Grimalkin’s gaze bore into me. He sat up straight, flicking his tail. “My price is this,” he stated. “I want to be able to call on you, once, at a time of my choosing, no questions asked. That is my debt.”
Relief washed through me. That didn’t sound so bad. Ash, however, made a thoughtful noise and crossed his arms.
“A summoning?” The prince sounded puzzled. “Odd for you, Cait Sith. What do you hope to accomplish with her?”
Grimalkin ignored him. “When I call,” he continued, staring at me, “you must come straightaway without pause. And you must help me in any way you are able. Those are the terms of our contract. You are bound to me until they are fulfilled.”
“All right.” I nodded. “I can live with that. But if you call, how will I know where to find you?”
Grimalkin sneezed a laugh. “Do not worry about that, human. You will know. But for now, I must leave you.” He stood, nodding once to me, then to Ash. “Until we meet again.”
Then he slipped into the grass, his bottlebrush tail held straight up, and disappeared.
I smiled sadly. “And then there were two.”
Ash moved closer and touched my arm, a brief, featherlight caress. I glanced at him and he offered that tiny, endearing smile, one of apology and encouragement, and a silent promise that he would not leave me. I gave him a shaky grin and resisted the urge to lean into him, wanting to feel his arms around me once more.
A piskie spiraled down from the branches, hovering a few inches from my face. Blue-skinned, with dandelion hair and gossamer wings, she stuck out her tongue at me and zipped to Ash, alighting on his shoulder. Ash cocked his head as the piskie whispered something in his ear. One corner of his mouth turned up; he glanced at me and shook his head. The piskie giggled and spun into the air again. I scowled, wondering what they were saying about me, then decided I didn’t care.
“This is Seedlit,” Ash said as the piskie spiraled through the air like a drunken hummingbird. “She’ll lead us to the wharfs, and then to the factory. Beyond that, we’re on our own.”
I nodded, my heart hammering in my ears. This was it, the last leg of the journey. At the end was Machina and Ethan, or death. I smirked with rash bravado and raised my chin. “All right, Tinker Bell,” I told the piskie, who gave an indignant buzz. “Lead on.”
WE FOLLOWED THE BOBBING light toward the banks of the river, where the cold, slow waters of the Mississippi churned under a slate-gray sky. We didn’t speak much. Ash walked beside me, our shoulders almost touching. After several silent minutes, I brushed his hand. He curled his fingers around mine, and we walked like that until we reached the factory.
A corrugated-steel building squatted behind a chain-link fence, a dark smudge against the sky. Seedlit jabbered something to Ash, who nodded gravely, before she zipped away out of sight. She had brought us as far as she could go; now we were on our own.
As we approached the gate, Ash hung back a little, a pained look on his face.
“What’s the matter?”
He grimaced. “Nothing. Just…” He nodded to the fence. “Too much iron. I can feel it from here.”
“Does it hurt?”
“No.” He shook his head. “I’d have to touch it for that. But it’s draining.” He looked uncomfortable admitting it. “It makes it difficult to use glamour.”
I shook the gate experimentally. It wouldn’t budge. Heavy chains were wrapped around the entrance, padlocked together, and barbed wire coiled along the top of the fence.
“Give me your sword,” I told Ash. He blinked at me.
“Give me your sword,” I repeated. “We have to get in, and you don’t like touching iron, right? Let me have it, and I’ll take care of it.”
He looked dubious but pulled his blade and offered it to me, hilt up. I took the weapon gingerly. The hilt was painfully cold, the blade throwing off a frozen blue aura. I raised it over my head and brought it slashing down on the chain binding the gate. The links snapped like they were made of glass, shattering with a metallic ringing sound. Pleased, I grabbed the chain to yank it free, but the metal burned like fire and I dropped it with a cry.
Ash was beside me, reclaiming his sword as I shook my singed fingers, dancing about in pain. After sheathing the weapon, he snatched my flailing hand and turned it palm up. A line of red slashed across my fingers, numb and tingly to the touch.
“I thought I was immune to iron.” I sniffed. Ash sighed.
“You are,” he murmured, moving me away from the fence and its glamour-draining qualities. His expression teetered between amusement and exasperation. “However, grabbing superchilled metal is still very unpleasant for Summer fey, no matter who you are.”
He shook his head, examining the wound again. “It’s not frostbitten,” he muttered. “It’ll blister, but you should be fine. You might only lose a couple fingers.”
I glanced at him sharply, but he was smirking. For a moment, I was speechless. Good God, the Ice Prince was making jokes now; the world must be ending. “That’s not funny,” I hissed, swatting at him with my other hand. He dodged easily, the amusement still on his face.
“You’re a lot like her,” he mused, so softly I barely heard him. And before I could say anything, he turned, drew his sword, and swept the chains off the gate. It swung open with a creak, and Ash scanned the compound warily
“Stay close to me,” he muttered, and we eased our way inside.
Large mounds of scrap metal lay piled about the yard as we walked through, the sharp edges glinting in the faint rays of dawn. Ash winced each time we passed one, keeping a wary eye on it, as if it would leap up and attack him. Strange creatures scampered about the metal drifts, tiny men with ratlike features and nak*d tails. When they nibbled on a piece of metal, it rusted away under their teeth. They didn’t bother us, though Ash shuddered whenever he saw one, and his hand never left his sword.
The iron doors had more chains around them, but the ice blade cut through them easily. Stepping inside, I gazed around slowly, my eyes adjusting to the dim light. It looked like an ordinary warehouse, empty and dark, though I heard skittering noises in the corners. More mountains of scrap metal littered the gloom, some larger than I was tall.
Where’s the trod? I wondered, stepping farther inside. Metal grates covered the floor, pressing through my sneakers. Ash hesitated, hanging back in the doorway.
Steam drifted over the ground, coiling around my legs. Against the far wall, I saw that one of the grates had been pried up, leaving a square, gaping hole. Smoke boiled out of the opening. There!
I started toward the hole. From the doorway, Ash called for me to stop. Before my nerves could jangle a warning, a pile of scrap metal shifted. Then, with a screech that set my teeth on edge, the mound uncurled, sending sparks into the air as it dragged along the floor. From the jumbled mess, a long neck rose up, made of iron, wire, and broken glass. A reptilian head glared down at me, shards of metal bristling from its skull. Then the entire mound lurched up, shifting into a huge lizard of iron and steel, with curved metal talons and a jagged, spiked tail.
The dragon roared, a deafening metallic screech that made my eyes want to pop out of my skull. It lunged, and I scrambled behind another mound, praying this one wasn’t a dragon, too. The dragon hissed and followed, steam erupting from its gaping jaws, steel talons clanking over the floor.
A volley of ice darts flew through the air, striking the dragon in the head and shattering harmlessly off its skull. It screamed and reared up, glaring at Ash, who stood at the far end of the room with his sword drawn. Lashing its tail, the dragon charged, sparks flying from its claws as it bore down on Ash. My heart jumped to my throat.
Ash closed his eyes for a moment, then knelt and drove his sword point down into the floor. There was a flash of blue light, and ice spread rapidly from the tip, covering the ground and coating everything in crystal. My breath hung in the air, and icicles formed on the overhead beams. I shivered violently in the sudden chill as the scrap metal frosted over, radiating absolute cold.
Ash leaped aside as the dragon reached him, moving as easily on ice as normal ground. Unable to stop itself, the dragon slammed into the wall, bits of metal flying everywhere. It hissed and struggled to rise, sliding on the slick floor, tail thrashing. Ash jumped forward and blew out a long whistle, sending an icy whirlwind spinning through the air. The dragon shrieked as the blizzard whipped around it, coating it with frost and snow. A hoary rime caked its metal body, its struggles growing weaker as ice weighed it down.
Ash stopped, panting heavily. He staggered away from the frozen dragon and leaned back against a post, closing his eyes. I half ran, half stumbled over, slipping on the ice, until I reached him.
“Are you all right?”
“Never again,” he muttered, almost to himself. His eyes were still closed, and I wasn’t sure he knew I was there. “I will not watch that happen again. I won’t…lose another…like that. I can’t…”
“Ash?” I whispered, touching his arm.
His eyes opened and his gaze dropped to mine. “Meghan,” he murmured, seeming a bit confused that I was still there. He blinked and shook his head. “Why didn’t you run? I tried to buy you some time. You should’ve gone ahead.”
“Are you crazy? I couldn’t leave you to that thing. Now, come on.” I took his hand, tugging him off the post while glancing nervously at the frozen dragon. “Let’s get out of here. I think that thing just blinked at us.”
His fingers tightened on mine and pulled me forward. Startled and overbalanced, I looked up at him, and then he was kissing me.
I froze in shock, but only for a moment. Wrapping my arms around his neck, I rose on my tiptoes to meet him, kissing him back with a hunger that surprised us both. He crushed me close, and I ran my hands through his silky hair, sliding it through my fingers. His lips were cool on mine, and my mouth tingled. And for a moment, there was no Ethan, no Puck, no Iron King. Only this.
He pulled back, slightly out of breath. My blood raced, and I leaned my head on his shoulder, feeling the steely muscles through his back. I felt him tremble.
“This isn’t good,” he murmured, his voice curiously shaken. But he still didn’t release me. I closed my eyes and listened to his rapid heartbeat.
“I know,” I whispered back.
“The Courts would kill us if they found out.”
“Mab would accuse me of treason. Oberon would believe I’m turning you against him. They’d both see grounds for banishment, or execution.”
He sighed, burying his face in my hair. His breath was cool on my neck, and I shivered. Neither of us said anything for what seemed a long time.
“We’ll think of something,” I ventured.
He nodded wordlessly and pulled away, but stumbled as he took a step back. I caught his arm again.
“Are you all right?”
“I’ll be fine.” He released my elbow. “Too much iron. The spell took a lot out of me.”