The Iron Daughter, Page 6Julie Kagawa
I smelled a hidden motive and crossed my arms. “Why do you want to know?”
“Just making conversation. ” Rowan produced another apple and tossed it at me. I fumbled to catch it, and Rowan grinned. “Don’t be so uptight. You’d give a brownie a nervous breakdown. So, was my brother a complete troll, or did he remember his manners?”
I was hungry. My stomach growled, and the apple felt cool and crisp in my hand. Before I knew it, I’d taken a bite. Sweet, tart juice flooded my mouth, with just a hint of bitter after-taste. “He was a perfect gentleman,” I said with my mouth full, my voice sounding strange in my ears. “He helped me rescue my brother from the Iron King. I couldn’t have done it without him. ”
Rowan reclined and gave me a lazy smile. “Do tell. ”
I frowned at his smirk. Something wasn’t right. Why was I telling him this? I tried shutting up, clamping down on my tongue, but my mouth opened and the words rushed out of their own volition.
“My brother Ethan was stolen by the Iron King,” I said, listening to myself babble on in horror. “I came into the Nevernever to get him back. When Ash was sent by Mab to capture me, I tricked him into making a contract with me, instead. If he helped me rescue Ethan, I would go with him to the Unseelie Court. He agreed to help, but when we got to the Iron Kingdom, it made Ash horribly sick, and he was captured by Machina’s Iron Knights. I snuck into the Iron King’s tower, used a magic arrow to kill Machina, rescued my brother and Ash, and then we came here. ”
I clapped both hands over my mouth to stop the torrent of words, but the damage was already done. Rowan looked like the cat who just ate the canary.
“So,” he crooned, slitting his eyes at me, “my little brother let himself be tricked—by a weakling half-blood—into rescuing a mortal child and nearly killing himself in the process. How very unlike Ash. Tell me more, Princess. ”
I kept my hands over my mouth, muffling my words, even as they began pouring out. Rowan laughed and hopped off the statue base, stalking toward me with an evil grin. “Oh, come now, Princess, you know it’s useless to resist. No need to make this harder on yourself. ”
I wanted to punch him, but I was afraid if I took my hands from my mouth, I’d reveal something else. Rowan kept coming, his grin turning predatory. I backed away, but a wave of dizziness and nausea swept through me and I stumbled, fighting to stay on my feet. The prince snapped his fingers, and the snow around my feet turned to ice, covering my boots and freezing me in place. Horrified, I watched the ice crawl up past my knees, making sharp, crinkling noises as it inched toward my waist.
It’s cold! I shivered violently, tiny needles of pain stabbing my flesh through my clothes. I gasped, wanting desperately to get away from it, but of course I couldn’t move. My stomach cramped, and another bout of nausea made my head spin. Rowan smiled, leaning back and watching me struggle.
“I can make it stop, you know,” he said, munching on the last of his apple.
“All you have to do is answer a few innocent questions, that’s all. I don’t know why you’re being so difficult, unless, of course, you have something to hide. Who are you trying to protect, half-breed?”
The temperature was becoming unbearable. My muscles began to spasm from the awful, bone-numbing cold. My arms shook, and my hands dropped from my mouth.
“Ash,” I whispered, but at that moment, the ice holding me in place shattered. With the sound of breaking china, it collapsed into thousands of crystalline shards, glinting in the weak light. I yelped and stumbled back, free of the icy embrace, as another lean, dark form melted out of the shadows.
“Ash. ” Rowan smiled as his brother stalked toward us, and my heart leaped. For a moment, I imagined Ash’s gray eyes were narrowed in fury, but then he drew close and looked the same as he had the night before—cold, distant, slightly bored.
“What a coincidence,” Rowan continued, still bearing that disgustingly smug grin. “Come and join us, little brother. We were just talking about you. ”
“What are you doing, Rowan?” Ash sighed, sounding more irritated than anything. “Mab told us not to bother the half-breed. ”
“Me? Bother her?” Rowan looked incredulous, blue eyes widening into the picture of innocence. “I’m never a bother. We were just having a scintillating conversation. Weren’t we, Princess? Why don’t you tell him what you just told me?”
Ash’s silver gaze flicked to mine, a shadow of uncertainty crossing his face. My lips opened of their own accord, and I clapped my hands over my mouth again, stopping the words before they spilled out. Meeting his gaze, I shook my head, beseeching him with my eyes.
“Oh, come now, Princess, don’t be shy,” Rowan purred. “You seemed to have a lot to say about our dearest boy Ash, here. Go on and tell him. ”
I glared at Rowan, wishing I could tell him exactly what he could do with himself, but I was feeling so sick and light-headed now, it took all my concentration to stay upright. Ash’s gaze hardened. Striding away from me, he bent and plucked something out of the snow, holding it up before him.
It was the fruit I’d dropped, a single bite taken out of the flesh, like Snow White’s poisoned apple. Only it wasn’t an apple now, but a big spotted toadstool, the fleshy insides white as bone. My stomach heaved, cramping violently, and I nearly lost the bite I’d taken.
Ash said nothing. Glaring at Rowan, he held up the mushroom and raised an eyebrow. Rowan sighed.
“Mab didn’t specifically say we couldn’t use spill-your-guts,” Rowan said, shrugging his lean shoulders. “Besides, I think you’d be most interested in what our Summer princess has to say about you. ”
“Why should I be?” Ash tossed the mushroom away, looking bored again.
“This conversation isn’t important. I made the bargain to get her here, and now it’s done. Anything I said or did was for the purpose of bringing her to court. ”
I gasped, my hands dropping away from my face, to stare at him. It was true, then. He’d been playing me all along. What he told me in the Iron Kingdom, everything we shared, none of that was real. I felt ice spreading through my stomach and shook my head, trying to erase what I just heard. “No,” I muttered, too low for anyone to hear. “It’s not true. It can’t be. Ash, tell him you’re lying. ”
“Mab doesn’t care how I did it, as long as the goal was accomplished,” Ash continued, oblivious to my torment. “Which is more than I can say for you. ” He crossed his arms and shrugged, the picture of indifference. “Now, if we’re quite done here, the half-breed should return inside. The queen will not be pleased if she freezes to death. ”
“Ash,” I whispered as he turned away. “Wait!” He didn’t even glance at me. Tears pressed behind my eyes, and I stumbled after him, fighting a wave of dizziness. “Ash!”
“I love you!”
The words just tumbled out of me. I didn’t mean to say them, but the moment I did, my stomach twisted with disbelief and utter horror. My hands flew back to my mouth, but it was far, far too late. Rowan grinned his biggest yet, a smile full of terrible glee, like he’d been given the best present in the world.
Ash froze, his back still to me. For just a moment, I saw his hands clench at his sides.
“That’s unfortunate for you, isn’t it?” he said, his voice dead of emotion.
“But the Summer Court has always been weak. Why would I touch the half-breed daughter of Oberon? Don’t make me sick, human. ”
It was like an icy hand plunged into my body, ripping my heart from my chest. I felt actual physical pain lance through me. My legs buckled, and I collapsed to the snow, ice crystals biting into my palms. I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t even cry. All I could do was kneel there, the cold seeping through my jeans, hearing Ash’s words echo through my head.
“Oh, that was cruel, Ash,” Rowan said, sounding delighted. “I do believe you broke our poor princess’s heart. ”
Ash said somethin
g else, something I didn’t catch, because the ground began to twirl beneath me, and another wave of dizziness made my head spin. I could have fought it off, but I was numb to all feeling, and I didn’t care at the moment. Let the darkness come, I thought, let it take me away, before it pulled a heavy blanket over my eyes and I dropped into oblivion.
The Scepter of the Seasons
I drifted for a while, neither awake nor asleep, caught somewhere between the two. Hazy, half-remembered dreams swam across my vision, mingling with reality until I didn’t know which was which. I dreamed of my family, of Ethan and Mom and my stepdad, Luke. I dreamed of them going on without me, slowly forgetting who I was, that I ever existed. Shapes and voices floated in and out of my consciousness: Tiaothin telling me to snap out of it because she was bored, Rowan telling Queen Mab that he had no idea I would react so violently to a simple mushroom, another voice telling the queen that I might never wake up. Sometimes I dreamed that Ash was in the room, standing in a corner or beside my bed, just watching me with bright silver eyes. In my delirium, I might have heard him whisper that he was sorry.
“Humans are such fragile creatures, aren’t they?” murmured a voice one night, as I drifted in and out of stupor. “One tiny nibble of spill-your-guts sends them into a coma. Pathetic. ” It snorted. “I heard this one was in love with Prince Ash. Makes you wonder what Mab will do to her, once she wakes up. She’s none too pleased with the Summer whelp being all mushy-mushy with her favorite son. ”
“Well, she certainly picked an inconvenient time to go all Sleeping Beauty,”
added another voice, “what with the Exchange coming up and all. ” It snorted. “If she does wake up, Mab might kill her for the annoyance. Either way, it’ll be entertaining. ” The sound of their laughter faded away, and I floated in darkness.
An eternity passed with few distractions. Voices slipping by me, unimportant. Tiaothin repeatedly poking me in the ribs, her sharp claws drawing blood, but the pain belonged to someone else. Scenes of my family: Mom on the porch with a police officer, explaining she didn’t have a missing daughter; Ethan playing in my room, which was now an office, repainted and refurnished, all my personal items given away. There was a dull throb in my chest as I watched him; in another life, it might have been sorrow, longing, but I was beyond feeling anything now and watched my half brother with detached curiosity. He was talking to a familiar stuffed rabbit, and that made me frown. Wasn’t that rabbit destroyed…?