The Iron Daughter, Page 9Julie Kagawa
“Excuse me, Princess. ”
For a moment, my heart leaped at the soft, deep voice. The voice that could either be Rowan’s or Ash’s, they sounded so much alike. Bracing myself, I turned, but it wasn’t Ash standing there. Thankfully, it wasn’t Rowan, either. It was the other brother, the oldest of the three. Sage.
Dammit, he’s gorgeous also. What was with this family, that all the sons were so freaking handsome it hurt to look at them? Sage had his brothers’ pale face and high cheekbones, and his eyes were chips of green ice, peering out beneath slender brows. Long black hair rippled behind him, like a waterfall of ink. His wolf sat a few paces away, watching me with intelligent golden eyes.
“Prince Sage,” I greeted warily, prepared to fend off another assault. “Can I help you with anything, Your Highness?” Or did you just come to push yourself on me like Rowan, or mock me like Ash?
“I want to speak with you,” the prince said without preamble. “Alone. Will you walk with me a bit?”
This surprised me, though I still hesitated, wary. “Where are we going?” I asked.
“The throne room,” Sage replied, sweeping his gaze back to the palace. “It is my duty to guard the scepter this night, as only those with royal blood are allowed to touch it. With all the chaos from the Revel, it is best to keep the scepter away from the masses. It could get messy otherwise. ” When I paused, thinking, he shrugged a lean shoulder. “I will not force you, Princess. Come with me or not, it makes no difference. I merely wanted to speak to you without Rowan, Ash, or some phouka trying to eavesdrop on the conversation. ”
He waited patiently as I struggled for an answer. I could refuse, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to. Sage seemed straightforward, almost businesslike. Different from his brothers. He wasn’t making any attempt to be charming, but he wasn’t being condescending, either. And unlike Rowan, who oozed charm and malice, he wasn’t using glamour, and I think that’s finally what sold me.
“All right,” I decided, motioning with my hand. “I’ll talk with you. Lead the way. ”
He offered me his arm, which surprised me again. After a moment’s hesitation, I took it, and we started off, his wolf trailing silently behind us. He led me back into the palace, down empty halls swathed in ice and shadow. All the Unseelie fey were outside, dancing the night away. My footsteps echoed loudly against the hard floors; his and the wolf’s made no sound at all.
“I’ve seen you,” Sage murmured without looking at me. He turned a corner, so smoothly I stumbled to keep pace. “I’ve watched you with my brother. And I want to warn you, you mustn’t trust him. ”
I almost laughed, the statement was so obvious. “Which one?” I asked bitterly.
“Either of them. ” He pulled me down another corridor, one I recognized. We were close to the throne room now. Sage pressed on without slowing. “You do not know the enmity between Ash and Rowan, how deep the rivalry goes. Especially on Rowan’s part. The jealousy he feels for his youngest brother is a dark poison, eating him from the inside, making him bitter and vengeful. He has never forgiven Ash for Ariella’s death. ”
We entered the throne room in all its frigid, icy beauty. Sage released me and walked toward the throne, his wolf padding behind him. I shivered, huddling deeper into my coat. It was colder in here than it was outside. “But Ash wasn’t responsible for Ariella’s death,” I said, rubbing my forearms. “That—” I stopped, not wanting to say it out loud. That was Puck, who led them into danger. Who was responsible for the death of Ash’s love. Sage didn’t answer. He had come to a stop a few feet beside Mab’s icy throne, staring at something on the altar beside it. A moment later, I realized that was the source of the ungodly chill in the room. The Scepter of the Seasons hovered a few inches over the altar, washing the prince’s face in icy blue light.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?” he murmured, running his fingers over the frozen handle.
“Every year, I see it, and yet it never ceases to amaze me. ” His eyes glittered; he seemed to be in some sort of trance. “Someday, if Mab ever gets tired of being queen, it will be mine to accept, to rule with. When that happens…”
I didn’t get to hear the rest, for at that moment, the wolf let out a long, low growl and bared its teeth.
Sage whirled around. In one smooth motion, he drew the sword at his waist. I stared at it. It was much like Ash’s, straight and slender, the blade throwing off an icy blue aura. I shivered, remembering what it was like to grasp that hilt, feel the awful cold bite into my skin. And for a moment, I was terrified. He’s going to kill me, that’s why he brought me here alone. He was going to kill me all along.
“How did you get in here?” Sage hissed.
I turned. There, against the back wall, several dark forms melted out of the shadows. Four were thin and lanky, almost emaciated, their frames nothing but wires twisted together to form limbs and a body, resembling huge puppets as they skittered over the ground on all fours. The wolf’s growls turned into snarls.
My heart turned over as another form stepped into the light, dressed in segmented metal armor emblazoned with a barbed-wire crown. He wore a helmet, but the visor was up, showing a face as familiar to me as my own. There was no mistaking that pale skin, those intense gray eyes. Ash’s face gazed out at me from under the helmet, his eyes as bleak as the winter sky.
“Ash?” Sage muttered in disbelief. I shook my head mutely, but the prince wasn’t looking at me.
The knight blinked, giving Sage a solemn look. “I’m afraid not, Prince Sage,”
he said, and I shivered at how much he sounded like his double. “Your brother was simply the blueprint for my creation. ”
“Tertius,” I whispered, and Ash’s doppelgänger gave me a pained smile. The last time I’d seen the Iron knight was in Machina’s tower just before it came crashing down. I couldn’t imagine how he’d survived. “What are you doing here?”
Tertius’s gaze met mine, his eyes blank and dead, looking so much like Ash’s it made my heart ache. “Forgive me, Princess,” he murmured, and made a sweeping gesture with his arm.
With shrieks like knives scraping against each other, the Iron faeries rushed me.
They were appallingly fast, scuttling gray blurs across the floor. I had the absurd image of being ambushed by a swarm of metallic spiders before they were upon me. The first attacker leaped up and slashed at my face with a twisted wire claw as sharp as any razor.
It met a gleaming blue sword instead, screeching off the blade in a volley of sparks, bringing tears to my eyes. Sage threw back one attacker and whirled to meet the next, ducking as wire talons slashed over his head. The Winter prince thrust out a palm, and a jagged ice spear surged out of the floor, stabbing toward the Iron fey. Lightning fast, they dodged, leaping back and giving us time to retreat. Grabbing my wrist, Sage yanked me behind the throne.
“Keep out of the way,” he ordered, just as the faeries descended on us again, swarming over the chair and leaving deep gouges in the ice. Sage slashed at one, only to have it spring back. Another darted in from behind, lashing out with steel talons. The prince dodged, but he didn’t move fast enough, and a bright splash of blood colored the floor. My stomach twisted as the prince staggered, swinging his blade in a desperate circle to keep the assassins back. There were too many for him, and they were too quick. Frantically, I looked around for a weapon, but saw only the scepter, lying on the pedestal near the throne. Knowing I was probably breaking a dozen sacred rules, I lunged for the scepter and snatched it up by its frozen handle.
The cold seared my hands, burning them like acid. I gasped and nearly dropped it, gritting my teeth against the pain. Sage stood in the middle of a slashing whirlwind, desperately trying to keep them back. I saw lines of red on his face and chest. Trying to ignore the searing pain, I rushed up behind an Iron fey, raised the scepter over my head and smashed it do
wn on the faery’s spindly back.
It whirled with blinding speed. I didn’t even see the blow until it backhanded me across the face, making lights explode behind my eyes. I flew back into a corner, striking my head on something hard and slumping to the floor. The scepter dropped from my grasp and rolled away. Dazed, I watched the faery scuttle toward me but suddenly jerk to a stop, as if yanked by invisible strings. Ice covered its body, pushing up through the seams in the wire as the faery clawed at itself frantically. Wire-thin fingers snapped off, and the faery’s struggles slowed before it curled in on itself like a giant insect and stopped moving altogether. I didn’t have the breath to scream. I tried pushing away from the wall, but everything spun violently and my stomach lurched. I heard footsteps coming toward me and opened my eyes to see Tertius bend down and take the Scepter of the Seasons.
“Don’t,” I managed, trying to struggle to my feet. The ground swayed, and I stumbled back. “What are you doing?”
He observed me with solemn gray eyes. “Following the orders of my king. ”
“King?” I struggled to focus. Everything seemed to be moving in slow motion. A few feet away, Sage and the assassins fought on. The wolf had its jaws clamped around a faery’s leg, and Sage pressed it unmercifully with his sword. “You don’t have a king anymore,” I told Tertius, feeling light-headed and numb. “Machina is dead. ”
“Yes, but our realm endures. I follow the commands of the new Iron King,”
Tertius murmured, drawing his sword. I stared at the steel blade, hoping it would be quick. “I bear you no ill will, this time. My orders do not include killing you. But I must obey my lord. ”
And with that, Tertius spun on his heel and marched away, still holding the Scepter of the Seasons. It pulsed blue and white in his hands, coating his gauntlets with frost, but he did not fumble. His face was grim as he strode up behind Sage, still locked in battle with the assassins. The wolf thrashed on the ground in a pool of blood, and Sage’s breaths came in ragged gasps as he fought on alone. In horror, I saw what Tertius was going to do and screamed out a warning.