“Master punish bad kitty?” he said in a pitiful voice.
“No, I’m not going to punish the bad kitty,” I said, and Grimalkin snorted.
“And you aren’t, either. I want to talk to you. Will you stay and not run off if we let you go?”
He bobbed his head, as best he could while his ears were gripped tightly by Puck. “Master wants Razor to stay, Razor stay. Not move until told. Promise.”
“All right.” I glanced at Puck and nodded. “Let him go.”
Puck raised an eyebrow. “You sure, princess? All I heard was static buzz and chipmunk chatter.”
“I can understand him,” I said, earning a dubious look from Puck and a gleam of keen interest from Grimalkin. “He promised not to move. Let him go.”
He shrugged and opened his fist, dropping the gremlin to the cot again. Razor hit the mattress and instantly froze; not even his ears vibrated as he gazed up at me with expectant green eyes.
I blinked. “Uh, at ease,” I muttered, and the gremlin plopped into a sit, still watching me intently. “Look, Razor, I think it’s best if you leave. The camp is being evacuated right now. You can’t stay here by yourself, and I don’t think you’ll be welcome where we’re going.”
“No leave!” Razor leaped up, his face eager. “Stay with Master. Go where Master goes. Razor can help!”
“You can’t,” I said, hating the way his ears drooped like a scolded puppy.
“We’re marching to war, and it’ll be dangerous. You can’t help us against the false king’s army.” He buzzed sadly, but I kept my voice firm. “Go home, Razor. Go back to Mag Tuiredh. Isn’t that where you really want to be? With all the other gremlins?”
Grimalkin sighed loudly, causing me to look back and Razor to hiss at him.
“Am I the only one here who has any insight at all?” he said, looking to each of our faces. We stared at him, and he shook his head. “Drawing a blank, are you?
Think about what you just said, human. Repeat that last phrase, if you would.”
I frowned. “Isn’t that where you want to be?”
He closed his eyes. “The next phrase, human.”
“With all the other gremlins.” He stared at me expectantly, and I raised my hands. “What? What are you getting at, Grim?”
Grimalkin thumped his tail. “It is times like these I am ever more grateful that I am a cat,” he sighed. “Why do you think I brought you that creature, human? To keep up my stalking skills? I assure you, they are quite adequate already. Please attempt to use the brain I know is hidden somewhere in that head. There are thousands of gremlins in Mag Tuiredh, perhaps hundreds of thousands. And who is the only person in the entire realm who can communicate with them?”
“Me.” Suddenly what he was implying hit me full force. “The gremlins. There are thousands of them out there. And…and they listen to me.”
“Bravo,” Grimalkin deadpanned, rolling his eyes. “The lightbulb finally comes on.”
“I can ask the gremlins to help us,” I said, ignoring Grimalkin, who lay down and curled his tail around himself, his work apparently done. “I can go to Mag Tuiredh and…” I stopped, shaking my head. “No. No, I can’t. I have to be there when we reach the Nevernever, or Oberon and Mab will try to kill Glitch and his army. They would think it’s just another attack by the false king.”
“You’re probably right about that,” Puck mused, crossing his arms. “Mab wouldn’t hesitate, and even Oberon would chop first and ask questions later when it comes to the Iron fey.” He glanced down at Razor, who was still watching me intently and cocking his head like a dog trying to understand. “What about Buzzsaw there? Could you send it back with a message to its friends, telling them what you want?”
“I guess I could try. What do we have to lose?” I turned to the gremlin, who sat up and flared his ears, ready and eager. “Razor, if I asked the other gremlins to help me, do you think they would come?”
“We help!” Razor bounced in place, grinning. “Razor help! Help Master, yes!”
I didn’t know if that meant all the gremlins would help or just him, but I went on anyway. “I want you to take a message back to Mag Tuiredh. This is for all gremlins. Gather everyone who is willing to fight and meet us at the edge of the Iron Realm, where it meets the wyldwood. We have to stop the false king’s moving tower before it hits the battlefront. Can you do that, Razor? Do you understand what I’m asking?”
“Razor understands!” the gremlin crowed, and leaped to the wall, flashing his neon grin. “I help! Meet Master in funny elf lands! I go!” And before I could call him back, he scurried up the corner, slid through the slats in the vent, and disappeared.
Puck raised an eyebrow and glanced at me. “Do you think he really understood what you wanted?”
Grimalkin raised his head and gave me an annoyed look, as if I had just blown something he’d spent hours setting up. “I don’t know,” I murmured, watching the vent. “I guess we can only hope.”
I DIDN’T SEE ASH all that evening, though I ignored Puck’s advice and looked for him. The ruins, bustling with activity at first, eventually died down into a somber quiet as scores of faery rebels prepared to march to battle. Armor was cleaned, blades were sharpened, and Glitch vanished behind closed doors with several of his advisers and hacker elves, probably to discuss strategy. Puck, forever curious and viewing all private meetings as a personal challenge, told me he would find out what was going on and disappeared. Restless, nervous, and annoyed that I couldn’t find Ash, I retreated to my room, where Grimalkin was curled in the middle of my bed and refused to scoot over so I could lie down.
“Grimalkin, move!” I snapped after trying and failing to ease him over. He rumbled a growl as I pushed at him, flexing his very sharp claws, and I quickly pulled my hand back. Golden eyes slitted open and glared at me.
“I am rather weary, human,” Grimalkin warned, flattening his ears in a rare but dangerous show of temper. “Considering I spent all night tracking down that gremlin, I would politely ask that you let me sleep before we go trekking down the same path we just came from. If you are looking for the Winter prince, he is up on the balcony with the insect things.” Grimalkin sniffed and closed his eyes.
“Why not go pester him for a while?”
My heart leaped. “Ash? Ash is on the balcony?”
Grimalkin sighed. “Why do humans deem it necessary to repeat everything that is told them?” he mused, but I was already out the door.
The rebels shot me curious, annoyed looks as I jogged through the base, dodging hacker elves gathering up their computers, stammering apologies as I wove my way through the crowds. Reaching the stairs to the balcony, I took them two at a time but slowed when I came to the landing. Remembering what Puck said about intruders and hurled icicles, I peeked cautiously around the corner. Ash stood on the edge of the landing, his back to me, the wind tugging at his hair and cloak. Overhead, dark red clouds blotted out the moon, and tiny flakes of gray danced on the breeze, dissolving to powder when they touched my skin. A fine coating of dust covered the balcony, muffling my footsteps as I eased through the arch. I knew Ash heard me from the tilt of his head, but he didn’t turn around.
“It’s unbelievable,” he whispered, his eyes gazing out over the landscape. In the distance, a thread of poisonous green lightning crawled under the belly of the clouds, and the air turned sharp and chemical. “To think this was once the Nevernever. To know that it could all turn into this…” He slowly shook his head.
“It would be the end of us. Faery would be extinct forever. Everything I knew, places that have stood since the beginning of time, gone.”
“We won’t let that happen,” I said firmly, joining him at the edge. “The false king will be stopped, and this will go back to normal. I’m not going to let everything disappear.”
He didn’t say anything to that, continuing to gaze over the landscape. Silence fell, thick and uncomfortable. The wind whipped at my hair, howling across the distance between us. I could sense both of us wanting to speak, to break the awkwardness of unspoken apologies, until the quiet grew more than I could bear.
“I’m sorry, Ash,” I murmured at last. “For what I said earlier. I didn’t mean it.”
He gave his head a small shake. “No. You shouldn’t apologize.” With a sigh, he raked a hand through his hair, still not looking at me. “I’m the one who taught you to fight, to take care of yourself. I have no right to be angry when you prove yourself capable of every lesson I gave you.”
“I had a pretty good teacher.”
He smiled, very faintly, though his eyes remained dark, his gaze on the clouds sweeping the horizon. “You’re not the same girl I met when you first came to the Nevernever, searching for your brother,” he said softly. “You’ve grown…changed. You’re stronger now, like she was.” He didn’t say her name, but I knew whom he meant. Ariella, the love he lost to a wyvern attack long before we ever met. “She was always the strong one,” Ash continued, his voice barely above a murmur. “Even the Winter Court couldn’t crush her spirit, turn her spiteful and cruel. She was better than all of us. But I couldn’t save her.” He closed his eyes, clenching his fists with the memory. “She died because I failed to protect her. I can’t…” His voice trembled, just a little, and he took a quiet breath.
“I can’t watch that happen to you.”
“I’m not her,” I said, slipping my arm through his. “You’re not going to lose me, I promise.”
He shivered, glancing at me from the corner of his eyes. “Meghan,” he began, and I could sense his unease. “There’s something…I haven’t told you. I should have explained before but…I was afraid it would be a self-fulfilling prophecy if you knew.” He paused a moment, as if waiting for me to say something. When I didn’t, he took a deep breath. “Long ago,” he began,
“someone told me that I would be cursed in love, that those I came to cherish would be torn from me, that as long as I remained soulless, I would lose everyone I truly cared for.”
My heart stopped for a moment, then picked up again, faster than before.
“Who told you that?”
“A very old druid priestess.” He seemed hesitant now, and I caught a flicker of dark blue regret from the corner of my eye. “This was before Ariella, back in the ancient times, when humans still feared and worshipped the old gods and had all sorts of rituals for keeping us out, which of course only challenged us to find ways around them. I was much younger then, and my brothers and I would play our cruel games with the mortals, particularly with the young, silly females we came across.” He paused, tilting his head back slightly, gauging my reaction.