I stuck out my tongue at the woman, who did the same in the mirror’s reflection. “It’s perfect,” I said, amazed. “I don’t even recognize myself. I look like a lawyer or something.”
“Hopefully enough to get you into SciCorp this afternoon,” Leanansidhe murmured, and all the dread and fear I’d managed to suppress all morning rose up like a black tide. I swallowed hard to keep the nausea down, wishing I hadn’t eaten that box of powdered doughnuts Kimi brought in for breakfast. I wouldn’t look very professional if I puked all over my expensive shoes.
Puck, Kimi, Nelson and Ironhorse were in the foyer, huddled around a blueprint when we came in, me wobbling behind Leanansidhe in my flimsy heels. Grimalkin dozed on the top of the piano, his tail brushing the keys, ignoring us all. I saw Leanansidhe glance his way and wince, as if imagining scratch marks on the polished wood. Puck glanced up at me and smiled. He held out a hand, and I tottered up to him, grabbing his arm for support. My toes throbbed, and I leaned into him, trying to take the weight off my feet. How did women do it, walking around in these things every day without snapping their ankles?
“How’s that walking thing coming?” Puck murmured so that only I could hear.
“Shut up.” I smacked his arm. “I’m still learning, okay? This is like walking around on toothpicks.” He snickered, and I shifted my attention to the map spread out between them. “What are we looking at?”
“The plan,” Kimi answered, standing on tiptoes to bend over the table. “This is the SciCorp entrance,” the half-phouka continued, pointing to an obscure line near the bottom of the paper. I squinted, but I couldn’t make it out from all the other lines spread over the blueprint. “According to Warren,” Kimi went on, tracing a finger up to another line, “the scepter is being held here, between floors twenty-nine and thirty.”
“I still don’t know how that’s possible,” I muttered. “How can a building have a floor between floors?”
“The same way I can have a mansion between the mortal world and the Nevernever, darling,” Leanansidhe answered, looking at Grimalkin as if she really wanted to shoo him off the piano. “The Iron fey have their horrible glamour, just as we have ours. We turn into rabbits, they eat bank accounts. Grim, darling, do you have to sleep there?”
“You, Puck and Ironhorse will come in here,” Kimi continued, tapping the bottom of the blueprint. “Past the doors will be the security checkpoint, which will scan your ID card. Puck and Ironhorse will be invisible to mortal eyes, so we don’t have to worry about them being seen.”
“What if there are Iron fey on the first floor?” Puck asked.
“There aren’t,” Kimi replied, glancing at him. “Nelson and I checked it out. If the Iron fey are going into the building, they’re not using the front doors.”
That sounded ominous, like the Iron fey could have hidden doors or trods we didn’t know about, but there was nothing for it now.
“Once you’re past the checkpoint, the elevators are here,” Kimi went on, tracing the path with her finger before giving us a grave look. “And this is where things get dicey. I don’t know how you’re getting up to floor twenty-nine and a half. They might have a certain button only those with Sight can see, or there might be a password, or you might have to press buttons in a certain sequence. I have no idea. Alternatively, you can take the stairs, here, but that will mean climbing up thirty floors from ground level, with no guarantee there will be an entrance to floor twenty-nine and a half.”
“We’ll burn that bridge when we come to it,” Puck said, waving it away. “So, what about the floor with the scepter? What can we expect?”
“Wait a minute,” I warned, putting a hand on his chest. “This sounds awfully risky. We don’t know if we can even get up to the twenty-ninth floor? How is this good planning?”
“Twenty-nine point five,” Puck corrected me. “And it’s not. Good planning, I mean. But, look at it this way.” He grinned. “We either go with our gut, or we don’t go at all. Not a lot of choices, Princess. But, don’t worry.” He put an arm around my shoulders and squeezed. “You don’t need a plan. You have the Puck with you, remember? I’m an expert at this. And I’ve never needed an elaborate plan to pull anything off.”
There was a loud clank from the piano, as Leanansidhe finally convinced Grimalkin to sleep elsewhere. Annoyed, the cat had slid from his perch and landed with his full weight on the keys, then leaped to the bench. “Worry not, human,” the cat sighed, giving himself a thorough shake. “I am going with you as well. With Goodfellow’s exemplary planning, someone has to make sure you go through the right door.”
“Huh.” Puck snorted and glared at the feline. “That’s awfully helpful of you, cat. What’s in it for you?”
“Grimalkin and I worked something out, darling, don’t worry about it.”
Leanansidhe gave the blueprint a cursory glance over Puck’s shoulder before dismissing it with a sniff. “Remember, pets, when you get to the floor where the scepter is being held, you must be prepared for anything. Robin, it will be up to you and the iron thing to protect the princess. I’m quite sure they won’t have the scepter lying around where anyone can snatch it. There will most likely be guards, wards, nasty things like that.”
“I WILL PROTECT THE PRINCESS WITH MY LIFE,” Ironhorse boomed,
making Puck grimace and Kimi pin back her ears. “I SWEAR, WHILE I STILL LIVE AND
BREATHE, NO HARM WILL BEFALL HER. WE WILL RETRIEVE THE SCEPTER, OR
WE WILL DIE TRYING.”
“And personally, I’d like not to do the dying thing,” Puck added. I was about to agree, when there was a commotion in the hall, and a moment later a human rushed into the room. It was Charles, the crazy piano player, looking as wild and panicked as I’d ever seen, even more than when we’d faced the redcaps. His anguished brown eyes met mine and he lurched forward, only to be stopped by Ironhorse stepping in front of me with a warning growl.
“She…she’s leaving?” Charles looked utterly despondent, wringing his hands and biting his bottom lip. “No no no. Can’t leave again. Can’t disappear. Stay.”
“Charles.” Leanansidhe’s voice made the air tremble, and the poor man gave her a terrified look. “What are you doing here? Go back to your room.”
“It’s all right, Charles,” I said quickly, as he looked on the verge of tears.
“I’m not leaving for good. I’m coming back, don’t worry.”
He stopped wringing his hands, straightened, and looked at me dead on. And for just a moment, I saw him without the crazy light to his eyes. The way he must have been…before. Young. Tall. Handsome, with laugh lines around his mouth and jaw. A kind yet weary face. One that was vaguely familiar.
“You’ll come back?” he murmured. “Promise?”
I nodded. “Promise.”
Then Leanansidhe clapped her hands, the sharp rap making us jump.
“Charles, darling,” she said, and was it my imagination, or did she sound a bit nervous? “You heard the girl. She’ll be back. Now, why don’t you find the other Charles and find something to play tonight? Go on, now. Shoo.” She waved her hand, and Charles, with one last look at me, stumbled from the room.
I frowned at Leanansidhe. “Other Charles? There’s more than one?”
“I call them all Charles, darling.” Leanansidhe shrugged. “I’m horrible with names, as you’ve no doubt seen, and human males look virtually the same to me. So they’re all Charles, for simplicity’s sake.”
Grimalkin sighed and leaped from the bench. “We are wasting time,” he announced, bottlebrush tail held straight up as he trotted past. “If we are going to get this circus started, we should leave now.”
“Good luck, darlings,” Leanansidhe called as we followed Grim out of the room. “When you return, you must tell me all about it. Meghan, dove, don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.”
KIMI AND NELSON LED the way back to the outside world. We followed them through several rooms, where groups of fey and humans watched us leave, down a red carpeted hallway, then up a long spiral staircase that finally stopped at a trapdoor in the ceiling. The trapdoor was oddly shaped: round, gray and heavy looking. I peered closer and saw that it was the bottom of a manhole cover. When Nelson pushed it up to peek through, bright sunlight spilled through the crack, and the smell of asphalt, tar and exhaust fumes assaulted my nose. While the half-troll scanned the road overhead, waiting for a clear spot, Kimi turned to me.
“This is as far as we go, I’m afraid.” The little half-phouka looked disappointed as she handed me a plastic ID card on a string.
“You’re not coming?”
She gave me an apologetic smile, nodding to Puck and Ironhorse. “Nah, you have your champions. Those two are pure-bloods. They’ll be invisible to humans just by virtue of being fey. Nelson and I can’t work glamour as well, and it would look suspicious if you were seen with a couple of streetrats in tow. Don’t worry, though. We’re really close to SciCorp, and from here you can take a taxi or something. Here.” She handed me a slip of paper, scrawled on with bright green ink. “That’s the address you’re looking for. The trod back will be on Fourteenth and Maple, and you want the second manhole from the left. Got it?”
I nodded, as my stomach fluttered nervously. “Got it.”
“Clear,” Nelson grunted, and shoved the manhole cover out of the way. Puck scrambled out first, then pulled me up after him. As Ironhorse and Grimalkin crawled out, I gazed around the middle of a busy street, A horn blared, and a bright red Mustang screeched to a stop a few feet away. “Get out of the road, you crazy bitch!” the driver yelled from the window, and I scrambled to the edge of the curb. The driver roared off, oblivious to the massive Iron faery who swung a huge fist at the hood, barely missing.
“You ran a light anyway, dickhead!” I yelled after him, as Puck and Ironhorse joined me on the sidewalk. People stared at me, shaking their heads or chuckling under their breath. I scowled, trying to calm my racing heart. They wouldn’t laugh if they could see Ironhorse looming over me like a protective bodyguard, glaring at anyone who got too close.
“Are you all right?” Puck asked anxiously, standing so close that his breath tickled my cheek. I nodded, and he kissed the top of my head, making butterflies swarm through my stomach. “Don’t scare me like that, Princess.”
“Well, that was amusing.” Grimalkin hopped lightly onto the sidewalk, making a show of taking his sweet time. “Are we quite ready to go, now? Human, you know where we are headed, correct?”
I looked down at the paper, still clutched in my hand. It trembled only a little.
“You guys okay with taking a taxi?”
Puck made a face. “Now see, anyone else would have a few qualms about riding in a big metal box, but I’ve learned to deal.” He smirked. “All those years I took the bus with you was good practice. Still, keep the windows open, Princess.”