“Ash—”

“Meghan, I—”

Someone pounded on the door, making us both jump. “Prince Ash!” a squeaky voice shouted from the other side. “Are you there? Sweetfinger is downstairs, waiting for you.”

“Tell him I’m on my way,” Ash replied, and pushed himself off the door.

“Wait here,” he told me. “It should be safe. Lock the door and try to get some rest.” He opened the door, revealing a leering goblin on the other side, and closed it softly behind him. I sat down on one of the beds, which reeked of beer and dirty straw, and stared at the door for a long time.

THEN I WAS BEING shaken awake. I blinked in the darkness; someone had put a black cloth over the caged light and the room was swathed in shadow. Sleep made my eyelids heavy and awkward, but I cracked them open to focus on the blurred form above me. Ash sat on the edge of the mattress, silver eyes bright in the gloom, holding me gently by the shoulders.

“Meghan,” he murmured, “wake up. It’s time.”

Exhaustion pulled at me. I’d been more tired than I thought, and my thoughts swirled muzzily. Seeing I was awake, Ash started to rise off the bed, but I slid forward and wrapped my arms around his waist.

“No,” I murmured, my voice still groggy with sleep. “Stay.”

He shivered, and his hands came to rest over mine. “You’re not making this any easier,” he whispered into the darkness.

“Don’t care,” I slurred, tightening my hold on him. He sighed and half turned in my arms, smoothing the hair from my cheek.

“Why am I so drawn to you?” he muttered, almost to himself. “Why is it so hard to let go? I thought…at first…it was Ariella, that you remind me of so much. But it’s not.”

Though he didn’t smile, his eyes lightened a shade. “You’re far more stubborn than she ever was.”

I sniffed. “That’s like the pot calling the kettle black,” I whispered, and a faint, tiny grin finally crossed his face, before his expression clouded and he lowered his head, touching his forehead to mine.

“What do you want of me, Meghan?” he asked, a low thread of anguish flickering below the surface. Tears blurred my vision, all the fear and heartache of the past few days rising to the surface.

“Just you,” I whispered. “I just want you.”

He closed his eyes. “I can’t do that.”

“Why not?” I demanded. His face swam above me, blurring with tears, but I refused to release him to wipe my eyes. My desperation grew. “Who cares what the courts say?” I challenged. “We could meet in secret. You could come to my world, no one will see us there.”

He shook his head. “Mab already knows. Do you think she would let us get away with it? You saw how well she reacted in the throne room.” I sniffled, burying my face in his side, as his fingers gently combed my hair. I didn’t want to let him go. I wanted to curl into him and stay there forever.

“Please,” I whispered desperately, not caring about pride anymore. “Don’t do this. We can find a way around the courts. Please.” I bit my lip as a shiver went through him, and I held him tighter. “I love you, Ash.”

“Meghan.” Ash’s voice was tormented. “You don’t…know me at all. You don’t know what I’ve done…the blood on my hands, both faery and mortal.” He stopped, taking a breath to compose himself. “When Ariella died, everything inside me froze. It was only through hunting—killing—that I could feel anything again. I cared for nothing, not even myself. I threw myself into fights I thought I would lose, if only to feel the pain of a sword blow, the claws tearing me apart.”

I shivered and clung to him, remembering the scars across his back and shoulders. I could imagine him fighting, his eyes dead and cold, hoping that something would finally get lucky and kill him.

“Then you came along,” he muttered, touching my wet cheek, “and suddenly…I don’t know. It was like I was seeing things for the first time again. When I saw you with Puck, the day you came to the Nevernever…”

“The day you tried to kill us,” I reminded him.

He winced, nodding. “I thought fate was playing a cruel joke on me. That a girl, who could have been Ariella’s shadow, was keeping company with my sworn enemy—it was too much. I wanted to kill you both.” He sighed. “But, then I met you at Elysium, and…”

He closed his eyes. “And everything I thought I’d lost forever came trickling back. It was maddening. I thought about killing you several times during Elysium, just to stop what I knew would be my downfall. I didn’t want this, to feel anything, especially with a half-human girl who was the daughter of the Summer King.” He snorted ruefully, shaking his head. “From the moment you stepped into the Nevernever, you’ve been my undoing. I should never have agreed to that contract.”

I sucked in a breath. “Why?”

He brushed a strand of hair from my cheek, his voice gentler than before.

“Because no matter what I feel, I can’t fight centuries of rules and traditions, and neither can you.”

“We could try—”

“You don’t know the courts,” Ash continued softly. “You haven’t been in Faery long enough to know what could happen, but I do. I’ve seen it, centuries of it. Even if we get the scepter back, even if we manage to stop the war, we’ll still be on opposite sides. Nothing will change that, no matter how much you wish it wasn’t so. No matter how much I wish it was different.”

I didn’t answer, too miserable to comment. His voice, though filled with regret, was resolved. He had made up his mind, and I wouldn’t be changing it. A strange peace settled through me, or perhaps my despair finally gave in to resignation. So, this is it, I thought, as numbness spread through my body, easing the sharp pain in my chest. This is what breaking up is like. Although, I was sure “breaking up” was the wrong expression. It seemed much too common and trivial for what was happening.

“Come on.” Ash pried my hands from his waist and stood up. “We should go. Sweetfinger and I made a deal. He’ll get us out of the city through the goblin tunnels that run beneath it. We’ll need to hurry—Rowan’s Thornguards are still scouring the streets for us.”

“Ash,” I said, struggling upright. “Wait. Just one more thing, before we go.”

He frowned warily. “What do you want?”

I rose from the bed, my heart thudding in my chest. “Kiss me,” I whispered, and saw his eyebrows arc in surprise. “Just once more,” I pleaded, “and I promise it will be the last time. I’ll be able to forget you after that.” A bald-faced lie. Even if I turned ninety, lost my mind and forgot everything else, the memory of the Winter prince would be a shining beacon that would never fade.

He hesitated, unsure, and I tried to make my tone light. “Last time, I swear.”

I met his gaze and tried for a smile. “It’s the least you can do. I didn’t get a proper breakup, you know.”

Ash still wavered, looking torn. His eyes flicked to the door, and for a moment I thought he would walk away, leaving me to shrivel into a mortified heap. But then he let out a quiet sigh, and his shoulders slumped in resignation.

Meeting my gaze, he took one step forward, drew me into his arms, and brushed his lips to mine.

I think our last kiss was meant to be quick and chaste, but after the first touch of his lips fire leaped up and roared through my belly. My fingers yanked him close, digging into his back, and his arms crushed me to him as if wanting to meld us together. I knotted my fingers in his hair and bit down on his bottom lip, making him groan. His lips parted, and my tongue swept in to dance with his. There was nothing sweet or gentle in our last kiss; it was filled with sorrow and desperation, of the bitter knowledge that we could’ve had something perfect, but it just wasn’t meant to be.

It ended much too soon. Ash pulled away, eyes bright, shaking with desire and passion. Both our hearts were thudding wildly, and Ash’s fingers were digging painfully into my shoulders. “Don’t ask me this again,” he rasped, and I was too breathless to answer. He released me and stalked through the door without looking back. I took a deep breath, halting the tears crawling up my throat, and followed. A goblin waited for us at the foot of the stairs, his mouth pulled into a toothy grin that showed missing fangs and gold teeth. He was decked out in jewelry: rings, ear studs, necklaces, even a gold nose ring. A milky glass eye sparkled as he turned to me, rubbing his claws and grinning like a gleeful shark.

“Ah, this is princess that turned prince traitor,” he hissed, eyeing me up and down. “And now they need goblin tunnels out of city, good, good.” He gestured with a ring-encrusted hand. “No time to speak. We leave now, before guards show up, ask too many questions. Need anything before we go, traitor prince?”

Ash looked pained, but shook his head. The goblin cackled, gold teeth flashing in the dim light. “Yes, good! Follow me, then.”

CHAPTER SEVEN

The Ring

Sweetfinger led us out a back door of the tavern and along the edge of the lake. Past the docks, the ground dropped away sharply to a narrow coastline of jagged rock and stone. Hugging the breaker wall, we followed Sweetfinger to the water’s edge, where two burlier goblins waited inside a small wooden boat.

“Quickly, quickly,” Sweetfinger said, urging us inside. We took a cautious seat between the two hench-goblins, who picked up the oars as Sweetfinger shoved us into the water and leaped in. As they rowed us farther from shore, he turned to us with an apologetic smile.

“Goblin tunnels aren’t far from here,” he said, fingering one of his rings.

“Only goblins know where they are, and only goblins are allowed to see them and live. Used to be, payment would be your lovely eyes, but times change. Point is, you not goblin, you cannot see our secret tunnels. Rules, you know. So sorry.”

“Understood,” Ash muttered as a goblin slid behind him and pulled a blindfold over his eyes. I jumped as a black cloth covered my eyes as well, plunging me into darkness.

We drifted for a long while, the only sounds being the rhythmic sloshing of the oars in the water and Sweetfinger’s occasional comment to his thugs. Ash’s body was tense against mine, muscles coiled bands under his skin. The air grew colder, and I heard the squeaking of bats somewhere above us. The boat bumped and scraped against rocks, and a foul stench crept into the air, smelling of dung and rotten meat. Snickers and cackling laughter echoed in the darkness, and clawed feet skittered over the rocks. Then, the noises and smells faded, and we floated in silence for a time. I heard Sweetfinger and his guards muttering among themselves, and it made me very nervous. Finally, the boat bumped against solid ground, and someone pulled it ashore. I pulled off the blindfold and blinked in the dim light. We were in a small cave with a pebbly floor, bones and trash scattered about the room. In the distance, a circle of light glimmered invitingly. I breathed a sigh of relief. We’d made it. Sweetfinger leered at us as Ash helped me out of the boat. “As promised,” he said, gesturing to the exit at the back of the room. “Safe passage out of city. Now, I believe traitor prince owes me something, yes?” He held out a jewel-encrusted claw, and Ash dropped a small leather pouch into his waiting hand.


Tags: Julie Kagawa The Iron Fey Book Series
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