A Stroke of Midnight (Page 13)

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Chapter 25

USNA AND CATHBODUA CAME BEHIND DOYLE, DRAGGING SOMEONE between them. Someone wearing a white fur cloak that was decorated with bright spots of crimson.

“Darkness,” Andais said, “how good of you to join us. Who are you bringing so unceremoniously before us?” Her voice still purred with a satisfied tone, promising pain to someone. Doyle had just given her another choice of victims.

“Gwennin, the white lord, a little worse for wear.”

Gwennin, I knew, was no friend of Cel's. He was no friend of anyone he considered pure Unseelie. He had been one of the last cast out of the Seelie Court, and he still acted as if he might someday go back there. The Seelie might welcome back an exile from among the humans, but once you became Unseelie, you were unclean and unforgivable.

I watched Doyle stalk toward me. He was the tall, dark hunter, the grim figure who had frightened me as a child, but I had to fight an urge to tell him to come to me. I wanted his arms around me. I wanted to be held, to feel safe. Sitting here in open court I didn't feel safe. What had driven me from faerie three years ago was happening all over again. There was too much death, too many attempts. Eventually, if enough people want you dead, they will succeed. It's simple mathematics. We had to survive every assassination attempt. They had to succeed just once.

Gwennin was not an ally to any of the lords we had “arrested.” I couldn't imagine a plot that could hold all those before me. Was there more than one plot against me? And what did any of it have to do with the murders?

“Gwennin,” Andais said, sounding puzzled, “you are no friend to those here.” She said aloud what I'd been thinking. I wondered if that was a good sign or a bad one. Was I getting better at the politics, or was she getting worse?

“He says he acted alone. That he resented the princess inviting in the human police. That it was beneath our court to take their help. So he set a spell that would have rendered them useless, or even killed them, if we had carried it to them.”

“Carried it?”

“He put it on Biddy, for she is half-human, and everyone of human blood she touched was contaminated.”

Gwennin found his voice, even flat on the floor between Usna and Cathbodua. “That the spell was able to work on the princess proves she is human.”

Cathbodua gave him a back-handed slap. “Speak when you are spoken to, traitor.”

“Yes,” Andais said, “they are all traitors. So many traitors. But none of them tried to take Meredith's life. They tried to take Galen's, they tried to stop the humans from entering our sithen, but they have not tried to kill Meredith. Interesting, that.”

I thought about it, and realized she was right. I looked at Doyle, and he met my look with one of his own. It was interesting, and puzzling.

“Why would Cel's guard be more interested in killing your green knight than in killing you?” Andais said conversationally.

I tried to keep my voice as casual, and almost succeeded. “If any of his people try to kill me, Cel's life is forfeit, but killing my allies is not an automatic death sentence for their prince.”

“But why Galen, Meredith? If I were going to strip you of your allies it would be Darkness or the Killing Frost.”

“Or Barinthus,” I said.

She nodded. “Yes, that was well done.” She looked at Kieran and his wife, who still had Hawthorne's knife at her throat. “If I kill Barinthus, then one of my most powerful guards is dead. If he kills me, then you are rid of me, and can be the first to suggest that he needs to die for his actions.” She moved in her chair as if settling her skirts more comfortably. “Oh yes, Kieran, good plan. You made only one mistake.”

He looked up at her. “And what was that?”

“You underestimated the princess, and her men.”

“I will not make the same mistake again,” he said, and gave me an unfriendly look.

“Kieran, that sounded like a threat to the princess.” Andais looked at me. “Did that not sound like a threat to you, Meredith?”

“Yes, Aunt Andais, it did.”

“Frost, did Kieran just threaten the princess?”

“Yes,” Frost said.

“Darkness,” she said.

“Yes, he threatened the princess, or threatened to plan better the next time he plots to kill you, Your Majesty.”

“Yes, that is what I heard, as well.” She looked out at the nobles. “Blodewedd, did you hear him threaten me and mine?”

Blodewedd took in a deep sighing breath, then gave a small nod.

“I need to hear it aloud for all the court,” Andais said.

“Kieran has been foolish this day. More foolish than I or my house can support or salvage.”

Kieran looked at her, frightened for the first time. “My lady, you are my liege lord, you cannot mean…”

“Do not involve me in your stupidity, Kieran. Madenn is your wife and has always been your shadow. But if you could have persuaded more of your own house to take your part, I do not believe you would have enlisted Innis's help.”

“An interesting point.” Andais gazed down at the unconscious form of Innis. “Dormath, I offer you a choice. One of your people must die. Innis or Siobhan, choose.”

“My queen,” Doyle said, “I would ask that Innis be spared, and Siobhan…”

“I know who you would kill, Darkness.” She looked at me. “I even know who you would have me slay, Meredith, but you are not their liege. I want Dormath to choose, so that the rest of his house will understand that he will not protect them.”

“My queen, do not make me choose among my lords and ladies.”

“Would you take their place, Dormath? Would you offer yourself to save Innis and Siobhan both? I am willing to entertain such a bargain, if you are willing to offer it.”

Dormath's face got even whiter, something I didn't think possible. He blinked his large, dark eyes slowly. Were we about to see Dormath, the door of death, faint?

“Come, Dormath, it is a simple question,” Andais said. “You are either willing to pay for the crimes of your house, or you are not. Nerys was willing to give her life for her house.”

Dormath's voice came thin and reedy, as if he was struggling to keep it even. “Her entire house had joined her in her treachery. My house is innocent of wrongdoing, save for these two.”

“Then choose, Dormath. I cannot deny the princess her call for a death. She is within her rights.”

“A death, yes,” Dormath said, “but not an execution. She is within her rights to challenge them to combat, and take their life if she can.”

“That might be true, Lord Dormath,” I said, “if Siobhan had attacked me one-on-one, but she did not. She attacked with the aid of two others. She ambushed me. This was no one-on-one combat. This was an assassination attempt, pure and simple.”

“Innis did not even attack you,” Dormath argued, “he attacked the green knight. Surely it should be he who demands the life debt.”

“Do you think he will show more mercy than the princess?” Andais asked.

“I think Galen has always been a fair man,” Dormath said.

Galen pressed my hand tight in his and sighed. It was not a happy sound. “I tried to be fair, and just, and good, whatever that means. Siobhan told me once that I belong in the Seelie Court, where they try to pretend they are something they're not. I asked her what they try to pretend to be. Human, she said, and made it sound like a curse.” I watched his face grow solemn, and very unlike my Galen. “Do you really expect me to help you save the lives of the people who tried to kill me?”

The two sidhe looked at each other, and it was Dormath who looked away first. He spoke with his eyes lowered, so that he met no one's gaze. “One tries to know their opposition and use their strengths and weaknesses against them.”

“Why am I your opposition?” Galen asked.

Dormath spoke to the queen as if he hadn't heard Galen. “My queen, I would ask that you do not make me choose between my people. One has done, perhaps, the lesser crime, but I have more affection for the other.”

“Answer Galen's question,” Andais said.

Dormath blinked those deep, shining eyes and looked at her. His thin face showed nothing. “And what question would that be, my queen?”

“I tire of word games quickly, Dormath,” she said. “I suggest you bear that in mind. I will tell you once more. Answer Galen's question.”

Dormath shivered, and the long black cloak gave the illusion of feathers settling around his body. “I do not think your son would want this question answered in open court.”

I looked at Andais then, my aunt, my queen. I did not know what Dormath was referring to, but she might. She had helped hide her son's secrets for centuries. Her face was cold beauty, arrogant and perfect, every line of her like some statue carved to be the beauty that drives men not to love but to despair.

“Answer as much or as little of the question as you will, Dormath. Know that if you answer as fully as you might you will forfeit all of Prince Cel's allies. For they will feel you betrayed them. Know also that there are those among us now who will condemn you as the blackest of traitors for going along with his plan.”

Dormath put out a long pale hand to steady himself against the table. “My queen…”

“Dormath, if you do not answer the question I will consider it a direct challenge to me, personally.”

“You would slay me to keep from revealing what he has done,” Dormath said.

“Is that what I said? I don't believe that is what I said.” She looked at me then. “Is that what I said, Meredith?”

I wasn't entirely certain how to answer that question. “I do not believe that you threatened Dormath with death if he revealed what Prince Cel, my cousin, has done. Nor do I believe that you have encouraged him to reveal all that he knows.”

“Go on,” she said, and she seemed pleased with me, though I wasn't sure why.

“But you have stated clearly that if he does not answer Galen's question, you will challenge him to single combat, and kill him.”

She nodded and smiled, as if I'd said a smart thing. “Exactly.”

I looked from her to Dormath, and I had a moment of pity for him. She had set him a riddle that might not have an answer, not one that would keep him alive anyway.

He was still propping himself up on the tabletop. His face showed clearly that he did not see a way out of the maze of words she had thrown up around him. “I do not believe that there is a way to answer the green knight's question without revealing much that I do not believe you want known.”

“I do not believe that you know what I want, Dormath. But if you remain mute, I will kill you, and there will be no argument that it is unfair, for it will be one-on-one against me.”

He swallowed, and his throat looked almost too thin to hold the bobbing of his Adam's apple. “Why are you doing this, my queen?”

“Doing what?” she asked.

“Do you want the court to know? Is that what you want?”

“I want a child who values his people and their welfare before his own.”

The silence in the room was profound. It was as if all of us took a breath and held it. It was as if the very blood in our veins ceased to move for just that instant. Andais had admitted that Cel valued nothing but himself, something I had known for years. She had raised him to believe that faerie and the sidhe and the lesser fey owed him. He had been the apple of her eye, the song in her heart, the most precious thing in her world for longer than this country had existed, and now she wanted a child that valued others above themselves. What had Cel done to so disillusion his mother?

Dormath spoke into that silence. “My queen, I do not know how to give you what you desire.”

“I can give you what you want.” Maelgwn's voice had lost its usual amused smoothness. He sounded serious and gentle at the same time, a tone I'd never heard from him.

Andais looked at him, and with only her profile I could tell it wasn't a friendly look.

“Can you, wolf lord, can you truly?” Her voice held that edge of warning, like the pressure in the air before you even know the storm is coming.

“Yes,” he said softly, but the word carried through the hall.

She settled herself against the back of her throne, her hands very still on the carved arms. “Illuminate me, wolf.”

“There are two children of your line who have come of age, my queen. One child has reawakened the queen's own ring, and now offers almost anything to be allowed to enjoy the ring's magic. A child who says bringing children to all the sidhe is more important to her than gaining the throne, or protecting her own life, or filling her own belly with life. These are all things that most of the nobles in this room, perhaps everyone in this room, would give anything to have. Is that not a child who puts her people's welfare above her own?”

I sat very still. I did not want to draw her attention to me. Maybe what Maelgwn said was true, but the queen didn't always like or reward the truth. Sometimes a lie got you further. Andais's most beloved lie was that Cel was fit to rule here. She herself had opened the door to the nobles finally speaking the truth. That Cel would have been almost no one's choice, if they'd had any other choice that didn't include a half-breed mortal. Only my father had ever had the courage to tell Andais that there was something wrong with Cel. Something that went beyond just being spoiled or privileged.

Andais spoke as if she'd heard my last thought. “When my brother got his new bride pregnant so quickly, there were those who urged me to step down. I refused.” She turned and looked at me. “Do you want to know why I called you home, Meredith?”

It was so unexpected that I gaped at her for a moment, then managed, “Yes.”

“I'm infertile, Meredith. All those human doctors have done everything they can for me. That is why you must prove yourself fertile. Whoever rules after me must be able to bring life back to the courts. Maelgwn accused me of condemning all of you to be childless because my line is. I can only give you my word that I did not believe it until recently. If I could go back…” She sighed and slumped as much as her tight bodice would allow. “I wonder what we would be now, we Unseelie, if I had allowed Essus to take this throne these thirty years and more.” Her eyes held a pain that she'd never let me see before. That one look answered a question that I had wondered about. I knew that my father loved his sister, but until that moment I had not been sure that she loved him back. It was there in her eyes, in the lines of her face, even underneath the makeup. She looked tired.

“Aunt Andais – ” I started but she shushed me.

“I have heard whispers in the dark, niece of mine, whispers that I did not believe. But if the ring truly lives for you, if it has begun to choose fertile couples for you, then perhaps the rumors are true. Is Maeve Reed, once Conchenn among the Seelie, with child?”

I opened my mouth, then closed it. There had to be some among us who were spies for the Seelie Court. It would endanger Maeve to say yes, but Taranis had already tried to kill her. She was in another country now, as safe as we could make her. It was more dangerous not to answer, because we had told no one that Maeve Reed had been exiled from faerie because she had refused the king's bed on the grounds that he was sterile. Which meant that, unlike Andais, Taranis had known a hundred years ago that he was infertile. He had kept his throne and condemned his people to diminish and die rather than step down. The Seelie were within their rights to demand his death as a true sacrifice to the land for that oversight.

I'd thought too long, and Andais said, “Meredith, what is wrong?”

Frost squeezed my shoulder, Galen was very still beside me. I looked at Doyle, and he gave a small nod. Truth was the lesser evil. I whispered it. “Yes, she is with child.”

Andais was looking from me to Doyle, as if she longed to ask why I had hesitated so long, but she was a better politician than to ask. You did not ask a question in public to which you did not know the answer. “Answer so that everyone can hear you, niece.”

I had to clear my throat to make my voice carry through the hall. “Yes, she is with child.”

A sigh of murmurs ran through the assembled nobles.

Andais smiled, as if she was satisfied with the reaction. “Did you work a spell for her, a fertility spell?”

“Yes,” I said.

The murmur grew, swelling like the sea as it sweeps toward the shore.

“I heard her husband was dying even then, is that true?”

I nodded. “Yes.”

“Treatments for cancer can leave a man sterile or unable to perform.”

“Sometimes,” I said.

“But you managed a spell that got a dying man to perform one last time for her?”


“Who played the part of the consort to your goddess? Who was god to your goddess for this spell?”

“Galen.” I pressed his hand against my chest, as I said it.

The ocean of murmurs burst upon us in a confused babble. Cries, almost shouts. Some did not believe it. I heard at least one male voice that I could not quite place say, “That explains it.” I would ask Doyle or Frost if they recognized the voice later.

Andais looked at Kieran still standing bound at the foot of the steps. “I slew Galen's father before I, or the noble lady who brought complaint of magical seduction, knew she was pregnant. You almost slew a warrior who had helped work magic to create life in the womb of a sidhe woman and a dying human.”

Kieran looked confused, as if he was thinking very hard. “I would say I do not believe it, but you have spoken too much truth today, my queen, for me to doubt this. And you do not like Galen enough to lie to save him.”

“We never lie, Kieran.”

He bowed. “I meant…”

“I know what you meant.” She leaned back against her chair, almost cozily, like a cat settling in. “What did Cel's people tell you that made you agree to do this traitorous thing?”

I expected Kieran to argue, or fight her, but he simply answered. “That the green man would bring life to her.” He nodded at me, since he could not point.

Andais looked at Dormath. “And what did Siobhan tell you?”

“That the green man would return life to the land of faerie.”

Kieran's face showed his panic. He tried to fall to his knees, I think to bow lower, but hands caught him, kept him on his feet. “That is not what I was told, my queen, I swear it. I would never destroy a chance for our court to be brought back to what we were, never.”

“Dormath,” she said, “explain to Kieran the wording of the prophecy that Prince Cel paid the human psychic for.”

Dormath bowed to her, then said, “The green man will bring life back to the land of faerie. The ruler is the land, and the land is the ruler. Their health, their fertility, their happiness, is the health, the fertility, and the joy of the land itself.”

“Well put, Dormath, and very true. If you killed Meredith's green knight, and he was destined to be the king who brought back children to the sidhe, then what would you have done to us, Kieran, Madenn?” She didn't wait for them to answer. “By killing him you would have destroyed all our hopes and dreams.”

“But it is Mistral and Meredith who have begun to awaken the dead gardens, and the magic of the guard. He was with her when the ring chose Nicca and Biddy,” Kieran said. “It is Mistral who sits in the consort's throne, not the green knight.”

“True enough, and perhaps the ring has chosen the storm lord to be her king. I myself interpreted the term 'green man' to mean any of our green gods, but perhaps I have been too literal. Green man can be another name for god, or consort.” She shook her head. “I do not know for certain. I do not know if it is irritating or reassuring that prophets still speak in riddles even in this very modern America.” She turned to me. “Go help Nicca and Biddy make the child you saw. But abide by my rules; if I find you have given him first to Biddy, I will be cross. But take Galen and one other green man to your body this night, as well.”

“What of the traitors, Aunt Andais?” I asked.

“You go try and make babies; I will tend to them. I will give you a united court, Meredith. It will be my first and last gift to you.” She put a hand in front of her face and said, “Leave me, take the guards who are green men with you, but leave me the ones who are not.”

Frost's hand tensed on my shoulder, and I must have made some small sound of protest, because she looked up at me. She glanced at Frost and Doyle, and anger filled her eyes. “Take your Darkness and the Killing Frost. They are yours, but I will need some of the guards to help me punish the traitors.”

“And Biddy and Nicca,” I said quietly.

She waved her hand impatiently. “Yes, yes, now go.”

Frost's hand eased up on my shoulder. He gave a small nod. I got up, bowed to the queen, and we moved toward the doors, leaving her to punish the traitors. She probably wouldn't kill them, but she'd make sure they regretted their actions. Of that, I had no doubt. I shouldn't have looked back, but I did. I saw Crystall, Hafwyn, Dogmaela, and others try to control their faces. Mistral and Barinthus were among the unreadable.

I stopped. Frost grabbed my shoulder, and Galen still had my hand. They tried to get me moving again, but I balked. I couldn't save everyone, I knew that, but…

Doyle didn't try to stop me, he simply looked at me with his impassive face. He would give me room to rule. I spoke with Frost and Galen's hands tight against me. The tension in Frost's hand was almost painfully tight.

“May I take a healer with me, my queen, just in case there are any more emergencies? We sent for a healer when Galen was injured but the healer never arrived.”

She nodded, but her attention was already fixed on her victims. She stood above Kieran, one hand idly stroking the blond hair that he had so carefully braided back behind his head. “Yes, take any but my own healer.”

“Hafwyn,” I said.

She couldn't keep the relief off her face as she started across the floor.

The queen called after her. “Meredith, if you wish a healer you must take one who still has their powers.” She actually put her hands on her hips as if she was impatient with me.

“Hafwyn healed Galen and Adair.”

She was looking at me now, paying attention. “Healed them how? She lost her ability to heal years ago.” She managed to look both irritated and relieved. “She is one you brought back into her powers tonight.”

“No, my queen, Hafwyn has always been able to heal with the laying on of hands.”

“I was told that she had lost her ability to heal,” the queen said.

“Hafwyn,” I said, “did you ever lose your ability to heal?”

She shook her head without turning around to face the queen, as if she was afraid to look away from me, or afraid to look back.

“Then why is she a guard?” the queen asked. She came down the steps, and I felt everyone around me tense. We could have left, gotten away, and I was putting us all at risk. But for the first time ever Andais seemed willing to hear awful truths about Cel. I wasn't sure how long this new mood would last, and there were things that would happen only when she was willing to believe Cel was a monster.

“She healed someone Prince Cel had forbidden her to heal. He told her that from that day forward she would bring death only, and no longer be allowed to heal.”

Andais glided across the floor toward us, her dress making a hissing sound. Hafwyn paled. “Is this true, Hafwyn?”

The guard swallowed hard and turned around to face the queen. She dropped to one knee without being asked or told. “Yes, Queen Andais, it is true.”

“You had the ability to heal grievous wounds by touch and he forbade you to use your gift?”

Hafwyn kept her face down, but answered, “Yes.”

Andais looked at me. “She is yours, but I cannot allow you to strip Cel of all his guards. Even a queen cannot help another sidhe break their vows of loyalty and service.”

“Hafwyn breaks no vow coming to me, for she made no vow to Prince Cel. I am told that many of the prince's guard made no new vows to Cel.”

Something passed through Doyle's eyes that let me know he at least understood why this was worth the risk.

Andais frowned at me. “This cannot be true. Cel offered my brother's guards a chance to join his service after Essus's death. They made vows to serve Cel.”

Hafwyn abased herself lower on the floor, but said, “My queen, Cel told us you gave us to him. He did not ask our permission or if we wished to serve him. He told all of us that our vows had been made to a prince, and he was a prince.”

“He said you all chose to serve him,” Andais said in a voice gone hollow with surprise.

Hafwyn kept her face pressed to her hands on the floor, but she answered. “No, my queen.”

Andais looked at Biddy. “Did you give your vow to Cel?”

Biddy shook her head. “No, and he never asked for it.”

Andais turned back toward the throne. “Dogmaela, did you give oath to Prince Cel?”

“No, my queen,” she said, eyes wide, and face a little frightened.

Andais screamed, a loud, sharp, inarticulate scream that seemed to hold all her frustration. “I would never have given my brother's guard to anyone, not even my own son. All those who did not make oath to Cel are free to choose to leave his service.”

“Are we free to offer our service where we wish?” Hafwyn asked, her head raised just enough to look up at the queen.

“Yes, but if you wish to go to the princess's service my order stands. To serve her, you must truly serve her in the way that the guard has always served my blood and my house.”

It was Biddy who said, “Prince Essus did not force us to serve him and only him.”

Andais looked at her, and shook her head, then looked at me. “What would you do with your guards if I allowed it?”

“I would free the women of the celibacy since, as you pointed out, they cannot get me pregnant. After I am with child and know who the father of my child would be, I would free the men from their celibacy, as well.”

“And if you never get with child?”

“Then I would keep those I preferred in my bed, and let the others find lovers. A half-dozen men, give or take a few, is enough for me, I think.”

“And what if I said that any you did not keep must come back to me?”

“You told me once that you made the celibacy rule because you wanted their seed for yourself, but if you cannot be pregnant, then why not let them see if there are other women in the court they could get with child?”

“So fair, so evenhanded, so like Essus.” She gave us her back and began to walk toward her throne. “Take the guards you have around you and go. And know this, your ill truths will make our traitors' punishments all the more fulsome. For my anger will need flesh and blood to be stilled.”

To that there was only one thing to say. “I will go and do as you have bid, Aunt Andais.” I bowed to her back, and we got Hafwyn to her feet and left. I did not need anyone's urging to know that I had pushed her about as far as she'd be pushed this night. We left her caressing Kieran. The last sound we heard before the doors closed behind us was Madenn's scream. I started to look back but Frost and Galen had too firm a grip on my arms. There would be no more looking back tonight.

Chapter 26

THERE WAS A STORM OF BUTTERFLIES OUTSIDE THE DOOR TO MY room, as if someone had broken a kaleidoscope and thrown the colors into the air, and those colors had stayed, floating, whirling. For a moment I didn't see the tiny hands and feet, the gauzy dresses and loincloths. I saw only what their glamour tried to show me. A cloud of insects, rising like beauty itself into the air. I had to blink hard and concentrate to see them for what they truly were. Galen pulled back against my hand, stopping all of us just short of that rainbow cloud.

Galen's reaction made me remember another time when I'd seen such a cloud of the demi-fey. Galen had been chained to the rock outside the throne room. His body was almost lost to sight under the slowly fanning wings of the demi-fey. They looked like butterflies on the edge of a puddle, sipping liquid, wings moving slowly to the rhythm of their feeding. But they weren't sipping water, they were drinking his blood. Galen had shrieked long and loud, his body arching against the chains. The movement dislodged some of the demi-fey, and I glimpsed why he was screaming. His groin was a bloody mess. They were taking flesh as well as blood.

Galen's hand tightened painfully around mine. I looked up at him now, and found his eyes a little too wide, his lips half-parted. I knew now why Cel had bargained with the demi-fey to try to ruin Galen's manhood. At the time it had simply seemed like another of his cruelties.

The kaleidoscope of butterflies and moths parted curtain-like, and Queen Niceven hovered in midair on large pale wings like some ghostly luna moth. Her dress sparkled silver; the diamonds in her crown were so bright in the light that the dazzle of it obscured her narrow features. I knew what she looked like because I'd seen her thin, near skeletal beauty before. Though only the size of a Barbie doll, she was thin enough for Hollywood. Looking at her all asparkle and pale white, I understood why people had thought the fey were spirits of the dead or angels. She looked like both and neither. Too solid to be a ghost, too insect-like to be an angel.

If Galen hadn't been clinging to my hand I would have moved forward to speak with her, one royal to another, but I couldn't ask him to go closer to that pretty, bloodthirsty cloud. Doyle saw my dilemma, and went forward, to bow before her. “Queen Niceven, to what do we owe this honor?”

“Pretty words, Darkness,” she said, and her voice was like evil, tinkling bells, “but a little late, don't you think?”

“A little late for what, Queen Niceven?” he asked in his polite, empty court voice. The voice that he used when he didn't know what political storm he had fallen into.

“For courtesy, Darkness, for courtesy.” She flew a little higher so she could see me better over Doyle's tall form. “Now I am not even good enough for the princess to address me directly.”

I called to her, as Galen's hand convulsed around mine. “You know full well why Galen doesn't want to come closer to you and your kin.”

“And are you attached to your green knight? Are you one with him in flesh, so that you cannot come closer without him coming, as well?” She'd moved her head to one side, and I could see her pale eyes now. She wasn't even trying to hide how angry she was. I'd seen her crown a thousand times, and never seen the jewels catch the light so brilliantly. Only then did I realize that the light in the hallway was brighter than normal, closer to the brightness of electric lights.

“See, she pays no attention to us. The roof of the hall holds more interest for her than my court.”

I blinked and looked back to the flying queen. “My apologies, Queen Niceven, the brilliance of your crown quite dazzled me. I have seen your beauty many times, but it has never been so eye-catching as tonight. It made me realize that the light in this hallway is finally bright enough to do you and your finery the justice it deserves.”

“Pretty words, Princess Meredith, but empty ones. Flattery will not wipe away the insult you have laid against me and my court.”

I had no idea what she was talking about. Was I so tired that I had forgotten something important? For I was tired, an aching tiredness that comes after being up too long, or after too many things happen in too short a space of time. I had no idea what time it was. There were no clocks in faerie. Once it had been because time moved differently here than outside. Now there were no clocks allowed because they would work. Just another reminder that faerie wasn't what it used to be.

“What insult has been done to your court?” Doyle asked.

“No, Darkness, she did the insulting, let her do the asking.” Her wings looked like some great moth, but they did not move like moth wings, not when she was angry. They blurred and buzzed as she flew past Doyle to hover in front of me.

Galen pulled back so hard, I stumbled against him. He caught me automatically, but that put him closer to the tiny hovering fey. He seemed to freeze against me, his arms pinning mine.

Niceven hissed, flashing tiny needle-like teeth, and darted in. I think she only meant to land on my shoulder, but Frost put his arm in her way. He didn't try to hit her, but her guard reacted, flying toward their queen. They descended on us like a swirl of rainbow leaves, with tiny pinching hands, and sharp biting teeth.

Galen yelled and threw up a hand, turning so that he used his own body as a shield against them. He started to run, but he tripped and fell, landing on the ground with me underneath him. He caught himself with one arm so that I didn't take his full weight. My face ended up buried in the rich green smell of crushed leaves. I opened my eyes and found myself nearly buried in greenery. I thought for a moment that Galen and I had been transported, but my fingers found the bareness of the hallway stone underneath. I looked at the far wall, and saw the other guards still standing around us. Plants had sprung from the naked rock.

Galen had curled himself over me, shielding me with his body. He was still tense and waiting for the first blow. A blow that did not come. I turned enough to see his face, his eyes screwed tight. He had given himself over to one of his greatest fears to protect me. He hadn't seen the flowers yet, but the others had.

Niceven's voice hissed, “Evil sidhe, evil, evil sidhe. You have bespelled them.”

“Interesting,” Doyle said, “very interesting.”

“Most impressive,” Hawthorne said, “but whose work is it?”

“Galen's,” Nicca said.

Galen's body had begun to relax above me. He opened his eyes, and I watched his puzzlement as he looked at the plants that had filled the hallway. “I did not do this.”

“Yes,” Nicca said again, in a voice that was very certain, “yes, you did.”

Galen raised up on one arm, so that he was half sitting above me. He turned and looked behind us, and whatever he saw covered his face in astonishment. I sat up and looked, too.

Flowers filled a small space of hallway. The winged demi-fey were cuddled into those flowers, rolling in the petals, covering themselves with pollen. They were reacting like cats to catnip.

Queen Niceven hovered above them untouched by the call of the flowers. Less than a handful of her winged warriors were at her side. All the others had fallen to Galen's flowers. It was an enchantment, that much I understood, but beyond that I was as lost as the look on Galen's face.

“He's the only one who has not had new power manifest.” Frost poked at one of the nodding blossoms with the tip of his sword.

“Well,” Doyle said, gazing at the flowers and the drugged demi-fey, “this is certainly manifested.” He grinned, a quick flash of teeth in his dark face. “If his power continues to grow he could do this to human, or even other sidhe, armies. I had almost forgotten that we ever had such nice ways to win battles.”

“Well,” a voice said from behind us, “I leave for a few minutes and you've planted a garden.” It was Rhys, back from escorting the police outside the sithen. Nicca told him what had happened. Rhys grinned at Galen. “What is this, the hand of flowers?”

“It's not a hand of power,” Nicca said. “It's a skill, a magical skill.”

“You mean like baking or doing needlepoint?” Rhys asked.

“No,” Nicca said, not rising to the joke, “I mean it is like Mistral's manifesting a storm. It is a manifestation, a bringing into being.”

Rhys gave a low whistle. “Creating something out of nothing. The Unseelie haven't been able to do that in a very long time.”

Galen touched one of the largest cupped blossoms, and it spilled a tiny demi-fey out into his hand. He jerked as if he'd been bitten, but he didn't drop the delicate figure. A female dressed in a short brown dress, with her brown and red and cream wings fanned out on either side of her as she lay on her back in his hand. She was tiny even by demi-fey standards. Her entire body did not fill Galen's palm. She lay almost completely limp, a smile on her face, her eyes rolled back into her head. Her body was covered in the black pollen of the flower she'd crawled into. She wasn't just drunk, she was passed out, happy-drunk.

Galen looked more and more puzzled. He gazed up at Doyle, half holding the little fey up to him. “For those of us under a century, what in the name of Danu is going on? I didn't do this on purpose, because I didn't know it was possible. If I didn't know it was possible, then how could I have done it at all? Magic takes will and intent.”

“Not always,” Doyle said.

“Not if it is simply part of what you are,” Frost said.

Galen shook his head. “What does that mean?”

“Maybe we should save the magic lessons for later,” Rhys said, “when we're more alone.” He was looking at the tiny queen who was still hovering above us, gazing at her fallen army.

“Yes, white knight, keep your secrets from me,” she said, “for the princess has broken the bargain she made with me. My people are her eyes and ears no longer. We serve Prince Cel once more.”

I got to my feet, careful not to step on the demi-fey who were passed out in and among the flowers. That would be bad on so many levels. “I did not break our bargain, Queen Niceven; you took Sage away. He could not take blood if he was not allowed near me.”

She buzzed to hover in front of my face, her white wings moving in a blur of speed that would have shredded true moth wings. I knew from Sage that that blur meant she was angry.

“I bargained for a little blood, a little sexual energy to come to my proxy, and thus to me. I did not bargain for him to be made sidhe. I did not bargain for him to lose the use of his wings. I did not bargain for him to…”

“Be too big for your bed,” I said.

“I am married,” she said, and that last word sounded like a curse. “I have no lover save my king.”

“No, and because you cannot have your favorite lover, you forbid him the pleasure of anyone else.”

The wind from her wings played along my hair, buffeted my face. The air was cool, though her anger was not. “What I do with my court is my business, Princess.”

“It is, but you accused me of breaking our bargain, and I did not. I am still willing to offer a taste of royal blood to you.” I held my hand out slowly, gently, offering her my upturned wrist. I did not want another misunderstanding. “Do you wish to take the blood personally? You sent Sage as your proxy because the Western Lands are far from faerie, but now I am here.”

She hissed at me like a startled cat and buzzed high into the air above me. “I would not taste your sidhe flesh for all the power in the world. You will not steal my wings from me.”

“But Sage was always able to change to a human size. You are not, so you can't get stuck in a larger size.”

She hissed again, shaking her head, sending rainbow dazzles to dance around the walls, on us, and the flowers. “Never!”

“Then choose another proxy,” I said.

“Who would take such a risk?” she said.

A small voice came. “Someone who has no wings to lose.”

I looked down until I saw a cluster of demi-fey against the far wall. None of them had wings, but they had other means of transport. Carts pulled by sleek, cream-colored rats, and one dainty chariot that had more than a dozen white mice tied to it. There were two ferrets with multiple tiny riders, one the standard black mask, the other an albino with white fur and reddish eyes. A Nile monitor that was nearly four feet long had two of the larger riders. The monitor was not only harnessed but muzzled like a dog that you're afraid will bite. Nile monitors could be vicious and ate anything small enough to catch and kill. If I'd been the size of a Barbie doll, I wouldn't have wanted one anywhere near me.

Movement on the wall brought my attention to the fact that there were tiny many-legged demi-fey clinging there. Some looked like tiny spider centaurs, eight legs combined with a rounded fey body hidden under a sway of gauzy cloth. One looked like a black beetle, so like that only staring showed the pale moon of a face under the insect camouflage.

“I spoke,” said one of the men in a rat-drawn cart. There was a woman in the cart with him. She was pulling on his arm, trying to stop him from waving. “No, Royal, no,” she said, “don't do it. There are worse things than not having wings.”

He let go of the reins that led to a lovely rat, and grabbed the woman's arms. “I will do this, Penny. I will do this.”

Penny shook her head. “I don't want to lose you.”

“You won't lose me.”

“I will if she makes you sidhe.”

“I have no other size, Penny. She can't trap me in human size the way she did Sage, because it's not one of my abilities.” He hugged her to him, petting her short dark hair, and looked up at me. His hair was short and black, and just under his bangs were two long graceful antennae, as black as his hair. His eyes were large and almond-shaped, and a perfect blackness like Doyle's, or Sage's come to that. His skin was very white in contrast to all that darkness. The woman turned her head to gaze up at me, and she, too, had long graceful antennae. It was rare for any of the demi-fey to have antennae, but for those without wings it was doubly surprising.

The two pale oval faces stared up at me. There was a little more squareness to his jaw, a somewhat daintier curve to hers. He was a little taller than she, a little more broad of shoulder, narrow of hip, but beyond the basic differences that made them male and female, they looked identical.

“You're twins,” I said, “Pennyroyal, Penny and Royal.” It was a custom among the demi-fey to divide a name up among twins.

He nodded. She just stared at me. They were even dressed alike in gauzy tunics of deep purple. They were both dressed in more clothing than the majority of the demi-fey. Her dress covered her from neck to knees. His tunic covered him from neck to knees, as well. I realized as I looked at the wingless ones that they were all dressed in a similar fashion. The winged fey men went for what amounted to kilts or loincloths of gauze. The women were in mini-dresses or less. Only Queen Niceven wore a gown that swept to her ankles. She was their queen, she got more clothes, but I'd never noticed the marked difference in clothing between those who had wings and those who did not.

“I have not agreed to this,” Niceven said, and came to hover at my shoulder.

“Please, Your Majesty, let me try. You do not know what it is like to be without wings, doomed to walk or ride forever.”

She crossed her arms over her thin chest. “I feel for your plight, Royal, and all of you who are so cursed, but you might get a great deal more than just wings from touching this one.” She motioned at me. “Look what has happened with the green knight.”

“Would having one of your people able to conjure such enchantments be a bad thing, Your Majesty?” he asked.

She came to hover near my face. “How can I trust you, Princess, when you have insulted me and my court so severely?”

Doyle said, “You spoke of an insult when you first arrived. You said the princess had done it. What has she done?”

Niceven turned in the air so she could see him, then moved backwards so she could see us both as she spoke. “You arrested one of my people without asking my permission. Beatrice was not sidhe, she was mine. Though trapped in her human-sized form, she was demi-fey. Beatrice was cursed but she was not Andais's or yours. The murderer is one of mine, the victim is one of mine, and you did not give me even the courtesy of a message. No other court would have been so ignored.” She moved close enough that the air from her wings brushed my hair against my face. “You would have at the very least contacted Kurag, Goblin King. He would not have had to learn of such a thing from rumor and gossip as I did. Sholto, King of the Sluagh, sat in the consort's throne for you last night. You would not have arrested his people without asking him first.” She flew to the ceiling, and stayed there fluttering like an angry butterfly back and forth above us.

I watched her, all white and glittering, all hurt pride and wounded arrogance, and fear. Fear that her court had become so little among us that she truly was queen in name only. She was right.

“I should have sent you a messenger when we arrested Peasblossom. I should have sent you a message when we discovered that one of the murdered was a demi-fey. You are right, I would have notified Kurag, Goblin King. I would have contacted Sholto. I would not have done to them what I have done to you.”

“You are a princess of the sidhe,” Frost said. “You explain yourself to no one.”

I shook my head and patted his arm. “Frost, I spend a great deal of time explaining myself to everyone.”

“Not to demi-fey,” he said, and his face was arrogant, cold, and heartbreakingly handsome.

“Frost, either the demi-fey are a court unto themselves, worthy of respect, or they are not. Queen Niceven is within her rights to be angry about this.”

His hand gripped the hilt of his sword, but he didn't say anything. To insult them beyond a certain point was to break them as a court, as a people. He wasn't willing to do that.

“Merry's right.” Galen stood slowly, being as careful where he put his feet as I had been. He still held the tiny brown winged fey asleep in his hand. “I may not like Queen Niceven and the demi-fey, but she is a queen and they are a court. We should have sent someone to tell her what was happening.” He gazed up at the tiny queen. “I don't know if you care what I think, but I'm sorry.”

She came slowly down from the ceiling. Her wings had slowed, fanning gently, so that the illusion of some graceful moth was back. “After what we did to you, it is you who offers us an apology.” She looked at him, as if she had never truly seen him before. “You fear us, hate us. Why would you show us courtesy?”

He frowned, and I watched him try to put into words what was simply him. It had been the right thing to do, and for once it had even been the politically smart thing to do, but that hadn't been why he'd done it.

“We owed you an apology,” he said at last. “Merry explained it. I wasn't sure that anyone else would agree with her, so I did.”

Niceven floated over to face me. “He apologized to us because it was the right thing to do.”

“Yes,” I said.

She looked back at him, then at me. “Oh, Princess, you must keep this one close, for he is too dangerous to be left alone among the sidhe.”

“Too dangerous,” Galen said, “dangerous to whom?”

“To yourself, for one,” Niceven said, fluttering over to him. She put thin, pale hands on the hips of her white dress. “I see goodness in your face, goodness and gentleness. You are in the wrong court, green knight.”

“My father was a pixie, and my mother an Unseelie sidhe.” He shook his head, vigorously enough that Niceven moved a little back from him. “No, the glittering throng wouldn't touch me.”

Niceven gazed down at the flowers and her besotted people. “They might now.”

“No,” Hawthorne said, “Taranis doesn't forgive a sidhe who joins the darkling court. If you take your exile to the humans and wander lost for a few centuries, maybe he'll forgive you, but,” he lifted his helmet off, “once you've been accepted here, there is no going back.”

“Perhaps,” Niceven said, “or perhaps not.”

“Queen Niceven,” I said.

She turned to me, her face carefully passive, her thin hands folded in front of her.

“What do you mean 'perhaps not'?”

She shrugged. “Oh, someone who can be a fly upon the wall hears things.”

“What sort of things?” I asked.

“Things that I might share with someone who was my ally, and honored their bargains.”

“If you will not take blood directly from me, then I will need a new magical proxy,” I said.

She turned in the air, and looked at Royal and his sister in their rat-drawn cart. “Royal,” she said.

He stood straighter, almost to attention, though without wings he could not be in Niceven's guard. “Yes, my queen.”

“Would you taste the blood of the princess and share the essence with me?”

“Gladly, my queen.”

Penny clung to him. “Don't, Royal, don't do it.”

He drew her away from him, and looked down into her face. “How long have we dreamed of wings?”

She let her arms fall limp to her sides. “Forever,” she said.

“I didn't give Sage wings,” I said.

“No,” Royal said, “you gave him wings.” He pointed at Nicca.

“But Nicca wasn't tasting my blood when it happened.”

Royal nodded, and stepped from the cart. He gazed up at me. “It was during sex.”

I looked at him. He was about ten inches tall, a little shorter than a Barbie doll, but not by much. I tried to think of a polite way to say it, and finally settled for, “I think the size difference is a little much.”

He flashed me a grin. “Sage has given a very full report to the court. I am willing to take blood while you have sex with others, in hopes that it will bring my wings.”

I shook my head. “Nicca may have been a special case.”

Royal gripped the hem of his tunic and lifted it off in one smooth movement, letting it drop to the floor. He was naked before me, miniature and perfect. He turned around, displaying a perfect tattoo of wings covering his back down to his upper thighs. The wings were almost black, with lines of charcoal running through them. The edges curled over his shoulders like the draping edge of a shawl. Bright scarlet and black graced his lower back and buttocks in soft curving stripes, like the ruffled edge of a petticoat.

He turned so that I could see that the black and scarlet was edged by a thin stripe of the dark, almost spots, cut with white, and a thin line of gold. That edging strip curved over the side of his hip, so that the sides of his hips were striped with color, too.

Nicca's wings belonged to some long-lost moth. Something that had flown the skies of Europe more than a thousand years before. But I knew what had painted itself upon Royal's skin.

“You're an underwing moth, an Ilia Underwing.”

He looked back over his shoulder at me, smiling. “That's one of the names humans use.” He seemed pleased that I'd known what his wings belonged to. His small face suddenly became very serious. “Do you know the other name for the Ilia?”

My pulse sped just a bit, which was silly. He was the size of a child's toy. The heat in his eyes shouldn't have had that strong an effect, but my mouth was dry and my voice just a little whispery. “The beloved underwing.”

“Yes,” he said. He started toward me, and if it hadn't been silly, I would have backed up. A man that is shorter than my forearm couldn't possibly have been intimidating, but he was.

Galen said softly at my shoulder, “He does know he's not getting sex, right?”

“So it's not just me who wants to back up a step.”

“No,” Galen said.

“You are very good,” Doyle said.

I looked at Doyle, but all his attention was on the little man. “What do you mean?” I asked.

“Glamour,” Doyle said.

“Are all the demi-fey as good at glamour as Sage and this one?” Rhys asked.

“Not all of them, but a great many, yes,” Doyle said.

Rhys shivered. “I am not sharing the bed with this one. Sage taught me my lesson, I don't need another one.”

“You're not on the menu for tonight, Rhys.”

“For once, I'm glad,” he said.

“Then who do I get to share you with?” Royal asked. As I looked down at him, the feeling of sex and intimidation became more intense.

“It's stronger when I look at you.”

Royal nodded. “Because looking is all you're doing. Now, who am I sharing you with tonight?”

Galen answered, “Me, but, truthfully, I'm not sure I can do it. I may have apologized for us, but I still don't want them touching me.”

“You touch one of us right now,” Niceven said.

Galen glanced down at the still sleeping fey in his hand. “But that's different,” he said.

“In what way is it different?” she asked.

“This one's not scary.” He motioned his hand up toward Niceven.

Royal laughed, and it was like chimes in a happy wind. “And am I scary, green knight?”

I was close enough to see Galen's pulse beating against the side of his throat. “Yes,” he said, and his voice sounded as dry as mine felt.

Royal's laughter trailed away to something darker. “Such talk will turn a man's head, green knight.” The look on his face showed just how pleased he was that Galen was afraid of him.

“Some glamour grows stronger with physical touch,” Adair said. He'd kept his helmet on.

“Are you asking if mine grows stronger, oak lord?” Royal asked.

“Speculating, not asking,” Adair said, as if to ask a question of a demi-fey was beneath him.

Well, Adair could be high-handed if he wished, but he wasn't stripping down for the demi-fey. “Does your glamour grow stronger with physical touch?” I asked.

He grinned up at me. “It does.”

Galen whispered against my hair, “Can Nicca and you have this one? I'll take the next one.”

I glanced back at him. “If you wish, yes.”

He sighed, and leaned his forehead against the top of my head. “Damn it, Merry.”

“What?” I asked.

“I can't pass on the scary parts if you still have to do them. Are you sure you have to do this?”

“Don't you want to know why Queen Niceven said that the Seelie Court might take you in if you offered them more power?”

“Yes,” he said, “yes, damn it.” He looked up at Niceven. “And she knew we'd want to know.”

“A spy is only as good as his information, green knight.”

“My name is Galen, please use it.”


“Because the only people who ever call me green knight tend to try to hurt me.”

She looked at him a moment, then gave a small bob in the air. “Very well, Galen. You have been truthful with me, so I will be truthful with you, but you will not find it comforting.”

“Truth seldom is,” he said. The tone in his voice made me hug his free arm around me.

“We feed not just on blood and magic.”

“You feed on fear,” Doyle said, and there was something about the flat way he said it that told me there was a story behind those few words.

“Yes, Darkness,” Niceven said, “as do many things here at the Unseelie Court.” She turned back to Galen and me. “I think the green… Galen will be a feast fit for a queen.”

“Then let's begin the bargaining,” I said.

“We have struck our bargain, Princess.”

I shook my head. “No, the bargain about what Royal can do, and can't do, in my bed and on my body.”

“Are we really such a fearsome thing that you have to bargain as closely with us as you would with the goblins?”

“You chastised me for treating you as less than the goblins, Queen Niceven. If I do not negotiate with you as I would the goblins, isn't that just another kind of insult?”

She folded her arms under her small breasts. “You are not like the other sidhe, Meredith, you are always difficult, tricksy.”

“You would try and bat your tiny eyes at me, and have me think Royal and the rest of you are harmless? That you are the children's storybook characters you ape? Oh no, Queen Niceven, you can't have it both ways, not with me. You're either dangerous or you're not.”

She gave me a perfect child's pout. “Do I look dangerous to you, Princess?” Her voice was wheedling, and for just a moment I felt like saying, “No, of course not.”

Galen gripped my arm tight, squeezing. It helped me think.

“I've seen your true face, Queen Niceven,” he said. “Your glamour won't work on me now, not even with it pushing at me like some sort of wall.”

“Yes,” Nicca said, “I've never felt any of the demi-fey this strongly before.”

“The demi-fey are the essence of faerie,” Doyle said. “As faerie grows in power, so will they, apparently.” He didn't sound entirely happy about it.

Niceven turned to him. “Why, Darkness, if I didn't know better, I'd say you were afraid of us, too.”

“My memory is as long as yours, Niceven.” The cryptic statement seemed to please her.

“You're afraid to bring us back into our full power, and here the princess has bargained to help us do just that. Irony is sweet when it is on the right foot.”

“Be careful how much irony you enjoy, Niceven, too much irony can be bad for you.”

“Darkness, is that a threat?” Her voice didn't sound gentle at all now.

“A warning,” he said.

“Am I important enough for the Queen's Darkness to threaten? My, we have moved up at court.”

“You'll know when Doyle threatens you, little queen,” Frost said.

She bobbed in the air, and again because of Sage, I knew it was their version of a stumble. “I am not afraid of Darkness.”

Frost leaned into her, the way you'd intimidate someone by invading their personal space. Some of the effect was ruined by her wings and her size, but not all of it.

“I am not afraid of the Killing Frost either,” she said.

“You will be,” he said.

And that was how the negotiations began. They ended with a crowd of wingless demi-fey inside my room, and none of the sidhe happy about it. Niceven's idea was that perhaps it had been Sage's continuing to feed from sidhe blood that had done the damage. I couldn't argue her logic. If I didn't like Royal after tonight, I could choose one of the others, but all of them got to be in the room. We compromised, but she wouldn't tell us what she knew of the Seelie Court until after we had fed Royal. Tomorrow, she promised, if she had fed off him and scoured out our magic from his flesh. Tomorrow, we might learn some of the secrets of the Seelie Court. Tonight, we had to pay for those secrets in blood, and flesh, and magic. And, as usual, someone would be tasting my blood, taking a bit of my flesh. Where was a stunt double when you needed one?