A Kiss of Shadows

Chapter 25

THE STONE PATH MET THE MAIN AVENUE, WHICH WAS WIDE ENOUGH FOR a cart and horse or a small car, if cars had been allowed, which they were not. Once upon a time, so I was told, there had hung torches, then lanterns, to light the avenue. Modern fire laws frowned on all-night torches, so now the poles that rested every eighteen feet or so held will-o'-the-wisps. One of the craftsfolk had fashioned wooden and glass cages for the lights. The lights were palest blue, ghostly white, a yellow so pale it was almost another shade of white, and a green leeched to a dim color, barely distinguishable from the faint glow of the yellow lights. It was like walking through pools of colored phantoms as we passed from one dim light to the next.

When Jefferson had invited the fey into this country, he'd also offered them land of their choice. They'd chosen the mounds at Cahokia. There are tales whispered on long winter nights about what lived in the mounds before we came. What we... evicted from the mounds. The things that lived inside the land were chased away or destroyed, but magic is a hardier thing. There was a feel to the place as you walked down the avenue with the great hulking mounds to either side. The largest mound in the city proper was at the end of the avenue. I went to Washington, D. C., during college, and when I came home it was almost unnerving how forcibly the mound city reminded me of being in Washington, standing on the plaza surrounded by those monuments to American glory. Now, walking down the center and only street, I had the sense of great time passing. This place had once been a great city as Washington was now, a center of culture and power, and now it lay quiet, cleansed of its original inhabitants. The humans had thought the mounds were empty when they offered them up to us, just bones and some pots buried here and there. But the magic had still been there, deep and slumbering. It had fought and then embraced the fey. The conquering or winning over of that alien magic had been one of the last times the two courts worked together against a common foe.

Of course, the very last time had been World War II. Hitler had at first embraced the fey of Europe. He'd wanted to add them to the genetic mix of his master race. Then he'd met a few of the less human members of the fey. Among ourselves there is a class structure as rigid and unbreakable as it is foolish; the Seelie Court especially looks down on those who do not look like blood. Hitler mistook this arrogance for lack of caring. But it was like a family with siblings. Among themselves they could fight and beat each other bloody, but let anyone turn on one of them and they became a united force against the common enemy.

Hitler used the wizards he'd gathered to trap and destroy the lesser fey. His fey allies didn't desert him. They turned on him without warning. Humans would have felt the need to distance themselves from him, to warn him of their change of heart, or maybe that was an American ideal. It certainly wasn't a fey ideal. The allies found Hitler and all the wizards hanging up by their feet in his underground bunker. They never found his mistress, Eva Braun. Every once in a while the tabloids say that Hitler's grandson has been found.

None of my direct relatives were involved in Hitler's death, so I don't know for sure, but I suspect strongly that something simply ate her.

My father had gotten two silver stars in the war. He'd been a spy. I never remembered being particularly proud of the medals, mainly because my father never seemed to care about them. But when he died, he left them to me in their satin-lined box. I'd carried them around in a carved wooden box along with the rest of my childhood treasures: colored bird feathers, rocks that sparkled in the sun, the tiny plastic ballerinas that had graced my sixth-birthday cake, a dried bit of lavender, a toy cat with fake jewel eyes, and two silver stars given to my dead father. Now the medals were back in their satin box in a drawer in my dresser. The rest of my "treasures" were scattered to the winds.

"Your thoughts are far away, Meredith," Doyle said.

I was still walking at his side, hands on his arm, but for a moment only my body had been there. It startled me to realize how far away I'd been.

"I'm sorry, Doyle, were you speaking to me?" I shook my head.

"What were you thinking about so very hard?" he asked. The lights played over his face, painting colored shadows against his black skin. It was almost as if his skin reflected the lights like carved and polished wood. I was touching his arm, so I could feel the warmth, the muscles underneath, the softness of his skin. His skin felt like anyone's skin, but light didn't reflect off skin, not like that.

"I was thinking about my father," I said.

"What of him?" Doyle turned his head to look at me as we walked. The long feathers brushed his neck, mingling with the spill of black hair that was only partially trapped down the back of the cloak. I realized that except for the small knot that captured the front pieces of his hair, the rest of his hair was spilling out underneath the cloak, loose.

"I was thinking about his medals that he won in World War II."

He kept walking but turned his face full to me, never missing a step. He looked bemused. "Why would you be thinking of that now?"

I shook my head. "I don't know. Thinking about faded glory, I guess. The mounds remind me of the plaza in Washington, D. C. All that energy and purpose. It must have been like that here once."

Doyle looked up at the mounds. "And now it is quiet, almost deserted."

I smiled. "I know better than that. There's hundreds, thousands under our feet."

"But yet the comparison of the two cities saddens you. Why?"

I looked up at him, and he looked down at me. We were standing in a pool of yellow light, but there were pinpricks of every color of will-o'-the-wisp in his eyes, swirling like a tiny cloud of colored fireflies. Except the colors in his eyes were rich and pure, not ghostly, and there were reds and purples and colors that shone nowhere near us.

I closed my eyes, suddenly dizzy and nauseated. I answered with my eyes still shut. "Sad to think that Washington may someday be a tired ruin. Sad to know that the glory days passed this place by long before we arrived." I opened my eyes and looked up at him. His eyes were just black mirrors once more. "Sad to think that the fey's glory days are passed and us being here in this place is proof of that."

"Would you prefer that we be out among the humans, working with them, mating with them like the fey that stayed behind in Europe? They are no longer fey, just another minority."

"Am I just a part of the minority, Doyle?"

A look passed over his face, some serious thought that I couldn't read. I'd never been around a man whose face reflected so many emotions, and yet been able to read so few of them . "You are Meredith, Princess of Flesh, and as sidhe as I am. That I will stake my oath on."

"I take that as a great compliment coming from you, Doyle. I know how much store you set by your oath."

His head cocked to one side, studying me. The movement pulled some of his hair farther out of his cloak to fold under but not fall free as he straightened his neck. "I have felt your power, Princess, I cannot deny it."

"I've never seen your hair when it wasn't braided or tied in a club. I've never seen it

loose," I said.

"Do you like it?"

I hadn't expected him to ask my opinion. I'd never heard him ask anyone's opinion of anything.

"I think so, but I'd need to see the hair without the cloak to be sure."

"Easily done," he said, and undid the cloak at his neck. He let the cloak slide off his shoulders, spilling it over one arm.

He was wearing what looked like a leather-and-metal harness from the waist up, though if it had been meant to be armor, it would have covered more. The colored lights played over the muscles in his body as if he were indeed carved of some black marble. His waist and hips were slender, long legs encased in leather. The pants clung to him and spilled into black boots that came up over his knees where the loose tops of the leather were held in place by straps with small silver buckles. The buckles were echoed in the straps that covered his upper body. The silver glittered against the blackness of him. His hair hung like a second black cloak boiling in the wind, tangling in long strands around his ankles and calves. The wind sent the feathers that edged his face across his mouth.

"My, look what you're not wearing," I said, trying for flippant and failing.

The wind rushed past us, flinging my hair back from my face. It rustled the tall dried grass in the near field, and beyond that I could hear the cornstalks whispering to each other. The wind blew down the avenue, channeled between the mounds so that it swirled around us like eager hands. It was an echo of that welcoming Earth magic that had greeted me when I first stepped on sidhe land tonight.

"Do you like my hair unbound, Princess?"

"What?" I said.

"You said you needed to see it without the cloak. Do you like it?"

I nodded, wordlessly. Oh, yes, I liked it.

Doyle stared at me, and all I could see were his eyes. The rest of his face was lost to the wind and the feathers and the dark. I shook my head and looked away.

"That's twice you've tried to bespell me with your eyes, Doyle. What's going on?"

"The queen wanted me to test you with my eyes. She has always said they were my best feature."

I let my gaze linger over the strong curves of his body. The wind gusted, and he was suddenly caught in a cloud of his own hair, black and soft, with the near-bare flesh almost lost, black on black.

My gaze rose up to meet his eyes once more. "If my aunt thinks that your eyes are your best feature, then..." I shook my head and let out a breath. "Let's just say she and I must have different criteria."

He laughed. Doyle laughed. I'd heard him laugh in L. A., but not like this. This was a rumbling belly laugh, like a peal of thunder. It was a good laugh, hearty and deep. It echoed off the mounds and filled the windy night with a joyous sound. So why was my heart thudding in my throat until I couldn't breathe? My fingertips tingled with the shock of it. Doyle did not laugh, not like that, not ever.

The wind died. The laughter stopped, but the glow of it stayed in his face, making him smile wide enough to show perfect white teeth.

Doyle slipped the cloak back over his shoulders. If he had been cold in the October night without it, he never showed a sign of it. He left the cloak flipped back over one shoulder and offered me his bare arm. He was flirting with me.

I frowned at him. "I thought we had our little talk, and we were going to pretend last night never happened."

"I have not mentioned it," he said, voice very bland.

"You're flirting," I said.

"If it were Galen standing here, you would not hesitate." The humor was fading to a dim glow that filled his eyes. He was still amused with me, and I didn't know why.

"Galen and I have been teasing each other ever since I hit puberty. I've never seen you tease anyone, Doyle, until last night."

"There are wonders yet to behold tonight, Meredith. Wonders much more surprising than me with my hair loose and no shirt on a cold October evening." Now there was that note to his voice that so many of the old ones had, a condescending tone that said I was a child and no matter how old I got to be, I would still be a child compared to them, a foolish child.

Doyle had been condescending to me before. It was almost comforting. "What could be more wondrous than the queen's Darkness flirting with another woman?"

He shook his head, still offering me his hand. "I think the queen will have news that will make anything I could say seem tame."

"What news, Doyle?" I asked.

"That is the queen's pleasure to tell, not mine."

"Then stop hinting," I said. "It isn't like you."

He shook his head, and a smile crept across his face. "No, I suppose it isn't. After the queen gives you her news, I will explain the change in my behavior." His face sobered, slowly, almost its usual ebony mask. "Is that fair enough?"

I looked at him, studying his face until every vestige of humor faded away. I nodded. "I

suppose so."

He offered me his arm.

"Put the body away and I'll take the arm," I said.

"Why does it bother you so much to see me like this?"

"You were adamant that last night never happened, never to be spoken of again, now suddenly you're back to flirting. What's changed?"

"If I said the ring upon your finger, would you understand?"

"No," I said.

He smiled, gently this time, almost his usual slight twitch of lips. He flipped the cloak back over his shoulder so that his hand was all that showed out of that thick cloth. "Better?"

I nodded. "Yes, thank you."

"Now, take my arm, Princess, and allow me the pleasure of escorting you before our queen." His voice was flat, unemotional, empty of meaning. I'd almost have preferred to hear the thick emotion of the moment before. Now his words just sat there. They could have meant many things or nothing at all. The words without emotion to color them were almost useless.

"Do you have a tone of voice somewhere between utter emptiness and joyous condescension?" I asked.

That tiny smile quirked his lips. "I will try to find a... middle ground between the two."

I slid my arms carefully around his arm, the cloak bunched between our bodies. "Thank you," I said.

"You are welcome." The voice was still empty, but there was the faintest hint of warmth in it.

Doyle had said he'd try to find a middle ground, and he was already working on it. How terribly prompt of him.

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