Kimi nodded at Nelson, who dug in his pocket and held up a plastic ID card. The face of a bespectacled blond woman glared out from the right corner, lips pursed as if trying to kill the camera with a look. Nelson tossed the card to Leanansidhe, who studied it disdainfully.

“Rosalyn Smith. A bit old, but she’ll have to do. Well, then.” She turned to the rest of us. “Tomorrow is a big day, darlings. Don’t stay up too late. I’ll meet you in the foyer tomorrow morning. Meghan, dove, you really need to figure out that code before tomorrow. Operation Scepter begins at dawn. Ta!” She gestured dramatically and vanished in a swirl of glitter.

THAT NIGHT, I was too nervous to sleep. I lay on my bed, Grimalkin dozing beside me on the pillow, trying to figure out the code but really just staring at the numbers until my eyes glazed over. I kept visualizing everything that could go wrong during the mission, which was a rather lengthy list. In a few hours, we were going to sneak into SciCorp using some woman’s badge, grab the scepter, and book out before anyone realized we were there. As if it would be that easy, like a walk on the beach. As if they wouldn’t have the scepter guarded day and night. There was a soft rap on my door, and Puck peeked his head inside.

“Hey, Princess. Thought you could use something to eat. Mind if I come in?”

I shook my head, and Puck entered with a plate bearing sandwiches and apple slices. “Here,” he announced, setting it down on the bed. “You should eat something. I tried making something better, but Cook chased me out of the kitchen with a rolling pin. I don’t think she’s very fond of me.” He snickered and fell across the bed, helping himself to an apple slice as he got comfortable.

“Appreciate it,” I murmured, picking up a sandwich. Cheese and…more cheese; better than nothing, I guessed. “Where’s Ironhorse?”

“Off with the two streetrats, discussing strategy,” Puck replied, stuffing the whole apple wedge into his mouth. “You should hear them—they think they’re in a James Bond movie or something.” He noticed me fiddling with a corner of the paper square and sat up. “How’s it going, Princess?”

I crumpled the paper into a wad and threw it across the room. Puck blinked.

“Um, not well, I assume?”

“I don’t get it,” I sighed, drawing my hand across my eyes. “I’ve tried everything I can think of to make heads or tails of it—addition, multiplying the lines, division—and I still don’t get it. And if I can’t decrypt the stupid code, we won’t get up to the right floor, which means we won’t get the scepter, which means everyone will die because of me!”

“Hey.” Puck sat up and put an arm around me. “Why are you freaking out?

This is nothing, Princess. This should be cake for you. You’re the one who took down the Iron King. You marched into the heart of enemy territory and kicked ass. This isn’t any different.”

“Yes, it is!” I put my sandwich down and stared at him. “This is worlds apart!

Puck, when I faced Machina, it was to rescue Ethan, just Ethan. I’m not saying he wasn’t important—I would’ve died to save him in a heartbeat. But it was only one person.” I closed my eyes and leaned into Puck’s chest, listening to his heartbeat for a few seconds. “If I screw this up,” I muttered, “if I don’t get the scepter back, everyone will die. Not just you and Ironhorse and the others, but everyone. Faery will be wiped out. No Summer, no Winter, nothing. Nothing but the Iron fey will be left. Now do you see why I’m a little jumpy?”

I didn’t mention that I wished Ash was here. That he was the main reason I’d been brave in the Iron Kingdom. I missed him, his calm, unflinching determination, his quiet self-confidence.

Puck shifted so that he was facing me, tilting my chin to look at me square. I met his eyes and saw a hundred churning emotions in his emerald gaze.

“I’m here,” he murmured, running long fingers through my hair. “Don’t forget that. No matter what happens, I’ll protect you.” He leaned in, resting his forehead to mine. I smelled apples on his breath, saw my own reflection in his eyes. “I’ll never leave your side, no matter what comes at us. Count on it.”

My heart thumped in my ears. I knew I was standing on the edge of a vast precipice, looking down. I knew I should pull away, that if I stayed here, a line would be crossed, and we could never go back.

I closed my eyes instead. And Puck kissed me.

His lips were hesitant at first, brushing lightly against mine, giving me room to pull away. When I pressed into him, he cupped the back of my head and kissed me in earnest. I wrapped my arms around his neck and pulled him close, wanting to forget everything that was happening, to drown myself in feeling. Maybe now the gaping hurt and loneliness would go away for a little while. Puck shoved the plate off the bed and leaned back, pulling me down with him, his lips suddenly at my neck, tracing a line of fire down my skin.

“If you are going to do that, would you mind not jostling the bed so much?”

came a sarcastic voice near the headboard. “Perhaps you could roll around on the floor.”

Blushing furiously, I looked up. Grimalkin lay on the pillow, watching us with a bemused, half-lidded stare. Puck followed my gaze and let out an explosive sigh.

“Did I ever mention how much I hate cats?”

“Do not blame me, Goodfellow.” Grimalkin blinked, managing to sound bored and indignant at the same time. “I was minding my own business long before you and the princess started humping like rabbits.”

Puck snorted. Rolling to his stomach, he pushed himself off the bed and pulled me up with him, wrapping me in his arms. My face flamed, but whether it was from Grimalkin’s ill-timed comments or something else, I couldn’t tell.

“I’d better go,” Puck sighed, sounding reluctant. “I told Ironhorse I’d look at some blueprints Kimi managed to swipe from somewhere.” His gaze strayed to the scattered food on the floor, sandwiches and apple slices everywhere, and he bit down a sheepish grin.

“Erm, sorry about the mess, Princess. And don’t worry about the code, we’ll figure something out. Try to get some sleep, okay? We’ll be right outside.”

He bent down, as if to kiss me, but I couldn’t meet his eyes and looked away. He paused, then placed a light kiss on my forehead and left, shutting the door behind him. I collapsed to the bed, burying my face in a pillow. What had I done? I kissed Puck, because he was there. Because I was scared and lonely for someone else. Puck loved me, and I had kissed him for all the wrong reasons. I’d kissed him thinking of Ash. And…I liked it.

Guilt gnawed at me. I missed Ash, and the longing was ripping my stomach to pieces, but I also wanted Puck to come back and kiss me some more.

“I am so screwed up,” I muttered, flopping back on the bed. The cracks in the ceiling smirked at me, and I groaned. “What am I going to do?”

“Hopefully obsess in silence so I can get to sleep,” Grimalkin said without opening his eyes. He flexed his claws, yawned, and burrowed deeper into the pillow. “Perhaps you can work on deciphering the code so that we can retrieve the scepter. I would hate to put in all this work for nothing.”

I glared at him, but he was right. And, maybe it would take my mind off Puck for a while. “I mean, it’s not like I’m cheating on Ash or anything,” I reasoned, retrieving the crumpled ball of paper and climbing back onto the bed. “He was the one who dumped me and said to forget about him. We’re over. Actually, I’m not sure we had anything in the first place.”

Grimalkin didn’t answer. I stared at the code and sighed again, heavily, as the numbers seemed to crawl across the paper like ants. “I’m never going to get this, Grim,” I muttered. “This is hopeless. You’d have to be a mathematical genius or something.”

Grimalkin thumped his tail and shifted around so that his back was to me.

“Try looking at the code as a riddle, instead of a mathematical equation,” he muttered.

“Perhaps you are trying too hard to fit it to a formula. The Iron fey are still fey, after all, and riddles are in our blood.”

A riddle, huh? I looked down at the paper again and frowned. I still couldn’t make heads or tails of the stupid code, no matter how much I looked at it. 3






“Grim, I don’t—”

“Read it out loud, human.” Grim sounded annoyed but resigned, as if he knew he wasn’t going to get any sleep until he helped me. “If you must make noise, at least try to be useful.”

“Fine,” I muttered. “But it’s not going to help.” Grim didn’t reply, so I started reading it from the top. “Three. One-three. One-one-one-three. Three-one-one-three.” I stopped, frowning. It sounded different, reading it out loud. I tried the third line again.

“One-one, one-three.”

One 1. One 3.

I blinked. Could it really be that simple? I ran through the rest of the lines, just to be sure, and my eyes widened as it all clicked into place. “I…I got it! I think. Wait a minute.” I scanned the paper again. “Yes, that’s right! It’s not just a number riddle, it’s a language riddle, too! You were right, Grim! Look!” I shoved the paper at Grimalkin, who continued to ignore me, but I went on anyway. “Each of the lines describes the line before it. The first number is a three, so the second line goes, One 3. The next line is One 1, One 3, and so on. So, if that’s the case, the last line of the riddle, and the answer to the code would have to be…” I counted the numbers in my head. “1-1-1-3-1-2-2-1-1-3.” I felt a thrill of pride and excitement, somehow knowing I was right, and couldn’t help the huge grin spreading over my face. “I figured it out, Grim! We can get the scepter after all.”

Grimalkin didn’t answer. His eyes were closed, and I couldn’t tell if he was asleep or faking it. I considered tracking down Puck and Ironhorse to share in my victory, but on reflection I wasn’t sure I wanted to face Puck just then. So I lay on the bed, listening to the brownies scurry back and forth, cleaning up apple slices, while my mind replayed Puck’s kiss until the memory was seared into my brain. Guilt and excitement assaulted me by turns. One moment, I was ready to drag Puck back here to finish what we’d started, the next, I missed Ash so much my chest hurt. I stayed awake, too hyped up to sleep, until a brownie poked his head in to tell me it was dawn and Leanansidhe was waiting for me.


Operation Scepter

The woman stared at me over the gold rim of her glasses, lips pursed in a disdainful expression. She wore a black business suit that clung to her body, and her hair was pulled into a tight yet elegant bun, giving her a stern demeanor. Her makeup was perfect, and the towering black heels made her seem taller and even more imposing.

“What do you think, darling?” Leanansidhe asked, sounding pleased. “The glasses might be a bit much, but we don’t want to take any chances today.”

Tags: Julie Kagawa The Iron Fey Book Series
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