The Iron Queen, Page 41Julie Kagawa
“Well, that’s convenient,” Puck mused. “I really need to get a few of those things. ”
“Come on,” I snapped, and we bolted up the stairs, still hearing the shouts of the rebels below as Razor led them on a wild-goose—or gremlin—chase. We reached the landing without opposition, the wind whipping my hair as we stepped onto the ledge.
Puck gave me a look of mock-alarm as I gazed up the tower wall, searching for our way out. “Um, how exactly were you planning on getting out this way, princess? Fly?”
“Yes. ” I finally spotted what I was looking for, hanging off the wall near the very top, a cluster of gliders sleeping in the sun. I whistled softly, and they roused themselves, turning their insect heads to peer down at us. Puck, following my gaze, made a revolted noise in the back of his throat.
“You’re kidding me. You want us to fly out of here on those things? Um…how about I just turn into a bird and follow you—”
“No. You heard what Mab said. ” I beckoned to the gliders, and they buzzed sleepily. “Using glamour could shatter your amulet. We want to conserve it as much as possible. ”
Puck grimaced. “I think I might make an exception for this, princess. Not that I don’t enjoy the thought of being carried around by a big metal bug, but…” He backed up a step as the gliders began crawling down the wall. “Oh, wonderful. They’re looking at me weird, princess. ”
“What’s the matter, Goodfellow?” Ash smirked, crossing his arms as the gliders landed on the platform, watching us with huge, multifaceted eyes. “Afraid of a few bugs?”
“Bugs are creepy. ” Puck made a face at one of the gliders, wincing as it buzzed at him. “Giant metal bugs that look at me weird belong in horror flicks. ”
He sneered at Ash. “Besides, I don’t see you stepping up to the plate, prince. ”
“I just want to make this moment last as long as I can. ”
“Guys! There’s no time for this!” I glared at them, and they stopped, looking guilty. “This is our only way out. Just follow my lead and do what I do. ”
I walked to the edge of the landing and looked down. Yesterday, gazing at that vast drop made my stomach want to crawl up my throat. Now, my heart raced with excitement, and I spread my arms.
For a moment, nothing happened, and I was afraid the gliders wouldn’t respond, after all. But then I heard the familiar buzz of wings, and a second later the glider landed on my shoulders, curling its copper legs around me.
“Creeeeeepy,” Puck sang. I turned to glare at him.
“Shut up and listen. You use the front legs to steer. Try to relax and you’ll be fine. ” I ignored Puck’s dubious look and faced forward again. “Here we go,” I muttered, and dove off the edge.
The wind caught the glider’s wings and sent us both shooting upward, and my adrenaline soared in response. I thought I heard Puck’s yell of disbelief as I spiraled up, and grinned wildly, imagining his face if I showed him what the glider could really do. But there was no time for the crazy dives and aerial maneuvers of the night before, though I could feel the glider’s excitement as well, like a flighty racehorse eager to run. I did a couple of backward loops, just to get it out of our systems, before circling back to see if the boys needed further encouragement. To my surprise both Puck and Ash had managed to take off, and both were gliding toward me, though Puck did look a bit green as I pulled alongside them.
“Are you two all right?” I called, trying not to grin. Puck gave me a weak thumbs-up.
“Fabulous, princess!” His glider buzzed loudly, and he winced. “Though I’d much rather be flying on my own wings. This isn’t natural. Which way from here?”
Ash pointed toward the distant horizon. “Due west is that way,” he said, and I nodded. Without even waiting for me to steer it, my glider abruptly veered off to the right, and we set a course for Rowan and the setting sun.
After several minutes of flying, I spotted a dark blot shimmering like a mirage on the otherwise flat landscape. As we drew closer, I saw that it was a stand of trees, still alive, an oasis in the middle of the blasted wasteland. But circling overhead, I also saw that they were dying, their trunks streaked with metal and most of their leaves already bright and metallic. A few sparse limbs bore leaves that were still alive, and they matched the branch I’d found at the rebel base. This was our rowan stand, all right. If the note was to be trusted, Ash’s traitor brother was here.
We landed our gliders, which buzzed anxiously about being left, and entered the grove cautiously, weapons drawn. The trees shivered in the wind, metallic branches scraping together like knives, making chills run up my spine. Rowan stepped out of the trees ahead, a lean figure in white, his horribly burned face making my stomach clench. Two Iron knights flanked him, their jointed, segmented armor bearing a new symbol. Instead of a barbed-wire crown, the symbol of an iron fist now adorned their breast-plates, punching up toward the sky. One of the knights was a stranger, unfamiliar to me. But I recognized the second immediately; the face above the breastplate could’ve been Ash’s, except for the scar marring his cheek and the deadness in his gray eyes.
“Whoa, I’m seeing double,” Puck muttered, blinking rapidly. “Long-lost brother of yours, ice-boy? Were you separated at birth or something?”
“That’s Tertius,” I whispered as we continued to approach. “He was with Ironhorse the first time we went into the Iron Realm. I saw him again at the Winter Palace, when he stole the Scepter of the Seasons and killed Sage. ” Ash clenched his fists at that, the air around him turning cold. “Don’t underestimate him. He might look like Ash, but he’s an Iron knight through and through. ”
“Yeah, but…” Puck looked from Tertius to Ash and back again. “That doesn’t tell me why he looks like ice-boy’s clone. ”
“Because,” Rowan answered, his smooth voice carrying through the trees,
“he is a clone of my dear little brother. The former king, Machina, created his knights to be his elite guard, so he fashioned them in the images of those at court. You should have seen my double—ugly bastard. I did him a favor and put him out of his misery. Sage’s twin, unfortunately, was gone before we could ever meet. ” He stopped a few yards away and bowed, the two knights stopping just behind each shoulder. “Hello, again, princess. I’m very glad you could make it. And with your two lapdogs in tow, as well. I’m impressed. That must have taken some serious magic. ” His blue eyes flickered to Ash, gleaming dangerously, and he smiled. “That’s a lovely necklace, little brother, but it won’t save you in the end. The only way to survive the Iron Realm is to become part of it. You’re only buying yourself some time with that bauble. Once it breaks, as I’m sure it will, this realm will swallow you whole. ”
“It will buy me enough time to kill you,” Ash replied. “Which I’m happy to do right now, if you like. ”
“Now, now. ” Rowan waggled a finger at him. “None of that. We’re not here to fight. I come here to offer a proposal that could potentially end this war. Don’t you want to stop the war, Meghan Chase?”
I was instantly suspicious and crossed my arms. “That’s why you brought me here? So you can bargain for the false king?”
“Of course,” Rowan soothed. “But first, I’ll need an agreement from you, princess. One that says we agree not to kill each other while standing on neutral ground. We wouldn’t want my dear little brother to forget himself and attack, now would we?”
I narrowed my eyes. “I’m more worried about you double-crossing us and having an ambush waiting right outside. Why should I trust you?”
“You wound me, princess. ” Rowan put a hand over his heart. “I can assure you, all we want to do is talk, but if you’re not interested in hearing our proposal, I guess we’ll leave with our tails between our legs and continue our march on the Nevernever. ”
“Oh, fine. ” I could do this dance with
Rowan forever, but it would get us no closer to the proposal. Still, I’d learned my lesson with faery deals and bargains, and I chose my words carefully. “We’ll agree to a truce if your side honors it, as well. As long as we stand on neutral ground—” I gestured to the grove around us
“—neither side will attack the other. Agreed?”
“Agreed. There now, that wasn’t so bad, was it?” Rowan smiled at me, infuriatingly smug. “And you’re going to want to hear this, princess. In fact, I think you’ll find this deal very interesting. ” He leaned back and watched me, taking his time. I didn’t answer, refusing to rise to the bait. Rowan grinned.
“Your side is done, princess,” he said. “We all know that you can’t win—the Iron King’s army is far greater than either Summer’s or Winter’s, and his fortress is impenetrable. In a few days, Faery will be consumed by the Iron Realm, unless Meghan Chase steps up to save it. ”
“Get to the point, Rowan. ”
Rowan leered at me, reminding me of a grinning skull. “The Iron King is prepared to stop his advance on the Nevernever, call back all his forces, and halt his fortress where it stands today, if you agree to his proposal. ”
“To marry him. ” Rowan’s smile grew wider, matching my look of horror.
“Join your power to his. Wed Summer to Iron, and the Iron King will cease his war on the Nevernever for as long as you remain his bride. That way, no one else gets hurt, no one else dies, and most important, the Nevernever as you know it will survive. But you must agree to become his queen, or he will hit the courts of Summer and Winter with everything at his disposal. And he will destroy them. ”
My hands were shaking, and I clenched my fists to stop them. “That’s his deal? Marriage?” My stomach recoiled in disgust, and I took a breath to hide the sickness. “What is it with all these Iron Kings wanting to marry me?”