Authors: Richelle Mead
Imanuelle shrugged eloquently, and her brother spoke up for her. “Some might see that as a quick way to end the war, if I may be so bold.” Girard had picked up that I didn’t like this idea at all and was understandably nervous. He valued his position with me.
“It’s a dirty, sneaky way to end a war!” I exclaimed. “It’d make me no better than Katrice and her bastard son.”
“It would eliminate Katrice directly,” said Imanuelle. “Since she
the source of your problems. I could disguise myself as someone in her castle. Quick, easy. No other innocents need be hurt.”
For a heartbeat, her words almost made sense. Then I shook my head emphatically. “No. I’m not going to stoop to that level.”
Some of Imanuelle’s pleasant demeanor faded. “There are monarchs who would give half their kingdoms for my services! I’m very selective. I’m doing you a great honor.”
I narrowed my eyes.
She hesitated, realizing she was addressing one of the most formidable queens in the Otherworld. Again, Girard jumped in to save her.
“Forgive our presumption, Your Majesty. We only wanted to offer it as an option.”
“It’s been offered,” I said bluntly. “And refused. Thank you for the ‘honor.’ You’re welcome to visit your brother, of course, but I’d prefer that you stay here no longer than absolutely necessary.”
I turned dramatically away from them, just catching the outrage on Imanuelle’s face, and strode out. Shaya hurried by my side.
“Spoken like a queen,” she said.
“Do I need to worry about that woman killing me now?” I asked. “Is she going to change into you and pull a knife on me?”
“I’m sure you’d respond as efficiently as you do to the other attacks on you,” said Shaya dryly. “Her illusions aren’t foolproof to everyone. I’m guessing Volusian could see through them if he were around. But, honestly … although her pride has been hurt—she does have quite the reputation—I suspect she’ll simply stalk off and leave you be, if only for her brother’s sake.”
“Well, that’s nice. One less person trying to kill me.” I raked my hand through my hair. “Anything else I need to deal with?”
That was a loaded question, of course. Shaya had a few more business matters for me to look over before I could finally see Jasmine. I hadn’t talked to her after the dinner at Dorian’s and felt she’d be a good distraction as I waited to see if Kiyo would come. I found her outside in one of the gardens, sitting in the shade of a mesquite tree as the sun grew higher and the heat increased. Her
guards stood stoically nearby, and her fine chains glittered in the light. At my approach, she glanced up from a book. Petulant, power-hungry teen that she might be, she was also an avid reader, using fantasy to escape her mundane existence when she’d still lived among humans. This book was one I’d brought her recently, the first in a trendy series.
“Is it good?” I asked, sitting down opposite her.
“Not bad,” she said, playing cool. A moment later, she gave herself away. “Are there more out in the series?”
“Three more, I think.”
She said nothing but smiled as she set the book beside her.
“Did you have fun at Dorian’s?” I asked.
“Yeah. It was nice to be out.” Her eyes gazed off, not really focusing on anything. “I think the best part was watching Shaya scare off all the guys hitting on me.” She turned back to me. “Is that what it’s like for you all the time?”
“Not since I got together with Dorian. They’ve slacked off—and Shaya doesn’t scare them away. She abandons me.”
Jasmine smiled again. “Dorian’s crazy about you. Obsessed.”
“That’s kind of an extreme observation.”
“It’s true.” She brushed hair out of her eyes. The sunlight was turning it to gold, making me a little envious; I’d gotten true red from our father, rather than strawberry blond. She could wear pink. “It’s good,” she continued. “His obsession.
That bitch Ysabel wants him, you know. And she hates you. So does her mom.”
“Yeah, I kind of figured that out.”
She shrugged. “Well, then, keep Dorian close.”
“I’m not worried.”
“Ysabel’s got kids, and you won’t give him any.”
I was so sick of hearing about me and procreation. “Lots of gentry women have kids. Are you saying I should worry about all of them, Little Miss Love Guru?”
“Not all of them look like you. I mean, not exactly like you … but I think Dorian gets off on redheads. Maybe he figures he’ll have red-haired kids that way. I don’t know. But, whatever. I’m just saying she’s waiting there for you to slip up with Dorian. And he’s already gone for her before. She’s got a bigger chest than you, too.”
“Hey,” I said indignantly. “That’s irrelevant. Besides, he went for her—and she annoyed him. And I’m not going to ‘slip up.’ He’s not going anywhere.” I frowned, surprised by my next words, that I’d actually say them to her. “It’s Kiyo I’ve got to pull in.”
Jasmine’s gray eyes widened in shock. “Him? He’s no use to you … unless, oh Jesus. You guys aren’t planning some three-way, are you? I mean, I know you and Dorian get into some—”
“No!” I exclaimed. “It’s nothing like that. I need a favor from Kiyo, that’s all. A big one. A dangerous one. I’m not sure what’ll convince him.” I smiled weakly, remembering Dorian’s
expression when I’d showed up in the tight gentry dress. “I’d know what to do if it was Dorian.”
Jasmine scoffed and gave me a scathing look. “How stupid are you? Even
know what to do if you want to suck in Kiyo. Look human.”
human. Who’s stupid now?” Good grief. We’d advanced to snippy quarrelling. We were becoming real sisters more and more each day.
“You’re half human. Dorian likes that because he thinks he can knock you up … but the rest? He wants you to be a queen. One of the shining ones. Kiyo doesn’t. He hates all of that. He doesn’t want you anywhere near it. You hooked up before you were into all the Otherworld stuff. Be like that.”
I stared at her, startled because she had an excellent point. “Do I look human now?”
Jasmine studied me critically. I had jeans and a T-shirt on, my hair pulled sloppily into a ponytail. My boots were sturdy, made for hiking. Plain. “Yeah,” she said, sounding surprised. “Scruffy and human. He’ll be into that. Except for the ring. It’s from Dorian, right? Put it under your shirt.”
I touched the ring hanging on my chest, having forgotten about it. “How’d you know it was from him?”
“Because you wouldn’t get it for yourself, and no one else would either. It’s also got oak leaves.”
I peered down at it. Sure enough. I hadn’t identified the leaves earlier. I followed her advice, concealing it under the shirt. She watched with approval, then seemed to really notice my shirt.
“Who’s Mötley Crüe?”
I was saved from lecturing her on classic rock when a servant scurried up to us, telling me Kiyo was here. The ease I’d felt with Jasmine vanished. I stood up, forcing calm, half-wondering if I should take her after all. No. Kiyo was the right choice.
“Good luck,” Jasmine said, picking up her book. “And remember: be human.”
I followed the servant away, embarrassed that I was taking advice from an insane fifteen-year-old. Except … I knew she was right. I made sure my gait was casual, nothing regal. Then, I sent the servant away, deciding it’d be best to come to Kiyo on my own, rather than approaching with an escort, no matter how insignificant.
He was waiting inside a parlor, pacing restlessly. I knew how uneasy I made him, and this invitation had no doubt put him on guard. I watched him unnoticed for a moment, admiring that muscled body while knowing it was wrong to do so. Sneaking up on him was impossible, though. He could smell me. My sweat and skin alone would have given me away, let alone the vanilla sunscreen and violet perfume I also wore.
“Eugenie,” he said, turning around. “Nice to see you.” He seemed impassive, but his eyes made me think he really did like seeing me—physically at least.
“Sorry for the abrupt request,” I said. “You were probably visiting Luisa, huh?”
The mention of his daughter softened his expression a tiny, tiny bit. “Yeah, she’s … she grows
every day. It’s amazing.” He flipped back to alert mode. “But that’s not why you asked me here.”
“No.” I settled into one of the chairs, crossing my legs and hoping I looked casual and unassuming. “I need your help.”
He continued standing. “That’s unexpected.”
“Well, I got an unexpected offer. Do you still want me to get out of this war?”
“Of course.” He made a face. “Oh, Eug. Please tell me you don’t want me to negotiate or something.”
I smiled, both at the suggestion and his use of the nickname. “No, I need you for something that’s more your specialty. I don’t suppose you’ve ever heard of the Iron Crown?”
Kiyo hadn’t. I provided a brief rundown, explaining how the person who fought through and won it could allegedly inspire fear and awe.
“And that’s enough to make Katrice back off?” he asked skeptically.
“So they say.” I shrugged. “It’s weird to me too, but everyone I’ve talked to claims it’ll intimidate Katrice and her armies.” Best not to mention that “everyone” was Dorian, a ghost, and a crazy seeress. “It’ll prove what a badass I am. And if that forces her into peace talks …” I let him draw his own conclusions.
“It’s a gamble,” Kiyo said. He still sounded doubtful, but there was a crack there. He wanted the war over. He wanted me out of it. “But why ask me? Why not Dorian?”
“Because he couldn’t survive the quest. The way’s lined with iron. It would take an insanely
strong gentry—or people with human blood, like you and me. Plus, I trust you.”
I didn’t know if the human solidarity had gotten me anywhere, but he was definitely considering this more and more. I also wondered if admitting trust in him did anything. Part of what had driven us apart was my accusation that he didn’t care enough about me to punish Leith.
“I’d like to help you,” Kiyo said finally. “It’s crazy—but no crazier than half the stuff around here. I should talk to Maiwenn first, though.”
You must not—under any circumstances—allow him to go back to Maiwenn and consult her on this.
“There’s no time,” I said, hastily running through Dorian’s laundry list of excuses. “We have to go now. The ghost who’s going to help me threatened to back out if I didn’t act soon. And we’re currently on hold with Katrice. If I could return with the crown before the next battle, it would be … well, it’d be amazing. No more bloodshed.”
I could see him wavering, but he wasn’t quite convinced. Really, I didn’t blame him. If I had an ally who could advise me on some bizarre quest, I’d want to talk to her too before jumping in.
“You can talk to her if you want,” I said. “But I’ve got to leave now. I can’t stand waiting. I’ll just go by myself.”
That drove the dagger in. No matter how sketchy the logic, no matter how smart it would be to get Maiwenn’s advice … the fear of my running
off into unknown dangers was too great. He stared at me for several heavy moments, his expression unreadable. Finally, he sighed.
“Right now?” he asked.
“Right now,” I said.
“Then let’s go.”
Deanna came easily when I summoned her, making me wonder if she’d been hanging around invisibly since our last chat. Regardless, she didn’t mention the fake ultimatum, thus letting Kiyo continue to believe we were in a time crunch. I called Volusian as well, figuring it couldn’t hurt to have his protection while traveling to the ghost cutoff point. The two spirits didn’t interact as we traveled, no surprise seeing as they had little in common. Deanna was tied to the living because of unfinished business and love for others. Volusian’s soul was damned for eternity, forced to wander for his crimes—unless I ever sent him to the Underworld.
Deanna hadn’t been able to give us a time estimate on how long it would take to reach the crown’s lair (as I was beginning to refer to it). The Otherworld’s twisted terrain always made travel hard to gauge, plus spirits could move faster than we could. I wouldn’t have minded walking, but the unknown variables made me ride horseback.
Kiyo did the same out of courtesy for me, though he could have tirelessly covered miles and miles in fox form. The only thing I really knew for sure was that this wouldn’t be a day trip.
Kiyo and I were as silent as the ghosts, though once we crossed out of the lands adjacent to mine, he would occasionally tell me where we were. I’d never ventured this far into the Otherworld, and it made me uneasy, though knowing we were clear of the Rowan Land was a relief. Even Kiyo, neutral as he claimed, had tensed in Katrice’s territory.
“This is the Honeysuckle Land,” he said, when the road led us to a hot, riotously colored landscape. Flowers grew everywhere, and even the trees were covered in blossoms. Arizona was notorious for all its hummingbirds, but here, they swarmed like flies.
“Dorian was right,” I mused. “It is beautiful.” It was hard to imagine this place mustering up a military. This seemed more like a world where people frolicked in scanty clothing, beating drums and engaging in free love. Well, since they were gentry, free love would have been a given.
“Dorian would know,” said Kiyo stiffly, eyes focused straight ahead. “I’m surprised he let you come with me.”
“Dorian doesn’t say what I can or can’t do,” I snapped. “If you’re going to just keep doing this the whole time, I’ll—”
“You’ll what?” asked Kiyo with amusement, when I didn’t continue. “Send me back? Face death-threatening situations alone?”
“I would gladly escort you back, if that is what you choose,” Volusian told Kiyo.
I sighed. “Please. Just don’t get on Dorian the whole time, okay? He wants this over. It was his idea to get your help. He’s worried, believe me.”
“That,” said Kiyo gravely, “I can believe. I don’t trust him. I don’t believe his alliance with you is as straightforward as it seems. But I
believe he cares about you.” The landscape suddenly shifted around us, becoming a rolling desert of white sand. It stretched out under a blazing sun, reflecting back at us in a way that was hard on the eyes.
“Ugh,” I said, focusing down on the road. “What’s this?”
“The Myrrh Land,” said Kiyo. Even with my eyes averted, I knew he was smiling. “Figured you’d like this place. You should go make friends with its king. They’ve got some badass fighters.”
“Big difference between this and the Sonora Desert,” I said.
Although harsh and scalding, the desert I’d grown up with was full of life. This place was desolate and dead. Mercifully, we soon passed out of it into sweeping moors, covered in snow. I took my leather jacket out of my pack. I’d brought it knowing we might travel through lands that were in winter. It still wasn’t much protection, and I realized I could have easily gotten one of my servants to whip up something more suitable. No doubt it would’ve been gentry-style, probably a cloak.
Jasmine had said. Mostly I looked cold. Kiyo identified this place as the Birch Land.
We crossed into the Honeysuckle Land again,
which was typical of the Otherworld. Other places repeated as well. When the road took us through a landscape that reminded me of northern Texas, Kiyo had nothing to say.
“What’s this?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he admitted.
“The Pecan Land,” said Volusian.
“Sounds delicious,” I teased. We’d had few stops and mostly eaten travel rations. “I could go for a pecan pie right now.”
Kiyo didn’t respond. He seemed lost in thought, his expression growing darker as we passed through more and more terrain he didn’t know. He seemed to know the names, though, and didn’t like them.
“You’re taking us to the Unclaimed Lands,” he said to Deanna. It was near the end of our day, the sky burning red.
“I don’t know,” she said simply. “I’m only going where I was shown.”
“Volusian?” I asked.
“Of course we’re going to the Unclaimed Lands,” he said, sounding mildly annoyed by my stupidity. “We’re nearly upon them. Where else would you expect a coveted object to be hidden?”
I glanced at Kiyo. “I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess these are kingdoms no one controls?”
“‘Kingdoms’ isn’t even the right word,” he said. “No one lives here.”
“Why not?” I asked.
The scenery changed again. The texture of the ground was like recently dried mud, covered in a
pattern of cracks that reminded me of one of my jigsaw puzzles. Odd holes were scattered here and there. This eerie landscape stretched far, far ahead, no end in sight. Not far from us—ten miles at most—the land rose sharply along the sides of the cracked road, forming high, rocky cliffs that curled in at their tops like jaws. Erratic gusts of wind blew through the tunnel they formed. The setting sun made everything blood-red.
“Guess,” said Kiyo. “Because we’re here.”
I peered around, studying the depressing landscape. Its superficial appearance meant little, really. Any gentry seizing control of it could shape the land to his or her will, instantly beautifying it. Then, a strange feeling settled in me. I couldn’t quite define it. It didn’t make me ill or disoriented. It just didn’t feel right. I squinted at the cliffs, taking in their striation. Through the red haze, I could see many of the loose rocks were a dull gray, streaked with orange. Oxidized metal.
“Iron,” I realized. “We’re surrounded in iron. We’re not even in the crown’s lair yet. We can’t get to the lair without passing through iron.”
“Can you feel it?” asked Kiyo.
“Yes …” That was the odd feeling in the pit of my stomach.
“That’s the gentry in you. Even with your human blood, you can’t help but be affected. There’s a lot of iron here.”
“I don’t feel weak,” I said, astonished the iron would affect me at all. “Or sick or in pain.” I’d seen gentry scream just from the smallest touch of iron. I summoned the magic within me, letting it
reach out to the air and unseen moisture, though I didn’t actively use it. “I don’t think it’s hurting my magic either.”
“Good,” said Kiyo. “You’re strong, so I’m not surprised. You may just have a simple awareness of it.”
I thought about this for a moment and came to another realization. “You’re not affected at all, are you?”
He shook his head. “Nope.”
I always thought of Kiyo and me as being alike, children born of both worlds. That part was true, as was our half-human heritage. But my Otherworldly blood came from the gentry. Only gentry were affected by iron, and kitsunes had no fairy connection. As with the demon bear and the fetch, a kitsune’s bane would be silver. At least, a full-blooded kitsune’s would be. I’d seen Kiyo handle silver objects; his human blood protected him as mine did me. The bottom line was that he was a more useful companion here than I’d realized. I wondered if Dorian had made the connection.
“We will cross through no other lands until you turn back, mistress,” said Volusian.
“So this is the world’s end. The Otherworld’s end, at least.” I turned to Deanna, hovering alongside us. “Will we reach the entrance before night?”
She thought about it, and I braced myself for another vague response. “No. If you don’t stop, you’ll reach it in the morning.”
Kiyo and I exchanged looks, both of us thinking
the same thing. Get to the crown sooner or camp and be rested?
I looked over at Volusian. “You said there are no other lands. But will the terrain in this one change?”
“What do you think?” I asked Kiyo. “I don’t want to be tired when we face whatever’s guarding the crown, but this isn’t great camping territory.”
“No,” he agreed. His eyes scanned around us, able to see more than mine in the waning light. He pointed. “There. There’s a small outcrop that’ll block most of the wind. Enough to keep a fire going. I hope.”
I couldn’t see the spot but trusted him. “Camping it is.”
When we reached it, I saw the site was indeed sheltered. I tethered the horses while Kiyo built up a fire. We watched it warily as the wind abruptly came and went. The fire flickered and waved but appeared capable of lasting the night.
“I could hold off the wind a little,” I said.
“Don’t bother,” said Kiyo, settling down beside the blaze. “Save your magic. This’ll hold.”
I wondered if he really was concerned about me conserving my strength or just wanted me to avoid my magic altogether. He’d never liked it. I didn’t question him, though, and sat down as well, mostly because the cold was finally starting to get to me. I buttoned up the leather jacket, achieving little. Our dinner consisted of more travel food: jerky, granola, and some bread that would probably be stale tomorrow.
“I don’t suppose you can use your wilderness skills to go hunt us something fresh?” I asked.
He smiled, the campfire casting strange shadows on his face, now that night had fully come. “I would if there was anything alive out here. It’s just us.” He eyed me, taking in my shivering. “Don’t you own a warmer coat?”
“Where am I going to get a down coat in Tucson?” I demanded.
“This time of year? Any sporting goods store. For the skiers. Lara could order you one if you can’t be troubled.”
“I think Lara and Tim are in love,” I said abruptly, remembering that bizarre development.
“What?” asked Kiyo, as astonished as I had been. “Are you sure?”
“Well, they’re in infatuation, at least. Volusian, were they together when you went back?”
My minion was off in the shadows, only his red eyes visible. “Yes, mistress. They were in bed, their bodies naked and—”
“Okay, okay, stop,” I exclaimed. “I don’t need to hear anymore.”
“Well, I’ll be damned,” said Kiyo. While we’d dated, he’d been witness to their phone battles. “But I guess stranger things have happened.”
“Yeah,” I agreed. “Look at us. We’re sitting in an iron landscape, being led by a ghost to a mythical object, which—if it even exists—may or may not make me scary enough to end a war.”
“Fair point,” said Kiyo, his smile returning. We sat in companionable silence. It was a nice change
from the animosity and tension that had surrounded us for so long. I’d missed him, I realized. “Eugenie?”
“Hmm?” I glanced up, feeling embarrassed by my thoughts.
“Why didn’t you bring Roland with you? He could’ve fought unaffected. And God knows he doesn’t want gentry power.”
I looked away from those dark eyes, down at the fire’s blue heart. “He doesn’t want me to have gentry power either.”
“Yeah, but he’d put that aside if he knew you were walking into—”
“He doesn’t know anything,” I said bluntly. My voice then grew soft. “We aren’t speaking anymore.”
“How …” Kiyo paused, no doubt trying to wrap his mind around this. “How is this possible?”
I shrugged. “He cut me off. When he found out I’d been keeping the truth from him, about the Thorn Land and everything else … Well, ever since what happened with Leith, he’s refused to speak to or acknowledge me.”
“But your mom …”
“Talks to me occasionally. She’s caught in the middle, and I don’t want to make it harder on her than it already is. She shouldn’t have to go against her husband.”
Kiyo’s confusion was becoming anger. “Yeah, but you’re her daughter! She should be able to—”
“Just forget it, okay?” I drew my knees up to me and wrapped my arms around them to draw in more warmth. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Eug, I’m sorry.”
I kept quiet. There was nothing to say.
He cleared his throat. “I don’t suppose you brought anything else to keep you warm? Blankets? Camping supplies?”
“I didn’t think about the possible overnight part,” I said, grateful for the subject shift. “I’ve got a change of clothes like these, food, weapons, and first aid supplies.”
“You brought first aid stuff?” He sounded impressed. “It’s not like you to think ahead. Er, I mean, you don’t usually worry about—”
“I know what you mean,” I said with a weary smile. “And don’t worry, the universe is the same. I didn’t plan ahead. It’s for current injuries.”
“I got hit by a table.”
There might be a million reasons that Kiyo and I were wrong for each other, but one nice thing was that when I made a statement like that, he just didn’t question it.
I was still freezing when it came time to sleep, forcing Kiyo into a bold suggestion. “Come sleep over here, between me and the fire. The cold doesn’t bug me as much, and I can block the wind.”
“Yeah, yeah. I know. Dorian. But if he wanted me here to protect you, then here’s the perfect chance. Besides, we all know you can kick my ass if I try anything.”
I said and did nothing. When this continued for about a minute, he sighed and lay down on his side, back to the wind. I attempted the same, after
ordering Volusian to stay on watch, but even with the fire’s warmth, I was still cold.
I’m tough, I’m tough.
I played those words over and over through my head, not wanting to admit weakness. After about fifteen minutes, I gave in and crawled over to Kiyo’s side of the fire.
There was no “I told you so.” He simply made room but was surprised when I positioned myself to face him.
“I thought you’d want your back to me.”
“Can’t,” I said. “That’s where the injuries are.”
“From the table.”