WE WALKED BACK THE WAY WE HAD COME, BUT THE HALL WAS STRAIGHT now and narrower-a different hallway all together. I glanced behind us, and there was no double door. The queen's rooms were elsewhere. For a moment I was safe. I started to shiver and couldn't stop.
Rhys hugged me with both his arms, pressing me to his chest. I sank against him, arms sliding around his waist, under his cloak. He stroked my hair from my face. "Your skin is cold to the touch. What did she do, Merry?" He raised my head back, gently, so he could see my face while I clung to him. "Talk to me," he said, voice soft.
I shook my head. "She offered me everything, Rhys, everything a little sidhe could want. The trouble is, I don't trust it."
"What are you talking about?" he asked.
I pulled away from him then. "This." I touched my throat where the blood was drying. "I am mortal, Rhys. Just because I'm offered the moon doesn't mean I'll survive to put it in my pocket."
There was a look on his face that was gentle, but I was also suddenly aware of how very much older he was than I. His face was still young, but the look in his eye was not. "Is that the worst of the injuries?"
He reached out and touched the spot of blood. It didn't even hurt when he touched it. It really wasn't much of a wound. It was so hard to explain that what was hurting didn't show on my skin. The queen was living in denial about what Cel was, but I wasn't. He'd never share the throne with me: One of us would have to be dead before the other sat on the throne.
"Did she threaten you?" Rhys asked.
I nodded again.
"You look totally spooked, Merry. What did she say to you in there?"
I stared at him and didn't want to tell him. It was as if saying it out loud would make it more real. But it was more than that. It was the fact that if Rhys knew, he wouldn't be totally displeased. "It's sort of good news, bad news," I said.
"What's the good news?"
I told him about being named coheir.
He hugged me tight and hard. "That's wonderful news, Merry. What could possibly be bad news after that?"
I pulled back from the hug. "Do you really think Cel will let me live long enough to displace him? He was behind the attempts on my life three years ago, and he didn't have nearly this good a reason for wanting me dead."
The smile faded from his face. "You bear the queen's mark now- even Cel would not dare kill you. It's death by the queen's mercy if anyone harms you now."
"She stood in there and told me that I left the court because of Griffin. I tried to tell her that I hadn't left because of a broken heart, that I'd left because of the duels." I shook my head. "She talked over me, Rhys, like I wasn't saying anything. She is in very major denial, and I don't think my death would change that."
"You mean her baby boy would never do such a thing," he said.
"Exactly. Besides do you really think he'd risk his own lily-white neck? He'll have someone else do it if he can-then they'll be the ones in danger, not him."
"It's our job to protect you, Merry. We're good at our job."
I laughed, but it wasn't a good laugh, more stress than humor. "Aunt Andais has changed your job description, Rhys."
"What do you mean?"
"Let's walk while I tell you. I feel the need for more distance between myself and our queen."
He offered me his arm again. "As my lady wishes." He smiled when he said it, and I went to him, but I slid my arm around his waist instead of taking his arm. He stiffened, surprised for a second, then slid his arm across my shoulders. We walked down the hallway, arms wrapped around each other. I was still cold, as if some inner warmth had been extinguished.
There are men that I can't walk arm in arm with, as if our bodies have different rhythms. Rhys and I moved down the hallway like two halves of a whole. I realized that I simply couldn't believe that I had permission to touch him. It didn't seem real to suddenly be given the keys to the kingdom.
Rhys stopped, turning me in his arms, until he could rub his hands up and down my arms. "You're still shivering."
"Not as badly as before," I said.
He planted a soft kiss on my forehead. "Come on, honey bun, tell me what the Wicked Witch of the East did to you?"
I smiled. "Honey bun?"
He grinned. "Honey bear? Honey child? Snookums?"
I laughed. "Worse and worse."
His smile faded. He glanced at the ring lying against the whiteness of his sleeve. "Doyle said the ring came to life for him. Is that true?"
I glanced at the heavy silver octagonal band and nodded.
"It lies quiet against my arm."
I looked up into his face. He looked... forlorn. "The queen used to let the ring choose her consort," he said.
"It's reacted to almost every guard I've touched tonight."
"Except me." His voice was so thick with regret that I couldn't let it stand.
"It has to touch bare skin," I said.
He started to reach for my hand and the ring. I pulled away from him. "Please don't."
"What's wrong, Merry?" he asked.
The light had faded to a dim twilight glow. Cobwebs draped the hallway like great shining silver curtains. Pale white spiders larger than my two hands together hid in the webs like round bloated ghosts.
"Because even at sixteen I was the one who said stop. You should have known better."
"A little slap and tickle and I'm exiled from the game forever. Baby, that is cruel."
"No, it's practical. I don't want to end my life nailed to a Saint Andrew's cross." Of course, now that didn't apply. I could tell Rhys and we could do it up against a wall right this minute, and there would be no penalties. Or so Andais said. But I didn't trust my aunt. She'd told only me that the celibacy had been lifted. I only had her word that Eamon knew, and he was her consort, her creature. What if I threw Rhys up against a wall, and then she changed her mind? It wasn't going to be real, to be safe, until she announced it in public. Then, and only then, would I really believe it.
A large white spider came to the edge of the webbing. The head was at least three inches across. I was going to have to pass right under the thing.
"You see one mortal woman tortured to death for seducing a guard and you remember it for the rest of your life. Long memory," Rhys said.
"I saw what she had her pet torturer do to the guard who transgressed, Rhys. I think your memory is too short." I stopped him, pulling on his arm, just short of the heavy-bodied spider. I could call will-o'-the-wisps, but the spiders weren't impressed by them.
"Can you call something stronger than a will-o'-the-wisp?" I asked. I stared at that waiting spider, its body bigger around than my fist. The spider webs above my head seemed suddenly heavier, weighed down with the round bloated bodies like a net full of fish about to spill on my head.
Rhys looked at me, face puzzled, then he looked up as if just seeing the thick webs, the scurrying sense of movement. "You never did like the spiders."
"No," I said, "I never did like the spiders."
Rhys moved toward the spider that seemed to be lying in wait for me. He left me standing in the middle of the hall, listening to the heavy scurrying and watching the webs waver above my head. He did nothing that I could see. He simply touched a finger to the spider's abdomen. The spider started to scurry away, then it stopped abruptly, and started to shake, legs spasming frantically. It writhed and jerked, tearing a partial hole in the webbing, and it dangled helplessly half in and half out of the webbing.
I could hear dozens of the things running for safety in a soft clattering retreat. The webs swayed like an upside-down ocean with the rush of their flight. Lord and Lady, there had to be hundreds of them.
The spider's white body began to shrivel, falling in upon itself as if some great hand were crushing it. That fat white body turned to a black dry husk until I wouldn't have been sure what it was if I hadn't seen it alive.
There was no sense of movement in the spider webs now. The hallway was utterly still except for Rhys's smiling figure. The dim, dim light seemed to collect around his white curls and the white suit until he glowed against the grey cobwebs and the greyer stone. He was smiling at me, cheerful, normal for him.
"Good enough?" he asked.
I nodded. "I only saw you do that once before and that was in battle, but that was when your life was in danger."
"Do you mourn the insect?"
"It's an arachnid, not an insect, and no, I don't mourn it. I've never had the right kind of power to walk safely through this place." But... I'd really meant for him to call fire to his hands, or brighter lights, and frighten them away. I hadn't meant for him to...
He held his hand out to me, still smiling.
I stared at the black husk swaying gently in the webbing as our movement caused tiny air currents to pass through the hallway.
Rhys's smile didn't change, but his eyes grew gentle. "I am a death god, or was once, Merry. What did you think I was going to do, light a match and yell boo?"
"No, but..." I stared at his offered hand. I stared at it for longer than was polite. But finally, tentatively, I reached toward him. Our fingertips touched, and his breath came out with a sigh.
He gazed down at the silver band on my hand. His gaze came up to meet mine. "Merry, may I,
I looked into his pale blue eye. "Why is it so important to you?" I wondered if the rumor had already spread about what she planned to announce tonight.
"We're all hoping she called you back to choose another would-be consort for yourself. I'm assuming that if the ring doesn't recognize someone, they're out of the running."
"That's closer than you know," I said.
"Then may I?" he asked.
He tried to keep the eagerness off his face, but failed. I guess I couldn't blame him. It was
going to be like this all night once word got out. No, it was going to be worse, much worse.
He began to bring my hand to his lips as he spoke. "You know I would never willingly hurt you, Merry." He kissed my hand, and his lips brushed the ring. It quickened-that was the only word I had for it. It flared through me, through us both. The sensation seemed to squeeze my heart, chase it into my throat like a trapped thing.
Rhys stayed bent over my hand, but I heard him breathe out an "Oh, yes." He raised up, and his eye looked unfocused.
It was the strongest reaction yet, and that sort of worried me. Did the strength of the reaction say something about how strong the man's virility was, sort of a supernatural sperm count? Nothing personal to Rhys, but if I had to sleep with anyone tonight, it was probably going to be Galen. The ring could pulse away to its carved little heart. I would decide who shared my bed. Until Auntie dearest sent her spy to me, of course. I pushed that thought away-I couldn't deal with it right now. There were sidhe in her Guard that I'd sooner kill than kiss, let alone anything more.
Rhys wrapped his fingers through mine, pressing the palm of his hand against the ring. The second pulse was stronger, bringing an involuntary gasp from my throat. It felt like things deep inside my body were being caressed. Things that no hand should ever touch-but power... power wasn't constrained by the bounds of flesh.
"Oh, I like it," Rhys said.
I pulled my hand out of his. "Don't do that again."
"It felt good and you know it."
I looked into his eager face, and said, "She doesn't just want me to find another fianc'e. She wants me to have sex with several or all of the Guard that this ring recognizes. It's a race to see who gives her an heir of the blood royal first. Cel, or me."
He stared at me, studying my face, as if trying to read my expression. "I know you wouldn't make a joke of this, but it seems too good to be true."
It made me feel better that Rhys didn't trust it either. "Exactly. Right now she's told me the celibacy is off for little ol' me, but I have no witnesses. I think she's sincere, but until she announces it in full court, I'll just pretend that sex is still taboo."
He nodded. "What's a few hours more of waiting after a thousand years?"
I raised eyebrows at him. "I can't do everybody tonight, Rhys, so it's going to be more than a few hours wait."
"As long as I'm first in line, what does it matter?" He tried to make it a joke, but I didn't laugh.
"I'm afraid that this is exactly how everyone else is going to feel. There's only one of me, and what, twenty-seven of you?"
"Do you have to sleep with all of us?"
"She didn't say so, but she is going to insist on me sleeping with her spy, whoever he turns out to be."
"You hate some of the Guard, Merry, and they hate you back. She cannot expect you to take them to your bed. Lord and Lady, if one that you hated got you pregnant..." He didn't finish the thought.
"I'd be trapped into marriage with a man I despised, and he would be king."
Rhys blinked at me, the white eye-patch catching the light as he moved his head. "I hadn't thought about that. Truthfully all I was seeing was the sex, but you're right-one of us is going to be king."
I glanced up at the grey sheet of webs. They were empty, but... "Should we be talking about this here with this above us?"
He looked up at the spiderwebs. "Good point." He offered me his arm. "May I escort you to the banquet, my lady?"
I slid my hand over his arm. "With pleasure."
He patted my hand. "I hope so, Merry, I certainly do hope so."
I laughed, and the sound echoed strangely in the hallway, making the cobwebs drift and float. It was almost as if the ceiling stretched far, far overhead into some vast darkness that only the spiderwebs hid from our view. My laughter faded, long before we stepped out from under the webs.
"Thank you, Rhys, for understanding why I'm afraid, instead of just concentrating on the fact that you may be about to end several hundred years of celibacy."
He pressed my left hand to his lips. "I live only to serve under you, or above you, or any way you want me."
I punched him in the shoulder. "Stop it."
"Rhys isn't the name of any known death god. I researched you in college, and you weren't there."
He was suddenly very busy staring down the ever-narrowing hallway. "Rhys is my name now, Merry. It doesn't matter who I was before."
"Of course it matters," I said.
"Why?" he asked, and suddenly he was all serious, asking a very grown-up question.
Watching him glow white and shining in the grey light, I didn't feel grownup. I felt tired. But there was a weight to his gaze, a demand in his face, that I had to answer.
"I just want to know who I'm dealing with, Rhys."
"You've known me all your life, Merry."
"Then tell me," I said.
"I don't want to talk about the long-ago days, Merry."
"What if I invited you into my bed? Would you tell me all your secrets then?"
He studied my face. "You're teasing me."
I touched the scarred edge of his face, tracing with my fingers from the roughened skin to pass a fingertip over the full softness of his lips. "No teasing, Rhys. You're beautiful. You've been a friend to me for years. You protected me when I was younger. It would be poor repayment if I left you celibate when I could put an end to it-besides the fact that running my mouth down that washboard stomach of yours has been a recurring sexual fantasy."
"Funny, I've had the same fantasy," he said. He wiggled his eyebrows at me and did a miserably bad Groucho Marx impression. "Maybe you can come up to my place and look at my etchings."
I smiled and shook my head. "Don't you watch any movies made after color came into the cinema?"
"Not often." He held out his hand, and I took it. We walked down the hallway hand in hand, and it was companionable. Of all the guards I liked, I'd have thought Rhys would have been the most obnoxious about the possibility of sex. But he'd been the perfect gentlemen. Proof once again that I didn't really understand men.