The iron knight, p.45
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       The Iron Knight, p.45

         Part #4 of The Iron Fey series by Julie Kagawa
 
Page 45

 

  I blinked, trying to take it all in. I was back in the Iron Kingdom. The twisted metal ic trees, the wires slithering over the ground, the castle of stone and steel—they couldn't belong anywhere else. And the rain…my heart skipped a beat, and I turned my face to the sky. The water was clear and pure, not the acidic, f lesh-eating rain that had swept through the Iron Realm before Meghan became queen.

  But, if that was the case…if I was in the Iron Kingdom…

  I took a deep breath, breathing in the cool, damp air, drawing it into myself and holding it there, waiting.

  Nothing. No sickness, no pain. I stepped beneath a warped iron tree and placed my palm against the trunk, bracing myself out of habit. The metal was cold and wet beneath my fingers, not burning at all .

  I couldn't help the smile stretching my face as I whirled around, taking in the garden, the estate, everything. Throwing back my head, I raised my arms and howled a victory cry into the rain, hearing it echo off the castle wall s. I was in the Iron Kingdom with no amulet, no protection, and I stil felt nothing. Iron had no power over me, now. I was human.

  I had won!

  A thunderous bark behind me made me spin around, as a lean, furry creature came bounding toward me out of the rain. For a moment, I thought it was a wolf. Then I saw it was a dog, a huge German shepherd with enormous paws and a thick, shaggy pelt spiked up with rain.

  It skidded to a stop a few feet from me and growled, lowering its muzzle and baring sharp white fangs.

  I smiled and crouched down so that we were at eye level, despite the teeth f lashing in my direction. “Hel o, Beau,” I greeted quietly. “Nice to see you, too. ”

  The dog blinked, swiveling its long ears at the sound of my voice. Eyeing me suspiciously, as if it was just beginning to recognize the intruder in the garden, it gave a tentative tail wag.

  “Beau!” cal ed a voice, echoing out of the rain, making my heart jump to my throat and pound wildly. I stood as the voice drifted closer.

  “Where are you, boy? Chasing gremlins again?”

  Beau barked happily and turned, bounding in the direction of the voice, splashing noisily through the puddles. And then, she appeared under the gate arch, scanning the courtyard for the missing dog, and I stopped breathing.

  Ruling a kingdom hadn't changed her. She stil wore faded jeans and a T-shirt, her pale hair long and unbound. But power glowed around her, and even through the rain, she looked real and solid and larger than life, and completely beautiful. Beau came splashing up to her, and she dropped to her knees, scratching the dog's ears. Then Beau looked back at me, wagging his tail, and she glanced up. Our eyes met.

  We both froze. I saw my name on her lips, but no sound escaped her.

  Beau looked back and forth between us, whined, and nudged

  Meghan's hand, snapping her out of the spel . She rose and walked toward me, uncaring of the rain, until we were inches apart. My heart pounded, and I looked down into the intense sapphire eyes of the Iron Queen.

  “Ash. ” The word was hesitant, as if she wasn't quite sure whether I was real or not. “You're here. How…” She blinked, and her voice became stronger as she took a step back. “No, you can't…you shouldn't be here. I told you never to come back. The iron…”

  I reached out and took her hand, silencing her. “It can't hurt me,” I promised. “Not anymore. ” She gazed up at me, hope and uncertainty warring in her eyes, and I softly touched her cheek, her tears mingling with the rain. “I said I'd be back,” I told her, “and from now on, I'll never leave your side. Nothing will keep me from you again. ”

  “How…?” she whispered, but I bent down and kissed her, cutting off any protests. She gasped, and her arms slid around my waist, pul ing us together. I hugged her close, wanting to feel her against my body, to prove that this was real. I was in the Iron Realm, and Meghan was in my arms.

  Beau barked and danced around us, and the rain poured down, drenching us completely, but we felt no urge to move for a long, long time.

  When I awoke next, I was afraid to open my eyes, afraid even to move.

  Blackness pressed against my lids, and I kept them shut, fearful that when I opened my eyes, everything would have disappeared. I would be back at the Testing Grounds, the Guardian looming over me, its booming voice tel ing me I had failed. Or worse, that this was all a dream, and I had yet to complete the tests at all .

  Very cautiously, I peeked through my lids, bracing myself, half expecting to see the stone wall s of the castle, to feel a sudden stab of pain as my mind caught up to reality.

  A white-wal ed room greeted me as I opened my eyes, hazy curtains drawn across a large glass window on the opposite wall . Sunlight slanted in through the crack, spil ing across the carpeted f loor, touching a pile of damp clothes lying in a heap next to the bed. The bed I was lying in. I blinked, memories of the previous night beginning to surface like wisps of smoke, foggy and unreal.

  There was a sigh behind me, and something shifted against my back.

  Careful y, afraid that this entire scene might shatter into reality, I turned. Meghan lay beside me under the covers, her eyes closed, her pale hair spil ing over her face. I took a slow, ragged breath to calm my racing heart, taking a moment just to watch her. It was real. This was real. I gently brushed her hair from her cheek and watched her stir under my fingers, opening her eyes. Her smile brightened the whole room.

  “I was afraid it was a dream,” she whispered.

  “You have no idea how desperately I was hoping it wasn't. ” Cupping the back of her neck, I drew her close and kissed her again. She trailed her fingers over my bare chest, and I shivered, almost frightened by how much I loved this girl. But then, I'd gone to the End of the World, endured trials no creature should ever face, for her. I would do it again if I had to.

  And compared to that, the question on my mind should've been easy.

  But as Meghan pulled back to look at me, I found my mind had gone blank, and I was more nervous then I had been in all my years as a Winter prince.

  The question stayed on my mind as we lingered under the covers for the rest of the morning, feeling lazy and content and reluctant to leave each other's arms. It continued to plague me when we finally got up in the middle of the afternoon, after the servants knocked meekly on the door asking if we were all right. Meghan ordered them to bring dry clothing, and I slipped into dark jeans and a T-shirt, feeling strange and slightly awkward in human clothes. I fidgeted, stil pondering how I was going to ask her. It made my stomach twist every time I thought of it.

  “Hey. ” Meghan's fingers on my arm nearly made me jump out of my skin. She smiled up at me, though her eyes were puzzled. “You seem awful y nervous this morning. Is something wrong?”

  Now or never, Ash. I took a deep breath. “No,” I replied, turning to her, “nothing's wrong, but I did want to ask you something. Come here a moment. ”

  Taking both her hands, I backed away to the middle of the f loor, to an open space in front of the curtains. She fol owed, stil wearing a bemused expression, and I paused a moment to gather my thoughts.

  “I don't…know how it's done in your world,” I began, as she tilted her head at me. “I've seen it before…but, I'm not sure how to ask. It never really comes up in the Winter Court. ”

  Meghan blinked, frowning slightly. “What do you mean?”

  “I know my role here,” I continued. “Whatever happens, I'm stil your knight, and nothing will change that. You are queen of this realm, and I have no desire to rule. That said, I want to do this human thing right.

  I'll stil be at your side, fighting your enemies, standing with you no matter what comes at us. But I'm no longer satisfied with just being your knight and protector. I want something more. ” I stopped and took a deep breath, then slowly released her hands, stepped back and sank to one knee. “What I'm trying to ask is… Meghan Chase, will you do me the honor of marrying me
?”

  Meghan's eyes got big and round, then a bril iant smile broke over her face. The rest of the day passed in a blur, faces f lashing by, unimportant, excitement and disbelief thick on the air. all I remembered clearly was that one moment, that one simple word that would change my life forever.

  “Yes. ”

  The wedding of the Iron Queen turned out to be much more extravag-ant than either of us expected. Marriage within fey society was almost unheard of—the most famous joining was Oberon and Titania's, and they were from the same court. Even I had no idea why the two Summer monarchs chose to wed, but I suspected it involved power, much like everything else. But once it was announced that the Iron Queen was getting married to the former prince of the Winter Court, the news sent the entire Nevernever into an uproar. The other courts were scrambling over one another to find out what was going on. Rumors began to surface, spreading like wildfire: Meghan and I were making a bid for power, the Iron Realm was trying to gain more territory, I was a spy sent by Mab to join Iron with the Winter Court against Summer.

  None of the other rulers were pleased with the marriage. Oberon even tried to stop the wedding, stating that the laws of Summer and Winter forbade a marriage between courts. Of course, when Meghan heard this, she calmly told the Summer monarch that, as Queen of the Iron Realm, she could do what she pleased within her own land. Nor was I a prince of Winter any longer, so he could take his laws and sit on them.

  Regardless, the actual wedding was an enormous affair, with repres-entatives from all three courts present. Meghan's human family would not be there, of course. I doubt any of them would've survived with their sanity intact, but I agreed to a smal er private ceremony with her family in the human world. I didn't really see the point of two weddings, but Meghan insisted her family would see her married as well , so I had no choice but to concede.

  The real wedding was held in the wyldwood, as the other courts couldn't venture into the Iron Realm without poisoning themselves.

  And within a grove carpeted in wildf lowers, where three courts of Faery gathered beneath the trunk of a truly massive tree, Meghan and I were wed before Summer, Winter, Iron and the entire Nevernever.