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The Iron Queen, Page 22

Julie Kagawa

Page 22


  “You’re only defending the line?” Ash turned his cold gaze on the gnome, who shrank from him. “What about a frontal assault, to close it completely?”

  The gnome shook his head. “It doesn’t work. We’ve sent numerous forces into the breach, but none of them have ever come back. ”

  “And the Iron King has never once showed his ugly face in battle?” Puck asked. “He just sits back like a coward and lets the army come to him?”

  “Of course he does. ” Grimalkin sniffed, wrinkling his whiskers in distaste.

  “Why would he endanger himself when he has all the advantages? He has time on his side—the courts do not. Oberon and Mab must be desperate if they are willing to lift your exile. I cannot think of another time when they have been willing to retract their orders. ” He blinked and looked at me, narrowing his eyes. “Things must indeed be serious. It appears you are the final hope to save the entire Nevernever. ”

  “Thanks, Grim. I certainly needed that reminder. ” I sighed, pushing bleak, terrifying thoughts to the back of my mind, and turned to the emissary. “I suppose Oberon is waiting for me?”

  “He is, your highness. ” The gnome bobbed his head and pattered off. “This way, please. I will take you to the battlefront. ”

  FROM THE TOP OF THE RISE, I looked down into the valley where the Summer and Winter armies were camped.

  Tents were set up in a loose, haphazard pattern, looking like a small city of colored cloth and muddy streets. Even from this distance, I could see the distinction between the Seelie and Unseelie: the Seelie preferred lighter, summercolored tents of brown and green and yellow, while the Unseelie camp was marked by shades of black, blue, and dark red. Even though they were on the same side, Summer and Winter did not mingle, did not share the same space or even the same side of the valley. In the center, however, where the two camps seemed to converge, a larger structure rose into the air, flying the banners of the two courts side by side. At least Mab and Oberon were trying to get along. For now, anyway.

  Beyond the camps, a twisted forest of glimmering steel marked the entrance into the realm of the Iron King.

  Beside me, Ash scanned the battlefront with narrowed eyes, taking everything in. “They’ve had to fall back several times,” he murmured, his voice low and grave. “The entire camp looks ready to get up and move at a word. I wonder how fast the Iron Realm is spreading. ”

  “Guess we’re about to find out,” Puck added, as the gnome emissary beckoned us forward and we descended into the camp.

  The city of tents was much larger and sprawling up close, renewing my uneasiness for walking through a large group of fey, seeing their glowing, inhuman eyes follow my every move. Thankfully, we only had to walk through the Seelie camp to get to the large tent in the middle, though Puck and Ash stayed very close as we navigated the narrow streets. Elegant Summer knights, clad in armor stylized to look like thousands of overlapping leaves, watched us stonily, their eyes never leaving the Winter prince at my side. A pair of sylphs, razor dragonfly wings scraping together, scurried out of our way, staring at me with unabashed curiosity. A tethered griffin raised its head and hissed, flaring a colorful mane of feathers. One of its wings had been damaged, and it dragged along the ground as the griffin limped back and forth.

  “This place smells like blood,” Ash murmured, his eyes darting about the camp. A swamp-green troll hobbled by, one arm burned black and oozing fluid, and I shuddered. “Looks like the war isn’t going well for us. ”

  “That’s what I like about you, prince. You’re always so cheerful. ” Puck shook his head, gazing around the camp, and wrinkled his nose. “Although I will say, this place has seen better days. Does anyone feel like they’re about to hurl, or is it just me?”

  “It is the iron. ” Grimalkin picked his way over a puddle, then leaped atop a fallen tree, shaking out his paws. “This close to the false king’s realm, his influence is stronger than ever. It will be worse once you are actually within its borders. ”

  Puck snorted. “Doesn’t seem like it’s affecting you much, cat. ”

  “That is because I am smarter than you and prepare for these things. ”

  “Really? How would you prepare for me tossing you into a lake?”

  “Puck,” I sighed, but at that moment, two Summer knights approached us, their faces haughty and arrogant even as they bowed. “Lady Meghan,” one said stiffly, after a venomous glare in Ash’s direction. “His majesty King Oberon will see you now. ”

  “You go ahead,” Grimalkin purred, sitting down on the log. “I have no business with Lord Pointy Ears today. I will not be joining you. ”

  “Where will you be, Grim?”

  “Around. ” And the cat vanished from sight. I shook my head and followed the knights, knowing Grimalkin would reappear when we needed him. We approached the large tent, ducking through the flaps as the guards pulled them aside, and entered a forest clearing draped in shadow. Giant trees stretched above us, tiny pin-pricks of light glimmering through their branches. Will-o’-thewisps danced on the air, swarming around me, laughing, until I waved them away. An owl hooted close by, adding depth to the complex illusion surrounding us. If I looked at the trees from the corner of my eyes, not really focusing on them, I could see the cloth walls of the tent and the wooden poles holding them up. But I could also feel the heat from the humid summer night and smell the earthy scents of pine and cedar all around us. As far as illusions went, this one was near perfect.

  On two thrones in the center of the clearing, as ancient and imposing as the forest itself, the rulers of the Summer Court waited for us. Oberon was dressed for battle in a suit of mail that glittered emerald-gold under the illusionary stars. A dappled cape rippled behind him, and his antlered crown cast clawed shadows over the forest floor. Tall, lean, and elegant, his long silver hair braided down his back and a sword at his side, the Erlking watched us approach with alien green eyes that betrayed no emotion, even when they flickered to Ash and Puck, standing beside me, and dismissed them just as quickly.

  Titania sat beside him, and her expression was much easier to read. The faery queen radiated hate, not just for me, but for the Winter prince, as well. She even stabbed a disdainful glare at Puck, but the brunt of her loathing was directed at me and Ash.

  Seeing Titania sent a flare of anger through me. She was ultimately responsible for the whole situation with my real dad. It was her jealousy that led Puck to have Leanansidhe take him away, for fear the Summer Queen would hurt or kill him to spite Oberon. Titania saw my expression, and her lips curled into a nasty smirk, as if she’d discerned my thoughts. It made me very afraid for Paul; if Titania knew he was still alive, she might still hurt him to get to me.

  “You have come,” Oberon said, making the ground tremble. “Welcome home, daughter. ”

  So I’m family again, now that you need something from me, is that it? I wanted to tell him not to call me daughter, that he had no right. I wanted to tell him that he couldn’t just disown me and then call me back like nothing had happened. I didn’t. I only nodded, gazing at the Erlking with what I hoped was a confident expression. Forget bowing and scraping; I was done with that. If the faeries wanted something from me now, they were going to have to work for it. Oberon raised an eyebrow at my silence, but that was the only outward sign of surprise. “I take it you found the terms of our contract acceptable?” he continued, his voice low and soothing, washing over me like thick syrup, making it suddenly hard to think. “We will raise your exile, and the exile of Robin Goodfellow, in return for your service in destroying the Iron King. I believe that is a fair bargain. Now…” Oberon turned to Puck, as if the matter were already settled. “Tell me what you have learned about the Iron fey in the time of your exile. You disobeyed my direct orders when you left Faery and went after the girl—it must have been very important. ”

  “Not so fast. ” I shook off the glamour making my thoughts heavy and
glared at Oberon. “I haven’t said ‘yes,’ yet. ”

  The Erlking stared at me in surprise. “You do not agree this is fair?” His voice rose at the end, sounding truly shocked that I would turn him down, or maybe that was just more faery glamour. “The offer is most generous, Meghan Chase. I am willing to overlook your blasphemous relationship with the Winter prince and give you a chance to come home. ”

  “I’m still considering. ” I felt both Ash and Puck staring at me and hurried on.

  “Thing is, this isn’t my home. I already have one, waiting for me back in the mortal world. I already have a family, and I don’t need any of this. ”

  “Enough. ” Titania rose and stabbed a glare of pure poison at me. “We do not need the half-breed, husband. Send her back to the mortal world she is so fond of. ”

  “Sit down. I wasn’t finished. ”

  The look on Titania’s face was as priceless as it was terrifying. I continued quickly before I lost my nerve or she turned me into a spider. “I’m willing to bargain with you, but there have to be a few add-ons. My family. Leave them out of this war. Leave them alone, period. And that’s all family members, including the man Leanansidhe stole when I was six. ” I leveled a piercing glare at Titania, who stared back at me with murder in her eyes. “I want your word that you’ll let him be. ”

  “You dare tell me what to do, Meghan Chase?” The queen’s voice was soft, low, and held the ominous threat of an approaching storm. A season ago, I would’ve been afraid. Now, it only made me more determined.

  “You need me,” I said, refusing to back down, feeling Ash and Puck press close. “I’m the only one who has a chance of stopping the false king. I’m the only one who can go into that hellhole and come out alive. Well, these are my terms—

  your word that my family will never see another faery for as long as they live, and that Ash and Puck will be able to return home once this is all over, like you promised they would. I want to hear it firsthand, right now. That’s my bargain for stopping the false king. Take it or leave it. ”