“Queen Titania,” I gulped, bowing.

“It speaks,” the lady went on, feigning surprise, “as if it knows me. As if being Oberon’s throwback will protect it from my wrath.” Her eyes glittered like chips of diamond, and she smiled, making her even more beautiful and terrifying. “But I am feeling merciful tonight. Perhaps I will not cut out its tongue and feed it to the hounds. Perhaps.” Titania looked past me to Tansy, still bowed low, and crooked one elegant finger. “Come forward, goat-child.”

Keeping her head bowed, Tansy edged forward until she stood at the faery queen’s arm. Queen Titania leaned forward, as though whispering to the satyr, but spoke loud enough for me to hear. “I will allow you to be the voice for this conversation,” she explained, as if to a small child. “I will direct all questions to you, and you will speak for the bastard over there. If, at any point, it attempts to speak to me directly, I will turn it into a hart and set my hounds after it until it collapses from exhaustion or is torn apart. Is this perfectly clear?”

“Yes, my lady,” Tansy whispered.

Perfectly clear, bitch-queen, I echoed in my thoughts.

“Excellent.” Titania leaned back, looking pleased. She shot me a brittle smile, as hostile as a snarling dog, then turned to Tansy. “Now, goat-girl, why is the bastard here?”

“Why are you here?” Tansy repeated, directing the question to me.

“I’m looking for my brother,” I replied, being careful to keep my gaze on Tansy and not the vindictive ice-hag next to her.

“She’s looking for her brother,” Tansy confirmed, turning again to the faery queen. Good God, this was going to take forever.

“He was stolen and brought into the Nevernever,” I said, plunging on before Titania could ask another question. “Puck led me here through the closet. I came to get my brother and take him home, and be rid of the changeling left in his place. That’s all I want. I’ll leave as soon as I find him.”

“Puck?” mused the lady. “Aah, that is where he has been all this time. How very clever of Oberon, hiding you like that. And then you have to ruin his little deception by coming here.” She tsked and shook her head. “Goat-girl,” she said, looking at Tansy once more, “ask the bastard this—would she prefer being a rabbit or a hart?”

“M-my lady?” Tansy stammered as I felt the shadows closing in on me. My heart pounded and I looked around for an escape route. Thorny briars surrounded us; there was nowhere to run.

“It is a simple question,” Titania went on, her tone perfectly conversational. “What would she prefer I change her into—a rabbit or a hart?”

Looking like a trapped rabbit herself, Tansy turned and met my eyes. “M-my lady would like to know if you—”

“Yes, I heard,” I interrupted. “A rabbit or a hart. How about neither?” I dared look up and meet the faery queen’s eyes. “Look, I know you hate me, but just let me rescue my brother and go home. He’s only four, and he must be terrified. Please, I know he’s waiting for me. Once I find him, we’ll leave and you’ll never see us again, I swear.”

Titania’s face glowed with angry triumph. “The creature dares to speak to me! Very well. She has chosen her fate.” The faery queen raised a gloved hand, and lightning flashed overhead. “A hart it is, then. Set free the hounds. We will have a merry hunt!”

Her hand swept down, pointing at me, and spasms rocked my body. I screamed and arched my back, feeling my spine lengthen and pop. Invisible pliers grabbed my face and pulled, stretching my lips into a muzzle. I felt my legs getting longer, thinner, my fingers turning into cloven hooves. I screamed again, but what left my throat was the agonized bleat of a deer.

Then, suddenly, it stopped. My body snapped into the proper shape, like a taut rubber band, and I collapsed, gasping, to the forest floor.

Through my blurry vision, I saw Oberon standing at the mouth of the tunnel, a pair of faery knights behind him, his arm outstretched. For a moment, I was sure I saw Grimalkin standing by his feet, but I blinked and the shadows were empty. With his appearance, the lilting harp music ground to a halt. The fey girls surrounding the collared human flung themselves to the floor and bowed their heads.

“Wife,” Oberon said calmly, stepping into the clearing. “You will not do this.”

Titania rose, her face a mask of fury. “You dare speak to me that way,” she spat, and wind rattled the branches of the trees. “You dare, after you hid her from me, after you sent your little pet to protect her!” Titania sneered, and lightning crackled overhead. “You deny me a consort, and yet you flaunt your half-breed abomination in the court for all to see. You are a disgrace. The court mocks you in secret, and you still protect her.”

“Nonetheless.” Somehow, Oberon’s composed voice rose above the howling of the wind. “She is my blood, and you will not touch her. If you have any grievances, my lady, cast them on me, not on the girl. It is not her fault.”

“Perhaps I shall turn her into a cabbage,” the queen mused, shooting me a look of black hatred, “and plant her in my garden for the rabbits to enjoy. Then she would be useful and wanted.”

“You will not touch her,” Oberon said again, his voice rising in authority. His cloak billowed out, and he grew taller, his shadow lengthening on the ground. “I command it, wife. I have given my word that she shall not come to harm within my court, and you will follow me on this. Do I make myself clear?”

Lightning sizzled, and the ground shook under the intensity of the rulers’ gazes. The girls at the foot of the throne cringed, and Oberon’s guards grasped the hilts of their swords. A branch snapped nearby, barely missing the harp girl, who cowered under the trunk. I pressed myself to the earth and tried to make myself as small as possible.

“Very well, husband.” Titania’s voice was as cold as ice, but the wind gradually died and the earth stopped moving. “As you command. I will not harm the half-breed while she is within the court.”

Oberon gave a curt nod. “And your servants will not do her ill, either.”

The queen pursed her lips as if she’d swallowed a lemon. “No, husband.”

The Erlking sighed. “Very well. We will speak on this later. I bid you good-night, my lady.” He turned, his cloak billowing behind him, and left the clearing, the guards trailing in his wake. I wanted to call after him, but I didn’t want it to look like I was running after Daddy’s protection, especially after he put the smackdown on Titania.

Speaking of which…

I swallowed and turned to face the faery queen, who glared at me as if hoping the blood would boil in my veins. “Well, you heard His Majesty, half-breed,” she cooed, her voice laced with poison. “Get out of my sight before I forget my promise and change you into a snail.”

I was only too happy to leave. However, no sooner did I stand up and prepare to flee than Titania snapped her fingers.

“Wait!” she ordered. “I’ve a better idea. Goat-girl, come here.”

Tansy appeared at her side. The satyr looked terrified; her eyes were bulging out of her head and her furry legs trembled. The queen flicked a finger at me. “Take Oberon’s bastard to the kitchens. Tell Sarah we’ve found her a new serving girl. If the bastard must stay, she might as well work.”

“B-but, my lady,” Tansy stammered, and I marveled that she had the courage to contradict the queen, “King Oberon said—”

“Ah, but King Oberon is no longer here, is he?” Titania’s eyes gleamed, and she smiled. “And what Oberon does not know will not hurt him. Now, go, before I truly lose my patience.”

We went, trying not to trip over each other as we fled the queen’s presence and went back into the tunnel.

As we reached the edge of the brambles, a ripple of power shook the air, and the girls behind us gave cries of dismay. A moment later, a fox darted into the tunnel with a flash of red fur. It stopped a few yards away and looked at us, amber eyes wide with confusion and fear. I saw the gleam of a golden collar around its throat, before it gave a frightened bark and vanished into the thorns.

In silence, I followed Tansy through the twisting maze of briars, trying to process all that had happened. Okay, so Titania had a serious grudge against me; that was really, really bad. As the record of “Enemies-I-did-not-want” went, the Queen of the Faeries would probably top the list. I would have to be really careful from now on, or risk ending up a mushroom in somebody’s soup.

Tansy didn’t say a word until we came to a pair of large stone doors in the hedge. Tendrils of steam curled out beneath the cracks, and the air was hot and greasy.

Pushing the doors open released a blast of hot, smoky air. Blinking tears from my eyes, I stared into an enormous kitchen. Brick ovens roared, copper kettles bubbled over fires, and a dozen aromas flooded my senses. Furry little men in aprons scuttled back and forth between several long counters, cooking, baking, testing the contents of the kettles. A bloody boar carcass lay on a table, and hacking into it was a huge, green-skinned woman with thick tusks and brown hair pulled into a braid.

She saw us in the doorway and came stomping over, blood and bits of meat clinging to her apron.

“No loafers in my kitchen,” she growled, waving a large bronze butcher knife at me. “I got no scraps for the likes of you. Take your sneaky, thieving fingers elsewhere.”

“S-Sarah Skinflayer, this is Meghan Chase.” As Tansy introduced us, I gave the troll woman a sickly, please-don’t-kill-me smile. “She’s to help you in the kitchen by order of the queen.”

“I don’t need help from a skinny half-human whelp,” Sarah Skinflayer growled, eyeing me disdainfully. “She’d only slow us down, and we’re running ourselves into the ground, getting ready for Elysium.” Looking me over, she sighed and scratched her head with the blunt end of the knife. “I guess I could find a place for her. But tell Her Majesty that if she wants to torture someone else, try the stables or the kennel runs. I’ve got all the help I need here.”

Tansy nodded and left quickly, leaving me alone with the giantess. I felt sweat dripping down my back, and it wasn’t from the fires. “All right, whelp,” Sarah Skinflayer barked, pointing at me with her knife. “I don’t care if you are His Majesty’s throwback, you’re in my kitchen now. Rules here are simple—you don’t work, you don’t eat. And I have a little fun with the horsewhip in the corner. They don’t call me Sarah Skinflayer for nothing.”

The rest of the night passed in a blur of scrubbing and cleaning. I mopped blood and bits of flesh from the stone floor. I swept ashes from the brick ovens. I washed mountains of plates, goblets, pots, and pans. Every time I paused to rub my aching limbs, the troll woman would be there, barking orders and pushing me to my next chore. Toward the end of the night, after catching me sitting on a stool, she growled something about “lazy humans,” snatched the broom from my hands, and gave me the one she was carrying. As soon as my hands closed around the handle, the broom leaped to life and began sweeping vigorously, brisk, hard strokes, while my feet carried me around the room. I tried letting go of the thing, but my fingers seemed glued to the handle, and I couldn’t open my hands. I swept the floor until my legs ached and my arms burned, until I couldn’t see for the sweat in my eyes. Finally, the troll woman snapped her fingers and the broom stopped its mad sweeping. I collapsed, my knees buckling underneath me, tempted to hurl the sadistic broom into the nearest oven.


Tags: Julie Kagawa The Iron Fey Book Series
Source: www.StudyNovels.com
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