SIR HUGH BELENUS GAVE A LOW BOW THAT SHOWED THAT HIS fire-colored hair had started the day in a complicated braid, but singed ribbons trailed from its remnants. When he stood up, I could see that the front of his tunic, all the way through two layers of undershirts, had been blasted apart to expose the pale golden skin underneath. The clothing was ruined, scorched, but his body seemed untouched.
"Sir Hugh stood in front of Taranis at the end," Frost said. "He took the brunt of the blow meant for Abeloec." Frost said.
"What am I to say to that?" I asked, and my voice sounded completely normal. The very normality of it was almost shocking. A little voice in my own head thought, how can I sound so calm? Training? Shock?
"If Sir Hugh were not one of the elder sidhe, you could thank him for risking himself to save our warriors," Frost said.
I looked up at the tall man beside me. I stared all the way up to those gray eyes and found that they reflected a bare tree in a winter landscape, like a tiny snow globe caught in his eyes. Only his own magic or anxiety would fill his eyes with that image. Always before it had dizzied me to stare into Frost's eyes when they filled with that other place. Today, it seemed cool, calming. Today, he had the icy strength of winter in his eyes. A coldness that protected you, kept your emotions from eating you alive. I understood in that moment part of what had let Frost survive the queen's petty torments. He had embraced the coldness inside.
I touched his arm, and the world was a little steadier. There was something moving in the landscape of his eyes; something white, and horned. I had a glimpse of a white stag before Frost bent to kiss me. It was a chaste kiss, but that one gentle touch let me know that he understood what the calmness cost me. That kiss let me know that he understood what Doyle meant to me, and what he meant to me, and what he did not.
I turned back to the mirror with Frost's hand in mine.
Sir Hugh said, "I saw a vision in the sunlight, a white stag. It walked ghostlike just behind the two of you."
"How long has it been since you saw such a vision?" Frost asked.
Hugh blinked black eyes at me, but there were orange sparks and swirls in that blackness, like the ashes of a fire long banked. "A long time."
"You don't seem surprised at your vision, Sir Hugh," I said.
"There are swans in the lake near the Seelie mound. Swans with gold chains around their necks. They flew above us for the first time ever in this country, the night of your battle with the wild hunt."
Rhys's voice came casually from behind us. "Have a care what you say, Hugh. We have lawyers present." Rhys came to stand on my other side, but made no move to take my other hand.
"Yes, our king has chosen a most regrettable moment to show this side of himself."
"Regrettable moment," I said, and didn't try to keep the sarcasm out of my voice. "Such mild words for what has just happened."
"I cannot afford anything but mild words, Princess," Hugh said.
"This insult to us cannot go unanswered," I said, voice still calm.
"If I were speaking to the Queen of Air and Darkness, I would worry about a war, or perhaps a personal challenge between monarchs. But I have heard that Princess Meredith NicEssus is a more temperate creature than her aunt, or even her uncle."
"A temperate creature?" I said.
"Temperate woman, then," Hugh said, and gave another low bow. "No insult was meant in my choice of words, Princess. I beg you not to take offense."
"I will do my best not to take offense, except where it is given," I said.
Hugh stood, and his handsome face, with its small neat beard and mustache, fought to not look worried. Hugh had been a god of fire once, and that was not a temperate creature. Many of the elemental deities seemed to take on the aspects of their elements. I had seen that intimately with Mistral, once a god of storms.
"And I," Hugh said, "will endeavor not to give offense."
Nelson's voice came from behind us. "How can you be so calm? Didn't you see what just happened? They took your lovers out on stretchers." Her voice held an edge of hysteria that promised to get worse.
I heard soothing male voices, but didn't try and catch the words. As long as they kept her quiet and away from me, I no longer cared. There would be no charges brought against my men for the supposed attack on Lady Caitrin. Because if the Seelie played hardball, we could bury them with what Taranis had just done. And we had some of the top lawyers in the country as our witnesses. If Doyle and Abe hadn't gotten hurt, it would have been a lovely thing.
The far doors opened, and more EMTs came through. The police were here. I had no idea what had taken them so long to arrive. But maybe my sense of time had been affected. Shock can do that. It wouldn't even do me any good to look at a clock, because I hadn't looked at one before. For all I knew only minutes had passed. It may have just seemed longer.
"What are we to do about this incident, Sir Hugh?" I asked.
"There is no way to keep it quiet," he said. "Too many humans know. More will find out when your men reach the hospital. It will be the greatest scandal the Seelie Court has had in this country."
"Your king will deny that he did this," I said, "He will try and blame us somehow."
"He has not tried his rather human version of the truth since you helped release the wild magic, Princess Meredith."
"What does that mean exactly, Sir Hugh?" I asked.
"It means as much as I dare about my opinion of my king. It means that when you released the wild magic it awakened some…" he seemed to search for a word. "Certain things. Things that do not take well to oathbreakers, or other things." He frowned as if even he wasn't happy with what he'd just said.
"Oathbreakers and liars fear the wild hunt," Frost said.
"I did not say that," Hugh said.
"I haven't heard this much verbal tap-dancing from a Seelie noble in a long time," Rhys said.
Hugh smiled at him. "You haven't been at court in a long time."
"Did you know what Taranis was doing?" I asked.
"We had suspicions that the king was not himself."
"So polite," I said. "So mild."
"But accurate," Hugh said.
"What else has happened for you to be so cautious, firelord?" Rhys asked.
"I think that is a conversation for a more private audience, pale lord."
"I can't argue with that," Rhys said.
I was beginning to get the feeling that Rhys and Hugh knew each other better than I'd realized.
"What do we do about this day, and this moment?" I asked.
"I am but a humble lord of the sidhe," Hugh said. "I do not carry the blood of the royal line in my body."
"What does that mean?" I asked.
"It means that the humans aren't the only ones who have laws." Hugh stared at me with his black-and-orange eyes. He seemed to be trying to tell me something without saying it out loud.
"The Seelie would never go for it," Rhys said.
"Go for what?" I asked, looking from one to the other.
"The king lost his temper with one of the serving wenches," Hugh said. "A huge green dog appeared between him and the target of his anger."
"A Cu Sith," I said.
"Yes, a Cu Sith, after all these long years, a green dog of faerie is among us again, and protects those who need protecting. It would not allow the king to strike the serving girl. She seemed more terrified that he would blame her for the dog, but the king lost his anger in the face of the great dog."
I remembered the dog from the night of the wild hunt. The night when wild magic had been everywhere. Huge black dogs had appeared, and when some touched them, they had changed to other dogs. Dogs out of legend, and a Cu Sith had run out into the night toward the Seelie Court.
"I would be interested to see whose hand the Cu Sith would call master, or mistress," I said.
"If we invoke this law," Rhys said, "it will be civil war in your own court, Hugh."
"Perhaps it is time for a little civil disobedience," Hugh said.
"What law?" I asked.
Rhys turned to me. "If the monarch is unfit to rule, the nobles of the court can vote him, or her, incompetent. They can force him or her to step down. Andais abolished the rule in her court, but Taranis never bothered. He was too confident that his court loved him."
"So, you're saying, what?" I, asked. "That Hugh force a vote among the nobles and they choose a new king?" It had possibilities, depending on whom they chose.
"Not exactly, Merry," Rhys said.
"Is she always this humble?" Hugh asked.
"Often," Rhys said.
"What?" I asked.
Frost said, "The Seelie nobles will never accept her."
"You don't know what has been happening here since she unlocked the magic. I think the vote may go in her favor."
"The vote go in my favor." I finally caught on. "Oh, no, you aren't serious."
"Yes, Princess Meredith, if you will agree to accept it, I will endeavor to make you our queen."
I just stared at him. I tried to gather my wits, my training at court, and all I could manage to say was, "How sure are you that this will work?"
"Sure enough to speak of it."
"That means very sure," Rhys said.
"I don't believe the Seelie will accept me as their queen, Hugh. But I know that before such a thing goes forward we must speak to our queen."
"Speak to Andais if you must, but whatever you are to the Unseelie, you have brought back the old magic to the outside of the hill. Inside we are still dead and dying, but our spies tell us that your faerie mound grows, lives. Even the mound of the sluagh is alive once more. King Sholto brags of your magic, Princess."
"King Sholto of the sluagh is a kind man."
Hugh laughed, an abrupt, surprised sound. "Kind. The king of the sluagh? The nightmares of all faerie, and you call him kind."
"I find him so," I said.
Hugh nodded. "Kindness. It is not an emotion we have had in this court in years. I, for one, would like more of it."
"I understand that," Rhys said.
Hugh looked off to one side of the mirror, where we could not see. "I must go. Talk to your queen, but when the rest of the nobles know what Taranis did to Lady Caitrin, and that other nobles helped him, the vote will go against him."
"Did he get the lady to lie, or did he bespell her, too?" Rhys asked.
"He used his illusions to make three of our nobles appear as the three of you. But he made them monstrous, with projections and spines and…" Hugh shivered. "Her body was quite broken. She is even now still confined to her bed, even with our healers." He looked at me. "If you have need of healers for your men, but ask and it will be yours."
"We will ask if we need them," I said, and I fought the urge to say thank you because Hugh was old enough to be offended by it.
"What did the king hope to gain by such evil?" Frost asked.
"We aren't certain," Hugh said, "but we can prove that he did it, and lied about it, and that the nobles involved lied as well. It is an abuse of magic that has almost no precedent among us."
"And you can prove it?" Rhys asked.
"We can." He looked off to the side again. He turned back to us, but there was a look of concern on his face. "I must go. Talk to your queen. Be ready." He gestured, and we were looking at our own reflections.
"This smacks of court intrigue," Frost said.
I watched Rhys and myself both nod solemnly in the mirror. Neither of us looked very happy.
Veducci came up behind us. "You have been given amazing news, Princess Meredith. Why don't you look happier?"
I answered his reflection rather than turning around. "It has been my experience that court intrigue usually ends badly. The Seelie Court has treated me worse than the Unseelie Court all of my life. I do not believe that a few new magics will make me queen of a people who despise me. If by some miracle it happens as Sir Hugh has stated, then I will have two sets of assassins to deal with instead of one." As soon as I said it, I knew I shouldn't have. My only excuse was the total shock of what had just happened.
Rhys spoke quickly. "I assume the charges against me and my friends are dropped."
Veducci turned to him. "If what Sir Hugh has just said is true, then yes, but until the lady herself drops the charges, they don't go away."
"Even with what Hugh just said?" Frost asked.
"As you pointed out, court intrigue can get ugly. People lie."
"The sidhe do not lie," I said.
Veducci stared hard at me. "Have there been assassination attempts on your life other than the one that happened at the airport, where you were shot at?"
"She can't answer that without talking to Queen Andais," Rhys said. He put his arm across my shoulders. Frost did not give up my hand, so I stood pressed to both of them. I couldn't tell if Rhys's gesture was to reassure me or himself. It had been one of those days when we all needed a hug.
"You do realize that is an answer," Veducci asked.
"What kind of lawyer knows to carry just the right herbs in his pocket to disrupt such a spell?" I said.
"I don't know what you mean." he said with a smile.
"Liar." I whispered it, because I heard steps behind us.
Biggs and Shelby were there. Biggs's suit jacket was gone. His shirtsleeve was rolled back, and there was a bandage on his arm. "I think King Taranis's actions today put his accusations against my clients in serious doubt."
"We can't say yes to that without talking to some…" Shelby stopped, cleared his throat, and tried again, "We'll get back to you." He gathered his assistant and went for the door.
"The nice young woman who fixed up my arm says I have to ride with them to the hospital," Biggs said. "My assistant will take you to a room where you can rest and gather yourselves before you have to leave."
"Thank you, Mr. Biggs," I said. "I am sorry that the hospitality of faerie was not up to its usual standards."
He laughed. "That is the most polite way I have ever heard anyone apologize for such a fucking mess." He raised his injured arm a little. "It was hard on me, and on your men, but if your uncle, the king, had to choose a moment to have his meltdown, this wasn't a bad time for it. It certainly hurt his case and helped ours."
"I suppose that's one way of looking at it," I said.
Rhys hugged me, bumping his cheek against my hair. "Cheer up, sweets, we won."
"No, the Seelie came to the rescue and saved our asses," I said.
The female EMT came to touch Biggs's shoulder. "We're ready to go."
Nelson was strapped to a gurney and looked unconscious. Cortez was beside her, looking more annoyed than worried.
"Did Ms. Nelson get burned, too?" I asked.
Biggs opened his mouth to answer, but the med techs made him go with them. Veducci answered me. "She seems to be having an adverse reaction to the spell that the king put on you."
The look he gave me was entirely too knowledgeable. He knew magic. He wasn't a registered practitioner, but that didn't mean anything. A lot of humans who had psychic ability chose not to use it as a job.
"A look like that used to get a question," Rhys said.
"What question would that be?" Veducci asked.
"Which eye can you see me with?" Rhys said.
I tensed beside him, because I knew how this story always ended.
Veducci grinned. "The answer you're supposed to give is neither."
"The truth is both eyes," Frost said, and his voice was way too solemn for comfort.
Veducci's grin faded around the edges. "None of you are trying to hide what you are. Everyone can see you."
"Cheer up, Veducci," Rhys said. "The days when we used to put your eye out for seeing the wee folk are long past. The sidhe never held with that. If you could see us, the biggest danger from the sidhe was abduction. We were always intrigued with the humans who could see faerie." Rhys's voice was light and teasing, but there was an edge of seriousness to it that made Veducci look wary.
Was I missing part of this conversation? Maybe. Did I care? A little. But I'd care more after I got to the hospital and checked on Doyle and Abe.
"You can all be mysterious later," I said. "I want to go check on Doyle and Abe now."
Veducci reached into his jacket pocket and held something out to me. "I thought you might want these."
It was Doyle's sunglasses. One side of them was melted, as if some hot giant hand had crushed them into melted wax. My stomach fell into my shoes, then back up to my throat. I thought for a second that I'd throw up, then my head thought I just might faint. I hadn't seen Doyle's face underneath the bandages. How bad was it?
"Do you need to sit down, Princess?" Veducci asked, and he was all solicitous. He actually moved to take my arm as if I wasn't already standing between two strong arms.
Frost moved so that the lawyer couldn't touch me. "We have her."
Veducci took a step back. "I see that." He gave a small bow and went back to the security guards who were talking to the police. A uniformed officer was waiting for us.
"I need to ask you a few questions," he said.
"Can you ask them on the way to the hospital? I need to check on my men."
He hesitated. "Do you need a ride to the hospital, Princess Meredith?"
I glanced at the clock behind the desk. We'd been driven here by Maeve Reed's driver in her limo. He'd planned on doing some errands for Ms. Reed, then coming back to pick us up in about three hours, or at least check on us. Surprisingly, it hadn't been three hours yet. "A ride would be lovely. Thank you, Officer," I said.