AN HOUR LATER SHOLTO AND I WERE SITTING IN TWO LOVELY BUT UNcomfortable chairs around a small white table. The room was elegant, if a little too pink and gold for my tastes. There'd been wine and a tray of hors d'oeuvres waiting on the table. The wine was a very sweet dessert wine. It complemented the cheese on the tray but clashed with the caviar. Of course, I'd never tasted anything that could make caviar palatable. No matter how expensive it was, it still tasted like fish eggs.
Sholto seemed to like the caviar and the wine. "Champagne would have been more appropriate, but I've never liked it," he said.
"Are we celebrating something?" I asked.
"An alliance, I hope."
I took a minute sip of the too-sweet wine and looked at him. "What sort of alliance?"
"Between the two of us."
"That much I'd assumed. The big question, Sholto, is why would you want an alliance with me?"
"You're third in line to the throne." His face had become very closed, very careful, as if he didn't want me to know what he was thinking.
"And?" I said.
He blinked those triple-golden eyes at me. "Why wouldn't a sidhe want to join himself to the woman who is only two steps away from the throne?"
"Normally, that would be fine reasoning, but you and I both know that the only reason I'm still third in line for the throne is that my father got the queen's oath before he died. She'd have had me disqualified on the grounds of my mortality alone, except for that. I have no standing at the court, Sholto. I am the first princess of the line who has no magic."
He sat his wineglass carefully on the table. "You are one of the best of all of us at personal glamour," he said.
"True, but it's the greatest of my powers. For Goddess sake, I am still called NicEssus, daughter of Essus. A title that I should have lost after childhood when I came into my power. Except I didn't come into my power. I may never come into my power, Sholto. That alone could have gotten me removed from the line of succession."
"Except for the oath the queen made to your father," Sholto said.
"I am aware how much your aunt loathes you, Meredith. Much the same way she loathes me."
I sat the wineglass down, tired of pretending to enjoy it. "You have magic enough for a court title. You're not mortal."
He looked at me, and it was a long, hard, almost harsh look. "Don't be coy, Meredith, you know exactly why the queen can't stand the sight of me."
I met that hard glance, but it was... uncomfortable. I did know, all the court knew.
"Say it, Meredith, say it out loud."
"The queen disapproves of your mixed blood."
He nodded. "Yes." He seemed almost relieved. The harshness in his eyes had been uneasy to see, but at least it had been genuine. For all I knew everything else was false. I wanted to see what truly lay behind that handsome face.
"But that's not why, Sholto. There's more mixed blood among the sidhe royals now than pure."
"Fine," he said, "she disapproves of my father's bloodline."
"It's not the fact that your father is a nightflyer, Sholto."
He frowned. "If you have a point, make it."
"Except for the odd pointy ear, until you came along sidhe genetics won out no matter what we mated with."
"Genetics," he said. "I forget that you are our first modern college graduate."
I smiled. "Father was hoping I'd be a doctor."
"You can't heal with your touch, what kind of doctor is that?" He took a big drink of wine, as if he were still agitated.
"Someday I must take you on a tour of a modern hospital," I said.
"Whatever you wish to show me would be a pleasure." Whatever real emotion had almost peeked through, vanished in a wave of double entendre.
I ignored the double meaning and went back to digging. I'd seen real emotion, I wanted to see more of it. If I was going to risk my life I needed to see Sholto without the masks that the court taught us to wear. "Until you, all the sidhe looked like sidhe no matter what we mated with. I think the queen sees you as proof that the sidhe blood is growing weak, just as my mortality shows the blood is thinning."
That handsome face grew tight with anger. "The Unseelie preach that all fey are beautiful, but some of us are only beautiful for a night. We are diversions, but nothing more."
I watched the anger eat across his shoulders, down his arms. His muscles tightened as the anger flowed over him. "My mother," and he spat that last word out, "thought she would have a night of pleasure and pay no price. I was that price." He bit off the words, rage intensifying the light in his eyes so that the rings of color in them blazed like yellow flame and molten running gold.
I'd broken through that so careful exterior and found a nerve. "I would say that you're the one that paid the price, not your mother," I said. "Once she gave birth to you, she went back to the court, to her life."
He looked at me, the rage still naked on his face.
I talked carefully to that anger, because I didn't want it to spill over on me, but I liked the anger. It was real, not some mood calculated to get him something. He hadn't planned this mood, it had just come over him. I liked that, I liked that a lot. One of the things I'd loved about Roane had been that his emotions were so close to the surface. He never pretended anything he did not feel. Of course, that was the same trait that had allowed him to go off to the sea with his new sealskin, and never bother to say good-bye. No one was perfect.
"And she left me with my father," Sholto said. He looked down at the table, then slowly raised those extraordinary eyes to me. "Do you know how old I was before I saw another sidhe?"
I shook my head.
"I was five. Five years old before I saw anyone with skin and eyes like mine." He stopped talking, eyes distant with remembering.
"Tell me," I said, softly.
His voice came soft, as if he were talking to himself. "Agnes had taken me into the woods to play on a dark, moonless night."
I wanted to ask if Agnes was the hag Black Agnes that I'd met tonight, but I let him talk. There'd be time for questions when his mood had changed, and he stopped telling his secrets. It had been surprisingly easy to get him to open up to me. Usually when it's this easy to peel away someone's protections they want to talk, need to talk.
"I saw something shining through the trees as if the moon had come down to Earth. I asked Agnes, what is that? She wouldn't tell me, just took my hand and led me closer to the light. At first, I thought they were human, except humans didn't glow like they had fire beneath their skins. Then the woman turned her face toward us, and her eyes..." His voice trailed off, and there was such a mixture of wonder and pain in him that I almost let it go, but I didn't. I wanted to know, if he wanted to tell me.
"Her eyes..." I prompted.
"Her eyes glowed, burned, blue, darker blue, then green. I was five, so it wasn't her nakedness, or his body on top of hers, but the wonderment of that white skin and those swirling eyes. Like my eyes, like my skin." He stared past me as if I weren't there. "Agnes dragged me away before they saw us. I was full of questions. She told me to ask my father."
He blinked and took a deep breath as if he were literally coming back from someplace else. "My father explained about the sidhe, and that I was one of them. My father raised me to believe I was sidhe. I could not be what he was." Sholto gave a harsh laugh. "I cried the first time I realized I would never have wings."
He looked at me, frowning. "I've never told anyone at court that story. Is this some kind of magic that you have over me?" He didn't actually believe it was a spell, or he'd be more upset, maybe even frightened.
"Who else at the court but me would understand what the story meant?" I asked.
He looked at me for a long moment, then slowly nodded. "Yes, though your body is not marred as mine, you, too, do not belong. They won't let you belong." That last was said for both of us, I think.
His hands lay on the table so tightly clasped that they were mottled. I touched his hands, and he jerked away as if I'd hurt him. He'd slid his hands out of reach, but stopped in midmotion. I watched the effort it took for him to put his hands back within my reach. He acted like someone who expected to be hurt.
I covered his large hands with one of mine, or covered as much as I could. He smiled, and it was the first real smile I'd seen, because this one was uncertain, not sure of its welcome. I don't know what he saw on my face, but whatever it was it reassured him, because he opened his hands, and took my hand in his, raising it slowly to his lips. He didn't so much kiss my hand, as press his mouth to it. It was a surprisingly tender gesture. Loneliness can be a bond stronger than most. Who else at either court understood our hearts better than each other? Not love, or friendship, but a bond nonetheless.
His gaze rose to meet mine, as he raised his face from my hand. The look in his eyes was one I rarely saw among the sidhe, open, raw. There was a need in his eyes so large it was like staring into an endless void, a deep yawning pit of some missing thing. It made his eyes wild like some creature's, or a feral child's. Something untamed, but badly wounded. Did my eyes ever look like that? I hoped not.
He let go of my hand slowly, reluctantly. "I have never been with another sidhe, Meredith. Do you understand what that means?"
I understood, probably better than he did, because the only thing worse than never was to have had it, and be denied it. But I kept my voice neutral because I was beginning to fear where we were heading, and no matter how much sympathy I had with him, it wasn't worth being tortured to death. "You wonder what it would be like."
He shook his head. "No, I crave the sight of pale flesh stretched underneath me. I want my shine matched by another. I want that, Meredith, and you can give it to me."
He was heading where I'd feared. "I told you, Sholto, I won't risk death by torture for any pleasure. No one, nothing, is worth that." I meant it.
"The queen joys in making her guards watch her with her lovers. Some refuse to watch, but most of us stay on the off chance that she may beckon us to join. 'You are my bodyguards - don't you want to guard my body?'" He did a fair imitation of her voice. "Even when it is meant for cruelty, the love of two sidhe is still a wondrous thing. I would give my soul for it."
I gave him my best blank face. "I don't have any use for your soul, Sholto. What else can you offer me that would be worth risking death by torture?"
"If you are my sidhe lover, Meredith, then the queen will know what you mean to me. I will make sure she understands that if anything happens to you that she will lose the sluagh's loyalty. She can't afford that right now."
"Why not make this deal with other more powerful sidhe women?"
"The women of Prince Cel's Guard have him to have sex with, and unlike the queen, Cel keeps them busy."
"When I left, some of the women were beginning to refuse Cel's bed."
Sholto smiled happily. "The movement has become quite popular."
I raised eyebrows. "Are you saying that Cel's little harem is turning him down?"
"More and more of them." Sholto still looked pleased.
"Then why not make this invitation to one of them? They're all more powerful than I am."
"Perhaps it's what you said earlier, Meredith. None of them would understand me as you do."
" I think you underestimate them. But what could Cel possibly be doing to them that's making them leave him in droves? The queen herself is a sexual sadist, but her guardsmen would crawl over broken glass to bed her. What is Cel offering that is worse than that?" I didn't expect an answer, but I couldn't even begin to think of anything that bad.
The smile faded from Sholto's face. "The queen did that once," he said.
"What?" I asked, frowning.
"Made one of us strip and crawl over broken glass. If he made it without showing pain, then she'd fuck him."
I blinked. I'd heard worse, hell, I'd seen worse. But part of me wanted to know who it was, so
I asked, "Who was it?"
He shook his head. "We of the Guard have sworn to keep the humiliations among ourselves. Our pride, if not our bodies, survives the better for it." His eyes looked lost again.
Again, I wondered what Cel could be doing that was worse than the queen's games. "Why not make this offer to a more powerful sidhe woman who isn't a member of the Prince's Guard?" I asked.
He gave a faint smile. "There are women at court who are not members of the Prince's Guard, Meredith. They would not touch me before I joined the Guard. They fear bringing more perverse creatures into the world." He laughed, and it had a wild sound to it, almost like crying. It hurt to hear it. "That's what the queen calls me, her 'perverse creature'- sometimes, simply 'creature. ' In a few centuries I will be like Frost and her Darkness. I will be her Creature." He gave that painful laugh again. "I will risk much to keep that from happening."
"Does she really need the sluagh's backing that much, so much that she'd give up my death, give up punishing us for going against her strictest taboo?" I shook my head. "No, Sholto, she can't let this stand. If we find a way around her celibacy taboo, then others will try. It will be like the first crack in a dam. Eventually it breaks."
"She is losing control, Meredith, losing her hold on the court. These three years have not been good ones for her. The court is splitting under the weight of her erratic behavior, and Prince Cel's growing..." He seemed at a loss for words, then finally said, "When he comes into power, Cel is going to make Andais look sane. It will be like Caligula after Tiberius."
"Are you saying, if we think it's bad now, we ain't seen nothing yet?" I tried to make him smile, and failed.
He turned haunted eyes to me. "The queen cannot afford to lose the support of the sluagh. Trust me on this, Meredith, I have no desire to end up at the queen's mercy, any more than you do."
"The queen's mercy" had become a saying among us; if you feared something, you said, "I'd rather be at the queen's mercy than do that." It meant that nothing scared you more.
"What do you want of me, Sholto?"
"I want you," he said, his gaze very direct.
I had to smile. "You don't want me, you want a sidhe in your bed. Remember that Griffin rejected me because I was not sidhe enough for him."
"Griffin was a fool."
I smiled, and it made me think of Uther's words earlier that night, that Roane was a fool. If everyone was a fool for leaving me, why did they keep doing it? I looked at him and tried to be just as direct. "I've never been with a nightflyer."
"It is considered perverted by those that consider nothing perverse," Sholto said, and his voice was bitter. "I would not expect you to have experience with us."
Us. An interesting pronoun. If you asked me what I was, I was sidhe, not human, not brownie. I was sidhe, and if you pushed me, I was Unseelie, for better or worse, even though I could claim the blood of both courts. But I would never have said "us" when speaking of anything but Unseelie sidhe.
"After my aunt, our beloved queen, tried to drown me when I was six, Father made sure I had my own sidhe bodyguards. One of them was a crippled nightflyer, Bhatar."
Sholto nodded. "He lost a wing in the last real battle we fought on American soil. We can grow back most of our body parts, so it was a grave wound."
"Bhatar stayed in my room at night. He never left my side when I was a child. Father taught me chess, but Bhatar taught me how to beat Father." It made me smile.
"He still speaks well of you," Sholto said.
I started to ask, then shook my head. "No, he would never have suggested that you do this. He would never have risked my safety, or yours. You see, he spoke well of you, too, King Sholto.
The best king the sluagh had had in two hundred years, that's what he used to say."
"You know what your people think of you." I tried to read that face. The need was there, but need could mask so many things. "What of the hags, your little harem?"
"What of them?" he asked, but there was a look in his eyes, that gave lie to his casual words.
"They wanted to hurt me to keep me from you. What do you think they'll do if you actually bed me?"
"I am their king. They will do as they are told."
I laughed then, but it wasn't bitter, just ironic. "You are a king of a fey people, Sholto, they never do quite what you tell them, or quite what you think they will. From sidhe to pixie, they are free things. Take for granted their obedience and you do so at your peril."
"Like the queen has done for a millennium?" He made it half question, half statement.
I smiled, nodding. "As the king of the Seelie Court has done for even longer."
"I am a new king compared to them and not quite so arrogant."
"Then tell me truly what will your hag lovers do if you desert them for me?"
He seemed to think about it for a minute, long and slow, then he looked at me. His face was serious. "I don't know."
I almost laughed. "You are new at being king. I've never heard one of them admit ignorance before."
"Not knowing a thing is not ignorance. Feigning knowledge you don't have, can be," he said.
"Wise, as well as modest; how terribly unique for fey royalty." I remembered a question I'd wanted to ask. "The Agnes that took you into the woods as a boy, your nanny, is she Black Agnes?"
"Yes," he said.
I fought not to frown. "Your ex-nanny is now your lover?"
"She has not aged," he said, "and I am all grown up now."
"Growing up around immortal beings is confusing, I admit, but there are still fey that helped raise me that I don't think of in that way."
"As there are among the sluagh for me, but Agnes is not one of them."
I wanted to ask why, but didn't. First, it was none of my business; second, I might not understand the answer even if he gave it to me. "How do you know the queen intends to execute me for certain?" Back to the important topic.
"Because I was sent to Los Angeles to kill you." He said it like it meant nothing-no emotion, no regret, just fact.
My heart beat a little faster, my breath catching in my throat. I had to concentrate to ease the air out without making it noticeable. "If I don't agree to sleep with you, then you carry out the sentence?"
"I gave my oath that I meant you no harm. I meant it."
"You would go against the queen for my sake?"
"The same reasoning that keeps us safe if we bed each other, keeps me safe if I leave you alive. She needs my sluagh more than she needs to be vindictive."
He seemed so certain of that last part. Certain of what he was certain of, uncertain of everything else; like most of us if we're honest. I looked at that strong face, the jaw a little wide for my taste, the bones of the cheek at little too sculpted. I liked a softer look to my men, but he was undeniably handsome. His hair was a perfect white, thick and straight, held back in a loose ponytail. The hair fell to his knees like one of the older sidhe, even though Sholto was only about two hundred years, give or take. The shoulders were broad, the chest looked good under the white, button-down shirt. The shirt fell absolutely smooth, and I wondered if he were using some sort of glamour to make it so, because I knew that what lay under the shirt was not smooth. "The offer is very unexpected, Sholto. I'd like some time to think about it, if I may?"
"Until tomorrow night," he said.
I nodded, and stood. He stood as well. I found myself staring at his chest and stomach trying to see that movement I'd noticed on the street. Nothing showed, he was wasting glamour on keeping it hidden." I don't know if I can do this," I said.
"What?" he asked.
I motioned at him. "I saw you once without a shirt when I was much younger. The sight... stayed with me."
His face paled, eyes hardening. He was throwing his walls back in place. "I understand. The thought of touching me frightens you. I do understand, Meredith." He let out a long breath. "It was a pretty thought while it lasted." He turned away from me, gathering his long coat from the back of the chair where he'd laid it. The heavy tail of hair lay like a white furred stripe down his body.
"Sholto," I said.
He didn't turn around, just held the length of hair over one shoulder while he put on his coat.
"I didn't say no, Sholto."
He turned then. His face was still closed, careful, all the emotions I'd worked so hard to find buried again. "Then what are you saying?"
"I'm saying, no sex tonight, but I can't say yes, I'll have sex with you, until I see everything."
"Everything?" He made it a question again.
"Now who's being coy," I said.
I watched the idea take shape on his face, in his eyes. A strange little smile played on his lips. "Are you asking to see me naked?"
"Not all of you." I had to smile at the look on his face. "But down to your thighs, yes, please. I have to see how I truly feel about your... extras."
He smiled and it was warm with an edge of uncertainty. It was his real smile, that edge of charm and fear. "That is the kindest way anyone has ever described them."
"If I can't be with you in joy and shared pleasure, then your dream of matching your glow with another falls apart. A sidhe does not glow for things that are duty and not pleasure."
He nodded. "I understand."
"I hope so, because it's more than seeing you nude. I need to touch and be touched to see if..." I spread my hands wide. "If I can do this."
"But no sex tonight?" His voice was as close to playful as I'd ever heard it.
"You dream of sidhe flesh and have never had it. I have had it, and for three, nearly four years, I've gone without. I miss home, Sholto. Strange and perverse as it is, I miss it. If I agree to this, then I get a sidhe lover and home. Not to mention I'm escaping a death sentence. You are not a fate worse than death, Sholto."
"Some have thought so over the years." He tried to make it a joke, but his eyes gave him away.
"That's why I need to see what I'm getting myself into."
"Do I raise the question of love, or is that too naive for a king and a princess?" he asked.
I smiled, but this time it was sad. "I tried love once; it betrayed me."
"Griffin is a worthless thing, Meredith, unworthy of such depth of emotion, and certainly incapable of returning it."
"I found that out, eventually," I said. "Love is grand while it lasts, Sholto, but it doesn't last."
We looked at each other. I wondered if my eyes were as tired and full of regret as his.
"Am I supposed to argue with you, and tell you some love does last?" Sholto asked.
"Are you going to?"
He smiled, and shook his head. "No."
I held my hand out to him. "No lies, Sholto, not even the pretty ones." His hand was very warm wrapped around mine. "Let me take you to bed, and see what I'm bargaining for."
He let me lead him toward the bed. "Do I get to see what I'm bargaining for?"
I pulled him backward toward the bed so I could watch his face. "If you like."
A look passed through his eyes that was neither sidhe, nor human, nor sluagh, but simply male. "I like," he said.