My gut twisted. I curled up inside my cloak, as close to the fire as I dared, and let my mind go blank. I was certain that Ash’s last words would prevent me from getting any sleep, but I was more exhausted than I realized and soon drifted into oblivion.
That night, for the first time, I dreamed of the Iron King.
The scene was eerily familiar. I stood atop a great iron tower, a hot wind stinging my face, smelling of ozone and chemicals. Before me, a huge metal throne rose into the mottled yellow sky, black iron spikes raking the clouds. Behind me, Ash’s cold, pale body was sprawled against the edge of a fountain, blood oozing slowly into the water.
Machina the Iron King stood at the top of his metal throne, long silver hair whipping in the wind. His back was to me, the numerous iron cables extending from his shoulders and spine surrounding him like glittering wings.
I took a step forward, squinting up at the silhouette on the throne. “Machina!” I called, my voice sounding weak and small in the wind. “Where’s my brother?” The Iron King raised his head slightly, but didn’t turn around. “Your brother?”
“Yes, my brother. Ethan. You stole him and brought him here.” I kept walking, ignoring the wind that tore at my hair and clothes. Thunder boomed overhead, and the mottled yellow clouds turned black and crimson. “You wanted to lure me here,” I continued, reaching the base of the throne. “You wanted me to become your queen in exchange for Ethan. Well, here I am. Now let my brother go.”
Machina turned. Only it wasn’t the Iron King’s sharp, intelligent face that stared down at me.
It was my own.
I jerked awake, my heart hammering against my ribs, cold sweat trickling down my back. The fire had gone out, and the ice cave lay dark and empty, though the sky showing through the holes was already light. Snow lay in huge glimmering piles where it had drifted in through the roof, and several new icicles were already forming on the ceiling, growing back like teeth. Ash was nowhere to be seen.
Still trembling from the nightmare, I rolled away from the dead campfire and stood, shaking snow clumps from my hair. Pulling my cloak tighter around myself, I went searching for Ash.
I didn’t have to look far. He stood outside in the clearing, snow flurries drifting around him, his sword glowing blue against the white. From the sweeping footprints in the snow, I knew he’d been practicing sword drills, but now he stood motionless, his back to me, gazing toward the entrance of the gully.
I pulled up my hood and walked out, tromping through the deep snow until I stood beside him. He acknowledged me with a flick of his eyes, but otherwise didn’t move, his gaze riveted to the edge of the canyon.
“They’re coming,” he murmured.
A group of horses appeared then, seeming to materialize out of the falling snow, pure white and blue-eyed, trotting a few inches above the ground. Atop them sat Winter knights in icy blue-and-black armor, their gazes cold beneath their snarling wolf helms.
Ash stepped forward, very subtly moving in front of me as the knights swept up, horses snorting small geysers from flared nostrils. “Prince Ash,” one knight said formally, bowing in the saddle. “Her majesty the queen has been informed of your return and has sent us to escort you and the half-breed back to the palace.” I bristled at the term half-breed but Ash didn’t seem terribly fazed by their arrival.
“I don’t need an escort,” he said in a bored voice.
“Return to the palace and tell Queen Mab I will arrive shortly. I’m fairly capable of handling the half-breed by myself.”
I cringed at his tone. He was back to being Prince Ash, third son of the Unseelie Court, dangerous, cold and heartless. The knights didn’t seem at all surprised, which somehow made me even more apprehensive. This cold, hostile prince was the Ash they were used to.
“I’m afraid the queen insists, Your Highness,” the first one replied, unapologetic. “By order of Queen Mab, you and the half-breed will come with us to the Winter Court. She is rather impatient for your arrival.” Ash sighed.
“Very well,” he muttered, not even looking at me as he swung into an empty saddle. Before I could protest, another knight reached down and pulled me up in front of him. “Let’s get this over with.” We rode for several silent hours. The knights did not speak to me, Ash, or each other, and the horse’s hooves made no sound as they galloped over the snow. Ash didn’t even look in my direction; his face remained blank and cold throughout the ride.
Completely ignored, I was left to my own thoughts, which were dark and growing more disturbing the farther we went. I missed home. I was terrified of meeting Queen Mab. And Ash had turned into someone cold and unfamiliar. I replayed our last kiss in my mind, clinging to it like a life vest in a raging sea. Had I imagined his feelings for me, misread his intentions? What if everything he’d said was just a ploy, a scheme to get me to Tir Na Nog and the queen?
No, I couldn’t believe that. The emotion on his face that night was real. I had to believe that he cared, I had to believe in him, or I would go crazy.
Night was falling and a huge frozen moon was peeking over the tops of the trees when we came to a vast, icy lake. Jagged ice floes crinkled against one another near the shoreline, and fog writhed along the surface of the water. A long wooden dock stretched out toward the middle of the lake, vanishing into the hanging mist.
As I wondered how close we were to the Winter Court, the knights abruptly steered their horses onto the rickety dock and rode down single file, the dark waters of the lake lapping the posts beneath us. I squinted and peered through the fog, wondering if the Winter Court was on an island in the center.
The mist cleared away for just a moment, and I saw the edge of the dock, dropping away into dark, murky lake water. The horses broke into a trot, then a full gallop, snorting eagerly, as the end of the dock rushed at us with terrifying speed.
I closed my eyes and the horses leaped.
We hit the water with a loud splash and sank quickly into the icy depths. The horse didn’t even try to resurface, and the knight’s grip was firm, so I couldn’t kick away. I held my breath and fought down panic as we dropped deeper and deeper into the frigid waters.
Then, suddenly, we resurfaced, bursting out with the same noisy splash, sending water flying. Gasping, I rubbed my eyes and looked around, confused and disoriented. I didn’t recall the horse swimming back up.
Where were we, anyway?
My gaze focused, my breath caught and I forgot about everything else.
A massive underground city loomed before me, lit up with millions of tiny lights, gleaming yellow, blue and green like a blanket of stars. From where we floated in the black waters of the lake, I could see large stone buildings, streets winding upward in a spiral pattern and ice covering everything. The cavern above soared into darkness, farther than I could see, and the twinkling lights made the entire city glow with hazy etherealness.
At the top of a hill, casting its shadow over everything, an enormous, ice-covered palace stood proudly against the black. I shivered, and the knight behind me spoke for the first time.
“Welcome to Tir Na Nog.”
I glanced at Ash and finally caught his gaze. For a moment, the Unseelie prince looked torn, balanced between emotion and duty, his eyes begging forgiveness.
But a half second later he turned away, and his face shut into that blank mask once more.
We rode through the snow-laced streets toward the palace, and the denizens of the Unseelie Court watched us pass with glowing, inhuman eyes. We stopped at the palace doors, where a pair of monstrous ogres glared menacingly, drool dripping from their tusks, but let us through without a word.
Even within the palace, the rooms and hallways were coated with frost and translucent, crystal ice in various colors; it was possibly colder inside than it was outside.
More Unseelie roamed the corridors: goblins, hags, redcaps, all watching me with hungry, evil grins. But since I was flanked by a group of stone-faced knights and one lethally calm Winter prince, none dared do more than leer at me.
The knights escorted us to a pair of soaring double doors carved with the images of frozen trees. If you looked closely, you could almost see faces peering at you through the branches, but if you blinked or looked away they would be gone. A chill wafted out from between the cracks, colder than I thought possible, even in this palace of ice. It brushed across my skin and tiny needles of cold stabbed into me. I shivered and stepped back.
The knights, I realized, were now standing at attention along the corridor, gazing straight ahead, paying us no attention. As I rubbed my stinging arm, Ash stepped close, not touching me, but close enough to make my heart beat faster. With his back to the knights, he put a hand on the door and paused, as if gathering his resolve.
“This is the throne room,” he murmured in a low voice. “Queen Mab is on the other side. Are you ready?” I wasn’t, really, but nodded anyway. “Let’s do this,” I whispered, and Ash pushed open the door.
A blast of that same cold, stinging air hit my face as we went through, nearly taking my breath away. The room beyond was painfully cold; ice columns held up the ceiling, and the floor was slick and frozen. In the center of the room, surrounded by pale, aloof Winter gentry and pet goblins, the queen of the Unseelie Court waited for us.
Queen Mab sat atop her throne of ice, regal, beautiful and terrifying. Her skin was paler than snow, her blue-black hair coiled elegantly atop her head, held in place with icy needles. She wore a cloak of white fur and held a crystal goblet in one delicate, long-fingered hand. Her eyes, black and as depthless as space, rose slowly, capturing me in a piercing stare. Above the furred ruff, bloodred lips curled into a slow smile.
“Meghan Chase,” Queen Mab purred. “Welcome to the Winter Court. Please, make yourself comfortable. I’m afraid you could be here a long, long time.”