A DIP LAY IN THE STONES JUST INSIDE THE DOOR. A PLACE WHERE FEET have turned for thousands of years, pivoting on their heels to mount the low dais to either side of the room. I could have walked this floor in the absolute dark, but tonight I tripped on the small depression in the floor. Sandwiched between two guards, I should have been solid as inside a wall, but my ankle twisted and threw me so violently into Doyle that it brought Galen with me. Doyle caught us for an instant, then we were all in a heap on the floor.
Kitto was there first, offering a hand to Galen. I caught the look on Galen's face as he stared at that small hand, but he took it. He allowed the goblin to help him to his feet. There were other guards who would have spit on the hand instead of taking it.
It was Frost, one hand holding my knife, who took my hand and raised me to my feet. He wasn't looking at me. He was searching the area for threats. It had been subtle. If the spell had been a little less vicious, I might have chalked it up to blood-loss-induced clumsiness on my part, but the spell had been too large, too much. You did not bring down two of the royal guard in an unceremonious heap because the woman in the middle tripped.
Frost's hand forced me to take my full weight on my own two feet, and one of my feet wasn't up to it. Pain shot through my left ankle. I gasped, going to one foot. Frost had to catch me around the waist, lifting me completely of the ground, pressed against his body, encircled in his arm. He was still searching for the attack-the attack that wasn't coming, not here, not now.
Rhys was moving around the floor, checking for other traps. None of us moved very much until he nodded, still crouched on the floor.
Doyle was on his feet. He hadn't taken out the other knife. He met my eyes. "How badly are you hurt, Princess?"
"Twisted ankle maybe the knee, too. Frost swept me off my feet before I could tell."
That earned me a glance from Frost. "I can put you down, Princess."
"I'd rather you carry me to a chair."
He looked at Doyle. "It's not a matter for knives, is it?" He sounded almost wistful.
"No," Doyle said.
Frost snapped tie blade closed one-handed. To my knowledge he'd never handled a fading knife of
any sort, but he made the gesture look smooth and practiced. He slid the blade into the back of his waistband and scooped me up in his arms.
"What chair would you prefer?" he asked.
"This one," the queen said. She was standing in front of her throne on the far raised das. Her throne rose above everyone else's, as befit her position. But there were two smaller thrones on the dais just below her own, reserved for the consort and the heir, usually. Tonight, Eamon was standing at her side, his chair empty.
Cel was sitting in the other small throne. Siobhan was at his back. Keelin was at his feet on a small cushioned stool, like a lap dog. Cel was looking at his mother, and there was something very close to panic on his face.
Rozenwyn moved up beside Siobhan. She was Cel's second in command, Frost's equivalent. Her cotton-candy hair was piled in a crown of braids atop her head, like a bowl woven of pink Easter grass. Her skin was the color of spring lilacs, her eyes molten gold. I'd thought her lovely when I was small, until she made it clear that I was lesser than she. It was Rozenwyn's hand-shaped scar across my ribs, she who had almost crushed my heart.
Cel stood so violently that it slid Keelin down the steps with the leash straining between them. He never looked at her as she got to her feet. "Mother, you cannot do this."
She looked at him, hand still guiding us toward Eamon's empty chair. "Oh, but I can, Son. Or have you forgotten that I am still queen here?" There was an edge to her voice such that, if it had been anyone but Cel, they'd have thrown themselves down on the floor in an abject bow, waiting for the blow to fall. But it was Cel, and she'd always been soft with him.
"I know who rules here now," Cel said. "What I am concerned with is who shall rule after."
"That, too, is my concern," she said, still in that so calm, so dangerous voice. "I wonder who could have set such a powerful spell just inside the throne room without anyone else noticing it." She looked around the huge room, settling her gaze on each face in its small throne. There were sixteen chairs on each side of the room on raised daises. Smaller chairs clustered around them, but the main chairs held the heads of each royal family. She studied them, especially the ones nearest the doors. "I don't see how anyone could have worked such a spell and had no one notice it."
I looked at the sidhe nearest the doors and they avoided my gaze. They knew. They had seen. And they had done nothing.
"Such a powerful spell," Andais continued. "If my niece had not been supported by two guards she might have fallen and broken her neck." Frost was still standing with me in his arms but had made no move to come closer. "Bring her, Frost. Let her sit beside me as she is meant to," Andais said.
Frost carried me forward. Doyle and Galen bracketed him, one right, the other left. Rhys and Kitto came like a rear guard.
Frost went to both knees on the bottom step that led up to the throne. He knelt with me in his arms as if it were no strain, as if he could have stayed like that all night, and there would have been no tremble in his arms. I wondered briefly if his knees ever fell asleep from being forced to kneel too long.
The others dropped to their knees a little behind and to either side of us. Kitto didn't just go to his knees, he flattened himself to the floor, facedown, arms and legs outstretched like some kind of religious penitent. I hadn't fully appreciated his problem until then. There were very specific types of bows and curtseys that you gave depending on your rank and the rank of the person being met. Kitto was not royal even among the goblins. If he had been, Kurag would have mentioned it. It had been a double insult to give me a goblin that was also a commoner. Kitto was not allowed to touch the steps except with express invitation. Only members of other sidhe royal houses were allowed to go to both knees in the throne room, without bowing the body in any way.
Kitto didn't know what the protocol was, so he'd taken the absolute lowest road. I knew in that instant that he'd cooperate with taking flesh instead of sex. He was more interested in staying alive than in any false sense of pride.
"Come, sit, Meredith. Let us make this announcement before another trap is sprung." She glanced at Cel when she said that last. He was my bet for the spell, too, but only because he was always one of my first choices when something nasty happened to me in the court. Andais had always looked the other way for Cel's sake. Something had happened between them, something that had changed Andais's attitude toward her only son. What had he done to turn her from him?
Frost stood in one easy motion and carried me up the steps. I could feel his legs push us upward as he carried me. He laid me gently in the chair, sliding his hands out from under my body. He went down on one knee in front of me, cradling my left foot in his lap.
I looked out into the room. I'd never been allowed on the dais. I'd never seen the view from up here. It wasn't so very high, or so very grand, but there was a sense of Tightness to it.
"Bring a stool for Meredith to prop her ankle upon. When I have made my announcements, then Fflur may attend her." She seemed to be speaking to no one in particular, but a small cushioned footstool floated toward us. I looked out of the corner of my eyes, deliberately not looking directly at the floating stool. A pale wisp of a shape showed like a white shadow holding the small stool in slender ghostly hands. The white lady set the stool beside Frost's leg. I felt that pressure as if the weight of thunder filled a small piece of air. It was the feel of a ghost standing far too close. I didn't have to see her to know she was there now. Then the pressure eased, and I knew she'd floated away.
Frost lifted my foot onto the much lower stool. I swallowed a gasp at the movement, but the pain had helped clear my head. I didn't feel faint anymore. It was the third attempt on my life in a single night. Someone was very determined.
Frost moved to stand behind my chair as Siobhan shadowed Cel, as Eamon had moved back to stand by the queen.
Andais stared out over the assembled nobles. The goblins and lesser folk, those invited at all, had spilled back in to fill the long ornate tables to either side of the room. But even Kurag did not have a throne to sit upon in this room. He was just one of the rabble here.
"Let it be known that Princess Meredith NicEssus, daughter of my brother, is now my heir."
A gasp ran through the room from mouth to mouth like a wind, until there was nothing but silence. A silence so thick that the white ladies rose into the air like half-seen clouds and began to dance on the tension of it.
Cel was on his feet. "Mother."
"Meredith has come into her power at last. She bears the hand of flesh as did her father before her."
Cel was still standing. "My cousin must have used the hand in mortal combat, and have been blooded in front of at least two sidhe witnesses." He sat down looking confident again.
The queen gave him a look so cold that his confidence faded from his face, leaving him unsure. "You speak as though I do not know the laws of my own kingdom, my son. All has been accomplished according to our traditions. Sholto!" she called.
Sholto stood from his big chair near the door. Black Agnes was on one side of him, Segna the Gold on the other. Nightflyers hung from the ceiling like great bats. Other creatures of the sluagh filled in around him. Gethin waved at me.
"Yes, Queen Andais," Sholto said. His hair was tied back from a face that was as handsome, as arrogant as any in the room.
"Tell the court what you have told me."
Sholto told of Nerys's attack on me, though not why she'd done it. He told an edited version of the events, but there was enough. He did not mention Doyle, though, and I found it a strange thing to leave out.
The queen stood. "Meredith is equal to Cel, my own son, in all things. But as I have only one throne for them to inherit, it will go to the one who is with child first. If Cel makes one of the court women with child within three years, then he will be your king. If Meredith is with child first, then she will be your queen. To ensure that Meredith has her choice of the court's men, I have lifted my Guard's celibacy geas for her and her alone."
The ghosts whirled overhead like happy clouds, and the silence deepened as if we were all sitting at the bottom of some deep, shining well. The looks on the men's faces ran from surprise to disdain to shock, and some went straight to lust. But in the end almost every male face turned to me.
"She is free to choose any among you." Andais sat down on her throne, spreading her skirts out around her. "In fact, I believe she has already begun the selection." She turned those pale grey eyes to me. "Haven't you, Niece?"
"Then bring them forth, let them sit at your side."
"No," Cel said, "she must have two sidhe witnesses. Sholto is only one."
Doyle spoke, still kneeling. "I am the other."
Cel slowly sat back down on his own throne. Even he would not be so bold as to question Doyle's word. Cel stared at me, and the hate in his eyes was hot enough to burn along my skin.
I turned from his hatred to gaze at the men who were still kneeling at the foot of the dais. I held my hands out to them. Galen, Doyle, and Rhys rose and walked up the steps toward me. Doyle kissed my hand and took up his post beside Frost at my back. Galen and Rhys sat by my legs, the way Keelin sat beside Cel. It was a little subservient for my taste, but I wasn't sure what else to do. Kitto stayed pressed to the floor, motionless.
I turned to my aunt. "Queen Andais, this is Kitto, a goblin. He is part of my bargain with Kurag, Goblin King, to bind an alliance between the goblin kingdom and myself for six months."
Andais's eyes raised upward. "You have been a very busy girl tonight, Meredith."
"I felt the need of powerful allies, my queen," I said. My eyes strayed to Cel even though I tried not to look at him.
"You must tell me later how you managed to get six months out of Kurag, but for now, call your goblin."
"Kitto," I said, holding my hand outward, "rise and come to my hand."
He raised his face without moving his body. The movement looked almost painful in its awkwardness. His eyes flicked to the queen, then back to me. I nodded. "It's all right, Kitto."
He looked back to the queen. She shook her head. "Get up off the ground, boy, so a doctor may attend your mistress's wounds."
Kitto rose to all fours. When no one shouted at him, he came to his knees, then to one knee, then very carefully to his feet. He came up the steps too quickly, almost a run, and sat down at my feet with something like relief on his face.
"Fflur, attend the princess," Andais said.
Fflur came up the steps with two white ladies on either side of her. The one holding the tray of bandages was the more solid of the two. She looked almost alive in a white, transparent sort of way. The other spirit was utterly invisible, holding a small closed box in midair as if aided by brownie magic, but no brownies worked magic here. Nothing that Earthly haunted the Unseelie Court.
Fflur removed my shoe and rotated my foot, which made me scoot around in my chair. I managed not to say "ow, ow, ow," but I wanted to. Thankfully it was just the ankle. Everything else was working.
"You need to remove your stocking so I can bind the ankle," she said.
I started to work the skirt up and fish for the band of my thigh-highs, but Galen put his hands over mine and stopped me. "Allow me," he said. He was not coming to my bed tonight, but the look in his eyes, the hush in his voice, the weight of his hands against mine over my thigh was like a promise for the future.
Rhys laid a hand on my other knee. "Why do you get to remove her stocking?"
Galen looked at him. "Because I thought of it first."
Rhys smiled and shook his head. "Good answer."
Galen smiled back at him. That smile that made his entire face glow as if someone had lit a candle behind his skin. He turned that shining face to me, and the humor in his eyes slid away, changing to something darker and more serious.
He was kneeling in front of me, on the far side of the injured leg, with Rhys next to the other leg. His hands had my hands trapped against my thigh. He raised my hands in his, gently kissing the back of each hand as he laid it on the arm of the throne. He pressed my fingers against the wood, as if telling me silently not to move my hands.
Because of the way my leg was propped on the stool, Galen was kneeling to one side, giving a full view to most of the room. He pushed the long skirt up, baring my leg, and the garter. He slid the garter down my leg and slipped it over his arm. His fingertips touched the hose just above my knee, sliding along the sleek fabric until both his hands pressed against my leg, coming to rest midthigh, like a hot weight against my skin. He met my eyes, and the look on his face made my heart race.
He lowered his eyes to watch his hands slide slowly up my leg. His fingers moved under the edge of my skirt, then his hands slid out of sight, almost to their wrists, as his fingertips found the top of the hose.
His hands seemed larger than they were, pressed under my skirt. When his fingertips moved past the elastic band onto my bare skin, it brought an involuntary jerk.
His eyes went back to my face, as if asking if I wanted him to stop. The answer was both no and yes. The feel of his hands on my body, the knowledge that we didn't have to stop, was intoxicating, exhilarating; if we'd been alone, and he completely healed, ' I would have thrown caution and all my clothes to the wind. But we were surrounded by nearly a hundred people, and that was a little too much audience for me. I had to close my eyes before I could shake my head no. His fingers moved ever so slightly upward, one fingertip caressing the edge of the hollow in the very upper line of my inner thigh. It brought my breath in a quick shaking sigh.
I opened my eyes and looked at him. This time I had the face to go with the head shake. Not here. Not now.
Galen smiled, but it was a private smile. The kind of smile a man gives you when he's sure of you and knows that only a little privacy stands between him and your body.
He folded his fingers over the edge of the elastic band and started rolling the hose down my leg, carefully, slowly.
A voice came from behind us, "The princess seems to have already made her choice." It was Conri, never one of my favorite people. He stood tall, dark, handsome with eyes like melted tricolored gold. "With all due respect, Your Highness, you give us a promise of flesh, then we are forced to sit and watch while another claims that prize."
"Meredith does seem to have been a busy little bee among all you lovely flowers," Andais said. She laughed, and the sound was derisive, joyous, cruel, and somehow intimate. It made a flush creep up my face as Galen slid the hose down my leg and off my foot.
He moved to one side, letting Fflur kneel over my ankle. He raised the hose to his face, brushing the sheer, black cloth against his mouth, as he stared at Conri.
Conri had never been my friend. He was one of Cel's childhood friends, a loyal supporter of the one true heir.
I watched the rage in his gold eyes, the jealousy, not of me as a person, but me as the only female they had access to. You could feel the tension in the room, growing, swelling, like the pressure before a storm. The white ladies always seemed to respond to great tension or great change in the court. The ghosts whirled around the edges of the room, swinging in a spectral dance above the floor. The more excited the ladies became, the more agitated they were-and the greater the events unfolding. They were like prophets that only predicted seconds ahead.
What can you do with seconds of warning? Sometimes much. Sometimes nothing. The trick was that you had to see the danger coming to stop it. Seconds to see it and stop it, and I was too slow, too late, again.
Conri's voice bellowed out, "I challenge Galen to death."
Galen started to stand and I caught his arm. "What do you hope to gain from his death, Conri?"
"To take his place at your side."
I laughed. I couldn't help it. The look of sullen rage on Conri's face at my laughter was chilling. I pulled Galen back down to kneel at my side. Fflur chose that moment to tighten the bandages, and I had to breathe out before I could speak.
"Is Galen Greenhair a coward then?" Conri scoffed. He had moved from his chair, off the dais, to the floor.
I parted Galen's arm, keeping him with me. "You never did have a sense of humor, Conri," I said.
His eyes narrowed. "What are you talking about?"
"Ask me why I laughed."
He stared at me for a second or two, then he nodded. "Fine, why did you laugh?"
"Because you and I are not friends. We are very close to enemies. I don't sleep with people I don't like, and I don't like you."
He looked puzzled.
I sighed. "I mean that if you kill Galen, that won't get you a place in my bed. I don't like you, Conri. You don't like me. I won't sleep with you under any circumstance. So sit down, shut up, and let someone talk who has a chance in hell of sharing my bed."
Conri was left standing, open-mouthed, and lost as to what to do. He was one of the most courtwise of all the guards. He sucked up to Cel expertly. He flattered the queen within an inch of propriety. He knew which nobles to treat well and which he could ignore or even treat badly. I'd fallen into the last category, because you couldn't be Cel's friend and be mine. Cel wouldn't allow it. I watched Conri's face as he realized that he hadn't been quite as courtwise as he thought he had. I enjoyed his embarrassment.
But he rallied. "My challenge stands. If I cannot share your bed, then I don't want Galen to have you either."
My hand tightened on Galen's arm. "Why fight if you know you don't get the prize?" I asked.
Conri smiled, and it wasn't pleasant. "Because his death will cause you pain, and that will be almost as sweet as your body next to mine."
Galen rose, sliding away from my grip on his arm. He started down the steps, and I was afraid for him. Conri was a cruel, brown-nosing bastard, but he was also one of the best swordsmen in the court.
I stood, hopping because I couldn't bear weight on my left foot. Rhys caught me or I might have fallen. "I am still the reason for this duel, Conri."
Conri nodded, watching Galen walk toward him. "Indeed, you are, Princess. Know that when I kill him, I did it all for spite of you."
Then I had one of those moments of desperate inspiration, a brilliant idea born of panic.
"You cannot challenge a royal consort to a death duel, Conri," I said.
"He is not a royal consort until you are pregnant," Conri said.
"But if I am actively trying to have a child with him, then he is my royal consort, because we have no way of knowing if I am with child at this second."
Conri turned to me, shocked. "You have not-I mean -"
The queen laughed again. "Oh, Meredith, you have been a busy, busy little bee." She stood. "If there is even a remote chance that Galen could have fathered a child upon my niece, then he is indeed a royal consort until proven otherwise. If you slew him and she was with child, and you had deprived this court of a fertile royal pair, I would see your head rotting in a jar on a shelf in my room."
"I don't believe it," Cel said. "They have not had sex tonight."
Andais turned to him. "And was there not a lust spell in the car when they were alone in the back of it?"
The blood drained from Conri's face in a wash, leaving him pasty and sickly looking. The look on his face was enough. The lust spell had been his doing. Though few sidhe in this room would doubt who had told him to do it.
"Meredith is not the only one who has been a very busy bee tonight." Her voice was warm with the beginnings of a really fine rage.
Cel sat up very straight and still managed to sink back into his chair. Siobhan moved from behind his chair to his side, not quite putting herself between the prince and the queen. But the gesture looked like what it was. Siobhan had stated her loyalties before the entire court. Andais would not forget it or forgive it.
Rozenwyn hesitated, not quite following her captain's lead. She eventually drifted up beside Siobhan, but her reluctance at having to choose between queen and prince showed. Rozenwyn's loyalty was mainly to Rozenwyn.
Eamon moved up beside the queen, and Doyle moved a step closer to the queen as if he wasn't sure where he should be standing. I'd never before seen him unsure where his duty lay. I saw the queen search his face, and I think his hesitation hurt her. He'd been her bodyguard for a thousand years, her right hand, her Darkness. Now he stood unsure if he should leave my side to go to hers.
"Enough of this," Andais said. The rage burned through those simple words. "I see you have made yet another conquest, Meredith. My Darkness has not hesitated in over a thousand years of service, but there he stands practically dancing from foot to foot wondering whom he should protect if all goes badly." The look she gave me made me grip Rhys's hand tight.
"Be glad that you are blood of my blood, Meredith. For anyone else to have divided the loyalties of my most trusted would be death."
It was almost as if she were jealous, but in all the years that I'd been old enough to notice, she'd never treated Doyle as anything but a servant, a guard. She'd never treated him as a man. He'd never in over a thousand years been one of her chosen lovers. But now, she was jealous.
The look on Doyle's face was soft, puzzled, full of wonderment. I realized in that moment that he'd loved her once, but no longer, and it hadn't been my doing. Andais had thrown him away by simply not paying any attention to him at all. It was too intimate a moment for such a public display.
Among humans some of us would have looked away, given them an illusion of privacy, but that wasn't the sidhe way. We stared, we watched every nuance cross their faces, and in the end, mere minutes, Doyle stepped back to stand with me, his hand on my shoulder. It was not a particularly intimate gesture, especially after the show Galen had put on, but from Doyle, in such a moment, it was intimate. He, like Siobhan, had shown his loyalty, burned his bridges.
I'd known that Doyle would keep me alive at the expense of his own life because the queen ordered it. Now I knew he'd keep me alive because if I died now, the queen would never trust him again. He would never again be her Darkness. He was mine, for better or worse. It gave a whole new meaning to "till death do us part." My death would almost surely mean his now.
I kept my eyes on my aunt but raised my voice for the entire room. "They are all my royal consorts."
Protests spread throughout the room, male voices raised: "You couldn't have slept with all of them!" And: "Whore!" I think that was a woman.
I raised my hand in a gesture that I'd seen my aunt use time and again. The room didn't grow totally quiet, but it was close enough for me to continue. "My aunt in her wisdom foresaw the duels that might be fought. That dangling any woman before the Guard could lead to great bloodshed. We could lose the best and brightest of us all."
A female voice cried out, "As if you are such a prize!"
I laughed, hand digging into Rhys's shoulder for support as if he were a cane. Kitto moved up and offered his hand to my free hand. I took the extra support gratefully. The ankle was beginning to ache hanging down at my side.
"I know that was you, Dilys. No, I am not such a prize, but I am female, and I am available to them, and no one else is. That makes me the prize whether any of us likes it or not. But my aunt foresaw the problem."
"Yes," Andais said. "I have ordered Meredith to choose not one among you, or four, or five, but many. She is to treat you all as her own personal... harem."
"Are we allowed to refuse if she chooses us?" I looked out into the crowd but couldn't see who had asked.
"You are free to refuse," Andais said. "But which of you would refuse the chance to be the next king? If she is with your child, then it will not be royal consort but monarch."
Galen and Conri were still standing about three yards apart, staring at each other.
"We all know who she wants to be her king. She has made that abundantly clear tonight," Conri said.
"All I've made clear," I said, "is that I won't be sleeping with you, Conri. The rest, as they say, is up for grabs."
"You won't be making Galen your royal consort," Cel said, and his voice held satisfaction. "If you are with child, it will be his last."
I looked at him, trying to understand this level of animosity, and failing. "I bargained with Queen Niceven before the damage was too great."
"What did you have to offer Niceven?"
The tiny queen rose above the crowd where her miniature throne sat on a shelf, like a doll house, with her court surrounding her. "Blood, Prince Cel. Not the blood of a lowly lord, but the blood of a princess."
"We all carry the coin of the Unseelie Court in our veins, Cousin," I said.
Siobhan stepped in to try and save him, guarded him with her words as she would guard him with her sword. "What if it is the goblin that makes her with child?" Siobhan asked that.
The queen turned to her. "Then it is the goblin that will be king."
There was a shocked ripple through the court. Murmurs, curses, exclamations of horror. "We will never serve a goblin king," Conri said. Others echoed him.
"To refuse the chosen of the queen is treason," Andais said. "Deliver yourself to the Hallway of Mortality, Conri. I think you are overdue for a lesson in what disobedience will gain you."
He stood there staring at her, then his eyes flicked to Cel, and that was a mistake.
Andais stomped her foot. "I am queen here! Do not look to my son. Go to Ezekial's tender care, Conri. Go now or face worse."
Conri gave a low bow and kept the bow all the way out of the room, through the still-open doors. It was the only thing he could do. To have argued further could have earned him a beheading.
Sholto's voice came loud in the tense silence. "Ask Conri who ordered him to place the lust spell in the Black Coach."
Andais turned to Sholto like a storm about to break on the shore. Sitting next to her I could feel her magic gathering, prickling along my skin. It raised goose bumps on Galen's bare back.
"I will punish Conri, do not fear," she said.
"But not Conri's master," Sholto said.
The court held its collective breath, because Sholto was finally saying what everyone knew to be true. For years Cel had ordered things done; his toadies had suffered when caught, but never him.
"That is my business," Andais said, but there was the faintest hint of panic in her voice.
"Who was it told me that Your Majesty wished the sluagh to travel to the western lands and kill Princess Meredith?" Sholto asked.
"Don't," the queen said, but her voice was soft, like a dreamer trying to convince herself that a nightmare is not real.
"Don't what, Your Majesty?" Sholto asked.
Doyle spoke next. "Who had access to Branwyn's Tears and allowed mortals to use it against other fey?"
The thick silence was filled with dancing ghosts, whirling fast and faster. Faces were turned to the dais, some pale, some eager, some frightened, but all waiting. Waiting to see what the queen would do at last.
But it was Cel who spoke next. He leaned across and hissed at me, "Isn't it your turn next, Cousin?" His voice held such hatred.
I realized he thought I'd seen him in Los Angeles, but like Sholto I'd only been waiting for the perfect moment to reveal him. I drew a breath, but Andais gripped my arm. She leaned in to me, whispering, "Do not tell about his worshipers."
She knew. She knew that Cel had let humans worship him. It left me speechless. Unsaid between us was the knowledge that to protect her son she had risked all of us. Because if it could be proven in human courts that any sidhe had allowed themselves to be worshiped on American soil, we would be expelled. Not just the sidhe, but all fey.
I stared into those triple-grey eyes and saw not the terrifying Queen of Air and Darkness but a mother afraid for her only child. She had always loved Cel too much.
I whispered back to her. "The worshiping must cease."
"It has, you have my word."
"He must be punished," I said.
"But not for that," she whispered.
I thought about that for a second or two, while her hand gripped the blood-soaked cloth of my sleeve. "Then he must be punished for giving the Tears to a mortal."
Her hand tightened on my arm until it hurt. If her eyes hadn't held such fear I'd have thought she was threatening me. "I will punish him for trying to kill you."
I shook my head. "No, I want him to be punished for giving Branwyn's Tears to a mortal."
"That is a death sentence," she said.
"There are two punishments possible, my queen. I'll agree he keeps his life, but I want the full sentence allowed for the torture."
She pulled back from me, pale, her eyes suddenly tired. The torture was very specific for the crime. You were stripped naked and chained in a dark room, then covered with the Tears. Your body would be full of burning need, magical lust, but left untouched, unfinished, unrelieved. It is said that it can drive a sidhe mad. But it was the best, or the worst, I could do.
"Six months is too long," she said. "His mind would not survive it." It was the first time I'd ever heard her admit that Cel was weak, or at least not strong.
We bargained much as Kurag and I had, and ended with three months. "Three months, my queen, but if I or my people are harmed in any way during that time, then Cel forfeits his life."
She turned and stared at her son, who was watching us closely, wondering what we were saying. She finally turned back to me. "Agreed."
Andais pushed herself to her feet, slowly, almost as if her age were showing. She would never have an old body, but inside the years still passed. She announced in a clear, cold voice Cel's crime, and his punishment.
He stood. "I will not submit to this."
She turned on him, lashing out with her magic, pushing him into his chair, pressing on his chest with invisible hands of power until he could not draw breath to speak.
Siobhan made some small movement: Doyle and Frost moved between her and the queen.
"You are a fool, Cel," Andais said. "I have saved your life this night. Do not make me regret what I have done." She released him suddenly, and he slid to the floor, near where Keelin still crouched.
Andais turned back to the court. "Meredith will take whom she pleases with her tonight to her hotel. She is my heir. The land welcomed her at her return tonight. The ring on her finger is alive and full of magic once more. You have seen the roses, watched them come to life for the first time in decades. All these wonders and still you question my choice. Have a care that you do not question yourselves to death." With that she sat down and motioned for everyone else to sit down. We all sat down.
The white ladies began to bring in the small individual tables that sat in front of the thrones. The meal began to float in on ghostly hands.
Galen joined us again at the side of the dais. Conri was already being punished and missing the banquet, but not Cel. He and his would be allowed to enjoy the banquet before his sentence was carried out. Unseelie etiquette, if you were prince.
The queen began to eat. The rest of us ate. The queen took her first sip of wine. We drank.
She paused in sipping her soup and looked at me. It was not an angry look, more puzzled, but it certainly wasn't a happy look. She leaned in very close to me, close enough that her lips brushed my ear. "Fuck one of them tonight, Meredith, or you will be joining Cel."
I drew back enough to see her face. She'd known all along that Galen and I hadn't made love. But she'd helped me save him from Conri's challenge, and for that I was grateful. Still, Andais did nothing without a motive, and I had to wonder why this act of mercy? I would have loved to ask her, but the queen's mercy is a fragile thing like a bubble floating on the air. If you poked at it too much it would simply burst and cease to be. I would not prod this piece of kindness. I would simply accept it.