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The Iron Queen, Page 21

Julie Kagawa

Page 21


  “Why is it a tragedy?”

  “Because,” came Ash’s voice from the doorway, making me jump, “should the lady die, the knight will die, as well. ”

  I stood quickly, heart pounding. Ash didn’t enter the room, continuing to watch me from the frame. His glamour aura was hidden, carefully concealed, and his silver eyes were cold and blank. “Walk with me outside,” he ordered softly, and when I hesitated, added, “please. ”

  I glanced at Grimalkin, but the cat was curled up once more with his eyes closed, purring in content. Wretched cat, I thought, following Ash down the stairs into the warm summer night. He wouldn’t care if Ash cut me down or turned me into an icicle. Probably has a bet going with Leanansidhe to see how long that will take.

  Shocked and feeling guilty that I could think that, about both Ash and Grimalkin, I trailed the Winter prince across the stream and through the meadow in silence. Fireflies hovered over the grass, turning the clearing into a tiny galaxy of winking lights, and a breeze ruffled my hair, smelling of pine and cedar. I realized I would miss this place. Despite everything, it was the closest to normal I’d come in a long time. Here, I wasn’t a faery princess, I wasn’t the daughter of a powerful king, or a pawn in the eternal struggles of the courts. Tomorrow at dawn, that would all change.

  “If you’re going to release me,” Ash murmured, and I heard the faintest tremor beneath his voice, “do it now so that I can go. I’d rather not be here when you return to the Nevernever. ”

  I stopped, which made him stop, though he didn’t turn around. I gazed at his back, at the strong shoulders and midnight-dark hair, at the proud, stiff set of his spine. Waiting for me to determine his fate. If you really cared for him, a voice whispered in my mind, you would set him free. You’d be apart, but he would still be alive. Letting him follow you into the Iron Realm could kill him, you know that. But the thought of him leaving punched a hole in my heart that left me gasping inside. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t let him go. Gods forgive me if I was being selfish, but I wanted nothing more than to stay with him forever.

  “Ash,” I murmured, which made him flinch, bracing himself. My heart pounded, but I ignored my doubts and hurried on. “I…will…” Closing my eyes, I took a deep breath and whispered, “Will you be my knight?”

  He spun, eyes widening for the briefest of moments. For a few heartbeats, he stared at me, surprise and disbelief written across his face. I gazed back, wondering if it had been a mistake to ask, if I had only bound him further and he would resent being forced into another contract.

  I shivered as he approached, coming to stand just a few inches away. Slowly, he reached for my hand, barely holding my fingers as his eyes met mine. “Are you sure?” he asked, so quietly the breeze might’ve blown it away. I nodded. “But, only if you want to. I would never force—”

  Releasing my hand, he took a half step back, and then lowered himself to one knee, bowing his head. My heart turned over, and I bit my lip, blinking back tears.

  “My name is Ashallyn’darkmyr Tallyn, third son of the Unseelie Court. ”

  Though his voice was soft, it never wavered, and I felt breathless at hearing his full name. His True Name. “Let it be known—from this day forth, I vow to protect Meghan Chase, daughter of the Summer King, with my sword, my honor, and my life. Her desires are mine. Her wishes are mine. Should even the world stand against her, my blade will be at her side. And should it fail to protect her, let my own existence be forfeit. This I swear, on my honor, my True Name, and my life. From this day on…” His voice went even softer, but I still heard it as though he whispered it into my ear. “I am yours. ”

  I couldn’t stop the tears anymore. They clouded my vision and rolled down my cheeks, and I didn’t bother to wipe them away. Ash stood, and I threw myself into his arms, feeling him tremble as he crushed me close. He was mine now, my knight, and nothing would come between us.

  “Well,” Puck sighed, his voice drifting over the grass. “I was wondering how long it would take to get to that. ”

  I turned, and Ash released me, very slowly. Puck sat on a rock near the stream, fireflies buzzing around him, alighting in his hair and making it glow like embers. He wasn’t smirking or sneering at us. Just watching. A flicker of alarm rippled through me as he hopped up and approached, trailing fireflies. How long had he been there, watching us? “Did you hear…?”

  “Ice-boy’s True Name? Nah. ” Puck shrugged, lacing his hands behind his head. “Hard as it is to believe, I wouldn’t intrude on something that serious, princess. Especially since I know you’d kill me later. ” One corner of his lip twitched, just slightly, nowhere near his usual wide grin. He glanced at Ash and shook his head, his expression one of amusement and…could it be respect? “Mab is going to love that, you know. ”

  Ash gave a faint smile. “I find I no longer care what the Winter Court thinks of me. ”

  “It’s liberating, isn’t it?” Puck snorted, then sat down in the grass, turning his face to the sky. “So, this is our last night as exiles, huh?” he mused, leaning back on his elbows. Fireflies rose from the grass in a blinking cloud. “It seems weird, but I might actually miss this. No one pulling my strings, no one bossing me around—except irate brownies demanding their brooms back, putting spiders in my bed. It’s…relaxing. ” Glancing at me, he patted the ground. I lowered myself into the cool, damp grass as blips of amber and green buzzed around us, landing on my hands, in my hair. Looking at Ash, I took his hand and tugged him down, as well. He settled behind me, lacing his arms around my waist, and I leaned against him and closed my eyes. In another life, perhaps, it would’ve been the three of us: me, my best friend, and my boyfriend, just hanging out under the stars, maybe breaking curfew, worried about nothing except school and parents and homework.

  “What are we doing, here?” came Grimalkin’s voice as the cat slipped through the grass beside me, bottlebrush tail in the air. A firefly landed on the tip, and he flicked it off irritably. “This looks remarkably close to relaxing, if I did not know a certain prince is far too uptight to relax. ”

  Ash chuckled and drew me tighter against him. “Feeling left out, cait sith?”

  Grimalkin sniffed. “Do not flatter yourself. ” But he minced his way across the grass and curled up in my lap, a warm heavy weight with soft gray fur. I scratched behind his ear, and he vibrated with purrs.

  “Do you think my dad will be all right?” I asked, and Grimalkin yawned.

  “He will be safer here than he would be in the real world, human,” the cat replied in a lazy voice. “No one enters this place without Leanansidhe’s permission, and no one leaves unless she allows it. Do not worry overmuch. ” He flexed his claws, looking content. “The human will still be here when you return. Or even if you do not. Now, if you would attend to the other ear, that would be nice. Ah…yes, that is quite satisfactory. ” His voice trailed off into rumbling purrs.

  Ash laid his cheek against the back of my head and sighed. It wasn’t a sigh of irritation or anger or the melancholy that seemed to plague him at times. He sounded…content. Peaceful, even. It made me a little sad, knowing we couldn’t have more time, that this could be our last night together, without war and politics and faery laws coming between us.

  Ash brushed the hair from my neck and leaned close to my ear, his voice so soft not even Grimalkin could’ve heard it. “I love you,” he murmured, and my heart nearly burst out of my chest. “Whatever happens, we’re together now. Always. ”

  We sat there, the four of us, talking quietly or just basking in the silence, watching the night sky. I didn’t see any falling stars, but if I had, I would’ve wished my dad be kept safe, that Ash and Puck would survive the coming war, and that somehow, we all would come out of this okay. If wishes were horses. I knew better. Fairy godmothers didn’t exist, and even if they did, they wouldn’t wave a magic wand and make everything better. (Not without a contract, anyway. ) Besides,
I had something better than a fairy godmother; I had my faery knight, my faery trickster, and my faery cat, and that was enough. In the end, it didn’t matter. A simple wish wouldn’t save us from what we had to do, and my mind was made up. When dawn turned the sky pink and the envoys came for us again, I already had my answer.




  Faery was not how I remembered.

  I recalled the first time I stepped into the Nevernever through the door in Ethan’s closet. I remembered the enormous trees, so close and tangled that their branches shut out the sky, the mist writhing along the ground, the perpetual twilight that hung over everything. Here in the wyldwood, neither court held sway; it was a fierce, neutral territory that cared nothing for the medieval customs of Summer or the vicious society of Winter.

  And it was dying.

  It was a subtle thing, the taint that had sunk deep into the land and forest, corrupting them from the inside. Here and there, a tree was empty of leaves, and a rosebush had steel thorns that glinted in the light. I walked into a spiderweb, only to discover it was made of hair-thin wires, much like the net the spider-hags had used on me. Outwardly, the change was faint, almost invisible. But the beating heart of the Nevernever, which I felt all around me in every tree, every leaf and blade of grass, was pulsing with rot. Everything was touched with Iron glamour, and it was slowly eating away the Nevernever, like paper held above a flame. And, judging from the twin looks of horror on the faces of Ash and Puck, they felt it, too.

  “It’s awful, isn’t it?” said the gnome envoy, gazing around solemnly. “Not long after you were…ahem…banished, the Iron King’s army attacked, and wherever they went, the Iron Realm spread with them. The combined forces of Summer and Winter were able to drive them back, but even after they were gone, the poison remained. Our armies are camped on the edge, where the wyldwood meets the Iron Kingdom, to try to halt the Iron fey that keep pouring from the breach. ”