فصل 33

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Chapter 33

I might have been going to my death, but I wouldn’t arrive unarmed.

I tightened the strap of the quiver across my chest and then grazed my fingers over the arrow feathers peeking over my shoulder. Of course, there were no ash arrows. But I would make do with what I’d found scattered throughout the manor. I could have taken more, but weapons would only weigh me down, and I didn’t know how to use most of them anyway. So I wore a full quiver, two daggers at my waist, and a bow slung over a shoulder. Better than nothing, even if I was up against faeries who’d been born knowing how to kill.

Alis led me through the silent woods and foothills, pausing every so often to listen, to alter our course. I didn’t want to know what she heard or smelled out there, not when such stillness blanketed the lands. Stay with the High Lord, the Suriel had said. Stay with him, fall in love with him, and all would be righted. If I had stayed, if I had admitted what I’d felt … None of this would have happened.

The world steadily filled with night, and my legs ached from the steep slopes of the hills, but Alis pressed on—never once looking back to see that I followed.

I was beginning to wonder whether I should have brought more than a day’s worth of food when she stopped in the hollow between two hills. The air was cold—far colder than the air at the top of the hill, and I shivered as my eyes fell upon a slender cave mouth. There was no way this was the entrance—not when that mural had painted Under the Mountain to be in the center of Prythian. It was weeks of travel away.

“All dark and miserable roads lead Under the Mountain,” Alis said so quietly that her voice was nothing more than the rustling of leaves. She pointed to the cave. “It’s an ancient shortcut—once considered sacred, but no more.” This was the cave Lucien had ordered the Attor not to use that day. I tried to master my trembling. I loved Tamlin, and I would go to the ends of the earth to make it right, to save him, but if Amarantha was worse than the Attor … if the Attor wasn’t the wickedest of her cronies … if even Tamlin had been scared of her … “I reckon you’re regretting your hotheadedness right now.”

I straightened. “I will free him.”

“You’ll be lucky if she gives you a clean death. You’ll be lucky if you even get brought before her.” I must have turned pale, because she pursed her lips and patted me on the shoulder. “A few rules to remember, girl,” she said, and we both stared at the cave mouth. The darkness reeked from its maw to poison the fresh night air. “Don’t drink the wine—it’s not like what we had at the Solstice, and will do more harm than good. Don’t make deals with anyone unless your life depends on it—and even then, consider whether it’s worth it. And most of all: don’t trust a soul in there—not even your Tamlin. Your senses are your greatest enemies; they will be waiting to betray you.” I fought the urge to touch one of my daggers and nodded my thanks instead.

“Do you have a plan?”

“No,” I admitted.

“Don’t expect that steel to do you any good,” she said with a glance at my weapons.

“I don’t.” I faced her, biting the inside of my lip.

“There was one part of the curse. One part we can’t tell you. Even now, my bones are crying out just for mentioning it. One part you have to figure out … on your own, one part she … she …” She swallowed loudly. “That she still doesn’t want you to know, if I can’t say it,” she gasped out. “But keep—keep your ears open, girl. Listen to what you hear.” I touched her arm. “I will. Thank you for bringing me.” For wasting precious hours, when that satchel of supplies—for herself, for her boys—said enough about where she was going.

“It’s a rare day indeed when someone thanks you for bringing them to their death.” If I thought about the danger too long, I might lose my nerve, Tamlin or no. She wasn’t helping. “I’ll wish you luck nonetheless,” Alis added.

“Once you retrieve them, if you and your nephews need somewhere to flee,” I said, “cross the wall. Go to my family’s house.” I told her the location. “Ask for Nesta—my eldest sister. She knows who you are, knows everything. She will shelter you in any way she can.” Nesta would do it, too, I knew now, even if Alis and her boys terrified her. She would keep them safe. Alis patted my hand. “Stay alive,” she said.

I looked at her one last time, then at the night sky that was unfurling above us, and at the deep green of the hills. The color of Tamlin’s eyes.

I walked into the cave.

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The only sounds were my shallow breathing and the crunch of my boots on stone. Stumbling through the frigid dark, I inched onward. I kept close to the wall, and my hand soon turned numb as the cold, wet stone bit into my skin. I took small steps, fearful of some invisible pit that might send me tumbling to my doom.

After what felt like an eternity, a crack of orange light cleaved through the dark. And then came the voices.

Hissing and braying, eloquent and guttural—a cacophony bursting the silence like a firecracker. I pressed myself against the cave wall, but the sounds passed and faded.

I crept toward the light, blinking back my blindness when I found the source: a slight fissure in the rock. It opened onto a crudely carved, fire-lit subterranean passageway. I lingered in the shadows, my heart wild in my chest. The crack in the cave wall was large enough for one person to squeeze through—so jagged and rough that it was obviously not often used. A glance at the dirt revealed no tracks, no sign of anyone else using this entrance. The hallway beyond was clear, but it veered off, obscuring my view.

The passage was deathly quiet, but I remembered Alis’s warning and didn’t trust my ears, not when faeries could be silent as cats.

Still, I had to leave this cave. Tamlin had been here for weeks already. I had to find where Amarantha kept him. And hopefully not run into anyone in the process. Killing animals and the naga had been one thing, but killing any others … I took several deep breaths, bracing myself. It was the same as hunting. Only this time the animals were faeries. Faeries who could torture me endlessly—torture me until I begged for death. Torture me the way they tormented that Summer Court faerie whose wings had been ripped off.

I didn’t let myself think about those bleeding stumps as I eased toward the tiny opening, sucking in my stomach to squeeze through. My weapons scraped against the stone, and I winced at the hiss of falling pebbles. Keep moving, keep moving. Hurrying across the open hallway, I pressed into an alcove in the opposite wall. It didn’t provide much cover.

I slunk along the wall, pausing at the bend in the hall. This was a mistake—only an idiot would come here. I could be anywhere in Amarantha’s court. Alis should have given me more information. I should have been smart enough to ask. Or smart enough to think of another way—any way but this.

I risked a glance around the corner and almost sobbed in frustration. Another hallway carved out of the mountain’s pale stone, lined on either side by torches. No shadowy spots for concealment, and at its other end, my view was yet again obscured by a sharp turn. It was wide open. I was as good as a starving doe, ripping bark off a tree in a clearing.

But the halls were silent—the voices I’d heard earlier were gone. And if I heard anyone, I could sprint back to that cave mouth. I could do reconnaissance for a time, gather information, find out where Tamlin was— No. A second opportunity might not arise for a while. I had to act now. If I stopped for too long, I’d never work up the nerve again. I made to slip around the corner.

Long, bony fingers wrapped around my arm, and I went rigid.

A pointed, leathery gray face came into view, and its silver fangs glistened as it smiled at me. “Hello,” it hissed. “What’s something like you doing here?” I knew that voice. It still haunted my nightmares.

So it was all I could do to keep from screaming as its bat-like ears cocked, and I realized that I stood before the Attor.

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