“Well?” Lady Weaver gently touched one of my sleeves, admiring it like an artist would a favorite painting. “What do you think?”
“It’s beautiful,” I managed to say, staring at the elven princess in the glass. “I don’t even recognize myself.” An image flashed through my head and I giggled with slight hysteria. “I won’t turn into a pumpkin when midnight comes, will I?”
“If you annoy the wrong people, you might.” Lady Weaver turned away, clapping her hands. Like clockwork, Tansy and Clarissa appeared wearing simple white dresses, their curly hair brushed out. I caught a glimpse of horns beneath Tansy’s hazel bangs. She held my orange backpack in two fingers, as if afraid it would bite her.
“I had the girls wash your mortal clothes,” Lady Weaver said, turning away from the mirror. “Oberon would have them destroyed, but then that would mean more work for me, so I put them in your bag. Once Elysium is over, I’ll be taking that dress back, so you’ll want to hang on to your own clothes.”
“Um, okay,” I said, taking the backpack from Tansy. A quick inspection showed my jeans and shirt folded inside, and the iPod still hidden in a side pocket. For a moment, I thought to leave the pack behind, but decided against it. Oberon might find it offensive and have someone burn it without my knowledge. It was still mine, and held everything I owned in this world. Feeling slightly embarrassed, I swung it over one shoulder, the hillbilly princess with a bright orange pack.
“Let us go,” Lady Weaver rasped, wrapping a gauzy black shawl around her throat. “Elysium awaits. And, half-breed, I worked hard on that dress. Do try not to get yourself killed.”
We walked through the briar tunnels into the courtyard. As before, it was packed with fey, but the mood had changed into something dark. Music played, haunting and feral, and faeries danced, leaped, and cavorted in wild abandon. A satyr knelt behind an unresisting girl with red skin, running his hands up her ribs and kissing her neck. Two women with fox ears circled a dazed-looking brownie, their golden eyes bright with hunger. A group of fey nobles danced in hypnotic patterns, their movements erotic, sensual, lost in music and passion.
I felt the wild urge to join them, to throw back my head and spin into the music, not caring where it took me. I closed my eyes for a moment, feeling the lilting strains lift my soul and make it soar toward the heavens. My throat tightened, and my body began to sway in tune with the music. I opened my eyes with a start. Without meaning to, I’d begun walking toward the circle of dancers.
I bit my lip hard, tasting blood, and the sharp pain brought me back to my senses. Get it together, Meghan. You can’t let down your guard. That means no eating, dancing, or talking to strangers. Focus on what you have to do.
I saw Oberon and Titania sitting at a long table, surrounded by Seelie knights and trolls. The king and queen sat side by side, but were actively ignoring each other. Oberon’s chin rested on his hands as he gazed out over his court; Titania sat like she had an icy pole shoved up her backside.
Puck was nowhere to be seen. I wondered if Oberon had freed him yet.
“Enjoying the festivities?” asked a familiar voice.
“Grimalkin!” I cried, spotting the gray cat perched on the edge of a raised pool, tail curled around his legs. His golden eyes regarded me with the same lazy disinterest. “What are you doing here?”
He yawned. “I was taking a nap, but it appears things might get interesting soon, so I think I will stick around.” Rising, the cat stretched, arching his back, and gave me a sideways look. “So, human, how is life in Oberon’s court?”
“You knew,” I accused him as he sat down and licked a paw. “You knew who I was all along. That’s why you agreed to take me to Puck—you were hoping to blackmail Oberon.”
“Blackmail,” said Grimalkin, blinking languid yellow eyes, “is a barbaric word. And you have much to learn about the fey, Meghan Chase. You think others would not have done the same? Everything here has a price. Ask Oberon. For that matter, ask your Puck.”
I wanted to ask what he meant, but at that moment, a shadow fell over my back and I turned to see Lady Weaver looming over me.
“The Winter Court will arrive soon,” she rasped, pencil-thin fingers closing on my shoulder. “You must take your place at the table, beside King Oberon. He has requested your presence. Go, go.”
Her grip tightened, and she steered me to the table where Oberon and the lords of the Summer Court waited. Oberon’s gaze was carefully neutral, but Titania’s glare of utter hatred made me want to run and hide. Between scary spider lady and the Queen of the Seelie Court, I was pretty sure I would end the night as a mouse or cockroach.
“Pay your respects to your father,” Lady Weaver hissed in my ear, before giving me a small push toward the Erlking. I swallowed and, under the stark gazes of the nobles, approached the table.
I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know what to do. I felt like I was giving a speech before the school auditorium and had forgotten my notes. Pleading silently for a clue, I met Oberon’s empty green eyes and dropped into a clumsy curtsy.
The Erlking shifted in his seat. I saw his eyes flicker to the bright orange backpack and narrow slightly. My cheeks flamed, but I couldn’t take it off now. “The Court welcomes Meghan Chase,” Oberon said in a stiff, formal voice. He paused, as if waiting for me to say something, but my voice caught in my throat. Silence stretched between us, and someone in the crowd snickered. Finally, Oberon gestured toward an empty chair near the end of the table, and I sat, red and blushing under the eyes of the entire court.
“That was impressive,” mused a voice near my feet. Grimalkin leaped into the chair beside me, just as I was about to put my backpack where he stood. “You definitely inherited your father’s rapier wit. Lady Weaver must be so proud.”
“Shut up, Grim,” I muttered, and shoved the pack under my seat. I would’ve said more, but at that moment the music stopped and a loud trumpeting began.
“They’ve arrived,” Grimalkin stated, eyes narrowing to golden slits. The cat almost seemed to smile. “This should be very interesting.”
The trumpeting grew louder, and at one end of the court, the ever-present wall of thorns shifted, curled back, and formed a grand archway, much taller and more elegant than any I’d seen before. Black roses burst into bloom among the thorns, and an icy wind hissed through the gate, coating nearby trees with frost.
A creature padded through the arch, and I shuddered from more than the cold. It was a goblin, green and warty, dressed in a fancy black coat with gold buttons. It cast a sly look around the waiting court, puffed out its chest, and cried in a clear yet gravelly voice:
“Her Majesty, Queen Mab, Lady of the Winter Court, Sovereign of the Autumn Territories, and Queen of Air and Darkness!”
And the Unseelie came.
At first glance, they looked very similar to the Seelie fey. The little men carrying the Unseelie banner looked like gnomes in fancy cloaks and red caps. Then I noticed their jagged, sharklike grins and the bright madness in their eyes, and knew these were not friendly garden gnomes, not in any sense of the word.
“Redcaps,” Grimalkin mused, wrinkling his nose. “You will want to stay away from them, human. Last time they came, a not-to-bright phouka challenged one to a rigged shell game and won. It did not go well.”
“What happened?” I asked, wondering what a phouka was.
“They ate him.”
He pointed out the ogres next, great hulking beasts with thick, stupid faces and tusks slick with drool. Manacles bound their wrists, and silver chains were wrapped about their huge necks. They shambled into court like drugged gorillas, knuckles dragging on the ground, oblivious to the murderous glares they were receiving from the trolls.
More Unseelie spilled into the clearing. Thin, skulking bogeys like the one in Ethan’s closet, creeping along the ground like spindly spiders. Snarling, hissing goblins. A man with the head and chest of a shaggy black goat, his horns sweeping into wicked points that caught the light. And more creatures, each one more nightmarish than the first. They leered when they caught sight of me, licking their lips and teeth. Thankfully, under the stern glares of Oberon and Titania, none of them approached the table.
Finally, as the court swelled to nearly twice its number, Queen Mab made her appearance.
The first hint I received was that the temperature in the clearing dropped about ten degrees. Goose bumps rose along my arms, and I shivered, wishing I had something heavier than a dress made of spider silk and gauze. I was about to move my chair a few feet down the table, out of the wind, when a cloud of snow burst from the mouth of the tunnel, and in walked the kind of woman that made ladies weep in envy and men launch wars.
She wasn’t tall, like Oberon, or willowy-thin like Titania, but her presence drew every eye in the courtyard. Her hair was so black it appeared blue in places, and it spilled down her back like a waterfall of ink. Her eyes were of the void, of a night without stars, a sharp contrast to her marble skin and pale mulberry lips. She wore a dress that writhed around her like shadow incarnate. And, like Oberon and Titania, she radiated power.
The amount of fey in the courtyard, both Seelie and Unseelie, was making me very, very nervous. But just as I thought things couldn’t get any eerier, Mab’s entourage walked in.
The first two were tall and beautiful like the rest of their kind, all sharp angles and graceful limbs. They wore their black-and-silver suits with the easy confidence of nobles, raven hair pulled back to highlight their proud, cruel features. Like dark princes, they marched behind Mab with all the arrogance of the queen, thin hands resting on their swords, their capes flapping behind them.
The third noble, walking behind them, was also dressed in black and silver. Like the other two, he carried a sword, resting comfortably on his hip, and his face bore the fine lines of an aristocrat. But, unlike the others, he looked disinterested, almost bored, with the entire event. His eyes caught the moonlight and glittered like silver coins.
My heart turned to ice, and my stomach threatened to crawl up my throat. It was him, the boy from my dreams, the one who had chased Puck and me through the forest. I glanced around wildly, wondering if I could hide before he saw me. Grimalkin gave me a bemused stare and twitched his tail.
“It’s him!” I whispered, cutting my gaze to the nobles approaching behind the queen. “That boy! He was hunting me that day in the forest, when I landed in your tree. He tried to kill me!”
Grimalkin blinked. “That is Prince Ash, youngest son of Queen Mab. They say he is quite the hunter, and spends much of his time in the wyldwood, instead of at court with his brothers.”
“I don’t care who he is,” I hissed, ducking down in my seat. “I can’t let him see me. How do I get out of here?”
Grimalkin’s snort sounded suspiciously like laughter. “I wouldn’t worry about that, human. Ash would not risk Oberon’s fury by attacking you in his own court. The rules of Elysium prevent violence of any kind. Besides—” the cat sniffed “—that hunt was days ago. It is likely he has forgotten all about you.”