I scowled at Grimalkin and kept the fey boy in my sights as he bowed to Oberon and Titania, murmuring something I couldn’t hear. Oberon nodded, and the prince stepped back, still bowing. When he straightened and turned around, his gaze swept over the table—

—to rest solely on me. His eyes narrowed, and he smiled, giving me a small nod. My heart sped up and I shivered.

Ash hadn’t forgotten me, not by a long shot.

AS THE NIGHT WORE ON, I thought longingly of my days in the kitchens.

Not just because of Prince Ash, though that was the main reason I tried to avoid notice. The minions of the Unseelie Court made me jumpy and uncomfortable, and I wasn’t the only one. Tension ran high among the ranks of Seelie and Unseelie; it was plain that these were ancient enemies. Only the fey’s devotion to rules and proper etiquette—and the power of their sidhe masters—kept things from erupting into a bloodbath.

Or so Grimalkin told me. I took his word for it and remained very still in my seat, trying not to attract attention.

Oberon, Titania, and Mab stayed at the table all night. The three princes sat to Mab’s left, with Ash farthest down the table, much to my relief. Food was served, wine was poured, and the sidhe rulers spoke among themselves. Grimalkin yawned, bored with it all, and left my side, vanishing into the crowds. After what seemed like hours, the entertainment began.

Three brightly dressed boys with monkey tails swung onto the stage set before the table. They performed amazing leaps and tumbles over, onto, and through one another. A satyr played his pipes, and a human danced to the tune until her feet bled, her face a mixture of terror and ecstasy. A stunning woman with goat hooves and piranha teeth sang a ballad about a man who followed his lover beneath the waters of the lake, never to be seen again. At the end of the song, I gasped air into my burning lungs and sat up, unaware that I’d been unable to breathe.

Sometime during the course of the festivities, Ash disappeared.

Frowning, I scanned the courtyard for him, searching for a pale face and dark hair among the chaotic sea of fey. He wasn’t in the courtyard, as far as I could see, and he wasn’t at the table with Mab and Oberon….

There was a soft chuckle beside me, and my heart stopped.

“So this is Oberon’s famous half-blood,” Ash mused as I whirled around. His eyes, cold and inhuman, glimmered with amusement. Up close, he was even more beautiful, with high cheekbones and dark tousled hair falling into his eyes. My traitor hands itched, longing to run my fingers through those bangs. Horrified, I clenched them in my lap, trying to concentrate on what Ash was saying. “And to think,” the prince continued, smiling, “I lost you that day in the forest and didn’t even know what I was chasing.”

I shrank back, eyeing Oberon and Queen Mab. They were deep in conversation and did not notice me. I didn’t want to interrupt them simply because a prince of the Unseelie Court was talking to me.

Besides, I was a faery princess now. Even if I didn’t quite believe it, Ash certainly did. I took a deep breath, raised my chin, and looked him straight in the eye.

“I warn you,” I said, pleased that my voice didn’t tremble, “that if you try anything, my father will remove your head and stick it to a plaque on his wall.”

He shrugged one lean shoulder. “There are worse things.” At my horrified look, he offered a faint, self-derogatory smile. “Don’t worry, princess, I won’t break the rules of Elysium. I have no intention of facing Mab’s wrath should I embarrass her. That’s not why I’m here.”

“Then what do you want?”

He bowed. “A dance.”

“What!” I stared at him in disbelief. “You tried to kill me!”

“Technically, I was trying to kill Puck. You just happened to be there. But yes, if I’d had the shot, I would have taken it.”

“Then why the hell would you think I’d dance with you?”

“That was then.” He regarded me blandly. “This is now. And it’s tradition in Elysium that a son and daughter of opposite territories dance with each other, to demonstrate the goodwill between the courts.”

“Well, it’s a stupid tradition.” I crossed my arms and glared. “And you can forget it. I am not going anywhere with you.”

He raised an eyebrow. “Would you insult my monarch, Queen Mab, by refusing? She would take it very personally, and blame Oberon for the offense. And Mab can hold a grudge for a very, very long time.”

Oh, damn. I was stuck. If I said no, I would insult the faery queen of the Unseelie Court. I’d also be on the shit lists of both Mab and Titania, and between them, my chances of survival were easily and completely nil.

“So, you’re saying you’re not giving me a choice.”

“There is always a choice.” Ash held out his hand. “I will not force you. I only follow the orders of my queen. But know that the rest of the court is expecting us.” He smiled then, bitter and self-mocking. “And I promise to be a perfect gentleman until the night is done. You have my word.”

“Dammit.” I hugged my arms, trying to think of something to get me out of this. “I’ll just embarrass you, anyway,” I told him defiantly. “I can’t dance.”

“You’re Oberon’s blood.” A cool note of amusement colored his voice. “Of course you can dance.”

I struggled with myself a moment longer. This is the prince of the Unseelie Court, I thought, my mind racing. Maybe he’ll know something about Ethan. Or your dad! The least you can do is ask.

I took a deep breath. Ash waited patiently with his hand outstretched, and when I finally put my fingers into his palm, he offered a faint smile. His skin was cold as he smoothly moved my hand to his arm, and I shivered at the nearness of him. He smelled sharply of frost and something alien—not unpleasant, but strange.

We left the table together, and my stomach twisted as I saw hundreds of glowing fey eyes watching us. Seelie and Unseelie alike parted for us, bowing, as we approached the open stage.

My knees trembled. “I can’t do this,” I whispered, clutching Ash’s arm for support. “Let me go. I think I’m going to be sick.”

“You’ll be fine.” Ash didn’t look at me as we stepped onto the dance floor. He faced the trio of fey rulers with his head up and his expression blank. I looked over the sea of faces and shook in terror.

Ash tightened his grip on my hand. “Just follow my lead.”

He bowed to Oberon’s table, and I curtsied. The Erlking gave a solemn nod, and Ash turned to face me, taking one of my hands and guiding the other to his shoulder.

The music started.

Ash stepped forward, and I almost tripped, biting my lip as I tried to match his steps. We more or less minced around the stage, me concentrating on not falling or stepping on toes, Ash moving with tigerlike grace. Thankfully, no one booed or threw things, but I stumbled forward and back in a daze, only wanting the humiliation to end.

Somewhere in this waking nightmare, I heard a chuckle. “Stop thinking,” Ash muttered, pulling me into a spin that ended with me against his chest. “The audience doesn’t matter. The steps don’t matter. Just close your eyes and listen to the music.”

“Easy for you to say,” I growled, but he spun me again, so quickly that the stage whirled and I closed my eyes. Remember why you’re doing this, my mind hissed. This is for Ethan.

Right. I opened my eyes and faced the dark prince. “So,” I muttered, trying to sound conversational, “you’re Queen Mab’s son, right?”

“I think we’ve established that, yes.”

“Does she like to…collect things?” Ash looked at me strangely, and I hurried on. “Humans, I mean? Does she have a lot of humans in her court?”

“A few.” Ash spun me again, and this time I went with it. His eyes were bright as I came back to his arms. “Mab usually gets bored with mortals after a few years. She either releases them or turns them into something more interesting, depending on her mood. Why?”

My heart pounded. “Does she have a little boy in her court?” I asked as we swirled around the stage. “Four years old, curly brown hair, blue eyes? Quiet most of the time?”

Ash regarded me strangely. “I don’t know,” he said, to my disappointment. “I haven’t been to court lately. Even if I had, I cannot keep track of all the mortals the queen acquires and releases over the years.”

“Oh,” I muttered, lowering my eyes. Well, that idea was shot. “Well, if you’re not in court, where are you, then?”

Ash gave me a chilling smile. “The wyldwood,” he replied, spinning me away. “Hunting. I rarely let my prey escape, so be grateful Puck is such a coward.” Before I could answer, he pulled me close again, his mouth against my ear. “Although, I am happy I didn’t kill you then. I told you a daughter of Oberon could dance.”

I’d forgotten about the music, and realized my body was acting on autopilot, sweeping over the dance floor as if I’d done it a thousand times. For a long moment, we said nothing, lost in the music and the dance. My emotions soared as the crescendo rose into the night, and there was no one except us, spinning around and around.

The music ceased as Ash pulled me into a final spin. I ended up pressed against him, his face inches from mine, his gray eyes bright and intense. We stood there a moment, frozen in time, our hearts thrumming wildly between us. The rest of the world had disappeared. Ash blinked and offered a tiny smile. It would take only a half step to meet his lips.

A scream shattered the night, jerking us back to our senses. The prince released me and stepped away, his face shutting into that blank mask once more.

The scream came again, followed by a thunderous roar that rattled the tables and sent fine crystal goblets crashing to the floor. Over the crowd of spectators, I saw the bramble wall shaking wildly as something large tore its way through. Fey began shouting and pushing one another, and Oberon stood, his ringing voice calling for order. For just a moment, everyone froze.

The brambles parted with deafening snaps, and something huge clawed its way free. Blood streaked the tawny hide of a monster—not a shadowy, under-your-bed bogey that jumped out at you, but a real monster that would rip open your stomach and eat your entrails. It had three horrible heads: a lion with a bloody satyr in its jaws, a goat with mad white eyes, and a hissing dragon with molten flame dripping from its teeth. A chimera.

For a heartbeat, it paused, staring at the party it had just interrupted, the heads blinking in unison. The dead satyr, now a chewed, mangled mess, dropped to the ground, and someone in the crowd screamed.

The chimera roared, three voices rising to a deafening shriek. The crowd scattered as the monster gathered its hindquarters under it and leaped into the fray. It came down beside a fleeing redcap and lashed out with a claw-tipped paw, catching the faery in the stomach and disemboweling it instantly. As the redcap staggered and fell, holding its intestines, the chimera turned and pounced on a troll, bearing it to the ground. The troll snarled and grabbed the lion’s throat, holding it away, but then the dragon head came down, clamping its jaws around the troll’s neck and twisting. Dark blood exploded in a fine spray, filling the air with a sickening coppery smell. The troll shuddered and went limp.

Tags: Julie Kagawa The Iron Fey Book Series
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