Storm Born Chapter Sixteen

 

I slept the rest of the day and most of the following one as well. Only the essentials got me out of bed - food, the bathroom, one phone call, and a meeting with Volusian after Kiyo had to leave for Phoenix.

I was dozing around dinnertime that second day when Tim's angry voice in the living room woke me up.

"No! I don't care. She needs to sleep, okay? I'll give her the message, but stop calling."

I'd heard Tim use that tone only on a few people, so I had a good idea whom he spoke to. For whatever reason, despite having never met, he and Lara hated each other. Throwing on my robe, I shuffled out to the living room and saw him talking on my cell phone. The only progress we'd made in cleanup thus far was to sort of clear a walking path through the debris. He pulled the receiver from his face.

"It's that bitch secretary of yours. I wouldn't have answered except that she keeps calling and calling. I told her you can't take - "

I reached for the phone. "It's fine. I need to talk to her."

Glaring, he handed it over.

"Did your asshole roommate just call me a bitch?" demanded Lara. "He has no right - "

"Let it go," I ordered. "Tell me what's up."

"Well, I got your message. Did the shoes show up?"

"Yeah, they're great. What about the witch?"

"I set it up. He's going to come ward the place tonight. He'll need you to let him in."

"No prob. I won't be here, but Tim will."

"Okay, and about the other thing..."

"Yeah?"

A long pause. "Well, I don't think I heard that part of the message right. It sounded like you said you needed a dress too."

"I do need a dress."

Silence.

"What's the matter? Didn't I leave you my size?"

"Yeah, you did, it's just that...a dress? I mean, you've asked me to get you some pretty crazy stuff before - and I'm still kind of uneasy about that one time with the nitroglycerin - but this is really out there, even for you."

"Oh, stop it. Just take care of this."

I wasn't keen on the dress either, but Volusian had insisted during our earlier bedside strategy session. If things fell into place with Dorian, I'd be attending an Otherworldly party on Beltane rather than waiting for an attack back here. Volusian had insisted I start making arrangements. What an age we lived in when spirit minions advised on fashion.

"Any special requirements?"

I considered. "Nothing bridesmaid or prom-ish. Think cocktail party. Simple. But elegant."

"Sexy?"

"Moderately."

"Color?"

"As long as it looks good."

"All right. Got it. I'll have it by next week. Oh, yeah, Wil Delaney called again."

"You don't have to let me know anymore. I sort of take it as a given by now."

"So you don't want to return it?"

"No."

We disconnected, and I hit the shower. Beltane eve, the big night, was fast approaching. Tonight was the warm-up. The night I made my deal with the devil.

After digging out my dusty blow-dryer, I dried and brushed my hair until it gleamed. I didn't usually go for makeup - not having the patience - but a little foundation went a long way to hide the small bruises on my face from yesterday's blowout. I considered mascara superfluous with already dark eyelashes, but when combined with some smoky eye shadow, it did make my eyes look bigger. More lipstick, and I barely recognized myself. I didn't look slutty or anything, but it had certainly been a long time since I'd looked so polished.

I considered a skirt but couldn't go that far. Instead, I opted for tight jeans and the new half-heeled sandals. The tank top I selected was olive green, the same color as my moleskin coat, with thin straps meant to rest slightly off the shoulder. Each strap had a tiny ruffle along its edge, as did the low, cleavage-showing scoop neckline.

Examining my reflection, I couldn't help a wistful sigh. I looked better tonight than I had when I met Kiyo. If only he could see me now.

I spritzed on some Violetta di Parma, grabbed my coat and weapons, and headed for the door. Tim nearly fell out of his chair when he saw me.

"What are you doing? Are you going out? You can't do that! Not after what happened yesterday."

"I'm feeling better," I lied. Actually, it was only partially a lie. Did I feel good? No. Did I feel better than yesterday? Yes.

"You're crazy."

"Sorry. Got business that can't wait."

"Dressed like that?" he asked skeptically.

Ignoring him, I drove out to the gateway in the desert. The transition to the Otherworld was a little rough in light of my weakened physical state, but I managed. Volusian and Nandi waited for me at the crossroads when I arrived. Finn hadn't felt like showing. It was one of the downsides of not having him bound to me. We set out along the road.

Shortly into the walk, I realized wearing heels was the Worst Idea Ever. I took them off and carried them the rest of the way. If I was going to keep seeing Dorian, I would need to leave an anchor at his place to facilitate crossings.

"Don't cross his threshold without asking hospitality first," warned Volusian. "They'll disarm you before you can enter. You don't want to do that without protection."

I agreed, though I didn't like the idea of disarming in the first place.

No one ambushed us this time, and I practically walked up to the gates without incident. The guards recognized me and locked into a defensive stance, weapons drawn.

"Our mistress comes in peace," said Nandi mournfully. "She would speak with the Oak King and ask his hospitality."

"Do you think we're stupid?" asked one of the guards, eyeing me watchfully.

"Not exactly," I said. "But I do think you were here last time and saw that I didn't cause any trouble. Maybe you also noticed I spent a lot of time in your king's bedroom. Trust me, he'll want to see me."

They conferred briefly and finally sent one of their number away. He returned minutes later, granting me admittance and hospitality - once they had indeed disarmed me. They walked me through the same hallway as before but not up to the throne room door. Instead, we wound deeper into the keep until we stood at a set of glass doors leading out to some sort of garden or atrium.

"Our lord is outside," explained one of the guards, about to open the doors.

Volusian blocked his way. "Get a herald to announce her. She's not a prisoner anymore. And use her titles."

The man hesitated, glanced at me, and then called for a herald. Moments later, a stout man dressed head to foot in teal velvet hurried in. He looked at me and swallowed nervously before opening the doors. A handful of elegantly dressed gentry stood out in the gardens, glancing up at our entrance.

"Your majesty, I present Eugenie Markham, called Odile Dark Swan, daughter of Tirigan the Storm King."

I winced. Yikes. I'd had no idea I'd had that much appended to my name now.

The soft conversation dropped. Apparently I should get used to having this effect while attending social events in the Otherworld.

From inside, I had expected a small courtyard type of garden, but this looked like it stretched out indefinitely. The grass was still green, but many of the trees had leaves in orange, yellow, and red. None were the dying brown of late autumn. These showed the perfect, beautiful hues one saw at autumn's finest. Heavy apple trees laden with fruit clustered in corners, and in the air, I could just faintly smell a bonfire and mulling spices. It was earlier in the day here than when I'd left Tucson. The end of the afternoon was giving way to twilight, the sky painted in shades of gold and pink that rivaled the leaves' splendor. Torches on long poles were set up to offer light.

The group parted, and Dorian strode forward. His red hair streamed behind him, and over a simple shirt and pants, he wore a robe-type garment made of wine-colored satin and gold brocade. I approached him, and we met in the middle. My spirits waited near the doorway.

"My, my. What a lovely surprise. I didn't think I'd see you again so soon."

Dorian reached for my hand, and this time I let him take it. A flicker of mischievous amusement glinted in his eyes at this small concession, and I knew I had already piqued his curiosity.

"I hope you don't mind me dropping in like this."

He kissed my hand, just as Kiyo had yesterday. Only Dorian's kiss was less of a hope you get better kiss and more of an imagine my lips in other places kind of kiss.

"Not at all." He drew his lips back and laced his fingers with mine. "Come. Join us."

I recognized a couple of the gentry standing there from dinner. The other two people hanging around looked like servants, waiting anxiously with long mallet-type things in their hands. I peered at them, then at the wickets spread out in the grass.

"Croquet? You're playing croquet?"

Dorian's face broke into a grin. "Yes. Do you play?"

"Not in years." The gentry played croquet? Who knew? I supposed it was technologically simple as far as games went. It made more sense for them to play that than video games.

"Would you like to now?"

I shook my head. "You're already in the middle of something. I'll just watch."

"As you like."

He took a proffered stick from one of the servants. Watching him line up a shot, I could see he intended to hit his ball and knock out an opponent's near a wicket. A faint breeze ruffled his hair and the folds of his robe, and he had to take a moment to brush the fabric out of his way. When he finally hit his ball, it went wide, considerably away from his opponent's ball.

"Ah, well. It was close. I nearly had it, don't you think so, Muran?"

Muran, a lanky guy dressed in lavender, jumped at being addressed. "Er, uh, y-y-yes, your majesty. Very close. You were almost there."

Dorian rolled his eyes. "No, I wasn't. It was an abominable shot, you wretched man. Let Lady Markham have your turn. Give her your mallet."

Now I jumped. Lady Markham?

But the aforementioned Muran practically shoved the thing at me. Hesitantly, I approached his ball. I was pretty sure I'd been ten the last time I'd played, off visiting one of my mom's aunts in Virginia.

Remembering Dorian's hang-ups on his robe, I paused to slip off my coat. A servant immediately raced over to take it from me, folding it neatly over his arms. I turned back to the ball and mallet, sizing up the shot. I tossed my hair back over one shoulder and hit. The ball half-skittered, half-rolled through the grass and went through one of the wickets.

"Exquisite," I heard Dorian say.

I glanced back at him but saw he wasn't watching the ball at all. His eyes were all over me. I tried to return the mallet to poor Muran, but Dorian wouldn't hear of it. He made me finish the game in Muran's stead. As we played, I immediately picked up on something peculiar.

Dorian was a terrible player - too terrible to be real. He was obviously faking it, but his subjects could not bring themselves to do better than their king. So they too faked their own sort of appalling game play. Watching it was comical. I felt like I was in a scene from Alice in Wonderland. Having no such qualms about winning, I played normally, and even with aching muscles and no practice, I won pretty handily.

Dorian couldn't have been happier. He clasped his hands together, laughing. "Oh, outstanding. This is the best game I've played in years. These sheep won't know what to do now." He glanced at his fellow players and beckoned them toward the building. "Go, go, your shepherd is tired of you all."

I watched them go. "You don't really treat them...respectfully."

"Because they deserve none. Did you see the preposterous way they acted in that game? Now imagine that happening every second, every day of your life. That's what it's like to be royalty, to live at court among courtiers. Be happy you have no true throne yet. It's all simpering and groupthink."

I almost heard a touch of bitterness in his light voice. Almost.

A servant handed my coat back, and Dorian addressed her and a couple of guards. "Lady Markham and I are going to take a walk now through the eastern orchard. Seeing as she's dressed for business, I imagine she wants to speak alone. Follow, but keep your distance."

Turning, he offered me his arm again and led me off into one of the garden's winding turns, into a dense apple orchard. Like the other trees I'd seen, these were filled with fruit. Still more apples lay on the ground, round and red and waiting to be eaten.

When we were sufficiently alone, I said, "I'm not dressed for business, not in these shoes. I was dressed for business the last time I was here."

He gave me a sidelong look. "Women who show up looking as lovely as you do after barely stomaching my presence last time do not come on pleasure. They come for business."

"You're a cynic."

"A pragmatist. But, business or pleasure, it becomes you." He sighed happily. "I do so wish more of our women would wear pants like those. The warriors often do but not nearly so tight."

"Thanks...I think."

We walked on at a leisurely pace while the sky turned orange and scarlet.

"So I imagine you've changed in other ways since our last encounter. The very fact that you've come here so congenially indicates as much."

"Yes." I narrowed my eyes. "You know, I don't appreciate you telling me that Storm King bedtime story when all the time you knew I didn't know what was going on."

"Mean, perhaps. But also amusing - were you in my place. Besides, I did you a service of sorts. I provided necessary background information, Lady Markham."

"Don't say 'Lady Markham.' It sounds weird."

"I've got to call you something. Our normal rules of etiquette don't exactly outline anything for your situation. You are the daughter of a king without a kingdom. You are royalty but not quite royal. So you are addressed like a noble."

"Well, then, only use it in public. Or stick to 'Odile.'"

"What about 'Eugenie'?"

"Fine."

Silence fell between us. The orchard seemed to go on forever.

"Do you want to tell me why you're here yet? Or should I think up some other pleasantries to discuss?"

I repressed a laugh. Dorian played flamboyant and scattered, but he wasn't a fool.

"I need a favor."

"Ah, so it is business after all."

I stopped walking, and he stopped with me. Looking down at me, he waited patiently, his face pleasantly neutral. I shivered as another breeze stole through, and he took my coat from me, helping me slip it on.

I wrapped my arms around myself, grateful for the coat's warmth. Sexy was cold.

"I conjured a storm yesterday."

"Did you now?" His voice held less levity and more calculation. "What happened?"

I told him the story, just as I had for Maiwenn and Kiyo.

"What were you thinking when it happened?"

At first, I thought he was chastising me. Sort of like when you do something stupid and your mom asks, Are you insane? What were you thinking?

"Like how I felt? What was going through my head?"

He nodded.

"I don't know. I guess I went through a lot of moods. When it all started...I mean, I felt the same as for any other attack. Planned out what I would do, focused for a banishing. But once my mom got involved...I started to lose it."

"And when Corwyn had you trapped?"

"Who?"

"The elemental. He was one of Aeson's men. The spirits you banished came back telling tales, though admittedly, no one's heard this part, seeing as you didn't leave any witnesses."

"I felt...scared. Weak. Defenseless."

"You don't strike me as someone who's scared a lot."

"No, actually. I'm scared all the time. Stupid not to be. What's that saying? Only the dead are without fear? Or is that hope? Dunno. At that point, I sure as hell didn't have any hope either. I felt like I was out of options."

"And so you chose the only option left to you."

"I didn't choose it exactly. Not consciously."

"No. But sometimes our souls and the secret parts of our minds know what we need."

He walked over to a large, sheltering maple tree. Presumably it too had those wonderful colors, but the near-darkness made such things impossible to see. Taking off his robe, he spread it on the ground and sat down, leaving space beside him. A moment later, I sat down as well.

"So what have you come to ask me, Eugenie Markham?"

"You already know. I can hear it in your voice."

"Hmm. So much for crafty subterfuge."

"I need you to teach me how to use the magic. So it doesn't take over again. I don't want to kill someone the next time I freak out."

"Or," he added, "you just might want to kill someone with it. On purpose, that is."

"Maybe." I shivered. "I don't know."

He didn't speak right away. The darkness around us grew deeper.

"What you did to Corwyn was akin to using a brick to swat a fly when much finer, much simpler methods would suffice. The storms you can conjure are great and powerful things, absolutely. The gods know your father made effective use of them. But I think you'll find your real power is in controlling the storm's finer elements. A child can throw paint on a canvas; a master works with fine brushstrokes. You learn the small things, and then the storms will be second nature."

I took a deep breath. "So can you teach me? Will you teach me?"

Even in the dark, I knew he had that laconic smile on his face. "If someone had told me during our last meeting that we'd have this conversation, I would have flogged him for insolence."

"I don't have anyone else to go to. Maiwenn offered, but she doesn't have - "

"Maiwenn?" he interrupted. His tone startled me. "When did you talk to her?"

"After the attack." I explained the circumstances of our meeting. When he didn't respond, I grew defensive. "There's nothing wrong with that. If anything, it's kind of nice to have someone on my side who doesn't want to see me get pregnant and take over the world."

"And for that very reason, you shouldn't trust her. I want to see Storm King's heir born. Therefore, I have good reason to make sure you stay alive. She does not."

I remembered thinking how Maiwenn would have had a lot less to worry about had I died in the attack.

"She didn't seem so sinister," I replied haltingly, suddenly struck by a thought. If Maiwenn's noble philosophy involved killing me, then would Kiyo follow her in that?

"The sinister ones never do."

"You're just trying to sway me to your side."

"Well, of course. I'd be trying to do that regardless of her involvement."

I sighed. It was all plots and posturing after all. Above all else, Dorian was still one of the gentry. "Maybe coming here was a mistake."

"Coming here was the smartest thing you've done so far. So tell me, what will you give me for teaching you to control your power?"

"You can't get something for nothing, huh?"

"Oh, please. Don't sound so superior. I helped you last time without asking anything in return, and now here you are again asking more of me. You demand a lot of the gentry you consider so greedy."

"Fair enough." I leaned against the tree a little. "If you'll help me...I'll let...I'll let people think we're, you know..."

There was a pause, and then his warm laughter filled the orchard. "Sleeping together? Oh, you really have made my night. That's not fair. Not fair at all."

I blushed furiously in the dark. "You'll one-up Aeson. He'll think I'm willingly giving you what he tried to take by force."

"And all the while, I'll actually be getting nothing except tantalizing glimpses of you in outfits like this."

"I'll cover up more if it makes a difference."

"What would make a difference is if you were sleeping with me for real."

"That's not fair either. Not for a few magic lessons."

"'A few'?" He laughed again, his voice carrying the kind of incredulity that seemed to amuse rather than upset him. Jesus. Did nothing bother this guy? "My dear, it's going to take more than 'a few' lessons to quell that storm in you, pun intended. Especially with your temper. It's going to make focus hard."

I felt indignant. "Hey, I've been focusing since I was a kid. I can clear my mind in the middle of a fight to banish spirits. I go to trance in seconds."

"Perhaps," he conceded grudgingly. "But I'm still not sure this is fair. You'll be getting more than lessons. Assuming you are my 'lover,' people will be hesitant to assault you. You'll find your status soaring."

"Christ. Nothing gets past you, does it? Apparently Volusian and I have a lot more to learn about subterfuge too."

"Who?"

"My servant."

"Ah. The sullen one with red eyes?"

"Yes."

He made a disapproving click with his tongue. "He's both dangerous and powerful. You're brave to keep him."

"I know. I couldn't send him to the Underworld, so I bound him to me."

"If I helped you, we could probably send him on."

The thought astonished me. With Volusian securely in the world of death, I'd probably be a lot safer.

As though reading my mind, Dorian added, "Things will get nasty if he ever breaks loose on you."

"I know. He tells me on a regular basis - in graphic detail. Still...he's been useful. I think I'll keep him around for a while."

We sat quietly in the darkness again. I realized it must be getting past the castle's dinner hour. Part of the reason for showing up at this time had been to get invited to dinner. With gentry pride in hospitality, Volusian had thought it would please Dorian to show off his resources, especially since being half-gentry meant I could safely eat in this world now. Finally, a legitimate perk to all this insanity. I half-smiled imagining a hall full of hungry gentry, pounding their silverware on the table. With the way everyone danced around Dorian's moods, however, I had no doubt they'd wait hours if need be.

"If you're going to pretend to be my lover, it will involve more than just say-so. You've seen how free we are with our affections in public. If you keep ten feet away from me, no one's going to believe it."

I froze, suddenly remembering that other dinner. I hadn't entirely considered the implications.

He chuckled softly, a low and dangerous sound beside me. "Oh, yes, you didn't think about that, did you?"

He was right. I'd figured Dorian and me disappearing into his bedroom for lessons would be convincing enough. But now I had to picture sitting on his lap, letting him touch me and kiss me. I had trouble with the image. He was one of the gentry, the beings I'd hitherto kept a wary eye on and tracked down my whole life. Discovering Kiyo's true nature had been a shock to my system, one I was slowly starting to reconcile. How could I handle someone who was completely of the Otherworld?

Yet...the more I hung around Dorian, the easier it became to think of him as just a person. Weird or not, there was something comfortable about being with him. So, yeah. I could handle this. Maybe. It was just a little making out, right? It wasn't sex. And wasn't it a small thing to ensure I didn't tear anyone else apart inadvertently?

"I'm not going down on you or anything," I warned, using flippancy to cover my discomfort.

He laughed again. "As saddening as that is, it might actually be too much. You're human enough that they'll expect some modesty."

Small blessings. "All right. I'll hold up my half if you hold up your half."

"Well, in distribution, I think I'm actually doing three-quarters of the work here. But yes, I'll do the same. Shall we shake on it? Isn't that how you humans seal a deal?"

I extended my hand in the darkness, and he took it. Suddenly, he pulled me to him and kissed me. I immediately pulled back, aghast.

"Hey!"

"What? You don't expect to have our first kiss in public, do you? We want to be convincing, remember?"

"You're a sleazy bastard, you know that?"

"If you truly believe that, then maybe you'll feel better finding another teacher."

I thought about that. Then I leaned forward and tried to find his lips in the darkness. I didn't realize I was shaking until his hands gripped my arms.

"Relax, Eugenie. This won't hurt."

I took a deep breath and calmed myself. Our lips found each other. His reminded me of flower petals, soft and velvety. Whereas Kiyo was all about animal passion and aggression, Dorian seemed more about...precision. I suddenly remembered his metaphor about the difference between slapping paint on a canvas and fine brushstrokes.

Don't get me wrong, Dorian wasn't exactly sweet and chaste. There was heat in those soft lips. He seemed to want to draw out the experience, almost in a taunting way, so much so that I found myself impatient and eager when his tongue finally darted in between my lips. He pushed it farther into my mouth, the rest of the kiss intensifying. He smelled like cinnamon and cider, like all the good things in an autumn night. Finally, he pulled away.

"You're still afraid of me," he noted, amused by that fact just like everything else. "Your body still won't relax."

"Yes." I swallowed. It had felt good, the kind of good that sends heat down your body and makes your toes - and other parts - curl. But my fear had underscored it all, that fear of gentry and otherness that I still couldn't quite shake. It was a weird combination, physical pleasure mingling with fear. Very different from the way it was with Kiyo - physical pleasure mixed with a larger, all-encompassing sense of chemistry and mutual affection, despite my unease over his half-kitsune heritage. "I can't help it. This is all still strange for me. Part of me says it's wrong. It's hard to change what I've always believed overnight, you know."

"Do you want to go back on the deal?"

I shook my head. "I don't go back on my deals."

I could feel him smiling in the darkness. He leaned over and kissed me again.

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