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Prologue

The small glade was filled with a silvery light that had no source in sun or moon. It was bordered by giant trees, their leaves a dark mist fading into the seemingly star-studded sky, their smooth-barked trunks shining softly with reflected silver. Between the trees, walling off the outside world, were curtains of spider web, as beautifully patterned as the finest lace, with tiny beads of dew gleaming like jewels along the strands.


A male being, not a man, for he was fully and truly Other, lay at ease on a raised bed of soft, dry moss. The silver light gleamed on his white skin, picking out with subtle shadows, the powerful muscles of arm and thigh, the flat, faintly ribbed belly, the swelling pectorals. His eyes were so black that no pupils could be seen, but there was a living glow to them; his hair was black too, somewhat tumbled now but showing the deep peak from which it was ordinarily swept smoothly back in springy waves. Even abandoned to utter relaxation Oberon would have inspired awe had any been there to see him.


Beside him, equally relaxed, lay a vision of perfect beauty, golden hair spread wide over the moss pillow on which her head rested. Her eyes were green, brilliant, their oval pupils, like those of a cat, a sharp contrast to the glowing green. Her skin was alabaster white but somehow warm and living, touched on cheek and lip with a pale rose that darkened provocatively on the upstanding nipples of her bare breasts. And, like alabaster, her whole body seemed almost translucent, lit from within. Titania at rest was an image to be fixed in the mind and cherished forever.


Titania turned slightly toward Oberon and sighed. "There has been more than usual energy and excitement coming from the mortal world this past week, but it will not last."


A very faint smile touched Oberon's beautifully shaped lips; he did not move his head, but his eyes shifted so he could see his queen. They showed a wary gleam.


"No, I fear we have some dull years coming," he said.


Titania sat up. "And worse to follow, much worse."


Oberon shrugged, his glance caressing Titania's perfect body. "It is all grist to our mill, whether joy or pain the mortal energy comes to feed us, to bring us power for our magic."


"Faugh! The sourness of horror and agony coats my mouth, slimes my throat, and roils my belly. I prefer the sweet energy of dancing and singing, of poetry of love and heroism, of rich tales of imagination mingled with joy and tragedy." She leaned forward, eyes intent, lips thinning. "I do not want the fires of the Inquisition in Logres!"


"Titania . . ." Although he had not moved, there was a tense warning in Oberon's voice. "I cannot deprive the Unseleighe Sidhe of their share. Something calls the energy of pain to them and so their power grows and they feel rich. Our power thins for a time, but only for a little while." He lifted a hand and touched her shoulder, then allowed his fingers to slide down her arm. "It ill befits you to be so greedy when the evil will last so few mortal years, barely an eyeblink to us. I am lord of both Seleighe and Unseleighe kind, whether the Morrigan admits it or no. That I linger among the Seleighe is my choice. That I favor the Seleighe is also my choice."


"So you say." But Titania's lips had pursed into a mulish pout. "But I would not see the promise of the great blossoming destroyed and there are threats gathering about the red-haired queen. It would be so easy . . . Mary is already ailing . . ."


Oberon rose so that he was facing Titania. "No! I will have no interference. A path is set. It must be trodden . . . even by such as you, my lady."


His head was well above hers and his shoulders half a body wider, but she faced him without flinching, power rising in her so that her flesh glowed faintly. "Why? There are strange things in the FarSeers' lens. Some Great Evil is stirring."


"I am no less aware than you," Oberon snapped. "When it moves, I will deal with it."


"Yes, I am sure you will, but then it may be too late. If that Great Evil touches Elizabeth, her spirit might be warped, bent into unreason and cruelty so that a blight falls over the blossoming." She was silent for a moment, then lifted her head defiantly. "If Mary does not provide a fertile ground to plant a seed . . ."


"No, I say!" A faint rumble as of far-off thunder disturbed the tranquil air.


"I will protect Elizabeth who will bring me my desire . . ." The thunder drew nearer; the air thickened and grew heavy. The light in the clearing darkened. For a moment the challenge between them threatened to erupt into violence, but then Titania cocked her head to one side and said, "I will offer a bargain."


"What bargain?" The thunder receded.


"I will not myself touch nor send any agent to touch Mary if Elizabeth is allowed free entrance and exit Underhill. Here I or her guardians can heal any hurt done her so that her spirit will remain strong and untrammeled until her fate comes upon her." She smiled in triumph as the faint light returned to the clearing, and air cleared.


The overt expression of Oberon's face and voice as he heard her was wariness, but beneath that was something that Titania could not read or was reluctant to read. Satisfaction? Had he known all along what she desired and was baiting her? Fury rose in Titania. More color touched her cheeks and made her breasts swell slightly so that the nipples were even more prominent and more rosy. She clenched her jaw. And suddenly Oberon leaned forward, touched her lips with his and brushed a fingertip over one rosy nipple.


"Done," he said, his lips moving sensuously against hers, and then, "You dazzle my eyes like the mortal sun when you are angry."


Anger collapsed again for the moment. She should have been angrier still . . . and she would be. She would rage . . . but after, after he had served her a new portion of delight.


 


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Framed