However, what was occurring in the center of the circle did.
Rhoswen was stretched naked upon the tablet, her hands bound in sashes of autumnal colors. Her hair was fanned out beneath her, a pale white-silver cloak. Tabor, likewise naked, lay upon her, thrusting into her body, his powerful shoulders flexing. He had his gaze locked with hers, and though Lyssa would say they were aware of each other, as Rhoswen and Tabor, something else had them as well , a wreath of magical energy capturing their faces and bodies, conduits for the power rol ing out from the circle.
The Great Rite. The bringing together of male and female energy, representing God and Goddess, yin and yang, the fusion of balance. She'd seen it done several times during her long history, but the timing of it, the significance of Samhain, meant there might be more to it. Anxiety unfolded inside her, even as she knew there was nothing she could or would do to interfere in a sacred ritual like this. Jacob glanced up at her, picking up her agitation, but she shook her head, kept her eyes on what was happening in the circle.
They came to pinnacle together, both testament to the magic between them and Tabor's skil as a lover.
Rhoswen came just before him, their cries joining together to blend in with the drums. As they climaxed, all the assembled cried out with them, a dark, sensual celebration of voices lifting to the night sky.
Tabor slowed his thrusts gradual y, that aura of magical energy stil wreathing his skin, glimmering like mist over the stone and the ground beneath their feet. When the drums at last receded to a steady heartbeat rhythm, two of the circle stepped forward and untied Rhoswen's hands. She wrapped them around his shoulders. For several long moments, they held each other like that, intimate, their heads pressed close. Lyssa wondered what they might be saying to one another, or if they were silent but connected, two such different souls.
At length, Tabor withdrew, rising onto his knees above her. He gave Rhoswen a nod that might have been confirmation or reassurance. The head priestess moved into the circle, wearing an antlered headdress similar to the one Rhoswen normal y wore. With ritual formality, she handed Rhoswen a stone knife. Her voice rose, a trained priestess used to speaking above a crowd, though this one was now hushed, the drums silent.
“The Father, the Lord, the Protector, our King. We praise him for his sacrifice, knowing his life must end for the winter to begin, for the promise of spring to be seeded. May his life be released by the hand of the Maiden, the Mother and Crone. And by the Lover, Our Queen, the Renewer of Life.” Her words echoed in the hil s and up against the wal s of the four castles, which seemed to have drawn closer during the ritual. Lyssa saw people standing in the windows of all of the structures, joining the watching audience. She'd never felt such singular concentration. With the drums beating, the magic had possessed movement, like the strength of a powerful wind. Now there was utter stil ness and, as Thomas had told Jacob, that was where the deepest power lay.
The priestess was joined by a young Fae girl, just past puberty, and a woman whose disproportionately swol en breasts suggested she was stil nursing a child. They all bore stone knives like Rhoswen did. Lyssa tensed. “Jacob . . .” The drums exploded into sound again, increasing to a fever pitch. all of the assembled Fae, even those in the windows, lifted their voices in one long cry. A battle cry, a cry of triumph, a savage cry. In the same moment, all four women plunged the knives into Tabor.
He stiffened, a strangled sound coming from his throat. Rhoswen had plunged her dagger into his heart and now she had her hand pressed against his chest beside the blade's entry point. The other three had pierced his back. When blood ran from the wounds, the other priests and priestesses moved forward, catching it in three chalices. As Tabor slumped, it was Rhoswen that caught him in her arms. Lyssa noted they'd known how to make the kil quick, for life was quickly dying out of his gaze, his soul already departing.
Rhoswen held him close, almost as she had just a moment before, then she turned him so he was the one lying on the stone tablet. Crossing his arms over his chest, closing his now lifeless eyes, she knelt at his feet, pressed her mouth to his arch, her hand gripping his ankle. Then she rose, several priestesses approaching to swathe her in white veils. She took the first sip from the chalice of blood the priestess offered her, before it was passed to the circle of thirteen, as well as the Maid and Mother.
“The Lady accepts the blood of the Lord,” the head priestess said. “May we meditate on our gifts and lives during the dark winter months, and celebrate the coming of spring, when He is reborn, and reunited with both the Mother, the Maid and the Lover once again.”
“You two are white as sheets. Which, given you're vampires, is saying something.”
Jacob looked left to see a smal gnome sitting on a cart. He was handing a squirrel almost as tal as himself pieces of an apple he was cutting into slices with a pocket knife. The squirrel moved around him in random movements, chittering, touching him with clawed feet, even as he kept waving her off.
“Impatient creature. I'm cutting, I'm cutting. Hold your horses.” He nodded at the tablet. “The king ain't dead. Not technical y. He's immortal. He'l be dead for three days, thanks to the magic with which the knives are doused, then he wakes up, the land's renewed, et cetera, et cetera. He's done it every year since he became king, and he'l do it for five hundred years.”
“What happens after the five hundredth time?” Lyssa asked. During Tabor's ritual death, she'd reached down from the tree, covering Jacob's hand with her own. Now she kept it there, though she eased her white-knuckled grip.
“He real y does die. His blood and bones are given to the land. It's a special year, more powerful than all the others combined. Don't worry, though.
He's got plenty more before we all have to say goodbye to him. Hopeful y he'l have offspring by then as good as he is.”
Jacob nodded. Of course, now that his heart rate had slowed, there was another problem closer to home to consider. For the next three days, their most powerful all y against Rhoswen would be “technical y” dead. While Lyssa's raw power was a match for Rhoswen's, the Fae queen had far more years of skil and experience in using hers, and that—as well as all the Fae Guard at her disposal—gave her a deadly advantage.
Jacob thought of the way Rhoswen had knelt at Tabor's feet and kissed one. The tears shining on her face had been as genuine as any he'd seen. A complicated woman. From Lyssa's thoughtful expression, he knew she was in his head. “You think she planned it that way?” he asked. “Issuing the final quest while he's out of the picture?” His own complicated Mistress gave him a look, a grim smile. “Absolutely.”
THE herald came just before dawn, soon after they arrived back in their rooms. While Jacob went to answer the door, Lyssa stayed in the arched window, looking out. Many of the Fae had chosen to bed down on the slopes around the castles, fal ing asleep next to the smoldering remains of the bonfires. Rhoswen had disappeared into the Castle of Earth, escorted by the thirteen priests and priestesses. She wouldn't emerge for three days, sitting vigil by Tabor's side during his three-day terminal sleep.
The proximity to dawn didn't bother Jacob as much here, so he took advantage of the remaining few minutes of darkness to hand her the scrol unopened and shift into the window sil opposite her, drawing his knees up and linking his hands around them. His bare toes touched the hem of her dress.
When she opened it, a handful of rose petals fel out, their normal fragrance tangled with a scent Jacob recognized as water from the lagoon. Lyssa's gaze flicked up to him.
A queen must always have her spies.
As she began to read, her brow drew down, lips tightening. Jacob waited through what appeared to be three ful readings before she handed it over to him. Rising, she moved to the wardrobe, began to leaf through the handful of clothing that had appeared in there for her over the past couple days.
Jacob looked down at the scrol .
You found your way to our world. Your servant rode a waterhorse. You survived the spear of Dagda. All admirable in their own way, but to have the right to leave or stay, you will perform one quest at my bidding, not at the fortune of circumstances or through your servant's cleverness.
As you know, Lord Reghan's punishment was to be turned into a rose bush and left in the desert to die. This bush was placed in a desert accessible through our portals, an enchanted place, a prison for those who commit crimes against the Fae.
Lord Reghan was a Fae of great power.
Though he did in fact die in the desert, the rose bush has remained, a skeletal, dried up thing in the sand, refusing to be reduced to dust. When a Fae of his power dies, his soul, his essence, becomes a gemstone. That gemstone is beneath the dried rosebush, still feeding it through its power. I want the gemstone. I want the essence of my father's soul.
You will don the clothing in your wardrobe.
Do not bother wearing anything else or try to put additional supplies in the pack I've provided you. They will not go through the portal. You have three days to find the rosebush. Though it takes a very, very long time for a Fae to die of starvation or thirst, there are other predators in the desert that will take advantage of your weakness as you feel those effects.
As always, you have a choice. You may go with the consort I've assigned you and stay in this world at my pleasure, or fulfill this quest. I would wish you good luck, sister, but though I wish you success, we both know I care little if I end up prying his soul essence from your lifeless fingers.
Jacob lifted his gaze back to his lady. “So much for sisterly love. She's ful of shit and you know it.”
“It doesn't change the fact that this is the last hurdle, the one that gives us freedom to go or stay.” She'd donned leggings, a tunic and boots. He noted there was no cloak, nothing to protect her face from a desert sun.
“In three days, we could petition for that from Tabor, regardless.”
“No. While he wants me to serve as liaison, he needs Rhoswen's agreement on it. He told me he was ruthless for a reason. It was a reminder. He doesn't interfere with the business of the Unseelie world except in an extraordinary circumstance, like cal ing off the assassination attempts on my mother. I doubt my discomfort at having to stay here as someone's consort would qualify as anything so drastic.”