فصل 41

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Chapter 41

What followed the second trial was a series of days that I don’t care to recall. A permanent darkness settled over me, and I began to look forward to the moment when Rhysand gave me that goblet of faerie wine and I could lose myself for a few hours. I stopped contemplating Amarantha’s riddle—it was impossible. Especially for an illiterate, ignorant human.

Thinking of Tamlin made everything worse. I’d beaten two of Amarantha’s tasks, but I knew—knew it deep in my bones—that the third would be the one to kill me. After what had happened to her sister, what Jurian had done, she would never let me leave here alive. I couldn’t entirely blame her; I doubted I would ever forget or forgive something like that being done to Nesta or Elain, no matter how many centuries had passed. But I still wasn’t going to leave here alive.

The future I’d dreamed of was just that: a dream. I’d grow old and withered, while he would remain young for centuries, perhaps millennia. At best, I’d have decades with him before I died.

Decades. That was what I was fighting for. A flash in time for them—a drop in the pool of their eons.

So I greedily drank the wine, and I stopped caring about who I was and what had once mattered to me. I stopped thinking about color, about light, about the green of Tamlin’s eyes—about all those things I had still wanted to paint and now would never get to.

I wasn’t going to leave this mountain alive.

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I was walking to the dressing chamber with Rhysand’s two shadow-servants, staring at nothing and thinking of even less, when a hissing noise and the flap of wings sounded from around an upcoming corner. The Attor. The faeries beside me tensed, but their chins rose slightly.

I’d never become accustomed to the Attor, but I had come to accept its malignant presence. Seeing my escorts stiffen awakened a dormant dread, and my mouth turned dry as we neared the bend. Even though we were veiled and hidden by shadow, each step brought me closer to that winged demon. My feet turned leaden.

Then a lower, guttural voice grunted in response to the hissing of the Attor. Nails clicked on stone, and my escorts swapped glances before they swung me into an alcove, a tapestry that hadn’t been there a moment before falling over us, the shadows deepening, solidifying. I had a feeling that if someone pulled back that tapestry, they would see only darkness and stone.

One of them covered my mouth with a hand, holding me tightly to her, shadows slithering down her arm and onto mine. She smelled of jasmine—I’d never noticed that before. After all these nights, I didn’t even know their names.

The Attor and its companion rounded the bend, still talking—their voices low. It was only when I could understand their words that I realized we weren’t merely hiding.

“Yes,” the Attor was saying, “good. She’ll be most pleased to hear that they’re ready at last.”

“But will the High Lords contribute their forces?” the guttural voice replied. I could have sworn it snorted like a pig.

They came closer and closer, unaware of us. My escorts pressed in tighter to me, so tense that I realized they were holding their breath. Handmaidens—and spies.

“The High Lords will do as she tells them,” the Attor gloated, and its tail slithered and slashed across the floor.

“I heard talk from soldiers in Hybern that the High King is not pleased regarding this situation with the girl. Amarantha made a fool’s bargain. She cost him the War the last time because of her madness with Jurian; if she turns her back on him again, he will not be so willing to forgive her. Stealing his spells and taking a territory for her own is one thing. Failure to aid in his cause a second time is another.” There was a loud hiss, and I trembled as the Attor snapped its jaws at its companion. “Milady makes no bargains that are not advantageous to her. She lets them claw at hope—but once it is shattered, they are her beautifully broken minions.” They had to be passing right before the tapestry.

“You had better hope so,” the guttural voice replied. What manner of creature was this thing to be so unmoved by the Attor? My escort’s shadowy hand clamped tighter around my mouth, and the Attor passed on.

Don’t trust your senses, Alis’s voice echoed through my mind. The Attor had caught me once before when I thought I was safe … “And you had better hold your tongue,” the Attor warned. “Or Milady will do so for you—and her pincers are not kind.” The other creature snorted that pig noise. “I am here on a condition of immunity from the king. If your lady thinks she’s above the king because she rules this wretched land, she’ll soon remember who can strip her powers away—without spells and potions.” The Attor didn’t reply—and a part of me wished for it to retort, to snap back. But it was silenced, and fear hit my stomach like a stone dropped into a pool.

Whatever plans the King of Hybern had been working on for these long years—his campaign to take back the mortal world—it seemed he was no longer content to wait. Perhaps Amarantha would soon receive what she wanted: destruction of my entire realm.

My blood went cold. Nesta—I trusted Nesta to get my family away, to protect them.

Their voices faded, and it wasn’t until a good extra minute had passed that the two females relaxed. The tapestry vanished, and we slipped back into the hall.

“What was that?” I said, looking from one to the other as the shadows around us lightened—but not by much. “Who was that?” I clarified.

“Trouble,” they answered in unison.

“Does Rhysand know?”

“He will soon,” one of them said. We resumed our silent walk to the dressing room.

There was nothing I could do about the King of Hybern, anyway—not while trapped Under the Mountain, not when I hadn’t even been able to free Tamlin, much less myself. And with Nesta prepared to flee with my family, there was no one else to warn. So day after day passed, bringing my third trial ever closer.

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I suppose I sank so far into myself that it took something extraordinary to pull me out again. I was watching the light dance along the damp stones of the ceiling of my cell—like moonlight on water—when a noise traveled to me, down through the stones, rippling across the floor.

I was so used to the strange fiddles and drums of the faeries that when I heard the lilting melody, I thought it was another hallucination. Sometimes, if I stared at the ceiling long enough, it became the vast expanse of the starry night sky, and I became a small, unimportant thing that blew away in the wind.

I looked toward the small vent in the corner of the ceiling through which the music entered my cell. The source must have been far away, for it was just a faint stirring of notes, but when I closed my eyes, I could hear it more clearly. I could … see it. As if it were a grand painting, a living mural.

There was beauty in this music—beauty and goodness. The music folded over itself like batter being poured from a bowl, one note atop another, melting together to form a whole, rising, filling me. It wasn’t wild music, but there was a violence of passion in it, a swelling kind of joy and sorrow. I pulled my knees to my chest, needing to feel the sturdiness of my skin, even with the slime of the oily paint upon it.

The music built a path, an ascent founded upon archways of color. I followed it, walking out of that cell, through layers of earth, up and up—into fields of cornflowers, past a canopy of trees, and into the open expanse of sky. The pulse of the music was like hands that gently pushed me onward, pulling me higher, guiding me through the clouds. I’d never seen clouds like these—in their puffy sides, I could discern faces fair and sorrowful. They faded before I could view them too clearly, and I looked into the distance to where the music summoned me.

It was either a sunset or sunrise. The sun filled the clouds with magenta and purple, and its orange-gold rays blended with my path to form a band of shimmering metal.

I wanted to fade into it, wanted the light of that sun to burn me away, to fill me with such joy that I would become a ray of sunshine myself. This wasn’t music to dance to—it was music to worship, music to fill in the gaps of my soul, to bring me to a place where there was no pain.

I didn’t realize I was weeping until the wet warmth of a tear splashed upon my arm. But even then I clung to the music, gripping it like a ledge that kept me from falling. I hadn’t realized how badly I didn’t want to tumble into that deep dark—how much I wanted to stay here among the clouds and color and light.

I let the sounds ravage me, let them lay me flat and run over my body with their drums. Up and up, building to a palace in the sky, a hall of alabaster and moonstone, where all that was lovely and kind and fantastic dwelled in peace. I wept—wept to be so close to that palace, wept from the need to be there. Everything I wanted was there—the one I loved was there— The music was Tamlin’s fingers strumming my body; it was the gold in his eyes and the twist of his smile. It was that breathy chuckle, and the way he said those three words. It was this I was fighting for, this I had sworn to save.

The music rose—louder, grander, faster, from wherever it was played—a wave that peaked, shattering the gloom of my cell. A shuddering sob broke from me as the sound faded into silence. I sat there, trembling and weeping, too raw and exposed, left naked by the music and the color in my mind.

When the tears had stopped but the music still echoed in my every breath, I lay on my pallet of hay, listening to my breathing.

The music flittered through my memories, binding them together, making them into a quilt that wrapped around me, that warmed my bones. I looked at the eye in the center of my palm, but it only stared right back at me—unmoving.

Two more days until my final trial. Just two more days, and then I would learn what the Eddies of the Cauldron had planned for me.

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