The Iron Daughter, Page 43Julie Kagawa
I held up the frame. “Recognize him?”
Puck squinted at the photo, then his eyes got wide. “Hell,” he muttered. “It’s Charles. ”
I nodded faintly. “Charles,” I whispered, pulling the frame back. “I didn’t even know him. I don’t know how I didn’t recognize…” I stopped, remembering an old woman shifting through my mind, scattering memories like leaves, searching for the one she wanted. When we were first searching for Ethan and the Iron King, we’d asked an ancient Oracle, living in New Orleans, to help us find Machina’s lair. The Oracle agreed to help us…in exchange for one of my memories. I hadn’t given it any thought until now. “That was the exchange, wasn’t it?” I asked bitterly, looking at Puck. “The Oracle’s payment for helping us. This was the memory she took. ”
Puck didn’t say anything. I sighed, staring at the frame, then shook my head.
“Who is he?” I asked.
“He was your father,” Puck murmured. “Or, at least, the man you thought was your father. Before you came here, and your mom met Luke. He disappeared when you were six. ”
I couldn’t take my eyes off the strange photo, at the man holding me so easily, both of us smiling at the camera. “You knew who he was,” I murmured without looking away. “You knew who Charles was, didn’t you? All that time we were at Leanansidhe’s, you knew. ” Puck didn’t answer, and I finally tore my gaze from the photo, glaring up at him. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“And what would you have done, Princess?” Puck crossed his arms and stared back, unrepentant. “Made a bargain with Leanansidhe? Dragged him home again, like nothing happened? Do you think your mom would take him back without a second thought?”
Of course she wouldn’t. She had Luke now, and Ethan. Nothing would change, even if I did manage to bring Charles home. And the worst part was, I couldn’t remember why I’d wanted to.
My mind spun. I was drowning in a torrent of confusing emotions, feeling my world turned upside down. The shock of discovery. Guilt that I didn’t recognize my mother’s first husband, the man who’d raised me as a child, and worse, couldn’t remember anything about him. He was like a stranger on the street. Anger at Puck. He had known all along, and deliberately kept me in the dark. Anger at Leanansidhe. What the hell was she doing with my dad? How did he even get there? And how was I going to get him out?
Did I even want to get him out?
“Princess. ” Puck’s voice broke through my numb trance. I glared poisoned daggers at him and he gave me a weak smile. “Scary. You can rip me to pieces later. His royal iciness isn’t looking so good. We have to get him to a healer, now. ”
Ethan sniffed and clamped himself to my leg, his small body tight with determination. “No!” he wailed. “No, she’s not leaving! No!”
I looked at Puck helplessly, torn in several directions and feeling I could scream. “I can’t leave him here alone. ”
“He will not be alone, Princesss,” came Spider’s voice from under my bed.
“We will defend him with our livesss, asss ordered. ”
“Can you promise me that?”
A soft hiss. “Asss you wisssh. We three of the Unssseelie Court, bogey, tatter-colt, and cluricaun, promissse to look after the Chassse boy until we are told otherwissse by Hisss Highnesss Prince Asssh or Queen Mab herssself. ”
I still didn’t like it, but it was all I could do for now. Once a faery says the word promise, it is an ironclad contract. Ethan, however, wailed and clung tighter to my leg.
“No!” he cried again, on his way to a rare but intense temper tantrum. “You’re not leaving!
Puck sighed and placed his palm gently on Ethan’s head, murmuring something under his breath. I saw a shimmer of glamour go through the air, and Ethan slumped against my leg, going silent mid-scream. Alarmed, I scooped him up, but a soft snore came from his open mouth, and Puck grinned.
“Did you really have to do that?” I said, bundling Ethan in the blanket and carrying him back to his room.
“Well, it was either that or turn him into a rabbit for a few hours. ” Puck was infuriatingly unrepentant as he followed me down the hall. “And I don’t think your parents would’ve appreciated that. ”
Icy water dripped from the ceiling and ran rivulets down the walls, soaking his toys and stuffed animals. “This isn’t going to work,” I groaned. “Even if he is asleep, I can’t leave him in here. He’ll freeze!”
As if on command, the closet door swung open, warm and dark and, most important, dry.
“Come on, Princess,” Puck urged as I hesitated. “Make a decision here. We’re running out of time. ”
Reluctantly, I set Ethan’s small body in the closet, pulling down several more blankets to make a nest around him. He remained deeply asleep, breathing easily through his nose and mouth, and didn’t even stir as I piled the quilts around him.
“You’d better take good care of him,” I whispered to the shadows around me, knowing they were listening. After smoothing his hair back one last time, pulling the covers over his shoulders, I finally rose and followed Puck down the stairs.
“I hope Ash doesn’t object to us dragging his carcass outside,” Puck muttered as we made our way down the steps, getting dripped on every few feet. “I patched him up as best I could, but I don’t think he can walk very…” He trailed off as we reached the frozen living room. The front door creaked softly on its hinges, spilling a bar of moonlight across the floor, and Ash was nowhere to be seen.
I flung myself across the room, slipping on slush and ice, and burst onto the porch. Ash’s lean silhouette was moving silently across the yard, stumbling every few feet, one arm around his middle. At the edge of the trees, barely visible within the shadows, a small black horse with glowing crimson eyes waited for him.
I leaped down the steps and raced across the yard, my heart pounding in my ears. “Ash!” I cried, and lunged, catching hold of his arm. He flinched and tried shrugging me off, but nearly fell with the effort. “Wait! Where are you going?”
“Back for the scepter. ” His voice was dull, and he tried pulling away again, but I clung to him desperately. “Let me go, Meghan. I have to do this. ”
“No, you don’t! Not like this. ” Despair rose up like a black tide, and I choked back tears. “What are you thinking? You can’t face them all alone. You’ll be killed. ” He didn’t move, either to disagree or to shake me off, and my desperation grew. “Why are you doing this?” I whispered. “Why won’t you let us help you?”
“Meghan, please. ” Ash sounded as if he was desperately clinging to the last shreds of his composure. “Let me go. I can’t stay here. Not after…” He shuddered and took a ragged breath. “Not after what I did. ”
“That wasn’t you. ” Releasing his arm, I stepped in front of him, blocking his path. He wouldn’t meet my eyes. Steeling myself, I stepped closer, finding the courage to gently turn his face to mine. “Ash, that wasn’t you. Don’t go blaming yourself—you had no control over this. This is no one’s fault but hers. ”
His silver eyes were haunted. “It doesn’t excuse what I did. ”
“No. ” He flinched and tried drawing back, but I held firm. “But that doesn’t mean you should throw your life away because you feel guilty. What would that accomplish?”
He regarded me solemnly, his expression unreadable, and my throat ached with longing. I yearned to fling my arms around him and hug him close, but I knew he wouldn’t allow it.
“Virus is still out there,” I continued, holding his gaze, “and now we have a real chance to get the scepter back. But we have to do it together this time. Deal?”
He regarded me solemnly. “Is this another contract?”
“No,” I whispered, appalled. “I wouldn’t do that to you again. ” He remained silent, staring at me, and I reluctantly let him go, raw desperation tearing at my stomach. “Ash, if you reall
y want to leave, I can’t stop you. But—”
“I accept. ”
I blinked at him. “Accept? What—?”
“The terms of our contract. ” He bowed his head, his voice somber and grim.
“I will aid you until we get the scepter back and return it to the Winter Court. I will stay with you until these terms are fulfilled, this I promise. ”
“Is that all it is to you? A bargain?”
“Meghan. ” He glanced at me, eyes pleading. “Let me do this. It’s the only way I can think of to repay you. ”
“So, are we done here?” Puck sauntered up beside me, putting an arm around my shoulders before I could stop him. Ash stiffened, drawing back, and his eyes went cold. Puck looked past him to the tatter-colt, standing in the trees, and raised an eyebrow. “I guess that’s our ride, then. ”
The black horse pinned its ears and curled back its lips in a very unhorselike snarl, baring flat yellow teeth at us. Puck snickered. “Huh, I don’t think your friend likes me very much, Your Highness. Looks like you’ll be riding to the healer’s solo. ”
“I’ll go with him,” I said quickly, stepping out of Puck’s casual embrace. He blinked at me and scowled as I pulled him aside. “Ash can barely keep his feet,” I whispered, matching his glare. “Someone has to stay with him. I just want to make sure he doesn’t go off on his own. ”
He gave me that infuriating smirk. “Sure, Princess. Whatever you say. ”
I resisted the urge to punch him. “Just get us to the healer, Puck. ” He rolled his eyes and stalked off, glaring at Ash as he swept by. Ash watched him leave without comment, his expression strangely dead.
Turning away, he stumbled over to the tatter-colt, which bent its forelegs and knelt for him so that he could pull himself onto its back with a barely noticeable grimace. A little nervously, I approached the equine fey, which tossed its head and swished its ragged tail but thankfully didn’t lunge or bite. It didn’t kneel for me, however, and I had to scramble onto its back the hard way, settling behind Ash and wrapping my arms around his waist. For a moment, I closed my eyes and laid my cheek against his back, content just to hold him without fear. I heard his heartbeat quicken, and felt a little shiver go through him, but he remained tense in my arms, rigid and uncomfortable. A heaviness settled in my chest, and I swallowed the lump in my throat.