The iron queen, p.20
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       The Iron Queen, p.20

         Part #3 of The Iron Fey series by Julie Kagawa
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Page 20

 

  And yet, if I refused, Ash and Puck would be stuck with me in the mortal realm, forever. This was their chance to go home. I couldn’t deny them that, even if it meant I had to journey into the blasted land of the Iron fey once more and face the false king by myself.

  “You know that’s not going to work, princess,” Puck said, reading my thoughts. “If you think you can keep me or ice-boy from following you into the Iron Realm—”

  “I don’t want you there!” I burst out, finally looking up. He blinked at me in astonishment, though Ash continued to stare at me with ice-cold eyes. “Dammit, Puck, you didn’t see the Iron Realm. You don’t know what it’s like. Ask Ash!” I continued, pointing at the Ice Prince, knowing I was pushing him dangerously and not caring. “Ask him how just breathing the air was killing him from the inside. Ask him how I felt, watching him get worse and worse and not being able to do anything. ”

  “And yet, I’m still here. ” Ash’s voice was like brittle frost, his eyes darkened to black. “And it seems my promise means nothing to you. Will you release me from it now, when it is convenient to do so?”

  “Ash. ” I looked up at him, hating that he was angry, but needing him to understand. “I can’t watch you suffer again, not like that. If you follow me into the Iron Kingdom again, you could die, and that would kill me, too. You can’t ask me to do that. ”

  “It…” Ash stopped, closed his eyes for a moment. “It wasn’t your choice, Meghan,” he continued in a forced, even voice. “I knew the risks when I made that deal, and I know what will happen if I follow you into the Iron Realm. I would go with you, regardless. ” His voice grew sharper. “But that is beside the point. I cannot leave you now, unless you officially release me from my vow to stay. ”

  Release him? Unmake a vow so he wasn’t forced to follow me? “I didn’t know you could do that,” I murmured, feeling a brief regret and a little anger.

  “So, all that time in Machina’s realm, I could have released you, and you wouldn’t have had to help me?”

  Ash hesitated, as if he didn’t want to talk about it any longer, but Grimalkin spoke up from the back of the couch. “No, human,” he purred. “That was a contract, not a promise. You both agreed to something, and you both got something out of it. That is the way of most bargains. ” Ash looked down, running a hand through his hair as Grimalkin licked a front paw. “A vow is made willingly, is self-inflicted, and places no requirements upon the recipient. No expectations whatsoever. ” He sniffed and scrubbed the paw over his ears.

  “Leaving the one trapped, completely at the mercy of the other…unless they decide to release him, of course. ”

  “So…” I glanced at Ash. “I could release you from your promise, and you’d no longer have to keep it, right?”

  Ash looked stricken, but only for a heartbeat. Then the air around him turned frigid, and frost crept over the wooden floor slats. Without a word, he turned and left the room, gliding through the front door and vanishing into the night. Puck let out an explosive breath. “Ouch. You really know how to tear a guy’s heart out, don’t you, princess?”

  I stared at the front door, feeling my heart sink. “Why is he so angry?” I whispered. “I’m just trying to keep him alive. I don’t want him following me because he’s being forced to by some stupid vow. ”

  Puck winced. “That stupid vow is the most serious declaration we can make, princess,” he said, and the edge in his voice surprised me. “We don’t make promises lightly, if ever. And incidentally, releasing a faery from a vow is the worst insult in the world. You’re basically telling him you don’t trust him anymore, that you believe he’s incapable of carrying it out. ”

  I stood up. “That’s not true at all,” I protested, as Grimalkin slid from the back cushions to curl up in the spot I’d vacated. “I just don’t want him staying with me because he has to. ”

  “Jeez, you’re thick sometimes. ” Puck shook his head as I gaped at him.

  “Princess, Ash would never have made that vow if he wasn’t planning on following you anyway. Even if he never spoke it, do you think you could force him to stay behind?” He sneered. “I know you couldn’t force me—I’m going with you whether you like it or not, so you can stop glaring. But, by all means…. ” He waved a hand at the door. “Go find ice-boy and free him from his silly promise. You’ll never see him again, that’s for certain. That’s basically what releasing a faery means—you don’t want them around any longer. ”

  I slumped in defeat. “I just…I only wanted…I can’t watch either of you die,”

  I muttered again, a weak excuse that sounded lamer by the second. Puck snorted.

  “Come on, Meghan. A little faith, please?” He crossed his arms and gave me an annoyed look. “You’re writing us off before we even get started. Me and iceboy both. I’ve been around a long time, I intend to be around awhile longer. ”

  “I didn’t think it would come this soon. ” I started to sink back onto the couch, but stood up quickly as Grimalkin hissed at me. “I mean, I knew I had to face him eventually, the false king. But I thought I’d have more time to get ready. ” I scooted over a few feet, away from the cat, and perched on the arm. “All this time, I’ve felt that I’ve just been floundering, getting lucky again and again. That luck’s going to run out someday. ”

  “It got us this far, princess. ” Puck walked over and put an arm around me. I didn’t shrug it off. I was tired of fighting. I wanted my best friend back. Leaning against him, I listened to the brownies scuttle back and forth in the kitchen. The smell of baking bread wafted into the room, warm and comforting. Our last meal, perhaps?

  Way to think positive, Meghan.

  “You’re right,” I said. “And I have to do this. I know that. If I ever want a normal life, I have to face the false king or he’ll never leave me alone. ” I sighed and walked over to the window, brooding into the coming twilight. “It’s just…this time it feels different,” I said, seeing my reflection in the glass, staring back at me. “I have so much more to lose. You and Ash, the Nevernever, my family, my dad. ” I stopped, resting my forehead against the glass. “My dad,” I groaned. “What am I going to do with my dad?”

  There was a thump from the hallway, and I closed my eyes. Well, that was just about perfect timing. I sighed and straightened up. “How long have you been standing there, Dad?”

  “From about the time you were talking about luck. ” Paul came into the room, sitting across on the piano bench. I watched him in the glass reflection. “You’re leaving, aren’t you?” he asked softly.

  Puck stood and discreetly wandered out the door, leaving me and Dad alone except for the snoozing Grimalkin. I hesitated, then nodded. “I hate to leave you alone like this,” I said, turning around. “I wish I didn’t have to go. ”

  Paul’s brow was furrowed, as if he was struggling to understand, but his eyes remained clear as he slowly nodded. “This is…important?” he asked.

  “Yeah. ”

  “Will you be back?”

  My throat closed. I swallowed and took a deep breath to open it. “I hope so. ”

  “Meghan. ” Dad hesitated, fighting for words. “I know…I don’t understand a lot of things. I know you’re…part of something beyond me, something I won’t ever understand. And I’m supposed to be your father, but…but I know you can handle yourself just fine. So, you go. ” He smiled then, the wrinkles around his eyes creasing. “Don’t say goodbye, and don’t worry about me. You do what you have to do. I’ll be here when you come back. ”

  I smiled at him. “Thanks, Dad. ”

  He nodded, but then his eyes went glassy, as if he’d used up his allotment of sanity with that conversation. Sniffing the air, he perked up, his face brightening like a little kid’s. “Food?”

  I nodded, feeling suddenly old. “Yeah. Why don’t you go back to your room, and I’ll call you when dinner is ready, okay? You can…work on your song until
then. ”

  “Oh. Right. ” He beamed at me as he rose, walking back to the hallway. “It’s almost done, you know,” he announced over his shoulder, swelling with pride.

  “It’s for my daughter, but I’ll play it for you tomorrow, okay?”

  “Okay,” I whispered, and he was gone.

  Silence filled the room, broken only by the ticking of the clock on the wall and the occasional scuffle from the kitchen. I walked back to the couch and sank down next to Grimalkin, uncertain what to do next. I knew I should find Ash and apologize, or at least explain why I hadn’t wanted him to come. My stomach was in knots, knowing he was angry with me. I had only wanted to spare him more pain; how was I supposed to know releasing a faery from his promise was such a breach of trust?

  “If you are so worried about him,” Grimalkin said into the quiet, “why not ask him to be your knight?”

  I blinked at him. “What?”

  His eyes cracked open, slitted and gold, watching me in amusement. “Your knight,” he said again, slower this time. “You do understand the word, do you not? It has not been that long for humans to forget. ”

  “I know what a knight is, Grim. ”

  “Oh, good. Then it should be easy for you to understand the significance. ”

  Grimalkin sat up and yawned, curling his tail around his legs. “It is an old tradition,” he began. “Even among the fey. A lady asks a warrior to become her knight, her chosen protector, for as long as they both draw breath. Only those with royal blood can enact this ritual, and the choosing of a champion is something only the lady can do. But it is the ultimate show of faith between the lady and the knight, for she trusts him above all others to keep her safe, knowing that he would lay down his life for her. The knight still obeys his queen and court, to the best of his ability, but his first and only duty is to his lady. ” He yawned again and stuck one hind leg into the air, examining his toes. “A charming tradition, to be sure. The courts love such dramatic tragedies. ”