The Iron Daughter, Page 8Julie Kagawa
“Not interested,” I snapped, glaring at her with narrowed eyes. My butt still stung, making my words sharp. “I’m done playing games with faery princes. They can go to hell, for all I care. I’d rather strip naked for a group of redcaps. ”
“Ooh, if you do, can I watch?”
I rolled my eyes and turned my back on her as the Seelie Court finally made its appearance. A line of white horses swept into the courtyard, their hooves floating over the ground, their eyes as blue as the summer sky. Atop saddles made of bark, twigs and flowering vines, elven knights peered down haughtily, elegant in their leafy armor. After the knights came the standard-bearers, satyrs and dwarfs bearing the colors of the Summer Court. Then, finally, an elegant carriage pulled up, wreathed in thorns and rosebushes and flanked by two grim-faced trolls who growled and bared their fangs at the crowds of Winter fey. Tiaothin sniffed. “They’re being highly paranoid this year,” she muttered, as a troll took a swat at a goblin that edged too close. “Wonder who the high-and-mighty noble is, to warrant such security measures?”
I didn’t answer, for my skin was prickling a warning, though I didn’t know why until a moment later. The carriage rolled to a stop, the doors were opened…
And King Oberon, Lord of the Seelie Court, stepped out into the snow. The Unseelie fey gasped and snarled, backing away from the carriage, as the Erlking swept his impassive gaze over the crowd. My heart hammered in my chest. Oberon looked as imposing as ever: slender, ancient and powerful, his silver hair falling to his waist and his eyes like pale leaves. He wore robes the color of the forest, brown and gold and green, and an antlered crown rested on his brow.
Beside me, Tiaothin gaped, flattening her ears. “Oberon?” she snarled, as I watched the Erlking’s gaze sweep the crowd, searching meticulously. “What’s Lord Pointy Ears doing here?”
I couldn’t answer, for Oberon’s piercing stare finally found me. His eyes narrowed, and I shivered under that look. The last time I’d seen the Erlking, I’d snuck away from the Seelie Court to find my brother. Oberon had sent Puck to fetch me back, and I’d convinced him to help me instead. After our rebellion and direct disobedience, I imagined the Seelie king was none too happy with either of us.
My stomach twisted and a lump rose to my throat as I thought of Puck. I managed to swallow it down before any Unseelie noticed my bout of weakness, but the memories still haunted me. I desperately wished Puck were here. I stared at the carriage, hoping his lanky, red-haired form would come leaping out, flashing that defiant smirk, but he did not appear.
“Lord Oberon,” Mab said in a neutral voice, but it was clear that she, too, was surprised to see her ancient rival. “This is a surprise. To what do we owe the honor of your visit?”
Oberon approached the throne, flanked by his two troll bodyguards. The crowd of Unseelie fey parted quickly before him, until he stood before the throne. “Lady Mab,” the Erlking said, his powerful voice echoing over the courtyard, “I have come to request the return of my daughter, Meghan Chase, to the Seelie Court. ”
A murmur went through the ranks of Unseelie fey, and all eyes turned to me. Iron, I reminded myself. You are like iron. Don’t let them scare you. I stepped out from behind Tiaothin and met the surprised, angry looks head-on.
Oberon gestured at the carriage, and the trolls reached inside, dragging out two pale Winter sidhe, their arms bound behind their backs with living, writhing vines. “I have brought an exchange, as the rules dictate,” Oberon continued, as the trolls pushed the prisoners forward. “I will return to you your own, in exchange for my daughter’s freedom—”
Mab interrupted. “I’m afraid you misunderstand, Lord Oberon,” she rasped with the faintest of smiles. “Your daughter is not a prisoner of the Unseelie, but a willing guest. She came to us on her own, after making a bargain with my son to do so. The girl is bound by her contract to Prince Ash, and you have no power to demand her return. Once a bargain is made, it must be honored by all. ”
Oberon stiffened, then slowly turned to me again. I gulped as those ancientas-the-forest eyes pierced right through me. “Is this true, daughter?” he asked, and though his voice was soft, it echoed in my ears and made the ground tremble. I bit my lip and nodded. “It’s true,” I whispered. I guess your wolf henchman didn’t come back to tell you that part.
The Erlking shook his head. “Then, I cannot help you. Foolish girl. You have doomed yourself to your fate. So be it. ” He turned from me, a deserting gesture that spoke louder than any words, and I felt like he had punched me in the stomach. “My daughter has made her choice,” he announced. “Let us be done with this. ”
That’s it? I thought as Oberon walked back toward the carriage. You’re not going to fight to get me out, bargain with Mab for my freedom? Because of my stupid contract, you’re just going to leave me here?
Apparently so. The Erlking didn’t look at me a second time as he reached the carriage and gestured to his trolls. One of them shoved the Unseelie prisoners back into the carriage, while the other opened the opposite door with a grunt. A tall, regal faery stepped out into the snow. Despite her size, she looked so delicate it seemed she would break at the slightest puff of air. Her limbs were bundles of twigs, held together with woven grass. Fragile white buds grew from her scalp instead of hair. A magnificent mantle covered her shoulders, made of every flower under the sun: lilies, roses, tulips, daffodils, and plants I didn’t have a name for. Bees and butterflies flitted around her, and the smell of roses was suddenly overpowering.
She stepped forward, and the hoards of Winter fey leaped back at her approach, as if she had a disease. However, it wasn’t the flower woman all eyes were trained on, but what she held in her hands.
It was a scepter, like kings and queens used to carry, only this one wasn’t just some decorated rod. It pulsed with a soft amber glow, as if sunlight clung to the living wood, melting the snow and ice where it touched. The long handle was wrapped in vines, and the carved head of the scepter continuously sprouted flowers, buds, and tiny plants. It left a trail of leaves and petals where the lady passed, and the Winter fey kept their distance, growling and hissing.
At the foot of the throne, the lady knelt and held out the scepter in both hands, bowing her head. For a moment, Mab did nothing, simply watching the faery with an unreadable expression on her face. The rest of the Winter Court seemed to hold their breath. Then, with deliberate slowness, Mab stood and plucked the scepter from the woman’s hands. Holding it before her, the queen studied it, then raised it up for all to see. The scepter flared, the golden aura swallowed up by icy blue. The leaves and flowers shriveled and fell away. Bees and butterflies spiraled lifelessly to the ground, their gossamer wings coated in frost. The scepter flared once more and turned to ice, sending sparkling prisms of light over the courtyard.
The faery kneeling before the queen jerked and then…she, too, shriveled away. Her gorgeous robe withered, the flowers turning black and falling to the ground. Her hair curled, becoming dry and brittle, before flaking off her scalp. I heard the snapping of twigs as her legs broke at the knees, unable to hold her up any longer. She pitched forward into the snow, twitched once, and was still. As I watched in horror, wondering why no one went forward to help, the smell of roses faded away, and the stench of rotting vegetation filled the courtyard.
“It is done,” said Oberon, his voice weary. He raised his head and met Mab’s gaze. “The Exchange is complete, until the summer equinox. Now, if you will excuse us, Queen Mab. We must return to Arcadia. ”
Mab shot him a look that was purely predatory. “You will not stay, Lord Oberon?” she crooned. “Celebrate with us?”
“I think not, Lady. ” If Oberon was disturbed by the way Mab looked at him, he didn’t show it. “The ending of summer is not something we look forward to. I’m afraid we will have to decline. But, be warned, Queen Mab, this is not yet over. One way or another, I will have my daughter back. ”
r /> I gave a start at those words. Maybe Oberon would come through for me after all. But Mab’s gaze narrowed, and she stroked the handle of the scepter.
“That sounds uncomfortably close to a threat, Erlking. ”
“Merely a promise, my lady. ” With Mab still glaring at him, Oberon deliberately turned his back on the Winter Queen and strode to the carriage. A troll opened the door for him, and the Erlking entered without a backward glance. The driver shook the reins, and the Summer entourage was off, growing smaller and smaller, until the darkness swallowed them up.
“Summer is over,” she announced in her raspy voice, raising her other arm as if to embrace her waiting subjects. “Winter has come. Now, let the Revel begin!”
The Unseelie went berserk, howling, roaring and screaming into the night. Music started from somewhere, wild and dark, drums pounding out a fast, frenzied rhythm. The fey swarmed together in a chaotic, writhing mass, leaping, howling and twirling madly, rejoicing in the coming of winter.
I DIDN’T GET INTO the party. One, I wasn’t in the mood, and two, dancing with the Winter fey didn’t seem like such a great idea. Especially after I saw a group of drunk, glamour-high redcaps swarm a boggart and tear it limb from limb. It was like a mosh pit from hell. Mostly I hung back in the shadows, trying to avoid notice and wondering if Mab would think me rude if I retreated to my room. Looking at the frozen statues of humans and fey scattered throughout the courtyard, I decided not to risk it.
At least Rowan was absent from the celebrations, or lurking somewhere I couldn’t see. I had been bracing myself to fend off his advances all night. Ash was also mysteriously absent, which was both a relief and a disappointment. I found myself searching for him, scouring the shadows and mobs of dancing fey, looking for a familiar tousled head or the glint of a silver eye.
Stop that, I thought, when I realized what I was doing. He’s not here. And even if he was, what would you do? Ask him to dance? He’s made what he thinks of you perfectly clear.