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A Stroke of Midnight (Merry Gentry #4)(5)

By:Laurell K. Hamilton

He turned lovely green eyes to me and smiled, and I smiled back. He was as armed as any of them with blade and guns, but there was a softness to him that most of the others had lost centuries before either he or I had been born. He’d give his life for me, and would have when I was a child, unlike the rest of them. But as a politician he was something of a disaster, and that could be fatal in the high courts of faerie.
Someone touched my shoulder. I jumped, and found Madeline with her hand over my mike. She leaned in and whispered, “You’re staring at him. Let’s not repeat the Frost incident, shall we?” She stepped back with a smile already for the press, hitting the switch at her waist.
I had to keep my face turned away from the crowd because I was blushing. I didn’t blush much, and by human standards it wasn’t too dark. Sidhe skin just doesn’t flush the way human skin tones do. Of course, keeping my face away from the cameras meant that Galen could see me. Some days it’s only a choice of embarrassments, not an escape from them.
Madeline was saying, “Princess Meredith is getting a little tired. We may have to cut this short, guys, sorry.”There was a general outcry, and a renewed flash of cameras, which was bad, because Galen came to me. He knelt in front of me, beside my chair, and was tall enough that, from the shoulders up, he was still clearly visible to them. He touched my chin, so gently, with just the tips of his fingers. It made me look at him. It made me forget that we were both in profile to the cameras. He leaned his face closer to me, making me forget that we were onstage. I leaned in toward him, and his hand cupped the side of my face. That made me forget everything else. I have no explanation for it. We’d shared a bed for months. He was a disaster politically, and showing him this much favor in front of everyone could endanger him, but I wasn’t thinking that when we kissed. I wasn’t thinking anything, and all I could see was the pleased look on his face, the look in his eyes. He’d loved me since I was seventeen, and that was, in his eyes, as if nothing had changed and no time had passed.
The queen had ordered me not to show favoritism. She was going to be angry with me, with him, with us, but after Frost’s little incident, as Madeline called it, what was one more? It was bad, and still I kissed him. Still I wanted to kiss him. Still, for just a moment, the world narrowed down to Galen’s face, his hand against my skin, and his mouth on mine.
It was a soft, chaste kiss, I think because he knew if he kissed me too hard, I’d lose my hold on the glamour that kept Frost and me from looking like lipstick casualties. Galen drew back, and his eyes held that soft surprise that they did sometimes, as if he still couldn’t believe he was allowed to kiss me, allowed to touch me. I’d caught the same look on my face in the bedroom mirror a time or two.
“Do we all get a kiss?” The voice was deep and held the rough sloughing of the sea. Barinthus moved toward us in a swirl of his hair, the color of oceans. The turquoise of the Mediterranean; the deeper medium blue of the Pacific; a grey-blue like the ocean before a storm, sliding into a blue that was nearly black, where the water runs deep and thick like the blood of sleeping giants. The colors moved and flowed into one another so that the actual where and what his hair looked like was ever-changing, like the ocean itself. He’d once been a god of the sea. I’d only recently discovered that he had been Manannan Mac Lir, but that was a secret. Now he was Barinthus, a fallen god of the sea. He moved gracefully across the stage, all near seven feet of him. His eyes were blue but with a slit pupil like a cat or a deep-sea animal. He had a second clear membrane that could close over his eye when he was underwater, and would often flicker when he was nervous. It flickered just a touch now.
I wondered if anyone in the crowd of reporters knew how much it cost this very private man to have suggested a kiss, and make himself the target of all these cameras? 
Galen had realized he’d misbehaved because he showed me with his eyes that he was sorry. Unfortunately, his face wasn’t that hard for anyone to read, including the reporters. The queen had said no favorites. Our behavior was going to force me to try to prove I had none. After what Galen and I had just done, that was going to be difficult.
A lot of the men standing with me would have played for the cameras, and it would have cost them, or me, nothing. Barinthus was not one of them. He’d been my father’s friend, and by American standards we hadn’t had sex. Not even by Bill Clinton’s standards. If I’d been him, I would have stayed against the wall, but he held to a higher standard of truth even than most of the sidhe.
I looked up at Barinthus, and with me sitting and him standing, it took awhile to get all the way to his face. “If you like.” I kept my voice light and my face pleasant. Barinthus and I had never kissed, and the first kiss should not be on film.
It was Rhys who saved the day. “If Barinthus gets a kiss, then so do I.”
Doyle said, “To be fair, we all should.”
Barinthus gave a slight smile. “I would bow to the larger need, and take my kiss in private.”
“Galen and Frost have already had theirs,” Rhys said, and as Galen went back to his place in line, Rhys pretended to box his ears.
Barinthus did a very graceful bow and tried to slink back to his place. But that wasn’t happening. A reporter asked, “Lord Barinthus, have you decided to go from being kingmaker to being king?” No sidhe would have called him kingmaker to his face, or queenmaker either. But the media, well, he couldn’t box their ears.
He knelt beside me, rather than lean into the mike. Kneeling down, his head was about even with mine. “I doubt I will stay with the princess as a permanent member of her guard.”
“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?”
“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?”