فصل 08

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CHAPTER

8

A week later, the Tithe arrived.

I’d had all of one day with Tamlin—one day spent wandering the grounds, making love in the high grasses of a sunny field, and a quiet, private dinner—before he was called to the border. He didn’t tell me why or where. Only that I was to keep to the grounds, and that I’d have sentries guarding me at all times.

So I spent the week alone, waking in the middle of the night to hurl up my guts, to sob through the nightmares. Ianthe, if she’d learned of her sisters’ massacre in the north, said nothing about it the few times I saw her. And given how little I liked to be pushed into talking about the things that plagued me, I opted not to bring it up during the hours she spent visiting, helping select my clothes, my hair, my jewelry, for the Tithe.

When I’d asked her to explain what to anticipate, she merely said that Tamlin would take care of everything. I should watch from his side, and observe.

Easy enough—and perhaps a relief, to not be expected to speak or act.

But it had been an effort not to look at the eye tattooed into my palm—to remember what Rhys had snarled at me.

Tamlin had only returned the night before to oversee today’s Tithe. I tried not to take it personally, not when he had so much on his shoulders. Even if he wouldn’t tell me much about it beyond what Ianthe had mentioned.

Seated beside Tamlin atop a dais in the manor’s great hall of marble and gold, I endured the endless stream of eyes, of tears, of gratitude and blessings for what I’d done.

In her usual pale blue hooded robe, Ianthe was stationed near the doors, offering benedictions to those that departed, comforting words to those who fell apart entirely in my presence, promises that the world was better now, that good had won out over evil.

After twenty minutes, I was near fidgeting. After four hours, I stopped hearing entirely.

They kept coming, the emissaries representing every town and people in the Spring Court, bearing their payments in the form of gold or jewels or chickens or crops or clothes. It didn’t matter what it was, so long as it equated to what they owed. Lucien stood at the foot of the dais, tallying every amount, armed to the teeth like the ten other sentries stationed through the hall. The receiving room, Lucien had called it, but it felt a hell of a lot like a throne room to me. I wondered if he’d called it that because the other words …

I’d spent too much time in another throne room. So had Tamlin.

And I hadn’t been seated on a dais like him, but kneeling before it. Approaching it like the slender, gray-skinned faerie slinking from the front of the endless line full of lesser and High Fae.

She wore no clothes. Her long, dark hair hung limp over her high, firm breasts—and her massive eyes were wholly black. Like a stagnant pond. And as she moved, the afternoon light shimmered on her iridescent skin.

Lucien’s face tightened with disapproval, but he made no comment as the lesser faerie lowered her delicate, pointed face, and clasped her spindly, webbed fingers over her breasts.

“On behalf of the water-wraiths, I greet thee, High Lord,” she said, her voice strange and hissing, her full, sensuous lips revealing teeth as sharp and jagged as a pike’s. The sharp angles of her face accentuated those coal-black eyes.

I’d seen her kind before. In the pond just past the edge of the manor. There were five of them who lived amongst the reeds and lilypads. I’d rarely glimpsed more than their shining heads peeking through the glassy surface—had never known how horrific they were up close. Thank the Cauldron I’d never gone swimming in that pond. I had a feeling she’d grab me with those webbed fingers—those jagged nails digging in deep—and drag me beneath the surface before I could scream.

“Welcome,” Tamlin said. Five hours in, and he looked as fresh as he’d been that morning.

I supposed that with his powers returned, few things tired him now.

The water-wraith stepped closer, her webbed, clawed foot a mottled gray. Lucien took a casual step between us.

That was why he’d been stationed on my side of the dais.

I gritted my teeth. Who did they think would attack us in our own home, on our own land, if they weren’t convinced Hybern might be launching an assault? Even Ianthe had paused her quiet murmurings in the back of the hall to monitor the encounter.

Apparently, this conversation was not the same as all the others.

“Please, High Lord,” the faerie was saying, bowing so low that her inky hair grazed the marble. “There are no fish left in the lake.”

Tamlin’s face was like granite. “Regardless, you are expected to pay.” The crown atop his head gleamed in the afternoon light. Crafted with emeralds, sapphires, and amethyst, the gold had been molded into a wreath of spring’s first flowers. One of five crowns belonging to his bloodline.

The faerie exposed her palms, but Tamlin interrupted her. “There are no exceptions. You have three days to present what is owed—or offer double next Tithe.”

It was an effort to keep from gaping at the immovable face, and the pitiless words. In the back, Ianthe gave a nod of confirmation to no one in particular.

The water-wraith had nothing to eat—how could he expect her to give him food?

“Please,” she whispered through her pointed teeth, her silvery, mottled skin glistening as she began trembling. “There is nothing left in the lake.”

Tamlin’s face didn’t change. “You have three days—”

“But we have no gold!”

“Do not interrupt me,” he said. I looked away, unable to stomach that merciless face.

She ducked her head even lower. “Apologies, my lord.”

“You have three days to pay, or bring double next month,” he repeated. “If you fail to do so, you know the consequences.” Tamlin waved a hand in dismissal. Conversation over.

After a final, hopeless look at Tamlin, she walked from the chamber. As the next faerie—a goat-legged fawn bearing what looked to be a basket of mushrooms—patiently waited to be invited to approach the dais, I twisted to Tamlin.

“We don’t need a basket of fish,” I murmured. “Why make her suffer like that?”

He flicked his eyes to where Ianthe had stepped aside to let the creature pass, a hand on the jewels of her belt. As if the female would snatch them right off her to use as payment. Tamlin frowned. “I cannot make exceptions. Once you do, everyone will demand the same treatment.”

I clutched the arms of my chair, a small seat of oak beside his giant throne of carved roses. “But we don’t need these things. Why do we need a golden fleece, or a jar of jam? If she has no fish left, three days won’t make a difference. Why make her starve? Why not help her replenish the pond?” I’d spent enough years with an aching belly to not be able to drop it, to want to scream at the unfairness of it.

His emerald eyes softened as if he read each thought on my face, but he said: “Because that’s the way it is. That’s the way my father did it, and his father, and the way my son shall do it.” He offered a smile, and reached for my hand. “Someday.”

Someday. If we ever got married. If I ever became less of a burden, and we both escaped the shadows haunting us. We hadn’t broached the subject at all. Ianthe, mercifully, had not said anything, either. “We could still help her—find some way to keep that pond stocked.”

“We have enough to deal with as it is. Giving handouts won’t help her in the long run.”

I opened my mouth, but shut it. Now wasn’t the time for debate.

So I pulled my hand from his as he motioned the goat-legged fawn to approach at last. “I need some fresh air,” I said, and slid from my chair. I didn’t give Tamlin a chance to object before I stalked off the dais. I tried not to notice the three sentries Tamlin sent after me, or the line of emissaries who gaped and whispered as I crossed the hall.

Ianthe tried to catch me as I stormed by, but I ignored her.

I cleared the front doors and walked as fast as I dared past the gathered line snaking down the steps and onto the gravel of the main drive. Through the latticework of various bodies, High Fae and lesser faeries alike, I spotted the retreating form of the wraith heading around the corner of our house—toward the pond beyond the grounds. She trudged along, wiping at her eyes.

“Excuse me,” I called, catching up to her, the sentries on my trail keeping a respectful distance behind.

She paused at the edge of the house, whirling with preternatural smoothness. I avoided the urge to take a step back as those unearthly features devoured me. Keeping only a few paces away, the guards monitored us with hands on their blades.

Her nose was little more than two slits, and delicate gills flared beneath her ears.

She inclined her head slightly. Not a full bow—because I was no one, but recognition that I was the High Lord’s plaything.

“Yes?” she hissed, her pike’s teeth gleaming.

“How much is your Tithe?”

My heart beat faster as I beheld the webbed fingers and razor-sharp teeth. Tamlin had once told me that the water-wraiths ate anything. And if there were no fish left … “How much gold does he want—what is your fish worth in gold?”

“Far more than you have in your pocket.”

“Then here,” I said, unfastening a ruby-studded gold bracelet from my wrist, one Ianthe had told me better suited my coloring than the silver I’d almost worn. I offered it to her. “Take this.” Before she could grasp it, I ripped the gold necklace from my throat, and the diamond teardrops from my ears. “And these.” I extended my hands, glittering with gold and jewels. “Give him what you owe, then buy yourself some food,” I said, swallowing as her eyes widened. The nearby village had a small market every week—a fledgling gathering of vendors for now, and one I’d hoped to help thrive. Somehow.

“And what payment do you require?”

“Nothing. It’s—it’s not a bargain. Just take it.” I extended my hands further. “Please.”

She frowned at the jewels draping from my hands. “You desire nothing in return?”

“Nothing.” The faeries in the line were now staring unabashedly. “Please, just take them.”

With a final assessing look, her cold, clammy fingers brushed mine, gathering up the jewelry. It glimmered like light on water in her webbed hands.

“Thank you,” she said, and bowed deeply this time. “I will not forget this kindness.” Her voice slithered over the words, and I shivered again as her black eyes threatened to swallow me whole. “Nor will any of my sisters.”

She stalked back toward the manor, the faces of my three sentries tight with reproach.

I sat at the dinner table with Lucien and Tamlin. Neither of them spoke, but Lucien’s gaze kept bouncing from me, to Tamlin, then to his plate.

After ten minutes of silence, I set down my fork and said to Tamlin, “What is it?”

Tamlin didn’t hesitate. “You know what it is.”

I didn’t reply.

“You gave that water-wraith your jewelry. Jewelry I gave you.”

“We have a damned house full of gold and jewels.”

Lucien took a deep breath that sounded a lot like: “Here we go.”

“Why shouldn’t I give them to her?” I demanded. “Those things don’t mean anything to me. I’ve never worn the same piece of jewelry twice! Who cares about any of it?”

Tamlin’s lips thinned. “Because you undermine the laws of this court when you behave like that. Because this is how things are done here, and when you hand that gluttonous faerie the money she needs, it makes me—it makes this entire court—look weak.”

“Don’t you talk to me like that,” I said, baring my teeth. He slammed his hand on the table, claws poking through his flesh, but I leaned forward, bracing my own hands on the wood. “You still have no idea what it was like for me—to be on the verge of starvation for months at a time. And you can call her a glutton all you like, but I have sisters, too, and I remember what it felt like to return home without any food.” I calmed my heaving chest, and that force beneath my skin stirred, undulating along my bones. “So maybe she’ll spend all that money on stupid things—maybe she and her sisters have no self-control. But I’m not going to take that chance and let them starve, because of some ridiculous rule that your ancestors invented.”

Lucien cleared his throat. “She meant no harm, Tam.”

“I know she meant no harm,” he snapped.

Lucien held his gaze. “Worse things have happened, worse things can happen. Just relax.”

Tamlin’s emerald eyes were feral as he snarled at Lucien, “Did I ask for your opinion?”

Those words, the look he gave Lucien and the way Lucien lowered his head—my temper was a burning river in my veins. Look up, I silently beseeched him. Push back. He’s wrong, and we’re right. Lucien’s jaw tightened. That force thrummed in me again, seeping out, spearing for Lucien. Do not back down—

Then I was gone.

Still there, still seeing through my eyes, but also half looking through another angle in the room, another person’s vantage point—

Thoughts slammed into me, images and memories, a pattern of thinking and feeling that was old, and clever, and sad, so endlessly sad and guilt-ridden, hopeless—

Then I was back, blinking, no more than a heartbeat passing as I gaped at Lucien.

His head. I had been inside his head, had slid through his mental walls—

I stood, chucking my napkin on the table with hands that were unnervingly steady.

I knew who that gift had come from. My dinner rose in my throat, but I willed it down.

“We’re not finished with this meal,” Tamlin growled.

“Oh, get over yourself,” I barked, and left.

I could have sworn I beheld two burned handprints on the wood, peeking out from beneath my napkin. I prayed neither of them noticed.

And that Lucien remained ignorant to the violation I’d just committed.

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