Ironside Page 1


Through the mosses bare,

They have planted thorn-trees

For pleasure here and there.

If any man so daring

As dig them up in spite,

He shall find their sharpest thorns

In his bed at night.

—William Allingham, "The Fairies"

Despite her casting him down to this place, despite the fresh bruises on his skin and the blood under his nails, Roiben still loved Lady Silarial. Despite the hungry eyes of the Unseelie Court and the gruesome tasks its Queen Nicnevin set him. Despite the many ways he'd been humiliated and the things he wouldn't let himself think on while he stood stiffly behind her throne.

If he concentrated hard, he could remember the flame of his Queen's copper hair, her unreadable green eyes, the strange smile she'd given him as she'd pronounced his fate just three months past. Choosing him to leave her Bright Court and be a servant among the Unseelie was an honor, he told himself once more. He alone loved her enough to remain loyal. She trusted him above her other subjects. Only his love was true enough to endure.

And he did love her still, he reminded himself.

"Roiben," said the Unseelie Queen. She had been eating her dinner off the back of a wood hob, his green hair long enough to serve as a tablecloth. Now she looked up at Roiben with a dangerous sort of smile.

"Yes, my Lady," he said automatically, neutrally. He tried to hide how much he loathed her, not because it would displease her. Rather, he thought it would please her too well.

"The table trembles too much. I am afraid my wine will spill.”

The hollow hill was almost empty; what courtiers remained to amuse themselves beneath garlands of hairy roots did so quietly as the Queen took her supper. Only her servants were close by, all of them grim as ghosts. Her chamberlain cleared his throat.

Roiben stared at her dumbly.

"Fix it," she commanded.

He took a step forward, unsure of what she wanted him to do. The hob's wizened face looked up at him, pale with terror. Roiben tried to smile reassuringly, but that seemed to only make the little man tremble further. He wondered if binding would make the hob steadier, and then was disgusted with himself for the thought.

"Chop his feet so they're even with his hands," a voice called, and Roiben looked up. Another knight, hair dark as his coat, strode toward Nicnevin's throne. A dull circlet sat on his brow. He smirked broadly. Roiben had seen him only once before. He was the knight that the Unseelie Court had sent up to the Seelie as their symbol of peace. Roiben's twin in servitude, although he could only suppose this knight's thralldom was easier than Roiben's own. At the sight of him Roiben's heart leaped with an impossible hope. Could the exchange be done with? Was it possible he would be sent home at last?

"Nephamael," the Queen said, "has Silarial tired of you so quickly?”

He snorted. "She sends me as a messenger, but the message is of little consequence. I rather think she doesn't like me, but you seem better pleased with the trade.”

"I could not stand to part with my new knight," Nicnevin said, and Roiben bowed his head. "Will you do what Nephamael suggests?”

Roiben took a deep breath, struggling for a calm he didn't feel. Every time he spoke, he was half afraid he would snap and say what he really thought. "I doubt his plan's efficacy. Let me take the hob's place. I will not spill your wine, Lady.”

Her smile widened with delight. She turned to Nephamael. "He asks so prettily, doesn't he?”

Nephamael nodded, although he looked less amused than she had. His yellow eyes seemed to take Roiben's measure for the first time. "And no concern for dignity. You must find that refreshing.”

She laughed at that, a laugh that seemed startled from her throat and as cold as ice breaking over a deep lake. Somewhere in the vast, dim cavern, a harp began to play. Roiben shuddered to think what it might be strung with.

"Be my table, then, Roiben. See to it that you do not tremble. The hob will suffer for any failing on your part.”

Roiben took the place of the little faery easily, barely counting it as a humiliation to get down on his hands and knees, to bow his head and let the silver plates and warm dishes be set gingerly on his back. He did not flinch. He remained still, even as Nephamael seated himself on the floor beside the throne, resting yet another goblet on the curve of his spine. The man's hand rested on his ass, and Roiben bit his lip to avoid flinching in surprise. The stench of iron was overwhelming. He wondered how Nicnevin could bear it.

"I've grown bored," Nephamael said. "Although the Seelie Court is lovely, certainly.”

"And there is nothing to amuse you there? I find that hard to believe.”

"There are things." Roiben thought he could feel the smile in those words. The hand slid across the hollow of his back. He stiffened before he could help himself, and heard the goblets tinkle together with his movement. "But my delight is in finding weakness.”

Nicnevin didn't so much as reprimand Roiben. He doubted it was out of any generosity on her part.

"Somehow," she said, "I wonder if you are speaking to me at all.”

"It is you I am speaking to," Nephamael said. "But not you I am speaking about. Your weaknesses are not for me to know.”

"A charming, ingratiating answer.”

"But take your knight here. Roiben. I know his vulnerability.”

"Do you? I would think that would be rather obvious. His love of the solitary fey has him on his knees even now.”

Roiben steeled himself not to move. That the Queen of Filth spoke about him as though he were an animal didn't surprise him, but he found that he was more afraid of what Nephamael might say. There was something hungry in the way that Nephamael spoke, a hunger Roiben wasn't sure what might sate.

"He loves Silarial. He declared himself to her. And the quest she gave him was this—to be your servant in exchange for peace.”

The Queen of the Unseelie Court said nothing. He felt a goblet lifted from his back and then replaced.

"It is delightfully cruel, really. Here he is, being loyal and brave for a woman who used him poorly. She never loved him. She's forgotten him already.”

"That's not true," Roiben said, turning, so that silver dishes crashed around him. He leaped to his feet, uncaring of the gaping courtiers, the spilled wine, the hob's frightened cry. He didn't care about anything right then but hurting Nephamael, who'd stolen his place—his home—and dared gloat over it.

"Stop!" Nicnevin called. "I command you, Roiben, by the power of your name to cease moving.”

Against his will, he froze like a mannequin, breathing hard. Nephamael had twisted out of his way, but the half smirk Roiben expected to find on his face was missing.

"Kill the hob," the Unseelie Queen commanded. "You, my knight, will drink his blood like wine, and this time you will not spill a drop.”

Roiben tried to open his mouth to say something to stay her hand, but the command forbade even that movement. He had been stupid— Nephamael had been goading him in the hope of just such a mistake. Even the Queen's lack of rebuke earlier had probably been planned. Now he had made a spectacular fool of himself and cost an innocent creature its life. Self-loathing gnawed at his belly.

Never again, he told himself. No matter what they said or did or made him do, he would not react. He would become as indifferent as stone.

The grim servants were quick and efficient. Within moments they had prepared a warm goblet and raised it to his unmoving lips. The corpse was already being cleared away, open eyes staring at Roiben from beyond death, damning him for his vanity.

Roiben could not stop himself from opening his mouth and gulping the warm, salty liquid. A moment later, he gagged and retched on the dais.

The flavor of that blood stayed with him through the long years of his service. Even when a pixie accidentally set him free, even when he'd won the Unseelie crown. But by then he could no longer remember whose blood it was, only that he had grown used to the taste.

Chapter 1

I prefer winter and fall, when you feel the bone structure in the landscape—the loneliness of it—the dead feeling of winter. Something waits beneath it—the whole story doesn't show.

—Andrew Wyeth

Human girls cry when they're sad and laugh when they're happy. They have a single fixed shape rather than shifting with their whims like windblown smoke. They have their very own parents, whom they love. They don't go around stealing other girls' mothers. At least that's what Kaye thought human girls were like. She wouldn't really know. After all, she wasn't human.

Fingering the hole on the left side of her fishnets, Kaye poked at the green skin underneath as she considered herself in the mirror.

"Your rat wants to come," Lutie-loo said. Kaye turned toward the lidded fish tank, where the doll-size faery had her thin, pale fingers pressed against the outside of the glass. Inside, Kaye's brown rat, Armageddon, sniffed the air. Isaac was curled in a white ball in the far corner. "He likes coronations.”

"Can you really understand what he's saying?" Kaye asked, pulling an olive skirt over her head and wriggling it onto her hips.

"He's just a rat," Lutie said, turning toward Kaye. One of her moth wings dusted the side of the cage with pale powder. "Anyone can talk rat.”

"Well, I can't. Do I look monochromatic in this?”

Lutie nodded. "I like it.”

Kaye heard her grandmother's voice calling from downstairs. "Where are you? I made you a sandwich!”

"Be there in a second!" Kaye shouted back.

Lutie kissed the glass wall of the cage. "Well, can the rat come or not?”

"I guess. Sure. I mean, if you can get him to not run away." Kaye laced up one thick-soled black boot and limped around the room looking for its mate. Only two months ago her bedroom had featured a child's bed and a bookshelf of ancient, unblinking dolls. Now the old bed was in pieces in the attic, the dolls were dressed in punk-rock finery, and above the mattress on the floor Kaye had painted a mural where a headboard might have been. It was half finished—a tree with deep, intricate roots and gilded bark. Although she'd thought it would, the decorating still hadn't made the room feel like hers.

When he'd seen the mural, Roiben had remarked that she could glamour the room into looking any way she wanted, but a magical veneer—no matter how lovely—still didn't seem real to her. Or maybe it seemed too real, too much a reminder of why she didn't belong in the room at all.

Shoving her foot into the other boot, she tugged on her jacket. Leaving her hair green, she let magic slide over her skin, coloring and plumping it. There was a slight prickling as the glamour restored her familiar human face.

She looked at herself a moment longer before pocketing Armageddon, scratching behind the ears of Isaac, and walking toward the door. Lutie followed, flying on moth wings, keeping out of sight as Kaye jogged down the stairs.

"Was that your mother on the phone before?" Kaye's grandmother asked. "I heard it ring." She stood at the kitchen counter, pouring hot grease into a tin can. Two peanut butter and bacon sandwiches sat on chipped plates; Kaye could see the brown meat curling past the edges of the white bread.

Kaye bit into her sandwich, glad that the peanut butter glued her mouth shut.

"I left her a message about the holidays, but can she bother to call me back? Oh no, she's much too busy to talk to me. You'll have to ask her tomorrow night, although why she can't come down here to see you instead of insisting you go visit her at that squalid apartment in the city, I will never know. It must really gall her that you've decided to stay here instead of following her around like a little shadow.”

Kaye chewed, nodding along with her grandmother's complaints. In the mirror beside the back door, she could see, beneath the glamour, a girl with leaf green skin, black eyes without a drop of white in them, and wings as thin as plastic wrap. A monster standing beside a nice old lady, eating food intended for another child. A child stolen away by faeries.

Brood parasites. That's what cuckoos were called when they dropped their eggs in other birds' nests. Parasitic bees, too, leaving their spawn in foreign hives; Kaye had read about them in one of the moldering encyclopedias on the landing. Brood parasites didn't bother raising their own babies.

They left them to be raised by others—birds that tried not to notice when their offspring grew huge and hungry, bees that ignored that their progeny did not collect pollen, mothers and grandmothers who didn't know the word "changeling.”

"I have to go," Kaye said suddenly.

"Have you thought more about school?”

"Gram, I got my GED," Kaye said. "You saw it. I did it. I'm done.”

Her grandmother sighed and looked toward the fridge, where the letter was still tacked with a magnet. "There's always community college. Imagine that—starting college before the rest of your class even graduates.”

"I'll go see if Corny is outside yet." Kaye started toward the door. "Thanks for the sandwich.”

The old woman shook her head. "It's too cold out there. Stand on the porch. He should know better than to ask a young girl to wait outside in the snow. I swear, that boy has no manners at all.”

Kaye felt the whoosh of air as Lutie flew past her back. Her grandmother didn't even look up. "Okay, Gram. Bye, Gram.”

"Stay warm.”

Kaye nodded and used the sleeve of her coat to turn the knob of the door so that she could avoid touching the iron. Even the smell of it burned her nose when she got close. Walking through the porch, she used the same trick on the screen door and stepped out into the snow. The trees on the lawn were encased in ice. Hail from that morning had stuck to whatever it had touched, freezing into solid sparkling skins that covered branches and flashed against the dull gray sky. The slightest breeze sent the limbs jangling against one another.

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