Wicked Lovely Page 73

"If she refuses me, you will tell the next girl and the next" — Keenan followed her, radiating heat—"and not until one accepts will you be free of the cold."

"There won't be another girl." Aislinn grasped the staff, wrapped her fingers around it, and waited.

She watched them—the last girl who'd done this and the faery king who still loved her. She wished—for them and for herself—that it had been Donia, but it wasn't.

It's me.

The staff was gripped in her hand, but there was no cold to bring her to her knees. Instead that blinding glow was no longer coming only from Keenan: it flared from her own skin.

The Summer Girls laughed and twirled in a blur of vines and hair and skirts.

Donia—her white hair now a soft blond, her cheeks now flushed with health—said in a surprisingly musical voice, "You're truly her."

Aislinn looked at her hands, her arms, at the soft gold glow that covered her skin. "I am."

It felt like nothing she could've imagined before: the world made sense. She could feel the faeries all around her drinking in her happiness, reveling in the sense of security that she and Keenan gave them. It made her laugh aloud.

Then he grabbed her in his arms, swinging her in the air, laughing. "My Queen, my lovely, lovely Aislinn."

All around them, flowers sprang to life, the air warmed, and soft rain fell from the bright blue sky. The grass under Keenan's feet grew lush, as verdant as his eyes.

For several moments she let him twirl her in the air—until she saw a wounded rowan-man struggling to reach them.

"My queen," he croaked as he crawled over the grass, bleeding but still trying to reach her.

She paused, watching as her faeries—for they were truly hers now—carried him to her. Everyone paused. Keenan put a hand in the small of her back as he stepped up beside her.

"We tried," the rowan-man said, more blood coming to his lips with every word he spoke. "We tried as we would've if she'd come for you. The mortal boy…"

If it weren't for Keenan catching her, she'd have fallen. "Seth. Is he…" she couldn't finish the words.

The guard closed his eyes. His breathing was labored, and when he coughed, shards of ice spilled out of his mouth. He spat them onto the grass. "She took him. Beira took him."

Donia had slipped away, unable to bear watching Keenan with Aislinn. It was one thing to know he'd finally found his missing queen; it was another to feel the emotions that came with the knowledge. This was what needed to happen, what was best for everyone.

It still feels like a freshly reopened wound. She wasn't the one, had never been the one for him.

Aislinn is.

And Donia couldn't stay to watch them rejoice.

She wasn't far from her cottage when Beira's guard found her. That didn't take long.

She'd known Beira would be true to her word, known that her death wouldn't be far past Aislinn's ascension. Without the winter's chill to defend herself, she was almost as helpless as a mortal in their hands.

The guards weren't as rough as the dark fey, but not for lack of trying. When they tossed her at Beira's feet, the Winter Queen said nothing. Instead she kicked Donia in the face, flipping her backward with the force of her attack.

"Beira, how nice to see you," Donia said in a voice much weaker than she'd have liked.

Beira laughed. "I could almost like you, darling. A pity" — she lifted one blood-spattered hand, and manacles of ice formed around Donia's wrists—"you aren't reliable."

Donia had thought the weight of Beira's chill had ached before, but as she struggled against the freezing manacles, she realized she had no idea of how cold Beira's ice could truly be.

As Donia turned to answer the Winter Queen, a coughing-choking sound distracted her.

Crouched in the corner was Seth, trying to get to his feet, legs buried under several feet of snow. His chest was half exposed, his shirt in tatters from something's claws.

Beira bent down. Her icy breath brushed Donia's face; her frost gathered in Donia's hair. "You were to help me. Instead you were consorting with the enemy."

"I did the right thing. Keenan is—"

With an ugly noise, Beira clamped her hand over Donia's mouth. "You. Betrayed. Me."

"Don't make her angrier," Seth called weakly as he struggled free of the snowdrift. His jeans were in the same condition as his shirt. Blood trickled onto the snow around him. One of the bars in his eyebrow had been ripped out, and a thin line of blood ran down his face.

"Pretty, isn't he? He doesn't scream like the wood-sprites, but he's still entertaining. I'd almost forgotten how easily mortals break." Beira licked her lips as she watched Seth try to stay upright. He shivered violently, but he kept trying.

Donia said nothing.

"But you, well, I know how much more pain you can take." Beira cupped Donia's face, driving already-bloody fingernails into Donia's cheek and throat. "Shall I let the wolves have you when I'm done? They don't mind if their toys are already a little used up."

"No," Seth said in a strangled voice, proof that he'd already met the lupine fey.

Beira turned toward him and blew. Razor sharp spikes of ice jutted up from the floor where he was now trying to crawl. Several sliced into his legs.

"Persistent, isn't he?" Beira asked, laughing.

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