The Iron Queen, Page 7Julie Kagawa
I glanced at Ash, who was keeping his expression carefully neutral. Grimalkin sneezed, the feline equivalent of a laugh, and continued. “So, naturally, when you disappeared from the Nevernever, Leanansidhe asked me to find you. She wishes to speak to you, human. Now. ”
My stomach contracted into a tiny knot, as Grimalkin stood and leaped gracefully from the wall, landing in the grass without a sound. “Follow me,” he ordered, his eyes becoming floating golden orbs in the dark. “I will show you the trod to the Between from here. And human, there are rumors of Iron fey hunting you as well, so I suggest we hurry. ”
I swallowed. “No,” I told him, and the orbs blinked in surprise. “I’m not done here. Leanansidhe wants to talk to me? Good, I have some things to talk to her about, as well. But I am not going into her mansion, knowing my dad is right there, and still having no idea who he is. I’m getting my memory back. Until then, she can just wait. ”
Ash touched the back of my arm, a silent, approving gesture, and Grimalkin stared at me as if I’d grown three heads. “Defying Leanansidhe. I had no idea it was going to be so interesting. ” He purred, narrowing his eyes. “Very well, human. I will accompany you, if only to see the Exile Queen’s face when you tell her the reason she had to wait. ”
That sounded faintly ominous, but I didn’t care. Leanansidhe had a lot to answer for, and I would get those answers—but first I needed to know what I was asking about.
THE MUSEUM DOORS WERE still unlocked as I eased my way inside, followed by Ash and a continuously purring Grimalkin, who disappeared as soon as he slipped through the door. He didn’t creep away or hide in the shadows; he simply vanished from sight. It didn’t surprise me in the least—I was used to it by now.
A withered figure waited for us near the back, leaning against a glass counter, turning a skull over in her hands. She bared her needlelike teeth in a smile as I approached, raking her nails along the skull’s naked cheekbones.
“You have it,” she whispered, her hollow gaze fastened on me. “I can smell it from here. Show it to me, human. What have you brought old Anna?”
I pulled the ring from my pocket and held it up, where it glimmered in the musty darkness like a firefly. The oracle’s smile grew wider.
“Ah, yes. The doomed lovers, separated by age and time, and the hope that kept them alive. Futile though it was, in the end. ” She coughed a laugh, a wisp of dust billowing from her mouth into the air. “Went to the graveyard, did you?
How brazen. No wonder I kept seeing a dog in your future. You did not, by chance, get the mate of this ring, did you?”
“Ah, well. ” She held out a withered hand, like a bird opening its talons. “I guess I shall have to be content with the one. Now, Meghan Chase, give me the Token. ”
“You promised,” I reminded her, taking one step forward. “The Token for my memory. I want it all back. ”
“Of course, child. ” The oracle seemed annoyed. “I will relinquish the memory of your father—the memory you freely gave up, may I add—in exchange for the Token. As our bargain dictates, so shall it be done. ” She flexed her claws impatiently. “Now, please. Hand it over. ”
I hesitated a moment more, then dropped the ring into her palm. Her fingers closed with such speed that I took a step back. The oracle sighed, holding the ring to her sunken chest. “Such longing,” she mused, as if in a daze.
“Such emotion. I remember. Before I gave them all away. I remember how it felt to feel. ” She sniffed, coming out of her trance, and floated back, behind the counter, her voice suddenly brittle and sour. “I don’t see how you mortals do it, these feelings you must endure. They will ruin you, in the end. Isn’t that right, prince?”
I started, but Ash didn’t seem surprised. “It’s worth it,” he said quietly.
“Yes, you tell yourself that now. ” The oracle slipped the ring over a talon and held up her hand, admiring it. “But see how you feel a few decades from now, when the girl has grown withered and weak, slipping farther from you with each passing day, and you are as ageless as time. Or, perhaps—” she turned to me now
“—your beloved prince will find the mortal realm is too much for him to stay, to be, and he will fade into nothingness. One day, you will wake up and he will simply be gone, only a memory, and you will never find love again, because how can a mere mortal compete with the fair folk?” The oracle hissed, lips curled into a sneer. “Then you will wish you were empty inside. Like me. ”
Ash remained calm, expressionless, but I felt a stab of fear twist my stomach.
“Is this…what you see?” I whispered, a band tightening around my heart. “Our future?”
“Flashes,” the oracle said, waving her hand dismissively. “The far-future is a constantly changing wave, always in motion, never certain. The story changes with every breath. Every decision we make sends it down another path. But…”
She narrowed her hollow eyes at me. “There is one constant in your future, child, and that is pain. Pain and emptiness, for your friends, the ones you hold dearest to your heart, are nowhere to be seen. ”
The band around my chest squeezed tight. The oracle smiled, a bitter, empty smile, and broke eye contact. “But perhaps you will change all that,” she mused, gesturing to something I couldn’t see behind the counter. “Perhaps you will find a happy ending to this tale, one that I have not seen. After all—” she held up a long finger, where the ring glimmered brightly against the gloom “—without hope, where would we be now?” She cackled and held out her hand. A small glass globe floated up from behind the counter, hovering in the air before it came to rest in the oracle’s palm. Her nails curled over it, and she beckoned to me with her other hand.
“Here is what you seek,” she rasped, dropping the globe into my hand. I blinked in surprise. The glass felt as light and delicate as a bubble resting in my palm, as if I could crush it just by flexing my fingers. “When you are ready, simply shatter the globe, and your memory will be released.
“Now,” she continued, drawing back, “I believe that is everything you need, Meghan Chase. When I see you again, no matter what you choose, you will not be the same. ”
“What do you mean by that?”
The oracle smiled. A breath of wind stirred the room, and she dissolved into a swirling cyclone of dust, sweeping through the air and stinging my eyes and throat. Coughing, I turned away, and when I was able to look up again, she was gone.
Trembling, I looked down at the globe in my hand. In the flickering faery light, I could see faint outlines in the reflective surface, images sliding across the glass. Reflections of things not there.
“Well?” came Grimalkin’s voice, as the cat appeared on another counter amid several jars containing dead snakes in amber liquid. “Are you going to smash it or not?”
“Are you sure it’ll come back to me?” I asked, watching a man’s face slide across the glass, followed by a girl on a bike. More images rippled like mirages, too brief and distorted to recognize. “The oracle just told me they’d be released—
she didn’t specifically say that they would come back. If I break this now, my memory won’t dissolve into thin air, or get soaked up by some hidden faery memory-soaker, will it?”
Grimalkin sneezed, echoing Ash’s quiet chuckle in the corner. “You’ve been around us too long,” Ash murmured, and I thought I heard a trace of sadness in his voice. I didn’t know if he meant I was being too suspicious, looking for loopholes in a faery bargain, or that he thought that was exactly what I should be doing.
Grimalkin snorted, giving me a disdainful look. “Not all fey seek to deceive you, human,” he said in a bored voice. “As far as I could tell, the oracle’s offer was genuine. ” He sniffed and thumped his tail against the counter. “Had she wanted to entrap you, she would have wrapped so many riddles around the offer that you would never have a chance of untangling the true meaning
I looked at Ash, and he nodded. “Okay, then,” I said, taking a deep breath. I raised the globe above my head. “Here goes nothing. ” And I flung it to the floor with all my might.
The fragile glass shattered against the carpet with an almost musical chime, shards spiraling up to become fragments of light that spun around the room. They merged and coalesced into a thousand images, fluttering through the air like frantic doves. As I watched, breathless, they swirled together and descended like a flock of birds in a horror movie. I was bombarded by an endless stream of images and emotions, all trying to rip into my head at once. I put my hands to my face, trying to block them out, but it didn’t help. The visions kept coming, flitting through my head like a strobe light. Of a man with lank brown hair, long gentle fingers, and eyes that were always smiling. The images were all of him. Him…pushing me on the park swing. Holding my first bike steady as I wobbled down the sidewalk. Sitting at our old piano, his long fingers flying over the keys, as I sat on the couch and watched him play. Walking into a tiny green pond, the water closing over his head, as I screamed and screamed until the police arrived.
When it was over, I was kneeling on the floor with Ash’s arms around me, holding me to his chest. I was panting, my hands clenched in his shirt, and his body was rigid against mine. My head felt too full, throbbing like it was about to explode, ready to burst open at the seams.
But I remembered. Everything. I remembered the man who’d looked after me for six years. Who’d raised me, thinking I was his only daughter, not knowing my real heritage. Oberon had called him a stranger, but to hell with that. As far as I was concerned, Paul was my father in everything but blood. Oberon might be my biological dad, but he was never around. He was a stranger who had no interest in my life, who called me daughter but didn’t know me at all. The man who’d read me bedtime stories in a singsong voice, put unicorn bandages on my scraped elbows, and held me on his knee while he played the piano—he was my real dad. And I’d always think of him as such.