The Iron QueenJulie Kagawa
This time, Ash didn’t dodge or block, but spun and caught me around the waist as I charged past. Dropping his sword, he snatched my wrist in one hand and pulled me to his chest, holding me and the blade still as I cursed and struggled.
“There,” he murmured in a voice of weary satisfaction. “That’s what I was looking for. ”
Though still angry, I stopped fighting him. My senses buzzed and I held myself rigid in his arms. “What?” I snarled. “Me to get so pissed I wanted to stab you in the eye?”
“The moment you’d take this seriously enough to really try to hit me. ” Ash’s voice, dark and grim, made me freeze. He sighed, resting his forehead on the back on my skull. “This isn’t a hobby, Meghan,” he breathed, sending a tingle down my spine. “It isn’t a game or a sport or a simple pastime. This is life and death. Any one of those hits could’ve killed you had I been serious. Putting a weapon in your hands means that, at some point, you’re going to have to use it. In a fight like this, you’re going to be hurt. Make a single mistake, and you’ll be dead. And I’ll lose…you. ”
His voice trailed off at the end, as if that last part just slipped out. My throat closed, and all my anger drained away.
Ash pressed his lips to the welt across my shoulder, and my heartbeat stuttered. “I’m sorry,” he murmured, genuine regret in his voice. “I didn’t mean to hurt you. But I do want you to understand. Teaching you to fight means you’re going to be in even more danger, and I may be hard on you sometimes because I don’t want you to lose. ” He released my wrist and ran his hand up to my shoulder, smoothing the hair from my neck. “Do you still want to continue?”
I couldn’t speak. I just nodded, and Ash kissed the back of my neck.
“Tomorrow, then,” he said, drawing back even as I wished he would stay there forever. “Same time. Now, let’s go put something on those welts. ”
I HEARD THE PIANO MUSIC as soon as we crossed the stream. My dad was sitting at the piano bench when we walked in, and didn’t look up from the keys. But the music today wasn’t as dark and frantic as it had been the night before; it was more calm and peaceful. Grimalkin lay atop the piano, feet tucked under him and eyes closed, purring in appreciation.
“Hi, Dad,” I ventured, wondering if he would actually look at me today. The music faltered, and for a split second, I thought he was going to look up. But then his shoulders hunched and he went back to his playing, a little faster than before. Grimalkin didn’t bother to open his eyes.
“I guess that’s a start,” I sighed, as Ash disappeared into the kitchen for a moment. I heard him talking to a few unknown, high-pitched voices—
Leanansidhe’s brownies?—before he reappeared holding a small tan jar. My dad continued to play. I tried to look calm and hopeful, but disappointment settled heavy on my chest, and Ash saw it, too.
He didn’t say anything as he led me upstairs to the loft, sitting me down on the neatly made bed after pulling off the bear rug. Opening the jar released a sharp, herbal scent that was oddly familiar, reminding me of a similar scene in a cold, icy bedroom, with Ash shirtless and bleeding and me binding up his wounds.
Below, the piano music continued, a low, mournful song that pulled at my insides. Ash knelt behind me on the bed and gently tugged the sleeve off my shoulder, just enough to expose the thin line of red slashed across my skin. I caught a flicker of remorse from him, a flash of dull regret, as a cold, tingling salve was spread over the wound.
“I’m still mad at you, you know,” I said without turning around. The dark piano chords made me moody and pensive, and I tried to ignore the cool fingers sliding over my ribs, leaving blessed numbness as they passed. “A little warning would’ve been nice. You couldn’t have said, ‘Hey, as part of your training today, I’m going to beat you senseless’?”
Ash reached around with both arms and put the jar into my hands, using that motion to pull me back to his chest. “Your father will be fine,” he murmured, as my chest ached with bottled-up grief. “It just takes a while for the mind to catch up on everything it has forgotten. Right now, he’s confused and frightened, and taking solace in the one thing that’s familiar. Just keep talking to him, and eventually he’ll start to remember. ”
He smelled so good, a mix of frost and something sharp, like peppermint. Lifting my head, I placed a kiss at the hollow of his neck, right beneath his jawbone, and he drew in a quiet breath, his hands curling into fists. I suddenly realized we were on a bed, alone in an isolated cabin, with no grown-ups—lucid ones anyway—to point fingers or condemn. My heart sped up, thudding in my ears, and I felt his heartbeat quicken, too.
Shifting slightly, I went to trace another kiss along his jaw, but he ducked his head and our lips met, and suddenly I was kissing him as if I were going to meld him into my body. His fingers tangled in my hair, and my hands slid beneath his shirt, tracing the hard muscles of his chest and stomach. He groaned, pulled me into his lap, and lowered us back onto the bed, being careful not to crush me. My whole body tingled, senses buzzing, my stomach twisting with so many emotions I couldn’t place them all. Ash was above me, his lips on mine, my hands sliding over his cool, tight skin. I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t think. All I could do was feel.
Ash pulled back slightly, his silver eyes bright as he stared at me, his cool breath washing over my heated face.
“You are beautiful, you know that, right?” he murmured, all seriousness, one hand gently framing my cheek. “I know I don’t say…things like that…as often as I should. I wanted to let you know. ”
“You don’t have to say anything,” I whispered, though hearing him admit it made my pulse flutter wildly. I could feel the emotion swirling around us, auras of color and light, and closed my eyes. “I can feel you,” I murmured, as his heartbeat picked up under my fingers. “I can almost feel your thoughts. Is that very strange?”
“No,” Ash said in a strangled voice, and a tremor went through him. I opened my eyes, staring into his perfect face.
“Nothing. Just…” He shook his head. “I never thought…I could feel like this again. I didn’t know if it was possible. ” He sighed, giving me a pleading look.
“I’m sorry, I’m not explaining it very well. ”
“It’s all right. ” I laced my hands behind his head, smiling. “Right now, talking isn’t what I was hoping for. ”
Ash smiled faintly, lowering his head again.
Frowning, I arched my neck, looking behind us upside down, and let out a squeak.
Paul stood at the top of the stairs, staring at us with wide, blank eyes. Even though he didn’t say a word and probably didn’t understand what was happening, my cheeks flamed and I was instantly mortified. Ash rolled off me and stood, his face shutting into that blank, expressionless mask as I tried gathering the frayed strands of my composure long enough to speak.
Rolling upright, smoothing down my tangled hair and clothes, I glared at my father, who stared back in a daze. “Dad, what are you doing here?” I asked. “Why aren’t you downstairs with the piano?” Where you’re supposed to be, I added sourly. Not that I wasn’t happy to see my dad actually looking at me for the first time since we got here, but his timing absolutely sucked. Paul blinked, still staring at me in a fog, and didn’t say anything. I sighed, shot an apologetic look at Ash, and started to lead him back down the stairs.
“Come on, Dad. Let’s go look for a certain cat I’m going to kill for not warning us. ”
“Why?” Paul whispered, and my heart jumped to my throat. He looked straight at me with wide, teary eyes. “Why am I…here? Who…who are you?”
The lump in my throat grew bigger. “I’m your daughter. ” He stared at me blankly, and I gazed back, willing him to recognize me. “You were married to my mom, Melissa Chase. I’m Meghan. The last time you saw me, I was six years old, remember?”
I nodded breathlessly. Ash watched silently from the corner; I could feel his gaze on my back.
Paul shook his head, a sad, hopeless gesture. “I don’t…remember,” he said, and drew away from me, backing down the stairs, eyes clouding over once more.
“Don’t remember!” His voice took on a pensive note, and I stopped as all sanity fled from his face. “Don’t remember! The rats scream, but I don’t remember! Go away, go away. ” He ran to the piano and started pounding the keys, loud and frantic. I sighed and peered over the railing, watching him sadly. Ash’s arms wrapped around me seconds later, drawing me back to his chest.
“It’s a start,” he said, and I nodded, turning my face into his arm. “At least he’s talking now. He’ll remember eventually. ”
Cool lips pressed against my neck, a brief, light touch, and I shivered. “Sorry about that,” I whispered, wishing, selfishly, that we hadn’t been interrupted. “I’m sure that’s never happened to you before. ” Ash snorted, and I wondered if we could somehow reclaim that lost moment. I reached back and buried my fingers in his silky hair, pulling him closer. “What are you thinking about?”
“That this has put things in perspective,” he said, as the rumbling piano chords vibrated around us, dark and crazy. “That there are more important things to think about. We should be concentrating on your training, and what we’re going to do about the false king once it’s time. He’s still out there, looking for you. ”
I pouted, not liking that statement. But Ash chuckled and ran his fingers up my arm. “We have time, Meghan,” he murmured. “After this is over, after your father regains his memories, after we deal with the false king, we’ll have the rest of our lives. I’m not going anywhere, I promise. ” He held me tighter and brushed a kiss across my ear. “I’ll wait. Just tell me when you’re ready. ”