The iron queen, p.13
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       The Iron Queen, p.13

         Part #3 of The Iron Fey series by Julie Kagawa
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Page 13

 

  “Come on,” Ash murmured, finally brushing my arm. “There’s nothing you can do for him now. You’re exhausted, and you can’t help anyone like this. Get some rest. ”

  Feeling numb, I let him lead me away, down the hall and up a flight of stairs to the loft overlooking the main room. A rustic log railing barred the edge, where you could peer down on the living room below, and a queen-size bed with a grizzly-bear rug complete with head and claws crouched under the eaves. Ash dragged the awful bear rug off the bed and motioned for me to get in. In a daze, I settled on top of the covers. Without the piano chords, the cabin seemed unnaturally quiet, the silence thudding in my ears. Ash loomed over me, strangely formal and unsure. “I’ll be downstairs,” he murmured. “Try to get some sleep. ”

  He started to pull away, but I reached up and grabbed his hand, holding it tight.

  “Ash, wait,” I said, and he went perfectly still. It might’ve been too soon, reaching out for him, but I was drowning in an overload of emotion: anger at Puck, worry for my dad, fear that I’d just sabotaged my relationship with Ash. “I can’t be alone right now,” I whispered, clinging to his hand. “Please, just stay with me for a little while. You don’t have to say anything, we don’t have to talk. Just…stay. Please. ”

  He hesitated. I saw the indecision in his eyes, the silent battle, before he finally nodded. Sliding onto the bed, he leaned back against the headboard and I curled up beside him, content just to feel him near me. I heard his heartbeat, despite the rigid way he held himself, and caught a glimmer of emotion surrounding him like a hazy aura, a reaction he wasn’t able to hide. I blinked. “You’re…jealous,” I said in disbelief. Ash, former prince of the Unseelie Court, was jealous. Of Puck. I didn’t know why I found that so surprising; maybe Ash seemed too calm and self-assured to be jealous. But there was no mistaking what I saw.

  Ash shifted uncomfortably and gave me a look from the corner of his eye. “Is that so wrong?” he asked softly, turning to stare at the far wall. “Is it so wrong to be jealous, when I heard that you kissed him, when you told him…” He trailed off, raking a hand through his hair, and I bit my lip. “I know I was the one who left,” he continued, still staring at the wall. “I said we were enemies and that we couldn’t be together. I knew it would break your heart, but…I also knew Puck would be there to pick up the pieces. Whatever came of that, I brought on myself. I know I have no right to ask…” He stopped, taking a short breath, as if that confession had been difficult. I held my breath, knowing there was more.

  “But,” he went on, finally turning to me, “I have to know, Meghan. I can’t wonder about this, not with him. Or you. It will drive me crazy. ” He sighed and suddenly took my hand, staring at our tangled fingers. “You know what I feel for you. You know I’ll protect you from whatever comes at us, but this is the one thing I can’t fight. ”

  “Ash—”

  “If you’re torn about whether you want to be with Goodfellow, tell me now. I’ll step down, give you space, whatever you want me to do. ” Ash trembled, just a little, as he said this. I felt his heart speed up as he turned to meet my gaze, his silver eyes intense. “Just answer me this today, and I’ll never ask you again. Do you love him?”

  I took a breath, ready to deny it immediately, but stopped. I couldn’t give him a short, flippant answer, not when he was looking at me like that. He deserved to know the truth. All of it.

  “I did,” I said softly. “At least, I thought I did. I’m not so sure now. ” I paused, choosing my words carefully. Ash waited, his whole body tense like a coiled wire, as I gathered my thoughts. “When you left,” I went on, “I was hurt. I thought I wouldn’t see you again. You told me we were enemies, that we couldn’t be together, and I believed you. I was angry and confused, and Puck was there to pick up the pieces, like you said. It was easy to turn to Puck because I knew how he felt. And, for a little while, I thought I might…love him, too.

  “But,” I continued, as my voice started to shake, “when I saw you again, I realized what I felt for Puck wasn’t the same. He was my best friend, and I’d always have a spot for him in my heart, but…it was you, Ash. I didn’t really have a choice. It’s always been you. ”

  Ash didn’t say anything, but I heard his faint sigh, as if he’d been holding his breath, and he drew me close, wrapping his arms around me. I lay my head on his chest and closed my eyes, shoving thoughts of Puck and my dad and the false king to the back of my mind. I would deal with them tomorrow. Right now, I just wanted to sleep, to sink into oblivion and forget everything for a little while. Ash was still quiet, thoughtful. His glamour aura glimmered once, then flickered out of sight again. But all I had to do was listen to his heart, thudding in his chest, to know what he was feeling.

  “Talk to me,” I whispered, tracing his ribs through his shirt, making him shiver. “Please. The silence is driving me crazy. I don’t want to hear myself think right now. ”

  “What do you want me to say?”

  “Anything. Tell me a story. Tell me about the places you’ve been. Anything to keep my mind off…everything. ”

  Ash paused. After a moment, he started humming a soft, slow melody, drowning out the silence. It was a haunting, peaceful tune, reminding me of falling snow and hibernating trees and animals huddled in their dens, sleeping the winter away. I felt his hand running the length of my back, a gentle rhythm in time with the lullaby, and sleep crept over me like a warm blanket.

  “Ash?” I whispered, as my eyelids began to drift shut.

  “Yes?”

  “Don’t leave me, all right?

  “I already promised that I would stay. ” He stroked my hair, his voice dropping to a near whisper. “For as long as you want me. ”

  “Ash?”

  “Mmm?”

  “…I love you. ”

  His hands stilled; I felt them tremble. “I know,” he murmured, bending his head close to mine. “Get some sleep. I’ll be right here. ”

  His deep voice was the last thing I heard before I drifted into the void.

  “HELLO, MY LOVE,” Machina whispered, holding out his hands as I approached, steel cables writhing behind him in a hypnotic dance. Tall and elegant, his long silver hair rippling like liquid mercury, he watched me with eyes as black as night. “I have been waiting for you. ”

  “Machina. ” I shivered, gazing around the empty void, hearing my voice echo all around us. We were alone in the fathomless dark. “Where am I? Why are you here? I thought I killed you. ”

  The Iron King smiled, silver hair glowing in the utter darkness. “You can never be rid of me, Meghan Chase. We are one, now and forever. You just have not accepted that yet. Come. ” He beckoned me forward. “Come to me, my love, and let me show you what I mean. ”

  I backed away. “Stop calling me that. I’m not yours. ” He drifted closer, and I took another step back. “And you’re not supposed to be here. Stop lurking around my dreams. I already have someone, and it’s not you. ”

  Machina’s smile didn’t falter. “Ah, yes. Your Unseelie prince. Do you really think you’ll be able to keep him once you realize who you really are? Do you think he will even want you anymore?”

  “What do you know about that? You’re just a dream—a nightmare, really. ”

  “No, my love. ” Machina shook his head. “I am the part of you that you cannot bring yourself to accept. And as long as you keep denying me, you will never understand your true potential. Without me, you will never be enough to defeat the false king. ”

  “I’ll take my chances. ” Narrowing my eyes, I stabbed a finger at him. “And now, I think it’s time you went away. This is my dream, and you’re not welcome here. Get out. ”

  Machina shook his head sadly. “Very well, Meghan Chase. If you decide you need me after all—and you will—I will be right here. ”

  “Don’t hold your breath,” I mumbled, and my own voice woke me up. I BLINKED AND RAISED
my head from the pillow. The room was dark, but outside the round loft window, gray light filtered in from a brightening sky. Ash was gone and the space beside me was cold. He’d left sometime during the night.

  The scent of bacon drifted up from below, and my stomach grumbled a response. I headed downstairs, wondering who was cooking at such an early hour. The image of Ash flipping pancakes in a white apron came to mind, and I giggled hysterically as I entered the kitchen.

  Ash wasn’t there, and neither was Puck, but Grimalkin looked up from a table laden with food. Eggs, pancakes, bacon, biscuits, fruit, and oatmeal covered every surface of the tabletop, along with whole pitchers of milk and orange juice. Grimalkin, sitting on the corner, blinked at me once, then went back to dunking his paw in a glass of milk and licking it off.

  “What is all this?” I asked, amazed. “Did Dad cook? Or… Ash?”

  Grimalkin snorted. “Those two? I shudder to think of the consequences. No, Leanansidhe’s brownies took care of this, just like they have cleaned your room and made your bed by now. ” He observed the opaque white droplets on his paw and flicked them off rapidly.

  “Where is everyone?”

  “The human is still asleep. Goodfellow has not returned, though I am sure he will sometime in the future, probably with the ire of all the local fey on his heels. ”

  “I don’t care what Puck does. He can get eaten by trolls for all I care. ”

  Grimalkin seemed unfazed by my hostility and calmly licked a paw. I picked at the scrambled eggs sitting before me. “Where’s Ash?”

  “The Winter prince left yesterday evening while you were asleep and said nothing about where he was going, of course. He returned a few minutes ago. ”

  “He left? Where is he now?”