The queen lounged in her chair, surrounded by several fey gentry—the sidhe—dressed in expensive, modern-day clothes, crisp white business suits and pin-striped Armani. When I saw her last, in Oberon’s court, Mab had worn a flowing black dress that writhed like living shadows. Today, she was dressed in white: a white pantsuit, opal-tinted nails and ivory heels, her dark hair styled elegantly atop her head. Depthless black eyes, like a night without stars, looked up and spotted me, and her pale mulberry lips curved in a slow smile. A chill slithered up my back. Fey care little for mortals. Humans are merely playthings to be used up and discarded. Both the Seelie and Unseelie Courts are subject to this. Even if I was half-fey and Oberon’s daughter, I was all alone in the court of my father’s ancient enemies. If I irritated Mab, there was no telling what the queen would do. Maybe turn me into a white rabbit and sic the goblins on me, though that seemed more Titania’s style. I had a feeling Mab could come up with something infinitely more awful and twisted, and that made me very afraid.
Tiaothin ambled through the crowds of Unseelie fey, who paid her little attention. Most of their interest was directed at me as I followed, my heart thudding against my ribs. I felt the hungry stares, the eager grins and the eyes on the back of my neck, and concentrated on keeping my head up and my step confident. Nothing attracts faeries more than fear. A sidhe noble with a face that was all sharp angles caught my gaze and smiled, and my heart contracted painfully. He reminded me of Ash, who wasn’t here, who had left me alone in this court of monsters.
The Winter Queen’s chill grew more pronounced the closer we got; soon it was so cold it hurt to breathe. Tiaothin reached the foot of the throne and bowed. I did the same, though it was hard to do so without my teeth chattering. The Unseelie fey crowded behind us, their breath and murmuring voices making my skin crawl.
“Meghan Chase.” The queen’s voice rasped over the assembly, making my hair stand on end. Tiaothin slunk away and disappeared into the crowd, leaving me truly alone.
“How good of you to join us.”
“It’s an honor to be here, my lady,” I replied, using every ounce of my willpower to keep my voice from shaking. A tremor slipped out anyway, and not just from the cold. Mab smiled, amused, and leaned back, observing me with emotionless black eyes. Silence fell for a few heartbeats.
“So.” The queen tapped her nails with a rhythmic clicking sound, making me jump. “Here we are. You must think you are very clever, daughter of Oberon.”
“I—I’m sorry?” I stammered, as an icy fist gripped my heart. This wasn’t starting well, not at all.
“You’re not,” Mab continued, giving me a patient smile. “But you will be. Make no mistake about that.” She leaned forward, looking utterly inhuman, and I fought the urge to run screaming from the throne room. “I have heard of your exploits, Meghan Chase,”
the queen rasped, narrowing her eyes. “Did you not think I would find out? You tricked a prince of the Unseelie Court into following you into the Iron Realm. You made him fight your enemies for you. You bound him to a contract that nearly killed him. My precious boy, almost lost to me forever, because of you. How do you think that makes me feel?” Mab’s smile grew more predatory, as my stomach twisted in fear. What could she do to me? Encase me in ice?
Freeze me from the inside out? Chill my blood so I would never be warm again, no matter what I wore or how hot it became? I shivered, but then noticed a faint shimmer, like heat waves, around me, and suddenly realized Mab was tinting the air with glamour, manipulating my emotions and letting me imagine the worst fate possible. She didn’t have to threaten or say anything; I was terrifying myself quite well.
In a lucid moment of distraction, I wondered if Ash had done the same to my emotions, manipulating me into falling for him. If Mab could do it, I’m sure her sons had the same talent. Were my feelings for Ash real, or some sort of fabricated glamour?
Now’s not the time to wonder about that, Meghan!
Mab stared at me, gauging my reaction. I still shook in fear, but a part of me knew what the queen was doing. If I lost it and begged for mercy, I would find myself trapped in a faery contract before I knew what was happening. Promises are deadly serious among the fey, and I wasn’t going to let Mab strong-arm me into pledging something I would instantly regret.
I took a furtive breath to collect my thoughts, so that when I did answer the Queen of the Winter fey, I wouldn’t start bawling like a two-year-old.
“Forgive me, Queen Mab,” I said, choosing my words carefully. “I meant no harm to you or yours. I needed Ash’s help to rescue my brother from the Iron King.”
At the mention of the Iron King, the Unseelie fey behind me stirred and growled, glancing around warily. I felt hackles rise, teeth bare and claws unsheathe. For normal faeries, iron was deadly poison, draining their magic and burning their flesh. An entire kingdom made of iron was horrible and terrifying to them; a faery ruler called the Iron King was blasphemous. For a moment, I had the satisfying thought that the Iron fey had become the bogeys and bogeymen of the faery world, and bit down a vindictive smile.
“I would name you a liar, girl,” Mab said calmly, as the growls and mutterings behind me died down, “if I had not heard the same from my son’s own lips. Rest assured, the Iron King’s minions are no threat to us. Even now, Ash and his brothers are scouring our territory for these Iron fey. If the abominations are within our borders, we will hunt them down and destroy them.”
I felt a rush of relief, but not because of Mab’s claim. Ash was out there. He had a reason not to be at court.
“And yet…” Mab regarded me with a look that made my stomach squirm. “I cannot help but wonder how you managed to survive. Perhaps Summer is in league with the Iron fey, plotting with them against the Winter Court. That would be terribly amusing, wouldn’t it, Meghan Chase?”
“No,” I said softly. In my mind’s eye, I saw the Iron King, reeling back as I drove the arrow through his chest, and clenched my fists to stop them from shaking. I could still see Machina writhing in pain, felt something cold and serpentine slithering under my skin.
“The Iron King was going to destroy Summer as well as Winter. He’s dead, now. I killed him.”
Mab narrowed her eyes to black slits. “And you would have me believe that you, a half-human with virtually no power, managed to kill the Iron King?”
“Believe her,” a new voice rang out, making my stomach twist and my heart jump to my throat. “I was there. I saw what happened.”
Voices rose around me as the ranks of Unseelie fey parted like waves. I couldn’t move. I was rooted to the spot, my heart pounding in my chest as the lean, dangerous form of Prince Ash strode into the chamber.
I shivered, and my stomach began turning nervous backflips. Ash looked much as he always did, darkly beautiful in black and gray, his pale skin a sharp contrast to his hair and clothes. His sword hung at his side, the sheath a luminous blue-black, giving off a frozen aura.
I was so relieved to see him. I stepped toward him, smiling, only to be stopped dead by his cold glare. Confused, I stumbled to a halt. Maybe he didn’t recognize me. I met his gaze, waiting for his expression to thaw, for him to give me the tiny smile I adored so much. It didn’t happen. His frosty eyes swept over me in a brief, dismissive glance, before he stepped around me and continued toward the queen. I felt a stab of shock and hurt; maybe he was playing it cool in front of the queen, but he could’ve at least said hi. I made the mental note to scold him later when we were alone.
“Prince Ash,” Mab purred, as Ash went down on one knee before the throne.
“You have returned. Are your brothers with you?”
Ash raised his head, but before he could answer, another voice interrupted him.
“Our youngest brother practically fled our presence in his haste to get to you, Queen Mab,” said a high, clear voice behind me. “If I didn’t know better, I would think he didn’t want to speak to you in front of us.”
Ash rose, his face carefully blank, as two more figures strode into the chamber, scattering fey like birds. Like Ash, they wore long, thin blades at their hips, and carried themselves with the easy grace of royalty.
The first, the one who had spoken, resembled Ash in build and height: lean, graceful and dangerous. He had a thin, pointed face, and black hair that bristled like spines atop his head. A white trench coat billowed out behind him, and a gold stud sparkled in one pointed ear. His gaze met mine as he swept past, ice-blue eyes glittering like chips of diamond, and his lips curled in a lazy smirk.
The second brother was taller than his siblings, more willowy than lean, his long raven hair tied back in a ponytail that reached his waist. A great gray wolf trailed behind him, amber eyes slitted and wary. “Rowan,” Mab smiled at the first prince as the two bowed to her as Ash had done. “Sage. All my boys, home at last. What news do you bring me? Have you found these Iron fey within our borders? Have you brought me their poisonous little hearts?”
“My queen.” It was the tallest of the three that spoke, the oldest brother, Sage. “We have searched Tir Na Nog from border to border, from the Ice Plains to the Frozen Bog to the Broken Glass Sea. We have found nothing of the Iron fey our brother has spoken of.”
“Makes you wonder if our dear brother Ash exaggerated a bit,” Rowan spoke up, his voice matching the smirk on his face. “Seeing as these ‘legions of Iron fey’ seem to have vanished into thin air.”
Ash glared at Rowan and looked bored, but I felt the blood rush to my face.
“He’s telling the truth,” I blurted out, and felt every eye in the court turn on me. “The Iron fey are real, and they’re still out there. And if you don’t take them seriously, you’ll be dead before you know what’s happening.”
Rowan smiled at me, a slit-eyed, dangerous smile. “And why would the half-blood daughter of Oberon care if the Winter Court lives or dies?”
“Enough.” Mab’s voice rasped through the chamber. She stood and waved a hand at the fey assembled behind us. “Get out. Leave, all of you. I will speak with my sons alone.”
The crowd dispersed, slinking, stomping or gliding from the throne room. I hesitated, trying to catch Ash’s gaze, wondering if I was included in this conversation. After all, I knew about the Iron fey, too. I succeeded in capturing his attention, but the Winter prince gave me a bored, hostile glare and narrowed his eyes.
“Didn’t you hear the queen, half-breed?” he asked coldly, and my heart contracted into a tiny ball. I stared at him, mouth open, unwilling to believe this was Ash speaking to me, but he continued with ruthless disdain. “You’re not welcome here. Leave.”
I felt the sting of angry tears, and took a step toward him. “Ash—”
His eyes glittered as he shot me a glare of pure loathing. “It’s Master Ash, or Your Highness to you, half-breed. And I don’t recall giving you permission to speak to me. Remember that, because the next time you forget your place, I’ll remind you with my blade.”