فصل 36

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CHAPTER

36

The following day was torture. Slow, unending, hot-as-hell torture.

Feigning interest in the mainland as I walked with Tarquin, met his people, smiled at them, grew harder as the sun meandered across the sky, then finally began inching toward the sea. Liar, thief, deceiver—that’s what they’d call me soon.

I hoped they’d know—that Tarquin would know—that we’d done it for their sake.

Supreme arrogance, perhaps, to think that way, but … it was true. Given how quickly Tarquin and Cresseida had glanced at each other, guided me away from that temple … I’d bet that they wouldn’t have handed over that book. For whatever reasons of their own, they wanted it.

Maybe this new world of Tarquin’s could only be built on trust … But he wouldn’t get a chance to build it if it was all wiped away beneath the King of Hybern’s armies.

That’s what I told myself over and over as we walked through his city—as I endured the greetings of his people. Perhaps not as joyous as those in Velaris, but … a tentative hard-won warmth. People who had endured the worst and tried now to move beyond it.

As I should be moving beyond my own darkness.

When the sun was at last sliding into the horizon, I confessed to Tarquin that I was tired and hungry—and, being kind and accommodating, he took me back, buying me a baked fish pie on the way home. He’d even eaten a fried fish at the docks that afternoon.

Dinner was worse.

We’d be gone before breakfast—but they didn’t know that. Rhys mentioned returning to the Night Court tomorrow afternoon, so perhaps an early departure wouldn’t be so suspicious. He’d leave a note about urgent business, thanking Tarquin for his hospitality, and then we’d vanish home—to Velaris. If it went according to plan.

We’d learned where the guards were stationed, how their rotations operated, and where their posts were on the mainland, too.

And when Tarquin kissed my cheek good night, saying he wished that it was not my last evening and perhaps he would see about visiting the Night Court soon … I almost fell to my knees to beg his forgiveness.

Rhysand’s hand on my back was a solid warning to keep it together—even as his face held nothing but that cool amusement.

I went to my room. And found Illyrian fighting leathers waiting for me. Along with that belt of Illyrian knives.

So I dressed for battle once again.

Rhys flew us in close to low tide, dropping us off before taking to the skies, where he’d circle, monitoring the guards on the island and mainland, while we hunted.

The muck reeked, squelching and squeezing us with every step from the narrow causeway road to the little temple ruin. Barnacles, seaweed, and limpets clung to the dark gray stones—and every step into the sole interior chamber had that thing in my chest saying where are you, where are you, where are you?

Rhys and Amren had checked for wards around the site—but found none. Odd, but fortunate. Thanks to the open doorway, we didn’t dare risk a light, but with the cracks in the stone overhead, the moonlight provided enough illumination.

Knee-deep in muck, the tidal water slinking out over the stones, Amren and I surveyed the chamber, barely more than forty feet wide.

“I can feel it,” I breathed. “Like a clawed hand running down my spine.” Indeed, my skin tingled, hair standing on end beneath my warm leathers. “It’s—sleeping.”

“No wonder they hid it beneath stone and mud and sea,” Amren muttered, the muck squelching as she turned in place.

I shivered, the Illyrian knives on me now feeling as useful as toothpicks, and again turned in place. “I don’t feel anything in the walls. But it’s here.”

Indeed, we both looked down at the same moment and cringed.

“We should have brought a shovel,” she said.

“No time to get one.” The tide was fully out now. Every minute counted. Not just for the returning water—but the sunrise that was not too far off.

Every step an effort through the firm grip of the mud, I honed in on that feeling, that call. I stopped in the center of the room—dead center. Here, here, here, it whispered.

I leaned down, shuddering at the icy muck, at the bits of shell and debris that scraped my bare hands as I began hauling it away. “Hurry.”

Amren hissed, but stooped to claw at the heavy, dense mud. Crabs and skittering things tickled my fingers. I refused to think about them.

So we dug, and dug, until we were covered in salty mud that burned our countless little cuts as we panted at a stone floor. And a lead door.

Amren swore. “Lead to keep its full force in, to preserve it. They used to line the sarcophagi of the great rulers with it—because they thought they’d one day awaken.”

“If the King of Hybern goes unchecked with that Cauldron, they might very well.”

Amren shuddered, and pointed. “The door is sealed.”

I wiped my hand on the only clean part of me—my neck—and used the other to scrape away the last bit of mud from the round door. Every brush against the lead sent pangs of cold through me. But there—a carved whorl in the center of the door. “This has been here for a very long time,” I murmured.

Amren nodded. “I would not be surprised if, despite the imprint of the High Lord’s power, Tarquin and his predecessors had never set foot here—if the blood-spell to ward this place instantly transferred to them once they assumed power.”

“Why covet the Book, then?”

“Wouldn’t you want to lock away an object of terrible power? So no one could use it for evil—or their own gain? Or perhaps they locked it away for their own bargaining chip if it ever became necessary. I had no idea why they, of all courts, was granted the half of the Book in the first place.”

I shook my head and laid my hand flat on the whorl in the lead.

A jolt went through me like lightning, and I grunted, bearing down on the door.

My fingers froze to it, as if the power were leeching my essence, drinking as Amren drank, and I felt it hesitate, question—

I am Tarquin. I am summer; I am warmth; I am sea and sky and planted field.

I became every smile he’d given me, became the crystalline blue of his eyes, the brown of his skin. I felt my own skin shift, felt my bones stretch and change. Until I was him, and it was a set of male hands I now possessed, now pushed against the door. Until the essence of me became what I had tasted in that inner, mental shield of his—sea and sun and brine. I did not give myself a moment to think of what power I might have just used. Did not allow any part of me that wasn’t Tarquin to shine through.

I am your master, and you will let me pass.

The lock pulled harder and harder, and I could barely breathe—

Then a click and groan.

I shifted back into my own skin, and scrambled into the piled mud right as the door sank and swung away, tucking beneath the stones to reveal a spiral staircase drifting into a primordial gloom. And on a wet, salty breeze from below came the tendrils of power.

Across the open stair, Amren’s face had gone paler than usual, her silver eyes glowing bright. “I never saw the Cauldron,” she said, “but it must be terrible indeed if even a grain of its power feels … like this.”

Indeed, that power was filling the chamber, my head, my lungs—smothering and drowning and seducing—

“Quickly,” I said, and a small ball of faelight shot down the curve of the stairs, illuminating gray, worn steps slick with slime.

I drew my hunting knife and descended, one hand braced on the freezing stone wall to keep from slipping.

I made it one rotation down, Amren close behind, before faelight danced on waist-deep, putrid water. I scanned the passage at the foot of the stairs. “There’s a hall, and a chamber beyond that. All clear.”

“Then hurry the hell up,” Amren said.

Bracing myself, I stepped into the dark water, biting down my yelp at the near-freezing temperature, the oiliness of it. Amren gagged, the water nearly up to her chest.

“This place no doubt fills up swiftly once the tide comes back in,” she observed as we sloshed through the water, frowning at the many drainage holes in the walls.

We went only slow enough for her to detect any sort of ward or trap, but—there was none. Nothing at all. Though who would ever come down here, to such a place?

Fools—desperate fools, that’s who.

The long stone hall ended in a second lead door. Behind it, that power coiled, overlaying Tarquin’s imprint. “It’s in there.”

“Obviously.”

I scowled at her, both of us shivering. The cold was deep enough that I wondered if I might have already been dead in my human body. Or well on my way to it.

I laid my palm flat on the door. The sucking and questioning and draining were worse this time. So much worse, and I had to brace my tattooed hand on the door to keep from falling to my knees and crying out as it ransacked me.

I am summer, I am summer, I am summer.

I didn’t shift into Tarquin this time—didn’t need to. A click and groan, and the lead door rolled into the wall, water merging and splashing as I stumbled back into Amren’s waiting arms. “Nasty, nasty lock,” she hissed, shuddering not just from the water.

My head was spinning. Another lock and I might very well pass out.

But the faelight bobbed into the chamber beyond us, and we both halted.

The water had not merged with another source—but rather halted against an invisible threshold. The dry chamber beyond was empty save for a round dais and pedestal.

And a small, lead box atop it.

Amren waved a tentative hand over the air where the water just—stopped. Then, satisfied there were no waiting wards or tricks, she stepped beyond, dripping onto the gray stones as she stood in the chamber, wincing a bit, and beckoned.

Wading as fast as I could, I followed her, half falling onto the floor as my body adjusted to sudden air. I turned—and sure enough, the water was a black wall, as if there were a pane of glass keeping it in place.

“Let’s be quick about it,” she said, and I didn’t disagree.

We both carefully surveyed the chamber: floors, walls, ceilings. No signs of hidden mechanisms or triggers.

Though no larger than an ordinary book, the lead box seemed to gobble up the faelight—and inside it, whispering … The seal of Tarquin’s power, and the Book.

And now I heard, clear as if Amren herself whispered it:

Who are you—what are you? Come closer—let me smell you, let me see you …

We paused on opposite sides of the pedestal, the faelight hovering over the lid. “No wards,” Amren said, her voice barely more than the scrape of her boots on the stone. “No spells. You have to remove it—carry it out.” The thought of touching that box, getting close to that thing inside it— “The tide is coming back in,” Amren added, surveying the ceiling.

“That soon?”

“Perhaps the sea knows. Perhaps the sea is the High Lord’s servant.”

And if we were caught down here when the water came in—

I did not think my little water-animals would help. Panic writhed in my gut, but I pushed it away and steeled myself, lifting my chin.

The box would be heavy—and cold.

Who are you, who are you, who are you—

I flexed my fingers and cracked my neck. I am summer; I am sea and sun and green things.

“Come on, come on,” Amren murmured. Above, water trickled over the stones.

Who are you, who are you, who are you—

I am Tarquin; I am High Lord; I am your master.

The box quieted. As if that were answer enough.

I snatched the box off the pedestal, the metal biting into my hands, the power an oily smear through my blood.

An ancient, cruel voice hissed:

Liar.

And the door slammed shut.

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