The Iron Daughter, Page 5Julie Kagawa
And there they stood, across an ice-slick foyer. The double doors, with their laughing face and snarling face, seeming to mock and threaten at the same time. Now that I’d finally found them, I hesitated. Would I be able to get back in, once I was out? Beyond the palace was the twisted, frightening city of the Winter fey. If I couldn’t get back in, I’d freeze to death, or worse.
An excited whoop rang out. The redcaps had seen me.
I hurried across the floor, trying not to slip, as the tiles appeared to be made of colored ice. A pencil-thin butler in a black suit watched me impassively as I approached, his lank gray hair falling to his shoulders. Huge round eyes, like shiny mirrors, stared at me unblinking. Ignoring him, I grabbed the door with the laughing face and pulled, but it didn’t budge.
“Going outside, Miss Chase?” the butler asked, tilting his smooth, egg-shaped head.
“Just for a while,” I snapped, straining at the door, which, infuriatingly, started laughing at me. I didn’t jump or scream, having experienced far stranger, but it did make me mad. “I’ll be right back, I promise. ” I heard the jeering laughter of the redcaps, mingling with the howling of the door, and gave it a resounding kick. “Dammit, open up, you stupid thing!”
The butler sighed. “You are assaulting the wrong door, Miss Chase. ” He reached over and pulled open the snarling door, which scowled at me as it creaked on its hinges. “Please be careful in your excursion outside,” the butler said primly. “Her Majesty would be most displeased if you…ahem…ran away. Not that you would, I’m sure. Her protection is all that keeps you from being frozen, or devoured. ”
A blast of frigid air blew into the foyer. The land beyond was dark and cold. Glancing behind at the redcaps, who watched me from the shadows with bright, pointy grins, I shivered and stepped out into the snow.
I almost went back inside, it was so cold. My breath hung on the air, and ice eddies stung my exposed flesh, making it tingle and burn. A pristine, frozen courtyard stretched before me, trees, flowers, statues and fountains encased in the clearest ice. Great jagged crystals, some taller than my head, jutted out of the ground at random intervals, spearing into the sky. A group of fey dressed in glittering white sat on the lip of a fountain, long azure hair rippling down their backs. They saw me, snickered behind their hands and rose. The nails on their fingertips glimmered blue in the half-light.
I went the other way, my boots crunching through the snow, leaving deep prints behind. A while ago, I might’ve wondered how it could snow underground, but I’d long accepted that things never made sense in Faeryland. I didn’t really know where I was going, but moving seemed better than standing still.
“Where do you think you’re going, half-breed?”
Snow swirled, stinging my face and blinding me. When the blizzard receded, I was surrounded by the four fey girls who had been sitting at the fountain. Tall, elegant and beautiful, with their pale skin and shimmering cobalt hair, they hemmed me in like a pack of wolves, full frosted lips twisted into ugly sneers.
“Ooh, Snowberry, you were right,” one of them said, wrinkling her nose like she smelled something foul. “She does reek of a dead pig in the summer. I don’t know how Mab can stand it. ”
Clenching my fists, I tried to keep my cool. I was so not in the mood for this now. God, it’s like high school all over again. Will it never end? These are ancient faeries, for Pete’s sake, and they’re acting like my high school pom squad. The tallest of the pack, a willowy fey with poison green streaked through her azure hair, regarded me with cold blue eyes and stepped close, crowding me. I stood my ground, and her gaze narrowed. A year ago, I might have grinned benignly and nodded and agreed with everything they said, just to get them to leave me alone. Things were different now. These girls weren’t the scariest things I’d seen. Not by a long shot.
“Can I help you?” I asked in the calmest voice I could manage.
She smiled. It was not a nice smile. “I’m just curious to see how a half-breed like you gets off on speaking to Prince Ash like an equal. ” She sniffed, curling her lip in disgust. “If I were Mab, I would’ve frozen your throat shut just for looking at him. ”
“Well, you’re not,” I said, meeting her gaze. “And since I’m a guest here, I don’t think she’d approve of whatever you’re planning to do to me. So, why don’t we do each other a favor and pretend we don’t exist? That would solve a lot of problems. ”
“You don’t get it, do you, half-breed?” Snowberry pulled herself up, staring down her perfect nose at me. “Looking at my prince constitutes an act of war. That you actually spoke to him makes my stomach turn. You don’t seem to understand that you disgust him, as well you should, with your tainted Summer blood and human stench. We’ll have to do something about that, won’t we?”
My prince? Was she talking about Ash? I stared at her, tempted to say something stupid like, Funny, he never mentioned you. She might act like a spoiled, rich, mean girl from my old school, but the way her eyes darkened until there were no pupils left reminded me that she was still fey.
“So. ” Snowberry stepped back and gave me a patronizing smile. “This is what we’re going to do. You, half-breed, are going to promise me that you won’t so much as glance at my sweet Ash, ever again. Breaking this promise means I get to pluck out your wandering eyes and make a necklace with them. I think that’s a fair bargain, don’t you?”
The rest of the girls giggled, and there was a hungry, eager edge to the sound, like they wanted to eat me alive. I could have told her not to worry. I could have told her that Ash hated me and she didn’t have to threaten to get me to stay away. I didn’t. I drew myself up, looked her in the eye, and asked, “And what if I don’t?”
Silence fell. I felt the air get colder and braced myself for the explosion. A part of me knew this was stupid, picking a fight with a faery. I would probably get my butt kicked, or cursed, or something nasty. I didn’t care. I was tired of being bullied, tired of running into the bathroom to sob my eyes out. If this faery bitch wanted a fight, bring it on. I’d do my fair share of clawing, too.
“Well, isn’t this fun. ” A smooth, confident voice cut through the silence, a second before all hell would have broken loose. We jumped as a lean figure dressed entirely in white materialized from the snow, his coat flapping behind him. The look on his pointed face glowed with haughty amusement.
The prince grinned, his ice-blue eyes narrowed to slits. “Pardon me, girls,” he said, slipping up beside me, making the pack fall back a few steps. “I don’t mean to ruin your little party, but I need to borrow the half-breed for a moment. ”
Snowberry smiled at Rowan, all traces of hatefulness gone in an instant. “Of course, Your Highness,” she cooed, as if she’d just been offered a wonderful gift. “Whatever you command. We were just keeping her company. ”
I wanted to gag, but Rowan smiled back as if he believed her, and the pack drifted away without a backward glance.
The prince’s smile turned to a smirk as soon as they’d gone, and he gave me a sideways leer that made me instantly cautious. He might have saved me from Snowberry and her harpies, but I didn’t think he’d done it to be chivalrous. “So, you’re Oberon’s half-blood,”
he purred, confirming my suspicion. His eyes raked me up and down, and I felt horribly exposed, as though he was undressing me with his gaze. “I saw you at Elysium last spring. Somehow I thought you were…taller. ”
“Sorry to disappoint you,” I said frostily.
“Oh, you’re not disappointing. ” Rowan smiled, his gaze lingering on my chest. “Not a bit. ” He snickered again and stepped back, gesturing for me to follow. “Come on, Princess. Let’s take a walk. I want to show you something. ”
I really didn’t want to, but I saw no way of politely refusing a prince of the Unseelie Court, especially since he’d just done me a favor by getting rid of the pack. So I fol
lowed him to another part of the courtyard, where frozen statues littered the snowy landscape, making it eerie and surreal. Some stood straight and proud, some were twisted in abject fear, arms and limbs thrown up to protect themselves. Looking at some of their features, so real and lifelike, made me shudder. The Queen of Winter has a creepy sense of style. Rowan paused in front of one statue, covered in a layer of smoky ice, its features barely distinguishable through the opaque seal. With a start, I realized this wasn’t a statue at all. A human stared out of his ice prison, mouth open in a scream of terror, one hand flung out before him. His blue eyes, wide and staring, gazed down at me. Then he blinked.
I stumbled back, a shriek lodging in my throat. The human blinked again, his terrified gaze beseeching mine. I saw his lips tremble, as if he wanted to say something but the ice rendered him immobile, frozen and helpless. I wondered how he could breathe.
“Brilliant, isn’t it?” said Rowan, gazing at the statue in admiration. “Mab’s punishment for those who disappoint her. They can see, feel and hear everything that goes on around them, so they’re fully aware of what’s happened to them. Their hearts beat, their brains function, but they don’t age. They’re suspended in time forever. ”
“How do they breathe?” I whispered, staring back at the gaping human.
“They don’t. ” Rowan smirked. “They can’t, of course. Their noses and mouths are full of ice. But they still keep trying. It’s like they’re suffocating for eternity. ”
The sidhe prince shrugged. “Don’t piss off Mab, is all I can tell you. ” He turned the full brunt of his icy gaze on me. “So, Princess,” he continued, making himself comfortable at the base of the statue. “Tell me something, if you would. ” Pulling an apple out of nowhere, he bit into it, smiling at me all the while. “I hear you and Ash traveled all the way to the Iron King’s realm and back. Or so he claims. What do you think of my dear little brother?”