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I didn’t give Lara all the details the next day, only that I’d just broken up with a guy.
“Ice cream,” she advised me through the phone. “Lots of ice cream. And tequila. That’s the key.”
“I can’t do a lot of drinking right now.”
“Hmm. Well, maybe get one of those liqueur-flavored ice creams. Like with Kahl??a or Irish cream.”
“Any other hot tips?”
“Good God. I’m disconnecting right now.”
“Well, then, try this.” She sounded huffy. “I just got a call from a guy who thinks there’s a troll in his basement. Seems like beating one of those up would be therapeutic.”
“Lara’s full of shit,” Tim told me later when I recounted the phone call. “Why do women turn to ice cream? It makes them fat, then they hate themselves and start going on and on about how they’ll never find anybody, blah, blah. It’s stupid. Now, if you’ve got some peyote squirreled away, that’d be a different matter….”
“No,” I said. “No peyote. Not after what happened last time.”
He made a face. “All right, then. My best advice? Don’t call him. He’s probably going through all sorts of regret and guilt. You call him, he’ll feel smothered and put up his defenses. Let him stew for a while, and he’ll call you.”
“I don’t want him to call.”
I ended up taking down the troll later that day, but it didn’t really do much for me. Neither did the Kiss puzzle I put together that night. With my doldrums growing, I was only too happy when my next lesson with Dorian came the following day.
Considering his fascination with human things and novelty in general, I thought he’d like eating out somewhere. I didn’t know why I bothered; we probably should have gone straight to the lesson. Maybe I felt guilty about the sex thing. Maybe I was lonely.
After a quick drive, I arrived at the Catalina Lodge, a prissy hotel about a mile or so from Catalina State Park. I parked in a remote spot, hopefully away from watchful eyes, and sat down on the ground with crossed legs. The ring sat beside me on the asphalt. Slipping on my sunglasses, I leaned against the car and waited.
My timing couldn’t have been more perfect. A few minutes later, I felt the pressure and tingling, and then Dorian materialized beside me. He’d left the robes and cloaks at home, wearing dark pants and a blousy, sage-colored shirt that looked only moderately out of place. He squinted up at the bright sunlight and then noticed me on the ground.
“Isn’t it ever cloudy in this infernal place?”
I straightened up, and he offered a hand to help me rise. “I could arrange that if you wanted.”
“And risk you wiping out half of your fair city? No thank you.”
“Figured you’d appreciate that. It’ll make your world domination easier. One less place to conquer.”
“No. I need this place intact. I plan on keeping prisoners and exiled enemies here. Where exactly are we today?”
“Mere steps away from the best food of your life, if rumors are true.”
He flashed me one of his trademark grins. “Pleasure before business? My, my, you never fail to astound me.”
“Hell, wait’ll you hear me identify every water source in the restaurant.” That, at least, had been a good thing to come from Beltane. I could now feel cactuses, wells, and any other water source within a certain distance. I could even sense people now since the human body was supposed to be, what, 65 percent water? That meant no one could sneak up on me.
Inside and seated, Dorian found watching his surroundings far more fascinating than anything on the menu.
“Pick something for me,” he said distractedly, watching a family leave with four small children in tow. He cocked his head curiously. “By the gods, do all those little ones belong to them?”
I glanced up. “Likely.”
“And their mother looks pregnant again. Incredible. Back home, those people would be worshipped as fertility deities. A family with two children is remarkable enough.”
The waitress returned. I ordered spinach-stuffed ravioli for me and some sort of spicy chicken for him.
“A lot of middle-and upper-class families actually go out of their way to only have two kids. And a lot of them don’t even start until they’re older than me.”
“Baffling.” He propped his elbow on the table, resting his chin in his hand. “A woman your age could have had that many children by now.”
“Hey, I’m like twenty-six. I’m not that old. I don’t even look my age.”
“That’s your father’s blood. And I wasn’t insulting your age – merely making an observation.” He sighed. “I’d give up half my kingdom for just one child.”
I smiled slyly. “And the chance to be the father of Storm King’s grandson?”
“I’d be just as happy to father his granddaughter too. I’d be happy to father anyone’s child.”
“Then why don’t you find some nice girl and do it?”
“Believe me, it hasn’t been for lack of trying.” His face held a rare seriousness, but the expression vanished as quickly as it came. “Ah, now there’s a fetching young woman.”
Following his gaze across the restaurant, I saw a tall blond woman exit the restroom. She was stuffed into a tiny spandex dress, her chest practically spilling out. I didn’t have the heart to tell Dorian there was probably a lot of silicone in there. His eyes lingered on her, then his charm-alarm must have gone off for fear of neglecting me. He turned back around.
“Not that you don’t look lovely today too.”
“You don’t have to pacify me.” I laughed. “You’re welcome to ogle other women.”
Our late-afternoon meal proceeded nicely, and everything about it continued to enchant Dorian. The credit card I used to pay with at the end especially captivated him.
“It has information about me stored in it,” I tried to explain. “That information lets the restaurant get money from me.”
He picked up the returned card gingerly, turning it over and over in his fingers. “Intriguing. I imagine this has to do something with electricity? The blood of your culture?”
His wry tone made me smile. “Something like that.”
It wasn’t until we were on the mile and a half walk to Catalina State Park that things got a little tense.
“Heard from the kitsune lately?”
“He has a name,” I snapped.
“Heard from Kiyo lately?”
“Really? He hasn’t tried to contact you and beg for forgiveness?”
“No,” I repeated between gritted teeth. Something about the way he said it made it sound like I’d been dealt a great insult.
“Odd. I think that’s what I’d do if I’d offended my ladylove. Of course, I suppose when a man spends half his existence as an animal, you can’t really expect him not to act like one.”
I halted and turned on Dorian. “Stop it. Just stop it, okay? Stop trying to poison me against him.”
“You don’t need me to do what he’s already done.”
“Damn it, Dorian. I’m serious.”
We started walking again, but it was me who brought up the subject again after several minutes of silence. “You knew. You knew Maiwenn was pregnant and didn’t tell me.”
“It wasn’t my secret to tell. Besides, I got in trouble the last time I spoke badly of her. You accused me of trying to turn you against her.”
“I’m not sure this is really the same thing. We’re talking about Kiyo now. Last time it was about Maiwenn wanting to kill me.”
“And you don’t think they’re the same thing?”
I stopped walking. “What do you mean?”
“Kiyo is her friend, formerly her lover, and now the father of her child. He stands firmly with her against Storm King’s invasion. Yet, where would he stand if it came to a choice between you or her? What if Maiwenn decided you were too great a threat? What would he do? What would he do if you accidentally got pregnant?”
A chill ran through me at his words. I abruptly turned away and barely recognized my own voice when I spoke.
“I don’t want to talk about this anymore.”
He held up his hands in a pacifying gesture, face calm and affable. “I honestly intended no harm. Pick another topic. We’ll discuss anything you like.”
But I didn’t really feel like talking anymore, so the rest of the walk proceeded in silence. When we finally entered the park, the sun was well into its descent. We still had plenty of light and set out to pick a good place to work. We ended up following one of the less traveled trails and then deviated from it into a semi-treed area. We had nothing even close to dense forest coverage, but rock outcroppings, some scraggly pines, and distance from the path promised relative privacy.
The routine proved to be the same. Dorian had me sit on the ground, leaning against a rock. He had another stash of those silk cords and again wrapped them around me. The rock didn’t make a suitable attachment, so he simply let my hands rest in my lap and bound them together at the wrist. Naturally, he did his usual artistic weave on them, intricately wrapping red and blue cords together.
When he moved on to wrapping the cords around my chest and arms, his eyes flicked to mine and then back to his handiwork. “You aren’t really going to stay mad at me for the rest of the day, are you?”
“I’m not mad.”
He laughed. “Of course you are. You’re also a terrible liar. Lean forward, please.” I did, letting him tie the knots behind me.
“I just don’t like you playing games, that’s all. I don’t trust them.”
“And pray, what games am I playing?”
“I don’t even know half the time. Gentry games, I guess. You speak the truth, but it always has an ulterior motive behind it.”
He leaned me gently back against the rock and crouched on his knees to look me in the face. “Ah, but I do speak the truth.”
“I just can’t tell what you want sometimes, Dorian. What your plans are. You’re hard to read.”
That delighted smile of his spread over his face. “I’m hard to read? This from the woman who alternately hates and fucks Otherworldly denizens? The same woman who claims not to trust me even while I tie her up, putting her completely at my mercy?”
I wiggled in my bonds. “Well, I trust you with this.”
“Are you sure?”
He pressed a hard kiss against my lips. It startled me, but I couldn’t do anything about it. This man, this gentry – the one who could be either helping me or using me – had me trapped. I couldn’t do anything except let him keep kissing me. The realization triggered a response in me that was quite startling, considering my issues with control and helplessness. It made me feel vulnerable…and excited.
I turned my head away as much as I could, attempting to break off the kiss. “Stop that.”
He leaned back on his heels. “Just making a point.”
“No, you weren’t. You were just trying to kiss me.”
“Well, yes, you’ve got me there. But the fact remains: Tied up or free, you can trust me. I do nothing that I don’t firmly believe is in the interest of your well-being. The same holds true for casual comments about your love life. Now then.” He stood up. “Shall we commence this lesson?”
“No blindfold?” I asked, still a little shaken.
“Not needed. You know where the water is. Or you will in just a moment.”
He produced the canteen I’d brought along and took off its lid. Searching the area, he found a large boulder, reaching almost to his shoulders. He set the open canteen on top of it and then selected a spot for himself near some scrubby bushes where he had a clear vantage of me and the canteen.
“You feel the water?”
“Make sure of it. If you accidentally reach one of the trees and end up calling its water, you’ll kill the poor thing.”
I extended my senses, considering what he said. After a few moments, I felt certain I had the water sources all differentiated. “No, I’ve got it.”
“All right, then. Call it to you.”
“Am I supposed to make the canteen rise or something?”
“No. You have no connection to it. But you do connect with the water. You feel it. You touch it with your mind. Now coax it to come to you, to come out of its container. You’ve already done it with storm systems. The trick now is doing it on a small, specific level. Forget about your body – it’s useless to you now. This is all in your mind.”
“That’s all the instruction I get, coach?”
He stretched out, rolling onto his side to get comfortable. For someone who took such care with his clothes, he seemed nonchalant about getting them dirty. I supposed laundry was a small concern when you had a full staff to take care of it.
Sighing, I turned back to the canteen. What I attempted seemed ludicrous – but, then, so had feeling the water in the first place. So, I followed what he said as best I could. My grip on the water was so tight, I might as well have held it in my hand already. But no matter how hard my concentration focused, I couldn’t make the water move. It reminded me of the wind. I could feel it but not control it. Well, actually, if my training progressed, I might actually be able to control it some day. But the analogy stood, nonetheless.
Time dragged. Extensively. I tried and tried to order the water around, but it refused to obey.
More time passed. It crawled.
I finally decided it was a good thing the cords covered my watch because I’d be pissed off if I discovered how much time had elapsed. Hours had slipped by; I felt certain of it. The light had grown dimmer and dimmer. Looking over at Dorian, I swore he was asleep.
“Hey,” I said. No response. “Hey!”
He opened one eye.
“I’m not getting anywhere with this. We should call it a night.”
He sat up. “Giving up already?”
“Already? It’s been like two hours. Probably three.”
“Miracles don’t happen overnight. These things take time.”
“How much time? I’m starting to wonder if you made this magic rule just to procrastinate on getting Jasmine.”
“Well. You can believe that if it makes it easier for you. The truth – if you trust me enough to hear it – is that this is for your own protection. In a perfect world, we would go in and extract the girl quietly. In the real world, we will likely fight Aeson’s guards and Aeson himself. I would prefer we both walk out of this alive. You didn’t fare so well last time.”
“This is going to take forever. This training.”
I knew I was being whiny and petulant, but my back hurt, and mosquitoes had come out. At least in identifying the water source, I’d been able to take guesses. Here I could do nothing more than just wait and stare. If nothing happened, nothing happened.
“I’m sorry,” I told him. “I’m just tired, that’s all. Didn’t mean to bitch you out.”
He seemed untroubled by my reaction, just like always. Indeed, I could see his face regarding me kindly in the twilight. “No problem at all. Let’s go, then.”
He walked over to the canteen and recapped it. Closing my eyes, I leaned my head back against the rock to wait for him to release me. As I did, I felt something cool and wet, like mist, spread out behind my back and neck. To my new water senses, it didn’t feel…right. Moments later, before I could ponder the difference, the mist coalesced into slimy skin.
“Dori – “
My scream was cut off by cold, clawed hands. One covered my mouth, and the other gripped my throat. Dorian had spun around before my cry, making me think he’d sensed something before I had. He leaped toward me, but four wet, human forms materialized in the air before him, blocking his way. Nixies. Water spirits.
Two were male; two were female. Legends whispered they could shape-shift into more beautiful forms, but here they appeared drab. Clammy skin, mottled and gray. Clothes sodden and dripping. Seaweedlike hair hanging down. The one holding me pushed me down flat to the ground, all the better to cut off my oxygen that much faster. Water dripped onto me from her hair, and her eyes gleamed a sickly green in the waning light. She hissed with pleasure and pressed harder while I frantically assessed my options.
I finished the assessment pretty quickly because I had no options. I was fully armed but unable to reach anything because of Dorian’s fucking bondage fetish. Covering my mouth stopped me from summoning a minion. The world flickered with starbursts as my air disappeared. My lungs and throat heaved, trying desperately to latch onto something. Her claws dug into the tender flesh of my neck, and I half-wondered if she’d rip it out rather than wait for suffocation.
My only hope was Dorian, but he wouldn’t get to me anytime soon, not with his own army of –
Every stone and pebble in the area suddenly lifted off the ground. Shortly thereafter, the really large stones and boulders followed suit. Those big ones exploded, fracturing into thousands of tiny shards. All those little pieces of rock rose higher, joining each other, slowing rotating in a clockwise manner.
My captor’s grip had lessened slightly, probably from surprise. It didn’t return my air, but I twisted my head enough to see Dorian standing with his arms raised up like some sort of symphony conductor. Above him, that cyclone of sharp rocks spun faster and faster, a blur to the eye. Then, as though giving the song’s grand finale, he brought his arms down sharply.
And down came the rocks.
A portion of that maelstrom swooped and soared, the primitive predecessors of bullets. At first their movements seemed chaotic, and I feared falling into their path. But it turned out every rock had its own plan, its own target. Those sharp pieces honed down on the nixie holding me, piercing and slicing with a fierce precision. She opened her mouth in a silent scream as blood splashed onto me, and her torn body collapsed in a bloody, wet pile. I twisted out from under her, taking in big gulping breaths of air.
Beyond her, Dorian gave another downward motion, urging his orchestra to its next climactic moment. The rocks swooped into another nixie, cutting it to pieces. Then another…and another…until the nixies were nothing but ribbons of blood and gore. Their task complete, the rocks gently fell to the earth, as soft and placid as drops of rain.
The entire counterattack had taken less than a minute.
Immediately, Dorian knelt by my side, helping me sit up as I gasped my way back to life. “Easy, easy,” he warned. Blood covered both of us. “Small breaths.”
“Untie me! Get me out of this!”
He pulled the silver athame from my belt. In moments, he sliced open the cords, freeing my arms and hands. I jerked away, my adrenaline still surging. He reached for me, but I flailed against him.
“Damn you! You almost got me killed!” I yelled, hearing the hysteria in my voice. “You almost got me killed!”
He grabbed my upper arms with a solid strength, pulling me to him and forcing me to stillness. “Eugenie, calm down. Eugenie!”
He shook me – hard – where I still struggled, and I halted abruptly, quelled by the harsh sound of his voice and ferocity of his grasp. I could no longer find the silly, languid gentry king. There was a stranger holding me, his face hard and commanding.
“Do you think I’d let anything happen to you?” he demanded, almost shouting. “Do you think I’d let anything harm you?”
I swallowed, still in pain from the nixie’s claws on my throat, and found my body shaking. His grip was so tight, I might as well have been tied up again. He scared me, having turned into someone else. Someone powerful and awe-inspiring. Looking into his eyes and seeing the sweat on his face, I realized fear had touched more than just me. He was scared too, not for himself, but for what had almost happened to me. Something inside me eased up, and I nearly slumped into him.
“I can’t believe what you did,” I whispered. I killed all the time without much thought or effort, but this…this had been something else entirely. And he wasn’t even at full strength in this world. “You slaughtered them.”
“I did what I had to do.” The heat in his voice had faded, replaced with a deadly calm. “And you’ll be able to do the same someday.” One of his hands released me and moved to my head, smoothing my hair back. He pressed our bodies together and rested his cheek against mine so his soft words could spill into my ear. “You will surpass me, Eugenie. Your power will be so great, none will stand against you. Armies and kingdoms will fall, and they will bow down before you.”
I found myself trembling again, feeling the same fear and excitement that had filled me during our last kiss. Only this time, I didn’t know if my feelings came from his body’s proximity…or the promise of power he offered.
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