THE LEATHER OF THE UPHOLSTERY SIGHED WITH AN ALMOST HUMAN sound as I settled back against the seat. A panel of black glass blocked our view of Barinthus. It was like being in a black space capsule. There was a cloth-wrapped bottle of wine in a silver bucket in a small compartment across from us. Two crystal glasses sat in holes meant to cradle them, waiting to be filled. There was a small tray of crackers and what looked like caviar behind the wine.
"Did you do this?" I asked.
Galen shook his head. "I wish 1 had, though I'd have known to leave out the caviar. Peasant taste buds."
"You don't like it either," I said.
"But I'm a peasant, too."
I shook my head. "Never."
He gave me his smile, the one that warmed me down to my socks. Then the smile faded. "I peeked in back before we drove off." He shrugged at my look. "I agree that the queen is acting strangely. I wanted to make sure there were no surprises behind all that black glass."
"And?" I said.
He picked up the wine. "And this was not here."
"You're sure?" I asked.
He nodded, sweeping the cloth aside enough to read the label on the wine. He gave a low whistle. "It's from her private stock." He held the bottle carefully for me because it had been opened so it could breathe. "Would you care to try some thousand-year-old burgundy?"
I shook my head. "I'm not eating or drinking anything that this car happened to put out for us. Thanks anyway." I patted the car's leather seat. "No offense meant."
"It could be the queen's gift," Galen said.
"An even better reason not to drink it," I said. "Not until I find out what's going on."
Galen looked at me, nodding, and put the wine back in the bucket. "Good point."
We settled back into the leather seats. The silence seemed heavier than it should have, as if someone were listening. I always thought it was the car that was listening.
The Black Coach is one of the objects among the fey that has an energy, a life, of its own. It was not created by any fey or ancient god that we knew of. It has simply existed for as long as anyone among us can remember. Six thousand years and counting. Of course, then it had been a black chariot pulled by four black horses. The horses were not sidhe horses. They didn't seem to exist at all until after dark. Then they were things of blackness with empty eye sockets that filled with leprous flame when they were hooked to the chariot.
It was a coach-a coach and four-by the time I saw it. One day, no one remembers just when, the chariot had vanished and a large black coach had appeared. Only the horses had remained the same. The coach had changed when chariots were no longer in use. It had updated itself.
Then one night not even twenty years ago the Black Coach had vanished and the limo had appeared. The horses never returned, but I've seen what passes for an engine under the hood of this thing. I swear that it burns with the same sickly fire that filled those horses' eyes. The car doesn't take gasoline. I have no idea what it runs on, but I know that chariot or coach or car sometimes vanishes all by itself. It'll drive away into the night on business of its own. The Black Coach had been a death portent, warning of impending doom. There were beginning to be tales of a sinister black car sitting across from a person's home with its engine running and green fire dancing along its surface, and then doom would fall on that person. So, forgive me if I was just a tad nervous riding in its oh-so-soft leather seats.
I stared across the seats at Galen. I held my hand out to him. He smiled and wrapped his hand around mine. "Missed you," he said.
He raised my hand to his lips and laid a gentle kiss across my knuckles. He pulled me toward him, and I didn't struggle. I moved across the leather seats into the circle of his arm. I loved the feel of his arm across my shoulders, wrapping me against his body. My head ended resting against the wonderful softness of the sweater, the firm swell of his chest underneath, and underneath that I could hear the beat of his heart like a thick clock.
I sighed and cuddled against him, wrapping my leg across his so that we were entwined. "You always did cuddle better than anyone else I know," I said.
"That's me -just a big, lovable teddy bear." There was something in his voice that made me look up.
"You never told me you were leaving."
I sat up, his arm still across my shoulders, but the perfect comfort of a second before had been spoiled. Spoiled with accusations, with probably more to come.
"I couldn't risk telling anyone, Galen, you know that. If anyone had suspected that I was running away from the court, I'd have been stopped, or worse."
"Three years, Merry. Three years of not knowing if you were dead or alive."
I started to slide out from under his arm, but he tightened his grip, pulled me against him.
"Please, Merry, just let me hold you, let me know you're real."
I let him hold me, but it wasn't comfortable now. No one else would question why I had told no one, why I had contacted no one. Barinthus, Gran, no one, no one but Galen. There were times when I understood why my father had not chosen Galen for my consort. He let emotion rule him, and that was a very dangerous thing.
I finally pulled away. "Galen, you know why I didn't contact you."
He wouldn't meet my eyes. I touched his chin and moved him to look at me. Those green eyes were hurt, holding emotion like a cup of water; you could see all the way to the bottom of Galen's eyes. He was miserably bad at court politics.
"If the queen had suspected that you knew where I was, or anything about it, she would have tortured you."
He grasped my hand, holding it against his face. "I would never have betrayed you."
"I know that, and do you think I could have lived with the thought of you being tortured endlessly while I was safe somewhere else? You had to know nothing, so there would be no reason for her to question you."
"I don't need you to protect me, Merry."
That made me smile. "We protect each other."
He smiled, because he could never go long between smiles. "You're the brains, and I'm the brawn."
I rose on my knees and kissed his forehead. "How have you stayed out of trouble without me to counsel you?"
He wrapped his arms around my waist, pulling me in against the line of his body. "With difficulty." He looked at me, frowning. "What's with the black turtleneck? I thought we both agreed never to wear black."
"It looks good with the charcoal grey dress pants and matching jacket," I said.
He rested his chin just above the swell of my breasts, and those honest green eyes wouldn't let me avoid the question.
"I'm here to get along if I can, Galen. If that means wearing black like most of the court, then I can do that." I smiled down at him. "Besides, I look good in black."
"You do, indeed." Those honest eyes held the first stirrings of that old feeling.
There'd been tension between us since I'd been old enough to realize what that strange feeling low in my body was. But no matter how much heat there was, there could never be anything between us. Not physically, at least. He, like so many others, was one of the queen's Ravens, and that meant he was hers and hers alone to command. Joining the Queen's Guard had been the only smart political move that Galen had ever made. He wasn't powerful magically, and he wasn't good at behind-the-scenes scheming; the only thing he really had was a strong body, a good arm, and the ability to make people smile. I meant that about the ability. He exuded cheer from his body like some women leave behind perfume. It was a wonderful ability, but like many of my own, not much help in a fight. As a member of the Queen's Ravens he had a measure of safety. You did not challenge them lightly to a duel, because you never knew if the queen would take it as a personal insult. If Galen had not been a guard he would probably have been dead long before I was born; yet the fact that he was a guard kept us eternally separated. Always wanting, never having. I'd been furious with my father for not letting me be with Galen. It had been the only serious disagreement we'd ever had. It took me years to see what my father had seen: that most of Galen's strengths are also his weaknesses. Bless his little heart, but he was very close to being a political liability.
Galen laid his cheek against the swell of my breasts and gave a small movement, rubbing against me. It made my breath stop for a second, then roll out in a sigh.
I traced my fingers down the side of his face, running a fingertip across the full soft mouth. "Galen..."
"Sshh," he said. He lifted me with his arms around my waist and brought me around in front of him. I ended with my knees on his thighs, staring down at him. My pulse was thudding so hard in my throat that it almost hurt.
He lowered his hands slowly down the line of my body, to end with his hands on my thighs. It reminded me forcibly of Doyle last night. Galen moved his hands so that my legs gradually parted, sliding me slowly down his body until I sat facing him, straddling him. I kept back from his body, putting just enough space between us that I wasn't actually riding him. I didn't want the feel of his body that intimately against me, not now.
His hands slid along my neck until he cradled the back of my head, long fingers sliding underneath my hair until the unbelievable warmth of his hands stroked against my skin.
Galen was one of the guards who believed that a little touch of flesh was better than nothing. We'd always danced the razor's edge with each other. "It's been a long time, Galen," I said.
"Ten years since I could hold you like this," he said. Seven years with Griffin, three years gone, and now Galen was trying to take up where we left off, as if nothing had changed.
"Galen, I don't think we should do this."
"Don't think," he said. He leaned in to me, lips so close that a sigh would have brought him to me, and power breathed from his mouth in a line of breath-stealing warmth.
"Don't, Galen." My voice sounded breathless, but I meant it. "Don't use magic."
He raised back enough to see my face. "We've always done it this way."
"Ten years ago," I said.
"What difference does that make?" he asked. His hands had slid under my jacket and were massaging along the muscles in my back.
Maybe ten years had not changed him, but it had changed me. "Galen, no."
He looked at me, clearly puzzled. "Why not?"
I wasn't sure how to explain without hurting him. I was hoping the queen would give me permission to choose a guard as consort again, as she had when she'd given my father permission to choose Griffin. If I let things go back as they were with Galen, he would assume he would be the choice. I loved him, I would probably always love him, but I couldn't afford to make him my consort. I needed someone who would help me politically and magically. Galen was not that person. My consort would no longer have the protection of the queen once he left the Guard. My threat was not enough to keep Galen safe, and his own threat was less, because he was less ruthless than I was. The day Galen became my consort would be the day I signed his death warrant. But I'd never be able to explain all that to him. He'd never accept how terribly dangerous he was to me, and to himself.
I'd grown up, and I was finally my father's daughter. Some choices you make with your heart, some with your head, but when in doubt choose head over heart-it will keep you alive.
I knelt over him, starting to move off his lap. His arms locked behind my back. He looked so hurt, so lost. "You really mean it."
I nodded. I watched his eyes try to make sense of it. Finally he asked, "Why?"
I touched his face, brushed my fingers through the edge of his curls. "Oh, Galen."
His eyes held sorrow now the way they could hold happiness, or puzzlement, or any emotion that he was feeling. He was the world's worst actor. "A kiss, Merry, to welcome you home."
"We had a kiss in the airport," I said.
No, a real kiss, just once more. Please, Merry."
I should have said no, made him let me go, but I couldn't. I couldn't say no to the look in his eyes, and truthfully if I was never going to let myself be with him again, I wanted a last kiss.
He raised his face to mine, and I lowered my mouth to his. His lips were so soft. My hands found the curve of his face and cradled him as we kissed. His hands kneaded at my back, spilled lightly over my buttocks, slid along my thighs. He pulled my legs gently so that I slid down the line of his body again. This time he made sure there was no space between us. I could feel him pressed tight and hard against his pants, against me.
The feel of him pressed against me tore my mouth from his, brought a gasp from my throat. His hands spilled down my body, cupping my buttocks, pressing me harder against him. "Can we get rid of the gun? It's digging into me."
"The only way to get rid of the gun is to take off the belt," I said, and my voice held things that the words didn't.
"I know," he said.
I opened my mouth to say no, but that wasn't what came out. It was like a series of decisions: each time I should have said no, I should have stopped, and each time I didn't stop. We ended stretched across the long leather seat with most of our clothes and all of our weapons scattered on the floor.
My hands glided over the smooth expanse of Galen's chest. The thin braid of green hair trailed across his shoulder, curling across the dark skin of his nipple. I traced my hand across the line of hair that ran down the center of his stomach to vanish into his pants. I couldn't remember how we'd gotten here like this. I was wearing nothing but my bra and panties. I didn't remember taking off my pants. It was as if for minutes I was losing time, then I'd wake up and we'd be further along.
His pants were unzipped. I caught a glimpse of green bikini briefs. I wanted to plunge my hand down the front of his body. I wanted it so badly that I could feel him in my hand as if I were already holding him.
Neither of us had used power-it was just the feel of skin on skin, our bodies touching. We'd gone further than this years ago. But something was wrong. I just couldn't remember what.
Galen leaned over, kissing my stomach. He licked a thick wet line down my body. I couldn't think, and I needed to think.
His tongue played along the edge of my panties, his face burying against the lace, moving it aside with his chin and mouth, working lower.
I grabbed a handful of his hair and pulled his face up, away from my body. "No, Galen."
He spilled his hands up my body, forced his fingers under the wire of my bra, lifted it, exposed my breasts. "Say, yes, Merry, please say yes." He rolled his hands over my breasts, kneading them, massaging them.
I couldn't think, couldn't remember why we shouldn't be doing this. "I can't think," I said out loud.
"Don't think," Galen said. He lowered his face to my breasts, kissed them gently, licked the nipples.
I put a hand on his chest and pushed him away. He stayed over me, an arm on either side, his legs out behind him, half on top of mine. "Something's wrong. We shouldn't be doing this."
"Nothing's wrong, Merry." He tried to lower his face back to my breasts, but I kept both hands on his chest, kept him pushed away from me.
"Yes, there is."
"What? "he asked.
"That's just it, I can't remember. I can't remember, Galen, do you understand? I can't remember. I should be able to remember."
He frowned down at me. "There is something." He shook his head. "I can't remember."
"Why are we in the back of this car?" I asked.
Galen eased back off of me, sitting with his pants still undone, hands in his lap. "You're going to see your grandmother."
I slid my bra back in place and sat up, moving to my side of the car. "That's right."
"What just happened?" he asked.
"It's a spell, I think," I said.
"We didn't drink the wine or eat the food."
I looked at the black interior of the car. "It's here somewhere." I began running my hands along the edge of the seat. "Someone put it in the car, and it wasn't the car."
Galen ran his hands over the ceiling, searching. "If we had made love..."
"My aunt would have had us executed." I didn't tell him about Doyle, but I doubted seriously if the queen would let me defile two of her guards in as many days without being punished for it.
I found a lump under the black cloth of the floorboard. I raised it gently, not wanting to hurt the car. What I found was a woven cord tied with a silver ring. The ring was the queen's ring-one of the magical items that the fey were allowed to take away from Europe during the great exodus. The ring was a thing of great power, which is what had allowed the cord's magic to work without touching either of our skins or being invoked.
I held the thing up so he could see it. "I found it, and it's wearing her ring."
Galen's eyes widened. "She never lets that ring off her hand." He took the cord from me, touching the different-colored strands. "Red for lust, orange for reckless love, but why the green? That's usually reserved for finding a monogamous partner. You'd never mix those three colors."
"Even for Andais this is psychotic. Why invite me home to be an honored guest, but set me up for execution on the way to the court? It makes absolutely no sense."
"No one could have gotten that ring without her permission, Merry."
Something white was sticking out from between the seat and the back.
I moved closer to it and found it was half an envelope. "This wasn't there before," I said.
"No, it wasn't," Galen said. He picked his sweater up off the floor and slipped it on.
I pulled at the envelope, and it felt as if something was pushing from the other end; it was a flexing, as if of muscle. It brought my pulse in my throat, but I took the envelope. It had my name written across it in beautiful handwriting-the queen's handwriting.
I showed it to Galen as he continued to dress. "You'd better open it," he said.
I turned it over and found her seal set in black wax, unbroken. I broke the seal and pulled out a single sheet of thick white stationary.
"What does it say?" Galen asked.
I read it aloud to him. "'To Princess Meredith NicEssus. Take this ring as a gift and a token of things to come. I want to see it on your hand when we meet.' She even signed her name." I looked at Galen. "This makes less and less sense."
"Look," he said.
I looked where he was pointing, and there was a small velvet bag sticking out of the seat now. It had not been there when I took the envelope out of the seat.
"What is going on?"
Galen pulled the bag into sight, carefully. It was very small, and the only thing in it was a piece of black silk. "Let me see the ring," he said.
I slipped the silver ring off the cord, holding it in the palm of my hand. The cold metal grew warm against my hand. I waited tensely for it to grow hot, but it was just a slight pulsing warmth. Either it was part of the ring's enchantment or... I held the ring out to Galen. "Hold it in the palm of your hand; see what you feel."
He took the ring tentatively between two fingers and laid it in his opposite hand. The heavy octagonal ring sat in his palm gleaming softly.
We sat and stared at the ring for a few seconds. Nothing happened. "Is it warm?" I asked.
Galen looked up at me, eyebrows raised. "Warm? No, is it supposed to be?"
"Not for you, apparently."
He wrapped the ring in the bit of silk and slipped it into the small velvet bag. It fit perfectly, but there was no room for the heavy cord. He looked at me. "I don't think the queen did the spell. I think she put this ring in here for you as a gift, just like the note says."
"Then someone else added the spell," I said.
He nodded. "It was a very subtle spell, Merry. We almost didn't notice it."
"Yes, I almost thought it was me making up my mind. If it had been some outrageous lust spell we'd have noticed something wrong much sooner." There weren't that many people in the Unseelie Court who were capable of such a sophisticated love spell. Love wasn't our specialty; lust was.
Galen echoed my thoughts. "There are only three, maybe five people in the entire court that could do such a spell. If you'd asked me, I'd have said none of them would willingly hurt you. They may not all like you, but they aren't your enemies."
"Or they weren't three years ago," I said. "People change their minds, new alliances form."
"I haven't noticed anything that different," Galen said.
I had to smile. "You say that like it's a big surprise that you wouldn't notice political wheeling and dealing behind the scenes."
"All right, all right, I'm not a political animal, but Barinthus is, and he never mentioned any change of heart this severe among the neutral parties at court."
I held my hand out for the ring. Galen handed me the bag. I took the ring out and laid it on my palm. Even before the ring touched my skin I could feel the small warmth. I wrapped my hand around the ring, squeezing it in my fist, and the warmth grew. The ring, my aunt's ring, the queen's ring, answered to my flesh. Would that please our queen or anger her? If she didn't want the ring to acknowledge me, why would she have given it to me?
"You look pleased," Galen said. "Why? You've just been the victim of an assassination attempt-you do remember that part, right?" He was studying my face, as if trying to read my expression.
"The ring is warm to my touch, Galen. It's a relic of power and it knows me." The seat underneath me twitched. It made me jump. "Did you feel that?"
Galen nodded. "Yes."
The overhead light flashed on, and I jumped again. "Did you do that?" I asked.
"Me, either," I said.
This time I watched the leather seat push out the object. It was like watching something alive twitching. It was tiny, silver, a piece of jewelry. I was almost afraid to touch it, but the seat kept moving until the item lay bare to the light, and I could see at a glance that it was a cufflink.
Galen picked it up. His face darkened, and he held it out to me. The cufflink had the letter "C" in lovely flowing lines. "The queen had cuff links made for all the guards about a year ago. They have our first initials on them."
"So you're saying a guard put the spell in the car and tried to bury the letter and the bag in the seats."
Galen nodded. "And the car kept the cuff link until it showed it to you."
"Th... thanks, car," I whispered. Thankfully, the car didn't seem to acknowledge the greeting. My nerves were grateful for that. But I knew that it had heard me. I could feel it watching me, like the sensation of eyes staring at the back of your head, and when you turn around there is someone watching.
"When you said all the guards, did you mean the prince's guards, too?" I asked.
Galen nodded. "She liked the look of the female guards in men's shirts, said it was stylish."
"That adds what, five, six more to the list of possible suspects?"
"How long has it been known that the queen was going to send the Black Coach to meet me at the airport?"
"Barinthus and I only found out two hours ago."
"They had to act quickly. Maybe the love spell wasn't intended for me. Maybe it was just something they had lying about for some other purpose."
"We're lucky it wasn't meant especially for us. We might not have come to our senses in time if it had been."
I put the ring back in the velvet bag and picked up my turtleneck from the floor. For some reason I couldn't define, I wanted to be dressed before I put the ring on. I looked up at the car's black ceiling. "Is that all you have to show me, car?"
The overhead light went out.
I jumped, even though I'd hoped it would happen.
"Shit," Galen said. He backed away from me, or from the darkened light. He stared at me, eyes very wide. "I've never ridden in the car with the queen, but I've heard..."
"That if it answers to anyone," I said, "it answers to her."
"And now you," he said softly.
I shook my head. "The Black Coach is wild magic; I am not so presumptuous as to assume I have control over it. The car hears my voice. If there is more to it than that..." I shrugged. "Time will tell."
"You haven't been on the ground in Saint Louis an hour, Merry, and there's been one attempt on your life. It's worse than when you left."
"When did you become a pessimist, Galen?"
"When you left the court," he replied.
There was a sorrowful look on his face. I touched his cheek. "Oh, Galen, I have missed you."
"But you've missed the court more." He pressed my hand against his cheek. "I can see it in your eyes, Merry. The old ambition rising."
I drew my hand away from him. "I'm not ambitious in the way that Cel is. I just want to be able to walk the court in relative safety, and unfortunately that is going to take some political maneuvering." I laid the velvet bag in my lap and slipped on the turtleneck. I scrambled into my pants, fitting the gun and the knives back in place. I slipped the suit jacket over everything.
"Your lipstick is gone," Galen said.
"Actually you seem to be wearing most of it," I said.
We used the mirror in my purse to reapply my lipstick, and wipe it off of his mouth with a Kleenex. I ran a brush through my hair, and I was dressed. I couldn't put it off any longer.
I held the ring up in the dimness. It was too large for my ring finger, so I slipped the ring on my first finger. I'd put it on my right hand without thinking about it. The ring was warm against my skin like a comforting touch, a reminder that it was there, waiting for me to figure out what to do with it. Or, maybe, for it to figure out what to do with me. But I trusted my own magic sense. The ring wasn't actively evil, though that didn't mean that accidents couldn't happen. Magic is like any tool: it has to be treated with respect, or it can turn on you. Most magic isn't overtly harmful any more than a buzz saw is harmful, but they can both kill you.
I tried to take the ring off, and it wouldn't come off. My heart beat a little faster; my breath caught in my throat. I started pulling at it sort of desperately, then stopped myself. I took a few deep calming breaths. The ring was a gift from the queen-just seeing it on my hand would make some people treat me with more respect. The ring, like the car, had its own agenda. It wanted to stay on my finger, and there it would stay until it wanted to leave, or until I figured out how to take it off. It wasn't hurting me. There was no need to panic.
I held my hand out to Galen. "It won't come off."
"It was the same on the queen's hand once," he said, and I knew he meant that to be comforting. He brought my hand to his face and kissed it lightly. When his hands brushed the ring, there was a shock of something like electricity, but it wasn't that. It was magic.
Galen let me go and scooted away from me to the far side of the seat. "I'd like to know if Barinthus's touch makes the ring jump like that."
"So would I," I said.
Barinthus's voice came over the intercom. "We'll be at your grandmother's in about five minutes."
"Thanks, Barinthus," I said. I wondered what he was going to say when he saw the ring. Barinthus had been my father's closest adviser, his friend. He was Barinthus Kingmaker, and after my father's death he became my friend and adviser. Some at court called him Queenmaker, but only behind his back, never to his face. Barinthus was one of the few at court who could have defeated my would-be assassins with magic. But if he had stepped in and destroyed my enemies, I would have lost what little credibility I had among the sidhe. Barinthus had had to watch helplessly while I defended myself, though he had counseled me to be ruthless. Sometimes it's not how much power you wield, but what you are willing to do with that power. "Make your enemies fear you, Meredith," he had said, and I had done my best. But I would never be as frightening as Barinthus. He could destroy entire armies with a thought. It meant that his enemies gave him a wide berth.
It also meant that if you were going to swim with sharks, a six-thousand-year-old ex-god was a good swimming partner. I loved Galen, but I worried about him as an ally. I worried that being my friend would get him killed. I didn't worry about Barinthus. I figured that if anyone buried anyone, it would be him, burying me.