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Chapter 15

I STOOD IN THE DARK, FEELING SOMEONE, SOMETHING MOVING IN THE dark, and knew it wasn't the women, and it wasn't me.

One woman said, "What the hell is going on?"

"Lights are out in the ladies' room," I said.

"Brilliant," the other woman said. "Let's get out of here, Julie." I heard the two of them stumbling toward the door in the dark.

They slid out into the hallway, a flash of brightness against the pitch black, before the door closed behind them.

A wavering yellow-green flame sprang to life in the dark. The flames cast flickering shadows on a dark, dark face.

Doyle's skin wasn't brown -it was black. He looked as if he'd been carved from ebony. His cheekbones were high and sculpted, the chin a little too sharp for my taste. He was all angles and darkness. Those angles looked deceptively delicate, like the bones of a bird, but I'd seen him be hit full in the face with a war hammer once. He'd bled, but he hadn't broken.

The moment I saw him, fear rushed through me in a wave of coldness that left my fingertips tingling. If he hadn't saved my life once already, I'd have been sure he meant my death now. He was the queen's right hand. She would say, "Where is my Darkness? Bring me my Darkness." And someone would die or bleed or both. It was Doyle that should have been given the task of my death, not Sholto. Had he saved me earlier, to kill me now?

"I mean you no harm, Princess Meredith."

The moment he said it out loud, I could breathe again. Doyle didn't play word games. He said what he meant, meant what he said. The problem was that most of the time he said things like, "I've come to kill you." But this time, he meant me no harm. Why, or rather, why not?

I was standing trapped in a ladies room with wards that would not hold on the door and window. Eventually the sluagh would break through, and I didn't trust Sholto to save me from them. If it had been almost anyone but Doyle I'd have fallen into his arms with relief, or just let myself faint from blood loss and shock. But it was Doyle, and he simply wasn't a person that you fell into the arms of, not without checking for knives first.

"What do you want, Doyle?" The words came out harsher than I meant them to, angry, but I didn't take them back or apologize for the tone. I was fighting not to shiver visibly, and failing. I was still bleeding from a half dozen wounds on my arms, blood sliding inside my slacks like a warm worm working against my skin. I needed help, and I couldn't hide that fact from him. It put me in a very weak bargaining position. When dealing with the queen, that was a bad place to be. And make no mistake about it, when dealing with Doyle you were dealing with the queen, unless things had changed drastically in the court in three short years.

"To obey my queen in all things." His voice was like his skin, dark. It made me think of molasses and other thick, sweet things. A voice so deep it could hit notes low enough to make my spine shiver.

"That's not an answer," I said.

His hair looked very short and clipped close to his head, black but not as black as his skin. But I knew the hair wasn't short-it was long. His hair was always in a tight thick braid down his back. I couldn't see it, but I knew the braid reached to his ankles. The braid left the tips of his pointed ears bare and visible.

The green flame glittered off the earrings in those fantastic ears. Two fine diamond studs graced each dark earlobe, and two dark jewels almost the color of his skin sat beside the diamonds like dark stars. Small silver hoops climbed up the cartilage of both ears to the very top where the ear curled into a soft, fleshy point.

The ears showed that he was not full high court, but a bastard mix like myself. Only the ears betrayed him, and he could have hidden them behind his hair but he almost never did.

I glanced down at the small silver necklace that was the only other jewelry he wore. A small silver spider with its fat body in the shape of some dark jewel sat on the black cloth of his chest.

"I should have remembered that your livery is a spider."

He gave a very small smile, which for Doyle was an outrageous amount of expression. "Normally, I would give you time to adjust to my presence, our predicament, but your wards will not hold forever. We must act if you are to be saved."

"Lord Sholto was sent here by the queen to kill me. Why send you to save me? Even for her that makes no sense."

"The queen did not send Sholto."

I stared up at him. Did I dare believe him? We rarely lied outright to each other. But someone was lying to me, because they couldn't both be telling the truth. "Sholto said I was under the queen's order of execution."

"Think, Princess. If Queen Andais truly desired your execution she'd drag you home so that the court could see what happens to sidhe who flee the court against royal orders. She would make an example of you." He motioned at the room, his hands spreading flame as he moved, like afterimages. "She would not have you killed in hiding, where no one would see." The flame collected back upon itself like water droplets sliding over a plate, but stayed dancing above his fingertips.

I put a hand on the edge of the sink. If this conversation didn't end soon I was going to be on my knees, because standing wasn't going to be an option. How much blood had I lost? How much blood was I still losing?

"You mean that the queen would want to see me die," I said.

"Yes," he said.

Something thudded into the window with enough force that the room seemed to shake. Doyle whirled toward the sound, drawing a long knife, or a small sword, from behind his back. The greenish flames hung floating in the air above one of his shoulders like an obedient pet.

The light played on the blade and the carved-bone hilt. The hilt was a trio of crows, their breasts meeting, their wings entwined, their beaks open bearing jewels for the pommel.

I sank to the floor, one hand on the sink. "That's Mortal Dread." It was one of the queen's private weapons. I'd never heard of her loaning it to anyone for any reason.

Doyle turned slowly from the empty window. The short sword caught the wavering light. "Now do you believe that the queen sent me to save you?"

"Either that, or you killed her for the sword," I said.

He looked down at me, and the look on his face said he didn't see the humor in that last remark. Good, because I wasn't being funny. Mortal Dread was one of the treasures of the Unseelie Court. The sword had mortal blood tied to its forging, which meant that a death wound from Mortal Dread was truly a death wound for any fey, even a sidhe. I would have said that the only way to get the sword was to pry it from my aunt's cold, dead hands.

Something large was hitting the window over and over again. I'd hoped they'd try to break the wardings by magic, which would take some time, but they were going to simply destroy what I'd warded. If the window was no longer there then the ward would no longer work. Brute force over magic-sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't. Tonight it was going to work. There was a sharp crumbling sound as the glass cracked around the wire that ran through it. Without the wire in the glass, it would have already broken.

Doyle knelt by me, sword pointed tip down like you'd hold a loaded gun for safety. "We are out of time, Princess."

I nodded. "I'm listening."

He reached his empty right hand toward me, and I flinched, falling back on my butt on the floor. "I must touch you, Princess."

"Why?"

The glass cracked enough that wind oozed through the room. I could hear something large rubbing against the wall, and the high twittering calls of the nightflyers urging their beefy brethren on.

"I can kill some of them, my princess, but not all of them. I will lay my life down for you, but it will not be enough, not against the might of nearly the entire sluagh." He leaned in close enough that I had to either let him touch me, or lie on the floor and start crawling crabwise backward away from him.

I laid my hand against him, touching the leather of his jacket. He continued pushing forward, and my hand slid off to the black T-shirt underneath. I felt something wet. I jerked back, and my hand was covered black in the eerie half-light.

"You're bleeding," I said.

"The sluagh were most persistent that I did not find you tonight."

I had to put one hand behind me to keep from falling to the ground, because he was that close. Close enough to kiss, or to kill.

"What do you want, Doyle?"

The glass behind us shattered, spraying the floor in a tinkling shower of shards like a sharp hard rain. "My apologies, but there is no time for niceties."

He let the sword fall to the floor and grabbed my upper arms. He pulled me against him, and I had a second to realize that he meant to kiss me.

If he'd tried to knife me, I'd have been prepared, or at least not surprised, but a kiss... I was lost. His skin smelled like some exotic spice. His lips were soft, and the kiss gentle. I was frozen in his arms, too shocked to know what to do, as if he'd bespelled me. He whispered against my lips, "She said, it must be given to you, as it was given to me." There was a thread of anger in his whispered words.

I heard something fall through the window, a heavy plop. Doyle released me so suddenly that I fell back to the floor. In one fluid movement he picked up the sword, turned, and moved across the floor in a dancelike movement that never left his knees. He drove the sword into a black tentacle as big as he was, that had spilled through the crack in the window. Something screamed on the other side of the broken glass. He pulled the sword from the tentacle, and it began to retract through the window. Doyle stood, moving just ahead of its motion. He raised the sword above his head and brought it down with a force that made the blade a shining blur. The tentacle fell in pieces in a wash of blood that spilled like black water in the greenish-yellow light.

The rest of the tentacle retracted through the window to a sound like the wind howling. Doyle turned back to me. "That will make them hesitate, but not for long." He strode toward me, bloody sword naked in his hand. It had all happened in seconds. He'd even managed to stand to one side so the blood had missed him, as if he'd known where to stand, or what the blood would

do.

Watching him move toward me, I couldn't stay on the ground. He was here to keep me alive, but as he moved closer every instinct I had screamed out. He was an elemental thing carved of darkness and half-light, armed with a killing sword and moving toward me like death incarnate. In that one moment I knew why humans had fallen down and worshiped us.

I used the sinks to pull myself to my feet, because I could not meet him crouched like a hunted thing. I had to stand before that dark grace, or bow down before it like a human worshiper. Standing made the room waver in lines of color and darkness; I was so light-headed I was afraid I'd fall, but I kept my feet with a death grip on the sinks. When my vision cleared, I was still upright, and Doyle was close enough that I could see green flames reflected in the dark mirrors of his eyes.

He was suddenly holding me so close that the blood on his shirt slapped cool against my skin. His hands were so strong as they moved up my back, pressing me against his body. "The queen put her mark within me, to give to you. Once you have it, all will know that to harm you is to risk the queen's mercy."

"The kiss," I said.

He nodded. "She said, I must give it to you, as she gave it to me. Forgive me." He kissed me before I could ask what he was seeking forgiveness for.

He kissed me like he was trying to climb inside me through my mouth. I wasn't ready for it and hadn't given permission for it. I tried to pull away, and his arm locked against my back, pressing the leather into my skin. His other hand held my face, fingers digging into my chin. I couldn't pull away from the kiss, I couldn't pull away from him.

Struggling was getting me nowhere, so I stopped and opened my mouth to him, kissing him back. A tension went out of his body, as if he thought I'd given permission. I hadn't. I grabbed his black T-shirt and began to pull it out of his pants. It was so wet with blood that it clung to his skin, but I pulled it free. I ran my hands over the flatness of his stomach, upward to the smooth swell of his chest.

He melted against me, the hand on my back kneading against my bare skin.

My hands found the wound high up on his chest. It was wide, a deep slash. Three things happened at once: I plunged my fingers into his wound; his body stiffened and I felt him react to the pain. I think he would have released me then, but the third thing happened on the heels of his pain, with my fingers plunged inside the meat of his body. The queen's mark filled his mouth and slid inside mine.

A sweet rush of power filled my mouth, pouring from Doyle's body into mine and melting warm between our lips, as if we were both sucking on the same piece of candy. The power swelled inside us, melting between us in long sweet strands. It filled us to the brim with warmth, like mulled wine poured into twin cups, until power ran down our bodies, through our bodies, to finally pour in liquid warmth across our skin.

Doyle broke the kiss, pulling away from me. I slid to the floor, not from blood loss this time, but because my knees wouldn't hold me.

I couldn't seem to focus on anything, as if I were looking at the world through a haze. Doyle was leaning both hands on the sinks, head down, as if he was light-headed, too. I heard him say, "Consort, save me."

I don't know what my snappy comeback would have been, because the door burst open, slamming into the far stalls. Sholto was silhouetted in the doorway. He'd thrown the grey overcoat across his bare chest, but the nest of tentacles showed like some monster trying to pull itself from his skin.

I had a sense of movement behind me, and turned to see Doyle go for the sword that he'd laid in the sink. I felt Sholto's power rise like a wind in the lighted doorway. I realized suddenly that they both thought the other had come to kill me.

I had time to yell, "No!"

Doyle's flame vanished, swallowed into a darkness that was velvet and perfect and filled with the sounds of moving bodies.



Chapter 14 | A Kiss of Shadows | Chapter 16



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