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I don’t care how old you get or how tough you are. Nothing, nothing at all, can ever replace your mother taking care of you when you’re sick.
The feel of a cool, wet cloth touched my head, and the sound of familiar humming just barely penetrated my weary brain. I opened my eyes and saw the same funny-shaped pieces of sunlight cast through my blinds onto the bedroom ceiling. Only this time, their positions had changed, their colors dimmer and darker orange.
The humming abruptly stopped.
“Mom,” I croaked. My throat felt torn and raw.
She moved into my field of vision, face drawn with worry. I couldn’t believe it. She looked almost entirely normal. Her hair had a bit of a wind-swept look, and I could see a few bruises. Other than that, she seemed fine, not like she’d just endured a paranormal attack and subsequent magically induced maelstrom. For just a moment, I questioned my own memories. Had I imagined what happened? Had it been a trick or a vision? No. I felt like shit. No delusion could have caused this pain.
“You’re okay?” I asked doubtfully.
She nodded. “Fine. What about you?”
I tentatively attempted to make contact with the muscles in my body. They told me to leave them the fuck alone.
She adjusted the cloth on my head, making it fractionally more perfect. As she leaned over, a lock of her hair slipped forward, and I made out muddy fingerprints on her neck. No. Definitely not my imagination.
“I called Roland. He was up in Flagstaff with Bill. He’s on his way back now – should be here in a couple of hours.”
“Mom…how’d you recover?”
“What do you mean?”
“You were really messed up from those spirits. Don’t you remember?”
“I got a little shaken up but nothing worse. Nothing like you.” She frowned, giving a little sigh. “God, how I wish you were a lawyer instead. Or maybe a pharmacist.”
“What do you remember happening?”
“Not much,” she admitted. “I remember going after one of those…creatures. After that, it’s a blur. I must have panicked. Your living room is, uh, going to need some help.”
I closed my eyes, feeling tired. My living room would probably need to be bulldozed and rebuilt from scratch. No telling how the rest of the house had fared. It could probably collapse at any moment. My room actually looked kind of normal. A few things were knocked over, probably casualties of stray gusts of wind.
“You’ve got people here who want to see you.”
I opened my eyes. “Who?”
“No one I know. A man and a woman.”
“Is the man a fox?”
She stared at me, confused. “A fox? He’s very handsome, yes, but, sweetie…maybe I should send them away. You don’t sound like you’re better yet.”
“No, no, let me talk to them.” I had a feeling the missing pieces of what had happened during and after the storm lay with Kiyo. “And I need to talk to them…alone.”
My mother looked hurt.
“It’s not personal. It’s business.”
She started to argue, then shook her head and stood up. “I’ll go get them.”
While she was gone, I dared a hasty assessment of my appearance. I was still in my underwear and camisole. The top in particular was ripped and dirty. I pulled the covers up almost to my neck and ran a hand over my hair and face. I could feel more dirt on my skin plus a scab on my cheek, distantly reminding me of a shard of something flying out and cutting me. My hair stuck out everywhere. I attempted to smooth it down, but then my mom returned with Kiyo and a strange woman.
“I’ll be in the kitchen if you need me,” Mom said protectively. She pulled the door closed behind her, all but a crack.
Kiyo’s face told me all I needed to know about the way I looked.
“You should see the other guy,” I said.
A small smile broke over his face. “I did. He’s in pieces in the other room.”
He beckoned to the woman. “Eugenie, this is Maiwenn, queen of the Willow Land.”
I started in surprise. She didn’t look like a Willow Queen. Of course, I’m not sure what exactly I expected – maybe something akin to Glinda the Good Witch. But this woman looked like Surfer Girl Barbie. Her skin glowed with a deep bronze tan. Platinum blond hair fell in supermodel waves to her waist. Her eyes were the color of the sea in the sun, blue-green with long lashes. She wore a simple blue dress, a bit old-fashioned but nothing that screamed, “I’m a fairy queen.” It was looser than the form-fitting gowns other gentry women seemed to favor but was still quite pretty. My feelings of inadequacy about my appearance increased tenfold.
“Nice to meet you,” I said. I could hear the tentativeness in my voice. Kiyo might swear to her character, but I still carried a lot of apprehension around the gentry, monarch or no.
“And you,” she said. Her voice was rich and sweet, her face serene. “I’m sorry I could not heal you too.”
“‘Too’? Oh…was it you? Did you heal my mother? She doesn’t remember anything….”
She nodded. “I didn’t have the power to heal you both. She was more severely injured, and with your age and stamina – and your blood – well, I thought you’d have an easier time recovering.”
I thought about the aches and pains shooting through my body. Easier? That might be a subjective term.
“You made the right choice. Thanks. I’ll be fine.”
Kiyo stuffed his hands in his pockets and leaned against the wall. “Eugenie doesn’t like to admit weakness. It’s one of her more charming traits.”
I shot him a glare, and Maiwenn offered a small, polite smile. “Nothing wrong with that.” She approached me and extended a hand toward my face. “I think I have enough strength for a small healing. May I?”
I nodded, not entirely sure what I was agreeing to.
Her fingertips grazed my cheek, icy cold but gentle. A tingle ran through me, and she drew back, suddenly looking pale and tired. Kiyo started to help her when she stumbled, but she waved him off. “There. No scarring this way.” My fingers examined the place she had touched. No more scab.
“Thank you.” Silence fell, and I looked from face to face. With me in bed and them hanging around so casually, I didn’t really feel like I was having a meeting with a bona fide queen. It was all so informal. “What happened?”
They exchanged uncertain glances. “We’re not really sure,” he said. “You and your mother were both unconscious. The elemental was dead, and your living room…it looks kind of bad.”
“But…that was it?”
His eyebrows rose. “What more could there be?”
“There was no storm when you showed up?”
They exchanged conspiratorial looks again, and something about their solidarity rankled me.
“Tell us what you remember,” Maiwenn said.
I did, starting with the spirit attack and ending with the vicious storm.
Neither spoke when I finished. Kiyo sighed.
“What?” I demanded. “What happened? You obviously know.”
“Everything’s complicated lately. Let me guess. It was the magic, wasn’t it? Storm King’s inherited power?”
He didn’t answer. She did.
“Yes. It seems it has been passed down after all.”
“Can I stop it? Keep it locked up so it doesn’t come out again?”
“Not likely. You might be able to bury it so it isn’t consciously used, but…if it’s there, it’s likely to burst out again when your emotions let loose. You’ll get the same kind of disastrous results if you don’t learn to manage it.”
“I don’t want it.” I shuddered, recalling that horrible blackness and deadly lightning. Uneasily, I remembered what Volusian had told me, that embracing my magic could protect me and those I loved. I looked at Maiwenn nervously, hating what I was about to ask. “But I don’t want to hurt anyone either. Can you teach me to use it? Or at least control it?”
Kiyo’s eyes widened. “Eugenie, no – “
“What do you expect me to do?” I demanded. The expression on his face mirrored what I felt inside. “It’s not like I want to do this. But you saw what happened. I destroyed my house, and worse, I nearly killed my mother. And myself.”
He sighed but didn’t argue. Maiwenn regarded him calmly.
“I know. But I don’t have to like it.”
“I don’t know if I can teach you or not,” she murmured, turning back to me. “Your magic – storm magic – is a very physical, outward sort of power. Healing is more internal. Less aggressive. Some of the basics will be the same, but we’ll probably have to find you a teacher with similar powers.”
Like someone who can call up pieces of the earth and rip castles apart, I thought. I didn’t give voice to that. Kiyo and I might be “friends,” but I immediately knew he wouldn’t like me getting close to Dorian.
“Kiyo says you’re against the invasion thing, that you weren’t a supporter of Storm King.”
“Yes. That was part of the reason I wanted to meet you. I’m happy you survived today, Eugenie Markham, but…this possibility of the prophecy coming true alarms me. I’ve spent years believing Storm King had no children. Your existence causes all sorts of complications.”
It occurred to me then that Maiwenn might have slept easier if I’d been killed today.
“So is it true?” she asked. “You have no intention of fulfilling the prophecy?”
“Of course not.”
“Turning one’s back on such power can’t be easy. Even now, you’re considering his magic.”
“That’s a necessity. I don’t want it. Besides, none of this is about power. It’s about keeping my world safe. You forget that until a few weeks ago, I had no clue about any of this. In most ways – me whipping up a storm aside – I still consider myself human. I’m not going to let some army subjugate or destroy my race.”
“You see?” Kiyo said to her. “I told you.”
I could still see the doubt on her face.
“I’m serious. I don’t want to usher in some terrible era of gentry domination. I sure as hell don’t want to be a plaything for every gentry guy. And even if the worst happens” – I shuddered, remembering the elemental’s proximity – “well, there are ways of making sure I don’t actually get or stay pregnant.” I didn’t feel like getting into logistics with her. “Hopefully, I can just keep up the avoidance, though. I’m not jumping into anyone’s bed soon.”
Sympathy replaced Maiwenn’s doubt. “Yes. I’m truly sorry for what you’ve endured. It sickens me. I honestly can’t imagine it. You’ve surpassed your fearless reputation. I couldn’t have coped so bravely.”
I thought again about the terror that had filled me when the elemental had me trapped. The tears. The desperation. I didn’t know how brave I’d really been.
Kiyo’s eyes met mine then, and while Maiwenn looked distracted with thought, I think he might have glimpsed a little of my emotion. Affection for me burned on his face, and I fell into it. The moment shattered when a loud voice sounded outside my room.
“What the fuck happened in here? No way am I cleaning this up!”
Kiyo straightened up, alarmed, but I waved away his concern. “Don’t worry. It’s just my housemate.”
Sure enough, Tim burst in, outrage written all over him. He wore buckskin pants and a matching vest over his bare chest. Feathers decorated his black hair. Beads ringed his neck. His face fell as soon as he saw me.
“Oh God, Eug. Are you all right?”
I started to give him the “other guy” line, then opted for simplicity. “Fine.”
He jerked his thumb behind him. “That room’s in pieces.”
“I know. Don’t worry. I’ll clean it up.”
“You’re better off not knowing. Tim, this is Kiyo and Maiwenn.”
Remembering himself, Tim raised his right hand in a sort of “How, white man” kind of way. “I am Timothy Red Horse. May the Great Spirit smile down upon you.” This latter part seemed to be for Maiwenn in particular. She smiled formally. Kiyo appeared to oscillate between hilarity and disgust.
Greetings done, Tim walked over to me, shaking his head ruefully. “You’re into some crazy shit.”
“You might want to find another place to stay,” I said seriously. “I don’t think it’ll be safe around here.”
“Are you kidding? I’m never going to find this good a deal. What’s a little death and destruction?”
“Tim – “
His face sobered. “Don’t worry, Eug. I know what you do. If things heat up, I’ll get out.”
“Did you see the living room? That’s pretty hot.”
“Yeah, but so long as the house is standing…”
“You’re more difficult than I am.” I remembered I was supposed to find a witch to boost the wards around my house. I’d forgotten. Instead, I had created some wards of my own, but they weren’t very strong, as evidenced by the recent invasion. A witch couldn’t keep everything out but would do a better job than me.
Tim grinned. “Well, let’s not get carried away. Anyway. You look like you’re in the middle of something. You want anything? Chicken soup? Foot massage?”
“You can get me a Milky Way. And see if my Def Leppard CD survived the war zone.”
“Don’t get your hopes up on that last one.” He said goodbye to the others and left.
“An odd man,” mused Maiwenn.
“You have no idea.”
Yet, while Tim and I had bantered, I’d noticed Maiwenn and Kiyo speaking quietly to each other in the corner. She had rested a hand on his arm as they talked, and there had been something almost…intimate in the way they stood together. Like they were comfortable being in each other’s personal space. Very comfortable. I remembered Kiyo’s resolute support of her, his claim that he worked with her because he believed in her cause. But was that truly it? Or was there more? She was a “good friend.” They stood apart now, but a jealous, ugly feeling kindled in my chest.
She finally turned away from him and gave me a small, tight smile. “I don’t mean to be rude, but…I’m not feeling well and must return home.”
“It’s no problem. Thanks for coming, and…thank you for healing my mother.”
Maiwenn nodded, and I could tell she really was sick. Weariness ringed those lovely eyes. “I’m happy to. And I’m glad we were able to talk. You have no idea how relieved I am to see where you stand. I’ll do what I can to keep others from trying to…take liberties with you.”
Kiyo’s fingertips brushed her arm to stop her, and I watched that contact with a critical eye. “Wait for me outside.”
She nodded and then swept out of the room in all her golden beauty. Kiyo walked over to my bed and sat down, running a hand along my cheek.
“I’m glad you’re okay. When I walked in…I thought you were dead.”
“I’m hard to kill,” I said lightly.
He smiled, shaking his head with exasperation. “I can believe that.”
Reaching down, he picked up my hand and brought it to his lips, eyes on mine. He lingered a moment, and my skin burned where he kissed me. Then carefully, gently, he laid my hand back down, lacing his fingers with mine.
“I’m going to make sure she crosses over okay, and then I’ll be back to stay with you.”
“You gonna take care of me? Massage my feet and feed me chicken soup?”
“Anything you want,” he promised. “That’s what friends do.” He kissed my hand again and then stood up. “Be back in a few minutes.”
I could still feel where he’d kissed me, but for once, my infatuation with him went on hold. I was thinking about the conversation I’d just had. It still bothered me, but I’d meant what I said. Learning gentry magic was about the scariest thing – other than rape by a mud elemental – that I could imagine right now. Yet, I wanted no more storms in my living room, no storms anywhere that I was incapable of controlling.
And for what it was worth, that meant getting a grip on my power. I knew whom I had to go to for that control, and it held its own set of terrors. Necessary evils, though. I had no choice.
So while I waited for Kiyo’s return, I began a mental to-do list. Summon Volusian. Plot strategy. Buy high-heeled shoes…
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