The ball was everything I’d imagined it would be and more, though I wasn’t in the spirits to enjoy it. It was a blurred mixture of preening and gossip and waltzing. High fae, ambassadors, aristocrats and even some lower fae came to meet the new queen, and apparently the new king. Most were drunk by the end of the night, holding up bright golden and silver goblets of faerie wine, belting speeches in my honor, though I found it amusing considering they had no idea who I was. I lingered to Cleon’s side, because she was damn good at scaring off any suitors, or fae who seemed a little too interested in my lineage. I smiled for my mother, though it was apparent that my heart wasn’t in it. I couldn’t get the fact that she lied to me out of my mind.
Despite everything, I just couldn’t bring myself to the present - my mind kept dashing to the past, too everything I’d screwed up on. I had to keep reminding myself that there was a good chance I’d never see Sebastian again, so there was no use in fretting about his sister.
But I couldn’t just forget about it. My humanity wasn’t just a switch you could flick on and off like Foster’s. All I could think about was Sebastian in our tent, waiting by the kitchen table or on our bed, praying his sister was all right. The worry he must be going through... the doubt. It was probably running him ragged - driving him insane. He would never know what happened to his sister, though I was positive he would blame the fae. He just had no idea which faerie was the one to actually murder his sister. Me.
There was a band in my honor, all from different courts; two guys and two girls. There was a man with a nicely tailored suit made out of reddish-orange velvet, his skin pale and his hair a fiery brass color that shone with millions of gold and yellow undertones. He played the fiddle. The other man, however, wore tight leggings and a tunic made out of matching dark green material. His skin was dark - sun kissed, while his hair was honey blonde. Almost like Danna’s. He squatted next to the man with fire for hair, beating on a pair of drums.
The two woman, on the other hand, were both petite and stick like. The girl from my court, a faerie with black-blue hair and black pits for eyes, wore a beautifully sewn dress made out of dark blue silk. It rippled around her as if it were made out of water. She played the flute, while the other, a girl from the spring court, plucked guitar strings. But both looked beautiful.
A cool hand touched my bare shoulder, and I jolted. Foster stood behind me, a lazy grin resting on his features. He wore a white suit that clung to his slender from, accenting the curves of his muscles. He actually seemed relaxed unlike the other times I’d seen him in the past couple days, or at least the glances. But the sight of him sent my heart kickstarting in my chest. There was no way I could look at him the same, knowing what Cleon had told me earlier.
He’s going to be my husband.
He bowed at the waist and offered me a pale hand. “Princess, would you do me the honor?”
Just then a fast and exciting tune sprang to life, fiddles and guitar strings thrumming while a soft flute sang.
I gulped. “Wait, to dance?” I whispered under my breath. He had no idea that I knew about the wedding.
Foster flashed his winning smile that I was starting to love. “Of course.”
Even with the preparation for the ball, the past two days of dance lessons hadn’t gone smoothly, and I was pretty sure Ms. Tiga didn’t like me, or appreciate the bruised toes. But I guess you could say I was a fast learner.
“I can’t dance.”
He made a sound in the back of his throat. “Absurd! Anyone can dance. Just follow my lead.” He offered me his hand and I put my clammy palm over his. I looked at him, baffled. What the hell?
I shook my head, realizing I must absolutely look stupid staring at him with my mouth wide open. “Just don’t let me fall,” I whispered, and something sparkled in response in his eyes.
“I wouldn’t dare.”
Before I could object, he whisked me onto the dance floor.
I tried to ignore the pounding in my chest as his hand slid to my waist, his fingers sliding down the bare skin of my back, his fingers resting into the slits on my hips. Our faces was so close, it wouldn’t take much to just lean in...
“What are you thinking about?” His voice was the wind, barely audible over the chorus of voices in the room, but I could feel it everywhere - all over my skin.
“I’m thinking about how embarrassing it’ll be when I step on your toes and trip.” I mumbled, hoping the makeup Cleon put on my cheeks masked the blazing blush beneath the surface. It wasn’t completely a lie. It was less embarrassing than telling him I wanted to devour his mouth with mine.
Out of nowhere shame burned in the deepest part of my stomach, creating a dark and dank void. Zafira wouldn’t be able to kiss anyone like that ever again. And I did that. I was the cause of her death, even if it was to save someone else. I murdered her.
I felt completely gutted.
Foster studied my face, his crystal eyes an unmoving force as they took in my somber features. “Is something wrong?”
I ignored the twisting of my intestines. “Nothing.” But then I thought about it. He was actually talking to me again. It would be the perfect opportunity to ask him about the dungeons, and what my mother had hiding down there. “Wait...” I started, and his white brows rose. “actually, I was wondering what my mother was talking about when you guys were fighting?”
The tempo of the music rose a beat, and Foster spun me in a tight circle, and the crowd around us “oh’ed and aw’ed”. I tried to keep my mind focused on asking questions and getting answers, but it was extremely hard to focus when Foster’s warm breath wafted around my face - smelling of mint -, his chest pushed up against my own. I could feel the steady gallop of his heart through my corset.
He chuckled. “Naive human.”
One of the buttons on his suit grazed the skin of my hip and caused goosebumps to come to life all over my skin. His chilling eyes swam up and down, from my arms to my shoulders, to my face, where they lingered the longest. A sly, cocky grin twitched at the corner of his mouth, and though the temperature of the room around us was below freezing, his gaze was burning. He was looking at me like a hungry man who hadn’t seen food in weeks. “We were fighting about you.”
I tried not to flinch. I wasn’t expecting an answer, let alone one so blunt. “You were?” My voice squeaked more than I wanted it to, and I cursed internally.
His lips parted. He nodded. “Yes, we were. I don’t want to marry you because I have to. I want to marry you because I want to.”
The world stopped. Everything froze around me.
Time stood still.
He knew that I knew. I was suddenly aware of every place his bare skin touched mine. I was aware of his now uneven breath, his fluttering white eyelashes, his parted and flushed lips. Even his platinum, disheveled hair.
He nodded, offering me a small smile that seemed out of character for him. He was Foster - cocky, arrogant, a human-hater. Not someone who was suppose to give me mercy in any way, shape or form. He wasn’t suppose to be adorable. He seemed to have... softened a bit. “You were lucky that I was the one who overheard you and Cleon talking. If it was anyone else, you guys would be in big trouble.”
I still couldn’t get what he said out of my head. “Yes, we were. I don’t want to marry you because I have to. I want to marry you because I want to.” Did that mean he wanted to? No, it couldn’t be. I was nothing more than a mere human-faerie half breed. A mutt. He made it clear when we met that humans weren’t even in the question for him, even if we shared this crazy, electric bond. He had to be lying.
So why did I find myself more and more drawn to him than ever? Why did my skin tingle like it was on fire, a slight burning sensation, almost a shock, when his cool flesh would graze my own?
Because he’s fae, a part of me tried to rationalize. Like calls to like.
God, it was exasperating!
But I deserved it. After everything I’d done: breaking Sebastian’s heart, killing his sister - undoubtedly shredding his heart even further - and mingling with his greatest enemy. Foster, who was unknowingly flustering me beyond my own comprehension.
“Why would she get in trouble?” I had to distract myself. There was no way in hell that I was going to break down in front of every High Fae in the realm.
Foster grew tense and glanced over his shoulder. He turned back to me, his voice hushed. “I can’t talk to you about this right now. At midnight your mother will hold a toast in your honor, and then the party will really get started. That’s when the servants and lower fae are allowed to join the celebration and mingle with the rest of us.” His lips were moving so fast - like a hummingbird’s wings. I suddenly missed the warm sun on my skin, the moist scent of spring. “When that happens, meet me out on your balcony. I’ll tell you everything you need to know.”
I nodded tersely. “Alright.” I was finally going to get answers!
The last note of the melody sounded with a pluck of the guitar. Foster’s eyes never left my face as he bowed at the waist, every bit a gentleman, and murmured his thanks for the dance.
I curtsied, mimicking the rest of the females in the room, though it was hard to keep my balance. I felt like I was on a small platform, trying to keep my balance in a raging ocean. Perhaps the heat I felt in my cheeks was from the sun, not the horrid embarrassment I felt when I almost toppled to the ground if it wasn’t for a passing servant who caught my elbow. I nodded my thanks, offering a dreadful lie about too much faerie wine.
He offered me nothing in return besides a cautious look and a bow before scampering off in the opposite direction.
Foster melted back into the surging crowd of the room, and like an idiot, I stood there in the center of the dance floor, searching for him. A firm hand gripped my upper arm, and I flinched. Cleon stood on the sidelines, her slitted eyes narrowed into a glare. “Are you stupid, girl? Or just have a deathwish, I presume.”
I snorted and pulled my arm away, ignoring the urge to rub the spot where her hand gripped me like a vise. “Nobody will notice.”
Her stare intensified. “Oh trust me, girl, everyone will notice.” She was wearing what every other servant was wearing, a black uniform that heartbreakingly reminded me of the witches uniforms, and when a male ambassador from the Autumn Court waved her over, asking about another glass of wine, she glared at me harder before turning away. As if that would somehow make me remember.
With nothing better to do and a few hours to kill, I sauntered over to the dining area. Rows upon rows of tables were layered with hundreds of different varieties of food. I guess the Winter Court was here to impress.
I grabbed a crystal plate that probably cost more than the entire Bairfell Palace, and filled it with rosemary chicken, mashed potatoes, venison Tartare, parmesan bread and black truffles. My stomach growled and my mouth watered at the sight of the food. Now all I needed to do was find a nice quiet place to eat it all.
I slithered through the crowd, trying my best not to elbow people. But when I happened to see Ms. Tiga perched by a pillar, her long, slender arms crossed over her flat chest, I hunched my shoulders, praying she wouldn’t recognize me.
Rule number sixteen: Don’t stuff yourself in front of your guests. You don’t want to seem uncivilized or rude, or at least that’s what she told me. I glanced down at my heaping plate. If stuffing yourself was rude, I was about to get downright nasty.
But it looked like luck wasn’t on my side. Instead, the snake of a woman pinpointed me in the crowd, and her slitted eyes automatically went down to the heaping plate I had gripped in my hands. Her gleaming white fangs made an appearance as she sneered.
It wasn’t long before she had me cornered. “Well well well, what do we have here? Isss the Princesss sssplurging?”
I shrugged, feeling small. “I’m hungry.”
Her forked tongue flickered out, tasting the air. No doubt tasting for my anger, my resolve. It looked like she found what she was looking for: my lacking of either. I was scared shittless of her - not like a queen should be. But I couldn’t help it. I hated snakes, and she was the epitome of my worst nightmare.
She snatched the plate from my grip, and a drop of gravy splashed to the floor. I tried not to whimper as she handed it to a passing servant, ordering them to wash the plate and get rid of the food. “It looksss as if I need to keep my eyesss on you, Princesss.”
She turned her back on me before taking her place by the pillar in the back of the room, her yellow, critical eyes boring holes in the back of my head.
I tried to have fun, I really did, but parties just weren’t it for me. It’s hard when you know literally no one, and your stomach is gnawing at itself. I was almost tempted to go back up to the food bar and maybe snatch a large, steaming turkey leg, but I could still feel Ms. Tiga’s eyes on me. She gave me a look, as if saying “I dare you.” I glowered and backed away from the table.
I ended up sitting on my throne for most of the night, greeting people and offering fake smiles if a stranger caught my eye. My mother, on the other hand, bathed in the attention of others. She was doused in compliments, donations, and gifts. Someone from the Spring Court actually brought her a carriage in the shape of a blossom with a team of pink horses. It was such a lively thing, such a twist from the normal dark and dank of the Winter Court that I actually snorted when I saw it. But not Mother, oh no. She smiled and kissed the givers cheek, going on and on about how grateful she is for such a lovely gift.
God, why wasn’t she like this one hundred percent of the time?
My legs started to shake up and down in my seat, a good indicator that I was growing impatient. I craned my neck to get a glimpse of the large clock above me. A quarter till midnight. It wouldn’t be long.
As if on cue, my mother took the steps to our thrones, and grabbed a small glass of blood red wine from the arm of her throne. She motioned me with her eyes to stand. My heart raced, hating all the eyes on me, but did so anyway. She placed her arm around my shoulder and gave it a reassuring squeeze that sent a chill of surprise up my spine. It occurred to me that this was the first time she actually touched me in a parental kind of matter.
My mother faced the crowd, her silver hair streaming over her shoulders. Her face glowed with pride, with excitement and something else... something I couldn’t put my finger on.
“Attention! Attention!” She clinked her long, claw like nails against the glass. There was no way such a small sound would make the impact it did, but this was Tir Na Nog, land of fae and magic. Everything was possible.
Conversation died within the crowd and everyone turned to face my mother and me.
Despite being higher above everyone else, elevated on the steps, I felt small. Or at least I wanted too. The room just seemed so big. So many eyes glued to my face - judging, calculating, criticizing, disapproving...
God, what I wouldn’t do to see a familiar face.
“As you all know,” she continued, dragging out her words, undoubtedly adding to the charisma of her speech. “The Lost Princess of the Winter Court has been found!” The crowed cheered, actually cheered at this. They’re all a bunch of fakes. They were glaring at me, their faces scrunched between smiles and glimpses. “And she is here to take her place here at court, as Queen of the Winter Court, Regent of the Unseelie lands and Sovereign of all winter fae!”
Just then a movement caught my eye. I zeroed in to see Foster elbowing his way through the crowd, his eyes catching mine over the sea of fae. I stared at his porcelain features, the firm set of his jaw. There’s my familiar face.
He nodded at me, as if telling me to continue on. I tore my gaze away, squaring my shoulders and inclining my jaw.
“So in honor of my daughter’s coming to age-”
“How can she rule! a voice shouted from the crowd, causing astonishment to stir in all the faces of the room. “She’s part human. Part witch!”
This caused a ripple of gasps to rise into the chilled air. A slow hiss streamed through my mother’s teeth as her eyes scanned the group in front of us, trying to pinpoint the outburst. Her teeth were bared, and her body had grown tense.
I watched in terror as her eyes narrowed on something in the back, her lips curling back in a feral, terrifyingly beautiful smile. “Why don’t you step forward, darling, and make your face known.”
The crowed turned in a single movement to look at the small spring fae my mother had called out. She looked like a daisy, with her dark green skin and yellow-white hair. She was small, stick thin, with beautiful long legs and large, innocent looking orange eyes.
Without even giving the command, the crowd parted in two, allowing the girl to walk a straight path right up to our thrones. She did so, glaring at my mother with hatred and fear, her knobby knees shaking as she fought for balance.
She didn’t even bother bowing in front of Mother.
“And what might your name be?” The queen asked, her personal allure screaming violence.
The girl spit at her feet, the glob of saliva landing inches from my mother’s feet. A servant fainted. Mother’s vicious smile stayed in place, but a muscle in her jaw feathered. She waved a finger in front of the girl. “Oh no, did someone forget her manners?”
Her arm shot out, her fingers closing around the girl’s throat. The small fae gave a started yelp as my mother lifted her off her feet in one swift motion, holding her inches above the ground.
It began snowing. Inside.
The guests shifted, eager for the violence that was bound to erupt. That was something I learned about faeries. They seemed like beautiful creatures with their slender forms, bright eyes and porcelain like skin- but they were nothing but monster’s trapped in angel bodies. No matter how refined they acted, how sophisticated and just, at the end of the day they were nothing but slaves to their inner nature.
It disgusted me.
Members of the Spring Court, particularly the spring ambassador, didn’t like the show the Winter Queen was putting on. They were the only ones that I realized seemed shaken by my mother’s barbaric nature.
“Now,” my mother gritted between her cruel smile, “What is your name?”
The clock behind me chimed midnight.
Foster’s blank expression met my own, and he nodded. He would meet me in my room when I was able to leave - undetected.
With nothing more he shifted back through the crowd and made his way to the double doors that led to the main hallway.
I shifted my attention back to the spring girl and the winter queen. The snow began falling steadily now, and the hum of my magic shifted in my veins. It could feel the pulsing energy of my mother, and it was like it somehow was awakening something inside of me.
The girl squeaked and gasped, clawing desperately at my mother’s pale hands. But Mother was a rock, a statue of ancient magic and she wouldn’t be moved. If anything, her grip tightened and the Spring fae’s face turned a dark green, almost navy blue as her cobalt blood pulsed to her head. Her sparkling eyes seemed to bulge as she gasped for breath, and bile burned a steady path up my throat.
“Tell me your name!” My mother shook her with such ferocity that a sickening crack echoed in the room, rendering everyone still as stone.
The spring faerie went limp in my mother’s grasp, her eyes glazing as her head lolled to the side, directed at me.
For the first time that night, there was complete silence.
My mother killed someone with her bare hands. There was no magic involved, that much I knew. I would have felt it. She pulsed with power, but she used no magic on the girl. She killed that young spring fae with her bare hands, with the very malice that pumped through her veins.
I’m going to be sick.
With a roar the Spring ambassador launched himself at us, but he was cut down by the arch of an elf’s sword, the word “daughter” caught on his lips.
A fine spray of blue painted my mother’s gown, and she released the girl. The corpse fell to the ground where it landed beside the still breathing ambassador. The male - the father - fae gripped the gaping wound on the side of his neck, his green skin almost looking black soaked with blood. Candlelight flickered in his spite filled eyes. “Queen Tana will not forgive this,” he choked. Blue blood bubbled and gurgled at the corners of his mouth, spilling to the floor in thick streams. “The Spring court will have you,” and with a shaky hand he pointed at my chest, “and your half breed’s head for this.”
And just like that, chaos erupted.
Other members of the Spring Court launched into action, clawing and ripping at the winter guards. Screams from the Autumn and Summer Court met my ears as they scrambled back, desperate to get out of the line of fire.
Blue was everywhere.
I stumbled back, the back of my knees buckling over my throne. I toppled into it, just as my mother screamed for order, a sick, masochistic smile spread over her soft, mulberry lips.
The fighting halted when the last of the frenzied spring fae were captured, a knife of a winter elf pressed to its jugular.
Clapping sounded. It was my mother, a crazed looked covering her expression. “Bloody brilliant! Bravo!” She let her head tilt back as a cackled rippled past her lips, causing goosebumps to rise along my flesh.
“Take them away. Cerberus would surely like to play chase, I presume.” She dismissed them with a flick of her wrist, and the spring fae were dragged through the doors kicking and screaming, knowingly headed towards their death.
Blue blood pooled around the floor, coated the walls and lined the doorframes. I watched as the remaining of the guests tiptoed their way around it, their eyes frantic and their mouths half open in a dazed expression, as if they were a cat too high on catnip.
Violence was their drug, and they just got a shit load of it.
“Now that that’s taken care of,” my mother said sweetly, “let’s continue on with our celebration, shall we?”
No one dared to say anything about my heritage after that, or to even really look at me for that matter. I was the Winter Queen’s daughter, she was protective of me, and they feared I was going to grow to be just like her.
Servants were dispersed throughout the room evenly, handing their shell-shocked guests glasses of red wine while Mother boasted about my skills, my willingness to serve my people, and the relentless hand I will have when I rule. It really just sounded like she was giving a speech about herself, but still.
When she was done, the toast finished, she released the servants from their bonds. The music started back up again, as if nothing has happened, as if the blood spilt meant nothing. But the dark stains on the floor told me otherwise.
I knew it was time to leave when even my mother allowed herself the luxury of dancing and conversing with others. I even witnessed her batting her eyelashes at a young, fierce looking summer warrior with dark skin and light, golden hair.
I slipped through the crowd, trying to keep myself small, out of sight. And to my surprise and complete liking, I didn’t see Ms. Tiga. Maybe, just maybe she was actually letting loose and allowing herself to have fun. At least someone was.
I even witnessed Cleon down a glass of wine, her eyes glazed as she danced, her black scales glimmering in the dim light.
As I walked through the halls, my heels in hand to minimize detection, I let my mind wander, though I knew for a fact I should’ve kept it on a tight leash. This wasn’t the time to let my mind do its own thing - if I did I could screw up whatever Foster has planned.
But I couldn’t help it. Images flashed in my skull, livid and hot and very painful. Zafira, the spring fae, the witches my mother held captive in the throne room, the pain and suffering... Sebastian, the look of astonishment when I used magic on him, his accusing eyes and hurt expression.
God, I messed up.
Foster was where he said he was going to be, but I wasn’t expecting his casual demeanor.
He was leaning over the railing, his pale hands clasp in front of him while he gazed out longingly at the mountains beyond. “You know, ” he said as I approached, “Mab wasn’t always like that.”
“Mab? You mean, my mother, Maeve?”
He sighed, his white hair being blown by the wind. He turned to me. Even now, after being with him for a while, I was still amazed by his inhuman beauty. I wanted nothing more than to run my fingers over his smooth skin, to inhale his clean scent and snuggle close to him. Something inside me was screaming to do so, so I shook my head, scattering the thought from my brain.
“No, I meant Mab.” He reached behind himself and tugged something out from between his trousers and hip. “I think it’s time,” was all he said.
But I wasn’t listening, I wasn’t even breathing. Even fiber in my body was frozen solid as I stared down at what Foster held in his hands.
It was shiny, silver, and heart shattering familiar.
My wakizashi - the one Sebastian had made for me.
The one I dropped in front of him after I broke his heart into a million pieces