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The Iron Queen, Page 32

Julie Kagawa

Page 32


  “No,” Machina said flatly. “If the power is to be given, it must be given at the moment of death. When the bearer knows they are going to die, only then will the power leave the body. If the bearer dies without choosing a successor, the power will lie dormant, waiting, until someone comes along who is worthy to bear it. But no, you cannot just give it away whenever you please. ” Machina sounded faintly insulted at the thought. “Besides, Meghan Chase, who would you give it to? Who would you find worthy enough to carry that burden?”

  “I suppose that means you somehow found me worthy,” I muttered, “though I really wish you wouldn’t have bothered. ”

  The Iron King only smiled.

  “I will be here,” he murmured, fading away, his brightness becoming less and less, though his voice still echoed in the void. “You cannot win without me, Meghan Chase. Until we are one, you are destined to lose this war. ”

  I OPENED MY EYES TO SILENCE. The rain had stopped, and a warm furry weight was pressed against my ribs, vibrating with purrs. Careful not to disturb Grimalkin, I rose and pushed back the covers, gazing around the cave. Puck lay on his back in the corner, tangled in blankets, one arm flung over his eyes. A jackhammer snore echoed from his open mouth, and I grimaced. Ash stood at the cave mouth, silhouetted black against the cloudy sky, gazing out at the distant city. From the sickly light coming in, I guessed it was mid to late afternoon. By the subtle tilt of Ash’s head, I knew he’d heard me, but he didn’t turn around.

  Padding up behind him, I slipped my arms around his waist. His hands folded over mine, lacing our fingers together, and we stood like that for a moment, breathing in tandem, me listening to his heart through his armor.

  “Are you all right?” His deep voice vibrated in my ear, pressed against his back.

  “Fine. ” I pulled back to stare at the back of his head. “Why? Reading my emotions again, are you?”

  “You were talking in your sleep,” he continued solemnly. “I wasn’t listening, but you said ‘Machina’ once or twice. ” He paused, and my heart flip-flopped in my chest. “It’s the Iron Kingdom, isn’t it?” Ash went on. “Being back here, it’s making you remember. ”

  “Yeah,” I lied, pressing my face to his back. I didn’t want to tell him about my conversations with the old Iron King, whom we had killed on our last trip here but who was supposedly lurking inside me. “It was just a nightmare, Ash. Don’t worry about me. ”

  “That’s my job now,” he replied, so soft I barely heard it. “Meghan, don’t be afraid to ask for help. You’re not alone. Remember that. ”

  I squirmed uncomfortably, hoping he wouldn’t pick up on my feelings of guilt. “So, this knight-and-lady thing,” I said to change the subject. “Do you have to do what I say? Or is it more of a strong suggestion? If I ordered you to…I don’t know…stand on your head, would you do it?”

  I wasn’t trying to be serious, but he hesitated, and I wondered if I touched on a sore subject. “You know my True Name now,” he said after a moment.

  “Technically, yes, if you order me by use of my full name, I would be forced to obey. But…” He paused again. I’d never heard him sound so unsure. “The understanding is that it will never come to that. That…the lady trusts the knight enough to…”

  “Ash,” I interrupted. “Turn around. ”

  He obeyed, spinning slowly to face me, his expression carefully guarded. Lacing my hands behind his neck, I pulled him down and kissed him. For just a moment, he was stiff and unyielding, but then he relaxed and his arms slid around my waist, drawing us closer.

  “I’m sorry,” I whispered when we pulled back. “I don’t want you to regret…being here with me, being my knight and all. ”

  He ran his fingers through my hair, brushing it from my cheek. “If I’d thought I would regret it,” he said calmly, “I never would have made that oath. I knew what becoming a knight would mean. And if you asked me again, the answer would be the same. ” He sighed, framing my face with his hands. “My life…everything I am…belongs to you. ”

  My eyes prickled as Ash leaned in and kissed me.

  A particularly loud snore came from the cave, and the lump in the corner rolled toward us suspiciously. Ash sighed again, drawing back after giving the

  “sleeping” Puck a resigned look. “We should leave soon,” he murmured, glancing toward the city. “If we go now, we can reach Mag Tuiredh before nightfall. Also, I saw Puck’s metal insect, flying around out there. It’s definitely following us. And if it does attack, I’d rather be able to see it coming than have to fight it in the dark. ”

  I shivered and dropped my gaze, staring at the amulet on his chest. The crystal was no longer perfectly clear. Inside, the swirls were silvery and metallic, like the mercury inside a thermometer. It gave me a chill, like staring at the falling grains of an hourglass, reminding me that his time in the Iron Realm was limited. “Right,” I said, breaking away. “Let’s get going then. Puck, I know you’re awake. We’re leaving. ”

  “Oh, thank God. ” Puck snorted and hopped to his feet. “I was afraid I’d have to listen to you two slobber all morning. I’m already feeling slightly sick—please don’t make it worse. ”

  “Indeed,” Grimalkin added from the mouth of the cave, though he had been sleeping on my blanket a second before. “Let us go. We are running out of time. ”

  Quickly, we gathered our supplies and set out again. The looming Fomorian city beckoned in the distance.

  As we left the cave, following Grim and Puck over the rocks, I caught a shimmer from the corner of my eye, like a heat wave, darting behind a boulder. I stopped and glanced back, but empty sand and rock greeted me when I turned my head.

  “Did you see it?” Ash muttered as we started down the dusty path again. Frowning, I glared around the landscape, wincing as the sun flashed off the random metallic objects scattered everywhere. “I don’t know. I thought I saw…something. Like a shimmer almost, but a clear one. You saw it?”

  He nodded, his hunter’s gaze never still, constantly scanning. “Something is tracking us,” he said in a low voice. “Goodfellow knows it, too. Keep alert. We could run into trouble soo—”

  It attacked from the top of a boulder, leaping at us with a scream. One second, there was nothing. The next, that strange shimmer rippled through the air again, and something slammed into me, raking my armor with invisible claws that screeched against the dragon-scale. I staggered back as a long feline shape, large as a cougar and translucent as glass, leaped away from Ash’s sword and darted into the rocks again.

  I drew my sword with a raspy screech as Puck pulled his daggers, his eyes darting around the empty landscape. “Anyone wanna tell me what that was?” he said, just as a second transparent cat-thing leaped at him from the opposite direction. I yelled and he ducked, the cat barely missing him. Landing in a spray of dust, it bounded into the rocks and vanished.

  We moved to stand back-to-back, weapons out in front of us, searching for a glimpse of our invisible assailants. No, I thought, not invisible, that didn’t make sense, not in the Iron Kingdom. Grimalkin could become invisible, using normal glamour to do so—in fact, he had already disappeared. Regular glamour was the magic of illusion and myth, things the Iron fey could not work with, so how were they hiding their presence? What was the logical explanation?

  There was a blur as the monster cats attacked again, rushing in from opposite sides. I didn’t see them until one was right on top of me, and I felt hooked claws raking my side. They were frighteningly quick. Thankfully, the dragon-scale armor held, screeching and sparking in protest, but the cat darted away again before I could react.

  Puck snarled a curse, swiping at empty air as the second cat flashed behind the rocks once more and was gone. Blood dripped down his arm to spatter in the dust; he hadn’t been as lucky, and my desperation grew.

  Think, Meghan! There had to be an explanation. Iron fey couldn’t use regula
r glamour, so how could a solid creature appear invisible? I could feel the Iron glamour circling around us, cold, patient, and calculating, and suddenly I understood.

  “They’re cloaking,” I said, as the pieces clicked into place. “They’re using Iron glamour to twist the light around themselves so they appear invisible. ” I felt a thrill of discovery, of knowing I was right. All those years of watching Star Trek had finally paid off.

  Ash spared me a split-second glance. “Can you use it to see which direction they’re coming from?”

  “I’ll try. ”

  Closing my eyes, I reached out, searching for our attackers, expanding my senses until…there. I could feel them in my mind, two clear, cat-shaped blobs of glamour, creeping forward along the ground just a few yards away. One was edging up on Ash, muscles quivering, and leaped forward with a shriek.

  “Ash, high left! Seven o’ clock!”

  Ash whirled, exploding into motion. I heard a yowl, and the cat shape in my mind split in two just before something hot and wet splashed over my face. Not stopping to think or gag, I saw the second cat leap straight at me, claws extended, aiming for my neck this time. My sword came up, and the monster slammed into my chest, its leap carrying it right onto the blade. The cat’s weight knocked me backward to sprawl in the dust, driving the air from my lungs with a painful gasp.

  For a few seconds, I could only lie there with my mouth gaping, crushed under the body of the killer feline. Up close, the dead cat was a strange metallic gray, its fur short and shiny like a mirror. But its teeth were the same yellow ivory of all big cats, pointed and lethal, and its breath stank of rotten meat and battery acid. That was all I noticed before Ash dragged the huge feline off me and Puck pulled me to my feet.

  “Well, that was fun. ” Puck wore one of his sarcastic grimaces. “You okay, princess?”