It was not yet twilight, and as such the Summer Court had not yet arrived. As Mab disapproved of my locking myself in my room until Elysium began, I was in a dark corner of the courtyard, rereading a book from my col ection of mortal authors and poets. If anyone asked, I was overseeing the arrival of the last of the guests, but mostly I was avoiding Rowan and the current f lock of nobles who would surround me with coy, f lattering, razor-sharp smiles. Their voices would be the softest purr, the sweetest song, as they offered me favors covered in honey and nectar but with a core of vilest poison. I was a prince, after all , the youngest and most favored of Mab, at least according to some.
I suppose the common belief was that I was more naive, easier to trap, perhaps. I didn't know the dance as well as Rowan or Sage, who were at court far more frequently. But I was a true son of Winter, and knew the twisted steps of court better than most. And those who sought to entrap me in a web of honey and favors soon found themselves tangled in their own dark promises.
I knew the dance. I just didn't revel in it.
Which was why I was leaning against an ice-covered wall with
Musashi's The Five Rings, only half-aware of the bustle of carriages pul ing up to the gates and the Winter gentry stepping out into the snow. Most of them I knew, or had seen before. The Lady Snowfire, dressed in a gown of sparkling icicles that chimed musical y as she walked. The new duke of Frostfel -having disposed of the old duke by getting him exiled to the mortal realm-glided through the snow trailed by his goblin slaves. The Baroness of the Icebound Heart gave me a chil y nod as she strode past, her two snow leopards hissing and snarling at the ends of their silver chains.
And then, she walked in.
I didn't know her, and that in itself piqued my curiosity. None could argue her beauty: long silver hair, pale skin, a will owy body that was delicate and strong at the same time. But, all of our kind are, if not very attractive, at least striking in some way. Being surrounded by beauty tends to dul your appreciation of it, especial y if the beauty only hides the cruelty beneath. It wasn't her looks that caught my eye that day, but the way she gazed at the winter palace, awe written plainly on her lovely features. It was an emotion that didn't belong; most would see it as a weakness, something to be exploited. The nobles could sense emotion like a shark smel ed blood; they would devour her before the day was out.
A part of me told me not to care, that it was everyone for themselves in the Winter Court, and that was how it always had been. That this girl, new and untried, would take the attention off me for once. Despite that voice, I found myself intrigued.
Snapping shut the book, I started toward her.
She was turning in slow circles when I walked up, and jumped when we came face-to-face. "Oh, pardon me!" Her voice was clear and light, like tiny bel s. "I didn't see you standing there."
"Are you lost?" It wasn't so much a question, rather I was testing her, probing her defenses. Admitting you were lost was a grave mistake in the Winter Court; you never wanted to be caught unaware by anyone.
It annoyed me a bit that the first thing I fel back on was checking for weakness, poking at chinks in her armor. But in the Unseelie Court, you could never be too careful.
She blinked at the question and took a step back, seeming to see me for the first time. Clear, blue-green eyes rose to meet my gaze, and I made the mistake of looking right at her.
Her gaze captured mine, drawing me in, and I was suddenly drowning.
Flecks of silver dotted her irises like tiny stars, as if I was staring at a whole universe in her eyes. Bril iant emotion gazed out at me, pure and clean and untainted by the darkness of the Unseelie Court.
For a moment, we just stared at each other, neither will ing to look away.
Until I realized what I was doing and turned, pretending to watch another carriage pul up to the gates, furious with myself for dropping my guard. For a brief moment, I wondered if that had been her ploy all along-pretend to be naive and innocent, and lure unsuspecting
princes right into her clutches. Unorthodox, but effective.
Fortunately, it seemed the girl was just as shaken as I was. "No, I'm not lost," she said a little breathlessly. Another mistake, but I wasn't keeping track anymore. "It's just…I mean…I've never been here, is all ."
She cleared her throat and straightened, seeming to regain her composure. "I am Ariel a Tularyn of Glassbarrow," she announced regal y,
"and I am here on behalf of my father, the Duke of Glassbarrow. He is indisposed at the moment and sends his apologies for not being able to attend."
I'd heard about that. Apparently, the duke had run into some trouble while hunting ice wyrms in the mountains of his territory. The court had been abuzz with who would come to represent him, as he was rumored to have only one daughter, who never left the estate.
So, this was she.
Ariel a smiled again, nervously brushing her hair back, and instantly lost her regal bearing. "I said that correctly, didn't I?" she asked without a trace of guile. "That was the proper greeting, wasn't it? I'm so new at this. I've never been to court before, and I don't want to upset the queen."
Right then, I decided. This girl needed an escort, someone to show her the ways of Winter, otherwise the nobles were going to chew her up and spit her out. The thought of this girl, broken and bitter, her eyes frozen in wary contempt, fil ed me with a strange protectiveness I couldn't explain. If anyone wanted to toy with Ariel a Tularyn, they would have to go through me first. And I was no wide-eyed newcomer when it came to the Unseelie Court.
"Come on, then," I said, offering her my arm, which seemed to surprise her, but she took it nonetheless. "I'll introduce you."
Her bril iant smile was all the thanks I needed.
From that moment on, I continued to find excuses to be around the Duke of Glassbarrow's daughter. I took secret hunting trips to the Glassbarrow Mountains, enticing her away. I made sure Mab requested both the duke and Ariel a's presence at Elysium. I stole every spare moment I could to be with her, until the day came when I finally convinced her to leave the duke's estate completely and live at the palace.
Duke Glassbarrow was livid, but I was the Winter prince, and he eventual y buckled under the threat of banishment or death.
Rumors f lew, of course. As part of the royal family, my life was under constant scrutiny, even when there was nothing interesting about it.
When it came to my spending so much time with a young duchess-to-be…wel , you'd think Mab and Oberon had decided to marry, there was so much speculation. Prince Ash was obsessed, Prince Ash had found a new plaything and, worst of all , Prince Ash was in love. I didn't care. When I was with Ariel a, I could forget the court, my responsibilities, everything. When I was with her, I didn't have to worry about keeping my guard up, constantly watching my back or my words. Ariel a didn't care about the games of the Winter Court, something that fascinated me. Was I in love? I didn't know. Love was such an unknown concept, something that everyone cautioned against.
Love was for mortals and weak Summer fey, it had no place in the life of an Unseelie prince. None of this swayed me. all I knew was, when we were together, I could leave behind the intrigues and pitfal s of court and just be.
It was high summer when the last person I wanted to find out about us did so anyway.
Ariel a and I hunted often. It was a chance to get away from the court and be alone together, without the whispers and the stares and the snide, pitying looks. She was an excel ent huntress, and our outings usual y turned into friendly competitions, seeing whose arrow could drop our quarry first. I lost as often as I won, which fil ed me with an odd sort of pride. I knew my skil was considerable; that Ariel a could match it brought some excitement back into the hunt and forced me to concentrate.
We were in the wyldwood that day, resting after a successful hunt and just enjoying each other's company. We stood on the banks of a clear green pond, my arms around her waist and her head leaning against my chest, watching two piskies tease an enormous carp by darting close to the surface, then zipping away as the fish lunged for them. It was getting late, but we were loath to go back to court; Winter fey tended to be restless and irritable during the summer months, which led to a great amount of squabbling and backbiting. Here in the wyldwood, it was stil and quiet, and only the most desperate or savage of wild fey would consider taking on two powerful Unseelie.
Abruptly, the peaceful silence was interrupted.
"There you are! Jeez, ice-boy, I've been looking for you forever. If I didn't know better, I'd think you were avoiding me."
I winced. Or him, of course. Nothing was sacred to him.
Ariel a jerked in surprise. "Who-" She tried looking back, only to find I wasn't moving or letting go. Groaning, I buried my face in her hair. Don't turn around," I muttered. "Don't answer him, and maybe he'l go away."
"Hah, as if that ever works." The speaker moved closer, until I could see him from the corner of my eye, arms crossed over a bare chest, perpetual smirk stretching his face. "You know, if you keep ignoring me, ice-boy, I'm just going to push you into the pond."
I released Ariel a and stepped back from the edge, glaring at Puck as he retreated with a cheerful grin. "What do you want, Goodfel ow?"
"So nice to see you as well , prince." Puck stuck his tongue out, unfazed by my glare. "Guess the next time I find a juicy rumor, I'll just keep it to myself. I thought you might want to check out these coatl sightings in Mexico City, but I see you're otherwise occupied."
"Goodfel ow?" Ariel a repeated, staring at Puck with unabashed curiosity. "Robin Goodfel ow? It is you, isn't it? The Puck?"
Puck grinned widely and bowed. "The one and only," he stated grandly as I felt the situation sliding further from my control. "And who might you be, lady who has stolen all of ice-boy's attention?" Before Ariel a could answer, he sniffed and turned to me, pouting. "Prince, I'm hurt.