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A Stroke of Midnight (Merry Gentry #4)(78)

By:Laurell K. Hamilton

The men farther from us parted like a curtain, and only then did Amatheon and Adair move to frame me instead of shield me. Galen and everyone that we had left in the room were in the hallway, coming toward us. Doyle was assuring them that I was fine.
Galen pushed his way through the other men and paused before hugging me. He laughed. “What have you guys been doing, playing in the mud?”
The three of us exchanged glances. “We were playing in the mud,” Adair said. “Amatheon was the mud.”
Galen frowned at him.
“Later,” I said. I had noticed a newly healed face among the guard: Onilwyn. “When did he join you?”
Galen seemed to understand who I meant. “We were running out to find you when he showed up.”
“Why didn’t you tell us what was happening?” Ivi asked. “We’d have grabbed on before Merry left so abruptly.”
“There was no time,” Doyle said.
“We barely touched them in time ourselves,” Frost said.
Rhys asked, “How did you know where we were?”
Kitto came out from behind the taller men. He had a short sword naked in his hand. He held up his arm with the moth tattoo on it. “I followed this.”
“And we followed Kitto,” Galen said, hugging me against his body, spreading the mud on more of himself.
“May I approach, Princess?” Onilwyn said.
I looked at his face and tried to see arrogance, or hatred, but he was trying for neutral and succeeding. “All right, yes.”
The other men made a sort of impromptu corridor for him to walk down. Galen kept one arm around me, so that I was tight to his side. Amatheon and Adair took up posts on either side of me; even unarmed and muddy they looked like the guards they were. Once I’d thought Amatheon and Onilwyn were friends, but the message was clear from all the men. They were my guards, and they weren’t entirely certain Onilwyn was one of them.
He dropped to his knees in front of me. “I have heard such rumors, Princess Meredith. If even half are true, then I can only beg forgiveness and offer myself to your service.”
“And what of Prince Cel?” I asked. “What will you do when he is free once more and demands your loyalty back?”
“My oath was to the queen, never to him.”
“You gave him your friendship, Onilwyn.”
“Prince Cel has no friends, only toadies and bed partners.”
I stared into his face, tried to read a lie there, but found none. “I don’t trust this change of heart, Onilwyn.”
“Tell me what I must do to prove that I am sincere?”
I thought, and nothing came to mind. A high, mournful scream came from behind the doors at our backs. The men who hadn’t known of Gwennin’s fate jumped or looked toward the door. Onilwyn paled. “Who is that?” he whispered.
I told him.
“Gwennin was her ally.”
“No longer,” Doyle said. “Now he is only meat.”
Onilwyn looked at the floor, and when he raised his face back up, there was something in his eyes. Something close to pain. “Cel spoke of the day he could take his mother’s place. He means to take her place in every sense of the word, Princess. He craves to have the ladies of the court as his playthings. His fantasies are darker than you can imagine, Princess Meredith. He dreams of you, Princess. He says, if his mother would have you pregnant, then it will be his seed that fills your belly.” He said that last in a voice hoarse with dread, perhaps worried how I would take the news.
“I know of my cousin’s plans for me,” I said.
Onilwyn looked surprised. “Who . . .”
“A friend,” I said. I answered before Doyle could finish shaking his head, telling me not to reveal that Cel’s own guard had betrayed him. I did not trust this new, more sincere Onilwyn any more than he did.“I would be your friend, Princess.”
“You just want sex,” Galen said, and he sounded a little hostile about it.
“Yes, as all of us do, but I offer true loyalty to her now.”
“What did you offer to her before?” Amatheon asked.
“I was Cel’s spy, as you were.”
“I supported his claim to the throne. I did not spy for him.”
Onilwyn shrugged. “Have it your way, but I came for the promise of sex, and to be Cel’s eyes and ears.”
“And now?” I asked.
“I am whatever you need me to be.”
“You should hit him in the face with frying pans more often,” Rhys said, “he seems to like it.”
Another shriek cut the air. Followed by a helpless sobbing.
“Let us be away from here,” Doyle said, “before she tires of her new toy and seeks another.”
We all began to follow him down the hallway. Onilwyn stayed on his knees, so that we left him alone like that, kneeling before doors. I wondered what the queen would do if she came out and found him like that. Something horrible, no doubt.
He watched me with a lost look on his face. It was as if he was someone else inside Onilwyn’s skin.
“Come, Onilwyn, I would not leave you like a present before the doors.”
He gave a small smile and got to his feet, hurrying to catch us up. I did not like his change of heart. It was too abrupt. Or, perhaps, he was simply the perfect toadie, and like all good bootlickers, he was following the power. If he had changed sides, it was because he thought it would gain him power at court. It was why all toadies toadied. How many others would Cel lose to me in the next few weeks? And how many would wait, neutral, to see who was left standing at the end?