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The Iron Queen, Page 5

Julie Kagawa

Page 5


  A trace of humor touched his eyes, a silent challenge. “All right, then,” he said, leading me out. “Follow me. ”

  THE CITY OF THE DEAD stretched away before me, stark and black under the swollen yellow moon, steaming in the humid air. Rows upon rows of crypts, tombs, and mausoleums lined the narrow streets, some lovingly decorated with flowers, candles, and plaques, others crumbling with age and neglect. Some of them looked like miniature houses, or even tiny cathedrals, spires and stone crosses raking the sky. Statues of angels and weeping women peered down from rooftops, looking stern or in the throes of grief. Their hollow eyes seemed to follow me down the tomb-lined alleyways.

  I really have to learn to keep my mouth shut, I thought, trailing Ash through the narrow streets, my skin crawling with every noise and suspicious-looking shadow. A warm breeze whispered between crypts, kicking up dust and causing dead leaves to skitter along the ground. My overactive imagination kicked into high gear, seeing zombies shuffling between the rows, the tomb doors creaking open as skeletal hands reached out for us. I shuddered and pressed closer to Ash who, damn him, seemed quite unfazed about walking through a New Orleans cemetery in the dead of night. I sensed his secret amusement at my expense, and so help me, if he said anything along the lines of I told you so I was going to smack him.

  There are no ghosts here, I told myself, my gaze flickering between the rows of crypts. No ghosts, no zombies, no men with hook-hands waiting to ambush stupid teenagers who come to the cemetery at night. Stop being paranoi—

  I caught a shimmer of movement between the crypts, a flutter of something white and ghostly, a woman in a bloodstained hood and cowl, floating over the ground. My heart nearly stopped, and with a squeak, I grabbed Ash’s sleeve, tugging him to a halt. He turned, and I threw myself into his arms, burying my face in his chest. Pride be damned; I’d kill him later for bringing me here.

  “Meghan?” His grip tightened in concern. “What’s wrong?”

  “A ghost,” I whispered, frantically pointing in the direction of the specter. “I saw a ghost. Over there. ”

  He turned to look in that direction, and I felt him relax. “Bean sidhe,” he murmured, sounding like he was trying to stifle his amusement. “It’s not unusual to see them here. They often hang around graveyards after the dead have been buried. ”

  I peeked up, watching the bean sidhe float away into the darkness. Not a ghost, then. With an indignant huff I pulled back, but not enough to let go.

  “Aren’t bean sidhes supposed to be off wailing somewhere?” I muttered, scowling at the ghostly look-alike. “Why is she hanging around here?”

  “Plenty of glamour to be found in old cemeteries. You can feel it, can’t you?”

  Now that he mentioned it, I could. Grief, fear, and despair hung like a thin gray mist over everything, clinging to the stones and crawling along the ground. I took a breath, and the glamour flooded my nose and mouth. I tasted salt and tears and raw, festering grief, mixed with a black fear of death and the dread of the unknown.

  “Awful,” I managed, gagging.

  Ash nodded. “I don’t much care for it, but several of our kind prefer grief and fear over anything else. So graveyards tend to attract them, especially at night. ”

  “Like the bean sidhe?”

  “Bean sidhe are portents of death and sometimes hang around the site of their last mark. ” Ash still hadn’t released his grip. He seemed content to hold me, and I was content to stay there. “But there are others, like bogies and galley beggars, whose sole purpose in life is to frighten mortals. We could see a few of them here, but they won’t bother you if you’re not afraid. ”

  “Too late,” I muttered, and felt his silent chuckle. Turning, I glowered at him and he stared back innocently. “Just so you know,” I growled, poking his chest, “I am going to kill you later for bringing me here. ”

  “I look forward to it. ”

  “You wait. You’ll be sorry when something grabs me and I scream loud enough to wake the dead. ”

  Ash smiled and let me go. “They’ll have to get past me first,” he promised, a steely glint in his eye. “Besides, most things that would grab you are just nursery bogies—irritating but harmless. They only want to scare you. ” He sobered, and his eyes narrowed, peering around the cemetery. “The real threat will be the Grim, assuming this cemetery has one. ”

  “What’s a Grim?” I immediately thought of Grimalkin, the smart-mouthed talking cat who always seemed to pop up when least expected, demanding favors in return for his help. I wondered where the cat was now, if he had returned to the wyldwood after our last adventure. Of course, being in a cemetery, a Grim might also be a grinning skeleton in a black cowl, gliding down the aisles with a scythe in hand. I shivered and cursed my overactive imagination. So help me, it didn’t matter if Ash was here or not, if I saw that coming, people on the other side of the city would hear me scream.

  An eerie howl cut through the night, making me jump. Ash froze, lean muscles tightening beneath the fabric of his shirt. A lethal calmness entered his face: his killer’s mask. The cemetery went deathly still, as if even the ghosts and nursery bogies were afraid to move.

  “Let me guess. That was a Grim. ”

  Ash’s voice was soft as he turned away. “Let’s go. ”

  We continued down several more aisles, stone mausoleums flanking us. I peered anxiously between the tombs, wary of bogies and galley beggars and anything else that might jump out at me. I searched for the mysterious Grim, my creeped-out brain imagining werewolves and zombie dogs and scythe-toting skeletons following us down the streets.

  Finally, we came to a small stone mausoleum with an ancient cross perched on the roof and a simple wooden door, nothing fancy or extravagant. The tiny plaque on the wall was so faded it was impossible to read. I would’ve walked right past it, if Ash hadn’t stopped.

  “Whose tomb is this?” I asked, hanging back from the door as if it would creak open to reveal its grisly contents. Ash walked up the crumbling granite steps and put a hand against the wood.

  “An older couple, no one important,” he replied, running his fingers down the faded surface as if he could sense what was on the other side. Narrowing his eyes, he glanced back at me. “Meghan, get up here, now. ”

  I cringed. “We’re going inside?”

  “Once I open the door, the Grim will know we’re here. Its duty is to guard the cemetery, and the remains of those in it, so it’s not going to be happy about us disturbing the dead. You don’t want to be out here alone when it comes, trust me. ”

  Heart pounding, I scurried up the steps and pressed close to his back, peering out over the graveyard. “What is this thing, anyway?” I asked. “Can’t you just slice your way past it, or turn us invisible for that matter?”

  “It’s not that easy,” Ash explained patiently. “Church Grims are immune to magic and glamour—they see right through it. And even if you kill one, it doesn’t die. To destroy a Grim, you have to dig up and burn its real body, and we don’t have the time. ” He turned back to the door, murmured a quiet word, and pushed it open.

  A blast of hot air wafted out of the open crypt, along with the musty scent of dust and mold and decay. I gagged and pressed my face into Ash’s shoulder as we eased inside, shutting the door behind us. The tiny room was like an oven; I was almost instantly covered in sweat, and I pressed my sleeve to my mouth. Gasping into the fabric, I tried not to be sick at the scene in the middle of the floor.

  On a raised stone table lay two skeletons, side by side. The room was so small that there was barely enough room to skirt the edges of the table, so the bodies were quite close. Too close, in my opinion. The bones were yellowed with age, and nothing clung to them—no skin, hair, or flesh—so they must’ve been here awhile.

  I noticed that the skeletons were holding hands, long bony fingers wrapped around each other in a gruesome parody of affection. On one kno
bby, naked digit, a tarnished ring glinted in the shadows.

  Curiosity battled revulsion, and I looked at Ash, who was staring at the couple with a grave expression on his face. “Who are they?” I whispered through my sleeve. Ash hesitated, then took a quiet breath.

  “There is a story,” he began in a solemn tone, “about a talented saxophone player who went to Mardi Gras one night and caught the eye of a faery queen. And the queen bid him come to her, because he was young and handsome and charming, and his music could set one’s soul on fire. But the sax player refused, because he already had a wife, and his love for her was greater than even the beauty of the faery queen. And so, angry that he spurned her, the queen took him anyway, and held him in the Nevernever for many long days, forcing him to entertain her. But no matter what the young man saw in Faery, and no matter how much the queen tried to make him her own, even when he forgot his own name, he could not forget his wife back in the mortal world. ”

  Watching Ash’s face, the shadows in his eyes as he spoke, I got the feeling this wasn’t a story he’d heard somewhere. This was a tale he’d watched unfold before him. He knew of the Token and where to find it because he remembered the sax player from the queen’s court; another mortal caught up in the cruelty of the fey.

  “Time passed,” Ash went on, “and the queen finally released him, because it amused her to do so. And when the young human, his head filled with memories both real and imagined, returned to his beloved wife, he found her aged sixty years, while he had not changed a day since he vanished from the mortal world. She still wore his ring, and had not taken another husband or suitor, for she always believed he would return. ”

  Ash paused, and I used my free hand to wipe my eyes. The skeletons didn’t seem so creepy now, lying motionless on the table. At least I could look at them without my stomach churning. “What happened after that?” I whispered, glancing at Ash hopefully, pleading for this faery tale to have a happy ending. Or at least a nonhorrible one. I should’ve known better by now. Ash shook his head and sighed.