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Authors: Laurell K. Hamilton

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BOOK: [Merry Gentry 04] - A Stroke of Midnight
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“Why not?”

“I am needed elsewhere.”

Truth was that before Queen Andais had accepted him into the Unseelie Court after the Seelie Court kicked him out, Barinthus had to promise that he would never accept the throne here, not even if it was offered. He'd been Manannan Mac Lir, and the queen and her nobles all feared his power. So he'd given his most solemn oath that he would never, personally, sit on our throne.

He bowed to the room in general and simply went back against the wall. He made it clear that he was done with questions for the day. Kitto, the half-goblin sidhe, had already moved back to his place. He was only four feet tall, and that made a lot of the media try to portray him as child-like. He was old enough to remember what the world was like before Christianity was a religion. But his appearance made the media uncomfortable. His short black curls, pale skin, and sunglasses made him look ordinary in his jeans and T-shirt. The queen didn't have a designer suit to fit someone so short. There hadn't been time even for the queen's seamstress to make those kind of alterations. He got away with hugging his section of the wall.

“Princess Meredith, how will you choose your husband from among all these gorgeous men?” a reporter was asking.

“The one who gets me pregnant wins the prize,” I said, smiling.

“What if you are in love with someone else? What if you don't love the one who gets you pregnant?”

I sighed, and didn't fight the smile slipping away. “I am a princess, and heir to a throne. Love has never been a prerequisite for royal marriages.”

“Isn't it traditional to sleep with one fiancé at a time, until you either get pregnant or don't get pregnant?”

“Yes,” I said, and cursed that anyone knew our customs that well.

“Then why the marathon of men?”

“If you had the chance, wouldn't you?” I asked, and that got them laughing. But it didn't distract them.

“Would you marry a man you didn't like just because he was the father of your child?”

“Our laws are clear,” I said. “I will marry the father of my child.”

“No matter who it is?” another reporter asked.

“That is our law.”

“What if your cousin Prince Cel gets one of his female guards pregnant first?”

“Then, according to Queen Andais, he will be king.”

“So it's a race to get pregnant?”

“Yes.”

“Where is Prince Cel? No one has seen him in nearly three months.”

“I'm not my cousin's keeper.” In fact, he was in prison for trying to kill me one too many times, and for other crimes that the queen didn't want even the court to know. He should have been executed for some of them, but she'd bargained for her only child's life. He was to be locked away for six months, tortured with the very magic he had used against sidhe-ancestored humans. Branwyn's Tears, one of our most guarded ointments. It was an aphrodisiac that worked even against someone's will. But more than that, it made your body crave to be touched, to be brought. He was chained and covered in Branwyn's Tears. There were bets around the court that what little sanity he'd been born with would not survive it. The queen had given in to one of his guards only yesterday, to let the woman slack Cel's need, save his sanity. And suddenly I had not one, but two, no, three attempts on my life, and one on the queen's. It was more than a coincidence, but the queen loved her son.

Madeline was back in front of me, looking at me. “Are you all right, Princess?”

“Sorry, I'm getting a little tired. Did I miss a question?”

She smiled and nodded. “I'm afraid so.”

They repeated it, and I wished I'd missed it again. “Do you know where your cousin the prince is?”

“He's here in the sithen, but I don't know what he's doing this exact moment. Sorry.”

I needed off this subject, off this stage. I signaled to Madeline, and she closed it down with a promise of a photo op in a day or two, when the princess was fully healed.

A tiny faerie with butterfly wings fluttered into camera range. This was a demi-fey. Sage, whom I'd “slept with,” could make himself human tall, but most of the demi-fey were permanently about the size of Barbie dolls, or smaller. The queen would not be happy about the little faerie fluttering in front of the cameras. When there was press in the sithen, the less-human-looking stayed away from them, and especially away from cameras, or faced the queen's wrath.

The figure was a pale blue-pink with iridescent blue wings. She fluttered through a barrage of flashbulbs, shielding her eyes with a tiny hand. I thought she'd land on me, or maybe Doyle, but she flew the length of the stage to land on Rhys's shoulder.

She hid herself in his long white curls. She whispered something in his ear, using his hair and hat as a shield. Rhys stood up and came to us smiling.

Doyle was standing beside me, but even that close I couldn't hear what Rhys whispered to him.

Doyle gave a small nod, and Rhys left the room ahead of us with the tiny fey still tangled in his hair. I wanted to ask what could be important enough for Rhys to leave early in front of the press.

Someone shouted, “Rhys, why are you leaving?”

Rhys left the room with a wave and a smile.

Doyle helped me stand, then the rest of the guards closed around me like a multicolored wall, but the reporters weren't finished.

“Doyle, Princess, what's happened?”

“What did the little one say?”

The press conference was over; we got to ignore them. It might have been wise to give them an excuse, but Doyle either didn't think we needed to bother or he didn't know what to say. There was a tension in his arm where he touched me that indicated that whatever Rhys had said had shaken him. What does the Darkness fear?

My wall of bright-colored muscle marched me down the steps and out. When we were in the hallway, clear of the media, I still whispered. Modern technology was a wonderful thing, and we didn't need some sensitive microphone picking us up. “What's happened?”

“There are two dead bodies in one of the hallways near the kitchen.”

“Fey?” I asked.

“One, yes,” he said.

I stumbled in my high heels because I tried to stop, but his arm on mine kept us all moving. “What about the other?”

He nodded. “Yes, exactly.”

“Is it one of the reporters? Did one of them go wandering?”

Frost leaned in from the line of men. “It cannot be. We had spells that would make them unable to leave the safe path inside the sithen.”

Doyle glanced at him. “Then explain a dead human in our sithen with a camera beside his hand.”

Frost opened his mouth, then closed it. “I cannot.”

Doyle shook his head. “Nor can I.”

“Well, isn't this going to be a disaster,” Galen said.

We had a dead reporter in the Unseelie sithen, and a mass of live reporters still on the premises. Disaster didn't even begin to cover it.

CHAPTER 3

I'D SEEN MORE VIOLENCE IN THE COURTS THAN IN ALL MY YEARS
as a private detective in Los Angeles, but I'd seen more death in L.A. Not because I was included in murder cases—private dicks don't do murder cases, at least not fresh ones—but because most of the things that live in faerie land are immortal. By definition, the immortal don't die very often. I could count on one hand how many fresh crime scenes the police had called us in on and still have fingers left over. Even those cases were because the Grey Detective Agency could boast some of the best magic workers on the West Coast. Magic is like everything else; if you can do good with it, some people will find a way to do bad with it. Our agency specialized in Supernatural problems, Magical solutions. It was on the business cards and everything.

I'd also learned that all bodies are an it, not he, not she—it. Because if you think of the dead body as a he or a she, they begin to be real for you. They begin to be people, and they aren't people, not anymore. They're dead, and outside of very special circumstances they are just inert matter. You can have sympathy for the victim later, but at the crime scene, especially in the first moments, you serve the victim better by not sympathizing. Sympathy steals your ability to think. Empathy will cripple you. Detachment and logic, those are your salvation at a fresh murder. Anything else leads to hysterics, and I was not only the most experienced detective in the hallway, I was also Princess Meredith NicEssus, wielder of the hands of flesh and blood, Besaba's Bane. Besaba was my mother, and my conception had forced her to wed my father and live, for a time, at the Unseelie Court. I was a princess and I might one day be queen. Future queens do not have hysterics. Future queens who are also trained detectives aren't allowed hysterics.

The problem was that I knew one of these bodies. I'd known her alive and walking around. I knew that she liked classical literature. When she was cast out of the Seelie Court and had to come to the Unseelie Court, she'd changed her name, as many did, even among the Seelie. They changed their names so they wouldn't be reminded daily of who and what they had once been, and how far they had fallen. She called herself Beatrice, after the love interest in Dante's
Divine Comedy.
Dante's Inferno. She said, “I'm in hell, I might as well have a name to match.” I'd taken world literature as one of my forced electives in college. When I finished the class, I gave most of my books to Beatrice, because she would read them and I wouldn't. I could always buy extra copies of the handful of books that I actually enjoyed. Beatrice couldn't. She couldn't pass for human, and she didn't like being stared at.

I stared at her now, but she wouldn't mind. She wouldn't mind anything ever again. Beatrice looked like a delicate human-size version of the tiny demi-fey that still clung to Rhys's hair. Once Beatrice had been able to be that small, but something happened at the Seelie Court, something she would never talk about, and she lost the ability to change sizes. She'd been trapped at around four foot two, and the delicate dragonfly wings on her back had been useless. The demi-fey do not levitate, they fly, and in the larger size, their wings can't lift them.

Blood had formed a wide, dark pool around her body. Someone had come up behind her and slit her throat. To get that close to her, it had to have been someone she trusted, or someone with enough magic to sneak up on her. Of course, they had also needed enough magic to negate her immortality. There weren't that many things in faerie that could do both.

“What happened, Beatrice?” I said softly. “Who did this to you?”

Galen came up beside me. “Merry.”

I looked up at him.

“Are you all right?”

I shook my head, and looked down the hallway to our second body. Out loud I said, “I'll be fine.”

“Liar,” he said softly, and he tried to bend over me, tried to hold me. I didn't push him away, but I moved back. Now wasn't the time to cling to someone. According to our culture, I should have been touching someone. But the handful of guards that had come to L.A. with me had only worked at the Grey Detective Agency for a few months. I'd been there a few years. You didn't huddle at crime scenes. You didn't comfort yourself. You did your job.

Galen's face fell a little, as if I'd hurt his feelings. I didn't want to hurt him, but we had a crisis here. Surely he could see that. So why, as so often happened, was I having to waste energy worrying about Galen's feelings when I should have been doing nothing but concentrating on the job? There were moments, no matter how dear he was to me, that I understood all too well why my father had not chosen Galen for my fiancé.

I walked toward the second body. The man lay just short of the hallway's intersection with another, larger hallway. He was on his stomach, arms outspread. There was a large stain of blood on his back, and more of it curling down along the side of his body.

Rhys was squatting by the corpse. He looked up as I approached. The demi-fey peeked out at me through Rhys's thick white hair, then hid her tiny face, as if she were afraid. The demi-fey usually went around in large groups like flocks of birds or butterflies. Some of them were shy when on their own.

“Do we know what killed him yet?” I asked.

Rhys pointed to the narrow hole in the man's back. “Knife, I think.”

I nodded. “But they took the blade with them. Why?”

“Because there was something special about the knife that might give them away.”

“Or they simply did not want to lose a good blade,” Frost said. He took the two steps that moved him from the big corridor to the smaller one. He'd been coordinating the guards who were keeping everyone away from the crime scene. I had enough guards with me to close off both ends of the hallway, and I'd done it.

When we'd arrived, the hallway had been protected by floating pots and pans, courtesy of Maggie May, the chief cook for the Unseelie Court. Brownies can levitate objects, but not themselves for some reason. She'd gone with Doyle to see if she could get any more sense out of the scullery maid who had found the bodies. The fey was having hysterics, and Maggie couldn't decide whether the woman had seen something that frightened her, or was simply upset over the deaths. Doyle was going to try to find out. He was hoping the woman would react to him as if he were still the Queen's Darkness, her assassin, and tell him the truth out of fear and habit. If she were just scared, he would probably frighten her into having a fit, but I let him try. I could play good cop after he'd played bad.

I'd sent Barinthus to tell the queen what had happened, because of all of the men, he had the best chance of not being punished for being a bearer of such terrible news. The queen did have a tendency to blame the messenger.

“Possibly,” Rhys said, “just habit. You use the blade, you retrieve, clean it, and put it back in its sheath.” He pointed to a smear on the man's jacket.

“He wiped the blade off,” I said.

Rhys looked at me. “Why ‘he'?”

I shrugged. “You're right, it could be a she.”

I didn't hear Doyle come down the hallway, but I knew he was there a second before he spoke. “He was running when they threw the blade.”

I actually agreed, but I wanted his reasoning. Truthfully, I wanted not to be in charge of this mess, but I had the most experience. That made it my baby. “What makes you say he was running?”

He started to touch the man's coat, and I said, “Don't touch him.”

He gave me a look, but said, “You can see where his coat is raised on this side, that the wound in his shirt does not line up with the coat as it lies. I believe he was running, then, when they retrieved the knife, they went through his pockets, moved his coat around.”

“I'll bet they didn't wear gloves.”

“Most would not think about fingerprints and DNA. Most here will be more worried that magic will find them than science.”

I nodded. “Exactly.”

“He saw something that scared him,” Rhys said, standing up. “He took off down this way to try and outrun it. But what did he see? What made him run?”

“There are many frightening things loose in the corridors of our sithen,” Frost said.

“Yes,” I said, “but he was a reporter. He came looking for something odd or frightening.”

“Perhaps he saw the lesser fey's death,” Frost said.

“You mean he witnessed Beatrice's murder,” I said.

Frost nodded.

“Okay, say he witnessed it. He ran, they threw a blade, killed him.” I shook my head. “Almost everyone carries a knife. Most of them can pin a fly to the wall with one. It doesn't limit our suspect pool much.”

“But Beatrice's death limits it.” Rhys gave me a look that was eloquent. Should this be discussed where the new guards, whom we didn't entirely trust, could hear us?

“There's no reason to hide it, Rhys. You can't kill the immortal with a knife, but she's dead. It needed a spell, a powerful spell, and only a sidhe, or some few members of the sluagh could have done it.”

“The queen forbid the sluagh to be out this night. Simply to be seen while the reporters are in our sithen would raise suspicion.”

The sluagh were the least human of faerie. The nightmares that even the Unseelie fear. They are the only wild hunt that is left to us. The only frightening group that can hunt the fey, even the sidhe, until they are caught. Sometimes they kill, sometimes they only fetch you back for the queen. The sidhe fear the sluagh, and its threat was one of the reasons to fear the queen. I'd agreed to bed the King of the Sluagh to cement an alliance with them against my enemies. It was not widely known in the court that I had made the bargain. There were sidhe, even lesser fey, who would think it a perversion. I thought of it as a political necessity. Beyond that, I tried not to dwell too much on the mechanics. Sholto, their king, the Lord of That Which Passes Between, was half-sidhe, but the other half hadn't been even close to humanoid.

I shook my head. “I don't think a member of the sluagh could have hidden themselves enough to wander about the sithen tonight. Not with all the spells we had on the corridors to keep everyone boxed into that one tiny section.”

“Just as the reporter should not have been able to leave the area,” Frost said. He had a point.

“Let me say what we're all thinking, even the guards who don't want to think it. A sidhe killed Beatrice and the reporter.”

“That still leaves us with several hundred suspects,” Rhys said.

“The scullery maid is very frightened,” Doyle said. “I cannot tell if she is afraid in general or about something specific.”

“So you scared her,” I said.

He gave a small shrug. “I did not do it on purpose.”

I looked at him.

“I did not, Meredith, but Peasblossom took it ill that the Queen's Darkness had come. She seemed to think I'd come to kill her.”

“Why would she think the queen wanted her dead?” Rhys asked.

I had an idea, an awful idea, because Queen Andais would hate it. I didn't say it out loud, because though the new guards knew as well as we did that a sidhe had done this, they probably wouldn't be thinking what I was thinking in that moment. Andais had saddled me with several men I did not know and a couple who I outright didn't trust. The awful thought was, What if it had been Prince Cel's people? What if the maid, Peasblossom, had seen one of Cel's people leaving the scene of a double homicide? She'd never believe that the queen would want her to tell anyone.

The trouble was that I couldn't see what Cel, or anyone serving his interests, would gain from killing Beatrice. The reporter seemed accidental, just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

“You've thought of something,” Rhys said.

“Later,” I said, and let my eyes flick to the backs of the men just a foot away from us.

“Yes,” Doyle said, “yes, we do need some privacy.”

“We should hide the body,” said one of the men at our backs. Amatheon's hair, in its tight coppery red French braids, left his face bare, but nothing could leave it unadorned, for his eyes were layered petals of red, blue, yellow, and green, like some multicolored flower. It often made me a little dizzy to meet his gaze, as if my own eyes rebelled at the sight of him gazing out at the world with flower-petal eyes. His face was square-jawed but slender, so that he managed to be both strongly masculine and vaguely delicate at the same time. Almost as if his face, like his eyes, couldn't quite decide what it wanted to be.

“The reporter will be missed, Amatheon,” I said. “We can't just hide his body and hope this will all go away.”

“Why can we not? Why can we not simply say we don't know where he has gone? Or that one of the lesser fey saw him leave the sithen.”

“Those are all lies,” Rhys said. “The sidhe don't lie, or did you forget that in all those years you hung around with Cel?”

Amatheon's face clouded with the beginnings of anger, but he fought it off. “What I did, or did not do, with Prince Cel is not your business. But I know that the queen would want to hide this from the press. To have a human reporter killed in our court will ruin all the good publicity she has managed to acquire for us in the last few decades.”

He was probably right on that last part. The queen would not want to admit what had happened. If she even suspected that I suspected that one of Cel's people was responsible, she'd want to hide it even deeper. She loved Cel too much, and always had.

The fact that Amatheon had suggested disposing of the body made me wonder even more if Cel's interests were somehow behind this. Amatheon had always been one of Cel's supporters. Cel was the last pure-blood sidhe of a house that had ruled this court for three thousand years. Amatheon was one of the sidhe who thought me a mongrel and a disgrace to the throne. So why was he here to compete to bed me and make me queen? Because Queen Andais had ordered it. When he refused the honor, she made certain that he got her point, her painful point, that she was ruler here, not Cel, and Amatheon would do as he was told or else. Part of the “or else” had been to cut his knee-length hair to his shoulders, still long by human standards, but a mark of great shame for him. She'd done other things to him, things more painful to his body than to his pride, but he hadn't shared details and I didn't really want to know.

BOOK: [Merry Gentry 04] - A Stroke of Midnight
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