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Tamlin waved his hand, and a hundred candles sprang to life. Whatever Lucien had said about magic being drained and off-kilter thanks to the blight clearly hadn’t affected Tamlin as dramatically, or perhaps he’d been far more powerful to start with, if he could transform his sentries into wolves whenever he pleased. The tang of magic stung my senses, but I kept my chin high. That is, until I peered inside.
My palms began sweating as I took in the enormous, opulent study. Tomes lined each wall like the soldiers of a silent army, and couches, desks, and rich rugs were scattered throughout the room. But … it had been over a week since I left my family. Though my father had said never to return, though my vow to my mother was fulfilled, I could at least let them know I was safe—relatively safe. And warn them about the sickness sweeping across Prythian that might someday soon cross the wall.
There was only one method to convey it.
“Do you need anything else?” Tamlin asked, and I jerked. He still stood behind me.
“No,” I said, striding into the study. I couldn’t think about the casual power he’d just shown—the graceful carelessness with which he’d brought so many flames to life. I had to focus on the task at hand.
It wasn’t entirely my fault that I was scarcely able to read. Before our downfall, my mother had sorely neglected our education, not bothering to hire a governess. And after poverty struck and my elder sisters, who could read and write, deemed the village school beneath us, they didn’t bother to teach me. I could read enough to function—enough to form my letters, but so poorly that even signing my name was mortifying.
It was bad enough that Tamlin knew. I would think about how to get the letter to them once it was finished; perhaps I could beg a favor of him, or Lucien.
Asking them to write it would be too humiliating. I could hear their words: typical ignorant human. And since Lucien seemed convinced that I would turn spy the moment I could, he would no doubt burn the letter, and any I tried to write after. So I’d have to learn myself.
“I’ll leave you to it, then,” Tamlin said as our silence became too prolonged, too tense.
I didn’t move until he’d closed the doors, shutting me inside. My heartbeat pulsed throughout my body as I approached a shelf.
I had to take a break for dinner and to sleep, but I was back in the study before the dawn had fully risen. I’d found a small writing desk in a corner and gathered papers and ink. My finger traced a line of text, and I whispered the words.
“ ‘She grab-bed … grabbed her shoe, sta … nd … standing from her pos … po … ‘ ” I sat back in my chair and pressed the heels of my palms into my eyes. When I felt less near to ripping out my hair, I took the quill and underlined the word: position.
With a shaking hand, I did my best to copy letter after letter onto the ever-growing list I kept beside the book. There were at least forty words on it, their letters malformed and barely legible. I would look up their pronunciations later.
I rose from the chair, needing to stretch my legs, my spine—or just to get away from that lengthy list of words I didn’t know how to pronounce and the permanent heat that now warmed my face and neck.
I suppose the study was more of a library, as I couldn’t see any of the walls thanks to the small labyrinths of stacks flanking the main area and a mezzanine dangling above, covered wall to wall in books. But study sounded less intimidating. I meandered through some of the stacks, following a trickle of sunlight to a bank of windows on the far side. I found myself overlooking a rose garden, filled with dozens of hues of crimson and pink and white and yellow.
I might have allowed myself a moment to take in the colors, gleaming with dew under the morning sun, had I not glimpsed the painting that stretched along the wall beside the windows.
Not a painting, I thought, blinking as I stepped back to view its massive expanse. No, it was … I searched for the word in that half-forgotten part of my mind. Mural. That’s what it was.
At first I could do nothing but stare at its size, at the ambition of it, at the fact that this masterpiece was tucked back here for no one to ever see, as if it was nothing—absolutely nothing—to create something like this.
It told a story with the way colors and shapes and light flowed, the way the tone shifted across the mural. The story of … of Prythian.
It began with a cauldron.
A mighty black cauldron held by glowing, slender female hands in a starry, endless night. Those hands tipped it over, golden sparkling liquid pouring out over the lip. No—not sparkling, but … effervescent with small symbols, perhaps of some ancient faerie language. Whatever was written there, whatever it was, the contents of the cauldron were dumped into the void below, pooling on the earth to form our world … The map spanned the entirety of our world—not just the land on which we stood, but also the seas and the larger continents beyond. Each territory was marked and colored, some with intricate, ornate depictions of the beings who had once ruled over lands that now belonged to humans. All of it, I remembered with a shudder, all of the world had once been theirs—at least as far as they believed, crafted for them by the bearer of the cauldron. There was no mention of humans—no sign of us here. I supposed we’d been as low as pigs to them.
It was hard to look at the next panel. It was so simple, yet so detailed that, for a moment, I stood there on that battlefield, feeling the texture of the bloodied mud beneath me, shoulder to shoulder with the thousands of other human soldiers lined up, facing the faerie hordes who charged at us. A moment of pause before the slaughter.
The humans’ arrows and swords seemed so pointless against the High Fae in their glimmering armor, or the faeries bristling with claws and fangs. I knew—knew without another panel to explicitly show me—the humans hadn’t survived that particular battle. The smear of black on the panel beside it, tinged with glimmers of red, said enough.
Then another map, of a much-reduced faerie realm. Northern territories had been cut up and divided to make room for the High Fae, who had lost their lands to the south of the wall. Everything north of the wall went to them; everything south was left as a blur of nothing. A decimated, forgotten world—as if the painter couldn’t be bothered to render it.
I scanned the various lands and territories now given to the High Fae. Still so much territory—such monstrous power spread across the entire northern part of our world. I knew they were ruled by kings or queens or councils or empresses, but I’d never seen a representation of it, of how much they’d been forced to concede to the South, and how crammed their lands now were in comparison.
Our massive island had fared well for Prythian by comparison, with only the bottom tip given over to us miserable humans. The bulk of the sacrifice was borne by the southernmost of the seven territories: a territory painted with crocuses and lambs and roses. Spring lands.
I took a step closer, until I could see the dark, ugly smear that acted as the wall—another spiteful touch by the painter. No markers in the human realm, nothing to indicate any of the larger towns or centers, but … I found the rough area where our village was, and the woods that separated it from the wall. Those two days’ journey seemed so small—too small—compared to the power lurking above us. I traced a line, my finger hovering over the paint, up over the wall, into these lands—the lands of the Spring Court. Again, no markers, but it was filled with touches of spring: trees in bloom, fickle storms, young animals … At least I was to live out my days in one of the more moderate courts, weather-wise. A small consolation.
I looked northward and stepped back again. The six other courts of Prythian occupied a patchwork of territories. Autumn, Summer, and Winter were easy enough to pick out. Then above them, two glowing courts: the southernmost one a softer, redder palate, the Dawn Court; above, in bright gold and yellow and blue, the Day Court. And above that, perched in a frozen mountainous spread of darkness and stars, the sprawling, massive territory of the Night Court.
There were things in the shadows between those mountains—little eyes, gleaming teeth. A land of lethal beauty. The hair on my arms rose.
I might have examined the other kingdoms across the seas that flanked our land, like the isolated faerie kingdom to the west that seemed to have gotten away with no territory loss and was still law unto itself, had I not looked to the heart of that beautiful, living map.
In the center of the land, as if it were the core around which everything else had spread, or perhaps the place where the cauldron’s liquid had first touched, was a small, snowy mountain range. From it arose a mammoth, solitary peak. Bald of snow, bald of life—as if the elements refused to touch it. There were no more clues about what it might be; nothing to indicate its importance, and I supposed that the viewers were already supposed to know. This was not a mural for human eyes.
With that thought, I went back to my little table. At least I’d learned the layout of their lands—and I knew to never, ever go north.
I eased into my seat and found my place in the book, my face warming as I glanced at the illustrations scattered throughout. A children’s book, and yet I could scarcely make it through its twenty or so pages. Why did Tamlin have children’s books in his library? Were they from his own childhood, or in anticipation of children to come? It didn’t matter. I couldn’t even read them. I hated the smell of these books—the decaying rot of the pages, the mocking whisper of the paper, the rough skin of the binding. I looked at the piece of paper, at all those words I didn’t know.
I bunched my list in my hand, crumpling the paper into a ball, and chucked it into the rubbish bin.
“I could help you write to them, if that’s why you’re in here.”
I jerked back in my seat, almost knocking over the chair, and whirled to find Tamlin behind me, a stack of books in his arms. I pushed back against the heat rising in my cheeks and ears, the panic at the information he might be guessing I’d been trying to send. “Help? You mean a faerie is passing up the opportunity to mock an ignorant mortal?” He set the books down on the table, his jaw tight. I couldn’t read the titles glinting on the leather spines. “Why should I mock you for a shortcoming that isn’t your fault? Let me help you. I owe you for the hand.” Shortcoming. It was a shortcoming.
Yet it was one thing to bandage his hand, to talk to him as if he wasn’t a predator built to kill and destroy, but to reveal how little I truly knew, to let him see that part of me that was still a child, unfinished and raw … His face was unreadable. Though there had been no pity in his voice, I straightened. “I’m fine.” “You think I’ve got nothing better to do with my time than come up with elaborate ways to humiliate you?”
I thought of that smear of nothing that the painter had used to render the human lands, and didn’t have an answer—at least, not one that was polite. I’d given enough already to them—to him.
Tamlin shook his head. “So you’ll let Lucien take you on hunts and—”
“Lucien,” I interrupted quietly but not softly, “doesn’t pretend to be anything but what he is.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” he growled, but his claws stayed retracted, even as he clenched his hands into fists at his sides.
I was definitely walking a dangerous line, but I didn’t care. Even if he’d offered me sanctuary, I didn’t have to fall at his feet. “It means,” I said with that same cold quiet, “that I don’t know you. I don’t know who you are, or what you really are, or what you want.” “It means you don’t trust me.”
“How can I trust a faerie? Don’t you delight in killing and tricking us?”
His snarl set the flames of the candles guttering. “You aren’t what I had in mind for a human—believe me.”
I could almost feel the wound deep in my chest as it ripped open and all those awful, silent words came pouring out. Illiterate, ignorant, unremarkable, proud, cold—all spoken from Nesta’s mouth, all echoing in my head with her sneering voice.
I pinched my lips together.
He winced and lifted a hand slightly, as if about to reach for me. “Feyre,” he began—softly enough that I just shook my head and left the room. He didn’t stop me.
But that afternoon, when I went to retrieve my crumpled list from the wastebasket, it was gone. And my pile of books had been disturbed—the titles out of order. It had probably been a servant, I assured myself, calming the tightness in my chest. Just Alis or some other bird-masked faerie cleaning up. I hadn’t written anything incriminating—there was no way he knew I’d been trying to warn my family. I doubted he would punish me for it, but … our conversation earlier had been bad enough.
Still, my hands were unsteady as I took my seat at the little desk and found my place in the book I’d used that morning. I knew it was shameful to mark the books with ink, but if Tamlin could afford gold plates, he could replace a book or two.
I stared at the book without seeing the jumble of letters.
Maybe I was a fool for not accepting his help, for not swallowing my pride and having him write the letter in a few moments. Not even a letter of warning, but just—just to let them know I was safe. If he had better things to do with his time than come up with ways to embarrass me, then surely he had better things to do than help me write letters to my family. And yet he’d offered.
A nearby clock chimed the hour.
Shortcoming—another one of my shortcomings. I rubbed my brows with my thumb and forefinger. I’d been equally foolish for feeling a shred of pity for him—for the lone, brooding faerie, for someone I had so stupidly thought would really care if he met someone who perhaps felt the same, perhaps understood—in my ignorant, insignificant human way—what it was like to bear the weight of caring for others. I should have let his hand bleed that night, should have known better than to think that maybe—maybe there would be someone, human or faerie or whatever, who could understand what my life—what I—had become these past few years.
A minute passed, then another.
Faeries might not be able to lie, but they could certainly withhold information; Tamlin, Lucien, and Alis had done their best not to answer my specific questions. Knowing more about the blight that threatened them—knowing anything about it, where it had come from, what else it could do, and especially what it could do to a human—was worth my time to learn.
And if there was a chance that they might also possess some knowledge about a forgotten loophole of that damned Treaty, if they knew some way to pay the debt I owed and return me to my family so I might warn them about the blight myself … I had to risk it.
Twenty minutes later I had tracked down Lucien in his bedroom. I’d marked on my little map where it was—in a separate wing on the second level, far from mine—and after searching in his usual haunts, it was the last place to look. I knocked on the white-painted double doors.
“Come in, human.” He could probably detect me by my breathing patterns alone. Or maybe that eye of his could see through the door.
I eased open the door. The room was similar to mine in shape, but was bedecked in hues of orange and red and gold, with faint traces of green and brown. Like being in an autumn wood. But while my room was all softness and grace, his was marked with ruggedness. In lieu of a pretty breakfast table by the window, a worn worktable dominated the space, covered in various weapons. It was there he sat, wearing only a white shirt and trousers, his red hair unbound and gleaming like liquid fire. Tamlin’s court-trained emissary, but a warrior in his own right.
“I haven’t seen you around,” I said, shutting the door and leaning against it.
“I had to go sort out some hotheads on the northern border—official emissary business,” he said, setting down the hunting knife he’d been cleaning, a long, vicious blade. “I got back in time to hear your little spat with Tam, and decided I was safer up here. I’m glad to hear your human heart has warmed to me, though. At least I’m not on the top of your killing list.” I gave him a long look.
“Well,” he went on, shrugging, “it seems that you managed to get under Tam’s fur enough that he sought me out and nearly bit my head off. So I suppose I can thank you for ruining what should have been a peaceful lunch. Thankfully for me, there’s been a disturbance out in the western forest, and my poor friend had to go deal with it in that way only he can. I’m surprised you didn’t run into him on the stairs.” Thank the forgotten gods for some small mercies. “What sort of disturbance?”
Lucien shrugged, but the movement was too tense to be careless. “The usual sort: unwanted, nasty creatures raising hell.” Good—good that Tamlin was away and wouldn’t be here to catch me in what I planned to do. Another bit of luck. “I’m impressed you answered me that much,” I said as casually as I could, thinking through my words. “But it’s too bad you’re not like the Suriel, spouting any information I want if I’m clever enough to snare you.” For a moment, he blinked at me. Then his mouth twisted to the side, and that metal eye whizzed and narrowed on me. “I suppose you won’t tell me what you want to know.” “You have your secrets, and I have mine,” I said carefully. I couldn’t tell whether he would try to convince me otherwise if I told him the truth. “But if you were a Suriel,” I added with deliberate slowness, in case he hadn’t caught my meaning, “how, exactly, would I trap you?” Lucien set down the knife and picked at his nails. For a moment, I wondered if he would tell me anything at all. Wondered if he would go right to Tamlin and tattle.
But then he said, “I’d probably have a weakness for groves of young birch trees in the western woods, and freshly slaughtered chickens, and would probably be so greedy that I wouldn’t notice the double-loop snare rigged around the grove to pin my legs in place.” “Hmm.” I didn’t dare ask why he had decided to be accommodating. There was still a good chance he wouldn’t mind seeing me dead, but I would risk it. “I somehow prefer you as a High Fae.” He smirked, but the amusement was short-lived. “If I were insane and stupid enough to go after a Suriel, I’d also take a bow and quiver, and maybe a knife just like this one.” He sheathed the knife he’d cleaned and set it down at the edge of the table—an offering. “And I’d be prepared to run like hell when I freed it—to the nearest running water, which they hate crossing.” “But you’re not insane, so you’ll be here, safe and sound?”
“I’ll be conveniently hunting on the grounds, and with my superior hearing, I might be feeling generous enough to listen if someone screams from the western woods. But it’s a good thing I had no role in telling you to go out today, since Tam would eviscerate anyone who told you how to trap a Suriel; and it’s a good thing I had planned to hunt anyway, because if anyone caught me helping you, there would be trouble of a whole other hell awaiting us. I hope your secrets are worth it.” He said it with his usual grin, but there was an edge to it—a warning I didn’t miss.
Another riddle—and another bit of information. I said, “It’s a good thing that while you have superior hearing, I possess superior abilities to keep my mouth shut.” He snorted as I took the knife from the table and turned to procure the bow from my room. “I think I’m starting to like you—for a murdering human.”
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