WINTER GLASS exclusive excerpt!
THE HEART OF THE DEER LAID BARE
the Last Faerie Queen
Sleep is a vast and dreamless dark.
But then: tiny lights, like seeds, shower across a corner of the black. Something has snagged its claws in the soft flesh of night.
The panther is upon her before the queen has fully awakened: the scent of flowers and meat on its breath, a feral purr rumbling at the base of its throat. The tight leather muzzle Malfleur always keeps chained over the animal’s mouth has torn loose.
She does not have time to wonder how the panther—afflicted by the sleeping sickness for many weeks—woke up from its spell. With the speed of thought, her hand has found the letter opener beside her bed and wrapped around its thin handle, just as the animal’s fangs tear into her shoulder.
The queen cries out; pain ricochets through her body as she thrusts the letter opener in an arc over her head. It is only meant for hacking open a waxen seal, too dull to cut through the creature’s skin, but never mind, for its point has found the eye. The panther roars, pulls back and flails, slashing the pillow beside Malfleur’s face, sending bloodied feathers into the air. The queen gasps and rolls off her bed as the animal continues to wail—a sound like a rent in a glacier: half scream, half growl.
Dawn’s cool light barely illuminates her royal chambers, but it’s just enough to catch the glint of her dagger, unsheathed, on the window ledge. She crawls to it, her right arm shaking from the shock of her wound. Clinging to the ledge, she pulls herself up. The panther has noticed her movement. It lunges, a blur of white fur and fangs—the letter opener still jutting out of its face at an angle, like the tusk of the fabled unicorn.
Malfleur sucks in a breath, then strikes with the dagger, which jolts raggedly into the beast’s ribcage.
A wild, gargling howl fills the air, seems to swallow up all the light in the room. Time slows. Malfleur sways with the aftershock. The panther’s claws catch the skirt of her nightgown as the beast thuds to the floor, forcing the queen down onto her knees.
Still it struggles, legs scrambling, claws scraping stone.
She breathes roughly, leaning over the body as it continues to writhe for several moments more; her nightdress is torn, covered in blood half the panther’s and half her own. She can’t feel her shoulder.
Finally the panther goes still, steam still rising from its nostrils. The queen’s breath begins to calm too as she stares at the majestic creature, who always seemed to her like an incarnation of winter, full of pale fury and long, cold solaces. How ugly it has become now, where once the animal was all grace, its purr deep as a subterranean tremor.
This was her favorite pet—her companion, her creation—but it turned on her. Betrayal rings in Malfleur’s bones, so familiar by now it has come to feel like a passing season. For a moment, it is not her shoulder wound that aches and pangs but the sudden depth of her loss, echoing through her.
She collects herself, calculating the facts as she staggers slowly to her feet.
There was nothing truly sentient driving the attack, that much is obvious. Malfleur can still sense the animal’s panic and hunger lingering in the air like the electricity of a storm. The large white beast—pristine, dangerous, loyal, trained—must have forgotten itself while it slept, forgotten the humanity the faerie queen had breathed into its mind, using the powerful magic she has accumulated over the years.
The panther had even warned Malfleur about the sleeping sickness, and the gaping purple flowers surrounding the palace of Deluce, before falling into its own slumber several weeks ago. Hungry for hungry for, the cat had said in their last conversation, struggling to isolate the words.
Poor animal. Most humans cannot find words for such things either.
Still, the question that tugs at Malfleur’s mind—as she steadies herself to force the dagger from the panther’s flesh—is not why her pet attacked her, but why it broke free from its long sleep in the first place.
The smell of guts and bile is stifling; it’s as though the queen herself has been consumed. She sways, then stumbles to the wall and pushes open her shuttered window.
She heaves a breath of fresh air. The smoky undulations of LaMorte seem, at just that moment, almost peaceful, swept in a morning gauze just shy of blue, no longer silver.
There can only be one answer to her question, she realizes.
The faerie curse has been lifted.
Princess Aurora has awakened.