“You can visit,” Glitch said encouragingly. “No one’s going to stop you. No reason you can’t go back from time to time.”
“Yeah,” I agreed softly, but I wasn’t convinced. Time flowed differently in Faery, in the Iron Kingdom I now found myself ruling over. The first few days had been hectic, as I frantically did everything I could to keep Mab and Oberon from declaring another war on the Iron fey, now that Ferrum was gone. Several meetings had been called, new treaties drawn up and signed, and strict rules had been placed on the boundaries between our kingdoms, before the rulers of Summer and Winter were appeased. I had the sneaking suspicion that Oberon was slightly more lenient because we were related, and I had no problem with that.
Puck had been at these meetings, gregarious and unchangeable as always. He made it clear that he would not be treating me any differently just because I was a queen now, and proved it by kissing me on the cheek in front of a squad of angry Iron knights, whom I had to yell at to stand down before they tried skewering him. Puck had flounced off, laughing. Around me, he was cheerful and flippant, but overly so, as if he wasn’t quite sure who I was anymore. There was a wariness to him now, an uncertainty that went beyond our easy friendship, making us awkward and uncomfortable with each other. Perhaps it was his very nature, as the incorrigible Robin Goodfellow, to defy kings and queens and make a mockery of those in authority. I didn’t know. Eventually, Puck would come around, but I had a feeling it would be some time before I got my old best friend back.
I did not see Ash, ever.
I shook myself, trying to put him from my mind as I had done these past few days. Ash was gone. I’d made sure of that. Even if I hadn’t used his True Name, there was no way he could venture into the Iron Kingdom, no way he could survive there. It was better this way.
Now, if I could only convince my heart of that.
“Sure you’ll be all right?” Glitch asked, breaking through my thoughts. “I could come with you, if you’d like. They won’t even see me.”
I shook my head. “Better if I do this alone. Besides, there’s one member of that household who can see you. And he’s seen enough scary monsters to last him a lifetime.”
“Begging your pardon, your highness,” Glitch smirked, “but who are you calling a scary monster?”
I swatted at him. My first lieutenant grinned, a constant shadow since the day I’d taken over the Iron Kingdom. The Iron fey looked up to him, listened to him, when I couldn’t be there. The Iron knights had accepted his position easily, almost relieved to be back under his command, and I didn’t question it. “I’ll be back before dawn,” I said, glancing up at the moon through the trees. “I trust you can handle things until then?”
“Yes, your majesty,” Glitch replied, no longer smirking, and I winced, still getting used to the idea of being called “your majesty,” by everyone. “Princess”
had been bad enough. “Mag Tuiredh will be safe and secure until your return. And your…father…will be well looked after, do not worry.”
I nodded, thankful that Glitch understood. After I became queen and set Mag Tuiredh as the site of the new Iron Court, I kept the promise to myself and returned to Leanansidhe’s cabin for Paul. My human father was almost recovered, clear-minded most of the time, his memories fully intact. He knew me, and he remembered what had happened to him, all those years ago. And now that his mind was finally his own, he was going to do everything in his power to keep it that way. I made it clear that he was free to leave the faery world at any time, that I wasn’t about to keep him here if he wanted to go. For the moment, Paul refused. He wasn’t ready to brave the human world, not yet. Too much had changed in the time he’d been away, too much had happened, and he’d been left behind. One day he might rejoin the real world, but for now, he wanted to know his daughter again.
He’d refused to come with me tonight. “Tonight is for you,” he’d told me before I left. “You don’t need any distractions. One day, I’d like your mother to know what happened, but I hope to explain it myself. If she even wants to see me again.” He sighed, looking out the window of his room. The sun was setting behind the distant clock tower, casting his face in a reddish light. “Just tell me this. Is she happy?”
I hesitated, a lump forming in my throat. “I think so.”
Paul nodded, smiling sadly. “Then she doesn’t need to know about me. Not yet, anyway. Or not ever. No, you go and see your family again. I really don’t have any business being there.”
“Majesty?” Glitch’s voice interrupted my musings. He’d been doing that a lot lately, bringing me back to the present when I drifted off. “Are you all right?”
“I’m fine.” I faced the dark house again, pushing my hair back. “Well, here I go. Wish me luck.” And before I lost my nerve, I stepped onto the gravel driveway and forced my steps in the direction of the house. For as long as I could remember, the middle step of the porch had creaked when trod upon, no matter where you put your foot or how lightly you stepped on it. It didn’t creak now, not even a squeak, as I glided up the steps and came to a halt at the screen door. The windows were dark, and moths fluttered around the porch light, flicking shadows over the faded wooden steps. I could have easily opened the locked door. Doors and locks were no barrier to me now. A few whispered words, a push of glamour, and the door would swing open on its own. I could’ve entered the living room unhindered, invisible as the breeze.
I didn’t glamour the door. Tonight, at least for a little while, I wanted to be human. Raising my fist, I knocked loudly on the faded wood. There was no response at first. The house remained still and dark. A dog barked, somewhere in the night.
A light flicked on inside, footsteps thumping over the floor. A silhouette against the curtains, and then Luke’s face appeared in the window, peering out suspiciously.
At first, my stepfather didn’t appear to see me, though I was staring right at him. His brow furrowed and he dropped the curtains, stepping back. I blew out a sigh and pounded the door again.
It swung open this time, quickly, as if whoever was on the other side expected to catch the prankster banging on his door at 12 a.m. Luke peered at me. He looked older, I thought, his brown eyes wearier than before, his face grizzled. He regarded me with a puzzled look, one hand still on the doorknob. “Yes?” he prompted when I didn’t say anything. “Can I help you?”
He still didn’t recognize me. I wasn’t surprised, or even angry really. I wasn’t the same girl who vanished into Faery a year ago. But before I could say anything, the door was yanked open all the way, and Mom appeared in the frame. We stared at each other. My heart pounded, half-fearful that Mom would turn that blank, puzzled gaze on me, not recognizing the strange girl on the porch. But a second later, Mom let out a small cry and flew through the door. Another moment and I was in her arms, hugging her tightly as she sobbed and laughed and asked me a thousand questions all at once. I closed my eyes and let this moment swirl around me, holding on to it for as long as I could. I wanted to remember, for just a few heartbeats, what it was like to be, not a faery or a pawn or a queen, but just a daughter.
“Meggie?” I pulled back a bit and, through the open door, I saw Ethan standing at the foot of the stairs. Taller now, older. He must’ve grown at least three inches while I was gone. But his eyes were the same: bright blue and as solemn as the grave.
He didn’t run to me as I entered the living room, didn’t smile. Calmly, as if he knew I’d be back all along, he walked across the floor until he was standing a foot away. I knelt, and he watched me, holding my gaze with an expression far too old for his face.
“I knew you’d come back.” His voice was different, too. Clearer now, more sure of himself. My half brother was no longer a toddler. “I didn’t forget.”
“No,” I whispered. “You didn’t forget.”
I opened my arms, and he finally stepped into them, fisting his hands in my hair. I hugged him to me as I stood, wondering if this was the last time I would hold him like this. He might be a teenager when I saw him next.
“Meghan.” Mom’s voice made me turn. She stood at the edge of the living room with Luke behind her, watching me with a strange, sad expression. As if she’d just figured something out. “You’re…not staying, are you?”
I closed my eyes, feeling Ethan’s arms around my neck squeeze tight. “No,” I told her, shaking my head. “I can’t. I have…responsibilities now, people who need me. I just wanted to say goodbye and…” My breath hitched, and I swallowed hard to clear my throat. “And try to explain what happened to me the night I went back.” I sighed and cast a glance at Luke, still standing by the door in confusion, his brow furrowed as he looked from me to Mom and back again. “I don’t know if you’ll believe me,” I continued, “but you should hear the truth. Before…before I have to leave.”
Mom walked across the floor as if sleepwalking, sinking on the couch in a daze. But her eyes were clear and determined when she looked at me and patted the cushion beside her. “Tell me everything,” was all she said.
AND SO I DID.
Starting from the very beginning. The day I walked into Faery to get Ethan back. I told them about the faery courts, about Oberon and Mab and Puck. I told them about Machina and the Iron fey, about Glitch and the rebels and the false king. I glossed over a few small, terrifying details, parts of the story where I almost died, or that were too scary for Ethan to hear. I left out the parts with Paul, knowing it wasn’t my place to tell his story. By the time I reached the end, where I defeated Ferrum and became the Iron Queen, Ethan was asleep on my lap, and Luke’s eyes were glazed over in utter disbelief. I knew he wouldn’t remember much of the story, if any, that it would slip and fade from his mind, becoming something he heard in a fairy tale.
Mom was silent for several heartbeats when I finished. “So, you’re…a queen now.” She said the words like she was testing them, seeing how they felt.
“And…there’s no way for you to stay in the real world. With us. With your family.”
I shook my head. “The land is calling me. I’m tied to it now. I have to go back.”
Mom bit her lip, and her eyes finally filled with tears. I was surprised when Luke spoke, his deep, calm voice echoing through the room. “Will we see you again?”
“I don’t know,” I said truthfully. “Maybe.”
“Will you be all right?” Luke continued. “Alone with these…things?” As if speaking the word faery would make it more real, and he wasn’t about to start believing yet.
“I’ll be fine.” I thought of Paul and wished he could be here tonight. “I won’t be alone.”
The sky through the windows was lightening. We had talked through the night, and dawn was on its way.