don't go work on it now. Go back to that party. Drink up. Flirt with Shaya. She could use a good guy.”

Girard erupted into laughter. It was a rich, honey-filled sound. “I treasure my neck too much to risk the captain of your guards wringing it.”

It took me a moment to catch on. “Who, Rurik? He doesn't like Shaya…not that way, at least. She's too, I don't know, refined. He only goes after trashy kitchen girls.”

Girard merely shrugged.

“I'm serious!” I wasn't sure why this astounded me so much. “They might seem close, but it's because they work together. They're just friends.”

Girard flashed another grin. “Didn't you just hear what I said about men and women being friends?” He dared a wink and bowed again. “Until tomorrow, your majesty.”

I watched him go, that flamboyant red cape swirling around him. I was still in disbelief. Shaya and Rurik? No, it was ridiculous. I was certain she had no interest in him, and if he did want her, it was only for the same cheap reasons he wanted any woman. She was too smart for that.

“You give my lord gifts yet still claim no interest.”

I turned and saw Ysabel standing near a corner in the hall. She'd apparently overheard my conversation with Girard. Did this woman have nothing to do except lurk in halls and wait for me? “He's done a lot of favors for me lately. It's the only way I can really repay him.”

“No doubt there are other ways you could repay him,” she said snidely.

I started to give the “friends” line but had already had enough of that with Girard. “Please, I don't want to go through this same old song and dance. And you know, we both fulfilled our side of the deal with Dorian. I let you teach me. You're free. He's coming here tomorrow to help with the demon problem. Go home with him afterward.”

Those big blue eyes widened in surprise. “Why?”

“Why what?”

“Why would you let me go?”

“Because you don't want to be here. You gave me the foundation of what I need to know, and I've been building on it pretty quickly.” With a shiver, I recalled how I'd nearly suffocated that gentry in my yard. That had been intentional. I had no accident excuses as I'd had with her. It was probably something I shouldn't mention to her quite yet. As it was, she looked troubled enough.

“Yes…you have learned quickly. The magic burns so strongly in you, I don't think it needs much of an excuse to burst out. You really are like Storm King.”

“Did you know him?” I asked curiously. I was always conflicted on hearing about him. Part of me wanted nothing to do with him, yet the other part longed to know more.

“I wouldn't say 'know,'” she mused. “My father was one of his bodyguards, so I saw Storm King a few times. He was…terrifying. Terrifying and awe-inspiring.” She tried to hide her fear but shuddered anyway.

“From what I hear, that's the reaction most people have.” Kiyo too had seen Storm King in his youth, and I'd once had a flashback of my own brief meeting with my father.

“The power you try to summon…he was able to bring it about in a heartbeat. He had only to think about a storm and the world would tremble with its force.”

“Well, I guess everyone can rest easy. I'm a long ways from that.”

“Do you know why?” she asked.

“Practice?”

She shook her head and pursed her lips. “Because for all your titles and regard and impressive use of magic so far…you are still human in your heart.” Human, by her tone, was a very ugly thing to be.

“Not according to my stepfather.” It didn't seem like I'd ever fit anyone's expectations.

“You think like one. You want to divide everything up logically. The way you approach magic, it's very…scientific.” Not a word gentry used very often. “You treat it coldly. You parcel up each fragment of air and categorize it. Magic requires control, yes, but at its heart, it is tied to your emotions. You said you'd summoned lightning accidentally. What was going on?”

“I was scared.” It had also happened, I realized, when I was aroused. “And, um, excited.”

“You were lost in your emotions, and the power seized you. But you'll never be able to do that regularly, never by choice. You repress your emotions. You don't give in to them.” Her smile turned triumphant. “And that is why my lord will never love you like he does me.”

Of course. I should have known there was a barb waiting at the end of this lesson. I wondered what she'd think if she knew her lord had been pretty willing to love me up yesterday.

“Well, thanks for the pep talk, but I'm going to my room now. I meant what I said. Go with Dorian tomorrow and love him as much as you want. I'll carry on without you somehow.” No point in hiding the sarcasm I felt.

Ysabel gave me a sickeningly sweet smile. “You're presuming you'll come back.”

I jerked around and gave her a sharp look. “Are you threatening me?”

“Certainly not. I have nothing to do with your adventure tomorrow. But you're going to face demons. Anything can happen. And if you don't return, I won't weep.”

Great. Nothing like a good omen to go into battle with.