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Authors: Laurell K. Hamilton

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[Merry Gentry 04] - A Stroke of Midnight (9 page)

BOOK: [Merry Gentry 04] - A Stroke of Midnight
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CHAPTER 7

I CLEANED OFF THE REMNANTS OF THE MAKEUP THAT I HADN'T
cried away. Got the lipstick that still looked like clown makeup off, and even gave Frost a makeup cleansing cloth so he could do his own face. We were clean and neat and presentable when we started back to the crime scene. I felt hollow inside, as if a piece of me were missing. But it didn't matter. Walters would be here soon with the CSU team. We needed to have finished the questioning of the witnesses before then in case they said something that we didn't want the human police to know. I wanted justice, but I also didn't want to make the bad publicity worse by sharing some dark secret with the human world.

Doyle stopped so abruptly that I ran into him. He pushed me farther back into Galen and Usna's suddenly waiting arms, as if he'd given some signal that I had not seen. With Doyle and Adair in front and Galen and Usna suddenly very close on either side of me, I could not see what had frightened everyone. Barinthus, Hawthorne, and Frost were bringing up the rear. They had turned to face back down the hall as if they were worried about someone sneaking up behind us. What was happening? What now? I couldn't even manage a drop of fear. I'm not sure it was bravery so much as exhaustion. I was simply too tired emotionally and physically to waste the adrenaline on fear. In that second, if we'd been attacked, I'm not sure I would have cared.

I tried to shake it off, this feeling of desolation. I called, “Doyle, what is it?”

Barinthus answered, “The Queen's Ravens are in the hall, blocking our way.” I guess being seven feet tall does give you a better view.

I realized then that my guard feared almost every sidhe right now. They were right. One of the sidhe had committed murder, and I was in charge of catching the killer. Wonderful. I'd just given someone else a reason to want me dead. But what was one more?

Adair moved to the center of the hallway to hide me behind his armored back, as Doyle moved down the hallway. Barinthus answered my question before I'd even thought it. “Doyle is conferring with Mistral.”

Mistral was the master of winds, the bringer of storms, and the new captain of the Queen's Ravens. He'd taken Doyle's place when it became clear that Doyle wasn't coming back to his old job.

“What's happening?” Galen asked, and his voice held enough anxiety for both of us.

Usna bent over me, sniffing my hair. “You smell good.”

“Keep your mind on business,” Galen said, looking up the hallway toward where Doyle had gone. He had a gun out, held down along his leg. If I'd been choosing between sword and gun, I'd have made the same choice. When I first came back to faerie, guns were outlawed inside the mounds, but after the last few attempts, my aunt had decided that my guards and hers needed all the help they could get. So our men could carry guns, if they knew how to use them. Doyle and Mistral had been the judge of who was competent to carry and who wasn't. Some guards treated guns the way others treated the idea of carrying around a poisonous snake. It might be useful, but what if it bit you.

Usna had a short sword in either hand, pointed both directions up and down the hallway. His grey eyes, which were the most ordinary thing about him physically, were keeping watch, but his face was pressed against the top of my head. He put first one cheek, then the other against my hair. He was looking down each end of the hallway as he did it, but he was also almost scent marking me. Cat-like and inappropriate for the situation, if he'd thought like a human. But it was Usna, and I knew that he was aware of everything in the hallway, even while trying to put the scent of his skin against my hair.

I found it oddly comforting. Galen did not. “Usna, stop it.”

A soft sound somewhere between a purr and a growl sounded from the other man. “You worry too much, my little pixie.”

“And you don't worry enough, my little kitten.” But Galen grinned as he said it. We all felt a little better for Usna's teasing.

“Quiet, both of you,” Frost said from behind us. They shut up, looking a little sheepish but happier. Usna stopped trying to rub his face against my hair. Which meant he'd done it almost more to tease Galen than to tease me.

Doyle was taking too long. If something had gone horribly wrong, Barinthus or Adair would have warned us. But it was taking too long. The unnatural calm was beginning to slip away from me on tiny cat paws of anxiety.

I had a license to carry a gun in California. I also had a diplomatic waiver that pretty much covered me anywhere, anytime, on the basis that my life was in danger often enough that being armed was a necessity. I had guns. But Andais wouldn't let me go into the press conference armed. I was a princess; princesses did not protect themselves, they had others to do that for them. I thought the idea archaic and shortsighted and downright ironic coming from a queen whose claim to fame had been as a goddess of battle. Standing there with Galen and Usna pressed against me, with the others like a wall of flesh around me, I vowed that the next time I left my room, I'd be armed.

Doyle returned, and Adair gave him room to pass, then moved back to the center of the hallway like some golden wall. I realized that Adair was being just that, a wall of flesh and metal to keep death from me. He'd said I was his ameraudur, another echo of my father's ghost, for he had been the last ameraudur among the royals of either court. To be called ameraudur held more honor than king, because the men chose you, and followed you through love, the kind of love men have shared with one another on battlefields as far back as time can see. Oaths bound a guard to risk his life for his charge, queen or princess, but ameraudur meant he did it willingly. It meant that coming back from a battle alive with his leader dead was worse than death. A shame that he would never live down. Two of my father's guards took their own lives for shame of letting their prince die. To lay your life down for your ameraudur was the highest honor.

Seeing Adair standing there so straight, so proud, so ready to die, made me think about my new title. Made me afraid of it. I did not want anyone dying for me. I had not earned it. I was not my father and never would be. I could never ride into battle with them and hope to survive. How could I be their ameraudur if I could not do that?

Doyle's dark face was empty for me. Whatever he thought about Adair's new pet name for me, he was keeping it to himself. His face was so empty now that the only thing I was certain of was that I wasn't in immediate danger. Other than that, he could have worn the same expression for anything. I wanted to yell at him to show me what he was feeling, but he spoke before I could lose that much control.

“The queen sent them to fetch you back when you are finished with your ‘murder business,' as she worded it. Vague enough that they cannot fetch you immediately.” Doyle gave a small wry smile, and shook his head. “In truth, Mistral is now in charge of the crime scene.”

“What?” Galen and I asked together.

“Did the queen rescind her offer to Meredith?” Barinthus asked. “Are Mistral and the queen now in charge of this murder?”

“No,” Doyle said. “Rhys thought of a different spell to search for our murderer. He wished to chase this new magical clue down, but needed someone to keep the crime scene safe. When Mistral and the others came, he put them to guard the hallway.”

“That was rashly done,” Frost said.

“Knowing Rhys, he got Mistral's oath,” Usna said, “and once you have Mistral's oath, you have his honor. He would not break it, not for all the joys of the Summerlands.”

Doyle gave one sharp nod. “I trust Mistral's honor as I do my own.” He looked at me, and something passed over his impassive face, but I couldn't decipher it. Months in my bed, weeks in my body, and I could not read the look in his eyes. “He has requested an audience with you, Princess. He says that he has a message from the queen.”

“We do not have time for this,” Frost said.

I agreed, but I also knew that ignoring messages or messengers from the queen was not wise. “We left her less than an hour ago, what could she want?”

“You,” said a deep voice behind them.

Doyle looked a question at me, and I gave a nod. At a gesture from Doyle, Adair and he parted like a curtain to reveal Mistral.

His hair was the grey of a sky that promised rain, held back from his face in a ponytail. I had only a glimpse of his storm cloud grey eyes before he dropped to one knee and gave me only the back of his head. It was the first time that another sidhe, any sidhe, had voluntarily showed me such . . . respect. I stared down at the broad sweep of his shoulders in their tight leather armor, and wondered why he'd done it.

“Get up, Mistral.”

He shook his head, sending his grey hair like a fall of water down his back, barely held in check by the leather thong that held it at the nape of his neck. “I owe you this at the very least, Princess Meredith.”

I had no idea what he meant by that.

I looked at Doyle. He gave a small raise of an eyebrow, a slight turn of the head, his version of a shrug.

“Why do you owe me such a bow?” I asked.

He raised his head just enough so he could roll his eyes at me. “If I had dreamt that you would take one look from me so seriously, I would have been more careful of you, Princess. My oath on that.”

I knew what he meant then, for it had been the look of contempt on Mistral's face the night before that had helped me be brave enough to confront Andais when she was in the grip of an evil spell. A spell that had made her slaughter her own men, and be a danger to anyone near her. It had been a very clever assassination ploy. Mistral had told me with his eyes alone that I was just another useless royal, and he hated us all. It wasn't the hatred, but the uselessness that had moved me to action. Because I agreed with him. In that moment I had decided that I would rather die than see them slaughtered.

“Are you so certain one glance from you was what moved me forward?” I meant it to be a joke, but I'd forgotten how long it had been for some of the Queen's Ravens since they'd had a woman joke with them.

He lowered his face quickly, his voice uncertain and uncomfortable. “I am sorry, Princess, I presumed too much.”

My kidding had not only fallen flat but embarrassed him. I'd had no idea my words had such power over Mistral. I touched his bowed head, the queen's ring on my right hand. Mark of her rulership, her first gift to me, and an artifact of power.

My fingers brushed his face a breath before the metal of the ring did. He turned those storm-grey eyes up to me. His lips parted as if he meant to speak, but the metal touched his skin, and there was no time for words.

I knew that our bodies still stood and knelt in the hallway inside the Unseelie Court. I knew it, because I'd had this happen before when the magic of the chalice and the ring combined. But to Mistral and me, we were on the top of a hill that was crowned by a large dead tree. I had seen this hill, this tree in one form or another in dreams and visions. Mistral knelt before me with my hand cupping his cheek. He put his hand over mine, holding my touch against his face, as he gazed around at the plain that spread out as far as the eye could see. It was green and lovely, but strangely empty.

“What have you done, Princess?”

“Not me,” I said.

He gazed up at me, and there was puzzlement in his eyes. “I don't understand.”

“Look at the tree.”

He turned, with his hand holding mine now, rather than pressing it to his face. The tree was a huge, blackened thing, its bark crumbling in the growing wind. The first time I'd seen the tree so dead it had had a large cleft in the center. This tree did not. It had taken me a while to understand that the tree wasn't real, or the hill. Neither were any place a map could get you. The tree represented the Goddess, and the power of faerie; the hill was The Hill. We stood at the center of the world, but the center of the world changed at the thought of the gods. In this moment, this was the center, and Mistral and I stood at that center. We stood hand in hand, while the wind blew across the sky.

The wind smelled of apple blossoms and roses—sweet and clean and good. I heard a voice on the flower-scented wind. Or perhaps it was merely a thought. Mistral did not seem to hear it, so perhaps the voice was only for me.

“Kiss him,” the wind said, “kiss him. Let him taste the chalice.” But the chalice is not here, I thought. The wind said, “You are the chalice.” Oh, of course. It made perfect sense in that moment, though I knew that later it might not make any sense at all.

“Mistral,” I said, and the wind grew stronger, sweeter, at the sound of his name.

He looked at me, and there was a hint of fear in his eyes. Had it really been that long since he was touched by the Goddess? Yes, the voice in my head said, it had.

“Kiss me, Mistral,” I said.

His gaze searched my face. “Who are you?”

“I am Merry.”

He shook his head, even as he let me draw him in against my body. I realized that my arm was not injured in this place of dream and vision. I slid my arms around the smooth strength of his back, over the leather of his armor. His hands slid around my waist, but he was still shaking his head.

“No, you are not the princess.”

“I am, but I am more, that is true.” My voice had taken on that echoing softness that I'd heard before, like listening to someone else's voice in your own ears.

“What are you?” he whispered.

“Drink of the chalice, Mistral.” The flower-scented wind wrapped around us like invisible arms, binding us until our bodies were pressed as close together as we could manage with clothes on. He held me, but he was afraid, and fear is not a good aphrodisiac for most people. The queen has never understood that.

His face bent toward me, but his body was tense, and he tried not to bend closer. The wind pushed at him, forced his head downward. I understood in that moment that he was once the master of the winds, bringer of storms. Once he had controlled it all as a man controls a horse, but now Mistral was the horse, who was being ridden, and he didn't like it.

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