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Prologue

The Underhill sky had no sun, no moon, no stars and yet a shining twilight gave light enough to see. No direct light means no shadows. Still a small crouching shadow slipped along the broad road, smoothly paved with glistening blocks of deep red marble. In the silver light, the road looked like a river of blood, but it was firm enough . . . except in a few spots where it was suddenly glutinously liquid.


In other ways it was a dangerous road to travel. From time to time monsters leapt from between the dark bushes that bordered the road. Most were stopped short by a magical tether so that they fell back into the darkness, choking; one or two were free and leapt onto a traveler made unwary by previous protection.


Nor was that the only hazard. Slender stalks slid upward from between the stones and caught at a traveler's legs. They had sharp edges, those stalks, like sharp little teeth, and their bite drew blood—but only a little. The bite was not dangerous, but if the walker tripped and fell, a myriad more stalks would emerge and suck the victim dry.


Only the hazards did not affect the crouching shadow, which slipped along the road hardly darkening the blood red surface. If any had noticed it and watched, a slight hesitation would have been noted when the huge black bulk of Caer Mordwyn palace rose to block further passage. However, there was no way around, and no way back either.


Behind was a wall of force. On either side of the open gates—the gates were always open—were two enormous heads with gaping mouths. Any who turned aside from the road, who sought to escape the entry into Caer Mordwyn palace, were swallowed.


Having hesitated once, the crouching shadow did not hesitate again. Crouching even smaller, the shadow went forward, up the black marble steps veined in red, past cackling witches and grunting ogres, slipping around boggles and banshees, who moved upward on the wide stairway and crowded the entryway into Prince Vidal Dhu's throne room.


The walls were polished black marble, adding to the oppressive darkness but yet able to reflect light; they were veined with red chalcedony that gave forth a sullen glow. The ceiling was gold, not bright enough to relieve the oppression but well able to distribute the red glare from the candelabra suspended from the ceiling.


Like the road to the palace, the center aisle was paved in red blocks that had a wet, bloodlike shine. At the end of the aisle was a dais, three steps high, on which were two thrones; one centered, huge, built of human bones, the grinning skulls facing Vidal's subjects. The other was smaller, almost delicate and pretty until one was close enough to see that it was made completely of hands, small hands, those of women and mostly children.


On that smaller throne was a woman with golden hair, cut low on her forehead in a thick fringe; her eyes were bright green, but strangely without depth, and there was something odd about the white skin and brilliant red lips—a porcelain perfection that made one think her skin would be hard and cold to touch. The man on the greater throne was as dark as she was blond, his skin nut-brown, his hair sleek as black silk, his eyes as dark as his hair. Those eyes were impenetrable and hard as the onyx they resembled.


Among the creatures crowding into the throne room, but each surrounded by an empty space that rejected association with the recognized symbols of evil, were the Dark Sidhe—tall, beautiful, only with empty eyes and cruel mouths. They passed the other creatures that made up Vidal's Dark Court and took their places at the very front of the assembly.


In their wake came the shadow, no longer crouching to be smaller but still unnoticed. Somehow it seemed to flit from one black section of wall to another, avoiding the glowing chalcedony. It did not take a place on the seats claimed by the Dark Sidhe but melted into near invisibility quite near the edge of the dais.


The business of the Court went forward. A boggle that had refused an order by Vidal Dhu was brought forward by the hounds that had hunted it down. It was given over to its own kind, who tore off pieces and ate it alive. A witch accused another of stealing a human captive from her. The second witch, purpling and writhing as she tried to evade Aurilia's truth spell, finally confessed, complaining bitterly that the first witch would not share the human's blood with her when she needed it. She was condemned to bring Underhill two humans to pay for her crime.


Other cases were heard, a few settled as brutally as the first—one ogre putting up so spirited a defense that two other fatal injuries occurred before he was subdued and consumed—but most with reasonable verdicts. The shadow shifted slightly and close attention, which no one gave it, would have shown that it nodded, recognizing that Vidal's mood was unusually benign, but still it wavered, trembling.


At last no one new came forward. Vidal raised a hand, preparing to order that all the clotted blood and bits of broken bone, signs of the executions he had ordered, be removed. The shadow slipped around the dais, slid past the rows of seated Dark Sidhe and came before Vidal's and Aurilia's thrones, where it resolved itself into a short, slender Sidhe shaking with fear but visible.


"My lord," the barely noticeable Sidhe murmured, bowing low.


Vidal frowned and squinted slightly, as if he were having some difficulty fixing his eyes on the speaker. "Who?" he asked.


"Dakari, lord," the little Sidhe answered.


His voice was so low that Vidal's long, pointed ears twitched forward with his attempt to hear. An expression of disgust and impatience appeared on his face and one hand began to rise, but Aurilia put a hand on his arm.


"Something so indefinite, so indeterminate, might be useful," she said softly. Then she frowned as her erratic memory matched what she was seeing with a previous image. "Wait. It's been here before . . . I think."


The frown cleared from Vidal's face, and he smiled at Aurilia. "So he has." He turned his attention to the little Sidhe, remembering perfectly, now it had been called to his attention, place and time and what had been said. "Have you determined whether Alhambra would be suitable for my lady's pleasure?"


In the lengthening silence, the trembling Sidhe before Vidal almost drifted away into shadow. But the change in the pattern of light drew Vidal from his memories.


"Dakari," he said, "I have waited but you have not answered me. If you are expecting the reward I promised to the one who could discover whether Alhambra was fit to be taken for my lady's pleasure, you have not yet won the prize."


"Lord, I do not know the answer to your question," Dakari whispered. "The mortal and the elder Sidhe have removed all the small curses and nuisances, the biting things and the miasmas that brought illness. But at the heart of Alhambra is an Evil that they cannot touch. They have hurt It and troubled It, but It cannot directly touch them either and—"


Vidal's eyes narrowed. "An Evil. Did you touch it?"


"Oh, no, my lord!" Dakari backed away in fear, shaking so hard he almost lost his footing and fell.


Vidal laughed softly. He lifted his hand and pointed. What had been fading away into shadow firmed suddenly into a trembling, sobbing, very thin Sidhe. His hair, yellow-white, limp and with no body, clung to his long, thin head; his eyes were almost colorless, his skin pasty, his lips pallid. His ears looked wilted and his clothing sagged around him.


"But now you will touch that Evil," Vidal said; his voice was not loud but it reverberated with dominance.


Beside him Aurilia smiled watching the geas strike home. That would ensure the little Sidhe's obedience, no matter how fearful. But more important to her was the evidence of Vidal's strength.


"You will go to Alhambra," Vidal continued, "and approach the Evil with due submission. You will tell It how we admire It, how we would protect It from further nuisance by the mortal and his ancient Sidhe friends. You will offer yourself as servant, then ask It if It would welcome us if we came to Alhambra. If It has doubts, you will convince It. Then you will return here to me."


Dakari said nothing, eyes wide and staring.


Aurilia straightened in her seat, frowning as the force of the projected geas began to fade, seemingly becoming as diffuse as the Sidhe himself had been. Well aware of her own weaknesses since the second mind-scouring by Cold Iron, Aurilia needed a partner strong enough to provide for her the rank and power she needed. When Vidal showed signs of weakness, she had considered making Pasgen her partner. But she really preferred Vidal; Pasgen was so rigid in his concept of duty and honor.


"Do you hear me? Will you obey me?" Vidal's voice—sharp, hard, brittle—brought the wilting Sidhe upright, rigid.


"I hear," Dakari whimpered. "I will obey."


For the briefest instant Dakari seemed outlined in a thin dark red cloud. Then the color was gone, dissipated . . . or perhaps sucked within. For another brief instant Dakari's form seemed more solid, features firmer, body substantial. Then Vidal's arm dropped and only a vaporous shadow slightly darkened the area before the thrones. Aurilia leaned back again, smiling.


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Framed