BY MIDNIGHT THE LAST OF THE REPORTERS HAD DRIFTED AWAY FULL OF old wine, expensive hors d'oeuvres, and my aunt's bullshit. But she did sling it with style. She'd dressed in a slinky black business suit and no blouse, so that her cleavage showed at the line of the jacket, call-girl chic. She was thrilled that I was home for a visit. Excited that I'd finally decided to settle down with some lucky sidhe. Saddened by Griffin's betrayal. One reporter had asked her about the alleged faerie aphrodisiac that had caused a near riot at a Los Angeles police station. She had no knowledge of it. Andais wouldn't let anyone else but herself answer questions. I'm not sure she trusted what I'd say. The men were just window dressing-they never got to talk.
Cel sat on her right, and I sat on her left. We smiled at each other. The three of us posed for pictures. Him in his monochrome black-on-black designer suit, me in a little black designer dress with a short jacket set with hundreds of genuine jet beads, Andais in her call-girl business suit. We looked like we were going to a very expensive, very chic, funeral. If I do ever get to be queen, I'm getting the court a new color scheme, anything but black.
The court was very quiet tonight. Cel had been led away to be prepared for his punishment. The Queen had taken Doyle and Frost to her rooms for a debriefing. Galen had been limping by the time we finished the conference, so Fflur had taken him off for some ointment to help speed his healing. It left Rhys and Kitto, and Pasco, to guard me. Pasco had come to the hotel last night, but spent the night in the second room. His long pink-colored hair trailed to his knees like a pale curtain. Black was not his color. It made his skin look purplish, and his hair almost brown. In the right colors Pasco sparkled, but not tonight. Black looked better on Rhys, but what made the outfit was the blue shirt, a color to match his eye, that the queen allowed him.
Rhys and Pasco paced behind me like good bodyguards. Kitto stayed at my side like a faithful dog. He had not been allowed on camera during the conference. Goblin prejudice runs strong in the courts. Kitto was the only one who had been allowed to keep his jeans and T-shirt. We were staying at the court tonight because it was the only reporter-free zone within fifty miles. Nobody would be breaking the queen's windows or snapping pictures through the earthen mound.
I was trying to find my old rooms, but there was a door in the middle of the hallway, a large wooden-and-bronze door. The Abyss of Despair lay behind the door. Last I'd seen this room, it had been near the Hallway of Mortality-read torture room. The Abyss was supposed to be bottomless, which was impossible had it been purely physical, but it wasn't purely physical. One of the worst of our punishments was to be cast into the Abyss and to fall forever, never aging, never dying, trapped in free fall for all eternity.
I stopped in the middle of the hallway, letting Pasco and Rhys catch up to me. Kitto moved to one side, out of Rhys's reach, instinctively. Rhys had not so much as touched him, just looked at him. Whatever Kitto saw in that one blue-on-blue eye frightened the goblin.
"What's wrong?" Rhys asked.
"What is this thing doing here?"
He studied the door, frowning. "It's the door to the Abyss."
"Exactly. It should be down three levels of stairs, at the very least. What's it doing on the main floor?"
"You say that as if the sithen made sense," Pasco said. "The mound has decided to move the Abyss up to the top floor. Sometimes it does major rearranging like that."
I looked at Rhys. He nodded. "It does sometimes."
"Define sometimes," I said.
"About every millennium," Rhys said.
"I just love dealing with people whose idea of sometimes is every thousand years," I said.
Pasco grabbed the huge bronze door handle. "Allow me, Princess." The door moved slowly open, proving beyond doubt that it was a very heavy door. Pasco was like most of the court in that he could have bench-pressed a small house if he could have found a convenient handhold, yet he opened this one door as if it had weight.
The room beyond was a dim greyness, as if the lights that worked in the rest of the sithen didn't quite work here. I stepped into the dimness with Kitto at my heels, darting just ahead of me, staying out of Rhys's way, like a dog that's afraid of being kicked. The room was just as I remembered it. A huge circular stone room with a round hole in the center of the floor. There was a white railing around that hole, a railing made of bones and silver wire, and magic. The railing glimmered with its own brand of glamour. Some said the railing was bespelled to keep the Abyss from flowing up through the floor and eating the world. The railing was bespelled to keep people from jumping over it, so no one could commit suicide in it, or fall by accident. There was only one way to go over the rail, and that was to be thrown over.
I gave the glowing collection of bones a wide berth, and Kitto clung to my hand like a child afraid to cross the street by himself. There was another door on the far side of the room, and we walked toward it, my high heels making clackety echoes in the huge room. The door behind us closed with a huge clang that made me jump. Kitto tugged at my hand, urging me to move faster toward the far door. I didn't need any urging, but I also wasn't going to run in the high heels. I'd healed one sprained ankle this week-one was enough.
Two things happened at once. I saw something out of the corner of my eye on the side of the Abyss opposite us, a flicker of movement where nothing stood. The other was a small sound from behind us. I turned toward the noise.
Rhys was on his knees, hands limp at his sides, an expression of bewilderment on his face. Pasco stood over him with a bloody knife in his hand. Rhys fell forward slowly, landing heavily, hands still at his side, mouth opening and closing like a fish pulled from the water.
I moved toward the door, the wall at my back, Kitto beside me. But I knew-I knew that it was too late. The flicker on the other side of the room parted like an invisible curtain to reveal Rozenwyn and Siobhan. The two women divided the room, one moving left, the other right, coming to outflank me. Siobhan all pale and ghostly like a Halloween horror, and Rozenwyn all pink and lavender like an Easter-basket doll. One tall, one short, so much opposites, yet they moved like two pieces of a whole.
I put my back against the wall, Kitto crouching beside me, as if trying to make himself smaller and more invisible. "Rhys isn't dead. Even a heart blow won't kill him," I said.
"But a trip into the Abyss will," Pasco said.
"I take it that's my fate as well," I said, my voice sounding terribly calm. My mind was racing, but my voice was calm.
"We'll kill you first," Siobhan said, "then throw you over."
"Thanks bunches, how thoughtful of you to kill me first."
"We could let you die of thirst while you fell," Rozenwyn said. "Your choice."
"Is there a third choice?" I asked.
"I'm afraid not," Siobhan said, the sibilance of her voice echoing in the room, as if it belonged here.
They'd both crossed around the edge of the railing and were coming in on either side. Pasco stayed by Rhys's gasping body. I had the two folding knives, but they had swords. I was outarmed, and about to be outflanked. "Are you so fearful of me that it takes three of you to kill me? Rozenwyn nearly killed me herself. I still bear her mark over my ribs."
Rozenwyn shook her head. "No, Meredith, you can't talk us into a one-on-one duel. We were given very strict orders that we are simply to kill you, no games, no matter how fun they would be."
Kitto had pressed himself to the floor, huddled by my leg. "What are you going to do to Kitto?"
"The goblin joins Rhys in the Abyss," Siobhan hissed.
I took out one of the folding knives, and they laughed. I called power to the other hand, called the hand of flesh deliberately for the first time. I waited for it to hurt, but it didn't. Power moved through me like heavy water: smooth, alive, tilling my body, my hand, like something almost thick enough to throw.
The two women knew I'd called some magic, because they glanced at one another. There was a moment of hesitation, then they moved forward again. They were only about ten feet away, when Kitto launched himself from his crouch like a leopard springing onto Siobhan. She stabbed him, the blade coming clean through his body, but it missed anything vital, and he rode her body slashing, biting, fighting like some small elegant animal.
Rozenwyn rushed me, sword up, but I was expecting it, and I dived to the floor feeling the rush of air as the blade roared past me. I grabbed for her leg, touched her ankle, and her leg collapsed in upon itself. To do what I'd done to Nerys, I needed to hit in the center of her body, but Rozenwyn would never give me a chance at a mid-body blow.
She fell to the ground, shrieking, watching her long beautiful leg shrivel up, roll bone and flesh in waves. I drove the folded blade into her throat, not to kill but to distract. I scooped the sword out of her suddenly nerveless hand. I heard Pasco running up behind me. I dropped to my knees, fighting the urge to look behind, but there was no time. I felt his blade go over my head, and drove Rozenwyn's sword back and up, desperately seeking his body and finding it. The sword bit deep into his body and I said a quick breath of prayer as I rolled away from him. His own body weight carried him to the floor, drove the sword in hilt deep, while he made wet sounds deep in his throat. Then something happened that I hadn't planned. Pasco rolled onto his sister's damaged leg, and the rolling flesh poured over his face. He didn't even have time to scream before his sister's flesh covered his, and his body began to melt into her. His hands beat against the floor while his head was already swallowed into the lump of flesh that had become his sister's lower body.
Rozenwyn pulled my knife from her throat. The wound healed instantly and she began to shriek. She reached out one lavender pink hand to me. "Meredith, Princess, do not do this, I beg you!"
I backed into the wall, watching, because I could not stop it. I didn't know how. It had been an accident. They were twins, they'd shared a womb once, and that may have caused this. A freak accident in every way. If I'd had any clue where to begin I'd have tried to stop it. No one deserved this.
I tore my gaze away from the melting horror of Rozenwyn and her brother becoming one, to see Siobhan and Kitto. Siobhan was bloodied, scratched and bitten, but not really hurt. She was kneeling, though, her sword on the floor in front of her. She was surrendering her weapon to me. Kitto lay gasping beside her, the hole in his chest already beginning to close. She could have killed me while I watched Rozenwyn and Pasco melt, but Siobhan, who was the stuff of nightmares, watched with open horror as the pink-and-purple flesh consumed the two sidhe. She was too scared to risk coming close enough for a death blow. She was scared... of me.
Rozenwyn's face went last, screaming, as if she were trying to keep her head above quicksand, but it swallowed her, and the mass of flesh and organs pulsed on the stone floor. You could hear their screams, two voices this time, two voices trapped. My pulse pounded in my ears until all I could hear, taste, was my horror at the sight. It wasn't just Siobhan who was scared.
Rhys staggered to his feet, his own sword in his hands. Then he fell to his knees beside me, his eyes on the thing on the floor. "Lord and Lady protect us."
I could only nod. But finally my voice came, low, hoarse. "Disarm Siobhan, then kill that thing."
"How?" he asked.
"Chop it up, Rhys, chop it up until it stops moving." I stared down at Rozenwyn's sword. It was one of a kind, made for her hand, with a hilt of jeweled spring flowers. I started for the near door with the sword naked in my hand.
"Where are you going?" Rhys asked.
"I have a message to deliver." The huge bronze door opened in front of me as if moved by a great hand. I walked through it and it closed behind me. The sithen pulsed and whispered around me. I went to find Cel.
He was naked, chained to the floor of a dark room. Ezekial was there, our torturer, with surgical gloves on his hands and a bottle of Branwyn's Tears. The torture had not yet begun, which meant that the three months had not begun, so I could not demand Cel's life.
The queen saw me first, her eyes going to the sword in my hand. Doyle and Frost were with her, witnesses to her son's shame. "What has happened?" she asked.
I placed the sword across Cel's bare chest. He recognized it-I could see it in his eyes. "I would have brought you an ear from Rozenwyn and Pasco, but they don't have an ear left between them."
"What did you do to them?" He whispered it.
I raised my left hand, just above his body. The queen said, "Meredith, no, you cannot."
"They shared a womb once, now they share flesh. Should I have them thrown into the Abyss where you meant to put Rhys and Kitto? Should I let them fall forever a pulsing ball of meat?"
He stared up at me, and the fear was there, but underneath the cunning. "I did not know they were going to do this. I did not send them."
I stood up and motioned Ezekial forward. "Begin." Ezekial looked at the queen. She nodded, and he knelt beside Cel's body and began to coat him with the oil.
I turned to Andais. "For this I want him in here like this alone for six months, the full sentence."
Andais started to argue, but Doyle said, "Your Majesty, you must begin to treat him as he deserves."
She nodded. "Six months, I give my oath on it."
"Mother, no, no!"
"When you're done, Ezekial, seal the room." And she walked out while he was still screaming for her.
I watched Ezekial coat him with the oil, watched his body come alive at the touch of it. Frost and Doyle stood on either side of me. Cel looked at me while it was happening, his face saying plainly that he was thinking about me in a very uncousinlike way. "I was going to just kill you, Meredith, but not now. When I get out of here I'll fuck you, fuck you until you're with my child. The throne is mine even if I have to get it through your lily-white body."
"If you come near me again, Cel, I'll kill you." With that I turned and walked out. Doyle and Frost came behind and to either side like good bodyguards. Cel's voice followed us down the hallway. He was screaming my name, "Merry, Merry!" each time more frantic than the last.
Long after I shouldn't have been able to hear his screams, they echoed in my ears.