It met a gleaming blue sword instead, screeching off the blade in a volley of sparks, bringing tears to my eyes. Sage threw back one attacker and whirled to meet the next, ducking as wire talons slashed over his head. The Winter prince thrust out a palm, and a jagged ice spear surged out of the floor, stabbing toward the Iron fey. Lightning fast, they dodged, leaping back and giving us time to retreat. Grabbing my wrist, Sage yanked me behind the throne.
“Keep out of the way,” he ordered, just as the faeries descended on us again, swarming over the chair and leaving deep gouges in the ice. Sage slashed at one, only to have it spring back. Another darted in from behind, lashing out with steel talons. The prince dodged, but he didn’t move fast enough, and a bright splash of blood colored the floor. My stomach twisted as the prince staggered, swinging his blade in a desperate circle to keep the assassins back. There were too many for him, and they were too quick. Frantically, I looked around for a weapon, but saw only the scepter, lying on the pedestal near the throne. Knowing I was probably breaking a dozen sacred rules, I lunged for the scepter and snatched it up by its frozen handle.
The cold seared my hands, burning them like acid. I gasped and nearly dropped it, gritting my teeth against the pain. Sage stood in the middle of a slashing whirlwind, desperately trying to keep them back. I saw lines of red on his face and chest. Trying to ignore the searing pain, I rushed up behind an Iron fey, raised the scepter over my head and smashed it down on the faery’s spindly back.
It whirled with blinding speed. I didn’t even see the blow until it backhanded me across the face, making lights explode behind my eyes. I flew back into a corner, striking my head on something hard and slumping to the floor. The scepter dropped from my grasp and rolled away. Dazed, I watched the faery scuttle toward me but suddenly jerk to a stop, as if yanked by invisible strings. Ice covered its body, pushing up through the seams in the wire as the faery clawed at itself frantically. Wire-thin fingers snapped off, and the faery’s struggles slowed before it curled in on itself like a giant insect and stopped moving altogether. I didn’t have the breath to scream. I tried pushing away from the wall, but everything spun violently and my stomach lurched. I heard footsteps coming toward me and opened my eyes to see Tertius bend down and take the Scepter of the Seasons.
“Don’t,” I managed, trying to struggle to my feet. The ground swayed, and I stumbled back. “What are you doing?”
He observed me with solemn gray eyes. “Following the orders of my king.”
“King?” I struggled to focus. Everything seemed to be moving in slow motion. A few feet away, Sage and the assassins fought on. The wolf had its jaws clamped around a faery’s leg, and Sage pressed it unmercifully with his sword. “You don’t have a king anymore,” I told Tertius, feeling light-headed and numb. “Machina is dead.”
“Yes, but our realm endures. I follow the commands of the new Iron King,”
Tertius murmured, drawing his sword. I stared at the steel blade, hoping it would be quick. “I bear you no ill will, this time. My orders do not include killing you. But I must obey my lord.”
And with that, Tertius spun on his heel and marched away, still holding the Scepter of the Seasons. It pulsed blue and white in his hands, coating his gauntlets with frost, but he did not fumble. His face was grim as he strode up behind Sage, still locked in battle with the assassins. The wolf thrashed on the ground in a pool of blood, and Sage’s breaths came in ragged gasps as he fought on alone. In horror, I saw what Tertius was going to do and screamed out a warning.
Too late. As Sage cut viciously at one of the Iron fey, he didn’t see Tertius looming behind him until the knight was right there. Aware of the danger at last, Sage whirled, swinging his sword, cutting at Tertius’s head. The knight knocked the blade aside and, as Sage staggered back, took one step forward and plunged his own sword through the Winter prince’s chest.
Time seemed to stop. Sage stood there a moment, a look of shock on his face, staring at the blade in his chest. His own sword hit the ground with a ringing clang. Then Tertius yanked the blade free, and I gasped. Sage crumpled to the floor, blood pooling from his chest and streaming onto the ice. The assassins tensed to pounce on him, but Tertius blocked them with his sword.
“Enough. We have what we came for. Let’s go.” He flicked blood off the blade and sheathed it, his eyes moving to the corpse of the frozen assassin. “Fetch your brother, quickly. We can leave no evidence behind.”
The Iron fey scrambled to comply, lifting the dead faery onto their shoulders, careful not to touch the ice piercing its skin. They even grabbed the pieces off the floor. Tertius turned to me, his gaze bleak, as darkness hovered on the edge of my vision. “Farewell, Meghan Chase. I hope we do not meet again.” He spun quickly to follow the assassins, marching out of my line of sight. I turned my head to follow them, but they were already gone. MY HEAD THROBBED, and darkness threatened at the edges of my vision; I took several deep breaths to drive it back. I would not pass out now. Gradually, the churning blackness cleared, and I pulled myself upright, looking around. The throne room had fallen silent again, except for the slow thudding of my heart, which sounded unnaturally loud in my ears. Blood flecked the walls and pooled along the floor, horribly vivid against the pale ice. The altar that had held the Scepter of the Seasons lay empty and bare.
My gaze wandered to the two bodies still in the room with me. Sage lay on his back, his sword a few inches from his hand, gazing up at the ceiling, gasping. A few feet away, the furry body of the wolf, gray fur streaked with blood, lay crumpled on the ice. Limping, I ran over to Sage, passing the body of the poor wolf, sprawled out next to him. The wolf’s jaws gaped open, and a tongue lolled out between bloody teeth. It had died protecting its master, and I felt sick at the thought.
Just as I reached Sage, a shudder went through the prince’s body. His head arced back, mouth gaping, and ice crawled up from his lips, spreading over his face, down his chest, and all the way to his feet. He stiffened as the air chilled around us, the ice making sharp crinkling sounds as it encased the prince in a crystal cocoon.
No. I looked closer, and realized Sage’s body was turning to ice. His clawed fingers flexed, losing their color, becoming hard and clear. His thumb abruptly snapped off and shattered on the floor. I put both hands to my mouth to keep from screaming. Or vomiting. Sage gave a final jerk and was still, a cold, hard statue where a live body had been a moment before.
The oldest son of the Winter Court was dead.
And that’s how Tiaothin found us a moment later.
Later, I didn’t recall much of that moment, but I did remember the phouka’s screech of horror and fury as she fled to tell the rest of the court. I heard her shrill voice echoing down the corridor, and knew I should probably move, but I was cold, numb to all feeling. I didn’t leave the prince’s side until Rowan swept in with a platoon of guards, who pounced on me with angry cries. Rough hands grabbed me by the arms and hair, dragging me away from Sage’s body, oblivious to my protests and cries of pain. I shouted at Rowan to tell him what had happened, but he wasn’t looking at me.
Behind him, Unseelie fey crowded into the room, and roars of fury and outrage filled the chamber when they saw the dead prince. Fey were screaming and crying, tearing at themselves and each other, demanding vengeance and blood. Dazed, I realized the Unseelie were outraged at the murder of a Winter prince in their own territory. That someone had dared slip in and kill one of their own, right under their noses. There was no sorrow or remorse for the prince himself, only fury and demands for revenge at the audacity of it. I wondered if anyone would truly miss the eldest prince of Winter. Rowan stood over Sage’s body, his expression eerily blank as he stared down at his brother. Amid the roars and cries of the fey around us, he regarded his sibling with the curiosity one might show a dead bird on the sidewalk. It made my skin crawl. Silence fell over the room, and a chill descended like an icy blanket. I twisted in my captor’s grasp and saw Mab standing in the doorway, her gaze locked on Sage’s body. Everyone backed away as she entered the throne room. You could hear a pin drop as the queen walked up to Sage’s body, bending down to touch his cold, frozen cheek. I shivered, for the temperature was still dropping. Even some of the Winter fey looked uncomfortable as new icicles formed on the ceiling and frost crept over skin and fur. Mab was still bent over Sage, her expression unreadable, but her mulberry lips parted and mouthed a single word. “Oberon.”
Then she screamed, and the world shattered. Icicles exploded, flying outward like crystallized shrapnel, pelting everyone with glittering shards. The walls and floor cracked, and fey screeched as they disappeared into the gaping holes.
“Oberon!” Mab raged again, whirling around with a terrifying, crazy look in her eyes. “He did this! This is his revenge! Oh, Summer will pay! They will pay until they are screaming for mercy, but they will find no pity among the Winter Court! We will repay this heinous act in kind, my subjects! Prepare for war!”
“No!” My voice was drowned out in the roar that went up from the Unseelie fey. Twisting out of my captor’s grip, I staggered into the middle of the room.
“Queen Mab,” I gasped, as Mab swung the full brunt of her terrible gaze on me. Madness warred with the fury in her eyes, and I shrank back in terror. “Please, listen to me! Oberon didn’t do this! The Summer Court didn’t kill Sage, it was the Iron King. The Iron fey did this!”
“Be silent!” hissed the queen, baring her teeth. “I will not listen to your pathetic attempts to protect your wretched family, not when the Summer King threatened me in my own court. Your sire has murdered my son, and you will be silent, or I will forget myself and give him an eye for an eye!”
“But, it’s true!” I insisted, though my brain was screaming at me to shut up. I glanced around desperately and spotted Rowan, looking on with a faint smile. Ash would back me up, but Ash, as usual, wasn’t here when I needed him. “Rowan, please. Help me out. I’m not lying, you know I’m not.”
He regarded me with a solemn expression, and for a moment I really thought he would come through, before a corner of his mouth curled nastily. “It isn’t nice to deceive the queen, Princess,” he said, looking grim apart from the sneer in his eyes. “If these Iron fey were a threat, we would have seen them by now, don’t you think?”
“But they do exist!” I cried, on the verge of panic now. “I’ve seen them, and they are a threat!” I turned back to Mab. “What about the huge, fire-breathing iron horse that almost killed your son? You don’t think that’s a threat? Call Ash,” I said. “He was there when we fought Ironhorse and Machina. He’ll back me up.”
“Enough!” Mab screeched, whirling on me. “Half-breed, you go too far!
Your line has already robbed me of a son, and you will not touch another! I know you seek to turn my youngest against me with your blasphemous claims of love, and I will not have it!” She pointed a manicured nail at me, and a flare of blue-white shot between us as I stumbled back.