He turned away, dismissing me in one cold, callous gesture. Rowan snickered, and Mab watched me from atop her throne with a cool, amused gaze.
My throat tightened and a deluge pressed behind my eyes, ready to burst. I trembled and bit my lip to keep the flood in check. I would not cry. Not now, in front of Mab and Rowan and Sage. They were waiting for it; I could see it on their faces as they watched me expectantly. I could not show any weakness in front of the Unseelie Court if I wanted to survive.
Especially now that Ash had become one of the monsters.
With as much dignity as I could muster, I bowed to Queen Mab. “Excuse me then, Your Majesty,” I said, in a voice that trembled only slightly. “I will leave you and your sons in peace.”
Mab nodded, and Rowan gave me a mocking, exaggerated bow. Ash and Sage ignored me completely. I spun on my heel and walked from the throne room with my head held high, my heart breaking with every step.
When I woke up, the room was light, cold beams streaming in the window. My face felt sticky and hot, and my pillow was damp. For one blissful moment, I didn’t recall the events of the past night. Then, like a black wave, memory came rushing back.
Tears threatened again, and I buried my head under the covers. I’d spent most of the night sobbing into my pillow, my face muffled so that my cries wouldn’t be overheard by some fey in the hall.
Ash’s cruel words stabbed me through the heart. Even now, I could hardly believe the way he’d acted in the throne room, like I was scum beneath his boots, like he truly despised me. I’d been hoping for him, longing for him, to come back, and now those feelings were a twisted nail inside. I felt betrayed, as if what we shared on our journey to the Iron King was only a farce, a tactic the cunning Ice prince had used to get me to come to the Unseelie Court. Or perhaps he had just grown tired of me and moved on. Just another reminder of how capricious and insensitive the fey could be.
In that moment of utter loneliness and confusion, I wished Puck were here. Puck, with his carefree attitude and infectious smile, who always knew what to say to make me laugh again. As a human, Robbie Goodfell had been my neighbor and best friend; we shared everything, did everything, together. Of course, Robbie Goodfell turned out to be Robin Goodfellow, the infamous Puck of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and he was following Oberon’s orders to protect me from the faery world. He’d disobeyed his king when he brought me into the Nevernever in search of Ethan, and again when I fled the Seelie Court and Oberon sent Puck to bring me back. His loyalty cost him dear when he was finally shot in a battle with one of Machina’s lieutenants, Virus, and nearly killed. We were forced to leave him behind, deep within a dryad’s tree, to heal from his wounds, and guilt from that decision still ate at me. My eyes filled with fresh tears, remembering. Puck couldn’t be dead. I missed him too much for that.
A tapping came at my door, startling me. “Meghaaaan” came the singsong voice of Tiaothin the phouka. “Wake uuuup. I know you’re in there. Open the doooor.”
“Go away,” I yelled, wiping my eyes. “I’m not coming out, okay? I don’t feel good.”
Of course, this only encouraged her further. The tapping turned to scratching, setting my teeth on edge, and her voice grew louder, more insistent. Knowing she’d sit there all day, scratching and whining, I leaped off the bed, stomped across the room and wrenched open the door.
“What?” I snarled. The phouka blinked, taking in my rumpled appearance, tear-streaked face and swollen, runny nose. A knowing grin came to her lips, and my anger flared; if she was here just to taunt me, I was so not in the mood. Stepping back, I was about to slam the door in her face when she darted into the room and leaped gracefully onto my bed.
“Hey! Dammit, Tiaothin! Get out of here!” My protests went ignored, as the phouka bounced gleefully on the mattress, shredding holes in the blankets with her sharp claws.
“Meghan’s in lo-ove,” sang the phouka, making my heart stop. “Meghan’s in lo-ove. Meghan and Ash, sitting in a tree—”
“Tiaothin, shut up!” I slammed the door and stalked toward her, glaring. The phouka giggled and came to a bouncing stop on my bed, sitting cross-legged on the pillow. Her gold-green eyes gleamed with mischief.
“I am not in love with Ash,” I told her, crossing my arms over my chest.
“Didn’t you see the way he spoke to me, like I was dirt? Ash is a heartless, arrogant bastard. I hate him.”
“Liar,” the phouka retorted. “Liar liar, lying human. I saw the way you stared at him when he appeared. I know that look. You’re smitten.” Tiaothin snickered, flicking an ear back and forth as I squirmed. She grinned, showing all her teeth. “Not your fault, really. Ash just does that to people. No silly mortal can look at him and not fall head over heels. How many hearts do you think he’s already broken?”
My spirits sank even lower. I’d thought I was special. I thought Ash cared for me, if only a little. Now, I realized I was probably just another girl in a long line of humans who’d been foolish enough to fall for him.
Tiaothin yawned, settling back against my pillows. “I’m telling you this so you won’t waste your time chasing after the impossible,” she purred, slitting her eyes at me.
“Besides,” she continued, “Ash is already is love with someone else. Has been for a long, long time. He’s never forgotten her.”
“Ariella,” I whispered.
She looked surprised. “He told you about her? Huh. Well then, you should already know Ash would never fall for a plain, half-human girl, not when Ariella was the most beautiful sidhe in the Winter Court. He’d never betray her memory, even if the law wasn’t an issue. You know about the law, don’t you?”
I didn’t know about any law, and I really didn’t care. I got the feeling the phouka wanted me to ask about it, but I wasn’t going to oblige. But Tiaothin seemed determined to tell me anyway, and went on with a sniff.
“You’re Summer,” she said disdainfully. “We’re Winter. It’s against the law that the two should ever be involved. Not that we have many incidents, but occasionally some star-struck Summer fey will fall in love with a Winter, or vice versa. All sorts of problems there—Summer and Winter are not meant to be together. If they’re found out, the high lords will demand they renounce their love at once. If they refuse, they’re banished to the human world forever, so they can continue their blasphemous relationship out of sight of the courts…if they’re not executed right then.
“So, you see,” she finished, fixing me with a piercing stare, “Ash would never betray his queen and court for a human. It’s best to forget about him. Maybe find a silly human boy in the mortal world, if Mab ever lets you go.”
By now I was so miserable I couldn’t open my mouth without screaming or crying. Bile burned my throat, and my eyes swelled up. I had to get out of here, away from Tiaothin’s brutal truths, before I fell to pieces.
Biting my lip to keep the tears at bay, I turned and fled into the halls of the Unseelie Court.
I nearly tripped over a goblin, who hissed and gnashed his teeth at me, jagged fangs gleaming in the darkness. Muttering an apology, I hurried away. A tall woman in a ghostly white dress floated down the corridor, eyes red and swollen, and I ducked down another hall to avoid her.
I needed to get out. Outside, into the clear, cold air, to be alone for just a few minutes, before I went crazy. The dark corridors and crowded halls were making me claustrophobic. Tiaothin had showed me the way out once; a pair of great double doors, one carved to resemble a laughing face, the other curled in a terrible snarl. I had searched for them on my own but could never find them. I suspected Mab put a spell on the doors to hide them from me, or maybe the doors themselves were playing a twisted game of hide-and-seek—doors did that sometimes in Faeryland. It was infuriating: I could see the sparkling, snow-covered city from my bedroom window, but could never get there.
I heard a clatter behind me and turned to see a group of redcaps coming down the hall, mad yellow eyes bright with hunger and greed. They hadn’t seen me yet, but when they did, I’d be alone and unprotected, far from the safety of my room, and redcaps were always hungry. Fear gripped my heart. I hurried around a corner…
And there they stood, across an ice-slick foyer. The double doors, with their laughing face and snarling face, seeming to mock and threaten at the same time. Now that I’d finally found them, I hesitated. Would I be able to get back in, once I was out? Beyond the palace was the twisted, frightening city of the Winter fey. If I couldn’t get back in, I’d freeze to death, or worse.
An excited whoop rang out. The redcaps had seen me.
I hurried across the floor, trying not to slip, as the tiles appeared to be made of colored ice. A pencil-thin butler in a black suit watched me impassively as I approached, his lank gray hair falling to his shoulders. Huge round eyes, like shiny mirrors, stared at me unblinking. Ignoring him, I grabbed the door with the laughing face and pulled, but it didn’t budge.
“Going outside, Miss Chase?” the butler asked, tilting his smooth, egg-shaped head.
“Just for a while,” I snapped, straining at the door, which, infuriatingly, started laughing at me. I didn’t jump or scream, having experienced far stranger, but it did make me mad. “I’ll be right back, I promise.” I heard the jeering laughter of the redcaps, mingling with the howling of the door, and gave it a resounding kick. “Dammit, open up, you stupid thing!”
The butler sighed. “You are assaulting the wrong door, Miss Chase.” He reached over and pulled open the snarling door, which scowled at me as it creaked on its hinges. “Please be careful in your excursion outside,” the butler said primly. “Her Majesty would be most displeased if you…ahem…ran away. Not that you would, I’m sure. Her protection is all that keeps you from being frozen, or devoured.”
A blast of frigid air blew into the foyer. The land beyond was dark and cold. Glancing behind at the redcaps, who watched me from the shadows with bright, pointy grins, I shivered and stepped out into the snow.
I almost went back inside, it was so cold. My breath hung on the air, and ice eddies stung my exposed flesh, making it tingle and burn. A pristine, frozen courtyard stretched before me, trees, flowers, statues and fountains encased in the clearest ice. Great jagged crystals, some taller than my head, jutted out of the ground at random intervals, spearing into the sky. A group of fey dressed in glittering white sat on the lip of a fountain, long azure hair rippling down their backs. They saw me, snickered behind their hands and rose. The nails on their fingertips glimmered blue in the half-light.
I went the other way, my boots crunching through the snow, leaving deep prints behind. A while ago, I might’ve wondered how it could snow underground, but I’d long accepted that things never made sense in Faeryland. I didn’t really know where I was going, but moving seemed better than standing still.
“Where do you think you’re going, half-breed?”