The Iron Queen, Page 6Julie Kagawa
“Neighbors found them days later lying in bed, a young man and a shrunken old woman, their fingers intertwined in an unbreakable grip and their faces turned toward one another. The blood from their wrists had already dried on the sheets. ”
I swallowed the lump in my throat and looked at the skeletons again, fingers interlocked in death as they had been in life. And I wished that, for once, faery tales—real faery tales, not Disney fairy tales—would have a happy ending. I wonder what my ending will be? The thought came out of nowhere, making me frown. I looked at Ash over the table; his silver gaze met mine, and I felt my heart swell in my chest. I was in a faery tale, wasn’t I? I was playing my part in the story, the human girl who had fallen in love with a faery prince. Stories like that rarely ended well. Even if I did finish this thing with the false king, even if I did go back to my family and live out a normal life, where would Ash fit in? I was human; he was an immortal, soulless faery. What kind of future did we have together? I would eventually grow old and die; Ash would live on forever, or at least until the mortal world became too much for him and he simply ceased to exist.
I closed my eyes, my heart aching with the bitter truth. He didn’t belong here, in the mortal world. He belonged back in Faery, with the other creatures of myth and nightmares and imagination. Ash was a beautiful, impossible dream: a faery tale. And I, despite my father’s blood, was still human.
“Meghan?” His voice was soft, questioning. “What is it?”
Suddenly angry, I cut off my bleak thoughts. No. I would not accept that. This was my story, our story. I would find a way for us both to live, to be happy. I owed Ash that much.
Something landed on the roof overhead with a hollow thud, and a shower of dust filtered over me. Coughing, I waved my hand in front of my face, squinting in the sudden rain of filth.
“What was that?”
Ash glanced at the roof, eyes narrowing. “Our signal to leave. Here. ” He tossed something at me over the table. It glimmered briefly as I caught it—the tarnished gold ring from the skeleton’s finger. “There’s your Token,” Ash muttered, and I saw his hand dart into his coat pocket, almost too quick to be seen, before he stepped away from the table. “Let’s get out of here. ”
He pulled the door open, motioning me out. As I ducked through the frame, something dripped onto my shoulder from above, something warm and wet and slimy. I put my hand to my neck, and it came away covered in frothy drool. Heart in my throat, I looked back and up.
A monstrous shape crouched atop the mausoleum, silhouetted against the moonlit sky, something lean and muscular and decidedly unnatural. Trembling, I gazed up into the burning crimson eyes of an enormous black dog, big as a cow, lips pulled back to reveal fangs as long as dinner knives.
“Ash,” I squeaked, backing away. The monster dog’s eyes followed me, their burning glare fastened on the hand where I clutched the ring. “Is that—?”
Ash’s sword rasped free. “The Grim. ” The Grim glanced at him and snarled, making the ground tremble, then swung its terrifying gaze back to me. Muscles rippled under its slick coat as it crouched lower, drool hanging in glistening ribbons from its teeth. Ash brandished his sword, speaking to me though he never took his eyes from the Grim. “Meghan, when I say ‘go,’ run forward, not away from it. Understand?”
That sounded very much like suicide, but I trusted Ash. “Yeah,” I whispered, clenching the ring tighter, feeling the edges dig into my palm. “I’m ready. ”
The Grim howled, an earsplitting bay that split my head open, making me want to cover my ears and close my eyes. It leaped, and I would’ve been frozen to the spot if Ash hadn’t snapped me out of it by yelling, “Go!” Spurred into action, I dove forward, beneath the dog hurtling over my head, and felt the crushing impact as the Grim hit the spot where I had been standing.
“Run!” Ash yelled at me. “We have to get off the cemetery grounds, now!”
Behind us, the Grim roared in fury and attacked.
A hail of glittering shards erupted from Ash’s direction, pelting the Grim with frozen daggers and stinging bits of ice. They shattered or glanced off the Grim’s muscular hide, not injuring the beast, but it was enough to buy us a few seconds’ head start. We fled down the aisles, dashing between crypts, ducking around statues of angels and saints, the hot breath of the Grim at our heels. If we had been in the open, the monstrous dog would’ve run me down and used me as a chew toy in three seconds flat, but the narrow streets and tight corridors slowed it down a bit. We zigzagged our way through the cemetery, staying one step ahead of the Grim, until the white concrete wall that marked the cemetery grounds loomed ahead of us.
Ash reached the barrier first and whirled to help me up, positioning himself as a step stool. Expecting to feel teeth on my back at any moment, I stepped onto his knee and launched myself for the top, clawing and kicking. Ash leaped straight up, like he was attached to wires, and landed on the edge, grabbing my arm.
A deafening howl made my ears ring, and I made the mistake of looking back. The Grim’s open maw filled my vision, breath hot and foul in my face, spraying me with drool. Ash yanked me backward just as those jaws snapped inches from my face, and we fell off the wall together, hitting the ground with a jolt that knocked the breath from my lungs.
Gasping, I looked up. The Grim crouched at the top of the wall, glaring at me, fangs bared and shiny in the moonlight. For a moment, I was sure it would leap down and rip us both to pieces. But, with one last snarl, it turned and dropped out of sight, back to the cemetery it was bound to protect. Ash let out a breath and let his head fall back to the grass. “I will say this,” he panted, his eyes closed and his face turned toward the sky. “Being with you is never boring. ”
I opened my shaking fist and looked down at the ring still lying in my palm. It glowed with its own inner light, surrounded by an aura of glamour that shimmered with emotion: deep blue sorrow, emerald hope, and scarlet love. Now that I saw it clearly, I felt a stab of remorse and guilt; this was the symbol of a love that had endured for decades, and we had taken it from the grave with barely a second thought.
I swallowed the lump in my throat and stuck the ring in my jeans pocket. Wiping disgusting Grim drool off my face, I glanced down at Ash. He opened his eyes, and I suddenly realized how close we were. I was practically lying on top of him, our limbs tangled together and our faces inches apart. My heart stuttered a bit, then picked up faster than before. Ever since our exile from Faery and my journey home, we had never been together, really been together. I’d been so preoccupied with what I would say to my family, so anxious to get home, that I hadn’t given it much thought. And Ash never went any further than a brief touch or caress, seeming content to let me set the pace. Only I didn’t know what he wanted, what he expected. What did we have, exactly?
“You’re worried again. ” Ash narrowed his eyes, and the nearness of him made me catch my breath. “It seems you’re always worried, and I can’t do anything to help. ”
I scowled at him. “You could stop reading my emotions every time I turn around,” I said, feigning irritation, when in reality my heart was beating so hard I knew he had to feel it. “If it bothers you so much, you could find something else to focus on. ”
“Can’t help it. ” He sounded annoyingly cavalier, completely self-assured and comfortable, lying there on his back. “The more we’re connected to our chosen someone, the more we can pick up on what they’re feeling. It’s instinctive, like breathing. ”
“You can’t hold your breath?”
One corner of his mouth twitched. “I suppose I could block it out, if I tried. ”
“Uh-huh. But you’re not going to, are you?”
“No. ” Serious again, he reached up and ran his fingers through my hair, and for a moment I forgot to breathe. “I want to know when you’re worried, when you’re angry or happy or sad.
You can probably do the same to me, though I’m slightly better at shielding my emotions. More practice. ” A shadow crossed his face, a flicker of pain, before it was gone. “Unfortunately, the longer we’re together, the harder hiding it will become, for both of us. ” He shook his head and gave me a wry smile. “One of the hazards of having a faery in love with you. ”
I kissed him. His arms slid around me and drew me close, and we stayed like that for a while, my hands tangled in his hair, his cool lips on mine. My earlier thoughts in the crypt came back to haunt me, and I shoved them into the darkest corner of my mind. I would not give him up. I would find a way to have a happy ending, for both of us.
For a few seconds, my world shrank down to this tiny spot, with Ash’s heartbeat under my fingers, me breathing in his breath. But then he grunted softly and pulled back, his expression caught between amusement and caution. “We have an audience,” he murmured, and I jerked upright, looking around warily. The night was still and quiet, but a large gray cat sat on the wall with his tail curled around himself, watching us with amused golden eyes. I leaped up, my face burning. “Grimalkin!” I glared at the cat, who regarded me blandly. “Dammit, Grim! Do you plan these things? How long were you watching us?”
“So nice to see you as well, human. ” Grimalkin blinked at me, sarcastic, unruffled, and completely infuriating. He glanced at Ash, who’d gotten to his feet with barely a sound, and twitched an ear. “And it is good to know the rumors are entirely true. ”
Ash wore a blank expression, nonchalantly raking leaves from his hair, but I felt my face heat even more. “Why are you here, Grim?” I demanded. “I don’t have any more debts you can collect on. Or did you just get bored?”
The cat yawned and licked a front paw. “Do not flatter yourself, human. Though it is always amusing to watch you flounder about, I am not here for my own entertainment. ” Grim scrubbed the paw over his face, then carefully cleaned the claws, one by one, before turning to me again. “When Leanansidhe heard why you were banished from the Nevernever, she could not believe it. I told her humans are unreasonable and irrational when it comes to their emotions, but to have the Winter prince exiled as well…she was sure it was a false rumor. Mab’s son would never defy his queen and court, to be banished to the mortal world with the half-blood daughter of Oberon. ” Grimalkin snorted, sounding pleased with himself. “In fact, we made a rather interesting bet on it. She will be terribly annoyed when she hears she has lost. ”