Authors: Richelle Mead
He was right that I thought I was invincible. I’d had stitches and wounds before, my gentry blood usually expediting the healing. But I nodded meekly, promising I’d obey.
“Good,” he said, following me out to the waiting room. “Follow up with your family doctor in a week. I think your ride’s over there.”
“My ride …?”
I stared around the room, freezing when I saw a familiar face. “Mom?”
She’d been leaning against a wall, eyes anxiously studying everyone in the room. Spotting me, she practically ran over, staring at my bandages in alarm. I had no coat, and the tank top showed my battle wounds. “Eugenie! Are you okay? What have you done now?”
For some reason, that made the doctor snort a laugh before walking away. “I’m fine,” I told her automatically. “What are you doing here?”
“I’m your emergency contact. And that is not fine.”
I was still stunned to see her. It felt like it had been so long. Ages. “It is now,” I said dazedly. “All patched up. And I’ve got all this … stuff.” I waved my stack of paper around.
She brushed dark hair from her face, her expression both weary and distraught as we headed for her car. “It never gets easier. Not with you, not with him.”
I gave her a sidelong look. “Does he know you’re here?”
“No,” she said, getting out her keys. “Not that it
would matter if he did. Nothing could have stopped me from coming when they called me. I thought … Well, I never know what to think….”
I couldn’t look at her as I sat gingerly in the car. My eyes were filling with tears. I’d missed her so much. I’d missed her, well,
Lots of people cared about me, but it wasn’t the same. Plus, I felt horrible, horrible that I made her worry. And because of me, Roland was out endangering himself again too.
I hastily ran a hand over my eyes and turned to her as we pulled out of the parking lot. “When did you get glasses?” I asked in surprise. Delicate wire frames rested on a face very similar to mine. It was our coloring that was different. My red hair and violet eyes had come from Storm King.
“A few weeks ago. They’re just for night driving.”
I looked away, fearing the tears would return. Glasses. Such a stupid thing. There was a time, though, when I would have known every little detail of her life. There was so much distance between us now. My churning, guilty thoughts only came to a standstill when she turned into a pharmacy a few blocks from the hospital.
“Mom, no! I have to get back to my car and—”
“You can go back to endangering your life again soon enough. Here, let me see those.”
“It’s not my usual pharmacy,” I said petulantly.
She was skimming the wound care instructions. “Yes, well, I’m sure this one still has a couple bandages stashed away somewhere.”
“You’re such a mom.”
She glanced up, a small twinkle in her eyes that
reminded me of how things used to be between us. “I’m
I followed her sullenly as we waited for the prescription, and she forced me to get a basketful of gauze, bandages, and other first aid supplies. I already owned a lot of them, but she wouldn’t rest easy until she actually saw them in my hands.
“I really appreciate you coming,” I admitted as we waited. “It … it’s good to see you.”
Her expression softened. “It’s good to see you too, baby. I’ve missed you.”
“I don’t suppose Roland’s forgiven me?”
“It’s more complicated than that,” she told me. “He still loves you. Really. But he’s worried. And he doesn’t like you being over …
Neither do I.”
I averted my eyes again. I knew she didn’t—and she had good reason. My conception was the result of her captivity and rape in the Otherworld. She’d spent years keeping that knowledge from me, hoping to protect me from both my heritage and the agony she believed that place caused.
“Well, that’s complicated too. I have to be there, Mom. I know you guys don’t approve, but there are people counting on me. They’re not all like you think. I can’t let them down. They’re … they’re dying because of me.”
“Is there a man involved?”
I considered a flippant remark, then chose honesty. “Yes.”
“The obvious problem aside … would I like him?”
I tried to picture my mom meeting Dorian and couldn’t stop a small smile. “Probably not.”
“Do you ever talk to Kiyo anymore?”
I looked up sharply, my smile fading. “It’s over with us. He let me down. You know that. This other guy … he won’t.”
I was saved from further conversation when my name was finally called. I added the prescription to my portable hospital bag and felt grateful that my mom didn’t pursue the topic of my love life anymore. I was equally grateful when she drove me back to Regan’s house. It wouldn’t have surprised me if she’d left me carless in Tim’s care.
Leaving my mom stirred conflicting feelings in me. After missing her so much, part of me just wanted to stay and gaze at her, to drink in those features I loved so much. I wanted her to hold me, to be my mom and take care of everything. And yet … always, always, the Otherworld was pressing on me. I didn’t have the luxury of being a little girl right now. I didn’t have the luxury of being her daughter.
“Thank you,” I said, giving her as careful a hug as we could manage. “Thank you for … I don’t know. Everything.”
She held me for a few moments and then pressed a kiss to my forehead. “There’s nothing to thank me for. Just be careful.” She broke from the embrace. “Do what the doctor says. And for God’s sake, don’t end up there again. I don’t want another call.”
“I’ll try,” I said. This made us both smile, largely because we knew my trying to stay out of harm’s way was pretty futile. “And tell Roland …” I couldn’t finish, but she nodded.
I left her then, loading my loot into my own car and driving home. Regan didn’t live too far from me, only about ten minutes. The time flew by. I had so many things to think about that when I arrived at my house, I hardly knew how I’d gotten there. Tim’s car was parked out front—as was Lara’s. I dragged myself out of my own self-pitying miasma, uneasily wondering what I’d find inside. Seeing the two of them naked on my kitchen table would
Instead, they were cuddled up on the living room couch, watching a movie. All seemed innocent, but some vibe made me suspect they hadn’t been actually
too much of it. I shook my head in exasperation.
“How is this my life?” I muttered, setting my bag on the counter.
“Did you say something?” called Tim. The living room and kitchen were mostly open to each other. He muted the film.
“We figured you’d be out for the night,” he said. I was pretty sure there was an accusatory tone in his voice.
I opened the cupboards, rummaging for food. I was suddenly starving. “Well, rest easy. I’ll be gone soon enough, right after I get dinner.”
Lara turned and peered over the couch’s back. “Pop-Tarts aren’t—oh my God! What happened to you?” Tim noticed my bandages now too. He didn’t look as shocked as her—he saw me come home after fights a lot—but worry had replaced his snark.
“What have you been doing?”
“Earning the mortgage.” I put two blueberry Pop-Tarts in the toaster. “Isn’t that what you told me to do?”
“Jesus, Eug. I didn’t—”
“Forget it,” I told him. “Everything’s fine. But you’re going to have to send a bill to Jenna Benson, Lara. I wasn’t able to collect.”
Lara nodded without a word, still aghast at seeing what my real life looked like. I poured some water and choked down one of the antibiotics while waiting for the Pop-Tarts. As soon as they were done, I retreated to my room, eating quickly as I threw together an overnight bag. While I was packing, my eyes lingered on a half-finished puzzle on my desk. I sighed. How long ago had I started that one? A month ago? I loved jigsaw puzzles. I used to do one a night.
I was almost finished packing—I even included the first aid supplies, thanks to some residual mom-guilt—when the temperature dropped. An unsettling yet familiar presence filled the room, and soon Volusian appeared before me. I nearly dropped the bag.
“Mistress,” he said with a mock bow. “I’ve come to report on the battle.”
There was a long pause as I waited expectantly. Volusian was enjoying this, I realized. He wasn’t going to elaborate until I asked because he wanted to draw out the agony.
“Damn it! Tell me what happened!”
Volusian got this pleased look on his face that I suspected was the closest he ever came to smiling. “The Oak King is …” I held my breath. “… alive.”
“Thank God.” Of course, thinking of my own wounds, “alive” might not mean much. “Is he hurt?”
“He is well and uninjured.”
I sank gratefully onto my bed, knowing I wore my emotions all over my face. I hated to ever show anything like that in front of Volusian. I wanted to maintain an image of power. This situation was too important, though. Fear and worry for Dorian and the battle had been a knot within me, one I only just now dared to loosen.
“What about the others? Who won?”
“Your forces, mistress.”
Again, relief flooded through me. We had won. Dorian was okay. “Casualties?”
“Inevitable, of course.” Volusian didn’t seem particularly concerned, but then, he was never concerned about much. “Death and injury on both sides. The Oak King’s lands and towns remained untouched.”
That last part was good news. But death and injury? No, I didn’t like that. I wanted to know numbers, but for now, that was irrelevant. One death was too much. I’d get all the stats I needed from Dorian soon enough. I started to thank Volusian, but that wasn’t the way our relationship worked.
“Go back to the Oak Land. Tell Dorian I’ll be there shortly.”
Volusian gave a small nod of acknowledgment. I expected him to vanish instantly, but he paused, eyes narrowing slightly. “My mistress has also been in a battle tonight.”
I shifted slightly, becoming aware of the bandages covering my shoulder and back. “Yeah, I fought a fetch.”
“Who inflicted great injury.”
“It would appear so, wouldn’t it?”
“But not enough to kill you.”
The look I gave him was answer enough.
“Pity,” he said. He vanished.
“Damn it,” I muttered. I stayed where I was, staring off into space. I needed to cross to Dorian’s land soon, but for now, I allowed the news to percolate in my head for a few moments more. Only, a new distraction presented itself.
Otherworldly magic washed over me seconds before a voice spoke. “You could end it easily, you know.”
I jumped up from my bed as the ghost from the mountains appeared before me. Silently, I cursed myself for having packed up my weapons. Since my queenhood, attacks at home had dropped off, lulling me into a false sense of security. It was lazy of me. Foolish. With no care for the other carefully packed items, I upended my bag, dumping everything out. I grabbed my wand, expecting the ghost to attack.
Instead, she just hung in the air, face blank. “You shouldn’t have come back,” I said, wand ready and pointed. Weary as I was, banishing magic tingled within me. “You should have stayed away.”
She stayed motionless, uncaring of the threat I presented. “I told you. I can’t. I need your help.”
“And I told you, I can’t help you.”
“I can help
she said. “I can help you find the Iron Crown.”
The magic welling within me paused and then I dropped it altogether. I eyed her warily. “How do you know about that?”
She gave a weak shrug. “I’ve been following you.”
I began the banishing again, quickly working out her words. Of course she could follow me. She was a strong ghost, one who could likely flit between this and the Otherworld as easily as I saw her move around here. The magic of the Otherworld, which concealed so many spirits, would
make her harder to detect there. Following—and spying—would be easy.
“We’re done with this,” I said. Power coursed into the wand. Still, she didn’t flinch.
“The Iron Crown,” she repeated. “I know where it is. I can lead you.”
Again, I paused the banishing and recalled something Dorian had said. “The way is blocked to spirits.”
“Yes,” she agreed. “But I know the starting point. You don’t even know that. I can take you there, and you can go the rest of the way on your own.”
“I don’t believe you. I have no reason to. You could just get me mucked up in your little investigation and then disappear.”
This finally brought about emotion. Anger flickered in those pale eyes. “‘Little investigation?’ This is my family! Their lives! They mean everything to me.”
“Meant,” I corrected. “You need to cut your ties to this world.”
Her lips flattened into a straight line, as though she fought to control her temper. “I’ll take you there first. After you have the crown, you’ll help me. I’ll be the one taking you at
word. You have nothing to lose.”
“Nothing except my life,” I muttered. “A crown that does nothing except lead me on some lethal journey is a big gamble. I don’t even believe Masthera’s crazy logic.”
“Other spirits say it can do what she says,” the ghost said. “They’re old. They remember it.”
Well, that at least answered one of my questions. The dubious nature of the crown aside, I understood how a ghost like this would know about something so ancient. The grief that bound her to this world might make her strong, but she struck me as a new ghost, one that would hardly know about some legendary artifact.
“It’s all ridiculous,” I said. “It’s time for you to go.”
“It is,” she agreed. “Think about my offer. Summon me when you’re ready. My name is Deanna.”
And as easily as she’d come, she disappeared, beating my banishing. Admittedly, it had less to do with my skill than with my own doubt. Her words had struck something in me. A tiny spark of wonder, wonder that maybe there was some wacky way to end this war. If the legends were true. If Deanna wasn’t lying. If I didn’t die setting out alone on a treacherous journey.
Shaking my head, I once more chastised myself for letting her go. Next time. Next time I’d banish her to the Underworld as soon as I saw her face. For now, I had to go to Dorian. I’d wasted too much time. Hastily, I repacked my bag and went on my way.
Tim and Lara still sat in the living room. Recognizing what the bag meant, Tim again muted the TV, an uncharacteristic look of concern on his face.
“Eug … don’t you think going over to Never Never Land is a bad idea after getting your ass kicked tonight?”
“You should see the other guy.” I shifted the
bag, careful to keep it on my good shoulder and away from my back. “Besides, sad as it is, I think I’m safer there than here.”
He sighed, and I couldn’t help a smile. I glanced at Lara. “I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
Her face was as grave as Tim’s. “I don’t think we’re charging enough.”
I laughed. “Probably not.”
I left them for a gateway that opened up near Dorian’s. I had an anchor in his castle too, and crossing over nearby pulled me to it. I appeared in a small, empty chamber that he reserved purely for the anchor. Even injured, I’d had no difficulty making the transition. A long time ago, I couldn’t even cross in human form. I’d come over as my spirit’s totem: a dark swan. Now, coming here was as easy as stepping through a door. My power had indeed grown, something that Kiyo and my parents feared.
I didn’t get very far down the adjacent hall before I was spotted by a servant. “Your Majesty!” he sputtered, managing a clumsy bow. “The king has been expecting you.”
“Then take me to him,” I said.
Dinner had long since ended, and Dorian was in one of his posh sitting rooms, surrounded by a handful of counselors and generals. To my surprise, Masthera sat there too, off in a corner where she observed rather than participated in the meeting. Dorian’s face was calm and collected as he spoke to the others, but his expression broke a little when he saw me.
In a few strides, he was across the room. Something cracked inside of me too, something that was so, so glad to see him alive and well. Despite Volusian’s report, I’d needed to see Dorian alive for myself. My heart swelled, and I let go of my aversion to gentry customs. I dropped the bag and wrapped my arms around his neck, seeking his lips before he could hardly even get his hands on me. He gripped my hips as we kissed, the power of that kiss sweeping my body and filling it with heat as I pressed against him. It was suddenly easy to understand why gentry sometimes felt the need to have sex in public.
No such option was given to me because Dorian’s hands slid up my waist, freezing when he touched the bandages. He pulled away abruptly, studying me with astonishment. I still wore my tank top, giving a full view of the hospital’s handiwork.
“Good grief, woman,” he exclaimed. “What happened?”
I gave as unconcerned a shrug as he might. “I got in a fight. With a fetch.”
“She threw a table at me.”
Dorian peered beyond me, over at the servant who’d escorted me to the room. “Get a healer.”
“No, don’t,” I said. The guy hesitated, glancing between us, torn between two commands. “You need your healers for the armies. This looks worse than it is.” That wasn’t entirely true. The painkillers I’d been given were wearing off, making the
scratches itchy and sore. Yet, I couldn’t shake Volusian’s words about death and injury. I wouldn’t take any healers away from the armies. I gave Dorian a warning look. “It’s
He returned my look, locking us in a brief battle of wills. “Fine,” he repeated. He glanced over at the servant. “She says it’s fine. Far be it from me to question my lady. Come join us, dear. I assume your despicable little pet gave you the essentials?”
A chair was quickly brought over to me, and I joined the meeting. The details of it were a blur. I was no strategist, not for this kind of war. One-on-one fights were my thing. Mostly I listened to the group, not always understanding, as they studied maps and discussed army movement and strategic targets. Borders and areas with resources—like my copper mines—seemed to be a protective priority, which was about the only part I truly understood.
The part that really stuck with me was the recap of this battle. It had been long, even though our superior numbers had ensured victory almost from the beginning. The towns and our food were safe. The number of casualties were recounted briefly. Dorian and his advisors seemed pleased by them, considering them low. I supposed, as far as percentages went in the army, they were. Still … people had died. Gentry or not, it didn’t matter. They had families, people who loved them. People who would mourn. I felt sick to my stomach.
The meeting closed with plans for our next move, plans I agreed to automatically when consulted.
Everyone left, off for bed, except me, Dorian, and Masthera. The pleased, laconic look Dorian had worn for his team vanished once the last person was out of our sight. He turned on me, outrage in those beautiful eyes.
“What were you thinking?
was the one who was supposed to be facing an army today. Not you.”
“I didn’t,” I countered. “It was just a fetch. Did I mention the table?”
“You’re making a joke out of this.”
“No more than what you usually do.” I frowned. “And this is nothing … nothing compared to what you and the others faced.”
His blasé expression returned. “We had a great victory.”
“We have different ideas of victory,” I said sadly. My eyes landed on Masthera, who watched us intently. “What are you doing here?”
She seemed to read my question as an invitation and moved to a nearer chair. “Waiting for you, Your Majesty. I sensed that you would come.”
I scoffed. “Volusian came and said I was coming.”
The comment didn’t bother her. “You’ve come to discuss the Iron Crown.”
“Hardly.” Yet, I found myself frowning as crazy thoughts swirled in my head. Dorian arched an eyebrow of surprise.
“Is that true? You made your feelings clear on that last time.”
“They haven’t really changed,” I admitted. “I still don’t see it as a convenient end to all of this. Except … well, a ghost came to me today.”
“Ghosts are always coming to you.”
“Yeah, yeah. But this one claimed she could lead me to the crown. Or rather, the place surrounding it. She needs a favor and offered this in return.”
Masthera’s eyes widened, and she leaned forward. “This is it! What I’ve seen. This will bring you to the crown.”
“Presuming this ghost isn’t part of some elaborate plan to kill me,” I said. “Wouldn’t be the first time.”
“No, no,” she said. “This is real. I feel it. I’ve had a vision of you crowned.”
Dorian gave her a sharp look. “Enough. It doesn’t matter if this ghost is telling the truth. I’m not sending Eugenie off into a nightmarish landscape.”
don’t send me anywhere,” I retorted.
He rolled his eyes. “Please. Don’t start with the mock wounded pride over your capabilities. You’re a great warrior; I accept that. You defeat fetches and tables and all other sorts of fiends. But this … no. The risk is too great, and I couldn’t help you.”
“But Your Majesty!” exclaimed Masthera. “You see the opportunity. An end to the war. The power. The fear this would inspire among others.”
“My own fear is more than enough, thank you,” he said dryly.
An end to the war.
An astonishing thought struck me. “Gentry would suffer in the iron fields … but I’m not the only half human. I could take Jasmine with me.” Jasmine was almost as unaffected by iron
as I was. Touching it caused her no pain, and it was only her cuffs’ tight binding that stunted her magic. Otherwise, to my knowledge, simply being near iron wasn’t enough to dim her power.
“No,” said Dorian swiftly. “Absolutely not. I wouldn’t have your unstable sister go anywhere near that crown.”
“The queen is right, though,” said Masthera. “Storm King’s younger daughter might be protected by her human blood.”
I expected another refusal from Dorian, but he remained silent. He was actually considering this, I realized. Jasmine would be a safe companion—or not.
“No,” he repeated at last. “If she somehow returned in control of the crown … Well, I wouldn’t want to see that. She craves power too much.”