Another Elysium. Another gathering of the courts, coming together to pretend they got along, when all they wanted was to rip each other into bloody strips. As a faery prince, I hadn't liked Elysium, and as a human I despised it. Those who remembered me as Prince Ash-the cold, dangerous ice prince who, for centuries, demanded fear and awe and respect-saw only a human now. A weak, crippled human who grew older and weaker every year, relying more and more on the protection of his queen. I saw the looks of hunger and pity and contempt that went around the courtyard when Meghan walked in with me limping beside her. I also didn't miss the subtle looks of interest between the nobles of Summer and Winter; if I was the weakest link in the Iron Court, how could they use it to their advantage? Faery politics and power plays; they would never do anything that would force a head-on confrontation with the Iron Queen, and yet I hated being thought of as exploitable.
With a sigh, I reached for the cane sitting against the wall and pushed myself upright, taking a last glance in the mirror.
The black cloak partial y hid the cane but could not quite conceal the limp or the stiffness of my right leg. I stil carried my sword, however, refusing to abandon it, even if I didn't draw it often. The day I was unable to use my weapon was the day I would give finally it up.
Glitch met me at the bottom of the stairs, keeping his expression careful y neutral as I limped painful y down the last step. "Her Majesty and Prince Kierran have already left for Elysium," he informed me with a slight bow. "She told me that you wanted them to go on ahead. Is anything wrong, sire?"
"No." I ignored his offered arm and kept walking, slowly, painful y, down the hal . My leg throbbed, but I gritted my teeth and continued lurching forward, refusing to pause or look back. Glitch fel into step beside me, ready to grab my arm if I stumbled, but said nothing through the long, agonizing journey to the waiting carriage.
We reached the Unseelie palace without speaking, and I turned to Glitch as the carriage pulled up at the entrance.
"Wait here," I told him, watching his eyebrows arch in surprise. "You don't have to accompany me. I know this castle like the back of my hand. I'm going on alone."
"Sire, I really don't think-"
"That's an order, Glitch."
He looked reluctant, but the Iron fey had always bowed to rank, and finally he nodded. "Al right. Just…be careful, Ash.
Meghan will kill me if anything happens to you." He meant well , but the resentment inside only grew stronger. Gripping my cane, I turned my back on the First Lieutenant and walked into the icy, frozen hal s of the winter palace alone.
I really should have known better, but pride had always been my downfal , even before I became human. Save for a few brutish ogre guards, the frigid hal s of the winter palace were mostly deserted, meaning everyone was already at the gathering in the bal room.
But as I turned a corner, a snicker crept from an open doorway, and a motley of redcaps spil ed into the hal , blocking my path.
I stumbled to a halt, observing the situation. Like most redcaps, these were short, stocky and savage looking, their wool hats soaked in the blood of their victims and their eyes a vicious yel ow. all of them wore jagged grins that showed off their razorlike fangs, and most had crude weapons tucked into their belts. Redcaps were stupid and violent, and their dangerous reputations stemmed from the fact that they viewed everything in terms of predator and prey. Any concept of rank, title, and hierarchy was lost on them. It didn't matter if you were a king or a prince or a noble; if you were weak, if they thought they could take you apart, they would, regardless of the consequences.
I cursed my stubbornness and faced the redcaps with a calm, blank expression. Any sign of weakness on my part would trigger an attack. Redcaps might be crass and stupid, but there was a reason they were feared throughout the Nevernever. Ash the Winter prince had nothing to fear from a redcap motley, but I hadn't been him for a long time.
"Well, well." The leader grinned, cracking his thick knuckles. "Look who it is, boys. Fancy meeting you here, prince. Especial y without the queen's skirt to hide behind."
The other redcaps snickered and eased forward, closing the circle like hungry wolves. "Did the queen finally get tired of her little human pet and turn you out into the cold?" I took one careful step forward, meeting the leader's eyes.
"If you think this will be easy," I said in a soft, low voice, "you're sadly mistaken. I might not be your prince any longer, but there's stil enough of him left to turn the lot of you into a few smears on the f loor."
The leader's grin faltered. The other redcaps eyed each other and shifted nervously, but didn't back down. For just a moment, I wished Ash the Winter prince were here; just the chil he could produce when angry or threatened was enough to send most would-be chal engers running.
The redcap leader shook himself then, and his leer came creeping back. "Pretty bold words, little man." He sneered.
"But your scent says otherwise. You smel completely, utterly human. There's nothing left of the Winter prince, not anymore." He bared his fangs, running a black tongue over sharp yel ow teeth. "And I'm betting you taste exactly like humans, too."
The redcaps tensed, ready to f ling themselves at me, their eyes glowing with eager bloodshed. I reached beneath my cloak and gripped the sword hilt, ignoring the chil that burned my fingers. I might not survive this, but I'd take as many of the bloodthirsty creatures with me as I could. And hope that my son or my queen would avenge my death. "Father!"
The shout echoed down the corridor, loud and clear, making the icicles tremble on the ceiling. The redcaps snarled and whirled around, brandishing weapons at the intruder who would ruin their fun.
Kierran stood at the end of the hal way, tal and imposing in a uniform of black-and-gray, his eyes f lashing like angry stars in the shadows. His pale hair was tied behind him, making him look older, more severe then I'd seen before. Sharp cheekbones led up to his long, pointed ears, which were usual y hidden by his hair, mask-ing his true nature. But tonight, standing motionless and proud at the edge of the light, he looked inhuman, beautiful and completely fey.
The redcap leader blinked at the sudden arrival of the Iron prince. "Prince Kierran," he growled, sounding nervous.
"What a surprise to see you here. We were just…ah…" "I know what you were doing." Kierran's voice was cold, making me blink at how much he sounded like a certain Winter prince, long ago. "Threatening the consort of the Iron Queen is a crime punishable by death. Do you think, just because he is human, that I will spare any of your lives?" His words stung. Just a human.
Just a mortal, weak and unimportant. Kierran wasn't looking at me, however. His icy gaze fastened on the redcaps, who snarled and bared their fangs at him. The redcap leader drew himself up with a sneer. "Al right, boy, just look-"
A f lash of metal, as Kierran's arm whipped out, faster then anyone could see. The leader blinked, going silent midsentence, mouth open as if he had just lost his train of thought.
The other redcaps frowned in confusion, until the leader's head abruptly tumbled from his shoulders, striking the ground with a thump.
Howls and shrieks fil ed the air, and the motley turned to f lee. But Kierran was already lunging into their midst, iron blade f lashing in short, deadly arcs. I knew what a lethal fighter he was; I'd trained him myself, and his lessons had not gone to waste. Watching my son slaughter the redcap gang- without effort, without mercy-I felt a nasty glow of pride, as well as a bitter lump settle in my chest. That was me once. It never would be again.
It was over in seconds. Kierran wasted no effort or time destroying the motley, striking with lightning speed and precision. I'd trained the boy well . The last redcap was stil tumbling to the f loor in pieces when Kierran slammed his blade home with a f lourish, then turned to grin at me.
"Father." Kierran bowed, and a mischievous smile crept over his face. Amazing how he could go from a cold, icy kill er to a charming young prince in no time at all . At the Iron Court, Kierran was the darling of everyone, especially the ladies, with a devilish streak a mile wide.
"Kierran." I nodded back, not really liking that gleeful look. "What are you doing here?"
My son grinned at me. "The queen was getting worried that you hadn't arrived yet. I offered to go look for you, in case you got into trouble. She said you would be all right, because Glitch would be there with you, but I said I'd make sure. So…" He made a great show of looking up and down the hal . "Where is Glitch, anyway? Did you leave him at home? I bet he's not happy about that."
"He's back in the carriage." I motioned Kierran forward, taking his arm as he helped me down the carnage-strewn hal way. Already the bodies were disappearing, disintegrating into mud and leeches and other nasty things. Redcaps left nothing pleasant behind when they died. "And you'l say nothing of this to your mother, understand?"
"Of course not," Kierran replied, but he was stil grinning. Together we entered the bal room, packed wall to icy wall with Summer and Winter fey. Iron fey were present as well, but only a scattering here and there, keeping well back from the crowds and the hostile glares from Summer and Winter.
Music played, dark and dramatic, and in the center of the floor, dozens of fey gentry spun and danced with each other. Beside me, Kierran was scanning the room, his blue eyes clearly searching for someone. His gaze stopped on a will owy Summer girl with long chestnut hair and green eyes, standing in a corner talking to a dryad. She glanced at him, smiled shyly and quickly looked away, feigning disinterest. But her gaze kept straying back, and Kierran fidgeted at my side. "Keirran," I warned, and he grinned sheepishly, as if he'd been caught with his hand in the cookie jar. "Don't get any ideas. You know the rules here."
He sighed, becoming sober in an instant. "I know," he murmured, turning away from the girl. "And it's not fair. Why should individuals have to bend to the prejudices between the courts?"