Gore dripping from its snout, the chimera looked up and saw me, still frozen on the stage. With a roar, it sprang, landing on the edge of the dance floor. My brain screamed at me to run, but I couldn’t move. I could only stare in detached fascination as it crouched, muscles rippling under its bloody fur. Its hot breath washed over me, stinking of blood and rotten meat, and I saw a scrap of red clothing on the lion’s tooth.

With a shriek, the chimera pounced, and I closed my eyes, hoping it’d be quick.

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

Escape from the Seelie Court

Something slammed into me, pushing me away. Pain shot up my arm as I landed on my shoulder, and I opened my eyes with a gasp.

Ash stood between me and the chimera, his sword unsheathed. The blade glowed an icy-blue, wreathed in frost and mist. The monster roared and swatted at him, but he leaped aside, slashing with his blade. The frozen edge bit into the chimera’s paw, drawing a humanlike scream from the monster. It pounced, and Ash rolled away. On his feet again, he raised an arm, bluish light sparkling from his fingers. As the monster whirled on him, he flung his hand out, and the chimera shrieked as a flurry of glistening ice shards ripped into its hide.

“To arms!” Oberon’s booming voice rose above the roars of the chimera. “Knights, hold the beast back! Protect the envoys! Quickly!”

Mab’s voice joined the chaos, ordering her subjects to attack. Now more fey were arriving, leaping onto the stage with weapons and battle cries, fangs and teeth bared. Less warrior-type fey scurried off the stage, fleeing for their lives as the others attacked. Trolls and ogres slammed great spiked clubs onto the beast’s hide, redcaps sliced at it with tarnished bronze knives, and Seelie knights brandishing swords of flame cut at its flanks. I saw Ash’s brothers join the fray, their ice blades stabbing at the monster’s back. The chimera roared again, badly wounded, momentarily cowed by its attackers.

Then the dragon’s head came up, steam billowing from its jaws, and blasted a stream of liquid fire at the fey surrounding it. The molten spittle covered several of its attackers, who screamed and fell to the ground, thrashing wildly as the flesh melted from their bones. The monster tried to leave the dance floor, but the fey pressed closer, jabbing at it with their weapons, keeping it in place.

As the last of the civilian fey left the stage, the Seelie King stood, his face alien and terrifying, long silver hair whipping behind him. He raised his hands, and a great rumbling shook the ground. Plates clattered and smashed to the ground, trees trembled, and the fey backed away from the snarling monster. The chimera growled and snapped at the air, its eyes wary and confused, as if it were unable to understand what was happening.

The stage—four feet of solid marble—splintered with a deafening crack, and huge roots unfurled through the surface. Thick and ancient, covered in gleaming thorns, they wrapped around the chimera like giant snakes, digging into its hide. The monster roared, raking the living wood with its claws, but the coils continued to tighten.

The fey swarmed the monster again, hacking and cutting. The chimera fought on, lashing out with deadly claws and fangs, catching those who ventured too close. An ogre smashed his club into the beast’s side, but took a savage blow from the monster’s paw that tore his shoulder open. A Seelie knight cut at the dragon’s head, but the jaws opened and it blasted the faery with molten fire. Screaming, the knight wheeled back, and the dragon raised its head to glare at the Erlking standing at the table, his eyes half closed in concentration. Its lips curled, and it took a breath. I yelled at Oberon, but my voice was lost in the cacophony, and I knew my warning would come too late.

And then Ash was there, dodging the beast’s claws, his sword streaking down in an icy blur. It sliced clean through the dragon’s neck, severing it, and the head struck the marble with a revolting splat. Ash danced away as the neck continued to writhe, spraying blood and liquid fire from the stump. Fey howled in pain. As Ash retreated from the lava spray, a troll rammed his spear through the lion’s open maw and out the back of its head, and a trio of redcaps managed to dodge the flailing claws to swarm the goat’s head, biting and stabbing. The chimera jerked, thrashed, and finally slumped in the web of branches, twitching sporadically. Even as it died, the redcaps continued to rip out its flesh.

The battle was over, but the carnage remained. Charred, mangled, mutilated bodies lay like broken toys around the fractured stage. Gravely wounded fey clutched at their injuries, their faces twisted in agony. The smell of blood and burning flesh was overwhelming.

My stomach heaved. Twisting my head from the gruesome sight, I crawled to the edge of the stage and vomited into the rose bushes.

“Oberon!”

The shriek sent chills through me. Queen Mab was on her feet, eyes blazing, pointing a gloved finger at the Erlking.

“How dare you!” she rasped, and I shivered as the temperature dropped to freezing. Frost coated the branches and crept along the ground. “How dare you set this monster on us during Elysium, when we come to you under the banner of trust! You’ve broken the covenant, and I will not forgive this heresy!”

Oberon looked pained, but Queen Titania leaped to her feet. “You dare?” she cried, as lightning crackled overhead. “You dare accuse us of summoning this creature? This is obviously the work of the Unseelie Court to weaken us in our own home!”

Fey began to mutter among themselves, casting suspicious glances at those from another court, though seconds ago they’d fought side by side. A redcap, its mouth dripping black chimera blood, hopped down from the stage to leer at me, beady eyes bright with hunger.

“I smell a human,” it cackled, running a purple tongue over its fangs. “I smell young girl blood, and sweeter flesh than a monster’s.” I hurried away, walking around the stage, but it followed. “Come to me, little girl,” it crooned. “Monster flesh is bitter, not like sweet young humans. I just want a nibble. Maybe just a finger.”

“Back off.” Ash appeared out of nowhere, looking dangerous with dark blood speckling his face. “We’re in enough trouble without you eating Oberon’s daughter. Get out of here.”

The redcap sneered and scurried off. The fey boy sighed and turned to me, his gaze scanning the length of my dress. “Are you hurt?”

I shook my head. “You saved my life,” I murmured. I was about to say “thank you,” but caught myself, since those words seemed to indebt you in Faery. A thought came, unbidden and disturbing. “I…I’m not bound to you or anything like that, am I?” I asked fearfully. He raised an eyebrow, and I swallowed. “No life debt, or having to become your wife, right?”

“Not unless our sires made a deal without our knowledge.” Ash glanced back at the arguing rulers. Oberon was trying to silence Titania, but she would have none of it, turning her anger on him as well as Mab. “And I’d say any contracts they made are officially broken now. This will probably mean war.”

“War?” Something cold touched my cheek, and I glanced up to see snowflakes swirling in a lightning-riddled sky. It was eerily beautiful, and I shivered. “What will happen then?”

Ash stepped closer. His fingers came up to brush the hair from my face, sending an electric shock through me from my spine to my toes. His cool breath tickled my ear as he leaned in.

“I’ll kill you,” he whispered, and walked away, joining his brothers at the table. He did not look back.

I touched the place where his fingers had brushed my skin, giddy and terrified at the same time.

“Careful, human.” Grimalkin appeared on the corner of the stage, overshadowed by the dead chimera. “Do not lose your heart to a faery prince. It never ends well.”

“Who asked you?” I glared at him. “And why do you always pop up when you’re not wanted? You got your payment. Why are you still following me?”

“You are amusing,” purred Grimalkin. Golden eyes flicked to the bickering rulers and back again. “And of great interest to the king and queens. That makes you a valuable pawn, indeed. I wonder what you will do next, now that your brother is not in Oberon’s territory?”

I looked at Ash, standing beside his brothers, stone-faced as the argument between Mab and Titania raged on. Oberon was trying to calm them both, but with little success.

“I have to go to the Unseelie Court,” I whispered as Grimalkin smiled. “I’ll have to look for Ethan in Queen Mab’s territory.”

“I would imagine so,” Grimalkin purred, slitting his eyes at me. “Only, you don’t know where the Unseelie Court is, do you? Mab’s entourage came here in flying carriages. How will you find it?”

“I could sneak into one of the carriages, maybe. Disguise myself.”

Grimalkin snorted with laughter. “If the redcaps do not smell you out, the ogres will. There would be nothing left but bones by the time you reached Tir Na Nog.” The cat yawned and licked a forepaw. “Too bad you lack a guide. Someone who knows the way.”

I stared at the cat, a slow anger building as I realized what it was saying. “You know the way to the Unseelie Court,” I said quietly.

Grimalkin scrubbed a paw over his ears. “Perhaps.”

“And you’ll take me there,” I continued, “for a small favor.”

“No,” Grimalkin said, looking up at me. “There is nothing small about going into Unseelie territory. My price will be steep, human, make no mistake about that. So, you must ask yourself, how much is your brother worth to you?”

I fell silent, staring at the table, where the queens were still going at it.

“Why would I summon the beast?” Mab questioned with a sneer in Titania’s direction. “I’ve lost loyal subjects, as well. Why would I set the creature against my own?”

Titania matched the other queen’s disdain. “You don’t care who you murder,” she said with a sniff, “as long as you get what you want in the end. This is a clever ploy to weaken our court without casting suspicion on yourself.”

Mab swelled in fury, and the snow turned to sleet. “Now you accuse me of murdering my own subjects! I will not listen to this a moment longer! Oberon!” She turned to the Erlking with her teeth bared. “Find the one who did this!” she hissed, her hair writhing around her like snakes. “Find them and give them to me, or face the wrath of the Unseelie Court.”

“Lady Mab,” Oberon said, holding up his hand, “do not be hasty. Surely you realize what this will mean for both of us.”

Mab’s face didn’t change. “I will wait until Midsummer’s Eve,” she announced, her expression stony. “If the Seelie Court does not turn over those responsible for this atrocity to me, then you will prepare yourselves for war.” She turned to her sons, who awaited her orders silently. “Send for our healers,” she told them. “Gather our wounded and dead. We will return to Tir Na Nog tonight.”

“If you are going to decide,” Grimalkin said softly, “decide quickly. Once they leave, Oberon will not let you go. You are too valuable a pawn to lose to the Unseelie Court. He will keep you here against your will, under lock and key if he has to, to keep you out of Mab’s clutches. After tonight, you may not get another chance to escape, and you will never find your brother.”


Tags: Julie Kagawa The Iron Fey Book Series
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