I frowned at her, and for a moment, a tiny spark of hope flickered inside.
“What Exchange?” I wondered. Have they come for me? Has Oberon finally sent someone to rescue me from this hellhole?
Tiaothin, in that guileless way of hers, seemed to know exactly what I was thinking. “Don’t worry, half-breed,” she sniffed, looking at me with slitted eyes. “They’re not coming for you. They’re here to pass on the Scepter of the Seasons. Summer is finally over, and winter is on the way.”
I felt a pang of disappointment and quashed it. No weakness. Show her nothing. I shrugged and casually asked, “What’s the Scepter of the Seasons?”
Tiaothin yawned and made herself comfortable on my bed. “It’s a magical talisman that the courts pass between them with the changing of the seasons,” she said, picking at a loose thread on my quilt. “Six months out of the year, Oberon holds it, when spring and summer are at their peak, and winter is at its weakest. Then, on the autumn equinox, it is passed to Queen Mab, to signify the shift in power between the courts. The Summer courtiers will be arriving soon, and we’ll have a huge party to celebrate the start of winter. Everyone in Tir Na Nog is invited, and the party will last for days.” She grinned and bounced in place, dreadlocks flying. “It’s a good thing you woke up when you did, half-breed. This is one party you don’t want to miss!”
“Will Lord Oberon and Lady Titania be there?”
“Lord Pointy Ears?” Tiaothin sniffed. “He’s much too important to go slumming around with Unseelie lowlifes. Nah, Oberon and his bitch queen Titania will stay in Arcadia where they’re comfortable. Lucky thing, too. Those two stiff necks can really ruin a good party.”
So I’d be on my own after all. Fine with me.
THE SUMMER COURT ARRIVED in a hale of music and flowers, probably in direct defiance of Winter, whose traditions I was beginning to hate. I stood calf deep in snow, the collar of my fur coat turned up against cold, watching Unseelie fey mill about the courtyard. The event was to take place outside, in the courtyard full of ice and frozen statues. Will-o’-the-wisps and corpse candles floated through the air, casting everything in eternal twilight. Why couldn’t the Winter fey hold their parties aboveground for once? I missed the sunlight so much it hurt. I felt a presence behind me, then heard a quiet chuckle in my ear. “So glad you were able to make it to the party, Princess. It would’ve been terribly boring without you.”
My skin prickled, and I squashed down my fear as Rowan’s breath tickled the back of my neck. “Wouldn’t miss it for the world,” I replied, keeping my voice light and even. His eyes bored into my skull, but I didn’t turn. “What can I do for you, Your Highness?”
“Oh ho, now we’re playing the ice queen. Bravo, Princess, bravo. Such a brave comeback from your broken heart. Not what I expected from Summer at all.” He shifted around me so that we were inches apart, so close I could see my reflection in his ice-blue eyes.
“You know,” he breathed, his breath cold on my cheek, “I can help you get over him.”
I desperately wanted to back away, but I held my ground. You are iron, I reminded myself. He can’t hurt you. You’re steel inside. “The offer is appreciated,” I said, locking gazes with the sidhe prince, “but I don’t need your help. I’m already past him.”
“Are you now?” Rowan didn’t sound convinced. “You know he’s right over there, don’t you? Pretending not to watch us?” He smirked and took my hand, pressing it to his lips. My stomach fluttered before I could stop it. “Let’s show dear Ash how much you’re over him. Come on, Princess. You know you want to.”
I did want to. I wanted to hurt Ash, make him jealous, put him through the same pain I had gone through. And Rowan was right there, offering. All I had to do was lean forward and meet his smirking mouth. I hesitated. Rowan was gorgeous; I could do worse in the casual make-out department.
“Kiss me,” Rowan whispered.
A trumpet sounded, echoing over the courtyard, and the smell of roses filled the air. The Seelie Court was arriving, to the roars and shrieks of the Winter fey. I started, wrenching myself out of the glamour-induced daze. “Dammit, stop doing that!” I snarled, yanking my hand from his grip and stumbling back. My heart slammed against my rib cage. God, I’d almost fallen for it this time; another half second and I would have been all over him. Shame colored my cheeks.
Rowan laughed. “You’re almost attractive when you blush,” he snickered, moving out of slapping range. “Until next time, Princess.” With another mocking bow, he slipped away.
I glanced around furtively, wondering if Ash truly was nearby and watching us, as Rowan claimed. Though I saw Sage and his enormous wolf lounging against a pillar near Mab’s throne, Ash was nowhere in sight.
Two satyrs padded through the briar-covered gates of the courtyard, holding pale trumpets that looked made of bone. They raised the horns to their lips and blew a keening blast, one that set the Unseelie Court to howling. Atop her throne of ice, Mab watched the procedures with a faint smile.
“Gotcha!” hissed a voice, and something pinched me painfully on the rear. I yelped, whirling on Tiaothin, who laughed and danced away, dreadlocks flying. “You’re an idiot, half-breed,” she taunted, as I kicked snow at her. She dodged easily. “Rowan’s too good for you, and he’s experienced. Most everyone, fey and mortal boys included, would give their teeth to have him to themselves for a night. Try him. I guarantee you’ll like it.”
“Not interested,” I snapped, glaring at her with narrowed eyes. My butt still stung, making my words sharp. “I’m done playing games with faery princes. They can go to hell, for all I care. I’d rather strip nak*d for a group of redcaps.”
“Ooh, if you do, can I watch?”
I rolled my eyes and turned my back on her as the Seelie Court finally made its appearance. A line of white horses swept into the courtyard, their hooves floating over the ground, their eyes as blue as the summer sky. Atop saddles made of bark, twigs and flowering vines, elven knights peered down haughtily, elegant in their leafy armor. After the knights came the standard-bearers, satyrs and dwarfs bearing the colors of the Summer Court. Then, finally, an elegant carriage pulled up, wreathed in thorns and rosebushes and flanked by two grim-faced trolls who growled and bared their fangs at the crowds of Winter fey. Tiaothin sniffed. “They’re being highly paranoid this year,” she muttered, as a troll took a swat at a goblin that edged too close. “Wonder who the high-and-mighty noble is, to warrant such security measures?”
I didn’t answer, for my skin was prickling a warning, though I didn’t know why until a moment later. The carriage rolled to a stop, the doors were opened…
And King Oberon, Lord of the Seelie Court, stepped out into the snow. The Unseelie fey gasped and snarled, backing away from the carriage, as the Erlking swept his impassive gaze over the crowd. My heart hammered in my chest. Oberon looked as imposing as ever: slender, ancient and powerful, his silver hair falling to his waist and his eyes like pale leaves. He wore robes the color of the forest, brown and gold and green, and an antlered crown rested on his brow.
Beside me, Tiaothin gaped, flattening her ears. “Oberon?” she snarled, as I watched the Erlking’s gaze sweep the crowd, searching meticulously. “What’s Lord Pointy Ears doing here?”
I couldn’t answer, for Oberon’s piercing stare finally found me. His eyes narrowed, and I shivered under that look. The last time I’d seen the Erlking, I’d snuck away from the Seelie Court to find my brother. Oberon had sent Puck to fetch me back, and I’d convinced him to help me instead. After our rebellion and direct disobedience, I imagined the Seelie king was none too happy with either of us.
My stomach twisted and a lump rose to my throat as I thought of Puck. I managed to swallow it down before any Unseelie noticed my bout of weakness, but the memories still haunted me. I desperately wished Puck were here. I stared at the carriage, hoping his lanky, red-haired form would come leaping out, flashing that defiant smirk, but he did not appear.
“Lord Oberon,” Mab said in a neutral voice, but it was clear that she, too, was surprised to see her ancient rival. “This is a surprise. To what do we owe the honor of your visit?”
Oberon approached the throne, flanked by his two troll bodyguards. The crowd of Unseelie fey parted quickly before him, until he stood before the throne. “Lady Mab,” the Erlking said, his powerful voice echoing over the courtyard, “I have come to request the return of my daughter, Meghan Chase, to the Seelie Court.”
A murmur went through the ranks of Unseelie fey, and all eyes turned to me. Iron, I reminded myself. You are like iron. Don’t let them scare you. I stepped out from behind Tiaothin and met the surprised, angry looks head-on.
Oberon gestured at the carriage, and the trolls reached inside, dragging out two pale Winter sidhe, their arms bound behind their backs with living, writhing vines. “I have brought an exchange, as the rules dictate,” Oberon continued, as the trolls pushed the prisoners forward. “I will return to you your own, in exchange for my daughter’s freedom—”
Mab interrupted. “I’m afraid you misunderstand, Lord Oberon,” she rasped with the faintest of smiles. “Your daughter is not a prisoner of the Unseelie, but a willing guest. She came to us on her own, after making a bargain with my son to do so. The girl is bound by her contract to Prince Ash, and you have no power to demand her return. Once a bargain is made, it must be honored by all.”
Oberon stiffened, then slowly turned to me again. I gulped as those ancientas-the-forest eyes pierced right through me. “Is this true, daughter?” he asked, and though his voice was soft, it echoed in my ears and made the ground tremble. I bit my lip and nodded. “It’s true,” I whispered. I guess your wolf henchman didn’t come back to tell you that part.
The Erlking shook his head. “Then, I cannot help you. Foolish girl. You have doomed yourself to your fate. So be it.” He turned from me, a deserting gesture that spoke louder than any words, and I felt like he had punched me in the stomach. “My daughter has made her choice,” he announced. “Let us be done with this.”
That’s it? I thought as Oberon walked back toward the carriage. You’re not going to fight to get me out, bargain with Mab for my freedom? Because of my stupid contract, you’re just going to leave me here?
Apparently so. The Erlking didn’t look at me a second time as he reached the carriage and gestured to his trolls. One of them shoved the Unseelie prisoners back into the carriage, while the other opened the opposite door with a grunt. A tall, regal faery stepped out into the snow. Despite her size, she looked so delicate it seemed she would break at the slightest puff of air. Her limbs were bundles of twigs, held together with woven grass. Fragile white buds grew from her scalp instead of hair. A magnificent mantle covered her shoulders, made of every flower under the sun: lilies, roses, tulips, daffodils, and plants I didn’t have a name for. Bees and butterflies flitted around her, and the smell of roses was suddenly overpowering.