فصل 34

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Chapter 34

The Attor kept its icy grip on my upper arm as it half dragged me to the throne room. It didn’t bother to strip me of my weapons. We both knew they were of little use.

Tamlin. Alis and her boys. My sisters. Lucien. I silently chanted their names again and again as the Attor loomed above me, a demon of malice. Its leathery wings rustled occasionally—and had I been able to speak without screaming, I might have asked why it hadn’t killed me outright. The Attor just tugged me onward with that slithering gait, its clawed feet making leisurely scratches on the cave floor. It looked unnervingly identical to how I had painted it.

Leering faces—cruel and harsh—watched me go by, none of them looking remotely concerned or disturbed that I was in the claws of the Attor. Faeries—lots of them—but few High Fae to be seen.

We strode through two ancient, enormous stone doors—taller than Tamlin’s manor—and into a vast chamber carved from pale rock, upheld by countless carved pillars. That small part of me that had again become trivial and useless noted that the carvings weren’t just ornate designs, but actually depicted faeries and High Fae and animals in various environments and states of movement. Countless stories of Prythian were etched on them. Chandeliers of jewels hung between the pillars, staining the red marble floor with color. Here—here were the High Fae.

An assembled crowd took up most of the space, some of them dancing to strange, off-kilter music, some milling about chatting—a party of sorts. I thought I spied some glittering masks among the attendees, but everything was a blur of sharp teeth and fine clothing. The Attor hurled me forward, and the world spun.

The cold marble floor was unyielding as I slammed into it, my bones groaning and barking. I pushed myself up, sparks dancing in my eyes, but stayed on the ground, kept low, as I beheld the dais before me. A few steps led onto the platform. I lifted my head higher.

There, lounging on a black throne, was Amarantha.

Though lovely, she wasn’t as devastatingly beautiful as I had imagined, wasn’t some goddess of darkness and spite. It made her all the more petrifying. Her red-gold hair was neatly braided and woven through her golden crown, the deep color enriching her snow-white skin, which, in turn, set off her ruby lips. But while her ebony eyes shone, there was … something that sucked at her beauty, some kind of permanent sneer to her features that made her allure seem contrived and cold. To paint her would have driven me to madness.

The highest commander of the King of Hybern. She’d slaughtered human armies centuries ago, had murdered her slaves rather than free them. And she’d captured all of Prythian in a matter of days.

Then I looked to the black rock throne beside her, and my arms buckled beneath me.

He was still wearing that golden mask, still wearing his warrior’s clothes, that baldric—even though there were no knives sheathed along it, not a single weapon anywhere on him. His eyes didn’t widen; his mouth didn’t tighten. No claws, no fangs. He just stared at me, unfeeling—unmoved. Unimpressed.

“What’s this?” Amarantha said, her voice lilting despite the adder’s smile she gave me. From her slender, creamy neck hung a long, thin chain—and from it dangled a single, age-worn bone the size of a finger. I didn’t want to consider whom it might have belonged to as I remained on the floor. If I shifted my arm, I could draw my dagger— “Just a human thing I found downstairs,” the Attor hissed, and a forked tongue darted out between its razor-sharp teeth. It flapped its wings once, blasting foul-smelling air at me, and then neatly tucked them behind its skeletal body.

“Obviously,” Amarantha purred. I avoided meeting her eyes, focusing on Tamlin’s brown boots. He was ten feet from me—ten feet, and not saying a word, not even looking horrified or angry. “But why should I bother with her?” The Attor chuckled, the sound like sizzling water on a griddle, and a taloned foot jabbed my side. “Tell Her Majesty why you were sneaking around the catacombs—why you came out of the old cave that leads to the Spring Court.” Would it be better to kill the Attor, or to try to make it to Amarantha? The Attor kicked me again, and I winced as its claws bit into my ribs. “Tell Her Majesty, you human filth.” I needed time—I needed to figure out my surroundings. If Tamlin was under some kind of spell, then I would have to worry about grabbing him. I eased to my feet, keeping my hands within casual reach of my daggers. I stared at Amarantha’s glittering golden gown rather than meet her eyes.

“I came to claim the one I love,” I said quietly. Perhaps the curse could still be broken. Again I looked at him, and the sight of those emerald eyes was a balm.

“Oh?” Amarantha said, leaning forward.

“I’ve come to claim Tamlin, High Lord of the Spring Court.”

A gasp rippled through the assembled court. But Amarantha tipped back her head and laughed—a raven’s caw.

The High Queen turned to Tamlin, and her lips pulled back in a wicked smile. “You certainly were busy all those years. Developed a taste for human beasts, did you?” He said nothing, his face impassive. What had she done? He didn’t move—her curse had worked, then. I was too late. I’d failed him, damned him.

“But,” Amarantha said slowly. I could sense the Attor and the entire court looming behind me. “It makes me wonder—if only one human girl could be taken once she killed your sentinel …” Her eyes sparked. “Oh, you are delicious. You let me torture that innocent girl to keep this one safe? You lovely thing! You actually made a human worm love you. Marvelous.” She clapped her hands, and Tamlin merely looked away from her, the only reaction I’d seen from him.

Tortured. She’d tortured—

“Let him go,” I said, trying to keep my voice steady.

Amarantha laughed again. “Give me one reason why I shouldn’t destroy you where you stand, human.” Her teeth were so straight and white—almost glowing.

My blood pounded in my veins, but I kept my chin high as I said, “You tricked him—he is bound unfairly.” Tamlin had gone very, very still.

Amarantha clicked her tongue and looked at one of her slender white hands—at the ring on her index finger. A ring, I noticed as she lowered her hand again, set with what looked like … like a human eye encased in crystal. I could have sworn it swiveled inside. “You human beasts are so uncreative. We spent years teaching you poetry and fine speech, and that is all you can come up with? I should rip out your tongue for letting it go to waste.” I clamped my teeth together.

“But I’m curious: What eloquence will pour from your lips when you behold what you should have been?” My brows narrowed as Amarantha pointed behind me, that hideous eye ring indeed looking with her, and I turned.

There, nailed high on the wall of the enormous cavern, was the mangled corpse of a young woman. Her skin was burned in places, her fingers were bent at odd angles, and garish red lines crisscrossed her naked body. I could hardly hear Amarantha over the roar in my ears.

“Perhaps I should have listened when she said she’d never seen Tamlin before,” Amarantha mused. “Or when she insisted she’d never killed a faerie, never hunted a day in her life. Though her screaming was delightful. I haven’t heard such lovely music in ages.” Her next words were directed at me. “I should thank you for giving Rhysand her name instead of yours.” Clare Beddor.

This was where they’d taken her, what they’d done to her after they burned her family alive in their house. This was what I’d done to her, by giving Rhysand her name to protect my family.

My insides twisted; it was a concentrated effort not to empty my stomach onto the stones.

The Attor’s talons dug into my shoulders as it shoved me around to face Amarantha, who was still giving me that snake’s smile. I had as good as killed Clare. I’d saved my own life and damned her. That rotting body on the wall should be mine. Mine.

Mine.

“Come now, precious,” Amarantha said. “What have you to say to that?”

I wanted to spit that she deserved to burn in Hell for eternity, but I could only see Clare’s body nailed there, even as I stared blankly at Tamlin. He’d let them kill Clare like that—to keep them from knowing that I was alive. My eyes stung as bile burned my throat.

“Do you still wish to claim someone who would do that to an innocent?” Amarantha said softly—consolingly.

I snapped my gaze to her. I wouldn’t let Clare’s death be in vain. I wasn’t going down without a fight. “Yes,” I said. “Yes, I do.” Her lip curled back, revealing too-sharp canines. And as I stared into her black eyes, I realized I was going to die.

But Amarantha leaned back in her throne and crossed her legs. “Well, Tamlin,” she said, putting a proprietary hand on his arm, “I don’t suppose you ever expected this to occur.” She waved a hand in my general direction. A murmur of laughter from those assembled echoed around me, hitting me like stones. “What do you have to say, High Lord?” I looked at the face I loved so dearly, and his next words almost sent me to my knees. “I’ve never seen her before. Someone must have glamoured her as a joke. Probably Rhysand.” Still trying to protect me, even now, even here.

“Oh, that’s not even a halfway decent lie.” Amarantha angled her head. “Could it be—could it be that you, despite your words so many years ago, return the human’s feelings? A girl with hate in her heart for our kind has managed to fall in love with a faerie. And a faerie whose father once slaughtered the human masses by my side has actually fallen in love with her, too?” She let out that crow’s laugh again. “Oh, this is too good—this is too fun.” She fingered the bone hanging from her necklace and looked at the encased eye upon her hand. “I suppose if anyone can appreciate the moment,” she said to the ring, “it would be you, Jurian.” She smiled prettily. “A pity your human whore on the side never bothered to save you, though.” Jurian—that was his eye, his finger bone. Horror coiled in my gut. Through whatever evil, whatever power, she somehow held his soul, his consciousness, to the ring, the bone.

Tamlin still looked at me without recognition, without a flicker of feeling. Perhaps she had used that same power to glamour him; perhaps she’d taken all his memories.

The queen picked at her nails. “Things have been awfully boring since Clare decided to die on me. Killing you outright, human, would be dull.” She flicked her gaze to me, then back to her nails—to the ring on her finger. “But Fate stirs the Cauldron in strange ways. Perhaps my darling Clare had to die in order for me to have some true amusement with you.” My bowels turned watery—I couldn’t help it.

“You came to claim Tamlin?” Amarantha said—it wasn’t a question, but a challenge. “Well, as it happens, I’m bored to tears of his sullen silence. I was worried when he didn’t flinch while I played with darling Clare, when he didn’t even show those lovely claws … “But I’ll make a bargain with you, human,” she said, and warning bells pealed in my mind. Unless your life depends on it, Alis had said. “You complete three tasks of my choosing—three tasks to prove how deep that human sense of loyalty and love runs, and Tamlin is yours. Just three little challenges to prove your dedication, to prove to me, to darling Jurian, that your kind can indeed love true, and you can have your High Lord.” She turned to Tamlin. “Consider it a favor, High Lord—these human dogs can make our kind so lust-blind that we lose all common sense. Better for you to see her true nature now.” “I want his curse broken, too,” I blurted. She raised a brow, her smile growing, revealing far too many of those white teeth. “I complete all three of your tasks, and his curse is broken, and we—and all his court—can leave here. And remain free forever,” I added. Magic was specific, Alis had said—that was how Amarantha had tricked them. I wouldn’t let loopholes be my downfall.

“Of course,” Amarantha purred. “I’ll throw in another element, if you don’t mind—just to see if you’re worthy of one of our kind, if you’re smart enough to deserve him.” Jurian’s eye swiveled wildly, and she clicked her tongue at it. The eye stopped moving. “I’ll give you a way out, girl,” she went on. “You’ll complete all the tasks—or, when you can’t stand it anymore, all you have to do is answer one question.” I could barely hear her above the blood pounding in my ears. “A riddle. You solve the riddle, and his curse will be broken. Instantaneously. I won’t even need to lift my finger and he’ll be free. Say the right answer, and he’s yours. You can answer it at any time—but if you answer incorrectly …” She pointed, and I didn’t need to turn to know she gestured to Clare.

I turned her words over, looking for traps and loopholes within her phrasing. But it all sounded right. “And what if I fail your tasks?” Her smile became almost grotesque, and she rubbed a thumb across the dome of her ring. “If you fail a task, there won’t be anything left of you for me to play with.” A chill slithered down my spine. Alis had warned me—warned me against bargains. But Amarantha would kill me in an instant if I said no. “What is the nature of my tasks?” “Oh, revealing that would take all the fun out of it. But I’ll tell you that you’ll have one task every month—at the full moon.” “And in the meantime?” I dared a glance at Tamlin. The gold in his eyes was brighter than I remembered.

“In the meantime,” Amarantha said a bit sharply, “you shall either remain in your cell or do whatever additional work I require.” “If you run me ragged, won’t that put me at a disadvantage?” I knew she was losing interest—that she hadn’t expected me to question her so much. But I had to try to gain some kind of edge.

“Nothing beyond basic housework. It’s only fair for you to earn your keep.” I could have strangled her for that, but I nodded. “Then we are agreed.” I knew she waited for me to echo her response, but I had to make sure. “If I complete your three tasks or solve your riddle, you’ll do as I request?” “Of course,” Amarantha said. “Is it agreed?”

His face ghastly white, Tamlin’s eyes met with mine, and they almost imperceptibly widened. No.

But it was either this or death—death like Clare’s, slow and brutal. The Attor hissed behind me, a warning to reply. I didn’t believe in Fate or the Cauldron—and I had no other choice.

Because when I looked into Tamlin’s eyes, even now, seated beside Amarantha as her slave or worse, I loved him with a fierceness that swept up my whole heart. Because when he had widened his eyes, I’d known he still loved me.

I had nothing left but that, but the shred of fool’s hope that I might win—that I might outwit and defeat a Faerie Queen as ancient as the stone beneath me.

“Well?” Amarantha demanded. Behind me, I sensed the Attor preparing to pounce, to beat the answer from me, if need be. She’d tricked them all, but I hadn’t survived poverty and years in the woods for naught. My best chance lay in revealing nothing about myself, or what I knew. What was her court but another forest, another hunting ground?

I glanced at Tamlin one last time before I said “Agreed.”

Amarantha gave me a small, horrible smile, and magic sizzled in the air between us as she snapped her fingers. She nestled back in her throne. “Give her a greeting worthy of my hall,” she said to someone behind me.

The Attor’s hiss was my only warning as something rock-hard collided with my jaw.

I was thrown sideways, stunned from the pain, but another brutal blow to my face awaited. Bones crunched—my bones. My legs twisted beneath me, and the Attor’s leathery skin grated against my cheek as it punched me again. I ricocheted away, but met with the fist of another—a twisted, lesser faerie whose face I didn’t glimpse. It was like being slugged with a brick. Crunch, crack. I think there were three of them, and I became their punching bag—passed off from blow to blow, my bones screaming in agony. Maybe I was screaming in agony, too.

Blood sprayed from my mouth, and its metallic tang coated my tongue before I knew no more.

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