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Someone was screaming in the desert, and I didn’t realize it was me until Tim raced over and grabbed my shoulders.
“Jesus! Eugenie, what’s wrong?”
I broke from him, dropped to my knees, and threw up into a convenient shrub. That soon gave way to endless dry heaves, my body’s distress too strong to stop. When I finally finished – it seemed like hours but was probably only a few minutes – I ran my hands over my face. It felt like I had shoved my head through a window, cutting my skin to shreds. Yet, when I pulled my hands back, there was no blood.
Apparently convinced I was done bringing up everything in my stomach, Tim carefully handed me a bottle of water. I wiped my mouth with the back of my hand and then drank greedily. When I started to hand the bottle back, he shook his head. “Keep it. What happened?”
“Transition shock,” came Volusian’s flat voice. “You came through the worlds too hard and too fast, mistress.”
“You should be dead,” added Nandi. “Or at least segmented.”
“Segmented?” asked Tim.
I nodded and drank again. “If you’re not strong enough to make it work, only your spirit will get back here. The body stays in the Otherworld.”
He stared. “Will that kill you?”
“What’s worse than death?” asked a new voice. Or not so new.
Wil. I’d forgotten about Wil.
I leapt to my feet and spun toward him, gun drawn. Some part of me wondered if I even had bullets left. I’d changed the cartridge once in the Otherworld but couldn’t recall how many times I’d fired at Aeson’s men.
Tim’s mouth dropped open. “Eugenie, put that away!”
“You don’t know what he’s done. He’s a fucking backstabber.”
Wil, sitting on the blanket he’d gone into trance on, froze, too afraid to move. But not too afraid to speak.
“I had to. It was the only way to get Jasmine.”
“Yeah, it worked pretty well, huh?”
He sounded near tears. “I’d gone a year without any chance of getting her. Then that sprite cut me the deal. Said if I got you to go over, they’d give me Jasmine back. I’m sorry.”
I didn’t move the gun. “I was your only chance to get her back. If you hadn’t led us into that trap, we’d be back here with her now.”
He groaned, burying his face in his hands. “I didn’t know. I didn’t know. I just wanted her so badly.” He looked back up at me. “What happened? Why did she run away? Was she scared?”
“Maybe. Or it could be that…what’s that called? Where people help their kidnappers? Stockholm syndrome?”
“What, like Patty Hearst? No. Jasmine wouldn’t do that.”
I wasn’t so sure. She was young and impressionable, and Aeson struck me as a very forceful figure.
“He’s too pathetic to kill,” observed Finn after studying Wil for a moment.
“No harm in doing it anyway,” said Volusian. “Kill him and enslave his soul.”
Wil’s eyes widened farther.
“Eugenie!” Tim stared at me like I was insane. “You aren’t seriously considering that.”
Probably not. Sighing, I lowered the gun. “Get out of here, Wil. I don’t ever want to see you again.”
He scrambled to his feet, face falling. “But Jasmine – “
“You lost your chance. You blew it. Get in your car before I do something stupid.”
Wil hesitated, his face pleading and upset. Then wordlessly he headed toward the trail that led out to a makeshift parking area. I watched him leave, bitter anger boiling up within me. In the distance, thunder rumbled.
“Eugenie…” began Tim hesitantly. A slight wind ruffled his hair.
“I don’t want to talk about it. Take me home.”
We gathered up his things and walked in the direction Wil had gone.
“Meet me back at my house,” I told the minions. They vanished.
Tim had enough sense to leave me alone on the car ride back. I leaned my head against the window, liking the feel of the cool glass against my fevered cheek. So many things had happened tonight, I had no idea what to fixate on first. Jasmine? Wil’s betrayal? Aeson’s stupid accusation? Kiyo?
Yes. Kiyo was probably the safest, which was saying something. My heart had leapt at seeing him again. It was stupid, considering the way he’d used me, but my emotions didn’t appear to realize that yet. Why? Why did he have this pull on me when I barely knew him? I didn’t believe in love at first sight.
And what about the fox thing? I knew of no gentry who could do that, but I did know shape-shifters filled the Otherworld. I’d fought some before but never a fox. Seemed like a weird choice. Perhaps that explained why he hadn’t felt gentry. He was something else, not gentry but still Otherworldly. Not much of an improvement.
I left Tim as soon as we got home, seeking out the solitude of my room. Well, as much solitude as I could get with the three spirits waiting for me. I threw myself onto the bed, leaning into the corner where the bed sat against the wall. Exhaustion ran through me, and I did and said nothing, staring into the darkness. Thunder rumbled again but seemed fainter now, like the storm had changed its mind. The spirits simply waited and watched me.
“Tell me what just happened.”
“Um, which part?” asked Finn after a minute.
“Any of it. Tell me what Kiyo is. The fox.”
“Oh.” Finn seemed relieved to have a question he could answer. “He’s a kitsune. Japanese fox spirit.”
“Roland taught me hundreds of magical creatures. Never heard of a kitsune.”
“You don’t find them around here much,” explained Finn. “And they’re not really dangerous.”
“He looked dangerous enough to me.”
“They carry animal traits into human form,” said Volusian. “Strength. Speed. A certain sense of aggression.”
I thought about sex with Kiyo. Yeah. That had been pretty aggressive. I closed my eyes.
“Why would he mark me and then follow me?”
“I do not know.”
“Anything else I should know about him? About them?”
“They’re usually female. Men are rare. Perhaps his human blood affected that,” said Nandi in her emotionless voice.
“Half-human? Oh. His mother was the kitsune,” I mused, recalling him talking about his parents.
“Yeah,” agreed Finn. “The women are supposed to be pretty hot. Like sirens. Real seductive. Men can’t stay away from them.”
“Like a drug,” added Volusian.
I opened my eyes. “Could he do that too?”
Suddenly my obsession seemed less weird than twisted. Had he used some sort of sexual power to lure me in? Was that why I couldn’t stop thinking about him?
“I guess half-human isn’t so bad,” I muttered, speaking out loud without meaning to. I hadn’t bedded a full-fledged Otherworldly creature.
“Not bad at all,” agreed Finn happily. “He’s just like you.”
“Stop it,” I snapped. “That whole thing…what Aeson said…it’s stupid. I don’t want to talk about it.”
“And like so much, you ignore what you don’t want to hear. Being Storm King’s daughter is no small thing.” Volusian’s red eyes held my gaze.
“Your bluntness is so endearing.” My stomach turned, but it was now or never. “All right. I’ll bite. Why does Aeson think that?”
None of them had an answer right away. The impression I got from them was surprise more than ignorance.
“Because you are, mistress,” said Nandi at last.
“No, I’m not. I’m human.”
Volusian crossed his arms over his chest. “You are half-human, mistress. And as I said, your prejudice blinds you from the truth.”
“One gentry’s accusation isn’t the truth. Where are the facts?”
“Facts? Very well. Here are facts. Who is your father?”
“You know what I mean, mistress. Who is your blood father?”
“I don’t know. It doesn’t matter. My mom always said he was a bastard not worth knowing.”
Volusian stared at me expectantly.
“That doesn’t prove anything.”
“What about your powers? You are rapidly surpassing every other human shaman. You are equal in strength in both worlds. Do you think it’s coincidence that the most powerful shaman in remembered history grew up in Roland Markham’s household? He brought you there, taking you from Storm King.”
“From where? Are you saying I was born in the Otherworld?”
Volusian inclined his head. “Storm King abducted your mother and made her his mistress. She bore his child. You.”
“You seemly awfully sure about this.”
“I saw your mother when she lived in the Otherworld. I have seen her in this world. She’s the same woman.”
“By the power that binds us, you know I am not.”
He was right. He couldn’t lie to me – not so openly, at least. I knew that, and acknowledging that forced me to put my own world into a new perspective. It might explain why my mother hated the Otherworld so much. Why she and Roland had been adamant about instilling that hate in me, making sure I could never have any empathy with the gentry or anything else from that world.
I swallowed and realized I was on the verge of tears. God. That would probably blow the show of strength I always tried to hold around these guys. We needed to get through this interview. “So, are you saying that’s why Roland eventually killed him? To protect me?”
“Among other things. Storm King’s invasion was imminent. He had come to claim you. Roland Markham killed him, both saving you and halting Storm King’s plans.”
“So Dorian was telling the – wait a minute. He knew! That bastard. He sat there and fed me that stuff about Storm King, knowing who I was!”
“Everyone knows who you are, mistress,” said Nandi.
“It’s pretty recent, though,” added Finn, seeing the look on my face. “Came out only a couple of weeks ago. The same time everyone learned your real name.”
“How?” I glared at Volusian. He had known who I was this whole time. “Did you tell them?”
“Then why didn’t you tell me before this? Why didn’t any of you tell me when this came out?”
“Because you did not ask us,” replied Nandi.
“Yes,” agreed Volusian. “Had you asked us, ‘Am I Storm King’s daughter?’ we would have gladly – “
“Oh, shut up.” I rubbed my eyes. I wanted to sleep. I wanted to sleep forever and forget all this. But I had miles to go before I slept, just like in the Robert Frost poem. “If everyone thought Storm King was so great, then why are they all coming after me? Shouldn’t I be some kind of hero? Instead they want to kill me.”
“Most aren’t trying to kill you, unfortunately. They’re trying to bed you, mistress.”
“Probably because of the prophecy,” said Nandi.
“Prophecy,” I said dryly. “Wonderful. Now there’s a prophecy.”
“Mistress,” she said hastily, “had you asked us if there was a prophecy – “
“Yeah, yeah. I know. What’s this one say? That I’m a good lay?”
Finn hesitated. “Well…it says Storm King’s vision will be carried out through his daughter’s first son. That the human world will be reconquered.”
“You’re kidding.” Oh, God, I wanted to sleep.
“When they found out you didn’t have kids yet, everyone – well, every guy – wanted to get in on the action. Being the one to father Storm King’s heir would be a pretty big deal.”
“Likewise,” added Volusian, “the prophecy says Storm King’s daughter will clear the way for her son. Being your consort would carry great prestige.”
“Hey, I’m not clearing the way for any invasion. Not that I believe in prophecies. Not that I believe in any of this! In fact, that prophecy proves how stupid this all is. I wouldn’t turn against my own kind.”
I swear Volusian smiled. “Yes, but which people truly are your own kind? Your loyalties are now divided.”
My anger flared. “No. Even if this is true and I am the daughter of the biggest gentry badass ever, I know where my loyalties are. I’m human. I act human. I have no gentry powers.”
“As you say, mistress.”
“Get out of here. All of you. None of this is true. I’ll talk to my parents and clear this up.”
Volusian bowed. “A wise idea, mistress.”
I said the words to send them away and then lay on my bed. The storm had quieted outside, but one of my own raged inside me. I wanted to shut down my feelings. I wanted to forget all of this, because it wasn’t true. It couldn’t be. I wanted to take one of the prescription sleeping pills, but I didn’t need Roland’s warnings to know how stupid that would be. If every gentry was suddenly hot to get me pregnant, I couldn’t let my guard down.
I shouldn’t have been able to sleep. Not after fighting gentry and seeing a girl run back to them. Not after learning my one-night stand was a kitsune. Not after discovering that I could very well be something I hated. Something that made me question everything I’d ever believed in.
No, I shouldn’t have been able to sleep at all, but my body knew better as tiredness flowed over me. My body knew I’d been up all night, that I’d fought and been injured. And most important, it knew my fight wasn’t over. Not by a long shot.
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