As we walked, I began to realize that the icy landscape of the Unseelie territory was just as beautiful—and dangerous—as Oberon’s domain. Icicles dangled from the trees, sparkling like diamonds in the light. Occasionally, a skeleton lay beneath them, spears of ice between its bones. Crystal flowers bloomed along the road, petals as hard and delicate as glass, thorns angling toward me as I approached. Once I thought I saw a white bear watching us from atop a hill, a tiny figure perched on its back, but a tree passed in front of my vision and they were gone.
Ash and Puck didn’t say a word to each other as we traveled, which was probably a good thing. The last thing I wanted was another duel to the death. The prince kept a steady, silent march ahead of us, rarely looking back, while Puck entertained me with jokes and useless chatter. I think he was attempting to keep my spirits up, to make me forget about Machina and my brother, and I was grateful for the distraction. Grimalkin vanished periodically, bounding off into the trees, only to reappear minutes or hours later with no explanation of where he’d been.
Later that afternoon, we reached a range of jagged, ice-covered peaks, and the trek turned sharply uphill. The path grew slick and treacherous, and I had to watch where I put my feet. Puck had fallen back on the trail; he kept casting suspicious looks over his shoulder, as if he feared an ambush from behind. I glanced back at him again, and in that moment, my feet hit a patch of ice and slid out from under me. I flailed, losing my balance on the narrow trail, trying desperately to stay upright and not go tumbling back down the mountain.
Something grabbed my wrist, pulling me forward. I collapsed against a solid chest, my fingers digging into the fabric to keep myself upright. As the adrenaline surge faded and my heartbeat returned to normal, I glanced up and found Ash’s face inches from mine, so close I could see my reflection in his silvery eyes.
His nearness made my senses spin, and I couldn’t look away. This close, his face was carefully guarded, but I felt the rapid thud of his heart beneath my palm. My own heartbeat picked up in response. He held me a moment longer, just long enough to make my stomach lurch wildly, then stepped away, leaving me breathless in the middle of the trail.
I looked back and found Puck glaring at me. Embarrassed and feeling strangely guilty, I dusted off my clothes and straightened my hair with an indignant huff before following Ash up the mountain.
Puck didn’t speak to me after that.
By late evening, it had begun to snow, big, soft flakes drifting lazily from the sky. They literally sang as they fell past my ears, tiny voices dancing on the wind.
Ash stopped in the middle of the path, looking back at us. Flakes dusted his hair and clothes, swirling around him as if alive. “The Unseelie Court isn’t far ahead,” he said, ignoring the eddies that spun around him. “We should break from the road. Mab has others besides me looking for you, as well.”
As he finished, the snow whirled madly around us, shrieking and tearing at our clothes. My fur coat clanged as the blizzard pelted me with snow, burning my cheeks and blinding me. I couldn’t breathe; my limbs were frozen stiff to my sides. As the whirlwind calmed, I found myself encased in ice from the neck down, unable to move. Puck was similarly frozen, except his whole head was covered in crystal glass, his features frozen in shock.
Ash was unharmed, staring at us blankly.
“Dammit, Ash!” I yelled, struggling to free myself. I couldn’t even wiggle a finger. “I thought we had a deal.”
“A deal?” whispered another voice. The whirlwind of snow solidified, merging into a tall woman with long white hair and blue-tinged skin. A white gown draped her elegant body, and her black lips curled into a smile.
“A deal?” she repeated, turning to Ash with a mock horrified look. “Do tell. Ash, darling, I believe you’ve been hiding things from us.”
The Voodoo Museum
“Narissa,” Ash murmured. He sounded disinterested, bored even, though I saw his fingers twitch toward his sword. “To what do I owe the pleasure of this visit?”
The snow faery regarded me like a spider watching an insect in its web, before turning pupil-less black eyes on Ash. “Did I hear her right, darling?” she purred, drifting over the ground toward the prince. “Did you actually make a bargain with the half-breed? As I recall, our queen ordered us to bring the daughter of Oberon to her. Are you fraternizing with the enemy now?”
“Don’t be ridiculous.” Ash’s voice was flat as he leveled a sneer in my direction. “I would never betray my queen. She wants Oberon’s daughter, I will bring her Oberon’s daughter. And I was in the middle of doing so, until you showed up and interrupted my progress.”
Narissa looked unconvinced. “A pretty speech,” she crooned, running a finger down Ash’s cheek, leaving a trail of frost. “But what of the girl’s companion? I believe you swore to kill Robin Goodfellow, Ash darling, and yet you bring him into the heart of our territory. If the queen knew he was here—”
“She would allow me to deal with him on my terms,” Ash interrupted, narrowing his eyes. The anger on his face was real now. “I’ve brought Puck along because I want to kill him slowly, take my time with him. After I’ve delivered the half-breed, I’ll have centuries to exact my vengeance on Robin Goodfellow. And no one will deny me that pleasure when it comes.”
Narissa floated back. “Of course not, darling,” she placated. “But perhaps I should take the half-breed on to court from here. You know how impatient the queen can be, and it really isn’t fitting for the prince to be the escort.” She smiled and drifted toward me. “I’ll just take this burden off your hands.”
Ash’s sword rasped free, stopping the faery in her tracks. “Take another step and it will be your last.”
“How dare you threaten me!” Narissa whirled back, snow flurrying around her. “I offer to help, and this is my reward! Your brother will hear of this.”
“I’m sure he will.” Ash smiled coldly and didn’t lower his sword. “And you can tell Rowan that if he wants to gain Mab’s favor, he should capture the half-breed himself, not send you to steal her from me. While you’re at it, you can inform Queen Mab that I will deliver Oberon’s daughter to her, I give my word on that.
“Now,” he continued, making a shooing motion with his blade, “it’s time for you to leave.”
Narissa glared at him a moment longer, her hair billowing around her face. Then she smiled. “Very well, darling. I shall enjoy watching Rowan tear you limb from limb. Until we meet again.” She twirled in place, her body dissipating into snow and wind, and blew away into the trees.
Ash sighed, shaking his head. “We need to move fast,” he muttered, striding over to me. “Narissa will tell Rowan where we are, and he’ll come speeding over to claim you for himself. Hold still.”
He raised his sword hilt and brought it smashing down on the ice. The frozen shell cracked and began to chip in places. He sliced down again, and the cracks widened.
“D-don’t worry about m-me,” I said through chattering teeth. “Help P-Puck. He’ll suffocate in th-there!”
“My bargain isn’t with Goodfellow,” Ash muttered, not looking up from his task. “I don’t make a habit of aiding mortal enemies. Besides, he’ll be fine. He’s survived far worse than being frozen solid. Unfortunately.”
I glared at him. “Are you really h-helping us?” I demanded as more bits of the ice shell began to crack. “What you said to Narissa—”
“I told her nothing that wasn’t true,” Ash interrupted, staring back at me. “I will not betray my queen. When this is over, I will deliver Oberon’s half-blood daughter to her, as I promised.” He broke eye contact and placed his hand over the ice, where the cracking was the greatest. “I’ll just do it a little later than she expects. Close your eyes.”
I did, and felt the ice column vibrate. The thrumming grew louder and stronger until, with the sound of breaking glass, the ice shattered into a million pieces and I was free.
I sagged to the ground, shaking uncontrollably. My robe was coated in ice, the chiming fur silenced. Ash knelt down to help me up, but I slapped his hand away.
“I’m not going anywhere,” I growled, “until you get Puck out.”
He sighed irritably but rose and walked over to the second frozen mound, putting his hand on it. This time, the ice shattered violently, flying in all directions like crystal shrapnel. Several pieces lodged in a nearby tree trunk, glittering ice daggers sunk deep into the bark. I cringed at the vicious explosion. If he had done that to me, I would’ve been shredded.
Puck staggered forward, his face bloody, his clothing in tatters. He swayed on his feet, eyes glazed over, and started to fall. I shrieked his name and raced over as he collapsed into my arms.
And disappeared. His body vanished the moment I caught him, and I was left staring at a frayed leaf, spiraling to the ground. Beside me, Ash snorted and shook his head.
“Did you hear everything you wanted, Goodfellow?” he called to the empty air.
“I did,” came Puck’s disembodied voice, floating out of the trees, “but I’m not sure I believe my ears.”
He dropped from the branches of a pine, landing with a thump in the snow. When he straightened, his green eyes blazed with anger. Not directed at Ash, but at me.
“That’s what you promised him, princess?” he shouted, throwing up his hands. “That was your bargain? You would offer yourself to the Unseelie Court?” He turned and punched a tree, sending twigs and icicles to the ground. “Of all the stupid ideas! What is wrong with you?”
I shrank back. This was the first time I’d seen him angry. Not just Puck, but Robbie, too. He never got mad, viewing everything as a colossal joke. Now he looked ready to tear my head off.
“We needed help,” I said, watching in horror as his eyes glowed and his hair writhed like flames atop his head. “We have to get out of Unseelie territory and into Machina’s realm.”
“I would have gotten you there!” Puck roared. “Me! You don’t need his help! Don’t you trust me to keep you safe? I would’ve given everything for you. Why didn’t you think I’d be enough?”
I was struck speechless. Puck sounded hurt, glaring at me like I’d just stabbed him in the back. I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t dare look at Ash, but I sensed he was vastly amused by this whole display.
As we stared at each other, Grimalkin slid out of the brush, a patch of smoke gliding over the snow. His eyes bore that half-lidded, amused look as he glanced at the fuming Puck, then back to me. “It gets more entertaining every day,” he purred with his feline grin.
I wasn’t in the mood for his sarcasm. “Do you have anything helpful to say, Grim?” I snapped, watching his eyes slit even more.
The cat yawned and sat down to lick himself. “Actually, yes,” he murmured, bending to his flanks. “I do have something you might be interested in.” He continued washing his tail for several heartbeats, while I fought the urge to grab that tail and swing him around my head like a bolo. Finally, he stretched and looked up, blinking lazily.