Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

The Iron Queen

Julie Kagawa

Page 12


  Grimalkin yawned widely and stretched. Curling his tail around himself, he regarded the Exile Queen without blinking and twitched an ear. “I believe you and I still have a wager to settle,” he purred. “One that you lost, if you remember. ”

  “You are a horrid creature, Grimalkin. ” Leanansidhe sighed and puffed a smoke-cat into the air, then sent a smoke-hound after it. “It seems I am destined to lose bargains today. Very well, cat, you can have your bloody favor. And may you choke on it when you try to call it in. ”

  Grimalkin purred and seemed to smile. “This way,” he told me, waving his tail as he stood. “We will have to go back through the cellar, but the trod is not far. Just be wary when we get there—Leanansidhe failed to mention that this particular spot is infested with bogles. ”

  “What about Goodfellow?” Ash said, before I could ask what a bogle was.

  “Should he know where we’re going, or are we going to leave him behind?”

  My stomach turned, angry and sullen. “I don’t care,” I growled, and scanned the dining room, wondering if one of the chairs, plates, or utensils was actually Puck in disguise. “He can follow us or not, but he’d better stay out of my way if he knows what’s good for him. I don’t want to see his face for a long time. Come on, Grim. ” I looked at the cat, watching us with an amused, half-lidded expression, and raised my chin. “Let’s get out of here. ”

  BACK THROUGH THE BASEMENT we went, Grimalkin in the lead, down another maze of torchlit hallways to an old wooden door hanging crookedly from its hinges. Sunlight streamed in through the cracks, and birdsong trilled somewhere beyond the door.

  I pulled it open and found myself in a dense forest glen, broad-leafed trees surrounding us on every side and a babbling stream cutting through the clearing. Sunlight dappled the forest floor, and a pair of spotted deer raised their heads to watch us, curious and unafraid.

  Ash stepped through the stony mound we’d exited, and the door creaked shut behind him. He took in the forest surroundings with one smooth, practiced gaze, and turned to Grimalkin.

  “There are several trows watching us from the bushes. Are they going to be a problem?”

  Startled, I scanned the clearing, searching for the elusive trows, which, from what I understood, were squat, ugly fey who lived underground, but apart from the deer, we appeared to be alone. Grimalkin yawned and scratched behind an ear.

  “Leanansidhe’s groundskeepers,” he said offhandedly. “Nothing to worry about. If you hear feet moving around the cabin at night, it is probably them. Or the brownies. ”

  “What cabin?” I asked, gazing around the clearing. “I don’t see a cabin. ”

  “Of course not. This way, human. ” Tail up, Grimalkin trotted across the clearing, hopped the stream, and disappeared midjump.

  I sighed. “Why does he always do that?”

  “I don’t think it was on purpose this time,” Ash said, and took my hand.

  “Come on. ”

  We crossed the glen, passing very close to the deer, who still didn’t run away, and hopped over the little stream.

  As soon as my feet left the ground, I felt a tingle of magic, like I was jumping through an invisible barrier. When I landed, I was no longer staring at empty forest but an enormous, two-story lodge with a veranda that circled the entire upper deck and smoke writhing from the chimney. The front of it stood on stilts, a good twenty-something feet off the ground, and gave the front deck a fantastic view of the whole clearing.

  I gaped. “This is her ‘quaint little hideaway’? I was thinking more along the lines of a one-room cabin with an out-house or something. ”

  “That’s Leanansidhe,” Ash said, sounding amused. “She could have glamoured the outside to look like a rundown cabin instead of hiding the whole thing, but I don’t think that’s her style. ” He gazed up at the looming structure and frowned. “I hear music. ”

  My heart jumped. “Piano music? My dad!”

  We raced up the steps, taking them two at a time, and burst into the living room, where a cheerful fire crackled in the hearth and the dark strains of piano music pounded from the corner.

  My dad sat at the piano bench, his lank brown hair falling into his eyes, his skinny shoulders hunched over the keys. Slouched a few feet away, with his shoes on the coffee table and his hands behind his head, was Puck. Puck caught my gaze and smirked, but I ignored him as I rushed to the piano bench. “Dad!” I had to shout to be heard over the music. “Dad! Do you recognize me? It’s Meghan. Meghan, your daughter. Do you remember?”

  He hunched even farther over the keys, pounding on them like his life depended on it. I grabbed his arm and yanked him around, forcing him to look at me. “Dad!”

  His hazel eyes, empty as the sky, stared right through me, and I felt an icy spear plunge into my stomach. I let him go, and he immediately went back to playing the piano, pounding the keys as I staggered back and sank into a nearby chair.

  “What’s wrong with him?” I whispered.

  Grimalkin leaped up beside me. “Remember, human, he has been in Faery for a very long time. Also, until just recently, he was a musical instrument, which was probably fairly traumatic. It is to be expected that his mind is a little fractured. Give him time, and he should come out of it eventually. ”

  “Should?” I choked, but the cat had moved on to washing his back toes and did not reply.

  I hid my face in my hands, then pulled them back and glared at Puck. “What are you doing here?” I asked stonily.

  “Me?” Puck leered at me, smug and looking not the least bit sorry. “I’m on vacation, princess. ”

  “Go away,” I told him, rising from my seat. “Go back to Oberon and leave us alone. You’ve done enough damage. ”

  “He cannot go back to Oberon,” Grimalkin said, leaping to the back of the couch. “Oberon exiled him when he came after you. He disobeyed the king’s orders and has been banished from the Nevernever. ”

  Guilt now joined the swirl of angry emotions, and I stared at Puck in disbelief. “That was stupid,” I told him. “Why would you get yourself banished like that? Now you’re stuck here with the rest of us. ”

  Puck’s eyes gleamed, feral and menacing. “Oh, I don’t know, princess. Maybe it was because I was stupid enough to care about you. Maybe I actually thought I had a chance. Silly me, thinking that one little kiss meant anything to you. ”

  “You kissed him?” Ash sounded like he was trying to hide his shock. I cringed. Things were rapidly spinning out of control. My father seemed to pick up on the tension, and banged harder on the keys.

  I stared at Puck, torn between anger and guilt. “We’re not talking about that right now,” I began, but he overrode me.

  “Oh, I think we should,” Puck interrupted, crossing his arms. I started to protest, but he raised his voice. “So, tell me, princess, when you said you loved me, was that a lie?”

  Ash went rigid; I could feel his eyes on me, and cursed Puck for bringing this up now. Puck was watching me too, lips curled in a smirk, enjoying my reaction. I wanted to hit him and apologize at the same time, but anger was stronger. I took a breath. Fine. If Puck wanted to force the issue now, I’d tell him the truth. “No,” I said, raising my voice to be heard over the piano chords. “I didn’t lie to you, Puck. I meant what I said—at least, I did back then. But it’s not the same as what I feel for Ash, you knew that. ”

  “Did I?” Puck’s voice was ugly. “Maybe I did, but you sure led me on a merry chase, princess. Just like a pro. When were you going to tell me I didn’t have a cold chance in hell?”

  “I don’t know!” I snapped, taking a step forward and clenching my fists.

  “When were you going to tell me about my father, Puck? When were you going to tell me you knew where he was all along?”

  Puck fell silent, watching me with a sullen expression. The clanging of the piano filled the room, frantic and chaotic. In the
corner, Ash was motionless; he could’ve been made of stone.

  Rising from the couch, Puck swept a cruel gaze at us all and broke into a sneer.

  “You know, I think I will get out of here,” he drawled. “It’s gotten crowded of late, and I was just thinking I needed a vacation. ” Glancing at Ash, he smirked and shook his head. “Not enough room in this cabin for both of us, ice-boy. You ever want that duel, you can find me in the woods. And if either one of you comes up with an actual plan, do me a favor and leave me out of it. I’m outta here. ”

  With a last sneer, Puck walked across the room and out the door without looking back.

  Guilt and anger flared, but I turned back to my dad, whose frantic banging on the piano keys had calmed somewhat. I had other things to worry about besides Puck. “Dad,” I said quietly, slipping beside him. “You need to stop now. Just for a little while, okay? Will you stop?” I pried his hands away from the keys, and this time he let me, dropping them to his lap. So he wasn’t completely unreachable, that was good. He still didn’t look at me, though, and I studied the lean, haggard face, the lines around his eyes and mouth even though he was a fairly young man, and felt close to despair.

  Ash appeared beside me, close but not quite touching. “The master bedroom is down the hall,” he said quietly. “I think your father will be comfortable there, if you can get him to follow you. ”

  In a daze, I nodded. Somehow, we got my dad on his feet and led him down the hall to the large bedroom at the end. Leanansidhe’s master bedroom didn’t lack anything in luxury, from the four-poster bed to the bubbling natural hot spring in the bathroom, but it still felt like a jail cell as I ushered my dad inside and shut the door behind him.

  Leaning against the door, I shook with exhausted tears, feeling stretched in several directions at once. Ash hovered nearby, just watching. He looked uncomfortable, like he wanted to pull me close, but there was a barrier between us now, the admission with Puck hanging in the air like barbed wire.