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The Iron Queen, Page 16

Julie Kagawa

Page 16


  He released me then and walked downstairs. But I stood on the balcony for several minutes, listening to the piano music and letting it take my thoughts to forbidden places.



  The days settled into a safe, if not comfortable, routine. At dawn, before the sunlight touched the forest floor, I went out to the little clearing to practice sword drills with Ash. He was a patient yet strict teacher, pushing me to stretch beyond my comfort zone and fight like I meant to kill him. He taught me defense, how to dance around an enemy without getting hit, how to turn my opponents’ energy against them. As my skill and confidence grew and our practice scuffles became more serious, I began to see a pattern, a rhythm in the art of swordplay. It became more like a dance: a tempo of spinning, darting blades and constant footwork. I was still nowhere near as good as Ash, and never would be, but I was learning. Afternoons were spent talking to my dad, trying to get him to come out of his crazy-shell, feeling as if I was repeatedly bashing my head against a wall. It was a slow and painful process. His moments of lucidity were few and far between, and he didn’t recognize me half the time. Most of our days progressed with him playing the piano while I sat on the nearby armchair and spoke to him whenever the music stopped. Sometimes Ash was there, lying on the couch reading a book; sometimes he disappeared into the forest for hours at a time. I didn’t know where he was going or what he was doing, until rabbit and other animals started showing up on the plates for dinner and it occurred to me that Ash might be impatient with the lack of progress, too.

  One day, however, he came back and handed me a large, leather-bound book. When I opened it, I was shocked to find pictures of my family staring back at me. Pictures of my family…before. Paul and my mom, on their wedding day. A cute, mixed-breed puppy I didn’t recognize. Me as an infant, then a toddler, then a grinning four-year-old riding a tricycle.

  “I called in a favor,” Ash explained to my stunned expression. “The bogey living in your brother’s closet found it for me. Maybe it will help your father remember. ”

  I hugged him. He held me lightly, careful not to push or respond in a way that might lead to temptation. I savored the feel of his arms around me, breathing in his scent, before he gently pulled away. I smiled my thanks and turned to my father at the piano again.

  “Dad,” I murmured, carefully sitting beside him on the bench. He shot me a wary look, but at least he didn’t flinch or jerk away and start banging on the piano keys. “I have something to show you. Look at this. ”

  Opening the first page, I waited for him to look over. At first, he studiously ignored it, hunching his shoulders and not looking up. His gaze flickered to the album page once, but he continued to play, no change in his expression. After a few more minutes, I was ready to give up and retreat to the sofa to page through it myself, when the music suddenly faltered. Startled, I looked up at him, and my stomach twisted.

  Tears were running down his face, splashing onto the piano keys. As I stared, transfixed, the music slowly stumbled to a halt, and my father began to sob. He bent over, and his long fingers traced the photos in the book as his tears dripped onto the pages and my hands. Ash quietly slipped from the room, and I put an arm around my dad and we cried together.

  From that day on, he started to talk to me, slow, stuttering conversations at first, as we sat on the couch and thumbed through the photo album. He was so fragile, his sanity like spun glass that a breath of wind could shatter at any moment. But slowly, he began to remember Mom and me, and his old life, though he could never connect the little kid in the album with the teenager sitting beside him on the couch. He often asked where Mom and baby-Meghan were, and I had to tell him, again and again, that Mom was married to someone else now, that he had disappeared for eleven years, and she wasn’t waiting for him anymore. And I had to watch the tears well in his eyes every time he heard it. It made my soul ache.

  Evenings were the hardest. Ash was as good as his word and never pushed, keeping all interactions between us light and easy. He never turned me away; when I needed someone to vent to after an exhausting day with my father, he was always there, quiet and strong. I would curl into him on the couch, and he would listen as I poured out my fears and frustrations. Sometimes we did nothing but read together, me lying in his lap while he turned the pages—though our tastes in books were vastly different, and I usually dozed off in the middle of a page. One night, bored and restless, I found a stack of dusty board games in a closet, and bullied Ash into learning Scrabble, checkers and Yahtzee. Surprisingly, Ash found that he enjoyed these “human” games, and was soon asking me to play more often than not. This filled some of the long, restless evenings and kept my mind off certain things. Unfortunately for me, once Ash learned the rules, he was nearly impossible to beat in strategy games like checkers, and his long life gave him a vast knowledge of lengthy, complicated words he staggered me with in Scrabble. Though sometimes we’d end up debating whether or not faery terms like Gwragedd Annwn and hobyahs were legal to use.

  Regardless, I cherished our time together, knowing this peaceful lull would come to an end someday. But there was an invisible wall between us now, a barrier only I could break, and it was killing me.

  And, even though I didn’t want to, I missed Puck. Puck could always make me laugh, even when things were at their bleakest. Sometimes I’d catch a glimpse of a deer or a bird in the woods and wonder if it was Puck, watching us. Then I’d become angry at myself for wondering and spend the day trying to convince myself that I didn’t care where he was or what he was doing. But I still missed him.

  One morning, a few weeks later, Ash and I were finishing up our daily practice session when Grimalkin appeared on a nearby stone, watching us.

  “You’re still telegraphing your moves,” Ash said as we circled each other, blades held up and ready. “Don’t look at the spot you’re trying to hit, let the sword go there on its own. ” He lunged, cutting high at my head. I ducked and spun away, slashing at his back, and he parried the blow, looking pleased. “Good. You’re getting faster, too. You’ll be a match for most redcap thugs if they tried to start anything. ”

  I grinned at the compliment, but Grimalkin, who had been silent until now, said, “And what happens if they use glamour against her?”

  I turned. Grimalkin sat with his tail around his feet, watching a yellow bumblebee bob over the grass in rapt fascination. “What?”

  “Glamour. You know, the magic I tried to teach you once, before I discovered you had no talent for it whatsoever?” Grimalkin swatted at the bee as it came closer, missed, and pretended no interest at all as it zipped away. He sniffed and looked at me again, twitching his tail. “The Winter prince does not just use his sword when fighting—he has glamour at his disposal as well, as will your enemies. How are you planning to counter that, human?” Before I could answer, he perked up, his attention riveted on a large orange butterfly flitting toward us, and leaped off the rock, vanishing into the tall grass. I looked at Ash, who sighed and sheathed his blade. “He’s right, unfortunately,” he said, raking a hand through his hair. “Teaching you the sword was supposed to be only half of your training. I wanted you to learn how to use your glamour, as well. ”

  “I know how to use glamour,” I argued, still stinging from Grimalkin’s casual statement about my lack of talent. Ash raised an eyebrow, a silent challenge, and I sighed. “Fine, then. I’ll prove it. Watch this. ”

  He backed up a few steps, and I closed my eyes, reaching out to the forest around me.

  Instantly, my mind was filled with all manner of growing things: the grass beneath my feet, the vines slithering along the ground, the roots of the trees surrounding us. In this clearing, Summer held full sway. Whether through Leanansidhe’s influence or something else, the plants here had not known the touch of winter, or cold, or death, for a long time.

  Ash’s voice cut through my concentration,
and I opened my eyes. “You do have a lot of power, but you need to learn control if you’re going to use it. ” He bent down, plucked something from the grass, and held it up. It was a tiny flower, white petals still tightly closed, curled into a ball.

  “Make it bloom,” Ash ordered softly.

  Frowning, I stared at the little bud, mind racing. Okay, I can do this. I’ve pulled up roots and made trees move and knocked a barrage of arrows from the air. I can make one teensy little flower bloom. Still, I hesitated. Ash was right; I could feel the glamour all around me, but I was still unsure how to actually wield it.

  “Would you like a hint?” Grimalkin asked from a nearby rock, startling me. I jumped, and he twitched an ear in amusement. “Picture the magic as a stream,” he continued, “then a ribbon, then a thread. When it is as thin as you can possibly make it, use it to gently tease the petals open. Anything more forceful will make the bloom split apart and cause the glamour to scatter. ” He blinked sagely, then a butterfly near the stream caught his attention and he bounded off once more. I looked at Ash, wondering if he was irritated at Grimalkin for helping me, but he only nodded. Taking a breath, I held the glamour in my mind, a swirling, colorful vortex of emotion and dream. Concentrating hard, I shrank it down until it was a shimmering rope, then even further, until it was only a shining, oh-sodelicate thread in my mind. Sweat beaded and rolled down my forehead, and my arms started to shake. Holding my breath, I carefully touched the flower with the glamour thread, coiling magic into the tiny bud and expanding gently. The petals shivered once and slowly curled open.

  Ash nodded approval. I smiled, but before I could celebrate, a bout of dizziness hit me like a tidal wave, nearly knocking me down. The world spun violently, and I felt my legs give out, as if someone had pulled a plug and let all my magic drain away. Gasping, I pitched forward.

  Ash caught me, holding me upright. I clung to him, feeling almost sick with weakness, frustrated that something so natural was this hard. Ash lowered us both to the ground, pulling back to watch me with troubled silver eyes.