Something fluttered under my cheek. Blinking, hiccuping, I pulled back and looked at his face. The skin was still pale, but I caught a flicker of movement beneath his eyelids. Heart pounding, I lowered my head and brushed a kiss to his mouth. His lips parted, and a broken sigh escaped him.
I breathed his name in relief. His eyes opened and flickered to mine, confused, as if he wasn’t sure if he was dreaming or not. He moved his lips, but it was a few tries before anything came out.
“Yes,” I whispered immediately. “I’m here.”
His hand came up, fingers resting on my cheek, trailing down my skin. “I…dreamed you…would come,” he murmured, before his eyes cleared a bit and his face darkened. “You shouldn’t…be here,” he gasped, digging his fingers into my arm. “This…a trap.”
And then, I heard it—horrible, dark laughter, rising up from the wall behind us. The gears in the fountain shivered, then began to turn backward. With a loud clanking and grinding, the wall behind us sank into the ground, revealing another part of the garden. Metal trees lined the path to an enormous iron throne, spiking into the sky. A squadron of armored knights stood at the foot of the throne with weapons drawn, pointed at me. Another squad entered through the door and slammed it shut, trapping us between them.
Standing at the top of his throne, surveying us all with a look of grim satisfaction, was Machina, the Iron King.
The figure on the throne threw me a smile as sharp as razors. “Meghan Chase,” he murmured, his scintillating voice echoing over the garden. “Welcome. I’ve been expecting you.”
I gently laid Ash down, ignoring his protests, and stepped forward, shielding him behind me. My heart pounded. I didn’t know what I expected the Iron King to look like, but it wasn’t this. The figure on the throne stood tall and elegant, with flowing silver hair and the pointed ears of the fey nobility. He faintly resembled Oberon, refined and graceful, yet incredibly powerful. Unlike Oberon and the finery of the Summer Court, the Iron King wore a stark black coat that flapped in the wind. Energy crackled around him, like thunder with no sound, and I caught flashes of lightning in his slanted black eyes. A metal stud glittered in one ear, a Bluetooth phone in the other. His face was beautiful and arrogant, all sharp planes and angles; I felt I could cut myself on his cheek if I got too close. And yet, when he smiled, it lit up the whole room. A strange, silvery cloak lay across his shoulders, wriggling slightly as if it were alive.
I snatched the bow and arrow off the ground, bringing it to bear on the Iron King. This might be the only chance I got. The Witchwood pulsed in my hands as I drew back the string, aiming the tip at Machina’s chest. The knights shouted in alarm and started forward, but they were too late. I released the string with a yell of triumph, seeing it speed right on target, toward the heart of the Iron King.
And Machina’s cloak came alive.
Silvery cables unraveled with lightning speed, springing from his shoulders and spine. They spread around Machina like a halo of metal wings, wickedly barbed on one end, needle points glinting in the light. They whipped forward to protect the Iron King, knocking the Witchwood away, sending it flying in another direction. I watched the arrow strike a metal tree and snap in two, fluttering to the ground in pieces. Someone screamed in rage and horror, and I realized it was me.
The guards rushed us, their swords raised, and I watched them come with a certain detachment. I was aware of Ash, trying to get to his feet to protect me, and knew it was too late. The arrow had failed, and we were about to die.
Machina’s voice wasn’t loud. He didn’t scream or bellow the order, but every knight jerked to a halt as if pulled by invisible string. The Iron King floated down from his throne, the cables writhing slowly behind him like hungry snakes. His feet touched the floor, and he smiled at me, completely unconcerned with the fact that I had just tried to kill him.
“Leave,” he told the knights without taking his eyes from me. Several of them jerked their heads up in surprise.
“My king?” stammered one, and I recognized his voice. Quintus, one of the knights who’d been with Ironhorse in the mines. I wondered if Tertius was here, too.
“The lady is uncomfortable with your presence,” Machina went on, not looking away from me. “I do not wish her to be uncomfortable. Go. I will take care of her, and the Winter prince.”
Machina didn’t move. One of his cables whipped out, almost too fast to see, punching through the knight’s armor and out his back. The cable lifted Quintus high in the air and threw him into the wall. Quintus clanged against the metal and slumped motionless to the ground, a jagged hole through his breastplate. Dark, oily blood pooled beneath him.
“Leave,” Machina repeated softly, and the knights scrambled to obey. They filed out through the door and slammed it shut, and we were alone with the Iron King.
Machina regarded me with depthless black eyes. “You are as beautiful as I imagined,” he said, walking forward, his cables coiling behind him. “Beautiful, fiery, determined.” He stopped a few yards away, the cables settling back into that living cloak. “Perfect.”
With a final glance at Ash, still slumped next to the fountain, I stepped forward. “I’m here for my brother,” I said, relieved that my voice didn’t tremble. “Please, let him go. Let me take him home.”
Machina regarded me silently, then gestured behind him. A loud clanking began, and something rose out of the ground beside his throne, as if it was borne on an elevator. A large, wrought-iron birdcage came into view. Inside…
“Ethan!” I started forward, but Machina’s cables whipped out, blocking my path. Ethan gripped the bars of the cage, peering out with frightened blue eyes. His voice rang shrilly over the courtyard.
Behind me, Ash growled a curse and tried to stand. I turned on Machina furiously. “Let him go! He’s only a little kid! What do you want with him, anyway?”
“My dear, you misunderstand me.” Machina’s cables waved threateningly, moving me back. “I did not take your brother because I wanted him. I did it because I knew it would bring you here.”
“Why?” I demanded, whirling on him. “Why kidnap Ethan? Why not just take me instead? Why drag him into all this?”
Machina smiled. “You were well protected, Meghan Chase. Robin Goodfellow is a formidable bodyguard, and I could not risk taking you without drawing attention to myself and my realm. Fortunately, your brother had no such protection. Better to draw you here, of your own volition, than risk the wrath of Oberon and the Seelie Court. Besides…” Machina’s eyes narrowed to black slits, though he still smiled at me. “I needed to test you, make certain you were truly the one. If you could not reach my tower on your own, you were not worthy.”
“Worthy of what?” Suddenly, I was very tired. Tired and desperate to save my brother, take him away from this madness before it consumed him. I couldn’t win; Machina had us at checkmate, but I would get Ethan home, at least. “What do you want, Machina?” I asked wearily, feeling the Iron King step closer. “Whatever it is, just let me take Ethan back to our world. You said you wanted me. Here I am. But let me take my brother home.”
“Of course,” Machina soothed. “But first, let us make a deal.”
I froze, everything going still inside me. A deal with the Iron King, in exchange for my brother’s life. I wondered what he would ask for. Somehow, I knew it would cost me either way.
“Meghan, don’t,” Ash growled, pulling himself up by the fountain, ignoring the burns to his hands. Machina ignored him.
“What kind of deal?” I asked softly.
The Iron King stepped closer. His cables caressed my face and arms, making me shiver. “I’ve watched you for sixteen years,” he murmured, “waiting for the day you would finally open your eyes and see us. Waiting for the day you would come to me. Your father would have blinded you to this world forever. He is afraid of your power, afraid of your potential—a half-fey who is immune to iron, yet has the blood of the Summer King in her veins. So much potential.” His gaze lingered on Ash, finally on his feet, and dismissed him just as quickly. “Mab realized your power, which is why she wants you so much. Which is why she sent her best to capture you. But even she cannot offer what I can.”
Machina closed the last few steps between us and took my hand. His touch was cool, and I felt power humming through him, like currents of electricity. “I want you to be my queen, Meghan Chase. I offer you my kingdom, my subjects, myself. I want you to rule at my side. The oldbloods are obsolete. Their time is done. It is time for a new order to rise up, stronger and better than the ancient ones. Only say yes, and you will live forever, Queen of the Fey. Your brother can go home. I’ll even let you keep your prince if you wish, though I fear he may not adapt well to our kingdom. Regardless, you belong here, at my side. Isn’t that what you’ve always wanted? To belong?”
I hesitated. To rule with Machina, to become a queen. No one would tease or mock me anymore, I would have scores of creatures ready to jump at my bidding, and I would finally be the one on top. I would finally be the most loved. But then I saw the trees, twisted and metallic, and remembered the terrible, barren wasteland in the wyldwood. Machina would corrupt the entire Nevernever. All the plants would die, or become twisted versions of themselves. Oberon, Grimalkin, Puck: they would fade away with the rest of the Nevernever, until only gremlins, bugs, and the iron fey remained.
I swallowed. And, even though I already knew the answer, I asked, “What if I refuse?”
Machina’s expression didn’t falter. “Then your prince will die. And your brother will die. Or, perhaps, I will make him one of my playthings, half human, half machine. The eradication of the oldbloods will begin with or without you, my dear. I am giving you the choice of leading it or being consumed by it.”
My desperation grew. Machina reached up and stroked my face, running his fingers down my cheek. “Is it really so terrible to rule, my love?” he asked, tilting my chin up to look at him. “Throughout millennia, both humans and fey have done it. Weeded out the weak to make room for the strong. The oldbloods and the iron fey cannot exist together, you know this. Oberon and Mab would destroy us if they knew about us. How is that any different?” He brushed a kiss over my lips, featherlight and vibrating with energy. “Come. One word, that is all you have to say. One word to send your brother home, to save the prince that you love. Look.” He waved a hand, and a great iron archway rose out of the ground. On the other side, I could see my house, shimmering through the portal, before it faded from view. I gasped, and Machina smiled. “I will send him home now, if you only say yes. One word, and you will be my queen, forever.”
I took a breath. “I—”
And Ash was there. How he could even stand, let alone move, was a mystery. But he shoved me aside, his face feral, as Machina’s eyebrows rose in surprise. The cables flared, stabbing toward Ash as the prince lunged forward and slammed his blade into Machina’s chest.