“Ash.” Rowan smiled as his brother stalked toward us, and my heart leaped. For a moment, I imagined Ash’s gray eyes were narrowed in fury, but then he drew close and looked the same as he had the night before—cold, distant, slightly bored.
“What a coincidence,” Rowan continued, still bearing that disgustingly smug grin. “Come and join us, little brother. We were just talking about you.”
“What are you doing, Rowan?” Ash sighed, sounding more irritated than anything. “Mab told us not to bother the half-breed.”
“Me? Bother her?” Rowan looked incredulous, blue eyes widening into the picture of innocence. “I’m never a bother. We were just having a scintillating conversation. Weren’t we, Princess? Why don’t you tell him what you just told me?”
Ash’s silver gaze flicked to mine, a shadow of uncertainty crossing his face. My lips opened of their own accord, and I clapped my hands over my mouth again, stopping the words before they spilled out. Meeting his gaze, I shook my head, beseeching him with my eyes.
“Oh, come now, Princess, don’t be shy,” Rowan purred. “You seemed to have a lot to say about our dearest boy Ash, here. Go on and tell him.”
I glared at Rowan, wishing I could tell him exactly what he could do with himself, but I was feeling so sick and light-headed now, it took all my concentration to stay upright. Ash’s gaze hardened. Striding away from me, he bent and plucked something out of the snow, holding it up before him.
It was the fruit I’d dropped, a single bite taken out of the flesh, like Snow White’s poisoned apple. Only it wasn’t an apple now, but a big spotted toadstool, the fleshy insides white as bone. My stomach heaved, cramping violently, and I nearly lost the bite I’d taken.
Ash said nothing. Glaring at Rowan, he held up the mushroom and raised an eyebrow. Rowan sighed.
“Mab didn’t specifically say we couldn’t use spill-your-guts,” Rowan said, shrugging his lean shoulders. “Besides, I think you’d be most interested in what our Summer princess has to say about you.”
“Why should I be?” Ash tossed the mushroom away, looking bored again.
“This conversation isn’t important. I made the bargain to get her here, and now it’s done. Anything I said or did was for the purpose of bringing her to court.”
I gasped, my hands dropping away from my face, to stare at him. It was true, then. He’d been playing me all along. What he told me in the Iron Kingdom, everything we shared, none of that was real. I felt ice spreading through my stomach and shook my head, trying to erase what I just heard. “No,” I muttered, too low for anyone to hear. “It’s not true. It can’t be. Ash, tell him you’re lying.”
“Mab doesn’t care how I did it, as long as the goal was accomplished,” Ash continued, oblivious to my torment. “Which is more than I can say for you.” He crossed his arms and shrugged, the picture of indifference. “Now, if we’re quite done here, the half-breed should return inside. The queen will not be pleased if she freezes to death.”
“Ash,” I whispered as he turned away. “Wait!” He didn’t even glance at me. Tears pressed behind my eyes, and I stumbled after him, fighting a wave of dizziness. “Ash!”
“I love you!”
The words just tumbled out of me. I didn’t mean to say them, but the moment I did, my stomach twisted with disbelief and utter horror. My hands flew back to my mouth, but it was far, far too late. Rowan grinned his biggest yet, a smile full of terrible glee, like he’d been given the best present in the world.
Ash froze, his back still to me. For just a moment, I saw his hands clench at his sides.
“That’s unfortunate for you, isn’t it?” he said, his voice dead of emotion.
“But the Summer Court has always been weak. Why would I touch the half-breed daughter of Oberon? Don’t make me sick, human.”
It was like an icy hand plunged into my body, ripping my heart from my chest. I felt actual physical pain lance through me. My legs buckled, and I collapsed to the snow, ice crystals biting into my palms. I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t even cry. All I could do was kneel there, the cold seeping through my jeans, hearing Ash’s words echo through my head.
“Oh, that was cruel, Ash,” Rowan said, sounding delighted. “I do believe you broke our poor princess’s heart.”
Ash said something else, something I didn’t catch, because the ground began to twirl beneath me, and another wave of dizziness made my head spin. I could have fought it off, but I was numb to all feeling, and I didn’t care at the moment. Let the darkness come, I thought, let it take me away, before it pulled a heavy blanket over my eyes and I dropped into oblivion.
The Scepter of the Seasons
I drifted for a while, neither awake nor asleep, caught somewhere between the two. Hazy, half-remembered dreams swam across my vision, mingling with reality until I didn’t know which was which. I dreamed of my family, of Ethan and Mom and my stepdad, Luke. I dreamed of them going on without me, slowly forgetting who I was, that I ever existed. Shapes and voices floated in and out of my consciousness: Tiaothin telling me to snap out of it because she was bored, Rowan telling Queen Mab that he had no idea I would react so violently to a simple mushroom, another voice telling the queen that I might never wake up. Sometimes I dreamed that Ash was in the room, standing in a corner or beside my bed, just watching me with bright silver eyes. In my delirium, I might have heard him whisper that he was sorry.
“Humans are such fragile creatures, aren’t they?” murmured a voice one night, as I drifted in and out of stupor. “One tiny nibble of spill-your-guts sends them into a coma. Pathetic.” It snorted. “I heard this one was in love with Prince Ash. Makes you wonder what Mab will do to her, once she wakes up. She’s none too pleased with the Summer whelp being all mushy-mushy with her favorite son.”
“Well, she certainly picked an inconvenient time to go all Sleeping Beauty,”
added another voice, “what with the Exchange coming up and all.” It snorted. “If she does wake up, Mab might kill her for the annoyance. Either way, it’ll be entertaining.” The sound of their laughter faded away, and I floated in darkness.
An eternity passed with few distractions. Voices slipping by me, unimportant. Tiaothin repeatedly poking me in the ribs, her sharp claws drawing blood, but the pain belonged to someone else. Scenes of my family: Mom on the porch with a police officer, explaining she didn’t have a missing daughter; Ethan playing in my room, which was now an office, repainted and refurnished, all my personal items given away. There was a dull throb in my chest as I watched him; in another life, it might have been sorrow, longing, but I was beyond feeling anything now and watched my half brother with detached curiosity. He was talking to a familiar stuffed rabbit, and that made me frown. Wasn’t that rabbit destroyed…?
“They have forgotten you,” murmured a voice in the darkness. A deep, familiar voice. I turned and found Machina, his cables folded behind him, watching me with a small smile on his lips. His silver hair glowed in the blackness. My brow furrowed. “You’re not here,” I muttered, backing away. “I killed you. You aren’t real.”
“No, my love.” Machina shook his head, his hair rippling softly. “You did kill me, but I am still with you. I will always be with you, now. There is no avoiding it. We are one.”
I drew back, shivering. “Go away,” I said, retreating into the black. The Iron King watched me intently, but did not follow. “You’re not here,” I repeated. “This is just a dream, and you’re dead! Leave me alone.” I turned and fled into the darkness, until the soft glow of the Iron King faded into the void.
ANOTHER ETERNITY PASSED, or perhaps only a few seconds, when through the confusion and darkness, I felt a presence near the bed. Mom? I wondered, a little girl once more. Or maybe Tiaothin, come to bother me again. Go away, I told them, retreating into my dreams. I don’t want to see you. I don’t want to see anyone. Just leave me alone.
“Meghan,” whispered a voice, heart-wrenchingly familiar, drawing me out of the void. I recognized it immediately, just as I realized it was a figment of my desperate imagination, because the real owner of that voice would never be here, talking to me. Ash?
“Wake up,” he murmured, his deep voice cutting through the layers of the darkness. “Don’t do this. If you don’t come out of this soon, you’ll fade away and drift forever. Fight it. Come back to us.”
I didn’t want to wake up. There was nothing but pain waiting for me in the real world. If I was asleep, I couldn’t feel anything. If I was asleep, I didn’t have to face Ash and the cold contempt on his face when he looked at me. Darkness was my retreat, my sanctuary. I drew back from Ash’s voice, deeper into the comforting blackness. And, through the layer of dreams and delirium, I heard a quiet sob.
“Please.” A hand gripped mine, real and solid, anchoring me to the present.
“I know what you must think of me, but…” The voice broke off, took a ragged breath. “Don’t leave,” it whispered. “Meghan, don’t go. Come back to me.”
I sobbed in return, and opened my eyes.
The room was dark, empty. Faery light filtered through the window, casting everything in blue and silver. As usual, the air was icy cold. A dream, then, I thought, as the mist swirling around my head for so long finally cleared, leaving me devastatingly awake and aware. It was a dream, after all.
A sense of betrayal filled me. I’d come out of my lovely darkness for nothing. I wanted to retreat, to return to the oblivion where nothing could hurt me, but now that I was awake, I couldn’t go back.
An ache filled my chest, so sharp that I gasped out loud. Was this what a broken heart felt like? Was it possible to die from the pain? I’d always thought the girls at school so dramatic; when they broke up with their boyfriends, they cried and carried on for weeks. I didn’t think they needed to throw such a fuss. But I’d never been in love before. What would I do now? Ash despised me. Everything he’d said and done was to bring me to his queen. He was a cheat. He’d used me, to further his own ends. And the saddest part was, I still loved him.
Stop it! I told myself, as tears threatened once more. Enough of this! Ash doesn’t deserve it. He doesn’t deserve anything. He’s a soulless faery who played you every step of the way, and you fell for it like an idiot. I took a deep breath, forcing back the tears, willing them to freeze inside me, to freeze everything inside me. Emotions, tears, memories, anything that made me weak. Because if I was going to play in the Unseelie Court, I had to be made of ice. No, not ice. Like iron. Nothing will hurt me again, I thought, as my tears dried and my emotions shriveled into a withered ball. If the damned faeries want to play rough, so be it. I can play rough, too.
I threw back the covers and stood tall, the cold air prickling my skin. Let it freeze me, I don’t care. My hair was a mess, tangled and limp, my clothes rumpled and disgusting. I peeled them off and walked into the bathroom for a long soak in the tub—the only warm place in the entire court—before dressing in black jeans, a black halter top and a long black coat. As I was finishing lacing up my black boots, Tiaothin walked into the room. She blinked, obviously astonished to see me on my feet, before breaking into a huge grin, fangs shining in the moonlight. “You’re up!” she exclaimed, bouncing over and leaping onto my bed. “You’re awake. That’s a relief. Mab’s been annoyed and cranky ever since you collapsed. She thought you were going to sleep forever, and then she’d have a devil of a time explaining your condition to the Seelie courtiers when they come for the Exchange.”