I WENT TO THE CLOSED BATHROOM DOOR. DOYLE'S RAISED VOICE WAS saying, "Please, my lady, do not make me do this."
I don't know what else I would have heard, because he came to the door then and opened it a crack. "Yes, Princess?"
"If you could stay in there a few minutes longer, I'm going to get dressed for bed."
He acknowledged it with a nod. He did not invite me in to see my aunt through the mirror. He did not try to explain the fight. He simply closed the door. I could hear their voices but faintly now. No more yelling. They didn't want me to know what the fight was about. I was guessing it had something to do with me. What did Doyle not want to do so badly that he'd argue with his queen?
He didn't mean to kill me, and, beyond that tonight, I wasn't sure I cared. I turned the overhead light off, and switched on the small Tiffany-shaded lamp beside the bed. The overhead light always seemed too bright for a bedroom. The fact that I was willing to turn off any light meant I was feeling better. Calmer at least.
My usual sleepwear runs high to lingerie. I like the feel of silk and satin against my skin. But it seemed almost cruel to Doyle.
It was the royal's privilege to sleep with her bodyguards, her Ravens, until one of them made her pregnant; then she wed that one and didn't sleep with the rest. Andais could have freed them to have other lovers, but she chose not to. Unless they slept with her, they slept with no one. They'd been sleeping with no one for a very long time.
I finally settled for a silk nightshirt that fell to my knees; it had short sleeves and revealed only a thin V of skin high up on my chest. It covered more than anything else in the drawer, but without a bra my breasts pressed against the thin material, showing my nipples like thumbs pressed against the thin cloth. The silk was a vibrant royal purple and looked very good against my skin and hair. I was trying not to flash Doyle, but I was vain enough not to want to look frumpy.
I stared at myself in the mirror. I looked like a woman waiting for her lover, except for the cuts. I raised my arms to the glass. Nerys's claws had traced my forearms in angry red lines. The gash on the left forearm was still seeping blood. Did it need stitches? I usually healed without needing them, but it should have stopped bleeding by now. I raised the nightshirt up enough to see the wound on my thigh. It was a puncture wound, very high up. She'd been trying to pierce the femoral artery. She'd meant to kill me, but I'd killed her instead. I still felt nothing about her death. It was a vast numb place. Maybe tomorrow I'd feel bad, or maybe I wouldn't. Sometimes you just stayed numb, because anything else was not helpful. Sanity relied on numbness, sometimes.
I stared at myself in the mirror, and even my face was empty. My eyes held that dull startled look that had more to do with shock than anything else. The last time I'd seen this look on my face had been after the last duel, when I knew finally that the duels would never stop until I was dead. The night I'd made my decision to run, to hide.
The invitation to return to faerie was only hours old, and already I looked like a shell-shock victim. I raised my arms again and stared at the claw marks. In a way I'd paid the price for my return to faerie. I'd paid in blood, flesh, pain: the coin of the Unseelie Court. The queen had invited me back and given me her promise of safety, but I knew her. She'd still want to punish me for running, for hiding, for defeating her best efforts at hunting me down. To say that my aunt is not a graceful loser is an understatement of universe-shattering proportions.
There was a knock on the bathroom door. "May I come out?" Doyle asked.
"I'm trying to decide that now," I said.
"Excuse me?" he asked.
"Fine, come out," I said.
Doyle had draped the straps of the sword sheath over his bare chest. The hilt rode upside down,
slightly to one side of his ribs, like a gun in a shoulder holster. The straps seemed loose, as if he'd taken off something that had been helping hold it in place.
I'd never seen Doyle when he wasn't covered from neck to ankle. Even at high summer he rarely wore short sleeves, just lighter cloth. He had a silver ring in his left nipple. It was a startling thing against the utter blackness of his skin. The wound rode above the swell of his left pectoral muscle. The scarlet of the wound looked almost decorative against his chest, like some elaborate makeup meant to tease the eye.
"How badly are you hurt?" he asked.
"I could ask you the same thing."
"I carry no mortal blood, Princess. I will heal. I ask you again how badly are you injured?"
"I'm wondering if I need stitches on the arm, and..." I started to raise the nightshirt on the puncture wound, but stopped in midmotion. The sidhe are comfortable around nudity, but I'd always tried to be more circumspect around the guards.
"The puncture wound on my thigh, I'm wondering how deep it is." I let the purple silk fall back into place without pointing out the wound. It was very high up on my thigh and I was still not wearing underwear. I often didn't to bed. Habit. Now I wished I had put some on. Even though Doyle couldn't tell what I was or wasn't wearing under the nightshirt, I felt suddenly underdressed.
I'd have teased Jeremy, but I wouldn't have teased Uther, and I wouldn't tease Doyle, for very similar reasons. They were both cut off from that part of themselves. Uther because he'd been exiled and there were no women of his stature. Doyle on the whim of his queen.
He picked up the sleeping bags and laid them on the floor between the bed and the wall, then he sat on the end of the bed. "May I see the wound, Princess?"
I sat down on the edge of the bed beside him, smoothing the nightshirt down around me. I held my left arm out to him.
He used both his hands to raise the arm up, bending it at the elbow, so he could see the wound better. His fingers felt larger than they should have, more intimate than they were. "It is deep; some of the muscles are torn. It must hurt." He looked at me when he said the last.
"I can't seem to feel much of anything right now," I said.
He laid his hand on my forehead. His hand felt so warm, it was almost hot. "You are cool to the touch, Princess." He shook his head. "I should have noticed earlier. You are in shock. Not severe, but it was careless of me not to notice. You need healing and warmth."
I took my hand back from him. The feel of his fingers sliding along my skin as I drew away from him made me look away so he wouldn't see it in my face. "Since neither of us can heal by touch, I think I'll have to settle for some bandages and the warmth."
"I can heal by magic," he said.
I looked at him. His face was very careful, unreadable. "I've never seen you do it at court."
"It is a more... intimate method than the touch of hands. At court there are healers much more powerful than I. My own small abilities in the area of healing are not needed." He held his hands out toward me. "I can heal you, Princess, or would you prefer a trip to the emergency room and stitches? Either way the bleeding must be stopped."
Stitches are not my favorite thing. I laid my hand in his. He bent the arm at the elbow again, clasping his hand in my hand, entwining our fingers. My skin looked shockingly white against his darkness, like polished jet next to mother-of-pearl. He placed his other hand just in back of my elbow. My arm was held gently but firmly in place. I realized that I couldn't move away from him and I didn't know how his healing worked.
"Will it hurt?"
He looked at me around the edge of my arm. "It may, a little." He began to bend toward my arm as if to lay a kiss on the wound.
I put my free hand on his shoulder, stopping his forward movement. His skin was like warm silk. "Wait-how exactly are you going to heal me?"
He gave that small smile. "If you would wait but moments you would see."
"I don't like surprises," I said, hand still on his shoulder.
He smiled and shook his head. "Very well." But his hands stayed at my hand and arm. I was still being held, as if he were going to heal me whether I agreed or not. "Sholto told you that one of my names is Baron Sweet-tongue."
"I remember," I said.
"He implied that it was sexual, but it is not. I can heal your wound, but not with my hands."
I stared at him for a few heartbeats. "Are you saying you're going to lick the wound closed?"
I kept staring at him. "Some of the court dogs can do that, but I've never heard of a sidhe having the ability."
"As Sholto said, there are benefits to not being pure sidhe. He can re-grow a severed body part, and I can lick your wound until it is healed."
I didn't try to keep the incredulity off my face. "If you were any other guard I'd accuse you of looking for an excuse to put your mouth on me."
He smiled, and this time it was brighter, more humor in it. "If my fellow Ravens were trying to trick you into this, it would not be your arm they were wanting to touch."
I had to smile. "You've made your point. All right, get the bleeding stopped if you can. I really don't want to go to the emergency room tonight." I dropped my arm from his shoulder.
He bent toward my arm, slowly, talking as he moved. "I will try to make it as painless as possible." His breath was almost burningly hot against my skin, then his tongue licked lightly over the wound.
He rolled his eyes up to me without moving his face back from my arm. "Did I hurt you, Princess?"
I shook my head, not sure I trusted my voice.
He bent back to the wound. He licked the length of the wound twice, very slowly, then his tongue slid inside the wound. The pain was sharp, immediate, and it brought a gasp to my throat.
He didn't pull away this time, but pressed his mouth closer to my skin. His eyes closed, as his tongue probed the wound, bringing small sharp pain sensations like tiny electric shocks. With every small pain things low in my body tightened and released. It was as if the nerves he touched were attached to other things that had nothing to do with my arm.
He began to lick the wound in long slow movements. His eyes were still closed, and I was near enough to see the black lashes, black on black against his cheeks. There was almost no pain now, just the sensation of his tongue sliding over me. The feel of his mouth against me sped my heart, made my breath catch in my throat. His earrings caught the light, reflecting it in silver glitter as if the curve of his ears had been set in silver. Warmth began to gather at the wound. It felt very like being healed by touch now. That growing warmth, the energy vibrating against my skin, inside my skin, was almost identical.
Doyle drew back from my arm, eyes half-closed, mouth slack. He looked like he was waking from a dream, or as if he'd been interrupted in more intimate things. He released my arm, slowly, almost reluctantly.
His voice came slow, hoarse. "It has been long since I have done this. I'd forgotten how it feels to heal."
I bent my arm back so I could see the wound, and there was no wound. I touched the skin with fingertips. The skin was smooth, untouched, still damp from Doyle's tongue, still warm to the touch as if some of that magic clung to the skin. "It's perfect; there's not even a scar."
"You sound surprised."
"Pleased, more like."
He gave a small bow, still sitting on the edge of the bed. "So happy to have been of service to my princess."
"I forgot the extra pillows." I stood, and started to move toward the closet. He grabbed my wrist.
"You are bleeding."
I glanced down at my arm, and it was still healed.
"Your leg, Princess."
I looked down and found blood trickling down my right leg. "Damn."
"Lie down on the bed and let me look at the wound." He still held my wrist and tried to pull me
down on the bed.
I resisted, and he released me. "It should not still be bleeding, Princess Meredith. Let me heal it, as I did your arm. "
"It's very high upon my thigh, Doyle."
"The hag was trying to pierce your femoral artery."
"Yes "I said.
"I must insist on seeing the wound, Princess. It is too vital an area to be ignored."
"It's very high up on my thigh," I said again.
"I understand that," he said. "Now please lie down and let me look at it."
"I'm not wearing anything under this shirt," I said.
"Oh," he said. Emotions played across his face so quickly I couldn't read them, like clouds passing over a field on a windy day. Finally, he said, "Perhaps you could put something on so that I might look at the wound."
"Good idea," I said. I opened the dresser drawer that held my unmentionables. The panties, like the sleepwear, run high to satin, silk, and lace. I finally picked a pair of plain black satin, no frills, no lace, no peek-a-boo panels. It was the closest to conservative that I owned.
I glanced back at Doyle. He had turned his back on me without being asked. I slipped the underwear on, made sure the shirt was in place, and said, "You can look now."
He turned, and his face was very solemn. "Most of the court ladies would not have thought to warn me. Some to tease, and some simply because it would not occur to them to tell me. Nudity is common enough in the courts. Why did you think to tell me?"
"Some of the guards tease, play slap and tickle, and I wouldn't have warned one of them. It would be just another part of the game. But you never play the game, Doyle. You are always apart from it. To have just lain down on the bed and spread would have been... cruel."
He nodded. "Yes, it would have been. So many of the court treat those of us who remain aloof like eunuchs, as if we feel nothing. But I would rather have no touch of soft flesh than to be teased up to that point, then have no release. That is worse than nothing at all to me."
"Is the queen still refusing to even allow you to touch yourselves?"
He looked down at the ground, and I realized I had overstepped polite questioning. "My apologies, Doyle, we are not close enough for such a question."
He spoke without looking up. "You are the most polite of all the Unseelie royals. The queen saw your... niceties as a weakness." He looked up at me, eyes searching my face. "But those of us in the Guard appreciated it. It was always a relief to be given guard duty over you, because we weren't afraid of you."
"I wasn't powerful enough for you to fear me," I said.
"No, Princess, I don't mean your magic. I mean we didn't fear your cruelty. Prince Cel has inherited his mother's... sense of humor."
"He's a sadist, you mean."
He nodded. "In every way. Now lie on the bed and let me look at your wound. If I let you bleed to death for modesty's sake, the queen might make me a eunuch."
"You are her Darkness, her right hand. She would not lose you over me."
"I think you undervalue yourself, and overvalue me." He held his hand out to me. "Please, Princess, lie down."
I took the offered hand and climbed onto the bed on my knees. "Would you, please, call me Meredith. It's been years since I heard princess this and princess that. I'll get my fill of it once I'm back in Cahokia. For tonight, let's drop the titles."
He gave a small bow at the neck. "As you wish, Meredith." I let him help me climb into the middle of the bed, though I didn't need the help. Partly because the older sidhe liked helping, and partly for the feel of his hand in mine.
I ended lying with my head cradled in the wealth of small pillows on the bed. Propped up I had a perfect view down the line of my body.
Doyle knelt to one side of my leg. "If you please, Princess."
"Meredith," I said.
He nodded. "If you please, Meredith."
I raised the dark purple silk until the wound showed. The puncture was high enough that black panties showed under the raised nightshirt.
He used his hands to examine the wound, pulling the skin, pressing on it. It hurt, and not a good kind of hurt, as if there was more damage than I'd realized. Blood flowed faster, but it certainly wasn't enough for an artery. I'd have bled to death long ago if the femoral had been punctured.
He raised up, hands in his lap. "The wound is very deep, and I think there is some muscle damage."
"It didn't hurt that much until you started touching it."
"If I do not heal it tonight, you'll be lame by tomorrow, and we'll be going to that emergency room. It might require surgery, stitching on the inside of your leg. Or I can heal it now."
"I vote for now," I said.
He gave his smile. "Good. I would hate to have to explain to the queen why I brought you home limping, when I could have healed you." He started to lean over my leg, then raised up. "This would be easier if I moved."
"You're the healer- do what you need to do," I said.
He moved between my legs, and I had to open them just to give him room for his knees. It took some maneuvering, and some "Excuse me, Princess"es, but he finally ended lying flat on his stomach, his hands cupping my thighs. His gazed moved up along my body until he met my eyes. Just staring down at him in this position made my pulse jump in my throat. I tried for it not to show on my face, and think I failed.
He blew his breath like a warm wind against the skin of my thigh. He looked at my face while he did it, and I realized it had been deliberate, and I don't think it had anything to do with healing me.
He raised back from my skin. "Forgive me, but it is not merely sex one misses, but the small intimacies. The look on a woman's face when she reacts to your touch." He flicked his tongue in a quick motion over my skin. "That small intake of breath as her body begins to rise to meet your touch."
He lay between my legs, staring up at me. I looked down the line of his body. His hair lay in a thick black rope across the bare skin of his back, trailing over the tight smoothness of his jeans. When I met his eyes again, they held that look that fills a man's eyes when he is sure that you will not tell him no, no matter what he asks. Doyle hadn't earned that look, not yet.
"You aren't supposed to tease, remember."
He rubbed his chin back and forth over my thigh as he spoke. "I normally don't allow myself to be maneuvered into such a compromising position, but I find that once I am here it is very difficult not take some advantage."
He bit my thigh, gently, and when that made me gasp, he set his teeth in my skin harder. It bowed my spine, made me cry out. When I could look again, he'd left a red imprint of his teeth in my thigh. It had been so long since I'd had a lover that not only would but wanted to leave my body marked.
His voice came purringly deep: "That was wonderful."
"Tease me and I'll tease back." I tried for it to be a warning, but my voice was too breathy.
"But you are all the way up there, and I am down here." His grip tightened on my thighs; the strength in his hands was immense. I understood what he was implying. He was strong enough to hold me in place with just his hands on my thighs. I could sit up, but I couldn't really get away. A tension in my body that I hadn't even known was there eased. I relaxed under his hands, settling back against the bed. There were things that I'd been missing that had little to do with orgasm. Doyle would never look up at me with slow horror on his face at something I'd asked him to do. He would never make me feel like a monster because of the things my body craved.
I worked the silk of the nightshirt out from under my back, then pulled it over my body, over my head. I raised up, sitting above him. That dark knowledge in his eyes was gone, chased away by sheer need. It was so raw on his face, I knew I'd taken the game too far. I held the nightshirt in front of my breasts, not sure how to apologize without making things more awkward than they already were.
"No," he said, "don't cover them. You surprised me, that's all."
"No, Doyle. We can't finish this, and for you, especially... I'm sorry." I started to slip the shirt back on.
His fingers tightened painfully around my thighs, fingertips digging into the skin. He made me gasp and look at him with the shirt only on my arms
His voice was dark with command, a barely contained rage that made his eyes shine like black jewels. "No!"
That one word froze me where I was, left me staring down at him with wide eyes and my heart beating like a trapped thing in my throat.
"No," he said, voice only a breath less severe, "no, I want to see them. I'm going to make you writhe, my princess, and I want to watch your body while I do it."
I let the shirt fall to the bed and sat up, as close to him as I could get. His grip on my thighs had passed the point of pleasure and become simply pain, but that, too, under the right set of circumstances, was a kind of pleasure.
His fingers eased back just a little, and I saw that he'd left the marks of his fingernails in my thighs. The little half-moon marks filled with blood as I watched.
He started to move his hands out from under my thighs, but I shook my head no. "You're down there, and I'm up here, remember."
He didn't argue, just settled his hands back around my thighs, not hurting this time, just solid enough that I couldn't move away. I ran my hands over my stomach, upward to cup my breasts, then lay down propped against the pillows so he could see me.
He stared at me for long seconds, as if he'd memorize the way my body lay among the dark-colored pillows, then his mouth settled against the wound. He licked it with thick, slow movements of his tongue. Then his mouth locked over the wound and he began to suck. He drew on the skin so tightly that it hurt, as if he were sucking some deep poison out or the wound.
The pain raised me up, and he rolled his eyes to me full of that dark knowledge that he hadn't earned. I laid back against the bed with the pressure of his mouth on my thigh, his strong fingers digging into my thighs hard enough that I knew tomorrow I'd be bruised. My skin ha started to glow, glimmering in the soft bedroom light.
I stared down at him, but his eyes were turned downward, concentrating on his work. The warmth began to grow under the pressure of his mouth, to fill the wound like warm water poured down the hole in my skin.
Doyle began to glow. His bare skin shone like moonlight on a puddle of water at night. Except this moonlight was coming from inside him to shimmer in black shapes of light and dark underneath his skin.
The warmth of the healing beat against my thigh like a second pulse. His mouth locked against me, pulling at that pulse, as if he'd suck me clean and empty. A warmth grew in the center of my body, and I realized that it was my own power, but it had never been like this before.
The warmth in my thigh and the warmth in my body grew outward like two pools of heat, out and out, larger and larger until my body was eaten with heat, and my skin glowed white and pure with a dance underneath like water. The two powers flowed against each other, and for a heartbeat Doyle's healing warmth floated on the surface of my heat, then the two powers spilled into one another, merging into one rush of spine-bowing, skin-dancing, body-tightening magic.
Doyle raised his face up from my thigh. He cried out, "Meredith, no!"
But it was too late, the power poured through us both in a rush of warmth, of heat, that tightened things low in my body until there was no breath. Then the power spilled outward like a fist flinging open, straining for something it could not grasp. I cried out, and the power flowed out of me in a glow that left shadows in the room from my skin.
I saw Doyle as if through a haze. He was on his knees. He had one hand up as if to ward off a blow, then the power smashed into him. I saw his head snap back, his body raise high on his knees as if the power had arms to lift him. The dance of moonlight under his skin grew until I could see a nimbus of black light, shining like a dark rainbow around his body. He stayed for an impossible second lifted, straining, a shining thing, so beautiful that you could only cry, or go blind as you watched. Then a scream was torn from his mouth, half of pain, half of pleasure. He sagged onto the bed, catching himself with his arms. That wondrous glow began to fade as if his skin were absorbing the light, sucking it back into the depths from whence it came.
I sat up, reached for him with a hand that still held a hint of that soft white light.
He jerked back from me, fell off the bed in his haste, looked over the edge of it at me with wide, frightened eyes. "What have you done?"
"What's wrong, Doyle?"
"What's wrong?" He got to his feet, leaning against the wall suddenly as if his legs weren't quite steady. "I am not allowed a sexual release, Meredith. Not by my hand, or anyone else's."
"I never touched you there."
He closed his eyes and leaned his head back against the wall. He spoke without looking at me. "Your magic did. It ran through me like a sword." He opened his eyes, stared at me. "Do you understand now what you've done?"
I finally did. "You're saying that the queen will count this as sex."
"I never meant for it... My power has never been like this before."
"Was it like this the night you were with the roane?"
I thought about that for a moment, then frowned. "Yes, and no. It wasn't exactly like this, but-" I stopped in midsentence and stared at his chest.
My look must have been astonished, because it made him stare down at himself. "What? What do you see?"
"Your chest wound, it's gone." My voice was soft with amazement.
He ran his hands over his chest, searching the skin. "It's healed. I did not do this." He came to the edge of the bed. "Your arms."
I looked down and saw the claw marks were gone. My arms were healed. I ran my hands over my thighs, and they weren't healed. The nail marks, filled with their small bits of blood; the red marks of his teeth; the press of his mouth that had brought a red stain to my thigh where the wound had been. "Why is everything else healed but these marks?"
He shook his head. "I don't know."
I stared up at him. "You said that my initiation into power healed Roane, but what if it's not just that first flush of power. What if it's part of my newfound magic?"
I watched him try to make sense of it. "It could be, but healing by sex is not a gift of the Unseelie Court."
"It is of the Seelie Court," I said.
"You are of their bloodline," he said softly. "I must tell the queen."
"Tell her what?" I asked.
I crawled forward on the bed, still half-naked, reaching for him. He moved out of reach, clutching at the wall as if I'd threatened him. "No, Meredith, no more. The queen may forgive us because it was accidental, and she will be pleased that you have more powers. It may save us, but if you touch me again..." He shook his head. "She will not have pity on us if we come together again this night."
"I was just going to touch your arm, Doyle. I think we should talk before you go tattling to the queen."
He moved back to the edge of the wall, just before it turned the corner out of sight. "I have just had the first release in more centuries that you can imagine and you sit there like that..." He shook his head again. "You would just touch my arm, but my self-control is not limitless-we've proven that already. No, Meredith, one touch, and I might fall upon you and do what I've been wanting to do since I saw your breasts trembling above me."
"I can get dressed," I said.
"That would be good," he said, "but I am still going to tell her what happened."
"What does she do-take a sperm count? We didn't have sex. Why tell her?"
"She is the Queen of Air and Darkness; she will know. If we do not confess it, and then she finds out, the punishment will be a thousand times worse."
"Punishment? It was an accident."
"I know, and that may save us."
"You are not seriously saying that she will invoke the same penalty for this as if we had made deliberate love?"
"Death by torture," he said. "I hope not, but she is within her rights to call for it."
I shook my head. "No, she would not lose you after a thousand years for an accident."
"I hope not, Princess, I truly hope not." He started around the corner toward the bathroom.
"Doyle," I called.
He came back around the corner. "Yes, Princess?"
"If she tells you that we're going to be executed for this, there is one bright spot."
He put his head to one side in a birdlike movement, "And that would be?"
"We can have sex, real sex, flesh into flesh. If we're going to be executed for something, we might as well be guilty of it."
Emotions chased across his face-again I couldn't read them-then finally a smile. "I never thought I could face my queen with this news and have a divided mind on what I want her to say. You are a tempting thing, Meredith, a thing that a man might trade his life for."
"I don't want your life, Doyle, just your body."
That sent him laughing into the bathroom, which was better than crying. I had the nightshirt back on and was tucked under the covers by the time he came back out. He was solemn-faced, but said, "We are not going to be punished. Though she has made some hint that she would like to see you heal with this newfound power."
"I don't do her little public sex shows," I said.
"I know that, and so does she, but she is curious about it."
"Let her be curious. So we aren't going to be executed, either of us?"
"No," he said.
"Why don't you look happier?" I asked.
"I didn't bring a change of clothes."
It took me a second to realize what he meant. I dug him out a pair of men's silk boxers. They were a little snug through the hips, because he and Roane were not really the same size, but they would fit.
He took the boxers and went back into the bathroom. I thought he'd be quick and come back out to sleep, but I heard the shower turn on. I finally tossed down some pillows on top of the sleeping bags and turned over to try and sleep. I wasn't sure I would be able to sleep, but Doyle stayed in the bathroom a long time. The last thing I heard before sleep rolled over me was the sound of the blow dryer. I never heard him come out of the bathroom. I simply woke up the next day and he was standing over me with hot tea in one hand and our plane tickets in the other. I didn't know if Doyle had used the sleeping bags, or if he slept at all.