Snow swirled, stinging my face and blinding me. When the blizzard receded, I was surrounded by the four fey girls who had been sitting at the fountain. Tall, elegant and beautiful, with their pale skin and shimmering cobalt hair, they hemmed me in like a pack of wolves, full frosted lips twisted into ugly sneers.
“Ooh, Snowberry, you were right,” one of them said, wrinkling her nose like she smelled something foul. “She does reek of a dead pig in the summer. I don’t know how Mab can stand it.”
Clenching my fists, I tried to keep my cool. I was so not in the mood for this now. God, it’s like high school all over again. Will it never end? These are ancient faeries, for Pete’s sake, and they’re acting like my high school pom squad. The tallest of the pack, a willowy fey with poison green streaked through her azure hair, regarded me with cold blue eyes and stepped close, crowding me. I stood my ground, and her gaze narrowed. A year ago, I might have grinned benignly and nodded and agreed with everything they said, just to get them to leave me alone. Things were different now. These girls weren’t the scariest things I’d seen. Not by a long shot.
“Can I help you?” I asked in the calmest voice I could manage.
She smiled. It was not a nice smile. “I’m just curious to see how a half-breed like you gets off on speaking to Prince Ash like an equal.” She sniffed, curling her lip in disgust. “If I were Mab, I would’ve frozen your throat shut just for looking at him.”
“Well, you’re not,” I said, meeting her gaze. “And since I’m a guest here, I don’t think she’d approve of whatever you’re planning to do to me. So, why don’t we do each other a favor and pretend we don’t exist? That would solve a lot of problems.”
“You don’t get it, do you, half-breed?” Snowberry pulled herself up, staring down her perfect nose at me. “Looking at my prince constitutes an act of war. That you actually spoke to him makes my stomach turn. You don’t seem to understand that you disgust him, as well you should, with your tainted Summer blood and human stench. We’ll have to do something about that, won’t we?”
My prince? Was she talking about Ash? I stared at her, tempted to say something stupid like, Funny, he never mentioned you. She might act like a spoiled, rich, mean girl from my old school, but the way her eyes darkened until there were no pupils left reminded me that she was still fey.
“So.” Snowberry stepped back and gave me a patronizing smile. “This is what we’re going to do. You, half-breed, are going to promise me that you won’t so much as glance at my sweet Ash, ever again. Breaking this promise means I get to pluck out your wandering eyes and make a necklace with them. I think that’s a fair bargain, don’t you?”
The rest of the girls giggled, and there was a hungry, eager edge to the sound, like they wanted to eat me alive. I could have told her not to worry. I could have told her that Ash hated me and she didn’t have to threaten to get me to stay away. I didn’t. I drew myself up, looked her in the eye, and asked, “And what if I don’t?”
Silence fell. I felt the air get colder and braced myself for the explosion. A part of me knew this was stupid, picking a fight with a faery. I would probably get my butt kicked, or cursed, or something nasty. I didn’t care. I was tired of being bullied, tired of running into the bathroom to sob my eyes out. If this faery bitch wanted a fight, bring it on. I’d do my fair share of clawing, too.
“Well, isn’t this fun.” A smooth, confident voice cut through the silence, a second before all hell would have broken loose. We jumped as a lean figure dressed entirely in white materialized from the snow, his coat flapping behind him. The look on his pointed face glowed with haughty amusement.
The prince grinned, his ice-blue eyes narrowed to slits. “Pardon me, girls,” he said, slipping up beside me, making the pack fall back a few steps. “I don’t mean to ruin your little party, but I need to borrow the half-breed for a moment.”
Snowberry smiled at Rowan, all traces of hatefulness gone in an instant. “Of course, Your Highness,” she cooed, as if she’d just been offered a wonderful gift. “Whatever you command. We were just keeping her company.”
I wanted to gag, but Rowan smiled back as if he believed her, and the pack drifted away without a backward glance.
The prince’s smile turned to a smirk as soon as they’d gone, and he gave me a sideways leer that made me instantly cautious. He might have saved me from Snowberry and her harpies, but I didn’t think he’d done it to be chivalrous. “So, you’re Oberon’s half-blood,”
he purred, confirming my suspicion. His eyes raked me up and down, and I felt horribly exposed, as though he was undressing me with his gaze. “I saw you at Elysium last spring. Somehow I thought you were…taller.”
“Sorry to disappoint you,” I said frostily.
“Oh, you’re not disappointing.” Rowan smiled, his gaze lingering on my chest. “Not a bit.” He snickered again and stepped back, gesturing for me to follow. “Come on, Princess. Let’s take a walk. I want to show you something.”
I really didn’t want to, but I saw no way of politely refusing a prince of the Unseelie Court, especially since he’d just done me a favor by getting rid of the pack. So I followed him to another part of the courtyard, where frozen statues littered the snowy landscape, making it eerie and surreal. Some stood straight and proud, some were twisted in abject fear, arms and limbs thrown up to protect themselves. Looking at some of their features, so real and lifelike, made me shudder. The Queen of Winter has a creepy sense of style. Rowan paused in front of one statue, covered in a layer of smoky ice, its features barely distinguishable through the opaque seal. With a start, I realized this wasn’t a statue at all. A human stared out of his ice prison, mouth open in a scream of terror, one hand flung out before him. His blue eyes, wide and staring, gazed down at me. Then he blinked.
I stumbled back, a shriek lodging in my throat. The human blinked again, his terrified gaze beseeching mine. I saw his lips tremble, as if he wanted to say something but the ice rendered him immobile, frozen and helpless. I wondered how he could breathe.
“Brilliant, isn’t it?” said Rowan, gazing at the statue in admiration. “Mab’s punishment for those who disappoint her. They can see, feel and hear everything that goes on around them, so they’re fully aware of what’s happened to them. Their hearts beat, their brains function, but they don’t age. They’re suspended in time forever.”
“How do they breathe?” I whispered, staring back at the gaping human.
“They don’t.” Rowan smirked. “They can’t, of course. Their noses and mouths are full of ice. But they still keep trying. It’s like they’re suffocating for eternity.”
The sidhe prince shrugged. “Don’t piss off Mab, is all I can tell you.” He turned the full brunt of his icy gaze on me. “So, Princess,” he continued, making himself comfortable at the base of the statue. “Tell me something, if you would.” Pulling an apple out of nowhere, he bit into it, smiling at me all the while. “I hear you and Ash traveled all the way to the Iron King’s realm and back. Or so he claims. What do you think of my dear little brother?”
I smelled a hidden motive and crossed my arms. “Why do you want to know?”
“Just making conversation.” Rowan produced another apple and tossed it at me. I fumbled to catch it, and Rowan grinned. “Don’t be so uptight. You’d give a brownie a nervous breakdown. So, was my brother a complete troll, or did he remember his manners?”
I was hungry. My stomach growled, and the apple felt cool and crisp in my hand. Before I knew it, I’d taken a bite. Sweet, tart juice flooded my mouth, with just a hint of bitter after-taste. “He was a perfect gentleman,” I said with my mouth full, my voice sounding strange in my ears. “He helped me rescue my brother from the Iron King. I couldn’t have done it without him.”
Rowan reclined and gave me a lazy smile. “Do tell.”
I frowned at his smirk. Something wasn’t right. Why was I telling him this? I tried shutting up, clamping down on my tongue, but my mouth opened and the words rushed out of their own volition.
“My brother Ethan was stolen by the Iron King,” I said, listening to myself babble on in horror. “I came into the Nevernever to get him back. When Ash was sent by Mab to capture me, I tricked him into making a contract with me, instead. If he helped me rescue Ethan, I would go with him to the Unseelie Court. He agreed to help, but when we got to the Iron Kingdom, it made Ash horribly sick, and he was captured by Machina’s Iron Knights. I snuck into the Iron King’s tower, used a magic arrow to kill Machina, rescued my brother and Ash, and then we came here.”
I clapped both hands over my mouth to stop the torrent of words, but the damage was already done. Rowan looked like the cat who just ate the canary.
“So,” he crooned, slitting his eyes at me, “my little brother let himself be tricked—by a weakling half-blood—into rescuing a mortal child and nearly killing himself in the process. How very unlike Ash. Tell me more, Princess.”
I kept my hands over my mouth, muffling my words, even as they began pouring out. Rowan laughed and hopped off the statue base, stalking toward me with an evil grin. “Oh, come now, Princess, you know it’s useless to resist. No need to make this harder on yourself.”
I wanted to punch him, but I was afraid if I took my hands from my mouth, I’d reveal something else. Rowan kept coming, his grin turning predatory. I backed away, but a wave of dizziness and nausea swept through me and I stumbled, fighting to stay on my feet. The prince snapped his fingers, and the snow around my feet turned to ice, covering my boots and freezing me in place. Horrified, I watched the ice crawl up past my knees, making sharp, crinkling noises as it inched toward my waist.
It’s cold! I shivered violently, tiny needles of pain stabbing my flesh through my clothes. I gasped, wanting desperately to get away from it, but of course I couldn’t move. My stomach cramped, and another bout of nausea made my head spin. Rowan smiled, leaning back and watching me struggle.
“I can make it stop, you know,” he said, munching on the last of his apple.
“All you have to do is answer a few innocent questions, that’s all. I don’t know why you’re being so difficult, unless, of course, you have something to hide. Who are you trying to protect, half-breed?”
The temperature was becoming unbearable. My muscles began to spasm from the awful, bone-numbing cold. My arms shook, and my hands dropped from my mouth.
“Ash,” I whispered, but at that moment, the ice holding me in place shattered. With the sound of breaking china, it collapsed into thousands of crystalline shards, glinting in the weak light. I yelped and stumbled back, free of the icy embrace, as another lean, dark form melted out of the shadows.