Thorn Queen (Page 8)

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Kiyo was gone the next morning, as I'd suspected he would be. We'd stumbled inside to my little-used bedroom once it started raining, and his side of the bed was cold, telling me he'd left some time ago. I sighed, trying not to let the knowledge of him being with Maiwenn get me down, and headed out to see what was going on in Queen Eugenie's domain.

The first thing I picked up on was that everyone was really excited that it had rained. We'd returned to normal sunny conditions this morning, but last night's rain had brought the land to life. Cacti bloomed. The trees seemed stronger. And while there were no ostensible signs of excess water, I could sense it in the ground and even slightly in the air.

Had having sex caused it? Maybe. Maybe not. Regardless, I was pleased with my good deed. I made motions to leave, but Rurik stopped me.

“Don't you want to question the prisoners?”

I paused. What I wanted was to go home, shower, and change into clean clothes. “Can't you do that?” I asked.

He frowned. “Well, certainly, but…”

But it should be my job. That was the unspoken message. I suspected Aeson would have never done such a thing. He would have left it to thugs. I knew if I delegated it to Rurik, he'd do it without (much) complaint. There was something in his eyes, though, that told me he expected more of me than an ordinary monarch. I'd never expected to gain such regard from him-or to feel so uneasy about it. Rurik had pissed me off to no end in the past, but suddenly, I didn't want to disappoint him.

“Okay,” I said. “Let's do it.”

I'd interrogated plenty of monsters, gentry, and even humans in my day. But there was something weird about interrogating prisoners. It was strange enough to learn that I actually had a dungeon in the castle. There were even shackles on the wall, but thankfully, our two prisoners weren't bound. They were a man and a woman, both ragged and sullen. He looked my age; she looked older.

I entered the bronze-barred cell, Rurik and another guard behind me. I crossed my arms over my chest and swallowed my misgivings. I was Eugenie Markham, badass shaman and slayer of Otherworldly miscreants. This was no different from any of my other jobs.

“Okay,” I told the prisoners, my voice harsh. “We can make this easy or hard. Answer my questions, and it'll go a lot faster and smoother for all of us.”

The woman glared at me. “We don't answer to you.”

“That's the funny thing,” I said. “You do. You're in my land. You're under my rule, my jurisdiction.”

She spat on the ground. “You're a usurper. You stole the land from Aeson.”

Considering the way power was always shifting in the Otherworld, I found that statement ludicrous. “Everyone's a usurper here. And in case you haven't heard, I didn't steal the land from him so much as blow him up.”

Her face remained hard, but I saw the slightest flicker of fear in the guy's face. I turned to him. “What about you? You going to be reasonable? Are you going to tell me where the girls you kidnapped are?”

He nervously glanced at his companion. She gave him a hard look, its message easily interpretable: Don't talk.

I sighed. I didn't want to resort to torture. All-powerful ruler or not, it was just an ugly thing I didn't want to dirty my hands with. I had a feeling my iron athame pointed at their throats would go a long way to get them to communicate. Instead, I opted for another solution.

Producing my wand, I stepped away from the others and spoke the words to summon Volusian. The momentary cold descended upon us, and then the spirit stood before me. Rurik and the guard were growing accustomed to this, but the prisoners gasped.

“Volusian,” I said. “Got a task for you.”

“As my mistress commands.”

I gestured to the prisoners. “I need you to put muscle on them. Get them to talk.”

Volusian's red eyes widened slightly, the closest he ever came to looking happy.

“But you can't kill them,” I added hastily. “Or hurt them-much.”

The pseudo-happiness disappeared.

“Start with the guy,” I said.

Volusian sidled across the cell and was only reaching his hand out when the guy cracked. “Alright! Alright! I'll talk,” he cried.

“Stop, Volusian.”

The spirit stepped back, his glum expression growing.

“I don't know anything about girls disappearing,” the man said. “We aren't taking them.”

“You've been preying on people,” I pointed out. “And girls have been vanishing near your base of operation. Seems kind of suspicious.”

He shook his head frantically, eyeing Volusian warily. “No, it's not us.”

“Have you heard of them disappearing?”

“Yes. But it's not us.” His words were adamant.

“Yeah, well, I find it hard to believe they're all running off. If it's not you, then who is it?”

“You're a fool,” the woman snapped. “What would we do with a group of girls?”

“The same thing men usually use girls for,” I replied.

“We can barely feed our own people! Why would we take on more mouths to feed?”

That was kind of a good question. “Well, you still haven't really given me another explanation.”

“We heard a monster's doing it,” the man blurted out.

“A monster,” I repeated flatly. I looked over to Rurik who simply shrugged. I turned back to the prisoners. “Any details on this monster?”

Neither responded. It was strange, particularly considering how some prejudiced part of me still regarded most gentry as dishonest, but I believed them about not taking the girls. I thought the monster explanation was bullshit, but they might honestly have believed it to be true. Volusian took a step forward without my command, and the guy hastily spoke.

“The monster lives in our land. In the Ald-Thorn Land, that is.”

“How do you know that?” I asked.

“Because only girls from the Thorn Land have disappeared,” the woman said. “Westoria borders the Rowan Land, and two of their villages are very close. Skye and Ley. But they've had no one go missing.”

“You guys seem to know a lot about this for allegedly not being involved.”

“We don't need to be involved. We raid both sides of the border-word gets around.” She spoke of her raiding as a matter of pride, and I tried not to roll my eyes.

“Okay. Let's put the girls on hold. Where did the fire demons come from?”

No answer.

I sighed again. “Volusian.”

Volusian swiftly moved forward again and wrapped his hand around the guy's throat. Most spirits had little substance, but with his power, Volusian was as solid as any of us, his touch cold and deadly. The man screamed and crumpled to the ground.

“Stop! Stop!” yelled the woman. “I'll tell you.”

I halted Volusian and looked at her expectantly. The man remained on the floor, rubbing his throat and moaning. The skin on his neck bore bright red marks. The woman looked angrier than ever.

“It's our leader who summons them. Cowan.”

“You expect me to believe some vagrant has that kind of power?” I asked. “Why isn't he off working for a noble?”

“He was a noble, one of Aeson's advisors. He preferred to live a rough life, rather than work for someone like you.”

“Aeson did have a noble named Cowan,” Rurik said. “Her story isn't implausible.”

I suddenly felt weary. None of these were the answers I wanted. No leads on the girls, and now I had a rogue noble who could summon demons. “Okay,” I said. “That's all I've got for now.”

“What are you going to do with us?” the woman demanded.

“Another excellent question,” I murmured.

“Aeson would have killed them,” said Rurik.

“And you know I'm not Aeson.”

Would setting them free accomplish anything? Much of what they'd done had been from hunger and desperation, not that that justified robbing and potentially killing and kidnapping. If I freed them out of guilt, I doubted they'd learn their lessons and go on to become upright citizens. I certainly wasn't going to kill them, though. I didn't even want to hold them in this cell much longer.

The guard who'd accompanied Rurik cleared his throat. “Your majesty, you could sentence them to a work detail.”

“A work detail?”

“There are others like them, other criminals, who serve a term doing labor as punishment for their deeds.”

“Like digging your aque…whatever,” said Rurik.

That didn't sound so bad. And hey, it might actually be useful. I gave the order and was assured the two prisoners would be transported to their work site. The whole thing felt a little strange. Here I was judge, jury, and-if I chose-executioner. No one argued with my decision. No one questioned the time I set-six months. Although, Rurik's arched eyebrow made me think he would have sentenced them to life.

“Okay,” I said when we'd emerged out of the lower levels of the castle and I'd sent away Volusian. “Now I'm going home.”

Shaya suddenly rounded the corner. “There you are,” she said anxiously. “I've been looking for you.”

“I'm leaving.”

Her face turned confused. “But Prince Leith is here to see you.”

“Who…oh.” The image came back to me. The moderately cute guy from the party. The Rowan Queen's son, who hadn't been all that annoying. “Why is he here?”

“After your last visit, I dispatched those with any affinity for metal out to search for copper. They found a lot of it-thought it's been difficult to extract-and I sent out word that we'd be in a position to set up trade for it soon. Leith is here to negotiate on behalf of his mother.”

“Man,” I said. “You guys move fast.”

Her looked turned wry. “Well, yes, but there's also the fact that you invited him to visit sometime. He's taking you up on the offer. In fact, I suspect seeing you is more important than the trade negotiations.”

“Good thing. Because I'm not so good in the way of negotiations.” I never wore a watch and had left my cell phone back in Tucson. I had no idea what time it was, only that I was spending more and more time in the Otherworld. Seeing Leith was only going to delay me further. “I'll see him. But it's going to be fast.”

Shaya looked relieved. I think she'd worried I would bolt, which was a very good fear to have. As we walked to the chamber Leith was waiting in, she gave me a curious look. “Perhaps you'd…like to change and clean up first?”

I looked at my clothes. They were pretty badly wrinkled, and I didn't doubt that I had grass in my hair from last night.

“No,” I said. “The less appealing he finds me, the better.”

Unfortunately, that proved impossible. When we entered the room, Leith leapt up, face aglow with delight. “Your majesty! It's so wonderful to see you again.” He swept me a half-bow and kissed my hand. “You look amazing.” He was apparently into the grunge look. “I hope you don't mind me arriving like this. When my mother heard the news of your find, she wanted to make sure we could get in on it as soon as possible.”

“Sure,” I said, taking my hand back. “No problem.”

The room was a comfortable parlor that still bore the signs of Aeson's tastes in decorating. Tapestries, lots of velvet, and dark colors. Everyone waited for me to sit on one of the plush sofas and then followed suit. I made a point of kind of sprawling on mine. It wouldn't have been out of the range of gentry etiquette for Leith to come snuggle up beside me. As it was, he was still beaming at me and seemed a bit put out when Shaya jumped right in.

“So, your highness. We'd like to discuss trading our copper for your wheat.”

As they began to talk, I had a sudden flashback to that god-awful board game my mother used to make me play, Pit. I let my mind wander as the two of them hashed out the finer details of matters I didn't entirely understand. My thoughts drifted to some upcoming jobs I had, the mystery of the demons and the missing girls, and of course, Kiyo. Always Kiyo.

Leith and Shaya wrapped up their negotiations fairly quickly. From the happy look on her face, I took it our team had come out ahead. With a polite bow in my direction, Shaya rose, holding some papers to her chest. “If you'll excuse me, I'm going to have these written up and formalized so that the prince can sign them before he leaves.”

I took this as my cue to entertain him, but nothing readily came to mind. I couldn't really talk to him about reality TV or American politics. Finally, lamely, I said, “Thanks for your help. I mean, with the trade and everything.”

He grinned. “We're getting as much out of it as you. Maybe more.”

“Shaya didn't seem to think so,” I said, speaking without thinking.

This made him laugh. “She's a good negotiator. You're lucky to have her.” He leaned forward. “Especially since I'm guessing this really isn't your…well, let's just say it's not one of your normal pastimes.”

The frankness caught me by surprise. I'd expected him to remain starstruck and silly, like most of the guys around here who wanted to hit on me. Leith's current expression wasn't lecherous or adoring now, just knowing and sympathetic.

“No, it's really not. This is a kind of a big life change.”

“And yet, you knew you'd be taking this on when you defeated Aeson.”

I hesitated. Both Shaya and Rurik had hinted to me on a number of occasions that I really shouldn't elaborate on the totally unexpected-and unwanted-nature of my queen-ship. Even if I hadn't fought Aeson with the specific intent of supplanting him, the point remained now that I was stuck with this. Coming across as weak and whiny to those outside my inner circle could create more problems.

“Well, yeah,” I said brightly. “We just didn't anticipate this many problems when the land changed.”

“But this is how your world is?”

“The part I live in. But we've had a long time to get used to it and figure out ways to survive and get water in. I gave Shaya books on how to construct some of that stuff, so hopefully she'll find someone to do it.”

His brow furrowed. “Is there any way I could take a look? I might able to help.”

For a moment, I wondered if this was his new ploy to schmooze me-until I recalled what Shaya had said about him having a brilliant mind for technology, inasmuch as the gentry could. If he could parse diagrams and whatnot, it might be worth getting closer to him.

“Sure,” I said. “We could certainly use it.”

He smiled again, and as it lit up his face, even I could acknowledge he was pretty good-looking. Not like Kiyo, of course. Or even…well, like Dorian. But pretty cute.

“I'll set to it as soon as I can. If there's anything else I can do to make this easier for you, I'll do it.” There was an enraptured look on his face. Yeah, he definitely had a crush, but he didn't irritate me in the way so many other more obnoxious suitors did. An odd thought occurred to me.

“Leith…here's something you might be able to help with. Have you ever heard of girls disappearing from the Rowan Land? In the areas that border my land?”

The look on his face showed that this was the last question he'd expected from me. “I…beg your pardon?”

“Girls have been disappearing from my land, right near your borders.” What were those names? “Skye and Ley. But the people I talked to say nothing's happening to your girls. Do you know anything about this?”

He shook his head, utterly confused. “No…I'm afraid I don't know very much about the lives of those people.”

Leith's words weren't contemptuous by any means, but there was an implication that villagers and peasants just weren't people he associated with. It reminded me of Rurik's comments about how Aeson would have never troubled himself to investigate bandits or missing girls unless they directly affected him. Leith wasn't as much of an asshole as Aeson, but he and his mother were likely just as out of touch as any other noble.

I think a fair amount of disappointment must have shown on my face because he suddenly grew eager to make me feel better. “But I swear, I'll look into this when I return. I'll ask Mother, and we'll send messengers out to report back. I'll find out everything I can for you.”

I smiled at his enthusiasm. “Thanks, Leith. It's really great of you to help.”

“Helping a pretty queen is no trouble at all. By the way, have you ever thought about getting a crown?”

We talked a little longer, and I found he actually was a really nice guy, given to moments of humor and intelligence. It wasn't enough for me to jump into bed with him, but I appreciated finding someone else to connect with in the Otherworld. Shaya returned at last with the paperwork-hand-printed on scrolls, of course-and while Leith signed, we got a hold of the engineering books for him. His eyes widened with delight, and I swear, he probably could have sat down and started reading then and there on the floor. Instead, he took the hint that I had other things to do, and after many more compliments and hand kisses, he took his leave.

“You've given him another open invitation,” Shaya pointed out.

“Yeah, I know. But he's harmless. I like him.”

“None of them are harmless, your majesty.” I couldn't entirely tell if she was joking or not.

“Well, it'll be worth the hassle if he can solve our water problem and help with the girls.”

“The girls?”

I gave her a quick recap of my interrogation with the prisoners. Her face turned thoughtful as she processed my words.

“Skye and Ley…”

“Do you know those towns?”

She nodded. “They and Westoria are configured in a way that places them equidistant from a gateway. A crossroads.”

“What, to my world?” She nodded again. “Huh. I wonder if that's a coincidence. I wonder…I wonder if it's possible that…” One of my crazier ideas came to me. “Do you think those girls could be leaving and going to my world?”

“I don't know. Shining ones do often cross over. It's not unheard of.”

“Yeah, I know. To cause trouble. Or to steal women.” I had to fight a scowl on that one. My own mother had been one such woman, abducted and forced to be my father's mistress. “You think these girls are going to go kidnap guys so they can have kids?” The easy ability to conceive was why so many humans got kidnapped. Usually, it was gentry men taking human women.

Shaya's smile turned wry. “I somehow doubt it would come to that. Women have been known to cross over, spend time in your world, and return pregnant. They don't need to bring the men back.”

Fair point. Well, this was certainly a weird development. I'd have to wait and see what Leith reported back, but I supposed if these girls weren't actually being abducted…well, there was little for me to do. Admittedly, I'd always fought adamantly against gentry sneaking to the human world, but I wasn't sure where the right and wrong of this situation lay.

“I guess that'd be easier to deal with than a monster taking them. Still leaves that stupid demon problem.” I sighed. “Well, one issue at a time, I guess.”

“Are you leaving now?”

“Yes. Finally. Thanks for handling this today.”

“Of course,” she said. She actually sounded like she meant it. Her pleased expression turned momentarily hesitant. “Although…there's something you should know. Someone else responded right away to the trade offer.”

“That's good news.”

“It's Dorian.”

“Oh.” Of course Dorian would respond. How could he stay away from an opportunity to put me at his mercy? “You can deal with it, though, right?”

“Well, that's just it. He's specifically requested that you talk to him. At his home.”

“What?” I stared. “He…he can't do that.”

That wry smile of hers returned. “He's a king. He can do anything he wishes.”

“Yeah, but Leith came here! Dorian just wants me to go to him so that he can taunt me.” And no doubt flaunt Ysabel in front of me.

“Leith's kingdom needs copper more than Dorian's. I suspect Dorian is doing this as a personal favor to you.”

“That's not exactly how I'd put it.”

She shook her head, the amusement now warring with exasperation. “I know there's tension between you, but I suspect if you could be nice to King Dorian, he might make us a very generous deal. One that could help us immensely.”

A generous deal. The Oak Land was flourishing. I didn't doubt they had all sorts of food and other items we could use. I thought about those poor people in Westoria and even about my prisoners who'd spoken of having too many mouths to feed. I sighed.

“Fine. I'll talk to him. And I'll even be nice.” I started to turn away, needing more than ever to get back to my own home. Then I glanced back behind me. “But Shaya? Just to be safe, you might want to keep looking for more trade partners.”