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Chapter 29

THE DOORS AT THE END OF THE HALLWAY WERE SMALL TONIGHT: MAN height. Sometimes the doors were big enough for an elephant to pass through. They were a pale grey with gold edgings, very Louis the something. I didn't bother asking Rhys if the queen had redecorated. The sithen, like the Black Coach, did its own redecorating.

Rhys opened the elegant double doors, but we never got to step into the room beyond because Frost stopped us. It wasn't that he was physically blocking the door-though he was. He'd changed into the queen's outfit, and the sight of him in it stopped me cold. I think Rhys stopped moving because I did.

The shirt was completely see-through, to the point where I wasn't sure if the cloth was actually white, or if it was clear and it was his skin that made it look white. The shirt was cut like a second skin to his chest, but the sleeves had a large puff of diaphanous material, cut tight just above the bend of his elbow by a broad appliqu'e of glittering silver. The rest of the sleeves fell in a long full tube like a crystal morning glory. The thread that kept the shirt together was silver and gleamed at every seam. The pants were silver satin cut so low around the waist that his hip bones showed through the cloth of his shirt. If he'd tried to wear underwear they would have shown at the waist of the pants. The only thing that kept the pants up was that they were unbelievably tight. A series of white strings over the groin, like the ties on the back of a merry widow, took the place of a zipper.

His hair had been divided into three sections. The upper part was pulled up through a white carved piece of bone so that the silver hair fell like the water of some fountain around his head. The second section of hair was simply pulled back on either side and held in place with bone barrettes. The lower section hung loose and free, but so little was left that it was like a thin silver veil emphasizing his body instead of hiding it.

"Frost, you're almost too beautiful to be real."

"She treats us like dolls to be dressed at her whim." It was the closest thing to an overt criticism of the queen that I'd ever heard him say.

"I like it, Frost," Rhys said. "It's you."

He scowled at Rhys. "It is not me."

I'd never seen the tall guard so angry about something so small. "It's just clothes, Frost. It won't hurt you to wear them with grace. Showing your displeasure in them could hurt you, very much."

"I have obeyed my queen."

"If she knows how much you hate the clothes she'll order more of the same for you. You know that."

The scowl deepened until he managed to put lines across that perfect face. Then a scream came from the room behind him. Even wordless, I recognized that voice. It was Galen.

I stepped forward. Frost stood his ground.

"Get out of my way, Frost," I said.

"The prince has ordered this punishment, but has graciously allowed privacy. No one may enter until it is complete."

I stared up at Frost. I couldn't fight my way past him, and I wasn't going to kill him. It used up my options.

"Merry is being named coheir tonight," Rhys said.

Frost's eyes flicked from one to the other of us. "I do not believe it."

Galen screamed again, and the sound raised the flesh on my arms, clenched my hands into fists.

"I will be coheir tonight, Frost."

He shook his head. "That changes nothing."

"What if she told you that our celibacy will be lifted for Merry, and Merry alone?" Rhys asked.

Frost managed to look arrogant and disbelieving. "'What if' is not a game I will play with you."

Galen gave another sharp scream. The queen's Ravens do not scream easily. I moved toward Frost, and he tensed. I think he was expecting a fight.

I ran my fingers lightly over the front of his shirt. He jumped as if I'd hurt him. "The queen will announce tonight that I am to have my pick of the Guards. She's ordered me to sleep with one of you tonight, or tomorrow I will have a starring role in one of her little orgies." I wrapped my arms around his waist, pressing myself lightly against his body. "Trust me, Frost, I will have one of you tonight, and tomorrow, and the night after that. It would be a shame if you were not among those I bedded."

The arrogance was gone, replaced by something eager and afraid. I didn't understand the fear, but the eagerness, that I understood. He looked to Rhys. "Your oath that this is true."

"You have it," Rhys said. "Let her pass, Frost."

He stared down at me. He still hadn't touched me back-my caress had been like a kiss against unresponsive lips-but he moved out of the way, sliding from the circle of my arms. He watched me like you'd watch a coiled rattlesnake, no sudden movements, and no trust that it wouldn't bite you anyway. He was afraid of what was happening in that room.

I walked past him. I felt Rhys at my back, but all I could see was what lay in the center of the room. There was a small water garden in the center of the room, with a large decorative rock in the center of it. Stepping-stones led to the rock, in which were embedded permanent chains. Galen was chained to the rock. His body was almost lost to sight under the slowly fanning butterfly wings of the demi-fey. They looked like true butterflies on the edge of a puddle, sipping liquid, wings moving slowly to the rhythm of their feeding. But they weren't sipping water, they were drinking his blood.

He screamed again, and it sent me rushing forward. Doyle was suddenly in front of me. He must have been guarding the other doors. "You cannot stop them once they have begun to feed."

"Why is he screaming? It shouldn't hurt that much." I tried to get past him, and he grabbed my arm.

"No, Meredith, no."

Galen shrieked long and loud, his body arching against the chains. The movement dislodged some of the demi-fey, and I glimpsed why he was screaming. His groin was a bloody mess. They were taking flesh as well as blood.

Rhys hissed, "Bloody beasts."

Doyle tightened his grip on my arm.

"They're mutilating him," I protested.

"He will heal."

I tried to pull away but his fingers were like something welded to my skin. "Doyle, please?"

"I am sorry, Princess."

Galen shrieked, and the rock strained under the pull of his body, but the chains held. "This is excessive and you know it."

"The prince is within his rights to punish Galen for disobeying him." He tried to pull me farther away, as if that would make it better.

"No, Doyle, if Galen has to endure it, I won't look away. Now let go of me."

"You promise not to do anything rash?"

"My word," I said.

He released me, and when I touched his shoulder, he moved to one side so my view was unobstructed. The wings were every color of the rainbow, and some that the rainbow could only dream of-huge wings bigger than my hands flexing slowly in and out above brief glimpses of Galen's nearly nude body. His pants were down around his ankles, and there was no other clothing that I could see. There was a terrible beauty to the scene, like a very pretty slice of hell.

One set of wings was larger than the others, like huge pale swallow-tailed kites. It was Queen Niceven herself feasting just above his groin. I had an idea. "Queen Niceven," I said, "it does not become a queen to do the dirty work of a prince."

She raised her small pale face and hissed at me, her lips and chin red with Galen's blood, the front of her white gown splattered with crimson.

I held up the hand with the ring on it. "I am to be named coheir tonight."

"What is that to me?" Her voice was like evil bells, sweet and disturbing.

"A queen deserves better than the blood of a sidhe lord."

She watched me with tiny pale eyes. She was all leprous in her paleness, like a tiny ghost.

"What do you offer that is more tender than this?"

"Not more tender, but more powerful. The blood of a sidhe princess for the queen of the demi-fey."

She stared at me, one dainty hand wiping at the blood on her mouth. She rose on huge luna-moth wings to fly toward me. The others continued to feed. Niceven hovered in front of my face, her wings making a small current of air against my skin. "You would take his place?"

Doyle said, "No, Princess."

I silenced him with a gesture. "I offer Queen Niceven of the demi-fey my blood. The blood of a sidhe princess is too fine a prize to be shared."

Frost and Rhys moved up beside Doyle. They watched us as if they'd never seen such a show before.

Niceven licked her lips with a tiny tongue like the petal of a flower. "You would let me take blood from you?"

I held up a finger to her. "Let him go, and you may pierce my skin and drink."

"Prince Cel petitioned that we ruin this one's manhood."

"As Doyle said, it will heal. Why would the prince ask a favor of the demi-fey for something that is not permanent damage?"

She hovered near my finger for all the world like a butterfly inspecting a flower. "That, you have to ask Prince Cel." She turned her gaze from my finger to my face. "You should have heard what he wanted us to do at first. Wanted us to ruin him for life, but the queen does not allow her lovers to be damaged goods." Niceven hovered close to my face, her tiny hand touching the tip of my nose. "Prince Cel reminded me that he will be king someday." She touched my lips lightly with those diminutive fingers. "I reminded him that he does not rule here yet, and that I would not risk Queen Andais's anger for him."

"What did he say to that?"

"He took the compromise. We taste royal blood and flesh, both precious, and for tonight this one will be useless in the queen's bed." She frowned, arms crossing over her tiny chest. "I do not know why he is jealous of this one and not the others."

"It is not the queen's bed he was trying to keep Galen out of," I said.

She cocked her head to one side, long spiderweb hair trailing around her. "You?"

I waggled the ring at her. "I have been ordered to sleep with a guard tonight."

"And this one would have been your choice?"

I nodded.

Niceven smiled. "Cel is jealous of you."

"Not in the way you mean, Queen Niceven. Do we have a bargain, my blood for your sweet mouth, and Galen goes free?"

She stayed hovering near my face for a few seconds more, then nodded. "We have a bargain.

Extend your arm and give me a place to land."

"Free Galen first, then by all means feed."

"As you like." She flew back to the others, and whatever she said to them scattered them ceilingward in a bright colored cloud. Galen's pale, pale green skin was covered in tiny red bites; thin lines of blood began to trail across his skin like an invisible red pen trying to connect the dots.

"Unchain him and see to his wounds," I said. Rhys and Frost moved to obey me. Only Doyle stayed nearby as if he didn't trust one of us, or any of us.

I extended my arm outward, my hand cupping slightly upward. Niceven landed on my forearm. She was heavier than she appeared, but still light and strangely brittle, as if her tiny bare feet were made of dried bones. She wrapped both her hands around my index finger, then lowered her face toward my fingertip as if she meant to bestow a kiss. Tiny razor teeth bit into my finger. The pain was sharp and immediate. Her tiny petal tongue began to lap the blood tickling against my skin. She curved her body around my hand until every inch of her small being was insinuated against my skin. It was a strangely sexual movement, as if she gained more than mere blood from the feeding.

The rest of the demi-fey hovered in the air around me like colored wind, moving gently. Their tiny mouths were blood-stained, miniature hands red with Galen's blood. Niceven caressed my hand with her hands, her bare feet; a tiny knee beat against my palm.

She raised her head and took a breath. "I am full of flesh and blood from your lover. I can hold no more." She sat up in my hand, her head resting against my finger. "I would give much for a longer drink someday, Princess Meredith. You taste of high magic, and sex." She stood and slowly lifted herself from my hand with slow beats of her wings. She hovered near my face just looking at me, as if she saw something I did not, or was trying to find something in me that was not there. Finally, she nodded, and said, "We will see you at the banquet, Princess." With that she rose higher into the air, the others following her in a multicolored cloud. The huge doors at the end of the room opened without anyone touching them, and once the bright flying crowd had vanished inside, the doors closed slowly behind them.

A small sound brought my attention back to the room. Galen was leaning up against the far wall, his pants in place though not fastened. Rhys was dabbing at the small bites with a bottle of clear liquid, until Galen's naked upper body gleamed in the lights.

He gazed up at me. "Is it true about the celibacy being lifted?"

"It's true," I said, and crouched on my heels by him.

He smiled, but it left his eyes pain-filled. "I won't be much use to you tonight."

"There will be other nights," I said.

The smile widened, but he winced as Rhys cleaned more of the wounds. "Why did Cel care if I in particular came to your bed?"

"I think Cel believes that if I cannot sleep with you tonight, that I will sleep alone."

Galen looked at me.

I didn't wait for him to say something that would make all this even more uncomfortable. "I don't know if you heard what I told the others, but if I don't have sex tonight with someone of my choosing, tomorrow I entertain the court with a group of the queen's choosing."

"You'll have to take someone to your bed tonight, Merry."

"I know." I touched his face and found it cool to the touch and lightly dewed with sweat. He'd lost a lot of blood, nothing fatal for a sidhe, but he would be weak tonight for many things, not just for sex.

"If this was your punishment for disobeying Cel, then what was Barinthus's punishment?"

"He was forbidden to attend tonight's banquet," Frost said.

I raised my eyebrows at that. "Galen gets cut up and Barinthus just misses supper?"

"Cel is afraid of Barinthus, but he does not fear Galen," Frost said.

"I'm just too nice a guy."

"Yes," Frost said, "you are."

"That was supposed to be a joke," Galen said.

"Unfortunately," Doyle said, "it isn't funny."

"We can't keep the queen waiting," Rhys said. "Can you walk?"

"Get me on my feet and I'll walk." Doyle and Frost helped him stand.

He moved slowly, arthritically, as if things hurt a great deal, but by the time they'd helped him to the far doors, he was moving on his own power. He was healing before our eyes, his skin absorbing the bites. It was like watching reverse film of flowers blooming.

The oil helped speed the process, but mostly it was just his own body. The amazing flesh machine of a sidhe warrior. Within hours the bites would be healed; within days the rest of the damage would be gone as well. In a few days Galen and I could finally quench the heat between us. But for tonight there would have to be someone else. I looked at the other three guards in an almost proprietary way, like going into your kitchen and knowing the shelves are well stocked with your favorite things. None of them was a fate worse than torture. It was just a question of which one. How do you decide between one perfect flower and another if love is not an issue? I didn't have the faintest idea. Maybe I could toss a coin.

Chapter 28 | A Kiss of Shadows | Chapter 30