“You summoned me, Uncle?” a profoundly resonant voice asks from behind me. I turn to find a tall Fae with night-dark hair gathered into a low ponytail. He adjusts his silver tunic and squares his shoulders, giving me a dismissive once-over from the corner of his eye.
Orbik points a meaty finger in my direction. “Valen, this is—”
Valen holds up his hand and barely glances at me. He sighs. “A human. Yes, I can see that.”
Lady Liani frowns. “Dear one, this human is an—”
He turns to fully face me, and I gasp. He has high cheekbones, generous lips, and a chin that comes to an understated point. But his eyes—they’re what draw my attention. In my years at the Order, I’ve seen many Fae come and go. Hundreds of them, eye colors ranging from every shade of blue, gray, and gold—but never violet.
His gaze immediately goes to the mark on my forehead. “…Aphelian.” He offers a bow. Something akin to sadness flashes across his features, but it’s gone so fast that I’m not even sure I saw it in the first place. “I apologize. I wasn’t aware—”
“Enough,” Orbik snaps. Color flames in his cheeks as he glares at Valen. “This Aphelian is here to act as your guard. She is here to serve!”
Oddly, it’s more his tone than the actual words that has me cringing. It’s true—we come to the Fae to protect, to use what little magic we’ve retained to ensure their survival. In some way, I suppose that could be viewed as serving. But to hear it said like that, with anger instead of adoration, is jarring. “I—”
“You will address her with respect.” Valen’s deep voice spits the words out low and cool. “Aphelians are no more servants than you or I.”
His aunt rises and nods. “Excuse your uncle. It’s been a long day, and he’s tired.” To me, she says, “Please excuse the Winter Lord. He means no disrespect. Of course, you are welcome here as a part of the Winter Court.”
I nod, not trusting myself to speak.
Valen’s lips part, and he seems to hold his breath for a moment. “Regardless, we’ve talked about this, Uncle, and you know my feelings.” He turns and bows. “With respect, I don’t need—or want—a new guard. Mika—”
Orbik steps back around the table and settles into the chair beside his mate, then snaps his fingers high in the air. Seconds later, a petite Fae with deep-purple hair hurries over with a goblet of pink liquid. “This is not open for discussion, Valen. The sight of you may sicken me, but your life is far too important to risk. The Aphelian goes where you go. That is the end of it. Are we clear?”
The sight of Valen sickens the Winter Lord? What is that supposed to mean? What kind of a mess has Levina dropped me into?
Valen grits his teeth, a muscle twitching in his jaw. His fists clench tight, and it almost looks like he’ll make a scene. From the not-so-subtle hints Kopic dropped, it wouldn’t surprise me. Fury churns in his eyes, and every muscle tenses.
I have no idea what to expect, so I ready myself for anything. Winter Lord or not, Valen is the one I’m here for. He’s who I will die to protect. After a moment, though, he turns on his heel and strides into the crowd, leaving me no choice but to hike up my ridiculous dress and follow.
“I’d like for us to go somewhere and talk, if that’s okay?” I ask as I race to catch up. I’m not even sure he can hear me over the loud music, but his pace increases.
“There’s nothing to talk about,” he calls over his shoulder as we pass a blue-haired Fae carrying a tray of drinks. Valen snatches two as he passes. I expect him to hand one to me, but instead, he downs the first in a single gulp, then chases it with the second, depositing both glasses on the next server’s tray without looking back or slowing down. He reaches the large double doors and kicks at them in a single, brutal assault. They fling outward and clatter against the wall. “I respectfully ask that you go back to where you came from.”
“I— Go back to where I came from? Do you understand why I’m here? Are you confused?” I bite out each word.
He keeps walking but finally slows just a bit. “It’s possible. You’d be surprised at the number of times I’ve been asked that.”
“Wait.” I race ahead and jump in front of him, effectively bringing him to a stop. He sighs and slumps against the wall next to a darkened alcove. One eyebrow raised, I press on. “Look, you’re obviously unhappy to see me. Could you at least tell me why? Most Fae would be thrilled to have an Aphelian guard. Yet you…”
The muscle in his jaw flexes again. Once. Twice. Three times… He pushes himself off the wall and gestures to the hall. “I officially release you of your duties here. You are free to go wherever you want.”
I put my hands on my hips. “I want to be here.”
“You don’t know anything about here. Here is highly overrated,” he mutters as he fishes into his pocket and pulls out a handful of coins. “How about I pay you?”
I stare at the coins in his hand, blinking several times to make sure I’m not hallucinating. “Pay me to what?”
“To leave. Buy a boat. Sail around the world.” He grabs my hand and dumps several coins into my palm. “Purchase your weight in cheese or ferrets. I don’t care what you do, as long as you don’t do it here.”
“You want to pay me—”
He quirks a brow and winks. “You pick things up quickly. Are all Aphelians as smart as you?”
“Wow.” This isn’t happening. Maybe it’s a joke? Some weird hazing ritual everyone forgot to tell me about? Whatever it is, I’m done.
“Impressed by my negotiating skills?” He laughs. “You’re not the first.”
“You got me. I’m impressed. But it’s not your negotiating skill that has me stunned.”
He pulls out a flask and raises it to his lips, but I grab it and throw it over my shoulder before he can take a sip. It bounces off the wall and clatters to the floor, spilling bright red liquid onto the marble.
He stares after it, mouth hanging open. “You—did you really just—I can’t believe you wasted perfectly good wine!”
“What’s stunning about you is the level of immaturity and lack of appreciation. Aphelians are hard to come by! Your uncle obviously cares a great deal—”
“My uncle is trying to protect a resource and nothing more.”
There’s anger in his tone, but also pain. Whatever the situation here, it isn’t a simple one.
There’s movement in the corner. Then, a rush of footsteps. From the shadows, a tall form cloaked in black lunges for us. Silver glints against the dark, and I knock Valen aside and spin, reaching for the weapon’s hilt as it rockets toward us. I miss—shit!—and wrap my fingers around the blade instead.
The skin of my palm splits open, and I cringe against the sharp sting. A string of curses spills from my lips as I pivot, bringing my elbow up hard. It lands against the assailant’s jaw with a satisfying thwack, and he stumbles back, quickly righting himself for another round.
“Get back,” I growl at Valen.
OMEN OF ICE releases August 1, 2023. Find out where to pre-order it here.
JUS ACCARDO spent her childhood reading and learning to cook. Determined to follow in her grandfather’s footsteps as a chef, she applied and was accepted to the Culinary Institute of America. But at the last minute, she realized her true path lay with fiction, not food. Jus is the bestselling author of the popular Denazen series from Entangled publishing, as well as the Darker Agency series, and the New Adult series, The Eternal Balance. A native New Yorker, she lives in the middle of nowhere with her husband, three dogs, and sometimes guard bear, Oswald.