A Stroke of Midnight (Page 2)

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Chapter 3

I'D SEEN MORE VIOLENCE IN THE COURTS THAN IN ALL MY YEARS as a private detective in Los Angeles, but I'd seen more death in L.A. Not because I was included in murder cases – private dicks don't do murder cases, at least not fresh ones – but because most of the things that live in faerie land are immortal. By definition, the immortal don't die very often. I could count on one hand how many fresh crime scenes the police had called us in on and still have fingers left over. Even those cases were because the Grey Detective Agency could boast some of the best magic workers on the West Coast. Magic is like everything else; if you can do good with it, some people will find a way to do bad with it. Our agency specialized in Supernatural problems, Magical solutions. It was on the business cards and everything.

I'd also learned that all bodies are an it, not he, not she – it. Because if you think of the dead body as a he or a she, they begin to be real for you. They begin to be people, and they aren't people, not anymore. They're dead, and outside of very special circumstances they are just inert matter. You can have sympathy for the victim later, but at the crime scene, especially in the first moments, you serve the victim better by not sympathizing. Sympathy steals your ability to think. Empathy will cripple you. Detachment and logic, those are your salvation at a fresh murder. Anything else leads to hysterics, and I was not only the most experienced detective in the hallway, I was also Princess Meredith NicEssus, wielder of the hands of flesh and blood, Besaba's Bane. Besaba was my mother, and my conception had forced her to wed my father and live, for a time, at the Unseelie Court. I was a princess and I might one day be queen. Future queens do not have hysterics. Future queens who are also trained detectives aren't allowed hysterics.

The problem was that I knew one of these bodies. I'd known her alive and walking around. I knew that she liked classical literature. When she was cast out of the Seelie Court and had to come to the Unseelie Court, she'd changed her name, as many did, even among the Seelie. They changed their names so they wouldn't be reminded daily of who and what they had once been, and how far they had fallen. She called herself Beatrice, after the love interest in Dante's Divine Comedy. Dante's Inferno. She said, “I'm in hell, I might as well have a name to match.” I'd taken world literature as one of my forced electives in college. When I finished the class, I gave most of my books to Beatrice, because she would read them and I wouldn't. I could always buy extra copies of the handful of books that I actually enjoyed. Beatrice couldn't. She couldn't pass for human, and she didn't like being stared at.

I stared at her now, but she wouldn't mind. She wouldn't mind anything ever again. Beatrice looked like a delicate human-size version of the tiny demi-fey that still clung to Rhys's hair. Once Beatrice had been able to be that small, but something happened at the Seelie Court, something she would never talk about, and she lost the ability to change sizes. She'd been trapped at around four foot two, and the delicate dragonfly wings on her back had been useless. The demi-fey do not levitate, they fly, and in the larger size, their wings can't lift them.

Blood had formed a wide, dark pool around her body. Someone had come up behind her and slit her throat. To get that close to her, it had to have been someone she trusted, or someone with enough magic to sneak up on her. Of course, they had also needed enough magic to negate her immortality. There weren't that many things in faerie that could do both.

“What happened, Beatrice?” I said softly. “Who did this to you?”

Galen came up beside me. “Merry.”

I looked up at him.

“Are you all right?”

I shook my head, and looked down the hallway to our second body. Out loud I said, “I'll be fine.”

“Liar,” he said softly, and he tried to bend over me, tried to hold me. I didn't push him away, but I moved back. Now wasn't the time to cling to someone. According to our culture, I should have been touching someone. But the handful of guards that had come to L.A. with me had only worked at the Grey Detective Agency for a few months. I'd been there a few years. You didn't huddle at crime scenes. You didn't comfort yourself. You did your job.

Galen's face fell a little, as if I'd hurt his feelings. I didn't want to hurt him, but we had a crisis here. Surely he could see that. So why, as so often happened, was I having to waste energy worrying about Galen's feelings when I should have been doing nothing but concentrating on the job? There were moments, no matter how dear he was to me, that I understood all too well why my father had not chosen Galen for my fiance.

I walked toward the second body. The man lay just short of the hallway's intersection with another, larger hallway. He was on his stomach, arms outspread. There was a large stain of blood on his back, and more of it curling down along the side of his body.

Rhys was squatting by the corpse. He looked up as I approached. The demi-fey peeked out at me through Rhys's thick white hair, then hid her tiny face, as if she were afraid. The demi-fey usually went around in large groups like flocks of birds or butterflies. Some of them were shy when on their own.

“Do we know what killed him yet?” I asked.

Rhys pointed to the narrow hole in the man's back. “Knife, I think.”

I nodded. “But they took the blade with them. Why?”

“Because there was something special about the knife that might give them away.”

“Or they simply did not want to lose a good blade,” Frost said. He took the two steps that moved him from the big corridor to the smaller one. He'd been coordinating the guards who were keeping everyone away from the crime scene. I had enough guards with me to close off both ends of the hallway, and I'd done it.

When we'd arrived, the hallway had been protected by floating pots and pans, courtesy of Maggie May, the chief cook for the Unseelie Court. Brownies can levitate objects, but not themselves for some reason. She'd gone with Doyle to see if she could get any more sense out of the scullery maid who had found the bodies. The fey was having hysterics, and Maggie couldn't decide whether the woman had seen something that frightened her, or was simply upset over the deaths. Doyle was going to try to find out. He was hoping the woman would react to him as if he were still the Queen's Darkness, her assassin, and tell him the truth out of fear and habit. If she were just scared, he would probably frighten her into having a fit, but I let him try. I could play good cop after he'd played bad.

I'd sent Barinthus to tell the queen what had happened, because of all of the men, he had the best chance of not being punished for being a bearer of such terrible news. The queen did have a tendency to blame the messenger.

“Possibly,” Rhys said, “just habit. You use the blade, you retrieve, clean it, and put it back in its sheath.” He pointed to a smear on the man's jacket.

“He wiped the blade off,” I said.

Rhys looked at me. “Why 'he'?”

I shrugged. “You're right, it could be a she.”

I didn't hear Doyle come down the hallway, but I knew he was there a second before he spoke. “He was running when they threw the blade.”

I actually agreed, but I wanted his reasoning. Truthfully, I wanted not to be in charge of this mess, but I had the most experience. That made it my baby. “What makes you say he was running?”

He started to touch the man's coat, and I said, “Don't touch him.”

He gave me a look, but said, “You can see where his coat is raised on this side, that the wound in his shirt does not line up with the coat as it lies. I believe he was running, then, when they retrieved the knife, they went through his pockets, moved his coat around.”

“I'll bet they didn't wear gloves.”

“Most would not think about fingerprints and DNA. Most here will be more worried that magic will find them than science.”

I nodded. “Exactly.”

“He saw something that scared him,” Rhys said, standing up. “He took off down this way to try and outrun it. But what did he see? What made him run?”

“There are many frightening things loose in the corridors of our sithen,” Frost said.

“Yes,” I said, “but he was a reporter. He came looking for something odd or frightening.”

“Perhaps he saw the lesser fey's death,” Frost said.

“You mean he witnessed Beatrice's murder,” I said.

Frost nodded.

“Okay, say he witnessed it. He ran, they threw a blade, killed him.” I shook my head. “Almost everyone carries a knife. Most of them can pin a fly to the wall with one. It doesn't limit our suspect pool much.”

“But Beatrice's death limits it.” Rhys gave me a look that was eloquent. Should this be discussed where the new guards, whom we didn't entirely trust, could hear us?

“There's no reason to hide it, Rhys. You can't kill the immortal with a knife, but she's dead. It needed a spell, a powerful spell, and only a sidhe, or some few members of the sluagh could have done it.”

“The queen forbid the sluagh to be out this night. Simply to be seen while the reporters are in our sithen would raise suspicion.”

The sluagh were the least human of faerie. The nightmares that even the Unseelie fear. They are the only wild hunt that is left to us. The only frightening group that can hunt the fey, even the sidhe, until they are caught. Sometimes they kill, sometimes they only fetch you back for the queen. The sidhe fear the sluagh, and its threat was one of the reasons to fear the queen. I'd agreed to bed the King of the Sluagh to cement an alliance with them against my enemies. It was not widely known in the court that I had made the bargain. There were sidhe, even lesser fey, who would think it a perversion. I thought of it as a political necessity. Beyond that, I tried not to dwell too much on the mechanics. Sholto, their king, the Lord of That Which Passes Between, was half-sidhe, but the other half hadn't been even close to humanoid.

I shook my head. “I don't think a member of the sluagh could have hidden themselves enough to wander about the sithen tonight. Not with all the spells we had on the corridors to keep everyone boxed into that one tiny section.”

“Just as the reporter should not have been able to leave the area,” Frost said. He had a point.

“Let me say what we're all thinking, even the guards who don't want to think it. A sidhe killed Beatrice and the reporter.”

“That still leaves us with several hundred suspects,” Rhys said.

“The scullery maid is very frightened,” Doyle said. “I cannot tell if she is afraid in general or about something specific.”

“So you scared her,” I said.

He gave a small shrug. “I did not do it on purpose.”

I looked at him.

“I did not, Meredith, but Peasblossom took it ill that the Queen's Darkness had come. She seemed to think I'd come to kill her.”

“Why would she think the queen wanted her dead?” Rhys asked.

I had an idea, an awful idea, because Queen Andais would hate it. I didn't say it out loud, because though the new guards knew as well as we did that a sidhe had done this, they probably wouldn't be thinking what I was thinking in that moment. Andais had saddled me with several men I did not know and a couple who I outright didn't trust. The awful thought was, What if it had been Prince Cel's people? What if the maid, Peasblossom, had seen one of Cel's people leaving the scene of a double homicide? She'd never believe that the queen would want her to tell anyone.

The trouble was that I couldn't see what Cel, or anyone serving his interests, would gain from killing Beatrice. The reporter seemed accidental, just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

“You've thought of something,” Rhys said.

“Later,” I said, and let my eyes flick to the backs of the men just a foot away from us.

“Yes,” Doyle said, “yes, we do need some privacy.”

“We should hide the body,” said one of the men at our backs. Amatheon's hair, in its tight coppery red French braids, left his face bare, but nothing could leave it unadorned, for his eyes were layered petals of red, blue, yellow, and green, like some multicolored flower. It often made me a little dizzy to meet his gaze, as if my own eyes rebelled at the sight of him gazing out at the world with flower-petal eyes. His face was square-jawed but slender, so that he managed to be both strongly masculine and vaguely delicate at the same time. Almost as if his face, like his eyes, couldn't quite decide what it wanted to be.

“The reporter will be missed, Amatheon,” I said. “We can't just hide his body and hope this will all go away.”

“Why can we not? Why can we not simply say we don't know where he has gone? Or that one of the lesser fey saw him leave the sithen.”

“Those are all lies,” Rhys said. “The sidhe don't lie, or did you forget that in all those years you hung around with Cel?”

Amatheon's face clouded with the beginnings of anger, but he fought it off. “What I did, or did not do, with Prince Cel is not your business. But I know that the queen would want to hide this from the press. To have a human reporter killed in our court will ruin all the good publicity she has managed to acquire for us in the last few decades.”

He was probably right on that last part. The queen would not want to admit what had happened. If she even suspected that I suspected that one of Cel's people was responsible, she'd want to hide it even deeper. She loved Cel too much, and always had.

The fact that Amatheon had suggested disposing of the body made me wonder even more if Cel's interests were somehow behind this. Amatheon had always been one of Cel's supporters. Cel was the last pure-blood sidhe of a house that had ruled this court for three thousand years. Amatheon was one of the sidhe who thought me a mongrel and a disgrace to the throne. So why was he here to compete to bed me and make me queen? Because Queen Andais had ordered it. When he refused the honor, she made certain that he got her point, her painful point, that she was ruler here, not Cel, and Amatheon would do as he was told or else. Part of the “or else” had been to cut his knee-length hair to his shoulders, still long by human standards, but a mark of great shame for him. She'd done other things to him, things more painful to his body than to his pride, but he hadn't shared details and I didn't really want to know.

“If Beatrice were the only one dead, then I might agree,” I said. “But a human is dead in our land. We can't hide that.”

“Yes,” he said, “we can.”

“You haven't dealt with the press as directly as I have, Amatheon. Was this reporter alone when he came here to the sithen? Or was he part of a group that will miss him right away? Even if he came alone, he will be known to other members of the press. If one of us had killed him out in the human world, we might be able to hide who did it, and let it be just another unsolved crime. But he was killed here on our land, and that we cannot hide.”

“You sound as if you are going to tell the press of his death.”

I looked away from his confusing eyes.

He reached out to touch my arm, but Frost simply moved in the way, and he never completed the gesture. “You will announce it to the press?” He sounded astonished.

“No, but we have to contact the police.”

“Meredith,” Doyle started to say.

I cut him off. “No, Doyle, he was stabbed with a knife. We'll never figure out whose blade did it. But a good forensics team might.”

“There are spells for tracing a wound to the weapon that made it,” Doyle said.

“Yes, and you tried those spells when you found my father's body in the meadow. You did your spells, yet you never found the weapons that killed him.” I did my best to make those words empty, to have nothing in my head with them. My father's death, like the capital of Spain. Just a fact, nothing more.

Doyle drew a deep breath. “I failed Prince Essus that day, Princess Meredith, and you.”

“You failed because it was sidhe that killed him. It was someone who had enough magic to thwart your spells. Don't you see, Doyle, whoever did this is as good at magic as we are. But they won't know modern forensics. They won't be able to protect themselves against science.”

Onilwyn stepped away from the guards. He was blockier than any of the other sidhe, tall but stocky, and yet he always moved with grace, as if he'd borrowed his movements from someone more slender. His hair fell in a long wavy ponytail over the back of his black suit and white shirt. Black, the queen's color, and Prince Cel's color. A very popular color here at the Unseelie Court. His hair was a green so dark it had black highlights. His eyes were pale green with a starburst in the center around his pupil.

“You cannot mean to bring human warriors into our land?”

“If you mean human policeman, yes, that is exactly what I mean to do.”

“You will open us up to that over the death of one human and the death of a cook?”

“Do you think the death of a human is less important than the death of a sidhe?” I looked him straight in the face and was happy to see that he realized his faux pas. I watched him remember that I was part human.

“What is one death, even two, over the damage it will do to our court in the eyes of the world?” He tried to recover, and it wasn't a bad job of it.

“Do you think the death of a cook is less important than the death of a nobleman?” I asked, ignoring his attempt to fix things.

He smiled then, and it was arrogant, and so very Onilwyn. “Of course, I believe that the life of a noble-born sidhe is worth more than the life of a servant, or a human. So would you if you were pure sidhe.”

“Then I'm glad that I'm not pure sidhe,” I said. I was angry now, and I fought not to have it translate to power, not to start to glow, and raise the stakes of this fight. “This servant, whose name happens to be Beatrice, showed me more kindness than most of the nobles of either faerie court. Beatrice was my friend, and if you have nothing more helpful to add than class prejudice, then I'm sure that Queen Andais can find a use for you back among her guards.”

His skin went from pale whitish green to just white. I felt a swift burst of satisfaction at his fear. Andais had given him to me to bed, and if I didn't bed him, he would suffer. So would I, but in that moment, I wasn't sure I cared.

“How was I to know she meant anything to you, Princess Meredith?”

“Consider this my only warning to you, Onilwyn” – I raised my voice so that it carried down the hallway – “and for the rest of you who don't know me. Onilwyn assumed that the death of a servant meant nothing to me.” Some of the men at the far end turned and looked at me. “I spent a great deal of time with the lesser fey while I was at court. Most of my friends here were not among the sidhe. You made it plain that I was not pure-blooded enough for most of you. You have only yourselves to blame, then, that my attitude is a little more democratic than usual for a noble. Think upon that before you say something as foolish to me as Onilwyn just did.” I turned back to the guard in question, and let my voice go lower. “Bear all that in mind, Onilwyn, before you open your mouth again, and say something else equally stupid.”

He actually dropped to one knee and bowed his head, though I think that was to hide the anger on his face. “As my princess bids, so I do.”

“Get up, and go stand somewhere farther away from me.”

Doyle told him to go to the other end of the hallway, and he went, without another word, though the starbursts in his eyes were glittering with his rage.

“I do not agree with Onilwyn,” Amatheon said, “not completely, but are you truly going to bring in the human police?”

I nodded.

“The queen will not like it.”

“No, she won't.”

“Why would you risk her anger, Princess?” He seemed to be truly puzzled by that. “I would not risk her anger again for anything, or anyone. Not even my honor.”

He had been one of the sidhe who had made my childhood hellish, but lately I'd seen another side to Amatheon. A side that was frightened, and vulnerable, and helpless. I always had trouble hating people who showed me they could feel pain, too. “Beatrice was my friend, but more than that she was one of my people. To rule a people is to protect them. I want whoever did this. I want them caught and I want them punished. I want to stop them from doing it to anyone else. The reporter was our guest, and to kill him like this is an insult to the honor of the court itself.”

“You don't care about the honor of the court,” he said, and I watched him struggle to understand me.

“No, not really.”

He swallowed hard enough for me to hear it. “There is no one's death that I fear, not even my own, enough to bring the human policemen down into our home.”

“Why do you fear the police?”

“I do not fear them. I fear the queen's anger at inviting them in.”

“No one gets to kill people I have sworn to protect, Amatheon, no one.”

“You are not sworn, not yet. You have taken no oath for this court, you sit on no throne.”

“If I do not do my utmost to solve these deaths, to protect everyone in this sithen, from greatest to least, then I do not deserve to sit on any throne.”

“You are mad,” he said, and his eyes were very wide. “The queen will kill you for this.”

I glanced back at Beatrice's body, and I thought of another body so many years ago. The only reason she hadn't hidden my father's body from the press is that they found him first. Miles away from the faerie mounds, cut to pieces. They found him and took pictures of him. Not only were his bodyguards too late to save his life, they were too late to save his dignity, or my horror.

The police had done some investigating because he was killed off our lands, but no one had helped them. They had not been allowed inside any of the faerie mounds. They had been forbidden to question anyone. They had been stopped before they began because the queen was convinced we would find who had done this terrible thing, but we never did.

“I will remind my aunt what she said when my father, her brother, was murdered.”

“What did she say?” he asked.

It was Doyle who answered, “That we would find who had killed Prince Essus, that the humans would only hinder us in our search.”

I looked at him, and he met my gaze. “This time I will say to her that the humans have things the sidhe cannot hide from. That the only reason to keep the police out is if she does not want these murders solved.”

“Merry,” Rhys said, “I'd put it a different away, if I were telling her.” He looked a little pale himself.

I shook my head. “But you aren't princess, Rhys, I am.”

He smiled, still pale. “I don't know, I think I'd look cute in a tiara.”

I laughed, I couldn't help it. I hugged him then. “You'd look adorable.”

He hugged me back. “You will discuss this with the queen before telling the press or contacting the police, right?”

“Yes, and just the police. We're going to try to get the press out of here first.”

He hugged me tighter. “Thank the Consort.”

I drew back from the hug, and said, “I'm determined, Rhys, not suicidal.”

“You're hoping she loved her brother enough to feel guilty,” Amatheon said, and the fact that he'd grasped that made me think better of him.

“Something like that,” I said.

“She cares for no one except Prince Cel,” he said.

I thought about that. “You might be right, or you might be wrong.”

“Will you wager your life on that?” he asked.

“Not wager, no, but I'll risk it.”

“Are you so certain that you are right?”

“About the queen, no, but I am right about what we need to do to find our murderer. I am right about that, and I'm willing to tell the queen so.”

He shuddered. “I would rather stay here and guard the hallway, if you do not mind.”

“I don't want anyone with me who's more afraid of the queen than of doing what's right.”

“Oh, hell, Merry, then none of us can come,” Rhys said.

I looked at him.

He shrugged. “All of us fear her.”

“But I will go with you,” Frost said.

“And me,” Galen said.

“Do you need to ask?” Doyle said.

It was Adair who finally spoke for most of them. “I think this is foolishness, though honorable foolishness, but it does not matter. You are our ameraudur, and that is a title that I have not let pass my lips for many years.”

Ameraudur meant a war leader who was chosen for love, not bloodline. Ameraudur meant that the man who called you this would give his own life before he saw yours fail. It was the word that the Welsh had used for Arthur, yes, that Arthur. It was the term that some of my father's men had used for him.

I didn't know what to say because I hadn't done enough to deserve the title. Not yet. “I haven't earned such a title from you, Adair, or from anyone. Do not call me so.”

“You offered yourself in our place last night, Princess. You took the might of the queen herself upon your mortal body. Seeing you draw magic against her was one of the bravest things ever I saw, my oath on that.”

I didn't know whether to be embarrassed, or try to explain that it wasn't brave. That I'd been afraid the whole time.

“You are our ameraudur, and we will follow you wherever you may lead. To whatever end. I will die before I let another harm you.”

“You can't mean that,” Amatheon said.

I agreed with Amatheon. “Do not give your oath to keep me from harm, Adair, please. If you must, give your oath to save my life, but not all harm.”

But it was as if I wasn't there for him, or for Amatheon in that moment. I was the object of the conversation but that was all.

“She saved us last night,” Adair said. “She saved us all. She risked her life to save ours. How can you stand there and not give her your oath?”

“A man without honor has no oath to give,” Amatheon said.

Adair put his mailed hand on the other's shoulder. “Then come with us to the queen, regain your honor, rediscover your oath.”

“She took my courage with the rest. I am too afraid to go before her with such news.” A single tear glittered down his cheek.

I looked at the despair in his eyes, and said the only thing I could think of. “I will try for guilt to allow this. Her guilt over never solving her own brother's murder. But if guilt won't work, then I will remind her that she owes me the life of her consort and her pet human.”

“It is not always wise to remind the queen she owes you a debt,” Doyle said.

“No, but I want her to say yes, Doyle. If she says no, then it's no, and I need it to be yes.”

He touched my face. “I see in your eyes a haunting. I see in your eyes your father's death like a weight of injustice on your heart.”

I closed my eyes and let my cheek rest against the warmth of his hand. His hand was worn from centuries of sword and knife practice. It made his hand seem more real, more solid, more able to protect. Some sidhe, those pure enough that they couldn't get calluses, thought it a sign of impurity. Racist bastards.

With Doyle touching me, I could let myself remember that awful day. It's funny how your mind protects you. I saw the bloody sheet and the stretcher. I held my father's hand, cold but not stiff, not yet. I had his blood on my hands from touching him, but it wasn't him. It was just cool flesh. That feeling of terrible emptiness when I touched him was like going into a house that you thought would be full of people you loved, only to find it empty, and even the furniture taken. You walk from room to room, hearing your footsteps echo on the naked floors. Your voice bounces back from the empty walls, where the lines of beloved photos still show like the line around a body at a crime scene. He was gone. My tall, handsome, amazing father. He was supposed to have been immortal, but there are spells to steal even the life of a god, a once-upon-a-time god.

If I poke at the memory of that day too hard, try to make myself remember too much, it isn't my father's body or blood that I remember. It is his sword. One of his guards laid it in my hands, the way you lay a flag at a military funeral. The hilt was gold inlaid, carved with a tree on either side. Cranes danced around the tree. And sometimes there were tiny carved bodies hanging from the branches of that tree, bleeding across the gold. Literally the little sacrificed people could bleed onto the sword hilt. The sword hilt was bare that day, cool to my hands. The branches of the trees empty of little sacrifices because the biggest of all had already been made.

The hilt was leather set with gold, and I spent much of that day with my face pressed to it. I breathed in the scent of good leather, the oil that he'd used to clean the sword, and over all that was the scent of him. He had carried that sheath next to his body for centuries, and the leather had absorbed the smell of his skin. I could touch the hilt and feel where even this magical metal had shaped to the constant use of his hand.

I had slept with that sword for days, huddled around it as if I could still feel his hand on it, his body near it. I swore on the hilt of my father's sword that I would avenge his death. I'd been seventeen.

You cannot die of grief, though it feels as if you can. A heart does not actually break, though sometimes your chest aches as if it is breaking. Grief dims with time. It is the way of things. There comes a day when you smile again, and you feel like a traitor. How dare I feel happy. How dare I be glad in a world where my father is no more. And then you cry fresh tears, because you do not miss him as much as you once did, and giving up your grief is another kind of death.

I was thirty-three now. Sixteen years had passed since I slept beside my dead father's sword. The sword had simply vanished about a month after his death. It had gone the way of so many of our great relics, as if without Essus his sword could find no hand fit to wield it. So the sword chose to fade and vanish into the mists. Perhaps the great relics do not choose to go. Perhaps Goddess calls them home when they have done their work. Or perhaps she calls them home until someone comes again that is fit, or suited, for them. I felt that small swell of warmth and comfort that was the voice of the Goddess. That tiny quiet voice that lets you know you've thought a smart thing, or asked the right question.

I would try to use guilt to get Andais to agree to allow me to call in the police. I did not have much faith in her ability to be emotionally blackmailed, but she still did not know that one of the greatest relics of the faerie courts had returned. The chalice, the one that mankind's wishes had changed from a cauldron of plenty into a golden cup, had returned from wherever it had been. It had come to me in a dream, and when I woke it was real. The chalice had been one of the great treasures of the Seelie Court, and one reason to keep its reappearance a secret was that the Seelie might try to reclaim it. The chalice went where it would, and definitely had a mind of its own. I was almost certain that it would not stay at the Seelie Court even if we allowed them to take it back. And if it kept disappearing there and reappearing here, the Seelie would think we'd stolen it. Or at least accuse us of it, because if the chalice simply found them unworthy, that was not something that King Taranis would ever admit. No, my uncle would blame us, but never himself and his shining throng.

If guilt and family connections could not sway the queen, then perhaps the knowledge that the chalice had come to my hand would.

I still hoped, someday, to know who had killed my father, but the case was cold. Sixteen years cold. For Beatrice and the reporter, though, the case was literally still warm. The crime scene was fresh. The suspect list wasn't endless. Rhys said a few hundred as if that was a lot. I'd helped the police in a few cases where almost the entire population of Los Angeles had been suspects. What was a few hundred to that?

We could do this. If we brought in modern police work, we could get them. They wouldn't be expecting it, and they wouldn't know how to protect themselves against it. It would work. All right, I was 99.9 percent certain it would work. Only a fool is 100 percent certain, when it comes to murder. Either about committing one, or solving one. Both can be equally dangerous and hazardous to your health.

Chapter 4

THE QUEEN STOOD IN THE MIDDLE OF HER ROOM, WRAPPED ONLY in a fur and her own long black hair. One bare slender shoulder and the curve of her neck showed white and perfect above the ruffled grey of the fur. I would have said the fur was wolf, but no wolf that walked the earth today was ever so huge. She made certain that we all had a good view before she turned her head and looked full at us. Charcoal, storm grey, and the pale whitish grey of a winter's sky were the colors of her eyes, in three perfect circles of color around her pupil. Those same colors spread through the fur, framed her face, and made her eyes look bigger than I knew they were, richer in color. It took me a moment of staring into those eyes to realize she had some eyeliner helping to emphasize all that grey and black and white elegance.

It occurred to me for the first time that I could do with glamour what she had to do with makeup. I had never seen the queen do small personal glamour. I wondered if she could. Or had she lost that power along with so many others? I kept my face very still, empty of my speculation. I was about to be in enough trouble without questioning her magical abilities. Oh, yes, that would have guaranteed some very special aunt and niece bonding time. Or should I say some very painful bondage time. I liked pain, but not nearly as much as Aunt Andais did.

“Well, Meredith, I see that you have brought more trouble upon us.”

I opened my mouth to begin the speech I'd prepared in my head as we walked down the hallway. Now I swallowed the words because if she planned on blaming me for the deaths, even indirectly, I was sunk. Not only would I not be having the police to help me solve the crime, I would most likely be bleeding before I left this room. There is a saying in the Unseelie Court, “You visit the queen at your peril.” What sense of misguided justice had made me forget that?

I dropped to one knee, and my guards followed my lead, dropping like graceful, dangerous flowers around me. Doyle and Frost were with me, but we'd left Rhys in charge of the scene. He would have come, but after me, he'd done the most actual detective work in Los Angeles. Adair had come, and Hawthorne in their colored armor. Galen, of course. He would never have let me walk into such danger without him. Usna had surprised me, and I think Doyle, by insisting that he come with us. It wasn't that we doubted his bravery – he often took foolish chances just to amuse himself. I think it had something to do with the fact that his mother had been transformed into a cat when she had him, and his father was, well, a cat. It gave Usna a very unique perspective. He was every inch a sidhe male, except that his long hair and pale body were decorated with large patches of red and black like a calico cat. I'd left Nicca behind, because his beautiful new wings looked so fragile. I could not bear to see her shred them as some punishment to me. The moment I realized that that was why I'd left him behind, I knew that I had half-expected her to find a way to be angry with me about all this. She had to be angry with someone, and I'd always been a favorite target when I was younger. But only when my father was not at court, never when he was close enough to interfere. After his death, things had been worse in so many ways.

“Answer me, Meredith,” the queen said, but her voice didn't sound angry. She sounded tired.

“I am not certain how to answer you, Aunt Andais. I am not aware that I did anything to bring on the deaths of Beatrice and the reporter.”

“Beatrice,” she said, and she started walking toward me, toward us. Her pale feet were bare except for the silver-grey polish on her toes. Her legs were long and slender where they pulled free of the fur. She had no thighs to speak of. The sidhe women are the perfect models for this era; they have no curves, and it's not due to dieting. The sidhe do not have to diet, they are simply supernaturally thin.

Even for a sidhe woman, Andais is tall, six feet, as tall as most of her own guards. She stood with all that height over me, leaving one leg artfully bare, and bent so that the line from upper thigh to toe was graceful and framed by the charcoal grey of fur.

“Who is Beatrice?”

I would like to have thought she was toying with me, but she wasn't. She truly did not know the name of her own pastry chef. She knew her head cook, Maggie May, but beyond that, I doubted she knew any of the kitchen staff. She was queen, and there were layers of servants and lesser fey between her and someone like Beatrice.

If I had not been here to say her name, no one else would have known it. That made me angry. I fought to keep it from my voice as I answered, “The fey that was killed. Your pastry chef. Her name was Beatrice.”

“My pastry chef. I have no pastry chef.” Her voice was thick with scorn.

I sighed. “The Unseelie Court's pastry chef, then.”

She turned and whirled the fur around her like a lightweight cloak. It would have been so heavy I would not have had the strength to move it like that. I was stronger than a human, but I was not as strong as pure-blooded sidhe. I wondered if she'd done that little movement to remind me of that or just because it looked pretty.

She spoke with her back to us. “But all that belongs to the Unseelie Court belongs to me, Meredith, or did you forget that?”

I realized that she was trying to pick a fight with me. She'd never done that before. She'd struck out in anger with someone else or with me. She'd tormented me because it pleased her. She argued with me if I disagreed with her, or argued first, but she had never tried to start a fight with me. I didn't know what to do.

“I have not forgotten that you, my aunt, are queen of the Unseelie Court.”

“Yes, Meredith, remind me that I am your aunt. Remind me that I need your blood to keep my family on the throne.”

I didn't like the way she worded that, but it hadn't been a question, so I didn't try to answer. I stayed kneeling and mute.

“If you had been strong enough to protect yourself yesterday there would not have been reporters in my sithen.” There was the first warm edge of anger in her voice.

“It was my duty to keep the princess safe,” Doyle said.

I reached out to him with my good arm before I could stop myself, but he was just out of reach. I shook my head. Do not bring her anger upon yourself, I tried to tell him with my eyes.

“Our duty,” Frost said from the other side of me.

I looked at him and gave him exasperated eyes. If she was determined to be angry, I did not want that anger to fall upon them both. It wasn't just that I loved them, I needed them. If we had any hope of solving this mess, and keeping me alive despite some very determined enemies, I needed my captain of the guard and his lieutenant.

She was suddenly in front of me again, and I hadn't seen her move. Either she had clouded my mind, or she was simply that fast, even tugging along that much fur. She knelt in front of me in a pool of fur and glimpses of white flesh.

“You have stolen my Darkness from me, Meredith. You have thawed the heart of my Killing Frost. My two best warriors, taken away, as if by a thief in the night.”

I licked suddenly dry lips and said, “I did not mean to take anything that you valued, Aunt Andais.”

She touched my face gently. It made me wince, not because it hurt, but because I'd feared it would hurt. “Yes, Meredith, remind me that I neglected my Darkness and my Frost.” She caressed my face with her fingers, and the back of her hand. “Neglected so many things that were mine.”

Her hand cupped my chin, and began to squeeze. She could crush the bones of my body into splinters. “I can feel the glamour, girl, drop it. Let me see what you are hiding.”

I dropped the glamour on me and on Frost, so that the lipstick smeared across our faces.

She raised me to my feet using my chin as a handle. It hurt, and it would probably bruise. She raised me faster than I could stand. Only her harsh grip kept me from falling.

The men stood with me.

“I did not bid you stand,” she yelled at them.

They stayed on their feet. I could not look away from her to see exactly what they were doing, but this was about to go badly.

Barinthus's deep voice came from farther into the room. He must have been standing there the entire time, and I hadn't seen him. It takes a commanding presence to make you not see a seven-foot-tall, mostly blue demi-god. Andais was that commanding presence. With her hand bruising my chin, forcing me to meet her grey gaze from inches away, she was more than commanding, she was frightening.

“Queen Andais, Meredith has done nothing but as you have bid her.”

“Silence, Kingmaker!” She had glanced back at him when she yelled, and I realized that she must have made him kneel, because I could not see him in that part of the room.

She turned back to me, and her eyes shone as if there was light behind them. It was like watching the moon behind grey clouds, pushing light up through the colors of her eyes, but the eyes themselves did not truly glow. It was an effect I had never seen in any other sidhe's eyes.

“Then what is this smear of red on her mouth, and on the face of my Killing Frost?” She let the fur she'd wrapped herself in fall to the floor, as she put her thumb against my mouth and rubbed hard enough that I had to fight not to make a small pain sound. There was still enough lipstick left to stain her white thumb.

She stood there nude and pale and frightening. If she was beautiful I could not see it. Andais often stripped before she tortured people, so she wouldn't ruin her clothes. Her nudity did not bode well.

I finally realized that she intended to get angry about me playing favorites in front of the media. She was going to throw a fit, and punish me for kissing Frost, instead of dealing with the murders. Displacement is a fine coping mechanism, but this was not sane.

No logic would save me. All the arguments that I had prepared were dust before her incomprehensible anger.

“Do you think that I give orders simply to be ignored?”

I spoke carefully around her grip on my chin. “I had to distract the cameras…”

She let me go so abruptly that I stumbled. Doyle caught my arm, then took me into the circle of his arm, putting me farther from her and closer to the middle of the men. I couldn't argue with the precaution. She was not acting like herself. Andais was temperamental and a sadist, but she never let either interfere this badly with the business of her court. We had a dead human reporter, and cameras still in the faerie mound. It was an emergency, and we needed to act swiftly to minimize the damage, no matter what choice we made. Even if the choice was to hide the bodies and act as if it hadn't happened, it needed to be done quickly. The more people who knew the secret the less chance of keeping it.

If the police were going to bring in forensics for the crime scene, every minute contaminated the crime scene. Every second might be losing us some clue.

“Madeline told me that our Frost had lost control in front of the cameras.” She paced a tight circle, then turned back to look at Frost. It was as if any target, any problem, was better than addressing the murders. Did she think Cel's people had done this? Was that why she didn't want to decide on a course of action? Was she afraid to find the truth, afraid of where it would lead?

“Are the reporters gone then?” I asked softly.

“They were about to file out all nice and neat,” she said, and her voice was rising as she spoke and paced, naked and dangerous, “until one group realized they were missing a photographer. A photographer!” She screamed the last word. “How did he break through the spells that were supposed to make it impossible for him to leave the guarded areas?” She didn't seem to be asking anyone in particular, so no one answered.

“Was there a camera found?” she asked, and her voice was almost normal.

“Yes, my queen,” Doyle said.

“Would it have pictures of the crime?”

“Perhaps,” Doyle said.

“We'll need to send the film out to be developed,” I said.

“Have we no one of faerie who could do it for us?”

“No, my queen.”

“What else did you find on this reporter?”

“We haven't searched the body thoroughly,” I said.

“Why have you not searched the body thoroughly?” she asked, and the edge of near hysterical anger shadowed the last word.

I swallowed, and let my breath out slowly. It was now or never. Doyle's hand squeezed my arm, as if he was saying, “Don't.” But if I were ever to be queen, Andais would have to step down for me. She was immortal, and I was not, so she would always be a presence in the court. I had to get some control between her and me now, or I would never truly be queen. Never truly be safe from her anger.

“There are clues on the body that a scientific team could find. The less we touch it, the better the science will work.”

“What are you babbling about, Meredith?”

Doyle squeezed my arm tighter. “Do you remember what you said when my father was killed?”

She stopped her pacing and looked at me. Her eyes were wary. “I said many things when Essus died.”

“You said we were not to allow the human police inside the faerie mounds. That no one was to talk to them or answer their questions, because we would find the assassins with magic.”

She stood very still, and gave me unfriendly eyes, but she answered. “I remember those words.”

“We failed with magic because the assassins were as good or better at magic than those who bespelled the wounds and the body.”

She nodded. “I have long thought that among my smiling court, my toadie nobles, the murderer of my brother sits. I know that, Meredith, and it is a small constant torment that that death went unpunished.”

“As it is for me,” I said. “I want to solve these murders, Aunt Andais. I want the person or persons responsible caught and punished. I want to show the media that there is justice in the Unseelie Court, and we are not afraid of new knowledge and new ways.”

“You are babbling again,” she said, crossing her arms under her tight firm breasts.

“I want to contact the police and bring in a forensic team.”

“A what?”

“Scientists who specialize in helping the police solve crimes in the human world.”

She was shaking her head. “I do not want the human police tramping through here.”

“Nor do I, but a few policemen, and a few scientists. Just a few, just enough to gather evidence. All the sidhe are royal, titled; they all have diplomatic immunity, so technically we can dictate to an extent how much police involvement we allow.”

“And you think this will catch whoever did this?”

“I do.” I stepped a little away from Doyle, so I wasn't huddling against him. “Whoever did this is worried about magic tracking them down, but it will never occur to them that we would use forensic science inside the land of faerie. They will not have protected against it, and in fact, they can't protect against it, not completely.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“We, even the sidhe, shed skin cells, hairs, saliva; all of it can be used to trace back to the person. Science can use a smaller piece than is needed for a spell. Not a lock of hair, but the root of a hair. Not a pound of flesh, but an invisible fleck of it.”

“You are certain that it will work? Certain that if I allow this intrusion, this invasion of our privacy, human science will solve this crime?”

I licked my lips. “I am certain if there is evidence to find, they will find it.”

“If,” she said, and she started pacing the room again, but slowly, quietly this time. “'If' means you are not certain. 'If' means, dear niece, that you may bring all this upon us and the murderer may go free. If we bring in the police and they do not solve the reporter's death, it will undo all the good publicity I have acquired for us in the last two decades.”

“I think it will work, but either way the media will be impressed with your willingness to allow the modern police into your faerie mound. No one has ever done that, not even at the golden court.”

She glanced back at me, but she was moving, slowly, toward Barinthus. He was indeed kneeling at the foot of her bed, on a black fur rug. “You think we will gain media points over Taranis and his shining people.”

“I think this will show that we meant no harm to anyone, and that such things are not tolerated among the Unseelie, contrary to all those centuries of dark talk.”

She stood in front of Barinthus now, but still spoke to me. “You truly believe that the media will forgive us allowing one of their own to be murdered simply because we invite in the police?”

“I think some of them would slaughter their own photographers on altars, with incense and prayers, to get a chance at covering this story.”

“Clever, Meredith, very clever.” She turned to Barinthus then. She stroked her hand down the side of his face, like you'd touch a lover, though I knew she had never taken him to her bed. “Why did you never try to make a king of my son?”

Unless Barinthus and the queen had been having a very different conversation, the question seemed out of nowhere.

“You do not want me to answer that question, Queen Andais,” he said in his deep, sighing voice.

“Yes,” she said, still stroking his face, “yes, I do.”

“You will not like it.”

“I have not liked many things of late. Answer the question, Kingmaker. I know that if my brother, Essus, had been willing, you would have had him kill me and put himself on the throne. But he would not slay his own sister. He would not have that sin on his heart. Still, you thought he would be a better king than I a queen, didn't you?”

Dangerous questions. Barinthus said again, “You do not want the truth, my queen.”

“I know the truth of that question. I've known that for centuries, but I do not know why you never looked to Cel. He approached you after Essus died. He offered to help you slay me, if you would help put him on the throne early.”

I think all of us across the room held our breaths in that moment. I had not known this. The looks on everyone's faces around me said that most of them had not either. Only Adair and Hawthorne behind their helmets were still hidden from their surprise.

“I warned you of his treachery,” Barinthus said.

“Yes, and I had you tortured for it.”

“I remember, my queen.”

Her smile did not match her words, but then neither did the constant caressing of his face and shoulders. “When Meredith came of age, you turned to her. If she had had the magic she now possesses since her stay in the lands to the west, you would have offered her what you offered Essus, wouldn't you?”

“You know the answer, my queen.”

“Yes,” she said, “I do. But Cel always had the power to be king. Why did you not put him on the throne? Why did you foster a half-breed mongrel of a princess over my pure-sidhe son?”

“Do not ask me this,” he said.

She slapped him twice, hard enough to stagger him even on his knees. Hard enough to have blood spill from his mouth. “I am your queen, damn you, and you will answer my question. Answer me!” The last was screamed into his face.

Barinthus answered her, blood flowing from his mouth. “You are a better queen than Cel will ever be a king.”

“And what of Meredith? What of my brother's child?”

“She will be a good queen.”

“A better queen than Cel a king?”

“Yes,” he said, and that one word dropped into the silence of the room like a stone thrown down a great height. You know it will make a sound, but only after a very, very long fall.

The sound came with her words. “Meredith, you will do nothing with Barinthus that will chance you being pregnant by him. Nothing, is that clear?”

“Yes.” My voice sounded strained and hoarse as if I'd been the one screaming.

“Contact the police. Do what you think best. I will announce to the court and the media that you are in charge of this little problem. Do not bother me with it again. Do not report to me unless I ask it. Now go, all of you, get out.”

We went. All of us, even Barinthus. We went, and were grateful to go.