A Stroke of Midnight (Page 4)

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Chapter 7

I CLEANED OFF THE REMNANTS OF THE MAKEUP THAT I HADN'T cried away. Got the lipstick that still looked like clown makeup off, and even gave Frost a makeup cleansing cloth so he could do his own face. We were clean and neat and presentable when we started back to the crime scene. I felt hollow inside, as if a piece of me were missing. But it didn't matter. Walters would be here soon with the CSU team. We needed to have finished the questioning of the witnesses before then in case they said something that we didn't want the human police to know. I wanted justice, but I also didn't want to make the bad publicity worse by sharing some dark secret with the human world.

Doyle stopped so abruptly that I ran into him. He pushed me farther back into Galen and Usna's suddenly waiting arms, as if he'd given some signal that I had not seen. With Doyle and Adair in front and Galen and Usna suddenly very close on either side of me, I could not see what had frightened everyone. Barinthus, Hawthorne, and Frost were bringing up the rear. They had turned to face back down the hall as if they were worried about someone sneaking up behind us. What was happening? What now? I couldn't even manage a drop of fear. I'm not sure it was bravery so much as exhaustion. I was simply too tired emotionally and physically to waste the adrenaline on fear. In that second, if we'd been attacked, I'm not sure I would have cared.

I tried to shake it off, this feeling of desolation. I called, “Doyle, what is it?”

Barinthus answered, “The Queen's Ravens are in the hall, blocking our way.” I guess being seven feet tall does give you a better view.

I realized then that my guard feared almost every sidhe right now. They were right. One of the sidhe had committed murder, and I was in charge of catching the killer. Wonderful. I'd just given someone else a reason to want me dead. But what was one more?

Adair moved to the center of the hallway to hide me behind his armored back, as Doyle moved down the hallway. Barinthus answered my question before I'd even thought it. “Doyle is conferring with Mistral.”

Mistral was the master of winds, the bringer of storms, and the new captain of the Queen's Ravens. He'd taken Doyle's place when it became clear that Doyle wasn't coming back to his old job.

“What's happening?” Galen asked, and his voice held enough anxiety for both of us.

Usna bent over me, sniffing my hair. “You smell good.”

“Keep your mind on business,” Galen said, looking up the hallway toward where Doyle had gone. He had a gun out, held down along his leg. If I'd been choosing between sword and gun, I'd have made the same choice. When I first came back to faerie, guns were outlawed inside the mounds, but after the last few attempts, my aunt had decided that my guards and hers needed all the help they could get. So our men could carry guns, if they knew how to use them. Doyle and Mistral had been the judge of who was competent to carry and who wasn't. Some guards treated guns the way others treated the idea of carrying around a poisonous snake. It might be useful, but what if it bit you.

Usna had a short sword in either hand, pointed both directions up and down the hallway. His grey eyes, which were the most ordinary thing about him physically, were keeping watch, but his face was pressed against the top of my head. He put first one cheek, than the other against my hair. He was looking down each end of the hallway as he did it, but he was also almost scent marking me. Cat-like and inappropriate for the situation, if he'd thought like a human. But it was Usna, and I knew that he was aware of everything in the hallway, even while trying to put the scent of his skin against my hair.

I found it oddly comforting. Galen did not. “Usna, stop it.”

A soft sound somewhere between a purr and a growl sounded from the other man. “You worry too much, my little pixie.”

“And you don't worry enough, my little kitten.” But Galen grinned as he said it. We all felt a little better for Usna's teasing.

“Quiet, both of you,” Frost said from behind us. They shut up, looking a little sheepish but happier. Usna stopped trying to rub his face against my hair. Which meant he'd done it almost more to tease Galen than to tease me.

Doyle was taking too long. If something had gone horribly wrong, Barinthus or Adair would have warned us. But it was taking too long. The unnatural calm was beginning to slip away from me on tiny cat paws of anxiety.

I had a license to carry a gun in California. I also had a diplomatic waiver that pretty much covered me anywhere, anytime, on the basis that my life was in danger often enough that being armed was a necessity. I had guns. But Andais wouldn't let me go into the press conference armed. I was a princess; princesses did not protect themselves, they had others to do that for them. I thought the idea archaic and shortsighted and downright ironic coming from a queen whose claim to fame had been as a goddess of battle. Standing there with Galen and Usna pressed against me, with the others like a wall of flesh around me, I vowed that the next time I left my room, I'd be armed.

Doyle returned, and Adair gave him room to pass, then moved back to the center of the hallway like some golden wall. I realized that Adair was being just that, a wall of flesh and metal to keep death from me. He'd said I was his ameraudur, another echo of my father's ghost, for he had been the last ameraudur among the royals of either court. To be called ameraudur held more honor than king, because the men chose you, and followed you through love, the kind of love men have shared with one another on battlefields as far back as time can see. Oaths bound a guard to risk his life for his charge, queen or princess, but ameraudur meant he did it willingly. It meant that coming back from a battle alive with his leader dead was worse than death. A shame that he would never live down. Two of my father's guards took their own lives for shame of letting their prince die. To lay your life down for your ameraudur was the highest honor.

Seeing Adair standing there so straight, so proud, so ready to die, made me think about my new title. Made me afraid of it. I did not want anyone dying for me. I had not earned it. I was not my father and never would be. I could never ride into battle with them and hope to survive. How could I be their ameraudur if I could not do that?

Doyle's dark face was empty for me. Whatever he thought about Adair's new pet name for me, he was keeping it to himself. His face was so empty now that the only thing I was certain of was that I wasn't in immediate danger. Other than that, he could have worn the same expression for anything. I wanted to yell at him to show me what he was feeling, but he spoke before I could lose that much control.

“The queen sent them to fetch you back when you are finished with your 'murder business,' as she worded it. Vague enough that they cannot fetch you immediately.” Doyle gave a small wry smile, and shook his head. “In truth, Mistral is now in charge of the crime scene.”

“What?” Galen and I asked together.

“Did the queen rescind her offer to Meredith?” Barinthus asked. “Are Mistral and the queen now in charge of this murder?”

“No,” Doyle said. “Rhys thought of a different spell to search for our murderer. He wished to chase this new magical clue down, but needed someone to keep the crime scene safe. When Mistral and the others came, he put them to guard the hallway.”

“That was rashly done,” Frost said.

“Knowing Rhys, he got Mistral's oath,” Usna said, “and once you have Mistral's oath, you have his honor. He would not break it, not for all the joys of the Summerlands.”

Doyle gave one sharp nod. “I trust Mistral's honor as I do my own.” He looked at me, and something passed over his impassive face, but I couldn't decipher it. Months in my bed, weeks in my body, and I could not read the look in his eyes. “He has requested an audience with you, Princess. He says that he has a message from the queen.”

“We do not have time for this,” Frost said.

I agreed, but I also knew that ignoring messages or messengers from the queen was not wise. “We left her less than an hour ago, what could she want?”

“You,” said a deep voice behind them.

Doyle looked a question at me, and I gave a nod. At a gesture from Doyle, Adair and he parted like a curtain to reveal Mistral.

His hair was the grey of a sky that promised rain, held back from his face in a ponytail. I had only a glimpse of his storm cloud grey eyes before he dropped to one knee and gave me only the back of his head. It was the first time that another sidhe, any sidhe, had voluntarily showed me such… respect. I stared down at the broad sweep of his shoulders in their tight leather armor, and wondered why he'd done it.

“Get up, Mistral.”

He shook his head, sending his grey hair like a fall of water down his back, barely held in check by the leather thong that held it at the nape of his neck. “I owe you this at the very least, Princess Meredith.”

I had no idea what he meant by that.

I looked at Doyle. He gave a small raise of an eyebrow, a slight turn of the head, his version of a shrug.

“Why do you owe me such a bow?” I asked.

He raised his head just enough so he could roll his eyes at me. “If I had dreamt that you would take one look from me so seriously, I would have been more careful of you, Princess. My oath on that.”

I knew what he meant then, for it had been the look of contempt on Mistral's face the night before that had helped me be brave enough to confront Andais when she was in the grip of an evil spell. A spell that had made her slaughter her own men, and be a danger to anyone near her. It had been a very clever assassination ploy. Mistral had told me with his eyes alone that I was just another useless royal, and he hated us all. It wasn't the hatred, but the uselessness that had moved me to action. Because I agreed with him. In that moment I had decided that I would rather die than see them slaughtered.

“Are you so certain one glance from you was what moved me forward?” I meant it to be a joke, but I'd forgotten how long it had been for some of the Queen's Ravens since they'd had a woman joke with them.

He lowered his face quickly, his voice uncertain and uncomfortable. “I am sorry, Princess, I presumed too much.”

My kidding had not only fallen flat but embarrassed him. I'd had no idea my words had such power over Mistral. I touched his bowed head, the queen's ring on my right hand. Mark of her rulership, her first gift to me, and an artifact of power.

My fingers brushed his face a breath before the metal of the ring did. He turned those storm-grey eyes up to me. His lips parted as if he meant to speak, but the metal touched his skin, and there was no time for words.

I knew that our bodies still stood and knelt in the hallway inside the Unseelie Court. I knew it, because I'd had this happen before when the magic of the chalice and the ring combined. But to Mistral and me, we were on the top of a hill that was crowned by a large dead tree. I had seen this hill, this tree in one form or another in dreams and visions. Mistral knelt before me with my hand cupping his cheek. He put his hand over mine, holding my touch against his face, as he gazed around at the plain that spread out as far as the eye could see. It was green and lovely, but strangely empty.

“What have you done, Princess?”

“Not me,” I said.

He gazed up at me, and there was puzzlement in his eyes. “I don't understand.”

“Look at the tree.”

He turned, with his hand holding mine now, rather than pressing it to his face. The tree was a huge, blackened thing, its bark crumbling in the growing wind. The first time I'd seen the tree so dead it had had a large cleft in the center. This tree did not. It had taken me a while to understand that the tree wasn't real, or the hill. Neither were any place a map could get you. The tree represented the Goddess, and the power of faerie; the hill was The Hill. We stood at the center of the world, but the center of the world changed at the thought of the gods. In this moment, this was the center, and Mistral and I stood at that center. We stood hand in hand, while the wind blew across the sky.

The wind smelled of apple blossoms and roses – sweet and clean and good. I heard a voice on the flower-scented wind. Or perhaps it was merely a thought. Mistral did not seem to hear it, so perhaps the voice was only for me.

“Kiss him,” the wind said, “kiss him. Let him taste the chalice.” But the chalice is not here, I thought. The wind said, “You are the chalice.” Oh, of course. It made perfect sense in that moment, though I knew that later it might not make any sense at all.

“Mistral,” I said, and the wind grew stronger, sweeter, at the sound of his name.

He looked at me, and there was a hint of fear in his eyes. Had it really been that long since he was touched by the Goddess? Yes, the voice in my head said, it had.

“Kiss me, Mistral,” I said.

His gaze searched my face. “Who are you?”

“I am Merry.”

He shook his head, even as he let me draw him in against my body. I realized that my arm was not injured in this place of dream and vision. I slid my arms around the smooth strength of his back, over the leather of his armor. His hands slid around my waist, but he was still shaking his head.

“No, you are not the princess.”

“I am, but I am more, that is true.” My voice had taken on that echoing softness that I'd heard before, like listening to someone else's voice in your own ears.

“What are you?” he whispered.

“Drink of the chalice, Mistral.” The flower-scented wind wrapped around us like invisible arms, binding us until our bodies were pressed as close together as we could manage with clothes on. He held me, but he was afraid, and fear is not a good aphrodisiac for most people. The queen has never understood that.

His face bent toward me, but his body was tense, and he tried not to bend closer. The wind pushed at him, forced his head downward. I understood in that moment that he was once the master of the winds, bringer of storms. Once he had controlled it all as a man controls a horse, but now Mistral was the horse, who was being ridden, and he didn't like it.

Mistral fought against the push of the sweet wind. He fought to move his body away from mine, but the wind was like chains, and the best he could do with all that strength was keep his mouth just above mine. Keep himself just out of reach.

“Why do you fight when this is what you want?” the voice said, using my lips.

“You cannot be the chalice. You cannot be the Goddess, she cast us out long ago.”

“If I am not real, then you cannot kiss me.”

“You cannot be real.”

“You were always my doubting Thomas, Mistral. Kiss me, kiss me, and discover the truth. Whether your doubts are real, or whether I am real.” The wind pressed so tightly that it was hard to breathe. “Kiss me!” The voice came from my mouth, and echoed through the wind, and the drowning scent of blossoms.

His mouth touched mine, and the moment it did, he stopped fighting. He gave himself to the kiss with his lips, his mouth, his arms, his body. The wind was only wind again, but Mistral did not notice. He picked me up in his strong arms, his hands pressing me against his body. One hand gripped my ass, an almost crushing grip that brought a small sound from my mouth. That sound seemed to urge him on. The kiss had been thorough before, but it had had a certain gentleness to it; now he kissed me as if he would climb into my body through the opening of my lips. He kissed and ate with teeth at my mouth, biting and holding my lower lip until I cried out for him.

The smell of flowers was gone, and the wind smelled like ozone. Every hair on my body raised in goose bumps. Mistral drove us to the ground with him on top. I wasn't certain if it was to protect me, or to press the swollen front of him against my body. But we were on the ground a second before a jagged white blast of lightning fell from the clear sky and struck the dead tree.

Bolt after bolt fell from the sky hammering the tree, and with each strike the dead bark fell, revealing fresh pale bark underneath.

Mistral covered my body with his, shielding me as the lightning furrowed the earth on either side of the tree, even as it shook the dead away. Until at last the tree stood naked and new and alive. The broken, snaggled branches began to grow longer, fuller, and buds formed on the end of those branches. Blossoms spilled out, white and pink, and the scent of apples was thick and sweet. Her voice came to us at the end of the vision. “Go now, my doubting Thomas, and shake the dead away from the quick.”

We came back to the hallway with Mistral still kneeling before me, my hand on his face, my hurt arm in a sling.

There were more of Mistral's men on the other side of us, but Doyle and Barinthus were keeping them back. I doubted much time had passed, but I heard Barinthus say, “The princess brought me back into some of my power with only a touch. Would you take that chance away from your captain, simply because you do not understand what is happening?”

Mistral smiled up at me, a fierce baring of teeth. His eyes boiled black with storm clouds so that he looked blind. He was suddenly on his feet, my hand still gripped in his. He jerked me against his body so hard it jarred my arm and drove a small moan of pain from me.

A sound came from his throat and deep in his chest, a sound that started as almost a purring, but ended in the low bass growl of distant thunder.

He ran his fingers through my hair, pulling a fistful sudden and tight in his hand. It was a small sharp pain but it was just this side of being too tight, too much.

He stared down at me, his face filled with a raw, naked lust, something separate and primeval like darkness and light. That divine spark that thrust into the first dark and brought life. That power was in Mistral's hands, in the press of his body hard and eager even through the prison of his leather.

He felt so big, so thick, against the front of my body. The press of him, the strength of his hands made me shudder against him. He tightened his grip on my hair, forcing me to fight my body's reaction, or cause myself real pain. My body wanted to buck and fight against his grip, but he'd given me a choice. Control myself or hurt myself. He knew the game, did Mistral.

The feeling of being trapped, of being helpless against his strength, his lust, and what my body needed was almost overwhelming. My eyes shuttered closed at the effort of not struggling in his harsh grasp.

He whispered against my face, and I could not focus enough to see him. “Do you want to ride the storm?” His breath was hot against my skin.

His voice promised no gentleness, no compromise. I knew the kind of sex he was offering, and the thought of it tightened things low in my body, drew another small sound from my throat. “Yes,” I whispered, “yes.”

The roll of thunder echoed down the hallway, shuddering between the stone walls. The sound seemed to vibrate out of his body and into mine as if my body were a tuning fork struck against the rim of some great metal cup. His voice growled against my skin, with the taste of thunder in it. “Good,” he said and forced me to my knees.

Chapter 8

MISTRAL HELD ME ON MY KNEES, MY HEAD IMMOBILE IN HIS GRIP, as his other hand undid the front of his pants. Just watching him do it made my body react so strongly that I might have fallen to all fours if he hadn't held me up. Most of my lovers wouldn't let me go down on them because that wouldn't get me pregnant. Oral sex wouldn't make one of them king to my queen, and they would not waste seed on any other part of my body. I'd offered it as a part of foreplay, but most had refused even that for fear that I would bring them, and a chance would be wasted. I was left begging for the touch of them in my mouth.

Mistral was not worried about being king or making me pregnant. In this moment, he simply wanted me with no plan, no agenda, only his own long-denied need. That he would think first of pleasure and second of politics made me love him, just a little.

My skin began to glow softly. That faint dance of magic underneath my skin traveled up his hand and into his body. A faint white radiance started underneath his skin, like light reflected around a corner. Not the full-out shine of my skin, but something fainter, less sure of itself. I wondered if his glow had always been so hesitant. His body spilled out of his pants. He forced my mouth down on the long, thick shaft and I sucked long and hard on him. It threw his head back, bowed his body, and light burst from his skin. Cool white fire, blazing inside him, so that for a moment my eyes were dazzled.

If I had not held him in my mouth, felt his hand like a comforting pain in my hair, I would have believed that he had become light and power and magic, and had no true substance at all. But he shoved that wide and very solid piece of himself so far down my throat that breathing became an issue. I liked my men large, but I liked breathing more. I began to fight against his hold, my body starting to struggle to breathe.

I pushed at his body, and his hand relaxed, drawing my mouth down his thickness until I could draw breath, around the tip of him. I expected him to draw the rest of the way out of my mouth, but he didn't. He kept the tip of himself just inside me. When I'd drawn enough air, I ran my tongue delicately underneath the rim of his foreskin where it stretched tight across the hardness of him. It made him shudder from the hand in my hair, to the flesh in my mouth, to his hips under the press of my hands.

His body emerged from the radiance in edges, an outline of solid lines melting out of the brightness. His hair had burst its leather ribbon, and fell around him like a fall of white light. It was as if the rest of his body thrummed with light and power, except the part I held in my mouth. Maybe I couldn't have held him inside me if it all glowed like something carved of power.

He shoved himself deeper into my mouth, but I was afraid that he would shove too far as he had before. I distracted him with just an edge of teeth. It made him hesitate, and let me pull myself to the end of him again. I edged my tongue gently but firmly farther underneath the skin than I had before, so that I could lick inside that taut skin and the top of the shaft at the same time. It made him shudder and writhe above me. He looked down at me and his eyes were wide and wild with the sensation of it.

Wind began to play down the hallway, and his white, shining hair flared in that wind, a nimbus to frame his body. The wind grew until it streamed down the hallway in both directions, and I realized it was Mistral.

My hands slid to his pants, and I pulled carefully on the leather fastenings, until I could touch the soft skin of his testicles. They were loose enough that I could tease the skin between them, and roll them in my hands like delicate balls of tender flesh.

I forgot my earlier fear, and drove myself down the shaft of him, struggling to hold the width of him in my mouth. He'd gotten harder, which was more difficult to swallow, but it was worth the effort. Worth it to rest my mouth against those tender bits of skin and flesh, until I could lay the circle of my lips against the solid vibrating warmth of his body. Touching even that much of myself to the shining center of him left my lips tingling, and as I drew myself back down the length of him, it was as if that shivering power followed me. As if the touch of my lips had somehow allowed it to flow down this last length of his body.

I gave a final flick of my tongue, and when I drew him out of my mouth, he did not fight me. He gazed down at me with those wild eyes, and light flashed through them. It took me a second to realize I was seeing lightning. Lightning flashed through Mistral's eyes. Then came the first distant breath of ozone, like a storm that hadn't quite reached us yet, but the scent of it rode the wind and promised great and terrible things.

He made a sound low in his throat, and thunder growled down the hallway in answer.

My skin shone as if the moon had climbed inside me and was trying to melt out through my skin. We painted shadows along the walls. He dragged me to my feet by hair that had bled to red light, and I knew that my eyes were a blaze of green and gold like Christmas lights caught behind snow.

He turned me sharply in against the wall so that only my hands against the stones kept me from hitting face-first.

He kept his hand in my hair, but the other hand slid under my skirt until his fingers found the edge of my panties. He balled his hand into the satin, and I had a breath to brace before he ripped them from my body. The violence of it staggered me, and only his hand in my hair kept me against the wall. I realized that I was using my hurt arm, and it didn't hurt anymore. My hands pressed into the cool stone of the wall, as Mistral pulled my hips against his body.

He moved between my legs but not inside me. The feel of him hard and solid sliding between my thighs made me cry out, but he was more than a foot taller than I. There was no way to have intercourse with me facing the wall, not unless someone brought a box for me to stand on.

He shoved himself against me, sliding all that hard length across the most intimate parts of me. The feel of the head of him gliding back and forth across the sweetest of spots started that heavy warmth building between my legs. It wasn't just the softness of his skin and the hardness of his erection, but the power. The power acted as a sort of vibration against my body. I realized that if he didn't stop soon he'd bring me. I both wanted him to and didn't. Would my orgasm bring his, before he'd shoved himself up inside my body? Did I want him to spill himself across the outside of my body, or deep within? I was still hesitating when Mistral made the choice for me.

He jerked me back from the wall by my hair, so hard that I stumbled. He steadied me with his other hand on my arm, as if he hadn't meant to be quite that rough. He put me on my knees, and released his grip on my hair. It made me fall to all fours.

“On your back,” he said, his voice hoarse, and followed by an echo of thunder between the stone walls. “I want you on your back.”

I started to roll over, but it wasn't fast enough for him. His hands found my hips and rolled me onto the stone floor. He put his hands beneath my buttocks and pulled me forward, my knees bent, with only my jacket-covered back touching the floor.

Lightning flashed in his eyes so bright that it flickered around us like a strobe of light. It left my eyes dazzled, and when I could see clearly again, he was pushing himself against the opening to my body. His skin, his hair, everything was white with light and power. The only color left to him was the storm sky color of his eyes between lightning strikes.

He pushed himself inside me, using his hands to hold my body where he wanted it. The feel of him entering me fluttered my eyes closed, parted my lips, and made me raise my hips up to meet his body.

He shuddered inside me, and when I opened my eyes he still had half his length to go. His fingers had tightened painfully on my body. He held me immobile with just his hands on the cheeks of my ass. “Don't help me,” he said in a voice that was almost lost to a growl of thunder. “If you help, I won't last, and I want to last. I want this,” and he squeezed his fingers tight enough to make me cry out, “to last.”

I nodded because I didn't trust my voice.

He tried to shove himself inside me in one last movement, but he hadn't made enough room. He had to fight for it, pushing hard and deep with his hips, to work his width up inside me. He seemed to fill up every inch of me, as if I couldn't have held another piece of him. He almost drew himself out of me, then again that slow, hard push inside. The feel of him filling me was too much. He brought me screaming, back arching, before he'd made me open enough for him to truly do what he wanted.

I thought it would bring him, but when my pleasure passed, he was still hard and firm between my legs. But the orgasm had done one thing, I was more open. He finally had room to truly thrust, and he knew what to do with the room.

He let me slip to the floor, but I kept my legs up, knees bent, and he stayed propped up on his arms, hands flat on either side of me. I watched him go in and out of my body, as the twin glows of our power grew bright and brighter. I'd always described my glow as moonlight, but this was more like sunshine. My hair and eyes reflected around us like burning blood and emeralds and gold that had gotten so hot they melted into light.

Mistral found his rhythm and it was hard and fast and deep. He did it as if he could have done it all night. I smelled ozone. The hairs on my body stood to attention, and the air squeezed tight around us. I felt that warm building of pressure between my legs, and just as it rolled over me, spread through my body, he thrust one last time inside me. I knew in that instant that he'd been gentle before, because it was deep enough that it drove me up off the floor screaming. I dug my nails into his arms, half in pleasure, and half in pain.

Lightning cracked down the hallway in both directions. It didn't exactly come out of Mistral's body, but it came from the glow of him. His body shuddered inside me, and the lightning crashed down the hallway, thunder beating against the stones as if the force of it all would bring the walls down around us. And I didn't care.

I was trapped under the force and power of his body, blinded, deafened, by the explosion of his magic. My body became light, became magic, became pleasure. I forgot that there was skin to hold me, bones to move me. I simply was the pleasure.

When I was aware of my body again, the weight of Mistral was collapsed on top of me. He was still inside me, but not as hard or solid. He had thrown those wide shoulders to the side, so I wasn't suffocated under the bulk of him. I could feel his heartbeat thudding through his body as he fought to regain his breath. His hair was its usual grey, and his skin back to its normal slightly off-white, not as pure a color as my own. The armor on the one arm I could see was torn, and blood showed through. I tried to raise my hand to touch the damage, but I couldn't make that much of my body move yet.

A movement in the hallway beyond us made me turn my gaze to where Doyle and the others had been standing. Doyle was kneeling beside the far wall, dazed. Most of the others were flat on the floor, some immobile. Frost got to all fours, as I watched, shaking his head as if to clear his senses.

Rhys came around the corner with Kitto in tow. He drew his gun, obviously thinking it had been an attack. I couldn't blame him.

“Sex,” Doyle said in a hoarse voice, “sex and magic.” He cleared his throat sharply and tried again. “The Goddess and Consort have blessed us all.”

“Shit,” Rhys said, “and we missed it.”

Galen's voice came heavy with afterglow. He was flat on his back, and the front of his pants was stained dark. “It sort of hurt. I don't like my sex that rough.”

I heard groans from the other side of the hallway, and I could turn my head now. Mistral's men were all flat on their backs. Some were struggling to sit up. Adair tried to climb to his feet against the wall, and fell over with a metallic clatter. There was a black burn mark across the front of his armor. “Goddess save us,” someone said in a voice hoarse with pleasure.

“She just did.” Mistral moved slowly so he could raise up enough to gaze down at me. He smiled, and his eyes were the blue of spring skies with fluffy little clouds floating through. I'd never known there was a sky that peaceful inside his eyes.

Hawthorne sat up in his green plate mail, propping his back against the wall. He, too, had a black burn mark across his chest. “The next time you plan to call lightning, warn those of us wearing metal. Mother of Gods, that hurt.”

“And felt good,” another voice said.

Hawthorne dragged his helmet off, showing a pale face, and his dark green hair braided to fit under the helm. He nodded. “And felt good.” He looked at me, and for just a moment in the triple colors of his eyes – pink, green, and red – I saw a tree. A tree on a hill, and that tree was white with blossoms. He blinked and it was just the colors of his iris again.

I remembered the vision and how the lightning had cleared away the dead from the tree. Had we cleared away the old wood here? Had we done more than give them pleasure and pain? Time would tell. For now, we had a double homicide to solve. The police were on their way, and we hadn't even started to question the witnesses.

I said a little prayer. “Goddess, can we slow down the magical revelations until after we solve the murders, or at least until we get presentable for the police?” I didn't get an answer, not even that warm pulse that lets me know she's listening, which I took for a no. It wasn't that I didn't understand that bringing the magic back to faerie was important, maybe more important than solving murders. But I did not want the human police to find us spread around the hallway like an orgy gone horribly wrong.

Someone moved at the far end of the hallway. The person who sat up was female, decidedly female even under the armor. She took off her helmet and gasped at the air. Her curly black hair was cut very short, which was different from last I'd seen her, but the face was still Biddy. She was one of Cel's guards, half-human and half – Unseelie sidhe, even though she'd never been a fan of Cel. She'd once belonged to my father's guard, and when Cel co-opted many of my father's guards, she was trapped in the turnover. What was she doing here?

A shadow formed over her face and flowed down the bright silver of her armor. The shadow held a figure, a tiny figure. A baby like some dark ghost coiled in front of her.

The ring on my finger was suddenly warm against my hand, as if someone had breathed across the metal.

I gazed down the hallway, still trapped under Mistral's body. Biddy sat at the turn of the hall that was farther than the hallway to the kitchen. I shouldn't have been able to see her this clearly from this angle. But she stood out to my gaze as if she was outlined in something more real than the rest of the figures in the hallway.

Mistral whispered above me, “Do you see it?”

I whispered back, “I was going to ask you the same thing.”

“A child,” he said.

“A baby,” I said.

“Go to her quickly, for the vision will not last. Somewhere in this hallway is her match. The father of that shadow child.”

“What is that in front of Biddy?” Galen asked. He'd raised up on his elbows.

Mistral raised himself off of me. “Go to her, Meredith, go to her before the magic of the ring fades.” He pulled me to my feet with his pants still undone. “Hurry.” The tone in his voice made me start down the hall, unsteady on my feet in the high heels. The sex had been too good for my legs to be steady. I stumbled and had to catch myself against the wall. Hands steadied me, and I looked down to find Hawthorne's hands on my hips. “Are you all right, Princess?”

I nodded. “Yes.” I gazed down the hallway at that solid shadow in front of Biddy. I felt as if that phantom child was whispering to me. Whispering, “I'm here.” Other hands touched me as I stumbled and hurried. A handful of the others could see the shadow child. Their hands seemed to push and hurry me as much as catch me. The ring was like a warm weight on my hand, heavy with pressure. The pressure of a spell building, building to a great conclusion. I had to be touching Biddy before the spell burst. I wasn't sure how I knew that, but I was absolutely certain that the ring needed to be against her skin before the spell finished. Something would be lost if I failed.

Biddy had struggled to her feet, though her tri-grey eyes were a little unfocused, and she leaned heavily against the wall. I found my legs could move as the pressure built in the ring, like some warm living thing against my skin. I was running full out, and Biddy's eyes were wide and frightened. She couldn't see the spell, but she knew something was wrong.

I reached for her hand, and she reached automatically out to me. Her hand wrapped around mine just as the spell burst over us. It was as if the world held its breath, as if time and magic stopped, and there was a moment where Biddy and I stood outside of all of it. There was no sound, not even the hush of my own pulse. She stared at me, eyes huge with fear, or something I couldn't feel. The spell wasn't for me. I was merely the vessel for it. I had no idea what was happening to Biddy. I knew it didn't hurt, and that it was good, but what she heard in that moment must have been for her ears alone. The Goddess spoke to her, and I held her hand, let the magic take her while I was in silence, because I simply didn't need to know.

Sound came back with an audible pop. The change in pressure was real enough that we staggered when the magic released us. Our hands convulsed around each other as if the touch of flesh was all that kept us from falling. Her eyes were wide, her skin pale with shock. Biddy was tall, broad-shouldered, and wearing the remnants of her armor. Her gauntlets and her helmet, and other pieces lay scattered around her, as if she'd begun to shed the outer covering long before I reached her. She was dressed in bits of armor and the padding that even the sidhe must wear under such things. Her short hair was in disarray from the helmet and the magic that had put her against the wall. She was still lovely – nothing could take that away from her – but I'd seen her look better. Still, the way the men in the hallway looked at her, you'd have thought no woman had ever been more desirable than Biddy was in that moment.

Their faces held a soft wonderment, as if they saw something I did not. Some vision of female loveliness that left them speechless and immobile, literally stunned by what they saw or felt. The magic was not for me because if I'd been as besotted with Biddy as they all seemed to be, I couldn't have looked down the long corridor until I came to the right man.

For a moment I thought it was Doyle, and the thought squeezed my heart tight, but it was simply that his face did not hold the stunned look of the rest. In fact, his face looked suspicious, as if he was trying to decipher what he was seeing, or smelling, for he scented the wind as I watched. Frost was immobile against the wall, but his face, too, did not hold the wonderment. He seemed angry, sullen; his usual self. Galen's face was as lost as any of the other men's. I realized that Mistral, too, was seeing whatever I was seeing, because he had started down the hall ahead of my gaze, as if he saw things, too. I wore the ring, but he had been part of the magic that had brought this to life.

He paused by Doyle and Frost, and looked back at me, as if to make certain I saw them. I wasn't certain why it was important to him, but he nodded as if satisfied when he saw me see them.

Rhys stood at the end of the hallway. His face was sad but not enthralled. I looked at each of the men in turn with that same hyper-focus that I had seen in Biddy earlier. The magic was looking for something.

Kitto crouched at Rhys's feet as if he had been struck down by the magic, but his face held the same wonderment that the other men's did. I thought I was looking for someone who wasn't affected, but it was Mistral who showed me that I was looking for the man who was most affected, not least.

Mistral stopped before the colored glow of Nicca's wings. He held his hand out to the still-kneeling man. Nicca took his hand, but his face, now that I could see it, looked blind to Mistral, to anything but what he saw in Biddy.

His face had never looked more beautiful than it did in that moment, a delicate, almost feminine beauty that was usually disguised behind broad shoulders and a six-foot warrior's frame. In his sleep he could be soft and as gentle as he truly was, but awake he always had to be more.

Mistral drew him to his feet, and Nicca was suddenly himself, awake and moving with the smooth strength of his bare chest, and the huge wings like a shining colored frame for all that gentle beauty.

I admit that, for a moment or two, I felt regret. Regret that I would lose him, that he would never again grace my bed. But that selfish impulse was drowned in a feeling of such warmth, such peace, that I couldn't regret it, not truly. What I saw on his face as Mistral led him toward us was what I'd felt in the bed with him. He was too gentle for my tastes, and far too gentle for the queen's. The only thing he would ever have done as king was die.

I looked at Biddy's face, and saw in her eyes what I saw in Nicca's. Each of them saw the whole world in the eyes of the other, and it was a nice, safe, beautiful world.

The four of us stood at the end of the hallway, women on one side, men on the other. I expected Biddy or Nicca to reach out to the other, but they were immobile. Mistral and I clasped their hands together. That shadow child that I had seen at first was back, but it wasn't a phantom now. I saw a smiling face with Nicca's warm brown eyes and Biddy's black curls. I saw their child laughing and real, as if I could have touched the round baby curve of his face. I pressed my hand, and the warmth of the ring, into their flesh, and Mistral's big hand covered mine. We bound their hands together with magic, and the tears that I shed. I saw their child, and knew that he was real, and all we had to do to make that vision flesh was let them be together.

It was as if Mistral read my mind. “If the queen will allow it.”

I blinked up at him as we drew our hands away and let Nicca and Biddy embrace for the first time. They kissed, a melding of body and hands, and they drew back from that first kiss with laughter.

I frowned up at Mistral, the tears still not dry on my cheeks. “The ring is alive again. It's what she wished. Life is returning to the courts.”

He shook his head, and he looked so sad. “She wants her bloodline to rule the courts more than she wants the courts to thrive. If that were not true she would have made different choices centuries ago.”

Doyle's deep voice came to me as he walked to us. “Mistral is right.”

I frowned at both of them. “She'll demand that Nicca stay in my bed, until what, I get pregnant?”

They exchanged glances, then both nodded. Their solemn expressions were too well matched for my comfort. “At the very least,” Mistral said.

I looked at Nicca and Biddy, oblivious to our worries. They touched each other as if they'd never seen a man or woman before, with light wonderment, as if they couldn't believe that they were allowed to touch this person in just this way.

I sighed, and it was as if wind trailed down the hallway. The magic was still there, still heavy with promise just behind my heartbeat, just underneath my skin. I could feel it. But as strong as it was, it was also fragile. I realized that the ring, like the chalice, had chosen to leave, or chosen to fade. It had decided that we didn't deserve its magic anymore. If Queen Andais did not allow Biddy and Nicca to be together, the magic was quite capable of leaving again, for good. Of leaving us to die as a people, for the gods only give so many second chances before they search for some other people to bless. We had a second chance and I didn't want Andais to throw that chance away.

I spoke out loud without meaning to. “If I'd known we'd be this deep in metaphysical wonders, I might not have called in the police.” I shook my head, and tried to think of a way around the queen's obsession with her bloodline and mine. Nothing came to mind.

“I have an idea,” Rhys said. “I'm not sure you're going to like it though.”

“Gee, Rhys, with an opening like that, how can I resist? Tell me your idea.”

“If you told the queen you wanted both Nicca and Biddy in your bed at the same time, she might let that go.”

“Yes,” Doyle said, “she might. She has done it often enough herself.” He turned solemn black eyes on me. “It would make her think better of you.”

I frowned. “Better of me, in what way?”

“More like her,” he said. “She searches in you for signs of herself. Signs that you are truly blood of her blood.”

Frost was nodding. “I do not like it, but it would amuse her. It may work.”

“If Biddy agrees,” I said, looking at the happy couple.

“To be together after the ring has bound you,” Mistral said, “you would do anything. Anything to be with your true love.”

The sorrow in his eyes was something visible, tangible. I did not have to ask to know that once the ring had found his true love, and somehow he had lost her.

“Fine then,” I said, “that's settled.”

Frost touched my shoulder, then dropped his hand as if he wasn't allowed to. I took his hand in mine, held that gesture against me. It earned me a sad smile. “I know you are not a lover of women. It is good of you to take Biddy into your bed night after night until they are with child.”

I squeezed his hand. “One time together and they will be with child. I am certain of that. Even the queen won't divide them if they're pregnant.”

“Andais knows you are not a lover of women,” Doyle said. “She may insist on watching.”

I sighed, then shrugged. “So be it.”

Doyle and Frost both gave me a look. “Meredith,” Frost said, “will you truly be part of her entertainment?”

“I want them together, Frost, and if I have to include myself in it the first time, and let the queen watch, so be it.”

“When will you make your offer to the queen?” Doyle asked.

“After we've questioned the witnesses, and gotten the police safely inside the sithen. And only if she objects to them being a couple on their own.” I smoothed my short skirt down. I was going to need underwear. The police tend to discount your authority if you flash them.

“I think most of us need to freshen our clothing,” Doyle said.

I couldn't help it, I glanced down at his groin. It was hard to tell in the dim light of the sithen.

He gave that masculine chuckle. “Black is a wonderfully concealing color.”

Frost flashed his grey jacket open just enough to show a stain. “Grey is not.”

I looked at them. “Are you saying the magic brought everyone in the hallway?”

“Everyone who was standing here,” Rhys said. “We missed the fun by moments.”

There were other voices up and down the hallway, agreeing or bemoaning the paler colors they had chosen to wear. “We cannot all go freshen our clothes at the same time,” Doyle said. “Some of us must stay here and work. The human police are on their way, and this has taken much of our time.”

I wasn't wearing a watch; no one was, because watches and clocks ran oddly inside faerie. So oddly that telling time by them was useless. How did anyone know where to be and when? They approximated, and we spent a lot of time being fashionably late.

“Fine, divide everybody into shifts for a change of clothes, and could someone get me fresh underwear?”

Mistral held up my ripped panties. “I don't suppose these would be very useful. I am sorry that I damaged them.” He held them out to me.

“I'm not sorry,” I said, and pressed his hand back around the satin.

A pleased look filled his eyes, replacing the sorrow. His hands convulsed around the bit of satin. I noticed that he'd found time in all the fuss to tuck himself back inside his pants. “May I keep it as a sign of my lady's favor?”

I nodded. “You may.”

He raised his hand to his face in an old-fashioned salute, but the look in his eyes made me shiver. He turned with a smile to get his men on their feet and give them their duties.

Frost had turned away. I caught his arm. “What is wrong?”

“Nothing, I'm going to go change.” But he wouldn't look at me. Frost had a tendency to be moody. If I'd had more time I would have asked more questions, but the humans were coming, and we were out of time. I promised myself that if he stayed sulky I'd find out what was wrong. I was hoping it was some momentary mood and nothing more.

Doyle said, “Let him go, he'll need a little time to adjust.”

I frowned at him. “Adjust to what?”

Doyle gave a smile that was more sad than happy. “Later, if you still need to ask, I will explain, but now we have very little time to question our witnesses. You have called the police into the sithen, Princess, and we must prepare.”

He was right, but I wanted to know what had I missed. It couldn't be just about sex with Mistral, they'd all seen me have sex with others. But if not that, then what? I shook my head, smoothed my short skirt, and put it from my mind. We had a crime to solve if the Goddess would give us enough free time to do it. I couldn't seem to control the wild magic that was returning to us, but I could at least pretend to control the murder investigation. Though the tight feeling in my stomach told me I didn't have much control over either.