“Poor bastard,” I heard Puck mutter. “He’s been here awhile, hasn’t he?”
The man blinked at me, dazed for a moment, but then his eyes grew wide.
“You,” he muttered, shambling forward, jabbing at me with a finger. I frowned. “I know you. Don’t I? Don’t I? Who are you? Who?” He frowned, an anguished expression crossing his face.
“The rats whisper in the darkness,” he said, clutching at his hair. “They whisper. I can’t remember their names. They tell me…” His eyes narrowed and he panted, glaring at me. “Rag girl, flying round my bed. Who are you? Who?” This last was a shout, and he lurched forward. Ironhorse stepped between us with a rumbling growl, and the man leaped back, hands flying to his face. “No,” he whimpered, cringing on the floor, arms cradling his head. “No one in here. Empty empty empty. Who am I? I don’t know. The rats tell me, but I forget.”
“That is enough.” Leanansidhe floated down the staircase, her gown trailing behind her. Sweeping up to the human, she touched him lightly on the head. “Charles, darling, I have guests now,” she murmured, as he gazed up at her with teary eyes. “Why don’t you take a bath, and then you can play for us at dinner?”
Charles sniffled. “Girl,” he whimpered, clutching at his hair. “In my head.”
“Yes, I know, darling. But if you don’t leave, I’ll have to turn you into a harp. Go on, now. Shoo, shoo.” She made little fluttery motions with her hands, and with one final glance at me, the man scuttled away.
Leanansidhe sighed and turned to us, then seemed to notice the trio for the first time. “Ah, there you are.” She smiled, and their faces lit up in the glow of her attention.
“Did you manage to get the eggs, darlings?”
Warren snatched the backpack from Nelson’s arm and held it out. “We found the nest, Leanansidhe. It was just where you said. But the dragon woke up then, and…” He unzipped the pack, revealing a yellow-green egg the size of a basketball. “We were only able to get one.”
“One?” Leanansidhe frowned, and shadows fell over the room. “Only one? I need at least two, pets, or the deal is off. The former Duke of Frostfell specifically said a pair of eggs. How many is in a pair, darling?”
“T-two,” Warren stammered.
“Well, then. I’d say you still have work to do. Go on, now. Chop-chop. And don’t come back without those eggs!”
The trio fled without hesitation, following the human out the same door. Leanansidhe watched them go, then whirled on us with a bright, feral smile. “Well! Here we are at last. When Grimalkin told me you were coming, I was ever so pleased. It’s so good to finally meet you.”
Grimalkin descended the stairs with his typical indifference, completely unfazed by the Death Glares coming from me and Puck. Leaping onto a sofa, he sat down and began grooming his tail.
“And Puck!” Leanansidhe turned to him, clasping her hands in delight. “I haven’t seen you in forever, darling. How is Oberon these days? Still being henpecked by that basilisk of a wife?”
“Don’t insult the basilisks,” Puck replied, smiling. Crossing his arms, he gazed around the room, moving ever so slightly in front of me. “So, Lea, looks like you’ve been busy. What’s up with the crazies and the half-bloods? Building an army of misfits?”
“Don’t be silly, darling.” Leanansidhe sniffed, plucking a cigarette holder from a lamp stand. She took a puff and blew a hazy green cloud over our heads. It writhed and twisted into a smoky dragon before dissipating in the air. “My coup days are behind me, now. I’ve made a nice little realm for myself here, and overthrowing a court is so tedious. However, I’d ask you not to tell Titania that you found me, darling. If you went and blabbed, I might have to rip out your tongue.” She smiled, examining a bloodred nail, as Puck inched closer to me. “Also, Robin dear, you needn’t worry about protecting the girl. I mean her no harm. The Iron faery I might have to dismember and send its remains to Asia—” Ironhorse tensed and took a step forward “—but I have no intention of hurting the daughter of Oberon. So relax, pet. That’s not why I called her here.”
“Ironhorse is with me,” I said quickly, putting a hand on his arm before he did something stupid. “He won’t hurt anything, I promise.”
Leanansidhe turned the full brunt of her glittering sapphire gaze on me.
“You’re so cute, did you know that? You look just like your father. No wonder Titania can’t stand to look at you. What’s your name, darling?”
She smiled, vicious and challenging, appraising me. “And what’s a cutie like you going to do if I want that abomination out of my home? That’s quite the binding you’ve got there, dove. I doubt you can scrape up the glamour to light my cigarette.”
I swallowed. This was a test. If I was going to save Ironhorse, I couldn’t falter. Steeling myself, I looked into those cold blue eyes, ancient and remorseless, and held her gaze. “Ironhorse is one of my companions,” I said softly. “I need him, so I can’t let you hurt him. I’ll make a deal with you, if that’s what it takes, but he stays here. He’s not your enemy, and he won’t hurt you or anyone under your protection. You have my word.”
“I know that, darling.” Leanansidhe continued to hold my stare, smiling all the while. “I’m not worried about the Iron faery harming me. I’m worried I won’t be able to get his stink out of my carpets. But, no matter.” She straightened, releasing me from her gaze.
“You’ve given your word, and I’ll hold you to that. Now, come darling. Dinner first, then we can talk. Oh, and please tell your iron pet not to touch anything while he’s here. I don’t want him melting the glamour.”
WE FOLLOWED Leanansidhe down several long corridors carpeted in red and black velvet, past portraits whose eyes seemed to follow us as we walked by. Leanansidhe didn’t stop talking, a mindless, bubbly stream, as she led us through her home, spouting names, places and creatures I didn’t recognize. But I couldn’t stop listening to the sound of her voice, even if all I heard was chipmunk chatter. In my peripheral vision, I caught glimpses of rooms through half-opened doors, drenched in shadow or strange, flickering lights. Sometimes, I thought the rooms looked weird, as if there were trees growing out of the floor, or schools of fish swimming through the air. But Leanansidhe’s voice cut through my curiosity, and I couldn’t take my eyes from her, even for a closer look.
We entered a vast dining hall, where a long table took up most of the left wall, surrounded by chairs of glass and wood. Candelabra floated down the length of the surface, hovering over a feast that could feed an army. Platters of meat and fish, raw fruits and vegetables, tiny cakes, candies, bottles of wine, and a huge roast pig with an apple in its mouth as the centerpiece. Except for the flickering candlelight, the room was pitch-black, and I could hear things scurrying about, muttering in the darkness.
Leanansidhe breezed into the room, trailing smoke from her cigarette, and stood at the head of the table. “Come, darlings,” she called, beckoning us with the back of her gloved hand. “You look famished. Sit. Eat. And please don’t be so rude as to think the food glamoured or enchanted. What kind of host do you think I am?” She sniffed, as though the very thought annoyed her, and looked away into the shadows. “Excuse me,” she called, as we cautiously moved toward the table. “Minions? I have guests, and you are making me look impolite. I will not be pleased if my reputation is soured, darlings.”
Movement in the shadows, muttering and low shuffles, as a group of little men edged into the light. I had to bite my lip to keep from laughing. They were redcaps, evil-eyed and shark-toothed, with their hats dipped in the blood of their victims, but they were also dressed in matching butler suits with pink bow ties. Sullen and scowling, they emerged from the darkness, glaring for all they were worth. Laugh and die, their eyes warned, but Puck took one look at them and started cracking up. The redcaps glared at him like they were going to bite his head off.
One of them caught sight of Ironhorse and let out a piercing hiss that sent all of them scrambling back. “Iron!” he screeched, baring his jagged fangs. “That’s one of them stinking Iron faeries! Kill it! Kill it now!”
Ironhorse roared, and Puck’s dagger flashed out, a devilish grin stretching his face at the thought of violence. The redcaps surged forward, snarling and gnashing their teeth, just as eager. I grabbed a silver knife from the table and held it ready as the redcaps lunged forward. One of them leaped onto the table, gathering his short legs under him to launch himself at us, fangs gleaming.
“That is enough!”
We froze. It was impossible not to. Even the redcap on the table locked up, then fell into a bowl of fruit salad.
Leanansidhe stood at the end of the table, glowering at us all. Her eyes glowed amber, her hair whipped away from her face, and the candelabra flames danced wildly. For a heart-stopping moment, she stood there, alien and terrifying. Then she sighed, smoothed back her hair and reached for her cigarette holder, taking a long drag. As she blew out the smoke, things returned to normal, including our ability to move, but no one, least of all the redcaps, had any aggressive thoughts left.
“Well?” she finally said, looking to the redcaps as if nothing had happened.
“What are you minions standing about for? My seat isn’t going to move itself.”
The largest redcap, a burly fellow with a bone fishhook through his nose, shook himself and crept forward, pulling Leanansidhe’s chair away from the table. The others followed suit, looking like they’d rather beat us to death with our own arms, but wordlessly drew out our chairs. The one attending Ironhorse growled and bared his teeth at the Iron faery, then darted away as quickly as he could.
“I apologize for the minions,” Leanansidhe said when we were all seated. She touched her fingers to her temple, as if she had a headache. “It’s so hard to find good help these days, darlings. You have no idea.”
“I thought I recognized them,” Puck said, casually reaching for a pear near the center of the table. “Isn’t the leader Razor Dan, or something like that? Caused a bit of a stir during the Goblin Wars, when they tried selling information to both sides?”
“Nasty business, darling.” Leanansidhe snapped her fingers twice, and a brownie melted out of the darkness with a wine flute and a bottle, scrambling onto a stool to fill her glass. “Everyone knows you don’t cheat the goblin tribes if you know what’s good for you. Like poking a stick down an ant nest.” She sipped the wine the brownie poured her and sighed.
“They came to me for asylum, after pissing off every goblin tribe in the wyldwood, so I put them to work. That’s the rule here, darling. You stay, you work.”
I glanced in the direction the redcaps left, feeling their hateful gaze staring out from the darkness. “But aren’t you afraid they’ll get mad and eat someone?”