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Chapter 31

THERE WAS A LIGHT IN THE DARKNESS. A PINPOINT OF WHITENESS THAT floated toward me, growing larger and larger. And I could see that it wasn't light but white flames. A ball of white fire swept through the darkness, swept toward me, and I could not escape it because I had no body. I was just something floating in the cool dark. The fire washed over me and I had a body. I had bones and muscles and skin and a voice. The heat ate over my skin, and I felt my muscles cooking, popping from the heat. The fire ate into my bones, filled my veins with molten metal, and began to peel me apart from the inside out.

I woke shrieking.

Galen was bending over me. His face was all that kept me from total panic. He was cradling my head and upper body against his thighs, stroking my forehead, smoothing my hair back from my face. "It's all right, Merry. It's all right." His eyes glittered with unshed tears, gleaming like green glass.

Fflur leaned over me. "Poor greeting I bring, Princess Meredith, but answer to our queen, I must." Translated, that meant she had called me out of the darkness, forced me awake, and at the queen's bidding. Fflur was one of those who tried very hard to live as if the year had never gone to four digits. Her tapestries had been displayed in the St. Louis Art Museum. They'd been photographed and written up in at least two major magazines. Fflur had refused to look at the articles, and under no circumstances could she be persuaded to go to the museum. She'd turned down interviews from television, newspaper, and the aforementioned magazines.

It took two tries to get my voice to work in something other than a scream. "Did you clear the door of roses?"

"I did," she said.

I tried to smile at her and didn't quite make it. "You risked much to aid me, Fflur. You have no apologies to make."

She glanced up and around at the crowding faces. She placed a fingertip on my forehead, and thought one word: "Later." She wanted to speak to me later, but wanted no one to know. She was a healer, among other talents. She could have checked my health with the same gesture, so no one was the wiser.

I didn't even dare risk a nod. The best I could do was stare into her black eyes, a startling contrast to all that yellow, so that they looked like the eyes of a doll. I looked into her eyes and tried to tell her with a glance that I'd understood. I hadn't even seen the throne room yet and I was already neck deep and rising in court intrigue. Typical.

My aunt knelt beside me in a cloud of leather and vinyl. She took my right hand in hers, petting it, getting blood all over her leather gloves. "Doyle tells me that you pricked your finger on a thorn, and the roses sprang to life."

I looked up at her, tried to read her face, and failed. My wrists ached with a sharp burning that seemed to go all the way down to the bone. Her fingers kept playing over the fresh wounds, and every time the leather passed over it, it made me twitch. "I pricked my finger, yes. What caused the roses to come to life is anyone's guess."

She cradled my hand in both of hers, gently now, gazing down at the wounds with a look of... wonderment on her face. "I had given up hope of our roses. One more loss in a sea of loss." She smiled, and it seemed genuine, but I'd seen her use the same smile while torturing someone in her bedchamber. Just because the smile was real didn't mean you could trust it.

"I'm glad you're pleased," I said, my voice as empty as I could make it.

She laughed then, pressing her hands together over the wounds. I was suddenly very aware of every seam in the leather gloves as they pressed into my flesh. She pressed with a slow steady pressure until I made a small pain sound. That seemed to make her happy, and she let me go. She stood with a swish of skirts.

"When Fflur has bound your wounds, you may join us in the throne room. I am eager for your presence at my side." She turned and the crowd parted before her, forming a tunnel of light that led into the throne room beyond. Eamon moved from the crowd like a black leather shadow to take her arm.

A small goblin with a ring of eyes like a necklace across its forehead knelt beside me, crowding the edge of Fflur's black skirts. The goblin's eyes flicked to me, flicked to her, to me, to her, but what it was really looking at was the blood. It was a small goblin, barely two feet tall. The ring of eyes marked it as handsome among the goblins. They literally called such a marking a "necklace of eyes," and said it in tones that humans reserved for large breasts or a tight ass.

The queen could think what she wanted about the roses. I didn't believe that one drop of my blood had inspired the dying roses. I did believe that my royal blood had saved me, but the initial attack... I suspected another spell, hidden somewhere in the thorns. It was doable if someone were powerful enough.

I had enemies. What I needed was friends-allies.

I let my hand slide down my hip as if I were faint. The fresh wound was only inches from the little goblin's mouth. He darted forward and licked a rough tongue like a cat's across the wound. It brought a small sound from my throat, and he cringed.

Galen swung at him the way you'd chase an unwanted dog away. But Fflur grabbed the goblin by the scruff of the neck. "Greedy gut, what mean you with such impertinence?" She started to cast him away.

I stopped her. "No, he has tasted my blood uninvited. I demand recompense for such abuse."

"Recompense?" Galen made it a question.

Fflur kept her grip on the little goblin. His row of eyes flicked back and forth. "Meant nothin' by it. Sorry, so sorry." He had two main arms and two tiny useless-looking ones. All four arms writhed, clasping and unclasping tiny clawed fingers.

Frost took the goblin from Fflur, raising the small figure in two hands, skyward. His hands were empty of my knife. I'd have to remember to ask for it back. But at the moment I had other

business.

"I need to bind the wounds," Fflur said, "or you will lose more blood. I have given you some of my strength, but you did not find it pleasant and would find it less so a second time."

I shook my head. "Not yet."

"Merry," Galen said, "let her treat your wounds."

I looked at his face so full of concern. He'd been raised in the court as had I. He should have known that now was not a time to tend our wounds. Now was a time for action. I looked into his face. Not at his handsome, open face, or his pale green curls, or the way his laugh made his entire face glow-I looked at him as my father must have looked at him once when he decided to give me to someone else. I didn't have time to explain things that Galen should already have been thinking of. I searched the crowd peering down at me like gawkers at a car wreck, simply better dressed and more exotic. "Where is Doyle?"

There was movement in the crowd to my right. Doyle stepped forward. He looked very tall from where I lay on the floor. A black-cloaked pillar to loom above me. Only the peacock-feathered earrings framing his face softened the unrelieved intimidation of his figure. The look on his face, the set of his shoulders under the cloak, all of it was the old Doyle. The queen's Darkness stood beside me, and the colorful feathers looked out of place. He'd been dressed for a party and found himself in the middle of a fight. His expression told nothing, but the very lack of expression said he was not happy.

I suddenly felt six again and vaguely frightened of this tall dark man who had stood at my aunt's side. But he wasn't at her side now. He was at mine. I settled back in Galen's lap and found comfort in his touch, but it was Doyle I turned to for help.

"Bring Kurag to me if he wishes to ransom this thief," I said.

Doyle arched a line of black eyebrow. "Thief?"

"He drank my blood without invitation. The only greater theft among the goblins is a theft of flesh."

Rhys knelt on the other side of me. "I heard that goblins lose a lot of flesh during sex."

"Only if it's agreed on beforehand," I said.

Galen leaned over me, whispering against my skin. "If you are so weakened by blood loss that you can't bed anyone tonight..." He touched his lips to my face. "I don't think I could stand to watch you in one of her sex shows. You must be well enough to bed someone tonight, Merry. Let Fflur bind your wounds."

His face loomed at the corner of my eye like a pale blur, his lips like a pink cloud next to my cheek. It wasn't that he was wrong. It was that he wasn't thinking far enough ahead. "I have better use for my blood than soaking into bandages."

"What are you talking about?" Galen asked.

Doyle answered, "The goblins consider anything that comes from the body more valuable than jewels or weapons."

Galen stared up at him. He reached down toward my wrist. I felt his chest move against my head as he sighed. "And what does that have to do with Merry?" But there was something in his voice that said he knew the answer.

Doyle's dark eyes went from me to Galen. He stared at the younger guard. "You are too young to remember the goblin wars."

"So is Merry," Galen said.

Those black eyes turned back to me. "Young, but she knows her history." He flicked his gaze back to Galen. "Do you know your history, young Raven?"

Galen nodded. He pulled me farther into his lap, away from Fflur, away from everyone. He held me against him, holding my arms close so that my blood stained his skin. "I remember my history. I just don't like it."

"I'll be all right, Galen," I said.

He stared down at me, nodding, but not like he believed me. "Fetch me Kurag," I said to Doyle.

He looked at the waiting crowd. "Sithney, Nicca, fetch the goblin king."

Sithney turned with a swirl of long brown hair. I didn't see Nicca's dark purple hair; the pale flash of his lilac skin would have been noticeable among the white and black skin of the court.

But if Doyle called him, he was there.

The crowd parted and Kurag came forward with his queen at his side. The goblins, like all of the sidhe, considered the royal consort to be a member in arms, not someone to be hidden away in safety. She had so many eyes scattered across her face that she looked like a spider done large. The wide, lipless mouth held fangs large enough to make any spider proud. Some goblins held venom in their bodies. I was betting that Kurag's new queen was one of those. The eyes, the poison, and a nest of arms around her body like a collection of snakes, made her almost the perfection of goblin beauty, though she could only boast one set of strong bowed legs. Extra legs were the rarest beauty among the goblins. Keelin did not appreciate her good fortune.

There was an air of contentment about the goblin queen that said here was a woman who understood her worth and had made it work for her. That nest of arms clung to Kurag's body, stroking, caressing. One pair of arms had slid between his legs stroking both shaft and balls through his thin pants. The fact that she felt compelled to do something so overtly sexual when introduced to me was a sign that she considered me a rival.

My father had felt it important that I know the goblin court well. We'd visited their court many times, as they had visited our home. He had said, "The goblins do most of the fighting in our wars. They are the backbone of our armies, not the sidhe." This had been true since the last goblin war, when we'd made a treaty that had lasted between us. Kurag had been so comfortable with my father that he had asked for my hand as consort. The rest of the sidhe were mortally offended. Some talked of going to war over the insult. The goblins considered his desire for such a human-looking bride to be the height of perversity and talked behind his back of finding a new king. But other goblins saw the benefit to sidhe blood in a queen. It took some very serious diplomacy to keep us from either war or my wedding a goblin. It was soon after that that my engagement to Griffin was announced.

Kurag loomed over me. His skin was a shade of yellow similar to Fflur's skin. But where hers was smooth like the perfection of aged ivory, Kurag's skin was covered in warts and lumps. Each imperfection in his skin was a beauty mark. One large lump on his right shoulder spouted an eye. A wandering eye, the goblins called it, because it wandered away from the face. I'd loved the eye when I was a child. Loved the way it moved independently of his face, the three eyes that graced his broad, strong features. The eye on his shoulder was the color of violets, with long black lashes. There was a mouth just above his right nipple that had full red lips and tiny white teeth. A thin pink tongue would lick those lips, and air breathed from that mouth. If you put a feather in front of that second mouth it would blow the feather upward, again and again. While my father and Kurag talked, I entertained myself with watching that eye, and that mouth, and the two thin arms that poked awkwardly from Kurag's right side on either side of his ribs. We played cards, that eye, that mouth, and those arms. I thought Kurag very clever to be able to concentrate on such disparate things all at once.

What I hadn't known until I was a teenager was that there were two thin legs below Kurag's belt on the right side, complete with a small but completely functional penis. A goblin's idea of courtship was crude. Sexual prowess counted for a great deal among them. When I'd seemed unenthusiastic about Kurag's proposal, he'd dropped his pants and shown off both his own equipment and that of his parasitic twin. I was sixteen and I still remember the dawning horror of the realization that there was another being trapped within Kurag's body. Another being with enough mind to play card games with a child while Kurag paid no attention. There was an entire person trapped inside there. An entire person who, if genetics had been kinder, might have matched that lovely lavender eye.

I had never been comfortable around Kurag after that. It hadn't been the proposal or the sight of his rather formidable manhood come to full quivering attention. It had been the sight of that second penis, large and swollen, independent of Kurag and eager for me. When I had turned them down, for "them" it was, that one lavender eye had shed a single tear.

I had had nightmares for weeks. Extra limbs were dandy, but entire extra people in pieces trapped inside someone else... there were no words for that kind of horror. The second mouth could breathe, so it obviously had access to the lungs, but it lacked vocal cords. I wasn't sure if that was a blessing or one last curse.

"Kurag, Goblin King, greetings. Twin of Kurag, Goblin King's Flesh, greetings as well." The thin arms on the side of the king's bare chest waved at me. I had greeted both of them from the night I realized that the person with whom I'd been playing cards and stupid games like feather-blowing had actually not been Kurag at all. To my knowledge I was the only one who ever greeted both of them.

"Meredith, Sidhe Princess, greetings from both of us." His orange eyes stared down at me, the largest one perched like a cyclops eye slightly above and in the middle of the other two. The look he gave me was the look any man would give a woman he desired. A look so bald-faced, so obvious, that I felt Galen's body stiffen. Rhys rose to his feet to stand beside Doyle.

"You honor me with your attentions, King Kurag," I said. It was an insult among the goblins if the men did not leer at your woman. It implied that she was ugly and infertile, unworthy of lust.

The queen kept her hands on Kurag, but moved one hand to his side where I knew the other set of genitalia hung. Her maze of eyes glared at me, as her hands worked them. Kurag's breath came out in a rush from both mouths.

If we didn't hurry, we'd be here when the queen brought him, them, to a climax. The goblins saw nothing wrong with public sex. It was a mark of prowess among the men to be brought many times at one banquet, and the woman that could do it was prized. Of course, the goblin male who could sustain a female's attentions for a lengthy time was prized among the females. If a goblin had any sex problems like premature ejaculation or impotency or, for a female, frigidness, then everyone knew it. Nothing was hidden.

Kurag's eyes went to Frost and the small goblin in the guard's grasp. For all the goblin king's attention, his queen might have been in another room.

"Why do you hold one of my men?"

"This is not a battlefield, and I am not carrion," I said.

Kurag blinked. The eye on his shoulder blinked a second or two later than the three main eyes. He turned to the little goblin. "What have you done?"

The little goblin babbled, "Nothing, nothing."

Kurag turned back to me. "Tell me, Merry. This one lies like he breathes."

"He drank my blood without my permission."

The eyes blinked again. "That is a grave charge."

"I want recompense for the stolen blood."

Kurag drew a large knife from his belt. "Do you want his blood?"

"He drank from a royal princess of the high court of the sidhe. Do you really think his lowly blood is a fair trade for that?"

Kurag looked down at me. "What would be a fair trade?" He sounded suspicious.

"Your blood for mine," I said.

Kurag pushed his queen's hands away from his body. She made a small cry, and he was forced to shove her hard enough for her to fall on her butt to the ground. He never looked at her to see how she had fallen, or if she was all right.

"Sharing blood means something among the goblins, Princess."

"I know what it means," I said.

Kurag stared at me with his yellow eyes. "I could simply wait until you have lost enough blood to be carrion," he said.

His queen crowded next to him. "I could speed the process along." She held up a knife that was longer than my forearm. The blade gleamed dully in the light.

Kurag turned on her with a snarl. "This is not your concern!"

"You would share blood with her, who is not a queen. It is my business!" She stabbed the knife straight up toward his body. The knife was a blur of silver, the movement almost too quick to follow with the eye.

Kurag had time only to sweep an arm in an effort to keep the blade from his body. The blade opened his arm in a splash of crimson. His other main arm hit her full in the face. There was a sharp crunch of breaking bone, and she sat down on her butt for a second time. Her nose had exploded like a ripe tomato. Two of the teeth between her fangs had broken off. If there was blood coming from her mouth, it was lost in the blood gushing from her nose. The eye nearest the nose had spilled from its cracked socket and lay on her cheek like a balloon on a string.

Kurag trapped her knife under his foot. He hit her again, and this time she fell over on her side and lay still. There had been more than one reason that I did not want to marry Kurag.

He bent over the fallen queen. His thick fingers checked to see that she was still breathing, that her heart still beat. He nodded to himself and scooped her up in his arms. He cradled her gently, tenderly. He barked out an order, and a huge goblin squeezed through the crowd.

"Take her back to our hill. See her wounds are tended. If she dies, I will have your head on a pike."

The goblin's eyes flashed up to the king's face, then down. But there had been that one moment of pure fear on the goblin's face. The king had beaten the queen, nearly killed her, but it would be the goblin guard's fault if she died. That way the king would be blameless and would be able to find a new queen all the quicker. If he had outright killed her in front of so many royal witnesses, he could have been forced to give up either his throne or his life. But she had been very much alive when he'd lifted her tenderly into the arms of the redcap. The king's hands were metaphorically clean if she died now.

Though it was doubtful the goblin queen would die. Goblins were a tough lot.

A second goblin guard, shorter and more barrel-chested than the first, took the queen's knife from Kurag and followed the first goblin guard back through the crowd. Kurag would be within his rights to have both of them killed if the queen died. One of the things that most royals learn early is how to spread the blame. Spread the blame and keep your head. It was like a complicated game with the Red Queen from Alice in Wonderland. Say the wrong thing, don't say the right thing, and it could be off with your head. Metaphorically speaking, or not so metaphorically speaking.

He held his arm out to me. Blood flowed down it in a thick red wash. The wound he offered in front of my face was deeper than it had looked, a red gaping thing like a third mouth.

"Your queen meant to kill you," I said.

He looked down at the wound, still grinning. "Aye, she did."

"You sound pleased," I said.

"And you, Princess, sound like you're delaying the moment when you must place that clean white mouth on my body."

"Sidhe blood may be sweet," Galen said, "but goblin blood is bitter." It was an old saying among us. It was also untrue.

"As long as the blood is red, it all tastes pretty much the same," I said. I lowered my mouth to the open wound. I couldn't come close to wrapping my mouth around Kurag's arm, as he had mine. But the taking of his blood had to be more than a mere kiss of my lips. To treat the blood-taking as less than the passionate sharing it was meant to be, the honor it was meant to be, was an insult.

There's an art to sucking blood from a wound that's bleeding this deeply. You have to start slowly, work into it. I licked the skin near the shallowest end of the wound with long sure strokes of my tongue. One of the tricks to drinking a lot of blood is to swallow often. The other trick is to concentrate on each task separately. I concentrated on how rough Kurag's skin was, on the large roughened lump that edged the wound like a knot in the skin. I paid attention to that knot, rolling it around in my mouth for a second, which was more than I had to do, but I was working my courage up for the wound. I like a little blood, a little pain, but this wound was deep and fresh and a little too much of a good thing.

I gave two more quick licks to the shallow end of the wound and then locked my mouth over it. The blood flowed too quickly and I was forced to swallow convulsively, breathing through my nose, and still there was too much of the sweet metallic liquid. Too much to breathe around, too much to swallow. I fought the urge to gag and tried to concentrate on something else, anything else. The edges of the wound were very clean and smooth. By that alone I knew how sharp the knife had been. It would have helped if I could have touched my hands to him, had some other sensory input. I was aware that my hands were straining in the air as if trying to find something to hold on to. But I couldn't help it. I had to do something.

A hand brushed my fingertips, and I grabbed that hand tight in my own, squeezing it. My other hand swept the air until it, too, was taken. I thought it was Galen, for the smooth perfection of the tops of his hands, but the palm and fingers were calloused from sword and shield-too rough for Galen's. These were hands that had been training in weaponry for longer than Galen had been alive. Those hands held mine, responding to my pressure, squeezing as I clung to the feel of them.

My mouth stayed against Kurag's arm, but my attention was in my hands and the strength that was holding me. I could feel the pull of his arms as he forced my hands behind my back and slightly up, just this side of pain. It was perfectly distracting and exactly what I needed.

I pulled away from the wound with a gasp, finally able to draw a good breath. I started to gag, but the hands jerked my arms upward, and I gasped again instead. The moment passed and I was all right. I wasn't going to embarrass myself by throwing up all that good blood.

The hands eased my arms back from the pain; now they were just something to hang on to.

"Hmm," Kurag said, "that was well done, Merry. You are indeed your father's daughter."

"High praise indeed coming from you, Kurag." I stepped back from him and stumbled. The hands steadied me, allowing me to lean back against the chest that went with them. I knew who it was before I turned my head to see. Doyle stared down at me as I leaned against his body, hands still clinging to him.

I mouthed the words, "Thank you," to him.

He gave a small nod of his head. He made no move to let me go, and I made no move to leave the press of his body. I was terribly afraid if I did step away from him or let go of his hands, I would fall. But it was also in that moment I felt safe. I knew that if I fell, he would catch me.

"My blood is in your body and yours in mine, Kurag," I said. "Blood kin we are until the next moon."

Kurag nodded. "Your enemies, my enemies. Your beloved, my beloved." He took a step closer, looming over me, even over Doyle. "We are blood allies for a moon's space of time, if..."

I stared up at him. "What do you mean if? The ritual is complete."

Kurag raised his three eyes and stared at Doyle. "Your Darkness knows what I mean."

"He is still the queen's Darkness," I said.

Kurag's eyes flicked down to me, then back to Doyle. "It's not the queen's hands he's holding."

I started to pull away from Doyle, but he tightened his grip on my hands. I forced myself to relax against his body. "It's none of your business what Doyle holds of mine, Kurag."

Kurag's eyes narrowed. "Is he your new consort? I heard rumor that that was why you were coming back to the court, to choose a new consort."

I wrapped Doyle's hands around my waist. "I have no consort." I leaned more solidly into Doyle's arms. He stiffened for a second, and then I felt his body relax one muscle at a time until he rested like a heavy warmth around me. "But you might say I'm shopping around."

"Good, good," Kurag said.

I felt Doyle tense, though I doubt anyone watching could have told a difference. I was missing something here. But what?

"No consort means I can demand one more thing or the alliance is broken."

"Do not do this, Kurag," Doyle said.

"I invoke the right of flesh," Kurag said.

"He has taken your blood under false pretenses," Frost said. "He knows who your enemies are, and the goblin king fears them."

"Do you call Kurag, Goblin King, a coward?" Kurag asked.

Frost tucked the little goblin he was holding under one arm, leaving his other hand free, but still bare of weapon. "Yes, I name you coward, if you hide behind flesh."

"What is the right of flesh?" I asked. I started to step away from Doyle, but his arms tightened. I looked up at him. "What is going on, Doyle?"

"Kurag is trying to hide his cowardice behind a very old ritual."

Kurag grinned at them both. Call anyone a coward at any of the courts and you ended up righting a duel. Kurag was being much too reasonable. "I fear no sidhe," he said. "I invoke flesh not to avoid her enemies, Guardsmen, but to truly join my flesh with hers."

"You are already wed," Frost said. "Adultery is a crime among the sidhe."

"But not among the goblins," Kurag said. "So my marital status makes no difference here, only hers."

I pushed away from Doyle. The movement was too sudden. I swayed, and Fflur's hand on my elbow saved me from falling. "I am going to bind your wrists now," she said.

I couldn't really argue. "Thank you," I said to her. As she began to dress my wrists I turned back to the men. "Someone, please, explain what he is talking about."

"Glad to," Kurag said. "If your enemy is mine and I must help you defend yourself against powerful forces, then my beloved must truly be your beloved. We will share flesh as we shared blood."

"You mean sex?" Galen asked.

Kurag nodded. "Yes, sex."

I said, "No."

Galen said, "Oh, no."

"No flesh sharing, no alliance," Kurag said.

"Among the sidhe," Doyle said, "your marriage vows are still sacred. Meredith can no more help you cheat on your wife than she could cheat on her own husband. The rule of flesh only works if both parties are unjoined."

Kurag scowled. "You would not lie outright. Damn." He looked at me. "You always escape me, Merry."

"Only because you always resort to trickery to try and get in my pants."

A servant had come with a bowl of clean water, holding it for Fflur as she washed my wrists. She popped open a bottle of antiseptic and drenched both of my wrists with it. The reddish liquid fell into the water, floating on the surface like drops of new blood.

"I made you a valid offer of marriage once," Kurag said.

"I was sixteen," I said. "You scared the shit out of me." Fflur patted my wrists dry.

"Just too much man for you, aren't I?"

"The two of you together are too much man for me, Kurag, you're right," I said.

His hand went to his side where the extra genitalia lay. One heavy stroke and there was a bulge under the pants in a place where most men didn't have to worry about it.

"Flesh has been invoked," Kurag said, still stroking his side. "It cannot be undone, until it is answered."

I looked to Doyle. "What does he mean?"

Doyle shook his head. "I'm not sure."

A second servant brought up a tray of medical supplies and held it while Fflur started binding clean white gauze around my wrists. The servant acted as a sort of nurse, giving her scissors and tape as she needed it.

"I know what Kurag is doing," Frost said. "He is still trying to run from your enemies."

Kurag turned on Frost like a large, broad storm. "Merry needs every strong arm she can muster at her back. That is lucky for you, Killing Frost."

"Will you honor your alliance then and be one of the strong arms at her back?" Frost said.

"Truth," Kurag said. "If I cannot have sex with our Merry, then I would rather not honor the alliance." His lopsided multi-eyed face suddenly seemed serious, even intelligent. I realized for the first time that Kurag was neither as stupid as he acted, nor as ruled by his glands as he pretended to be. There was a moment of absolute shrewdness in those three yellow eyes. A look so intent, so different than a moment ago, that it made me step back, as if he'd tried to strike me. Because underneath that so serious look was something else-fear.

What was happening in the courts that Kurag, the goblin king, was afraid?

"If you do not honor your alliance," Frost said, "then all the court will know you for an honorless coward. Your word will never be trusted again."

Kurag looked around at the crowd. Some had gone with the queen like a brightly colored train of toadies, but many had remained behind. To watch. To listen. To spy?

The goblin king did a slow circle of the waiting faces, then came back to me. "I have invoked flesh. Share flesh with one of my goblins, one of my unwed goblins, and I will honor this alliance of blood."

Galen stepped up next to me. "Merry is a princess of the sidhe, second in line to this throne. Sidhe princesses do not sleep with goblins." There was a force in his voice, a heat. Anger.

I touched his shoulder. "It's all right, Galen."

He turned to me. "No, it's not. How dare he make such a demand."

There was a low angry murmur that swept through the sidhe in the room. The small knot of goblins that he'd been allowed to bring into our hill closed at his back.

Doyle moved up at my back. He whispered, "This could go badly."

I glanced at him. "What do you expect me do?"

"Be a princess and a future queen," he said.

Galen caught part of that. He turned on Doyle. "What are you asking her to do?"

"The same thing she is doing with us at Queen Andais's request," Doyle said. He stared at me. "I would not ask if the sacrifice were not worth the goal."

"No!" Galen said.

Doyle stared at Galen then. "Which do you value more, her virtue, or her life?"

Galen glared at him, tension running through his body like a near-visible current of anger. Finally, he said, "Her life," but it was spat out as if it were something bitter.

If I had the goblins as allies, then if Cel did manage to kill me, he'd have a blood feud with Kurag and his court. It would make Cel, or anyone else, hesitate. I needed this alliance. "One of your goblins' flesh in my body, I take it," I said.

Kurag smiled. "His flesh in your sweet body. Let your flesh and his be one, and all the goblin nation will be your allies."

"Who's flesh will I be sharing?" I asked.

Kurag looked thoughtful. The eye on his shoulder went wide, and the two thin arms on his side gestured wildly, pointing.

Kurag turned to the circle of goblins and began to move through them, following the small arms of his twin. I couldn't see who he finally stopped at. He walked back out of the tightly packed knot of goblins and it wasn't until the small goblin stepped out from behind him that I could see him at all.

He was only four feet tall with pale skin like gleaming mother-of-pearl. I knew sidhe skin when I saw it. His hair curled over his neck, black and thick, but cut short of his shoulders. His face was strangely triangular with huge almond-shaped eyes that were a solid sapphire blue with a line of black pupil like a stripe in the center of all that blue. He was wearing nothing but a silver edged loincloth, which in a goblin meant that there was something of a deformity on the bare spots. They did not hide deformities, but saw them as a sign of honor.

He walked toward me over the stone like a tiny perfect male doll. If there was a deformity I couldn't see it. Except for his size and the eyes, he could have been of the court.

"This is Kitto," Kurag said. "His mother was a sidhe lady raped in the last goblin war." Which made Kitto nearly two thousand years old. He certainly didn't look it.

"Greetings, Kitto," I said.

"Greetings, Princess." There was a strange sibilance to his words, as if he had trouble forming the words. His lips were full and pink and shaped like a perfect cupid's bow, but those pretty lips barely moved when he spoke, as if there was something in his mouth that he didn't want me to see.

"Before you agree," Kurag said, "see the whole show."

Kitto turned his back and showed why he was wearing the loincloth. There was a spread of shining iridescent scales starting at the base of his hairline and descending down his back to the base of his spine. His butt was small and tight and perfect, but the glittering scales told me why his eyes had elliptical pupils and why he had trouble with his "sss."

"Snake goblin," I said.

Kitto turned back to face me. He nodded.

"Open your mouth, Kitto. Let me see it all," I said.

He looked at the floor for a moment, then rolled his strange eyes up at me. He opened his mouth in a wide yawn, flashing dainty fangs. His tongue flicked out like a red ribbon with a dab of black on the end of each point. "Ssatissfffied?" he asked.

I nodded. "Yes."

"You can't," Rhys said. He'd been so quiet I'd almost forgotten he was with us.

"It's my choice," I said.

Rhys touched my shoulder, took me to one side. "Take a good look at the scar across my face. I know I've told you a thousand heroic stories about how I got this, but the truth is the queen punished me. She gave me to the goblins for a night of sport. I thought, why not, free sex even if it is with goblins." He blinked his one good eye. "A goblin's idea of sex is more violent than you can imagine, Merry." He traced the length of the scar with his fingertip, and the look in his eye was distant, remembering.

I touched the scar where it ended on his cheek, catching his hand in mine. "A goblin did this to you during sex?"

He nodded.

"Oh, Rhys," I said, voice soft.

He patted my hand and shook his head. "No pity. I just want you to understand what you're agreeing to."

"I understand, Rhys. Thank you for telling me." I patted his cheek, squeezed his hand, and walked past him back to the waiting goblins. I was walking straight and upright, but there was a little turning inside my head that made me want badly to hold on to something. But when you're negotiating a war treaty, you need to look strong, or at least not like you're about to faint dead away.

"Kitto's flesh in my body, right?" I asked.

Kurag nodded, and he looked pleased with himself, as if he knew he'd already won.

"I agree to take Kitto's flesh into my body."

"Agreed?" Kurag said, surprise dripping from his voice. "You would agree to share flesh with a goblin?"

I nodded. "I agree, on one condition."

His eyes narrowed. "What condition?"

"If the alliance between us is a season long," I said.

I felt Doyle step closer to me. The ripple of surprise spread through the room in whispers and small movements.

"A season," Kurag said. "No, too long."

"Eleven moons from now," I said.

Kurag turned back to me. "My queen has saved us the trouble of opening my vein."

"Then let's get on with it. I'm wasting blood," I said.

Galen still had his hands over my wrists, and I realized he was holding pressure on my wounds.

I looked up at him. "Galen, it's all right." He kept his hands tight around my wrists. "Galen, please, let me go."

He stared down at me, opened his mouth as if to say something, then closed it and slowly moved his hands back from my wrists. His hands came away stained with my blood. But the pressure he'd applied had slowed the bleeding, or maybe it was just Galen's touch. Maybe it wasn't just my imagination that made his hands a cool, soothing presence.

He helped me to my feet. I had to push his hands away so I could stand alone. I spread my legs to get as good a balance on the heels as I could, and faced Kurag.

Standing, I came almost up to his sternum. His shoulders were nearly as wide as I was tall. Most of the sidhe were tall, but the larger goblins were truly bulky.

Fflur had moved to one side of me to join Galen, Doyle, and Rhys at my back. Frost stood to one side, with the little goblin dangling from his hands. There was a press of bodies all around us: sidhe, goblin, and others. But I had eyes only for the goblin king.

"Though I do offer you my apologies for my man's rudeness," Kurag said, "I cannot offer you my blood without gaining in return."

I held my right hand out to him, and my left hand to the red mouth on his chest. "Drink then, Kurag, Goblin King." I raised my right wrist as close to his main mouth as I could reach. Reaching so far above my head left me faintly dizzy. I pressed my left wrist to the open mouth on his chest, and it was those lips that closed around my wrist first, that tongue that worked over the wound to get it to bleed afresh. The tongue in that mouth felt soft and human, not at all like the little goblin's harsh cat tongue.

Kurag bowed his head over my wrist, careful not to use his hands to hold the wound close to him. To use his hands would have been rude and taken as a sexual overture. His tongue was rough like sandpaper, even rougher than the little goblin's had been. It abraded the wound and brought a soft gasp from my throat. The mouth in his chest had already formed a seal over the wounds, sucking like a baby with a bottle. Kurag's tongue lingered until the blood flowed fresh and easy. When he wrapped his lips around my wound, his mouth took in almost all of my wrist. His teeth pressed against my flesh painfully as the suction grew. The smaller mouth in his chest was much more polite.

Kurag's mouth worked at my wrist, lips in a tight seal. Just as I grew accustomed to his sucking, his teeth grazed the wound, his tongue flicking in a sharp painful movement. He was staying at the wound a long time. It was sort of like a beer-chugging contest: you took as much in at a time as you could manage without throwing up.

But finally, finally, Kurag drew his head back from my wrist. I drew my left hand from his chest. The lips placed a light kiss against my wrist as I pulled away.

Kurag stretched his thin lips in a smile, showing the yellowed teeth stained with blood. "Do better if you can, Princess, though I've always found the sidhe a little too prissy for good tongue action."

"You must be entertaining the wrong sidhe, Kurag. I've found them all..." I lowered my voice to a husky whisper and put a look in my eyes to match. "... Orally talented."

Kurag chuckled, low and evil, but appreciative.

I swayed slightly, but I kept my feet and that was all that was required. But I was going to need to sit down soon, before I fell down. "My turn," I said.

Kurag's grin widened. "Suck me, sweet Merry, suck me hard."

I'd have shaken my head if I hadn't been convinced that it would make the dizziness worse. "You never change, Kurag," I said.

"Why should I?" he said. "No female I've bedded in over eight hundred years has ever gone away wanting."

"Just bleeding," I said.

He blinked, then laughed again. "If there ain't blood, what's the point?"

I tried not to smile and failed. "Big talk for a goblin who hasn't offered up his blood yet."

He shook his head. "Two moons."

"Ten," I said.

"Three."

"Be reasonable," I said.

"Five," he said.

"Eight," I countered.

He grinned. "Six."

"Done," I said.

Kurag stared at me for a heartbeat or two. "Done." He said it softly, as if even at the moment he spoke he was sure it was the wrong thing to do.

I raised my voice so it would carry throughout the room, standing with feet braced wide apart. It must have looked like an aggressive stance, but I wasn't trying for aggressive. I was trying not to let my body sway to the swirling inside my head. "The alliance is forged."

Kurag raised his own voice. "Forged only after you share flesh with my goblin."

I held my hand out to Kitto. He laid his hand on top of mine, a light touch of smooth flesh. I raised his hand up to my face. I tried to bend down and kiss the back of his hand, but the room swam. I had to straighten up and raise his hand with both of mine, spreading the small perfect fingers wide. I'd never held a man's hand that was smaller than my own. Sucking a finger would have been the most sexual thing I could do, but I'd sucked the last piece of flesh I wanted tonight. I laid a gentle but full kiss on his open palm. I didn't leave a lipstick print behind, which meant I'd worn it all off sucking on Kurag's arm.

Kitto's strange eyes widened.

I raised my mouth away from his hand, slowly, so that I rolled my eyes at Kurag as I came up over the goblin's hand, as if it were a fan. "We'll get around to sharing flesh, Kurag, don't worry. Now join me, Kitto. The queen awaits me and all my men."

Kitto darted a glance at Kurag, then back to me. "I am honored."

I looked up at the tall king. "Remember this, Kurag, as I share flesh with Kitto in the nights to come: that it was your own lust and cowardice that gave him to me, and me to him."

Kurag's face changed from yellow to a dark orange. His great hands balled into fists. "Bitch," he said.

"I spent many a night at your court, Kurag. I know that to have me share myself with another sidhe is nothing to you. For only sharing flesh with a goblin is true sex to you. Anything less is merely foreplay. And you have given me over to another goblin, Kurag. The next time you try and trick me into your bed, think where your trickery has gotten you and me."

I felt my strength ebb as I finished the speech. I stumbled, just a step. Strong hands caught me at both arms-Doyle on one side, Galen on the other. I looked from one to the other of them and managed to whisper, "I need to sit down, soon."

Doyle nodded. Galen kept his arm at my elbow and slid his other arm around my waist. Doyle's hold stayed on my arm but became firm as stone. I let go with my upper body, letting them take most of my weight while to other eyes I appeared to be standing just fine. I'd perfected this particular technique many times being dragged by the Guard before my aunt, when she demanded I stay on my feet and I couldn't do it alone. Some of the guards would help you pull the trick off. Some would not. Walking was going to be interesting.

Doyle and Galen turned me toward the open doors. One high heel scraped loudly on the stones. I had to do better than that. I concentrated on picking my feet up just enough to walk, but Galen and Doyle were holding me up. The world narrowed down to me putting one foot in front of the other. Gods, but I wanted to go home. But the queen was waiting, and being kept waiting wasn't one of her strong suits.

I caught a glimpse of Kitto moving just behind us and to one side. According to goblin etiquette, he was my consort, my boy-toy. Yes, he could hurt me during sex, but only if I were stupid enough to get into bed with him without negotiating a contract of what was and was not acceptable. Rhys's injuries could have been saved if he'd known goblins, but most of the sidhe simply saw them as barbarians, savages. Most did not study the law of savages, but my father had.

Of course, I wasn't planning on having sex of any kind with the goblin. I was planning to share flesh with him -literally. The goblins loved flesh better than blood or sex. To share flesh meant both sex and the greater gift of an allowed bite that would leave a scar until your lover died. It was a way of marking your lover, showing that they'd been with a goblin. Many goblins had special scar patterns that they used for all their lovers so that people would see their conquests at a glance.

But whatever I had to do to cement the bargain, I had the goblins as my allies for the next six months. My allies, not Cel's, not even the queen's. If there was a war between now and six months from now, the queen would have to negotiate with me if she wished the goblins to fight on her behalf. That was worth a little blood, and maybe even a pound of flesh, if I didn't have to lose it all at once.



Chapter 30 | A Kiss of Shadows | Chapter 32



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