Thorn Queen Chapter Seventeen

Thorn Queen Chapter Seventeen

Jasmine nearly leapt ten feet in the air when I came tearing through the hall that led to her cell.

“You!” I exclaimed. “You can summon water demons.”

She widened her eyes, speechless for a change. It appeared as though I’d interrupted her doing…well, nothing. In a fit of guilt, I’d sent some books down to her to pass the time, but reports from the guards said she did little but sulk. Well, that and try to cajole them to let her out. I guess she figured she’d deal with Volusian after she got one of the guards to crack.

Recovering herself a moment later, she adopted a sneer reminiscent of Ysabel’s. Considering their mutual hatred of me, maybe I should have sent her down here to entertain Jasmine.

“Maybe,” Jasmine conceded. “Why? Afraid I’ll use them to break out?”

“No,” I said. “But I need them to get rid of some fire demons.”

Roland had told me the best way to oust the demons would be by summoning their opposites. I’d dismissed the idea then, knowing it was beyond my capability. At the same time, I’d considered the possibility that Jasmine could do it…though it had seemed a useless sentiment considering I’d had no clue to her whereabouts or any reason to think she’d help me.

But now? Well, things were different.

Art’s attitude had left me feeling helpless and ineffectual. Now, I suddenly felt as though I had the means to take control and actually right some wrongs in this kingdom.

“So?” Jasmine asked, not seeming startled in the least. “That’s got nothing to do with me.”

“Not true. You’re going to help me. We’re going to face them and their master, and you’re going to summon water creatures to take down those demons.”

Jasmine’s expression was almost comic in its disbelief. “Why would I help you?”

I tried good cop first. “Because it’s the right thing to do. They’re hurting innocent people.”

“So? Like I said, that doesn’t affect me.”

“Spoken like the selfish child you are.” She flushed. Considering her obsession with having a baby and ruling over both worlds, she didn’t like having her age or capabilities mocked. “I thought you wanted to be the queen of this land once.”

She glowered. “Yes. And I would have been if you hadn’t stolen it!”

“Why? Why be queen if you have no intention of doing anything? Did you just want to wear a crown and have people grovel?”

She didn’t acknowledge that and instead replied stonily, “I’m not helping you.”

I stepped toward the bars, smiling sweetly, even though I was about to enter bad-cop mode. “Oh, you are. Whether you like it or not.”

“What, you’re going to force me or something?”

In a matter of seconds, I had my Glock out and pointing straight at her. She paled and backed up against the wall, looking very much like she wanted to melt into it. Behind me, I heard a slight shuffling among the guards. Guns were a very human weapon, made of steel and alloys and other substances that were anathema to the gentry. They were equally deadly to humans-or, in Jasmine’s case, half-humans.

“You’re crazy,” she said.

I shrugged. “I’ve got a job to do, and you’re key to getting it done. You can cooperate, and maybe I’ll improve your living arrangements. Give you a room instead of a cell.”

I could see thoughts and schemes spinning behind her eyes. Jasmine was young, inexperienced, and self-centered…but she wasn’t stupid. I had to think somewhat cheerfully that that too was a family trait.

“And if I don’t do it, you’re going to shoot me?”

“Well, everyone says I should kill you anyway.”

My voice was calm, my face hard. I didn’t know if she would believe me or not. Hell, I didn’t know if I believed myself. She knew I had little love for her after everything she’d done, and I’d long had a reputation as a ruthless fighter and-as many gentry saw it-murderer. Jasmine swallowed. She was trying to look calm too, but her eyes betrayed her.

“How do you know I won’t summon them and have them turn on you once my cuffs are off? You know I can’t wear them and still have that kind of power.”

I released the safety on the gun, which was still pointed at her. “Because I’ll have this on the back of your head the entire time.”

Long silence fell. Volusian was so still that I’d nearly forgotten he was there.

Finally, Jasmine said, “I hate you.”

“So…that’s a yes?”

I took her silence as a confirmation and put the gun away, putting the safety back on and feeling a bit surprised at the pounding of my own heart. Had I really just pointed a gun at a fifteen-year-old girl? Roland and Kiyo both believed dealing with magic could change the kind of person you were. Was messing with lightning and air turning me into someone who could easily threaten others to get my way? No, I decided. This had nothing to do with the magic. This was necessity. I needed to oust those fire demons, and this was the way to do it.

“Eugenie?”

A soft voice pulled me from my churning emotions. “Kiyo!”

He stood there in the hall, and I wondered how much he’d overheard. It didn’t matter. I was just so insanely happy to see him. The heaviness in my heart lightened, and if there hadn’t been so many witnesses, I would have run into his arms. He looked amazing, dressed in human garb: jeans and a plain gray T-shirt that hugged his muscles perfectly. The silken black hair curled around his chin, and his skin looked like caramel.

But his eyes…his eyes were hard.

I gave Jasmine a warning look. “We’ll talk later.”

“Fuck you, Eugenie,” she called.

I caught hold of Kiyo’s hand and walked back upstairs with him. Seeing him released all the nervous tension in me that had been building up since last night. I’d been so wound up, so worried and afraid. Now, it was like all was right in the world once again. The news about the baby was hard on me, but I still wanted to congratulate him. The words were on my lips as soon as we were alone, but he spoke first.

“Really, Eugenie? This is what it’s come to?”

My head was still giddy over seeing him. “What do you mean?”

He pointed back toward the dungeon door from which we’d just emerged. “That! I never expected to find you with a gun to a teen girl’s head.”

“It wasn’t exactly to her head,” I said. “And she can help us get rid of those demons. Even if she can’t summon true water demons herself, we both know she can call other water creatures.” Kiyo and I had fought off some such creatures-including one that had caught us in a compromising position in his car and nearly killed both of us. “Those could give us the edge.”

“And if she doesn’t, you really are going to kill her?”

I sighed and stopped walking, leaning against one of the tapestry-covered walls so I could face him. “Do you really think I’d do that?”

“She seemed to think you would, and to tell you the truth, I kind of did too. I don’t think you realize how scary you can be.” He stood in front of me, with little distance between us, and there was an odd mix of sexual chemistry and antagonism in the air. “There’s a strange feel to you…have you been practicing magic?”

I didn’t answer immediately, which was as good as an admission of guilt. The look he gave me was almost more horrified than when he’d thought I was going to shoot Jasmine. “A little.”

“A little! Eugenie,” he hissed, leaning close. “There’s no in-between with this stuff. You keep doing it, and you’re just going to fall farther and farther down the rabbit hole.”

I laughed and threw my arms up, gesturing to the castle. “I fell into Wonderland a long time ago.”

“You know what I mean. I thought you weren’t going to do it anymore. I thought we agreed it was bad.”

“You agreed,” I corrected, feeling my own temper start to rise. “I had a chance to learn more, and I decided to take it. And like I said, it’s only been a little.”

“Learn from who?” he asked suspiciously.

“A woman from Dorian’s kingdom. She has some ability with controlling air and has been showing me how to use it. I might be on the verge of calling lightning too.” In front of his furious gaze, there was an instinct to be sheepish…and yet, I felt kind of proud at what I’d accomplished.

“Of course. Dorian. Somehow, I’m not surprised.”

“Hey, Dorian’s been nice to me lately.” My defense of the gentry king surprised me-as did the truth of it. With so much in chaos recently, I’d found Dorian’s presence almost comforting.

Kiyo rolled his eyes. “Yes, and I’m sure he’d love to be nicer still. Look, you start putting all those magical elements together, and you’re going to have some serious power on your hands. You’re going to be like-“

“Do not say like Storm King!” I cried. “I wish everyone would just stop assuming that’s inevitable. Plenty of gentry use magic without becoming tyrannical warlords. Give me some credit here.”

“I’m just worried about you,” he growled.

“And do you know what I’m worried about? I’m worried about people starving here, about people not getting enough water. I’m worried about brigands and demons preying on innocents. I’m worried about girls disappearing and possibly being abducted by those who face no accountability. And all of this is on top of trying to still live my human life and keep every goddamned Otherworldly guy out of my pants. So don’t come here and start dictating to me. You’re never around. You have no idea what I’m going through!”

I was shouting, and it was a wonder none of the servants had come scurrying to see what was wrong. My breathing was heavy, and I’d clenched my fists without even realizing it in my anger.

“Why are you here anyway?” I demanded.

Kiyo’s dark eyes were hard to read, but I could see some of his earlier fury had cooled. I wasn’t sure if he’d reconsidered his accusations or simply decided I wasn’t worth arguing with. “I came to see if you wanted to visit the baby.”

“Oh.”

For whatever reason, it was like a bucket of cold water on the rest of my anger. I sighed. “Kiyo…I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have yelled at you-“

He raked a hand through his dark hair. “And I shouldn’t have jumped all over you.” A sly grin turned up the edges of his lips. “Well, not that way at least. But you’re right-I haven’t been around. You’re going through a lot that I’ve missed, and I don’t know fully what’s going on. I mean, that doesn’t change how I feel about Jasmine and magic-“

I held up a hand. “Enough. We can fight about those later. Tell me about the baby.”

And like that, Kiyo’s face completely transformed. Joy and wonder of such purity filled his features that it was amazing to behold. I’d hardly ever seen him look like that-no, scratch that. I might have never seen him look like that.

“Oh, Eugenie. She’s so beautiful. So perfect. I never…she’s like nothing I ever could have imagined.”

Something sank in the pit of my stomach, something cold and leaden. I almost wished he’d get angry again so that my own fury would return. Anger was warmer than sadness.

Forcing a smile, I reached for his hand. “I’m so happy for you,” I said. “I’d love to see her. What’s her name?”

“Luisa.”

He said the name like a prayer, like a magic word that could fix all the world’s ills. I’d heard him say my name like that too, often in the midst of sex. Obviously, his attitudes toward the two of us were a bit different, but the intensity of his love was similar.

“It’s a pretty name,” I said, still trying to smile. A moment of uneasy silence fell. “Ready to go?”

I was growing better at convincing Rurik to let me leave without an escort, and Kiyo and I were able to make good time to the Willow Land. I rode on horseback, and he ran alongside in fox form, able to easily match my pace. While this wasn’t an official state visit, I’d grumblingly put on a gentry dress in recognition of my queenly status. It was a simple one, pale blue with cap sleeves and light material. It actually had kind of a Jane Austen feel. The worst part was that since I refused to ride sidesaddle or anything ridiculous like that, the skirt rode up on my legs. With only Kiyo to see me, it didn’t matter too much, and he certainly didn’t mind.

Along the way, we passed another village in my kingdom, one I had yet to visit. I recognized it from Shaya’s descriptions. I was pretty sure it was one of the ones with copper ore. Near its outskirts, I could see people working and digging. I made a mental note to stop on the way back-if the Otherworld didn’t decide to send me through a different route.

Kiyo’s fox form meant we didn’t have to make any conversation. Spring was progressing rapidly in the Willow Land when we arrived. In fact, it had come much more quickly than I would have expected based on my last visit. There was no snow, and buds were bursting on the trees. The air was warm and picnic-perfect, with crocuses, daffodils, and other spring bulbs sprouting in brightly colored clusters. I was startled at the change until I remembered how the Otherworldly kingdoms were tied to their monarchs. I could pour my energy into the land and help heal it. Dorian kept the Oak Land in a perpetual state of autumn because it brought on memories of his youth that made him feel good and strong. If Maiwenn had just given birth, wouldn’t her land reflect that burst of new life?

Kiyo shifted back to human shape as we approached the castle’s main gates. Those guarding it gave me curious looks but welcomed him with cheers and genuine affection. Indeed, the happy energy was palpable as we walked the halls. Everyone in Maiwenn’s hold acted as though they were on their way to a party. Smiles shone on everyone’s faces.

Kiyo required no escort or guide as he led us swiftly through the halls, up a few flights of stairs, and into Maiwenn’s bedroom. As soon as we entered, I decided I might need to have a talk with Shaya about redecorating. The bedroom I’d inherited from Aeson was that of a medieval warlord, with blocky furniture, few windows, and everything-from the thick stone walls to the bedding-in dark, somber colors. Maiwenn’s room was light and airy, ringed in windows and filled with exquisite, delicate-looking birch furniture. The sheets on her bed were lavender silk, and gauzy material hung from the canopy. It looked like a room befitting a fairy princess-er, queen.

“Eugenie,” she said, smiling. She was sitting in bed with pillows propped behind her. “I was hoping you’d come.”

Were you? I wondered. A day after having a baby, she looked as gorgeous as usual, her golden hair cascading over a soft pink nightgown. A delicate crown of pearls, even in bed, adorned that luxurious hair, and I pettily thought again about my alleged need for a crown. Kiyo claimed it would send the wrong message, but I suddenly kind of wanted one. A small bundle was in Maiwenn’s arms, but mostly all I could see of Luisa was a lacy white cap and a shock of black hair.

I smiled back and approached tentatively. Had I treated this visit too casually? Should I have dressed up even more than I had and come bearing gold and frankincense? “Congratulations. You must be so happy.”

Maiwenn’s smile became even more radiant. She met Kiyo’s eyes, and something passed between them-not romantic, exactly, but a strong emotion I wasn’t privy to. Maiwenn carefully lifted her blanket-wrapped bundle, and he took it from her with equal gentleness.

“See?” he said, coming to stand beside me. “Isn’t she beautiful?”

Beautiful wasn’t quite the word I would have used, though Luisa was definitely cute-which was a relief. I’d met people with ugly babies, and in those situations, you almost always had to lie and say the baby was cute. No need for lies now. Luisa was adorable-which was no surprise with her parentage-and indeed, it was obvious whose genes she’d gotten the bulk of. With her black hair and tanned skin, Luisa was clearly her father’s daughter.

“Here,” he said, handing her to me before I could stop him.

I hadn’t held many babies before, and I took her awkwardly, one arm supporting the length of her body while the other supported her head. She was warm, nearly round with all those blankets, and shifted ever so slightly as she slept. Everything about her was tiny-tiny nose, tiny fingers, tiny eyelashes. A weird feeling built up at the back of my throat, and I remembered my conversation with Dorian. My hips would forever stay slim. My body would never create anything like this. When Luisa briefly opened her eyes to look at me-they were dark blue, no doubt to become brown-I handed her back to her father.

Kiyo took her happily, still wearing that wondrous look on his face, and sat on the edge of the bed. He placed Luisa in Maiwenn’s arms, and while there was no more touching than such an act required, I again had that sense of connection between them all. An intangible bond that would keep them together forever.

I wanted to leave after that. I wanted to run from this place and never come back. But, I had to stay because Kiyo wanted me to be a part of this and because it was the polite thing to do for Maiwenn. So I kept that smile frozen on my face and made small talk that I barely heard, like whether Luisa would inherit any kitsune abilities and when Maiwenn should host the celebration of her birth.

At long last, Kiyo said we had to go, and I could tell he only did so for my sake. If he’d had his way, he would have stayed all night. I told Maiwenn congratulations again and assured her of my happiness and the baby’s cuteness and a dozen other things new mothers like to hear. Kiyo was full of smiles too, but as soon as we left the room, his faded.

“Was it really that awful?” he asked.

I did a double-take. “What are you talking about? Did I say something wrong?”

“No, Eugenie. You were perfect. Everything was perfect. I don’t think Maiwenn noticed a thing-but then, she’s pretty distracted.” He sighed. “But I know you. I can see you’re upset. Are you really still that worried about Maiwenn and me getting back together?”

Maiwenn and him? How could I explain that what I felt went beyond simple jealousy? It wasn’t just that I feared the birth of this baby might bring them together-and that was a legitimate fear of mine-but Luisa’s birth impacted me in so many other ways too. I thought about Kiyo and how much I loved him and wanted as strong a relationship as we could have-but that no matter what happened with us, we could never have a family like that. I worried again if he might cast me aside for my inadequacies. And while I was still a long way from being baby crazy or hearing my biological clock, how awful was it going to be if someday I did want a baby and couldn’t have one? Or what if-God help me-I did have a baby through some accident? I could never love it, not with that prophecy hanging over my head….

“It’s complicated,” I said, realizing Kiyo was waiting for an answer.

“Eugenie,” he said wearily. “I love you. I love you so much. This isn’t going to change that. Maiwenn and I are through as lovers. I will always care about her, and we’re going to work together to make sure Luisa’s raised with all the love and attention she needs. But you’re the woman I love, the woman who’s my partner and who I want to be with forever.”

His words were sweet, and they did warm part of me up. But he still didn’t get the whole picture, didn’t understand the tangle of emotions this birth had stirred up in me. It was so hit or miss with Kiyo lately. Some days, I felt like he knew me better than I knew myself. Other days, when it came to the issue of babies-or magic or ruling a kingdom-it was like he didn’t get me at all.

“I know,” I said, laying my hand on his. I certainly wasn’t going to fight or debate this in the middle of Maiwenn’s castle. “Look, it’s okay. We’ll talk about this later. Right now…well, I can tell you don’t really want to go.”

He shook his head. “No, no. I’m coming with you-“

“Kiyo,” I said, unable to help a small smile, “I know you. I saw your face up there. You want to be with Luisa more. And you should. Stay awhile, and I’ll just go back myself.”

“Eugenie…” But I could tell I was right.

“It’s fine. And I’ll be fine. I’m the big bad Thorn Queen, remember? Besides, I want to visit that village we passed.”

He was silent for several seconds. “Where will you be tomorrow? I want to find you.”

“I’m not sure. In the morning I have to be back in Tucson for a job-and to talk to Roland-but after that…” So much kept happening lately that I was always shuffling one problem around for another. I hadn’t had the chance to talk to Roland about Art and the Yellow River connection, nor did Kiyo know about the recent developments around that either. Before I could start to explain, Kiyo turned us in an unexpected direction.

“Do you want to go hunting fire demons?”

I regarded him with surprise. “Really?”

“Well, if you’ve got Jasmine and your new tricks, you’ve got more of a fighting chance, so I figure you might as well make it a slam dunk and bring me along. You’ve been wanting to get rid of them, right?”

We’d come to a stop in the hall, and the scenario was eerily parallel to when we’d been in my castle earlier. There was no chastisement or echoes of that argument now, and I was grateful. “Thank you,” I said, leaning toward him. I placed a light kiss on his lips-or at least, I tried to make it light. His hand reached out and grabbed my shoulder, bringing me closer still and intensifying the kiss.

I pulled back, wondering just how weird it would be for a servant to see the father of their queen’s child making out with someone else. Of course, among the gentry, that kind of thing was probably pretty typical.

“Go,” I said, stepping back before I was tempted to kiss him again. “Go see your beautiful daughter. We’ll talk tomorrow.”

“Thanks, Eugenie.” His face split into one of those wonderful grins. “And thank you for…I don’t know. You understand me. I don’t think anyone else does.”

I smiled back and then watched him turn around. A few moments later, I turned as well. As I stepped outside into the balmy spring air, I wondered if anyone truly understood me.