The Iron Daughter, Page 37Julie Kagawa
A dozen or so humans in expensive business suits sat around a long, U-shaped table in the center of the floor. From the looks of it, we had interrupted a business meeting, for they all turned and stared at me with various degrees of annoyance and confusion. At the end of the table, a swivel chair sat with its back to us, hiding the speaker or CEO or whoever was in charge. I suddenly remembered all the times I’d snuck into class late and had to scurry down the aisles to my desk while everyone watched. My face burned, and for a moment, you could hear a pin drop.
“Um, sorry,” I muttered, backing away. The business suits continued to stare at me. “Sorry. Wrong room. We’ll just…go. ”
“Oh, why don’t you stick around, my dear. ” The buzzing, high-pitched voice made my skin crawl. At the front of the table, the figure swiveled the chair around to face us, smiling. She wore a neon-green business suit, radioactive-blue lipstick, and bright yellow glasses above a thin, sneering face. Her hair, a myriad of computer cables, was bound atop her head in a colorful mockery of a bun. She held the scepter in green-nailed hands, like a queen observing her subjects, and my stomach gave a jolt of recognition.
“VIRUS!” Ironhorse boomed.
“No need to shout, old man. I’m right here. ” Virus put her heels on the table and regarded us smugly. “I’ve been waiting for you, girl. Looking for this, are you?” She lifted her arm, and I gasped. The Scepter of the Seasons pulsed a strange, sickly green light through her fingers. Virus bared her teeth in a smile. “I was expecting the girl and her clown to come sniffing after it, but I never expected the honorable Ironhorse to turn on us. Tsk-tsk. ” She shook her head. “Loyalty is so overrated these days. How the mighty have fallen. ”
“YOU DARE ACCUSE ME?” Ironhorse stalked forward, smoke drifting from his mouth and nostrils. We hurried after him. “YOU ARE THE BETRAYER, WHO
FOLLOWS THE COMMANDS OF THE FALSE KING. YOU ARE THE ONE WHO HAS
“Don’t be so melodramatic,” Virus sighed. “As usual, you have no idea what is really going on. You think I want to follow the wheezings of an obsolete monarch? I want that even less than you. When he put me in charge of stealing the scepter, I knew that was the last command I would ever follow. Poor Tertius, believing I was still loyal to his false king. The gullible fool handed me the scepter without a second thought. ” She smiled at us, fierce and terrible. “Now, I have the Scepter of the Seasons. I have the power. And if the false king wants it, he’ll have to take it from me by force. ”
“I see,” I said, coming to a stop a few feet from her. Around us, the men in business suits continued to stare. “You want to become the next ruler. You had no intention of giving it to the Iron King. ”
“Can you blame me?” Virus swung her feet off the table to smile at me.
“How often have you disobeyed your king because his commands were rubbish?
Goodfellow—” she pointed the scepter at Puck “—how often has the thought of rebelling crossed your mind? Don’t tell me you’ve been a faithful little monkey, catering to Oberon’s every desire, in all the years you’ve known him. ”
“That’s different,” I said.
“Really?” Virus sneered at me. “I can tell you, it wasn’t difficult to convince Rowan. That boy’s hatred and jealousy are inspiring. All he needed was a little push, a tiny promise of power, and he betrayed everything he knew. He was the one who told me you were coming for the scepter, you know. ” She snorted. “Of course, the claims of becoming immune to iron are completely false. As if thousands of years of history can be rewritten or erased. Iron and technology have been and will always be lethal to the traditional fey. That’s why we’re so inherently superior to you oldbloods. That’s why you’re going to fall so easily after the war. ”
Ironhorse growled, the furious rumble of an oncoming train. “I WILL TAKE
THAT SCEPTER AND PLACE THE TRUE MONARCH OF THE IRON FEY ON THE
THRONE,” he vowed, taking a threatening step forward. “YOU WILL GIVE IT TO ME
NOW, TRAITOR. YOUR HUMAN PUPPETS WILL NOT BE ENOUGH TO PROTECT
“Ah ah ah. ” Virus waggled a finger at him. “Not so fast. I didn’t want my drones up here because they are delicate and rather squishy, but I’m not quite so stupid as to be unguarded. ” She smiled and gazed around the table. “All right, gentlemen. Meeting adjourned. ”
At that, all the humans sitting at the tables stood, shedding glamour like discarded jackets, filling the air with fraying strands of illusion. Human facades dropped away, to reveal a dozen faeries in spiky black armor, their faces sickly and pale beneath their helms. As one, the Thornguards drew their serrated black swords and pointed them at us, trapping us in a ring of faery steel.
My stomach twisted violently, wanting to crawl up my throat and make a break for the door. I heard Puck’s exhalation of breath and Ironhorse’s dismayed snort as he pressed closer to me. Virus snickered, leaning back in her chair.
“I’m afraid you’ve walked nose first into a trap, m’dears,” she gloated as we tensed, ready to run or fight. “Oh, but you don’t want to rush off now. I have one last little surprise for you. ” She giggled and snapped her fingers.
The door behind her creaked, and a dark figure stepped into the room, coming to stand behind the chair. This time, my heart dropped to my toes and stayed there.
“I’m sure you four know each other,” Virus said, as my world shrank down to a narrow tunnel, blocking everything else out. “My greatest creation so far, I think. It took six Thornguards and nearly two dozen drones to bring him down, but it was so worth it. Ironic, isn’t it? He nearly got away with the scepter the first time, and now he’ll do anything to keep it here. ”
No, my mind whispered. This isn’t happening. No no no no no.
“Ash,” Virus purred as the figure came into the light, “say hello to our guests. ”
I stared at Ash in a daze, torn between relief that he was alive and an acute, sickening despair. This couldn’t be real, what was happening. I had stepped into a nightmare world, where everything I loved was twisted into something monstrous and horrible. My legs felt weak, and I had to lean against Puck or I would’ve fallen.
Ironhorse snorted. “AN ILLUSION,” he mocked, staring at Ash in contempt.
“A SIMPLE GLAMOUR, NOTHING MORE. I HAVE SEEN WHAT HAPPENS TO THE
OLDBLOODS YOU IMPLANT WITH YOUR FOUL BUGS. THEY GO MAD, AND THEN
THEY DIE. THAT IS NOT THE WINTER PRINCE, ANY MORE THAN THESE GUARDS. ”
“You think?” Virus’s grin was frighteningly smug. “Well, if you’re so sure, old man, you’re welcome to try to stop him. It should be easy to defeat one simple guard, although I think you’ll find the task harder than you ever expected. ” She turned a purely sadistic smile on me. “The princess knows, don’t you, my dear?”
Ironhorse turned, a question in his eyes, but I couldn’t take my gaze off Virus’s bodyguard. “It’s not an illusion,” I whispered. “It really is him. ” The way my heart fluttered around my chest proved this was real. I stepped forward, ignoring the bristling Thornguard weapons, and the prince’s gaze sharpened, cutting me like a knife. “Ash,” I whispered, “it’s me. Are you hurt? Say something. ”
Ash regarded me blankly, no glint of recognition in his silver eyes: no anger, sorrow, nothing. “All of you,” he said in a quiet voice, “will die. ”
Shock and horror lanced through me, holding me immobile. Virus giggled her hateful, buzzing laugh. “It’s no use,” she taunted. “He hears you, he even recognizes you, but he remembers nothing of his old life. He’s been completely reprogrammed, thanks to my bug. And now, he listens only to me. ”
I looked closer, and my heart twisted even more. In the shadows of the room, the prince’s face was ashen, the skin pulled so tight across his bones it had split in places, s
howing open wounds beneath. His cheeks were hollow, and his eyes, though blank and empty, were bright with unspoken pain. I recognized that look; it was the same look Edgebriar had turned on us in the cave, teetering on the edge of madness. “It’s killing him,” I whispered.
“Well, only a little. ”
“Stop it,” I hissed, and Virus arched a sardonic eyebrow. My heart pounded, but I set my jaw and plunged on. “Please,” I begged, stepping forward. “Let him go. Let me take his place. I’ll sign a contract, make a bargain, anything, if that’s what you want. But take the bug out of his head and let him go. ”
“Meghan!” Puck snapped, and Ironhorse stared at me in horror. I didn’t care. I couldn’t let Ash fade away into nothing, as if he had never existed at all. I imagined myself in a field of white flowers, watching a ghostly Ash and Ariella dance together in the moonlight, together at last. Except it would be a lie. Ash wouldn’t be with his true love, even in death. He wouldn’t be anything.
Virus chuckled. “Such devotion,” she murmured, rising from the chair. “I’m terribly moved. Come here, Ash. ” Ash immediately stepped up beside her, and Virus laid a hand on his chest. “You should congratulate me,” Virus continued, regarding the prince like a student with a winning science project. “I’ve finally discovered a way to implant my bugs in the fey system without killing them outright, or driving them mad within the first few hours. Instead of rewriting his brain—” she stroked Ash’s hair, and I clenched my shaking fists, fighting the urge to leap across the table and rip out her eyes “—I had it take over his cervical nervous system, here. ” Her fingers dropped to the base of his skull, caressing it. “You’re welcome to try to carve it out, I suppose, but I’m afraid that will be quite fatal for him. Only I can order my bugs to willingly release their hosts. As for your offer…” She threw me an indulgent smile. “You have only one thing I want, and I will take that from you momentarily. No, I find that I prefer my bodyguard as he is, for however long he has left. ”