The Iron Daughter, Page 20Julie Kagawa
My heart pounded. That tiny part of me wanted this. Puck had always been there: safe, reliable, protective. He was part of my Court, so there was no stupid law to get in the way. Ash was gone; he had already made up his mind. Why not try with Puck?
Puck moved closer, his lips hovering an inch from mine. And all I could see was Ash, the passion on his face, the look in his eyes when he kissed me. Guilt gnawed my insides. No, my mind whispered, as Puck’s breath caressed my cheek. I can’t right now. I’m sorry, Puck.
I drew back slightly, ready to apologize, to tell him I couldn’t right now, when a shadow appeared in the doorway and Ash walked in.
He froze, silhouetted against the night sky, the flowers casting his features in a pale glow. His hair was slightly damp, and his clothes were mended, whether through glamour or something else I couldn’t tell. For a moment, shock and hurt lay open on his face, and his hands fisted at his side. Then, his expression closed, his eyes turning blank and stony. Puck blinked at my expression and turned as Ash walked in. “Oh, hey, Prince,” he drawled, completely unconcerned. “I forgot you were here. Sorry ’bout that. ” I tried meeting Ash’s gaze, to show him this wasn’t what he thought, but he was studiously ignoring me.
“I want you gone by morning,” Ash said in cold, clipped tones, sweeping around the campfire. “I want you out of my territory, you and the princess both. According to the law, I could kill you where you stand for trespassing. If I see either of you in Tir Na Nog again, I won’t be so lenient. ”
“Jeez, don’t get your panties in a twist, Your Highness. ” Puck sniffed. “We’ll be happy to leave, right, Princess?”
I finally caught Ash’s gaze, and my heart sank. He stared at me coldly, no traces of warmth or friendliness on his face. “Yeah,” I whispered, my throat closing up. This was it, the last straw. I’d been in Faery long enough. It was time to go home. Ash began moving the piles of branches, really the dead Iron fey, and dumping them outside. He worked quickly and silently, not looking at either of us, almost feverish in his desire to get them out. When the bodies were cleared away, he grabbed the bottle of wine from the trunk and retired to a far corner, brooding into the glass. His entire posture screamed leave me the hell alone, and even though I wanted to go to him, I kept my distance. Thankfully, Puck didn’t try to kiss me again, but he was never far, giving me secret little smiles, letting me know he was still interested. I didn’t know what to do. My mind was spinning, unable to settle on one thought. Later that evening, Ash stood abruptly and left, announcing he was going to “scout around” for more Iron fey. Watching him stalk out the door without a backward glance, I was torn between running after him and sobbing on Puck’s shoulder. Instead, I pleaded exhaustion and climbed into one of the cots, pulling the blanket over my head so I wouldn’t have to face either of them.
IT WAS HARD to sleep that night. Huddled beneath the quilts, I listened to the sound of Puck snoring and fought back tears.
I didn’t know why I was so miserable. Tomorrow, I was going home, at last. I could see Mom and Luke and Ethan again; I missed them all so much, even Luke. Though I had no idea how much time had passed in the real world, just the thought of returning home should’ve filled me with relief. Even if Mom and Luke were old and gray, and my four-year-old kid brother was older than I was, even if it had been a hundred years, and everyone I knew was…
I gasped and veered my thoughts from that path, refusing to think about it. Home would be the same as it always was. I could finally go back to school, learn to drive, maybe even go to prom this year. Maybe Puck can take me. The thought was so ridiculous I almost laughed out loud, choking on unshed tears. No matter how much I wanted a normal life, there would be a part of me that longed for this world, for the magic and wonder of it. It had seeped into my soul and shown me things I’d never thought existed. I couldn’t be normal and ignorant ever again, knowing what was out there. Faery was a part of me now. As long as I lived, I would always be watching for hidden doors and figures from the corner of my eyes. And for a certain dark prince who could never be mine.
I must’ve fallen asleep, for the next thing I knew, I was opening my eyes and the room was bathed in hazy starlight. The flowers had opened completely and were glowing as if tiny moons nestled between the petals, throwing back the darkness. Ethereal moths and ghostly butterflies flitted over the carpet, delicate wings reflecting the light as they floated between blooms. Careful not to wake Puck, I rose and wandered into the flowers, breathing in the heady scent, marveling as a feathery blue moth landed on my thumb, weighing nothing at all. I breathed out, and it fluttered off toward a dark figure in the center of the carpet. Ash stood in the middle of the room, surrounded by glowing white flowers, eyes closed as tiny lights swirled around him. They shimmered and drew together, merging into a luminescent faery with long silver hair, her features so lovely and perfect that my throat ached. Ash opened his eyes as she reached for him, her hands stopping just shy of his face. Longing shone from his eyes, and I shivered as the spectral faery moved right through him, dissolving into tiny lights.
“Is that…Ariella?” I whispered, walking up behind him.
Ash whirled around, his eyes widening at the sudden interruption. Seeing me, several emotions crossed his face—shock, anger, shame—before he sighed in resignation and turned away.
“No,” he murmured, as the ghostly faery appeared again, dancing among the flowers. “It isn’t. Not in the way you think. ”
He shook his head, his eyes never leaving the specter as she swayed and twirled over the glowing carpet, butterflies drifting around her. “Not even that. There is no afterlife for us. We have no souls with which to haunt the world. This is…just a memory. ” He sighed, and his voice went very soft. “She was always happy here. The flowers…remember. ”
I suddenly understood. This was Ash’s memory of Ariella, perfect, happy and full of life, a yearning so great it was given form, if only for a moment. Ariella wasn’t here. This was only a dream, an echo of a being long departed.
Tears filled my eyes and ran down my face. The gash on my cheek stung where they passed, but I didn’t care. All I could see was Ash’s pain, his loneliness, his yearning for someone who wasn’t me. It was tearing me apart, and I couldn’t say anything. Because I knew, somehow, that Ash was saying goodbye, to both of us.
We stood in silence for a while, watching Ariella’s memory dance among the flowers, her gossamer hair floating on the breeze as bright motes swirled around her. I wondered if she really was that perfect, or if this was what Ash remembered her to be.
“I’m leaving,” Ash said quietly, as I knew he would. He finally turned to face me, solemn, beautiful, and as distant as the stars. “Have Goodfellow take you home. It isn’t safe here any longer. ”
My throat felt tight; my eyes burned, and I took a shaky breath to free my voice. And even though I already knew the answer, even though my head was telling me to shut up, I whispered, “I won’t see you again, will I?”
He shook his head, once. “I wasn’t fair to you,” he murmured. “I knew the laws, better than anyone. I knew it would end…like this. I ignored my better judgment, and for that, I’m sorry. ” His voice didn’t change. It was still calm and polite, but I felt an icy hand squeeze my heart as he continued. “But, after tonight, we’ll be enemies. Your father and my queen will be at war. If I see you again, I might kill you. ” His eyes narrowed, and his voice turned cold. “For real this time, Meghan. ”
He half turned, as if to leave. The glow of the flowers made a halo of light around him, only accenting his unearthly beauty. In the distance, Ariella danced and twirled, free from sorrow and pain and the trials of the living. “Go home, Princess,” murmured the Unseelie prince. “Go home, and forget. You don’t belong here. ”
I couldn’t remember much of the night afterward, though I think it involved a lot of sobbing into my quilt. In the morning, I woke up t
o snow drifting in through the roof, coating the floor with heavy white powder. The flowers had faded, and Ash was already gone.
The evening following Ash’s departure, Puck and I hit the edge of the wyldwood.
“Not far now, Princess,” Puck said, giving me an encouraging grin. A few yards from where we stood, the snow and ice just…stopped. Beyond it, the wyldwood stretched before us, dark, tangled, trapped in perpetual twilight. “Just gotta cross the wyldwood to get you home. You’ll be back to your old boring life before you can say ‘summer school. ’”
I tried smiling back, but couldn’t manage it. Even though my heart soared at the thought of home and family and even summer school, I felt I was leaving a part of me behind. Throughout our hike, I’d kept turning around, hoping to see Ash’s dark form striding through the snow after us, gruffly embarrassed and taciturn, but there. It didn’t happen. Tir Na Nog remained eerily empty and quiet as Puck and I continued our journey alone. And as the sun sank lower in the sky and the shadows lengthened around us, I slowly came to realize that Ash wasn’t coming back. He was truly gone.
I quivered on the verge of tears but held them back. I did not want to have to explain to Puck why I was crying. He already knew I was upset, and kept trying to distract me with jokes and a constant string of questions. What happened after we left him to confront Machina? How did we find the Iron Realm? What was it like? I answered as best I could, leaving out the parts between me and Ash, of course. Puck didn’t need yet another reason to hate the Winter prince, and hopefully he would never find out.
As we approached the colorless murk of the wyldwood, something moved in the shadows to our left. Puck spun with blinding speed, whipping out his dagger, as a spindly form stumbled through the trees and collapsed a few feet away. It was a girl, slender and graceful, with moss-green skin and hair like withered vines. A dryad. The tree woman shuddered and gasped, clawing herself upright. One long-fingered hand clutched her throat as if she were being strangled. “Help…me,” she gasped at Puck, her brown eyes wide with terror. “My tree…”