“Did you enjoy that, half-breed?” Sarah Skinflayer asked, and I was too winded to answer. “There will be more of the same tomorrow, I guarantee it. Here.” Two pieces of bread and a lump of cheese hit the ground. “That’s the dinner you earned tonight. It should be safe for you to eat. Maybe tomorrow you’ll get something better.”
“Fine,” I muttered, ready to crawl back to my room, thinking there was no way I was ever coming back here. I planned to conveniently “forget” about my forced servitude tomorrow, maybe even find a way out of the Seelie Court. “See you tomorrow.”
The troll blocked my path. “Where do you think you’re going, half-breed? You’re part of my workforce now, so that means you’re mine.” She pointed to a wooden door in the corner. “The servants’ quarters are full. You can take the pantry closet there.” She smiled at me, fierce and terrible, showing blunt yellow teeth and tusks. “We start work at dawn. See you tomorrow, whelp.”
I ATE MY MEASLY DINNER and crawled beneath shelves of onions, turnips, and strange blue vegetables to sleep. I had no blanket, but the kitchens were uncomfortably warm. I was trying to turn a sack of grain into a pillow, when I remembered my backpack, tossed onto a shelf, and crawled out to retrieve it. There was nothing in the orange pack now but a broken iPod, but still, it was mine, the only reminder of my old life.
I snatched the backpack off the shelf and was walking back toward my tiny room when I felt something wriggle inside the pack. Startled, I nearly dropped it, and heard a soft snicker coming from inside. Edging over to the counter, I put the bag down, grabbed a knife, and unzipped it, ready to plunge the blade into whatever jumped out.
My iPod lay there, dead and silent. With a sigh, I zipped the pack up and carried it into the pantry with me. Tossing it into a corner, I curled up on the floor, put my head on the bag of grain, and let my thoughts drift. I thought of Ethan, and Mom, and school. Was anyone missing me back home? Were there search parties being sent out for me, police and dogs sniffing around the last places I was seen? Or had Mom forgotten me, as I was sure Luke had? Would I even have a home to go back to, if I did manage to find Ethan?
I started to shake, and my eyes grew misty. Soon, tears flowed down my cheeks, staining the sack under my head and making my hair sticky. I turned my face into the rough fabric and sobbed. I’d hit rock bottom. Lying in a dark pantry, with no hope of rescuing Ethan and nothing to look forward to but fear, pain, and exhaustion, I was ready to give up.
Gradually, as my sobs stilled and my breathing grew calmer, I realized I was not alone.
Raising my head, I first saw my backpack, where I’d flung it in the corner. It was unzipped, lying open like a gaping maw. I saw the glint of the iPod inside.
Then, I saw the eyes.
My heart stopped, and I sat up quickly, banging my head against the shelf. Dust showered me as I scooted to the far corner, gasping. I’d seen those eyes before, glowing green and intelligent. The creature was small, smaller than the goblins, with oily black skin and long, spindly arms. Except for the large, goblinlike ears, it looked like a horrible cross between a monkey and a spider.
The creature smiled, and its teeth lit the corner with pale blue light.
Then it spoke.
Its voice echoed flatly in the gloom, like a radio speaker hissing static. I couldn’t understand it at first. Then, as if it were changing the station, the static cleared away and I heard words.
“—are waiting,” it crackled, its voice still buzzing with static. “Come to…iron…your brother…held in…”
“Ethan?” I bolted upright, banging my head again. “Where is he? What do you know about him?”
“…Iron Court…we…waiting for…” The creature flickered in the darkness, going fuzzy like a weak signal. It hissed and blipped out of sight, plunging the room into blackness again.
I lay there in the gloom, my heart pounding, thinking about what the creature had said. I couldn’t glean much from the eerie conversation, except that my brother was alive, and something called the Iron Court was waiting for something.
All right, I told myself, taking a deep breath. They’re still out there, Meghan. Ethan and your dad. You can’t give up now. Time to stop being a crybaby and get your act together.
I snatched the iPod and stuffed it into my back pocket. If that monster-thing came to me with any more news of Ethan, I wanted to be ready. Lying back on the cold floor, I closed my eyes and started to plan.
THE NEXT TWO DAYS PASSED in a blur. I did everything the troll woman told me to do: washed dishes, scrubbed floors, sliced meat off animal carcasses until my hands were stained red. No more spells were cast on me, and Sarah Skinflayer began to eye me with grudging respect. The food they offered was simple fare: bread and cheese and water. The troll woman informed me anything more exotic might wreak havoc with my delicate half-human system. At night, I would crawl, exhausted, into my bed in the pantry and fall asleep immediately. The spindly creature visited me no more after that first night, and my sleep was blissfully free of nightmares.
All the while, I kept my eyes and ears open, gleaning information that would help me when I finally made my escape. In the kitchen, under the hawk eye of Sarah Skinflayer, escape was impossible. The troll woman had a habit of appearing whenever I thought about taking a break, or striding into a room just as I finished a task. I did try to sneak out of the kitchen one night, but when I pulled open the front door, a small storage room greeted me instead of the tunnel of thorns. I almost despaired at that point, but forced myself to be patient. The time would come, I told myself; I would just have to be ready when it did.
I spoke with the other kitchen workers when I could, creatures called brownies and house gnomes, but they were so busy I gained little information from them. I did discover something that made my heart pound excitedly. Elysium, the event that had everyone in the kitchen running around like mad things, would be held in a few days. As tradition dictated, the Seelie and Unseelie courts would meet on neutral ground, to discuss politics, sign new accords, and maintain their very uneasy truce. Since it was spring, the Unseelie Court would be traveling to Oberon’s territory for Elysium; in winter, the Unseelie would play host. Everyone in the court was invited, and as kitchen staff, we were required to be there.
I continued working hard, my own plans for Elysium running around in my head.
Then, three days after my sentence to the kitchens, we had visitors.
I was standing over a basket of tiny dead quail, plucking them after Sarah Skinflayer broke their necks and passed them to me. I tried to ignore the troll as she reached into a cage, grabbed a flapping, bright-eyed bird, and twisted its neck with a faint popping sound. She then tossed the lifeless body into the basket like a plucked fruit and reached for another.
The doors swung open abruptly, streaming light into the room, and three faery knights walked in. Long silver hair, pulled into simple ponytails, glimmered in the dimness of the room, and their faces were haughty and arrogant.
“We have come for the half-breed,” one of them announced, his voice ringing through the kitchen. “By order of King Oberon, she will come with us.”
Sarah Skinflayer glanced my way, snorted, and picked up another quail. “That’s fine with me. The brat’s been nothing but deadweight since she came here. Take her out of my kitchens, and good riddance to her.” She punctured the statement with the sharp crack of the bird’s neck, and a brownie left the oven to take my place, shooing me away as it hopped onto a stool.
I started to follow them, but remembered my backpack, lying on the floor of the pantry closet. Muttering an apology, I hurried to grab it, slinging it over my back as I returned. None of the brownies looked up at me as I left, though Sarah Skinflayer glowered as she wrung a bird’s neck. Battling relief and an odd sense of guilt, I followed the knights out of the room.
They led me through the twisting brambles to yet another door, opening it without preamble. I walked into a small bedroom, not nearly as fancy as my first, but nice enough. I glimpsed a round, steaming pool through a side-room door, and thought longingly of a bath.
I heard muffled clops on the carpeted floor, and turned to see a pair of satyr girls enter behind a tall, willowy woman with pure white skin and straight raven hair. She wore a dress so black it sucked in the light, and her fingers were long and spiderlike.
One of the satyr girls peeked at me from behind the woman’s dress. I recognized Tansy, who gave me a timid smile, as if she feared I was mad about the encounter with Titania. I wasn’t; she had been a pawn in the faery queen’s game, just like me. But before I could say anything, the tall woman swept up and grabbed me, holding my chin in her bony fingers. Black eyes, with no iris or pupil, scanned my face.
“Filthy,” she rasped, her voice like silk over a steel blade. “What a plain, dirty little specimen. What does Oberon expect me to do with this? I’m not a miracle worker.”
I wrenched my face from her grasp, and the satyr girls squeaked. The lady, however, seemed amused. “Well, I suppose we shall have to try. Half-breed—”
“My name is not ‘half-breed,’” I snapped, tired of hearing the word. “It’s Meghan. Meghan Chase.”
The woman didn’t blink. “You give out your full name so easily, child,” she stated, making me frown in confusion. “You are lucky that it is not your True Name, else you might find yourself in a dire situation. Very well, Meghan Chase. I am Lady Weaver, and you will listen to me carefully. King Oberon has asked me to make you presentable for Elysium tonight. He will not have his half-breed daughter parading around in peasant rags, or worse, mortal clothes, in front of the Unseelie Court. I told him I would do my best and not to expect miracles, but we shall try. Now—” she gestured to the side room “—first things first. You reek of human, troll, and blood. Go take a bath.” She clapped once, and the two satyrs trotted around to face me. “Tansy and Clarissa will attend you. Now I must design something for you to wear that will not make a laughingstock of your father.”
I glanced at Tansy, who wasn’t meeting my eyes. Silently, I followed them to the pool, stripped off my disgusting clothes, and sank into the hot water.
Bliss. I floated for several minutes, letting the heat soak into my bones, easing the aches and pains from the past three days. I wondered if faeries ever got dirty or sweaty; I’d never seen any of the nobles look anything less than elegant.
The heat was making me sleepy. I must’ve dozed, for I had disturbing dreams of spiders crawling over my body in great black swarms, covering me with webs as if I were a giant fly. When I awoke, shuddering and itchy, I was lying on the bed and Lady Weaver stood over me.
“Well.” She sighed as I struggled to my feet. “It’s not my greatest work, but I suppose it will have to do. Come here, girl. Stand before the mirror a moment.”
I did as she asked, and gaped at the reflection it showed me. A shimmering silver dress covered me, the material lighter than silk. It rippled like water with the slightest movement, lacy sleeves billowing out from my arms, barely touching my skin. My hair had been elegantly curled and twisted into a graceful swirl atop my head, held in place by sparkling pins. A sapphire the size of a baby’s fist flashed blue fire at my throat.