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Even with her hands bound, Jasmine didn’t hesitate to attack me. She came tearing across the room, face filled with fury. I’m not sure if her intent was to kick me or simply throw herself at me, but she never even got close. My guards were on her in a flash, hauling her back. Magic started to flare around her, but one of the guards countered it with some weak nullifying magic. Her iron cuffs made magic hard to use, but the human in her gave her greater resistance. I turned on all of them incredulously.
“That’s not the missing girl. That’s my sister! How could you not know that? She was Aeson’s mistress!”
It was Rurik who answered. “A lot of the guard has changed since Aeson’s time. Many here came as a gift from King Dorian.” It was true. Dorian had warned that even though I’d won the Thorn Land fair and square, many of those who had served Aeson would have a hard time shaking that loyalty. Rurik had consequently sifted through the servants and guards, getting rid of those he didn’t think could be trusted.
“Still,” I said. “Someone should have known. Where the hell is Shaya?”
“She is away, tending to administrative errands,” said the guard who’d been so excited initially. Now he seemed deeply embarrassed and upset.
Jasmine, meanwhile, hadn’t ceased in her struggles to break free of the guards. Without her magic, she wasn’t much of a threat and seemed to realize using it was futile right now. She stood average height for a girl her age, but her build was slim, and she always seemed a little too skinny. Maybe that just ran in our family. Her eyes were large and blue-gray, reminiscent of storm clouds.
“You can’t hold me here, Eugenie!” she screamed. “I’m going to break free and kill you. Then I will be the one to bear our father’s heir!”
“Jesus Christ,” I muttered. “The song remains the same.”
To be honest, I was actually kind of surprised Jasmine wasn’t already pregnant and took it as a positive sign that she was still referring to it as a future event. The prophecy that loomed over both of us said that Storm King’s daughter’s son would be the one to lead the battle to conquer humanity. It hadn’t specified which daughter, and apparently, Jasmine was still hell-bent on beating me to it.
“It’s going to happen,” Jasmine continued. “You can’t stop it.”
“Are you out of your mind?” I demanded. “You’re fifteen! You have no business even talking about getting pregnant, let alone conquering the human world. You were raised there, for God’s sake. Do you know how much Wil misses you?”
“I hate them,” she spat. With the angry look in her eyes, I expected to hear thunder rumbling somewhere. “I hate them all. Even him. I never belonged there. This is my world.”
“Not if I pack you up and send you to Catholic boarding school somewhere,” I mused, rather entertained by the idea.
“They’d never be able to hold me.”
“I was joking. Geez, doesn’t sarcasm run in the family?”
“You’ll never be able to hold me either. Your men got lucky, and you know it. I’ve been dodging them for weeks, each time they thought they had me.”
I rolled my eyes at her smug attitude, secretly wondering what the hell I was going to do with her now. I’d spent all this time hunting her and had almost gotten used to the idea that she was gone for good. Now that we had her, I was at a bit of a loss. Never would I have guessed that my guards would inadvertently stumble across her while looking for Moria. In the midst of my puzzling, Jasmine’s words suddenly replayed through my mind.
“My guys have never found you before,” I said. “Believe me, we’ve been looking.”
Jasmine stared at me like I was crazy, which was something, considering that she was the one who needed to be on medication. “They almost got me last week. Maybe they were just too embarrassed about how I nearly drowned them with a tidal wave to tell you.”
I shot a questioning look to Rurik, who shook his head. I turned back to her. “Those weren’t my guys.” A strange thought suddenly occurred to me. “Were they human?”
“No, of course not.”
“Are you sure?”
Jasmine gave me a narrow-eyed look. “I know the difference between humans and shining ones. You’re the one who’s in denial, trying to act like you’re all-human.”
I doubted she would say that if she had any idea what I’d been contending with here lately. Her obnoxious adolescent attitude aside, I was thinking again about what she’d said. She’d spoken of nearly being caught…by whom? I thought back to my meeting with Moria and her babbling about the Red Snake Man. I’d made a huge leap about Art being responsible for kidnapping her and the others.
Again, I slowed down my racing mind to think of other options. It was possible that Moria’s red snake was something entirely different. Or, maybe she’d just run into him here. Like all shamans, he probably crossed over every now and then. Maybe she’d seen the tattoo then. Or, perhaps most likely, was my earlier notion that Art had simply banished her back. All of that seemed more plausible. Yet was it enough to cause Moria such terror? That was the repeated question with no answer.
And now here was Jasmine, also talking about abduction. It seemed too much of a coincidence that that would happen while other young girls were disappearing.
“Were they brigands?” I asked Jasmine. “Like…sort of rough and dirty types?”
“They were guards or some other kind of fighter,” she said. “Stop trying to act like you had nothing to do with it. I know the difference between a bunch of gross beggars and trained soldiers.”
“Yeah, yeah, you’re a freaking genius,” I muttered.
“That’s not hard, compared to you.”
“Oh, look at that. Sarcasm is in the genes.” When I was younger, I’d hated being an only child and had longed for siblings. I’d never in my wildest dreams imagined this was what I’d end up with. “What did these guys look like? Were they in uniform?” My guards’ uniforms were mismatched. They all had leather armor, but Dorian’s recruits wore the green of his army while mine had blue left over from Aeson. Some just wore whatever color tunics they wanted.
“I’m not telling you anything else,” she said. “Now let me go!”
There was almost a whine to her command, making her seem very much her age and less like someone literally set on world domination. Of course, there was no way I was letting her out of this place, not when she was clearly willing to spread her legs for anyone who might help fulfill our deranged father’s grand plans.
Then, staring at her young face, a new thought occurred to me. I was always so concerned about her wanting to get pregnant that I never paid much attention to the idea of her facing the same risks I did. My queenly status had given me some reprieve, but there were still plenty of Otherworldly guys not above raping me. Jasmine had to be facing the same thing, the target of anyone who wanted to be the father of Storm King’s heir. These soldiers she was talking about might have had no connection at all to Moria’s abductors-if she had been abducted. Fuck. This was all hurting my brain. I needed to talk to Roland and Art before jumping to any more conclusions.
And in the meantime, this was all good reason to keep Jasmine under lock and key.
“Sorry,” I told her. “You aren’t going anywhere. You’ll be lucky if I don’t break out the Depo-Provera and fill your cell full of abstinence propaganda.”
“Cell? You are not locking me in any cell.” Her lips were puffed into a pout. Again, she seemed so much like any ordinary surly teen that I nearly laughed. She looked more like a girl who’d been grounded from texting than one who aspired to be an all-powerful fairy queen.
When I didn’t respond, the impact seemed to truly hit her.
“You can’t…you can’t do that! Do you know who I am? I’m a princess. I’m Storm King’s daughter! My son is going to rule the worlds.”
I shook my head. “No, you’re a self-absorbed brat in serious need of discipline and counseling.”
“You can’t do that!”
“I can…or did you forget who I am? I’m the big sister who rules a kingdom and isn’t going to let you jump all over this prophecy.”
“You can’t lock me up forever,” she warned.
“She’s right,” a voice behind me said.
I turned and saw Ysabel hovering near the doorway. She didn’t look terrified of me anymore, but she no longer bore that cocky arrogance. She looked cool and aloof.
“You can’t lock her up forever,” continued Ysabel. “You should kill her.”
“What?” Both Jasmine and I spoke at the same time. Ysabel seemed perfectly blase about it all.
“She’s your greatest rival to bearing Storm King’s grandson. So long as she lives, she always will be an obstacle. The only way you’ll be free and retain your power is if she’s gone.”
I started to protest that I didn’t want to beat Jasmine to the prophecy. Then, I realized that part didn’t matter. It was Jasmine’s own desire for getting pregnant that was the problem, and Ysabel was right to a certain extent. As long as Jasmine was around, I wouldn’t have any peace.
I slowly shook my head. “I’m not killing my own sister. But I am double-binding her. Somebody get another set of iron cuffs.”
I saw a few guards flinch. Even with as little iron as the cuffs had, that was still more than most gentry could comfortably handle. Doubling it would stunt her magic even more, but that human blood was still going to give us trouble.
“I want her cell guarded at all times,” I told Rurik. “With more than you usually would post. And make sure you’ve got guards that can actually use magic.” Someone had returned with the second set of cuffs by then, causing Jasmine to start up a new round of shrieks and protests.
Rurik gave me a nod and then said in a low voice, “If I could speak to your majesty in private?”
I arched an eyebrow. Rurik always obeyed me but rarely bothered with formalities or respect, which didn’t bother me. In public, though, he always used my titles, and I wondered what was on his mind. We stepped out of the room, past a disapproving Ysabel, and came to a halt a little ways down the hall.
“Keeping the girl locked and under guard might not be the best idea,” he said.
I groaned. “Don’t tell me you think I should kill her too.”
He shrugged. “Dorian would tell you to. But if you insist on keeping her here, then get that demon of yours to guard her.”
For a moment, I thought of the fire demons. Then, I realized he was using a more generalized term. “You mean Volusian?”
“I’m not saying they’d do it….” Rurik hesitated. “But I’m not saying they wouldn’t either. A lot of those guards might be tempted by the thought of fathering the heir, and if she offered…”
“Good God. She’s fifteen.”
“Old enough. It didn’t stop Aeson, and if she convinced one of the guards, her age wouldn’t matter. I’m guessing your, uh, friend wouldn’t be so easily swayed.”
Volusian swayed by sex? Hardly. Particularly if he was under my commands.
“Fine. I’ll summon him.” Volusian would also stop any magic she could muster.
“You might also consider finding a potion master to create a tincture of nightshade.”
“It’s a drink that will inhibit her from using her magic.”
“Isn’t nightshade poisonous?”
“Not to shining ones. Not if mixed with the right ingredients. With her human blood, it will, ah, leave her a little…disoriented. But it won’t kill her.”
“I’m not going to keep her in a drugged stupor.” I started to return to the room and then paused to give Rurik a canny look. “Why warn me? I remember a time when you wanted to father the heir. Why not take your own shot?”
“With her?” Rurik snorted. “I still wouldn’t hesitate to beget Storm King’s grandson-but she’s not the one. The heir’s mother should be a warrior, and unfortunately, that only leaves you.”
“You’re never getting near my bed, Rurik.”
“Yes, I’ve deduced as much. But I would still support Storm King’s grandson and would be nearly as happy for my lord the Oak King to father him.”
“Dorian? That’s the only other alternative as far as you’re concerned?”
Rurik’s expression seemed to wonder that there could be any question. “Who else?”
I shook my head and left him, off to order the imprisonment of my sister.
Before setting Volusian on permanent guard duty, I had one brief task for him. He wasn’t very happy about it, not that that came as any real surprise.
“My mistress, as usual, is intent on furthering my eternal torment.”
“I don’t really see how watching a teenage girl is that bad-for you, anyway. It’s going to be a lot harder on her.”
“I am a being of considerable power. I cannot die. If you insist on enslaving me, you should use my abilities to bring nations to their knees.” Volusian’s red eyes narrowed ever so slightly. “Instead, my mistress dispatches me to supervise children and deliver love notes.”
“It’s not a love note! Just ask him, okay?”
Volusian blinked once and then vanished.
While he couldn’t teleport, exactly, he could travel much faster than human or gentry. After Jasmine’s capture and Moria implicating Art, I wanted nothing more than to sit down with Kiyo. I needed to talk this out. I wasn’t used to this sort of turmoil and indecision in my life. I longed for the days when my job had simply been to go out, find the monster, and get rid of it. It had been a lot easier than this sort of deliberation.
Kiyo, to my knowledge, was with Maiwenn, and I’d dispatched Volusian to see if Kiyo would come to me later. It was the closest I could get to making a phone call in the Otherworld-but still far from it, seeing that it took Volusian about twenty minutes to get back to me.
“You see?” I said when he appeared in my bedroom. “That wasn’t so bad.”
“The kitsune says he will come to you in two hours,” Volusian said in his flat voice, not deigning to acknowledge my comment.
Two hours. Well, it was better than nothing. I sighed. “Okay. Thanks.”
Volusian simply stared. My gratitude meant nothing to him.
“Alright. Go watch Jasmine then. Don’t let her escape, and for God’s sake, don’t let her get pregnant.”
“For how long?”
“Until I say so,” I snapped.
The malice radiated off Volusian, but my mastery of him would not let him disobey. Demeaning task or not, he had no choice. He vanished.
Once alone, I lay back on my bed, hoping two hours would go by quickly. Like everything else among gentry royalty, the bed I’d inherited was plush and luxurious, with a thick down mattress. The covers were heavy brocade and almost never needed in this weather-but they felt great to lie against. It wasn’t quite sunset outside, but the light was fading, casting long shadows onto the room’s heavy stone walls. I’d need to light torches soon.
A knock at the door forced me upright. “Yeah?”
It was Nia. She gave a polite curtsey. “Your majesty, you have a guest.”
For a glorious moment, I thought it was Kiyo. Then: no. It was too soon. And Nia wouldn’t have announced him. Everyone around here knew enough to let him in by now. “Who?”
“Prince Leith of the Rowan Land.”
“Leith?” I said, certain I’d misheard. “I just saw him, like, six hours ago.”
Nia shook her head helplessly. “He’s here, that’s all I know.”
I swung my legs over the bed’s edge and stood up, slipping my socked feet into short leather boots. Leith? What was he doing here? A flash of panic went through me. Had something gone wrong in Westoria? If so, wouldn’t my own people have told me?
They’d taken him to my parlor, where he sat on the edge of one of the satin-lined chairs. He sprang up at my approach, hurrying over to catch my hands in his. He leaned down and kissed them.
“Your majesty. Thank you for seeing me so unexpectedly. I’m sure I’m interrupting all sorts of important things.”
“Not so much,” I said, withdrawing my hands. “And you should really just call me Eugenie now. What’s up? Is there a problem?” Around here, who knew what could go wrong? Famine, flood, locusts…
“A problem with-oh, no. Everything in Westoria is great. We made amazing progress today.”
I relaxed. “Good. I was worried.”
Leith shook his head, eager to reassure me. “No, no problems there. I just…well, I know this is strange, but I just had to come see you. That is, I had to ask you something. I feel like an idiot, though.”
I frowned. “You can ask me anything. What’s going on? Are you okay?”
“Oh, yes.” His embarrassment grew. “But after today…I just had to hear something from you.”
“Are you involved with the Oak King?”
“Involved with…what, you mean romantically? With Dorian? No!”
Leith’s face shone like the sun. “You mean it? When I saw you together today. The way he spoke…and the way you two interacted…well, I thought for sure the rumors were true.”
“What rumors?” I asked warily.
“That you were still lovers.”
“Where are you hearing these rumors?”
“Pretty much everywhere.”
“Well, the answer is no. Absolutely not.”
Leith exhaled with palpable relief. He reached for my hand, and I stepped back, putting space between us. The rapture on his face made me uneasy. “Then there’s still a chance.”
“A chance for what?” I asked.
“You and me.”
“You and-oh, Leith, no.” It was just like everyone had said. “I like you-you’re really great-but there isn’t going to be anything happening with you and me.”
“But…” He moved forward again, and again, I moved away. “But you keep wanting to see me and have asked me to be a part of your kingdom. I just assumed…”
“No, no…Leith, I’m involved with someone already…you know, Kiyo? The kitsune? We’re together.”
He frowned and was still too close to my personal space. “I didn’t think it was a serious romance. I thought he was just a…”
“Fling?” I suggested.
“Yes. I mean, someone like you couldn’t take him as a true consort.”
I sighed. “Why does everyone say that? I love Kiyo. We’re together. We’re going to be together for a very long time.”
Leith’s earlier joy was rapidly giving way to distress. “But…I mean, with my background and the way we get along, we’re a perfect match. Admit it: you are usually happy to see me.”
“Of course I am. But that’s because I want to be your friend, not encourage you romantically. I like you-like hanging out with you. But that’s it. I’m sorry. I’m sorry if I led you on.”
“It has to be more than friendship. I know it is for me.” He sighed. “I’ve never been able to talk to someone so easily. It feels natural.”
“That’s because you guys always make everything so…exaggerated. There are probably a dozen girls you could sit down with and have great conversations with if you just got rid of the formality.”
“No.” The grief on his face was killing me. “It’s something about you. I just can’t help it. I’m falling more and more in love with you every day.”
“You barely know me! You can’t love me.”
“I do,” he said in a low voice, and some of that glowing passion returned. “From the moment I saw you. Mother had said you’d be a suitable match politically, but even if that weren’t true, I’d still love you. I’ve never met anyone like you, Eugenie. So brave and beautiful…I’d want to be with you even if we weren’t ruling a kingdom together.”
“Leith,” I said, trying hard to make my voice stern. God-dammit. Why couldn’t he have been an annoying jerk like most of my other would-be suitors? Why did he have to be a nice guy? With great effort, I tried to let him down easy instead of in my usual harsh way. “I meant it: I like you. But that’s it. I value your help and your friendship, but I’m not leaving Kiyo.”
“But I love you.” It was weak and plaintive.
I shook my head. “I’m sorry.”
His face fell, and he turned away, wrapped in despair. He started to walk toward the door and then abruptly turned, eyes alight once more. “If things end between you and the kitsune…then I’d be next in line, right?”
“Next in line? Er, well…” Why couldn’t I just lie and say yes? Or why not use a “I don’t want to ruin our friendship” kind of crap line? “I don’t think so, Leith. I just don’t think I could ever feel that way about you.”
Leith stared at me wide-eyed for several moments, and then at last, his features tightened. “I see. I’m sorry to have taken your time, your majesty. Your workers in Westoria understand my task and should no longer require my help.” He gave a small, polite bow and then hurried out the door.
“Leith…” I took a few steps forward, my stomach sinking. I felt horrible. I knew he’d had a crush on me, but I hadn’t thought it was much more than the usual Otherworldly attractions I experienced. His face at the end there had broken my heart. I hadn’t wanted to hurt him, particularly after all he’d done for me.
Dejected, I returned to my bedroom and ordered wine sent up. It arrived in a jewel-encrusted pitcher, complete with a heavy golden goblet. Had to love gentry room service. I declined any requests to see anyone until Kiyo arrived. I sat down on the floor, leaning against the bed and wondering how much of the wine I could get through before he arrived.
To my surprise, all of it.
I had no clock there but was pretty sure more than two hours had passed. I’d drunk goblet after goblet, thinking about Jasmine, Leith, and Art-and finding no resolution for any of them. I was staring at the bottom of the empty pitcher, pondering the time, when I heard a soft knock at my door. Finally!
I stood up and felt the world sway around me. I gripped the bed for support. “Kiyo?” But it wasn’t him. It was Shaya.
Like Rurik, she’d dropped a lot of formalities and didn’t bother with a curtsey. Her face was troubled, and I saw her clever eyes assess me and my drunkenness in a matter of seconds. “I’m sorry to bother you…but a messenger just arrived from the Willow Land.”
The anger I’d been kindling against Kiyo’s tardiness ran cold. “Oh my God. Is he okay?”
Shaya hesitated and then gave a swift nod. “As far as I know, he’s fine. It’s Queen Maiwenn everyone’s concerned about…she’s gone into labor.”
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