فصل 32

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Chapter 32

I gave myself a minute—just one minute—to kneel in the remnants of the entry hall.

Then I eased to my feet, careful not to disturb any of the shattered glass or wood or—blood. There were splatters of it everywhere, along with small puddles and smears down the gouged walls.

Another forest, I told myself. Another set of tracks.

Slowly, I moved across the floor, tracing the information left. It had been a vicious fight—and from the blood patterns, most of the damage to the house had been done during the fight, not afterward. The crushed glass and footprints came and went from the front and back of the house, as if the whole place had been surrounded. The intruders had needed to force their way in though the front door; they’d just completely shattered the doors to the garden.

No bodies, I kept repeating to myself. There were no bodies, and not much gore. They had to be alive. Tamlin had to be alive.

Because if he were dead …

I rubbed my face, taking a shuddering breath. I wouldn’t let myself get that far. My hands shook as I paused before the dining room doors, both barely hanging on their hinges.

I couldn’t tell if the damage was from his lashing out after Rhysand’s arrival the day before my departure or if someone else had caused it. The giant table was in pieces, the windows smashed, the curtains in shreds. But no blood—there was no blood here. And from the prints in the shards of glass … I studied the trail across the floor. It had been disturbed, but I could make out two sets—large and side by side—leading from where the table had been. As if Tamlin and Lucien had been sitting in here as the attack happened, and walked out without a fight.

If I was right … then they were alive. I traced the steps to the doorway, squatting for a moment to work through the churned-up shards, dirt, and blood. They’d been met here—by multiple sets of prints. And headed toward the garden— Debris crunched from down the hall. I drew my hunting knife and ducked farther into the dining room, scanning for a place to hide. But everything was in pieces. With no other option, I lunged behind the open door. I pressed a hand over my mouth to keep from breathing too loudly and peered through the crack between the door and the wall.

Something limped into the room and sniffed. I could only see its back—cloaked in a plain cape, medium height … All it had to do to find me was shut the door. Perhaps if it came far enough into the dining room, I could slip out—but that would require leaving my hiding spot. Perhaps it would just look around and then leave.

The figure sniffed again, and my stomach clenched. It could smell me. I dared a better glance at it, hoping to find a weakness, a spot for my knife, if things came down to it.

The figure turned slightly toward me.

I cried out, and the figure screeched as I shoved away the door. “Alis.”

She gaped at me, a hand on her heart, her usual brown dress torn and dirty, her apron gone entirely. Not bloodied, though—nothing save for the slight limp that favored her right ankle as she rushed for me, her tree-bark skin bleaching birch white. “You can’t be here.” She took in my knife, the bow and quiver. “You were told to stay away.” “Is he alive?”

“Yes, but—”

My knees buckled at the onslaught of relief. “And Lucien?”

“Alive as well. But—.”

“Tell me what happened—tell me everything.” I kept an eye on the window, listening to the manor and grounds around us. Not a sound.

Alis grasped my arm and pulled me from the room. She didn’t speak as we hurried through the empty, too-quiet halls—all of them wrecked and bloodied, but … no bodies. Either they’d been hauled away, or—I didn’t let myself consider it as we entered the kitchen.

A fire had scorched the giant room, and it was little more than cinders and blackened stone. After sniffing about and listening for any signs of danger, Alis released me. “What are you doing here?” “I had to come back. I thought something had gone wrong—I couldn’t stay away. I had to help.”

“He told you not to come back,” Alis snapped.

“Where is he?”

Alis covered her face with her long, bony hands, her fingertips grappling into the upper edge of her mask as if trying to tear it from her face. But the mask remained, and Alis sighed as she lowered her tree-bark hands. “She took him,” she said, and my blood went cold. “She took him to her court Under the Mountain.” “Who?” But I already knew the answer.

“Amarantha,” Alis whispered, and glanced again around the kitchen as if fearful that speaking her name would summon her.

“Why? And who is she—what is she? Please, please just tell me—just give me the truth.”

Alis shuddered. “You want the truth, girl? Then here it is: she took him for the curse—because the seven times seven years were over, and he hadn’t shattered her curse. She’s summoned all the High Lords to her court this time—to make them watch her break him.” “What is she—wh-what curse?” A curse—the curse she had put on this place. A curse that I had failed to even see.

“Amarantha is High Queen of this land. The High Queen of Prythian,” Alis breathed, her eyes wide with some memory of horror.

“But the seven High Lords rule Prythian—equally. There’s no High Queen.”

“That’s how it used to be—how it’s always been. Until a hundred years ago, when she appeared in these lands as an emissary from Hybern.” Alis grabbed a large satchel that she must have left by the door. It was already half full of what looked like clothes and supplies.

As she began sifting through the ruined kitchen, gathering up knives and any food that had survived, I wondered at the information the Suriel had given me—of a wicked faerie king who had spent centuries resenting the Treaty he’d been forced to sign, and who had sent out his deadliest commanders to infiltrate the other faerie kingdoms and courts to see if they felt as he did—to see if they might consider reclaiming the human lands for themselves. I leaned against one of the soot-stained walls.

“She went from court to court,” Alis went on, turning an apple over in her hands as she inspected it, deemed it good enough, and stuffed it into the bag, “charming the High Lords with talk of more trade between Hybern and Prythian, more communication, more sharing of assets. The Never-Fading Flower, they called her. And for fifty years, she lived here as a courtier bound to no court, making amends, she claimed, for her own actions and the actions of Hybern during the War.” “She fought in the War against mortals?”

Alis paused her gathering. “Her story is legend among our kind—legend, and nightmare. She was the King of Hybern’s most lethal general—she fought on the front lines, slaughtering humans and any High Fae and faeries who dared defend them. But she had a younger sister, Clythia, who fought at her side, as vicious and wretched as she … until Clythia fell in love with a mortal warrior. Jurian.” Alis loosed a shaking sigh. “Jurian commanded mighty human armies, but Clythia still secretly sought him out, still loved him with an unrelenting madness. She was too blind to realize that Jurian was using her for information about Amarantha’s forces. Amarantha suspected, but could not persuade Clythia to leave him—and could not bring herself to kill him, not when it would cause her sister such pain.” Alis clicked her tongue and began opening the cabinets, scanning their ravaged insides. “Amarantha delighted in torture and killing, and yet she loved her sister enough to stay her hand.” “What happened?” I breathed.

“Oh, Jurian betrayed Clythia. After months of stomaching being her lover, he got the information he needed, then tortured and butchered her, crucifying her with ash wood so she couldn’t move while he did it. He left the pieces of her for Amarantha to find. They say Amarantha’s wrath could have brought down the skies themselves, had her king not ordered her to stand down. But she and Jurian had their final confrontation later—and since then, Amarantha has hated humans with a rage you cannot imagine.” Alis found what looked to be a jar of preserves and added it to the satchel.

“After the two sides made the Treaty,” Alis said, now going through the drawers, “she butchered her own slaves, rather than free them.” I blanched. “But centuries later, the High Lords believed her when she told them that the death of her sister had changed her—especially when she opened trade lines between our two territories. The High Lords never knew that those same ships that brought over Hybernian goods also brought over her own personal forces. The King of Hybern didn’t know, either. But we all soon learned that, in those fifty years she was here, she had decided she wanted Prythian for her own, to begin amassing power and use our lands as a launching point to one day destroy your world once and for all, with or without her king’s blessing. So forty-nine years ago, she struck.

“She knew—knew that even with her personal army, she could never conquer the seven High Lords by numbers or power alone. But she was also cunning and cruel, and she waited until they absolutely trusted her, until they gathered at a ball in her honor, and that night she slipped a potion stolen from the King of Hybern’s unholy spell book into their wine. Once they drank, the High Lords were prone, their magic laid bare—and she stole their powers from where they originated inside their bodies—plucked them out as if she were taking an apple from its branch, leaving them with only the basest elements of their magic. Your Tamlin—what you saw of him here was a shade of what he used to be, the power that he used to command. And with the High Lords’ power so greatly decreased, Amarantha wrested control of Prythian from them in a matter of days. For forty-nine years, we have been her slaves. For forty-nine years, she has been biding her time, waiting for the right moment to break the Treaty and take your lands—and all human territories beyond it.” I wished there were a stool, a bench, a chair for me to slump into. Alis slammed shut the final drawer and limped for the pantry.

“Now they call her the Deceiver—she who trapped the seven High Lords and built her palace beneath the sacred Mountain in the heart of our land.” Alis paused before the pantry door and covered her face again, taking a few steadying breaths.

The sacred mountain—that bald, monstrous peak I’d spotted in the mural in the library all those months ago. “But … the sickness in the lands … Tamlin said that the blight took their power—” “She is the sickness in these lands,” Alis snapped, lowering her hands and entering the pantry. “There is no blight but her. The borders were collapsing because she laid them to rubble. She found it amusing to send her creatures to attack our lands, to test whatever strength Tamlin had left.” If the blight was Amarantha, then the threat to the human realm … She was the threat to the human realm.

Alis emerged from the pantry, her arms full of various root vegetables. “You could have been the one to stop her.” Her eyes were hard upon me, and she bared her teeth. They were alarmingly sharp. She shoved the turnips and beets into the bag. “You could have been the one to free him and his power, had you not been so blind to your own heart. Humans,” she spat.

“I—I …” I lifted my hands, exposing my palms to her. “I didn’t know.”

“You couldn’t know,” Alis said bitterly, her laugh harsh as she entered the pantry again. “It was part of Tamlin’s curse.” My head swam, and I pressed myself further against the wall. “What was?” I fought the rising hitch in my voice. “What was his curse? What did she do to him?” Alis yanked remaining spice jars off the pantry shelf. “Tamlin and Amarantha knew each other before—his family had long been tied to Hybern. During the War, the Spring Court allied with Hybern to keep the humans enslaved. So his father—his father, who was a fickle and vicious Lord—was very close with the King of Hybern, to Amarantha. Tamlin as a child often accompanied him on trips to Hybern. And he met Amarantha in the process.” Tamlin had once said to me that he would fight to protect someone’s freedom—that he would never allow slavery. Had it been solely because of shame for his own legacy, or because he … he’d come to somehow know what it was to be enslaved?

“Amarantha eventually grew to desire Tamlin—to lust for him with her entire wicked heart. But he’d heard the stories from others about the War, and knew what Amarantha and his father and the Hybern king had done to faeries and humans alike. What she did to Jurian as punishment for her sister’s death. He was wary of her when she came here, despite her attempts to lure him into her bed—and kept his distance, right up until she stole his powers. Lucien … Lucien was sent to her as Tamlin’s emissary, to try to treat for peace between them.” Bile rose in my throat.

“She refused, and … Lucien told her to go back to the shit-hole she’d crawled out of. She took his eye as punishment. Carved it out with her own fingernail, then scarred his face. She sent him back so bloody that Tamlin … The High Lord vomited when he saw his friend.” I couldn’t let myself imagine what state Lucien had been in, then, if it had made Tamlin sick.

Alis tapped on her mask, the metal pinging beneath her nails. “After that, she hosted a masquerade Under the Mountain for herself. All the courts were present. A party, she said—to make amends for what she’d done to Lucien, and a masquerade so he didn’t have to reveal the horrible scarring on his face. The entire Spring Court was to attend, even the servants, and to wear masks—to honor Tamlin’s shape-shifting powers, she said. He was willing to try to end the conflict without slaughter, and he agreed to go—to bring all of us.” I pressed my hands against the stone wall behind me, savoring its coolness, its steadiness.

Pausing in the center of the kitchen, Alis set down her satchel, now full of food and supplies. “When all were assembled, she claimed that peace could be had—if Tamlin joined her as her lover and consort. But when she tried to touch him, he refused to let her near. Not after what she’d done to Lucien. He said—in front of everyone that night—that he would sooner take a human to his bed, sooner marry a human, than ever touch her. She might have let it go, had he not then said that her own sister had preferred a human’s company to hers, that her own sister had chosen Jurian over her.” I winced, already knowing what Alis would say as she braced her hands on her hips and went on. “You can guess how well that went over with Amarantha. But she told Tamlin that she was in a generous mood—told him she’d give him a chance to break the spell she’d put upon him to steal his power.

“He spat in her face, and she laughed. She said he had seven times seven years before she claimed him, before he had to join her Under the Mountain. If he wanted to break her curse, he need only find a human girl willing to marry him. But not any girl—a human with ice in her heart, with hatred for our kind. A human girl willing to kill a faerie.” The ground rocked beneath me, and I was grateful for the wall I leaned against. “Worse, the faerie she killed had to be one of his men, sent across the wall by him like lambs to slaughter. The girl could only be brought here to be courted if she killed one of his men in an unprovoked attack—killed him for hatred alone, just as Jurian had done to Clythia … So he could understand her sister’s pain.” “The Treaty—”

“That was all a lie. There was no provision for that in the Treaty. You can kill as many innocent faeries as you want and never suffer the consequences. You just killed Andras, sent out by Tamlin as that day’s sacrifice.” Andras was looking for a cure, Tamlin had said. Not for some magical blight—but a cure to save Prythian from Amarantha, a cure for this curse.

The wolf—Andras had just … stared at me before I killed him. Let me kill him. So it could begin this chain of events, so that Tamlin might stand a chance of breaking the spell. And if Tamlin had sent Andras across the wall, knowing he might very well die … Oh, Tamlin.

Alis stooped to gather up a butter knife, twisted and bent, and carefully straightened out the blade. “It was all a cruel joke, a clever punishment, to Amarantha. You humans loathe and fear faeries so much it would be impossible—impossible for the same girl who slaughtered a faerie in cold blood to then fall in love with one. But the spell on Tamlin could only be broken if she did just that before the forty-nine years were over—if that girl said to his face that she loved him, and meant it with her entire heart. Amarantha knows humans are preoccupied with beauty, and thus bound the masks to all our faces, to his face, so it would be more difficult to find a girl willing to look beyond the mask, beyond his faerie nature, and to the soul beneath. Then she bound us so we couldn’t say a word about the curse. Not a single word. We could hardly tell you a thing about our world, about our fate. He couldn’t tell you—none of us properly could. The lies about the blight—that was the best he could do, the best we could all do. That I can tell you now … it means the game is over, to her.” She pocketed the knife.

“When she first cursed him, Tamlin sent one of his men across the wall every day. To the woods, to farms, all disguised as wolves to make it more likely for one of your kind to want to kill them. If they came back, it was with stories of human girls who ran and screamed and begged, who didn’t even lift a hand. When they didn’t come back—Tamlin’s bond with them as their Lord and master told him they’d been killed by others. Human hunters, older women, perhaps. For two years he sent them out, day after day, having to pick who crossed the wall. When all but a dozen of them were left, it broke him so badly he stopped. Called it all off. And since then, Tamlin has been here, defending his borders as chaos and disorder ruled in the other courts under Amarantha’s thumb. The other High Lords fought back, too. Forty years ago, she executed three of them and most of their families for banding together against her.” “Open rebellion? What courts?” I straightened, taking a step away from the wall. Perhaps I might find allies among them to help me save Tamlin.

“The Day Court, Summer Court, and Winter Court. And no—it didn’t even get far enough to be considered an open rebellion. She used the High Lords’ powers to bind us to the land. So the rebel lords tried calling for aid from the other Fae territories using as messengers whatever humans were foolish enough to enter our lands—most of them young women who worshipped us like gods.” The Children of the Blessed. They had indeed made it over the wall—but not to be brides. I was too battered by what I’d heard to grieve for them, rage for them.

“But Amarantha caught them all before they left these shores, and … you can imagine how it ended for those girls. Afterward, once Amarantha also butchered the rebellious High Lords, their successors were too terrified to tempt her wrath again.” “And where are they now? Are they allowed to live on their lands, like Tamlin was?”

“No. She keeps them and their entire courts Under the Mountain, where she can torment them as she pleases. Others—others, if they swear allegiance, if they grovel and serve her, she allows them a bit more freedom to come and go Under the Mountain as they will. Our court was only allowed to remain here until Tamlin’s curse ran out, but …” Alis shivered.

“That’s why you keep your nephews in hiding—to keep them away from this,” I said, glancing at the full satchel at her feet.

Alis nodded, and as she went to right the overturned worktable, I moved to help her, both of us grunting at the weight. “My sister and I served in the Summer Court—and she and her mate were among those put down for spite when Amarantha first invaded. I took the boys and ran before Amarantha had everyone dragged Under the Mountain. I came here because it was the only place to go, and asked Tamlin to hide my boys. He did—and when I begged him to let me help, in whatever small way, he gave me a position here, days before the masque that put this wretched thing on my face. So I’ve been here for nearly fifty years, watching as Amarantha’s noose grew tighter around his neck.” We set the table upright again, and both of us panted a bit as we slumped against it.

“He tried,” Alis said. “Even with her spies, he tried finding ways to break the curse, to do anything against it, against having to send his men out again to be slaughtered by humans. He thought that if the human girl loved true, then bringing her here to free him was another form of slavery. And he thought that if he did indeed fall in love with her, Amarantha would do everything she could to destroy her, as her sister had been destroyed. So he spent decades refusing to do it, to even risk it. But this winter, with months to go, he just … snapped. He sent the last of his men out, one by one. And they were willing—they had begged him to go, all these years. Tamlin was desperate to save his people, desperate enough to risk the lives of his men, risk that human girl’s life to save us. Three days in, Andras finally ran into a human girl in a clearing—and you killed him with hate in your heart.” But I had failed them. And in so doing, I’d damned them all.

I had damned each and every person on this estate, damned Prythian itself.

I was glad I was leaning against the table’s edge—or else I might have slid to the floor.

“You could have broken it,” Alis snarled, those sharp teeth mere inches from my face. “All you had to do was say that you loved him—say that you loved him and mean it with your whole useless human heart, and his power would have been freed. You stupid, stupid girl.” No wonder Lucien had resented me and yet still tolerated my presence—no wonder he’d been so bitterly disappointed when I left, had argued with Tamlin to let me stay longer. “I’m sorry,” I said, my eyes burning.

Alis snorted. “Tell that to Tamlin. He had only three days after you left before the forty-nine years were over. Three days, and he let you go. She came here with her cronies at the exact moment the seven times seven years were over and seized him, along with most of the court, and brought them Under the Mountain to be her subjects. Creatures like me are too lowly for her—though she’s not above murdering us for sport.” I tried not to visualize it. “But what of the King of Hybern—if she’s conquered Prythian for herself and stolen his spells, then does he see her as insubordinate or as an ally?” “If they are on bad terms, he has made no move to punish her. For forty-nine years now, she’s held these lands in her grip. Worse, after the High Lords fell, all the wicked ones in our lands—the ones too awful even for the Night Court—flocked to her. They still do. She’s offered them sanctuary. But we know—we know she’s building her army, biding her time before launching an attack on your world, armed with the most lethal and vicious faeries in Prythian and Hybern.” “Like the Attor,” I said, horror and dread twisting in my gut, and Alis nodded. “In the human territory,” I said, “rumor claims more and more faeries have been sneaking over the wall to attack humans. And if no faeries can cross the wall without her permission, then that has to mean she’s been sanctioning those attacks.” And if I was right about what had happened to Clare Beddor and her family, then Amarantha had given the order for that, too.

Alis swiped some dirt I couldn’t see from the table we leaned against. “I would not be surprised if she has sent her minions into the human realm to investigate your strengths and weaknesses in anticipation of the destruction she one day hopes to cause.” This was worse—so much worse than I had thought when I warned Nesta and my family to stay on alert and leave at the slightest sign of trouble. I felt sick to think of what kind of company Tamlin was keeping—sick at the thought of him being so desperate, so stricken by guilt and grief over having to sacrifice his sentries and never being able to tell me … And he’d let me go. Let all their sacrifices, let Andras’s sacrifice, be in vain.

He’d known that if I remained, I would be at risk of Amarantha’s wrath, even if I freed him.

“I can’t even protect myself against them, against what’s happening in Prythian … Even if we stood against the blight, they would hunt you down—she would find a way to kill you.” I remembered that pathetic effort to flatter me upon my arrival—and then he’d given up on it, on any attempt to win me when I’d seemed so desperate to get away, to never talk to him. But he’d fallen in love with me despite all that—known I’d loved him, and let me go with days to spare. He had put me before his entire court, before all of Prythian.

“If Tamlin were freed—if he had his full powers,” I said, staring at a blackened bit of wall, “would he be able to destroy Amarantha?” “I don’t know. She tricked the High Lords through cunning, not force. Magic’s a specific kind of thing—it likes rules, and she manipulated them too well. She keeps their powers locked up inside herself, as if she can’t use them, or can access very little of them, at least. She has her own deadly powers, yes, so if it came down to a fight—” “But is he stronger?” I started wringing my hands.

“He’s a High Lord,” Alis replied, as if that were answer enough. “But none of that matters now. He’s to be her slave, and we’re all to wear these masks until he agrees to become her lover—even then, he’ll never regain his full powers. And she’ll never let those Under the Mountain go.” I pushed off the table and squared my shoulders. “How do I get Under the Mountain?”

She clicked her tongue. “You can’t go Under the Mountain. No human who goes in ever comes out.”

I squeezed my fists so hard that my nails bit into my flesh. “How. Do. I. Get. There.”

“It’s suicide—she’ll kill you, even if you get close enough to see her.”

Amarantha had tricked him—she had hurt him so badly. Hurt them all so badly.

“You’re a human,” Alis went on, standing as well. “Your flesh is paper-thin.”

Amarantha must also have taken Lucien—she had carved out Lucien’s eye and scarred him like that. Did his mother grieve for him?

“You were too blind to see Tamlin’s curse,” Alis continued. “How do you expect to face Amarantha? You’ll make things worse.” Amarantha had taken everything I wanted, everything I finally dared desire. “Show me the way,” I said, my voice trembling, but not with tears.

“No.” Alis slung her satchel over a shoulder. “Go home. I’ll take you as far as the wall. There’s naught to be done now. Tamlin will remain her slave forever, and Prythian will stay under her rule. That’s what Fate dealt, that was what the Eddies of the Cauldron decided.” “I don’t believe in Fate. Nor do I believe in some ridiculous Cauldron.”

She shook her head again, her wild brown hair like glistening mud in the dim light.

“Take me to her,” I insisted.

If Amarantha ripped out my throat, at least I would die doing something for him—at least I would die trying to fix the destruction I hadn’t prevented, trying to save the people I’d doomed. At least Tamlin would know it was for him, and that I loved him.

Alis studied me for a moment before her eyes softened. “As you wish.”

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