The Iron Daughter, Page 39Julie Kagawa
Leanansidhe swept around the couch, trailing smoke from her cigarette holder. “Haven’t checked in yet, darling, but I’m sure they’re fine. They’re smart kids. ” With a flourish, she sat in the opposite chair and crossed her legs, watching me over her cigarette. “So, before that kicks in, dove, why don’t you tell me what happened in there? Grimalkin told me some of it, but he wasn’t there for the whole operation, and I can’t get a cohesive story from this pair—” she waved her cigarette at Ironhorse and Puck “—because they’re too busy worrying over you. Why couldn’t you get the scepter, darling? What happened in SciCorp?”
The memories flooded in, and the despair I’d been hiding from descended like a heavy blanket. “Ash,” I whispered, feeling tears prick my eyes. “It was Ash. She has him. ”
“Virus has him,” I continued in a daze. “She put one of her mind-control bugs inside him, and he attacked us. He tried…tried to kill us. ”
“He’s the one guarding the scepter,” Puck added, collapsing in a chair. “Him and about two dozen nasty Thornguards, and a whole building of Virus’s little human drones. ”
He shook his head. “I’ve fought Ash before, but not like this. Whenever we dueled, there was always a small part of him, deep down, that wasn’t serious. I know his royal iciness, and I knew he really didn’t want to kill me, no matter how much he boasted otherwise. That’s why our little feud has lasted so long. ” Puck snorted and crossed his arms, looking grave. “The thing I fought today wasn’t the frosty Ice prince we all know and love. There’s nothing there anymore. No anger, no hate, no fear. He’s more dangerous now than he ever was before, because he doesn’t care if he lives or dies. ”
Silence fell. All I could hear was the faint sound of Grimalkin sharpening his claws on the sofa. I wanted to lie down and cry, but the herbs were kicking in, and my depression was giving way to a numbing exhaustion. “So,” Leanansidhe ventured at last, “what will you do now?”
I stirred, fighting the drowsiness. “We go back,” I murmured, looking at Puck and Ironhorse, hoping they would back me up. “We have to. We have to get the scepter and stop the war. There’s no other way around it. ” Both nodded gravely, and I relaxed, grateful and relieved that they would follow me on this. “At least we know what we’re up against now,” I continued, grabbing for a faint ray of hope. “We might have a better chance the second time around. ”
“And the Winter prince?” Leanansidhe asked softly. “What will you do with him?”
I glanced at her sharply, about to tell her that we would save Ash and I didn’t like what she was implying, but Puck beat me to it.
“We have to kill him. ”
The world screeched to a halt. Slowly, I turned my head to stare at Puck, unable to believe what I just heard. “How could you?” I whispered. “He was your friend. You fought side by side. And now you want to cut him down like it was nothing!”
“You saw what he did. ” Puck met my eyes, beseeching. “You saw what he is now. I don’t think I can fight him without holding back. If he attacks you again—”
“You don’t want to save him,” I accused, leaning forward. My arm throbbed, but I was too angry to care. “You don’t even want to try! You’re jealous, and you’ve always wanted him out of the way!”
“I never said that!”
“You don’t have to! I can see it on your face!”
“HE’S DYING, PRINCESS. ”
Words froze in my throat. I stared at Ironhorse, silently pleading with him to be wrong. He gazed back with a sorrowful expression. “No. ” I shook my head, fighting the persistent tears that stung my eyes. “I won’t believe that. There has to be a way to save him. ”
“I AM SORRY, PRINCESS. ” Ironhorse bowed his head. “I KNOW YOUR
FEELINGS FOR THE WINTER PRINCE, AND I WISH I COULD GIVE YOU BETTER
NEWS. BUT THERE IS NO WAY TO FORCEFULLY REMOVE THE BUGS ONCE THEY
HAVE BEEN IMPLANTED. NOT WITHOUT KILLING THE HOST. ” He sighed, and his tone softened, though the volume did not. “GOODFELLOW IS RIGHT. THE WINTER
PRINCE IS FAR TOO DANGEROUS. IF HE ATTACKS AGAIN, WE CANNOT HOLD
“What about Virus?” I pressed, unwilling to give up. “She’s the one controlling the bugs. If we take her out, maybe her hold on him will—”
“Even if that were the case,” Puck interrupted, “the bug would still be inside him. And with no way to get it out, he’ll either go mad, or be in so much torment that he would be better off dead. Ash is strong, Princess, but that thing inside him is killing him. You saw it, you heard what Virus said. ” His brow furrowed, and his voice went very soft. “I don’t think he has much time left. ”
The tears pressing behind my eyes finally spilled over, and I buried my face in the pillow, biting the fabric to keep from screaming. God, it wasn’t fair! What did they want from me? Hadn’t I given enough already? I’d sacrificed everything—family, home, a normal life—for the stupid greater good. I had worked so hard; I was trying to be brave and mature about everything, but now I had to watch while the thing I loved most was killed in front of me?
I couldn’t. Even if it was impossible, even if Ash killed me himself, I would still try to save him.
The room had grown very quiet. I peeked up and saw that everyone except Puck had left, slipping from the room to let me come to terms with myself, and the decision looming over my head, in peace.
Seeing me glance up, Puck tried catching my gaze. “Meghan…”
I turned away, pressing my face into the cushions. Anger and resentment boiled; Puck was the last person I wanted to see, much less talk to. Right now, I hated him.
“Go away, Puck. ”
He sighed and rose from the chair, coming to perch on the sofa next to me.
“Well, you know that never works. ”
The silence stretched between us. I sensed that Puck wanted to say something but couldn’t seem to find the right words. Which was odd; I’d never known him to hesitate about anything.
“I won’t let you kill him,” I finally muttered after a few minutes of quiet. There was a lengthy pause before he answered. “Would you ask me to watch you die?” he murmured slowly. “Stand by while he puts a sword through your heart? Or, maybe you want me to die instead. You could just tell me to stand still while Ash chops off my head. Would that make you happy, Princess?”
“Don’t be stupid!” I bit my lip in frustration and sat up, wincing as the room spun for a moment. “I don’t want anyone to die. But I can’t lose him, Puck. ” My anger abruptly drained away, leaving only a hollow despair. “I can’t lose you, either. ”
Puck put his arms around me and pulled me close, gently so as to not jolt my wounded arm. I laid my head on his chest and closed my eyes, wishing I were normal, that I didn’t have to make these impossible decisions, that everything would be all right again. If wishes were horses…
“What do want me to do, Princess?” Puck whispered into my hair.
“If there’s any way we can save him…”
He nodded. “I’ll try very hard not to kill his royal iciness if we meet again. Believe it or not, Princess, I don’t want Ash dead, any more than you do. ” He sniffed. “Well, maybe a little more than you. But…” And he pulled back to look me in the eye. “If he puts you in danger, I won’t hold back. That’s my promise. I won’t risk losing you, either, understand?”
“Yeah,” I whispered, closing my eyes. That was all I could ask. I’ll save you, I thought, as drowsiness stole over me and my mind drifted. No matter what, I’ll find a way to bring you back. I promise.
I was nearly asleep, surrendering to the exhaustion stealing all my coherent thoughts, when a slamming door jerked me awake and Puck’s arms tightened around me.
“Meghan Chase. ” Kimi’s voice cut across the room, clipped, flat and mechanical. I looked up and my stomach dropp
Kimi and Nelson stood beside the door like soldiers at attention, a posture so strange for both of them that I didn’t recognize them at first. As one, their heads turned, and they gave me an empty stare. The same look Ash had turned on me back in SciCorp.
“Oh, no,” I whispered. Puck went stiff with shock.
“Our Mistress has a message for you, Meghan Chase. ” Kimi took a short step forward, moving like a robot. “‘Congratulations for breaking into SciCorp and, more impressive, breaking out again. You have my admiration. Unfortunately, I cannot have you running amok, making plans to return for the scepter, as I know you will. I’ll be moving it tonight to a safer location. If you come back to SciCorp, I’m afraid you’ll find it quite empty. Oh, and by the way, I’m also sending Ash to kill your family. They’re in Louisiana, right?’”
I sucked in a breath, and the blood drained from my face. Kimi’s expression didn’t change, but her voice turned mocking. “‘So you have a choice now, my dear. Come back for the scepter, or run home and try to stop Ash. You’d better hurry. He’s probably halfway to the bayou by now.
“‘One more thing!’” she added as I leaped to my feet, drowsiness forgotten. Heart pounding, I glared at her. Robot Kimi gave me an empty smile. “‘I want you to remember, this is not a game, Meghan Chase. If you think you can waltz into my lair and try to take what is mine without repercussions, you’d best think again. People will get hurt because of you. ’” Kimi stepped forward and narrowed her eyes. “‘Do not screw with me, child. Let this be a little reminder of what can happen when you play with the big girls. ’”
Kimi spasmed, spine arching back, mouth open in a silent scream as she twitched and thrashed. A moment later, Nelson did the same, limbs jerking wildly, before they both collapsed to the floor.