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The Iron Daughter, Page 15

Julie Kagawa

Page 15

 

  “A goblin, to be specific. Instead of smuggling goods, he smuggles living creatures. He might be the only one who can get us out of the city. If we can pay his price. ”

  Goblins. I shuddered. My own experience with goblins hadn’t been pleasant. A pack of them tried to eat me once, when I first came to the Nevernever. Upstairs, Ash led me down a creaky hallway, past several wooden doors with strange noises coming from beyond them, until we came to the last one. Inside, a tiny room greeted us, with two simple beds along opposite walls and a flickering lamp in the far corner. I noticed the lamp was actually a round cage atop a gilded stand, and the light made desperate squeaking noises as it flitted from side to side. Ash shut the door, and I heard the click of a lock before he leaned back against it, looking utterly exhausted.

  I longed to hold him. I wanted to melt into him and feel his arms around me, but his last words hung between us like a barbed-wire fence. “Are you all right?” I whispered. He nodded and ran his fingers through his hair.

  “Get some sleep,” he murmured. “I don’t know if we’ll get another chance to stop after this. You should rest while you can. ”

  “I’m not tired. ”

  He didn’t press the issue, but stood there watching me with a weary, sorrowful expression. I gazed back, wishing I could bridge the distance between us, not knowing how to reach him.

  An awkward silence filled the room. Words hovered on the tip of my tongue, wanting to burst out, but I knew Ash didn’t want to hear them. I teetered between silence and confession, knowing I would be spurned, still wanting to try. Ash stood quietly, his gaze wandering about the room. A couple times he, too, seemed about to say something, only to fall silent, stabbing his fingers through his hair. When words finally did come, we both spoke at the same time.

  “Ash—”

  “Meghan, I—”

  Someone pounded on the door, making us both jump. “Prince Ash!” a squeaky voice shouted from the other side. “Are you there? Sweetfinger is downstairs, waiting for you. ”

  “Tell him I’m on my way,” Ash replied, and pushed himself off the door.

  “Wait here,” he told me. “It should be safe. Lock the door and try to get some rest. ” He opened the door, revealing a leering goblin on the other side, and closed it softly behind him. I sat down on one of the beds, which reeked of beer and dirty straw, and stared at the door for a long time.

  THEN I WAS BEING shaken awake. I blinked in the darkness; someone had put a black cloth over the caged light and the room was swathed in shadow. Sleep made my eyelids heavy and awkward, but I cracked them open to focus on the blurred form above me. Ash sat on the edge of the mattress, silver eyes bright in the gloom, holding me gently by the shoulders.

  “Meghan,” he murmured, “wake up. It’s time. ”

  Exhaustion pulled at me. I’d been more tired than I thought, and my thoughts swirled muzzily. Seeing I was awake, Ash started to rise off the bed, but I slid forward and wrapped my arms around his waist.

  “No,” I murmured, my voice still groggy with sleep. “Stay. ”

  He shivered, and his hands came to rest over mine. “You’re not making this any easier,” he whispered into the darkness.

  “Don’t care,” I slurred, tightening my hold on him. He sighed and half turned in my arms, smoothing the hair from my cheek.

  “Why am I so drawn to you?” he muttered, almost to himself. “Why is it so hard to let go? I thought…at first…it was Ariella, that you remind me of so much. But it’s not. ”

  Though he didn’t smile, his eyes lightened a shade. “You’re far more stubborn than she ever was. ”

  I sniffed. “That’s like the pot calling the kettle black,” I whispered, and a faint, tiny grin finally crossed his face, before his expression clouded and he lowered his head, touching his forehead to mine.

  “What do you want of me, Meghan?” he asked, a low thread of anguish flickering below the surface. Tears blurred my vision, all the fear and heartache of the past few days rising to the surface.

  “Just you,” I whispered. “I just want you. ”

  He closed his eyes. “I can’t do that. ”

  “Why not?” I demanded. His face swam above me, blurring with tears, but I refused to release him to wipe my eyes. My desperation grew. “Who cares what the courts say?” I challenged. “We could meet in secret. You could come to my world, no one will see us there. ”

  He shook his head. “Mab already knows. Do you think she would let us get away with it? You saw how well she reacted in the throne room. ” I sniffled, burying my face in his side, as his fingers gently combed my hair. I didn’t want to let him go. I wanted to curl into him and stay there forever.

  “Please,” I whispered desperately, not caring about pride anymore. “Don’t do this. We can find a way around the courts. Please. ” I bit my lip as a shiver went through him, and I held him tighter. “I love you, Ash. ”

  “Meghan. ” Ash’s voice was tormented. “You don’t…know me at all. You don’t know what I’ve done…the blood on my hands, both faery and mortal. ” He stopped, taking a breath to compose himself. “When Ariella died, everything inside me froze. It was only through hunting—killing—that I could feel anything again. I cared for nothing, not even myself. I threw myself into fights I thought I would lose, if only to feel the pain of a sword blow, the claws tearing me apart. ”

  I shivered and clung to him, remembering the scars across his back and shoulders. I could imagine him fighting, his eyes dead and cold, hoping that something would finally get lucky and kill him.

  “Then you came along,” he muttered, touching my wet cheek, “and suddenly…I don’t know. It was like I was seeing things for the first time again. When I saw you with Puck, the day you came to the Nevernever…”

  “The day you tried to kill us,” I reminded him.

  He winced, nodding. “I thought fate was playing a cruel joke on me. That a girl, who could have been Ariella’s shadow, was keeping company with my sworn enemy—it was too much. I wanted to kill you both. ” He sighed. “But, then I met you at Elysium, and…”

  He closed his eyes. “And everything I thought I’d lost forever came trickling back. It was maddening. I thought about killing you several times during Elysium, just to stop what I knew would be my downfall. I didn’t want this, to feel anything, especially with a half-human girl who was the daughter of the Summer King. ” He snorted ruefully, shaking his head. “From the moment you stepped into the Nevernever, you’ve been my undoing. I should never have agreed to that contract. ”

  I sucked in a breath. “Why?”

  He brushed a strand of hair from my cheek, his voice gentler than before.

  “Because no matter what I feel, I can’t fight centuries of rules and traditions, and neither can you. ”

  “We could try—”

  “You don’t know the courts,” Ash continued softly. “You haven’t been in Faery long enough to know what could happen, but I do. I’ve seen it, centuries of it. Even if we get the scepter back, even if we manage to stop the war, we’ll still be on opposite sides. Nothing will change that, no matter how much you wish it wasn’t so. No matter how much I wish it was different. ”

  I didn’t answer, too miserable to comment. His voice, though filled with regret, was resolved. He had made up his mind, and I wouldn’t be changing it. A strange peace settled through me, or perhaps my despair finally gave in to resignation. So, this is it, I thought, as numbness spread through my body, easing the sharp pain in my chest. This is what breaking up is like. Although, I was sure “breaking up” was the wrong expression. It seemed much too common and trivial for what was happening.

  “Come on. ” Ash pried my hands from his waist and stood up. “We should go. Sweetfinger and I made a deal. He’ll get us out of the city through the goblin tunnels that run beneath it. We’ll need to hurry—Rowan’s Thornguards are still scouring the str
eets for us. ”

  “Ash,” I said, struggling upright. “Wait. Just one more thing, before we go. ”

  He frowned warily. “What do you want?”

  I rose from the bed, my heart thudding in my chest. “Kiss me,” I whispered, and saw his eyebrows arc in surprise. “Just once more,” I pleaded, “and I promise it will be the last time. I’ll be able to forget you after that. ” A bald-faced lie. Even if I turned ninety, lost my mind and forgot everything else, the memory of the Winter prince would be a shining beacon that would never fade.

  He hesitated, unsure, and I tried to make my tone light. “Last time, I swear. ”

  I met his gaze and tried for a smile. “It’s the least you can do. I didn’t get a proper breakup, you know. ”

  Ash still wavered, looking torn. His eyes flicked to the door, and for a moment I thought he would walk away, leaving me to shrivel into a mortified heap. But then he let out a quiet sigh, and his shoulders slumped in resignation.

  Meeting my gaze, he took one step forward, drew me into his arms, and brushed his lips to mine.

  I think our last kiss was meant to be quick and chaste, but after the first touch of his lips fire leaped up and roared through my belly. My fingers yanked him close, digging into his back, and his arms crushed me to him as if wanting to meld us together. I knotted my fingers in his hair and bit down on his bottom lip, making him groan. His lips parted, and my tongue swept in to dance with his. There was nothing sweet or gentle in our last kiss; it was filled with sorrow and desperation, of the bitter knowledge that we could’ve had something perfect, but it just wasn’t meant to be.

  It ended much too soon. Ash pulled away, eyes bright, shaking with desire and passion. Both our hearts were thudding wildly, and Ash’s fingers were digging painfully into my shoulders. “Don’t ask me this again,” he rasped, and I was too breathless to answer. He released me and stalked through the door without looking back. I took a deep breath, halting the tears crawling up my throat, and followed. A goblin waited for us at the foot of the stairs, his mouth pulled into a toothy grin that showed missing fangs and gold teeth. He was decked out in jewelry: rings, ear studs, necklaces, even a gold nose ring. A milky glass eye sparkled as he turned to me, rubbing his claws and grinning like a gleeful shark.