I originally had assumed the other guards hung around to protect us. Until one came to stand next to me and another beside Giguhl. They didn’t touch us, but it was apparent they weren’t just being friendly. I opened my mouth to demand an explanation when Adam cleared his throat.
I shot him a glare.
“Keep it together, Red,” Adam said. “The Queen isn’t as flexible or forgiving as Orpheus.”
I sighed and forced my shoulders to relax. Orpheus— or rather, High Councilman Orpheus of the Ancient and Venerable Hekate Council— was not what I would consider a flexible male. Sure, he’d been like a father to Maisie and had eventually warmed to me, but he also tended to be a tad impatient about my tendency to question any and all authority. And judging from Adam’s comment, the Queen— who already wasn’t my biggest fan— wouldn’t find my smart mouth or rebellious ways charming, either. Gods save me from touchy leaders with their demands for “respect.”
“Hurry,” Calyx said. “We must not keep the Queen waiting.”
I sucked in a breath and pasted a smile on my face. “Lead the way!”
Adam shot me a look that indicated I’d overdone it with the false cheer. Whatever. I just wanted to get inside and find out how to get my sister back. If that meant enduring persnickety regents and courtly etiquette, I’d deal.
Ten minutes and eleventy thousand steps later, we emerged from the spiral staircase hidden inside the massive tree that led from the forest floor up to the fortress. I guess the faeries decided if all their other security measures didn’t work, they’d exhaust their enemies before they made it inside.
From the tree staircase, we emerged into a great hall. Tall convex windows curved up to a blond wood ceiling carved with elaborate Celtic designs. The effect was like standing in a bubble balanced in the tree canopy. Braziers set into the support posts around the room glowed warmly from some light source I couldn’t name. Not fire, obviously, given the extremely flammable nature of the structure. But something else, some kind of faery magic.
Hundreds of faeries in all shapes and sizes representing the many species of fae filled the space. Despite the cultural variations in costume, they all wore jewel tones— the deep, saturated colors of rubies, amethysts, sapphires, emeralds, and topaz. I dismissed the eye-pleasing but oddly coordinated color scheme and focused on the familiar faces that broke free from the crowd.
Orpheus led a small procession of what was left of the Hekate Council. If we’d been in New York and in the Council’s ceremonial chambers, they’d all have worn white Greek chitons that indicated their status. But since we were in the Queen’s domain, they wore outfits reflecting their status as visiting diplomats instead— black slacks and different-colored Nehru-style jackets. The overall effect was very Star Trek, but I figured no one wanted to hear that opinion right then.
Behind the four members of the Council, Adam’s aunt Rhea— who served as my magical mentor back in New York— followed with two Pythian Guards, who were the mage version of the secret service and special ops rolled into one. The small mage contingent approached Tanith and her fae guards with grim expressions.
Terse nods were shared before a loud knocking boomed through the cavernous room. Tension rose as everyone snapped to attention. The sea of fall colors began to part, opening a wide aisle down the center of the great room.
“Bow for Her Magnificence, Queen Maeve, defender of the Fae, sovereign of the Seelie Court, and most honorable Mother of Autumn.” The tall, reedy male wearing an emerald green robe looked around the room expectantly. A heavy gold chain with a medallion hung on his chest. His regalia marked him as a very important faery, but the female who appeared from a door on the side of the room commanded everyone’s attention.
As one, the entire room lowered into submissive bows. I didn’t like kowtowing to anyone but went along with it to avoid inviting attention. Of course, that didn’t keep me from peeking beneath my hair to gawk at the regent.
I’d heard many stories about Queen Maeve— few of them complimentary— so I expected her to present an impressive figure. But I hadn’t expected her to look so ….. old.
Gray hair— not silver like Rhea’s but wool-gray like she needed a good dousing with Miss Clairol— fell around a roadmap face. Her skin was the color of fresh cream but sagged around the jaw, like gravity was winning the tug-of-war against youth. If I’d been pressed to guess her age in human years, I’d say she looked to be in her midfifties. Hard midfifties.
She wore a midnight-blue silk tunic with strands of silver woven into an elaborate Celtic design on the high tab collar and wide cuffs. A silver band etched with the same pattern circled her forehead. Once she sat, her posture was as rigid as the wood of her throne, which was carved with leafless, skeletal trees and a waning moon. A large tapestry behind the throne depicted a crest bearing a cauldron, spear, shield, and boulder.
Orpheus began to lead all of us toward the Queen, but a bejeweled hand rose to halt our progress. She waved over the steward and whispered something to him. After a moment, he straightened and called out in a high, clear voice, “The mixed-blood and the demon are not welcome.”
I stiffened in surprise. “What the—”
Rhea’s papery-smooth hand found mine and squeezed hard. “Quiet, child.”
Adam nudged me with his elbow. I jerked my head in his direction, upset he wasn’t getting my back on this. “She’s still pissed about Banethsheh,” he said in an undertone. “I promise I’ll tell you everything after, but you have to chill.”
The urge to rebel threatened. But then the Queen’s cold eyes found mine and narrowed. That’s when I realized Adam hadn’t been overstating. Even though I’d killed the Queen’s turncoat ambassador, Hawthorne Banethsheh, in self-defense, she obviously blamed me for the entire matter. Granted, I probably could have handled it better, but blaming me for his death was ridiculous. It’s not like I forced Banethsheh to try to kill me on behalf of the Caste of Nod. But the Queen obviously was in no mood to be reasonable.
I held her gaze brazenly for a moment before backing down. I hated doing it, but I also knew that my presence in the room would only complicate an already tense situation. And right now it was more important to learn Maisie’s location than to salve my wounded pride. Those around me let out a collective breath, as if they had been expecting a trademark Sabina outburst. I nodded at them and fell back to join Giguhl. The demon met my eyes, his expression both impressed and empathetic.