The Iron Queen(9)

By: Julie Kagawa

“Thanks,” I said dryly. “I’ll remember that.”

He turned away and tossed a ball of faery fire into existence. The glowing, blue-white sphere hovered overhead, illuminating the room and the macabre collection of voodoo items surrounding us. The skeleton in the top hat and the mannequin with the alligator head still grinned at us along the wall. But now, an ancient, mummylike figure had been added to the duo, a shriveled old woman with hollow pits for eyes and arms like brittle sticks.

Then the withered face turned and smiled at me, and I bit down a yelp.

“Hello, Meghan Chase,” the oracle whispered, gliding away from the wall and her two ghastly bodyguards. “I knew you would return.”

Ash didn’t go for his sword, but I sensed muscles coiling beneath his skin. I took a deep breath to calm my pounding heart and stepped forward. “Then you know why I’m here.”

The oracle’s eyeless gaze peered at my face. “You seek to take back what you gave away a year ago. That which did not seem so important then has become very dear to you now. Such is always the case. You mortals do not know what you have until it is gone.”

“The memory of my father.” I moved away from Ash, closing the distance between me and the oracle. Her hollow gaze followed me, and the smell of dusty newspapers clogged my nose and mouth as I approached. “I want it back. I need it if…if I’m going to see him again at Leanansidhe’s. I have to know what he means to me. Please.”

The knowledge of that mistake was still painful. When I was first searching for my brother, we’d come to the oracle for help. She’d agreed to help us, but asked for a memory in return; it had sounded insignificant at the time. I had agreed to her price, and afterward had had no clue which memory she took.

Then, we’d met Leanansidhe, who kept several humans in her home in the Between. All her humans were artists of some sort, brilliant, talented, and slightly mad from living in the Between so long. One of them, a gifted pianist, had taken quite an interest in me, though I hadn’t known who he was. I found out only after we had left the manor and it was too late to go back.

My father. My human father, or at least the man who’d raised me until I was six, and he disappeared. That was the memory the oracle had taken: all recollections of my human dad. And now, I needed them back. If I was going to Leanansidhe’s, I wanted the memory of my father intact when I demanded to know why she had him in the first place.

“Your father is Oberon, the Summer King,” the oracle whispered, her thin mouth pulled into a smile. “This man you seek, this human, is no blood relation to you. He is a mere mortal. A stranger. Why do you care?”

“I don’t know,” I said miserably. “I don’t know if I should care, and I want to be sure. Who was he? Why did he leave us? Why is he with Leanansidhe now?” I broke off and stared at the oracle, feeling Ash come up behind me as silent support. “I have to know,” I whispered. “I need that memory back.”

The oracle tapped glittering nails together, considering. “The bargain was fair,” she rasped. “One exchange for another, we both agreed to this. I cannot simply give you what you seek.” She sniffed, looking momentarily indignant. “I will have something in return.”

I figured. Can’t expect a faery to do you a favor without naming a price. Squashing down my annoyance, I stole a glance at Ash, and saw him nod. He’d expected it, too. I sighed and turned back to the oracle. “What do you want?”

She tapped a nail against her chin, dislodging a few flakes of dead skin or dust. I wrinkled my nose and eased back a step. “Hmm, let us see. What would the girl be willing to part with. Perhaps…your future chi—”

“No,” Ash and I said in unison. She snorted.

“Can’t blame me for trying. Very well.” She leaned forward, studying me with the empty holes in her face. I felt a presence brush lightly against my mind and recoiled, shutting her out.

The oracle hissed, filling the air with the smell of decay. “How…interesting,” she mused. I waited, but she didn’t elaborate, and after a moment she drew back with a strange smile on her withered face. “Very well, Meghan Chase, this is my request. You are loathe to give up anything you hold dear, and it would be a waste of breath to ask for those things. So, instead I will ask that you fetch me something someone else held dear.”