Grimalkin leaped onto the table and sniffed. “Summerpod,” he stated, wrapping his tail around himself. “I did not think they grew in the Winter territories.” He turned to me with a serious expression. “Better not eat too many of those,” he warned. “They make faery wine out of that. Your human side will not handle it well.”
“Oh, let her try one,” Puck snorted, rolling his eyes. “She’s been in Faery long enough, eating our food. It won’t turn her into a rat or anything.”
“Where are we going?” Ash questioned, sounding bored with us all. “Did you manage to come up with a plan to find the Iron King, or are we going to paint targets on our backs and wander in circles until he notices?”
I bit into the fruit, and warmth flooded my mouth. I swallowed, and it filled my whole body, driving away the cold. The quilt was suffocatingly hot; I draped it over one of the chairs and gulped the rest of the fruit in one bite.
“You’re awfully eager to help,” Puck drawled, leaning back against the table. “And here I was getting ready for a duel first thing in the morning. Why the change of heart, prince?”
The effects of the summerpod were fading; cold prickled my arms, and my cheeks tingled. Ignoring Grimalkin’s warning glare, I snatched another fruit and popped it into my mouth like Puck had done. Wonderful, delicious warmth surged into me, and I sighed in pleasure.
Ash’s outline blurred at the edges as he faced Puck. “Your princess and I made a bargain,” he said. “I agreed to help her find the Iron King, though I won’t bore you with the details. While I will uphold my end of the contract, it did not involve you in any way. I only promised to help her.”
“Which means we’re still free to duel each other anytime we want.”
The room swayed slightly. I plunked into a chair and grabbed another summerpod from the bowl, shoving the whole thing in my mouth. Again, I felt that wonderful rush of heat and headiness. Somewhere far away, Puck and Ash were holding a dangerous conversation, but I couldn’t bring myself to care. Hooking the edge of the bowl, I pulled the whole thing to me and began popping them like candy.
“Well, why wait?” Puck sounded eager. “We could step outside right now, Your Highness, and get this over with.”
Grimalkin sighed loudly, interrupting the conversation. Both faeries turned and glared at him. “This is all quite fascinating,” Grimalkin said, his voice slurring in my ears, “but instead of posing and scratching the ground like rutting peacocks, perhaps you should look to the girl.”
Both boys glanced at me, and Puck’s eyes got huge. “Princess!” he yelped, springing over and tugging the bowl from my grasping fingers. “You’re not supposed to…Not all of them…. How many of those did you eat?”
“How very like you, Puck.” Ash’s voice came from a great distance, and the room started to spin. “Offer them a taste of faery wine, and act surprised when they’re consumed by it.”
That struck me as hilarious, and I broke into hysterical giggles. And once I began, I couldn’t stop. I laughed until I was gasping for breath, tears streaming down my face. My feet itched and my skin crawled. I needed to move, to do something. I tried standing up, wanting to spin and dance, but the room tilted violently and I fell, still shrieking with laughter.
Somebody caught me, scooping me off my feet and into their arms. I smelled frost and winter, and heard an exasperated sigh from somewhere above my head.
“What are you doing, Ash?” I heard someone ask. A familiar voice, though I couldn’t think of his name, or why he sounded so suspicious.
“I’m taking her back to her room.” The person above me sounded wonderfully calm and deep. I sighed and settled into his arms. “She’ll have to sleep off the effects of the fruit. We’ll likely be here another day because of your idiocy.”
The other voice said something garbled and unintelligible. I was suddenly too sleepy and light-headed to care. Relaxing against the mysterious person’s chest, I fell into a heady sleep.
I STOOD IN A DARK ROOM, surrounded by machinery. Steel cables as thick as my arm dangled overhead, house-size computers lined the walls, blinking with millions of flashing lights, and thousands of broken televisions, ancient PCs, out-of-date game consoles, and VHS players lay in drifts and heaps throughout the room. Wires covered everything, writhing and slithering along the walls, over the mountains of forgotten technology, dropping in tangled clumps from the ceiling. A loud thrumming filled the area, making the floor vibrate and my teeth buzz.
The strangled whisper came from behind me. I turned to see a small shape dangling from the wires. They coiled around his arms, chest, and legs, holding him spread-eagled near the ceiling. With horror, I saw some of the wires stabbing into him, plugged into his face, neck, and forehead like electrical outlets. He dangled weakly, blue eyes beseeching mine.
“Meggie,” Ethan whispered, as something huge and monstrous rose up behind him. “Save me.”
I bolted upright, screaming, the image of Ethan dangling from the wires burned into my mind. Grimalkin leaped away with a yowl, sharp claws stabbing into my chest as he fled. I barely felt them. Flinging aside the bedcovers, I raced for the door.
A dark shape rose from a chair against the wall, intercepting me as I tried to bolt through. It caught my upper arms, holding me still as I struggled with it. All I could see was Ethan’s face, contorted in agony, dying in front of me.
“Let go!” I screamed, jerking my arm free and trying to claw my opponent’s eyes. “Ethan is out there! I have to save him! Let me go!”
“You don’t even know where he is.” A hand caught my flailing wrist and pinned it to his chest. Silver eyes glared into mine as he shook me, once. “Listen to me! If you go charging out there without a plan, you’ll kill us all and your brother will die. Is that what you want?”
I sagged against him. “No,” I whispered, all the fight going out of me. Tears welled, and I shook with the effort of holding them back. I couldn’t be weak, not anymore. If I was going to have any hope of saving my brother, I couldn’t stand in a corner and cry. I had to be strong.
With a shaky breath, I straightened and wiped my eyes. “Sorry,” I whispered, embarrassed. “I’m okay now. No more freaking out, I promise.”
Ash still held my hand. Gently, I tried pulling back, but he wasn’t letting go. I glanced up and found his face inches from mine, his eyes searingly bright in the shadows of the room.
Time froze around us. My heart stumbled a bit, then picked up, louder and faster than before. Ash’s expression was blank; nothing showed on his face or in his eyes, but his body had gone very still. I knew I was blushing like a fire engine. His fingers came up and gently brushed a tear from my cheek, sending a tingle through my skin. I shivered, frightened by the pressure mounting between us, needing to break the tension.
I licked my lips and whispered, “Is this where you say you’ll kill me?”
One corner of his lip curled. “If you like,” he murmured, a flicker of amusement finally crossing his face. “Though it’s gotten far too interesting for that.”
Footsteps sounded outside in the hall, and Ash moved away, dropping my hand. He crossed his arms and leaned against the wall as Puck entered, Grimalkin loping lazily behind him.
I took a deep, furtive breath and hoped my burning face was lost in the shadows. Puck shot Ash a suspicious glare before looking at me. A sheepish grin crossed his lips.
“Er, how’re you feeling, princess?” he asked, lacing both hands behind his head, a sure sign that he was nervous. “Those summerpod fruits pack quite a punch, don’t they? Hey, at least it wasn’t bristlewort. You would’ve spent the rest of the evening as a hedgehog.”
I sighed, knowing that was as close to an apology as I would get. “I’m fine,” I told him, rolling my eyes. “When do we leave?”
Puck blinked, but Ash answered as if nothing had happened. “Tonight,” he said, coming away from the wall, stretching like a panther. “We’ve wasted enough time here. I assume the cait sith knows the way to this oracle?”
Grimalkin yawned, showing off fangs and a bright pink tongue. “Obviously.”
“How far is it?” I asked him.
The cat looked from me to Ash and purred knowingly. “The oracle lives in the human world,” he said, “in a large city that sits below sea level. Every year, people dress in costume and throw an enormous fiasco. They dance and eat and toss beads at others for removing their clothing.”
“New Orleans,” I said, frowning. “You’re talking about New Orleans.” I groaned, thinking about what it would take to get there. New Orleans was the closest city to our tiny little hick town, but it was still a long drive. I knew, because I’d fantasized about driving to the near-mythical city when I finally got my license. “That’s hundreds of miles away!” I protested. “I have no car and no money for a plane ticket. How are we going to get there—or were we planning to hitchhike?”
“Human, the Nevernever touches all borders of the human world.” Grimalkin shook his head, sounding impatient. “It has no physical boundaries—you could get to Bora Bora from here if you knew the right trod. Stop thinking in human terms. I am sure the prince knows a path to the city.”
“Oh, sure he does,” Puck broke in. “Or a path right into the center of the Unseelie Court. Not that I’d mind crashing Mab’s party, but I’d like for it to be on my own terms.”
“He won’t lead us into a trap,” I snapped at Puck, who blinked at me. “He promised to help us find the Iron King. He’d be breaking his word if he handed us over to Mab. Right, Ash?”
Ash looked uncomfortable but nodded.
“Right,” I repeated, forcing a bravado I didn’t feel. I hoped Ash wouldn’t betray us, but, as I’d learned, deals with faeries tended to bite you in the ass. I shook off my hesitation and turned to the prince. “So,” I demanded, trying to sound confident, “where can we find this trod to New Orleans?”
“The frost giant ruins,” Ash replied, looking thoughtful. “Very close to Mab’s court.” At Puck’s glare, he shrugged and offered a tiny, rueful smirk. “She goes to Mardi Gras every year.”
I pictured the Queen of the Unseelie Court flashing a couple of drunken partygoers, and giggled uncontrollably. All three shot me a strange look. “Sorry,” I gasped, biting my lip. “Still kind of giddy, I guess. Shall we go, then?”
Puck grinned. “Just let me borrow some supplies.”
LATER, THE FOUR OF US WALKED down a narrow, ice-slick trail, the Chillsorrow manor growing smaller and smaller behind us. Sometime during the night, the gnomes had disappeared; the house was empty when we left, as if it had been that way for a hundred years. I wore a long robe of gray fur that tinkled musically when I walked, like tiny wind chimes. Puck had given it to me when we were clear of the manor, under the disapproving glare of Ash, and I didn’t dare ask him where he got it. But it kept me perfectly warm and comfortable as we traveled through Mab’s cold, frozen domain.