Thorn Queen (Page 6)

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Kiyo always healed quickly, and when we got home that night, he was in fine condition to see who could put on the highest-quality performance in bed. Consequently, he woke in a very cheerful mood the next day, though he still couldn't help a little grumbling about following along yet again. I knew it was all gruffness, though. He liked knowing I was safe, and that warmed something up inside of me.

“You tricked me,” he remarked once we'd crossed over to the Otherworld that morning. I was hoping these bandits would be as easy to dispatch as the kobolds, unnatural hybrids of small animals aside. “After that thing you did in bed…” He sighed happily at the memory of a particularly skillful feat my mouth had performed last night. “Well, you know I'd agree to do anything now.”

“Come on,” I said, still feeling a bit proud. “It has nothing to do with that. Don't you want to see justice served to those who dare torment my subjects?”

“Careful there. People might think you're acting like a real queen.”

I glanced down at my torn jeans and Poison T-shirt. “Well, let's not get carried away. Maybe it'd help if I got a crown like Dorian said.”

To my astonishment, Kiyo's teasing expression immediately hardened. “No. That's the last thing you should do.”

I stared in surprise. “Why not? Too Miss America?”

“It'll make you seem more…official.”

I gestured around at the tapestry-draped castle room we'd appeared in. “We're in a fucking castle, Kiyo. I don't really see how it can get any more official.”

“You don't understand. I mean, you're a queen, yeah, and they all know it…but a lot just see you as this warrior stand-in. Like a regent. Get a crown…start appearing before lots of people in it, and I don't know. It makes you legitimate. It makes it real. It'll be harder for you to get out of this than it already is.”

I thought about how often I'd wished I hadn't been saddled with this land and how often I'd tried to avoid it-yet still kept coming back. “I don't think it can get any harder.”

We found Shaya before heading out on our raid. I'd brought some things that I hoped would help with the Thorn Land's drought and famine. When I gave the first one to her, she could only stare in silence for several moments.

“Your majesty…what is this?”

“It's a children's place mat I got from Joe's Tex-Mex restaurant.” Along with Joe's kid's menu, the place mat also depicted a map of Arizona that kids could color while waiting for their food. I pointed to the assorted symbols on the map. “See, this shows Arizona's natural resources. The stuff that grows and can be found there. Cotton. Copper.”

“What's this?” she asked, pointing to something that resembled a glass of liquid.

I frowned. It certainly wasn't water, that was for damned sure. “I think it's some kind of citrus product. Orange. Grapefruit.” I shrugged. “I think you can grow either in this weather. And that's the point. This land mirrors Tucson, so all the things there should be the same here. There should be copper deposits that you guys can find. That's valuable in trade, right?” Copper was one of the few metals gentry could handle. Iron was right out, being the harbinger of technology. That's what made it one of my most lethal weapons. “And the rest should grow here, if you can find seeds. Someone must have them somewhere, even in this world.”

“They still need water,” she pointed out.

“Right. That's what this is for.” I handed her my next prize: a book. “It's a history of the engineering of wells and aqueducts from ancient and medieval Europe. It should help in moving water around.” She still looked stunned, so I tried to think of something comforting. “I'll help find more water sources too.” I then handed her another book about Southwest architecture, adobe and stucco homes.

She took the books and flipped through them, taking in the dense chapters and diagrams. “I don't think I'm the right person to do this. I don't have the mind for it.”

“Maybe not. But I'm sure you can delegate to someone who can.” I patted her encouragingly on the arm. The truth was, I was as baffled by the book as she was. I could put together jigsaw puzzles in record time. Reading engineering diagrams? Not so much. “Just be careful with them-those are library books.”

I had to go then and felt a little bad about leaving her. Yet, despite her confusion now, I knew she would find people and ways to implement this. She was just that competent. Maybe I should have had more of a hand in this, but hey, I'd been the one who had to choke down Joe's crap Tex-Mex food in order to score the place mat. That had to count for something.

If I'd had my way, I would have just taken Kiyo and gone out to hunt down these bandits ourselves. I had to imagine they were just riffraff and not much of an obstacle to us. Kiyo was a pretty fierce fighter, as last night had shown, and between my weapons and magic, I was his equal. Rurik had protested this plan, however, insisting that he and almost two dozen guards come along. I didn't think this gave us much in the way of stealth, but he'd told me we'd dismount and go on foot once we reached the passes the bandits lived in.

Before we left, I decided we might as well add one more person to our entourage. I stepped into a darkened corner, far from the light of candles in the room, and took out my wand. Immediately, the guards moved away from me. They knew what I was going to do and didn't like it. When something magical made gentry uneasy, you knew it was bad.

I spoke the words of summoning and felt magic move through me. It wasn't the storm magic I'd inherited, the pull to water and air. This was a learned human magic, a way of reaching out to the worlds beyond. The temperature in the room dropped, a sudden shock compared to the dry heat we'd just been in. Then, the cold lifted, and Volusian stood before me.

Volusian was my minion, for lack of a better word. He was a damned soul, cursed to wander without rest for all eternity after committing atrocious acts in life. I'd fought and bound him to me, forcing him to serve me. Volusian wasn't very happy about this and frequently liked to remind me of how he would destroy me if he ever broke free of my control. After hearing stuff like that over and over, it almost took on a familiar feel, kind of like how a pop song heard often enough will work its way into your heart. While Otherworldly spirits often had insubstantial forms in the human world, the shape Volusian had now looked exactly the same as it would if I summoned him back home: a short, imp-like creature with black skin, pointed ears, and red eyes.

“My mistress calls,” he said in a flat voice. “And I answer. Regretfully.”

“Oh, Volusian,” I said cheerfully. “Always a joy to have you around. You're such a ray of sunshine on a dreary day.”

Volusian merely stared.

I turned to the others, hoping I sounded queenly and authoritative. “Alright. Let's go kick some outlaws out of town.”

I still wasn't used to having an entourage of guards. So much of my life had been solitary, so much of it spent fighting on my own…well, I didn't really know what to do with so many people at my back. As we headed toward our destination, I found it was a lot easier to deal with the guards if I just focused on Kiyo and pretended we were alone.

“I can't believe you gave Shaya a place mat and now expect her to revolutionize this place's total infrastructure,” he noted.

“What else am I supposed to do?” I asked. “You were just complaining about me getting too involved in this place. Handing off a place mat is about as uninvolved as I can get-unless you're saying I should take a more active role now?”

“No,” he answered swiftly, face darkening a little. “Believe me, if there were an easy way for you to give up this place, I'd make you do it.”

I cut him a glance. “You'd make me, huh?”

“Encourage,” he amended. “Unfortunately, it's a moot point. The only way to lose a kingdom is if your power drops or…well, if you're killed.”

“I'm sure Volusian would love to help with that.”

My minion walked near me, needing no horse to move swiftly. Upon hearing his name, he said, “I would perform the deed with great relish and much suffering on your part, mistress.”

“You can't put a price on that kind of loyalty,” I told Kiyo solemnly. “No crown even required.”

Kiyo grunted noncommittally. There was a lot of tension between him and Dorian, but the one thing they both agreed on was that Volusian was trouble. Both had encouraged me to get rid of him. I didn't have the power to completely banish him to the Underworld, but it probably could be managed with another magic user. Still, dangerous or no, I continued to retain the spirit's services.

“Are you going to stick around when we're done here?” I asked. That was my subtle way of asking if Kiyo was going to see Maiwenn.

His dark eyes were on the road ahead, thoughtful. “No. I was hoping to go back to Tucson and see if I could get this hot chick I know to go out with me. I hear she's in demand, though. She keeps putting me off each time I try to plan something romantic.”

“Yeah, well, maybe if you come up with a good itinerary, you could lure her out.”

“I was thinking dinner at Joe's.”

I made a face. “If that's the case, maybe you'd better brace yourself for rejection.”

“Red Pepper Bistro?”

“Okay. Now you're in the zone.”

“Followed by a long massage in the sauna.”

“That's pretty good too.”

“And then indecent things in the sauna.”

“I hope you mean you'll be doing the indecent things-because I more than did my share last night.”

Kiyo glanced over at me with a mischievous grin. “Who says I'm talking about you?”

I would have swatted him if he'd been in reach. Instead, I grinned back, my mood happy and light. Bantering with him like this was just like the old days, back before Maiwenn and this baby business was an issue. I felt like his girlfriend again. And despite just having had sex last night, I couldn't deny the truth. Thinking about having sex with him in the sauna was doing uncomfortable-pleasantly uncomfortable-things to my body, particularly with my legs spread like they were. Our gazes met, and I felt an answering heat in his eyes. I remembered how fierce he'd been while throwing himself in front of me last night and could perfectly envision that same fierceness translated into passion in bed. The lines and muscles of his body suddenly seemed that much stronger, and I could imagine his hands all over me….

Rurik trotted up beside me and interrupted my pornographic thoughts. “We need to go on foot now. We're getting close.”

We stopped on the edge of a “forest” comprised of saguaro cactuses and scraggly trees. They spread on ahead of us, up toward some sharp rises in the land that turned into sandy red cliffs studded with rocks. While tethering the horses, Kiyo decided he'd go ahead and scout in fox form.

“If you can't change back, that's going to seriously interfere with our date,” I told him.

He ran a hand along my bare arm, making every part of me tingle. “Nah, nothing's interfering with that. I'll go in small fox form-they'll never see me.”

He slowly shape-shifted, his large, muscled frame growing smaller, then elongating into a red fox about as big as a medium-sized dog. He brushed against my leg and then disappeared into the vegetation ahead. I watched him go. Some part of me would always worry about those I loved, but overall, I had confidence in Kiyo when it came to dangerous situations.

The rest of us milled about in the midday heat, passing water around. About twenty minutes later, Kiyo returned. With each approaching step, he transformed from a cuddly furry critter into the man I loved. Not that I didn't love him as a fox too.

“They're over there, just like we thought,” Kiyo said. There was kind of a lope as he walked, a leftover from the fox form. It was both cute and sexy at the same time. “Looks like they're camped out and resting for the day.”

“Any lookouts?” asked Rurik.

Kiyo grinned. “Not anymore.”

I rolled my eyes. “Did you see any girls?”

His smile faded. “No. Just the bandits. They've got a few less people than we do.”

“Well, that's good,” I said, frowning. No girls. What did that mean? Had the couple in the village been wrong? Maybe their daughter really had run off with her boyfriend. Still, if this group was harassing people, getting rid of them would certainly be a good deed.

Kiyo and Rurik plotted strategy on how to sneak up on the camp, and our group set off, planning to fan out around the brigands. With no lookouts, the gang had no one to warn them of our approach and seemed totally unaware when we got our first glimpse of them. They were mostly men, with a few women. The women clearly weren't captured girls, though. They were older and hardened from harsh living. The whole group looked like it had seen hard times, actually. There was a toughness about them that suggested they'd fight tooth and nail.

Based on an earlier discussion, I'd thought our whole group would just swoop down at once. Instead, one of my guards suddenly stepped out and shouted, “Surrender in the name of the queen!”

Oh God, I thought. He did not just say that.

There was no time to ponder it further as my party charged forward. “Remember,” I hissed to Volusian. “Subdue. Don't kill.”

He didn't look happy about this. Of course, he never looked happy. The rest of my guards had orders to avoid killing if they could but not to hesitate if it was their life or a bandit's. I wanted prisoners we could question later and didn't really like the idea of furthering my tyrannical image if I could help it.

As I'd expected, the bandits fought back. No surrender here. They had conventional gentry weapons, as well as some weak fighting magic. It became clear early on that taking prisoners was a little harder than killing. Killing was fast. Taking someone down and tying them up was a little more complicated. It exposed you to attacks from others. Nonetheless, I saw my guards handily bind two of the bandits right away. A couple other bandits got killed shortly thereafter, but they'd had knives at my men's throats and left us no alternative. Kiyo and I were working together to tie a flailing man up when I suddenly felt a surge of magic in the air.

I stopped what I was doing. It wasn't gentry magic. In fact, none of the others noticed it right away. As a shaman, I'd developed a sensitivity to creatures and powers from the different worlds. This power made my skin prickle and had a slimy, oily feel to it. It wasn't from the human world or even the Otherworld. There were Underworld creatures here.

“Demons,” I said, just as they materialized within the camp. “There are fucking demons here.”