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When I crossed over to the castle in the Thorn Land, I was surprised to find Nia sitting on the floor beside my rabbit paperweight. Her knees were drawn up, and her face-which appeared tear-streaked-rested on her knees. Yet, when she saw me, her face lit up like the sun bursting from behind clouds.
“Your majesty!” she cried, springing up. “Some of them said…they said you wouldn’t come back. But I knew. I knew you would.”
The devotion in the girl’s eyes was startling. Nia had been another servant passed from Dorian, and it had never occurred to me that she would serve me out of such love.
“Of course I came back,” I said softly. “Why wouldn’t I?”
She averted her eyes. “After everything that happened, and…well, because of Queen Katrice. There are those who assumed you’d abandon us and stay in the world of the humans.”
I didn’t bother pointing out that abandoning this land would kill me. I was too shocked by something else. “They thought…they thought I’d just start a war and leave?”
“I knew you wouldn’t,” she said fervently. “I knew you wouldn’t.”
I gave her a small, comforting smile while a knot twisted in my stomach. “Take me to Shaya and Rurik.”
The two of them were surprised by my arrival, but something told me they hadn’t doubted I would return either. I could tell by the compassion on Shaya’s face that what Leith had done to me was common knowledge. To my surprise, it was Rurik I took the most comfort from. He didn’t question my appearance. He offered no sympathies. He simply jumped straight to business.
“We’ve gathered as many soldiers as we could while you’ve been gone,” he said. “Some are camped outside, and Dorian’s said he’ll send reinforcements-his military’s much larger. The majority of yours is in Highmore. We’ll need to determine the best way to distribute them.”
For a moment, I felt dizzy as he continued rattling off military strategy. What was going on? What was I doing? I was a girl from Tucson who’d grown up in a middle-class neighborhood. How on earth was I standing here, listening to a fairy soldier explain how to lead a war?
I held up a hand. “Wait…before you go any further. Is there…is there any way this can be avoided?” Kiyo’s words came back to me, and I hated to say what I did next. “Is there any way to make peace?”
Rurik’s eyes widened, and shock and anger filled his features. “Peace? After what-“
Shaya silenced him with a gesture of her own. “Yes, actually. Katrice sent a rather long letter about it.”
“So…we could get her to understand that it…” Was an accident? Hardly. “I mean, could Katrice let all of this go, considering Leith started it?”
Shaya cleared her throat uncomfortably, and Rurik looked angry. “Well,” she began, “not entirely. For Katrice not to go to war, she demands that we become her subject kingdom and has very specific details on the kinds of tribute and taxes she requires for that. She also…she also says that you must marry her nephew in place of her son and tie this kingdom to her through that branch of the family. My impression is she sent a similar list of demands to Dorian-aside from the nephew part-which he refused rather, ah, indelicately.”
I stared, my mouth agape. That was not what I had in mind. How could Katrice demand those kinds of things after what Leith had done? How dare she act as though I had done something wrong? Yes, I could imagine her grief for her only son. I wasn’t that heartless. Yet…what she was suggesting was ludicrous. And if she thought I would ever, ever let another member of her family lay a hand on me…
I turned back to Rurik as though the issue of peace with Katrice had never been mentioned. Later, I would ask Shaya to help me compose a formal response to Katrice’s letter, something along the lines of I am the Thorn Queen. Fuck off.
“What should I do next?” I asked Rurik.
He smiled, a fierce delight in his eyes. “You should speak to the soldiers gathered here and make an official declaration of war. And then you should go to Highmore and speak to the ones there. They don’t even know you as their queen yet, let alone the person sending them to fight. And you should practice up on your magic, both for battle and to show your own people that that Rowan bitch can’t touch you.”
I shivered at the feelings his words inspired in me. In Tucson, I’d been trying to hide from my magic, but now it was calling to me again. And with this threat from Katrice-no, this insult from Katrice-there was nothing I wanted more than to summon all the forces of nature and rip her apart.
“Dorian is coming here-today, I think,” said Shaya, interrupting my murderous thoughts. “Follow his lead. He knows what to do.”
I wasn’t entirely sure what that meant. The only thing I felt certain of was that I wasn’t quite ready to go over the maps Rurik had laid out and examine all the troop placements he had in mind. I’d always sucked at Risk and had a feeling this would be similar. Besides, I hadn’t returned to the Thorn Land to make war-not right at this second, at least. I’d come because of the dream from last night, the dream where I’d felt at peace.
Because at the moment, I felt no peace. A gentry queen wanted to lead armies in and kill my people-and I was supposed to do the same to her. I’d just broken up with my boyfriend, someone I loved dearly, because I-possibly irrationally-held him responsible for not protecting me from an assailant. And as for that assailant…well, his face still flashed in my mind, and no matter how much time passed, I couldn’t seem to rid myself of that dirty feeling within me or my repulsion at being touched.
I swore to Rurik that I’d talk to him later, that I needed some time to myself first, and left them both for one of the castle’s enclosed gardens. It was the one I frequently meditated in, where Shaya was still attempting to grow grass and where Kiyo and I had made love. I sat down there cross-legged, taking in the sun on the orange rocks around me and relishing in the faint breeze that stirred the branches of the mesquite and smokethorn trees. A tiny lizard scurried off behind a rock, and I heard what sounded like a hummingbird-or a big-ass bee-in a cluster of nearby flowers.
I cleared my mind and tried to communicate with and heal the land like I had before, but for whatever reason, the connection didn’t come. Panic seized me. Had the events with Leith broken something within me? Had I lost my ability to revive the kingdom? I sat there sweating, wondering what would happen to the land if I couldn’t connect to it. The heat eventually made me sleepy, and I lay down on the grass, my hands digging into the earth.
When I woke up, two things immediate became apparent. First, I felt…better. I felt strong and refreshed, and all around me, the colors and scents seemed stronger and more vivid. I still wasn’t happy about the impending war, but that horrible feeling in me…the bitterness Leith had left…well, it had lessened. The air hummed around me, and for a disorienting second, I couldn’t tell where I ended and the land began. It was then that I realized why my meditation hadn’t worked. I had been in no condition to heal the land. It had had to heal me. I was energized now, ready to do anything. Ready to lead a war.
The other thing I noticed after waking was that Jasmine was sitting right beside me, gray eyes staring into mine. I bolted upright. “What the hell are you doing here?” I exclaimed. “You’re not supposed to be loose.”
Girard’s cuffs were still upon her, and she jerked her head back toward the castle. “I’m not exactly loose.”
I followed her motion and saw a dozen guards, all keeping a respectful distance, but all watching Jasmine closely. When Volusian had disappeared, Rurik had undoubtedly increased her security detail.
“Jasmine,” I said, “I’m not really in the mood for your banter, okay? Save your whining and insults for a day when I don’t have to worry about having caused a war.”
Her face was perfectly calm. “I heard what happened to you.”
I braced for smugness. “Yeah, I’m sure everyone has.”
“I’ll fight for you, you know.”
“Look, I’m sure-wait. What did you say?” I stared at her, waiting to see that composure crack. It didn’t. She was still serious and actually looked older than her age.
“He had no right. I told you before: no one does that to a daughter of Storm King. Not even to you.”
I was speechless for a moment, still waiting for a punch line. “Jasmine…you hate me.”
She nodded. “Yup. But that doesn’t change what happened. No one does that to our father either and gets away without punishment. Dorian should stab Katrice too.”
I decided not to mention that nothing had been done to our father technically, seeing as he had died years ago. “What will you do exactly?”
“Same thing you will. Fight. Use my magic. Summon monsters.”
“But…I mean, even if you’re trying to, um, protect our family honor, you realize you’re still helping me in the process, right? I thought you wanted to destroy me and go have Dad’s world-conquering grandson.”
“Oh,” she said sweetly, “I still do. And I will. But we’re going to deal with Katrice first. Our father’s heir cannot be born from rape. I told you before-only someone worthy. That bastard wasn’t, and his mother has to pay for it. Once she’s done…well, then I’ll deal with you. Besides, someone’s got to take her kingdom when we kill her. Might as well be me.”
Whoa. There were so many parts of Jasmine’s logic that were flawed that I didn’t even know where to start. I didn’t entirely know the story of her own conception, but my mother had been raped. God knew how many other women Storm King had taken advantage of; I found it hypocritical of Jasmine to take such a high moral ground about his heir in light of that. Still, I couldn’t deny the fact that she would be useful, and if that was the reasoning it took for her to help me, so be it. It would also be handy to not have her trying to kill me.
“Well, then, thanks,” I said at last. I decided not to mention just then that there was no way in hell I would ever let her rule the Rowan Land. Details, details.
Jasmine looked supremely pleased. “So I can go free then, right?”
I scoffed. “Not a chance.”
“But I’m helping you!”
“Yeah, and in the same breath, you talked about how you want to usurp me. Look…” I glanced back at her guardians. I would have to consult with Rurik about those least likely to try to knock her up, now that Volusian was missing. Some of my soldiers were female. “You can wander the castle more-under guard, of course. And I’ll see about…” I frowned, suddenly recalling my helpers at Art’s house. They were close to Jasmine’s age, relatively speaking, and for Markelle at least, I had no doubts whatsoever of her loyalty. I wondered if she might have the makings of a bodyguard/friend. “I’ll see about getting someone your own age to hang out with you.”
Jasmine scowled. “That’s not what I had in mind.”
“Yeah, well, your cell in the dungeon is still available.”
She gave me her trademark sullen glare and then stormed off back inside. Nonetheless, I felt like she really would help me, and frankly, I was going to need everyone I could find to get me out of this mess. Kiyo had implied that Katrice might call in some allies, and if this became about multiple kingdoms squaring off…
I stood up, suddenly feeling ill about it all once more. The flames of passion and initiative that had flared in me earlier began to flicker uneasily. I couldn’t do this. I couldn’t lead an army. I couldn’t go to war. What was I thinking?
Trying to shake off my building panic attack, I headed back toward the castle, wanting to hide in my room for a while. I passed Rurik along the way. He’d apparently been seeking me, hoping I’d go talk to the gathered soldiers and inspire them-particularly since word had come that Dorian was almost here. I nodded quickly, promising anything, so long as I could get a moment to compose myself and summon my earlier confidence. All of this was overwhelming me. I needed to be alone, lest I start crying.
Only, I was apparently still a ways from being left alone. Ysabel was standing outside my bedroom, arms crossed. Apparently, my earlier suspicions had been right. She really did hang out in the hall waiting for me.
“No magic lessons,” I told her.
“Magic lessons?” she exclaimed, straightening up. She was as immaculate as ever, her red hair twisted into myriad braids. “I’m never teaching you anything again. My lord is sending me away-and all because of you!”
The land might have healed me, but there were only so many weird revelations I could handle today. Jasmine becoming my ally currently held the lion’s share. “What are you talking about?”
“My lord is on his way,” she hissed. “And he sent word that I was to pack up my things and be prepared to leave. He has a small group of guards ready to escort me away.”
“So?” I shrugged, eyeing my door longingly. “Isn’t that what you wanted?”
She took a step toward me. “He’s not sending me back to the castle. He’s sending me back to my village-back to my children. Don’t you understand? He’s through with me! He’s casting me aside because of you!”
The anger and hate on her face made me guess she’d forgotten I could suffocate her. As it was, she was in my personal space so much that I feared she might actually attempt physical blows. I wanted to tell her that Dorian casting her aside had little to do with me. That was just Dorian’s way. Shaya had said Ysabel was one in a string of mistresses who resembled me. He’d grown tired of her, just like the rest, but that wasn’t my fault.
Telling her that wouldn’t help, though. “I’m sorry. But, I mean, won’t you be glad to see your kids?”
“Glad?” she cried. “What do I have to give them? What do I have to show for my time at court? I have nothing. I came to Dorian’s court to improve my children’s lives-to bring us wealth. Now I have to return empty-handed, tossed aside to our backwoods village.”
Ouch. I didn’t know what to say, didn’t know whether to laud a mother’s attempts to improve her kids’ lives or look down on someone who’d tried to do it via sleeping with a king.
“I’m sorry,” I said wearily. “I’m sure you’ll figure out something.”
I started to turn away, and to my astonishment, she grabbed my shoulder and spun me toward her. I think she’d been about to hurl an insult, but I gave her no chance. I still wasn’t ready to be touched, and she’d caught me off guard. With no second thoughts, my instincts summoned up magic, the air shoving her away from me and slamming her-hard-into a wall. She stood there, dazed, and I gasped, horrified at what I’d brutally done without even thinking. I really was turning into my father’s daughter.
“Are you okay?” I asked, stepping toward her when she didn’t move.
She jerked away from me, which I hoped meant no concussion. “This isn’t over. I will never forgive you for taking him from me! I’ll make you pay. He’s mine. Do you understand? Mine.”
This was followed by a whole tirade of ranting and insults about how much she hated me and would see me destroyed. She kept her distance, though, so apparently my brief lapse into violence had done some good. After a while, I had no patience for it and simply went into my bedroom, leaving her out there. I locked the door but could still hear her going on and on.
Remembering Rurik saying that I should go out and talk to the people who could possibly be dying for me, I tried to distract myself from Ysabel by looking through the room’s closet. I figured I should probably wear something gentry, and Nia had kept me well-stocked. The spark was rekindling in me, that need to take revenge against Leith and show Katrice we couldn’t be pushed around. I would prove a strong leader for those out there. I was pulling out a silvery blue silk dress that looked suitable when Ysabel’s shouting finally stopped. With a sigh of relief, I started to drape the dress over a chair-and caught a glimpse out the small window.
There was an army out there.
I immediately backed away, trying to block out the sea of faces encamped outside. I dropped the dress, feeling dizzy. The reality of it all hit me, and I again felt helpless and out of my league. A sharp knock sounded on the door, momentarily breaking through my panic. Anger was an easier emotion to deal with, and I hurried over, yanking the door open.
“Look, I told you there’s nothing I can do about-“
I stopped. It wasn’t Ysabel outside my door.
It was Dorian.
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