“I thought Oberon changed you into a bird,” I whispered.

“He did,” Puck answered with a shrug. “But when he discovered you had run away, he sent me find you.”

“So, it was you I heard following us,” Grimalkin said, nearly invisible in the mist.

Puck nodded. “I figured you were heading for the Unseelie Court. Who do you think created that shortcut? Anyway, once I was out, I sniffed around and a piskie told me he saw you heading for this part of town. I knew Shard owned a club here, and the rest, as the mortals say, is history.”

“I’m glad you came,” I said, standing up. My legs felt a bit stronger now, and the shaking had almost stopped. “You saved my life. Again. I know you might not want to hear it, but thanks.”

Puck gave me a sidelong glance that I didn’t like at all. “Don’t thank me just yet, princess. Oberon was quite upset that you had left the safety of the Seelie territories.” He rubbed his hands and looked uncomfortable. “I’m supposed to bring you back to Court.”

I stared at him, feeling as though he’d just kicked me in the stomach. “But…you won’t, right?” I stammered. He looked away, and my desperation grew. “Puck, you can’t. I have to find Ethan. I have to go to the Unseelie Court and bring him home.”

Puck scrubbed a hand through his hair, a strangely human gesture. “You don’t understand,” he said, sounding uncharacteristically unsure. “I’m Oberon’s favorite lackey, but I can only push him so far. If I fail him again, I might end up a lot worse than a raven for two centuries. He could banish me from the Nevernever for all time. I’d never be able to go home.”

“Please,” I begged, taking his hand. He still didn’t look at me. “Help us. Puck, I’ve known you forever. Don’t do this.” I dropped his hand and stared at him, narrowing my eyes. “You realize you’ll have to drag me back kicking and screaming, and I’ll never speak to you again.”

“Don’t be like that.” Puck finally looked up. “You don’t realize what you’re doing. If Mab finds you…you don’t know what she’s capable of.”

“I don’t care. All I know is, my brother is still out there, in trouble. I have to find him. And I’m going to do it with or without your help.”

Puck’s eyes glittered. “I could cast a charm spell over you,” he mused, one corner of his lip quirking up. “That would solve a lot of problems.”

“No,” Grimalkin spoke up before I could explode, “you will not. And you know you will not, so stop posturing. Besides, I have something that might solve this little problem.”

“Oh?”

“A favor.” Grimalkin waved his tail languidly. “From the king.”

“That won’t stop Oberon from banishing me.”

“No,” Grimalkin agreed. “But I could request that you be banished for a limited time only. A few decades or so. It is better than nothing.”

“Uh-huh.” Puck sounded unconvinced. “And this would just cost me a small favor in return, is that right?”

“You pulled me into this conflict the moment you dropped this girl into my tree,” Grimalkin said, blinking lazily. “I cannot believe that was an act of coincidence, not from the infamous Robin Goodfellow. You should have known it might come to this.”

“I know better than to make deals with a cait sith,” Puck shot back, then sighed, scrubbing a hand over his eyes. “Fine,” he said at last. “You win, princess. Freedom is highly overrated, anyway. If I’m going to do anything, I might as well do it big.”

My heart lifted. “So, you’ll help us?”

“Sure, why not?” Puck gave me a resigned smile. “You’d get eaten alive without me. Besides, storming the Unseelie Court?” His grin widened. “Can’t pass that up for anything.”

“Then let us go,” Grimalkin said as Puck pulled me to my feet. “The longer we tarry, the farther word will spread about our intentions. Tir Na Nog is not far now.” He turned and trotted down the corridor, his tail help upright in the fog.

We followed the hallway for several minutes. After a while, the air turned cold and sharp; frost coated the walls of the corridor, and icicles dangled from the ceiling.

“We are getting close,” came Grimalkin’s disembodied voice in the mist.

The hallway ended with a simple wooden door. A thin powder of snow lined the bottom crack, and the door trembled and creaked in the wind howling just outside.

Puck stepped forward. “Ladies and felines,” he stated grandly, grasping the doorknob, “welcome to Tir Na Nog. Land of endless winter and shitloads of snow.”

A billow of freezing powder caressed my face as he pulled the door open. Blinking away ice crystals, I stepped forward.

I stood in a frozen garden, the thornbushes on the fence coated with ice, a cherub fountain in the center of the yard spouting frozen water. In the distance, beyond the barren trees and thorny scrub, I saw the pointed roof of a huge Victorian estate. I glanced back for Grim and Puck and saw them standing under a trellis hung with purple vines and crystal blue flowers. As they stepped through, the corridor vanished behind them.

“Charming,” Puck commented, gazing around in distaste. “I love the barren, dead feel they’re going for. Who’s the gardener, I wonder? I’d love to get some tips.”

I was already shivering. “H-how far are we from Queen Mab’s court?” I asked, my teeth chattering.

“The Winter Court is maybe two days’ walk from here,” Grimalkin said, leaping onto a tree stump. He shook his paws, one by one, and sat down carefully. “We should find shelter soon. I am uncomfortable in this weather, and the girl will certainly freeze to death.”

A dark chuckle echoed across the garden. “I wouldn’t worry about that now.”

A figure stepped out from behind a tree, sword held loosely in one hand. My heart skipped a beat, and then picked up again, louder and more irregular than before. The breeze ruffled the figure’s black hair as he moved toward us, graceful and silent as a shadow. Grimalkin hissed and disappeared, and Puck shoved me behind him.

“I’ve been waiting for you,” Ash murmured into the silence.

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

The Iron Fey

“Ash,” I whispered as the lean, stealthy figure glided toward us, his boots making no sound in the snow. He was devastatingly gorgeous, dressed all in black, his pale face seeming to float over the ground. I remembered the way he smiled, the look in his silver eyes as we danced. He wasn’t smiling now, and his eyes were cold. This wasn’t the prince I’d danced with Elysium night; this wasn’t anything but a predator.

“Ash,” Puck repeated in a conversational tone, though his face had gone hard and feral. “What a surprise to see you here. How did you find us?”

“It wasn’t difficult.” Ash sounded bored. “The princess mentioned that she was looking for someone within Mab’s court. There are only so many ways into Tir Na Nog from the mortal world, and Shard doesn’t exactly make it a secret that she guards the trod. I figured it was only a matter of time before you came here.”

“Very clever,” Puck said, smirking. “But then, you were always the strategist, weren’t you? What do you want, Ash?”

“Your head,” Ash answered softly. “On a pike. But what I want doesn’t matter this time.” He pointed his sword at me. “I’ve come for her.”

I gasped as my heart and stomach began careening around my chest. He’s here for me, to kill me, like he promised at Elysium.

“Over my dead body.” Puck smiled, as if this was a friendly conversation on the street, but I felt muscles coiling under his skin.

“That was part of the plan.” The prince raised his sword, the icy blade wreathed in mist. “I will avenge her today, and put her memory to rest.” For a moment, a shadow of anguish flitted across his face, and he closed his eyes. When he opened them, they were cold and glittered with malice. “Prepare yourself.”

“Stay back, princess,” Puck warned, pushing me out of the way. He reached into his boot and pulled out a dagger, the curved blade clear as glass. “This might get a little rough.”

“Puck, no.” I clutched at his sleeve. “Don’t fight him. Someone could die.”

“Duels to the death tend to end that way.” Puck grinned, but it was a savage thing, grim and frightening. “But I’m touched that you care. One moment, princeling,” he called to Ash, who inclined his head. Taking my wrist, Puck steered me behind the fountain and bent close, his breath warm on my face.

“I have to do this, princess,” he said firmly. “Ash won’t let us go without a fight, and this has been coming for a long time now.” For a moment, a shadow of regret flickered across his face, but then it was gone.

“So,” he murmured, grinning as he tilted my chin up, “before I march off to battle, how ’bout a kiss for luck?”

I hesitated, wondering why now, of all times, he would ask for a kiss. He certainly didn’t think of me in that way…did he? I shook myself. There was no time to wonder about that. Leaning forward, I kissed him on the cheek. His skin was warm, and bristly with stubble. “Don’t die,” I whispered, pulling back.

Puck looked disappointed, but only for a second. “Me? Die? Didn’t they tell you, princess? I’m Robin Goodfellow.”

With a whoop, he flourished his knife and charged the waiting prince.

Ash lunged, a dark blur across the snow, his sword hissing down in a vicious arc. Puck leaped out of the way, and the blow sent a miniature blizzard arching toward me. I gasped, the freezing spray stinging like needles, and rubbed at my burning eyes. When I could open them again, Ash and Puck were deep in battle, and it looked like each was intent on killing the other.

Puck ducked a savage blow and tossed Ash something from his pocket. It erupted into a large boar, squealing madly as it charged the prince, tusks gleaming. The ice sword hammered into it, and the boar exploded in a swirl of dry leaves. Ash flung out his arm, and a spray of glittering ice shards flew toward Puck like daggers. I cried out, but Puck inhaled and blew in their direction, like he was blowing out a birthday candle. The shards shimmered into daisies, raining harmlessly around him, and he grinned.

Ash attacked viciously, his blade singing as he bore down on his opponent. Puck dodged and parried with his dagger, retreating before the onslaught of the Winter prince. Diving away, Puck snatched a handful of twigs from the base of the tree, blew on them, and tossed them into the air—

—and now there were three Pucks, grinning wickedly as they set upon their opponent. Three knives flashed, three bodies surrounded the dark prince, as the real Puck leaned against the tree and watched Ash struggle.

But Ash was far from beaten. He spun away from the Pucks, his sword a blur as he dodged and parried, whirling from one attack to the next. He ducked beneath an opponent’s guard, ripped his blade up, and sliced cleanly through a Puck’s stomach. The doppelg?nger split in two, changing into a severed stick that dropped away. Ash spun to meet the Puck rushing up from the side. His sword whirled, and Puck’s head dropped from his shoulders before reverting to a twig. The last Puck charged the prince from behind, dagger raised high. Ash didn’t even turn, but rammed his blade backward, point up. Puck’s lunge carried him onto the blade and drove it through his stomach, the point erupting out his back. The prince yanked the sword free without turning, and a shattered twig dropped to the snow.


Tags: Julie Kagawa The Iron Fey Book Series
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