A Stroke of Midnight (Page 12)

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Chapter 23

HE CAUGHT HIS BALANCE, AND ME, WITH HIS ARMS AND HIS BODY. Perhaps he stumbled more than he needed to, so he would be able to hold me tighter, but it wasn't him that made my hand slip underneath his tunic to glide along bare skin. Fear choked me, ran along my skin so that it was like small electric shocks, tingling out to my fingertips. I saw Melangell's face, her empty, bloody eyes, and waited for his magic to take me. I stared up into those odd eyes, with their inner knot, bound in four empty loops. There was no sign of the blue of his eyes. Something was missing.

I traced my hand up the curve of his spine, so warm, so firm, so real. He leaned over me, as if to kiss me through the gauze of his veil. I leaned back, his hands tightened around my body, holding me against him. If I had not seen him with Melangell I would have simply let him kiss me, but some things once known can never be unknown.

I smelled roses. I was suddenly drowning in the sweet, almost cloying scent of roses.

Aisling hesitated. “Do you smell that?”

“Yes,” I whispered.

A voice whispered through my head. “With Amatheon I bid you hurry, and you turned from haste, and chose the longer road. You risked losing that which you cherished.”

I whispered, “Galen.”

Aisling's arms loosened around me, but I grabbed for him, because I was suddenly dizzy.

“Now I tell you that this must wait, or you will lose again.”

“Doyle.”

“Darkness cannot be lost for it is always with us, but there are other more fragile powers. Hurry.”

“Who?” I asked.

“Who are you talking to?” Aisling asked.

“Hurry,” the voice in my head said, and with a last whiff of roses she was gone again.

“Where?” I asked.

It wasn't words. It was more like the feeling that had come over me when I told Frost that Galen could not search alone for Doyle. But this wasn't panic, it was just a knowing. I simply knew where I needed to go. No doubts, no logic, just knowledge.

“Who are you talking to?” Aisling said again, his voice shaky, almost afraid.

“I am not afraid to touch you,” I said, “but there is no time. We must get to the throne room, now.”

“Why?” Galen stood with an arm still around Dr. Polaski, casually, the way he would have touched another sidhe. She was looking at me as if she'd never seen me before.

“Why did everything smell like flowers?” she asked.

I shook my head, and yelled for Rhys as I started down the hallway. He came to the head of the hallway, leaving behind the scientists, police, and bodies.

“Peasblossom's print is where it shouldn't be, but it may be a sidhe using magic to implicate her. Put her gently in a cage until we can figure it out.”

“But…”

“No arguments. Just do it, Rhys.”

His face did a rare show of arrogance, going cold. “As the princess orders.”

“I don't have time for ego-stroking, Rhys.” I started to run. I couldn't explain why, but I ran down the hallway with its patches of glittering marble like some brilliant jewel peeking out of the grey matrix of the stone.

Frost and Galen ran on either side. Mistral came behind, and the others trailed after. We were down to less than ten guards, but it wouldn't be a matter of numbers. Something bad was happening, and we could prevent it just by arriving in time. I thought about the mirror that had appeared in my room, simply because I wished to see myself in the fur cloak. As I broke into a full-out run, I whispered under my breath, “We need to get to the throne now!”

Nothing happened for a handful of heartbeats, then the stones shifted beneath my feet. I didn't hesitate. I didn't pause. I didn't stumble. I trusted that the sithen would get me where I wanted to go. I ran, as the world streamed around me, grey stone flowing into white marble, as if the walls had turned to liquid. Then we were running on dried, dead ground. I had a second to recognize the pool and fountain that stood before the great double doors that led to the entry chamber for the throne room, but the fountain was now in the center of a huge formal garden spreading on either side. The fountain had always stood in the center of a bare hallway.

Crystall and the guards I'd sent with the lords to the queen were standing in the middle of that garden. They turned frightened eyes to me. I had no idea what about the garden made Crystall look so shaken, and I didn't ask. Panic filled me, adrenaline like fine champagne screamed through me. The double doors opened without a hand to touch them. My pulse was choking off my air. I fought the pain in my side to keep upright and running.

The climbing roses of the entry chamber, filling the darkness with crimson blossoms, writhed and slithered like great thorned serpents overhead. I ran, and the vines did not try to hinder us. The last set of double doors was just ahead. The court lay just inside them.

I whispered, “Open,” and the doors swung inward. I raced from the dimness of the roses to the brightness of the court, and staggered, almost blinded by the difference in light. I could see nothing but light and shadow and half shapes. Exhaustion danced across my vision in starbursts of grey and white. Through the thundering of the blood in my ears, I heard Queen Andais yelling.

I yelled, “Stop… this!” It took the last of my air, and Galen caught my elbow or I would have fallen. My vision came back in pieces. The court was dressed for a party, or an expensive funeral. A lot of black, a lot of silver, a lot of jewels.

Andais was on the steps leading up to her throne, staring at me, at us. Barinthus stood at the bottom of those steps. He stood so he could keep both the queen and us in his sight. I knew in that second what was happening, though not why. Why didn't matter to me.

“By what right do you stop me from issuing challenge to anyone, niece?” Her voice held a rage that made the air itself heavier on my tongue. She was the Queen of Air and Darkness. She could make the air so thick my mortal lungs couldn't breathe it. She'd nearly killed me that way. Was it just last night, or the night before?

“I beg a private audience with you, Aunt Andais.” My voice was breathy, and if Galen hadn't had a death grip on my elbow, I'm not sure my legs would have held me. Supernatural strength and magic were fine, but I wasn't used to running like that.

She smiled. “Begging is not done on your feet, Meredith.” She walked back up to her throne, the long black skirts trailing behind her like a cloak of darkness. She settled the skirts with a practiced gesture, fanning them out around her. The color framed all that pale skin and black hair, the tri-grey eyes with the dramatic eye makeup. Diamonds and midnight-dark sapphires graced her throat and gloved wrist.

I dropped to one knee. Galen helped make it graceful, and knelt with me. Everyone with me knelt when I did. “I beg a private audience with you, Aunt Andais, Queen of Air and Darkness.”

“Why are you and Galen covered in blood?”

“I have much to share with you, my queen, but some of it might better be served to your ears alone.”

“Has there been another attempt on your life?”

“Not on mine, no.”

She shook her head, as if she had a fly buzzing around her, and she was ridding herself of it. “You speak in riddles.”

“I would speak clearly with you in private.”

“Let us handle our public business first,” she said, and pointed to Barinthus, who was still standing between the throne and our group. “The ring acknowledges him, and you have helped him break his vow to me.”

“The ring knows Lord Barinthus. You said that I was to fuck as many of the guards as often as possible. Wasn't that your order to me?”

Her face narrowed down to angry lines. “Perhaps my words were hasty, or perhaps you do not know that Barinthus made a vow to me before I allowed him to join this court. One that only he made, and now he has broken it.”

“He has done nothing that will set him as king to my queen.”

“Have a care, Meredith, I know that he had sex with you.”

“Sex that was more magical than real, nothing that would get me with child.”

“He had release in your body.”

“No, he had release, but our clothes were in place, and he has never entered my body with so much as a fingertip.”

“You swear this?” she asked.

“I do.”

“I was told that Barinthus had moved from kingmaker to would-be king.”

“I tell you that he has not broken the vow he made to this court. The ring recognizes who it will, and bestows its gifts where it will, but he has broken no vow.”

“Why did you not say this, Barinthus?” she asked.

“You would not believe me, Queen Andais.”

She seemed to think about that for a second or two, then gave a very small nod. “Perhaps not.” She looked at me. It was the kind of look that a hawk gives to grass when it's almost certain there's a tasty morsel down there.

“I have heard many stories about your activities. Now I wonder how much is true, and how much is exaggeration designed to set me against my allies and you.”

“Until I know what you have been told, I cannot say, Aunt Andais.”

“We are in the throne room, Meredith, use my title.”

“My queen.” I bowed my head, so she would not see my face. This wasn't good. This wasn't good at all.

Chapter 24

“DID THE RING CHOOSE A COUPLE AMONG THE GUARDS?” her voice was very neutral when she asked.

I was glad I was staring at the floor because so much had happened that I'd almost forgotten about Nicca and Biddy. Murders, metaphysics, the Goddess, the chalice, Amatheon vanishing, the attack on Galen, Cel's prophecy about the green men, the lords who waited just outside, so much, and this was what she began with. Why?

“Yes, Queen Andais, the ring did choose a couple.”

There were murmurings from the nobles in their seats on either side of the floor. “Describe what happened.”

I did as she ordered. I talked of the phantom child, and what I had seen and felt.

Someone said, “The ring lives again.”

Andais looked at the man who had spoken. “Do you have something to add to this discussion, Lord Leri?”

“Only that this is surely good news, my queen.”

“I will decide what is good news, Leri.”

He bowed. “As my queen wills.”

She turned her attention back to me. “The ring lives again after centuries. It chooses a possibly fertile pair, and you don't think this is important enough to tell me.”

“Much has happened since the ring chose them, Queen Andais. I thought finding the murderer, or murderers, took precedence.”

“I decide what takes precedence here, not you.” She stood. “I am still queen.”

I lowered myself to both knees, and Galen moved with me. “I have never questioned that.”

“Liar,” she hissed, and the room echoed with that one word.

Okay, this was bad, really bad. “What have I done to anger you, Queen Andais? Tell me and I will do my best to remedy it.” I kept my face down so that I was staring at the well-worn stone floor. I did not trust my expression. Fear might excite her, and puzzlement might anger her. I had no expression that I could give her.

“Mistral. Come to me, captain of my guard.” He got up off his knees and answered her command.

I watched him as he mounted the steps to her. He made a sound of startlement more than pain, as she grabbed a handful of his rich, deep grey hair and used it to jerk him to his knees before her. “Did you fuck him?”

I tried to see the trap in the question but failed. I answered truthfully, “Yes, my queen.”

She let him go so abruptly that he nearly fell down the steps, catching himself with one hand. He stayed kneeling awkwardly, most of his face hidden by the glory of his hair. He lowered his eyes, but not before a rumble of thunder echoed through the throne room.

The nobles moved restlessly, looking up and around. Andais's voice purred as she knelt beside Mistral, stroking his hair. He shivered like a skittish horse when she touched him. “Was that you, Mistral?”

“Forgive me, my queen, I have not had such power in years. My control is not what it was, my apologies, my queen.”

“Two 'my queens' in one sentence – you must feel guilty indeed.”

“I have done nothing to feel guilty over, my queen.”

She kept stroking his hair, but she looked out at me. “Have you not?”

He kept his face carefully down. Mistral had never been that good at hiding his emotions. “What have I done to anger you, my queen?” His voice was almost neutral, the distant rumble of thunder was not. His powers were newly reborn, and he was struggling.

“Did the princess bring you back into your power?” She kept petting him idly like a dog. I'd seen her do that with a guard now and then. She'd stroke and pet them all night in front of everyone, then leave them with only those caresses, and nothing more. I'd seen her reduce some of our greatest warriors to silent tears. She petted Mistral, but the anger in her face was all for me. Why was she angry that I'd had sex with Mistral? What had we done wrong?

She walked down the steps, her black dress slithering behind her. “Could you bring any of us, all of us, back to our power? Is one good fuck from you all it takes?” Anger was making her skin pale, starting that first hint of moonlight glow. Her triple-grey eyes were beginning to shine, as if darkness had light in it.

I put my hands on the floor and lowered my face on top of them. I abased myself before her, because I had no idea why she was this angry with me. I had no idea what someone had been whispering in her ear.

She stood so close that the trailing edge of her skirt brushed along my body as she moved past me. “Answer me, Meredith.”

I thought of several answers, discarded them all, and finally said, “I move as the Goddess wills it.”

She came fast, her heels clicking on the stones. She knelt, put her gloved hand under my chin, and raised me up to meet her eyes. “That is not an answer.”

My voice was breathy around my pulse. “I have no other answer.” If I even hinted that I might be able to bring others back with sex, she might order one of her sex shows, and I wasn't sure that I would survive it. And there were nobles here with whom I could barely have a casual conversation, let alone share my body. There were those who were my enemies, and I wasn't certain having them come back into their full powers was a good idea.

She slid her other hand into my hair, grabbed a handful of it, and jerked me to my feet. I fought not to let the anger show in my eyes, and knew that I failed.

“It is not just my powers that are returning,” Mistral said from the steps.

She turned to look at him, and I knew that he had deliberately distracted her from me, offering himself to her anger.

She kept her painful grip on my hair, her other hand stroking along the side of my face, much as she had touched his hair. “What are you babbling about, Mistral?”

“Most of the guards that experienced the magic of the ring have regained at least some small magic that had been lost.”

Her grip tightened in my hair until I fought not to make a sound of pain. Andais liked that, and I did not want to encourage her. “Are you saying that she has brought others of my guard back to their power?”

“Yes, my queen.”

She turned back to me, and I didn't like anything I saw in her eyes. She loosened her hold on my hair just a little as the silk of her gloved hand stroked my cheek and continued down along my neck. Under other circumstances it might have been exciting. Now it just scared me more.

“How many of my guards have you had sex with, Meredith?” She moved her face in close to me, as if she meant to kiss me. “How many of my guard have you given release?” She spoke the last word above my lips, and I knew she was going to kiss me before her lips touched mine.

I felt movement all around me, and knew that the guards were standing. Everyone with me had been in the hallway when Mistral and I had sex, so they all stood to answer her question. They stood to draw her attention from me to them. My bodyguards, my men and women. Some of them had spent centuries like well-armed mice. Quiet, hiding, trying to be invisible. Now they stood and purposefully made a spectacle of themselves.

She had moved back from me when they stood, leaving the taste of her lipstick on my mouth. “She fucked all of you?” She sounded as if she didn't believe it.

“You asked only who has had release,” Frost said. “When the power filled the hallway, it touched all who stood there.”

“You mean the power when Mistral and Meredith came together made all the guard in the hallway orgasm?”

“Yes,” Frost said.

She laughed and let me go. “How many fertility deities are in your lineage?”

“Five,” I said.

“Five,” she repeated, as she paced away from us. “Now you don't even have to touch them to bring them power, is that what you're telling me?”

“I thought you would be pleased that magic returns to the sidhe,” I said carefully.

Afagdu, one of the nobles, spoke from his chair, his eyes the only color in the white of his face and the black of his hair and beard. “Our magic returns, is that not what we have all wished for, Queen Andais?” His voice was mild, careful. Afagdu and his entire house belonged to no one. They were one of the four or five truly neutral houses.

Dylis stood in a gown of yellow that complemented her hair and brought out the tri-blue of her eyes. She was head of one of the sixteen houses, and had never been my friend. “You know that I have never liked Essus's daughter. I agreed with you, my queen, when you tried to drown her in childhood. But if the ring lives on her hand, and can bring children back to the sidhe, then I will follow her.”

A sort of mixed endorsement but I took it.

“You follow me, Dylis, until I say otherwise.”

The woman gave a curtsy. “You are our queen. I misspoke myself. I meant only that if Meredith can give us back our children, then I would rethink my objections to her.”

“Politely and politically spoken, Dylis. But if you mean Nicca and Biddy, they are both guards sworn to me and mine, and no one else. The guards serve me and my blood.” She smacked her hand against her chest to emphasize her words.

“Do you forbid a couple the ring has chosen to bed?” Afagdu asked.

“Royal guards serve royalty, this is their function,” Andais said.

“They will still serve you,” he said, and his voice was careful again.

She shook her head. “Not if there is a child.”

“But a child would be a great blessing.” This from one of Nerys's ladies.

“The head of your house tried to kill Meredith just last night, or had you forgotten that, Elen?”

She gave a curtsy so low that she almost disappeared behind the table. “If the ring truly lives on her finger, then Nerys was wrong, very wrong. If the Goddess blesses Meredith with her gifts, then we were all wrong.”

“Would you have us all childless because your bloodline is?” asked Maelgwn, the wolf lord. He was naked from the waist up except for a hood and cloak of wolf skin, complete with most of the animal's face sitting above his own. All his people had been shape-shifters until they lost the ability.

“I am queen and my blood inherits this throne.”

“You have your brother's blood standing in front of you,” Maelgwn said, his mocking smile and his happy, peaceful eyes taking me in. “There she stands, your blood. If your niece can bring blood back to all of us, then your line is indeed powerful magic.”

“I have held the guards in abstinence for more than a thousand years. They wait at my pleasure, and the pleasure of my son.”

“And at your niece's pleasure,” Afagdu said. He seemed to be helping me, but I didn't trust it. He helped no one but himself and his clan.

Andais waved that away as if it was unimportant. “Yes, yes, on Meredith's pleasure.” She looked at me then. “Though I did not intend the pleasure to be so… pleasurable.” She came down the steps again, gliding toward me in her heels and silk. “The guards are for our pleasure, Meredith, not us for theirs. I'm not certain you understand that, niece.” She walked past me, and I knew where she was going.

She stopped by Nicca and Biddy where they knelt. I glanced back and found that they were holding hands. They were also staring very hard at the floor, as if she wouldn't hurt them if they didn't look up. If only it were that easy.

She ran her fingers through the heaviness of Nicca's chestnut hair. He went very still under her touch. “I like him in my bed, but not for sex. He frightens so easily. He doesn't like pain, do you, Nicca?”

If I hadn't been kneeling within a yard of him I might not have heard his answer. “No, Queen Andais.”

“I taught him that in a night, did you know that, Meredith?”

“Taught him what, my queen?”

“To answer any question I asked him with yes or no, and never, ever to leave off the Queen Andais.” She ran her hand down the side of his face until she cupped his chin. She raised him to look at her. “Would you like another lesson, Nicca? It has been long since I made love to a man with wings. It might be interesting.”

“Queen Andais,” I said.

She didn't even look at me.

“My queen, you said that the guards who came to my bed were mine to keep.” I made my voice as neutral as I could, but I knew it was a bad idea to say it.

“Would you not share him with me?”

I thought about that. “Perhaps, but after he and Biddy have had their night.”

She touched Biddy, turned her face upward, so she gazed down at both of them. “But if she gets with child then they will be married and monogamous, and even the Queen of Air and Darkness will not be able to force him to forsake his marriage vows.”

“My queen, Aunt Andais, if Nicca and Biddy could make a baby, then it might mean that others of the sidhe could as well. That is a good thing.”

She let go of their faces and walked between them, forcing them to let go of each other's hands. She traced the upper edge of Nicca's wings. “But he is mine, Meredith, my pretty toy, and I do not share my toys.”

“You said that any guard who went to the bed of the princess was hers,” Afagdu said. “Nicca is her pretty toy now.”

She turned abruptly and started walking toward Afagdu and his table of lords. “What the queen gives, the queen can take away.”

“Even the queen must honor her word,” Afagdu said, “and you gave your word before the court that the guards who went to Meredith's bed were hers.” The fact that he would say such bald truth to an angry Andais showed how confident he was that he could survive an attack by her. There were few magicians among us who thought they were her equal in magic; Afagdu was one of them.

“Few would dare make me eat my own words in open court, Afagdu. Do not let your magic make you bold beyond your abilities.”

“Is it bold to speak the truth, my queen?”

But, of course, two could play at that particular game. “Very well, Nicca is Meredith's now, but Biddy is not. Meredith can do as she will with Nicca, but Biddy is not hers to give to another man. Biddy belongs to my son, to Prince Cel.” She looked at me. “Would you steal even the women from his bed?”

“You cannot steal that which is offered,” I said.

“And what does that mean, Meredith, with your Seelie eyes?”

I swallowed hard, and promised myself I'd think better before I spoke next time. “The ring gave Biddy to Nicca.”

“So you say, but I say that the guards serve only my bloodline. So how do you propose to satisfy both the ring on your finger and your queen?”

“You said any guard who comes to my bed is mine to keep, correct?”

“Yes, so Afagdu has reminded me.”

“Then I will take Biddy and Nicca to my bed. Nicca will still be my lover, but he will also be Biddy's. Will that satisfy you, Aunt Andais?”

“I have never found Nicca able to serve more than one person in a night.”

“I can bring him back to readiness with a touch,” I said.

“Can you really?” Her voice was thick with scorn. Her eyes had gone back to being angry.

I didn't like the look or the tone, but I answered her, because not answering was probably worse. “Yes, my queen, I can.”

“Is this some new ability that you have gained?”

“No, Aunt Andais, it has always been my gift.”

“I keep forgetting that you're a fertility goddess.”

“Descended from, yes.”

“I did not think you liked women, Meredith.”

My neck was beginning to feel strained looking up at her six-foot height from my knees. “I do not, as a rule, but if this is the only way to satisfy both the ring and my queen, then I will do it.”

She walked closer to me, forcing me to move my neck even farther back, as if she knew how awkward it was. “Would you do anything to see them make this potential child a reality?”

I saw the trap in her words and tried to avoid it. “Not anything, no.”

“But much,” she said, looming over me, “you would do much to have them fuck?”

I fought the urge to sit back on my heels, anything to get my neck out of the odd position. I did not want to answer this question, nothing good would come of it.

“Answer me, Meredith.”

“Yes, Aunt Andais, I would do much so they could make the child the ring promised.”

“Why do you care if they are with child?”

“Life quickens inside them. I saw it, felt it. It is a gift of the Goddess. How can I do anything but honor that gift? You wore the ring once when it was in its full power. You must remember how it felt.”

She grabbed me by the hair, jerked my head even farther back, as if she meant to snap my neck. She growled low and close to my face. “I am not a fertility goddess. I took the ring off my enemy's finger. It was a spoil of war, and it worked for me, but its magic and mine are not complementary. I never saw a phantom child. I saw sex, obsession, love, but children…” She lifted me off my knees, by my hair. I put a hand back to try to keep it from hurting so much. “I never saw any children.”

Our faces were almost touching now. It felt as if she was going to tear my hair out by the roots. “Why is it so important to you that Nicca and Biddy fuck?”

I spoke through gritted teeth, trying not to cry out. “Because I am a princess of this court and I have a chance to give the sidhe their first child in a century. It is my duty, my honor, to bring this child into being.”

She let me go so abruptly that I fell, and only Galen's arm kept me from smacking my face against the floor. She touched his face, made him look at her. “Oh, he is angry. He doesn't like that I've hurt you. I never tried him out. I always thought he would be like Nicca, too gentle in bed, but he doesn't frighten as easily as Nicca. A disaster politically, but brave in that 'hero destined to die for a cause' sort of way.” She cupped his chin in her hand. “Is he any good as a lover?”

If I said yes, she might want to borrow him. If I said no, it would be a lie. He was too gentle for me, too, but when I was in the mood for gentle lovemaking, Galen was just about perfect. “I think he is too gentle for your tastes, Aunt Andais.”

“But not for yours?” She knelt down, making a pool of black silk in front of my downcast eyes.

“I have wider interests in the bedroom than you do, auntie dearest.”

“Why is it that any tender endearment from you always sounds like you're telling me to go fuck myself?”

“I meant no disrespect.”

“I have heard that you like it rough, Meredith.” She bent down, whispering, “Not as rough as me, or Cel, but rough enough.”

“Not every night, Aunt Andais.” I did not raise my face beyond her silk lap. I was in pain and tired of her insane games. It had never occurred to me that she would see all the new magic as a threat to her. So much had happened, there hadn't been time to keep her informed. But she was our queen, and I had made her look weak. Because she got her reports from others, the entire court knew I did not respect her enough to keep her informed or ask her opinion. If she was going this crazy about smaller things, what would she do when she found out that the chalice had returned and I had not told her that either? But that was something I would not reveal before the entire court. It was too dangerous.

“If you are not with child, you will never be queen.” She spoke into my hair.

“Keeping Nicca and Biddy from their child will not gain me one,” I said.

“Giving children to every couple in our court will not gain you my throne.”

“If I could bring hundreds of children to the Unseelie Court, I would not need to rule it.”

“Cel will kill you.”

“I know that.”

“Do you want to rule?” She said it as if it had never occurred to her to ask.

“I have no choice but to rule or die.”

She grabbed me by the shoulders, and Galen tried to hold me from her, a mistake that cost me bruises as she jerked me away from him. “Do you want to rule?”

“If it is a choice between giving the court to Cel or me, I choose me.”

“What if there were a third choice?” she asked.

“I know of no other choice,” I said.

“Don't you, Meredith? Don't you know exactly who would rule here if he could?”

I must have looked as puzzled as I felt because she yelled at me, “Barinthus would rule here if I allowed it. He was always after Essus to kill me and take the throne, because that was as close to the throne as his vows could get him.” She pointed to Barinthus, standing near the side of the steps.

“I told you that he and I have done nothing that could make him king to my queen. I will take whatever oath you wish. Who has whispered these lies to you?”

“Are they lies, Meredith, all of them?”

“I don't know what you have been told, but Barinthus making himself my king is a lie.”

“Then tell me what else is a lie, Meredith. The ring has chosen a couple, but I had to hear it from others, not from your mouth. You have imprisoned my son's guards without consulting me. You have a suspect in the murders, but you have not told me who. You have fucked my new captain of the guard and divided his loyalties from me. Darkness and others ran into the night, and I don't know why.” She stalked back to me, grabbed my arm, and screamed in my face, “I am queen here! Not you!”

I spoke quietly, too scared to be angry, too scared to worry about the bruising grip on my arm. “I came to tell you of all this and more, my queen, but you have given me no chance. You would not meet with me in private.”

“And what is it that you are ashamed of, that you need whisper in private?”

“I am ashamed of nothing, but there are traitors among us that do not need to know all our secrets.”

She jerked me up on tiptoe. “We have punished the traitors.”

“May I show you more traitors, my queen? The ones who attacked my men and me.”

“You said it was not another assassination attempt.” She pulled me in against her body.

“I said not on me. They tried to kill Galen.” I was close enough to watch her eyes, and see the flicker. She knew about the prophecy. That was why she'd insisted I bed vegetative deities when I entered faerie this time. It was all there in her eyes, and I saw something else there, before she could stop it. Fear. I saw it, and I think she knew I'd seen too much.

She threw me from her so hard that if my guards hadn't been there to catch me, I would have fallen. Frost held me for a moment, then passed me to Galen, and put both of us out of reach of the queen. She'd have to wade through some of my guard, her guard, to get to me now. I wasn't sure being so obvious was a good idea, but I didn't want her to keep hurting me either.

“May we bring the traitors before the queen?” Frost asked.

She nodded, and started back to her throne, not looking back. I think she spent that walk working on her face and eyes, so that no matter who we dragged in, she wouldn't let the surprise show. It made me wonder who the queen was expecting us to bring before her. Did she know something that we didn't know, and needed to? What had that tiny flash of fear in her eyes been?

Crystall came to my order. The guards with him helped Lord Kieran walk in, but they had to drag Lord Innis. They dumped him at the queen's feet.

Her face was empty, cold, and arrogant. It gave nothing away as she stood on the steps. Mistral was still kneeling behind her where she had left him. Barinthus was still standing where she'd left him. I think he feared drawing her attention back to him.

“Kieran Knife-Hand, your wife has been telling me evil things. Telling me that Barinthus means to take my throne and that I should kill him before he comes back into his full power. I admit the thought occurred to me when I realized he had been with Meredith. Barinthus is many things, but dishonorable is not one of them. He gave his word, I believe he will keep it. In fact, I allowed him into our court on that belief.” She moved down the steps until she stood just above him. “So why did I give such weight to your wife's evil words?”

After a moment she said, “Mistral.”

“My queen.”

“Rise, and come to me.”

He did as she asked, but kept his hair over his face, as if he didn't trust his expression. I couldn't blame him.

“Bring Kieran's wife before me.”

Kieran's house was led by Blodewedd, who was created from the spring flowers of oak, broom, and meadowsweet by Gwydion and Math to be a bride for Lleu Llaw Gyffes. Why would the Unseelie Court take in a woman who had betrayed her husband and her marital vows, and only failed to be a murderer because her husband was able to kill her lover? Because marriage by force is not recognized among us. She was created, then given as a sort of gift, like you'd buy a dog or a horse. Even in a day and time when women didn't always have the right to choose their partners, it was a little high-handed.

The one thing you always needed to remember with Blodewedd is if you're fair with her, she'll be fair with you, but don't betray her. Don't ever do anything she could take badly. She learned from her earlier mistakes. She does her own killing now.

Blodewedd stood as Mistral came for her table, and one of her people. Her hair was the startling yellow of the flowers that had formed her. Her skin was a soft, pale color that was somewhere between white and gold. She was almost doll-like in her beauty. The kind of woman men would create if they could, with high proud breasts a little bigger than was usual for the sidhe. Her eyes were huge and liquid dark, drowning and lustrous, owl eyes in that delicate face. Supposedly, she'd been cursed with them, cursed to be in the shape of an owl. If that were true, than she'd managed to cure herself of everything but the eyes.

“Madenn is mine to protect, Queen Andais. I would speak with her before you take her.”

“Is your house traitor to me as Nerys's was, Blodewedd?”

“I would never betray a fellow sister of the dark.” Blodewedd would go for years without uttering a word in court, then she'd come out with lines like that. “Nor would I tolerate such betrayal among my household.”

“You may speak with her,” Andais said, “but it must be publicly done. There will be no more secrets this night.”

Blodewedd gave a small bow, then turned to the woman in question. Madenn was a small woman by sidhe standards, barely five-eight. But sitting there in her black dress with her dark hair and eyes, she seemed smaller, as if she had shrunk in upon herself. Her normally pale skin was pasty. Her hands were very still on the arms of her chair. She sat there immobile, her face frozen.

“Madenn,” Blodewedd said, in a voice that carried through the hall, “your husband has been named traitor. What say you to that?”

Madenn licked her pale lips. “I do not know what to say.” Her voice was breathy but more in control than her face and body.

“You must say something, for the Queen's Ravens come for you. You must give me some reason to protect you. If you swear to me that you are innocent of wrongdoing I will fight for you even against the queen herself. But I must know now, Madenn. I must know how much I am to risk for you, and if you are worth that risk.”

I could not see Kieran's face, but even with his hands bound behind his back, he stood easier and more naturally than his wife sat in her carved chair. I watched what little blood was left in Madenn's face drain away.

“Fainting will not aid you,” Blodewedd said, and her voice held an edge of that purring darkness that Andais's could hold. “Can you give me a reason for defying our queen about this? Give me a word of defense for you, Madenn, and I will use it.”

Madenn looked up at her liege lord, and tears glittered in her eyes, but no words came. As admissions of guilt went, it was good enough.

Blodewedd bowed her head, and turned back to Mistral. “I cannot save her from her own actions.”

“Take her, Mistral,” the queen said.

Madenn did not move or speak until Mistral grabbed her arm. Then she held on to the arms of the chair like a child. She may have been delicate by sidhe standards, but she was still strong enough that making her leave her chair without hurting her wasn't really possible. She was saying one word, over and over again – “No, no, no, no” – in a high, thin voice.

“Hawthorne,” I said.

“Yes, Princess.”

“Help Mistral bring her out.”

Hawthorne bowed to me, then moved toward them in his crimson armor, putting his helmet back on so he had his hands free. He went to stand on the other side of the woman's chair. Mistral shook his unbound hair back behind his shoulders, then nodded to Hawthorne, as if they'd discussed it. They both bent their knees, and raised the chair up with Madenn still plastered to it. They carried her and the heavy wooden chair, threading their way through Blodewedd's people, and out to the main floor. They carried it all easily, gracefully. If Madenn hadn't looked terrified, it would have appeared as if they were honoring her, carrying her like the May queen, to be worshipped by her subjects. The look on her face said that she was expecting to be the sacrifice, not the belle of the ball.

They put her chair down beside her husband. Her shoulders rounded, and I thought she was probably crying. “Meredith,” the queen said, “come join me.”

She didn't have to ask me twice.

She had taken her throne, leaving what had once been Prince Cel's throne empty for me. It had been my chair for only twenty-four hours. She motioned Eamon, her consort, from behind her throne to take his smaller throne that was a little lower on the dais. There was another throne lower down on my side, too. It wasn't for my consort of years but for the flavor of the day. Consort of the moment, perhaps.

The last time I'd sat here, the consort's chair had been occupied by Sholto, Lord of That Which Passes Between. It was only as I took my throne that I realized that Sholto and his sluagh weren't at their table near the door. Nor were they at the queen's back as guards. The sluagh were not here. He was king of his own court. The goblins were not here either, but they were often absent unless it was a planned event or a major holiday. This was neither, but Sholto never missed an occasion at court. He wanted too desperately to be accepted as sidhe to miss one.

Tyler, the Queen's pet human, curled at her feet. She asked, “Where is your little goblin?”

She meant Kitto. “He is helping Rhys watch over the police while they are inside faerie.”

“Has there been some problem?” She was letting Kieran sweat, or seeing whether he would. Madenn was openly weeping, and if she hadn't been part of a plot to kill Galen, I might have felt sorry for her.

I told her briefly of the effect the entrance to faerie had had on Walters and his people. She seemed most interested.

“I wouldn't think that your little goblin would be a good choice to protect the police.”

“He's almost guaranteed not to bespell anyone by accident.”

“Not sidhe enough for that,” she said.

I controlled the spurt of anger that followed her comment. “He became fully sidhe during an earthquake in California.”

“The earth moved for you, how charming.” She was being both terribly urbane and slyly insulting. I wasn't sure my nerves were good enough to keep up the small talk for much longer.

“Have you fucked anyone else today besides Mistral?” she asked.

“Actual intercourse, no.”

“Then, Mistral, take your place on the dais, for Goddess knows it will probably be your last chance to sit here.” I didn't like the implied threat in her words, but I couldn't argue that Mistral deserved the chair.

Frost had led the other men to fan out around me like good guards – that is, those who weren't guarding our prisoners. Barinthus was left standing on the floor. She looked at him, and it was not friendly. “Take your place with her guards, Barinthus. For it is where you have chosen to stand.”

He hesitated a moment, then bowed and went wide around her, to stand on the far side of my guards. I think he was going to try to be as invisible as he could manage until we could figure out what had angered her. He had too many enemies to have any illusions. If he slew the queen, then most of the rest of the nobles would unite and kill him. Of course, Andais might not need the help.

Only one guard, Whisper, remained at the queen's back. When she'd offered the guards a chance to help me, I had not expected her to empty her stables, as it were. Perhaps she hadn't either. She had given them the choice of working for someone else, and they had leaped at the chance. Offer a man a chance to break a thousand years of celibacy, and he'll do a lot for you.

Of course, being mine meant they would be leaving faerie behind in a few days. Exile from faerie, if they followed me. Did they understand that? Did they care? And if they didn't, then how puzzled Andais must be to find that her greatest threat, exile from faerie, was not so great a threat after all.

Mistral took his seat on the consort's throne. He swept his grey hair to one side so that it caressed the edge of the chair like a cloak. I'd have given a great deal to see his face in that moment. To see him survey the court from the royal dais for the first time. If the queen's words were true and not just her anger talking, she planned on seeing that he did not get a second chance at the chair, which meant no second chance with me. Was it personal to Mistral, or had she finally realized that she could lose all her guard to the ring and my body?

Frost stood on one side of me, and Galen the other. I missed Doyle. Where was he? Where were Usna and Cathbodua? I clung to Galen's hand, because I couldn't seem to get enough of touching him. I'd held his death in my hands, now I wanted to wrap myself in the life of him. But I did not trust him to fight here among the lords of the sidhe and survive.

I think Andais thought we were giving Kieran and Madenn the silent treatment to wear them down. I was waiting for my queen to take the lead. I'd angered her enough for one night; I would do everything I could to avoid pissing her off again.

“Kieran, you have tried to slay one of our royal guards. Not in fair challenge, but in an ambush.”

“If you think to trick me into challenging the young one, it will not work. If I challenge, then he chooses the method of the duel. He would choose weapons, and I cannot best him without magic.”

“You admit that one of the lesser among my guard is a better warrior than you, Kieran?”

“Of course. The Queen's Ravens are the best warriors the sidhe have ever had. I would not be so bold as to think I could best him with metal.” Kieran looked at me. His pale beard framed the smile that had not left his face. “Of course, if the young lordling thinks I have insulted him and wishes to challenge me…” He left it open.

I squeezed Galen's hand, and he laughed. Kieran's smile faltered.

“Was I ever that stupid,” Galen said. “Goddess, I hope not.” He raised my hand and laid a kiss against my fingers. I saw a hardness in his face then that had never been there before. “I am at Merry's side and in her bed, and I won't give that up because you hurt my ego.” His usual grin flashed bright and clear, as if the shadow I'd seen on his face hadn't been there at all. “Besides, I'm flattered. You ambushed me with two magicians and three warriors. I didn't know you were that scared of me.”

“I am not frightened of some jumped-up pixie.” Kieran's face had begun to flush in anger.

Galen laughed, and pressed his lips to my hand again. “If you're not afraid of me, then why did you need so much help to kill me?”

“Oh, I agree,” Andais said. “Only fear would make Kieran take so much help to slay one guard. If it were Frost or my Darkness, I might understand. Even Mistral, our lord of storms, but I did not know you feared Galen.”

“I do not fear him,” Kieran said again, but there was something in his voice that made me want to quote Shakespeare. The lady doth protest too much. What was it about Galen, even if he were the green man who would bring life back to the court, that would make Kieran pack so much firepower, as it were, to kill him? It was a very good question. I'd been too caught up in nearly losing Galen to really think about it.

“If you don't fear Galen, then what do you fear, Kieran?” I asked.

“Lord Kieran,” he said.

“No, Kieran,” Andais said. “She is heir to my throne, and will one day be your queen if you live that long. I think she can address you as I do, Kieran.” There was that purring edge to her voice that either meant sex, or that you were about to be hurt, really badly. Sometimes it meant both.

“What do I fear?” Kieran said. “I fear the death of the sidhe, as a race.”

“Do you fear that my niece's mixed blood will condemn us all to mortality?”

“Yes, as do many of us. They are afraid to speak of it, but they would act as I do, if they had the courage.”

Andais looked past him. “I do not know, Kieran. I think your wife's courage is fast fading.”

He looked at her, and there was something in his face, some question, or pleading. “If she would but speak with courage, this might end well.”

Madenn gave a great hiccupping sob. She had once been a goddess of youth, which had left her permanently looking about fifteen, a young fifteen. The face she turned up at us now looked younger, as if her fear were stripping years from her.

“You have said many times that you would cleanse this court of the half-breeds.” Her voice was breathy, and thick with tears. “We mean only to help you do what you always wished to do before she returned from the Western Lands and turned you from us.”

Andais was leaning forward, and the anger was falling away from her. Kieran's face was beginning to regain its smugness.

“Crystall, search her for a spell, some trinket aimed at the queen.”

Andais frowned at me. “What are you talking about, Meredith?”

“Please, Your Majesty, please,” Madenn said, “help us.”

I watched Andais's face soften.

“Hawthorne,” I said, “if she speaks again before I give her leave, slit her throat. She'll heal.”

He didn't argue with me, he simply unsheathed a knife, and put it against her throat, even as she tried to protest.

Andais looked away from her, shielding her eyes. “What is it?”

Crystall searched Madenn, and he was thorough enough that Kieran protested. “He is laying hands on my wife.”

“If she is a widow then there will be no marriage vows to break,” Andais said.

Kieran's mouth hung open for a moment, then he closed it, and I saw the first hint of fear in his eyes.

Madenn made a small sound, and Hawthorne pushed the tip of his blade in enough to draw a pinprick of bright crimson blood. She whimpered, but did not try to speak.

Crystall had to get very up close and personal with Madenn before he drew a little cloth bag from under her breasts. It was two pieces of cloth sewn together, almost a tiny pillow, the size of a fifty-cent piece.

I lowered my shields enough to see the little pillow glow, and there was a thin red line from it to the queen.

Crystall cut the threads that bound it, and spilled out a few dried herbs and seven strands of black hair. He held up the hair between his fingers, and the rest in his opposite hand. “A charm for you, and only you, Your Majesty,” he said. “A charm of eloquence, so that her words be sweet to your ears.”

Andais looked to Barinthus on the far side of the dais. “I may give you what I seldom give anyone, Lord Barinthus.”

He bowed. “And what would that be, Queen Andais?”

“An apology.” She looked at Madenn and Kieran. “Why would you risk death to kill Galen?”

“He doesn't think he risks death,” I said.

She looked at me. “He has used magic to try and work wiles upon me. That is cause for me to challenge one or both of them personally.”

“He told me that Siobhan tried to kill a royal princess and she lives still, and is not being tortured because Ezekiel fears her too much. He said if you would not punish someone for that, then there would be no punishment for trying to kill a half-pixie guard.”

She looked at him, and there was something in that look that made him take a step back, only to bump into the guards. “Did you say that, Kieran?”

“Not those words, no.”

“Did you say the gist of it?”

He swallowed hard enough to be heard and nodded. “Nerys's entire house turned traitor, tried to kill you, my queen, and they live. Why is the life of one half-breed guard worth more than the life of the queen herself?”

“See, Meredith, you show mercy and they will use it against you.”

“Nerys gave her life so that her house could survive,” I said. “She paid the price for your mercy.”

“Perhaps.” Andais looked past them all to another house of nobles. “Dormath.”

The man who stood was tall and almost impossibly thin. His skin was the whitest that our court could boast, the bloodless pale of a corpse. The black hood of his cloak was pushed back to reveal hair that was as white as his skin, so that he looked almost like an albino, except his eyes were large and luxurious and black. He looked very close to the modern idea of “death.” I was told that once he was as handsome and muscular as any of the sidhe, but that centuries of people's beliefs had changed him. There were those who debated whether being the representative of death to that degree made him a weak-magicked fool who couldn't protect himself from mortal thought, or proved that he was one of the most powerful among us, and still worshipped by humans, in a way. His voice was deeper than expected.

“Yes, my queen,” he said.

“Innis is one of yours, as is Siobhan. Are you traitors as Nerys's house were traitors?”

“No, my queen, I swear that I did not know of Siobhan's plan, nor of Innis's. This I swear.”

“You interceded for Siobhan. You begged my mercy. I gave it because my son also valued her, and asked for her life to be spared. I listened to my son and one whom I thought was my ally.”

“I am your ally, Your Majesty. My house is still your house.”

“Two traitors, Dormath, two in one house. How can I trust that there are not more?” She was making idle circles with one finger on the arm of her throne.

“Is not the same thing true of Blodewedd's house?” he asked.

“Do not drag me into this, Dormath,” Blodewedd said. “You who bear the name of your own dog, for you have shamed your true name.”

“I have shamed nothing.”

“Children,” Andais said, her voice light, almost playful. The sound made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. “You see what mercy gets you as a ruler, Meredith. Do you understand now? Mercy is for the weak, and the dying.”

“I know how Kieran has interpreted your actions.”

She looked at me, and I really didn't want that much of her attention in this mood, but I had it. “And how is that?”

“That if you would not kill someone for trying to kill me, then you would do even less to someone who tried to kill Galen.”

“Do you think he had the right of that? Do you think he has no punishment coming?”

“I think Siobhan should be executed and Kieran be made an example of.”

“An example how, if not executed?” she asked.

I licked my suddenly dry lips. “I had not thought that far, Aunt Andais.”

“Ah, but I have, and that is the difference between being queen and being princess.” She opened those red, red lips to say something awful, but the big double doors crashed open, and Doyle appeared.