“Ash ordered this? When?”
“Before he came to collect your bargain, Princesss. Before you went back with him to Tir Na Nog.” The thing slithered to the edge of the crack, staying just out of the light. “The child isss in no danger,” it rasped, “and neither are hisss parentsss, though they do not know we are here. Protect thisss houssse and work no missschief on thossse who live here, those are our ordersss.”
“He tells me stories every night,” Ethan said, looking up at me. “Most of them are pretty scary, but I don’t mind. And sometimes there’s a black pony in the front yard, and little man in the basement. Mommy and Daddy don’t see them, either.”
I closed my eyes. The thought of so many Unseelie fey hanging around my house did nothing to ease my nervousness, even if they were claiming to protect my family.
“How did you know about Ash?” I finally asked.
“I sssmelled an Iron fey coming, and knew I mussst protect the boy, at leassst,” Spider went on, oblivious to my conflicted feelings. “I pulled him under the bed, where I could hide him better. Imagine my sssurprissse when I dissscovered it wasss Prince Asssh himssself, attacking thisss houssse. He mussst have been posssesssed, or perhapsss it wasss an Iron fey disssguisssed asss the prince. But, I followed my ordersss, and kept the boy sssafe.”
“Well, I’m grateful for that,” I muttered. And then a thought occurred to me, one that I almost didn’t ask about, but couldn’t leave alone. “Have…have my parents…mentioned me? Do they talk about me at all, or wonder where I am?”
“I know nothing of the adultsss, Princesss.”
It didn’t really matter now, but I suddenly wanted to know. Was I still a part of this family, or just a long-forgotten memory? How could I find out without asking Mom and Luke? I snapped my fingers. My bedroom. I had deliberately avoided it until now, unsure if I could handle seeing it turned into an office, or a guest room, proof that Mom had forgotten me. But with Ethan clutching my hand, his blanket trailing behind us, I walked down the hall to my room and pushed the door open.
It was exactly as I remembered it, frozen in ice, familiar and strange at the same time. A lump caught in my throat as I walked inside. Nothing had changed. There was my old stuffed bear sitting on my bed, a birthday present from long ago. My Naruto and Escaflowne posters were still on the wall. I ran my fingers over my dresser, scanning the photographs between my scattered collection of CDs, now probably ruined. Photos of me, Mom and Ethan. One family picture with Luke. One of me and Beau, our old German shepherd, as a puppy. And a small, single framed picture on my nightstand that I didn’t recognize.
Frowning, I snapped it away from the ice and held it up, staring at the photograph. It was a picture of me as a little kid, no older than Ethan, being held by an unfamiliar man with short brown hair and a lopsided smile.
“Oh, my God,” I whispered.
My knees crumpled, and I sat down on the bed, slush and frigid water seeping through my clothes. I barely felt it. Ethan stood on tiptoes to stare at the frame. “Who’s that?”
Puck appeared in the doorway, his shirt and hands smeared with blood.
“Princess? We should get going. Ash says there’s a tatter-colt outside who can give us a ride to the healer.” He stopped when he saw my face. “What’s wrong?”
I held up the frame. “Recognize him?”
Puck squinted at the photo, then his eyes got wide. “Hell,” he muttered. “It’s Charles.”
I nodded faintly. “Charles,” I whispered, pulling the frame back. “I didn’t even know him. I don’t know how I didn’t recognize…” I stopped, remembering an old woman shifting through my mind, scattering memories like leaves, searching for the one she wanted. When we were first searching for Ethan and the Iron King, we’d asked an ancient Oracle, living in New Orleans, to help us find Machina’s lair. The Oracle agreed to help us…in exchange for one of my memories. I hadn’t given it any thought until now. “That was the exchange, wasn’t it?” I asked bitterly, looking at Puck. “The Oracle’s payment for helping us. This was the memory she took.”
Puck didn’t say anything. I sighed, staring at the frame, then shook my head.
“Who is he?” I asked.
“He was your father,” Puck murmured. “Or, at least, the man you thought was your father. Before you came here, and your mom met Luke. He disappeared when you were six.”
I couldn’t take my eyes off the strange photo, at the man holding me so easily, both of us smiling at the camera. “You knew who he was,” I murmured without looking away. “You knew who Charles was, didn’t you? All that time we were at Leanansidhe’s, you knew.” Puck didn’t answer, and I finally tore my gaze from the photo, glaring up at him. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“And what would you have done, Princess?” Puck crossed his arms and stared back, unrepentant. “Made a bargain with Leanansidhe? Dragged him home again, like nothing happened? Do you think your mom would take him back without a second thought?”
Of course she wouldn’t. She had Luke now, and Ethan. Nothing would change, even if I did manage to bring Charles home. And the worst part was, I couldn’t remember why I’d wanted to.
My mind spun. I was drowning in a torrent of confusing emotions, feeling my world turned upside down. The shock of discovery. Guilt that I didn’t recognize my mother’s first husband, the man who’d raised me as a child, and worse, couldn’t remember anything about him. He was like a stranger on the street. Anger at Puck. He had known all along, and deliberately kept me in the dark. Anger at Leanansidhe. What the hell was she doing with my dad? How did he even get there? And how was I going to get him out?
Did I even want to get him out?
“Princess.” Puck’s voice broke through my numb trance. I glared poisoned daggers at him and he gave me a weak smile. “Scary. You can rip me to pieces later. His royal iciness isn’t looking so good. We have to get him to a healer, now.”
Ethan sniffed and clamped himself to my leg, his small body tight with determination. “No!” he wailed. “No, she’s not leaving! No!”
I looked at Puck helplessly, torn in several directions and feeling I could scream. “I can’t leave him here alone.”
“He will not be alone, Princesss,” came Spider’s voice from under my bed.
“We will defend him with our livesss, asss ordered.”
“Can you promise me that?”
A soft hiss. “Asss you wisssh. We three of the Unssseelie Court, bogey, tatter-colt, and cluricaun, promissse to look after the Chassse boy until we are told otherwissse by Hisss Highnesss Prince Asssh or Queen Mab herssself.”
I still didn’t like it, but it was all I could do for now. Once a faery says the word promise, it is an ironclad contract. Ethan, however, wailed and clung tighter to my leg.
“No!” he cried again, on his way to a rare but intense temper tantrum. “You’re not leaving!
Puck sighed and placed his palm gently on Ethan’s head, murmuring something under his breath. I saw a shimmer of glamour go through the air, and Ethan slumped against my leg, going silent mid-scream. Alarmed, I scooped him up, but a soft snore came from his open mouth, and Puck grinned.
“Did you really have to do that?” I said, bundling Ethan in the blanket and carrying him back to his room.
“Well, it was either that or turn him into a rabbit for a few hours.” Puck was infuriatingly unrepentant as he followed me down the hall. “And I don’t think your parents would’ve appreciated that.”
Icy water dripped from the ceiling and ran rivulets down the walls, soaking his toys and stuffed animals. “This isn’t going to work,” I groaned. “Even if he is asleep, I can’t leave him in here. He’ll freeze!”
As if on command, the closet door swung open, warm and dark and, most important, dry.
“Come on, Princess,” Puck urged as I hesitated. “Make a decision here. We’re running out of time.”
Reluctantly, I set Ethan’s small body in the closet, pulling down several more blankets to make a nest around him. He remained deeply asleep, breathing easily through his nose and mouth, and didn’t even stir as I piled the quilts around him.
“You’d better take good care of him,” I whispered to the shadows around me, knowing they were listening. After smoothing his hair back one last time, pulling the covers over his shoulders, I finally rose and followed Puck down the stairs.
“I hope Ash doesn’t object to us dragging his carcass outside,” Puck muttered as we made our way down the steps, getting dripped on every few feet. “I patched him up as best I could, but I don’t think he can walk very…” He trailed off as we reached the frozen living room. The front door creaked softly on its hinges, spilling a bar of moonlight across the floor, and Ash was nowhere to be seen.
I flung myself across the room, slipping on slush and ice, and burst onto the porch. Ash’s lean silhouette was moving silently across the yard, stumbling every few feet, one arm around his middle. At the edge of the trees, barely visible within the shadows, a small black horse with glowing crimson eyes waited for him.
I leaped down the steps and raced across the yard, my heart pounding in my ears. “Ash!” I cried, and lunged, catching hold of his arm. He flinched and tried shrugging me off, but nearly fell with the effort. “Wait! Where are you going?”
“Back for the scepter.” His voice was dull, and he tried pulling away again, but I clung to him desperately. “Let me go, Meghan. I have to do this.”
“No, you don’t! Not like this.” Despair rose up like a black tide, and I choked back tears. “What are you thinking? You can’t face them all alone. You’ll be killed.” He didn’t move, either to disagree or to shake me off, and my desperation grew. “Why are you doing this?” I whispered. “Why won’t you let us help you?”
“Meghan, please.” Ash sounded as if he was desperately clinging to the last shreds of his composure. “Let me go. I can’t stay here. Not after…” He shuddered and took a ragged breath. “Not after what I did.”
“That wasn’t you.” Releasing his arm, I stepped in front of him, blocking his path. He wouldn’t meet my eyes. Steeling myself, I stepped closer, finding the courage to gently turn his face to mine. “Ash, that wasn’t you. Don’t go blaming yourself—you had no control over this. This is no one’s fault but hers.”
His silver eyes were haunted. “It doesn’t excuse what I did.”
“No.” He flinched and tried drawing back, but I held firm. “But that doesn’t mean you should throw your life away because you feel guilty. What would that accomplish?”
He regarded me solemnly, his expression unreadable, and my throat ached with longing. I yearned to fling my arms around him and hug him close, but I knew he wouldn’t allow it.