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Prologue

The great gold and black banners of King Oberon and Queen Titania flew over the Palace of Avalon proclaiming to those of the elfhame that the King and Queen were in residence. And none too soon; never mind that the elves and their Underhill kin lived long and slow lives, those lives still intersected with the mortals in the World Above, and in that world things were moving, and in directions that were—less than auspicious. Once again, there were choices to be made, and those choices would resonate Underhill for centuries to come.


Still, for this moment, Aleneil could only watch and wait, as her elders and superiors set the wheels of politics and progress in ponderously slow motion. Eirianell, who had been FarSeer in Avalon since Atlantis disappeared beneath the sea, summoned to her a young mortal servant and bid her go to the palace and ask Lord Ffrancon if an audience for the FarSeers could be arranged with the King and Queen. Then, once more, the four FarSeers raised the great lens and looked within.


They looked upon a mortal future far removed from the England of Great Harry's prime. The land of England in the World Above was dark, not black with horror, but gray with dullness and misery. No singing and dancing accompanied by hearty cheers bespoke the merriment of a masque. In ale-houses there was only silence or sullen exchanges where once raucous laughter greeted bright-eyed poets with overlong hair who stood on tables declaiming verses of varying quality to the left eyebrow or shell-pink ear of their latest mistress. In a royal court that had once been almost blindingly brilliant with sparkling gems and garments of rich hues and cloth of silver and gold, there was only drabness. Suits of black, of gray, of flat, ugly brown bedecked the courtiers, and gowns of the same hues made plain the most lovely of women, who wore no adornment and kept their eyes always lowered. A young king ruled, fair enough of face but dour of expression—and of a mind and heart so closed that it permitted no new thoughts within.


What happened in the World Above was reflected Underhill; it might be slow in coming, but as life and liveliness drained from the World Above, it would drain from Underhill. Still, the reign of a single king, the lifetime of a mere mortal, was insignificant—so long as the damage to the World Above was limited to what was displayed here.


But the trouble was—it would not be limited to the vagaries of a humorless king in love with austerity.


The next vision was worse, but the FarSeers did not flinch, for they had seen this one over and over, ever since Great Harry had sired his first living daughter. Now black horror ruled the land except for the terrible red of fires which ate screaming victims—men and woman and occasionally (the FarSeers moaned in pain as the images crossed the lens, for they never grew accustomed to this) children. Books burned, too: English Bibles and any other text that raised any question about strict Catholic doctrine and abject obedience to the pope, no matter how corrupt and venal that leader might be. A dull-haired woman sat on the throne, her belly bloated, her once-sweet face twisted with misery and determination.


And then the prize—at the end of the storm and the tempest, came the rainbow. Color and life so vibrant it nearly burst out of the lens into reality. Theaters rose on the banks of the Thames with bright flapping banners to advise that a play was being given. Music and dancing gladdened the hearts of all. The presses clanged and rumbled as volumes of poetry and plays and books of theology and wondrous tales were imprinted for all to read. In the vision were some dark blots—poverty, cruelty, ignorance—but the FarSeers were aware that this was the human condition and simply accepted them. The mortals had been granted free will, and with that great gift came the privilege to abuse themselves and others; the point was to see to it that the bright and goodly things outnumbered the dark and dismal.


And reigning over all of this was the red-haired queen, whose golden eyes were alight with curiosity and intelligence, and who strove to mold her subjects into a unified nation without making all alike.


Even though the vision was unreal, an ephemeral thing, there came right through the lens a taste and smell of sweetness of new thoughts, new beauty, vibrant excitement. And in this Vision only, behind the queen, unmistakably, stood the Sidhe lord, Denoriel Siencyn Macreth Silverhair, and his twin sister, Aleneil Arwyddion Ysfael Silverhair.


Aleneil, the youngest of the FarSeers, sighed at seeing her image in the lens. "I thought, perhaps, the mortal world would proceed without our help. I do not know if Denoriel . . ." Her voice faltered, for her sibling had been sorely injured in protecting the red-haired babe who would be, if she lived, the queen of the joyous vision. She interlaced the long fingers of her supple hands together, to keep them from trembling. "It is possible that Denoriel will not be able. The channels through which his powers flow were burned and Mwynwen does not yet know whether they will heal or how they will heal."


"He must be able," Morwen, the next youngest of the FarSeers said, firmly, as if her own will could impose wellness upon Denoriel. "You saw what would come if you were not in the Vision. Dullness and misery we will survive. Other times like that have come and gone. But think what will follow if what is in the dark-haired queen's womb is born. Will Logres survive? Will Avalon?"


"Patience. Balance." The FarSeer with hair the color of old gold and a gown in the style of Periclean Athens held up a hand. "Eirianell has already requested an audience. Perhaps the High King has knowledge we do not." She lifted her hand, and the others rose with her, to fall in behind her. She led the way with head held high, and every sign of serenity as they bent their path to the High King's palace.


Aleneil wished that she had such serenity—then wondered if it really was composure on the part of their leader, or only a counterfeit. Aleneil was very young among the Sidhe, to them barely adult; the leader of the FarSeers was as ancient in mortal years as the style of gown she favored. She had thus had many years to cultivate a mask of calm repose.


There was no sign of what the FarSeers had read in their lens as they walked beneath the star-bespangled false-sky, between two rows of towering linden trees, covered with silver-green leaves and golden flowers. The path beneath them was of soft and springy moss, interrupted only by artistically placed stones and clumps of violets and bluebells. Ahead of them stood a palace of lacey marble and alabaster that had changed little over the passing of the years. Avalon looked as it had for countless centuries, dreaming in an endless, peace-filled blue twilight, as nightingales sang and crickets chirruped.


And unless the High King found some new wisdom, if Denoriel could not take up the task of guarding and guiding the young Princess Elizabeth Tudor, it all might end in fear and flame.


If Oberon had more knowledge than his FarSeers, he gave no sign of it. He greeted the ladies of the Visions not in his throne room where the entire Bright Court might listen to them, but in a private chamber. However, this was no intimate chamber where a king might shed his dignity and speak as an ordinary being with intimates, or even play for a time. They gathered in a room where gracefully arched openings in all four walls framed only blank alabaster panels. There were no places save the single door into it where this chamber was open to the palace or the grounds. This was where a king made arrangements and gave judgments he had no desire for his entire court to know.


The room looked cool and somehow as if it held apart from what happened within it. The walls were pale silver, slightly sparkling. There were no windows, which was somehow faintly oppressive, but light, the soft, silvery twilight of Underhill, suffused the chamber, coming from everywhere and nowhere. The ceiling was lapis-lazuli; the floor of blue-veined marble. At one end was a dais, and upon that were two thrones. They were not huge, nor encrusted with gems and ivory and precious almost-living shells as were the thrones in the Great Hall; these were made of a dark, shining wood twisted into strange seemings as if it had grown that way. The High King sat in one of these thrones, his Queen, Titania, in the other. Neither throne was larger than the other, mute testimony of their joint rulership, though Oberon had been High King longer than Titania had been Queen.


Having listened to the Visions of the FarSeers, High King Oberon leaned slightly forward toward them. Dark eyes—a black that somehow glowed—fixed on the four women who stood before the throne. They knew him of old, of course, but even so each stared in wonder at him. Power pulsed in him as if barely held in check, and he was beautiful . . . All Sidhe were beautiful, but Oberon was . . . different.


His hair grew from a deep peak on his forehead and swept back in gleaming black waves, the points of his ears showing through, enough to mark him as of elvenkind, if his beauty were not enough. His brows were equally black and high-arched over the fathomless eyes. In contrast his skin was white, not pallid and sickly, but with the hard, high gloss of polished marble.


He towered over all other Sidhe, and not by enchantment. Physical strength almost immeasurable was his, and formidable muscles in shoulders and thighs strained the black velvet tunic and black silk hose he wore. He was all in black, only lightened by silver piping on every seam and the silver bosses on his belt and on the baldric that usually supported the long sword which now leaned against his throne.


"You know I cannot do what you ask," he said. "I am High King of all the Sidhe—Seleighe and Unseleighe alike. If I favor the Seleighe over the Unseleighe, the Unseleighe could rightfully deny my right to rule. I do not say their rebellion would be successful—it would not. But I would know that I had been unfaithful to my trust, and my power would be lessened. And they, feeling restrained and persecuted Underhill, would meddle more and more in the mortal world so that in the end we might be exposed for what we are."


"But if the Inquisition comes to England, it will rip and tear until Underhill is exposed anyway. Remember El Dorado and Alhambra." Eirianell met the black eyes with calm. She had known those who wielded power enough to sink a continent and dared reason with King Oberon.


But he showed no anger, only smiled and then said, "If. There are three futures. When we know more, I will examine my constraints more closely."


"But I have no such constraints," Titania said, her green cat-pupilled eyes glowing with challenge.


Her voice was sweet and rich as warm honey and her presence was the bright contrast to her husband's dark power. Titania was a wonder even to those she ruled. The Queen's lineage was pure High Court, Seleighe elven, except that she was even taller than most male Sidhe. Her body was, of course, perfectly perfect. Her hair was a rich gold, elaborately dressed in a high confection of tiny braids and curls, which showed off her ears; they were delicately shell pink, almost transparent—but the pointed tip of one ear was bent, which tiny imperfection made her somehow more perfect.


Oberon turned his head toward her, but he did not speak. Aleneil, who always watched the High King of the Sidhe as a doomed bird watches a snake, caught a fleeting glance from his dark eyes. She saw, or thought she saw, a kind of satisfaction in that glance. However, in the next instant there was nothing to be seen in Oberon's eyes but an avid sensual hunger, perhaps heightened by Titania's defiance.


The Queen's eyes glowed a bright, pure emerald, brilliant pools deep enough to fall into and drown. Her lips were pale rose, and through the ethereal light violet and white silk robes she wore, she looked . . . translucent, as if she were lit from within. The tip of Oberon's tongue flicked over his lower lip. Titania smiled.


"I desire greatly to see the red-haired child grow up to rule Logres," she said defiantly. "Do you forbid me, my lord?" The smile had not faded from her lips and her eyes, if anything, were brighter, almost casting visible sparks.


"No . . ." Oberon drew out the word and at last looked away from his queen toward the FarSeers. "I do not forbid, only caution. Do not act in your own person, my lady, and keep your favor for the red-haired queen secret." He shook his head before Titania could protest. "I say that more for her sake than for yours. She already attracts our Dark kin's regard; the attention of our Queen might well tempt them beyond caution."


Titania rose from her seat and Oberon rose too, more slowly. She gestured at the FarSeers. "I will see you ladies anon."


 


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Framed