The Iron Queen, Page 9Julie Kagawa
Heart racing, I turned to see Puck staring at me, lopsided smirk firmly in place. Tall and gangly, he looked the same as always, eager for trouble, forever ready with a sarcastic quip or witty comeback. But I saw the flicker of pain in his eyes, a glint of anger he couldn’t quite conceal, and it made my gut clench. “Hey, princess. ”
“Hey,” I whispered, as Ash slipped his arms around my waist from behind, drawing me close. I could feel his glare aimed at Puck over my head, a silent, protective gesture that spoke louder than any words. Mine. Back off. Puck ignored him, gazing solely at me. In the shadow of his gaze, I remembered our last meeting, and the ill-fated decision that brought us here.
Oberon’s voice cracked like a whip, and a roar of thunder shook the ground. The Erlking’s voice was ominously quiet, eyes glowing amber through the gently falling snow. “The laws of our people are absolute,” Oberon warned. “Summer and Winter share many things, but love is not one of them. If you make this choice, daughter, the trods will never open for you again. ”
“Meghan. ” Puck stepped forward, pleading. “Don’t do this. I can’t follow you this time. Stay here. With me. ”
“I can’t,” I whispered. “I’m sorry, Puck. I do love you, but I have to do this. ”
His face clouded with pain, and he turned away. Guilt stabbed at me, but in the end, the choice had always been clear.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered again, and followed Ash through the portal, leaving Faery behind me forever.
THE MEMORY BURNED like bile in my stomach, and I closed my eyes, wishing it didn’t have to be this way. I loved Puck like a brother and a best friend. And yet, during a very dark period when I was confused and lonely and hurt, my affection for him had led me to do something stupid, something I shouldn’t have done. I knew he loved me, and the fact that I’d taken advantage of his feelings made me disgusted with myself. I wished I knew how to fix it, but the barely concealed pain in Puck’s eyes told me no amount of words would make it better.
Finally, I found my voice. “What are you doing here?” I whispered, suddenly grateful for Ash’s arms around me, a barrier between me and Puck. Puck shrugged and rolled his eyes.
“It’s obvious, isn’t it?” he replied, sounding a bit sharper than normal. “After you and ice-boy got yourselves exiled, I was worried that the Iron fey were still looking for you. So I came to find out. Good thing I did, too. So, who is this newest Iron fey you pissed off? Glitch, was it? Machina’s first lieutenant—you sure know how to pick ’em, princess. ”
“Later. ” Grimalkin appeared from a shadow, bottlebrush tail waving in the wind. “Human, your attempted kidnapping has set off a riot among the New Orleans fey,” he announced, his golden eyes boring into me. “We should get moving before anything else happens. The Iron fey are coming for you, and I have no wish to do this entire little rescue again. Talk when we get to Leanansidhe’s. Let us go. ”
He trotted down the street with his tail held high, pausing once to peer at us from the edge of an alley, eyes glowing in the darkness, before slipping into the black.
I slid out of Ash’s embrace and took a step toward Puck, hoping we could talk. I missed him. He was my best friend, and I wanted it to be like it was before, the three of us taking on the world. But as soon as I moved, Puck slid away, as if being near me was too uncomfortable to bear. In three long strides he reached the mouth of the alley, then turned to grin at us, red hair gleaming under the street lamps.
“Well, lovebirds? You coming or not? I can’t wait to see the look on Lea’s face when you both come strolling in. ” His eyes glinted, and his grin turned faintly savage. “You know, I heard she does horrid things to those who annoy her. Here’s hoping she won’t rip out your guts and use them for harp strings, prince. ” Snickering, he waggled his eyebrows at us and turned away, following Grimalkin into the shadows.
I sighed. “He hates me. ”
Ash grunted. “No, I think that particular sentiment is reserved for me alone,”
he said in an amused voice. When I didn’t answer, he motioned us forward, and we crossed the street together, coming to the mouth of the alley. “Goodfellow doesn’t hate you,” he continued as the shadows loomed dark and menacing beyond the street lamps. “He’s angry, but I think it’s more at himself. After all, he had sixteen years to make his move. It’s no one’s fault but his own that I beat him to it. ”
“So it’s a competition now, huh?”
“If you want to call it that. ” I had started to follow Puck and Grimalkin into the corridor, but he caught my waist and drew me close, sliding one hand up my back while the other framed my face. “I’ve already lost one girl to him,” Ash murmured, tangling his fingers in my hair. Though his voice was light, an old pain flickered across his face and vanished. “I won’t lose another. ” His forehead bumped softly against mine, his brilliant silver gaze searing into me. “I plan to keep you, from everyone, for as long as I’m alive. That includes Puck, the false king, and anyone else who would take you away. ” One corner of his mouth quirked, as I struggled to catch my breath under his powerful scrutiny. “I guess I should’ve warned you that I have a slight possessive streak. ”
“I didn’t notice,” I whispered, trying to keep my voice light and sarcastic, but it came out rather breathy. “It’s all right—I’m not giving you up, either. ”
His eyes turned very soft, and he lowered his head, brushing his lips to mine. I laced my hands behind his neck and closed my eyes, breathing in his scent, forgetting everything, if only for a moment.
“Oi, lovebirds!” Puck’s voice shattered the quiet, bouncing through the darkness. Ash pulled back with a rueful look. “Get a room, would ya? We’ve got better things to do than watch you suck face!”
“Indeed. ” Grimalkin’s voice echoed Puck’s irritation, and I winced. Now even the cat was agreeing with Puck? “Hurry up, or we shall leave you behind. ”
WE FOLLOWED GRIMALKIN through the city, down an unusually long, curving alleyway that turned pitch-black, and suddenly we were back in a familiar dungeonlike basement with torches set into the walls and leering gargoyles curled around stone pillars.
Grimalkin set a brisk pace down several hallways, where torchlight flickered erratically and unseen things growled and scurried about in the darkness. I remembered the first time we came here, the first time we’d met Leanansidhe. Back then, there were more of us. Me, Puck, Grim, Ironhorse, and three halfbreeds named Kimi, Nelson, and Warren. We were a much smaller group now. Ironhorse was gone, as were Kimi and Nelson, all victims of Machina’s cruel lieutenant Virus. Warren was a traitor, working for the false king. I wondered who else I would lose before this was over, if everyone around me was destined to die. I remembered the oracle’s grim prophecy, about how I would end up all alone, and fought down my apprehension.
Ash’s fingers curled around mine and squeezed. He didn’t say anything, but I clung to his hand like a lifeline, as if he could vanish at any moment. We followed Grimalkin up a long flight of stairs to Leanansidhe’s magnificent foyer, with the double grand staircases sweeping toward the roof, the walls covered with famous paintings and art. Instinctively, my eyes were drawn to the baby grand piano in the corner of the room. Where I’d first seen my father, sitting at that bench, hunched over the keys, and hadn’t even known him. The baby grand was empty, but the plush black sofa near the roaring fireplace was not. Reclining against the cushions, one slender hand gripping a sparkling wine flute, was Leanansidhe, Queen of the Exiles.
“Darlings!” Pale, tall, and beautiful, Leanansidhe smiled at us with lips as red as blood, bright copper hair rippling through the air as if it weighed nothing at all. She rose with liquid grace, her ebony gown swirling around her feet, and absently handed her wineglass to a waiting satyr, trading it for a cigarette flute. With the end trailing sapphire-blue smoke, she approached us with the grin of a hungry tiger.
“Meghan, my pet, how good of you to drop by. When you didn’t return from the last mission, I thought the worst, darling. But I see you made it out, after all. ”
Her cold blue gaze flicked to Ash, and she raised a slender eyebrow. “And with the Winter prince in tow. How—” she tapped her nails together, pursing her lips
“—tenacious. ” Her gaze narrowed, and a ripple of power shivered through the air, making the lights flicker, as Leanansidhe turned on Ash. “The last I saw of you, your highness, you were threatening to slaughter the girl’s family. Be forewarned, darling, I don’t care if you are Mab’s favorite son. If you threaten any in this house, I will rip your guts out through your nose and string my harps with them. ”
“I’d love to see that, personally,” Puck muttered, smirking. I shot him a furious glare, and he stuck out his tongue at me.
Ash bowed. “I’ve severed all ties to the Winter Court,” he said evenly, facing the Exile Queen’s glare. “I’m no longer ‘your highness,’ just an exile, like Meghan. And yourself. I mean no harm to you, or anyone within your house. ”
Leanansidhe gave him a tight smile. “Just remember who the queen is around here, darling. ” With a nod to the rest of my companions, she motioned us to the couches. “Sit, darlings, sit,” she said in a voice that held an only thinly veiled threat. “I am afraid we have a lot to discuss. ”
I took a calming breath as I sank into the velvet cushions, feeling very small as the couch tried to swallow me whole. Ash chose to stand, looming behind me, while Puck and Grim perched on the arms. Leanansidhe sank gracefully into the opposite chair, crossing her long legs and staring at me over her cigarette. I thought of my dad, and anger burned, hot and furious. I had so much to ask her, so many questions, I didn’t know where to start. Ash put a warning hand on my shoulder, squeezing gently. No good would come of pissing off the Exile Queen, especially since she had the morbid habit of turning people into harps, cellos, or violins when they annoyed her. I had to proceed cautiously.