My stomach fluttered weirdly, and I backed out into the hall. What are you doing? I asked myself, appalled. That is Ash, prince of the Unseelie Court. He tried to kill Puck, and he might try to kill you, as well. He is not sexy. He’s not.
But he was, extremely, and it was useless to deny it. My heart and my brain were at odds, and I knew I’d better come to terms with this quickly. Okay, fine, I told myself, he’s gorgeous, I’ll admit it. I’m just reacting to his good looks, that’s all. All the sidhe are stunning and beautiful. It doesn’t mean anything.
With that thought to buoy me, I stepped back into the room.
Ash glanced up as I approached, the quilt wrapped around my shoulders. A pair of gnomes were wrapping his torso in bandages, but above his stomach, I could see an angry black welt.
“Is that where—?”
Ash nodded, once. I continued to stare at it, noting how the flesh was blackened and crusted with scabs. I shuddered and looked away.
“It looks almost burned.”
“The creature’s hooves were made of iron,” Ash replied. “Iron tends to burn, when it doesn’t kill outright. I was lucky the blow wasn’t over my heart.” The gnomes tugged the bandages tight, and he winced.
“How bad are you hurt?”
He gave me an appraising look. “The fey heal faster than you mortals,” he answered, and rose gracefully to his feet, scattering gnomes. “Especially if we’re within our own territories. Except for this—” he lightly touched the iron burn on his ribs “—I should be fine by tomorrow.”
“Oh.” I was a bit breathless, suddenly unable to take my eyes from him. “That’s…good, then.”
He smiled then, a cold, humorless gesture, and stepped closer.
“Good?” His voice was mocking. “You shouldn’t wish for my good health, princess. It would’ve been easier for you if Puck had killed me when he had the chance.”
I resisted the urge to back away from him. “No, it wouldn’t.” His shadow loomed over me, prickling my skin, but I stood my ground. “I need your help, both to get out of Unseelie territory, and to find my brother. Besides, I couldn’t let him kill you in cold blood.”
“Why not?” He was very close now, so close I could see the pale scars on his chest. “He seems very devoted to you. Perhaps you’ll wait until we leave Tir Na Nog to have him stab me in the back? What would happen if we fought again, and I killed him?”
“Stop it.” I glared at him, meeting his eyes. “Why are you doing this? I gave you my word. Why are you pulling this crap now?”
“Just want to see where you stand, princess.” Ash backed up a step, no longer smiling. “I like to get a feel for my enemies before we engage in combat. See what their strengths and weaknesses are.”
“We aren’t in combat—”
“Combat doesn’t have to be with swords.” Ash walked back to the bed, drawing his blade and examining the gleaming length. “Emotions can be deadly weapons, and knowing your enemy’s breaking point can be key to winning a battle. For example…” He turned and pointed the sword, staring at me down the polished edge. “You would do anything to find your brother—put yourself in danger, bargain with the enemy, give up your own freedom—if it means saving him. You’d likely do the same for your friends, or anyone else you care about. Your personal loyalty is your breaking point, and your enemies will certainly use it against you. That is your weakness, princess. That is the most dangerous aspect in your life.”
“So what?” I challenged, pulling the quilt tighter around myself. “All you’re telling me is I won’t betray my friends or family. If that’s a weakness, it’s one I want.”
He regarded me with glittering eyes, the expression on his face unreadable. “And, if the choice was between saving your brother and letting me die, which would you choose? The answer should be obvious, but could you do it?”
I chewed my lip and remained silent. Ash nodded slowly and turned away. “I’m tired,” he said, sitting down on the bed. “You should find Puck and decide where we go from here. Unless, of course, you know where this Machina’s court is. I do not. If I’m going to help you, I need to rest.”
He lay back and put an arm over his eyes, dismissing me. I backed out and left the room, dark doubts swirling around my head.
In the hallway I met Puck, leaning against the wall with his arms crossed. “So, how is the handsome princeling?” he mocked, shoving away from the wall. “Will he survive his ordeal to fight another day?”
“He’s fine,” I muttered as Puck fell into step beside me. “He’s got a nasty-looking burn where the horse kicked him, and I think his ribs were broken, but he wouldn’t say.”
“Forgive me if my heart doesn’t bleed for him,” Puck replied, rolling his eyes. “I don’t know how you got him to help, princess, but I wouldn’t trust him further than I could throw him. Deals with the Winter Court are bad news. What did you promise him?”
“Nothing,” I said, not meeting his eyes. I could feel his disbelieving stare, and went on the offensive to distract him. “Look, what’s your deal with him, anyway? He said you stabbed him in the back once. What’s up with that?”
“That…” Puck hesitated, and I could see I’d hit a sore spot. “That was a mistake,” he went on in a quiet voice. “I didn’t mean for that to happen.” He shook himself, and the self-doubt dropped away, replaced by his irritating smirk. “Anyway, it doesn’t matter. I’m not the bad guy here, princess.”
“No,” I admitted. “You’re not. But I’m going to need both of you to help get Ethan back. Especially now. Especially since this Iron King wants me so bad. Do you know anything about him?”
Puck sobered. “I’ve never heard of him before,” he murmured as we entered the dining hall. A long table stood in the center of the room, with a magnificent ice sculpture as a centerpiece. Grimalkin crouched on the table with his head in a bowl, eating something that smelled strongly of fish. He glanced up as we entered, licking his jaws with a bright pink tongue.
“Heard of who before?”
“King Machina.” I pulled up a chair and sat down, resting my chin in my hands. “That horse thing—Ironhorse—called him the ruler of the iron fey.”
“Hmm. I have never heard of him.” Grimalkin put his head back in the bowl, chewing loudly. Puck sat down beside me.
“It doesn’t seem possible,” he muttered, mirroring my pose with his chin in his hands. “Iron fey? It’s blasphemous! It goes against everything we know.” He touched his fingers to his brow, narrowing his eyes. “And yet, Ironhorse was most definitely fey. I could sense that. If there are more like him and those gremlin things, Oberon must be informed immediately. If this King Machina brings his iron fey against us, he could destroy the courts before we knew what hit us.”
“But you know nothing about him,” Grimalkin said, his voice echoing inside the bowl. “You have no idea where he is, what his motives are, how many iron fey are actually out there. What would you tell Oberon now? Especially since you have…ahem…fallen out of favor by disobeying him.”
“He’s right,” I said. “We should find out more about this Machina before we tell the courts. What if they decide to confront him now? He might fight back, or he might go into hiding. I can’t risk losing Ethan.”
“No telling the courts,” I said firmly, looking him in the eye. “That’s final.”
Puck sighed and threw me a grudging smirk. “Fine, princess,” he said, raising his hands. “We’ll do it your way.”
Grimalkin snickered into the bowl.
“So, how do we find this Machina, anyway?” I asked, voicing the question that had bothered me all evening. “The only trod to his kingdom that we know of is buried under a ton of ice. Where do we start looking for him? He could be anywhere.”
Grimalkin raised his head. “I might know somebody who could help us,” he purred, slitting his eyes. “An oracle of sorts, living within your world. Very old, older even than Puck. Older than Oberon. Almost as old as cats. If anyone could tell you where this Iron King might be, she could.”
My heart leaped. If this oracle could tell me about the Iron King, maybe she would know where my dad was, as well. It couldn’t hurt to ask.
“I thought she died,” Puck said. “If it’s the same oracle I’m thinking of, she vanished ages ago.”
Grimalkin yawned and licked his whiskers. “Not dead,” he replied. “Hardly dead. But she changed her name and appearance so many times, even the oldest fey would hardly remember her. She likes to keep a low profile, you know.”
Puck frowned, knitting his brows together. “Then how is it you remember her?” he demanded, sounding indignant.
“I am a cat,” purred Grimalkin.
I DIDN’T SLEEP WELL THAT NIGHT. The numerous quilts didn’t quite protect me from the incessant chill; it crept into whatever cracks it could find, stealing away the heat with frozen fingers. Also, Grimalkin slept on top of me under the blankets, his furry body a blessed warmth, but he kept digging his claws into my skin. Near dawn, after being poked awake yet again, I rose, wrapped a quilt around my shoulders, and went looking for Puck.
Instead, I found Ash in the dining hall, practicing sword drills by the gray light of dawn. His lean, honed body glided over the tiles, sword sweeping gracefully through the air, eyes closed in concentration. I stood in the doorway and watched for several minutes, unable to tear my gaze away. It was a dance, beautiful and hypnotic. I lost track of the time I stood watching him, and would have happily stayed there all morning, when he opened his eyes and saw me.
I squeaked and straightened guiltily. “Don’t mind me,” I said as he relaxed his stance. “I didn’t mean to interrupt. Please, continue.”
“I’m finished, anyway.” Sheathing his sword, he regarded me solemnly. “Did you need something?”
I realized I was staring and blushed, turning my gaze away. “Um, no. That is…I’m glad you’re feeling better.”
He gave me a weird little smile. “I have to be on top of my game if I’m going to kill things for you, right?”
I was saved a reply as Puck strolled in, humming, carrying a bowl of strange golden fruit, each about the size of a golf ball. “Mornin’, princess,” he said with his mouth full, plunking the bowl on the table. “Look what I found.”
Ash blinked. “Are you raiding the cellars now, Goodfellow?”
“Me? Stealing?” Puck flashed a devious grin and popped another fruit into his mouth. “In the house of my ancient enemy? What gave you that idea?” He plucked another fruit and tossed it to me with a wink. It was warm and soft, and had the texture of an overripe pear.