A Stroke of Midnight (Page 11)

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Chapter 21

ADAIR STUMBLED AS HE ROSE FROM BESIDE US, CATCHING HIMSELF against the wall. Blood was seeping out from underneath his breastplate. “You are hurt,” I said.

“Innis's warriors are as skilled as ever,” he said, in a voice that was a little tight with pain.

I felt a little spurt of surprise. Innis had always been among the most neutral of nobles. He hadn't seemed to care one way or the other who ruled, as long as he and his clan were left alone. They specialized in necromancy of one kind or another. Once upon a time, some of them could raise true armies of the dead. Innis's skill had always been to raise phantom armies that could bleed you, kill you. You could cut them, but they could not die. I understood now why he was the one on the ground. They had had to hurt him badly enough to stop him doing magic.

Hafwyn raised her head from Galen's chest. Tears still traced the pale gold of her skin. “I have some healing left to me tonight. I could not bring another back from so close to the veil, but I can look at your wound.” She looked at me. “I can be of use to you, Princess Meredith, I swear that I can.”

“I believe you, Hafwyn. Attend to Adair's wounds, unless someone else is hurt worse.” I looked at Crystall, who was still standing with a weapon pointed at Kieran. After Adair's show of bravado, I thought I'd better simply ask. “Is anyone else wounded?”

Kanna, the only one of the prisoners without a sword at her throat, spoke up, “Lord Innis, Conjuror of Phantoms, is badly injured.” Her voice was very neutral as she said it. Her long brown hair was coming loose from its ponytail, beginning to show the heavy fall of it around her pale face. Her eyes were wide, as if she might be in shock, but her voice gave none of that away.

“Why should I care if he is injured?” I asked.

“He is a free lord of the court you seek to rule,” she said.

“He is merely one lord among many, Kanna. I see no extra value in him, merely because he had enough power and political savvy to stay out of the guards.”

“Others see the free lords as more valuable than we of the guard.”

“That is because they have forgotten that once it was considered an honor to be asked to join the royal guard. Once it was not a punishment, but a reward.”

“You speak of things too old to bear remembering,” Kanna said. “You were not there. You cannot know.”

“I listen to our stories, Kanna. I remember our history. Many of our best and most accomplished warriors were not forced into the guard, but invited. It only became a burden and a punishment… later.”

“You would leave a free lord to bleed to death, then?”

“If it is a choice between a man who risked his life on my order to save one that I love, and a man who tried to take the life of the one I love, then yes, let him die if he can. Wasn't it you, Lord Kieran, who said a sidhe who can die from blood loss is no sidhe at all?”

Crystall had to move his sword back a little to give him breath and space to talk. “Innis is of the purest blood, not some pixie half-breed.”

“Funny how all blood looks the same when it is spilled upon the ground,” I said. “Are any of my people hurt besides Adair?” I looked at Kieran when I spoke, watched his face. I was rewarded because he looked puzzled.

“You truly would let Innis die.”

“Give me a reason not to let him die,” I said.

“He is not important enough to me to bargain for,” Kieran said.

“Then he will lie there and bleed until I decide otherwise.”

“Innis's clan is powerful, Princess. You do not want them as your enemies.”

I laughed at that. “He has already proven himself my enemy.”

“We did not attack you,” Kieran said.

Adair was still leaning against the wall, bleeding. “Look at his wound, see how bad it is, and I ask for the last time are any of the rest of you hurt?”

Aisling spoke still wrapped in his cloak, so that most of him was hidden. “I let this one get past me.” He emphasized his words by driving the edge of his sword a little tighter against Melangell's throat. Enough that a thin edge of crimson began to flow.

“Was it you that nearly cleaved her helmet to her skull?” I asked.

“Yes, but only after she bloodied me.” He sounded disgusted with himself.

“Frost, choose someone to take Aisling's place, so we can see to his wounds.”

“Hawthorne,” Frost said, and one word was enough. He put his helmet back on, and went to take Aisling's place.

Dogmaela was standing there between the two groups, as if she didn't quite know what to do. Melangell was her captain of the guard. Unless she was willing to make the same offer that Hafwyn had made, she would have to go back under Melangell's rule. In the middle of such a power struggle was a tricky place to be. Dogmaela was like Galen, you could see her struggle with the problem on her face, in the posture of her body. She had fought with the others, but now she didn't know where her loyalties lay. The fact that she was so divided made me put her in the untrustworthy category.

Hafwyn and the other wounded moved to one side, leaving me with Galen cradled in my lap. I slid my hands down the front of his shirt. “You need to start wearing armor.”

“Unless it was enchanted armor, it would not have helped,” Adair said. Hafwyn and Aisling were helping him remove his armor in pieces. The padding underneath was soaked crimson with blood. The wide, clean cut was plain in the padding, low on his side. “He was able to do this to me, even with the armor.”

“Your armor is still worthy of its maker,” Kieran said. “I could not pierce it. I had to find a seam.”

“No true sword could have found the opening you used,” Adair said. The padding peeled off in layers. The linen shirt next to his skin was a ruined red mass.

“That is why magic will always win against weaponry,” Kieran said.

“It was not magic that stopped Innis,” Crystall said.

“It was human magic,” Kieran said.

“Guns are not magic,” Crystall argued, “they are weapons.”

Kieran shook his head. “What is human science but another name for magic? Even now, the princess has brought human spell casters into our sithen. She allows human magic free range inside the only refuge we have left.”

“That's a reason to attack me,” I said, “but not a reason to attack Galen. Why him?”

“Perhaps we are attacking all your guards, if we find them alone,” Kieran said.

“No,” Galen said with his head still in my lap, “when I came around the corner Melangell said, 'We've been waiting for you, green man,' then you hit me in the back. Where were you hiding? I must have passed right by you.”

“Innis can hide in plain sight,” Frost said, “and he can hide one or two with him, if none of them moves.” Frost was still very much on alert, guarding me. He hadn't looked at a wound, or participated in the conversation. He was working and it showed.

“So Kieran, why Galen?” I asked.

“Lord Kieran,” he corrected me.

I shook my head, my hand sliding a little farther down Galen's chest, so I could feel his heart beating against my palm. “Fine, Lord Kieran Knife-Hand, answer my question.”

He looked at me, his face arrogant and handsome in the way that most of the sidhe were. But his was a cold beauty, or maybe I was just projecting. “You have captured me, but you cannot make me answer your questions. Take me to Queen Andais so I may get on with my night.”

I stared at him, with Galen's heartbeat under my hand. Was Kieran being that brave, or did he believe that the queen would do nothing to him? “You have attacked a royal guard. You will not be getting on with your night, Lord Kieran.”

“Siobhan nearly killed a royal heir, and yet she lives. Imprisoned, but she lives. The queen's pet torturer fears the touch of Siobhan's skin, so she has not even been tortured. She will sit in her cage until Prince Cel is released, then she will be his right hand again. If that is all the queen does to a would-be assassin of royalty, then what more can she do to us? Nerys's house still lives, even though all of them turned traitor. They tried to kill both you and the queen herself, and they have lost nothing.” He sneered at me, all that beauty turning ugly.

“That is why you and Innis agreed to this,” I said. “You saw Nerys's people go free, and you think you will go free, too.”

“The queen needs her allies, Princess.”

“How can you be her ally if you toadie for Cel?”

“I toadie to no one, but I admit to preferring him to you. There are many who feel the same.”

“Of that I have no doubt.” I looked at him, so sure of himself, and I needed him not to be. I needed whatever information he possessed, and I needed the court to fear me. To fear harming my people. If the queen would not put that fear into them, then I had to figure out a way to do it myself.

There was a sound like a great hollow gong being struck.

“What is that?” I asked.

It sounded again before the first echoes had died.

Frost reached for a knife at his belt. “I have a call.” It was Rhys.

“What are you doing, Merry? It was all I could do to keep Walters and the police from running to check out your screams. Is Galen all right? You were screaming his name.”

Galen spoke from my lap. “I'm touched that you care.”

Rhys chuckled. “He's fine.”

“He was attacked, though,” I said.

“Who?”

“Nobles and guess whose guards?”

“Let me think… Cel?”

“Who else?”

“But why does he keep picking on Galen?”

“I'm about to try to find out. How is the evidence collection going?”

“Okay. I put a guard on each of the humans, as per your order. We figured out how the reporter strayed outside the magical boundaries we set up.”

“How?” I asked.

“He had small iron nails in the soles of his shoes.”

“Cold iron,” I said. “He'd done his research.”

Rhys's reflection wavered as he nodded. “And he came here planning to try to see something we didn't want him to see.”

“I guess it is part of the job description for a reporter.”

“I guess so.” He sighed, and it was heavy.

“What's wrong, Rhys?”

“Major Walters insists on seeing you in person. He says that the reflection could be an illusion.”

“I'm a little busy here.” I glanced at our prisoners.

“I figured that, but if you don't put in an appearance soon, he's going to want to come looking for you. Just a heads-up.”

“I'll be there as soon as I can.”

“I'll try to keep him pacified.” The sword was suddenly empty, only my own distorted reflection showing.

I handed Frost's blade back to him and looked at the prisoners. If I had been certain how the queen would take it, I would do something drastic to at least one of the nobles. But Kieran was right, the queen did need her allies. I didn't think Kieran qualified, but Andais might, and I didn't want her angry with me if I could avoid it. Still, Kieran's reasoning meant that Andais was losing her hold on the court nobles. That was bad, because I didn't have enough political clout on my own to compete for the throne, even though I was still of the ruling bloodline. If Andais failed as queen, they would see me as a threat, no matter who took the throne after her.

Hafwyn's voice came with a thread of anger to it. “Let me see the wound, Aisling.”

“I dare not let you see more of my body.”

“I am a healer. We are immune to most of the contact enchantments. If it were otherwise we could not heal the sidhe.”

Aisling was holding his white cloak close around the bloody front of his tunic.

“Take off your tunic so I may see your wound.”

He shook his head, spilling his hood back, and revealing a veil like some of the Arabic countries make their women wear. It was a thin, gauzy, golden cloth, so you saw his head and face through the haze of it. Only his odd eyes were free of the cloth, showing pale skin, and a lace of pale eyelashes.

“I'd forgotten that you covered your face,” I said, and hadn't really meant to say it out loud.

“Much is forgotten,” he said, hands still holding his cloak around his bloody side.

“I said I forgot that you covered your face, not why.”

“Yes, yes,” Hafwyn said, “the most beautiful man in the world. So beautiful that if a woman, or even some men, look upon your face they will be instantly besotted with you and unable to deny you anything.” She grabbed his cloak and tried to wrench it from his hands, and finished the rest through gritted teeth. “But I am not asking you to take off your veil, just your tunic.”

“I fear what effect it would have upon a mortal.”

Hafwyn stopped struggling with him, and leaned back on her heels, I think too surprised to know what to do. I realized then that he meant me. How could I ever truly rule here if they still thought of me as a human?

Kieran spoke my thoughts out loud. “Even the guard itself thinks of you as only mortal, and not sidhe.”

I would have argued with him, if I could have. “Are you saying, Aisling, that your bare chest is enough to bespell me?”

“I have seen it happen before to humans.”

I gazed up at him, Galen still in my lap. “Aisling, do you think of me as human?”

He lowered his eyes and would not look at me, which was answer enough. “I guess that's a yes.”

“I mean no disrespect, Princess Meredith. If you are sidhe enough to look upon me, that would be a fine thing, but what if I did bespell you? There is only one remedy for the enchantment.”

“And that would be?”

“True love. You must be in love with someone else before you can look upon me.”

“Not entirely true,” Hawthorne said from his place at Melangell's side. “Aisling's magic can overcome even true love if he wishes it and tries hard enough. Once he could make anyone fall hopelessly in love with him.”

“Lust, not love,” Adair said. “There is a difference, you know, Hawthorne.”

“It has been so long since I had either that I'm not sure I do remember the difference,” Hawthorne said.

Adair leaned against the wall in the torn remnants of his padding and undershirt. He smiled, tiredly, with an edge of pain to it. “Aye, I hear you.”

I had this horrible urge to kiss Adair, to take that edge of sorrow from his smile and see if I could get a real one.

“Can you sit up?” I asked Galen.

“Yes, but I'm enjoying the attention.” He grinned up at me.

I bent over him, hugging him with all my body while he lay in my lap. I whispered against his skin, “I'm so glad you're alive.”

He rubbed his face against my breasts, since they were so conveniently placed. “Me, too.”

Galen sat up and I waited to make certain he was steady. Just seeing the blood painted on the back of his body tightened my chest all over again. I had to swallow past something hard and crushing in my throat.

I turned to Adair, still bleeding, still hurting, because I gave an order. I didn't strike the blow, but I'd put him in harm's way. I knelt in front of him, reached out to touch his face. He actually flinched, as if he wasn't sure he wanted to be touched, or wasn't sure if it would hurt. Knowing my aunt, I could understand that.

“You look sad,” I said. “I don't want you to be sad.”

“I'm too hurt to do much, Princess.” His eyes were wide, showing too much white.

I shook my head. “Would she really offer you intercourse when you were this injured?”

He understood who “she” was. “She has before, not to me, but… others.”

Offer them sex after years of nothing, when they were too hurt to enjoy it, or too hurt to perform. Auntie Andais was a true sadist.

“A kiss, Adair, nothing more. Just a kiss, because you seem to need it.”

He gave me a puzzled look out of his triple yellow eyes. “Just because I need it. I don't understand.”

“Are you lesser fey now, to give a kiss because someone needed it,” Kieran said. “It is not a sidhe custom.”

“No, it isn't, because we've forgotten who we are,” I said, “what we are.”

“And what are we?” Kieran asked, his voice sneering.

I leaned in toward Adair. His eyes were still too wide. “The amount of power we raised earlier would hurt me now, Princess.” His voice was breathy, but he was against the wall, and there was nowhere else for him to go.

“No power, just touch.” I laid a soft, chaste press of lips against Adair's mouth. He stopped breathing for a moment, and I tasted more fear than desire in him. I drew back from him to watch his face and saw the fear turn to puzzled wonderment.

“I don't understand you, Princess.”

“Because she is not sidhe.”

“You asked what we are, Kieran.” I turned and looked at the kneeling man. “We are deities of nature. We are, in a way, nature personified. We are not humans, no matter how our form may ape them. We are something else, and too many of us have forgotten that.”

“How dare you lecture us on what the sidhe are, when you stand as the most human of us all, the most lesser of us all.”

I stood up, stretching my legs, which were a little stiff from holding the weight of Galen's upper body. “When I was a child I would have given anything to be one of the tall slender sidhe, but as I have grown into adulthood I value more and more my mixed heritage. I value my brownie blood, my human blood, not just the sidhe blood that runs in my veins.

“Aisling, take off your shirt. If I am too mortal to look upon your chest, then I am too mortal to be your queen. Let Hafwyn see which of you is the more injured so one of you may be healed.”

He began to argue.

“I am Princess of Flesh and Blood, daughter of Essus, and I will be queen. You will do as I order. Adair loses blood while you act like some bashful maiden.”

Even through the veil I could tell that I'd pricked his pride, and all males are alike when it comes to that. He threw his cloak to the ground and jerked his tunic over his head in one quick motion. He didn't wait for me to tell him to take off his underthings. He simply stripped them over his head, hesitating only at his face, so he could be sure of keeping his veil in place. I didn't argue the veil; his face had once bespelled goddesses and sidhe alike.

It wasn't his chest that made me stare, though it was a very nice chest, with wide shoulders and a lovely stomach except for the cut that traced blood from his waist to his ribs. What made me stare was his skin, which looked as if it had been sprinkled with gold dust, shining and sparkling in the light. In sunlight he would dazzle the eye. I'd seen his nude back in the midst of all the other guards when the queen had been driven mad by a magical poisoning. She had ordered them all to strip and they'd done it for fear of her.

“It is as I have feared,” he said.

I shook my head. “I have seen you nude, Aisling, unless there is someone else with gold dust on their skin.”

“When she saved us,” Adair said, “you were on the floor.”

Aisling shivered, though whether from Hafwyn's hands on his wound or the memory of what the queen had almost done I wasn't sure. “I had forgotten.”

“Not so mortal, after all,” Galen said from where he'd moved to sit against the wall.

“Or perhaps the great Aisling has lost his power,” Melangell said, “and he hides behind his veil not because he can bespell us all, but because he cannot.”

He stiffened, and this time I was almost certain it wasn't from anything Hafwyn was doing. “His wound is shallow. Adair needs the healing more.”

“Then do it. I'm needed with the police.”

Aisling hugged his bare upper body, as if something hurt him. Melangell laughed.

Hawthorne put his blade a little closer to her skin, and the laughter quieted, but still chuckled out from between her lips.

“Why did you attack Galen? Why him?”

Hafwyn answered, “He was chosen because he is the only one of your guards who is a green man.”

Melangell hissed, “You don't know enough to help them.”

“She's right,” Hafwyn said as she had Adair lift the cloth around his wound. “I know why they chose him, but not why him being a green man marked him.”

“Does Melangell know?”

Hafwyn nodded. “She knows almost everything that the guard plans. Perhaps not everything that the prince did before he was imprisoned, but most.”

I nodded. “Good.” I went to her, staying well out of reach because even with her hands bound I did not want to risk her touching me. She'd once been able to love a man to death. It wasn't the sex, but the touch of her skin. She had lost the power, or so I'd been told, but caution was better.

“I give you one last chance, Melangell. Tell us why you targeted Galen, not once but twice, for we know that Cel paid the demi-fey to try to ruin him. Why is it so important to Cel that I not bed Galen?” I motioned Hawthorne back enough so she could talk if she wanted to.

“I will not betray my master, for I did take oath to Cel. I never served your weak-willed father.”

I smiled at her sweetly. “My father is great enough to withstand petty insults. You refuse to answer my questions.”

“No magic or torture you can devise will make me forget my loyalties.” She shot a spiteful look at Hafwyn, who was busy healing Adair.

“Aisling, are you well enough to come here for a moment?”

“It is a scratch, nothing more.” If he'd been human he would have needed at least ten stitches, maybe more. I would not have called it a scratch, but it wasn't my body. He came to me, his sword naked in his hand.

“Put up the sword, Aisling.”

He did, hesitating only a moment. “What would you have of me, Princess, if not my sword?”

“If you show your face to a sidhe woman will she tell you anything you ask her?”

“You mean to make her besotted, so we may question her?”

“Yes.”

Melangell's eyes had gone a little wide.

“I have never used my powers in that way.”

“Would it work?”

He thought about it. “Yes.”

“Then let us see if she will tell us for lust what she will not tell for loyalty.”

I motioned for the guard on Kanna, the other of Cel's guard, to turn her to face the far wall. Dogmaela had already gone to the other end of the hallway. She may have had divided loyalties, but not enough to join her kneeling comrades. Or enough to protect them. Interesting that Melangell and Kanna had spoken only to Hafwyn, as if Dogmaela was not even there.

Aisling's hands rose to his golden veil. “You should look away, as well, Princess.”

I nodded and moved back. Though I could admit to myself that there was an almost unbearable urge to look at his face. To look on someone so beautiful that one glimpse would make you fall instantly in lust with them. A beauty so great that one glimpse and you would betray all you held most dear. I did wonder.

Frost knew me too well, took my arm to move me just a little more to Aisling's back. He gave me a look, and I shrugged. What could I say?

Aisling removed his veil, and all I could see was that his hair was yellow and gold, like streaks of honey, and, like the gold in his skin, shining together. It was braided in complicated knots so that it looked much shorter than the hair actually was. If no one could look upon his face, who did his hair?

“She has closed her eyes,” he said.

“Hawthorne, cut her eyelids off. They'll grow back.”

She did what I'd hoped she'd do; at the first touch of the knife tip, she opened her eyes. Her eyes blinked, and Hawthorne moved the knife back. Her gaze moved up Aisling's body, as if drawn against her will. I knew when she reached his face because I saw it in her eyes. Saw the shock of it over her face. It was a frightened look, as if she looked not upon great beauty, but great ugliness.

Hawthorne turned his face away. Lord Kieran did, too. Only Crystall looked upon Aisling's naked face without flinching. He smiled, as if he saw something wonderful. His clear, white skin filled with radiance, as if the sight had kindled his magic. Only when his hair was shot through with color like prisms in the light did he turn away, as if he could not bear the sight any longer.

Melangell screamed, and it was a sound of irretrievable loss. The echo of it died on the stones, and her eyes filled with… love. It wasn't lust, no matter what Adair had said. Her eyes filled with the mindless devotion of teenagers in their first crush, or newlyweds on a perfect honeymoon. She looked at Aisling as if he were her entire world.

Melangell had never liked Aisling, never had much use for him. Now she looked at him the way a flower gazes at the sun, and it made me sick to see it. I didn't like Melangell, but this was… wrong. If there was no cure for it, then I had done something far worse to her than any torture I could have devised. To be hopelessly, completely in love with someone who hated you. There isn't even a level in Dante's hell for that.

Frost seemed to understand because he said, “Aisling, ask her the question.”

“Why did you attack Galen?”

“To kill him.” Maybe she wasn't as totally besotted as she appeared.

“Why did you want to kill him?”

“Because Prince Cel wants him out of Meredith's bed.”

“Why does he want that?”

Melangell shook her head hard, as if trying to clear her thoughts.

Aisling knelt in front of her, putting his face and upper body close to her. “Why does Cel want Galen out of Princess Meredith's bed?”

She'd closed her eyes again. “No,” she said, “no.”

“You cannot close me out of your mind, Melangell. You have seen me. You cannot unsee me now.” His voice was a whisper, but it seemed to trail down my skin. It made me shiver and it wasn't directed at me.

Frost whispered against my ear, “Her power was once similar to his; it may mean she can escape him.”

“She could kill with her touch.”

“But how do you get a man to touch you, Meredith? By making them want you.”

It made sense, though frankly Melangell was beautiful enough without the extra lure.

He leaned in and I thought he would kiss her, but she pushed backwards as far as Hawthorne would let her go. “Don't touch me,” she said.

“You said my power had faded, Melangell. Why fear my touch if I am but a ghost of what I was? Why does Cel want Galen out of Meredith's bed?” He grabbed her face between his hands, and she screamed, though not in pain. “I am willing to test my magic against yours, Melangell.” He kissed her, long and lingering.

Frost had tensed beside me. Which meant that once even a kiss from Melangell had been a dangerous thing. That I had not known. Dangerous indeed.

Aisling drew back, and her face was raw with need. “My sweet, tell me, why does Prince Cel want Galen out of Meredith's bed?”

She swallowed hard enough that I heard it across the room, but she answered, “The prophecy said the green man would bring life back to the court.”

“What prophecy?” Aisling asked.

“Cel paid a prophet to tell him if Meredith would be a true threat. She would bring life back to the court with the help of the green man and the chalice. Galen was the only green man that she took with her. When we saw what she did at the press conference, we knew that he was her green knight.”

“Has it occurred to any of you that green man is a metaphor for vegetative deities, or even another name for the consort?” I asked.

Melangell ignored me, but when Aisling asked the same question, she answered, “Prince Cel said the prophecy meant Galen.”

“And do you believe everything Cel tells you?” I asked. When Aisling repeated the question, she answered, “Yes.”

“Fool,” Hafwyn said from behind us.

“What else did the prophecy say?” Aisling asked.

“That if someone of flesh and blood sat on the throne, Cel would die.”

“What did he think 'flesh and blood' meant?”

“Mortal.”

“You all must have been frantic when the princess returned with flesh and blood as her hands of power.”

“Yes,” Melangell said.

“Is there anything else Cel has done that we should know about?” Aisling asked, and I made a mental note that he was a thorough man.

She bent forward as if in pain. Hawthorne had moved back, as if he wasn't comfortable touching her. His power was not similar to either of theirs, so maybe he was in danger of being bespelled by Melangell. Whatever the reason, when her hands moved, the cloth that tied them unwound, and since Hawthorne was turned away, he did not see it. Aisling went for his sword, but he was kneeling and at a bad angle. Her hands came up, and she clawed her eyes out while we watched. Only when blood and wet liquid ran down her face did she stop.

“You cannot force more secrets from me now,” she said, and her voice was full of her usual rage.

Aisling let his half-drawn sword go back into its sheath. “Melangell, you cannot unsee me. I told you that.”

I couldn't tell if she was crying or if it was just pieces of her eyes. “The sight of your shining face will be the last thing I will ever see. I hate you for this, but I cannot regret it.”

“Oh, Melangell,” he said, and he touched her face.

She laid her bloody, drenched cheek against his hand the way a lover would. She let him cup her face for an instant, then she drew away from him, and said, “Take me to the queen, take me to a cell, I care not. But take me away from him.”

Hawthorne drew her to her feet and rebound her hands, checking the knots. “What do you want me to do with her, Princess?”

“It is my right to be taken before the queen,” Kieran said.

“Yes, it is, but it is not her right. If Cel were free, then we would take her to him, but…” I shook my head, and looked away from her ravaged face. “Frost.” I buried my face against his chest. “Frost, I don't know what to do with her.”

“Take her to a cell. Tell Ezekiel she is not to be touched until he hears further from the princess.”

“What of Kanna?”

“Take her, as well.”

“The lords?”

“Take them to the queen, see what she does with them.”

He assigned different guards to the duty. He sent Dogmaela along with the lords. She spoke to me as she pushed Kieran past me. “I am not a lover of women.”

It was such an odd comment that I just answered it, “Neither am I.”

“But Hafwyn…”

I realized then that while we'd been trying to solve the mystery of Galen's assassination attempt, and Cel's treachery, that she had been worrying about her virtue. She wanted to be free of Cel, but not badly enough to lie with a woman. To be free of Cel, I would have slept with things that had never even been human, and never would be. I knew a lesser evil when I saw it. Looking into Dogmaela's face, I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. I still had visions of Melangell's eyes dancing inside my head. I'd probably have nightmares about it.

“I will bed Hafwyn and anyone else who wishes to come with me, not because I am a lover of women, but because I would not leave anyone in Cel's power if I could save them. Now take Kieran before the queen and report truthfully and fully about his crimes.”

She went, and the others went with her, two of the guard carrying the still unconscious Lord Innis between them. He left a trail of fresh blood as they vanished around the corner.

Aisling had his golden veil wrapped around his face and hair again. The bloody cut on his side was almost healed.

“You gained from using your power,” I said, my face still half-hidden against Frost's chest.

“I gained from besting her at her own game, yes. Once she was almost a match for me.”

“She has lost much of who she was,” Frost said.

“Once she was Sweet Poison.”

I wanted to ask him if he was upset about what Melangell had done. Didn't it bother him that a woman had torn her own eyes out rather than look upon his face? But I didn't say it out loud, any of it. I had asked him to do it. It was my responsibility. To say that I hadn't understood was no defense. You did not use magic that you did not understand because of shit like this happening. I buried my face against Frost's chest, so I could not see Aisling, even in his veil.

He laughed, a deep, rich masculine sound. “I was called Terrible Beauty.” But his voice said he was pleased with himself.

I wanted to say I didn't understand, but I didn't. It wasn't a good enough excuse anyway.

Chapter 22

MAJOR WALTERS, THE POLICE, THE CSU TECHS, AND DR. POLASKI, the medical examiner, had nothing but complaints. Their laptop computer wouldn't work. Their cell phones didn't work. Nothing they had with them that used electricity, or even batteries, worked. Was that me screaming earlier, and why had I been screaming Galen's name? Glamour hides a multitude of sins, and both Galen and I were good enough to hide the blood. As long as no one touched us, and found that the cloth felt tacky with blood, we were fine.

“We weren't certain what would happen to your modern tech down here. I'm sorry it's not working,” I said. I wanted to avoid the screaming issue altogether, but I didn't want him angry at me. Police do not like to be fucked with, especially if they've just, maybe, pissed off all the local feds on your behalf. No matter how much Walters had enjoyed my handing Marquez his hat, it still might make life difficult for him.

“There are things inside the sithen that are frightening. One of them almost attacked Galen. It scared me, that's all.” I turned, hoping to get away from Walters and his questions. I just wasn't up to word games at that moment. Melangell's face kept coming back to me. Frost's assurance that her eyes would grow back if she were allowed to be in faerie and not in the Hallway of Mortality was small comfort if she couldn't be cured of a hopeless obsession with Aisling. We had stolen something from Melangell if she couldn't cure herself of the love.

Walters grabbed my arm. I hadn't expected him to touch me. “Princess Meredith, what aren't you…” His voice trailed off because the arm he grabbed was tacky with the blood that covered it. He jerked me nearly off my feet, and my concentration was simply not good enough. Frost moved in to protect me, but the glamour slipped. Walters got a flickering look at what I was hiding.

He looked past me at the others, and they were all busy trying to do their jobs, collecting evidence with none of their gadgets working. He didn't let go of my arm. “We need to talk,” he said, his voice surprisingly calm.

“In private,” I added.

He nodded.

Frost said, “Let go of the princess.”

“It's all right, Frost.” I led the way around the corner and a little way down the hall. Shiny white marble with veins of gold and silver was replacing the grey stone where Mistral and I had made love. It was as if something that we had done was changing the very nature of the sithen. The queen would not be pleased, but one problem at a time.

When we were alone except for my ring of guards, he said, “Show me what I'm feeling, Princess, because it's not the same thing I'm seeing.”

Should I have tried to trick him? Maybe, but I was tired of games. We still didn't know where Amatheon had disappeared to. The chalice had gone AWOL, and who knew when and where it would reappear. The only reason I had had Frost with me when I suddenly materialized in the other hallway was that he had grabbed me when I started to fade. But for that, I would have appeared alone, unguarded, in the middle of the fight.

I dropped the glamour, and had the small satisfaction of watching Major Walters's eyes go wide before he found his cop face. But I'd seen the moment, and knew I must be even messier than I thought.

“What the hell happened to you?” He had let me go and now had some of the drying blood on his hand.

“There was another assassination attempt,” I said, leaving out that it wasn't aimed at me. “Galen was injured in the fighting.” Truth, as far as it went.

Walters looked at Galen. I nodded, and Galen dropped the glamour. He even turned around so Walters could see the worst of the blood.

“How is he up walking around?”

“The sidhe heal faster than mere mortals,” I said.

“He lost that much blood and he's healed?”

“I'm a little light-headed,” Galen said, “but give me an hour or two, and I'll be good as new.”

“Jesus, I wish we could heal like that.”

“So do I,” I said.

He looked at me. “I forgot, you're mortal, like us.”

I shrugged. “That's the rumor.”

“You don't heal as fast as the rest of them.”

“No.”

“Your arm isn't in a sling anymore,” he said, and motioned to it.

“No, it got healed in a ritual.” The sex with Mistral had healed it, but I didn't need to overshare that much.

He shook his head. “Is any of this blood yours?”

I shook my head. “No.”

“His last time,” he pointed at Frost, “now his,” he pointed to Galen. “You're going to get one of them killed.”

“I hope not.” I let my voice show how tired I was, how unhappy I was at the thought.

“Go back to L.A., Princess. Take your men and go.”

“Why?”

“Because there have been two assassination attempts in two days, plus a double homicide. Someone wants you dead, and doesn't care who gets hurt. If they want you dead bad enough, they'll succeed. Maybe not tonight, or tomorrow, but if you stay, they will kill you.”

“Are you trying to scare me, Major Walters?”

“I'm trying to have you not die on my watch. I agreed to come into your murder scene partly to help my career, I admit that. But if you die with me inside your faerie land, I will never live it down. I'll always be the one who let you die.”

“If they kill me, Major Walters, the only thing you could do to stop them would be to die before me. I don't think that's very helpful.”

“Are you making a joke?”

I sighed, and rubbed my forehead, fighting off an urge to scream. “No, Major, I am not joking. What hunts me here is nothing you can stop or protect me from. I need your help to solve these murders, but truthfully, if I'd known it was this dangerous in faerie right now, I wouldn't have brought you in.”

“We're police, Princess Meredith. We're used to taking our chances.”

I shook my head. “Do you have enough evidence? Do you have what you need?”

“Dr. Polaski wanted to know what would happen if we gave you evidence that pointed to someone.”

“Did she find something?”

“She wanted to know what – ” He paused over his words. ” – use you would make of any evidence we gathered.”

“We'd use it to hunt down and punish the murderer,” I said.

He shook his head, wiping his big hand on the side of his jacket. “What about a trial?”

I smiled, and knew it wasn't pleasant. “There are no trials inside faerie, Major Walters.”

“So you'll use our evidence to kill someone?”

“The punishment for murder among us is usually death, so execute them, yes.”

“Then we'll have to go back to the lab and contact you later.”

“You did find something,” I said.

He nodded. “If this was going to trial we'd want to run it through a computer. If what we've found is going to be used to execute someone without a trial, we want to be even more cautious.”

“What did you find?” I asked.

He shook his head. “Not yet.”

“You do realize that the murderer could be the one behind the attempts on my life. By not telling me what you suspect, or who you suspect, you could be signing my death warrant. By the time you've analyzed your data, it could be too late for me.”

His hands made fists, and he closed his eyes. “I told the doctor that in so many words. She won't budge.”

“So you don't know either,” I said.

“I know it's a print of someone we took samples from, and the only ones we had access to were the ones in the hallway.”

“The guards,” I said.

“And the kitchen staff,” he said.

I looked at him. “One of the royal guards, that's what you think, isn't it?”

“It's who I'd be afraid of, if I were you.”

“I could compel her to tell me what she knows, or have one of my guards do it.”

“Using magic on anyone connected with the police is a felony, Princess.”

“I'm immune to prosecution.”

“You'd never again get help out of my office, or anyone else on our side of the river. You might never get help from anyone. No other human law enforcement agency would trust you. Bringing us in here and mind-raping us.” He shook his head. “I may not agree with Polaski, but I'll fight to keep her free will and choice.”

I looked into his pale eyes, and knew he meant it. I could maybe get something useful out of Polaski and never be able to trust or be trusted by the police again, or I could let them go and hope that the doctor knew what she was doing. If I hadn't wanted their expertise, then why had I brought them into the sithen in the first place?

“I trust Dr. Polaski's judgment, and your stubbornness. I'll abide by the rules.”

Frost moved beside me, as if he would have disagreed. “We will all abide by the rules of my agreement, is that clear?”

Some nodded. Ivi was smiling as if he couldn't quite believe me. Or maybe he was just amused at some private joke of his own. You never knew with Ivi.

“I understand,” Frost said. “I do not agree, but I will abide by it.”

Walters nodded. “I'll try to hurry the doctor and her techs and get it to you as soon as I can, but a print out of place isn't proof of murder. It isn't proof enough to execute someone.”

“Not in a human court,” I said.

“See, talk like that will make Polaski sit on her evidence. You'll never get it.”

“But I'm not saying it to her, am I.”

“You think I'd give it to you, if I had it.”

“I think you understand, more than she does, how dangerous things are right now for me and my guards.”

He looked at me for a long moment. “Maybe, but I agree with Polaski on one thing: I wouldn't want to be the person who gave you just enough evidence to get the wrong person killed. Once someone's dead, Princess Meredith, there's no fixing it. No going back. I'd want to be dead certain that I had the right person before anyone got the ax.”

“So would I, Major, and I'll push to see that we get more proof.”

“You said they'd use the evidence to simply execute.”

“I said they could and probably will, but I, like you, want to be sure. Fairplay and all, but more than that, Major Walters, once someone is executed for the crime the investigation stops. If we execute the wrong person, then the murderer is still free to kill again. I don't want that.”

“So it's not about executing the wrong person for you but about letting the guilty go free.”

“A guilty murderer that gets away with it once may try again.”

He nodded. “If they get away with it once, most of them seem to get a taste for it.” He looked at me. “If everyone but you is supposed to be immortal down here, then how did this Beatrice die?”

“That is another problem, isn't it?”

“Perhaps…” Aisling said.

I didn't want to look at him. I realized I was angry with him. Angry about what he'd done to Melangell. Angry that he didn't seem to feel bad about it. His tone of voice had sounded almost as if he had enjoyed it.

Mistral suddenly joined our group. “Excuse me, Princess. Queen Andais longs greatly to speak with you.” His face was utterly neutral as he said it. Too neutral. Something was wrong.

“Princess Meredith, why not appeal directly to this doctor?” Aisling said.

I took in a lot of air and let it out slow, then I turned very deliberately and looked at Aisling. “It's not a bad idea,” I said, my voice sounding more matter-of-fact than my face felt.

Aisling smiled. I could see just enough of his face through the gauze to know that.

I looked away from him. I tried to make it casual, but I don't think he, or any of the other men, was fooled. Maybe Mistral wouldn't understand why I didn't want to see that ghostly smile, but then he didn't know that I'd unleashed Aisling's smile on someone else.

“No,” Walters said.

We all looked at him. “Why not?” I asked.

“I shouldn't have told you.”

“You're in charge here, right? Of the human side, at least.”

“Technically, but she's the chief medical examiner, and she's in charge of her people. If I were the chief of police, yeah, but I'm not.”

“So you cannot make her cooperate,” Frost said.

Walters shook his head. “She'll be pissed if she knows I told you as much as I did. If she gets pissed, she'll be even less likely to share.”

“Then why did you tell us?” Aisling asked.

I kept my gaze on Walters this time as he said, “Because it's got to be one of the people who were here in the hallway with us. Because they're the only ones we took prints from. I won't give you a name just because their print was where it shouldn't be, not if you're just going to kill them. But I don't want you getting killed either.”

“Why, Major Walters, I'm touched.” I didn't smile when I said it.

“Give me your word that the suspect won't be harmed in any way, and I'll help you talk to Polaski.”

“I give you my word that I will do everything within my power to keep whoever it is safe from harm.”

“Doing everything in your power isn't the same thing as promising that they won't be harmed,” Walters said.

“No, it isn't, but I'm Princess Meredith, not queen. I am not absolute ruler here. You can promise me things, but if the chief of police overrides you, then where does that leave me?”

He shook his head. “Fine, talk to Polaski, but she's not going to be happy with either of us.”

“Why should she be any different?”

“What?” he asked.

I shook my head. “Just ignore me, Walters, I'm not feeling my best.”

“If I'd had two assassination attempts on me in two days, I'd be pissed.”

I thought about that. It wasn't getting myself killed that bothered me; it was getting everyone else killed. There's a reason why the president and his family aren't supposed to date the secret service agents who guard them.

There was still blood on Galen's hand, his blood, dried, a little tacky still. Too much blood. Too much was happening in too small a space of time. Holding Galen's hand made me start to tremble. I realized in that moment that I was going to break down.

“Can you give us a few minutes, Major, please?” My voice was only a little shaky.

He started to argue, but something in my face made him simply nod and walk back down the hallway. I fought it off until he was almost out of sight, then the first sob came. I clung to Galen, felt the glamour slip away, and lost it. I cried and sobbed until I started to hyperventilate. I couldn't breathe, and my knees started to buckle. Galen took me to the ground, put his back against the wall, and let me wrap my legs around his waist, let me hold him as close as I could short of sex.

Galen stroked my hair, and said, “It's all right, it's all right.”

“Long, deep breaths, Meredith,” Frost said, kneeling beside us. “Slow your breathing or you will pass out.”

I fought the wordless, screaming panic. I fought to breathe, and couldn't do it.

Galen stroked my hair and lied to me. “It's okay, we're safe, I'm safe.” Lies, all lies. My body was screaming, “Can't breathe, can't breathe, can't breathe.”

Frost grabbed my face between his hands, held me so tight it hurt. He made me look at him. “Meredith, Meredith!” He kissed me. Maybe simply to stop the noises, or because he couldn't think of anything else to do. The Queen's Ravens are trained in weapons, hand-to-hand combat, battle strategy, even politics. Hysterical women are not on the list.

His mouth closed over mine, and I struggled against it. There was no air. I fought free of Galen's arms and clawed at Frost. He breathed a cold wind into my mouth. The moment the cold touched me, I stilled, as if my body just stopped. I think even the blood in my veins stopped. A moment of nothingness, silent, still, cold. It was like being thrown into freezing water; the shock of it stopped the hysteria, stopped everything for a moment.

Frost drew away from the kiss, and my breath rushed back in a huge, chest-hurting gasp. I took several deep, painful breaths in a row, while he held my face, and stared into my eyes, as if searching for me. His grey eyes held that tiny snowscape in them again, and I felt as if I were falling forward, falling forward into Frost's eyes. He blinked, and the sensation stopped, but some night I was going to have to see what would happen if I kept looking into those snowy eyes. But not tonight. Not tonight.

“Princess Meredith,” a woman's voice said, “I'm sorry to intrude.”

I wiped at the tearstains on my face, which didn't help, since all I succeeded in doing was putting more of Galen's blood on my face. I must have looked a horror when I turned around to face Dr. Polaski.

Her breath came out in a gasp, which let me know just how bad I looked. You don't get people who work in forensics gasping much. “Major Walters filled me in on some of what's been happening here today.” She shook her head and took her glasses off, wiping her forehead with the back of her hand.

“We do not want the general public to know what is happening inside faerie,” Frost said.

“I can keep my mouth shut.” She looked at me, and I saw something in her face that was almost pity. “Are you able to talk to me, Princess Meredith?”

I took a deep breath, and it shook a little. My voice sounded hoarse, and I had to clear it, but I finally managed, “Talk to me, Dr. Polaski, I'll listen.”

The guards parted for her to come closer to us. I was still sitting in Galen's lap, my legs wrapped around his waist. If the intimate position made her uncomfortable, she didn't show it. I stayed where I was because I still wanted to hold Galen as close as I could. It was a way of clinging to him without looking like I was clinging to him. Galen's hands rested at the small of my back.

Polaski knelt down beside us so we were eye level. “I need to know a few things, and you are the only one I can ask, but by asking, I will give away the suspect I'm most interested in.”

“Understood,” I said.

She put her glasses back on and shook her head. “I don't think you do. Walters told me that you won't put whoever I find on trial. You'll torture them or just kill them. Is this true?”

“Yes,” I said.

She waited, as if she expected me to say more. Then she smiled, and said, “No human I know would have just said yes to that. They would have felt they had to justify taking another life. They would have felt so many things.” She looked at me with those long-lashed eyes. “But you don't feel what we would feel.”

“It isn't fey versus human, Doctor, it's cultural. I was raised in a world where torture is the norm for crimes, and execution is used when necessary, though it's rare. We do not keep someone on death row for twenty years while they search for legal loopholes.”

“I've seen some awful things in my job, Princess Meredith, and there are a handful of people who I would sleep easier knowing they were dead.” She sighed. “I need your word that you will not execute the person I'm about to reveal.”

“I can't promise that, not without lying.”

“Your word that they won't be executed until I have processed the evidence we've collected.”

I looked at Frost, and Mistral beside him. “Do you think I can promise that and not be forsworn?”

“I think the queen would put weight to your word of honor, and not offend the human police,” Frost said.

“That wasn't a yes,” I said.

“A simple yes might not be true,” he said; his face was its arrogant best, empty, careful. I thought it was more for the doctor's benefit than mine.

“Mistral?” I asked.

“She is very interested of late in courting good public relations. The reporter's death is bad enough. She won't want it bandied about that we executed someone without proof.”

“So that's a yes,” I said.

He looked at Frost, they both looked back at me. Mistral said, “She's Andais, Queen of Air and Darkness.” He shrugged.

“Your word that you won't let them execute anyone until I have processed the evidence,” Polaski said.

I thought about what I could promise Polaski, and finally said, “My word that I will do everything in my power to see that no one is harmed irretrievably before you have contacted us again.”

“Harmed irretrievably.” She almost smiled. “I've never heard anyone say it like that before.”

I just looked at her, willing my face to show nothing.

“All right, I'll take your word. Don't disappoint me.”

“I'll try not to,” I said.

“Can the little faeries change shape?”

“Many of the fey have more than one form.”

“Can the little ones be big, like human size?”

“When you say 'little,' do you mean the small, winged fey, the demi-fey?”

She nodded.

“Some of them can change form to be almost human in size. But it's rare among them.”

Galen started to massage my back. I wasn't sure who he was trying to comfort, himself or me.

“How rare?”

“Rare enough that until recently we thought they'd lost the ability.”

“We know of only one demi-fey who can do it now,” Frost said.

Polaski glanced up at him. “Here's the other question. Could some spell or bit of faerie magic interfere with what I'm seeing?”

Frost, Galen, and I exchanged glances. Frost said, “I trust Rhys to have done everything possible to protect you from overt spells.”

“But could someone have magically imposed one handprint on another?” she asked.

“They would have to understand how prints work,” I said, “so that leaves out anyone who hasn't watched television, which is most of the guard. But if they understood how prints worked, they might be able to make one print appear to look like another.”

“Would they be able to switch prints?”

“I don't believe so, but I cannot be certain,” Frost said.

Mistral said, “I do not know how these prints work, exactly, but they seem to be like tracks of an animal.”

“Not a bad analogy,” Polaski said.

“Then I agree with Frost, it would be hard to change them in reality.”

“So they're more likely to mess with what I think I'm seeing than with what I'm actually seeing?”

We all agreed on that.

“Then I need to get out of here and check my findings with a working computer outside faerie.”

“Your early questions point at one of the demi-fey on the kitchen staff,” I said.

She nodded. “But only if they can change shape so that they are as big as you. The handprint is about the size of my own hands, but matches one of the demi-fey.”

“Which one?” I asked.

She shook her head. “I won't tell you that.”

“If you don't tell us, we'll simply imprison all of them.”

“All of them?” she asked.

I nodded. “Careful for you is not falsely imprisoning someone. Careful for us is imprisoning too many to make sure we get the guilty one behind bars.”

She sighed, then nodded again. “All right, Peasblossom.”

The surprise showed on my face before I could stop it.

“Why the surprise?”

“Because she and Beatrice were very close. I've known her a long time by human standards. I can't imagine Peasblossom hurting Beatrice.”

“Then someone's messing with me because I got a handprint on Beatrice's back.” She looked up at the men. “Can I use someone as an example?”

Aisling started to step forward but I said, “Ivi.” He stepped forward with a teasing look in his eyes that I didn't like.

Aisling stepped back with a smile.

“If you could turn around, please?” Polaski said to Ivi. The man turned without a word, giving her his back. “Could you remove the cloak, please?”

“With pleasure,” he purred suggestively. He undid the neck of his cloak, and let it fall to the floor to lie across Dr. Polaski's feet. She was now looking at the full fall of his hair, medium and dark green with its pattern of white vines and leaves like his namesake.

She reached to move his hair back, but the moment she touched it, she froze.

“Stop it, Ivi,” I said.

“I have done nothing,” he said, but the smile was satisfied now, as if he was happy with the effect he was having on her.

“Step away from her,” Frost said.

“I obey the princess, not you.”

“Step away from her,” I said.

He put on his mocking smile, but his green eyes held some fierce knowledge that I did not understand. But he obeyed. The moment Polaski wasn't touching his hair, she seemed to blink awake. “Sorry, what were we saying?”

“What's happening?” I asked Frost.

“He has regained some of his old powers.”

“And that would be?”

“To say someone was like Ivi's hair was to say that they were compelling, whether you willed it or no. To be caught in ivy meant to be entrapped. To be ivy climbed meant that your lover was destroying you in some way,” Frost said.

“I don't remember any of these sayings,” I said.

“You would have no reason to know them,” Hawthorne said. “It has been centuries since we spoke of Ivi in this manner.”

“No wonder you look so terribly satisfied,” I said.

“I have gained much simply by being in the hallway with you while you…”

“Enough,” Frost said, “we are not alone.”

Ivi dropped to his knees in front of me. “I would do anything to be in your bed for a night, for an hour.” His eyes weren't mocking now. His face was as serious as he ever got.

“Get up,” I said.

“The queen likes us on our knees.”

“Well, I don't.”

I looked at Frost. “Who can she touch without a problem, just in case?”

“Hawthorne will do as he is told, and his enchantment is more active magic,” Frost said.

I nodded. “Hawthorne, go help the doctor demonstrate.”

He went to her, having to walk around the pool of hair that had spread around Ivi's kneeling body.

“You must choose two of the green men, let me be one of them,” Ivi said.

“Don't make the princess ask you twice. Get up,” Mistral said.

Hawthorne gave his armored back to the doctor. “I guess the armor doesn't make a difference for this.” She touched the smooth crimson armor tentatively, then with more assurance, as if she'd expected something to happen. “Beatrice was stabbed here.” She pointed to a place on his back where you'd be almost certain to get the heart. “The knife went in deep.” She left two fingers at the spot where the knife went in, then placed her other hand flat alongside it. “I have an almost perfect handprint right here, where someone braced to take out a deeply embedded blade. I have almost the same print pattern on the second victim. But I also have partial fingerprints where the knife was wiped clean of blood. They may or may not be Peasblossom's.”

“If we are sure it is her print, then she would be our murderer,” I said.

“Yes, but if she is, then where's the blade? Rhys traced it to your bottomless pit. The other kitchen help say that once Peasblossom found the bodies, she didn't leave the area. She didn't have time to go all the way to your pit to dispose of the knife.”

“Someone else did it for her,” Mistral said.

“We found one good, clear handprint on the wall near the reporter's body. It doesn't match any of the guards in the hallway, but the hand is of a similar size.”

“Sidhe,” Adair said.

“Probably,” she said.

“So either Peasblossom is a ruthless killer and had an accomplice, or the killer is imposing her print over his to hide his guilt.”

She nodded.

“Can't we check her for spells?” Galen said.

Frost shook his head. “We have no one with us who is good enough at subtle magic. Humans tend to reek of magic once they've been in the underground for an hour or more. To differentiate between the things that might simply cling and those that are deliberate we would need Doyle, or Crystall, or Barinthus.”

“I could do it,” Aisling said.

“No,” I said.

“Don't you trust me?” he asked, with that ghostly smile.

“Not around Dr. Polaski and her people, no.”

“You were able to gaze upon my naked body and not be bespelled. Perhaps I have lost some of my allure for mortals.”

“Or perhaps Meredith is a sidhe princess,” Mistral said, “and not mortal.”

“Using your powers has made your tongue bold, Aisling,” Hawthorne said.

Nobody seemed to like him much. Had everyone been as shaken as I had been by his little show?

Aisling looked at Hawthorne. “You gazed upon me without anything between my face and your eyes. That is a hero's task, or was it harder to resist my beauty than you let on?” He sighed, and the teasing left his voice, replaced by sorrow. “After going so long with our needs unmet, there is no shame in being attracted to what you once would not have been. We all crave the touch of another sidhe. Sometimes I think I will go mad without the touch of another being.”

Hawthorne did a brave thing then, clasping Aisling's shoulder in a brotherly way. I wondered if he would have risked it if the man had still been shirtless. “We have a chance to break our long fast.”

“With the princess,” Aisling said.

Hawthorne nodded.

Aisling stepped away from Hawthorne's hand and moved to me. It took a great deal for me not to flinch away from him. He knelt beside Galen and me.

“There will be no princess for me,” Aisling said. “She will not risk it now.” He looked down at me. “Will you, Princess?”

I didn't know what to say because he was right. I did not want him touching me. I said the only thing I could think of: “I will not rule it out, but I fear you now, Aisling, where I didn't before.”

“I'm missing something,” Polaski said.

“Be happy you missed it,” I said.

She walked toward me. “No, you're hiding too many things from me, Princess. I need to know what is happening here, or you get nothing from me and my people.”

As she came to stand over us, she brushed against Aisling and started to fall. Galen and I reacted, knowing that Aisling must not touch her with his bare skin. I stood between them, pushing Aisling backwards. Galen came to his knees and caught Dr. Polaski before she could hit the floor.

The doctor was safe with Galen, but I was in Aisling's arms, and I wasn't safe at all.