فصل 35

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Chapter 35

My senses slowly returned to me, each one more painful than the last. The sound of dripping water first, then the fading echo of heavy footsteps. A lingering coppery taste coated my mouth—blood. Above the wheezing of what had to be my clogged nostrils, the tang of mold and the reek of mildew scented the damp, cold air. Sharp bits of hay jabbed my cheek. My tongue probed the makings of a split lip, and the movement set my face on fire. Wincing, I opened my eyes, but could only manage to widen them a little—swelling. What I beheld through my undoubtedly black eyes didn’t do much for my spirits.

I was in a prison cell. My weapons were gone, and my only sources of light were the torches beyond the door. Amarantha had said a cell was to be where I would spend my time, but even as I sat up—my head so dizzy I almost blacked out again—my heartbeat quickened. A dungeon. I examined the slants of light that crept in through the cracks between the door and the wall, then gingerly touched my face.

It ached—ached worse than anything I’d ever endured. I bit down on a cry as my fingers grazed my nose, flakes of blood crumbling from my nostrils. It was broken. Broken. I would have clenched my teeth had my jaw not been a throbbing mess of agony, too.

I couldn’t panic. No, I had to keep my tears in check, had to keep my wits together. I had to survey the damage as best I could, then figure out what to do. Maybe my shirt could be used for bandages—maybe they would give me water at some point to wash out the injuries. Taking a breath that was all too shallow, I explored the rest of my face. My jaw wasn’t broken, and though my eyes were swollen and my lip was split, the worst damage was to my nose.

I curled my knees to my chest, grasping them tightly as I reined in my breathing. I’d violated one of Alis’s rules. I’d had no choice, though. Seeing Tamlin seated beside Amarantha … My jaw protested, but I ground my teeth anyway. The full moon—it had been a half moon when I left my father’s home. How long had I been unconscious down here? I wasn’t foolish enough to believe that any amount of time would prepare me for Amarantha’s first task.

I didn’t allow myself to imagine what she had in mind for me. It was enough to know that she expected me to die—that there wouldn’t be enough left of me for her to torture.

I gripped my legs harder to keep my hands from shaking. Somewhere—not too far off—screaming began. A high-pitched, pleading bleat, accentuated with crescendos of shrieking that made bile sting in my throat. I might sound like that when faced with Amarantha’s first task.

A whip cracked, and the screaming built, hardly pausing for a breath. Clare had probably cried similarly. I had as good as tortured her myself. What had she made of all this—all these faeries lusting after her blood and misery? I deserved this—deserved whatever pain and suffering was in store—if only for what she had endured. But … but I would make it right. Somehow.

I must have drifted off at some point, because I awoke to the scrape of my cell door against stone. Forgetting the cascading pain in my face, I scrambled to duck into the shadows of the nearest corner. Someone slipped into my cell and swiftly shut the door—leaving it just a bit ajar.

“Feyre?”

I tried to stand, but my legs shook so badly that I couldn’t move. “Lucien?” I breathed, and the hay crunched as he dropped to the ground before me.

“By the Cauldron, are you all right?”

“My face—”

A small light flared by his head, and as his eyes swam into view, the metal one narrowed. He hissed. “Have you lost your mind? What are you doing here?” I fought the tears—they were pointless, anyway. “I went back to the manor … Alis told me … told me about the curse, and I couldn’t let Amarantha—” “You shouldn’t have come, Feyre,” he said sharply. “You weren’t meant to be here. Don’t you understand what he sacrificed in getting you out? How could you be so foolish?” “Well, I’m here now!” I said, louder than was wise. “I’m here, and there’s nothing that can be done about it, so don’t bother telling me about my weak human flesh and my stupidity! I know all that, and I …” I wanted to cover my face in my hands, but it hurt too much. “I just … I had to tell him that I love him. To see if it wasn’t too late.” Lucien sat back on his heels. “So you know everything, then.” I managed to nod without blacking out from the pain. My agony must have shown, because he winced. “Well, at least we don’t have to lie to you anymore. Let’s clean you up a bit.” “I think my nose is broken. But nothing else.” As I said it, I looked around him for any signs of water or bandages—and found none. It would be magic, then.

Lucien glanced over his shoulder, checking the door. “The guards are drunk, but their replacements will be here soon,” he said, and then studied my nose. I braced myself as I allowed him to gently touch it. Even the graze of his fingertips sent flashes of burning pain through me. “I’m going to have to set it before I can heal it.” I clamped down on my blind panic. “Do it. Right now.” Before I could wallow in my cowardice and tell him to forget about it. He hesitated. “Now,” I panted.

Too swift for me to follow, his fingers latched onto my nose. Pain lanced through me, and a crack burst through my ears, my head, before I fainted.

When I came to, I could open both eyes fully, and my nose—my nose was clear, and didn’t throb or send agony splintering through my face. Lucien was crouched over me, frowning. “I couldn’t heal you completely—they would know someone helped you. The bruises are there, along with a hideous black eye, but … all the swelling’s gone.” “And my nose?” I said, feeling it before he answered.

“Fixed—as pert and pretty as before.” He smirked at me. The familiar gesture made my chest tighten to the point of pain.

“I thought she’d taken most of your power,” I managed to say. I’d barely seen him handle magic at all while at the estate.

He nodded to the little light bobbing over his shoulder. “She gave me back a fraction—to entice Tamlin to accept her offer. But he still refuses her.” He jerked his chin to my healed face. “I knew some good would come of being down here.” “So you’re trapped Under the Mountain, too?”

A grim nod. “She’s summoned all the High Lords to her now—and even those who swore obedience are now forbidden to leave until … until your trials are over.” Until I was dead was probably what he truly meant. “That ring,” I said. “Is it—is it actually Jurian’s eye?” Lucien cringed. “Indeed. So you really know everything, then?”

“Alis didn’t say what happened after Jurian and Amarantha faced each other.”

“They wrecked an entire battlefield, using their soldiers as shields, until their forces were nearly all dead. Jurian had been gifted some protection against her, but once they entered into single combat … It didn’t take her long to render him prone. Then she dragged him back to her camp and took weeks—weeks—to torture and kill him. She refused orders to march to the King of Hybern’s aid—cost him armies and the War; she refused to do anything until she’d finished Jurian’s demise. All that she kept was his finger bone and his eye. Clythia promised him that he would never die—and so long as Amarantha keeps that eye of his preserved through her magic, keeps his soul and consciousness bound to it, he’ll remain trapped, watching through it. A fitting punishment for what he did, but”—Lucien tapped his own missing eye—“I’m glad she didn’t do the same to me. She seems to have an obsession with that sort of thing.” I shuddered. A huntress—she was little more than an immortal, cruel huntress, collecting trophies from her kills and conquests to gloat over through the ages. The rage and despair and horror Jurian must endure every day, for eternity … Deserved, perhaps, but worse than anything I could imagine. I shook the thought from me. “Is Tamlin—” “He’s—” But Lucien shot to his feet at a sound my human ears couldn’t hear. “The guards are about to change rotations and are headed this way. Try not to die, will you? I already have a long list of faeries to kill—I don’t need to add more to it, if only for Tamlin’s sake.” Which was no doubt why he’d even come down here.

Lucien vanished—just vanished into the dim light. A moment later, a yellowish eye tinged with red appeared at the peephole in the door, glared at me, and continued onward.

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I dozed on and off for what could have been hours or days. They gave me three miserable meals of stale bread and water at no regular interval that I could detect. All I knew when the door to my cell swung open was that my relentless hunger no longer mattered, and it would be wise not to struggle when the two squat, red-skinned faeries half dragged me to the throne room. I marked the path, picking out details in the hall—interesting cracks in the walls, features in the tapestries, an odd bend—anything to remind me of the way out of the dungeons.

I observed more of Amarantha’s throne room this time, too, noting the exits. No windows, as we were underground. And the mountain I’d seen depicted on that map at the manor was in the heart of the land—far from the Spring Court, even farther from the wall. If I were to escape with Tamlin, my best chance would be to run for that cave in the belly of the mountain.

A crowd of faeries stood along a far wall. Over their heads, I could make out the arch of a doorway. I tried not to look up at Clare’s rotting body as we passed, and instead focused on the assembled court. Everyone was clad in rich, colorful clothing—all of them seeming clean and fed. Dispersed among them were faeries with masks. The Spring Court. If I had any chance of finding allies, it would be with them.

I scanned the crowd for Lucien but didn’t find him before I was thrown at the foot of the dais. Amarantha wore a gown of rubies, drawing attention to her red-gold hair and to her lips, which spread in a serpentine smile as I looked up at her.

The Faerie Queen clicked her tongue. “You look positively dreadful.” She turned to Tamlin, still at her side. His expression remained distant. “Wouldn’t you say she’s taken a turn for the worse?” He didn’t reply; he didn’t even meet my gaze.

“You know,” Amarantha mused, leaning against an arm of her throne, “I couldn’t sleep last night, and I realized why this morning.” She ran an eye over me. “I don’t know your name. If you and I are going to be such close friends for the next three months, I should know your name, shouldn’t I?” I prevented myself from nodding. There was something charming and inviting about her—a part of me began to understand why the High Lords had fallen under her thrall, believed in her lies. I hated her for it.

When I didn’t reply, Amarantha frowned. “Come, now, pet. You know my name—isn’t it fair that I know yours?” There was movement to my right, and I tensed as the Attor appeared through the parted crowd, grinning at me with row after row of teeth. “After all”—Amarantha waved an elegant hand to the space behind me, the crystal casing around Jurian’s eye catching the light—“you’ve already learned the consequences of giving false names.” A black cloud wrapped around me as I sensed Clare’s nailed form on the wall behind me. Still, I kept my mouth shut.

“Rhysand,” Amarantha said—not needing to raise her voice to summon him. My heart became a leaden weight as those casual, strolling steps sounded from behind. They stopped when they were beside me—far too close for my liking.

From the corner of my eye, I studied the High Lord of the Night Court as he bowed at the waist. Night still seemed to ripple off him, like some near-invisible cloak.

Amarantha lifted her brows. “Is this the girl you saw at Tamlin’s estate?”

He brushed some invisible fleck of dust off his black tunic before he surveyed me. His violet eyes held boredom—and disdain. “I suppose.” “But did you or did you not tell me that girl,” Amarantha said, her tone sharpening as she pointed to Clare, “was the one you saw?” He stuffed his hands into his pockets. “Humans all look alike to me.”

Amarantha gave him a saccharine smile. “And what about faeries?”

Rhysand bowed again—so smooth it looked like a dance. “Among a sea of mundane faces, yours is a work of art.” Had I not been straddling the line between life and death, I might have snorted.

Humans all look alike … I didn’t believe him for a second. Rhysand knew exactly how I looked—he’d recognized me that day at the manor. I willed my features into neutrality as Amarantha’s attention again returned to me.

“What’s her name?” she demanded of Rhysand.

“How would I know? She lied to me.” Either toying with Amarantha was a joke to him—as much of a joke as impaling a head in Tamlin’s garden—or … it was just more court scheming.

I braced myself for the scrape of those talons against my mind, braced myself for the order I was sure she was to give next.

Still, I kept my lips sealed. I prayed Nesta had hired those scouts and guards—prayed she’d persuaded my father to take the precautions.

“If you’re inclined to play games, girl, then I suppose we can do this the fun way,” Amarantha said. She snapped her fingers at the Attor, who reached into the crowd and grabbed someone. Red hair glinted, and I jolted a step as the Attor yanked Lucien forward by the collar of his green tunic. No. No.

Lucien thrashed against the Attor but could do nothing against those needlelike nails as it forced him to his knees. The Attor smiled, releasing his tunic, but kept close.

Amarantha flicked a finger in Rhysand’s direction. The High Lord of the Night Court lifted a groomed brow. “Hold his mind,” she commanded.

My heart dropped to the floor. Lucien went utterly still, sweat gleaming on his neck as Rhysand bowed his head to the queen and faced him.

Behind them, pressing to the front of the crowd, came four tall, red-haired High Fae. Toned and muscled, some of them looking like warriors about to set foot on a battlefield, some like pretty courtiers, they all stared at Lucien—and grinned. The four remaining sons of the High Lord of the Autumn Court.

“Her name, Emissary?” Amarantha asked of Lucien. But Lucien only glanced at Tamlin before closing his eyes and squaring his shoulders. Rhysand began smiling faintly, and I shuddered at the memory of what those invisible claws had felt like as they gripped my mind. How easy it would have been for him to crush it.

Lucien’s brothers lurked on the edges of the crowd—no remorse, no fear on their handsome faces.

Amarantha sighed. “I thought you would have learned your lesson, Lucien. Though this time your silence will damn you as much as your tongue.” Lucien kept his eyes shut. Ready—he was ready for Rhysand to wipe out everything he was, to turn his mind, his self, into dust.

“Her name?” she asked Tamlin, who didn’t reply. His eyes were fixed on Lucien’s brothers, as if marking who was smiling the broadest.

Amarantha ran a nail down the arm of her throne. “I don’t suppose your handsome brothers know, Lucien,” she purred.

“If we did, Lady, we would be the first to tell you,” said the tallest. He was lean, well dressed, every inch of him a court-trained bastard. Probably the eldest, given the way even the ones who looked like born warriors stared at him with deference and calculation—and fear.

Amarantha gave him a considering smile and lifted her hand. Rhysand cocked his head, his eyes narrowing slightly on Lucien.

Lucien stiffened. A groan slipped out of him, and—

“Feyre!” I shouted. “My name is Feyre.”

It was all I could do to keep from sinking to my knees as Amarantha nodded and Rhysand stepped back. He hadn’t even removed his hands from his pockets.

She must have allowed him more power than the others, then, if he could still inflict such harm while leashed to her. Or else his power before she’d stolen it had been … extraordinary, for this to be considered the basest remnants.

Lucien sagged on the ground, trembling. His brothers frowned—the eldest going so far as to bare his teeth at me in a silent snarl. I ignored him.

“Feyre,” Amarantha said, testing my name, the taste of the two syllables on her tongue. “An old name—from our earlier dialects. Well, Feyre,” she said. I could have wept with relief when she didn’t ask for my family name. “I promised you a riddle.” Everything became thick and murky. Why did Tamlin do nothing, say nothing? What had Lucien been about to say before he’d fled my cell?

“Solve this, Feyre, and you and your High Lord, and all his court, may immediately leave with my blessing. Let’s see if you are indeed clever enough to deserve one of our kind.” Her dark eyes shone, and I cleared my mind as best I could as she spoke.

There are those who seek me a lifetime but never we meet,

And those I kiss but who trample me beneath ungrateful feet.

At times I seem to favor the clever and the fair,

But I bless all those who are brave enough to dare.

By large, my ministrations are soft-handed and sweet,

But scorned, I become a difficult beast to defeat.

For though each of my strikes lands a powerful blow,

When I kill, I do it slow …

I blinked, and she repeated herself, smiling when she finished, smug as a cat. My mind was void, a blank mass of uselessness. Could it be some sort of disease? My mother had died of typhus, and her cousin had died of malaria after going to Bharat … But none of those symptoms seemed to match the riddle. Maybe it was a person?

A ripple of laughter spread across those assembled behind us, the loudest from Lucien’s brothers. Rhysand was watching me, wreathed in night and smiling faintly.

The answer was so close—one little answer and we could all be free. Immediately, she’d said—as opposed to … wait, had the conditions of my trials been different from those of the riddle? She’d emphasized immediately only when talking about solving the riddle. No, I couldn’t think about that right now. I had to solve this riddle. We could all be free. Free.

But I couldn’t do it—I couldn’t even come up with a possibility. I’d be better off slitting my own throat and ending my suffering there, before she could rip me to shreds. I was a fool—a common human idiot. I looked to Tamlin. The gold in his eyes flickered, but his face betrayed nothing.

“Think on it,” Amarantha said consolingly, and flicked a grin down at her ring—at the eye swiveling within. “When it comes to you, I’ll be waiting.” I gazed at Tamlin even as I was pulled away to the dungeons, my vacant mind reeling.

As they locked me in my cell once more, I knew I was going to lose.

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I spent two days in that cell, or at least I figured it was two days, based on the meal pattern I’d begun to work out. I ate the decent parts of the half-moldy food, and though I hoped for it, Lucien never came to see me. I knew better than to wish for Tamlin.

I had little to do other than ponder Amarantha’s riddle. The more I thought about it, the less sense it made. I dwelled on various kinds of poisons and venomous animals—and that yielded nothing beyond my growing sense of stupidity. Not to mention the nagging feeling that she might have wound up tricking me with this bargain when she’d emphasized immediately regarding the riddle. Maybe she meant she would not free us immediately after I finished her trials. That she could take however long she wanted. No—no, I was just being paranoid. I was overthinking it. But the riddle could free us all—instantaneously. I had to solve it.

While I’d sworn not to think too long on what tasks awaited me, I didn’t doubt Amarantha’s imagination, and I often awoke sweating and panting from my restless dreams—dreams in which I was trapped within a crystal ring, forever silent and forced to witness their bloodthirsty, cruel world, cleaved from everything I’d ever loved. Amarantha had claimed there wouldn’t be enough left of me to play with if I failed a trial—and I prayed that she hadn’t lied. Better to be obliterated than to endure Jurian’s fate.

Still, fear like nothing I had ever known swallowed me whole when my cell door opened and the red-skinned guards told me that the full moon had arisen.

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