فصل 30

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Chapter 30

I had one task left to do before I returned to my father’s manor. The villagers who had once sneered at or ignored me instead gaped now, and a few stepped into my path to ask about my aunt, my fortune, on and on. I firmly but politely refused to fall into conversation with them, to give them anything to gossip over. But it still took me so long to reach the poor part of our village that I was fully drained by the time I knocked on the first dilapidated door.

The impoverished of our village didn’t ask questions when I handed them the little bags of silver and gold. They tried to refuse, some of them not even recognizing me, but I left the money anyway. It was the least I could do.

As I walked back to my father’s manor, I passed Tomas Mandray and his cronies lurking by the village fountain, chatting about some house that had burned down with its family trapped inside a week before and whether there was anything to loot from it. He gave me a too-long look, his eyes roving freely over my body, with a half smile I’d seen him give to the village girls a hundred times before. Why had Nesta changed her mind? I just stared him down and continued along.

I was almost out of town when a woman’s laugh flitted over the stones, and I turned a corner to come face-to-face with Isaac Hale—and a pretty, plump young woman who could only be his new wife. They were arm in arm, both smiling—both lit up from within.

His smile faltered as he beheld me.

Human—he seemed so human, with his gangly limbs, his simple handsomeness, but that smile he’d had moments before had transformed him into something more.

His wife looked between us, perhaps a bit nervously. As if whatever she felt for him—the love I’d already seen shining—was so new, so unexpected, that she was still worried it would vanish. Carefully, Isaac inclined his head to me in greeting. He’d been a boy when I left, and yet this person who now approached me … whatever had blossomed with his wife, whatever was between them, it had made him into a man.

Nothing—there was nothing in my chest, my soul, for him beyond a vague sense of gratitude.

A few more steps had us passing each other. I smiled broadly at him, at them both, and bowed my head, wishing them well with my entire heart.

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The ball my father was throwing in my honor was in two days, and the house was already a flurry of activity. Such money being thrown away on things we’d never dreamed of having again, even for a moment. I would have begged him not to host it, but Elain had taken charge of planning and finding me a last-minute dress, and … it would only be for an evening. An evening of enduring the people who had shunned us and let us starve for years.

The sun was near to setting as I stopped my work for the day: digging out a new square of earth for Elain’s next garden. The gardeners had been slightly horrified that another one of us had taken up the activity—as if we’d soon be doing all their work ourselves and would get rid of them. I reassured them I had no green thumb and just wanted something to do with my day.

But I hadn’t yet figured out what I would be doing with my week, or my month, or anything after that. If there was indeed a surge in the blight happening over the wall, if that Amarantha woman was sending out creatures to take advantage of it … It was hard not to dwell on that shadow in my heart, the shadow that trailed my every step. I hadn’t felt like painting since I’d arrived—and that place inside me where all those colors and shapes and lights had come from had become still and quiet and dull. Soon, I told myself. Soon I would purchase some paints and start again.

I slid the shovel into the ground and set my foot atop it, resting for a moment. Perhaps the gardeners had just been horrified by the tunic and pants I’d scrounged up. One of them had even gone running to fetch me one of those big, floppy hats that Elain wore. I wore it for their sake; my skin had already become tan and freckled from months roaming the Spring Court lands.

I glanced at my hands, clutching the top of the shovel. Callused and flecked with scars, arcs of dirt under my nails. They’d surely be horrified when they beheld me splattered with paint.

“Even if you washed them, there’d be no hiding it,” Nesta said behind me, coming over from that tree she liked to sit by. “To fit in, you’d have to wear gloves and never take them off.” She wore a simple, pale lavender muslin gown, her hair half-up and billowing behind her in a sheet of gold-brown. Beautiful, imperious, still as one of the High Fae.

“Maybe I don’t want to fit in with your social circles,” I said, turning back to the shovel.

“Then why are you bothering to stay here?” A sharp, cold question.

I plunged the shovel deeper, my arms and back straining as I heaved up a pile of dark soil and grass. “It’s my home, isn’t it?” “No, it’s not,” she said flatly. I slammed the shovel back into the earth. “I think your home is somewhere very far away.” I paused.

I left the shovel in the ground and slowly turned to face her. “Aunt Ripleigh’s house—”

“There is no Aunt Ripleigh.” Nesta reached into her pocket and tossed something onto the churned-up earth.

It was a chunk of wood, as if it had been ripped from something. Painted on its smooth surface was a pretty tangle of vines and—foxglove. Foxglove painted in the wrong shade of blue.

My breath hitched. All this time, all these months …

“Your beast’s little trick didn’t work on me,” she said with quiet steel. “Apparently, an iron will is all it takes to keep a glamour from digging in. So I had to watch as Father and Elain went from sobbing hysterics into nothing. I had to listen to them talk about how lucky it was for you to be taken to some made-up aunt’s house, how some winter wind had shattered our door. And I thought I’d gone mad—but every time I did, I would look at that painted part of the table, then at the claw marks farther down, and know it wasn’t in my head.” I’d never heard of a glamour not working. But Nesta’s mind was so entirely her own; she had put up such strong walls—of steel and iron and ash wood—that even a High Lord’s magic couldn’t pierce them.

“Elain said—said you went to visit me, though. That you tried.”

Nesta snorted, her face grave and full of that long-simmering anger that she could never master. “He stole you away into the night, claiming some nonsense about the Treaty. And then everything went on as if it had never happened. It wasn’t right. None of it was right.” My hands slackened at my sides. “You went after me,” I said. “You went after me—to Prythian.” “I got to the wall. I couldn’t find a way through.”

I raised a shaking hand to my throat. “You trekked two days there and two days back—through the winter woods?” She shrugged, looking at the sliver she’d pried from the table. “I hired that mercenary from town to bring me a week after you were taken. With the money from your pelt. She was the only one who seemed like she would believe me.” “You did that—for me?”

Nesta’s eyes—my eyes, our mother’s eyes—met mine. “It wasn’t right,” she said again. Tamlin had been wrong when we’d discussed whether my father would have ever come after me—he didn’t possess the courage, the anger. If anything, he would have hired someone to do it for him. But Nesta had gone with that mercenary. My hateful, cold sister had been willing to brave Prythian to rescue me.

“What happened to Tomas Mandray?” I asked, the words strangled.

“I realized he wouldn’t have gone with me to save you from Prythian.”

And for her, with that raging, unrelenting heart, it would have been a line in the sand.

I looked at my sister, really looked at her, at this woman who couldn’t stomach the sycophants who now surrounded her, who had never spent a day in the forest but had gone into wolf territory … Who had shrouded the loss of our mother, then our downfall, in icy rage and bitterness, because the anger had been a lifeline, the cruelty a release. But she had cared—beneath it, she had cared, and perhaps loved more fiercely than I could comprehend, more deeply and loyally. “Tomas never deserved you anyway,” I said softly.

My sister didn’t smile, but a light shone in her blue-gray eyes. “Tell me everything that happened,” she said—an order, not a request.

So I did.

And when I finished my story, Nesta merely stared at me for a long while before asking me to teach her how to paint.

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Teaching Nesta to paint was about as pleasant as I had expected it to be, but at least it provided an excuse for us to avoid the busier parts of the house, which became more and more chaotic as my ball drew near. Supplies were easy enough to come by, but explaining how I painted, convincing Nesta to express what was in her mind, her heart … At the very least, she repeated my brushstrokes with a precise and solid hand.

When we emerged from the quiet room we’d commandeered, both of us splattered in paint and smeared with charcoal, the chateau was finishing up its preparations. Colored glass lanterns lined the long drive, and inside, wreaths and garlands of every flower and color decorated every rail, every surface, every archway. Beautiful. Elain had selected each flower herself and instructed the staff where to put them.

Nesta and I slipped up the stairs, but as we reached the landing, my father and Elain appeared below, arm in arm.

Nesta’s face tightened. My father murmured his praises to Elain, who beamed at him and rested her head on his shoulder. And I was happy for them—for the comfort and ease of their lifestyle, for the contentment on both my father’s and my sister’s faces. Yes, they had their small sorrows, but both of them seemed so … relaxed.

Nesta walked down the hall, and I followed her. “There are days,” Nesta said as she paused in front of the door to her room, across from mine, “when I want to ask him if he remembers the years he almost let us starve to death.” “You spent every copper I could get, too,” I reminded her.

“I knew you could always get more. And if you couldn’t, then I wanted to see if he would ever try to do it himself, instead of carving those bits of wood. If he would actually go out and fight for us. I couldn’t take care of us, not the way you did. I hated you for that. But I hated him more. I still do.” “Does he know?”

“He’s always known I hate him, even before we became poor. He let Mother die—he had a fleet of ships at his disposal to sail across the world for a cure, or he could have hired men to go into Prythian and beg them for help. But he let her waste away.” “He loved her—he grieved for her.” I didn’t know what the truth was—perhaps both.

“He let her die. You would have gone to the ends of the earth to save your High Lord.”

My chest hollowed out again, but I merely said, “Yes, I would have,” and slipped inside my room to get ready.

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