Wicked Winter

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Chapter 17

After Cleon left, I rummaged through a trunk that housed twenty or more gowns. There were no warm colors, only purples, blues, whites, and blacks. After a few minutes of shuffling and sorting through fabric, I chose a simple plum gown with long sleeve and a Queen Ann neckline. The bodice was fitted and encrusted with shiny black gems, and the waistline flared out into a full lace skirt. I struggled zipping it up, but then slipped into a pair of black flats and headed out the door.

I’d been out for three days, so having the castle completely fixed, or at least close, wasn’t what I expected. Small gnomes and goblins muttered and shuffled about, carrying large blocks of ice or carving tools. Some bowed at the sight of me, other’s hissed and ran away.

I’m never going to get used to that.

I let my feet guide me to the dining room by memory, too encaptured by the reconstruction going on around me to really notice when I passed through the threshold and into the room where my mother was waiting.

She sat at the head of the table, and Foster sat beside her. He stared at his plate, not touching his food. They seemed to be carrying on a heated conversation, as Foster’s brow was creased with frustration. At the sound of my entry they silenced, and my mother smiled sweetly at me. I eye’d Foster, but he wouldn’t meet my gaze.

“Good morning!” My mother exclaimed, bounding from her chair and grabbing my hand. Her skin was cold, but I didn’t mind.

“Morning,” I mumbled. I let her guide me to my seat, where a male servant pulled the chair out for me. I sat, my eyes searching for Foster out of the corner of my vision. He was still staring at his untouched food, an invisible battle raging in his mind.

“Good morning, General Quinn,” I whispered, expecting a greeting in return. Instead a dark shadow cast over his face and he pushed himself back from the table forcefully.

“Pardon me,” he grunted, and stalked out of the room.

I looked at my mother, confusion written clearly on my features, but she deliberately ignored my unspoken question. I tried not to be annoyed. “You should try the nightwalker eggs, they’re quite delicious.”

As if on cue, a plate of steaming black eggs were set down in front of me, the purple of the yoke jiggling slightly. Everything in this court was so cold - even the eggs. I picked up my fork and stabbed a mouthful.

“You know,” my mother said between bites, “I need to know what your favorite dish is for the ball. All the courts are sending their ambassadors over to meet the queen to be.”

I sighed, toying with a piece of browned potato on my plate. She was right, the eggs were delicious. “Do we really need to have this ball? What’s the point of it anyway if I’m going to be queen in a few weeks? I could just invite them then.”

“No,” my mother snapped. She calmed herself. “No,” she said more calmly. “That would be breaking tradition. Besides, I want to see your face light up when you experience your first ball.”

It was a sweet gesture, it really was, but at this point and time I couldn’t bring myself to care. A weight had been settled over my chest, and it crushed me, leaving no room for emotions like love, gratitude, or even a positive attitude.

I gave her a small smile.

Brunch carried on in silence, my mind wandering to places it shouldn’t. Brief flashes of blue and white played over in my mind. Frozen bodies, the screaming, the blood. Zafira.

I choked on a bite of nightwalker egg as a tear slid from my eye. What had I done?

My mother watched me carefully, chewing slowly. “Is something wrong?”

I wiped the tear from my eye with the back of my sleeve, hoping I didn’t smear any of Cleon’s masterpiece. “Nothing,” I coughed.

But that was a lie and my mother knew it. She studied me as I ate, her cold, unyielding eyes showing nothing of what she was truly feeling or thinking.

After brunch, the questions that had been stirring inside of me all morning had become almost unbearable. I had to bite my tongue to keep from blurting them out.

I ended up following her to the Throne room where she was about to hold court for a few hours and listen to her court’s wishes and complaints. Sometime over the past three days someone had place another smaller chair beside hers.

“Is this for me?”

She snickered. “Well of course.” Today she was wearing everything black. Her long, claw-like nails were painted the color of night, a dark ebony dress that rippled around her like liquid shadow clung to her hourglass figure, and she wore a black headpiece made out of raven’s wings. She looked terrifyingly beautiful, like the Foxglove that grew on the outskirts of the Village In the summer. Its enchanting beauty had earned it the nickname Faerie Bells, given the plant’s deadly tendencies as well. If the nectar of the flowers got around your mouth or eyes, it would cause extreme nausea and vomiting, followed by cardiac arrest, and then ultimately, death. And though people knew about the consequences of touching or eating the plant, the deaths the Faerie Bells caused was still substantial.

I squatted in the seat next to my mother, determined to master what it meant to become queen. I kept my spine pin straight despite the pain it would cause hours later. I tried to keep my face emotionless - a mask, if you will. She wore hers masterfully; never showing any emotions, whether it be happiness, annoyance, or even anger. She was cool and composed, and I tried to make myself the same.

Hours had passed, and no conversation had passed between my mother and I. was starting to believe she wasn’t a woman of many words. Multiple members of the court had approached the Throne, but when they noticed me, they scampered away with fangs bared and their tails between their legs. I tried to ignore the sting of their tentativeness, trying to remind myself that I was stranger here, but it was no use. I wanted the respect they gave my mother, and I wanted their allegiance. If I was going to rule them one day, I didn’t want a blade shoved between my shoulder blades just because the court hadn’t taken the time to get to know me.

Even though the number of faeries who ran away from the sight of me highly outweighed the numbers who didn’t, there were a selected few that stayed and spoke their mind about the occurrences that had happened in the past few days. Or about me.

A man with hooves for feet and spiralling horns approached us, his smashed, animal-like face hardened into a frown. He glared up at my mother, and I had to decide whether or not I was amazed at his boldness, or pissed at his lack of respect.

He pointed at me and grunted. “She’s the cause of this! I lost my mate because of that damned witch rade!”

Pissed. I was definitely pissed.

My mother’s jaw was set as she glared down at the satyr. “And what exactly do you want me to do with her - my daughter, and your future queen?”

The faerie’s scruffing voice filled the room once more. “I don’t care! Turn her into a hare and sick the hounds on her! Chain her up, kill her, or hand her over to those bloody witches!”

The queen was quiet as the thoughts churned in her head. It almost looked as if she was contemplating his proposal. My heart sped up. But then a wicked smile spread across her lips, and I knew I was in the clear. “A hare, you say?” she asked.

The satyr nodded his head eagerly, his stubborn expression still in place.

“You know,” Maeve said, standing up for the first time since she’d taken court. “I think you’re right. The hounds love a good chase, and I’ve grown quiet bored of listening to your pathetic demands. Perhaps it’s time for some entertainment, yes?”

The faerie sighed and nodded, a cruel smile turning up the sides of his mouth. I caught my mother’s eye, and she winked in my direction. I had to choke on a laugh as the satyr puffed up his chest and began swaggering out of the room.

“Where do you think you’re going?” my mother called, and everyone in the room turned in her direction.

The cocky satyr took on a bewildered expression. “I’m leaving, of course. I have children back home.”

“Oh no,” my mother waved his comment off. “They’ll be taken care of, you have my promise.”

He cocked his head to the side, trying to piece together her words, but it was too late. My mother raised her hand and an electric but cold energy filled the room. The satyr’s eyes bulged as he began to shrink, his mousy brown fur turning a fluffy white. With a single command the hounds filed into the room, faeries with black uniforms holding onto their black leather leashes.

The satyr, now in the form of a hare, let out a small, panicked bleat that resonated in the room and drove the hounds crazy. Short, chopped barks escaped their muzzles as they glared at the tiny rabbit. Cerberus had somehow appeared by my mother’s side again, but this time the hellhound seemed calm and almost approachable with his ears perked and all three pairs of eyes wide and alert.

“The doors,” my mother commanded, and soon two ogres flung the massive double doors that led into the heart of the castle wide open. The hare took little to no time sprinting into action, racing through the doors and into the hallway that led to the kitchen. My mother smiled as she authorized the release of the hounds.

The canines’ claws scraped across the icy floor as they tore after their prey, their eager and excited bays traveling through the castle like a haunting breeze.

“There,” my mother breathed, “now that’s taken care of.”

I had to fight the rolling of my stomach, the knot that had formed in my throat. I swallowed hard. “What, exactly, did you take care of?”

My mother looked at me, her bright eyes as hard and sharp as chiseled diamond. “Questions.”

I cocked my head. Cerberus had laid one of his massive set of jaws on his front paws while the others glared at me behind droopy eyelids. He yawned.“What questions?”

“Nobody will question you, or think that you’re not worthy enough for the crown due to your blood.”

So my mother used fear like a gardener used a hoe, to dig into things and lay them bare. To strip and till and muddle things.

The fae in the room had gone deathly still, watching my mother and I with fear filled eyes. You would think they’d get used to it, but I guess if you never knew who was going to be next, you could never quite become familiarized with the fear.

I swallowed around the lump in my throat, trying to find my voice to speak. Instead I just made some weird choking sound, and instead of embarrassing myself further, I bowed before my mother and hurried out of the room.

The moment my foot stepped across the threshold and into the grand corridor, I felt a weight lift off my shoulders. I could breathe again. I inflated my lungs, dragging in chilled air through my nose and back out through my mouth. It felt good.

God, how could I do that? My mother was fierce, terrifying, and absolutely cold hearted, that was apparent to me now. She was, unlike me, one hundred percent faerie. I on the other hand, squirmed at the sight of blood, and I’d seen enough of that to last a lifetime.

More now than ever I craved Sebastian - his bright golden eyes, the scent of worn leather that wafted off his skin, or the silkiness of his ebony hair as I ran my fingers through it. A stab of pain hit my chest, stealing my breath away. It wasn’t until I could breathe again that I realized it was guilt - a gnawing disgrace that would split my mind and heart in two if I didn’t get control of it.

I didn’t deserve him. After everything I’d done to him - breaking his heart, telling him lies, and abandoning him... I didn’t have the right to want him here, with me, comforting me. After all, I was his sister’s murderer.

An invisible fist closed around my throat, and I choked on a sob. My vision was blurred as I took a quick glance around. If I was to be queen one day, there was no way that I’d give anyone the luxury of seeing me cry. It would only reinforce what they thought of me - that I was a weakling that couldn’t stand on her own two feet. Or in this case, control her own emotions.

The coast was clear. I gathered myself, holding the tears at bay as I ambled back to my room; my only safe haven in this frozen, lonely place.

The door shut with a soft click behind me, and hidden behind the four walls of my room, I cried. I felt my knees give first, my back slowly sliding down the cool wood. The icy floor was smooth against the back of my calves and thighs, but I didn’t mind. The cold was numbing.

Tears streamed down my face as I got lost in blurring images. Long black hair, golden skin, topaz eyes and a golden dagger. Choking. The zing of Foster pulling his icy sword free from a witch’s ribcage.

I didn’t cry for long, but enough time had past that someone had come to check up on me. A hollow knock sounded at my back, stirring me awake from my conscious nightmares.

I ground my teeth together, ready to snap at whatever servant had come to “tidy me up”, or make me “look presentable”. I was tired of playing dress up. But then a man’s voice, a familiar voice, muffled from the wood between us, met my ears.

“Neva.”

All the tension melted from my bones like dripping candle wax, and I stood to open the door. When Foster saw me, his eyes softened and he took two large strides into my room to wrap his slender arms around me.

He was cold, like my mother, but the cold had become comforting. I nuzzled my nose into the crook of his neck, inhaling his clean and pure scent. The tears still poured from my eyes, but I didn’t sob. No, that was over. Something else had filled the aching hole in my chest, and I wasn’t sure what it was. I guess all that mattered was I felt better.

Foster’s pale fingers stroked my braided hair, quiet, comforting sounds resonating from his lips. I melted into him, the muscles in my arms and legs quivering. We stood like that for a long moment - frozen in time. Everything around us melted away and there was nothing but the smell of his skin, the itchiness of his tunic on my raw cheeks, and his hand in my hair.

Surprisingly, I was the one that broke our embrace. I pulled back softly, unwinding his arms. His eyes were wide as they stared at my face, the makeup Cleon applied no doubt smeared down my face. He used his thumb to wipe the black and silver lines away.

“You still love him,” he whispered so quietly I wasn’t sure I heard him right. My gaze jolted up to meet the cool moons that were his eyes. “You still love him,” he repeated, this time a little more loudly.

I swallowed, my throat dry and raw. “Foster, it’s not like that. I broke it off with him long before I came here.” I wasn’t sure why I was explaining this to him, or why I thought he deserved an explanation, but something about his wounded expression urged me onward. “I’m here. With you.”

He looked down, hiding his eyes. He pulled back entirely, his adam’s apple bobbing up and down as he struggled to find the words. He made a sound in the back of his throat, and suddenly his eyes snapped up. He reached out, his fingers sliding around my cheeks and jaw, and brought his lips to mine.

Sparks exploded in my mind and body, igniting the life back inside me. I could feel every nerve, every lick of fire that teased my senses as his lips parted mine and his tongue started to dance with my own.

I tilted my head back, deepening the kiss, and he moaned. One of his hands slipped from my face and laced around my back, his fingers knotting in the fabric of my gown. I laid my hands on his chest, fisting the cotton of his tunic in my fingers, pulling his closer.

Something inside of me roared to life, surging up and engulfing me in this sensation of longing. I didn’t just want Foster, I needed him. Some voice in the back of my head was urgently whispering for me to stop, that this wasn’t right, but it was drowned out by my moans. Why wasn’t it right, anyway? It’s not like I was in a relationship with anyone else, and if Foster seemed just as interested in me then...

But you still love Sebastian. And there it was - those damned words that I’d been trying to suppress for the past week. They resonated in my skull, bouncing around like a ping pong ball.

Dammit!

I pulled away for a breath, my lips slightly swollen. “I don’t know if this is right,” I confessed, looking at my feet, pushing a stray white hair behind my ear. We were still close enough that I could feel whatever body heat he had radiating from him, and I could almost hear his heat pounding in sync with my own.

Foster swallowed loudly, shuffling his feet on the floor. It occurred to me that this was the first time Foster Quinn actually seemed at loss for words. Utterly speechless as he gazed down upon me.

When he finally had something to say, he cleared his throat. “I assume you’re right.”

I took another step back, trying to put some distance between us, to loosen the pull I felt towards him. My mind felt like a hive full of bees, busy and vibrating. “I’m sorry,” I whispered, though I wasn’t completely sure why I was sorry. I wasn’t sure about anything anymore.

“Neva,” he said my name like it was fragile, as if saying it any louder would shatter it and break it - break me.

I look up, past my white lashes and into his steaming gaze. Light streamed in from the window on the wall, falling across his face in golden ribbons. His face was set, his jaw firmly in place, but his eyes are wounded and soft. He looked so old at that moment, as if he’d lived a thousand lifetimes and only death could ease the burdens he’d witnessed in life. “You have no reason to be sorry,” he said, his voice a steady hum that hung in the air. “You will be queen, and I will merely be the General that control your armies. Now if you’ll excuse me.”

He turned away from me, and everything inside of me was screaming to reach out to him, to not let him go. He reached for the door but turned when his fingers enclosed around the metal of the handle. He looked tormented, torn between me and some other invisible force. “You know, Neva, I may not have the luxury of having a human heart, but I do have the luxury of having a faerie brain. But you do something to me, something the others couldn’t. You make me think with my heart, verses my brain, and frankly that terrifies me.”

I looked down, hiding my eyes as I thrilled at his words.

“With my brain,” he continues, “I know that people are meant to fall in love, but aren’t meant to be together. Maybe we should learn something from each other.”

My legs felt like spaghetti noodles. My knees wobbled. When I looked up to tell him that I had learned something from him, my heart cracked a tiny inch when I realized he was gone.


I went to the vanity and wiped off all the makeup Cleon had so expertly applied to my lids and cheeks, erasing all the silver lines and black smudges. When my face was completely bare, I took the time to study myself, to actually look at myself. I seemed to be doing a lot of that lately.

Where had my life gone? What mistakes had I made that led to this?

Instead of waiting for the universe to give me an answer, I gathered myself, slipping on a pair of black flats, and escaped my room. I avoided any of the main rooms, using only memory’s map to lead me to the White Garden. It was - just as I last saw it - beautiful and crisp, the winter air nipping at my nose.

An ogre attending to a shrub with tiny white daffodils looked up from his work, grunting at me before turning his back on me altogether.

Well hello to you too.

I stepped into the afternoon sun, the snow crunching under my flats. The haunting clinking of the ogres’ chains rattling together met my ears. With beauty comes cruelty, that’s what Foster told me, and the longer I spent here the more I was starting to realize that. The White Gardens were enough to take your breath away, but something about the place was diluted - out of place. Perhaps it was the treatment of its caretakers.

I strolled through the courtyard of white plants, running my fingers over their velvety petals. It was nice to have a distraction from the suppressing issues that had made up my everyday life.

The ogres completely ignored me, and for the first time in a long time I felt normal, as if life could just rewind and go back to normal. I used to envy the Sages for the wealth they had, for all the fortune they were lucky enough to have plopped at their feet... But now? I would do anything to be Eve Scotts, the village girl who could wield the power of ice. The girl who had to scrape by the skin of her teeth sometimes, who had to think for more than just herself and her broken and bloody heart.

I must’ve gotten swept up in my own little nightmare, because before I knew it the sky was a smear of pink and oranges that set the world on fire. The warm hue or the sun was a nice change.

I sighed and stood up from the bench I had been sitting on, smoothing out the wrinkles of my own with my palm.

I looked out at the towering mountains, the distance reducing them to my size. Their peaks were snow capped, their sides were ragged, and their slopes were steep. They looked terrifying. There was no way the witches would try to take the castle a second time, right? I prayed they wouldn’t try again when I was queen. I wasn’t positive if I could kill people like my mother did.

With one last long look out at the region that lay beyond, I trudged back into the shadows of the castle that would someday become my own, hoping tomorrow would be better than today.

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