Home > The Iron Queen (The Iron Fey #3)(4)

The Iron Queen (The Iron Fey #3)(4)
Author: Julie Kagawa

Still smiling, Ash turned back to the door, placing a hand on the faded wood and speaking a quiet word under his breath. The door clicked and slowly swung open.

The interior of the museum was musty and warm. As we eased through the door, I tripped over the same bump in the carpet that had been there a year ago and stumbled into Ash. He steadied me with a sigh, just like a year ago. Only this time, he reached down and touched my hand, moving close to whisper in my ear.

“First lesson,” he said, and even in the darkness I heard the amusement in his voice. “Always be aware of where you put your feet.”

“Thanks,” I said dryly. “I’ll remember that.”

He turned away and tossed a ball of faery fire into existence. The glowing, blue-white sphere hovered overhead, illuminating the room and the macabre collection of voodoo items surrounding us. The skeleton in the top hat and the mannequin with the alligator head still grinned at us along the wall. But now, an ancient, mummylike figure had been added to the duo, a shriveled old woman with hollow pits for eyes and arms like brittle sticks.

Then the withered face turned and smiled at me, and I bit down a yelp.

“Hello, Meghan Chase,” the oracle whispered, gliding away from the wall and her two ghastly bodyguards. “I knew you would return.”

Ash didn’t go for his sword, but I sensed muscles coiling beneath his skin. I took a deep breath to calm my pounding heart and stepped forward. “Then you know why I’m here.”

The oracle’s eyeless gaze peered at my face. “You seek to take back what you gave away a year ago. That which did not seem so important then has become very dear to you now. Such is always the case. You mortals do not know what you have until it is gone.”

“The memory of my father.” I moved away from Ash, closing the distance between me and the oracle. Her hollow gaze followed me, and the smell of dusty newspapers clogged my nose and mouth as I approached. “I want it back. I need it if…if I’m going to see him again at Leanansidhe’s. I have to know what he means to me. Please.”

The knowledge of that mistake was still painful. When I was first searching for my brother, we’d come to the oracle for help. She’d agreed to help us, but asked for a memory in return; it had sounded insignificant at the time. I had agreed to her price, and afterward had had no clue which memory she took. Then, we’d met Leanansidhe, who kept several humans in her home in the Between. All her humans were artists of some sort, brilliant, talented, and slightly mad from living in the Between so long. One of them, a gifted pianist, had taken quite an interest in me, though I hadn’t known who he was. I found out only after we had left the manor and it was too late to go back.

My father. My human father, or at least the man who’d raised me until I was six, and he disappeared. That was the memory the oracle had taken: all recollections of my human dad. And now, I needed them back. If I was going to Leanansidhe’s, I wanted the memory of my father intact when I demanded to know why she had him in the first place.

“Your father is Oberon, the Summer King,” the oracle whispered, her thin mouth pulled into a smile. “This man you seek, this human, is no blood relation to you. He is a mere mortal. A stranger. Why do you care?”

“I don’t know,” I said miserably. “I don’t know if I should care, and I want to be sure. Who was he? Why did he leave us? Why is he with Leanansidhe now?” I broke off and stared at the oracle, feeling Ash come up behind me as silent support. “I have to know,” I whispered. “I need that memory back.”

The oracle tapped glittering nails together, considering. “The bargain was fair,” she rasped. “One exchange for another, we both agreed to this. I cannot simply give you what you seek.” She sniffed, looking momentarily indignant. “I will have something in return.”

I figured. Can’t expect a faery to do you a favor without naming a price. Squashing down my annoyance, I stole a glance at Ash, and saw him nod. He’d expected it, too. I sighed and turned back to the oracle. “What do you want?”

She tapped a nail against her chin, dislodging a few flakes of dead skin or dust. I wrinkled my nose and eased back a step. “Hmm, let us see. What would the girl be willing to part with. Perhaps…your future chi—”

“No,” Ash and I said in unison. She snorted.

“Can’t blame me for trying. Very well.” She leaned forward, studying me with the empty holes in her face. I felt a presence brush lightly against my mind and recoiled, shutting her out.

The oracle hissed, filling the air with the smell of decay. “How…interesting,”

she mused. I waited, but she didn’t elaborate, and after a moment she drew back with a strange smile on her withered face. “Very well, Meghan Chase, this is my request. You are loathe to give up anything you hold dear, and it would be a waste of breath to ask for those things. So, instead I will ask that you fetch me something someone else held dear.”

I blinked at her. “What?”

“I wish for you to bring me a Token. Surely that is not too much to ask.”

“Um…” I cast a helpless glance at Ash. “What’s a token?”

The oracle sighed. “Still so naive.” She gave Ash an almost motherly frown.

“I trust you will teach her better than this in the future, young prince. Now, listen to me, Meghan Chase, and I will share a bit of faery lore. Most items,” she continued, plucking a skull from a table with her bony talons, “are just that. Mundane, ordinary, commonplace. Nothing special. However…” She replaced the skull with a thunk and carefully picked up a small leather bag, tied with a leather thong. I heard the rattle of pebbles or bones within as she held it up.

“Certain items have been so loved and cherished by mortals that they become something else entirely—a symbol of that emotion, whether it be love, hate, pride, or fear. A favored doll, or an artist’s masterpiece. And sometimes, though rarely, the item becomes so important that it grows a life of its own. It’s as if a bit of the human’s soul was left behind, clinging to the once-ordinary article. We fey call these items Tokens, and they are highly sought after, for they radiate a special glamour that never fades away.” The oracle stepped back, seeming to fade into the paraphernalia lining the walls. “Find me a Token, Meghan Chase,” she whispered, “and I will give you back your memory.”

And then she was gone.

I rubbed my arms and turned to Ash, who bore a thoughtful expression. He stared after the vanished oracle. “Great,” I muttered. “So, we need to find a Token thing. I suppose they’re not just lying around for the taking, huh? Any ideas?”

He roused himself and glanced down at me. “I might know where we can find one,” he mused, suddenly solemn again. “But it’s not a place humans like to visit, especially at night.”

I laughed. “What, you don’t think I can handle it?” He raised an eyebrow, and I frowned. “Ash, I’ve been through Arcadia, Tir Na Nog, the Briars, the Between, the Iron Realm, Machina’s tower, and the killing fields of the Nevernever. I don’t think there’s a place capable of freaking me out anymore.”

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.”

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