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DOYLE AND ABE HAD A ROOM TO THEMSELVES IN THE HOSPITAL, though when we hit the door with our nice escort of uniformed officers it was hard to tell who belonged in the room and who didn't. There was a crowd of my other guards and medical staff, way more medical staff than needed to be here, and predominantly female. And why did the uniforms who drove us come inside? Apparently, the police were a little fuzzy on whether the attacks on my guards was another attempt on my life. Better safe than sorry, they seemed to think. Seeing the number of men Rhys had ordered to meet us at the hospital, apparently he had thought the same thing.

Abe was on his stomach, trying to talk to all the pretty nurses. He was in pain, but he was still who and what he'd always been. He had once been the god Accasbel, the physical embodiment of the cup of intoxication. It could make you a queen. It could inspire poetry, bravery, or madness. So the legends said. He'd opened the first pub in Ireland, and was the original party boy. If he hadn't been wincing every so often, I might have said he was having a good time. Instead, he might just be putting on a brave face. Or he might be enjoying the attention. I still didn't understand Abe well enough to guess.

I had to weave my way through the crowd of my own lovely guards. On most days, I might have noticed them, but today they were just blocking my view of the one guard I wanted to see.

Some of them tried to speak to me, but when I answered no one, they finally seemed to understand. They parted like a curtain of flesh, and I could finally see the other bed.

Doyle lay terribly still. There was an I.V. hooked up to one arm, feeding him clear fluid. There was a small drip with knobs, which probably meant that some of the clear liquid was painkiller. Burns hurt.

Halfwen stood tall and blond and beautiful beside his bed. She wore a dress that had been in style in the 1300s or earlier, a plain sheath that clung in all the right places, but was short enough at the ankles to give her room to move. When I'd met her she'd been in armor, a guard in my cousin Cel's service. He'd forced her to kill things for him and forbade her to use her amazing healing gifts because she refused his bed. True healers were rare among the sidhe now, and even the queen had been shocked at the waste of Halfwen's talents. She'd been one of the female guards who had left Cel's service to join me in exile. Queen Andais was also shocked, I think, at the number of female guards who chose exile over staying to serve Cel. I wasn't shocked. Cel had come out of his months of imprisonment crazier and more sadistic than when he'd gone in. He'd been put away for trying to kill me, among other things. His freedom had been the deciding factor of me going back into exile. The queen admitted in private that she could not guarantee my safety around her son.

Halfwen and others had come west with tales of what Cel did to the first female guard he took to his bed. It was the stuff of serial killers. Except she was sidhe, and she would heal, she would survive. Survive to be his victim again, and again, and again.

At last count I had a dozen female "volunteers." A dozen in a month's time. There would be more, because Cel was insane, and the women had a choice now. Andais hadn't understood how so many of them could prefer exile to Cel's attentions, but then the queen had always overestimated his charms and underestimated his repulsiveness. Don't let me mislead you. Prince Cel was as handsome as most of the Unseelie sidhe, but pretty is as pretty does, and what he did was ugly.

I stood by Doyle's side, but he didn't know I was there. If I still had the wild magic of faerie at my command, I could have healed him in an instant. But the magic had spilled out into the autumn night and done wonders and miracles, and was still working them in faerie. However, we weren't in faerie. We were in Los Angeles in a building built of metal and man-made things. Some magics would not even work in such a place.

"Halfwen," I said, "why have you not tried to heal him?"

A doctor short enough that he had to look up at Halfwen but could look down at me said, "I cannot allow the use of magic on my patient."

I looked at him, gave him the full-on stare with the triple irises. Some humans, if they've never had to meet our eyes, are bothered by it. It can be a help in negotiations, or persuading. "Why can you not," I read his nameplate, "Dr. Sang?"

"Because it is magic that I do not understand, and if I do not understand a treatment I cannot authorize it."

"So if you understood you'd stop interfering," I said.

"I am not interfering, Princess Meredith, you are. This is a hospital, not a royal bedchamber. Your men are disrupting the operation of this hospital by their very presence."

I smiled at him, and felt my eyes stay cool and untouched by it. "My men have done nothing. It is your staff that is failing. I thought all the hospitals in the area had been briefed about what to do if one of us was brought in. Didn't they tell you what to wear, or carry, to help the staff function?"

"The fact that your men are using active glamour to bespell our nurses and female doctors is an insult," Dr. Sang said.

Galen spoke from the other side of the room. He was slumped down in one of two chairs. "I've told him over and over that we aren't doing anything. It isn't active glamour, but he won't believe me."

He looked tired, a tightness around his eyes and mouth that I hadn't noticed before. The sidhe don't age, really, but there are signs of wear. The way a diamond can be cut by the right kind of blade.

"I do not have time to explain to you, but I won't allow you to stand between my people and my healers," I said.

"She admits," he motioned at Halfwen, "that her powers are not at full strength outside of faerie. She's not certain she can heal him. The more often his bandages are opened, especially with this many people here, the greater the chances that he'll get a secondary infection," Dr. Sang said.

"The sidhe do not get infections, Doctor," I said.

"Forgive me if I'm a little skeptical about that, Princess, but this man is my patient," Dr. Sang said. "I am responsible for him."

"No, Doctor, he is mine. He is my Darkness, my right hand. He would see himself as responsible for me, but I am trying to be his queen, which makes me responsible for all my people." I reached out to touch his hair, but drew back. I did not want to wake him if all we could offer was pain. For the healing we would disturb him, but simply because I could not bear to be so close and not touch him was not reason enough to wake him from the sleep that the drugs and shock had given him.

My hand ached to touch him, but I forced my hand into a fist at my side. Rhys's hand wrapped around my fist. I looked into his single triblue eye, his handsome face with the scars that had taken his other eye, only partially hidden by the white patch he'd worn today. I'd never known Rhys any other way. The face that rose above me when we made love, or looked up at me from the bed, was this face, scars and all. It was simply Rhys.

I touched his cheek. Would I love Doyle less if he was scarred? No, though it would be a loss for both of us. It would mean that the face I had grown to love would be forever changed. But dammit, he was sidhe. A simple burn shouldn't have damaged him like this.

As if Rhys read some of my thoughts, he said, "He will live."

I nodded. "But I want him healed."

"What about me?" Abe called from the other bed, and as so often, he sounded vaguely drunk. It was almost as if he'd spent so many years inebriated that he fell back into the behavior of it. A dry drunk, I think they called it, as if even without the drink and drugs, he wasn't entirely sober.

"I want you healed as well," I said. "Of course I do." But Abe knew where he stood in my affections, and he wasn't in my top five. He was okay with that. He, like many of the guards who had only been with us a few weeks, was just so happy to be having sex again that he hadn't had time to get his ego bruised by the competition.

"I really must insist, Princess, that you and all your men leave," Dr. Sang said.

The uniformed officer, Officer Brewer, said, "Sorry, doctor, but more guards is okay with us."

"Are you saying that these men may be attacked inside the hospital itself?" he asked.

Officer Brewer looked at his partner, Officer Kent. Kent, the taller of the two, just shrugged. I think they'd been told to stay near me, but not what to tell civilians. We'd stopped counting as civilians, to an extent, when we were attacked. Now we were in a different category for the police. Potential victims, maybe.

"Dr. Sang," Frost said, "I am in command of the princess' guard until my captain tells me otherwise. My captain lies here." He motioned toward Doyle.

"You may be in charge of the guard, but you are not in charge of this hospital." The doctor didn't even come up to Frost's collarbone. He had to tilt his head back at an extreme angle to look the taller man in the face, but he did it, and he gave him a look that clearly said that he wasn't backing down.

"We do not have time for this, Princess," Hafwen said.

I looked into her tricolored eyes; a ring of blue, silver, and an inner ring of lights as if light could be a color. "What do you mean?"

"We are outside faerie. That limits me as a healer. We stand in a building of metal and glass, a man-made structure. That also limits my powers. The longer the injury stays untended, the harder it will be for me to do anything for it."

I turned to Dr. Sang. "You heard her, doctor. You need to let my healer do her job."

"I could remove him from the room," Frost said.

"I'm not sure we can allow that," Officer Brewer said, sounding uncertain.

"How would you remove him?" Officer Kent asked.

"Good question," Officer Brewer said. "We can't really condone violence against the doctors."

"We don't need violence," Rhys said. He nuzzled my ear, playing with my hair. That one small touch made me shiver a little.

I turned so I could see his face more clearly. "Wouldn't that be unethical, too?" I asked.

"Do you really want Doyle to look like me? I know he doesn't want to lose an eye. It plays hell with your depth perception." He smiled and tried to make it a joke, but there was a bitterness to it that no smile could hide.

I kissed the bow of his mouth. He had one of the most beautiful mouths of all the men. Pouting and full, it softened the boyish handsomeness of his face into something more sensual.

He pushed me away, toward the doctor. "The doctor doesn't understand, and we don't have time to talk it to death, Merry."

"Um," Officer Brewer said, "what are you planning to do, Princess Meredith? I mean" He looked at his partner. It was obvious that they felt out of their depth. Truthfully, I was surprised that there weren't more police here already. There were uniforms at the door, but no detectives, no higher echelon. It was almost as if the top brass was afraid of us right now. Not afraid of the danger. They were police; it was what they did. But afraid of the politics.

By now the rumors had spread. Goddess knew that King Taranis attacking Princess Meredith was juicy enough. But stories have a tendency to grow in the telling. Who knew what the police had been told by now? This case wasn't just a hot one, it was a potential career killer. Think about itletting Princess Meredith get killed or having King Taranis injured on your watch. Either way, you were screwed.

"Doctor Sang," I said.

He turned to me, still frowning angrily. "I don't care how many policemen back you on this, there are too many people in this room for effective treatment."

I closed my eyes and let out a breath. Most humans have to do something to conjure magic. I spent most of my life shielding so I didn't perform magic by accident. Before my hands of power had come to me, just months ago, I spent time trying not to be distracted by passing spirits, small everyday wonders. Now all the practice keeping things out helped me keep things in, because my natural talentsas maybe my genetic heritagehad been kicked up a notch along with everything else.

Rhys said, "Stand back, boys."

The men moved back, and moved the two police officers with them. They gave the doctor and me a small circle of space. He glanced at them, eyes puzzled. "What's going on?"

I raised a hand to touch his face, but he grabbed my wrist to keep me from doing it. The problem for him was that I didn't need to touch him. Him touching me was just fine.

His eyes widened. A look of near terror transfixed his face. He wasn't looking at me, but somewhere deep inside himself. I was trying to be gentle, to use just enough and no more of the Seelie side of my nature. But fertility magic is sometimes an unpredictable thing, and I was nervous.

Dr. Sang whispered, "Oh my God."

"Goddess," I whispered, and leaned in toward him. I drew him away from the beds, away from Halfwen, I never touched him, only drew my arm away. His own grip on my wrist drew him with me.

I touched his face with my free hand. I hadn't thought about what lay on that hand. Inside faerie the queen's ring, as it had come to be called, was magical. In the human world, it was an ancient piece of metal, so old that the metal was soft. The ring was worn into an odd shape from centuries of being on the hand of one woman or another. Andais had admitted that she had taken it from the hand of a Seelie whom she had killed in a duel, a fertility goddess. I think Andais had taken the ring because she hoped it would aid the fertility of her own court, but she was a power of war and destruction. She was carrion crow and raven. The ring was not at its best with her.

She had given it to me to show her favor. To prove that she had indeed chosen her hated niece as a potential heir. But my power was not the battlefield and death.

I touched the man's face with that old metal, and it flared to life. For a second I thought it would tell me if he was fertile the way it could with the men of our court, but that wasn't what the ring wanted from Dr. Sang.

I saw what he loved. He loved his job. He loved being a doctor. It consumed him. I also saw a woman, delicate, with shoulder-length black hair shining in the sunlight from large windows that looked out on the street. She was surrounded by flowers. She may have worked there. She smiled at a customer, but it was all silent as if the sound didn't matter. I saw her face brighten, like the sky after rain when the sun breaks through, as she looked up and saw Dr. Sang come through the door. The ring knew that the woman loved him. I saw two yards that bordered each other here in Los Angeles. I saw younger versions of the two of them. They'd grown up together. They'd even dated in high school, but he loved medicine more than any woman.

"She loves you," I said.

His voice came strangled. "How are you doing that?"

"You see it too, then," I said, voice soft.

"Yes," he whispered.

"Don't you want children, a family?"

I saw her, standing in the shop again. She was staring out at the passing tourists. She held a cup of tea with both hands. Two shadowy figures hovered around her, one boy, one girl.

"What is that?" he asked, voice so full of emotion that he sounded in pain.

"The children you would have with her."

"Are they real?" he whispered.

"They are, but they will only be flesh if you love her."

"I can't"

The phantom boy by her side turned and seemed to look directly at us. It was unnerving, even to me. The doctor trembled under my hand. "Stop it," he said. "Stop it."

I drew my hand away from him, but he still had his own hand on my wrist. "You must let me go," I said.

He looked at his hand as if he hadn't known that it was there. He released me. His eyes were almost panicked. He looked behind me at Doyle and said, "Get away from him!"

One of the female doctors said, "Dr. Sang, it's a miracle. He can use his eye again."

He went to join the other nurses and doctors hovering around Doyle's bed. He had to shine his own light in Doyle's now-opened eye. He shook his head. "This isn't possible."

"Will you allow me to do the impossible on Abeloec now?" Halfwen asked with a small smile.

I think he would have argued, but he just nodded. Halfwen went to the other bed, and I got to do what I'd wanted to do from the moment I stepped into the room, I touched Doyle's hair. He looked up at me. His face was still blistered and raw, but the black eye that stared up at me was whole. He smiled until the corner of his mouth met the burns, then he stopped. He didn't wince, he simply stopped the smile. He was the Darkness. The dark doesn't flinch.

My eyes were hot, and my throat was so tight I couldn't breathe. I tried not to cry, because I knew that if I did I would lose control.

He laid his hand on mine where it lay on the bed railing. Just his hand on mine, and the first tears squeezed out.

Dr. Sang was beside us again. He said, "What you showed me was a trick to get me to let your healer work on him."

I found my voice, thick with tears. "It was no trick but a true seeing. She loves you. There will be two children, a boy first, then a girl. She is in her flower shop. If you call now, you may get her while she is still drinking tea."

He looked at me as if I had said something frightening. "I don't think a man can be both a good doctor and a good husband."

"That is for you to decide, but she will miss you."

"How can she miss me if I have never been hers?"

The nurses were very quiet listening to all of this. Goddess knew what hospital gossip would make of it.

"I did not see another face in her heart. If you are not hers, I am not certain she will ever marry."

"She should marry someone. She should be happy."

"She thinks you would make her happy."

"She's wrong," he said, but more like he was trying to convince himself.

"Perhaps, or perhaps you are the one who has been wrong."

He shook his head. He gathered himself to himself like other people would pull a warm blanket around their shoulders. I watched him rebuild his doctor persona. "I'll have one of the nurses re-dress the wounds. Can your healer do this to human wounds?"

"Sadly, our healing magic has always worked better on faerie flesh," I said.

"Not always," Rhys said, "but in the last few thousand years, yeah." .

Dr. Sang shook his head again. "I would like to know how this healing works."

"Halfwen would be happy to try and explain it at a different time."

"I understand. You want to get your men home."

"Yes," I said. My tears had stopped under the doctor's questions. I realized that he wasn't the only one who had drawn himself to himself. In private I could fall apart, but not here in front of so many. Given the opportunity, the nurses and doctors could sell my emotional pain to the tabloids, and I didn't want that.

Dr. Sang went for the door, as if he needed to get away from us. He paused with the door partially open. "It wasn't a trick, or an illusion?"

"I swear to you that what we saw together was a true vision."

"Does that mean we'd live happily ever after?" he asked.

I shook my head. "It's not that kind of fairy tale. There will be children, and she does love you. Beyond that, I think you could love her, if you'd let yourself, but that may require work on your part. To love someone is to lose a certain amount of control over yourself and your life, and you don't like that. No one likes that," I added.

I smiled at him, as Doyle squeezed my hand and I squeezed back. "Some people are addicted to falling in love, Doctor. Some people love that rush of new emotions, and when that first rush of lust and fresh love is spent, they move on, to the next, thinking the love wasn't real. What I felt in her, and potentially in you, is the love of years. Love that knows that first rush of freshness isn't the real thing. It's the tip of the iceberg."

"You know what they say about icebergs, Princess Meredith?"

"No, what do they say?"

"Make sure the ship you're riding in isn't called Titanic."

Several of the nurses laughed, but I didn't. He'd made a joke because he was scared, truly scared. Something made him believe that he couldn't love both medicine and a woman. That he couldn't do justice to both. Maybe he couldn't, but then again

Rhys moved up beside me, beside us. He put his arm across my shoulders, not too tight. "Faint heart never won fair maiden," he said.

"What if I don't want to win the fair maiden?" Dr. Sang asked.

"Then you are a fool," Rhys said, with a smile to soften the words.

The two men stared at each other for a long moment. Some knowledge or understanding seemed to pass between them, because Dr. Sang nodded, almost as if Rhys had spoken again. He hadn't, I would have sworn to that, but sometimes silence speaks between one man and another much louder than any words. One of the greatest differences between men and women is that certain silence that women do not understand, and men cannot explain.

Dr. Sang went for the door. Before he and Rhys had had their moment of understanding, I would have bet even money on whether the good doctor would call the woman in the flower shop. But something about what Rhys had said had tipped the scales somehow. Now all I wondered was whether he call first or simply go to her.

Rhys hugged me and kissed the top of my head. I turned my face up so I could look at him. His smile was casual, almost teasing, but that one clear blue eye held something that was not casual in the least. I remembered a moment when the queen's ring had first come back to life on my hand. I had seen a ghostly baby before one of the female guards. Every man in the hallway had stared at her as if she were the most beautiful thing in the world. Every man except for four: Doyle, Frost, Mistral, and Rhys. Even Galen had stared at her. Later I'd had it explained that only true love would make you not gaze upon a woman that the ring had chosen. I had used the ring to see who among my guards would be the father of that almost-child, and given the female guard and the male guard to each other. It had worked. She had missed her period, and the tests were positive. It was the first pregnancy among the Unseelie since I was conceived.

I truly loved Doyle, and Frost to a lesser extent. I couldn't imagine being without either of them. Mistral had been my consort in the moment when the ring had come back to life, so the magic had not worked on him. Instead, he was part of the working of the magic. But Rhys, he should have looked at that guard. But he had only looked at me, which meant that he loved me, and he knew that I did not love him.

The people of faerie are not supposed to be jealous or possessive of their lovers, but to love truly and not have it returned is a pain that has no cure.

I raised my face to him, inviting a kiss. His face lost all trace of humor. He was as solemn as the look in his eye. He kissed me, and I kissed him back. I let my body grow soft and cling to him as our lips found each other. I wanted him to know that I valued him. That I saw him. That I wanted him. I felt his body respond even through our clothes.

He drew back first, a little breathless, a hint of laughter to his voice. "Let's get our wounded home, and we can finish this."

I nodded, because what else could I do? What can you say to a man when you know you are breaking his heart? You can promise to stop doing what is tearing him apart, but I knew that I couldn't, wouldn't stop loving Doyle and Frost.

I was breaking Frost's heart a little, too, because he knew that Doyle had a bigger piece of my affections. If we had not been so intimate together, I might have been able to hide from Frost, but he had taken to being with Doyle and me whenever we were intimate. There were too many men now to not share. But it was more than that. It was almost as if Frost feared what would happen if he left me alone with Doyle for even one more night.

What do you do when you know you are breaking someone's heart, but to do anything else would break your own? I promised Rhys sex with my kiss and my body. I meant it, but it wasn't lust that prompted the offer. I suppose in a way it was love, just not the kind of love a man wants from a woman.

CHAPTER 7 | A Lick of Frost | CHAPTER 9