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Chapter 23

THE HOTEL HAD ALL THE CHARM OF A FRESHLY OPENED BOX OF KLEENEX. Functional, somewhat decorative, but it was still a generic hotel with all the sameness that that implied.

We stepped through the lobby doors, Barinthus and Galen carrying my suitcases. I had the carry-on bag. I preferred to carry my own weapons, not that I thought I'd be able to get them out in time to use them if the gun and knife failed me, but it was good to have them close.

I'd been on the ground in St. Louis only for a few hours, and there'd already been an attempt on my life, and Galen's. It was not a comforting trend. The trend went downhill when I saw who was waiting in the lobby.

Barry Jenkins had beat us to the hotel. I'd made reservations in the name of Merry Gentry. It was not an alias I'd ever used in St. Louis. Which meant Jenkins knew it was me. Damn.

He'd make sure that the rest of the newshounds found me. And nothing I could say would help. If I asked him to keep it quiet, he'd just enjoy it more.

Galen touched my arm gently. He'd seen Jenkins, too. He led me to the desk as if afraid of what I'd do, because there was something in Jenkins's face as he rose from the comfortable lobby chair-something personal. He'd hurt me if he could. Oh, I don't mean he'd shoot me or stab me, but if something he could write could hurt me, he'd be happy to print it.

The woman behind the desk was smiling up at Barinthus. She had a good smile and had turned it up to about 100 watts, but Barinthus was all business. I'd never seen him be other than business. He never teased or tested the limits of the geas that the queen had placed upon him. He seemed simply to accept.

The woman's hand brushed mine as I took my key. I had a vivid glimpse of what she was thinking: Barinthus lying on white sheets, with all that multihued hair spread around his naked body like a bed of silk.

My fist clenched at not just the image but the strength of her lust. I could feel her body clenched tight as my fist. She watched Barinthus with hungry eyes, and I spoke without thinking, using words to acknowledge and break the connection with the girl.

I leaned in close, and said, "The picture you have in your mind of him nude."

She started to protest, then let her words die, eyes large, licking her lower lip. She finally just nodded.

"You're not doing him justice."

Her eyes got even bigger, and she stared at Barinthus as he stood by the elevators.

I was still picking up her emotions. It happened sometimes, like picking up random bits of television or radio signal. But my bandwidth was narrow: lust images, mostly. Random lust images, and only from humans- I'd never gotten a flash from any other fey. I never understood why. "Want me to ask him to take off his coat so you can see better?"

That made her blush, and the image she'd built up in her mind crumbled under her embarrassment. Her mind was just a series of jumbles now. I was freed from her thoughts, her emotions.

I'd been told by one of the old fertility gods at the Seelie Court that being able to see other people's lust images was a useful tool if you were seeking priests and priestesses for your temple. People with strong lust could be used in ceremonies, the sexual energy harnessed and magnified so that their lust could be imparted to others. It had once been assumed that lust equated fertility. Unfortunately, not.

If lust equaled reproduction, the fey would have populated the world by now, or so the old stories go. The desk clerk would be so disappointed to discover that Barinthus was celibate. If he'd been staying in the hotel, I might have warned him about her. She struck me as the type who just might surprise him in his room after hours. But Barinthus would be back at the mound by nightfall. No worries.

Jenkins was now standing by the elevators, leaning his back against the wall, smiling. He was trying to talk to Barinthus as Galen and I walked up to them. Barinthus was ignoring him as only a deity can: with a total disregard, as if Jenkins's voice was the buzzing of some unimportant insect. It was beyond disdain. It was as if, for Barinthus, the reporter truly did not exist.

This was an ability I lacked, and envied.

"Well, Meredith, fancy meeting you here." Jenkins managed to make his voice both cheerful and cruel.

I tried ignoring him as Barinthus was, but knew that if the elevator didn't come soon, I'd lose.

"Merry Gentry, couldn't you do better than that? The gentry has been a euphemism for the fey for centuries."

Maybe he was still guessing, but I didn't think so. I had an idea. I turned to him, smiling sweetly. "Do you really think I'd use such an obvious pseudonym if I cared a tinker's dam whether someone found out?"

Doubt crossed his face. He straightened, moving within touching distance of me. "You mean you don't care if I print your alias?"

"Barry, I don't care what you print, but I'd say you're less than two feet away from me." I looked at the lobby. "In fact I don't think there's anywhere in this lobby that is more than fifty feet away from me." I turned to Galen. "Can you please have the desk clerk call the police"-I looked at Jenkins-"and tell them I'm being harassed?"

"My pleasure," Galen said. He walked back toward the desk.

Barinthus and I stood there with my luggage.

Jenkins looked from me to Galen. "They won't do anything to me."

"We'll see, won't we?" I said.

Galen was speaking with the same desk clerk who had eyed Barinthus. Was she picturing Galen naked now? It was good to be across the lobby and out of accidental touching range. Maybe being able to sense people's lust at random intervals was useful for picking out priestesses for your temple, but since I didn't have a temple, it was just irritating.

Jenkins was staring at me. "I'm so glad you're home, Meredith, so very, very glad." The words were mild, but the tone was pure venom. His hatred of me was an almost touchable thing.

He and I watched the desk clerk use the phone. Two young men, one with a badge that said "Asst. Manager," the other with a badge that just said his name, walked very purposefully toward us.

"I think, Barry, that you're about to get your walking papers. Enjoy waiting for the police."

"No court order is going to keep me away from you, Meredith. My hands itch when I'm near a story. The bigger the story, the more they itch. I'm just about to scratch my skin off every time I'm near you, Meredith. Something big is coming and it revolves around you."

"Gee, Barry, when did you become a prophet?"

"One afternoon by a quiet country road," he said. He leaned in so close I could smell his aftershave under the odor of cigarettes. "I had what you might call an epiphany, and I've had the gift ever since."

The hotel men were almost upon us. Jenkins leaned in close enough that from a distance it must have looked like a kiss. He whispered, "Those that the gods would destroy they first make mad."

The men grabbed his arms and pulled him away from me. Jenkins didn't struggle. He went quietly.

Galen said, "They'll hold him in the manager's office until the police come. They won't arrest him, Merry, you know that."

"No, Missouri doesn't have stalker laws yet." I had an amusing idea. If I could get Jenkins to follow me out to California, the laws are different. There are very strict stalker laws in L. A. county. If Jenkins made too big a pest of himself, maybe I'd see if he'd follow me somewhere where he could get jail time for what he'd just done. He'd forced a kiss on me in public -or so I could claim -in front of impartial witnesses. Under the right set of laws, that made him a very bad boy.

The elevator doors opened. Great, now that I didn't need the rescue. The elevator doors closed, leaving us alone in a mirrored box. We all watched our own reflections, but Galen spoke.

"Jenkins never learns. You'd think after what you did to him, he'd be afraid of you."

I watched my reflection show surprise, eyes widening. By the time I recovered, it was too late.

"That was a guess," I said.

"But a good one," Galen said.

"What did you do to him, Meredith?" Barinthus said. "You know the rules."

"I know the rules," I said.

I started to step into the hallway, but Galen stopped me, a hand on my shoulder. "We're the bodyguards. Let one of us go first."

"Sorry, I've gotten out of the habit," I said.

Barinthus said, "Get back into the habit, quickly. I don't want you hurt because you didn't hide behind us. It's our job to take the risks and keep you safe." He pressed the "hold door open" button.

"I know that, Barinthus."

"And yet you would have stepped into the hall," he said.

Galen very cautiously peeked out of the elevator, then stepped into the hallway. "Clear." He

swept a low bow. The small braid spilled over his shoulder to touch the floor. I remembered when his hair spilled like a green waterfall to pool onto the floor. There was a part of me that thought that was what a man's hair should look like. Long enough to drag the floor. Long enough to cover my body in a silken sheet when we made love. I'd mourned when he cut it, but it hadn't been any of my business.

"Get up, Galen." I started walking down the hallway, key in hand.

He stood and half ran, half danced down the hallway to get ahead of me. "Oh, no, my lady. I must needs open the lock."

"Stop it, Galen. I mean it."

Barinthus just followed us quietly, suitcase in hand, like a father watching grown children misbehave. No, no, he was ignoring us the way he'd ignored Jenkins, almost. I glanced back at him and could read nothing on that pale face. He was self-contained, unreadable. There had been a time when he'd smiled more, laughed more, hadn't there? I remembered his arms lifting me from the water with a great shout of laughter, his hair floating around his body like a slow cloud. I'd swum in that cloud, wrapped it around tiny hands. We'd laughed together. The first time I swam in the Pacific Ocean I thought of Barinthus. I wanted to show him this vast new ocean. To my knowledge he'd never seen it.

Galen was waiting in front of the door. I stopped and waited for Barinthus to catch up with me. "You seem solemn today, Barinthus."

He looked at me with those eyes, and the invisible eyelid flicked over them. Nervous. He was nervous. Was he afraid for me? He'd been pleased about the ring, displeased about the spell in the car. But not too displeased, not too distressed, as if it were all normal business. In a way it was. "What's wrong, Barinthus? What haven't you told me?"

"Trust me, Meredith."

I took his free hand in mine, fingers sliding around his. My hand was lost in his. "I do trust you, Barinthus."

He held my hand delicately as if afraid I would break. "Meredith, little Meredith." His face softened as he spoke. "You were always a mixture of directness, coyness, and tenderness."

"I'm not as tender as I used to be, Barinthus."

He nodded. "The world does tend to beat such things out of you, unfortunately." He brought my hand to his lips and laid a gentle kiss against my fingers. His lips brushed the ring and sent a tingling wave through both of us.

He looked solemn again, face closing down, as he dropped my hand.

"What, Barinthus? What?" I grabbed his arm.

He shook his head. "It has been a very long time since that ring has come to life in such a manner."

"What does the ring have to do with anything?" I asked.

"It had become just another piece of metal, and now it lives again."

"And?" I asked.

He looked past me to Galen. "Let's get her to the room. The queen does not like to be kept waiting."

Galen took the key from me and unlocked the door. He checked the room for spells and hidden dangers while Barinthus and I waited in the hall.

"Tell me what it means that the ring reacts to you and Galen, but not my grandmother."

He sighed. "The queen once used the ring to choose her consorts."

I raised eyebrows at him. "Which means, what?"

"It reacts to men that the ring deems worthy of you."

I stared up at him, searching that handsome, exotic face. "What does that mean, worthy of me?"

"The queen is the only one who knows the complete powers of the ring. I know only that it has been centuries since the ring has been alive on her hand. That it lives for you is both good and dangerous. The queen might be jealous that the ring is yours now."

"She gave it to me-why would she be jealous?"

"Because she is the Queen of Air and Darkness." He said it as if that explained it all. In a way it did, in a way did not. Like so much about our queen, it was a paradox.

Galen came to the door. "All clear."

Barinthus walked past him, forcing Galen to step back out of the way of the big man and the suitcase. "What's his problem?" Galen asked.

"The ring, I think." I stepped into the room. It was a typical box room done in shades of blue.

Barinthus had put the suitcase on one of the dark blue bedspreads. "Please make haste, Meredith. Galen and I still have to dress for dinner."

I looked at him standing in the blue-on-blue room. He matched the decor. If the room had been green, Galen would have matched. You could color code your bodyguards to your room. I laughed.

"What?" Barinthus asked.

I motioned at him. "You match the room."

He looked around as if he'd just noticed the blue print wallpaper, the dark blue bedspreads, the powder blue carpet. "So I do. Now, please, get dressed." He unzipped the suitcase to emphasize the request, though it had the taste of an order, no matter how it was worded.

"Is there a deadline I'm not aware of?" I asked.

Galen sat down on the other bed. "I agree with the big guy on this one. The queen's planning a welcome home event for you, and she won't like waiting for us to get dressed, and if we're not dressed in the outfits she had made for us, she'll be angry with us."

"Are the two of you going to be in trouble?" I asked.

"Not if you hurry," Galen said.

I went into the bathroom with the carry-on bag. I'd packed my outfit for tonight in the bag just in case the suitcase went missing. I didn't want to have to do emergency shopping for an outfit that would meet with my aunt's approval for court fashion. Slacks were not appropriate dinner wear for women. Sexist, but true. Dinner was formal attire, always. If you didn't want to dress up, you could eat in your room.

I slipped into black satin and lace panties. The bra was underwire, firm hold with lace. The hose were black and thigh high. The old human saying about wearing clean underwear in case you get hit by a bus applied to the Unseelie Court, sort of. Here you wore nice underwear because the queen might see it. Though truthfully I liked knowing that everything I wore was pretty, even the things that touched my skin where no one else would see.

I darkened the eye shadow and mascara to shades of grey and white. I applied enough eyeliner that my eyes stood out in shocking relief, like emeralds and gold set in ebony. I chose a shade of lipstick that was a dark, dark wine burgundy.

I had two Spyderco folding knives. I flipped one of them open. It was a six-inch blade, long, slender, gleaming silver, but it was steel-their military model. Steel or iron was what you needed against my relatives. The other knife was much smaller-a Delica. Each knife had a clip-on so you just slipped them over your clothing. I checked both knives for ease of release, then closed them, and put them on. The Delica fit down the center of the bra on the underwire. I slipped a black garter over my left leg, not to hold up the hose-they didn't need it-but to hold the military blade.

I slipped the dress out of the garment bag. The dress was a deep rich burgundy. It had just enough strap to hide the bra. The bodice was satin, tight and fitted; the rest of the dress was a softer, more natural-looking cloth, falling in a soft, clinging line to the floor. The matching jacket was made of the same soft burgundy cloth except for the satin lapels.

I had an ankle holster complete with a Beretta Tomcat, their newest .32 auto pistol. The thing weighed nearly a pound. There were guns out there that were smaller, but if I had to shoot someone tonight, I wanted more than a. 22 backing me up. The real trouble with ankle holsters is that they make you walk funny. There is a tendency to drag the foot that the holster's on, to widen your step in an odd little movement. The added problem was I was wearing hose, and the chances of not snagging them on the holster as I walked were pretty much nil. But it was the only place I could think to hide a gun that wasn't obvious just by glancing at me. I'd sacrifice the hose to keep the gun.

I walked back and forth in the burgundy high heels. They were only two-inch heels. The better to move quickly in, and with a skirt this long most people wouldn't be noticing how high, or how low, my heels were. I'd had the shop where I bought the dress hem it for the shoes. At five foot even, you don't buy off-the-rack formals, wear two-inch heels, and not have to hem the dress.

I added the jewelry last. The necklace was antique metal darkened until it was almost black, with only hidden glimpses of the true silver color. The stones were garnets. I purposefully hadn't cleaned the metal so that it would keep that dark color. I thought the stain set the garnets off nicely.

I'd gone to the trouble of curling under the ends of my hair so that it brushed my shoulders. It gleamed a red so dark it was the color of the garnets. The burgundy dress brought out a matching burgundy sheen in my hair.

My aunt might let me keep my weapons or she might not. I probably wouldn't be challenged to a

duel my first night back with a special request from the queen herself for my presence, but... it was always better to be armed. There are things at the court that aren't royal and don't fight duels. They are the things that have always been of the Host-the monsters of our race, our kind-and they do not reason as we do. Sometimes, for no reason that anyone can explain, one of the monsters will attack. People can die before it can be stopped.

So why keep such unstable horrors around? Because the only rule that has always been in the Unseelie Court is that all are welcome. No one, nothing, may be turned away. We are the dark dumping ground of nightmares too wicked, too twisted, for the light of the Seelie Court. So it is, so it has always been, so it will always be. Though being accepted into the court doesn't mean you're accepted as one of the sidhe. Sholto and I both could attest to that.

I looked in the mirror one more time, added a touch more lip pencil, and that was it. I put the lip pencil in the small beaded purse that matched the dress. What did the queen want of me? Why had she insisted I come home? Why now? I let out a long breath, watching the satin across my chest rise and fall. Everything about me gleamed: my skin, my eyes, my hair, the deep gleam of the garnets at my throat. I looked lovely. Even I could admit that. The only thing that said I was not pure sidhe was my height. I was just too short to be one of them.

I added a small brush to the lipstick in my small purse, then had to decide whether I was going to take more makeup to use to freshen up throughout the evening or a small sleek canister of mace. I chose the mace. If you have a choice between extra makeup or extra weapons, always take the weapons. Just the fact that you're debating between those two choices proves that you're going to need the weapons more.

Chapter 22 | A Kiss of Shadows | Chapter 24