“He won’t,” I promised, relief blossoming through me. “I’ll be there. I’ll make sure of it.”

“You tell ’em, princess,” Puck murmured from the ground. I whirled, my heart leaping, as Puck opened his eyes and grinned up at me weakly. “Now that,” he said as I knelt beside him, “was a rousing speech. I think I shed a few tears.”

“You idiot!” I wanted to smack and hug him at the same time. “What happened? We thought you might be dying.”

“Me? Nah.” Puck grabbed my arm and eased himself upright, wincing as he gingerly prodded the back of his head. “Took a nasty whack to the skull that put me out for a few minutes, that’s all. Would’ve said something sooner, but you were on a roll and I didn’t want to interrupt.”

The urge to hit him increased, especially since he was shooting me that old, stupid grin, the one that reminded me of my best friend, who’d looked after me in school, who was always there no matter what happened. I pulled him to his feet, punched him in the shoulder, and threw my arms around him, hugging him tightly. “Don’t scare me like that,” I hissed. “I couldn’t bear losing you a second time.”

Releasing him, I turned to Glitch, who was watching us with a bemused, uncomfortable expression on his face. “Didn’t you say something about helping us?”

“Sure, princess. Whatever you say.” Glitch looked more resigned than convinced, but turned to his rebels and raised his voice. “Evacuate the camp!” he called, his voice carrying over the field. “Pack up and take only what is necessary! Healers, gather our wounded and take care of them as best as you can!

Anyone who can still fight needs to be ready to travel by morning! The rest of you, suit up and be ready to march! Tomorrow, we go to join forces with Oberon and the oldbloods! Anyone who has a problem with that, or who is too weak or hurt to fight, should leave right now! Get going!”

The camp exploded into action. Glitch watched the rebels scurry about for a moment, then turned to me with a weary look.

“Well, it’s done. I hope you know what you’re doing, your highness. We leave before dawn.” Then, someone called to him, and he left, vanishing into the dispersing crowd and leaving me alone with Puck and Ash. I was suddenly aware of Ash, standing a few yards away, regarding me and Puck with the expression of a granite wall. I hadn’t forgotten him, but that cold, silvery glare, blank as a mirror’s surface, brought a rush of emotions flooding back. Before I could say anything, Ash turned to me and gave a stiff, formal bow.

“My lady,” he said in a calm, flat voice, meeting my gaze. “I must tend to my injuries before the night is out. Will you please excuse me?”

That same cool, formal tone. Not mocking or vicious, just overly polite, without emotion. My stomach clenched, and words froze to the back of my mouth. I wanted to talk to him, but the coldness in his eyes sliced into me, making me pause. Instead, I simply nodded, and watched my knight turn on his heel and stride toward the tower without looking back.

Puck gave a very exaggerated shiver and rubbed his arms.

“Whew, is it cold in here, or is it just me? Trouble in paradise, princess?” I felt my face heat, and Puck shook his head. “Well, don’t drag me into it. I learned long ago that you don’t get in the middle of a lover’s spat. Nothing ever goes as planned—people fall in love with the wrong person, someone ends up with a donkey head, and then it’s a whole big mess.” He glanced at me and sighed. “Let me guess,” he muttered, leading me back toward the tower. “You did something mildly crazy during the last battle, and ice-boy freaked out.”

I nodded, a lump rising to my throat. “He was angry that I went off without him,” I said. “But then I got mad because he didn’t trust me to handle things myself. I mean, I can’t always have him watching over my shoulder, right?” Puck raised his eyebrows, and I sighed. “Okay, it was reckless and stupid. I could’ve been killed, and a lot of people are counting on me to stop the false king. Ash knew that.”

“And…?” Puck prodded.

“And…I might have…told him that I didn’t need him anymore.”

Puck winced. “Ouch. Well, you know what they say—you always hurt the one you love. Or is that the one you hate? I can never remember.” I sniffled, and he put an arm around me as we ducked into the ruins. “Well, don’t worry about it too much, princess. Let ice-boy cool off for the night and then try to talk to him tomorrow. He won’t stay angry with you too long, I bet. Ash isn’t one to hold a grudge.”

I pulled back and frowned at him. “What are you talking about? He’s held a grudge against you for centuries!”

“Oh. Right.” Puck half grimaced as I slapped his chest. “But it’s different with you, princess. Ash is just afraid you don’t need him. That whole ice-prince song and dance?” He snorted. “It’s just a device he uses to protect himself, so he doesn’t get hurt when someone stabs him in the back. That happens a lot at the Winter Court, as I’m sure you know.”

I did know. I’d seen the cold, callous nature of the Unseelie Court, and the royal family was the worst, with Mab pitting her own sons against each other to earn her favor. Ash had grown up among those who knew only violence and betrayal, where emotion was considered a weakness to be exploited, and love was a virtual death sentence.

“But I know Ash,” Puck continued. “When he’s with you…” He hesitated, scratching the back of his head like he did when he was nervous. “The only time I’ve seen him like that was when he was with Ariella.”

“Really?”

He nodded. “I think you’re good for him, Meghan,” he said, smiling in a small, sad way that was completely different from the Puck I knew. “I see the way he looks at you, something I haven’t seen in him since the day we lost Ariella. And…I know you love him in a way you can’t love me.” He looked away, just for a moment, and took a deep breath. “Jealousy isn’t something we deal with well,” he admitted. “But some of us have been around long enough to know when to let go, and what is most important. The happiness of my two best friends should be more important than some ancient feud.” Stepping close, he placed a palm on my cheek, brushing a strand of hair from my face. Glamour flared up around him, casting him in a halo of emerald light. In that moment, he was pure fey, unbound by shallow human fears and embarrassment, a being as natural and ancient as the forest. “I have always loved you, princess,” Robin Goodfellow promised, his green eyes shining in the darkness. “I always will. And I’ll take whatever you can give me.”

I looked down, unable to meet his open stare, human fears and selfconsciousness coming to the surface. “Even if all I can offer is friendship? Will that still be enough?”

“Well, not really.” Puck dropped his hand, his voice turning light and carefree again, more like the Puck I knew. “Damn not being able to lie. Princess, if you suddenly decide ice-boy is a first-class jerk and that you can’t stand him, I’ll always be here. But, for now, I’ll settle for being the best friend. And as the best friend, it’s my duty to inform you not to lose sleep over Ash tonight.” We came to my room, and Puck paused, turning to me with his hand on the doorknob.

“Also, don’t bother trying to find him. If Ash says he wants to be left alone, he wants to be left alone. Intruders might get an icicle at the head for bothering him.” He winced and pushed the door open. “Trust me on that.”

A pair of sleepy golden eyes turned to us as we entered the room, and Grimalkin sat up on the cot. “There you are.” He sighed, yawning to show off his bright pink tongue. “I was afraid you would never get here.”

“Where have you been, Grimalkin?” I burst out, crossing the room to glare down at him. He blinked at me calmly. “Everyone is about to leave, and we couldn’t find a trace of you.”

“Mmm. You must not have looked very hard.” The cat blinked at me calmly.

“So, you actually convinced Glitch to join with the courts, did you? That will be interesting. You do know that even with the combined forces of the rebels, our side is still comparatively smaller in number to the false king’s army? I believe that is why Mab and Oberon sent you specifically after the false king—if the head is cut off, the body will follow.”

“I know.” I faced the cat, feeling self-conscious under that disapproving gaze.

“But I have to go through the army to get to the head. At least this way I’ll have a chance of getting into that fortress. Right now I can’t even get close.”

“And letting the false king march his army into the Nevernever is a better choice.”

“What am I supposed to do, Grimalkin? This is our only chance. I don’t have another option.”

“Perhaps. Or perhaps you all go to your deaths. I am continuously amazed with the lack of preparation around here.” Grimalkin scratched his ear and stood, waving his tail. “By the way, I believe someone was looking for this earlier.”

He moved aside, revealing the limp, crumpled form of a gremlin lying on the cot. I gasped and looked at Grim, who seemed ridiculously pleased with himself.

“Grimalkin! You didn’t…is he…?”

“Dead? Of course not, human.” The cat’s whiskers twitched, offended.

“Although, it could be slightly dizzy when it wakes up. I do advise you to keep it more under control, however, as it seems inordinately drawn to mischief. Perhaps you could put it on a leash.”

“Looks like it’s coming to,” Puck noted.

I knelt beside the cot as Razor’s ears twitched and the spindly body stirred, raising his head. For a moment, he stared at me, blinking in confusion. Then his gaze slid to Grimalkin and he shot up with a hiss, leaping for the wall. He missed, tumbling back onto the cot in a tangle of ears and limbs. Spitting in confusion and fury, he staggered to his feet, wobbling and flailing at the air. I grabbed for him, but he darted away, lightning quick, and leaped off the cot. Puck’s hand shot out, grabbing him by his enormous ears, holding him at arm’s length as he squirmed and struggled. Razor hissed and cursed and spat, sparks flying from his mouth, his gaze not on Puck but on the cait sith beside me.

“Bad kitty!” he screeched, snarling and baring his fangs at Grimalkin, who yawned and turned away to groom his tail. “Evil, evil, sneaky kitty! Bite your head off in your sleep, I will! Hang you by your toes and set you on fire! Burn, burn!”

“Uh, princess,” Puck said, wincing as the gremlin clawed and flailed, sparks flying everywhere, “this isn’t exactly fun for me. Should I drop this thing or have Grim knock it out again?”

“Razor!” I snapped, clapping my hands in front of his face. “Stop it, right now!”

The gremlin stopped, blinking up at me with an almost hurt expression.


Tags: Julie Kagawa The Iron Fey Book Series
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