GRAN HAD TAKEN THE ROOMS AT THE VERY TOP OF THE HOUSE FOR HERself. In olden times when this Victorian monstrosity was new, the rooms would have been servant quarters. They would have been frigid in the winter and broiling in the summer. But air-conditioning and central heating are marvelous things. She'd knocked down some of the walls so that there was a cozy parlor area with a small full bathroom to one side, a small room, just for the hell of it, beside it, and a large bedroom that was all hers on the other side of the parlor.
The parlor was done in shades of white, cream, pink, and rose. We sat on a stiff-backed love seat done in a cabbage-rose print with more lace-edged pillows than I knew what to do with. I'd made a little mound of them to one side like an impromptu mountain of flowers and lace.
We were drinking tea from a flowered tea set. My second cup of tea complete with dainty saucer was floating from the small coffee table toward my hand. The trick to catching something that is being levitated to you is to simply hold still. Don't grab at it, or you'll spill it. Wait, and if the person doing the levitating is good, the cup or whatever will touch your hand, then you grab it. Sometimes, I think my first lesson in patience was waiting for a cup to float to my hand.
I'd been concentrating very hard on the moment. Concentrating on not spilling the tea, on how to get a sugar cube out of a floating sugar bowl. Concentrating on simply being with my grandmother after three years. But the back of my mind was crowded with questions. Who had tried to kill us in the car? Was it Cel? Why did the queen want me home so badly? What did she want from me? They call horse racing the sport of kings, but that's not the true sport of kings. The true sport is survival and ambition.
Gran's voice brought me back to the present with a jolt that made me jump. The levitating tea cup moved a little away, like a spaceship adjusting for docking. "Sorry, Gran, I didn't hear you."
"Dearie, your nerves are wound so tight, they're like to snap."
"I can't help it."
"I do na think that the queen would drag you back just to watch your enemies kill you."
"If she was ruled by logic, I'd agree, but we both know her too well for that."
Gran sighed. She was even tinier than I was, inches under five feet. I remembered a time when she'd seemed huge, and I'd believed that nothing could harm me when I was in her arms. Gran's long wavy brown hair spilled around her delicate body like a silken curtain-but it didn't hide her face. Her skin was brown like a nut and somewhat wrinkled, and it wasn't age. Her eyes were large, and brown like her hair, with lovely lashes. But she had no nose and very little mouth. It was almost as if her face were a brown skull. You could see the dual holes where the nose should be, as if the nose were cut away, but this was the face she was born with. Her mother, my great-grandmother, thought she was beautiful. Her human father, my great-grandfather, had told her as a little girl that of course she was beautiful. She looked just like her mother, the woman he loved.
I'd have liked to have met my great-grandfather, but he was pure human and lived in the 1600s. It was a few centuries before my time. I would have been able to meet my great-grandmother if she hadn't gotten herself killed in one of the great wars between human and fey in Europe. Killed for a war that, as a brownie, she had no reason to fight. But if you refuse a call to battle, then it's treason. Treason is an executable offense.
The sidhe leaders get you coming and going.
The china saucer touched my hand, and I carefully uncurled my fingers and took it out of the air. It would have been easier to put my entire hand under the saucer to cradle it, but that was not ladylike. I'd learned to drink tea to rules of etiquette that were a hundred years or more out of date. The next dangerous point with a hot beverage being levitated is that when the person takes the levitation away, the cup gets heavier. Almost everyone sloshes a little tea over the side the first few times. No shame in it.
I didn't slosh any tea. Gran and I had had our first tea party when I was five.
"I wish I knew what to tell you about the queen, child, but I don't. The best I can do is feed you. Have some pasties, dear. I know they're a little heavy for tea time, but they're your favorites."
"Mutton filling?" I asked.
"With turnips and potatoes, just the way you like it."
I smiled. "They'll have food tonight at the banquet."
"But will you want to eat it?" she asked.
She had a point. I picked up one of the meat-filled pastries. A small plate floated underneath the little handheld pie. "What do you think about the ring?"
"What do you mean, nothing?"
"I mean, dearie, that I don't have enough information to even hazard a guess."
"Was it Cel that tried to kill me and Galen? I think I'm most angry about the fact that whoever put the spell in the car was willing to sacrifice Galen to get to me, as if Galen had no importance." The pastie smelled wonderful, but suddenly I just wasn't hungry. The tea I'd drunk was sloshing around in my stomach like it might come back up. I was never good at eating when I was nervous. I laid the pie on the floating plate, and the plate floated back to the table.
Gran gripped my hand. She'd painted her fingernails a deep rich burgundy that was almost the same color as her skin. "I don't know high magic, Merry; my magic is more innate ability. But if the assassin meant it as a death sentence, why the green cord? The color of faithfulness, of a fruitful family life. Why add that?"
"The only thing I can come up with is that they had the spell for some other purpose and used it for this at the last moment. Because what other reason could the spell have been there for?"
"I do na know, dearie; I wish I did," Gran said.
I held my hand up so that the ring glistened in the thick autumn sunlight. "Whoever put the spell in the car used this ring to fuel the magic. They knew the ring would be there. Who would the queen trust with such information?"
"The list is small for those that she trusts, but the list is long for those she knows are too afraid of her to go against her wishes. She could have given the ring and the note to anyone, and trusted that they would do as she asked with it. It would ne'r occur to her that her guard would disobey her." She squeezed my hand. "You're obviously not going to eat these good pasties. I'm going to send them downstairs. My guests will certainly appreciate them."
"I'm sorry, Gran. I just can't eat when I'm nervous."
"I'm not offended, Merry, just practical." She gestured, and the door opened to the small hallway and the stairs beyond. The plates with food began trooping out the door.
"What purpose would it serve to have Galen and me executed?" I asked.
The plates were still making their uneven dance out the door, but she turned to me without missing a beat or spilling anything. "You might rather ask what purpose would it serve if the queen's ring were found wrapped around a love spell designed for you."
"But it wasn't designed for me. It could have been anyone in the backseat of the car."
"I don't think so," Gran said. She took my hand and traced the silver band. It didn't respond to her touch as it had to Galen's. "This is the queen's ring, and you are the queen's blood. But for an accident of birth order, Essus might have been king. You would already be queen, and not Andais. It would be your cousin Cel who was second in line to the throne, and not you."
"Father never approved of how Andais ran the court."
"I know there were those who urged him to kill his sister and take the throne," Gran said.
I didn't try and hide the surprise. "I didn't think that was commonly known."
"Why do you think he was killed, Merry? Someone got nervous that Essus might take the advice and start a civil war."
I gripped her hand. "Do you know who ordered him killed?"
She shook her head. "If I did, child, I would have told you by now. I was not a part of either court's machinations. I was tolerated, nothing much more."
"Father did more than tolerate you," I said.
"Ah, that he did. He gave me the great gift of being allowed to watch you grow from child to woman. I will always be grateful for that."
I smiled. "So will I."
Gran sat up straighter, hands clasped in her lap-a sure sign she was uncomfortable. "If your mother could only have seen his goodness, but she was blinded by the fact that he was Unseelie. I knew it would come to grief allowing herself to be part of a peace treaty. King Taranis used Besaba as chattel. It wasn't right."
"Mother wanted to wed a prince of the Seelie Court. None of them would touch her, because no matter how tall and beautiful she was, they were afraid to take her to their beds. Afraid they'd mingle their so pure blood with hers. They wouldn't sully themselves with her, not after her twin sister, Eluned, got pregnant after just one night with Artagan, trapping him in a marriage."
Gran nodded. "Your mother always thought that Eluned had ruined her chances for a Seelie marriage."
"She did," I said. "Especially after their daughter was born, and she..." I looked at Gran's face. "Looked like you." I reached out to her as I said it.
She took my hand. "I know what the Seelie think of my looks, child. I know what my other granddaughter thinks of the family likeness."
"Mother went with my father because King Taranis promised her a royal lover when she returned. Three years among the unclean, unholy, Unseelie Court, and she could come back and claim a Seelie lover. I don't think she expected to get pregnant in the first year."
"Which made the temporary arrangement permanent," Gran said.
I nodded. "That's why I'm Besaba's Bane at the Seelie Court. My birth tied her to the Unseelie Court. She always resented me for that."
Gran shook her head. "Your mother is my daughter and I love her, but she is very... confused at times about who she loves and why."
I was actually thinking that maybe my mother loved no one but her own ambition, but I didn't say it out loud. Gran was, after all, her mother.
The afternoon sun was low and heavy. "I need to check into my hotel and get dressed for the festivities."
Gran touched my arm. "You should be staying here."
"No, and you know why."
"I've put wards on my house and my grounds."
"Wards that can withstand the Queen of Air and Darkness? Or whoever else may be trying to kill me? I don't think so." I hugged Gran, and her thin arms wrapped around me, pressing me against her with a strength that should never have been held in such a delicate body.
"Have a care tonight, Merry. I could not bear to lose you."
I stroked a hand through that wonderful hair and saw over her shoulder a photograph. It was a picture of her and Uar the Cruel, her one-time husband. He was tall and muscular. They'd had to sit him in a chair and had her stand beside him. She had a hand on his shoulder. His hair fell around him like golden waves. His suit was black with a white shirt, nothing remarkable. Nothing remarkable but his face. He was... very fair efface. His eyes were circles of blue within blue. He was outwardly everything a woman, fey or human, could want. But he wasn't called "the cruel" just because he'd fathered three monstrous sons.
He'd beaten my grandmother because she was ugly. Because she wasn't royal. Because she bore him twin daughters, and that meant that unless she agreed to end it, their marriage was forever. With Gran and Uar, they weren't kidding about forever.
She had only granted him a fey version of a divorce three years ago when I left the court. I'd wondered at the time if Gran had given him the divorce in exchange for him intervening on my behalf with Andais. He was powerful, and Andais respected that power. I'm not saying Uar threatened her. No, that would have been unwise. But he might have suggested that they let me go my own way for a time.
I'd never asked. I drew away from her and looked into those large brown eyes, so like my mother's. "Why did you grant him the divorce three years ago? Why then?"
"Because it was time, child, time to let him go."
"He didn't talk to Andais on my behalf, did he? That wasn't the price of his freedom from you, was it?"
She laughed loud and long. "Child, child, do you really think that old stuffed bucket would talk to the Queen of Air and Darkness? He's still not recovered from the embarrassment that his three sons were kicked out of his court and forced to become Andais's people."
I nodded. "My cousins are really not that bad. Modern surgical gloves are so thin it's almost like wearing nothing at all. They don't accidentally poison people by their touch anymore."
Gran hugged me again. "But poison coming from your hands does prevent you from being a blooded royal guard, doesn't it?"
"Well... yeah. But as long as you avoid the blood royal, there are women who are willing."
"In the Unseelie court I could believe it."
I looked at her.
She had the grace to look embarrassed. "I'm sorry, Merry. That was quite uncalled for on my part. I apologize. I should know better than most that there isn't that much to choose from between the two courts."
"I need to get to the hotel, Gran."
She walked me to the door, arm around my waist. "You be careful tonight, child, very careful."
"I will be." We stood staring at each other for a second or two, but what could we say. What can you ever say? "I love you, Gran."
"And I you, child." There were tears in those lovely brown eyes. She kissed me with those thin lips that had always touched me with more gentleness and love than my mother's beautiful face or lily white hands. Her tears were hot against my cheek. Her hands clung to me as I began to walk down the stairs. We tore away from each other, fingertips trembling in a last touch.
I glanced back many times to watch that small brown figure at the top of the stairs. They say not to look back, but if you're not sure what lies ahead, what else is there but looking back?