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A Stroke of Midnight (Merry Gentry #4)(10)

By:Laurell K. Hamilton

I opened my mouth to begin the speech I’d prepared in my head as we walked down the hallway. Now I swallowed the words because if she planned on blaming me for the deaths, even indirectly, I was sunk. Not only would I not be having the police to help me solve the crime, I would most likely be bleeding before I left this room. There is a saying in the Unseelie Court, “You visit the queen at your peril.” What sense of misguided justice had made me forget that?
I dropped to one knee, and my guards followed my lead, dropping like graceful, dangerous flowers around me. Doyle and Frost were with me, but we’d left Rhys in charge of the scene. He would have come, but after me, he’d done the most actual detective work in Los Angeles. Adair had come, and Hawthorne in their colored armor. Galen, of course. He would never have let me walk into such danger without him. Usna had surprised me, and I think Doyle, by insisting that he come with us. It wasn’t that we doubted his bravery—he often took foolish chances just to amuse himself. I think it had something to do with the fact that his mother had been transformed into a cat when she had him, and his father was, well, a cat. It gave Usna a very unique perspective. He was every inch a sidhe male, except that his long hair and pale body were decorated with large patches of red and black like a calico cat. I’d left Nicca behind, because his beautiful new wings looked so fragile. I could not bear to see her shred them as some punishment to me. The moment I realized that that was why I’d left him behind, I knew that I had half-expected her to find a way to be angry with me about all this. She had to be angry with someone, and I’d always been a favorite target when I was younger. But only when my father was not at court, never when he was close enough to interfere. After his death, things had been worse in so many ways.
“Answer me, Meredith,” the queen said, but her voice didn’t sound angry. She sounded tired.
“I am not certain how to answer you, Aunt Andais. I am not aware that I did anything to bring on the deaths of Beatrice and the reporter.”
“Beatrice,” she said, and she started walking toward me, toward us. Her pale feet were bare except for the silver-grey polish on her toes. Her legs were long and slender where they pulled free of the fur. She had no thighs to speak of. The sidhe women are the perfect models for this era; they have no curves, and it’s not due to dieting. The sidhe do not have to diet, they are simply supernaturally thin.
Even for a sidhe woman, Andais is tall, six feet, as tall as most of her own guards. She stood with all that height over me, leaving one leg artfully bare, and bent so that the line from upper thigh to toe was graceful and framed by the charcoal grey of fur. 
“Who is Beatrice?”
I would like to have thought she was toying with me, but she wasn’t. She truly did not know the name of her own pastry chef. She knew her head cook, Maggie May, but beyond that, I doubted she knew any of the kitchen staff. She was queen, and there were layers of servants and lesser fey between her and someone like Beatrice.
If I had not been here to say her name, no one else would have known it. That made me angry. I fought to keep it from my voice as I answered, “The fey that was killed. Your pastry chef. Her name was Beatrice.”
“My pastry chef. I have no pastry chef.” Her voice was thick with scorn.
I sighed. “The Unseelie Court’s pastry chef, then.”
She turned and whirled the fur around her like a lightweight cloak. It would have been so heavy I would not have had the strength to move it like that. I was stronger than a human, but I was not as strong as pure-blooded sidhe. I wondered if she’d done that little movement to remind me of that or just because it looked pretty.
She spoke with her back to us. “But all that belongs to the Unseelie Court belongs to me, Meredith, or did you forget that?”
I realized that she was trying to pick a fight with me. She’d never done that before. She’d struck out in anger with someone else or with me. She’d tormented me because it pleased her. She argued with me if I disagreed with her, or argued first, but she had never tried to start a fight with me. I didn’t know what to do.
“I have not forgotten that you, my aunt, are queen of the Unseelie Court.”
“Yes, Meredith, remind me that I am your aunt. Remind me that I need your blood to keep my family on the throne.”
I didn’t like the way she worded that, but it hadn’t been a question, so I didn’t try to answer. I stayed kneeling and mute.
“If you had been strong enough to protect yourself yesterday there would not have been reporters in my sithen.” There was the first warm edge of anger in her voice.
“It was my duty to keep the princess safe,” Doyle said.
I reached out to him with my good arm before I could stop myself, but he was just out of reach. I shook my head. Do not bring her anger upon yourself, I tried to tell him with my eyes.
“Our duty,” Frost said from the other side of me.
I looked at him and gave him exasperated eyes. If she was determined to be angry, I did not want that anger to fall upon them both. It wasn’t just that I loved them, I needed them. If we had any hope of solving this mess, and keeping me alive despite some very determined enemies, I needed my captain of the guard and his lieutenant.
She was suddenly in front of me again, and I hadn’t seen her move. Either she had clouded my mind, or she was simply that fast, even tugging along that much fur. She knelt in front of me in a pool of fur and glimpses of white flesh.
“You have stolen my Darkness from me, Meredith. You have thawed the heart of my Killing Frost. My two best warriors, taken away, as if by a thief in the night.”
I licked suddenly dry lips and said, “I did not mean to take anything that you valued, Aunt Andais.”
She touched my face gently. It made me wince, not because it hurt, but because I’d feared it would hurt. “Yes, Meredith, remind me that I neglected my Darkness and my Frost.” She caressed my face with her fingers, and the back of her hand. “Neglected so many things that were mine.”
Her hand cupped my chin, and began to squeeze. She could crush the bones of my body into splinters. “I can feel the glamour, girl, drop it. Let me see what you are hiding.”
I dropped the glamour on me and on Frost, so that the lipstick smeared across our faces.
She raised me to my feet using my chin as a handle. It hurt, and it would probably bruise. She raised me faster than I could stand. Only her harsh grip kept me from falling.The men stood with me.
“I did not bid you stand,” she yelled at them.
They stayed on their feet. I could not look away from her to see exactly what they were doing, but this was about to go badly.
Barinthus’s deep voice came from farther into the room. He must have been standing there the entire time, and I hadn’t seen him. It takes a commanding presence to make you not see a seven-foot-tall, mostly blue demi-god. Andais was that commanding presence. With her hand bruising my chin, forcing me to meet her grey gaze from inches away, she was more than commanding, she was frightening.
“Queen Andais, Meredith has done nothing but as you have bid her.”
“Silence, Kingmaker!” She had glanced back at him when she yelled, and I realized that she must have made him kneel, because I could not see him in that part of the room.
She turned back to me, and her eyes shone as if there was light behind them. It was like watching the moon behind grey clouds, pushing light up through the colors of her eyes, but the eyes themselves did not truly glow. It was an effect I had never seen in any other sidhe’s eyes.
“Then what is this smear of red on her mouth, and on the face of my Killing Frost?” She let the fur she’d wrapped herself in fall to the floor, as she put her thumb against my mouth and rubbed hard enough that I had to fight not to make a small pain sound. There was still enough lipstick left to stain her white thumb.
She stood there nude and pale and frightening. If she was beautiful I could not see it. Andais often stripped before she tortured people, so she wouldn’t ruin her clothes. Her nudity did not bode well.
I finally realized that she intended to get angry about me playing favorites in front of the media. She was going to throw a fit, and punish me for kissing Frost, instead of dealing with the murders. Displacement is a fine coping mechanism, but this was not sane.
No logic would save me. All the arguments that I had prepared were dust before her incomprehensible anger.
“Do you think that I give orders simply to be ignored?”
I spoke carefully around her grip on my chin. “I had to distract the cameras . . .”
She let me go so abruptly that I stumbled. Doyle caught my arm, then took me into the circle of his arm, putting me farther from her and closer to the middle of the men. I couldn’t argue with the precaution. She was not acting like herself. Andais was temperamental and a sadist, but she never let either interfere this badly with the business of her court. We had a dead human reporter, and cameras still in the faerie mound. It was an emergency, and we needed to act swiftly to minimize the damage, no matter what choice we made. Even if the choice was to hide the bodies and act as if it hadn’t happened, it needed to be done quickly. The more people who knew the secret the less chance of keeping it. 
If the police were going to bring in forensics for the crime scene, every minute contaminated the crime scene. Every second might be losing us some clue.