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Chapter 27

ONCE THE DOUBLE DOORS OPENED, THE STONE CHANGED. MY AUNT'S chamber, my queen's chamber, was formed of black stone. A shiny, nearly glasslike stone that looked as if it should shatter at a heavy touch. You could strike it with steel and all you got were colored sparks. It looked like obsidian, but it was infinitely stronger.

Frost stood as close to the door leading into the room as he could, and as far away from the queen. He stood very straight, a shining silver figure in all that blackness, but there was something about the way he held himself that said he was near the door for a reason-a quick getaway, maybe.

The bed was against the far wall, though it was so covered in sheets, blankets, and even furs that it was hard to say whether it was a bed or merely a gigantic pile of covers. There was a man in the bed, a young man. His hair was summer blond, cut long on top and short half way down, a skater's cut. His body was tanned a soft gold from the summer or maybe a tanning bed. One slender arm was flung outward into space, hand limp. He seemed deeply asleep and terribly young. If he was under eighteen, it was illegal in any state, because my aunt was fey and the humans didn't trust us with their children.

The queen rose from the far side of him, emerging slowly from the nest of covers and a spill of black fur that was only a little blacker than the hair that swept back from her pale face. She'd pulled the hair atop her head until it seemed to form a black crown, except for three long curls trailing down her back. The bodice of the dress looked very much like a black vinyl merry widow with two thin lines of sheer black cloth that graced her white shoulders more than covered them. The skirt was full and thick, spilling behind her in a short train; it looked like shiny leather but moved like cloth. Her arms were encased in leather gloves that went the entire length of her arm. Her lips were red, her eye makeup dark and perfect. Her eyes were three different shades of grey, from charcoal, to storm cloud, to a pale winter's sky. The last color was a grey so pale that it looked white. Set in the dark makeup, her eyes were extraordinary.

Once upon a time, the queen had been able to dress herself in spider-webs, darkness, shadows-bits and pieces of things she governed over would form clothing at her will. But now she was stuck with designer clothes and her own personal tailor. It was just one more sign of how far we'd fallen in power. My uncle, the king of the Seelie Court, could still clothe himself in light and illusion. Some thought it proved the Seelie Court was stronger than the Unseelie Court. Anyone who thought that was careful not to say it in front of Aunt Andais.

Her standing had revealed a second man, though he was sidhe and not mortal. It was Eamon, the royal consort. His hair was black and fell in soft, thick waves around his white face. His eyes were heavy-lidded either from sleep... or other things.

Frost and Rhys hurried to the queen's side. They each took a leather-clad hand. They braced her at hand and elbow and lifted her over the blond man. The black skirt swirled around her, giving a glimpse of layers of black petticoats, and a pair of black patent leather sandals that left most of her foot bare. As they lifted her and set her gracefully on the floor, I half expected music to begin and dancers to appear from nowhere. My aunt was certainly capable of the illusion.

I dropped to one knee, and my dress had enough give to make the gesture look graceful. The material would spring back into place once I stood, which was one of the reasons I'd chosen it. The garter was pressed in outline against the material, but all you could tell under the burgundy cloth was that I was wearing at least one garter-the knife didn't show. I didn't bow my head yet. The queen was putting on a show. She wanted to be watched.

Queen Andais was a tall woman even by today's standards: six feet. Her skin glowed like polished alabaster. The perfect black line of eyebrows and the thick black of her lashes were an almost startling contrast.

I bowed my head at last because it was expected. I kept my head bowed low so that all I could see was the floor and my own leg. I heard her skirt slither across the floor. Her heels made sharp sounds as they passed from throw rug to stone floor. Why she didn't get wall-to-wall carpet escaped me. The petticoats crinkled and hissed together as she walked toward me, and I knew they were crinoline, scratchy and uncomfortable next to the skin.

Finally, a spill of black skirt showed on the floor at my foot. Her voice was a low, rich contralto. "Greetings, Princess Meredith NicEssus, Child of Peace, Besaba's Bane, my brother's child."

I kept my head bowed, and would until told otherwise. She had not called me niece, though she had acknowledged our kinship. It was a slight insult not to name my familial relationship to her, but until she named me niece I couldn't name her my aunt. "Greetings, Queen Andais, Queen of Air and Darkness, Lover of White Flesh, Sister of Essus, my father. I have come from the lands to the west at your request. What would you have of me?"

"I've never understood how you do that," she said.

I kept my gaze on the floor. "What, my queen?"

"How you can say exactly the right words with exactly the right tone of voice and still sound insincere, as if you find it all terribly, terribly tiresome."

"My apologies if I offend you, my queen." That was as safe an answer to the charge as I could make because I did find it all terribly, terribly tiresome. I just hadn't meant for it to show so clearly in my voice. I stayed kneeling, head bowed, waiting for her to tell me I could stand. Even two-inch heels were not meant for prolonged kneeling in this position. They made it hard not to wobble. If Andais wished, she could leave me just as I was for hours, until my entire leg fell asleep except for a point of agony on the knee where nearly all my weight rested. My record for kneeling had been six hours after I'd broken curfew when I was seventeen. It would have been longer, but I either fell asleep or fainted, I really wasn't sure which.

"You cut your hair," she said.

I was starting to memorize the texture of the floor. "Yes, my queen."

"Why did you cut it?"

"Having hair nearly to your ankles marks you as high court sidhe. I've been passing as human."

I felt her lean over me, her hand lifting my hair, running her fingers through it. "So you sacrificed your hair."

"It is much easier to care for at this length," I said, voice as neutral as I could make it.

"Get up, niece of mine."

I rose slowly, carefully in the high heels. "Thank you, Aunt Andais." Standing, I was woefully short compared to her tall slender presence. With the heels she was over a foot taller than me. Most of the time I'm not that aware that I'm short, but my aunt tried to make me aware of it. She tried to make me feel small.

I looked up at her and fought not to shake my head and sigh. Next to Cel, Andais was my least favorite part of the Unseelie Court. I looked up at her with calm eyes and fought very hard not to sigh out loud.

"Am I boring you?" she asked.

"No, Aunt Andais, of course not." My expression had not betrayed me. I'd had years to practice the polite blank expression. But Andais had had centuries to perfect her study of people. She couldn't truly read our minds, but her awareness of the slightest change in body language, breath, was almost as good as true telepathy.

Andais stared down at me, a small frown forming between her perfect brows. "Eamon, take our pet and have him dress you for the banquet, in the other room."

The royal consort pulled a purple brocade robe from the tangle of bed clothes, slipping it over his body before he climbed out of the bed. The sash had been tied behind the back of the robe so it no longer closed over his body. His hair fell in a tangle of black waves nearly to his ankles. The dark purple of the robe didn't so much hide his body as act as a frame for the pale glimpses you got as he moved across the floor.

He gave a small nod as he passed me. I nodded back. He laid a gentle kiss on Andais's cheek and walked toward the small door that led into the smaller bedroom and bathroom beyond. One modern convenience that the court had adopted was indoor plumbing.

The blonde sat on the edge of the bed, naked as well. He stood stretching his body in a long tanned line of flesh. His eyes flicked to me as he did it. When he realized I was watching, he smiled. The smile was predatory, lascivious, aggressive. The human "pets" always misunderstood the casual nudity of the guards.

The blonde stalked toward us putting a swing in his step. The pun was intended. It wasn't the nudity that made me uncomfortable. It was the look in his eyes.

"I take it he's new," I said.

Andais watched the man with cool eyes. He had to be very new not to realize what that look meant. She was not happy with him, not happy at all.

"Tell him what you think of his display, niece." Her voice was very quiet, but there was an undertone to it that you could almost taste on your tongue like something bitter in among the sweet.

I looked him over from his bare feet to his fresh haircut and every inch in between. He grinned as I did it, drifting closer to me, as if the look were an invitation. I decided to take the smile out of his step.

"He's young, he's pretty, but Eamon is better endowed."

That stopped the mortal and made him frown, the smile returning to his face but uncertain now.

"I don't believe he knows what 'endowed' means," Andais said.

I looked at her. "You never did choose them for their intellect," I said.

"One does not talk to one's pet, Meredith. You should know that by now."

"If I want a pet, I'll get a dog. This..." I motioned at the man, "is a little too high-maintenance for me."

The man was frowning, looking from one to the other of us, obviously not happy and also confused. Andais had broken one of my cardinal rules for sex. No matter how careful you are, you can end up pregnant. That's what sex is designed to do, after all. So, never sleep with someone who's mean or stupid, and ugly is a judgment call, because all three may breed true. The blonde was cute but not cute enough to make up for the frowning puzzlement on his face.

"Go with Eamon. Help him dress for the banquet," Andais said.

"May I come to the ball tonight, my lady?" he asked.

"No," she said. She turned back to me as if he ceased to exist.

He looked at me again, and there was a sullen anger there. He knew I'd insulted him but wasn't quite sure how. The look made me shiver. There were people at court a lot less pretty than her new "pet" that I'd have slept with first.

"You disapprove," she said.

"It would be presumptuous of me to approve or disapprove of the actions of my queen," I said.

She laughed. "There you go again, saying exactly what you should say but making it sound like an insult all the same."

"Forgive me," I said and started to drop back to one knee.

She stopped me with a hand on my arm. "Don't, Meredith, don't. The night will not last forever, and you are staying at a hotel tonight. So we haven't much time." She withdrew her hand without hurting me. "We certainly don't have time to play games, do we?"

I looked at her, studied her smiling face, and tried to decide if she were sincere or if it was a trap of some kind. I finally said, "If you wish to play games, my queen, then I am honored to be included. If there is business to be done, then I am honored to be included in that, as well, Aunt Andais."

She laughed again. "Oh, good girl, to remind me that you are my niece, my blood kin. You fear my mood, distrust it, so you remind me of your value to me. Very good."

It didn't seem to be a question, so I said nothing because she was absolutely right.

She looked at my face, but said, "Frost."

He came to her, head bowed. "My queen."

"Go to your room and change into the clothes that I had made for you to wear tonight."

He dropped to one knee. "The clothes did not... fit, my queen."

I watched the light die in her eyes, leaving them as cold and empty as a white winter sky.

"Yes," she said, "they did. They were literally tailor-made for you." She grabbed a handful of his silver hair and jerked his face up to meet her gaze. "Why are you not wearing them?"

He licked his lips. "My queen, I found the other clothing uncomfortable."

She put her head to one side the way a crow looks at a hanging man's eyes before it plucks them out. "Uncomfortable, uncomfortable. Do you hear that, Meredith? He found the clothes I had made for him uncomfortable." She pulled his head backward until his neck was a long exposed line of flesh. I could see the pulse in his neck jump against his skin.

"I heard you, Aunt Andais," I said, and this time my voice was as neutral as I could make it, bland and empty as a new penny. Someone was about to get hurt, and I didn't want it to be me. Frost was a fool. I'd have worn the clothes.

"What do you think we should do with our disobedient Frost?" she asked.

"Have him go to his room and change into the clothes," I said.

She pulled his head back until his spine bowed and I knew she could snap his neck with just a little more pressure. "That is hardly punishment enough, niece. He disobeyed a direct order of mine. That is not allowed."

I tried to think of something Andais would find amusing, but wouldn't actually be painful for Frost. My mind went blank. I'd never been good at this particular game. Then I had an idea.

"You said we wouldn't be playing any more games tonight, Aunt Andais. The night is short."

She released Frost so abruptly that he fell to the floor on all fours. He stayed kneeling, head bowed, silver hair hiding his face like a convenient curtain.

"So I did," Andais said. "Doyle."

Doyle came to her side, bowing his head. "M'lady?"

She looked at him, and the look was enough. He dropped to the floor onto one knee. The cloak spilled out around him like black water. He stayed kneeling beside Frost, so close their bodies nearly touched.

She put a hand on both their heads, a light touch this time. "Such a pretty pair, don't you think?"

"Yes," I said.

"Yes, what?" she said.

"Yes, they are a pretty pair, Aunt Andais," I said.

She nodded as if pleased. "I charge you, Doyle, to take Frost to his room and see that he puts on the clothes I had made for him. Bring him to the banquet in those clothes or deliver him over to Ezekial for torture."

"As m'lady wishes, so shall it be done," Doyle said. He stood, drawing Frost to his feet, a hand on the taller man's arm.

They both began to back toward the door, heads bowed. Doyle flashed me a look as they moved away. He might have been apologizing for leaving me with her, without him, or warning against something. I couldn't decipher the look. But he left the room with my gun still in his waistband. I'd have liked to have had the gun.

Rhys moved so he'd be by the door like a good guard. Andais watched him move the way cats watch birds, but what she said was mild enough, "Wait outside the door, Rhys. I wish to speak with my niece in private."

The surprise showed on his face. He glanced at me, the look on his face almost asking my permission.

"Do as you are told-or do you wish to join the others in Ezekial's workplace?"

Rhys bowed his head. "No, my lady. I will do as I am told."

"Get out," she said.

He left with one more quick glance for me, but he closed the door behind him. The room was suddenly very, very quiet. The sound of my aunt's dress moving along the floor was loud in the stillness, like the dry rustling scales of some great serpent. She walked to the far end of the room where steps led to a heavy black curtain. She flicked the curtain aside to reveal a heavy wooden table with a carved chair at one side and a backless stool at the other. There was a chess game laid out on the round table, the heavy pieces worn smooth from centuries of hands shifting them across the marble surface. There were literally grooves worn in the marble board like paths worn by tramping feet.

Against the rounded wall of the large alcove was a wooden gun case full of rifles and handguns. There were two crossbows on the wall above the gun case. I knew the arrows were underneath in the closed doors of the bottom of the case, along with the ammunition. There was a morning star like a heavy spiked ball on a chain and a mace mounted to one side of the gun case. They were crossed like the crossed swords on the other side of the case. A huge shield with Andais's livery of raven, owl, and red rose on its surface was underneath the mace and morning star.

Eamon's shield was underneath the crossed swords. There were chains in the wall set for wrist and ankle on either side. There were hooks above the chains where a whip lay coiled like a waiting snake. A smaller whip hung above the right-hand side's chains. I would have called it a cat-o'-nine-tails, but it had many more tails than that, each one weighted with a small iron ball or a steel hook.

"I see your hobbies haven't changed," I said. I tried for neutral, but my voice betrayed me. Sometimes when she swept back that curtain, you played chess. Sometimes, you didn't.

"Come, Meredith, sit. Let us talk." She sat in the high-backed chair, spilling the train of her dress over one arm so it wouldn't wrinkle. She motioned me to the stool. "Sit down, Niece. I won't bite." She smiled, then gave an abrupt laugh. "Not yet, anyway."

It was as close as I was going to get to a promise that she wouldn't hurt me-yet. I perched on the high, backless stool, the heels of my shoes through one of the spindles to help keep my balance. Sometimes, I think Andais won chess matches simply because the other person's back gave out.

I touched the edge of the heavy marble board. "My father taught me to play chess on the twin of this board," I said.

"You do not have to remind me, yet again, that you are my brother's daughter. I mean you no harm tonight."

I caressed the board and glanced up at her, meeting those pleasant unreliable eyes. "Perhaps I would be less cautious if you didn't say things like 'I mean you no harm tonight. ' Perhaps, if you simply said you meant me no harm." I made it half question, half statement.

"Oh, no, Meredith. To say that would be too close to lying, and we do not lie, not outright. We may talk until you think that black is white and the moon is made of green cheese, but we do not lie."

I said, as evenly as I could, "So you do mean me harm, just not tonight."

"I will not harm you if you don't force it upon me."

I looked at her then, frowning. "I don't understand, Aunt Andais."

"Have you ever wondered why I made my beautiful men celibate?"

The question was so unexpected that I simply stared at her for a second or two. I finally closed my mouth and found my voice. "Yes, Aunt, I have wondered." Actually it had been the great debate for centuries: why had she done it?

"For centuries the men of our court spread their seed far and wide. There were many half-breeds but fewer and fewer full-blooded fey. So I forced them to conserve their energies."

I looked at her. "Then why not allow them access to the women of the high court?"

She settled back against her chair, leather-clad hands caressing the carved arms. "Because I wanted my bloodline to continue, not theirs. There was a time when I would have preferred you dead than risk you inheriting my throne."

I met her pale eyes. "Yes, Aunt Andais."

"Yes, what?"

"Yes, I knew."

"I saw the mongrels taking over the entire court. The humans had chased us underground and now their very blood was corrupting our court. We were being outbred by them."

"It is my understanding, Aunt, that humans have always outbred us. Something to do with the fact that they're mortal."

"Essus told me that you were his daughter. That he loved you. He also told me that you would make a fine queen someday. I laughed at him." She watched my face. "I am not laughing now, Niece."

I blinked at her. "I don't understand, Aunt."

"You have Essus's blood in your veins. The blood of my family. I would rather have some of my blood continue than none of it. I want our bloodline to continue, Meredith."

"I'm not sure what you mean by 'ours', Aunt?" Though I had a frightening feeling that I did.

"Ours, ours, Meredith, yours, mine, Cel's."

The addition of my cousin in the mix made my stomach clench tight. It was not unknown among the fey to marry close relatives. If that was what she had in mind, I was in very deep trouble. Sex was not a fate worse than death. Sex with my cousin Cel just might be.

I looked down at the chess pieces because I didn't trust myself to guard my expression. I would not sleep with Cel.

"I want our bloodline to continue, Meredith, at any cost."

I finally looked up, face blank. "What would that cost be, Aunt Andais?"

"Nothing so unpleasant as you seem to be thinking. Really, Meredith, I am not your enemy."

"If I may be so bold, my aunt, neither are you my friend."

She nodded. "That is very true. You mean nothing to me but a vessel to continue our line with."

I couldn't keep the smile off my face.

"Was that funny?" she asked.

"No, Aunt Andais, it was most certainly not funny."

"Fine, let me speak plainly. I gave you the ring on your finger from my own hand."

I stared at her. Her face seemed innocent of evil intent. She really didn't seem to know anything about the assassination attempt in the car. "The gift is most appreciated," I said, but even to me the words sounded less than sincere.

Either she didn't hear it or she ignored it. "Galen and Barinthus told me the ring lives once more upon your hand. I am more pleased by that than you can know, Meredith."

"Why?" I asked.

"Because if the ring had remained quiet on your hand it would mean you were barren. That the ring lives is a sign that you are fruitful."

"Why does it react to everyone that I touch?"

"Who else has it reacted to besides Galen and Barinthus?" she asked.

"Doyle, Frost."

"Not Rhys?" she asked.

I shook my head. "No."

"Did you touch the silver to his bare skin?"

I started to say yes, then thought about it. "I don't think so. I think I touched only his

clothing."

"It must be bare skin," Andais said. "Even a small piece of cloth may stop it." She leaned forward, placing her hands on the tabletop, picking up a captured rook, turning it in her gloved hands. If it had been anyone else, I'd have said she was nervous.

"I am going to rescind my geas of celibacy for my Guard."

"My lady," I said, voice soft with the breath I'd taken. "That is wonderful news." I had better adjectives, but I stopped with wonderful. It was never good to appear too pleased in front of the queen. Though in my head, I wondered why she was telling me first.

"The geas will be lifted for you and you alone, Meredith." She concentrated on the chess piece, not meeting my eyes.

"Excuse me, my lady?" I didn't even try to keep the shock off my face.

She looked up. "I want our bloodline to continue, Meredith. The ring reacts to the guards that are still able to father children. If the ring remains quiet, then do not bother with them. But if the ring reacts, then you may sleep with them. I want you to pick several of the Guard to sleep with. I don't really care who, but within three years I want a child from you, a child of the blood." She set the chess piece down with a thick scraping sound and met my eyes.

I licked my lips and tried to think of a polite way to ask questions. "This is a most generous offer, my queen, but when you say several, what exactly do you mean?"

"I mean that you should pick more than two; three or more at a time."

I stayed quiet for a few seconds, because again I was left with needing information and not wanting to be rude. "Three at a time in what way, my lady?"

She frowned at me. "Oh, Danu's titties, just ask your questions, Meredith!"

"Fine," I said, "when you say three or more at one time, do you mean literally in the bed with me at one time, or just like dating three of them at the same time."

"Any way you wish to interpret it," she said. "Take them into your bed one at a time, or all together, as long as you take them."

"Why must it be three or more at once?"

"Is it such an awful prospect to choose among some of the most beautiful men in the world? To bear a child to one of them and continue our line? How is this so terrible?"

I looked at her, trying to read that beautiful face, and failing. "I approve of letting the men out of their celibacy, but Auntie dearest, do not make me their only avenue. I beg you. They will fall upon each other like starving wolves, not because I am such a prize but because anyone is better than no one."

"That is why I am insisting that you sleep with more than one at a time. You must sleep with most of them before making your choice. That way they'll all feel they've had a chance. Otherwise, you are right. There will be duels until no one is left standing. Make them work at seducing you instead of killing each other."

"I like sex, my queen, and I have no designs upon monogamy, but there are some among your Guard that I can't even speak a civil word to, and sex is a step up from polite small talk."

"I will make you my heir," she said, voice very quiet.

I stared at her so careful, unreadable face. I didn't trust what I'd heard. "Could you repeat that, please, my queen?"

"I will make you my heir," she said.

I stared at her. "And what does my cousin Cel think of that?"

"Whichever one of you gives me a child first, that one shall inherit my throne. Does that not sweeten the pot?"

I stood up, too abruptly, and the stool clanged to the floor. I stared at her for a space of heartbeats. I wasn't sure what to say, because it didn't seem real. "May I humbly point out, Aunt Andais, that I am mortal and you are not. You will surely outlive me by centuries. Even if I bore a child, I would never see the throne."

"I will step down," she said.

Now I knew she was toying with me. It was all some game. It had to be.

"You once told my father that being queen was your entire existence. That you loved being queen

more than you loved anyone or anything."

"My, you do have a long memory for eavesdropped conversations."

"You always spoke freely in front of me, Aunt, as if I were one of your dogs. You nearly drowned me when I was six. Now you're telling me that you would abdicate the throne for me. What in the land of the blessed could have changed your mind so completely?"

"Do you remember what Essus's answer to me was that night?" she asked.

I shook my head. "No, my queen."

"Essus said, 'Even if Merry never takes the throne she will be more queen than Cel will ever be a king.'"

"You hit him that night," I said. "I never remembered why."

Andais nodded. "That was why."

"So you're unhappy with your son."

"That is my business," she said.

"If I let you elevate me to coheir with Cel, it will become my business." I had the cufflink in my purse. I thought about showing it to her, but I didn't. Andais had lived in denial of what Cel was, and what he was capable of, for centuries. You spoke against Cel to the queen at your peril. Besides, the cufflink could belong to one of the guards, though I couldn't fathom why, without Cel's urging, any of the guard would want me dead.

"What do you want, Meredith? What do you want that I can give you that would be worth you doing what I ask?"

She was offering me the throne. Barinthus would be so pleased. Was I pleased? "Are you so sure that the court will accept me as queen?"

"I will announce you Princess of Flesh tonight. They will be impressed."

"If they believe it," I said.

"They will if I tell them to," she said.

I looked at her, studied her face. She believed what she said. Andais overestimated herself. But such absolute arrogance was typical of the sidhe.

"Come home, Meredith, you don't belong out there among the humans."

"As you reminded me so very often, Aunt, I am part human."

"Three years ago you were content, happy. You had no plans to leave us." She settled back in her chair, watching me, letting me stand over her. "I know what Griffin did."

I met her pale gaze for a heartbeat, but couldn't sustain the look. It wasn't pity in her glance. It was the coldness in it, as if she simply wanted to see my reaction, nothing more.

"Do you really think I left the court because of Griffin?" I didn't try and keep the astonishment out of my voice. She couldn't honestly believe I'd left the court over a broken heart.

"The last fight the two of you had was very public."

"I remember the fight, Auntie dearest, but that is not why I left the court. I left because I wasn't going to survive the next duel."

She ignored me. In that moment I realized that she would never believe the worst of her son, not unless forced to beyond any shadow of doubt. I couldn't give her that absolute proof, and without it, I couldn't tell her my suspicions, not without risking myself.

She kept talking about Griffin as if he were the true reason I'd left. "But it was Griffin who began that fight. He, the one who was demanding to know why he wasn't in your bed, in your heart, as before. You'd been chasing him around the court for nights, and now he pursued you. How did you effect such a quick change in him?"

"I refused him my bed." I met her eyes, but there was no amusement in them, just a steady intensity.

"And that was enough to make him pursue you in public like an enraged fishwife?"

"I think he truly believed that I'd forgive him. That I would punish him for a while and then take him back. That last night he finally believed that I meant what I said."

"What did you say?" she asked.

"That he would never be with me again this side of the grave."

Andais looked at me very steadily. "Do you still love him?"

I shook my head. "No."

"But you still have feelings for him." It was not a question.

I shook my head. "Feelings, yes, but nothing good. "


"If you still want Griffin, you may have him for another year. If at that time you are not with child, I would ask that you choose someone else."

"I don't want Griffin, not anymore."

"I hear a regret in your voice, Meredith. Are you sure that he is not what you want?"

I sighed, and leaned my hands against the tabletop, staring down at them. I felt hunched and tired. I'd tried very hard not to think about Griff and the fact that I'd see him tonight. "If he could feel for me what I felt for him, if he could truly be as in love with me as I was with him, then I would want him, but he can't. He can't be other than what he is, and neither can I." I looked at her across the small table.

"You may include him in the contest to win your heart, or you may exclude him from the running. It is your decision."

I nodded and stood up straight, no hunching like some kind of wounded rabbit. "Thank you for that, Auntie dearest."

"Why does that fall from your lips like the vilest of insults."

"I mean no insult."

She waved me to silence. "Do not bother, Meredith. There is little affection lost between us. We both know that." She looked me up and down. "Your clothing is acceptable, though not what I would have chosen."

I smiled, but it wasn't a happy smile. "If I'd known I was going to be named heir tonight, I'd have worn the Tommy Hilfiger original."

She laughed and stood with a swish of skirts. "You can purchase an entire new wardrobe, if you like. Or you can have the court tailors design one for you."

"I'm fine as I am," I said. "But thank you for the offer."

"You are an independent thing, Meredith. I've never liked that about you."

"I know," I said.

"If Doyle had told you in the western lands what I planned for you tonight, would you have come willingly, or would you have tried to run?"

I stared at her. "You're naming me heir. You're letting me date the Guard. It's not a fate worse than death, Aunt Andais. Or is there something else you haven't told me about tonight?"

"Pick up the stool, Meredith. Let's leave the room neat, shall we?" She glided down the stone steps to walk toward the door in the opposite wall.

I picked up the stool, but didn't like that she hadn't answered my question. There was more to come.

I called after her before she got to the small door. "Aunt Andais?"

She turned. "Yes, Niece." There was a faintly amused, condescending look on her face.

"If the lust charm that you placed in the car had worked and Galen and I had made love, would you have still killed him and me?"

She blinked, the slight smile fading from her face. "Lust charm? What are you talking about?"

I told her.

She shook her head. "It was not my spell."

I held my hand up so the silver ring glinted. "But the spell used your ring to power itself."

"I give you my word, Meredith, I did not put a spell of any kind in the coach. I merely left the ring in there for you to find, that was all."

"Did you leave the ring, or did you give it to someone to put in the coach?" I asked.

She would not meet my eyes. "I put it there." And I knew she'd lied.

"Does anyone else know that you plan to rescind the order of celibacy where I'm concerned?"

She shook her head, one long black curl sliding over her shoulder. "Eamon knows, but that is all, and he knows how to keep his own counsel."

I nodded. "Yes, he does." My aunt and I looked at each other from across the room, and I watched the idea form in her eyes and spill across her face.

"Someone tried to assassinate you," she said.

I nodded. "If Galen and I had made love and you hadn't lifted the geas, you could have killed me for it. Galen's fate seems to be incidental to it all."

Anger played across her face like candlelight inside glass.

"You know who did it," I said.

"I do not, but I do know who knew that you were going to be named coheir."

"Cel," I said.

"I had to prepare him," she said.

"Yes," I said.

"He did not do this," she said, and for the first time there was something in her voice-the same protest you'll hear in any mother's voice when defending her child.

I simply looked at her and kept my face blank. It was the best I could do, because I knew Cel. He would not simply give up his birthright on the whim of his mother, queen or no.

"What did Cel do to anger you?" I asked.

"I tell you, as I told him, I am not angry with him." But there was too much protest to her voice. For the first time tonight Andais was on the defensive. I liked it.

"Cel didn't believe that, did he?"

"He knows what my motives are," she said.

"Would you care to share those motives with me?" I asked.

She smiled, and it was the first genuine smile I'd seen on her tonight. An almost embarrassed movement of lips. She wagged a gloved finger at me. "No, my motives are my own. I want you to choose someone for your bed tonight. Take them back to the hotel with you, I don't care who, but I want it to begin tonight." The smile was gone. She was her royal self once more, unreadable, self-contained, mysterious and absolutely obvious all at the same time.

"You never have understood me, Aunt."

"And what, pray, does that mean?"

"It means, Auntie dearest, that if you had left off that last order, I would probably have taken someone to my bed tonight. But being commanded to do it makes me feel like a royal whore. I don't like it."

She settled her skirts so the train glided behind her and walked toward me. As she moved, her power began to unfold, flitting around the room like invisible sparks to bite along my skin. The first two times I jumped, then I stood there and let her power eat over my skin. I was wearing steel, but a few knives had never been enough for me to withstand her magic. It had to be my own newfound powers that kept it from being so much worse.

Her eyes narrowed as she came to stand in front of me. With me standing on the small raised platform, we were eye-to-eye. Her magic pushed out from her like a moving wall of force. I had to brace my feet as if I were standing against wind. The small burning bites had turned into a constant ache like standing just inside an oven, not quite touching the glowing surface, but knowing that one tiny shove and your skin would burn and crisp.

"Doyle said your powers had grown, but I didn't quite believe it. But there you stand before me, and I must accept that you are true sidhe, at last." She put her foot on the lowest step. "But never forget that I am queen here, Meredith, not you. No matter how powerful you become, you will never rival me."

"I would never presume otherwise, my lady," I said. My voice was just a touch shaky.

Her magic pushed at me. I couldn't draw a good breath. My eyes blinked as if I were looking into the sun. I fought to stand and not to give ground. "My lady, tell me what you wish me to do and I will do it. I have not offered challenge in any way."

She came up another step, and this time I did give ground. I did not want her to touch me.

"Simply by standing in the face of my power you challenge me."

"If you wish me to kneel, I will kneel. Tell me what you want, my queen, and I will give it to you." I did not want to get into a contest of magic with her. I would lose. I knew that. It left me with nothing to prove.

"Make the ring have life on my finger, Niece."

I didn't know what to say to that. I finally held my hand out to her. "Do you want the ring back?"

"More than you will ever know, but it is yours now, Niece. I wish you joy of it." That last sounded more like a curse than a blessing.

I went to the far edge of the table, gripping it to steady myself against the growing pressure of her magic. "What do you want from me?"

She never answered me. Andais made a gesture with both hands toward me and that pressure became a force that shoved me backward. I was airborne for a second until my back met the wall, and my head hit a heartbeat later. I kept my feet through a shower of grey and white flowers on the edge of my vision.

When my vision cleared, Andais was standing in front of me with a knife in her hand. She pressed the tip of it against the small hollow at the base of my throat, pressed the tip of the blade until I felt it bite into my skin. She put her finger against the wound and came away with a trembling drop of my blood clinging to her leather-clad finger. She held her finger upside down so the drop fell quivering to the floor.

"Know this, niece of mine. Your blood is my blood, and that is the only reason I care what happens to you. I do not care if you like what I have planned for you or not. I need you to continue our bloodline, but if you will not help do that, then I do not need you." She withdrew the knife very slowly, drawing it back an inch or two. She laid the flat of the blade against my face, the point dangerously close to my eye.

I could taste my pulse on my tongue, and I'd forgotten to breathe. Looking into her face, I knew that she would kill me, just like that.

"That which is not useful to me is discarded, Meredith." She pressed the flat of the blade into my flesh so that when I blinked the tip of the knife brushed my eyelashes. "You will pick someone to sleep with tonight. I don't care who. Since you have invoked virgin right, you are free to go back to Los Angeles, but you will have to pick some of my Guard to take with you. So look at them tonight, Meredith, with those emerald-green-and-gold eyes of yours, those Seelie eyes of yours, and choose." She put her face next to mine, so close that she could have kissed me. She whispered the last words into my mouth. "Fuck one of them tonight, Meredith, because if you don't, tomorrow night you will entertain the court with a group of my choosing."

She smiled, and it was the smile that touched her face when she had thought of something wicked, and painful. "At least one that you choose must be enough my creature to spy for me against you. If you go back to Los Angeles."

My voice came out the barest of whispers. "Must I sleep with your spy?"

"Yes," she said. The blade point moved a fraction closer, so close it blurred in my vision, and I fought not to blink, because if I did the point would pierce my eyelid. "Is that all right with you, Niece? Is it all right with you that I make you sleep with my spy?"

I said the only thing I could say. "Yes, Aunt Andais."

"You'll choose your little harem tonight at the banquet?"

My eyes weren't fluttering. They were twitching with the need to blink. "Yes, Aunt Andais."

"You'll sleep with someone tonight before you fly back to your western lands?"

I widened my eyes and concentrated on her face, on looking at her face. The knife was a blur of steel taking up most of my right eye's vision, but I could still see, still see her face looming above me like a painted moon.

"Yes," I whispered.

She drew the knife from my face and said, "There. Was that so difficult?"

I sagged against the wall, eyes shut. I kept them closed because I couldn't keep the rage out of them, and I didn't want Andais to see it. I wanted out of this room, just out of this room, and away from her.

"I'll call Rhys to escort you to the banquet. You look a bit shaken." She laughed.

I opened my eyes, blinking to clear the tears that had gathered from being forced not to blink. She was walking down the steps.

"I'll send Rhys to you, though perhaps with the spell in the coach you might need another guard. I will think on who to send to your side." She was nearly to the outer door when she turned and said, "And who shall my spy be? I shall try to pick someone beautiful, someone who is good in bed, so that the chore may not be too onerous."

"I don't sleep with stupid men or mean-spirited ones," I said.

"The first does not limit the field too terribly much but the last... someone generous of spirit, that is a tall order." Her smile brightened- obviously she'd thought of someone. "He might do."

"Who? "I asked.

"Don't you love surprises, Meredith?"

"Not particularly."

"Well, I do. I like surprises a great deal. He will be my treat to you.

He's scrumptious in bed, or was sixty-or is it ninety years?-ago. Yes, I think he'll do nicely."

I didn't bother to ask who again. "How can you be sure that he'll spy for you once he's in Los Angeles?"

She paused with her hand on the door handle. "Because he knows me, Meredith. He knows what I'm capable of, both of pleasure and of pain." With that she swung open the double doors and had Rhys come back in the room.

He glanced from her to me. His eyes widened just a touch, but that was all. His face was carefully blank as he walked to me and offered me his arm. I took it gratefully. It seemed to take a very long time to walk across that floor to the open door. I wanted to run to it and keep running. Rhys patted my hand, as if he felt the tension in my body. I knew he'd seen the small wound on my neck. He could make his own guesses as to how it got there.

We made it to the door, then out into the hallway beyond. My shoulders relaxed just a touch.

Andais called after us, "Have fun, children. We'll see you at the banquet." She closed the doors behind us with a sharp bang that made me jump.

Rhys started to stop. "Are you all right?"

I clutched his arm and pulled him into a walk again. "Get me away from here, Rhys. Just get me away from here."

He didn't ask questions. He just led me down the hallway away from there.



Chapter 26 | A Kiss of Shadows | Chapter 28



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