The Iron QueenJulie Kagawa
“Well, it’s not finished yet,” he murmured, lowering his hands, “but you get the idea. ”
“What’s it called?” I whispered, the echo of the song still ebbing through me. Paul smiled.
“Memories of Meghan. ”
Before I could say anything, the door banged open and Ash stepped through with Puck close behind him. I jumped up as Ash crossed the room, his face tight and severe, and Puck stood in front of the door with his arms crossed, glaring out the window.
“What’s going on?” I asked as Ash drew close, looking like he wanted to sweep me up and rush out the door. I glanced at my dad to see how this was affecting him, relieved to see he looked wary and alarmed but not crazy. Ash took my arm and drew me away.
“The Seelie and Unseelie Courts,” he muttered, low enough that my father couldn’t hear. “They’re here, and they’re looking for you. ”
A KNIGHT’S VOW
I blinked at Ash, and my stomach squirmed weirdly, both in excitement and fear. “Both of them?” I whispered, glancing at my dad, who had wandered back to the table and was hunched over his music again. He tended to ignore the faeries whenever they were in the room, never speaking to them, barely looking their way, and the boys were content to return the favor. It made for some awkward evenings, but I think Paul was terrified that if he drew their attention, he would go mad once more.
Ash shrugged. “They wouldn’t talk to me or Puck, except to say that Leanansidhe already gave them permission to come here. They want to speak with you. They’re in the clearing now. ”
I walked to the window and peered out. At the edge of the trees, I could just make out a pair of sidhe knights each holding a banner, one green and gold and emblazoned with the head of a magnificent stag, the other black with a white, thorny rose in the center.
“The emissary said he had a message specifically for you, princess,” Puck said, leaning against the door with his arms crossed. “Said it was from Oberon himself. ”
“Oberon. ” The last time I saw my biological father, he had banished me to the mortal realm after Mab had done the same to Ash. I thought we had severed all ties; he’d made that quite clear when we parted, that I was on my own and Faery would never welcome me again. What did the King of the Summer Court want with me now?
Only one way to find out. “Dad,” I called, turning toward the table, “I’m leaving now, but I’ll be right back. Don’t leave the house, okay?”
He waved at me without looking up, and I sighed. At least Paul would be too busy to worry about the unexpected party in the meadow. “All right,” I muttered, walking toward the door, which Puck opened for me. “Let’s get this over with. ”
We crossed the stream, where Grimalkin was grooming himself on a flat rock, unconcerned with the arrival of the courts, and headed toward the far side of the meadow. It was late afternoon, and fireflies winked over the grass. Ash and Puck walked beside me, protective auras glowing strong, and any fear I had vanished instantly. We had been through so much, the three of us. What was left, that we couldn’t face together?
The two knights bowed as we approached. I caught a glimmer of surprise from both Ash and Puck, amazement that two warriors from opposite courts could be in the presence of the other without fighting. I found it amusingly ironic. Between the knights, almost hidden in the tall grass, a potato-faced gnome stepped forward and bent forward at the waist. “Meghan Chase,” he greeted in a surprisingly deep voice, stiff and formal like a butler. “Your father, Lord Oberon, sends his greetings. ”
I felt a flicker of annoyance. Oberon had no right to claim me as his daughter. Not after disowning me in front of the entire freaking court. Crossing my arms, I glared down at the gnome. “You wanted to see me. Here I am. What does Oberon want now?”
The gnome blinked. The knights exchanged a glance. Puck and Ash stood tall beside me, silent and protective. Even though I wasn’t looking at them, I could sense Puck’s gleeful amusement.
The gnome cleared his throat. “Ahem. Well, as you know, princess, your father is at war with the Iron Kingdom. For the first time in centuries, we have created a mutual alliance with Queen Mab and the Winter Court. ” His gaze flicked to Ash before focusing on me again. “An army of Iron fey crouches at our doorstep, eager to taint our land and kill everyone in it. The situation has become most dire. ”
“I know that. In fact, I think I was the one to first tell Oberon about it. Right before he exiled me. ” I held the gnome’s gaze, trying to keep the bitterness from my voice. “I warned Oberon about the Iron King ages ago, him and Mab both. They didn’t listen to me. Why are you telling me this now?”
The gnome sighed and, for a moment, lost his formal tone. “Because, princess, the courts cannot touch him. The Iron King hides deep within his poisonous realm, and the forces of Summer and Winter cannot penetrate far enough to strike at him. We are losing ground, soldiers, and resources, and the Iron fey continue to advance on both courts. The Nevernever is dying faster than ever, and soon there will be no safe place for us to go. ”
He cleared his throat again, looking embarrassed, and became proper once more. “Because of this, King Oberon and Queen Mab are prepared to offer you a deal, Meghan Chase. ” He reached into his bag and drew forth a scroll tied with a green ribbon, unrolling it with a flourish.
“Here we go,” muttered Puck.
The gnome frowned at him, then turned to the scroll and announced in a grand, important voice, “Meghan Chase, by order of King Oberon and Queen Mab, the courts are willing to lift your exile, as well as the exiles of Prince Ash and Robin Goodfellow, abolishing all crimes and rendering full pardons. ”
Puck drew in a sharp breath. Ash stood silently; no expression showed on his face, but I caught the briefest flicker of hope, of longing. They wanted to go home. They missed Faery, and who could blame them? They belonged there, not in the mortal world, with its vast skepticism and disbelief in anything but science. Small wonder the Iron fey were taking over the world; so few people believed in magic anymore.
But, because I knew faery bargains never came without a price, I kept my expression blank and asked, “In return for what?”
“In return…” The gnome dropped his hands, averting his eyes. “For journeying into the Iron Realm and eliminating its king. ”
I nodded slowly, suddenly very tired. “That’s what I thought. ”
Ash moved closer, drawing wary looks from the gnome and the two guards.
“By herself?” he said quietly, masking the anger beneath. “Oberon isn’t offering any help? Seems a lot to ask, if his own armies can’t get through. ”
“King Oberon believes that a single person could move unseen through the Iron Realm,” the gnome replied, “and thus have a better chance of finding the Iron King. Both Oberon and Mab agree that the Summer princess is the best choice—she is immune to iron’s effects, she has been there before, and she has already taken down one Iron King. ”
“I had help then,” I muttered, feeling a tightness spreading through my stomach. Memories rose up, bleak and terrifying, and despite myself, my hands started to shake. I remembered the awful wasteland of the Iron Kingdom: the blasted desert, the acid, flesh-eating rain, the imposing black tower, rising into the sky. I remembered killing Machina, driving an arrow through his chest, as the whole tower crumbled into shrapnel. And I remembered Ash, his body cold and lifeless in my arms, and clenched my fists so hard that my nails dug into my palms.
“I’m not ready,” I said, looking to Ash and Puck for reassurance. “I can’t go back there yet. I still have to learn to fight and to use glamour, and…and what about my dad? He can’t stay here by himself. ”
The gnome blinked, looking confused, but Puck spoke up before he could say anything. “She’ll need some time to think about it,” he said, stepping forward with a disarming grin. “I assume Oberon doesn’t need an answer right this ver
y second, does he?”
The gnome regarded him gravely, yet spoke to me. “He did say time was of the essence, your highness. The longer you remain here, the farther the corruption spreads, and the stronger the Iron King becomes. Lord Oberon cannot wait. We will return at dawn for your answer. ” He bowed, and the knights stepped back, preparing to leave. “This is a onetime offer, highness,” the gnome cautioned. “If you choose not to accept Oberon’s offer and return to the Nevernever with us, none of you will ever see it again. ” He rolled up the paper with a flourish, and disappeared into the woods with the guards.
I walked back to the cabin in a daze, sinking onto the couch. Dad wasn’t in the room, and the brownies hadn’t started dinner yet, so we were alone. “I’m not ready,” I said again, as Puck perched on the other arm and Ash stood, watching me gravely. “I barely took down the first Iron King, and that was with the Witchwood arrow. I don’t have anything like that now. ”
“True,” came Grimalkin’s voice beside my head, making me jump. The cat blinked at my glare and settled comfortably onto the back cushions. “But that was specifically for Machina. You do not know if that is needed for the false king. ”
“It doesn’t matter,” I said. “I don’t have anything this time. I still can’t use glamour well, I don’t know how I’ll do in a fight and—” I paused, nearly whispering the words “—I can’t do it alone. ”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa. ” Puck stood and joined Ash in glaring at me. “What are you talking about, doing it alone? You know we’re going to be right there with you, princess. ”
I shook my head. “Ash nearly died last time. The Iron Kingdom is deadly to fey, that’s why Oberon and Mab can’t beat it. I can’t lose you both. If I do this, I have to do it alone. ”
I felt Ash’s gaze sharpen, cutting into me. His fury was a cold, icy color, and it pricked my skin even as I felt my own anger rise up to meet it. He should know. Out of everyone, Ash knew how lethal the Iron Kingdom was to normal fey. What right did he have to be angry? I was the one who had to go into the Iron Kingdom. There was no way I’d put either of them through that torture again. I’d refuse Oberon’s so-called deal, if it came to that.