Mab stared at Lily for a long second, her eyes wide with an echo of the same shock. "What have you done?"
Maeve threw back her head and howled mocking, triumphant laughter, lifting her hands into the air.
"Did you think I did not know why you prepared Sarissa, hag?" she half sang. "You wrought her into a vessel of Faerie. Rejoice! Thy will is done!"
I didn't know what the hell she was talking about for a second-but then I saw it.
Fire flickered to life over the late Summer Lady. It did not consume Lily. Rather, it gathered itself into green and gold light, a shape that vaguely mirrored Lily's own, arms spread out as she lay prostrate upon the frost-covered earth. Then, with a gathering shriek, the fire suddenly condensed into a form, the shape of something that looked like an eagle or a large hawk. Blinding light spread over the hilltop, and the hawk suddenly flashed from Lily's fallen form.
Directly into Sarissa.
Sarissa's eyes widened in horror, and she lifted her arms in an instinctive defensive gesture. The hawk-shaped Summer fire, the mantle of the Summer Lady, plunged through Sarissa's upraised arms and into her chest, at the heart. Her body arched into a bow. She let out a scream, and green and gold light shone from her opened mouth like a spotlight, throwing fresh, sharp shadows across the hilltop.
Then her scream faded into a weeping, gurgling moan, and she fell to the earth, body curling into a shuddering fetal position.
"Mantle passed." Maeve tittered. "Nearest vessel filled. The seasons turn and turn and turn."
Mab's eyes were wide as she stared at Maeve.
"Oh, oh!" Maeve said, her body twisting into a spontaneous little dance of pure glee. "You never saw that coming, did you, Mother? It never even occurred to you, did it?" Her own eyes widened in lunatic intensity. "And how will you slay me now? Whither would my mantle go? Where is the nearest vessel now? Some hapless mortal, perhaps, ignorant of its true nature? The instrument of some foe of yours, in alliance with me, ready to steal away the mantle and leave you vulnerable?" Maeve giggled. "I can play chess too, Mother. Better now than ever you could. And I am now less a liability to you alive than dead."
"You do not understand what you have done," Mab said quietly.
"I know exactly what I have done," Maeve snarled. "I have beaten you. This was never about the sleepers, or this accursed isle, or the lives of mortal insects. This was about beating you, you hidebound hag. About using your own games against you. Kill me now, and you risk destroying the balance of Winter and Summer forever, throwing all into chaos."
Sarissa lay on the ground, moaning.
"And it was about taking her away from you," Maeve gloated. "How many mortal caterwauls or sporting events will the Winter Queen attend with the Summer Lady? And every time you think of her, you remember her, you will know that I took her from you."
Mab's black eyes went to Sarissa for a moment.
"The blame for this lies with me," Mab said quietly. "I cared too much."
I realized something then, in that moment when Mab spoke. She wasn't reacting as she should have been. Cold rage, seething anger, megalomaniacal outrage-any of those would have been something I would have considered utterly within her character. But there was none of that in her voice or face.
Just . . . regret. And resolution.
Mab knew something-something Maeve didn't.
"Remember that when this world is in ashes, Mother," Maeve said, "for you cannot risk my death this night, and I will not lift a finger to aid you in the Night to come. Without the Winter Lady's power, your downfall is simply a matter of time-and not much of that. After this night, you will not see me again."
"Yes," Mab said, though to which statement was unclear.
"I have choice, Mother, while you will be destroyed in your shackles," Maeve said. "You will die, and I will have freedom. At last."
"To fulfill one's purpose is not to be a slave, my daughter," Mab said. "And you are not free, child, any more than a knife is free because it leaves its sheath and is thrust into a corpse."
"Choice is power," Maeve spat in reply. "Shall I make more choices this night, to demonstrate?"
She lifted the little pistol again and pointed it at me.
Karrin drew a sharp breath.
And I suddenly understood what was happening; I understood what Mab knew that Maeve didn't.
Sarissa wasn't the only Faerie vessel on the hilltop. She was simply the one Maeve had been meant to see.
There was one other person there who had been spending time with a powerful fae.
Who had a relationship with one that was deeper and more significant than a casual or formal acquaintance.
Whose life had been methodically, deliberately, and covertly reshaped for the purpose.
Who had been extensively prepared by one of the Sidhe.
"Maeve," I said in a panic. "Don't! You're killing yourself. You haven't won. You just can't see it."
Maeve cackled in delight. "Can't I?"
"Being able to choose to tell lies isn't a freaking superpower, Maeve," I said. "Because it means you can always make the wrong choice. It means you can lie to yourself."
Maeve's smile turned positively sexual, her eyes bright and shining.
"Two plus two is five," she said, and rotated the gun sideways, the barrel still pointed at my eye.
Mab moved her little finger.
Karrin's hands flew out from behind her back in a shower of broken chips of black ice. She tore her little holdout gun from a concealed ankle holster.
"No!" I shouted.
Two shots rang out, almost simultaneously.
Something hissed spitefully past my ear.
A neat, round black hole appeared just to the side of Maeve's nose, at the fine line of her cheekbone.
Maeve blinked twice. Her face fell into what was almost precisely the same expression of confusion Lily's had. A trickle of blood ran from the hole.
And then she fell, like an icicle in a warm sunbeam.
"Dammit, no," I whispered.
Deep blue fire gathered over the fallen Winter Lady. It coalesced with an ugly howl into the outline of a serpent, which coiled and then lashed out in a strike that carried its blazing form fifteen feet, to the nearest corner of the ruined cottage . . .
. . . where Molly, behind her veil, had been crouched and waiting for a chance to aid me.
The serpent of Winter cold plunged into her chest, shattering her veil as it struck, and my apprentice's expression was twisted in startled horror. She didn't even have time to flinch. It struck, and she fell back against the side of the cottage, her legs buckling as if the muscles in them had forgotten how to move.