Thorn Queen (Page 9)

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Returning home was great. I was exhausted mentally and physically and didn't even mind the onslaught of dogs and cats that greeted me. Tim stood in the kitchen, mixing up some kind of batter. He also wore a full Native American feather headdress that went all the way down his back.

“Isn't that a Sioux thing?” I asked. “Er, Lakota?”

“I keep getting in trouble when I pretend to be one of the local tribes,” he explained. “So, I figure if I claim to be from out of town, no one can push for details. Besides, you're one to judge appearance. Did you sleep out in the rain or something?”

Ironically, I had, but I wasn't about to tell him that. “It's been a long day. Days. Whatever.”

“Lara called like eighty times. She's got a real attitude, you know.”

“That's why she makes the big bucks,” I said with a yawn. “I'm going to go take a nap. Wake me if she calls.”

“You going to go hear me perform tonight?” he called as I headed down the hall.

I froze. “Oh, um, gee. I've got plans….”

“You do not!”

“I do.” I turned around. “I'm going to my mom's.”

“The reading's late,” he said. “Doesn't start until nine. You'll be done by then.”

I had long since accepted Tim's fake American Indian gig, but accepting it and witnessing it-aside from when he stood in full regalia in my kitchen-were two entirely different things.

“I've even written new material,” he added when he saw that he wasn't making much progress.

“I'm not sure that's a selling point.”

He held up the bowl of brownie mix. “I'll make them with walnuts.”

I sighed and turned back toward my bedroom. “You don't play fair.”

He whooped with joy. “You'll love it, Eug. I promise.”

I fell asleep pretty easily and woke to two pleasant surprises. One was the scent of freshly baked brownies wafting in the air. The other was Kiyo sitting in a chair in my room, eating one of the aforementioned brownies. With the way he'd been in and out lately, I never really knew when to expect him.

“Nice surprise,” I said, sitting up.

“Likewise,” he said, eyeing my bare legs. I'd gone to sleep in a T-shirt.

“Anything new in the Otherworld?”

“Not much. Maiwenn's getting nervous about the delivery, but I kind of figured that would happen.”

“She's got good healers,” I said, wanting to reassure him in spite of all the troubled feelings Maiwenn generated in me. I noticed then that he wore his white coat. “You going into work?”

“Just got out.” Damn. It was later than I'd realized if he'd hung out with Maiwenn and pulled a shift at work.

“Do you want to go see my parents with me?”

Kiyo made a face. “Roland hates me.”

“Hate is a strong word.”

But it wasn't an entirely inaccurate one. Roland, my shaman stepfather, made no secret of the fact that he didn't like me spending as much time as I did in the Otherworld. Bringing home an Otherworldly boyfriend hadn't earned his approval either, even though Kiyo was half-human like me. Still, Roland was always more or less polite. My mother, who didn't know about Kiyo's heritage, couldn't gush over him enough. I think she'd nearly given up on me ever dating anyone, so me landing a veterinarian was quite a coup as far as she was concerned. She was a fantastic cook and so even though Roland made him uneasy, Kiyo still consented to go.

“Are you sure you got enough to eat?” she asked after we finished dinner with them later that night. She operated under the assumption that I was on the verge of malnutrition and that Kiyo was incapable of feeding himself if someone else didn't cook for him. In truth, Kiyo was a much better cook than me.

“It was great,” he assured her. “Believe me, I had more than enough.”

“Well, don't be afraid to go back for more. Or take home leftovers.”

“Geez, Mom. He had three helpings. Are you fattening him up for the kill?” I asked.

“There are worse fates,” mused Kiyo good-naturedly.

My mom beamed. I thought she was exceptionally pretty, but maybe I was just biased. People said we had similar looks, and we did as far as build and facial features went. It was the coloring we differed in. Her eyes were just plain blue, and her dark hair was graying. My reddish hair and violet-blue eyes were Storm King's legacy.

After dinner, I stole Roland away to the den to talk shop and left Kiyo to entertain my mother. She knew what it was we did, but after her own experiences in the Otherworld, she preferred to avoid our shamanic discussions.

“Still with him, huh?” asked Roland, relaxing back in an easy chair.

“He's nice, and you know it. He's the same as me.”

Roland scratched his head thoughtfully. His hair had gone gray, and he seemed to have new wrinkles every year. He was still more than a match for most Otherworldly foes (even though he'd ostensibly retired), and the crosses, whorls, fish, and other Christian tattoos on his arms could summon the same power my goddess-based ones could.

“He is like you,” he agreed. “He's not entirely Otherworldly-but he's tied to it. He's spent more of his life there than you, let it become more a part of him. And you being with someone like that means that you'll just be that much more tied to it in return. With everything that's going on over there, it's really better if you stay away.”

“Everything,” of course, meant the prophecy about me bearing the Otherworld's savior. While I usually recapped a lot of my shamanic business to Roland, I had neglected to mention a few of my recent activities-say, like inadvertently conquering a kingdom and becoming a queen. Call me crazy, but I just had to think our relationship would be better if he remained in ignorance about that.

“Well, I've kind of gotten involved with something over there. And don't give me that look,” I warned, seeing his frown. “I'm helping out some people who need it, and it's too late to back out. But the other day, I saw fire demons.”

That got his attention. “You do mean in the Otherworld, right?”

“God, yes.” Demons in our world would be pretty horrible. “There were five of them.”

He let out a low whistle. “That's substantial even for them. It'd take a powerful summoner to do that.”

“I was with, uh, some others, and they managed to do some damage, but for the most part, we were useless. I banished one, and that just about wiped me out.”

“Yeah, it can be done, but it's not easy. You could do it with a couple of other shamans, but on your own…” He shook his head. “I really don't like you getting involved with that.”

“I know, I know, but like I said, it's too late. Do you know how to get rid of them? Aside from assembling a shaman posse?”

“The easiest way-and I use that term loosely-would be to find a gentry who could summon water demons. Put them with fire demons, and they'll all turn on each other.”

“Somehow I'm not optimistic about finding someone like that.” Yet, even as I said that, I wondered if I could do it. As far as I knew, that wasn't part of my storm magic. I could summon water and had once controlled air, bending those forces to my will. Summoning elemental creatures was out of my range. Storm King had allegedly been able to do it. Jasmine had commanded water creatures as well, though I didn't know if that would include demons. It irked me that I couldn't do what the rest of my family could.

“True,” Roland agreed. “In that case, brute force may be the only way to go. Let them assemble their own forces to get rid of the demons. It's not your problem. It's the gentry's and their leaders' responsibility.”

“Right,” I said uneasily. “Well, we'll see what happens.” The look he gave me showed that he didn't believe I'd leave this alone. It also said he knew nothing he could say would convince me. “I've got another question. Ever heard of Otherworldly towns called Ley and Skye?” Shamans generally avoided crossing over to that world, but Roland had been there many times and knew a lot about the land.

“Ley sounds familiar…it's in the Alder Land, isn't it? Or is it Rowan?” In addition to not knowing about my queenly status, Rowan also didn't know there'd been a complete upheaval in the Alder Land.

“Rowan,” I said. “But very close to, um, Alder. There's supposedly a crossroads near there. Do you know where it comes out?”

“No…nowhere around here, I'm sure.”

“Any way you could find out?”

“Is this tied in to the demons?”

I hesitated a moment and opted for the truth. “No, it's something else. A different thing I'm helping them out with.”

“Eugenie!” Roland rarely lost his temper, but I could see the anger in his eyes now. “What are you doing? You can't do this. You can't get entangled in their affairs. Your job is to protect this world, to keep them and the other monsters and ghosts out of here.”

“They're not all bad,” I said, surprised as the words came out of my mouth.

“Do I need to remind you about your mother's abduction and the assorted attempts to rape you?”

Hearing him say those words stung, but I held my ground. “I'm dealing with that. It's not an issue.”

“It's always going to be an issue,” he argued. “And I'm not going to help you keep getting into more trouble with them.”

“What, are you threatening to cut me off from information?” I exclaimed.

“Maybe. If it'll keep you safe.”

“Well, it won't. The only thing you'll do is put me in more danger if I keep going there uninformed!”

His eyes narrowed. “So now you're the one threatening me?”

“What's going on?”

My mother stuck her head in the den's doorway, concern on her face. “Is everything okay? I thought I heard shouting.”

I stood up. “Roland's just getting hard of hearing, so I was helping him out.”

I followed her back to the other room, where Kiyo watched me curiously. Even in human form, he had a fox's hearing, and I wouldn't have found it surprising if he'd heard the whole argument.

“We have to take off,” I said. “We're going to hear Tim recite some poetry.”

Kiyo's raised eyebrow was his only sign of surprise at our evening plans. I'd neglected to tell him earlier because I was pretty sure he would have never left the house with me. He smiled politely at my mom. “Thanks for dinner. It was great.”

My mom was sad to see us go. “Well, you should come back next weekend. I'll make lasagna. And cherry pie.”

I kissed her cheek. “You don't have to bribe us to come over.”

“No, but it doesn't hurt.”

Mad or not, I gave Roland a hug too. In that brief moment, he murmured in my ear, “I'll talk to Bill.”

He sounded weary and defeated, and I hugged him closer. “Thank you.” Bill was a shaman friend of his in Flagstaff.

Once we were finally able to leave, Kiyo didn't waste any time in getting to the point. “Trouble on the home front?”

“Like you don't know,” I said.

“Told you he hates me.”

“I think he hates me making all these trips to the Otherworld more.”

“But he still thinks I'm a bad influence.”

“You are a bad influence.”

We drove in silence for a few moments. Then Kiyo noticed that I wasn't heading toward my house. We were going downtown. “No,” he groaned. “We are not actually going to hear Tim, are we? I thought that was just an excuse to leave.”

I shook my head. “Sorry. I promised.”

Kiyo sighed but took it like a man.

We went to one of Tim's regular venues, a place called the Fox Den. I thought Kiyo would think that was funny, but he didn't. When we walked in, there was a girl on the stage reciting poetry about the bleakness of existence and litter on the side of the highway. Kiyo looked around, taking in the patrons and tables-and then realized we were in a coffee shop, not a bar.

“They don't serve alcohol here? There's no way I can do this without hard liquor.”

“Oh, just hush,” I said, trying to hide my smile. We found a small round table in the middle of the crowded cafe, and I left him there while I went to get hot chocolate. I would have loved coffee but had enough trouble sleeping without the addition of caffeine this late at night. When I returned, I saw three visitors had pulled chairs up to our table.

“Hey, guys,” I said.

“Nice to see you again, Eugenie.”

The speaker was named Barbara. She was an elderly woman, belonging to the Pascua Yaqui tribe. Their religious beliefs, while having some similarities to the nature-oriented views of neighboring tribes, had picked up a lot of Christian influences over the years. Indeed, she wore a cross around her neck but was also still regarded by many as a type of holy woman. She had no problem with me calling myself a shaman, as those of other Indian tribes sometimes did. Her grandsons, Felix and Dan, were with her tonight, and they didn't have a problem with me either. Tim, however, was a different story.

“Please tell me your asshole roommate isn't performing tonight,” said Felix.

“Watch your language,” said Barbara in a very grandmotherly way.

I shifted uncomfortably. “Well…he might be up there tonight….”

“Jesus Christ,” said Dan, munching on biscotti. He looked apologetically at Barbara before turning to me. “We've told him a hundred times not to do that.”

“Come on, guys. Don't start something again-it took forever for that last black eye to go away,” I reminded him.

Felix shook his head. “Look, impersonating us wouldn't be so bad-and it is bad-if his poetry wasn't such shit.”

“Felix!” warned Barbara.

He turned sheepish. “Sorry, Grandma. But you know I'm right.”

“It's the only thing he knows how to do,” I said lamely. “Besides, he's going Lakota tonight-if that helps.”

“I don't think it'll improve the poetry,” noted Kiyo, stretching back in the chair.

“Agreed,” said Felix. “His poetry's crappiness transcends all cultures.” He looked smugly at his grandmother, pleased that he hadn't sworn this time.

She turned to me, ignoring him. “How's business?”

“Good,” I said. “Weird.”

While she had no issues with me being a shaman, she was sometimes troubled by the thought of me fighting Otherworldly creatures. She seemed undecided about whether they were holy or not, though she had seen her fair share of evil ones and knew what I did was sometimes necessary. She was about to ask me more when Tim suddenly walked onto the stage. He had on the feather headdress, no shirt, and leather chaps.

“Oh God. No,” groaned Felix.

Tim held up his hands to silence the scattered applause. “Thank you, friends,” he said in a deep, flat voice. “The Great Spirit welcomes you and your joining of our holy circle tonight.”

“I am not even joking,” said Dan. “I am this close to walking up there and dragging him out back.”

“Please,” I hissed. “Not tonight.”

“For my first poem,” continued Tim, “I would like to read you something I was inspired to write while sitting outside and considering the way the beating of a butterfly's wings are just like the beating of our hearts in this transient world.” Spreading his hands wide, he recited.

“Sister Butterfly upon the wind

Wings so yellow

Let us fly with you into the sky so blue

Our souls soaring in the clouds so white

As we look down on those who dream to fly

But are too afraid

And must stay earthbound

Like Brother Beetle so brown.”

“I'm going to help Dan,” said Kiyo as the audience applauded. “I'm going to help him drag Tim off.”

“Seriously?” said Dan, excited.

“No,” said Barbara and I in unison.

Tim's next poem was about a mythological woman named Oniata, a girl of divine beauty and youth who came to Earth and caused men everywhere to fight over her. The story was interesting, but like all of his poems, the verses were pretty bad and filled with horrible metaphors.

“That's a real story,” I challenged my companions. “I've heard it before.”

“Yeah, but it's not Lakota,” said Felix. “I think it's Iroquois or something.”

“Honestly, I don't think it matters at this point,” said Dan, looking weary. “Besides, everyone's got some story about unearthly beautiful women.”

Kiyo linked his hand with mine and murmured, “And fortunately, I've got my own.”

“Sly man,” I said back. “Sly as a fox.”

When the poetry reading wrapped up, Tim sold his self-published poetry books. I think this was the most remarkable part of all-he always sold a bunch. And the women…the women loved him. A number were cozying up to him already, no doubt wanting to go out later. Watching the women, Dan declared that he was going to quit his job as a computer-support technician and start up on Tim's gig, causing us all to laugh.

“Say what you want,” I said to Kiyo, watching Tim and his admirers. “This all means Tim probably isn't coming home tonight.”

“What are you saying exactly?”

“That the sauna is all ours.”

Not that anyone else could have really fit into it, though. My wet sauna wasn't that big, which just meant that when Kiyo and I got home, we had to be that much closer to each other. Neither of us really minded.

We shed our clothes in the hallway, and he pulled me to him, hands running over my waist and lips grazing my neck. “You owe me big for making me endure that poetry,” he growled in my ear.

“Whatever. That was practically foreplay. Are you saying Tim's poem about Brother Woodpecker plunging his beak into the tree didn't turn you on? You know that was a total metaphor.”

Kiyo's only response was a smothering kiss that ended any other witty commentary I might make, his lips hot and hard as his tongue sought mine. Without breaking the kiss, we somehow managed to open the door to the sauna and stumble inside. Immediately, heat and steam surrounded us. Everyone always praised Arizona's heat for being dry, but I loved humidity and the way it enveloped my body.

I also loved the way the moisture dampened Kiyo's dark hair, making it curl up even more against his neck. Still holding on to that kiss, he pressed me against the sauna's wooden wall, his hands gripping my hips. In only a short time, the heat had us both slick and sweating. I tangled my fingers in his hair and then ran them down his arms and chest. The oil and sweat made my hands glide effortlessly across his skin. I paused to run circles around his nipples, slowly increasing the pressure and squeezing them in the way he so often did to mine.

He gave a small grunt of surprise and pleasure and then moved his lips to my neck. I tipped it back, giving him greater access. His kisses were hard, like he was trying to consume me with his mouth alone, and there were even a few teeth involved. With as fair as my skin was, he actually left me with the occasional hickey after sex. It always made me feel like I was sixteen and foolish the next day, but in the moment? It seemed totally worth it.

His lips moved from my neck to my shoulder while his hands slid up from my hips to my breasts, again moving easily with all that sweat and moisture. He rubbed them and cupped them, his fingers slipping back and forth against my wet skin and occasionally pausing to stroke my nipples in a way that sent waves of need throughout my entire body. Driven to impatience by my own desire, I slid my hands down his stomach, down to the erection pressing against me. I grabbed a hold of him and started to bring him into me.

Unexpectedly, he turned me around, still keeping me pressed against the wall. I held my hands against it for support while his strong fingers rubbed my back, massaging the muscles that always seemed sore lately. I gasped, finding the massage almost as arousing as the rest. It was fleeting, however. His hands soon moved to my hips again, tipping me out slightly so that I was bent over, rather than pressed flat against the wall. A moment later, he pushed against my body, and I felt him enter me. My own wetness made the thrust almost as effortless as our hands had been on each other's flesh. I cried out at the feel of him filling me up, pushing harder and harder into me. I rested my check against the sauna's wall, bracing myself and allowing him to take me more deeply.

He gripped my breasts as he continued moving in and out of me, and I moaned as his touch sent shockwaves through my skin. I was overloaded with sensation as he seemed to take control of every part of my body, both inside and out. His thrusts grew more urgent and fierce; his hold on my breasts became tighter. Having him inside me built a heat between my thighs that radiated out to the rest of my body, rivaling the heat of the air around us. That bliss grew and grew to unbearable heights, until at last the orgasm burst within me, making my legs go weak and nearly give out underneath me. Every part of me tingled and burned, and the feel of him still slamming into my body was almost too much for my flooded senses. Yet, even as I thought I couldn't handle any more, I still felt that intense pleasure building within me once more and knew that it would take only a little more of this for me to come yet again.

By then, Kiyo's hands had moved back to my hips, steadying himself so that he could push even harder. With all that force, it was a struggle to continue bending and not simply get pressed flat against the wall. Then, I felt his body grow tense and knew he was about to come. He made a guttural, primal sound, his thrusts growing long and deep as he came and let his own orgasm explode within me. He pressed his face against my shoulder, his motions gradually slowing down as his body sated itself.

When he was done, he slid his hands from my hips to my shoulders, turning me around and pulling me toward him. We wrapped our arms around each other, gasping as we leaned against the wall. He said nothing but gently kissed my cheek. I smiled, pushing closer to him and drowning in the scent of his sweat and skin.

“Worth enduring the poetry reading?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said. “Definitely.”

The phone woke me up the next morning. Kiyo dozed naked beside me in bed, and I had to practically crawl over him to reach my cell. It was Roland.

“I found out about your crossroads. It crosses over to a town in Texas called Yellow River.”

“Texas, huh?” That was unexpected.

“Yep. And there are two shamans who live there already to keep an eye on it.”

“Two?” There weren't really that many in our profession. We were spread thin, so more than one in a region (aside from a father-and-daughter team like Roland and me) was surprising.

“It's apparently a big gate. Doesn't take much power or effort to cross through it, so it needs a lot of attention.”

Interesting. Crossroads varied in accessibility. Most required more power than the average human or even gentry could use, fortunately. On certain days of the year-like Beltane and Samhain-areas between our worlds grew thin, making it easier for crossings. Those were dangerous times that kept Roland and me busy. A gateway that was usable the rest of the year was even more dangerous.

But, if it was easily accessible, then it wouldn't be too difficult for these girls to cross and seek out humans to father their children. The whole thought made me squirm. A generation of half-Texan, half-gentry kids. God help us all.

“Eugenie?” asked Roland warily. “What are you thinking?”

“I'm thinking I need the names of those shamans.”

He still seemed troubled at my involvement, but I think he felt better about me getting in touch with others-particularly others who were human. He pushed me a little about what was going on, but I still refused to talk about it. After much thanks on my part for the information, we finally disconnected.

Kiyo had climbed out of bed during the call and was in the shower. As I waited for him, I wondered how I should proceed. Presumably, I should contact these shamans and see if they'd noticed a recent influx of gentry girls. If I could confirm that, it'd ease my worry about bandits (or monsters) kidnapping them, even though it still left the moral dilemma of whether I should be kicking those girls back to their own world.

A drop in temperature and a prickling of my skin signaled Volusian's sudden arrival. He materialized in the darkest corner of my room, expression as sullen and malevolent as usual.

“Well, this is a treat,” I said. “I do so love seeing your cheery face in the morning. What's up?” When I'd left the Otherworld last time, I'd kept Volusian on standing orders to ferry any messages over to me. My joking aside, I wasn't overly thrilled to see him because I knew it meant there was something I had to deal with.

“The hulking imbecile who commands my mistress's guards has requested her presence,” said Volusian.

“Do you mean Rurik?”

“Yes, unless my mistress has appointed another hulking imbecile to command her guards.”

“Did he say why?” If it had been more trade business, Shaya would have been the one to ask for me.

“He wished to tell you that one of the missing girls returned.”

“What?”

I sprang out of bed and hastily threw on some clothes. Kiyo returned to the room, astonishingly sexy with wet hair, and gave me a surprised look. “What's up?”

“I got a lead on one of the girls. You want to come with me?”

He shook his head. He held up his white coat. “Can't. I've got to work.”

I was disappointed. I would have liked to have him with me, but that petty part inside of me felt better about him working than hanging out with Maiwenn again. So, we made our good-byes, parting with a long kiss-a really long kiss. When we finally dragged ourselves away from each other, Volusian looked as though he wouldn't have minded being smote out of existence.

I sent him on ahead of me and then crossed over shortly thereafter. Nia as usual fell all over herself, but I had to politely dismiss her in my eagerness to find Rurik. He was sitting with Shaya in the parlor adjacent to her room, deep in conversation. Both sprang up when they saw me.

“Your majesty,” intoned Shaya politely.

“Where is she?” I exclaimed. “The girl. I want to talk to her and get this settled.”

Rurik grimaced. “Ah. About that.”

“What's wrong? Volusian said you found her.”

“Well, we did, in a manner of speaking. It was the girl from Westoria-the one whose parents spoke to you. She surfaced last night in the village, hysterical and going on and on about how she escaped and how horrible it all was.”

“There really was a monster?” I said, surprised. “Or did she escape from the bandits?” I still hadn't ruled out their involvement.

He shook his head. “Nobody knows. She wasn't making any sense, and mostly, her parents wanted to calm her down. In the meantime, they sent word to us because they knew you'd want to talk to her, and…well, that's when the problem started.”

“Like the rest of this isn't already a problem?”

“When the girl heard you were coming, she became even more hysterical.”

“More hysterical over me than a monster or whatever?”

Rurik shrugged. “As we've learned, your reputation is a bit…alarming to some.”

“Good God. Didn't she hear I got my ass kicked by fire demons?” I sighed. “What happened?”

“She ran away. For real this time.”

I groaned and sank back into a chair.

“We sent out a search party as soon as we heard,” he added somewhat hopefully.

“Well, that's something, I guess. It's one girl…she can't be that hard to find, right?”

Rurik and Shaya exchanged doubtful looks. I groaned again. With the way the land was around here, it was likely anyone who wanted to disappear could. I'd had parties out looking for Jasmine for the last three months and found no clue to her whereabouts.

“We need to start putting faces on milk cartons,” I muttered.

“I beg your pardon?” asked Shaya.

“Never mind. Anything else I should know about? Any word from Leith?” I figured I'd go do my meditation and connection with the land and then head back to Tucson.

“Nothing yet,” said Shaya. “However…we did hear from Dorian.”

Right. Another of my problems. She seemed a little nervous about going on.

“He sent a message wondering why you hadn't contacted him yet about trade. And…”

I rolled my eyes. “Go on. I expect the worst.”

She looked embarrassed. “He said if you can't be troubled to come in a timely manner, then he's going to rescind his offer.”

“That might not be horrible,” I pointed out. “I mean, you've told other people, right? We've got other kingdoms wanting to buy the copper, don't we?”

Her look of discomfort grew. “Well, not so many.”

“How many is not so many?”

“Aside from the Rowan Land? None.”

“Son of a bitch.” Honestly? I wouldn't have put it past Dorian to influence others not to trade with me just so he could play these games. I steeled myself and met Shaya's pleading gaze. “I don't suppose he specified what a 'timely manner' is?”

“He did, actually,” said Shaya. Rurik was smiling, which I took as a bad sign. “Today.”