She stepped forward, and the hoards of Winter fey leaped back at her approach, as if she had a disease. However, it wasn’t the flower woman all eyes were trained on, but what she held in her hands.
It was a scepter, like kings and queens used to carry, only this one wasn’t just some decorated rod. It pulsed with a soft amber glow, as if sunlight clung to the living wood, melting the snow and ice where it touched. The long handle was wrapped in vines, and the carved head of the scepter continuously sprouted flowers, buds, and tiny plants. It left a trail of leaves and petals where the lady passed, and the Winter fey kept their distance, growling and hissing.
At the foot of the throne, the lady knelt and held out the scepter in both hands, bowing her head. For a moment, Mab did nothing, simply watching the faery with an unreadable expression on her face. The rest of the Winter Court seemed to hold their breath. Then, with deliberate slowness, Mab stood and plucked the scepter from the woman’s hands. Holding it before her, the queen studied it, then raised it up for all to see. The scepter flared, the golden aura swallowed up by icy blue. The leaves and flowers shriveled and fell away. Bees and butterflies spiraled lifelessly to the ground, their gossamer wings coated in frost. The scepter flared once more and turned to ice, sending sparkling prisms of light over the courtyard.
The faery kneeling before the queen jerked and then…she, too, shriveled away. Her gorgeous robe withered, the flowers turning black and falling to the ground. Her hair curled, becoming dry and brittle, before flaking off her scalp. I heard the snapping of twigs as her legs broke at the knees, unable to hold her up any longer. She pitched forward into the snow, twitched once, and was still. As I watched in horror, wondering why no one went forward to help, the smell of roses faded away, and the stench of rotting vegetation filled the courtyard.
“It is done,” said Oberon, his voice weary. He raised his head and met Mab’s gaze. “The Exchange is complete, until the summer equinox. Now, if you will excuse us, Queen Mab. We must return to Arcadia.”
Mab shot him a look that was purely predatory. “You will not stay, Lord Oberon?” she crooned. “Celebrate with us?”
“I think not, Lady.” If Oberon was disturbed by the way Mab looked at him, he didn’t show it. “The ending of summer is not something we look forward to. I’m afraid we will have to decline. But, be warned, Queen Mab, this is not yet over. One way or another, I will have my daughter back.”
I gave a start at those words. Maybe Oberon would come through for me after all. But Mab’s gaze narrowed, and she stroked the handle of the scepter.
“That sounds uncomfortably close to a threat, Erlking.”
“Merely a promise, my lady.” With Mab still glaring at him, Oberon deliberately turned his back on the Winter Queen and strode to the carriage. A troll opened the door for him, and the Erlking entered without a backward glance. The driver shook the reins, and the Summer entourage was off, growing smaller and smaller, until the darkness swallowed them up.
“Summer is over,” she announced in her raspy voice, raising her other arm as if to embrace her waiting subjects. “Winter has come. Now, let the Revel begin!”
The Unseelie went berserk, howling, roaring and screaming into the night. Music started from somewhere, wild and dark, drums pounding out a fast, frenzied rhythm. The fey swarmed together in a chaotic, writhing mass, leaping, howling and twirling madly, rejoicing in the coming of winter.
I DIDN’T GET INTO the party. One, I wasn’t in the mood, and two, dancing with the Winter fey didn’t seem like such a great idea. Especially after I saw a group of drunk, glamour-high redcaps swarm a boggart and tear it limb from limb. It was like a mosh pit from hell. Mostly I hung back in the shadows, trying to avoid notice and wondering if Mab would think me rude if I retreated to my room. Looking at the frozen statues of humans and fey scattered throughout the courtyard, I decided not to risk it.
At least Rowan was absent from the celebrations, or lurking somewhere I couldn’t see. I had been bracing myself to fend off his advances all night. Ash was also mysteriously absent, which was both a relief and a disappointment. I found myself searching for him, scouring the shadows and mobs of dancing fey, looking for a familiar tousled head or the glint of a silver eye.
Stop that, I thought, when I realized what I was doing. He’s not here. And even if he was, what would you do? Ask him to dance? He’s made what he thinks of you perfectly clear.
“Excuse me, Princess.”
For a moment, my heart leaped at the soft, deep voice. The voice that could either be Rowan’s or Ash’s, they sounded so much alike. Bracing myself, I turned, but it wasn’t Ash standing there. Thankfully, it wasn’t Rowan, either. It was the other brother, the oldest of the three. Sage.
Dammit, he’s gorgeous also. What was with this family, that all the sons were so freaking handsome it hurt to look at them? Sage had his brothers’ pale face and high cheekbones, and his eyes were chips of green ice, peering out beneath slender brows. Long black hair rippled behind him, like a waterfall of ink. His wolf sat a few paces away, watching me with intelligent golden eyes.
“Prince Sage,” I greeted warily, prepared to fend off another assault. “Can I help you with anything, Your Highness?” Or did you just come to push yourself on me like Rowan, or mock me like Ash?
“I want to speak with you,” the prince said without preamble. “Alone. Will you walk with me a bit?”
This surprised me, though I still hesitated, wary. “Where are we going?” I asked.
“The throne room,” Sage replied, sweeping his gaze back to the palace. “It is my duty to guard the scepter this night, as only those with royal blood are allowed to touch it. With all the chaos from the Revel, it is best to keep the scepter away from the masses. It could get messy otherwise.” When I paused, thinking, he shrugged a lean shoulder. “I will not force you, Princess. Come with me or not, it makes no difference. I merely wanted to speak to you without Rowan, Ash, or some phouka trying to eavesdrop on the conversation.”
He waited patiently as I struggled for an answer. I could refuse, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to. Sage seemed straightforward, almost businesslike. Different from his brothers. He wasn’t making any attempt to be charming, but he wasn’t being condescending, either. And unlike Rowan, who oozed charm and malice, he wasn’t using glamour, and I think that’s finally what sold me.
“All right,” I decided, motioning with my hand. “I’ll talk with you. Lead the way.”
He offered me his arm, which surprised me again. After a moment’s hesitation, I took it, and we started off, his wolf trailing silently behind us. He led me back into the palace, down empty halls swathed in ice and shadow. All the Unseelie fey were outside, dancing the night away. My footsteps echoed loudly against the hard floors; his and the wolf’s made no sound at all.
“I’ve seen you,” Sage murmured without looking at me. He turned a corner, so smoothly I stumbled to keep pace. “I’ve watched you with my brother. And I want to warn you, you mustn’t trust him.”
I almost laughed, the statement was so obvious. “Which one?” I asked bitterly.
“Either of them.” He pulled me down another corridor, one I recognized. We were close to the throne room now. Sage pressed on without slowing. “You do not know the enmity between Ash and Rowan, how deep the rivalry goes. Especially on Rowan’s part. The jealousy he feels for his youngest brother is a dark poison, eating him from the inside, making him bitter and vengeful. He has never forgiven Ash for Ariella’s death.”
We entered the throne room in all its frigid, icy beauty. Sage released me and walked toward the throne, his wolf padding behind him. I shivered, huddling deeper into my coat. It was colder in here than it was outside. “But Ash wasn’t responsible for Ariella’s death,” I said, rubbing my forearms. “That—” I stopped, not wanting to say it out loud. That was Puck, who led them into danger. Who was responsible for the death of Ash’s love. Sage didn’t answer. He had come to a stop a few feet beside Mab’s icy throne, staring at something on the altar beside it. A moment later, I realized that was the source of the ungodly chill in the room. The Scepter of the Seasons hovered a few inches over the altar, washing the prince’s face in icy blue light.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?” he murmured, running his fingers over the frozen handle.
“Every year, I see it, and yet it never ceases to amaze me.” His eyes glittered; he seemed to be in some sort of trance. “Someday, if Mab ever gets tired of being queen, it will be mine to accept, to rule with. When that happens…”
I didn’t get to hear the rest, for at that moment, the wolf let out a long, low growl and bared its teeth.
Sage whirled around. In one smooth motion, he drew the sword at his waist. I stared at it. It was much like Ash’s, straight and slender, the blade throwing off an icy blue aura. I shivered, remembering what it was like to grasp that hilt, feel the awful cold bite into my skin. And for a moment, I was terrified. He’s going to kill me, that’s why he brought me here alone. He was going to kill me all along.
“How did you get in here?” Sage hissed.
I turned. There, against the back wall, several dark forms melted out of the shadows. Four were thin and lanky, almost emaciated, their frames nothing but wires twisted together to form limbs and a body, resembling huge puppets as they skittered over the ground on all fours. The wolf’s growls turned into snarls.
My heart turned over as another form stepped into the light, dressed in segmented metal armor emblazoned with a barbed-wire crown. He wore a helmet, but the visor was up, showing a face as familiar to me as my own. There was no mistaking that pale skin, those intense gray eyes. Ash’s face gazed out at me from under the helmet, his eyes as bleak as the winter sky.
“Ash?” Sage muttered in disbelief. I shook my head mutely, but the prince wasn’t looking at me.
The knight blinked, giving Sage a solemn look. “I’m afraid not, Prince Sage,”
he said, and I shivered at how much he sounded like his double. “Your brother was simply the blueprint for my creation.”
“Tertius,” I whispered, and Ash’s doppelgänger gave me a pained smile. The last time I’d seen the Iron knight was in Machina’s tower just before it came crashing down. I couldn’t imagine how he’d survived. “What are you doing here?”
Tertius’s gaze met mine, his eyes blank and dead, looking so much like Ash’s it made my heart ache. “Forgive me, Princess,” he murmured, and made a sweeping gesture with his arm.
With shrieks like knives scraping against each other, the Iron faeries rushed me.
They were appallingly fast, scuttling gray blurs across the floor. I had the absurd image of being ambushed by a swarm of metallic spiders before they were upon me. The first attacker leaped up and slashed at my face with a twisted wire claw as sharp as any razor.