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The Iron Daughter, Page 13

Julie Kagawa

Page 13

 

  “Meghan. ” Ash turned and grabbed my hand, sending tingles up my arm. Against my will, I looked down at him. His face was desolate, his eyes pleading for understanding. “I can’t…have feelings for you,” he murmured, tearing a hole right through my heart. “Not in the way you want. Whatever happens, Mab is still my queen, and the Winter Court is my home. What happened in Machina’s realm…” His brow knitted, and his expression darkened with pain. “We have to forget that, and move on. Once I take you to Arcadia’s borders and you’re safe with Oberon, you won’t see me again. ”

  The pain in my heart became a sick and fiery gnawing. I stared at him, hoping he would take it back, tell me he was kidding. He withdrew his hand and stood, facing me with a deeply sorrowful expression. “I’m sorry,” he murmured again, avoiding my eyes.

  “It’s…better this way. ”

  “No. ” I shook my head as he drew away, brushing past me. I whirled to follow him, reaching for his arm, missing. “Ash, wait—”

  “Don’t make this harder. ” He opened his closet and pulled out a tight gray shirt, shrugging into it with barely a wince. “I…killed Rowan. ” He closed his eyes, struggling with the memory. “I’m a kinslayer. There’s nothing left in my future now, so be glad you won’t be around to see what happens. ”

  “What will you do?”

  He grimaced. “Return to court. Try to forget. ” Reaching into the closet, he pulled out a long black coat crossed with silver chains and drew it over his shoulders. “Throw myself on Mab’s mercy and hope she doesn’t kill me. ”

  “You can’t!”

  He faced me fully, the coat swirling around him. Just like that, he became something cold and remote, a deadly beautiful faery, unearthly and unreachable. “Don’t get involved in fey politics, Meghan,” he said darkly, shutting the closet door. “Mab will find me, no matter what I do or how far I run. And with the war approaching, Winter will need every soldier it can get. Until Summer returns the scepter, Mab will be relentless. ”

  He turned away, but mention of the war reminded me of something else.

  “The scepter. Ash, wait!” I grabbed his sleeve, ignoring the way he went perfectly still. “It wasn’t the Summer Court!” I blurted before he could say anything. “It was the Iron fey. I saw them. ” He frowned, and I leaned forward, willing him to believe me. “It was Tertius, Ash. Tertius killed Sage. ”

  He stared at me blankly for a moment, and I held my breath, watching his expression. Out of everyone in the Winter Court, Ash was the only one to actually see the Iron fey. If he didn’t believe me, I didn’t have a chance of convincing anyone else.

  “Are you sure?” he murmured after a few seconds. Relief flooded me, and I nodded vigorously. “Why? Why would the Iron fey steal the scepter? How did they even get inside?”

  “I don’t know. Maybe they want its power? Or maybe they took it to start a war between the courts. They accomplished that much at least. ”

  “I have to tell the queen. ”

  “No!” I moved to block him, and he glared at me. “Ash, she won’t believe you,” I said desperately. “I tried to tell her, and she turned me into an icicle. She’s convinced it’s Oberon’s doing. ”

  “She’ll listen to me. ”

  “Are you sure? With everything you’ve done? Will she listen to you after you saved me and killed Rowan?” His expression darkened, and I ignored the guilt stabbing holes in my chest. “We have to go after them,” I whispered, suddenly sure of what we had to do. “We have to find Tertius and get the scepter back. It’s the only way to stop the war. Mab will have to believe us then, right?”

  Ash hesitated. For a moment, he looked terribly unsure, balanced between me and duty to his queen. He raked a hand through his hair, and I saw the indecision in his eyes. But before he could reply, a sudden scratching on his door made us both jump. We exchanged a glance. Drawing his sword and motioning me back, Ash strode to the door and warily cracked it open. There was a streak of dark fur, and a cat darted through the opening. I yelped in surprise.

  Ash sheathed his blade. “Tiaothin,” he muttered, as the phouka shed the feline form for her more human one. “What’s happening out there? What’s going on?”

  The phouka grinned at him, slitted eyes bright and eager. “The soldiers are everywhere,” she announced, twitching her tail. “They’ve sealed all doors into and out of the palace, and everyone is looking for you and the half-breed. ” She spared me a glance and chuckled. “Mab is pissed. You should go now, if you’re going. The elite guard are on their way right now. ”

  I looked to Ash, pleading. He glanced at me, then back to the door, his expression torn. Then, he shook his head as if he couldn’t believe he was doing this. “This way,” he snapped, yanking open the closet. “Inside, now. ”

  I crossed the threshold into the small, dark space and looked back for Ash. He paused at the frame, glancing at the phouka dancing in the middle of the room. “Lie low after this, Tiaothin,” he warned. “Stay out of Mab’s way for a while. Got it?”

  The phouka grinned, mischief written on every inch of her smile. “And what fun would that be?” she said, sticking out her tongue. Before Ash could argue, her ears twitched backward and she jerked her head up. “They’re almost here. Go, I’ll lead them away. No one does a wild-goose chase better than a phouka. ” And before we could stop her, she ran to the door, flung it open and leaned into the hall. “The prince!” she screeched, her shrill voice echoing down the corridor. “The prince and the half-breed! I saw them! Follow me!”

  We ducked into the closet as the sound of booted feet thundered past the door, following Tiaothin as she led them away. Ash sighed, raking a hand through his hair.

  “Idiot phouka,” he muttered.

  “Will she be all right?”

  Ash snorted. “Tiaothin can handle herself better than anyone I know. That’s why I asked her to keep an eye on you. ”

  So that’s why the phouka was so interested. “I didn’t need babysitting,” I said, both annoyed and thrilled that he’d thought to look out for me when he couldn’t be there. Ash ignored me. Putting a hand to the wall, he closed his eyes and muttered several strange, unfamiliar words under his breath. A thin rectangle of light appeared, and Ash pulled open another door, bathing the room in pale light and revealing an icy staircase plunging into darkness.

  “Come on. ” He turned to me and held out a hand. “This will take us out of the palace, but we have to hurry before it disappears. ”

  Behind us, a roar of discovery echoed through the hall, as something poked its head in the room and bellowed for its friends. I grabbed Ash’s hand, and we fled into the darkness.

  CHAPTER SIX

  The Goblin Market

  I followed Ash down the glittering staircase and through a narrow corridor studded with leering gargoyles and flickering blue torches. We didn’t speak; the only sounds were our footsteps echoing off the stones and my ragged breathing. Several times, the tunnel split off in different directions, but Ash always chose a path without hesitation. I was glad for the long winter coat around my shoulders; the temperature here was frigid, and my breath clouded the air as we ran, listening for sounds of pursuit.

  The passage abruptly dead-ended, a solid wall of ice blocking our path. I wondered if we’d taken a wrong turn, but Ash released me and walked forward, placing one hand against the ice. With sharp, crinkly sounds, it parted under his fingers, until another tunnel stretched away before us, ending in open air.

  Ash turned to me.

  “Stay close,” he murmured, making a quick gesture with his hand. I felt the tingle of glamour as it settled over me like a cloak. “Don’t talk to anyone, don’t make eye contact, and don’t attract any attention. With that glamour, no one will notice you, but it will break if you make a noise or catch someone’s eye. Just keep your head down and follow me. ”

  I tried. The problem was, it was difficult not
to notice anything beyond the castle walls. The beautiful, twisted city of the Unseelie fey rose up around me, towering spires of ice and stone, houses made of petrified roots, caves with icicles dangling from the openings like teeth. I followed Ash down narrow alleys with eyes peering out from under rocks and shadows, through tunnels that sparkled with millions of tiny crystals, and down streets lined with bone-white trees that glowed with sickly luminance.

  And of course, the Unseelie were out in droves tonight. The streets were lit up with will-o’-the-wisps and corpse candles, and swarms of Winter fey danced, drank and howled at the top of their lungs, their voices echoing off the stones. I remembered the wild Revel in the courtyard, and realized the Unseelie were still celebrating the official arrival of winter.

  We skirted the edges of the crowds, trying to avoid notice as the Winter fey whirled and spun around us. Music rang through the night, dark and seductive, stirring the mob into frenzies. More than once, the dancing turned into a bloodbath as some unfortunate faery vanished under a pile of shrieking revelers and was torn apart. Trembling, I kept my head down and my eyes on Ash’s shoulders as we wove our way through the screaming throngs. Ash grabbed me and pulled me into an alley, his glare warning me to be silent. A moment later, a pair of knights cantered into the crowd on huge black horses with glowing blue eyes, scattering the Winter fey like a flock of birds. The dancers snarled and hissed as they leaped aside, and a goblin screeched once as it was trampled beneath a charging horse, falling silent as a hoof cracked its skull open.

  The knights yanked their mounts to a halt and faced the mob, ignoring the growls and hurled insults. They wore black leather armor with thorns bristling from the shoulders, and the faces beneath the open helms were sharp and cruel. Ash shifted beside me.

  “Those are Rowan’s knights,” he muttered. “His elite Thornguards. They answer only to him and the queen. ”