Wicked Lovely Page 72

"Only the Summer King—or the head of another court—could stand against her," Keenan said. "If I had my full strength, if you had your strength, we could. If we go to the hospital, we are not much defense to Elena. But after the ceremony, we can protect her."

One of the guards lifted Grams gently. He held her carefully aloft. The others filed out the door.

Aislinn swallowed, hating the idea of leaving Grams. "If we do this, and it's her that hurt Grams…"

"Even if it isn't her, it was at her command." Keenan scowled. "She has threatened you, Donia…"

"Well, let's go then." She looked at Grams, motionless in a faery's arms. Then she turned to Keenan. "Does it take long?"

"Not too long." He glanced at the guards. "Do whatever you need to do. We'll be at the hospital as soon as we can. Go."

As the guards raced toward the hospital, Aislinn took Keenan's hand, and they ran—faster than she'd known her body could move—toward Donia's and the test that would change everything.


Never was there any one so beautiful as [he]…. The wolves did not ravage, the frost winds did not bite, and the Hidden Folk came out of the Faery Hills and made music and gladness everywhere.

— Celtic Wonder Tales by Ella Young (1910)

Donia knew they were coming, but it still made her gasp when they came toward her—holding hands and moving at the blinding speed that only the strongest fey could manage.

"Don?" He looked fevered in his excitement, face glowing, copper hair already radiating with the strange sunlight he carried inside.

She forced a smile and stepped into the yard. The last time she'd been through the ceremony, the test, she was the one holding his hand, hopeful that she'd be his partner, his queen.

All around the edge of the clearing were faeries—mostly Summer Court, but a few representatives of other courts. That alone stood as a reminder of how very unusual this particular test would be.

Keenan came toward her. 'Are you—"

Aislinn interrupted with a gentle hand on his arm. She shook her head.

He looked confused, but he stopped, staying farther away from Donia, not asking questions she didn't want to have to answer. Donia caught Aislinn's gaze and nodded; she couldn't deal with his kindness, not as she prepared to give him over to another girl.

Ash will be a good queen. Good for him, she reminded herself. Then she walked over to the not-yet-blooming hawthorn bush in the middle of her yard and laid the staff under it. Sasha moved to stand beside her, and she placed a hand on his head for support.

"Aislinn," Donia called from the center of the clearing.

The girl stepped forward, already glowing, only barely mortal now.

"If you are not the one, you will carry the winter's chill. You will tell the next of his" — Donia inclined her head toward Keenan—"mortal loves how unwise this is. You will tell her, and any that follow while you carry the cold, how very foolish it is to trust him. If you agree to do this, I am free of the cold, regardless of the results."

She paused to allow Aislinn a moment to consider her words, and then she asked, "Do you accept all of this?"

"I do." Aislinn came forward, her steps slow and deliberate as she crossed the openness between them.

Behind her Keenan waited, sunlight blazing from his skin, making Donia dizzy from looking at him. It'd been so long since she'd seen him glow so brightly, and she'd convinced herself that he wasn't truly as beautiful as he'd seemed in her memories.

She'd been wrong.

She forced herself to tear her gaze away from him. "Please," she prayed. "Please let Aislinn be the one."

Aislinn felt the pull, the insistence that she pick up the staff. She stepped forward.

"If you are not the one I've sought, you will carry Beira's cold." Keenan's voice wrapped around her like a summer storm racing through the trees. He eased closer. "Do you accept that risk?"

"Yes." Aislinn's voice was too low to be heard, so she said it louder, "Yes."

Keenan looked feral as he walked toward her, so radiant that she had to force herself to look at him. His feet sunk into the almost-boiling soil as he moved. "This is who I am. What I truly will be if you are, indeed, the Summer Queen."

He stopped a few steps from her and added, "This is what you will be if the cold does not take you."

She felt her muscles tense, but she did not back away from him.

Then Keenan, the King of Summer in all of his brightness, knelt before her and gave her yet another chance to turn away. "Is this what you freely choose, to risk winter's chill?"

The Summer Girls drifted into the clearing, watching. Beira's hags and a great number of other faeries, some more familiar than others, stood around them.

"Each mortal since Donia" — eyes wistful, he glanced briefly at Donia—"has chosen to stay in the sunlight. They would not risk becoming as she is."

Donia's corpse-white fingers tightened on Sasha's pelt as Keenan added, "You understand that if you are not the one, you'll carry the Winter Queen's chill until the next mortal risks this? And you'll warn her not to trust me?"

The rustling of trees roared around them, like a waterless storm, like voices crying out in a language she couldn't remember.

Donia reached out and squeezed Aislinn's hand.

"I do." Aislinn's voice was stronger then; she was sure this was right. Somewhere inside that knowledge waited; even if she hadn't had any of the other proof, in that moment she was certain she'd still have known this was right. She let go of Donia's hand and walked over to the hawthorn.

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