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Chapter 1

Elizabeth Tudor, still asleep, stretched languorously and Denoriel Siencyn Macreth Silverhair looked down at his treasure and his burden from his pillow-propped position in the wide bed. The FarSeers had been right, he thought; she would be a red-haired queen. Her hair had barely darkened a shade from its childhood's golden-red glory.


He thought back to when his twin sister Aleneil, a FarSeer herself, had summoned him and he had first seen Elizabeth in the great lens that showed the future—a red-haired babe, scowling in her father's arms. And then the other Visions, of young Edward and his dour reign, of Mary and the screaming as what she called heretics burned, and then of the red-haired queen, Elizabeth, in a reign of glory of music of art of great poetry.


Denoriel sighed softly, careful to make no sound that would disturb Elizabeth's sleep. She would be queen if he could keep her alive long enough. So far he had managed to protect her for nearly twenty years, but the worst was yet to come. He shifted slightly and looked away.


They had been coupled only a little while ago, yet he felt his blood stir anew when he looked at her. Even asleep what she was seized and held him. Not a great beauty, although her body, spare and slightly boyish, was charming. Elsewise . . .  No, she was no beauty. Elizabeth was, as she had always been, very pale, her face a long oval, her nose straight and fine, her lips thin and only faintly rosy. Her brows and lashes, more gold than red, were hardly marked. Compared with the women of the Sidhe, Elizabeth was plain. But the life in her, the purpose in her, could inspire desire in a granite boulder among the Sidhe.


Silence and stillness had not been enough. His attention had disturbed her and her eyes opened slowly, showing dark irises. She did not smile at him or reach to touch him as she often did after making love, but looked away and sighed.


"Denno, should we be disporting ourselves like this when it is all too likely that my poor brother lies dying?"


He should not have been staring at her, Denoriel thought.


"Should I not be with Edward?" she continued, not waiting for an answer. "I love him. Surely I would be of some comfort to him?"


Denoriel shrugged. "You would indeed be a comfort to Edward, if you were allowed to reach him. But I am quite certain some reason would be found to turn you away."


"Why?" Elizabeth lifted herself, and the pillows rearranged themselves to support her in comfort. "Northumberland has been very kind to me, always showed me favor. Remember he traded Hatfield for another property when I wanted Hatfield. And he is kind to Edward, too. Why should he want to keep me from him?"


"I am not certain," Denoriel admitted. "Cecil has sent no news, and I do not know enough about the twists of policy and politics. I know—well, anyone not a nodcock knows—that Northumberland wants to keep the power he has held during Edward's reign."


Elizabeth stared at him, shaking her head. "But that is not possible. If . . ."


Her voice trembled on the word and she swallowed. What she was about to say was treason in England—even whispered in a locked room. She could only say the words Underhill. In fact they had come Underhill because it was the only safe place to discuss what Elizabeth should do if her brother died. Then when she was weeping over Edward's illness—she really did love him dearly—Denoriel had taken her into his arms to comfort her. Somehow the caresses changed from comforting to sensual and they found themselves abed.


Steadying her voice, Elizabeth continued, "If Edward dies, Mary will come to the throne, and Mary will not need a regent, as Northumberland knows quite well; she does not trust him, and he is the enemy to her religion. As likely hold back the tide as change Mary's faith. Even my father could not fully accomplish that."


Denoriel nodded agreement. "So Northumberland must seek a way to bypass Mary. Which is what made me beg you to come Underhill and speak to Harry. He knows from Rhoslyn what Mary thinks—as well as it is possible for any of her women to know her mind. And I wanted to ask you . . . since you, too, favor the reformed religion, what will you do, Elizabeth, if Northumberland approaches you and offers you the throne over Mary's head?"


She was suddenly rigid against the pillows. Her mouth opened, closed. Her eyes, which had been dark, lightened until they almost glowed like gold. Desire, raw and naked, flashed across her face. Then it was all gone.


"Ridiculous," Elizabeth said quietly. "My claim to the throne is through my father's will and the Act of Succession of 1544. The will and the Act both state clearly, Edward, Mary if Edward dies without heirs, and only if Mary dies without heirs, Elizabeth. To set Mary aside would make the whole succession invalid—and likely would start a civil war. No, if he offers me the throne, I will tell him that I have no right at all while Edward and Mary live."


Denoriel breathed out a long sigh. He had guarded two heirs to the throne. Harry FitzRoy, Henry VIII's natural son, wanted no part of being king. Elizabeth desired ardently to rule. It was as if God had given each the perfect nature. Harry would have made a terrible king; he was clever enough and interested in the intricacies of political maneuvering but he was too honest, too good, too gentle to rule. Elizabeth . . . Elizabeth was born to be a queen, brilliant and devious with a streak of cruelty that would keep her high lords inclined away from angering her. What a Sidhe she would have made!


Denoriel nodded satisfaction with Elizabeth's answer, but suddenly her face changed again, flushing in distress. "Da!" she said. "Da is supposed to meet us." And she hopped out of bed and turned on Denoriel. "Dress me, by God's Grace. Do you think I want Da to find me abed with you while poor Edward . . ."


She raised her hands to cover her face, hardly noticing that rich blue velvet sleeves lined with silver brocaded satin covered her arms. With a gesture, Denoriel had clothed her, complete with shift and personals, in an underskirt of silver on silver brocade and an overgown of blue velvet. The undersleeve was tight from the elbow to the wrist and exposed by the wide uppersleeve, which was turned back on itself. It was a mark of how overset Elizabeth was, she who passionately loved clothes, that she did not examine and comment on the dress but uttered a single sob and stepped forward into Denoriel's open arms.


"Oh, Merciful Mary, how horrible it is to be talking about what will happen when my little brother is dead. Should I not be praying for him to recover?"


"Have you not prayed for him to recover?"


Denoriel was not really asking the question but using it to remind Elizabeth that her desire for the throne, a desire she could not completely suppress, was not unnatural or unloving.


Tears made Elizabeth's darkened eyes shine. "You know I have. I even made you bring Mwynwen to him. Why could she not heal him?"


"I have told you that many times. It is through no fault of yours. Mywnwen cannot heal mortal illnesses, nor can any other Sidhe healer. She can heal a cut or a bruise, even a broken bone, but mortal illnesses like consumption or plague she cannot heal."


"She healed my Da."


"Only because Harry had been touched by elfshot, not mortal wasting sickness. She could draw out the poison of the elfshot and bring him back to health. Elizabeth, you know this. Why are you making me say the same words over and over?"


The tears ran over her lower lids and made shining streaks on her cheeks. "Because I want to be assured that Edward's illness is not my fault. I do not forget I failed to protect him well enough when that Dark Sidhe struck at him with a poisoned thorn."


"The Dark Sidhe struck at you," Denoriel snapped. "In any case, Edward would have been dead long since if that poison had touched him."


That last was not true, he thought. Likely the poison had touched Edward and weakened him so that the mortal illness more quickly and easily took hold. But it was the mortal illness that was killing the boy and no sense in Elizabeth feeling guilty.


"Then there is nothing left but a miracle from God." Elizabeth shivered slightly and Denoriel tightened his grip on her. "And I do not believe in miracles," she whispered. "But I have tried to believe, Denno, I have. I have prayed and promised that if God will only make Edward well I would strive to be a better person, to be meek and obedient to him always no matter what he bade me do, even marry. I have made offerings to all the churches in my domains for prayers for his health."


Denoriel's fine gold brows drew together and his arms stiffened around her. "Not I hope for relief of his sickness!" he said sharply. "You could be hanged for implying the king is sick."


Elizabeth sighed and shook her head. "I am not that much a fool. No. Only for his good health. For his continued good health. That was safe, wasn't it, Denno?"


She drew back a little so she could look up into his face. He was heartstoppingly beautiful, his eyes deep pools of emerald green, his hair a golden glory with soft curls at his temples and glowing waves to his shoulders. His skin was smooth and soft as the finest loomed silk, and he had a perfect nose and a full rosy mouth. Except for the touch of humor that curved his mobile lips, he looked like every other male Sidhe. Most often when he brought her Underhill and always when they made love, Denno wore an illusion of youth.


It was sweet of him to wish to be beautiful for her, so Elizabeth had not yet found the courage or the right moment to tell him not to bother, that what held her heart and roused a fever of desire in her body was his true appearance. That bespoke Denno's love and sacrifice—behavior not natural to the Sidhe.


All the years he had spent in the mortal world, enduring mortal weather as he cared first for her Da and then for her, had tanned and roughened his skin. All the worry he had suffered over his charges had drawn lines between his brows and around his eyes and mouth. The battles he had fought for them, both physical and magical, the wounds he had suffered, had turned his hair from gold to white and marred the smooth perfection of the uncaring Sidhe. Without illusion Denno looked like a rather harried, elderly mortal who had seen much trouble and endured great pain. Elizabeth loved him best that way.


He was frowning over her question and then he sighed. "I hope so, but it would have been wiser not to—"


His voice checked as there was a stirring in the air near him and the gentle voice of one of his invisible servants said, "Lord Harry has entered Llachar Lle."


Elizabeth squeaked in dismay and ran out of the room and down the stairs. She was seated, albeit a trifle breathless, in Denoriel's elegant parlor when Harry came through the door into the entrance hall. Elizabeth took a steadying breath. She was not trying to conceal the fact that Denoriel was her lover, she told herself. It was only that in some way Da regarded her as a daughter and Denno as a father.


Henry FitzRoy, natural son of King Henry VIII, dead and buried in the mortal world to the great relief of the English government, looked uneasily to the left at the door to the parlor. He felt a fool scratching to announce himself in the house in which he lived, but he hated to intrude upon Bess and Denno unexpectedly. They were usually embraced to some degree when they were Underhill because in the mortal world they could only acknowledge each other distantly.


It wasn't that he disapproved, Harry told himself, just that Bess . . . Bess was only a baby. As the words came into his mind he laughed aloud. Bess was twenty years old, a normal, healthy young woman who, had she not been Henry VIII's daughter, would by now have been married and had children.


The laugh was acknowledged by Denno's voice, saying, "Harry" from the landing at the top of the stairs.


Harry looked up and smiled. "Denno. Where's Bessie?"


"If you call her that, she'll murder you," Denno said, coming down the stairs. "She's waiting for you in the parlor. She's been crying over Edward, wanting to go to him to comfort him."


"Perhaps she should," Harry said slowly. "Mary went to visit him in February and knew." He shook his head. "It might be easier for Bess to believe he is dying and stop hoping if she saw him."


As he spoke, Harry took in Denoriel's appearance. He had not noticed it particularly at first, mostly because that was how Denno had looked when he first came to Harry and that was how Harry thought of him. But it wasn't how Denno looked now, Harry realized, and he blushed, knowing Denno had cast the illusion of youth over himself to please Elizabeth.


One part of Harry, the sensible, adult part, approved highly of the love affair between Denno and Elizabeth. It was just that another part cringed when he thought of the body of the child he loved entwined with that of the man who had protected him when he was a child. Nonsense, Harry told himself. For a young woman who could not afford another scandal without suffering serious political retribution, a Sidhe was the only safe lover.


Denoriel could come to Elizabeth in ways no mortal lover could, without anyone ever seeing him enter or leave the palace in which she lived. If by some ill chance they should be surprised by some unexpected intruder, Denno could disappear. And despite being Sidhe, Denno would not be unfaithful or abandon dearling Bess. Had he not proved his steadfastness over all of Harry's life?


Harry stepped forward and slid his arm into Denno's, pressing the arm affectionately to his side. "You don't agree that Bess should visit Edward?"


"I don't think she will be allowed to visit."


"Why not?"


"That I don't know. In truth, I cannot think of any reason. Northumberland knows she would not speak ill of him. But she wrote to Northumberland more than a week ago asking permission to come to London, soon after she heard that Mary had been to see Edward, and she has had no answer, not even a private word from Cecil."


Frowning, Harry opened the door and stepped into the parlor. The soft greens and blues accented in dull silver were very soothing and peaceful, but Elizabeth was sitting rigidly erect, looking out of the huge window over a scene that seemed to be a wide meadow surrounding a handsome manor house backed by a dark, dense wood. Now there was a garden near the house with a bright stream running through it.


He went and knelt on one knee beside Elizabeth and took her hand in his. "Love, I am so sorry. I know you care for Edward deeply, but you must let yourself believe that he cannot survive."


"How do you know?"


"From Mary though Rhoslyn."


"Mary spoke of Edward's . . . death . . . to Rhoslyn?" Elizabeth's eyes opened wide.


"No, of course not, not even to Susan Clarencieux or Jane Dormer, but Mary prays and often offers her fears and hopes to God. She whispers low, but—" Harry smiled "—Rhoslyn, like most Sidhe, has long ears."


That drew a small smile from Elizabeth because it was true literally as well as being a reference to their keen hearing. When he saw the sign of relaxation, Harry patted the hand he held, let go of it, and rose to sit on the sofa near Elizabeth's chair. Silently, Denno sat opposite. Unobtrusively, he lifted a hand and looked pointedly at the faint disturbance that appeared in the air.


"Mary has been praying for the strength and wisdom to rule." Harry was watching Elizabeth and noticed the faintest thinning of her lips.


"Not for Edward's cure or salvation?"


"Likely Mary, having seen him and spoken to him, believes him beyond even miracles, but Rhoslyn is careful to tell me only what she hears, not what she thinks. Rhoslyn is very fond of Mary and is torn between her desire for Mary's happiness and her knowledge of the misery Mary's happiness will bring to the realm at large."


Elizabeth sighed. "Mary intends to root out the reformed religion." A shrug followed. "Well, I knew it would be so. It could not be otherwise. But that means Northumberland must go, and I fear he will not go willingly or easily. I do not know what he can do, however. Denno thought he might offer me the throne, bypassing Mary."


Was there a quiver of hope in her voice? That was dangerous. Elizabeth must not yet betray her ambition. Harry suppressed a shudder. He had never wanted to rule himself, but, raised as the center of much political maneuvering, he had perforce learned a great deal. That knowledge and the need to protect himself from those who would use him as a pawn had sparked a deep interest in how England was governed, and being "dead and buried" had not abated that interest a bit. Harry FitzRoy had the means to keep himself well informed and did so.


"He will not succeed in that," Harry said, a note of warning in his voice. "Mary is too much beloved, even by those whose faith she will attack. She may not succeed in becoming queen—but that will be only because she is dead or prisoner by Northumberland's—"


"No!" Denoriel exclaimed with quiet violence. "Elizabeth could not take the throne after Mary's murder. She would be reviled by all and unable to rule no matter that she had nothing to do with the crime or did not even know of it. There is no way she could prove herself innocent, except to be dead first."


"I do not think I wish to go quite that far to prove myself innocent," Elizabeth said dryly.


Denoriel smiled at her, just as a low table appeared before Elizabeth's chair. On it was an exquisite tea service, the porcelain as delicate as an eggshell glowing with iridescent green and blue, bluebells in a forest glade. Two tall stemmed glasses stood before a bottle of wine, and two thick, crystal mugs sat next to a sweating pitcher of ale. There was also a large plate, one side holding slices of bread and slices of cheese and the other piled with a variety of sweet pastries; cups of honey and a variety of jams stood near the bread.


Absently Harry picked up a piece of bread and slapped a slice of cheese on it, while Denoriel poured out two mugs of ale. "Yet equal or greater danger may come from Mary alive." Harry's voice was slightly muffled as he chewed and swallowed. "I do not want to frighten you, Bess, but Mary . . . does not love you. You must do nothing that can wake a suspicion in her that you desire to unseat her and take the throne."


Elizabeth spread jam on a slice of bread and looked hard at her cup, in which tea promptly appeared. "I would not if I could," she said; she paused and sipped. "As I said earlier to Denno, I will not contest Mary for the throne. My right is from my father's will and the Act of Succession. Mary must rule before I can."


Harry nodded approval. "Rhoslyn is doing all she can to prevent Mary from wishing to harm you. She is limited in how much influence she can exert, but she assures me that she constantly offers the image of you as a small child, running with cries of joy to greet your kind sister."


"You must be wary and patient," Denoriel urged, "but it will not be forever. Mary is many years older than you and sickly besides."


"And her desire to restore the old religion may cause unrest and dissatisfaction," Harry said, "particularly as she wishes to go further than bringing back the settlement devised by your father. She intends to reconcile with the pope. Rhoslyn heard her praying that the papal father would forgive her for her weakness in yielding to King Henry's demand she reject papal authority."


"She will not rule long if she tries to restore to the Church what my father seized." Elizabeth's voice was carefully neutral. "So many profited greatly from the closure of the abbeys. They will not relinquish what they gained—even those who themselves practice the old religion."


The voice was neutral, but something in the carriage of the head, in the set of the shoulders, said there would be no prayers for Mary's health and possibly even subtle encouragement of those who resisted her policies. Harry cast a rather anxious glance at Elizabeth, guessed that further warnings would only make her stubborn, and decided to change the subject. Mary was not yet on the throne; he would have time for sharper warnings.


"Atop all this, I have more bad news," he said. "At least, I am not sure it is bad, but I suspect so. Gaenor tells me that she and Hafwen and Pasgen can no longer detect Vidal in the mist that acts on its own."


"Vidal is loose?" Elizabeth asked.


Her voice was calm, curious rather than frightened. It was Denoriel who sat up straight and stared at Harry, setting down the mug of ale he had raised to his mouth.


"What do you mean the elder Sidhe 'cannot detect' Vidal?" Denoriel asked.


"I don't know what I mean," Harry replied with a touch of impatience. "The mist could have killed him . . . In which case, whether you like it or not, Elizabeth, we need to go to Oberon and tell him about it. Or Vidal could have escaped the mist . . . And I like that idea almost less than that the mist decided to kill. Vidal is dangerous to you, love."


"He has tried some four or five times to seize me or kill me, and failed each time," Elizabeth said complacently.


"He only needs to succeed once," Denoriel snapped, "and you will be dead or prisoner of the Dark Court and suffering terrible torments."


"I will be freed soon enough if you tell Titania that I was taken. And Oberon will help her. Not because he cares for me," Elizabeth said realistically, "but because he ordered Vidal to leave me alone."


"Do not be so silly, Bessie," Harry said, frowning, his voice sharper than usual when he spoke to her. "Titania and Oberon are not always available to us. Who knows what would be done to you before we could arrange a rescue! And do you think Denno would be content to wait until we found Oberon—or I would? We would seek for you at once, and could be hurt or killed trying to reach you."


Elizabeth had a sudden, vivid memory of one of Vidal's attacks that almost succeeded, a vision of Denno being blasted by fire and lightning, his shields shredding. And Da had been beset by ogres. He had survived only because she had bespelled one ogre's feet to stick to the ground so it could not reach him. What if she had not been able to cast the spell?


"I will be careful," Elizabeth said repentantly. "I will not ride hunting unless Deno is with me or even walk in the garden without my guard." But then she shook her head. "Only . . . only I must try to see Edward." Tears rose in her eyes again. "Likely it is foolish. Possibly he will not even know I have come, but . . . but I will know I tried, that I was not so lily-livered as to coddle my own safety and comfort without regard to him. Perhaps he is in pain or afraid. Perhaps I would be allowed to comfort him if I were there."


 


Some months before Elizabeth's visit Underhill, Vidal Dhu, once Prince of the Dark Court, lay still and thought of a Gate. He had thought of nothing else for a very, very long time. If there was still rage and hate in him, it was buried so deep that even he could not find it.


When he had first been wrapped in the bands of mist made smooth and strong as tight-woven silk, he had screamed and struggled. That had won him only more and tighter bonds, as the ribbons of mist wrapped his head and filled his mouth so that he could not even scream. Then, too late, he tried magic, spells of dissolution, spells of fire; but he could not even move his lips enough to form the spells and his hands, finger by finger, were bound so he could not gesture.


At some time, he had fallen and lain utterly helpless on whatever floored the Unformed lands. Rage and hatred tore him and lashed him. He thrashed, rolled about, struggled to bend his legs, to free his arms—and the bands of mist only tightened.


Eventually Vidal slipped into the state of rest that served the Sidhe for sleep. He was at first too totally enraged to notice, but the bands that swaddled him loosened somewhat while he rested, while he did not fight against his imprisonment, while the rage and hatred were dulled. Of course, each time he became alert and found himself still a prisoner, his wrath was renewed and the bonds tightened again.


It happened many times before Vidal's fury, diminished minimally by exhaustion, allowed him to sense the slight relaxation of his bindings. Unwisely he fought to free himself, with the usual result of greater helplessness. That, too, happened many times before he lay still after he became fully aware. He did not struggle, but he still hated, and the mist would not let him go.


A mortal would have died. Vidal could not even do that. The immense power that flooded this Unformed land seeped into him and satisfied the needs of his body. And as time passed, weeks, months, years in mortal time, Vidal learned. He lay quiet, almost peacefully, and thought of a Gate. The ribbons loosened.


Vidal still lay quiet. He did not think of revenge—what revenge could be taken on an insubstantial mist?—he did not think of the cause of his entrapment, of Elizabeth, who had escaped him again. He thought peacefully and quietly of a Gate. And the bands of mist grew flimsy, like silk worn gossamer thin over many years of use and many washings. Vidal did not press against them. Even when they were only mist again, he did not move, did not try to rise. He thought of a Gate.


Finally, thinking only of a Gate, he moved an arm. No band of mist formed to restrain it. He moved a leg . . . and thought only of a Gate. And in the end, he rose and the Gate was there. Vidal stepped up on the low platform and patterned Caer Mordwyn. He did not even rejoice over his escape until he had stepped out of the Gate and into his own domain.


There not rejoicing but horror struck him. The road between the Gate and the palace was a dissolving ruin. Paving lay in uneven heaps; pit traps were exposed; predatory foliage was encroaching in some places, dying in others; and in some places the road had disappeared completely, vanishing into the mist from which it had been created.


Deep, deep within rage flickered, and with an ability most painfully learned, was instantly suppressed. A moment more and Vidal realized there was no cause for rage, that no power but his had touched the domain—this part at least. The ruin was a result of failure to renew the power . . . and of hasty, shoddy work.


Quietly Vidal looked down the road and remade it. Then came rejoicing. Within him was an immense well of power, strength he had feared to assess while a prisoner of the mist. The remaking of the road was no effort, was so small a withdrawal compared with the power he now held that it was as if he had done nothing.


Vidal began to walk down the road toward his palace. He was smiling. By the end of a mortal week, he told himself, he would rid himself—permanently—of whoever thought to hold Caer Mordwyn and then he would rid the mortal world of the threat of Elizabeth as queen.


In the end he did neither. When he reached the palace, to his intense surprise, Aurilia was there to greet him—and with every evidence of joy. She was the one who had reined in the exuberance of the Dark Court and saved it from angering Oberon.


She had known of his entrapment from Albertus, she admitted. The mortal had Gated back to Caer Mordwyn with his amulet after the mist had made Vidal a prisoner.


"But I looked for you," Aurilia told him most earnestly. "You know how I hate to leave Caer Mordwyn. Still, I looked and looked but I could never find that Unformed land."


"Perhaps that is just as well," Vidal said mildly. "If you tried to help me, it might have taken you prisoner as well."


Aurilia looked at him and shuddered, even as her breasts flushed and heat washed across her loins. Vidal was changed, more powerful than ever, less careless, in far better control of himself. Perhaps he was the best partner for her after all. So long as he would still move in the direction she set for him.


She was brighter and more beautiful, Vidal thought, allowing his appreciation of her golden hair, green eyes, delicately formed ears, and lush body with its faint scent of decay to show. He did not hide the eagerness he felt to use that body.


Aurilia saw. She turned away swiftly and began to mount the black marble stair, smiling back at him over her shoulder. In the black depths of his soul, far too deeply hidden to give any sign, Vidal marked another reason to distrust his partner.


For all the outward gentleness, he was no less brutal in his coupling. He hurt her—well, she could have had no pleasure if he did not—but he did not cast her aside and leave when he was done. When they were at rest, Vidal lay back on the blood-red pillows of her bed and returned to the conversation lust had interrupted. Still softly but with adamant purpose he asked what she had done with Albertus. Aurilia took note, suppressing the chill that passed through her. She would need to be much more careful with this new Vidal.


"He is back in the mortal world, making himself agreeable to the king's doctors," Aurilia said with a bright smile. "He has even suggested this and that remedy which has been helpful to the dying king. So I have quicker and better news of the Court than anyone."


"Ah," Vidal said, one part of his mind pleased, but buried beneath that pleasure was resentment because Albertus had deserted him and not been punished. "That is good. I will be eager to hear how near Mary is to the throne. But before we come to that, do tell me how you managed the Court? I am very glad that Pasgen did not attempt to seize the domain again. I would hate to waste the power I have absorbed in destroying him."


Aurilia shrugged contemptuously. "The power would be wasted, indeed, and destroying him without purpose. He never wanted to rule Caer Mordwyn. Oberon threatened to destroy everything if the beings of the Dark Court were not restrained." She smiled slyly. "But managing your subjects was not really difficult. One does not need great power for that. One only needs to be cleverer than they, and that is easy enough. Most of them, even the Dark Sidhe, are self-centered fools. It is easy to trick them into obedience."


Anger flickered, was swallowed. "If it was so easy to deal with the Court, why did you leave the domain to rot!"


Aurilia sighed. "The palace is strong and sound." She shrugged. "I had not the power to do more." She met his eyes but then let hers slide away.


Vidal was not sure he believed that. He threw back the sheets and rose, aware of the admiration with which Aurilia examined his magnificent nakedness. Vidal was well aware of his striking perfection. He had worn the illusion of that perfection for so long that it was as instinctive as breathing. Aurilia stretched a hand to him and he was half tempted, despite being so newly sated, to respond. But he only smiled. Was cleverness managing him?


"You have done very well," he said, showing his teeth in almost a smile. "Perhaps you would wish to continue to manage the Court while I make sure of Mary's accession and Elizabeth's demise?"


"No!" Aurilia sat bolt upright and shuddered. Then she laughed. "No," she repeated more calmly. "I did not wish to lose Caer Mordwyn—" her eyes flicked around the luxurious room, the velvets and the silks, fur-rug strewn floor, the gold and diamond inlaid toiletries on the gleaming lapis lazuli counter, the flasks of priceless scents, the half-open door of the garderobe which exposed unbelievably rich garments "—so I contrived. But I want no part of ruling here."


Vidal cocked his head and gestured clothing over himself. He was surprised to feel a certainty that she was sincere. She did not want to rule the Dark Court. What did she want? The answer came at once. She wished to rule him. Vidal actually smiled. That made sense. Aurilia had many skills and had studied magic, but she was no maker. For her, it was a great effort even to clothe herself, as he had just done almost without thought; he had made this room and its furnishings. She needed servants to dress her.


He laughed and shook his head. "Lazy, that is what you are, Aurilia." It was perfectly true and he could now accept the fact that Aurilia was happy to pass to him the duties of ruling. What she wanted was status and the groveling of those to whom she gave orders.


"I have better things to do with my time than spend every moment planning how to outwit your stupid subjects," she said, simpering at him.


That was to make him believe she would occupy herself with devices to seduce him, Vidal thought, and in a way that was true too. But she would also study magic, strong magic that took little power. She was clever. Then if Elizabeth came to rule and little power came to the Dark Court, Aurilia would be the strongest worker of magic among them.


Vidal smiled one last time at Aurilia and left her chamber for his own. There he stood, staring unseeingly at the throne chair on which he usually sat. If Elizabeth came to rule . . . For a long moment the deep well in which Vidal had buried his emotions roiled and the hard layer upon layer of blank nothingness that he had built up over four long years of imprisonment threatened to shatter.


Unreasoning terror froze Vidal. He could feel the bonds of silken mist ribbons tighten around him. Elizabeth had caused his entrapment. If he had not tried to kill her and struck down that red-haired, doll-like creature which had contained the ribbons of mist, he would never have been caught. But he had learned from the experience. Rage and hatred were contained. He must not again leap at the first chance to destroy Elizabeth. He must think and plan.


At first Vidal kept busy repairing his realm, suppressing any thoughts of Elizabeth. He was more careful in his making, fixing the landscape and the subtle traps in the landscape and near the Gates to sources of power that renewed themselves. However as the work grew more complex, he worried about that.


Now there was an abundance of misery-generated power. With the young king steadily failing and the persecution of those who worshiped in the old faith increasing, anxiety and foreboding dripped more and more bitter-tainted power Underhill. But if something gave the realm hope, if the English welcomed Mary and were happy to return to the old faith, power might grow thin and what he had fixed to his landscape might deprive the living creatures and make them rebellious.


That concern brought Elizabeth to the forefront of Vidal's mind again. Near the edges of the domain he became less meticulous; he was growing bored. The desire for active evil against the mortal world grew with the need to ensure his power. But Elizabeth was still beyond his reach. She was watched so closely among the spies from the Court, from her sister, and from the Bright Sidhe, that it was a miracle the girl could breathe.


Worse, she was still able to look through illusion in the mortal world so he could not simply replace one of her servants or companions with an assassin. How would he reach her? The question nagged at him.


Annoyed at finding no answer that satisfied him, Vidal posed the question to Aurilia some mortal months after his return. They were dining in his private chamber, the flesh hacked from a still living faun almost quivering on Vidal's plate. Aurilia looked up from her somewhat better cooked portion, with surprise in her large, green eyes.


"Whatever would you bother about her for? She is making no preparations to usurp the throne from Mary—and if she started a civil war, it would be soon enough to act against her. Otherwise, when Mary comes to the throne, Elizabeth is as good as dead. Mary hates her for her mother's sake and envies her for her own charms—of which Mary has none. I would guess that within weeks of being settled into her power, Mary will have Elizabeth's head off."


"No." The flat negative surprised Vidal as much as it surprised Aurilia. "I do not want Elizabeth to be honorably executed. I want her shamed, humiliated." Vidal swallowed as his mouth watered with a hunger that had nothing to do with the food on the table. "I want her to die slowly in my hands—"


"No you do not!" Aurilia exclaimed, looking frightened. "Do you also want Caer Mordwyn invaded by Denoriel leading an army of Bright Sidhe, who all desire Elizabeth to be queen? He will no doubt bring that dung-spawned mortal with his gun and likely enough Titania and possibly even Oberon—"


"Oberon cares nothing for Elizabeth."


"Of course not, but he will care that he bade you let her be and you did not obey him. Let Elizabeth die at the hands of her sister, and leave the humiliation to Mary. No one will blame you for what Mary does. How she feels about Elizabeth is well known."


What Aurilia said was all too true. Mary would come to the throne when Edward died and might well dispose of Elizabeth, and there would be no danger of reprisal from Oberon and the Bright Court. Vidal grimaced. That would ensure that the Dark Court would not be starved for power but would give him no satisfaction at all. No, not at all. Elizabeth must die by his doing.


Vidal swallowed and sliced a tasty tidbit from the bloody portion on his plate. Recalling the fear on Aurilia's face when he spoke of disposing of Elizabeth, he decided it would be a mistake to confide too deeply in her. To save herself, she was quite capable of betraying him to Oberon.


"I suppose you are right about that," Vidal said, "but I have been long away from affairs in the mortal world and I wish to be certain that Mary will do what we need done."


"Ah. Yes. I said to let Mary do the deed. I did not say you should not help her along to make the decision. I know what is going on in the Court, but I have no influence there. You must sink hooks into those whom Mary trusts and they must advise her with one voice that to keep her throne, Elizabeth must die."


Vidal frowned. "To sink hooks, I need to be more aware of what is going forward in the mortal world. On the other hand, I do not wish to use the Otstargi persona simply to gather news. That would betray to Otstargi's clients that he is not all-knowing and would reduce his influence and power."


Aurilia shrugged. "You mean you wish to use Albertus?"


"Yes."


The slight hesitation before she replied showed she was unwilling, but what she said was "You are too rough with the minds of mortals. I do not want Albertus turned into an unthinking idiot. You can talk to him, but I do not want his mind stripped."


"Very well."


Vidal did not try to hide his dissatisfaction with the curb on his use of her servant. He hoped that would convince her that he would not meddle with Albertus's mind. But he did resolve to be careful in how he meddled. Aurilia was as skilled—no, to be honest, more skilled—in such matters as he. He would need to be very careful indeed, or she might armor her servant against him.


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Framed