“Aimery, you may proceed.”
“Your queen has spoken,” said Thaumaturge Aimery. “Her word is final.”
Aimery drew an obsidian knife from one of his bell-shaped sleeves and held the handle toward the prisoner, whose eyes had gone wide with hysteria.
The room grew colder. Winter’s breath crystallized in the air. She squeezed her arms tight against her body.
The prisoner took the knife handle. His hand was steady. The rest of him was trembling.
“Please. My little girl—I’m all she has. Please. My Queen. Your Majesty!”
He raised the blade to his throat.
This was when Winter looked away. When she always looked away. She watched her own fingers burrow into her dress, her fingernails scraping at the fabric until she could feel the sting on her thighs. She watched the ice climb over her wrists, toward her elbows. Where the ice touched, her flesh went numb.
She imagined lashing out at the queen with those ice-solid fists. She imagined her hands shattering into a thousand icicle shards.
It was at her shoulders now. Her neck.
Even over the popping and cracking of the ice, she heard the cut of flesh. The burble of blood and a muffled gag. The hard slump of the body.
The cold had stolen into her chest. She squeezed her eyes shut, reminding herself to be calm, to breathe. She could hear Jacin’s steady voice in her head, his hands gripping her shoulders. It isn’t real, Princess. It’s only an illusion.
Usually they helped, these memories of him coaxing her through the panic. But this time it seemed to prompt the ice on. Encompassing her rib cage. Gnawing into her stomach. Hardening over her heart.
She was freezing from the inside out.
Listen to my voice.
Jacin wasn’t there.
Stay with me.
Jacin was gone.
It’s all in your head.
She heard the clomping of the guards’ boots as they approached the body. The corpse being slid toward the ledge. The shove and the distant splash below.
The court applauded with quiet politeness.
Winter heard her toes snap off. One. By. One.
“Very good,” said Queen Levana. “Thaumaturge Tavaler, see to it that the rest of the sentencing is carried out.”
The ice was in her throat now, climbing up her jaw. There were tears freezing inside their ducts. There was saliva crystallizing on her tongue.
She raised her head as a servant began washing the blood from the tiles. Aimery, rubbing his knife with a cloth, met Winter’s gaze. His smile was searing. “I am afraid the princess has no stomach for these proceedings.”
The nobles in the audience tittered—Winter’s disgust of the trials was a source of merriment to most of Levana’s court.
The queen turned, but Winter couldn’t look up. She was a girl made of ice and glass. Her teeth were brittle, her lungs too easily shattered.
“Yes,” said Levana. “I often forget she’s here at all. You’re about as useless as a rag doll, aren’t you, Winter?”
The audience chuckled again, louder now, as if the queen had given permission to mock the young princess. But Winter couldn’t respond, not to the queen, not to the laughter. She kept her focus on the thaumaturge, trying to hide her panic.
“Oh, no, she isn’t quite as useless as that,” Aimery said. As Winter stared, a thin crimson line drew itself across his throat, blood bubbling up from the wound. “The prettiest girl on all of Luna? She will make some member of this court a happy bride someday, I should think.”
“The prettiest girl, Aimery?” Levana’s light tone almost concealed the snarl beneath.
Aimery slipped into a bow. “Prettiest only, My Queen. But no mortal could compare with your perfection.”
The court was quick to agree, offering a hundred compliments at once, though Winter still felt the leering gazes of more than one noble attached to her.
Aimery took a step toward the throne and his severed head tipped off, thunking against the marble and rolling, rolling, rolling, until it stopped at Winter’s frozen feet.
She whimpered, but the sound was buried beneath the snow in her throat.
It’s all in your head.
“Silence,” said Levana, once she’d had her share of praise. “Are we finished?”
Finally, the ice found her eyes and Winter had no choice but to shut them against Aimery’s headless apparition, enclosing herself in cold and darkness.
She would die here and not complain. She would be buried beneath this avalanche of lifelessness. She would never have to witness another murder again.
“There is one more prisoner still to be tried, My Queen.” Aimery’s voice echoed in the cold hollowness of Winter’s head. “Sir Jacin Clay, royal guard, pilot, and assigned protector of Thaumaturge Sybil Mira.”
Winter gasped and the ice shattered, a million sharp glittering bits exploding across the throne room and skidding across the floor. No one else heard them. No one else noticed.
Aimery, head very much attached, was watching her again, as if he’d been waiting to see her reaction. His smirk was subtle as he returned his attention to the queen.
“Ah, yes,” said Levana. “Bring him in.”
The doors to the throne room opened, and there he was, trapped between two guards, his wrists corded behind his back. His blond hair was clumped and matted, strands of it clinging to his jaw. It appeared to have been a fair while since he’d last showered, but Winter could detect no obvious signs of abuse.
Her stomach flipped. All the warmth the ice had sucked out of her came rushing back to the surface of her skin.
Stay with me, Princess. Listen to my voice, Princess.
He was led to the center of the room, devoid of expression. Winter jabbed her fingernails into her palms.
Jacin didn’t look at her. Not once.
“Jacin Clay,” said Aimery, “you have been charged with betraying the crown by failing to protect Thaumaturge Mira and by failing to apprehend a known Lunar fugitive despite nearly two weeks spent in said fugitive’s company. You are a traitor to Luna and to our queen. These crimes are punishable by death. What have you to say in your defense?”
Winter’s heart thundered like a drum against her ribs. She turned pleading eyes up to her stepmother, but Levana was not paying her any attention.
“I plead guilty to all stated crimes,” said Jacin, drawing Winter’s attention back, “except for the accusation that I am a traitor.”
Levana’s fingernails fluttered against the arm of her throne. “Explain.”
Jacin stood as tall and stalwart as if he were in uniform, as if he were on duty, not on trial. “As I’ve said before, I did not apprehend the fugitive while in her company because I was attempting to convince her I could be trusted, in order to gather information for my queen.”
“Ah, yes, you were spying on her and her companions,” said Levana. “I do recall that excuse from when you were captured. I also recall that you had no pertinent information to give me, only lies.”
“Not lies, My Queen, though I will admit I underestimated the cyborg and her abilities. She was disguising them from me.”
“So much for earning her trust.” There was mocking in the queen’s tone.
“Knowledge of the cyborg’s skills was not the only information I sought, My Queen.”