“I’m not ungrateful,” he murmured against my ear, making my stomach flutter despite itself. “I just want you to understand. The Winter Court preys on the weak. It’s their nature. They will try to tear you apart, physically and emotionally, and I won’t always be there to protect you.”
I shivered, anger melting away, as my own doubts and fears came rushing back. Ash sighed, and I felt his forehead touch the back of my hair, his breath fanning my neck. “I don’t want to do this,” he admitted in a low, anguished voice. “I don’t want to see what they’ll try to do to you. A Summer fey in the Winter Court doesn’t stand much of a chance. But I vowed that I would bring you back, and I’m bound to that promise.” He raised his head, squeezing my shoulders in an almost painful grip as his voice dropped a few octaves, turning grim and cold. “So you have to be stronger than they are. You can’t let down your guard, no matter what. They will lead you on, with games and pretty words, and they will take pleasure in your misery. Don’t let them get to you. And don’t trust anyone.” He paused, and his voice went even lower. “Not even me.”
“I’ll always trust you,” I whispered without thinking, and his hands tightened, turning me almost savagely to face him.
“No,” he said, narrowing his eyes. “You won’t. I’m your enemy, Meghan. Never forget that. If Mab tells me to kill you in front of the entire court, it’s my duty to obey. If she orders Rowan or Sage to carve you up slowly, making sure you suffer every second of it, I’m expected to stand there and let them do it. Do you understand? My feelings for you don’t matter in the Winter Court. Summer and Winter will always be on opposite sides, and nothing will change that.”
I knew I should be afraid of him. He was an Unseelie prince, after all, and had in no uncertain terms admitted he would kill me if Mab ordered him to. But he also admitted to having feelings for me, feelings that didn’t matter, but it still made my stomach squirm when I heard it. And maybe I was being naive, but I couldn’t believe Ash would willingly hurt me, even in the Winter Court. Not with the way he was looking at me now, his silver eyes conflicted and angry.
He stared at me a moment longer, then sighed. “You didn’t hear a word I said, did you?” he murmured, closing his eyes.
“I’m not afraid,” I told him, which was a lie: I was terrified of Mab and the Unseelie Court that waited at the end of this journey. But if Ash was there, I would be all right.
“You are infuriatingly stubborn,” Ash muttered, raking a hand through his hair. “I don’t know how I’m going to protect you when you have no concept of self-preservation.”
I stepped close to him, placing a hand on his chest, feeling his heart beat under his shirt. “I trust you,” I said, rising so our faces were inches apart, trailing my fingers down his stomach. “I know you’ll find a way.”
His breath hitched, and he regarded me hungrily. “You’re playing with fire, you know that?”
“That’s weird, considering you’re an ice prin—” I didn’t get any further, as Ash leaned in and kissed me. I looped my arms around his neck as his snaked around my waist, and for a few moments the cold couldn’t touch me.
THE NEXT MORNING, he was back to being distant and aloof, barely speaking to me no matter how much I prodded. That night, we reached the underground palace of the Winter Court, and Mab dismissed me almost immediately. A servant showed me to my quarters, and I sat in the small, chilly room waiting for Ash to find me again.
He never returned from his meeting with the queen, and after several hours of waiting, I finally ventured into the halls of the Winter Court, looking for him. That’s when I found Tiaothin, or rather, she found me in the library, playing keep-away with a hulking Jack-in-Irons as he stalked me between the aisles. After getting rid of the giant, she informed me that Prince Ash was no longer in the palace, and no one had any idea when he would be back.
“But that’s just Ash,” she’d said, grinning at me from atop a bookcase. “He’s hardly ever at court. You catch a glimpse of him and poof! He’s gone for another few months.”
Why would Ash just leave like that? I wondered for about the billionth time. He could’ve at least told me where he was going, and when he’d be back. He didn’t have to leave me hanging.
Unless he was deliberately avoiding me. Unless everything he’d said, the kiss we’d shared, the emotions in his eyes and voice, meant nothing to him. Maybe everything he’d done was only to bring me to the Winter Court.
“You’re going to be late,” Tiaothin purred, jerking me back to the present, watching me with glowing cat eyes. “Mab doesn’t like to be kept waiting.”
“Right,” I said faintly, shaken out of my dark mood. Oops, that’s right. I’ve got an audience with the Faery Queen of Winter. “Just give me a minute to change.” I waited, but when Tiaothin didn’t move, I scowled at her. “Uh, a little privacy, please?”
Tiaothin giggled, and in one shivery motion, became a shaggy black goat, who bounced out of the room on all fours. I shut the door and leaned against it, feeling my heart thud in my chest. Mab wanted to see me. The Queen of the Unseelie Court was finally calling on me. I shivered and pushed away from the door, walking to my dresser and the icy mirror on top.
My reflection stared back at me, slightly distorted by the cracks in the ice. Sometimes, I still didn’t recognize myself. My straight blond hair was almost silver in the darkness of the room, and my eyes seemed far too big for my face. And there were other things, a thousand little details I couldn’t put my finger on, that told me I wasn’t human, that I was something to be feared. And of course, there was the most obvious difference. Pointed ears knifed up from the sides of my head, a screaming reminder of how unnormal I was. I broke eye contact with my reflection and looked down at my clothes. They were warm and comfortable, but I was pretty sure meeting the Queen of the Unseelie Court dressed in sweatpants and a baggy sweater was a bad idea.
Great. I’m supposed to meet the Queen of the Winter fey in five minutes. What do I wear?
Closing my eyes, I tried collecting the glamour around me and shaping it over my clothes. Nothing. The massive rush of power I’d drawn on while battling the Iron King seemed to have faded, so much that I couldn’t craft even the simplest illusion anymore. And not for lack of trying. Recalling my lessons with Grimalkin, a faery cat I’d met on my first trip to the Nevernever, I’d tried to become invisible, make shoes levitate and create faery fire. All failures. I couldn’t even feel the glamour anymore, though I knew it was all around me. Glamour is fueled by emotion, and the wilder and more passionate the emotion—rage, lust, love—the easier it is to draw on. Yet I couldn’t access it like I used to. It seemed I was back to being plain, nonmagical Meghan Chase. With pointy ears.
It was strange; for years, I hadn’t even known I was half-fey. It was just a few months ago, on my sixteenth birthday, that my best friend Robbie had revealed himself to be Robin Goodfellow, the infamous Puck from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. My kid brother, Ethan, had been kidnapped by faeries and I needed to rescue him. Oh, and by the way, I was the half-human daughter of King Oberon, Lord of the Summer fey. It took some getting used to, both the knowledge that I was half-faery and that I could use the magic of the fey—faery glamour—to work my own spells. Not that I was very good at it—I sucked, much to Grimalkin’s irritation—but that wasn’t the point. I hadn’t even believed in faeries back then, but now that my magic was gone, it felt like pieces of me were missing. With a sigh, I opened the dresser and pulled out jeans, a white shirt and a long black coat, shrugging into them as quickly as I could to avoid freezing to death. For a moment, I wondered if I should dress in something fancy, like an evening gown. After a moment I decided against it. The Unseelie spurned formal attire. I’d have a better chance of survival if I tried fitting in.
When I opened the door, Tiaothin, no longer a goat or cat, stared at me and broke into a toothy leer. “This way,” she hissed, backing into the icy corridor. Her yellow eyes seemed to float in the darkness. “The queen awaits.”
I FOLLOWED TIAOTHIN down the dark, twisted hallways, trying to keep my gaze straight ahead. Out of the corners of my eyes, however, I still caught glimpses of the nightmares lurking in the halls the Unseelie Court.
A spindly bogey crouched behind a door like a giant spider, the pale, emaciated face staring at me through the crack. An enormous black hound with glowing eyes trailed us down the hallways, making no noise at all, until Tiaothin hissed at it and it slunk away. Two goblins and a shark-toothed redcap huddled in a corner, rolling dice made of teeth and tiny bones. As I passed, an argument broke out, the goblins pointing to the redcap and crying “Cheat, cheat!” in high-pitched voices. I didn’t look back, but a shriek rang out behind me, followed by the wet sound of snapping bones. I shuddered and followed Tiaothin around a corner.
The corridor ended, opening into a massive room with icicles dangling from the ceiling like glittering chandeliers. Will-o’-the-wisps and globes of faery fire drifted between them, sending shards of fractured light over the walls and floor. The floor was shrouded in ice and mist, and my breath steamed in the air as we entered. Icy columns held up the ceiling, sparkling like translucent crystal and adding to the dazzling, confusing array of light and colors swirling around the room. Dark, wild music echoed throughout the chamber, played by a group of humans on a corner stage. The musicians’ eyes were glazed over as they sawed and beat at their instruments, their bodies frighteningly thin. Their hair hung long and lank, as if they hadn’t cut it for years. Yet, they didn’t seem to be distressed or unhappy, playing their instruments with zombielike fervor, seemingly blind to their inhuman audience. Dozens of Unseelie fey milled about the chamber, each one a creature straight out of a nightmare. Ogres and redcaps, goblins and spriggans, kobolds, phoukas, hobs and faeries I didn’t have a name for, all wandering to and fro in the shifting darkness. I quickly scanned the room, searching for tousled black hair and bright silver eyes. My heart fell. He wasn’t here.
On the far side of the room, a throne of ice hovered in the air, glowing with frigid brilliance. Sitting on that throne, poised with the power of a massive glacier, was Mab, Queen of the Unseelie Court.
The Winter Queen was stunning, plain and simple. When I was in Oberon’s court I’d seen her beside her rival, Titania, the Summer Queen, who was also beautiful but in an evil socialite type of way. Titania also held a grudge against me for being Oberon’s daughter, and had tried to turn me into a deer once, so she wasn’t my favorite person. Though they were complete opposites, the two queens were insanely powerful. Titania was a summer storm, beautiful and deadly and prone to frying something with lightning if it pissed her off. Mab was the coldest day in winter, where everything lies still and dead, held in fear of the unforgiving ice that killed the world before and could again.