Thorn Queen

Dark Swan Series #2 Paperback

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Eugenie Markham is a shaman for hire, paid to bind and banish creatures from the Otherworld. But after her last battle, she’s also become queen of the Thorn Land. It’s hardly an envious life, not with her kingdom in tatters, her love life in chaos, and Eugenie eager to avoid the prophecy about her firstborn destroying mankind. And now young girls are disappearing from the Otherworld, and no one—except Eugenie—seems willing to find out why.

 

Eugenie has spilled plenty of fey blood in her time, but this enemy is shrewd, subtle, and nursing a very personal grudge. And the men in her life aren't making things any easier. Her boyfriend, Kiyo, is preoccupied with his pregnant ex, and sexy fey king Dorian always poses a dangerous distraction. With or without their help, Eugenie must venture deep into the Otherworld and trust in an unpredictable power she can barely control. Reluctant queen or not, Eugenie has sworn to do her duty—even if it means facing the darkest—and deadliest—side of her nature…

Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

Sad fact: lots of kids know how to use knives and guns.

I’d been one of them, but instead of pursuing a life of crime, I’d trained to be a shamanic mercenary.  This meant that while my friends were at dances and football games, I’d been out banishing spirits and wrestling down monsters with my stepfather.  On the upside, I grew up never fearing muggers or any other assailants.  On the downside, an adolescence like that really screws with your social development.

It meant I’d never really been like other kids.  I’d had some friends, but compared to theirs, my world had been terribly stark and terribly deadly.  Their dramas and concerns had seemed so petty next to mine, and I could never fully relate.  As an adult now, I still couldn’t really connect to kids because I had no shared experiences to draw on.

Which made my job today that much more difficult.

“Go ahead, Polly,” crooned the girl’s mother, smiling with over-plump lips.  Too much collagen, I suspected.  “Tell her about the ghost.”

Polly Hall was 13 but wore enough make-up to rival a 40-year old whore.  She sat slouched against the back of a couch in her family’s perfectly decorated house, chewing gum loudly, looking everywhere but at us.  The more I studied her, the more I decided she probably did have problems.  I suspected they had less to do with supernatural influences and more with having a mother who had named her Polly and let her wear thongs.  It was an unfortunate side effect of Polly’s low-cut jeans that I could see the aforementioned thong.

After a minute of silence, Mrs. Hall sighed loudly.  “Polly, dear, we’ve been over this.  If you aren’t going to help us, we can’t help you.”

Smiling, I knelt down in front of the couch so I could look the girl in the eyes.  “It’s all right,” I told her, hoping I sounded sincere and not like an after school special.  “I’ll believe whatever you tell me.  We’ll get it taken care of.”

Polly sighed just as loudly as her mother had a moment ago and still refused to look at me.  She reminded me of my unstable teenage half-sister who was currently MIA and wanted to conquer the world.  “Mom,” she said, “can I go to my room now?”

“Not until you’ve talked to this nice lady.”  Glancing back to me, Mrs. Hall explained, “We hear strange noises all night: bangs, cracks, bumps.  Things fall over for no reason.  I’ve even…”  She hesitated.  “I’ve even seen things fly around the room.  But it’s always when Polly’s around.  Whatever this ghost is, it seems to like her…or be obsessed with her.”

I turned my attention back to Polly, again taking in the sullen mood and thinly veiled frustration.  “You got a lot on your mind, Polly?” I asked gently.  “Problems at school or something?  Problems around here?”

Her blue eyes flicked to me ever so briefly.

“What about any electrical issues?”  This I directed to her mother.  “Things shorting out?  Stereos or appliances not working right?”

Mrs. Hall blinked.  “How’d you know that?”

I stood up and stretched the kinks out of my body.  I’d fought a wraith last night, and he hadn’t been gentle.

“You don’t have a ghost.  You have a poltergeist.”

Both of them stared at me.

“Isn’t that a ghost?” asked Mrs. Hall.

“Not really.  It’s a manifestation of telekinetic powers, often brought on by rage and other strong emotions during teenage years.”  I’d evaded after school special mode, only to slip into infomercial mode.

“I…wait.  Are you saying Polly’s causing this?”

“Not consciously, but yeah.  In cases like this, the subject—Polly—lashes out without realizing it, venting her emotions in physical ways.  She probably won’t stay telekinetic; it’ll fade as she gets older and settles down a bit.”

Her mother still looked skeptical.  “It sure seems like a ghost.”

I shrugged.  “Trust me.  I’ve seen this lots of times.”

“So…isn’t there anything you can do?  Anything we can do?”

“Therapy,” I suggested.  “Maybe get a psychic to come out.”

I gave Mrs. Hall the contact information for a psychic I trusted.  Waiving my banishing fee, I simply charged her for the house call.  Once I’d double-checked the cash she gave me—I never took checks—I stashed it away and made moves toward the living room door.

“Sorry I couldn’t be of more help.”

“No, I mean, I guess this helps.  It’s just so strange.”  She eyed her daughter with perplexity.  “Are you sure it’s not a ghost?”

“Positive.  These are classic symp--”

An invisible force slammed into me, pushing me into the wall.  I yelped, threw out a hand to keep my balance, and shot daggers at that little bitch Polly.  Eyes wide, she looked just as astonished as I felt.

“Polly!” exclaimed Mrs. Hall.  “You are grounded, young lady.  No phone, no IM, no…”  Her mouth dropped open as she stared at something across the room.  “What’s that?”

I followed her gaze to the large, pale blue shape materializing before us.

“Um, well,” I said, “that’s a ghost.”

It swooped toward me, mouth open in a terrible screech.  I yelled for the others to get down and jerked a silver-bladed athame out of my belt.  A knife might seem useless against spirits, but they needed to take on a substantial form to inflict any real damage.  Once solid, they were susceptible to silver.

This spirit bore a female shape—a very young female shape, actually.  Long pale hair trailed in her wake like a cloak, and her eyes were large and empty.  Whether it was a lack of experience or simply some inherent trait of hers, her attack proved floundering and uncoordinated.  Even as she screamed at the first bites of the athame, I had my crystal studded wand out in my other hand.

Now that I’d regained my bearings, I could do a banishing like this in my sleep.  Speaking the usual words, I drew from my internal strength and sent my own spirit beyond the boundaries of this world.  Touching the gates of the Underworld, I ensnared the female spirit and sent her over.  Monsters and gentry I tended to send back to the Otherworld, the limbo they lived in.  A ghost like this needed to move on to the land of death.  She disappeared.

Mrs. Hall and Polly stared at me.  Suddenly, in her first show of emotion, the girl leapt up and glared at me.

“You just killed my best friend!”

I opened my mouth to respond and decided nothing I had to say would be adequate.

“Good heavens, what are you talking about?” exclaimed her mother.

Polly’s face twisted with anger, her eyes bright with tears.  “Trixie.  She was my best friend.  We told each other everything.”

“Trixie?” Mrs. Hall and I asked in unison.

“I can’t believe you did that.  She was so cool.”  Polly’s voice turned a little wistful.  “I just wish we could have gone shopping together, but she couldn’t leave the house.  So I just had to bring her Vogue and Glamour.”

I turned to Mrs. Hall.  “My original advice still stands.  Therapy.  Lots of it.”

I headed home after that, wondering for the hundredth time why I’d chosen this mercenary shaman profession.  Surely there were other jobs that were a lot less trouble than interacting with evil supernatural beings.  Accounting.  Advertising. Law.  Well, maybe not that last one.

About an hour later, I arrived back home and was immediately assaulted by two medium-sized dogs when I cleared the door.  They were mutts, one solid black and one solid white.  Their names were Yin and Yang, but I could never remember who was who.

“Back off,” I warned as they sniffed me, tails wagging frantically.  The white one tried to lick my hand.  Pushing past them, I entered my kitchen and nearly tripped over a tabby cat sprawled on the floor in a patch of sun.  Grumbling, I tossed my bag onto the kitchen table.  “Tim?  Are you here?”

My housemate, Tim Warkoski, stuck his head in.  He wore a tee shirt with silhouettes of Native Americans that saidHomeland Security: Fighting Terrorism since 1492.  I appreciated the cleverness, but it lost something since Tim wasn’t actually an American Indian.  He merely played one on TV, or rather, he played one in local bars and tourist circles, using his tanned skin and black hair to elude his Polish heritage.  It had gotten him into trouble with a lot of the local tribes.

With a garbage bag in one hand and a cat scoop in the other, he gave me a dark look.  “Do you know how many boxes of litter I’ve had to change today?”

I poured a glass of milk and sat down at the table.  “Kiyo says we need one box for every cat and then an extra one.”

“Yeah, I can count, Eugenie.  That’s six boxes.  Six boxes in a house with 1500 square feet.  You think your deadbeat boyfriend’s ever going to show back up and help out with this?”

I shifted uncomfortably.  It was a good question.  After three months of dating between Tucson and Phoenix, my boyfriend Kiyo had decided to take a job here to save the hour and a half commute.  We’d had a long discussion and decided we were ready to have him simply move in with me.  Unfortunately, with Kiyo came his menagerie: five cats and two dogs.  It was one of the woes of dating a veterinarian.  He couldn’t help but adopt every animal he found.  I couldn’t remember the cats’ names any better than the dogs’.  Four of them were named after the Horsemen of the Apocalypse, and all I could really recall was that Famine ironically weighed about 30 pounds.

Another problem was that Kiyo was a fox—both literally and figuratively.  His mother was a kitsune, a sort of Japanese fox spirit.  He’d inherited all of her traits, including amazing strength and speed, as well as the ability to transform into an actual fox.  As a result, he frequently got ‘the call of the wild,’ making him yearn to run around in his animal form.  Since he had downtime between jobs now, he’d left me to take a sort of wild vacation.  I accepted this, but after a week of not seeing him, I was starting to get restless.

“He’ll be back soon,” I said vaguely, not meeting Tim’s eyes.  “Besides, you can get out of chores if you want to start paying rent.”  That was our deal.  Free lodging in exchange for food and housework.

He wasn’t deterred.  “Your choice in men is questionable.  You know that, right?”

I didn’t really want to ponder that too much.  I abandoned him for my room, seeking the comfort of a jigsaw puzzle depicting a photograph of Zurich.  It sat on my desk, as did one of the cats.  I think he was Mr. Whiskers, the non-Apocalyptic one.  I shooed him off the puzzle.  Doing so took about half the puzzle pieces with him.

“Goddamned cat,” I muttered.

Love, I decided, was a hard thing.  Well aware of my grumpy mood, I knew part of my anxiety over Kiyo stemmed from the fact that he was also passing part of his sabbatical in the Otherworld, spending time with his ex-girlfriend who just happened to be a devastatingly beautiful fairy queen.  Fairies, sidhe, shining ones…whatever you wanted to call them, they were the tall, long-lived rulers of the Otherworld.  I and most shamans referred to them as gentry, an antique term. Maiwenn, Kiyo’s ex, was almost nine months pregnant, and although they’d broken up, he was still a part of her life.

I sighed.  Tim might have been right about my questionable taste in men.

Night wore on.  I finished the puzzle while blasting Def Leppard, making me feel better.  I was just shutting off the music when I heard Tim yell: “Yo, Eug.  Kujo’s here.”

Breathless, I ran to my bedroom door and flung it open.  A red fox the size of a wolf trotted down the hall toward me. Relief burned through me, and I felt my heart soar as I let him in and watched him pace around in restless circles.

“About time,” I said.

He had a sleek orange-red coat and a fluffy tail tipped in white.  His eyes were golden and sometimes bore a very human glint.  I saw nothing like that tonight.  A purely animal wariness peered out at me, and I realized it’d be a while before he changed back.  He had the ability to transform to a wide range of foxes, everything from a small, normal-sized red fox to the powerful shape before me.  When he spent a lot of time in this bigger form, turning human took more effort and time.

Still, hoping he’d transform soon, I dumped another puzzle on my desk and worked it as I waited.  Two hours later, nothing had changed.  He curled up in a corner, wrapping his body in a tight ball.  His eyes continued to watch me. Exhausted, I gave up on him and put on a red nightgown.  Turning off the lights, I finally slipped into my bed, falling asleep instantly for a change.

As I slept, I dreamed about the Otherworld, particularly a piece of it that bore a striking resemblance to Tucson and theSonora Desert surrounding us.  Only, the Otherworldly version was better.  An almost heavenly Tucson, warmed by bright sunshine and ablaze with flowering cacti.  This was a common dream for me, one that often left me yearning for that land in the morning.  I always tried my best to ignore the impulse.

A couple hours later, I woke up.  A warm, muscled body had slid into bed with me, pressing against my back.  Strong arms wrapped around my waist, and Kiyo’s scent, dark and musky, washed over me.  A liquid feeling burned inside of me at his touch.  Roughly, he turned me toward him.  His lips consumed me in a crushing kiss, blazing with intensity and need.

“Eugenie,” he growled, once he’d paused long enough to remove his lips—just barely—from mine.  “I’ve missed you.  Oh God, I’ve missed you.  I’ve needed you.”

He kissed me again, conveying that need as his hands moved over me.  My own fingers slid along the smooth perfection of his bare skin, reveling in its feel.  There was no gentleness between us tonight, only a feral passion fueled as much by animal instinct as love.  He had not, I realized, completely regained his human senses, no matter his shape.

When I woke up in the morning, my bed was empty.  Across the room, Kiyo pulled on jeans, meeting my eyes as though he had some sixth sense that I was awake.  I rolled over on my side, the sheets gliding against my naked skin.  Watching him with a lazy, satisfied languor, I admired his body and the sexy features gifted to him by Japanese and Hispanic heritage. His tanned body and black hair stood in stark contrast to the light skin and reddish hair my European ancestors had given me.

“Are you leaving?” I asked.  My heart, having leapt at his presence last night, suddenly sank.

“I have to go back,” he said, straightening out a dark green tee shirt.  He ran an absentminded hand through his chin-length hair.  “You know I do.”

“Yeah,” I said, my voice sharper than I’d intended.  “Of course you do.”

His eyes narrowed.  “Please don’t start that,” he said quietly.  “I have to do this.”

“Sorry.  Somehow I just can’t get all that excited about another woman having your baby.”

There it was.  The issue that always hung over us.

He sat down beside me on the bed, dark eyes serious and level.  “Well, I’m excited.  I’d like to think you could support me in that and be happy for me.”

Troubled, I looked away.  “I am happy for you.  I want you to be happy…it’s just, you know, it’s hard.”

“I know.”  He leaned over me, sliding his hand up the back of my neck, twining his fingers in my hair.

“You’ve spent more time with her in the last week than with me.”

“It’s a necessity.  It’s almost time.”

“I know,” I repeated.  I knew my jealousy was unwarranted.  Petty, even.  I wanted to share his happiness at having a child, but something in me prevented it.

“Eugenie, I love you.  It’s that simple.  That’s all there is to it.”

“You love her too.”

“Yes, but not in the way I love you.”

He kissed me with a gentleness very different from the roughness of last night.  I melted against him.  The kiss grew stronger, filling with ardor.  With great reluctance, he finally pulled away.  I could see the longing in his eyes.  He wanted to have sex again.  That said something for my charms, I guessed.

His responsible inclinations winning out, he straightened and stood up.  I stayed where I was.

“Will I see you there?” he asked, voice even and neutral.

I sighed.  “Yeah.  I’ll be there.”

He smiled.  “Thank you.  That means a lot to me.”

I nodded.

He went to the door and looked back at me.  “I love you.”  The heat in his voice told me he truly meant it.  I smiled back.

“I love you too.”

He left, and I pulled the sheets more tightly against me and made no motions to get up.  I couldn’t stay in bed all day, unfortunately.  Other things—like my promise to Kiyo—demanded my attention today.  There was a trip to the Otherworld ahead of me, one that would take me to a kingdom I’d reluctantly inherited.  You see, Maiwenn wasn’t the only Otherworldly queen in Kiyo’s life.

Yet, astonishingly, that wasn’t the problem for me today.  That was easy compared to what else lay in store for me.

I had to go to a gentry baby shower.

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