Thorn Queen (Page 4)

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We left as soon as etiquette said we could. I tried using Shaya's argument about eccentric queens doing whatever they wanted, but it didn't work on her. She said if we didn't stay a certain amount of time, I'd appear intimidated by Maiwenn. So, we stuck around a bit longer than I liked before finally making formal farewells to the others. Kiyo was preoccupied with a group of well-wishers, but he looked up at my departure and smiled. He mouthed the word soon.

My group rode back in a subdued mood. The urgency was gone, and I think my glum attitude threw a cloud over everyone. Seeing Maiwenn and Kiyo had bothered me more than I liked to admit, and Dorian…well, that was another story. For now, I wanted nothing more than to cross over to my own world, throw on pajamas, and watch mindless TV. Possibly while eating ice cream.

And as our journey continued, ice cream sounded more and more appealing once we crossed back into the Thorn Land. The sun was sinking, but heat still radiated off the sand and rocks. It wouldn't dissipate for another couple hours, and even at midnight, the temperature probably wouldn't drop below seventy. I'd changed back to my shorts and sunglasses before leaving Maiwenn's, so again, the heat didn't bother me as much as it did the others. Dorian had claimed my sundress would catch on as a fashion trend; I wondered if shorts would as well.

“There's a village ahead,” murmured Rurik.

I snapped out of my daydreams and followed his gesture. Sure enough, a small cluster of buildings darkened the horizon. Like my castle, it was something more suited to a medieval British landscape than the desert. Considering how infrequently I visited my kingdom, this was the first settlement I'd seen outside of the castle. It unnerved me a little, my discomfort growing when I saw that our road went straight through the town. Damned twisting Otherworld. This village hadn't been here on our earlier trip.

And for that reason, I knew better than to suggest we go around it. With the way this world worked, a slight deviation could toss us into the Rowan Land or add hours onto our trip. Steeling myself, I tightened my grip on the reins, deciding that this place looked small and wouldn't take long to clear.

When we entered its outskirts, though, I discovered something that made me lose my resolve. The road was lined with people. It was like everyone in the town had come out to see us pass through. They stood along the sides, staring at my party and again looking like extras from some medieval movie. Except, it must have been a low-budget movie. The people's clothes were ragged and dirty, their faces gaunt. Everyone seemed too skinny, even the children and babies held in parental arms.

My unease grew as we rode deeper into the heart of the village. I hated crowds and having eyes upon me. There was something discomfiting about this particular group. Their expressions were either completely blank or…well, terrified. Everything was dead silent.

“What are they scared of?” I whispered to Rurik.

He gave me an amused glance. “You, of course.”

“Me?” I squeaked. Glancing at my attire, I tried to imagine how out of place I looked here. Was my foreignness that frightening?

“You're their queen. Everyone knows how you slaughtered Aeson-and that isn't a particularly heartwarming tale. Likewise, Storm King's legacy of terror lives on after all these years. You've inherited it.”

“So, what, they see me as some kind of tyrant?”

He shrugged. “You're their queen,” he repeated, as though that explained everything.

I'd never wanted to be queen. I certainly didn't want to be seen as some kind of despot queen either. I didn't want these eyes upon me, these eyes that all seemed to be filled with apathy, judgment, and a kind of weary defeat. I breathed a sigh of relief when we reached what looked to be the halfway point. All of a sudden, a man stepped in front of us, bringing us to a halt.

He was an older gentry, tall and gray-haired. He was skinny and clothed only a little better than the rest, though there was an air of dignity and authority that made him stand out. When he saw he had our attention, he swept me a bow so low, his face nearly touched the dusty road.

“To Eugenie, great queen of the Thorn Land, I offer the most humble greetings of your servant, Davros.”

At least, that's what I think he said. He was bent so low that his words came out muffled. I glanced uneasily at the others in my group, unsure what to do. They all remained silent and looked at me expectantly. Oh, sure. They were full of advice back at Maiwenn's, but when it came to peasants groveling in the road? That was apparently all me.

“Please, um, stand up,” I managed at last. “Um, Davros.”

He rose, clasping his hands in front of him, looking totally overwhelmed that I'd used his name.

“Thank you, your majesty. I am the mayor of this village. Words cannot express what an honor it is to have you among us.”

Considering what Rurik had just told me about my reputation here, I wasn't entirely sure I believed Davros' words. I forced a smile.

“Thanks. We're just passing through on our way back to the castle.”

Davros spread his hands wide. “I hope, then, that you'll consider resting and taking a brief refreshment in my home.”

“Oh, well, that's really nice, but-“

Shaya cleared her throat loudly. I glanced over at her. She gave me a pointed look that gave no question to what she wanted me to do. Grimacing, I glanced back down at poor, groveling Davros. Damn. I wanted nothing more than to get out of the Otherworld right now. I didn't want to stop for teatime. My expression must have looked scary because Davros blanched and lowered his head meekly.

I sighed. “We'd love to.”

Mayor or not, Davros didn't have a very big house. Only Shaya, Rurik, and I joined him inside, while the rest of my party milled around outdoors. From the village, Davros had invited a few other important officials, as well as his wife and two grown sons. We sat at a round oak table while his wife served us red wine and something that reminded me of baklava. I sipped only a little of the wine, not wanting to risk dehydration in this weather.

I wasn't much better at making conversation here than at Maiwenn's, but fortunately, there was no need for me to do anything. Davros and his associates kept the talking going, most of the conversation centering on how glad they were that I had come by, what an honor it was to meet me, how they hoped I'd call on them if I needed anything, et cetera, et cetera.

Which was why it was a bit shocking when Davros' wife suddenly asked, “But if you would, your majesty, please tell us what it is we've done to displease you. We'll do anything at all to make amends and gain your favor once more. Anything.”

I almost choked on the honey cake. “What do you mean…displease me?”

The villagers exchanged glances. “Well…,” said Davros at last. “There must be something. You've placed a blight on the land, stripping us of our water and food. Surely we've done something to warrant your most righteous displeasure.”

“You need only let us know what it is,” piped in someone else. “We will do anything you require to lift this curse from us.”

This was the most astonishing thing to happen to me all day-which was saying something. I looked at Shaya and Rurik for help, having no clue how to respond to this. For a moment, I thought they would once again make me fend for myself, until Shaya finally spoke.

“The residents had built their lives around the shape of the land when Aeson ruled it, when it was the Alder Land. When it transformed itself to you, their old ways no longer worked. Their crops don't grow in this weather. The wells have run dry.”

I stared at her in shock. Never, never had this occurred to me-but then, it wasn't like I'd spent a whole lot of time thinking about the Thorn Land. Most of my energy had been spent on figuring out how to avoid it. Studying Shaya, I wondered how long she'd known about this. I somehow doubted there was much that went on around here that she didn't know about. From the looks of Rurik's averted gaze, it appeared as though he'd known about this problem as well. Both knew how upset I got when forced to deal with any sort of queenly issues. So both had spared me the details while these people suffered.

I turned back to Davros. “It's not a curse…it's, I don't know, it's just the way the land is. The way I wanted it to be.”

Astonished looks met me, and I could only imagine what a freak I sounded like. When Aeson had ruled, this land had been green and lush, filled with forests and fertile farmland. Who in their right mind would turn it into a desert? Davros confirmed as much.

“But this land…this land is impossible to survive in,” he said.

“Not where I come from,” I told him. “This is like the land I grew up in. People live and flourish there.”

People also had modern ways of bringing in water and shopping for whatever other stuff they might need. And that wasn't even taking air-conditioning into account.

“How?” he asked.

I didn't know how to readily answer. I didn't really understand the intimate details of my world's infrastructure. I turned a faucet and water came out. I went to the grocery store and bought milk and Pop-Tarts. Desperately, I racked my brain and tried to pull out elementary school lessons about Arizona's history.

“Irrigation,” I said lamely. “Squash, I think. And, um, corn.” Had the natives grown corn? Or was I getting confused by stereotypes? Shit. I was so ignorant. The only thing I felt confident of was that Pop-Tarts were not cultivated natively in Arizona. The looks the others gave me told me I wasn't helping this situation any.

I glanced at Shaya and Rurik, but this time, no help came. The full weight of what I'd done started to sink in. Maybe I hadn't wanted this land. Maybe I hadn't intentionally turned it into a mirror of wild Tucson. The point was: it was done. The Thorn Land was as it was, and taking in these ragged and starving people, I realized it was all my fault. Only, I had no clue how to fix it. I was too much a product of modern innovation. There was nothing I could do.

Scratch that. There was one thing I could do.

I abruptly stood from the table, catching everyone by surprise. As custom dictated, they all hastily scrambled and rose as well. Without explaining myself, I headed outside, back out into the village. Behind me, I could hear Davros babbling something, apparently thinking they'd again caused offense. They probably thought I was about to send lightning bolts from the sky.

As it was, that might not have been a bad idea-if I actually had that power. These people could certainly use rain. But one rainstorm wouldn't fix things, and I could hardly do it day after day. Instead, I walked out to the middle of the street and came to a halt. My guards straightened up, awaiting my orders, and other residents stopped to see what was happening. Those from Davros' gathering soon poured out of the house and joined everyone else.

I closed my eyes, opening myself to the world around me. I smelled the clean, fresh scent of the desert and the faint, faint breeze blowing through it. The setting sun warmed my skin. Then, I pushed deeper, reaching out to that which the magic within me instinctively bonded to. I felt the minuscule water vapor in the air, but that wasn't what I wanted. I had to go further. I sent my magical senses into the ground, seeking water throughout the village. None. I remembered what Shaya had said about wells drying up, which meant the surface wasn't going to yield anything. That meant I'd have to go deeper still.

There. Back in the direction we'd entered town, I felt a hit. I opened my eyes and strode toward it, the water calling to me. I was vaguely aware of a crowd following me, but I paid them no attention. Only the water was my goal. When I reached the spot, I found that it was just on the town's outer edge. A mesquite tree grew nearby, which should have been a tip-off. They had deep feelers that penetrated the earth in search of moisture.

I too sent my power into the ground, trying to summon the water up. There was a lot of dirt between me and it, and I realized it wouldn't do these people any good in the long term to just suck it to the surface right now. I turned around and found Davros right behind me, face anxious. I pointed to the ground.

“You guys need to dig here. Right now. There's water here.”

He stared at me, mouth agape. A moment later, he snapped out of it and turned to those nearest him. “You heard the queen! Fetch shovels immediately. And find anyone who can work with the earth.”

Earth magic. A smart idea. Gentry didn't have bulldozers or drills, but they did have people who could throw around huge piles of dirt, which was pretty sweet for this kind of thing. Dorian-who was probably the strongest earth user in the Otherworld-could cause earthquakes and level buildings.

In minutes, a group had assembled. I tried to take a shovel and help, but that nearly caused Shaya and Davros to have a heart attack. Queens didn't do that kind of work. Instead, I stepped back, watching as the other villagers used magic and manual labor to dig where I'd indicated. When the hole grew too deep for shovels, the village's two earth-magic users took over. Even combined, they were nowhere near Dorian in strength, but they definitely sped the process along, kicking up towers of dirt along the sides. Finally, I heard a great cheer. Everyone else and I crowded to the hole's sides, peering down. It was deep in the ground, but muddy water was slowly filling up the bottom.

I looked at Davros. “Can you guys turn this into a well?” I certainly hoped so because I sure as hell had no idea how to do it. I imagined it involved stones and a bucket, but maybe that was just my naïve fairy-tale images.

His head bobbed eagerly. “Yes, yes, your majesty. Thank you, your majesty.”

After that, it was nearly impossible to leave. I was regarded as a miracle worker. I was no longer the tyrant queen. I was their savior, the generous and wonderful monarch who had brought life to their land. I declined their pleas to stay and celebrate but told them I'd be back with other ways to save their town. Admittedly, I had no idea what that would entail, but mentioning such a minor detail would have seriously brought down everyone's mood.

When we were finally mounted up and able to head out, I suddenly felt a tug on my shoe. Surprised, I looked down and saw a middle-aged man gazing up at me. A similarly aged woman stood close beside him.

“How dare you touch the queen!” gasped Davros. From his face, it looked like he was seriously afraid I might level the town.

I waved him off. “It's okay.”

The man who'd pulled my leg regarded me pleadingly. “Please, your majesty. My wife and I have a boon to ask of you!”

“That's a favor or a request,” said Rurik helpfully.

“I know what a boon is,” I snapped. I looked back down at the couple, unwilling to make any promises yet. “What is it?”

The man put his arm around the woman. “We've heard that you're both a great warrior and a great magic user.”

“And clearly kind and compassionate,” added his wife.

“And?” I asked.

“And very beautiful and-“

“No,” I exclaimed. “I mean, what's your boon?”

“Our daughter has been taken,” the woman said, eyes filling with tears. “We beg you to help us get her back.”

“Whoa. That might be a little beyond my reach,” I told them. “When you say taken, do you mean, like, kidnapped?”

They both nodded, and I was swept by a strange sense of deja vu. I'd first stumbled into this Otherworldly mess when I'd been hired in the human world to also find a missing girl. The girl had turned out to be Jasmine, though I'd had no clue at the time that she was half-gentry, let alone my sister. Was my life destined to be filled with missing girls?

Davros stepped forward, looking upset and embarrassed. “Your majesty, please ignore them for troubling you with something so meaningless. Their daughter was not taken by anyone. She ran off to Highmore with her lover from a neighboring village.”

I glanced at Shaya and Rurik. “What's Highmore?”

“Really?” asked Rurik dryly. “I thought you already knew everything.”

I glared at him.

“It's a city,” said Shaya. “The largest in this kingdom.”

“Wait, what? I have cities?” I asked, feeling my eyes go wide. The distraught couple interrupted my new revelation.

“Davros is wrong,” the woman said. “Our daughter did not run off. She was taken by the bandits who live in the passes.”

“Everyone knows they're there,” added the man. He eyed Davros. “Them and their beasts. Even you won't deny their existence. They've been there for years, and she isn't the first girl to disappear.”

I turned to Davros. “Is that true?”

He shifted uncomfortably under my gaze. “Well, yes, your majesty, but such brigands are nothing you need to concern yourself about, just as King Aeson did not.”

“Wait. Aeson knew there were bandits going after you guys and didn't do anything?”

“Such petty concerns were beneath him,” said Davros. To my astonishment, he seemed to believe that.

“I don't know,” I said slowly. “If a monarch doesn't take care of that kind of thing, I'm not really sure what they're supposed to do.”

Truthfully, I didn't want to deal with this any more than I wanted any other Thorn Land responsibilities. But the mention of Aeson had stirred my blood. Aeson had been a self-serving asshole, and it pissed me off that he would have left these people to fend for themselves. The only thing I wanted less than to be a ruler was to be a ruler like him.

Furthermore, the same fury that Jasmine's abduction had stirred in me flared up. Maybe it was my own experience with always being chased down by aggressive men, but I hated the thought of any girl facing rape or abduction. It didn't matter that these were gentry girls and not humans. The principle was the same. Brigands and thieves taking advantage of young girls, of preying on those weaker, had to be stopped.

“I'll send people to take care of these bandits,” I said finally. Behind me, Rurik made a strange sound. “But I can't make any guarantees about your daughter.”

The couple's faces lit up, and they fell to the ground in gratitude. “Thank you, your majesty!” the woman cried.

Her husband chimed in. “Truly you are generous and magnanimous and-“

“Yeah, okay, there's no need for that,” I said hastily. “Or to kneel. You're going to get all dirty.”

We had just started to ride away when Shaya leaned toward me. “You've made a lot of promises today.”

I thought about it. She was right. I'd promised to help them get food, rebuild their infrastructure, and rid themselves of those who preyed upon them. “Yeah. I guess I did.”

She gave me a bemused look. “And how are you going to accomplish all of this?”

I glanced around us, noting that the faces watching us leave town were no longer blank and afraid. They were grateful and adoring. I sighed.

“That,” I told her, “is an excellent question.”