I was instantly suspicious and crossed my arms. “That’s why you brought me here? So you can bargain for the false king?”
“Of course,” Rowan soothed. “But first, I’ll need an agreement from you, princess. One that says we agree not to kill each other while standing on neutral ground. We wouldn’t want my dear little brother to forget himself and attack, now would we?”
I narrowed my eyes. “I’m more worried about you double-crossing us and having an ambush waiting right outside. Why should I trust you?”
“You wound me, princess.” Rowan put a hand over his heart. “I can assure you, all we want to do is talk, but if you’re not interested in hearing our proposal, I guess we’ll leave with our tails between our legs and continue our march on the Nevernever.”
“Oh, fine.” I could do this dance with Rowan forever, but it would get us no closer to the proposal. Still, I’d learned my lesson with faery deals and bargains, and I chose my words carefully. “We’ll agree to a truce if your side honors it, as well. As long as we stand on neutral ground—” I gestured to the grove around us
“—neither side will attack the other. Agreed?”
“Agreed. There now, that wasn’t so bad, was it?” Rowan smiled at me, infuriatingly smug. “And you’re going to want to hear this, princess. In fact, I think you’ll find this deal very interesting.” He leaned back and watched me, taking his time. I didn’t answer, refusing to rise to the bait. Rowan grinned.
“Your side is done, princess,” he said. “We all know that you can’t win—the Iron King’s army is far greater than either Summer’s or Winter’s, and his fortress is impenetrable. In a few days, Faery will be consumed by the Iron Realm, unless Meghan Chase steps up to save it.”
“Get to the point, Rowan.”
Rowan leered at me, reminding me of a grinning skull. “The Iron King is prepared to stop his advance on the Nevernever, call back all his forces, and halt his fortress where it stands today, if you agree to his proposal.”
“To marry him.” Rowan’s smile grew wider, matching my look of horror.
“Join your power to his. Wed Summer to Iron, and the Iron King will cease his war on the Nevernever for as long as you remain his bride. That way, no one else gets hurt, no one else dies, and most important, the Nevernever as you know it will survive. But you must agree to become his queen, or he will hit the courts of Summer and Winter with everything at his disposal. And he will destroy them.”
My hands were shaking, and I clenched my fists to stop them. “That’s his deal? Marriage?” My stomach recoiled in disgust, and I took a breath to hide the sickness. “What is it with all these Iron Kings wanting to marry me?”
“Not a bad offer, if you ask me,” Rowan said, smirking. “Become a queen, save the world… Of course, you would be married in name only—the Iron King has no interest in your…erm…body, just your power. I’m sure he would even let you keep your pet lapdogs, if you want. Think of all the lives you would save, just by saying yes.”
I felt ill, but…if I could stop the war without anyone dying… Was marrying the Iron King worth saving the entire Nevernever? The lives I could save, Ash and Puck and everyone else… I glanced at Ash, and found him looking as sick and horrified as I felt. “Meghan, no,” he said, as if reading my thoughts. “You don’t have to do this.”
“Of course, she doesn’t have to,” Rowan called. “She can simply refuse, and the Iron King will march into the Nevernever and destroy everything. But, maybe she doesn’t care about saving Faery, after all. Maybe all those lost lives have no meaning to her. If that’s the case, then please, carry on and forget this conversation ever happened.”
I closed my eyes, my mind spinning with choices and possibilities. If I agree, can I get close enough to the false king to stab him? Would that break the terms of the proposal? I have to try. This might be our only chance to get close. But… I opened my eyes and looked at Ash, at the fierce protectiveness on his face, the fear that I would say yes. I’m so sorry, Ash. I don’t want to betray you. I hope you can forgive me for this.
Something in my expression must’ve tipped him off, for he went pale and took a step forward, clutching my upper arms, fingers digging into my skin.
“Meghan…” His voice was hard, but I could hear the despair below the surface.
Rowan laughed, cruel as the edge of a blade, enjoying our torment. “Ooh, yes, beg her again, little brother,” he taunted. “Beg her not to save Faery—let her see you for what you really are, a soulless creature consumed with your own selfish desires, uncaring of anything but what you consider yours. Make sure you tell her how much you love her, enough to destroy your entire court and everything in it.”
“Hey, corpse-breath, why don’t you do everyone a favor and sew your lips shut?” Puck drawled, his eyes narrowed in anger. “It’ll match the rest of your face and be an improvement. Don’t listen to him, princess,” he continued, turning to me. “These kinds of marriage proposals always have some hidden agenda or loophole.”
Something Puck said jogged my memory, and I gently freed myself from Ash to face Rowan. “Let’s hear that proposal again,” I said. “From the beginning. Just his offer, word for word.”
Rowan rolled his eyes. “Do I look like a parrot?” he sneered. “Fine, princess, but I grow impatient, and so does the king. Last time, so do your best to follow, yes? The Iron King wishes you to become his queen. Wed Summer to Iron, and he will cease his war with the Nevernever for as long as you remain his bride—”
“As long as I remain his bride,” I repeated. “Till death do us part, I suppose?”
“That is the traditional wedding vow, I believe.”
“So, what’s to stop him from killing me as soon as I say ‘I do’?”
Rowan stiffened, and the two Iron knights shared a glance. “You assume the Iron King would do such a thing?”
“Of course he would!” Puck added, nodding as if it all made sense. “If Meghan ‘weds her power to his,’ he won’t need her anymore. She will have already given him what he wants. So, on their wedding night, off with her head.”
“‘He will cease his war with the Nevernever as long as she remains his bride,’” Ash continued thoughtfully, narrowing his eyes. “Which means he’ll resume his march as soon as she’s dead.”
“And he’ll be more powerful than ever,” I finished.
Rowan laughed, but it sounded rather forced. “Fascinating theory,” he taunted, though it lacked the usual bite. “But it doesn’t change the fact that the Iron King is ready to destroy the Nevernever, and this is your only chance to stop him. What’s your answer, princess?”
I looked at Ash, smiled faintly, and turned to Rowan. “The answer is no,” I said firmly. “I refuse. Tell the false king he doesn’t have to offer a marriage proposal to get me to come to him. I’ll be there soon enough, when it’s time to kill him.”
Rowan’s lips curled in a nasty smile. “How very predictable,” he mused, backing up. “I thought you might say that, princess. That’s why I’ve already sent forces to destroy your little rebel base. Better hurry back—they should almost be there by now.”
“What?” I stared at Rowan, wishing I could punch the smirk right off his face. “You bastard. They weren’t even a threat. You couldn’t have left them alone?”
“Glitch is a traitor to the Iron King, and his rebels are a blight that must be eliminated,” Rowan said smugly. “Besides, I would have destroyed them anyway, just to see the look on your face when you realized more people will die because of you. Of course, the longer you stay here talking, the more time you waste to warn your little friends. I would start running now, princess.”
I dug my nails into my palms, anger burning my chest. We couldn’t fight them; the terms of the truce prevented it, and we had to get back quickly to help Glitch. If it wasn’t already too late. Rowan smiled at me, knowing our position, and waved cheerfully.
I glared at him, backing away with Ash and Puck. “When I come for the false king,” I told Rowan, “I’ll be coming for you, too. I promise you that.”
The traitor prince ran a blackened tongue along his lips. “Oh, I’m looking forward to it, princess.” He grinned, and we sprinted out of the grove.
IRON AGAINST IRON
I heard the battle even over the howl of the wind.
Pushing my glider as fast as it could possibly go, I swooped over a rise and saw the tower ruins swarming with enemy forces. Iron knights clashed with armored dwarves, silvery praying mantises with scythelike arms swiped at frantic hacker elves, and metal clockwork hounds hurled themselves into the fray. In the distance, a huge beetle tank lumbered toward the base, crushing everything in its path as musket elves blasted their guns into the crowds.
“We should take out that bug first,” Ash called, drawing alongside me. “If I take care of the gunners on top, can you bring it down?”
I nodded, ignoring the persistent fear in my gut. “I think so.”
“You two go on,” Puck shouted, wheeling his glider away. “I’ll hold the line at the entrance, make sure nothing gets through. See ya when we win, princess!”
he called as he swooped away.
I took a breath and glanced at my knight. “Ready, Ash?”
He nodded. “Let’s go.”
I pushed the glider’s legs and sent it into a steep dive, swooping toward the huge black insect. Far below, the screech of metal rang in my ears. The boom of gunshots echoed over the field, and the screams of the wounded and dying made my skin crawl.
Something small and fast zipped by us, hitting the glider’s leg in a burst of sparks and making it veer sharply to the left. Wheeling around, I looked back to see several birdlike creatures, their beaks and the edges of their wings gleaming like a sword edge, spiraling up for another dive-bomb attack.
“Split up!” I yelled to Ash, who had seen them, as well. “We’re sitting ducks otherwise. I’ll try to draw off their attacks.” Without waiting for a reply, I yanked on the glider’s leg and sent it wheeling in another direction, looking back for the bombers. Two broke from the flock and streaked toward me with high-pitched cries.
I banked left, missing them, but barely. They shot past me like falling stars, viciously fast. One of the bird’s razor-edged wings hit my poor glider again, nearly making me lose control as the bird darted away. Straightening out again, I looked up to see the birds coming around once more, and clenched my jaw. Okay, birds. You wanna play? Come on, then.
I pushed the glider into a steep dive, aiming for the battle below. The birds followed, their hunting cries echoing behind me. As we zipped by Ash, I spared him a split-second glance, just in time to see icy-blue light burst from the front of his glider and the shattered form of a bird drop away. I felt a stab of alarm as we passed; he was using glamour! But then the ground came swooping up insanely fast, filling my vision, and I had no time for other thoughts. I pulled up, barely missing the top of a knight’s head, and heard a shriek of dismay as the closest dive-bird slammed into the Iron knight with a loud crunch, sending them both tumbling over the field. Weaving and dodging, I skimmed along the ground, soldiers and rebels whipping by me like telephone poles as I headed for the tower.