فصل 29

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Chapter 29

Inventing stories about my time with Aunt Ripleigh required minimal effort: I read to her daily, she instructed me on deportment from her bedside, and I nursed her until she died in her sleep two weeks ago, leaving her fortune to me.

And what a tremendous fortune it was: the trunks that accompanied me hadn’t contained just clothing—several of them had been filled with gold and jewels. Not cut jewels, either, but enormous, raw jewels that would pay for a thousand estates.

My father was currently taking inventory of those jewels; he’d holed himself up in the office that overlooked the garden in which I was sitting beside Elain in the grass. Through the window, I spied my father hunched over his desk, a little scale before him as he weighed an uncut ruby the size of a duck’s egg. He was clear-eyed again, and moved with a sense of purpose, of vibrancy, that I hadn’t seen since before the downfall. Even his limp was improved—made miraculously better by some tonic and a salve a strange, passing healer had given him for free. I would have been forever grateful to Tamlin for that kindness alone.

Gone were his hunched shoulders and downcast, misty eyes. My father smiled freely, laughed readily, and doted on Elain, who in turn doted on him. Nesta, though, had been quiet and watchful, only giving Elain answers not longer than a word or two.

“These bulbs,” Elain said, pointing with a gloved hand to a cluster of purple-and-white flowers, “came all the way from the tulip fields of the continent. Father promised that next spring he’ll take me to see them. He claims that for mile after mile, there’s nothing but these flowers.” She patted the rich, dark soil. The little garden beneath the window was hers: every bloom and shrub had been picked and planted by her hand; she would allow no one else to care for it. Even the weeding and watering she did on her own.

Though the servants did help her carry over the heavy watering cans, she admitted. She would have marveled—likely wept—at the gardens I’d become so accustomed to, at the flowers in perpetual bloom at the Spring Court.

“You should come with me,” Elain went on. “Nesta won’t go, because she says she doesn’t want to risk the sea crossing, but you and I … Oh, we’d have fun, wouldn’t we?” I glanced sidelong at her. My sister was beaming, content—prettier than I’d ever seen her, even in her simple muslin gardening dress. Her cheeks were flushed beneath her large, floppy hat. “I think—I think I’d like to see the continent,” I said.

And it was true, I realized. There was so much of the world that I hadn’t seen, hadn’t ever thought about visiting. Hadn’t ever been able to dream of visiting.

“I’m surprised you’re so eager to go next spring,” I said. “Isn’t that right in the middle of the season?” The socialite season, which had ended a few weeks ago, apparently, full of parties and balls and luncheons and gossip, gossip, gossip. Elain had told me all about it at dinner the night before, hardly noticing that it was an effort for me to get down my food. So much of it was the same—the meat, the bread, the vegetables, and yet … it was ash in my mouth compared to what I’d consumed in Prythian. “And I’m surprised you don’t have a line of suitors out the door, begging for your hand.” Elain flushed but plunged her little shovel into the ground to dig out a weed. “Yes, well—there will always be other seasons. Nesta won’t tell you, but this season was somewhat … strange.” “In what way?”

She shrugged her slim shoulders. “People acted as if we’d all just been ill for eight years, or had gone away to some distant country—not that we’d been a few villages over in that cottage. You’d think we dreamed it all up, what happened to us over those years. No one said a word about it.” “Did you think they would?” If we were as rich as this house suggested, there were surely plenty of families willing to overlook the stain of our poverty.

“No—but it made me … made me wish for those years again, even with the hunger and cold. This house feels so big sometimes, and father is always busy, and Nesta …” She looked over her shoulder to where my eldest sister stood by a gnarled mulberry tree, looking out over the flat expanse of our lands. She’d barely spoken to me the night before, and not at all during breakfast. I’d been surprised when she joined us outside, even if she’d stayed by the tree this whole time. “Nesta didn’t finish the season. She wouldn’t tell me why. She began refusing every invitation. She hardly talks to anyone, and I feel wretched when my friends pay a visit, because she makes them so uncomfortable when she stares at them in that way of hers …” Elain sighed. “Maybe you could talk to her.” I contemplated telling Elain that Nesta and I hadn’t had a civil conversation in years, but then Elain added, “She went to see you, you know.” I blinked, my blood going a bit cold. “What?”

“Well, she was gone for only about a week, and she said that her carriage broke down not halfway there, and it was easier to come back. But you wouldn’t know, since you never got any of our letters.” I looked over at Nesta, standing so still under the branches, the summer breeze rustling the skirts of her dress. Had she gone to see me, only to be turned back by whatever glamour magic Tamlin had cast on her?

I turned back to the garden and caught Elain staring at me. “What?”

Elain shook her head and went back to weeding. “You just look so … different. You sound so different, too.”

Indeed, I hadn’t quite believed my eyes when I’d passed a hall mirror last night. My face was still the same, but there was a … glow about me, a kind of shimmering light that was nearly undetectable. I knew without a doubt that it was because of my time in Prythian, that all that magic had somehow rubbed off on me. I dreaded the day it would forever fade.

“Did something happen at Aunt Ripleigh’s house?” Elain asked. “Did you … meet someone?”

I shrugged and yanked at a weed nearby. “Just good food and rest.”

Image

Days passed. The shadow within me didn’t lighten, and even the thought of painting was abhorrent. Instead I spent most of my time with Elain in her little garden. I was content to listen to her talk about every bud and bloom, about her plans to start another garden by the greenhouse, perhaps a vegetable garden, if she could learn enough about it over the next few months.

She had come alive here, and her joy was infectious. There wasn’t a servant or gardener who didn’t smile at her, and even the brusque head cook found excuses to bring her plates of cookies and tarts at various points in the day. I marveled at it, actually—that those years of poverty hadn’t stripped away that light from Elain. Perhaps buried it a bit, but she was generous, loving, and kind—a woman I found myself proud to know, to call sister.

My father finished counting my jewels and gold; I was an extraordinarily wealthy woman. I invested a small percentage of it in his business, and when I looked at the remaining behemoth sum, I had him draw me up several bags of money and set out.

The manor was only three miles from our rundown cottage, and the road was familiar. I didn’t mind when my hem became coated in mud from the sodden path. I savored hearing the wind in the trees and the sighing of the high grasses. If I drifted far enough into my memories, I could imagine myself walking alongside Tamlin through his woods.

I had no reason to believe that I would see him anytime soon, but I went to bed each night praying that I’d awaken to find myself in his manor, or that I’d receive a message summoning me to his side. Even worse than my disappointment that no such thing had happened was the creeping, nagging fear that he was in danger—that Amarantha, whoever she was, would somehow hurt him.

“I love you.” I could almost hear the words—almost hear him saying them, could almost see the sunlight glinting in his golden hair and the dazzling green of his eyes. I could almost feel his body pressed against mine, his fingers playing along my skin.

I reached a bend in the road that I could have navigated in the dark, and there it was.

So small—the cottage had been so small. Elain’s old flower garden was a wild tangle of weeds and blooms, and the ward-markings were still etched on the stone threshold. The front door—shattered and broken the last time I’d seen it—had been replaced, but one of the circular windowpanes had become cracked. The interior was dark, the land undisturbed.

I traced the invisible path I’d taken across the tall grass every morning from our front door, over the road, and then across the rolling field, all the way to that line of trees. The forest—my forest.

It had seemed so terrifying once—so lethal and hungry and brutal. And now it just seemed … plain. Ordinary.

I gazed again at that sad, dark house—the place that had been a prison. Elain had said she missed it, and I wondered what she saw when she looked at the cottage. If she beheld not a prison but a shelter—a shelter from a world that had possessed so little good, but she tried to find it anyway, even if it had seemed foolish and useless to me.

She had looked at it that cottage with hope; I had looked at it with nothing but hatred. And I knew which one of us had been stronger.

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