The Iron KingBy: Julie Kagawa
“I have a stomachache,” I complained, holding my navel like it was about to burst. “I just need to lie down for a few minutes.”
“Of course, Ms. Chase. There are some cots in the back. I’ll bring you something to make you feel better.”
I nodded and moved into a room divided by several huge sheets. Except for myself and the nurse, the room was empty. Perfect. I chose a corner cot and lay back on the paper-covered mattress.
Moments later, the nurse appeared, handing me a Dixie cup full of something that bubbled and steamed. “Take this, you’ll feel better,” she said, pressing the cup into my hand.
I stared at it. The fizzling white liquid smelled like chocolate and herbs, except stronger, somehow, a mix so potent it made my eyes water. “What is it?” I asked.
The nurse just smiled and left the room.
I took a cautious sip and felt warmth spread from my throat down to my stomach. The taste was incredible, like the richest chocolate in the world, with just a hint of bitter aftertaste. I quaffed the rest in two gulps, holding the cup upside down to get the last drops.
Almost immediately, I felt sleepy. Lying back on the crinkly mattress, I closed my eyes for just a moment, and everything faded away.
I AWOKE TO LOW VOICES, talking in furtive tones, just beyond the curtains. I tried to move, but it felt like my body was wrapped in cotton, my head filled with gauze. I struggled to keep my eyes open. On the other side of the sheets, I saw two silhouettes.
“Don’t do anything reckless,” warned a low, gravelly voice. The nurse, I thought, wondering, in my delirium, if she would give me more of that chocolaty stuff. “Remember, your duty is to watch the girl. You must not do anything that will draw attention.”
“Me?” asked a tantalizingly familiar voice. “Draw attention to myself? Would I do such a thing?”
The nurse snorted. “If the entire cheerleading squad turns into mice, Robin, I will be very upset with you. Mortal adolescents are blind and cruel. You know that. You mustn’t take revenge, no matter how you feel about the girl. Especially now. There are more worrisome things on the move.”
I’m dreaming, I decided. That must be it. What was in that drink, anyway? In the dim light, the silhouettes playing across the curtain looked confusing and strange. The nurse, it seemed, was even smaller, barely three feet in height. The other shadow was even more peculiar: normal-size, but with strange protrusions on the side of his head that looked like horns, or ears.
The taller shadow sighed and moved to sit in a chair, crossing his long legs. “I’ve heard the same,” he muttered. “Dark rumors are stirring. The Courts are restless. Seems like something is out there that has both of them scared.”
“Which is why you must continue to be both her shield and her guardian.” The nurse turned, putting both hands on her hips, her voice chiding. “I’m surprised you haven’t given her the mistwine yet. She is sixteen today. The veil is beginning to lift.”
“I know, I know. I’m getting to it.” The shadow sighed, putting his head in his hands. “I’ll take care of that later this afternoon. How is she?”
“Resting,” said the nurse. “Poor thing, she was traumatized. I gave her a mild sleep potion that will knock her out until she goes home.”
A chuckle. “The last kid who drank one of your ‘mild’ sleep potions didn’t wake up for two weeks. You’re one to talk about being inconspicuous.”
The nurse’s reply was garbled and broken, but I was almost sure she said, “She’s her father’s daughter. She’ll be fine.” Or maybe it was just me. The world went fuzzy, like an out-of-focus camera, and I knew nothing for a time.
Someone was shaking me awake. I cursed and flailed, momentarily confused, and finally lifted my head. My eyes felt like they had ten pounds of sand in them, and sleep gook crusted the corners, making it impossible to focus. Groaning, I wiped my lids and stared blearily into Robbie’s face. For a moment, his brow was furrowed with concern. Then I blinked and he was his normal, grinning self.
“Wakey wakey, sleeping beauty,” he teased as I struggled to a sitting position. “Lucky you, school is out. It’s time to go home.”
“Huh?” I muttered intelligently, wiping the last traces of sleep snot from my eyes. Robbie snorted and pulled me to my feet.
“Here,” he said, handing me my backpack, heavy with books. “You’re lucky I’m such a great friend. I got notes for all the classes you missed after lunch. Oh, and you’re forgiven, by the way. I won’t even say ‘I told you so.’”
He was speaking too fast. My brain was still asleep, my mind foggy and disconnected. “What are you talking about?” I mumbled, shrugging into my pack.
And then I remembered.
“I need to call my mom,” I said, dropping back on the cot. Robbie frowned and looked confused. “She has to come pick me up,” I elaborated. “No way am I getting on the bus, ever again.” Despair settled on me, and I hid my face in my hands.