A Kiss of Shadows

Chapter 20

THE PEOPLE WERE A LARGE MURMUROUS NOISE THAT SWELLED TOWARD me and over me, as if I were being swallowed in a sea of noise as I walked down the concourse. The crowd walked back and forth at the opening like bits of multicolored debris, a wall of people. Doyle walked just ahead of me like an advance guard, which was exactly what he was.

Our gate was in line with the broad hallway that led deeper into the airport. Doyle was at the opening of the concourse, standing to one side, waiting for me. Then through the crowd I saw a tall figure come striding toward us. Galen was dressed in layers of green and white: pale green sweater, paler green pants, and an ankle-length white duster coat floating out behind him like a cape. The sweater matched his hair, which fell in short curls to just below his ear, except for one long thin braid. His father had been a pixie, whom the queen had had killed for the audacious crime of seducing one of her handmaidens.

I don't believe the queen would have killed the pixie if she'd known he'd begotten a child. Children are precious, and anything that breeds, that passes the blood along, is worth keeping around.

I was happy to see him but knew if he was here, then a photographer wasn't far behind. Frankly, I'd been surprised we hadn't stepped out into a barrage of media. Princess Meredith had been missing for three years, and now she was coming home, alive, well. My face had been plastered across the supermarket tabloids for years; sightings of the Elven American Princess had rivaled Elvis sightings. I didn't know what had been done to save me from the media frenzy, but I was grateful.

I dropped my carry-on bag beside Doyle and ran to Galen. He swept me up in his arms and planted a kiss on my mouth. "Merry, good to see you, girl." His arms curved around my back, holding me a foot above the ground with ease.

I've never liked my feet dangling helplessly. I wrapped my legs around his waist, and he transferred his hands from my waist to my thighs to support me.

I'd been running into Galen's arms since I could remember. After my father's death he'd been my defender among the Unseelie more than once-though being a half-breed like myself, he didn't have much more clout than I did. What he did have was six feet of muscle and trained warrior to

back up his threat.

Of course, when he swept me up in his arms at age seven, it was minus the kiss and other things. At just a little over a hundred, Galen was one of the youngest of Andais's royal guard. A mere seventy years between our ages-among the sidhe it was like growing up together.

The V neck of his sweater cut low over the swell of his chest, showing a curl of chest hair that was a darker green than his hair, almost black. The sweater was pettably soft, clinging to his body. His skin was white, but the sweater brought out the undercast of pale, pale green so that his skin was either pearl white or a dreamlike green depending on how the light hit it.

His eyes were a green the color of new spring grass, more human than the liquid emerald of my own. But the rest of him-the rest of him was too unique for words. I'd thought that since I was about fourteen, except he wasn't who my father had promised me to. Because Galen was too nice a guy. He didn't play politics well enough for my father to feel confident that Galen would live to see me grown. No, Galen spoke when silence would be wiser. It was one of the things I'd loved about him as a child and feared about him as I grew older.

He danced me around the hallway to some music that only he could hear, but I could almost hear it as I looked into his eyes, traced the curve of his lips with my gaze.

"I am glad to see you, Merry."

"I can tell," I said.

He laughed, and it was a very human laugh. Nothing but Galen's mirth to make it special, but that had always been special enough for me.

He leaned in close, whispering against my ear. "You cut your hair. Your beautiful hair."

I laid a gentle kiss on his cheek. "It'll grow back."

There were only a few reporters, because they hadn't had enough notice to plan a large-scale assault. But most of them had a camera. Pictures of sidhe royalty, especially if they were doing anything unusual, could always find a market. We let them snap their pictures because we couldn't stop them. Using magic against them was infringement on freedom of the press. So the Supreme Court had decreed. Reporters who routinely covered the sidhe were often psychics in their own right, or witches. They knew when you were using magic on them. All it took was one report and you could be in civil court. Let's hear it for the First Amendment.

The fey took two different tacks about the reporters. Some were very decorous in public, never giving anything of interest to the paparazzi. Galen and I were of the school that you give them something to photograph. Something unimportant so that they won't dig for more sensational stuff. Give them something positive, upbeat, and interesting. This was encouraged by Queen Andais. She'd been on a kick to give her court better, more upbeat publicity for the last thirty years or so. My lifetime. I'd been paraded with my father on spring outings. There'd been a public engagement ceremony between myself and Griffin. There was no private life if the queen decreed it public.

Someone cleared their throat and I looked past Galen to find Barinthus. If Galen looked unique, Barinthus looked alien. His hair was the color of the sea, the oceans. The turquoise of the Mediterranean; the deeper medium blue of the Pacific; a stormy greyish-blue like the ocean before a storm, sliding into a blue that was nearly black, where the water runs deep and thick like the blood of sleeping giants. The colors moved with every touch of light, melding into each other as if it wasn't hair at all. His skin was the alabaster white of my own. His eyes were blue, but the pupils were slits of black. I knew for a fact that he had a clear membrane like a second eyelid that came up over his eyes when he was underwater. When I was five he taught me to swim, and I'd loved the fact that he could blink twice with one eye.

He was taller than Galen, nearly seven feet tall, as befit a god. He was wearing a royal blue trench coat open over a black designer suit, but the shirt was blue silk with one of those high round collars that the designers are trying to sell so men don't have to wear ties anymore. Barinthus looked splendid in it all. He'd left his hair loose and flowing free around him like a second cloak. And I knew that someone else, probably my aunt, had picked his clothes for him. Left to his own devices Barinthus was a jeans-and-T-shirt- or less-man.

Galen and Barinthus had been two of the most frequent visitors to my father's house, out among the humans. Barinthus was a power among the sidhe; he was pure Old Court. The sidhe still whispered about the last duel he'd fought, long before I was born, in which a sidhe had drowned in a summer meadow miles from any water. Barinthus, like my father, never agreed to fight a duel unless mortality was invoked. Anything less was not worth his time.

Galen let me slide to the ground. I went to Barinthus, holding out both my hands in greeting. He drew his hands out of his coat pockets carefully, keeping them in loose fists until my own hands could be placed in his. He had webbing between his fingers, and he had been sensitive about it ever since a reporter in the fifties had called him "the fish man." Hard to believe that someone once worshiped as a sea god could be embarrassed by a twentieth-century hack, but there it was. Barinthus had never forgotten that little bit of publicity.

The webbing was completely retractable, just a thin extra line of skin between his fingers unless he chose to use it. Then he could expand the skin and swim like... like a, well, um, fish. Though this was not a compliment to be paid out loud, ever.

He took my hands in his and leaned down from his great height to plant a civilized but well-meant kiss on my cheek. I returned the favor. Barinthus liked to be civilized in public. His personal side was not for Public consumption, and he had the power to make sure that even the queen herself couldn't change his mind. Gods, even fallen ones, should be treated with a certain respect. That reporter in the fifties, the one who had plastered the fish man headline along the worldwide news service, had died in a freak boating accident on the Mississippi that summer. The water just rose up and slapped the boat, eyewitnesses said. Strangest thing they'd ever seen.

The cameras kept taking pictures. We kept ignoring it. "It is good to have you back among us, Meredith."

"It's good to see you, too, Barinthus. I hope the court is safe enough for me to make this more than an extended visit."

The clear second eyelid blinked over his eyes. When he wasn't swimming, it was a sign of nervousness. "That you will have to discuss with your aunt."

I didn't like the sound of that. The reporter shoved a tiny tape recorder in my face. "Who are you?" That he had to ask meant he was on the job since I left home.

Galen moved in, smiling, charming. He opened his mouth to answer, but another voice filled the bustling hush.

" Princess Meredith NicEssus, Child of Peace."

The man who'd spoken pushed away from the far windows where he'd been leaning.

"Jenkins, how unpleasant to see you," I said.

He was a tall thin man, though next to Barinthus he wasn't that tall. Jenkins had a permanent five-o'-clock shadow, so heavy that I'd asked him once why he didn't just grow a beard. He'd replied that his wife didn't like facial hair. I'd replied that I couldn't believe anyone would marry him. Jenkins had sold pictures of my father's hacked body. Not in the United States, of course, we're too civilized for that, but there are other countries, other newspapers, other magazines. People bought the pictures and published them. He was also the one who'd surprised me at the funeral and snapped pictures of me with tears trailing down my cheeks, my eyes so angry they had a glow to them. That one had been nominated for a prize of some kind. It lost, but my face and my father's dead body were worldwide news thanks to Jenkins. I still hated him for that.

"I heard a rumor that you'd be coming back for a visit. Are you staying the whole month until Halloween?" he asked.

"I can't believe that anyone would risk my aunt's displeasure talking to you," I said, ignoring his question. I'd had lots of practice ignoring reporter's questions.

He smiled. "You'd be surprised who talks to me and about what."

I didn't like the phrasing on that. It sounded vaguely threatening, vaguely personal. No, I didn't like it one little bit.

"Welcome home, Meredith," he said and gave a small but strangely stylish bow.

What I wanted to say to him wasn't fit for public consumption, but there were too many tape recorders. If Jenkins was here, then the television people couldn't be far behind. If he couldn't have an exclusive, he'd make sure there was a crowd.

I said nothing. I let it go. He'd been baiting me since I was a child. He was only about ten years older than I was, but he looked twenty years older, because I still looked like I was in my early twenties. Maybe I wasn't going to live forever, but I was going out well preserved. I think that really bothered Jenkins, covering people who either didn't age or aged more slowly than he did. There were moments when I was younger that it had been a comfort that he would probably die first .

"You still smell like an ashtray, Jenkins. Don't you know that smoking will shorten your life expectancy?"

His face went hard and thin with anger. He lowered his voice and whispered, "Still the little bitch of the west, heh, Merry."

"I've got a restraining order against you, Jenkins. Stay back fifty feet or I'll call the cops."

Barinthus came up to us and offered me his arm. He didn't have to say it. I knew better than to get into an insult match with a reporter in front of other reporters. The restraining order had been put in place after Jenkins plastered my picture all over the world. The court's attorneys had found several judges who thought that Jenkins had indeed exploited a minor and invaded my privacy. After that he was forbidden to speak with me and had to stay back fifty feet.

I think the only reason that Barinthus hadn't killed Jenkins for me was that the sidhe would have seen that as a weakness, too. I wasn't just sidhe royalty, I was two deaths away from the Unseelie throne. If I couldn't protect myself from overzealous reporters, I didn't deserve to be in line for the throne. So he'd become my problem. The queen had forbidden any of us from harming the press after Barinthus's little boating accident. Unfortunately, the only thing that would have rid me of Barry Jenkins was his death. Anything short of that, and he'd just heal and crawl back after me.

I blew Jenkins a kiss and walked past him on Barinthus's arm. Galen trailed behind us fielding questions from the press. I caught parts of the story. Family reunion, home for the coming holidays, yadda-yadda-yadda. Barinthus and I outdistanced the reporters because they were hanging back with Galen. So I asked something serious. "Why has the queen suddenly forgiven me for running away from home?"

"Why does one usually call home the prodigal child?" he returned.

"No riddles, Barinthus, just tell me."

"She has told no one what she plans, but she was most insistent that you come home as an honored guest. She wants something from you, Meredith, something only you can give her, or do for her, or for the court."

"What could I possibly do that the rest of you can't?" ,

"If I knew I would tell you."

I leaned into Barinthus, running a hand down his arm and calling a spell. It was a small spell, like wrapping a piece of air around us so that noise bounced off. I didn't want to be overheard, and if we were being spied on by the sidhe no one would wonder at me doing it with the reporters around.

"What of Cel? Does he mean to kill me?"

"The queen has been most insistent, to everyone"-he emphasized the "everyone"-"that you are to be unmolested while at court. She wants you back among us, Meredith, and seems willing to enforce her wish with violence."

"Even against her son?" I asked.

"I don't know. But something has changed between her and her son. She is not happy with him, and no one knows quite why. I wish I had more concrete information for you, Meredith, but even the biggest gossips at court are lying low on this one. Everyone's afraid to anger either the queen or the prince." He touched my shoulder. "We are almost certainly being spied upon. They will be suspicious if we keep up the spell of confusion for our words."

I nodded and withdrew the spell, flinging it into the air with a thought. The noise closed around us, and I realized in the press of people that we'd been lucky not to be bumped into, which would have shattered the spell. Of course, I was walking with a seven-foot-tall blue-haired demi-god, which did tend to open a path for you. Some of the sidhe welcomed the faeriephiles, the groupies, but Barinthus was not one of those, and a mere glance from those eyes was enough to make almost anyone back up a step.

Barinthus continued in a voice that was a little too cheerful for his normal words: "We'll drive you from here to your grandmother's." He lowered his voice. "Though how you got the queen to agree to you visiting relatives before paying your respects to her, I do not know."

"I invoked virgin rights, which is why you're also taking me to my hotel to check in and get changed."

We were at the baggage carousel now, watching the empty silver of it glide around and around.

"No one has invoked virgin rights among the sidhe in centuries."

"It doesn't matter how long it's been, Barinthus, it's still our law."

Barinthus smiled down at me. "You were always intelligent, even as a young child, but you have grown to be clever."

"And cautious, don't forget that, because without caution, all clever will do is get you killed."

"So cynical, so true. Have you really missed us, Meredith, or did you enjoy being free of all this?"

"Some of the politics I could do without, but-" I hugged his arm. "I've missed you, and Galen, and... home isn't something you can pick and choose Barinthus. It is what it is."

He leaned down to whisper, "I want you home, but I fear for you here."

I looked into those wonderful eyes and smiled. "Me, too."

Galen came bounding up to us, putting an arm across my shoulders and the other around Barinthus's waist. "Just one big happy family."

Barinthus said, "Do not be flippant, Galen."

"Wow," Galen said, "the mood has plummeted. What were you two talking about behind my back?"

"Where's Doyle?" I asked.

Galen's smile wilted a little round the edges. "He's gone to report to the queen." His smile flashed back into place. "Your safety is now our concern." Something must have passed on my face, or Barinthus's, because Galen asked, "What is wrong?"

I glanced in the shiny mirrored surface in front of us. Jenkins was just outside the barrier for the carousel. He was staying back his fifty feet, more or less. Certainly far enough away that I couldn't have him arrested.

"Not here, Galen."

Galen glanced, too, and saw Jenkins. "He really hates you, doesn't he?"

"Yes," I said.

"I've never understood his animosity toward you," Barinthus said. "Even when you were a child, he seemed to despise you."

"It does seem to have become personal, doesn't it?"

"Do you know why it's so personal for him?" Galen asked, and there was something in the way he asked it that made me look away, to avoid his eyes.

My aunt had decreed years before I was born that we could not; our darkest powers in front of a member of the press. I'd broken that rule only once, for Jenkins's personal edification. My only excuse was thai I'd been eighteen when my father died. Eighteen when Jenkins plastered my pain across the media of the world. I'd pulled his darkest fear from his mind and paraded them before his eyes. I'd made him shriek and beg. I'd left him a quivering mass curled beside a lonely country road. For a few months he'd been kinder, gentler, then he'd come back I with a vengeance. Meaner, harsher, more willing to do anything to get a story than he was before. He'd told me that the only way I could stop him was to kill him. I hadn't tamed him, I'd made him worse. Jenkins was what helped me learn the lesson that you either kill your enemies or you leave them the fuck alone.

My suitcase was one of the first to come sliding along the carousel. Galen picked it up. "Your chariot awaits, my lady."

I looked at him. If it had just been Galen, I might have believed it, but Barinthus wouldn't do the publicity stunts, and a chariot was definitely a stunt.

"Queen Andais sent her own personal car for you," Barinthus said.

I glanced from one to the other of them. "She sent the black coach of the wild hunt for me? Why?"

"Until dark this evening," Barinthus said, "it is merely a car, a limousine. And that your aunt offered it to you with me as your driver is a great honor that should not easily be dismissed."

I stepped in close to him and lowered my voice as if the waiting reporters could hear us. I couldn't keep calling magic to hide our words because, though I couldn't sense it, I couldn't be sure we weren't observed. "It's too great an honor, Barinthus. What's going on? I don't usually get the royal treatment from my relatives."

He looked down at me, silent so long I thought he wouldn't answer. "I do not know, Meredith," he said finally.

"We'll talk in the car," Galen said, smiling and waving for the reporters. He shepherded us out to the automatic doors. The limo was waiting like a sleek black shark. Even the windows were tinted black so that you could see nothing of what lay inside.

I stopped on the sidewalk. The two men walked past me, then stopped, looking back at me.

"What's wrong?" Galen asked.

"Just wondering what might have crawled into the car while we were inside the airport."

They glanced at each other, then back to me. "The car was empty when we left it here," Galen said.

Barinthus was more practical. "I give my most solemn word that to my knowledge the car is empty."

I smiled at him, but it wasn't a happy smile. "You always were cautious."

"Let us say that I do not give my word on things that I cannot control."

"Like my aunt's whims," I said.

He gave a small bow that swirled his hair like a multihued curtain. "Indeed."

My aunt had chosen well. There were three times three times three royal bodyguards. Twenty-seven warriors dedicated to my aunt's every wish. Of those, the two I would have trusted most were standing beside me. Andais wanted me to feel secure. Why? My security or lack thereof had never interested her before. Barinthus's words came back to me. The queen wanted something from me, something only I could give her, or do for her, or for the court. The question was what was that one thing that only I could do? Off the top of my head, I couldn't think of a single thing that only I could give her.

"In the car, children," Galen said through smiling, gritted teeth. There was a television news van in the distance, caught in traffic but coming closer. If they pulled in and blocked our escape, which had happened in the past, we'd have other troubles than just my paranoia. No matter how well justified that paranoia happened to be.

Barinthus took keys out of his pocket and hit a button on the key chain. The trunk popped open with a hiss of escaping air like it was hermetically sealed. Galen put my suitcase in it and held his hand out for my carry-on bag.

I shook my head. "I'll keep this with me."

Galen didn't ask why-he knew, or could guess. I wouldn't have come home without more than the weapons I was carrying.

Barinthus held the rear door for me. "The news van will be here soon, Meredith. If we are to make a-how do they say?-clean getaway, we must do so now."

I took half a step toward that open door and stopped. The upholstery was black, everything was black. The car had too long a history not to ring every psychic bell I had. The power from that open door crept along my skin and raised the hair on my arms. It was the dark coach of the wild hunt, sometimes. Even if there were no tricks waiting inside it now, it was an object of wild power, and that power flowed over me.

"By the Lord and the Lady, Merry," Galen said. He moved past me and slid into the blackness of the car. He slid all the way in out of sight, then slid back out, holding his pale hand out to me. "It won't bite, Merry."

"Promise?" I said.

"Promise," he said, smiling.

I took his hand, and he drew me toward the open door. "Of course, I never promised that I wouldn't bite." He pulled me into the car, both of us laughing. It was good to be home.

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