Luckily for me, my wish did come true; the day was better than the previous.
For once it was quiet. There were no screams, no bleats of terror or bays of hellhounds. The only sound was the howling wind outside.
I stayed in my room for the first half of the day, reading a book I found at the bottom of my dress trunk. When my finger’s first wrapped around the leather cover, my heart sped up. When I pulled it out and realized it was a book, I assumed it wouldn’t even be in my language, but I was happily proved wrong.
I didn’t even bother getting out of my nightwear; I really didn’t have the energy to either. All I wanted to do was stay in bed and sleep, but a good book was a pleasant distraction.
But it wasn’t just a good book, it was a great book. Actually, I wouldn’t even classify it as a book - more like a play with a fancy cover. I couldn’t help myself, I got twisted up in a star-crossed lover tragedy that quickly took a sour turn when both main characters, Romeo and Juliet ended up dying.
It was a little past five in the evening when I finally emerged from my room like a hibernating bear. My stomach was growling like one too. I meandered my way into the kitchen, ignoring the snarls and hisses aimed in my direction from passing fae.
I browsed the cupboards, looking for anything edible but ended up coming empty handed. Come on Eve, where would fae store their food? But despite my best efforts, I couldn’t find anything to eat, so I ended up going back to my room with my stomach still growling.
On my way, however, I just happened to walk up on a very heated conversation between my mother and Foster. I was rounding the corner leading to the stairway to my room, when their harsh whispers floated past my ears.
“...expect me to stay away from her!”
They were talking about me.
“I do, and you will. It’s not time yet, and I will not have you jeopardizing this,” my mother’s voice was like white noise, hissing and full of static.
A snort sounded. “My apologies, Queen Maeve, but you can’t expect me to send your daughter to the -”
“Do I need to remind you what I have locked away in the dungeon?” she hissed back, and Foster fell silent. I could practically hear his teeth grinding together. I wanted to actually see them, to maybe get a better understanding on what they were arguing about exactly. I leaned past the corner, peeking out.
Luck was not on my side.
I lost my balance, bending too far to the right and almost toppled over. Thank God I caught myself, but my foot banged against the wall, and the loud sound resonated off the icy floors and glass windows.
“We are not alone,” my mother said.
My cheeks seared as I stepped out, my cover blown. When Foster’s burning gaze met mine, the bright bloom in my cheeks traveled to my neck and ears, and I felt as if my entire body was lit up like a beacon.
“I didn’t - I wouldn’t ...” I started, but it was no use. They knew I was eavesdropping, so there was no point in hiding it. “I’m sorry.”
A small smile spread across my mother’s beautiful lips. “It’s all right, my darling girl. Foster and I were just finished.”
Foster didn’t need much more to know she had dismissed him. He bowed curtly, shooting daggers at my mother. His eyes flicked to me for a brief moment before he turned on his heel and stalked out of the hall.
She took a deep breath and waved him off. “He’s very over dramatic. I assume he got that from his father.”
I walked towards her, sinking further into the hall. My cheeks still burned, but if she was willing to forget what just happened, I would be stupid not to. But how could I? It was obvious they were whispering about me, and what did my mother have hidden in the dungeon?
“His father?” I asked, trying to keep my composure. I wanted nothing more than to run after Foster, flag him down, and bombard him with questions. He knew what she was hiding down in the dungeon, and he knew whatever she was planning. I could tell by his reactions, and judging by how shady he got when she was around... He didn’t like it.
My mother pushed her long silver hair over her shoulder. She was wearing a simple white gown with lace sleeves and a low neckline. “My husband.”
My stomach dropped through the floor. “What?” She had to be lying. “That means he’s my... my brother.” What in the hell?
But my mother titled her head back and laughed, a beautiful sound that reminded me of ringing bells. “Oh no, sweet girl. Foster has a different mother. I married his father when he was a youngling. His mother died in childbirth.”
My heart slowed into a steady gallop. “Thank God.”
She quirked her head. “Why does that make you happy?”
My heart pounded. I wasn’t sure before whether or not telling my mother about my relations with Foster was a good idea, but I was positive now, after seeing their little feud, that it wasn’t. “I just found out I had parents. I’m just not ready to have siblings too.”
She looked at me levely under her thick white lashes. “Yes, of course.” She didn’t buy it.
I gulped, trying to calm the blood flying through my veins. “But why would you marry? I thought only queens ruled over the Winter Court.”
She nodded, sweeping her gown behind her. She walked over to a dark table next to the wall and drug her fingers down one of the ice figures placed there. “That much is true, but sometimes deals need to be made.”
“A faeries promise is law,” she said.
“There is nothing that can be done to unravel our deals. There are loopholes, or course, but a deal’s a deal.”
“So you made a deal to marry someone? That’s absurd.” I was taken back by my own boldness, but she did nothing but smile shyly.
“I did. But it was only because I needed the troops general Quinn had under his control. The Spring Court wasn’t content with their borders, and decided to expand into Winter’s territory. Needless to say, I wouldn’t stand for that.” I could only see the profile of her face, her long white lashes cast downward as she gazed down at the glass figurine. “Most of our army died the previous year in a battle with the Summer Court, so we didn’t have anyone to protect our borders.”
“But aren’t the elves Winter fae?” I asked, confused. I always thought Foster was born and raised in Winter.
My mother shook her head. “They are now, but not originally. The Domoviyr are a race of elves that lived on the southern tip of our territory, where it doesn’t snow. They had their own king, though it was more of a village than a kingdom. Their king was also the general of their army. The entire civilization was raised in a military household. Younglings were trained for battle since they were born.” My mother shrugged. “I needed warriors, and Foster’s father came to me with a proposal. I accepted. After many millennia the Domoviyr have adjusted to the winter climate and now are considered part of Winter’s court.”
Millennia. My mother had seen a millennia in her lifetime. And here I was, only seventeen-years-old. I wondered how old Foster was.
I was about to ask what the deal was - why would a general, a king, give up his people so willingly, but my mother had turned away from me. She walked down the hall with fluid grace, her back straight and her chin held high. She called over her shoulder, “The ball is in two days, my darling. You should really consider the gown you’ll be wearing.”
The ball. Shit. I’d totally forgotten.
What would the ball consist of? Who would be there? Was it all going to be about me? My mind spun with all the possible answers.
I made my way back up the stairs and into my room, closing the door behind me with a soft click. My stomach growled. I shouldn’t have long to wait to dinner, but what could I do for an hour?
Beside my bed, on the ice end table, sat a small bell made out of steel with light blue paint chipping on its exterior. Cleon once told me that if I rung the bell, she would be at my service - for either hair, clothes, or food.
It was tempting. It not like I had many friends here, and I wasn’t sure Foster wanted to talk to me right now, though I wanted nothing more than to run after him, find him, and question him about the dungeons.
And I was lonely. The winter palace was huge, but it was empty of everything warm. It was like living inside an empty shell of a corpse - as if the heart of the castle stopped beating many, many years ago.
With a sigh I caved, walking over to the bell, picking it up between my fingers, and giving it a slight shake.
The bell didn’t make a sound. Confused, I shook it again, this time harder. Still nothing.
I tilted the bell, looking in past the rim. There was no ball in the center, nothing to hit the outer edge of the bell.
“What the -?”
The door to my room opened with a groan. “You don’t need to ring it that hard, by the Gods.”
My brows reached my hairline. “It didn’t even ring? How did you hear it?”
Cleon gave me a small grin, full of mischief. She carried a small silver platter with a collection of small cups and saucers of sugar and other sweeteners and spices. I smelled cinnamon as she walked past and set the tray beside the bell.
“I didn’t ask for anything yet. You didn’t need to bring drinks.”
“They’re not for you,” she said matter-of-factly. “I wanted them.”
I started at her, dumbfounded, and she snorted.
“You may be hungry, but you have to wait for dinner time anyway. You knew this. There is no special events going on, so that marked off makeup, hair or dresses, and everyone in the kitchen was gossiping about how you’ve been stuck in your room all day. Broken hearted, they said. So when I heard the bell I figured you were just lonely.”
Broken heart. The word echoed in my head.
When she saw the look on my face, her grin spread wider across her lips, flashing gleaming fangs in my direction. “So tell me, Princess. Who has your heart?”
She poured herself a steaming cup of hot chocolate mixed with peppermint, and even though the drinks weren’t for me, there was still a second cup on the platter. I grabbed it and poured myself one as well, spooning a few scoops of cinnamon into the mix and twirled my spoon in the melted chocolate.
I sat crossed legged on my bed, my fingers laced around the warm mug and blew on the steaming liquid. Cleon sat with her ebony legs dangling off the bed, her scales catching in the candlelight.
“I’m not heartbroken, you know,” I said defensively, tracing the lip of my mug with a finger. It was still too hot to drink.
The heat didn’t seem to bother Cleon, because she took a large gulp from her mug. “Is that so?” she asked after she swallowed, lowering the mug to her lap.
She sighed and turned her body so it was facing me completely. “I’m not talking about Foster.”
I wasn’t sure what surprised me most, the fact that she knew that Foster wasn’t the only man making my heart hurt, or that she called Foster by his name, and not General Quinn.
I squirmed. “Umm...”
She sighed, reaching over and placing her mug on the platter. Her long black claws scraped over the ice of the table with a screech, making me cringe. She sat up straight. “Princess, if you want to survive at the Winter Court, first things first. You can’t wear your emotions on your face like a favorite outfit. Fae notice things like that, and creatures at the Winter Court are known for being sneaky, alarming beasts. They’ll squish you like a bug.”
“I’m trying!” I snapped. Cleon didn’t look surprised. “I’m trying so hard!”
I shrieked in annoyance, placing my cup on the end table, and buried my face in a pillow on my bed. It smelt like my hair. “There are some things that are just.... hard,” I confessed. “Some things that are eating me from the inside out, and I’m so stressed.”
She chuckled. “The purple bruises under your eyes second that.“I felt her shift her weight on the bed. “But would the wedding be what’s ailing you?”
I sat up. “Wedding?”
Cleon’s yellow eyes narrowed until all I saw was the black of her pupils. “You don’t know about the ... Oh!” Her eyes went wide with panic. “Oh no.”
“What?” I asked, my heart kickstarting. Wedding?
“I shouldn’t have said anything.”
I reached out and grabbed her forearms, holding her in place. “I’m still your princess. I command you to tell me.” It was the first time I’d used the princess card, and it disgusted me by how easily it came, how effortlessly it flew off my tongue.
Cleon’s dark purple lips thinned and her eyes went hard at my command. “Very well.”
I sat back, tucking my hands in my lap. “Thank you.”
She glared in my direction, her eyes hard and accusing. “You won’t be thanking me for long.”
I tried to ignore the flutter of my heart, the tremor in my body at her words. I waved her off. “Tell me.”
She sighed. “To make the coronation complete, you must marry. Every queen does.”
“That doesn’t make sense. My mother married because she had to. The Spring Court was threatening our lands. She just told me.” My words were an echo of what was going on in my head.
Cleon shook her head. “Your mother is lying.”
“Your mother married Foster’s... father to ensure a mate for you.”
No. This didn’t make any sense. “So my mother married Foster’s father to make sure I had someone to marry? Who?”
Cleon just stared at me, willing me to make the connection on my own. And I did.
Foster’s mother died shortly after he was born. My mother said she made a deal with the general, but she never exaggerated on the General’s part of the bargain. No wonder why he’d been so willing to give up his kingdom. It was all for his son.
“I’m to marry Foster,” I whispered to myself.
Cleon nodded her head, her forked tongue running along her teeth. “The ball isn’t just to welcome the queen to be, but the king as well.”
Lying. My mother was lying to me.
The world swayed. Marriage? I wasn’t completely sure I had the strength to rule over the court by myself. How could I take yet another persons point of view in the mix and sort through what was right for my people?
“I have to marry Foster?”
She just stared at me, her face lacking of emotion and solem. A blank slate. “Yes.”
“Ohmigod, ohmigod, ohmigod!” My heart seemed to be racing my frantic mind, trying to see which one would gallop to the imaginary finish line first. Frankly I didn’t mind. If I was dead then all this would go away, but still. “How long have you known?”
Cleon cast her eyes downward, and her black thumb absently traced the scales on arms. She wouldn’t meet my eyes. “Awhile.”
I tried to ignore the tiny ping of betrayal I felt. “And what about Foster? Does he know?”
Her eyes snapped up, her brows crinkling. “Well of course. Why do you think he’s been trying to woo you? He’s trying to make it easier for both of you for the wedding.”
The world swirled around me like a painting of watercolors; a mesh of a hundred different hues of blues, black, whites and greys.
All of a sudden Cleon’s back went straight, and her pointed ears swiveled on the side of her skull like a cat’s, detecting something. Her slitted eyes narrowed before she turned to me. “I need to go.” Her voice was hushed, not low enough to be a whisper, but certainly low enough that I realized she didn’t want to be overheard. “I wasn’t here. Do you understand me? I was never here.”
I was so numb and shocked to do anything but nod. Cleon hooked her fingers in the mug’s handles and grabbed the tray with ingredients and a single saucer before rushing to the door. Before she opened it however, she leaned close to the wood, her black, curved ears straining. When she was pleased no one was on the other side, her blazing eyes pinned me in a glare. “Never here,” she mouthed, and I gave a curt nod in agreement. I understood.
With nothing more than a hush of wind, she slipped through the door.
Marriage. I couldn’t get the thought out of my head, it was like it was branded there. Forever a scar. What was I to do? My heart galloped in my chest the harder I pondered the idea.
I dragged in a heavy breath. If I had to marry Foster to gain the crown and keep the Winter Court from falling, so be it. I could do it, right? But something didn’t feel right. Maybe it was the fact that it was moving too fast. Maybe it was my mother. But I couldn’t shake the unnerving twinge in my heart every time I thought of Foster Quinn sliding a band around my finger and saying “I do”. Something in my heart was screaming no.
But something in my mind was demanding me to say yes. It was instinctual, as if Foster was the only right thing in my life, the only absolute. It was strange considering I hadn’t known him long, but now that I had, it was as if he was... made for me.
I replayed every conversation I’d had in the past couple of weeks. My mother never once mentioned a wedding, and neither did Foster. God! How could he keep his composure so well? And what was it between those two? It was obvious they despised each other, with Foster’s nasty glares and my mother’s cold remarks.
A knock sounded on my door.
My back stiffened. What if it was Foster? What would I say to him?
I eased myself off my bed and tiptoed across the room, my feet making soft padding sounds on the cool ice floors. I took a breath before opening the door, but it was pointless. Foster wasn’t the one to greet me. Instead, a small servant with blazing green eyes and soft purple hair waited in front of me with a tray similar to Cleon’s. But instead of hot chocolate, there was a dish of steaming pasta and a side of crisped potatoes that seemed a little charred around the edges.
The fae gave a curt bow. “Your majesty. Dinner has been canceled tonight.” I tried not to act surprised - supper had never been canceled since I arrived. “The queen demanded you stay in your quarters.” She held out the tray of food, and I took it gingerly.
“Um, thank you.” She said nothing as she turned away from me and started down the stairs.
My mother demanded that I stay in my quarters? Was it something I said when I caught her and Foster arguing? Speaking of arguing... I thought back to what my mother had said about the dungeons. She had something down there, something she was blackmailing Foster with, and I needed to find out. I knew something wasn’t right about this place, and for some strange reason I felt as if I was just at the cusp of figuring it all out.
I sat on my bed and ate my dinner in silence. The pasta was excellently cooked, but it’s not like the servants would cook their queen’s daughter anything less than perfection. They were terrified of her, that much was for sure.
That was something I wanted to change when I became queen. No more fear. It was one of the reasons why marrying Foster didn’t scare me as much as it should’ve. I would change the way things were run around here, and as bad as it sounds and as much as I’d grown to care for her, my mother wouldn’t be around to do anything about it. I was happy about that.
My mother had a cold, placid way about her that made anything she said or did that much more frightening. When she was suppose to be excited, or happy, or angry, she’d gaze at you with her old eyes and I swear the room would drop ten degrees. Something just wasn’t right, and I was going to change it, whatever it was.
When my supper was finished, I went to clear off my nightstand to have a place to set my tray. Surely some servant would take care of it tomorrow. But as I was doing so, a soft sparkled caught my eye on the floor.
I glanced down. One of Cleon’s saucers, the ones she used to serve the hot chocolate, was sitting upside down on the floor. One of us must’ve dropped it when she dropped the bomb of me having to marry Foster.
My stomach squirmed at the thought, but I shoved it aside and bent down to pick up the tiny plate. It was smooth in my hands, and I marveled at its shiny exterior. I traced my fingers around the rim, following its intricate designs of ivory and leaves.
With a shrug I placed it atop the tray. No one would know the difference. If anything, I could just say the other servant girl brought me up a cup of tea, or hot chocolate, or even coffee. Or maybe she served me a piece of cake, or other goodies from the kitchen.
I was still in my nightwear from the night before, and I was too drained to change, so instead I just pulled back the covers and crawled into bed. It was early, but the sun had set so it had to be past seven. I was tired, and I needed to shut my brain off or I swear I’d go crazy. With my covers up to my chin, I leaned over and blew out the flickering candle next to the tray.
The room was quite, dark, and blissful. I wish I could say the same for my dreams. Zafira was there to haunt me.
The next fews days blurred past, so fast I almost couldn’t get a grip on them. The castle was a buzz with energy, all my mother’s servant scurrying around the castle in preparation for the upcoming ball.
Within a few days I was forced to take lessons on how to hold a fork, on how to keep my spine straight, wear a corset, and worst of all... dance.
My teacher was Ms. Tiga, and she wasn’t what I expected when I was told I would be taking dance lessons. She was young and lean - a slender mass of muscle. She reminded me of a snake with her minty green skin that shone with a metallic luster, almost as if she had scales. And she moved like one too. She slithered about the room with a fluid grace, absorbing my every move with her critical eyes. But what scared me the most, what screams “snake!” the loudest, was her two long, needle like fangs that flashed when they caught the light.
She wore tight black clothing and carried a long stick made out of silver. If I didn’t do something, or missed a step, I’d feel the sharp teeth of the pole biting into the back of my calves and thighs.
“Keep your back straight! Chin high! Smile!” It was all a routine for the next two days that when the day of the ball came, I wasn’t entirely ready. It just felt like another day, more routines, more dance lessons.
So when Cleon came in with a sparkling lace gown with sequin embellished around the corset, I stared at it, dumfounded. It was also the first time I’d seen her since she left my room in a hurry after our talk. She looked different, just not herself. It was as if there was a weight on her shoulders that she couldn’t shake, and a permenate scowl stretched across face. “Well are you just going to stare at it, or are you going to try it on?” She stared at the bags under my eyes. “You’re not giving me much to work with, foolish girl.”
I had to smile a little. At least her attitude hasn’t changed.
The truth was, I hadn’t been getting much sleep the past couple of nights. I guess in the past few weeks, really. It seemed as if every time I closed my eyes, Zafira was there to greet me, her eyes glazed over with a milky film, and her mouth gaped open screaming: “He won’t forgive you! He won’t forgive you!”
I shivered just thinking about it.
I didn’t expect him to forgive me if I couldn’t even forgive myself.
I didn’t try on the dress though. Instead she ran me a warm bath, and I slithered into the water to soothe my aching muscles. Dancing was surprisingly a very good workout. Cleon sat behind me and dunked my hair in the water, using her long black claws to massage my scalp and knead the shampoo into a lather. When that was finished, she rinsed it, and we moved onto makeup and hair.
I was used to servants fondling over my hair and face, so it almost surprised me that only Cleon was assigned to my room on such a big night. But it wasn’t that I didn’t trust her. Despite her hard appearance and occasional snappy remarks, she was a master at weaving braids into beautiful updos and applying makeup to look flawless. It was an art, when it came to Cleon.
This time was no different as she placed small spiral curls and pinned them in place. All my hair was pinned at the nape of my neck, secured with small silver pins coated in blue glitter. Cleon ran her long claws around the outer edges of my face, loosening a few strands of white and letting them fall where they may. She made it look as if I rolled out of bed, but just looked this beautiful without even trying. God, she was good.
She then went to my makeup, not daring to say a word. I studied her face as her brush worked magic over my pale flesh. The tip of her forked tongue made an appearance as she stared hard in concentration, her scaly brow furrowing.
“Did something happen when you left my room?”
Cleon froze, her brush stopping on my eyelid mid stroke. She swallowed, then squared her shoulders. “Never here,” she mouthed, and my heart kickstarted. Was someone listening?
I cast my gaze to my lap, where my fingers were twined so tightly they looked like a ball of white worms.
I stopped talking after that, not daring to open my mouth and Cleon offered no more details. She worked in silence, gliding around me to make me a beautiful specimen, someone worthy of the title of Princess of the Winter Court.
When it was time for the dress, my stomach was in knots. The ball was approaching and that meant I would see Foster, according to Cleon. The ball wasn’t just for me, but for the future king as well. Foster.
I hadn’t seen him since the day I ran into him and my mother bickering by the stairs that led to my room. Don’t get me wrong, I’d caught glimpses of him, but everytime I walked into a room, he’d be leaving - not even bothering to pass me a glance.
The dress didn’t zip in the back like I expected. Instead, it was a corset dress that laced up in the back and left my shoulders bare. It also had soft slits in the hips that allowed more of my pale skin to poke through the silvery blue fabric. It left me bare.
Finally Cleon placed a pair of glass heals in front of me. My feet slid into them perfectly. I really expected them to be uncomfortable.
She twirled me around, a soft smile pulling at her lips. She didn’t say anything, and I didn’t expect her to considering someone could be eavesdropping, but she seemed a little happier.
When I was finally Cleon approved, she ushered me out the door where guests were just starting to arrive.
You got this, Neva. It was the first time I called myself that - really considered it my name. In a few weeks, I will be queen. Things will finally be right. Just get through tonight.
I inhaled a shaky breath, letting the cool air expand my lungs and fill me up until I feared I’d float up to the ceiling like a swollen balloon.
Game on. Let the ball begin