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The Iron Knight, Page 42

Julie Kagawa

Page 42


  Lying back on the cold stone, she welcomed me with open arms, and I took everything she offered, everything she could give, as Rowan stood nearby and watched with a vicious smile.

  When it was over, she lay dreaming and spent in my arms. Without waking her, I stood, slipped noiselessly off the altar and into my clothes, pondering what had just happened.

  “Well, congratulations, little brother. ” Rowan appeared beside me, stil hidden from human senses, grinning like a wolf with a lamb. “You brought down your quarry. The game is almost finished. ”

  “Almost?” I'd glamoured myself to remain unseen and unheard, as Brynna slept on. “What do you mean, almost? I have her heart. She gave it to me freely and will ingly. She loves me—that was the game. ”

  “Not quite. ” Rowan glanced at the sleeping girl with a sneer. “To truly finish the game, you have to break her. Body and soul. Crush her heart, and make it so she can never find true love again, because nothing will compare to what she had with you. ”

  “Isn't that a little excessive?” I waved a hand at the mortal on the altar.

  “I brought her here. She gave herself to me. It's done. I'll leave her with her vil age and won't see her again. She'l forget, eventual y. ”

  “Don't be so naïve. ” Rowan shook his head. “You know they can't forget us. Not when we've gone through all the trouble of earning their love. If you leave without breaking her heart, she'l be at that stream, looking for you, until the day she dies. She might even venture into the forest in her despair and get eaten by trol s or wolves or something horrible. So, it's actual y a kindness that you set her free. ” He crossed his arms and leaned back, giving me a mocking look. “Real y, little brother. Did you think this would have a happilyever-after? Between a mortal and a fey? How did you think this was going to end?” His grin turned faintly savage. “Finish what you started, Ash, unless you'd like me to kill her now, so you won't have to. ”

  I glared at him. “Very well ,” I snapped. “But you'l stay hidden until it's done. This is my game stil , even now. ”

  He grinned. “Of course, little brother,” he said, and backed away, gesturing to the altar. “She's all yours. ”

  I turned back to Brynna, watching her sleep. I didn't care what Rowan said; breaking her was not part of the game. I could easily take her back to the vil age and leave her there, and she would never know what had become of her prince. Breaking a mortal's heart was Rowan's game; something he reveled in, after using humans so completely they were empty husks. I wasn't like Rowan; everything he touched, he made sure to destroy.

  Still, perhaps it was better to ensure she never came after me. She was only a mortal, but I'd grown somewhat fond of her in our time together, like a favorite dog or horse. It wouldn't bother me if she got herself hurt or eaten wandering aimlessly through the forest, but it wouldn't please me, either.

  I let her sleep until dawn, giving her one last night of peace, her dreams whole and intact. As the moon waned and the stars began to fade from the sky, I covered the altar with a thin sheet of frost, and the cold was enough to wake her.

  Blinking, she sat up, shivering and confused, taking in her surroundings. Seeing me standing beside one of the pil ars, she brightened and the sleepiness dropped from her face. Finding her shift, she quickly slipped it on and trotted up, arms open to embrace me.

  I didn't smile as she came up, fixing her with a cold glare, fil ing the air with glamour so the air around me turned frigid. She stumbled to a halt a few feet away, a f licker of confusion crossing her face.

  “My love?”

  Looking down at her, I realized it would be easy. She was so fragile, her heart like a thin glass bal in my fist, fil ed with emotion and hopes and dreams. A few words, that was all it would take, to turn this bright, eager creature into a broken, hol ow shel . What Rowan said came back to me, taunting my ignorance. Did you think this would have a happily ever after? Between a mortal and a fey? How did you think this was going to end?

  I met her eyes, smiled coldly and shattered the il usion. “Go home, human. ”

  She faltered, her lip trembling. “W-what?”

  “I'm bored with this. ” Crossing my arms, I leaned back and gave her a disdainful look. “You've become boring, all that talk of love and destiny and marriage. ”

  “But…but, you said…I thought…”

  “That, what? We'd get married? Run away together? Have a brood of half-human children?” I sneered, shaking my head, and she wilted even further. “I never intended to marry you, human. This was a game, and the game is over now. Go home. Forget all of this, because I'm going to do the same. ”

  “I thought…I thought you loved me…. ”

  “I don't know what love is,” I told her truthful y. “Only that it's a weakness, and it should never be all owed to consume you. It will break you in the end. ”

  She was shaking her head, whether in protest or disbelief, I couldn't tel . Nor did I care. “None of this was real, human. Don't try to find me, because you will not see me again. We played, you lost. Now, say goodbye. ”

  She sank to her knees in a daze, and I turned away, striding into the trees. A few moments later, a horrid, gut-wrenching scream rent the air, sending f locks of birds f lying. I didn't look back. As the screams continued, each one more terrible then the last, I continued deep into the forest, the sense of achievement overshadowed by a tiny bit of doubt.

  As I approached the trod back to Winter, I suddenly realized I wasn't alone. A figure watched me through the trees; tal , dark, wearing a loose robe and cowl that covered its face. As I went for my sword, it raised a gnarled, twisted staff and pointed it at me… …I jerked up on the stone f loor of the temple, gasping, as the present came f looding back. The Guardian loomed over me, cold and impassive.

  I struggled to my feet and leaned against the wall , the memory of that day f lashing before me, bright and clear and painful.

  Brynna. The girl whose life I'd destroyed. I remembered seeing her once after our last meeting, wandering along the stream, her eyes glazed over and blank. I never saw her after that, never thought about her, until an old druid priestess found me one day. She introduced herself as Brynna's grandmother, the high priestess of the clan, and demanded to know if I was the one who had kill ed her granddaughter.

  The girl had fal en into a deep depression, refusing to eat or sleep, until one day her body simply gave out. Brynna had died of a broken heart, and the priestess had come to exact her revenge.

  I curse you, demon! Soulless one. From this day forth, let everyone you love be taken from you. May you suffer the same agony as the girl you destroyed, may your heart know pain unlike any other, for as long as you remain soulless and empty.

  I'd laughed at her then, claiming that I had no capacity to love, and her pathetic curse would be wasted on me. She only bared her yel ow teeth in a smile and spat in my face, right before I cut off her head.

  I sank to the f loor as their faces crowded my mind, dark eyes glaring at me in accusation. My breath came in short gasps. I closed my eyes, but I couldn't escape her face—the girl I had kill ed—because she had fal en in love.

  My eyes burned. Tears ran down my face and fel to the cold floor, making my vision blurry. “What…have you done to me?” I gasped, clutching at my chest, hardly able to breathe—it felt so heavy. The Guardian regarded me without expression, an unmoving shadow in the room.

  “Conscience,” it intoned, “is part of being human. Regret is something no mortal can escape for long. If you cannot come to terms with the mistakes of your past, then you are not fit to have a soul. ”

  I pulled myself into a sitting position, slumping against the bed. “Mistakes,” I said bitterly, trying to compose myself. “My life has been ful of mistakes. ”

  “Yes,” the Guardian agreed, raising its staff. “And we will revisit them all . ”

  “No, please—”

nbsp; Too late. There was a blinding f lash of light, and I was somewhere else.



  I raised my head from where I knelt before Mab's throne, finding the queen smiling down at me. “Ash,” Mab purred, gesturing for me to rise, “my favorite boy. Do you know why I cal ed you here?”

  I stood warily. I'd learned never to trust Mab when she used the word favorite. I'd seen her cal someone her favorite right before she froze them alive, “to remember them always like this. ” More often, it was a ploy to make my brothers jealous, to drive us to compete with one another. This entertained her greatly but made life difficult for me. Rowan took great offense each time I was the favored son, and punished me for it whenever he could.

  I could feel Rowan's glare as I stood, but I ignored him while facing the queen. “I know not, Queen Mab, but whatever your reasons, I will comply. ”

  Her eyes glittered. “Always so formal. Would it hurt you to smile for me once in a blue moon? Rowan is not afraid to look me in the eye. ”

  Rowan was at court a lot more than I was, being groomed as her coun-cilor and confidant, and he shared her vicious sense of humor. But there was no way I could tel her that, so I managed a smal smile, which seemed to please her. She settled back on her throne and regarded me in an almost affectionate manner, then gestured to something behind me.

  A pair of Winter knights in icy-blue armor stepped forward, dragging something between them, throwing it at Mab's feet. A wood nymph, brown-skinned and delicate, with a sharp pointed face and brambles in her long green hair. One of her legs was broken, snapped like a dry twig and hanging at an odd angle. She moaned, only barely conscious, dragging herself across the f loor, away from the foot of the throne.

  “This creature,” Mab said, gazing down at the broken, pathetic body, “and several of its friends attacked and kill ed one of my knights while they were patrol ing the border of the wyldwood. The knights were able to subdue this one, but the rest f led into the wyldwood and escaped. Such an attack cannot go unchal enged, but it refuses to dis-close the whereabouts of its home glade. I was hoping that you, with the vast amount of time you spend hunting there, would know where to find them. ”