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The Iron Queen, Page 4

Julie Kagawa

Page 4


  The redcap leader grinned at me, gave Ash one last sneer, and backed away. Snapping and arguing with each other, the redcap gang ambled into the darkness and vanished from sight.

  I looked at Ash. “You know, there was a time I wished I could be so popular. ”

  He sheathed his sword. “Should we stop for the night?”

  “No. ” I rubbed my arms, dropping the glamour and the queasiness that came with it, and peered into the street. “I can’t run and hide just because the Iron fey are looking for me. I’d never get anywhere. Let’s keep moving. ”

  Ash nodded. “We’re almost there. ”

  We reached our destination without further incident. The New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum looked exactly how I remembered it, faded black doors sunk into the wall. The wooden sign creaked on its chains overhead.

  “Ash,” I murmured as we walked quietly to the doors. “I’ve been thinking. ”

  The encounter with the spider-hags and the redcaps had strengthened my convictions, and I was ready to voice my plans. “I want you to do something for me, if you would. ”

  “Whatever you need. ” We reached the doors, and Ash peered in the window. The interior of the museum was dark. He scanned the area around us before turning to place a hand on one of the doors. “I’m still listening, Meghan,” he murmured. “What do you want me to do?”

  I took a breath. “Teach me how to fight. ”

  He turned back, his eyebrows raised. I took advantage of the moment of silence and plunged on before he could protest. “I mean it, Ash. I’m tired of standing on the sidelines doing nothing, watching you fight for me. I want to learn to defend myself. Will you teach me?” He frowned and opened his mouth, but before he could say anything, I added, “And don’t give me any crap about defending my honor, or how a girl can’t use a weapon, or how it’s too dangerous for me to fight. How am I going to beat the false king if I can’t even swing a sword?”

  “I was going to say,” Ash continued in what was almost a solemn voice, if it wasn’t for the faint smirk on his lips, “that I thought it was a good idea. In fact, I was going to suggest picking up a weapon for you after we’re done here. ”

  “Oh,” I said in a small voice. Ash sighed.

  “We have a lot of enemies,” he continued. “And as much as I hate it, there might be times when I won’t be there to help you. Learning to fight and use glamour will be crucial now. I was trying to think of a way to suggest teaching you without having it blow up in my face. ” He smiled then, a tiny twitch of his lips, and shook his head. “I suppose I was doomed either way. ”

  “Oh,” I said again, in an even smaller voice. “Well…good. As long as we understand each other. ” I was glad the darkness hid my burning face, though knowing Ash, he could probably see it anyway.

  Still smiling, Ash turned back to the door, placing a hand on the faded wood and speaking a quiet word under his breath. The door clicked and slowly swung open.

  The interior of the museum was musty and warm. As we eased through the door, I tripped over the same bump in the carpet that had been there a year ago and stumbled into Ash. He steadied me with a sigh, just like a year ago. Only this time, he reached down and touched my hand, moving close to whisper in my ear.

  “First lesson,” he said, and even in the darkness I heard the amusement in his voice. “Always be aware of where you put your feet. ”

  “Thanks,” I said dryly. “I’ll remember that. ”

  He turned away and tossed a ball of faery fire into existence. The glowing, blue-white sphere hovered overhead, illuminating the room and the macabre collection of voodoo items surrounding us. The skeleton in the top hat and the mannequin with the alligator head still grinned at us along the wall. But now, an ancient, mummylike figure had been added to the duo, a shriveled old woman with hollow pits for eyes and arms like brittle sticks.

  Then the withered face turned and smiled at me, and I bit down a yelp.

  “Hello, Meghan Chase,” the oracle whispered, gliding away from the wall and her two ghastly bodyguards. “I knew you would return. ”

  Ash didn’t go for his sword, but I sensed muscles coiling beneath his skin. I took a deep breath to calm my pounding heart and stepped forward. “Then you know why I’m here. ”

  The oracle’s eyeless gaze peered at my face. “You seek to take back what you gave away a year ago. That which did not seem so important then has become very dear to you now. Such is always the case. You mortals do not know what you have until it is gone. ”

  “The memory of my father. ” I moved away from Ash, closing the distance between me and the oracle. Her hollow gaze followed me, and the smell of dusty newspapers clogged my nose and mouth as I approached. “I want it back. I need it if…if I’m going to see him again at Leanansidhe’s. I have to know what he means to me. Please. ”

  The knowledge of that mistake was still painful. When I was first searching for my brother, we’d come to the oracle for help. She’d agreed to help us, but asked for a memory in return; it had sounded insignificant at the time. I had agreed to her price, and afterward had had no clue which memory she took. Then, we’d met Leanansidhe, who kept several humans in her home in the Between. All her humans were artists of some sort, brilliant, talented, and slightly mad from living in the Between so long. One of them, a gifted pianist, had taken quite an interest in me, though I hadn’t known who he was. I found out only after we had left the manor and it was too late to go back.

  My father. My human father, or at least the man who’d raised me until I was six, and he disappeared. That was the memory the oracle had taken: all recollections of my human dad. And now, I needed them back. If I was going to Leanansidhe’s, I wanted the memory of my father intact when I demanded to know why she had him in the first place.

  “Your father is Oberon, the Summer King,” the oracle whispered, her thin mouth pulled into a smile. “This man you seek, this human, is no blood relation to you. He is a mere mortal. A stranger. Why do you care?”

  “I don’t know,” I said miserably. “I don’t know if I should care, and I want to be sure. Who was he? Why did he leave us? Why is he with Leanansidhe now?” I broke off and stared at the oracle, feeling Ash come up behind me as silent support. “I have to know,” I whispered. “I need that memory back. ”

  The oracle tapped glittering nails together, considering. “The bargain was fair,” she rasped. “One exchange for another, we both agreed to this. I cannot simply give you what you seek. ” She sniffed, looking momentarily indignant. “I will have something in return. ”

  I figured. Can’t expect a faery to do you a favor without naming a price. Squashing down my annoyance, I stole a glance at Ash, and saw him nod. He’d expected it, too. I sighed and turned back to the oracle. “What do you want?”

  She tapped a nail against her chin, dislodging a few flakes of dead skin or dust. I wrinkled my nose and eased back a step. “Hmm, let us see. What would the girl be willing to part with. Perhaps…your future chi—”

  “No,” Ash and I said in unison. She snorted.

  “Can’t blame me for trying. Very well. ” She leaned forward, studying me with the empty holes in her face. I felt a presence brush lightly against my mind and recoiled, shutting her out.

  The oracle hissed, filling the air with the smell of decay. “How…interesting,”

  she mused. I waited, but she didn’t elaborate, and after a moment she drew back with a strange smile on her withered face. “Very well, Meghan Chase, this is my request. You are loathe to give up anything you hold dear, and it would be a waste of breath to ask for those things. So, instead I will ask that you fetch me something someone else held dear. ”

  I blinked at her. “What?”

  “I wish for you to bring me a Token. Surely that is not too much to ask. ”

  “Um…” I cast a helpless glance at Ash. “What’s a token?”

  The oracle
sighed. “Still so naive. ” She gave Ash an almost motherly frown.

  “I trust you will teach her better than this in the future, young prince. Now, listen to me, Meghan Chase, and I will share a bit of faery lore. Most items,” she continued, plucking a skull from a table with her bony talons, “are just that. Mundane, ordinary, commonplace. Nothing special. However…” She replaced the skull with a thunk and carefully picked up a small leather bag, tied with a leather thong. I heard the rattle of pebbles or bones within as she held it up.

  “Certain items have been so loved and cherished by mortals that they become something else entirely—a symbol of that emotion, whether it be love, hate, pride, or fear. A favored doll, or an artist’s masterpiece. And sometimes, though rarely, the item becomes so important that it grows a life of its own. It’s as if a bit of the human’s soul was left behind, clinging to the once-ordinary article. We fey call these items Tokens, and they are highly sought after, for they radiate a special glamour that never fades away. ” The oracle stepped back, seeming to fade into the paraphernalia lining the walls. “Find me a Token, Meghan Chase,” she whispered, “and I will give you back your memory. ”

  And then she was gone.

  I rubbed my arms and turned to Ash, who bore a thoughtful expression. He stared after the vanished oracle. “Great,” I muttered. “So, we need to find a Token thing. I suppose they’re not just lying around for the taking, huh? Any ideas?”

  He roused himself and glanced down at me. “I might know where we can find one,” he mused, suddenly solemn again. “But it’s not a place humans like to visit, especially at night. ”

  I laughed. “What, you don’t think I can handle it?” He raised an eyebrow, and I frowned. “Ash, I’ve been through Arcadia, Tir Na Nog, the Briars, the Between, the Iron Realm, Machina’s tower, and the killing fields of the Nevernever. I don’t think there’s a place capable of freaking me out anymore. ”