Wicked Lovely Page 13

Beira made a "come here" motion in the direction of the copse of trees.

They came then: a trio of enormous shaggy black goats rounded the corner with three of Beira's faithful hags astride them. Though they were withered things—looking like the mere husks of women—the hags were eerily strong, able to rend the limbs from even the eldest mountain trolls. They terrified Donia as they cackled like mad hens and paraded around the yard—as if they dared Keenan's waiting guards to come closer.

Donia stepped up to the porch rail, away from Beira, closer to the wretched women who served the Winter Queen. "Looking lovely, Agatha."

Agatha spat at her.

It was foolish to taunt them, but Donia did it every time they came around. She had to prove, to herself and to them, that she wasn't intimidated. "You do realize that it's not you who keep the guards at bay?"

Of course, it wasn't her threat either that made the guards keep their distance. If Keenan said they should approach, they would. Her desires be damned. Their injuries and deaths be damned. Keenan's will was all that mattered to them.

The hags scowled at her, but they didn't answer. Like Keenan's guards, Beira's lackeys kept their distance from her. No one wanted to anger Beira, except Keenan.

Talk about dysfunctional families. Both Keenan and Beira protected her, as if the other one were a worse threat.

When the hags refused to say anything, Donia turned back to Beira. "I'm tired. What do you want?"

For a moment Donia thought she'd been too blunt, that Beira would lash out at her. The Winter Queen was usually as calculating as Keenan was capricious, but her temper was a truly horrifying thing when she did release it.

Beira only smiled, a characteristically frightening smile, but less dangerous than anger. "There are those who'd see Keenan happy, those who want him to find the girl who'll share the throne with him. I do not."

She let the full weight of her chill roll off of her; it slammed into Donia, leaving her feeling like she was being absorbed into the heart of a glacier. If she were still mortal, it would kill her.

Beira lifted Donia's almost-limp hand and wrapped it around the staff, under her own frigid hand. It didn't react, didn't change anything, but the mere touch of it brought back the memories of those first few years when the pain was still raw.

While Donia was struggling to breathe, Beira continued, "Keep this one from taking the staff, and I'll withdraw my cold from you—free you. He can't offer you that freedom. I can. Or" — Beira traced a fingernail down the center of Donia's chest in a perverse mockery of a caress—"if you'd rather, we can see how much cold I can push through you before it uses you up."

Donia might be able to direct the chill, but she couldn't contain it. The cold poured out, answering Beira's touch, making quite clear who had the power.

In a ragged voice Donia said, "I know my place. I convince her not to trust him. I agreed to that when I took up the staff."

"Don't fail. Lie. Cheat. Whatever. Don't let her touch the staff." Beira flattened her palm on Donia's chest, fingers slightly curled, nails scraping skin through Donia's blouse.

"What?" Donia stumbled forward, trying to flee Beira without angering her further, trying to make her thoughts focus.

There were rules. Everyone knew them. They sucked for Keenan, but they were there. What Beira suggested was far outside the rules.

Beira let go of the staff and wrapped her arm around Donia, holding her up, and whispered, "If you fail me, it's well within my power to take away this body of yours. He can't stop me. You can't stop me. You'll be a shade, wandering, colder than even you can imagine. Think about it." Then she let go.

Donia swayed on her feet, upright only because of the staff she was still clutching. She dropped the staff, sick at the touch of it in her hands, remembering the pain the first time she'd touched it, the despair each time the newest mortal didn't take it from her. Donia gripped the porch railing and tried to hold herself upright. It didn't work.

"Tootles." Beira gave Keenan's guards a finger wave and disappeared into the darkness with her hags.

When Keenan woke, Beira sat in a rocker by the bed—a basket of scraps at her feet, a needle in her hand.

"Quilting?" He coughed, cleared his throat. It was raw from the ice he'd swallowed when she'd frozen him. "Isn't that a bit over the top, even for you?"

She held up the patches she'd sewn together. "Do you think so? I'm rather good at it."

He pushed himself upright. Thick furs—some still bloody—were piled over him. "It's a far sight better than your real hobbies."

She waved a hand in a gesture of dismissal, letting go of the needle. It still darted in and out of the cloth. "She's not the one, the new girl."

"She could be." He thought of Aislinn's obvious control of her emotions. "She's the one I dream of…"

A fox-maiden brought in a tray of hot drinks and steaming soup. She left them on the low table alongside his bed.

"So were the other ones, dear." Beira sighed and settled back in her chair. "You know I don't want to fight with you. If I'd known what would happen…You were conceived that very day. How could I know this would happen when I killed him? I didn't even know you were yet."

That didn't explain why she'd bound his powers, why she'd used their common blood to have the Dark Court curse him. She never offered explanations for that, only for the origin of his mantle, not for the way she'd bound him.

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