The Iron Queen, Page 40Julie Kagawa
Ash and Puck looked on warily until I waved a plastic spoon at them. “Sit,” I ordered, pointing to the roots. “I know this isn’t faery wine, but it’s all we’ve got and we have to eat something. ” Dumping a can of fruit cocktail into a paper bowl, I passed it to Ash. He took it and perched gingerly on the edge of a root. Puck sat and gazed mournfully into the bowl I handed him. “Not an apple slice to be found,” he sighed, picking through the gooey mess with his fingers.
“How can mortals even pass this off as fruit? It’s like a peach farmer threw up in a bowl. ”
Ash picked up the spoon, gazing at it like it was an alien life form. Dropping it back into his untouched food, he placed the bowl on the ground and stood.
“Ash. ” I looked up from my cold beans. “What are you doing?”
“It’s watching us. ” Very casually, his hand went to his sword hilt. “Very close this time. It feels—” he closed his eyes, and I saw a shimmer of glamour around him “—like it’s right above us. ”
He whirled, blindingly quick. There was a flash of blue light as he hurled something at the tree, and a second later a high-pitched squeal rang out as something dropped from the branches, nearly landing in my lap. I jumped up. It was a big metal insect of some sort, shiny and wasplike, its wings still buzzing faintly as it died. Our mysterious stalker, finally brought into the open. An ice shard had gone clean through its body, ripping it apart, but its hooked legs clutched something long and slender. Bending down, avoiding the needlelike stinger on the end, I wrenched the object from the creature’s grasp. It was a stick, a branch with several leaves sprouting along the wood. The wood was still alive, though the leaves were flecked with iron, and shiny threads ran along the length. A note was wrapped around the stick, and as I pulled it off, Ash gently took the branch from me, narrowing his eyes.
“Do you know what this is?” he murmured.
Puck smirked. “Uh, yes, actually. In most circles, it’s called a stick. Used for starting fires, poking large insects, and playing fetch with your dog. ”
Ash ignored him. “It’s the branch from a rowan tree,” he said, meeting my gaze. “And, given the circumstances, I don’t think it’s a coincidence. He knows we’re here. He sent this directly to you. ”
My blood ran cold. “You think he’s out there?”
“I’m sure of it. Read the message. ”
I unrolled the note, feeling my stomach clench as I scanned the words. The Iron King has a proposal for you. Find me.
Peering at the note upside down, Puck scowled. “Find him? Like we’re going to drop everything and tromp all over the Iron Realm looking for him? You’re not thinking of actually meeting him, are you, princess?”
“I think I should,” I said slowly, looking at Ash. “He might know of something that we can use against the false king. Or, maybe the false king is offering to end the war. ”
“Or it could be a trap, and Rowan will betray us like he did all of Faery. ”
Ash’s voice was cold.
“That might be, but I still think we should see what he wants. What he’s offering. ” I looked around at the dozens of rebels moving about the ruins. “But first, we need to find a way out of here. You heard Glitch—he’s not going to let us walk out the front door. ”
“Finally. ” Puck grinned, rubbing his hands together. “I thought we were never going to get out of here. So what’s your pleasure? Diversion? Fight?
Sneaking out the back door?”
“Before we bring the entire camp down on our heads,” Ash said, handing me the branch, “perhaps we should figure out where Rowan is first. ”
“Oh, right. That would make sense, wouldn’t it?” I stared at the note, wishing yet again that faeries would just say what they meant without making it into a riddle. “I wish Grim were here. He’d know where to find Rowan. ” I felt a sudden stab of guilt for not thinking of the cat until now. “You think he’ll be all right?
Should we try to get him a message?”
“Too risky. ” Ash shook his head. “We could draw suspicion to ourselves, and besides, no one but us knows the cait sith is here. That might prove useful later on, having an ally no one else is aware of. ”
“Grim can take care of himself, princess,” Puck agreed, eager to get started.
“It’s what he’s best at, after all. So, the question is, how do we figure out where the stick came from?”
I looked around and saw a skinny hacker elf walking through the ruins, carrying an armful of keyboards and wires. “Easy. We just ask. ”
“Excuse me!” I called, jogging up to the elf, who jumped and gave me a nervous look over the tangle of computer wires. His huge black eyes, with lines of green numbers scrolling across, whirled anxiously. “Diode, right? I was wondering if you could help me. ”
The hacker blinked, shuffling his feet. “Glitch has informed us that we are not to engage you oldbloods in verbal communication,” he said in a nasal voice.
“I just have a question. ” I smiled at him, hoping to make him less nervous. It only succeeded in making him squirm more. Sighing, I held up the rowan branch.
“I found this by the oak tree. Do you know what it is?”
Diode narrowed his eyes. “That is a sorbus aucuparia, more commonly known as a European mountain ash, or rowan tree. Yes, most of the natural flora and fauna has since been overtaken by ferrous influences, but there are a few places where you can find them still clinging to their natural state. ”
I understood only half of what he was saying, but got the general idea.
“Where?” I asked, and Diode blinked again.
“The nearest stand of sorbus aucuparia is two point seven miles due west from the tower,” he said, nodding in the general direction. “Of course, you won’t be able to see it, being forbidden to leave the compound and all. Oh my!” He stepped back from me, and his eyes whirled. “You’re not planning to escape, are you? Glitch will find out, and the trail would lead back to me, and I’d be an accomplice to a crime. Please tell me you’re not planning an escape. ”
“Relax, I’m not planning an escape. ” Not entirely a lie, since he just told me to tell him that, rather than asking me if I was. But it must’ve worked, because he breathed a relieved sigh and relaxed.
“Well, that’s nice, but I have to get back to work. ” The hacker elf backed up, nearly tripping over his own feet, and gave me a shaky smile. “I have to…be somewhere else now. It was…um…goodbye. ” Clutching his cables, he fled into the ruins.
“Did you two hear that?” I asked as Puck and Ash appeared behind me. Ash made a thoughtful noise and crossed his arms.
“Three miles due west,” he murmured, gazing after the fleeing elf. “Not far, but do you think it’s wise to let him go? He might run straight to Glitch. ”
“Then we should move fast. ” I checked my sword and my armor, making sure all were in place. “We’re getting out of here, now. ”
Puck’s eyes gleamed. “Need a spectacular diversion of some sort, princess?”
“No, let’s not burn any bridges before we have to. ” I started into the ruins, looking for a certain flight of stairs that would take us where we needed to go.
“We might want to come back here, and I don’t want to fight a horde of angry rebels because you blew up their base or something. We’re sneaking out nice and quiet. ”
“Um, but if we’re sneaking out, shouldn’t we be looking for the back door?”
“Hide. ” Ash suddenly grabbed my arm and pulled me behind a pillar, crushing me to his chest, as Puck dove behind a rock pile. A split second later, Glitch appeared on the far side of the room, with Diode at his heels.
“I don’t know, sir,” Diode was saying. “But it seemed suspicious. You don’t think she’s planning an escape, do you? She told me she wasn’t. ”
“That doesn’t mean anything,” Glitch sai
d. I could feel Ash’s heart against my palm, though he had gone perfectly still, hardly breathing. “You haven’t met a human in your life, Diode, so you don’t know that they’re all capable of lying through their teeth. ”
Diode gasped, and Glitch blew out a long breath, running his hands through his spines. “It might not be anything,” he said, as they continued walking. I held my breath as they passed behind our pillar. “But go ahead and find her, all the same. The last thing we want is that girl throwing herself under the false king’s wheels. ”
“Of course, sir. ” Their voices faded as they continued into the ruins and out of sight.
Puck popped up from behind the rubble. “If we’re gonna leave, we should do it soon. Like, now. Before socket-head figures it all out. ”
“This way,” I hissed, and we hurried on.
After a few more close calls, I finally saw the base of the stairs to the tallest landing, the one that gazed out over the plateau. Unfortunately, it was also guarded by a burly dwarf with a mechanical arm and an iron-tipped spear. Several hacker elves crouched nearby, repairing wires and other electronics.
“Want me to take them out?” Ash muttered as we crouched in the shadows.
“Yeah, that wouldn’t be noisy at all,” Puck whispered back. I glared at the dwarf and the Iron fey, the only obstacles to reaching our destination. And then, I saw the glint of a glowing green eye in the ruins above, the curve of a neon smile. Razor! He would distract them, I bet. If I could just make him hear me…
As if reading my mind, the gremlin suddenly turned and looked right at us. I caught my breath. Well, why not? Razor, if you can hear this, I need to get past that dwarf onto the stairs. Could you maybe cause a diversion or someth—
The gremlin grinned madly, and then with a screech that sounded almost maniacal, scuttled from his hiding place in a flurry of sparks, drawing the attention of everything in the room. Laughing, he dangled overhead, seeming to mock them all, before zipping out of sight. Shouts and curses filled the ruins as the rebels, dwarf included, dropped everything to pursue the gremlin.