A Stroke of Midnight (Page 20)

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“DID YOU HEAR ME, MEREDITH? TORTURE HAS SOLVED YOUR crimes before the police could even finish processing their so-called evidence.” She gave another jerk with her hand, and tore a ragged scream from the man's throat. I was almost certain it was a man.

I cuddled in against Rhys's chest, and fought to keep my face as blank as I could. I know I did not keep all the horror off of it, because it was too awful. It was simply one of the worst things I'd ever seen, and I could not hide entirely how I felt about it. I fought to hide my feelings, knew I failed, and finally wasn't certain I cared. Sometimes Andais became angry if you didn't appreciate her work. I could never enjoy it, so all that was left me was to show her how frightening, how nightmarish I thought her talents could be.

She gave a low throaty laugh. “Such a look, Meredith. Do you find Gwennin's fate terrible?”

I nodded, huddling in tighter against Rhys. His arms tightened around me. “Yes, aunt, I find it terrible.”

“But you cannot argue with the results, aye?”

I could have, but I chose to be indirect about it. “If you tell me it's Gwennin, then I will believe you, but in truth I would not have known him.”

“Oh, it is he.” She looked down at the figure at her side, tightening her grip on his body. He moaned, and that did not make her happy enough. She jerked again, and that made him scream again. That pleased her.

“What reason did he give for killing Beatrice?” I asked the question without implying that everyone standing there would have confessed to anything, from the Kennedy assasination to the rape and pillage of Rome, to make the pain stop. No one could have withstood what she had done to him.

“She had come to his bed, then suddenly she began to refuse him.”

“He killed Beatrice because she refused to continue as his lover?” I fought to keep the incredulity out of my voice.

Andais pulled, sharp and sudden, tearing another shriek from his throat. “Tell her what you told me,” she said.

He coughed to clear his throat, and the sound was wet. He spat blood, then finally managed to speak. His voice was as broken as his body, hoarse and raw from screaming. “I did not mean for her to die. She is fey, immortal. I did not use cold iron or steel. It should not have been a killing blow.” He coughed again, and started to fall flatter to the ground, but Andais kept her grip on his intestines, so he struggled to prop himself up on one skinless arm.

When he had recovered a bit, I asked, “You stabbed her in the back because she refused to continue as your lover?”

“She was a distraction, not a lover.”

“A distraction?” I said. “Because she was lesser fey, and they can't be lovers?”

“Yes,” he said in that raw voice.

Strangely, I wasn't feeling as sorry for him as I had moments ago. It was still pitiable, and no one deserved such treatment, but… “If she meant nothing to you, then why did her refusal of your attentions drive you to murder her?”

“I did not mean her death.” His voice broke, not from tears but from the abuse Andais had forced on him.

“But, Gwennin, if she truly was only a distraction, you could have found a dozen like her. Many lesser fey would have jumped at the chance to bed a sidhe lord.”

His formless face, that held only the shadow of his bone structure to let me know it was indeed him, could give me no emotion. Andais had stripped that away with his skin and flesh. But his voice held something. “They would not have been Beatrice.”

And there was the truth. He had loved her in his way, and she had scorned him. He hadn't meant to kill her, only to hurt her as she hurt him. He had stabbed her through the heart as she had wounded him. He had no way of knowing that faerie had become so fragile that a blade that was neither cold iron nor steel could kill her.

“And the human reporter?” I asked. “Why did he have to die?”

“He was witness,” Gwennin said.

My breath came out, and I cuddled in against Rhys, and wanted nothing more than to hide my eyes from the waste of it all. But I didn't hide, I kept looking. If I'd been a hundred percent certain I could have stood on my own, I would have had Rhys put me down, but falling into the mud would have ruined what little authority I still possessed.

“I would ask that we wait on the human police and their science, just to confirm. It will make the press conference go better if the police can be up there confirming it all.”

“Press conference? He dies no later than tomorrow.”

“Aunt Andais, he killed a human reporter. If we do not show him well and fairly whole to the press, it could undermine all the good publicity you have built up over these long decades.”

She let out an audible breath. “There is wisdom in your words, Meredith. The press will need him whole, or more whole than this.” She smiled down at him. “It does seem a shame to waste such healing on one who is dead already.”

I couldn't argue that, but said, “We dare not let the humans see him like this.”

“You think it would offend the humans?”

“I think it would confirm all that the Seelie Court says of us.”

“Your covering of mud, mine of blood – they look very much the same,” she said.

I looked at my hand on Rhys's white shirt, and realized she was right. I was covered in thick, dark mud. Amatheon was as black with earth as the queen was with blood. His hair was plastered down the length of his body. When he'd vanished his hair had been shorn above his shoulders; now it seemed to be at least to his calves.

Adair was less filthy, for he had been on top. But his hair, too, fell in brown waves around his face, no longer shorn stubble. It did not touch his broad shoulders, but it was a start.

I turned my head, and found that my hair, plastered to my back and shoulders, was longer as well. It fell below my shoulders now.

“You have made a mess of the entryway to my throne room, Meredith.”

“My apologies, Aunt Andais, it was not on purpose.” My voice sounded almost normal as I said it. I tried not to look at the ruin of the man she held, but it was both hard not to look at him and impossible to look for long. I looked because still my eyes could not make the proud, tall, arrogant, handsome Gwennin, out of that raw, fleshless figure at her feet. Even knowing who it was did not help my mind see it. She had destroyed him.

Anyone, absolutely anyone, would have confessed to anything to stop such pain. I did not trust her “confession,” but I dared not say that out loud. She was entirely too pleased with herself. After a good, successful torture, she was as happy as I ever saw her. I guess everyone needed a hobby.

“There is now a spring where you had your little threesome,” she said.

I looked down and Rhys moved so I could see that, indeed, the ground was bubbling, and a small seeping spring had come to be. The water was spreading out, finding a channel for a small stream, or perhaps making a pool. It would take time for the water to find its way, and decide what shape it wished the earth to take. Whether it wished to be a deep, still pool, or a stream. Of course, some rocks for the water to dance over would make a happy sound.

I should have known better than to think it. My only excuse was that I was trying to find something else to look at, to think of, than that pitiable wretch that had once been a sidhe lord.

The earth shivered like the flesh of a horse when a fly lands upon it. Rocks began to rise up through the mud, pushing their way along the seeping course of the water.

“It seems the sithen is alive once more,” Andais said, but her voice wasn't as happy as I thought it should have been. “I think a deep, reflecting pool to complement the pool we already have would be lovely, don't you, Meredith?”

I didn't know what to say because a yes would be a lie, and a no would be impolitic.

She gave me narrowed eyes, and said, “Do you disagree, niece?”

“I do not know what to say, Aunt Andais.”

“The truth would be nice,” she said in a voice that made it clear she didn't really want the truth, she wanted agreement.

“Your words say one thing, but your tone another, which leaves me wondering whether to obey your words, or the anger in them.”

She laughed then, and it seemed a genuine sound. “Oh, Meredith, you have not just gained a few inches of hair, but a more diplomatic tongue.” Then her eyes narrowed again, and she said, “Speak the truth, niece, do you think a reflecting pool is what the spring should become.”

I licked my lips and glanced at Doyle, trying to ask with my eyes what to say.

She yelled, “Do not look at him for an answer. If you are to be queen here, then be queen. Answer me!”

“No, I do not think it should be a pool.”

“Then what should it become, niece of mine?”

Rhys's arms tightened around me in warning, though I didn't need it. I could feel her anger, but she was trapping me. If I lied, something deep inside told me, I would be betraying the very magic that had brought the earth and water together. I could not lie, but she did not want the truth, no matter what she said.

She began striding toward us, dragging Gwennin, so that he screamed and moaned and begged and scrambled at the ground with broken hands. “What would you have of this new spring, Meredith. Some happy, bubbling stream?”

“Yes,” I said. “Yes, that would be good.”

The earth shivered again, and this time it began to fold away to make a path for the water to fill. The ground was shaping banks and a streambed for the water. More rocks began to appear to break up the flow, so that it would bubble and sing.

She stood now beside the still pool and its fountain. With its rock set with permanent chains, waiting for victims. “I want a formal garden on either side of this stream you are making.”

I started to agree, but she held up a bloody hand. “No, Meredith, do not simply agree. Say something else, but make certain that you want it here. Make certain it is the framework you wish your happy, little stream to wander through.”

I looked at Adair and Amatheon. “You helped make it, what say the two of you?”

“Meredith, Meredith,” she said, “you cannot share power and rule.”

“It was not my power alone that brought the earth here, or the spring. It took all three of us to make it. Why should they not help form it?”

To that she had no answer, but merely frowned at me. Even through the blood and gore, I could see her puzzlement.

The two men glanced from one to the other of us. Rhys had gone very still against my body, as if he was afraid to breathe.

“Answer her, oak lord, earth man, answer her,” Andais said.

“A meadow would be nice,” Amatheon said. “A nice flat piece of ground with tall grass, and flowers. Good rich soil that could grow anything you wished.”

Adair nodded. “A nice sunny meadow, yes, that would be good.”

I smiled at them – I could not help myself. “Yes, a nice flower and grass meadow, where the sun can shine down, and the moon caress.”

Small green shoots began to appear in the fresh earth. They did not grow into big plants instantly, but they were there, and the room was suddenly full of that rich green growing smell that is spring. The earth was simply studded with that first blush of green. After everything else it didn't even surprise me. Then the ceiling vanished and the room suddenly seemed roofed, not with rock, but with a misty, uncertain sky. In that haze was a warm golden ball. There was a sun in this new sky. I had heard rumors, legends, that once we had had suns and moons in the underground, but I had never seen one, or hoped to.

Andais gazed up at the new sun. “You are correct, so it seems. It took all three of you to make this place, and all three of your powers have manifested. But mark me, Meredith. Now that the sithen lives again, it will answer to other magicks besides your own. Be careful what you awaken in others, for not all of it will be to your Seelie taste.”

“I am Unseelie sidhe, Aunt Andais.”

“We shall see, Meredith, we shall see.” She gazed at me, then down at herself. She seemed to have forgotten that she was holding the intestines of a man in one hand. “We need to clean up. We have a king to see, and a new mystery to solve.”

“What mystery would that be, Aunt Andais?” I asked.

“Why would Taranis risk war between our courts over a lie? Why would his men attack my men, over the lie of some Seelie strumpet?”

“I do not know, Aunt Andais,” I said.

“Nor I, but we will know, Meredith. We will know.” She released her hold on Gwennin, and closed the space between us. She was taller than Rhys by at least six inches, and she seemed even taller covered in blood, or maybe just scarier.

“Give your aunt a kiss, Meredith.”

I opened my mouth to ask why, then closed it. She was doing it to be cruel, in part, but everyone I had touched today seemed to have gained from my touch. Perhaps the fact that I did not want to touch her would make it all the sweeter for her.

“Of course, Aunt Andais,” I said, and my voice was almost neutral.

“Does the thought of putting your white flesh against me right now sicken you?”

That was a dangerous question. “You frighten me, auntie, to say anything else would be a lie.”

“Then kiss me, niece, and let me taste your fear on those red, Seelie lips.”

I tightened my grip on Rhys's arm, like a child holding tight in the night. She bent over us, and I raised my face to her, obedient, afraid not to be.

She pressed her lips to mine, but it wasn't enough. She grabbed the back of my hair, and forced her mouth inside mine. She kissed me so hard that I either had to open my mouth or tear my lips on my own teeth. I opened to her, and she gave me the taste of her mouth, her lips, and the salty, caked sweetness of Gwennin's blood. I knew from that kiss that she drank his blood, for it was everywhere inside her mouth.

Blood is one of the most precious fluids. It is life itself, and can be a great gift when shared, but this had not been a sharing. This had been a taking, a rape of everything that he had been.

I dug my nails into Rhys's body to keep from gagging. I dared not show that much displeasure. I fought to breathe, fought to swallow, fought not to throw up on the Queen of Air and Darkness.

She fell back from the kiss with her eyes sparkling, her face rapturous. “Oh, you didn't like that at all, did you?”

I took deep, even breaths. I would not throw up. I simply would not. I had no idea what she would do if I did, and Gwennin at her feet reminded me what she was capable of. I had the very taste of him in my mouth to remind me. I fought not to dwell upon that taste. I mastered my breathing and my stomach, but knew that it had shown on my face. Nothing I could do about it.

She laughed, a sharp, fierce, happy sound like the cry of a hawk. “I think, before I give my throne away, that I will have to demand one night with you, Meredith. You are entirely too human, too Seelie. You would not like what I would do to you.”

“If I would like it, you wouldn't see the point in doing it,” I said, more anger than fear in my voice. I could not stop it.

She shook her head, almost sadly. “There you go again, Meredith. Your words are fine, but your tone says fuck you and the horse you rode in on.”

I looked at her, and for once I did not try to hide. She liked that I hated her. She would enjoy forcing me into her bed, in part because I hated her, and she hated me.

“Say what you're thinking, Meredith. Tell your auntie dearest the words that will match those angry Seelie eyes.” She purred at me, a voice that was anger, seduction, and the promise of pain all rolled into one.

Rhys tightened his arms around me, his body tensing. I said, “We hate each other, auntie dearest, we always have.”

“And the fact that I would force you into my bed, how does that make you feel?”

“That I would rather be queen sooner than later.”

There were gasps. Andais laughed. “Are you threatening me?”

“No. When I held Galen's dying body in my arms, I thought it was too dear a price to be queen of any court. I still think it, but thank you, auntie dearest, for reminding me that I will be queen, or I will die.”

“Coming to my bed is not death, Meredith.”

“Some deaths, auntie dearest, are of the soul rather than the body.”

“Are you saying that if I force you it will kill your soul?” She laughed again.

“I am saying that it will kill something inside me, and you will enjoy its death.”

“Yes,” she said, “I will.”

I smelled roses then, a soft, gentle perfume.

Andais looked around her. “What is that smell?”

“Flowers,” I said.

“There are no flowers here.”

I looked into her gore-soaked face. “There will be.” Those three simple words held a promise of weight and power.

“Roses are fragile things, Meredith. They do not grow outside of walls without the skill of gardeners.”

“The wild rose needs no walls to protect it,” Doyle said.

She turned and looked at him. “What are you babbling about, Darkness?”

“Can you not smell it, Queen Andais? It is the scent of the meadow rose, the bramble rose, and it needs no walls to protect it, nor gardener to tend it. In fact, it is almost impossible to dig out or destroy once it takes root.”

“I did not know you had such an interest in gardening, Darkness.”

“This is a rose that makes its own garden wherever it happens to grow.”

She stared at him, studying his impassive face, as if she saw something there that I could not read. “Do not fall too far in love with the rose, Darkness, for it has thorns.”

“Yes,” he said, “we must all beware the thorns when we seek to pick the rose.”

“And will you prick me with your thorn, Darkness?”

“What good is a thorn to the rose, if it does not draw blood.”

“Is that a threat?” she asked.

“What if that piece of her soul that you steal away is the piece that calls to the sithen? What if the piece of her happiness that you destroy is the very piece the Goddess calls to? Would you destroy all that has been awakened for a dark whim?”

“I am queen here, Darkness.”

“And your brother Essus loved you well,” he said.

That seemed odd even to me, and the queen frowned. “Why do you speak of my brother?”

“Why was Essus not king?” he asked in that empty voice.

She frowned at him. “He refused the throne.”

“Not true,” he said.

She licked her lips. “He would not kill me to get the throne.”

“Essus loved you too well,” Doyle said.

She turned back to me. “And his daughter does not love me at all. Is that what you mean, Darkness?”

“Meredith, daughter of Essus, does not love you, Andais, Queen of Air and Darkness.”

She narrowed her eyes at him. “You are threatening me.”

“I am saying that those who would have seen Essus on your throne were stopped by his love of you, and now there is no love to stand between you and harm.”

I wished that I could have read her face better, but the blood masked much of it. “I thought you served me out of duty, Darkness.”

“No, my queen, not out of duty.”

“But you do not love me now, Darkness.”

“No,” he said, “you killed that part of me long ago.”

“And if I say Meredith will never have my throne, never be queen, what say you to that?”

“Then we will go, all of us who wish to, and we will take exile in the lands to the west.”

“You cannot mean that.”

“I mean everything I say, Andais, Queen of Air and Darkness. I have always meant everything I have ever said to you.” And a soft sound escaped him. It was a sob, and a tear glittered down his cheek.

“I did not…” She stopped and tried again. “I did not know.”

“You did not see me,” he said, and his voice was steady now.

“But you were always by my side.”

“But you did not see me.”

“Does she see you, Darkness? Does she really see you?”

He nodded. “Yes, she sees me. She sees us all.”

They stared at each other for a space of heartbeats, and it was she who turned away first. “Go, and take your rose and her new thorns with you. All of you, go.”

She did not have to ask us twice. Rhys started carrying me toward the far door. I was pretty sure I could have walked, but being carried in his arms sounded just about right. I wrapped my arms around his neck, and gazed back over his broad shoulder at my aunt.

The people who had been with her were still hesitating, waiting, unsure if they'd had their orders. She screamed at them, “Go, go! All of you, go!” They went, hurrying off. Even Gwennin tried to crawl away from her. She put a foot on the long thick strings of his intestines, and her voice came in an evil whine, “Not you, Gwennin, not you.”

We made the far doors, were through them, and had them closing behind us as the first ragged scream cut the air. If I could have taken him with us, I would have. For I would not have left anyone to the queen's mercy.

Doyle suddenly shoved me behind him. I heard it a second later: running. A group of people running this way. Adair and Amatheon had no weapons to draw, so they gave me their bodies as living shields. I could not see around all the broad backs and drawn weapons. I had to wait, surrounded by men whom I no longer wished to put between me and danger. I needed guards that I didn't like quite so much. I heard Galen's voice, “Where's Merry?” Amatheon and Adair almost slumped with relief on either side of me. I fought the urge to laugh, or cry, or just push everyone away so I could see. But we all waited for Doyle to tell us to move, or not.

The men farther from us parted like a curtain, and only then did Amatheon and Adair move to frame me instead of shield me. Galen and everyone that we had left in the room were in the hallway, coming toward us. Doyle was assuring them that I was fine.

Galen pushed his way through the other men and paused before hugging me. He laughed. “What have you guys been doing, playing in the mud?”

The three of us exchanged glances. “We were playing in the mud,” Adair said. “Amatheon was the mud.”

Galen frowned at him.

“Later,” I said. I had noticed a newly healed face among the guard: Onilwyn. “When did he join you?”

Galen seemed to understand who I meant. “We were running out to find you when he showed up.”

“Why didn't you tell us what was happening?” Ivi asked. “We'd have grabbed on before Merry left so abruptly.”

“There was no time,” Doyle said.

“We barely touched them in time ourselves,” Frost said.

Rhys asked, “How did you know where we were?”

Kitto came out from behind the taller men. He had a short sword naked in his hand. He held up his arm with the moth tattoo on it. “I followed this.”

“And we followed Kitto,” Galen said, hugging me against his body, spreading the mud on more of himself.

“May I approach, Princess?” Onilwyn said.

I looked at his face and tried to see arrogance, or hatred, but he was trying for neutral and succeeding. “All right, yes.”

The other men made a sort of impromptu corridor for him to walk down. Galen kept one arm around me, so that I was tight to his side. Amatheon and Adair took up posts on either side of me; even unarmed and muddy they looked like the guards they were. Once I'd thought Amatheon and Onilwyn were friends, but the message was clear from all the men. They were my guards, and they weren't entirely certain Onilwyn was one of them.

He dropped to his knees in front of me. “I have heard such rumors, Princess Meredith. If even half are true, then I can only beg forgiveness and offer myself to your service.”

“And what of Prince Cel?” I asked. “What will you do when he is free once more and demands your loyalty back?”

“My oath was to the queen, never to him.”

“You gave him your friendship, Onilwyn.”

“Prince Cel has no friends, only toadies and bed partners.”

I stared into his face, tried to read a lie there, but found none. “I don't trust this change of heart, Onilwyn.”

“Tell me what I must do to prove that I am sincere?”

I thought, and nothing came to mind. A high, mournful scream came from behind the doors at our backs. The men who hadn't known of Gwennin's fate jumped or looked toward the door. Onilwyn paled. “Who is that?” he whispered.

I told him.

“Gwennin was her ally.”

“No longer,” Doyle said. “Now he is only meat.”

Onilwyn looked at the floor, and when he raised his face back up, there was something in his eyes. Something close to pain. “Cel spoke of the day he could take his mother's place. He means to take her place in every sense of the word, Princess. He craves to have the ladies of the court as his playthings. His fantasies are darker than you can imagine, Princess Meredith. He dreams of you, Princess. He says, if his mother would have you pregnant, then it will be his seed that fills your belly.” He said that last in a voice hoarse with dread, perhaps worried how I would take the news.

“I know of my cousin's plans for me,” I said.

Onilwyn looked surprised. “Who…”

“A friend,” I said. I answered before Doyle could finish shaking his head, telling me not to reveal that Cel's own guard had betrayed him. I did not trust this new, more sincere Onilwyn any more than he did.

“I would be your friend, Princess.”

“You just want sex,” Galen said, and he sounded a little hostile about it.

“Yes, as all of us do, but I offer true loyalty to her now.”

“What did you offer to her before?” Amatheon asked.

“I was Cel's spy, as you were.”

“I supported his claim to the throne. I did not spy for him.”

Onilwyn shrugged. “Have it your way, but I came for the promise of sex, and to be Cel's eyes and ears.”

“And now?” I asked.

“I am whatever you need me to be.”

“You should hit him in the face with frying pans more often,” Rhys said, “he seems to like it.”

Another shriek cut the air. Followed by a helpless sobbing.

“Let us be away from here,” Doyle said, “before she tires of her new toy and seeks another.”

We all began to follow him down the hallway. Onilwyn stayed on his knees, so that we left him alone like that, kneeling before doors. I wondered what the queen would do if she came out and found him like that. Something horrible, no doubt.

He watched me with a lost look on his face. It was as if he was someone else inside Onilwyn's skin.

“Come, Onilwyn, I would not leave you like a present before the doors.”

He gave a small smile and got to his feet, hurrying to catch us up. I did not like his change of heart. It was too abrupt. Or, perhaps, he was simply the perfect toadie, and like all good bootlickers, he was following the power. If he had changed sides, it was because he thought it would gain him power at court. It was why all toadies toadied. How many others would Cel lose to me in the next few weeks? And how many would wait, neutral, to see who was left standing at the end?