A Kiss of Shadows

Chapter 24

THE SITHIN, THE FAERIE MOUNDS, ROSE OUT OF THE DYING LIGHT, SMALL mountains of velvet against an orange melt of sky. The moon was already high, smooth and shining silver. I took several deep breaths of the chill, crisp air. Sometimes in California you'd wake to a morning where the air felt like autumn. You'd wear pants and a light sweater before noon. Some leaves would fall to the ground sporadically, with no pattern to it, and there would be small pools of dried brown leaves that on certain mornings would dance in a dry skittering dance, pushed by a wind that felt like October. Then by noon you'd need to switch to shorts, and it would feel like June.

But this was the real thing. The air was chill, but not quite cold. The wind that trailed at our backs smelled like dried cornfields and the dark, crisp scent of dying leaves.

If I could have come home to October and seen only the people I wanted to see, I'd have enjoyed it. Fall was my favorite time of year, October my favorite month.

I stopped on the path, and the men stopped with me. Barinthus looked down at me, eyebrows raised. Galen asked, "What's wrong?"

"Nothing," I said, "absolutely nothing." I took another deep breath of the autumn air. "The air never smells like this in California."

"You always did love October," Barinthus said.

Galen grinned. "I took you and Keelin trick o' treating almost every year until you got too old for it."

I shook my head. "I didn't get too old for it. My own glamour just got powerful enough to hide what I was. Keelin and I went alone when I was fifteen."

"You had enough glamour at fifteen to hide Keelin from the sight of mortals?" Barinthus asked.

I looked at him, nodding. "Yes."

He opened his mouth as if to speak, but we were interrupted. A smooth male voice said, "Well, isn't this touching?"

The voice whirled us all around to face a spot farther down the path. Galen moved in front of me, putting me behind the shield of his body. Barinthus was searching the darkness behind us for others. The near darkness spread behind us empty, but what was in front was enough.

My cousin Cel stood in the middle of the path. He wore his midnight hair like a long straight cloak so that it was hard to tell where hair ended and his black duster coat began. He was dressed all in black except for a gleam of white shirt that shone like a star among all the blackness.

He wasn't alone. Standing to one side of him, ready to move in front of him if the need arose was Siobhan, the captain of his guard and his favorite assassin. She was small, not much taller than me, but I'd seen her pick up a Volkswagen and crush someone with it. Her hair shone white in the dark, but I knew the hair was white and silvery grey, like spiderwebs. Her skin was a pale, dull white, not the shining white of Cel's and mine. Her eyes were a dull grey, filmed over like the blind eyes of a dead fish. She was wearing black armor, her helmet tucked under one arm. It was a bad sign that Siobhan was in full battle armor.

"Full body armor, Siobhan," Galen said. "What's the occasion?"

"Preparation is all in battle, Galen." Her voice matched the rest of her, a dry whispering sibilance.

"Are we about to do battle?" Galen asked.

Cel laughed, and it was the same laugh that had helped make my childhood hellish. "No battle tonight, Galen, just Siobhan's paranoia. She feared that Meredith would have gained powers in her trip to the lands of the west. I see that Siobhan's fears were groundless."

Barinthus put his hands on my shoulders, pulling me against him. "Why are you here, Cel? The queen sent us to bring Meredith to her presence."

Cel glided down the path, tugging on the leash that went from his hand to a small figure crouched at his feet. The figure had been hidden behind the sweep of Cel's coat and Siobhan's body. At first I didn't realize who it was.

The figure unfolded from the ground to a crouch that put her head no taller than Cel's lower chest. She was brown of skin as Gran, but the hair on her head was thick and fell in straight brown folds to her ankles. She looked human or close to it in the near dark, but I knew that in good light one would see that her skin was covered in thick, soft, downy hair. Her face was flat and featureless, like something half-formed and never finished. Her thin, delicate body held several extra arms and one extra set of legs, so that she moved in a strange rocking motion. Clothing could hide the extra appendages but not the movement of her walk.

Keelin's father had been a durig, a goblin of a very dark sense of humor-the kind of humor that could get a human killed. Her mother had been a brownie. Keelin had been chosen as my companion almost from birth. It had been my father's choice, and I had never had cause to complain of it. We'd been best friends growing up. Maybe it was the brownie blood that we both carried. Whatever caused it, there had been an instant connection between us. We'd been friends since the first time I looked into her brown eyes.

Seeing Keelin on the end of Cel's leash left me wordless. There were a variety of ways to end up as Cel's "pet." One was to be punished by the queen and given to Cel. The other was to volunteer. It had always amazed me how many of the lesser fey women would allow Cel to abuse them in the most base manner possible, because if they got pregnant they would be members of the court. Just like my Gran.

Though Gran would have put an iron spike through my grandfather's heart before she let him treat her like an abused dog.

I stepped away from Barinthus until his hands fell away and I stood alone on the path. Galen and Barinthus stood behind me, one to either side like good royal guards. "Keelin," I said, "what are you doing... here?" It wasn't exactly the question I wanted to ask. My voice sounded calm, reasonable, ordinary. What I wanted to do was shout-scream.

Cel drew her to him, stroking her hair, pressing her face against his chest. His hand slid down her shoulder, lower and lower, until he cupped one of her breasts, kneading it.

Keelin turned her head so her hair hid her face from me. The sun was almost down, true dark only minutes away; she was just a thicker shadow against Cel's darkness.

"Keelin, Keelin, talk to me."

"She wants to be part of the court," Cel said. "My pleasure in her makes her part of all the festivities." He pulled her closer into his body, his hand sliding out of sight down the round neck of her dress. "If she gets with child, she will be a princess, and her babe heir to the throne. Her child could push you back to fourth from the throne instead of third," he said, voice smooth and even as he reached farther and farther down her body.

I took a step forward, hand half reaching. "Keelin..."

"Merry," she said, turning to face me for a moment, her voice the same small sweet sound it had always been.

"No, no, my pet," Cel said. "Don't speak. I will speak for us."

Keelin fell silent, hiding her face again.

I stood there, and until Barinthus touched my shoulder and made me jump, I didn't realize my hands were in tight fists. I was shaking again, but not from fear, from anger.

"The queen put a geas on us all not to tell you, Merry. I should have warned you anyway," Galen said, moving up on the other side. It was almost as if the two of them expected to have to grab me and keep me from doing something foolish. But I wasn't going to be foolish-that's what Cel wanted. He'd come here to show off Keelin, to enrage me, with Siobhan at his back to kill me. I'm sure he could have concocted some story about me attacking him and his guard having to defend him. The queen had believed thinner stories than that over the years. He had every reason to be confident where the queen was concerned. I could be calm, because I could do nothing here and now but die. Cel, I might have considered taking on. He was one of the few people that I would use the hand of flesh on, and not lose sleep over it. But Siobhan, she was different. She would kill me.

"How long has Keelin been with him?" I asked.

Cel started to answer, and I raised a hand. "No, don't speak, cousin. I asked the question of Galen."

Cel smiled at me, a flash of white in the moonlit dark. Strangely, he stayed silent. I hadn't really expected him to, but I also knew that if I had to hear his voice one more time, I was going to start screaming just to drown out his voice.

"Answer me, Galen."

"Almost since you left."

My chest was tight, eyes hot. This was my punishment. My punishment for escaping the court. Even though I hadn't told Keelin that I was leaving, even though she was innocent, they'd hurt her to hurt me. Cel had kept her as a pet for nearly three years waiting for me to come home. Enjoying himself no doubt, and if there was a child, all the better. But it wasn't a desire for children that had motivated the choice of Keelin. I looked into Cel's smug face, and even by moonlight I could read his expression. She'd been chosen out of revenge to punish me. And I'd been thousands of miles away, unknowing.

Cel and my aunt had waited patiently to show me their surprise. Three years of Keelin's torment and no one told me. My aunt knew me better than I'd thought, because the knowledge that Keelin had suffered the entire time I'd been gone would eat at me. And if she held out Keelin's freedom to me as a prize for whatever it was she wanted from me, she might have me. I needed to

speak with Keelin alone.

As much as I hated Cel, this was one of the very few ways that Keelin could enter the court. She'd been one of my ladies in waiting-my companion. But being my friend and my servant had allowed her to see the inner workings of the court. I'd known she had a great hunger to be accepted in that darkling throng, hunger enough, maybe, to endure Cel and resent if I put a stop to it. Just because I saw it as a rescue didn't mean Keelin would. Until I knew exactly how she felt, I could do nothing.

Cel's hand finally slid back into sight. Seeing his pale hand on Keelin's shoulder instead of deep in her dress made it easier to just stand and watch. "The queen has sent me to escort my fair cousin to her private chambers. The two of you have an appointment at the throne room."

"I am aware of what I am expected to do," Barinthus said.

"How can we trust you not to harm her?" Galen asked.

"Me? Harm my fair cousin?" Cel laughed again.

"We shall not leave." Barinthus's voice was very low and steady. You had to know his voice well to hear the anger in it.

"You fear that I will harm her, too, Barinthus?"

"No," Barinthus said. "I am afraid she will harm you, Prince Cel. The life of her only heir means a great deal to our queen."

Cel laughed loud and long. He laughed until either tears actually crept from his eyes, or he merely pretended to wipe them away. "You mean, Barinthus, that you're afraid she will try to harm me, and I will put her in her place."

Barinthus leaned over me and whispered, "You cannot afford to appear weak before Cel. I did not expect him to meet us. It is a bold move. If you have gained power in the lands to the west, show it now, Meredith."

I turned, staring up into his face. He was so close to me that his hair trailed against my cheek, smelling of the ocean and something herbal and clean. I whispered back to him, "If I show him my powers now, it will take away all element of surprise later on."

His voice was the soft murmur of water over round stones. He was using his own power to quietly make sure that Cel could not overhear us. "If Cel insists that we leave and we refuse, it will go badly for us."

"Since when has the Queen's Guard answered to her son?" I asked.

"Since the queen has decreed it so."

Cel called to us, "I order you, Barinthus, and you, Galen, to go to your overdue appointment. We will escort my cousin to the queen's presence."

"Make him afraid of you, Meredith," Barinthus said. "Make him wish for us to remain. Cel would have access to his mother's ring."

I stared up at him. I didn't bother to ask if Barinthus really thought that Cel had tried to kill me in the car. If he didn't believe it possible, he wouldn't have said it.

"I gave you both a direct order," Cel said. His voice rose, riding on the growing wind.

The wind picked up, rushing through the men's long coats, whispering in the dried leaves of the trees at the edge of the field to our left. I turned to those whispering trees. I could almost understand the wind and the trees, almost hear the trees sighing of winter's coming and the long cold wait ahead. The wind rushed and hurried, sending a small herd of newly fallen leaves skittering down the rock path past Cel and his women, to brush up against my feet and legs. The wind picked the leaves up in a swirl like tiny hands playing against my legs. The leaves were carried up and past us in a sudden burst of sweet autumn wind. I closed my eyes and breathed in that wind.

I stepped away from the men at my back, a few steps closer to Cel, but it wasn't him I was moving toward. It was the call of the land. The land was happy that I was back, and in a way that it had never done before, the power in that land welcomed me.

I spread my arms to either side and opened myself to the night. I felt the wind blow not against my body but through it, as if I were the trees above, not an obstacle to the wind but part of it. I felt the movement of the night, the rushing, hurrying, pulse of it all. Underneath my feet the ground went down and down below me to unimaginable depths, and I could feel them all, and for a moment I felt the world turning under my feet. I felt that slow, ponderous swing around the sun. I stood with my feet planted solidly like the roots of a tree going down and down to cool living earth. But that was all that was solid about me. The wind swept through me as if I were not there, and I knew I could have wrapped the night around me and walked invisible among the mortals. But it wasn't mortals I was dealing with.

I opened my eyes with a smile. The anger, the confusion, it was all gone, washed away in the wind that smelled like dried leaves and somehow spicy, as if I could smell things on the wind that were only half remembered or half dreamed. It was a wild night, and there was wild magic to be had from it, if you could ken to it. Earth magic can be ripped from the world by someone powerful enough to do it, but the Earth is a stubborn thing and resents being used. You always pay for force against the elements. But on some nights, or even days, the Earth offers herself up like a woman willing her lover to come to her arms.

I accepted her invitation. I left my barriers down and felt the wind blow little bits of me like dust upon the night, but for every bit that left more was pouring in. I gave of myself to the night and the right filled me, the earth beneath my feet embraced me, sliding up through the soles of my feet, up, up like a tree is fed, deep and quiet and cool.

For a moment I wasn't sure if I wanted to move my feet enough to walk, afraid to break that contact. The wind swirled around me, chasing my hair across my face, bringing the scent of burned leaves, and I laughed. I walked down the stone path and with each slap of my heels the Earth moved with me. I moved through the night as if I were swimming, swimming on currents of power. I walked toward my cousin, smiling.

Siobhan stepped in front of him. Her cobweb hair vanished under the unrelieved black of her helmet. Only her white hands showed like ghosts floating in the dark. She could injure or kill with a touch of that pallid skin.

Barinthus came up behind me. I knew without seeing that he reached for me-I could feel him moving through the power at my back. I could almost see him standing there as if I had other eyes. All the magic I'd ever possessed had been very personal. This was not personal. I felt how tiny I was, how vast the world, but it wasn't a lonely feeling. I felt for that moment embraced, whole. Wanted.

Barinthus's hand fell back without touching me. His voice hissed and slurred like water over sand. "If I'd known you could do this, I would not have feared for you."

I laughed, and the sound was joyous, free. I opened further, like a door thrown wide open. No, as if the door, the wall it sat on, and the house it was held inside of, melted into the power.

Barinthus caught his breath sharply. "By the Earth's grace, what have you done, Merry?" He never used my nickname.

"Sharing," I whispered.

Galen came up to us, and the power opened to him without any thought from me. The three of us stood there filled with the night. It was a generous power, a laughing, welcoming presence.

The power moved outward from me, or maybe I moved forward through something that was always there, but tonight I could sense it. Siobhan moved forward, and the power did not fill her. The power rejected her. Siobhan's magic was an insult to the Earth and that slow cycle of life because Siobhan stole that life, rushed death to the door of someone or something before their time. For the first time I understood that somehow Siobhan stood outside the cycle -that she was a thing of death that still moved as if it lived, but the Earth did not know her.

The power would have welcomed Cel, but he thought that first brush was my doing and he guarded himself against it. I felt his shields crash into place, holding him behind the metaphysical walls, safe and unable to share in the bounty offered.

But Keelin did not close herself away from it. Perhaps she didn't have shields enough to build her walls, or perhaps she didn't wish to. But I felt her in the power, felt her open to it, and heard her voice spill out in a sigh that mingled with the wind.

Keelin walked to the end of her leash, raising each of her four arms wide to the welcoming night.

Cel jerked her back by the leather leash. She stumbled, and I felt her spirit crumble.

I reached a hand toward her, and the power, though it wasn't mine to control, spilled outward, surrounded Keelin. It pushed at Cel like water pushes at a rock in the center of a stream, something to go around, to ignore. The push made him stumble back, the leash fell from his hand. His pale face raised to the rising moon, and stark terror showed on that handsome face.

The sight pleased me, and it was a petty pleasure. The generous run of power flexed around me like a mother's hand tugging on the arm of a naughty child. There was no place for pettiness in the midst of such... life.

Keelin stood in the center of the path, arms wide, head thrown back so that the moonlight shone full upon her half-formed face. It was a rare and treasured moment for Keelin to show her face clearly in any light.

Siobhan came for me in a dark flash of white hands and the dark gleam of armor. I reacted without thought, pushing my hand forward as if that great sluggish power would respond to my gesture. But it did.

Siobhan stopped as if she'd come against a wall. Her white hands glowed with a pale flame that was not flame at all. Her power flared against something that not even I could see . But I felt her coldness trying to eat the warm, moving night, and she had no power here. If she had been among the truly living, if her touch had brought ordinary death, the Earth would not have stopped her. The power was more neutral than that. It loved me in a way, welcomed me back, but it would welcome my decaying body to its warm, worm-filled embrace just as readily. It would take my spirit on the wind and send it elsewhere.

But Siobhan's magic was not natural, and she could not pass. Understanding even that much might-might give me the key to her destruction. But it was going to take someone more adept at offensive spells than I to unravel the key.

There was movement beyond our little group. Cel and Siobhan turned to see this latest threat, and when they saw it was Doyle, their bodies didn't relax. The prince and heir to the dark throne and his personal guard were afraid of the queens Darkness. That was interesting. Three years ago Cel had not feared Doyle. He had feared no one except his mother. Even there he did not fear death, because he was all she had to pass her blood along. Her only child. Her only heir. No one challenged Cel to a duel, ever, because you dared not win, and to lose might mean your own death. He'd passed through the last three centuries untouched, unchallenged, unafraid, until now.

Now I saw, almost felt, Cel's unease. He was afraid. Why?

Doyle was dressed in a black, hooded cape that swept around his ankles and hid all of him. His face was so dark that the whites of his eyes seemed to float in the black circle of his hood.

"What goes on here, Prince Cel?"

Cel moved off the path so he could keep Doyle and the rest of us in sight. Siobhan moved with him. Keelin remained on the path, but the power was folding away, as if the power moved on the wind and was sweeping past us to travel elsewhere. It gave a last cool, spice-laden caress and slipped away.

I was suddenly solid once more inside my own skin. There was a price for all magic, but not this. It had offered itself to me. I had not asked. Maybe that was why I felt strong and whole instead of exhausted.

Keelin came down the path toward me, her primary hands held out toward me. She must have felt renewed as I did, because she was smiling and that awful pinched fear was gone, washed away in the sweet wind.

I took her hands in mine. We kissed each other twice on both cheeks, then I drew her into the circle of my arms and she hugged me across the shoulders with her upper arms, around the waist with the smaller lower ones. We held each other so tightly that I could feel the press of her small breasts, all four of them. The thought came: Had Cel enjoyed being with someone with that many breasts? An image came on the heels of the thought. I squeezed my eyes tight as if I could rid myself of the image.

I ran my hand down her back through her thick, furlike hair and realized I was already crying.

Keelin's sweet almost birdlike voice was comforting me. "It's all right, Merry. It's all right."

I shook my head and pulled back so I could see her face. "It's not all right."

She touched my face, catching my tears on her fingers. She couldn't cry. Some trick of genetics had left her without tear ducts. "You always cried my tears for me, but don't cry now."

"How can I not?" I glanced back at Cel who was talking in low whispers to Doyle. Siobhan was looking at me, staring at me. I could feel her dead gaze through the helmet she wore, even if I couldn't see her eyes. She would not forget that I had used magic against her and won, or rather not lost. She would neither forget nor forgive it.

But that was a problem for another night. I turned back to Keelin. One disaster at a time, please. My hands went to the hardened leather collar around her neck.

She touched my wrists. "What are you doing, Merry?"

"Taking this off of you."

She pulled my hands down, gently. "No."

I shook my head. "How can you... How could you?"

"Don't cry again," Keelin said. "You know why I did it. I only have a few more weeks, just until Samhain. Three years to the day. If I'm not with child, then I am free of him. If I am with child, he'll have to treat me as a wife should be treated, or not touch me at all."

She was so calm about it, a terrible, solid calm, as if it were quite... ordinary. "I do not understand this," I said.

"I know. But you've always been of royal blood, Merry." She reached up a free hand to touch my lips before I could protest, her other hands still holding my hands. "I know you have been treated like a poor relation, Merry, but you are a part of them. Their blood flows in your veins, and they..." She hung her head, dropping her hand from my mouth, but gripped my hands all the tighter. "You are a member of the club, Merry. You're inside the great house, while we wait outside in the cold and the snow with our faces pressed to the glass."

I looked away from those tender brown eyes. "You're using my own metaphor against me."

She touched my face with her left upper hand, her dominant hand. "I heard you use it often enough as we were growing up."

"If I had asked, would you have come with me?"

She smiled, but even by moonlight it was bitter. "Unless you could be with me every hour of the day or night, you couldn't use your glamour to protect me." She shook her head. "I am far too hideous for human eyes."

"You are not-"

She stopped me this time with only a glance. "I am like you, Merry. I am neither durig nor brownie."

"What of Kurag? He cared for you."

She lowered her face. "It is true that among a certain type of goblin I am considered quite striking. Having extra limbs, especially extra breasts is a mark of great beauty among them."

I smiled. "I remember the year you took me to the Goblin's Ball. They considered me plain."

Keelin smiled but shook her head. "But they all tried to dance with you, ugly or not." She looked up, gathering my gaze into hers. "They all wanted to touch the skin of a blooded royal princess, because they knew that short of rape it was as close as they would ever get to that sweet body of yours."

I didn't know how to react to the bitterness in her voice.

"It's not your fault that you look as you do, and I look as I do. It's no one's fault. We are what we are. Through you I saw the court and all the gleaming throng. I couldn't go back to Kurag and his goblins after the life you'd shown me. I would have been content to stand behind your chair at banquets for the rest of my days, but to have it suddenly gone..." She dropped my hands and moved back from me. "I could not bear to lose everything when you left." She laughed; the laughter was still birdlike, but it was mocking now, and I heard Cel's echo in it.

"Besides, Cel likes a four-breasted woman and says he's never slept with anyone that could wrap two sets of legs around his white body."

Keelin made a small dry sobbing sound, and I knew that she was crying. Simply because she had no tears didn't mean she could not weep.

She turned and walked back toward Cel. I let her go. She blamed me for showing her the moon when she could not have it. Maybe Keelin was right. Maybe I had used her ill, but I had not meant to. Of course, not meaning to did not make it hurt less.

I took some very slow deep breaths of the autumn air, trying not to cry again. The air was still as sweet as before, but some of the pleasure had gone out of it.

"I am sorry, Meredith," Barinthus said.

"Don't be sorry for me, Barinthus, I'm not the one at the end of Cel's leash."

Galen touched my shoulder, and started to hug me, but I held him away with one arm. "Don't, please. If you comfort me, I'll cry."

He gave a quick smile. "I'll try to remember that for future reference."

Doyle glided toward us. He'd pushed the cloak hood back, but it was almost impossible to tell where his black hair ended and the black cloak began. What I could see was that the front part of his hair had been gathered in a small bun in the center of his head, leaving his exotic pointed ears bare. The silver earrings gleamed in the moonlight. He'd changed some of them to larger hoops so that they brushed together as he moved, making a small chiming music. When he was standing in front of us, I could see that he had hoops graced by feathers so long they brushed his shoulders.

"Barinthus, Galen, I believe our prince gave you orders."

Barinthus moved forward to stand towering over the smaller man. If Doyle was intimidated by the other's sheer physical presence, it didn't show. "Prince Cel said he would escort Meredith to the queen. I thought that unwise."

Doyle nodded. "I will escort Meredith to the queen." He looked past Barinthus to me. It was hard to tell in the dark, but I think he gave that small, small smile of his. "I believe that our royal prince has had quite enough of his cousin for one meeting. I did not know you could call the Earth."

"I did not call it. It offered itself to me," I said.

I heard him draw a long breath and let it out. "Ah, that is different. In some ways not as powerful as those who can wrest the Earth from her course. In some ways more unsettling, because the land welcomed you home. It acknowledges you. Interesting."

He turned back to Barinthus. "I believe you are wanted elsewhere, both of you." His voice was very quiet, but underneath the ordinary words was something dark and threatening. Doyle had always been able to control his men with his voice, inflicting the mildest words with the most ominous threats.

"Do I have your word that she will come to no harm?" Barinthus asked.

Galen moved up beside Barinthus. He touched the taller man's arm. Asking such a thing was almost the same as questioning orders. That could get you flayed alive.

"Barinthus," Galen said.

"I give you my word that she will arrive in the queen's presence unharmed."

"That is not what I asked," Barinthus said.

Doyle stepped close enough to Barinthus that his cloak mingled with the taller man's coat.

"Have a care, sea god, that you do not ask more than you should."

"Which means that you fear for her safety at the queen's hand, as do I," Barinthus said, voice neutral.

Doyle raised a hand that was outlined with green fire. I was walking toward them before I had

time to think of anything good to say when I got there.

Barinthus kept his attention on Doyle and that burning hand, but Doyle watched me stride toward them. Galen stood near them, obviously unsure what to do. He started to reach for me, to stop me, I think.

"Stand aside, Galen. I don't plan to do anything foolish."

He hesitated, then stepped back and left me to face the other two men. The fire on Doyle's hand painted them both with greenish-yellow light shadows. Doyle's eyes didn't so much reflect the fire as seem to burn in sympathy with it. This close I could feel not just his power like a march of insects down my skin, but the slow rise of Barinthus's power like the sea pulling toward the shore.

I shook my head. "Stop it, both of you."

"What did you say?" Doyle asked.

I pushed Barinthus back, hard enough for him to stumble. Maybe I couldn't lift small cars and beat people to death with them, but I could put my fist through a car door, all the way through, and not break my hand. I pushed him again and again, until there was enough distance that I wasn't afraid they were about to come to blows.

"You have been ordered once by the royal heir, and once by the captain of your guard. Obey your orders and go. Doyle has given you his word that I will come to the queen in safety."

Barinthus looked at me. His face was neutral, but his eyes were not. Doyle had always been one of the obstacles between the queen and an untimely death. For a moment I wondered if Barinthus was looking for an excuse to try the queen's Darkness. If so, I wasn't going to give it to him. To kill Doyle would be the beginning of a revolution. I stared into Barinthus's face and tried to understand what he was thinking. Had it been the land's welcome to me? Or was there some new tension between the two men, that I had not been told about? It didn't matter.

"No," I said. I kept our gazes locked, and said again, "No."

Barinthus looked past me to set those eyes on Doyle.

Doyle turned his free hand so that it came together with the burning one to form a single wick of both hands.

I stepped between him and Barinthus. "Stop the theatrics, Doyle. I'm coming."

I could feel the two of them watching each other like a weight pressing in the air. There'd always been tension between them, but not like this.

I walked to Doyle until the colored fire cast sickly shadows on my face and clothes. I stood close enough that I could feel that the fire gave nothing, no heat, no life, nothing, but it was not illusion. I'd seen what Doyle's fire could do. As with Siobhan's hands, it could kill.

I had to do something to break the tension between them. I'd seen too many duels start over less. Too much blood, too much death over such stupid things.

I touched each of Doyle's elbows and moved my hands slowly up his forearms. "Seeing Keelin has taken some of the heart from me, as Andais knew it would, so take me to her." My hands slid slowly up his arms, and I realized that his black skin was bare; he was wearing short sleeves under that long cloak.

"The land welcomes you, little one, and you grow bold," Doyle said.

"That wasn't bold, Doyle." My hands were almost at his wrists, almost inside the sickly flames. There was no heat to warn me off, only my own memories of watching a man writhe and die covered in crawling green flame. "This is bold." I did two things simultaneously. I brought my hands sliding upward into where the flame was and blew a breath out like blowing out a candle.

The flames vanished as if I'd snuffed them out, which I had not. Doyle had killed them a fraction of a heartbeat before my skin touched them.

I was close enough that by moonlight I could see he was shaken, frightened at what I'd almost done. "You are mad."

"You gave your word I would reach the queen unharmed. You always keep your word, Doyle."

"You trusted me to not harm you."

"I trusted your sense of honor, yes."

He glanced back at Cel and Siobhan. Keelin had joined them again. Cel was staring at us. There was a look on his face that said he almost believed I'd done exactly what it looked like I'd done-blown out Doyle's flame.

I kept one hand on Doyle's wrist and blew my cousin a kiss with my free hand.

He actually jumped as if that windblown kiss had struck him. Keelin had cuddled close to him and was staring back at me with what I knew now were not entirely friendly eyes.

Siobhan stepped in front of them, and this time she drew her sword in a shining line of cold steel. I knew the handle was carved bone, and the armor was bronze; but for killing we used steel or iron. She had a bronze short sword at her side, but she'd drawn the steel blade that rested against her back. For defense she'd have drawn the bronze, but she had drawn steel. She drew to kill. Nice to know she was being honest.

Doyle grabbed me by both arms and turned me to face him. "I do not want to fight Siobhan tonight because you have frightened your cousin."

His fingers dug into my skin and I knew I'd be bruised, but I laughed. And it had a bitter edge that reminded me of someone-someone with tearless brown eyes. "Don't forget I've frightened Siobhan, too. That's much more impressive than frightening Cel."

He shook me once, hard. "And more dangerous." He let me go so suddenly I stumbled, nearly falling. Only his hand on my elbow saved me from a fall.

He looked behind me. "Barinthus, Galen, go, now!" There was real anger in his voice, and he rarely let such raw emotion show through. I was unsettling everyone, and a small dark part of me was pleased.

Doyle kept his grip on my arm and began leading me up the path.

I didn't look back to see Barinthus and Galen going, or to give Siobhan another worry. It wasn't caution. I didn't want to see Keelin holding Cel in her arms again.

I stumbled, and Doyle had to catch me again. "You're going too fast for the shoes I'm wearing," I said. Truthfully it was the ankle holster combined with the long hem. But I'd blame it on the shoes if I could. I was walking beside the person who'd take the gun away if he found it.

He slowed. "You should have worn something more sensible."

"I've seen the queen force sidhe to strip and go naked to the banquet when she didn't like their clothes. So forgive me, but I want her to like the outfit." I knew I couldn't break his grip on my elbow without an actual fight. Even then I might lose. I tried reason. "Give me your arm, Doyle; escort me like a princess, not a prisoner."

He slowed further, looking at me out of the corners of his eyes. "Are you quite through with your own theatrics, Princess Meredith?"

"Quite through," I said.

He stopped and offered me his arm. I slipped my arm under and over his to rest my hand lightly on his wrist. I could feel the small hairs on his arm under my fingers.

"A little cold for short sleeves, isn't it?" I asked.

He glanced at me, gaze traveling down my body. "Well, at least you chose well for yourself."

I put my free hand on top of the hand I had resting on his arm, giving a sort of double hug, but nothing that wasn't allowed. "Do you like it?"

He looked down at my hand. He stopped walking and grabbed my right hand, and the moment his skin touched the ring it flared to life, washing us both with that electric dance. Whatever magic was in the ring, it recognized Doyle as it had recognized Barinthus and Galen.

He jerked his hand back as if it had hurt, rubbing it. "Where did you get that ring?" His voice sounded strained.

"It was left in the car for me."

He shook his head. "I knew it had gone missing, but I did not expect to find it on your hand."

He looked at me, and if it had been anyone else, I'd have said he was afraid. The look vanished as I was still trying to puzzle it out. His face became smooth and dark and unreadable. He gave a formal bow and offered me his arm as any gentleman would.

I took his arm, encircling it with both my hands, but as my right hand rested on top of my left, it didn't touch his skin. I thought about touching him accidentally on purpose, but I didn't know exactly what the ring did. I didn't know what it was for, and until I did, it was probably not a good idea to keep invoking its magic.

We walked down the path arm in arm, at a sedate but steady pace. My heels made a sharp sound on the stones. Doyle paced beside me silent as a shadow; only the solidness of his arm, the sweep of his cloak against my body let me know he was there. I knew that if I let go of his arm, he could melt into the darkness that was his namesake -I would never see the blow that killed me unless he wished it. No, unless my aunt wished it.

I would have liked to fill the silence with talk, but Doyle had never been much for small talk, and tonight neither was I.

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