فصل 03

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CHAPTER

3

Tamlin’s guilt must have hit him hard, because although he was gone the next day, Lucien was waiting with an offer to inspect the progress on the nearby village.

I hadn’t visited in well over a month—I couldn’t remember the last time I’d even left the grounds. A few of the villagers had been invited to our Winter Solstice celebrations, but I’d barely managed to do more than greet them, thanks to the size of the crowd.

The horses were already saddled outside the front doors of the stables, and I counted the sentries by the distant gates (four), on either side of the house (two at each corner), and the ones now by the garden through which I’d just exited (two). Though none spoke, their eyes pressed on me.

Lucien made to mount his dapple-gray mare but I cut off his path. “A tumble off your damned horse?” I hissed, shoving his shoulder.

Lucien actually staggered back, the mare nickering in alarm, and I blinked at my outstretched hand. I didn’t let myself contemplate what the guards made of it. Before he could say anything, I demanded, “Why did you lie about the naga?”

Lucien crossed his arms, his metal eye narrowing, and shook the red hair from his face.

I had to look away for a moment.

Amarantha’s hair had been darker—and her face a creamy white, not at all like the sun-kissed gold of Lucien’s skin.

I studied the stables behind him instead. At least it was big, open, the stable hands now off in another wing. I usually had little issue with being inside, which was mostly whenever I was bored enough to visit the horses housed within. Plenty of space to move, to escape. The walls didn’t feel too … permanent.

Not like the kitchens, which were too low, the walls too thick, the windows not big enough to climb through. Not like the study, with not enough natural light or easy exits. I had a long list in my head of what places I could and couldn’t endure at the manor, ranked by precisely how much they made my body lock up and sweat.

“I didn’t lie,” Lucien said tightly. “I technically did fall off my horse.” He patted his mount’s flank. “After one of them tackled me off her.”

Such a faerie way of thinking, of lying. “Why?”

Lucien clamped his mouth shut.

“Why?”

He just twisted back to the patient mare. But I caught the expression on his face—the … pity in his eye.

I blurted, “Can we walk instead?”

He slowly turned. “It’s three miles.”

“And you could run that in a few minutes. I’d like to see if I can keep up.”

His metal eye whirred, and I knew what he’d say before he opened his mouth.

“Never mind,” I said, heading for my white mare, a sweet-tempered beast, if not a bit lazy and spoiled. Lucien didn’t try to convince me otherwise, and kept quiet as we rode from the estate and onto the forest road. Spring, as always, was in full bloom, the breeze laden with lilac, the brush flanking the path rustling with life. No hint of the Bogge, of the naga, of any of the creatures who had once cast such stillness over the wood.

I said to him at last, “I don’t want your damn pity.”

“It’s not pity. Tamlin said I shouldn’t tell you—” He winced a bit.

“I’m not made of glass. If the naga attacked you, I deserve to know—”

“Tamlin is my High Lord. He gives an order, I follow it.”

“You didn’t have that mentality when you worked around his commands to send me to see the Suriel.” And I’d nearly died.

“I was desperate then. We all were. But now—now we need order, Feyre. We need rules, and rankings, and order, if we’re going to stand a chance of rebuilding. So what he says goes. I am the first one the others look to—I set the example. Don’t ask me to risk the stability of this court by pushing back. Not right now. He’s giving you as much free rein as he can.”

I forced a steady breath to fill my too-tight lungs. “For all that you refuse to interact with Ianthe, you certainly sound a great deal like her.”

He hissed, “You have no idea how hard it is for him to even let you off the estate grounds. He’s under more pressure than you realize.”

“I know exactly how much pressure he endures. And I didn’t realize I’d become a prisoner.”

“You’re not—” He clenched his jaw. “That’s not how it is and you know it.”

“He didn’t have any trouble letting me hunt and wander on my own when I was a mere human. When the borders were far less safe.”

“He didn’t care for you the way he does now. And after what happened Under the Mountain … ” The words clanged in my head, along my too-tense muscles. “He’s terrified. Terrified of seeing you in his enemies’ hands. And they know it, too—they know all they have to do to own him would be to get ahold of you.”

“You think I don’t know that? But does he honestly expect me to spend the rest of my life in that manor, overseeing servants and wearing pretty clothes?”

Lucien watched the ever-young forest. “Isn’t that what all human women wish for? A handsome faerie lord to wed and shower them with riches for the rest of their lives?”

I gripped the reins of my horse hard enough that she tossed her head. “Good to know you’re still a prick, Lucien.”

His metal eye narrowed. “Tamlin is a High Lord. You will be his wife. There are traditions and expectations you must uphold. We must uphold, in order to present a solid front that is healed from Amarantha and willing to destroy any foes who try to take what is ours again.” Ianthe had given me almost the same speech yesterday. “The Tithe is happening soon,” he continued, shaking his head, “the first he’s called in since … her curse.” His cringe was barely perceptible. “He gave our people three months to get their affairs in order, and he wanted to wait until the new year had started, but next month, he will demand the Tithe. Ianthe told him it’s time—that the people are ready.”

He waited, and I wanted to spit at him, because he knew—he knew that I didn’t know what it was, and wanted me to admit to it. “Tell me,” I said flatly.

“Twice a year, usually around the Summer and Winter Solstices, each member of the Spring Court, whether they’re High Fae or lesser faerie, must pay a Tithe, dependent on their income and status. It’s how we keep the estate running, how we pay for things like sentries and food and servants. In exchange, Tamlin protects them, rules them, helps them when he can. It’s a give or take. This year, he pushed the Tithe back by a month—just to grant them that extra time to gather funds, to celebrate. But soon, emissaries from every group, village, or clan will be arriving to pay their Tithes. As Tamlin’s wife, you will be expected to sit with him. And if they can’t pay … You will be expected to sit there while he metes out judgment. It can get ugly. I’ll be keeping track of who does and doesn’t show up, who doesn’t pay. And afterward, if they fail to pay their Tithe within the three days’ grace he will officially offer them, he’ll be expected to hunt them down. The High Priestesses themselves—Ianthe—grant him sacred hunting rights for this.”

Horrible—brutal. I wanted to say it, but the look Lucien was giving me … I’d had enough of people judging me.

“So give him time, Feyre,” Lucien said. “Let’s get through the wedding, then the Tithe next month, and then … then we can see about the rest.”

“I’ve given him time,” I said. “I can’t stay cooped up in the house forever.”

“He knows that—he doesn’t say it, but he knows it. Trust me. You will forgive him if his family’s own slaughter keeps him from being so … liberal with your safety. He’s lost those he cares for too many times. We all have.”

Every word was like fuel added to the simmering pit in my gut. “I don’t want to marry a High Lord. I just want to marry him.”

“One doesn’t exist without the other. He is what he is. He will always, always seek to protect you, whether you like it or not. Talk to him about it—really talk to him, Feyre. You’ll figure it out.” Our gazes met. A muscle feathered in Lucien’s jaw. “Don’t ask me to pick.”

“But you’re deliberately not telling me things.”

“He is my High Lord. His word is law. We have this one chance, Feyre, to rebuild and make the world as it should be. I will not begin that new world by breaking his trust. Even if you …”

“Even if I what?”

His face paled, and he stroked a hand down the mare’s cobweb-colored mane. “I was forced to watch as my father butchered the female I loved. My brothers forced me to watch.”

My heart tightened for him—for the pain that haunted him.

“There was no magic spell, no miracle to bring her back. There were no gathered High Lords to resurrect her. I watched, and she died, and I will never forget that moment when I heard her heart stop beating.”

My eyes burned.

“Tamlin got what I didn’t,” Lucien said softly, his breathing ragged. “We all heard your neck break. But you got to come back. And I doubt that he will ever forget that sound, either. And he will do everything in his power to protect you from that danger again, even if it means keeping secrets, even if it means sticking to rules you don’t like. In this, he will not bend. So don’t ask him to—not yet.”

I had no words in my head, my heart. Giving Tamlin time, letting him adjust … It was the least I could do.

The clamor of construction overtook the chittering of forest birds long before we set foot in the village: hammers on nails, people barking orders, livestock braying.

We cleared the woods to find a village halfway toward being built: pretty little buildings of stone and wood, makeshift structures over the supplies and livestock … The only things that seemed absolutely finished were the large well in the center of the town and what looked to be a tavern.

Sometimes, the normalcy of Prythian, the utter similarities between it and the mortal lands, still surprised me. I might as well have been in my own village back home. A much nicer, newer village, but the layout, the focal points … All the same.

And I felt like just as much an outsider when Lucien and I rode into the heart of the chaos and everyone paused their laboring or selling or milling about to look at us.

At me.

Like a ripple of silence, the sounds of activity died in even the farthest reaches of the village.

“Feyre Cursebreaker,” someone whispered.

Well, that was a new name.

I was grateful for the long sleeves of my riding habit, and the matching gloves I’d tugged on before we’d entered the village border.

Lucien pulled up his mare to a High Fae male who looked like he was in charge of building a house bordering the well fountain. “We came to see if any help was needed,” he said, loud enough for everyone to hear. “Our services are yours for the day.”

The male blanched. “Gratitude, my lord, but none is needed.” His eyes gobbled me up, widening. “The debt is paid.”

The sweat on my palms felt thicker, warmer. My mare stomped a hoof on the ruddy dirt street.

“Please,” Lucien said, bowing his head gracefully. “The effort to rebuild is our burden to share. It would be our honor.”

The male shook his head. “The debt is paid.”

And so it went at every place we stopped in the village: Lucien dismounting, asking to help, and polite, reverent rejections.

Within twenty minutes, we were already riding back into the shadows and rustle of the woods.

“Did he let you take me today,” I said hoarsely, “so that I’d stop asking to help rebuild?”

“No. I decided to take you myself. For that exact reason. They don’t want or need your help. Your presence is a distraction and a reminder of what they went through.”

I flinched. “They weren’t Under the Mountain, though. I recognized none of them.”

Lucien shuddered. “No. Amarantha had … camps for them. The nobles and favored faeries were allowed to dwell Under the Mountain. But if the people of a court weren’t working to bring in goods and food, they were locked in camps in a network of tunnels beneath the Mountain. Thousands of them, crammed into chambers and tunnels with no light, no air. For fifty years.”

“No one ever said—”

“It was forbidden to speak of it. Some of them went mad, started preying on the others when Amarantha forgot to order her guards to feed them. Some formed bands that prowled the camps and did—” He rubbed his brows with a thumb and forefinger. “They did horrible things. Right now, they’re trying to remember what it is to be normal—how to live.”

Bile burned my throat. But this wedding … yes, perhaps it would be the start of that healing.

Still, a blanket seemed to smother my senses, drowning out sound, taste, feeling.

“I know you wanted to help,” Lucien offered. “I’m sorry.”

So was I.

The vastness of my now-unending existence yawned open before me.

I let it swallow me whole.

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