Home > The Iron Queen (The Iron Fey #3)(6)

The Iron Queen (The Iron Fey #3)(6)
Author: Julie Kagawa

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.”

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 nak*d 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.

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