He trailed off, giving me a sideways look.
“Titania banished her to the mortal realm,” Puck said quickly, as if he was really going to say something else. “According to some, Leanansidhe was growing too powerful, had too many mortals worshipping her, and there was talk that she wanted to make herself queen. Naturally, this made our good Summer Queen more than a little jealous, so she exiled the self-proclaimed Queen of Muse and sealed off all trods to her, so that Leanansidhe could never return to Faery. That was several years ago, and no one has seen or heard from her since.
“But, apparently,” Puck continued, glancing at the three teenagers listening in rapt fascination, “Leanansidhe has a new following. A new little mortal cult ready to throw themselves at her feet.” He smothered a laugh. “Pickings must be pretty slim nowadays.”
“Hey,” said the girl, narrowing her eyes at him. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Why is Leanansidhe looking for me?” I asked, before an unpleasant thought drifted to mind. “You…you don’t think she wants revenge, for what Titania did to her?” Great. That was all I needed, another faery queen who was out to get me. I must hold some sort of record.
We glared at Warren, who stepped back and raised his hands. “Hey, man. Don’t look at me. I don’t know what she wants. Just that she’s been looking for you.”
“WE CANNOT GO TO THIS LEANANSIDHE NOW,” Ironhorse boomed,
making the teens jump and the ceiling rattle. God, he couldn’t speak quietly if his life depended on it. “OUR MISSION IS URGENT. WE MUST GET TO CALIFORNIA AS SOON AS
“Well, we’re not going anywhere now, not with ol’ Deathbreath guarding the only way out.”
“Come with us.”
I looked up. Warren had spoken and was staring at me intently. The eager look in his eyes made me uncomfortable, as did his sudden change in mood. “Come with us to Leanansidhe’s,” he urged. “She could help. You want to go to California? She can get you there, easy—”
“Warren,” said the girl, grabbing his sleeve and pulling him aside. “Come here a second, would you? ’Scuse us a sec, people.” Surprisingly strong for her size, she dragged him into a far corner. Huddled against the wall, they whispered furiously to each other, casting suspicious glances at Ironhorse over their shoulders.
“What are we going to do?” I wondered. “Should we wait until the dragon leaves to find our way back through the Briars? Or should we find out what Leanansidhe wants?”
“NO,” thundered Ironhorse, his voice bouncing off the walls. “I DO NOT
TRUST THIS LEANANSIDHE. IT IS TOO DANGEROUS.”
He shrugged. “Under normal circumstances, I’d agree with the toaster oven,”
he said, earning a hard glare from Ironhorse. “Leanansidhe has always been unpredictable, and she has enough power to make that dragon look like a cranky Gila monster. But…I always say the enemy you know is better than the enemy you can’t see.”
I nodded. “I agree. If Leanansidhe is looking for us, I think we should meet her on our own terms. Otherwise, I’d just worry about what she’s sending after us.”
“Besides…” Puck rolled his eyes. “I think we have another problem.”
“Our trusty guide has gone AWOL.”
I looked around, but Grimalkin had vanished, and he didn’t respond to my hissed calls for him to show himself. The street kids were watching us now, eager and hesitant at the same time. I sighed. There was no telling where Grimalkin was, or when he’d return. Really, there was just one option.
“So.” I gave them a hopeful smile. “How far is Leanansidhe’s?”
TURNS OUT, we were in the basement of her mansion.
“So, Leanansidhe has you guys steal from dragons?” I asked the girl as we walked down the dimly lit corridors, torchlight flickering over the damp stone walls. Whatever the house looked like, the basement was huge. It reminded me of a medieval dungeon, complete with heavy doors, wooden portcullises, and gargoyles leering at us from the walls. Mice scurried over the floor, and other things moved in the shadows, just out of sight. The girl, Kimi, grinned at me. “Leanansidhe has lots of clients with very unusual tastes,” she explained. “Most of them are exiles, like her, who can’t go back into the Nevernever for some reason. She uses us—” she gestured to herself and Nelson “—to fetch things she can’t get herself, like that thing with the dragon. Apparently, a banished Winter sidhe in New York is paying a fortune for real dragon eggs.”
“You stole its eggs?”
“Only one.” Kimi giggled at my stunned expression. “Then the stupid lizard woke up and we had to book it.” She giggled again, smoothing down her ears. “Don’t worry, we’re not going to decimate the dragon population. Leanansidhe told us to leave a couple behind.”
Puck made a noise that might’ve been appreciation. “And what do you guys get out of this?”
“Free room and board. And the rep that goes with it. We’d be out on the streets, otherwise.” Kimi and Nelson shared a secret glance, but Warren was staring at me. He’d been doing that since we left to meet Leanansidhe, and it was making me very uncomfortable.
“The pay’s not bad, either,” Kimi went on, oblivious to Warren’s scrutiny.
“At least, it’s better than the alternative—being hunted down for what we are, getting stepped on by the exiles and the fey who just like it better in the mortal realm. Leanansidhe’s made it safer for us—you don’t screw around with the queen’s pets. Even the redcap gangs know to leave you alone. For the most part, anyway.”
“Why?” I asked. “You’re exiles, too, right? Why should it be different for you?” I looked at her furry, tufted ears, at Nelson’s swamp-water skin and Warren’s horns. They weren’t human, that much was certain. But then I remembered Warren holding out the iron cross, his fearful damned faeries, how they could get through the door when Grimalkin couldn’t. And I knew what they were even before Kimi said it.
“Because,” she said cheerfully, twitching her ears, “we’re half-breeds. I’m half-phouka, Nelson’s half-troll, and Warren is part-satyr. And if there’s one thing an exile hates more than the fey who banished him, its half-breeds like us.”
I hadn’t thought of that before, though it made sense. I suspected half-breeds like Kimi, Nelson and Warren had it pretty tough. Without Oberon’s protection, they would’ve been left to the whims of the true fey, who probably made life very difficult for them. It wasn’t surprising they would make a deal with this Queen of the Exiles, in exchange for some degree of protection. Even if it meant stealing dragon eggs right out from under the dragon.
“Oh, and by the way,” Kimi went on, with a quick glance at Ironhorse, clanking along behind me. “Leanansidhe knows about…um…his kind. They’ve been killing off lots of exiles lately, and it’s making her mad. Your ‘friend’ should be really careful around her. I don’t know how she’ll take an Iron faery in her living room. I’ve seen her throw a fit for less.”
“Shut up, Kimi,” Warren said abruptly. We had reached the end of the hall, where a bright red door waited for us atop a flight of stairs. “I told you, it’s not a big deal.”
I frowned at him, but something caught my attention. Strains of music drifted down the steps, the low, shivery chords of a piano or organ. The music was dark and haunting, reminding me of a play I’d seen a long time ago, The Phantom of the Opera. I remembered Mom dragging me to the theater when the play came through our little town, shortly before Ethan was born. I remembered thinking I’d have to sit through three hours of absolute boredom and torture, but from the first booming organ chords, I was completely entranced. I also remembered Mom crying through several of the scenes, something she never did, even with the saddest movies. I didn’t think anything of it then, but it seemed a little odd, now.
We stepped up and through the doorway into a magnificent foyer, with a double grand staircase sweeping toward a high vaulted ceiling and a roaring fireplace surrounded by plush black sofas. The hardwood floor gleamed red, the walls were patterned in red and black, and gauzy black curtains covered the high arched windows near the back of the room. Nearly every clear space on the wall was taken up by paintings—oil paintings, watercolors, black-and-white sketches. The Mona Lisa smiled her odd little smile on the far wall, next to a weird, disjointed painting that was probably Picasso. Music echoed through the room, dark and haunting piano chords played with such force that they made the air vibrate and my teeth buzz. An enormous grand piano stood in the corner near the fireplace, the flames dancing in the reflection of the polished wood. Hunched over the keys, a figure in a rumpled white shirt beat and pounded the ivory bars, fingers flying.
“Shh!” Kimi shushed me with a light smack on the arm. “Don’t talk. She doesn’t like it when someone’s playing.”
I fell silent, studying the pianist again. Brown hair hung limp and shaggy on his shoulders, looking as if it hadn’t been washed in days. His shoulders were broad, though his shirt hung loose on a lean, bony frame that was so thin his spine pressed tightly against his skin. The song ended with one last, vibrating chord. As the notes faded and silence descended on the room, the man remained hunched over the keys. I couldn’t see his face, but I thought his eyes were closed, and his muscles trembled as if from exertion. He seemed to be waiting for something. I looked to the others, wondering if we should applaud. A slow clapping came from the top of the stairs. I looked up and saw none other than Grimalkin, sitting on the railing with his tail around his feet, looking perfectly at home. Any annoyance I felt with him disappeared at the sight of his companion. A woman stood on the balcony, her gold and crimson gown billowing around her, though I was sure there’d been no one there a second ago. Her wavy, waist-length hair shimmered like strands of copper, almost too bright to look at, floating around her face as if it weighed nothing at all. She was pale and tall and magnificent, every inch a queen, and I felt my stomach contract. Forget Arcadia or Tir Na Nog; we were in her court now, playing by her rules. I wondered if she expected us to bow.
“Bravo, Charles.” Her voice was pure song, made of poetry given sound, of every creative notion you’ve ever had. Hearing it, I felt I could sweep onto a stage and bring the masses roaring and screaming to their feet. “That was quite magnificent. You can go now.”
The man rose shakily to his feet, grinning like a little kid whose finger painting had been praised by the teacher. He was younger than my stepdad, but not by much, the hint of a beard shadowing his mouth and jaw. When he turned and spotted us, I shivered. His face and hazel eyes were blank of reason, as empty as the sky.