فصل 43

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Chapter 43

For my final task, I was given my old tunic and pants—stained and torn and reeking—but despite my stench, I kept my chin high as I was escorted to the throne room.

The doors were flung open, and the silence of the room assaulted me. I waited for the jeers and shouts, waited to see gold flash as the onlookers placed their bets, but this time the faeries just stared at me, the masked ones especially intently.

Their world rested on my shoulders, Rhys had said. But I didn’t think it was worry alone that was spread across their features. I had to swallow hard as a few of them touched their fingers to their lips, then extended their hands to me—a gesture for the fallen, a farewell to the honored dead. There was nothing malicious about it. Most of these faeries belonged to the courts of the High Lords—had belonged to those courts long before Amarantha seized their lands, their lives. And if Tamlin and Rhysand were playing games to keep us alive … I strode up the path they’d cleared—straight for Amarantha. The queen smiled when I stopped in front of her throne. Tamlin was in his usual place beside her, but I wouldn’t look at him—not yet.

“Two trials lie behind you,” Amarantha said, picking at a fleck of dust on her blood-red gown. Her black hair shone, a gleaming darkness that threatened to swallow up her golden crown. “And only one more awaits. I wonder if it will be worse to fail now—when you are so close.” She gave me a pout, and we both awaited the laughter of the faeries.

But only a few laughs hissed from the red-skinned guards. Everyone else remained silent. Even Lucien’s miserable brothers. Even Rhysand, wherever he was in the crowd.

I blinked to clear my burning eyes. Perhaps, like Rhysand’s, their oaths of allegiance and betting on my life and nastiness had been a show. And perhaps now—now that the end was imminent—they, too, would face my potential death with whatever dignity they had left.

Amarantha glared at them, but when her gaze fell upon me, she smiled broadly, sweetly. “Any words to say before you die?” I came up with a plethora of curses, but I instead looked at Tamlin. He didn’t react—his features were like stone. I wished that I could glimpse his face—if only for a moment. But all I needed to see were those green eyes.

“I love you,” I said. “No matter what she says about it, no matter if it’s only with my insignificant human heart. Even when they burn my body, I’ll love you.” My lips trembled, and my vision clouded before several warm tears slipped down my chilled face. I didn’t wipe them away.

He didn’t react—he didn’t even grip the arms of his throne. I supposed that was his way of enduring it, even if it made my chest cave in. Even if his silence killed me.

Amarantha said sweetly, “You’ll be lucky, my darling, if we even have enough left of you to burn.” I stared at her long and hard. But her words were not met with jeers or smiles or applause from the crowd. Only silence.

It was a gift that gave me courage, that made me bunch my fists, that made me embrace the tattoo on my arm. I had beaten her until now, fairly or not, and I would not feel alone when I died. I would not die alone. It was all I could ask for.

Amarantha propped her chin on a hand. “You never figured out my riddle, did you?” I didn’t respond, and she smiled. “Pity. The answer is so lovely.” “Get it over with,” I growled.

Amarantha looked at Tamlin. “No final words to her?” she said, quirking an eyebrow. When he didn’t respond, she grinned at me. “Very well, then.” She clapped her hands twice.

A door swung open, and three figures—two male and one female—with brown sacks tied over their heads were dragged in by the guards. Their concealed faces turned this way and that as they tried to discern the whispers that rippled across the throne room. My knees bent slightly as they approached.

With sharp jabs and blunt shoves, the red-skinned guards forced the three faeries to their knees at the foot of the dais, but facing me. Their bodies and clothes revealed nothing of who they were.

Amarantha clapped her hands again, and three servants clad in black appeared at the side of each of the kneeling faeries. In their long, pale hands, they each carried a dark velvet pillow. And on each pillow lay a single polished wooden dagger. Not metal for a blade, but ash. Ash, because— “Your final task, Feyre,” Amarantha drawled, gesturing to the kneeling faeries. “Stab each of these unfortunate souls in the heart.” I stared at her, my mouth opening and closing.

“They’re innocent—not that it should matter to you,” she went on, “since it wasn’t a concern the day you killed Tamlin’s poor sentinel. And it wasn’t a concern for dear Jurian when he butchered my sister. But if it’s a problem … well, you can always refuse. Of course, I’ll take your life in exchange, but a bargain’s a bargain, is it not? If you ask me, though, given your history with murdering our kind, I do believe I’m offering you a gift.” Refuse and die. Kill three innocents and live. Three innocents, for my own future. For my own happiness. For Tamlin and his court and the freedom of an entire land.

The wood of the razor-sharp daggers had been polished so expertly that it gleamed beneath the colored glass chandeliers.

“Well?” she asked. She lifted her hand, letting Jurian’s eye get a good look at me, at the ash daggers, and purred to it, “I wouldn’t want you to miss this, old friend.” I couldn’t. I couldn’t do it. It wasn’t like hunting; it wasn’t for survival or defense. It was cold-blooded murder—the murder of them, of my very soul. But for Prythian—for Tamlin, for all of them here, for Alis and her boys … I wished I knew the name of one of our forgotten gods so that I might beg them to intercede, wished I knew any prayers at all to plead for guidance, for absolution.

But I did not know those prayers, or the names of our forgotten gods—only the names of those who would remain enslaved if I did not act. I silently recited those names, even as the horror of what knelt before me began to swallow me whole. For Prythian, for Tamlin, for their world and my own … These deaths would not be wasted—even if it would damn me forever.

I stepped up to the first kneeling figure—the longest and most brutal step I’d ever taken. Three lives in exchange for Prythian’s liberation—three lives that would not be spent in vain. I could do this. I could do this, even with Tamlin watching. I could make this sacrifice—sacrifice them … I could do this.

My fingers trembled, but the first dagger wound up in my hand, its hilt cool and smooth, the wood of the blade heavier than I’d expected. There were three daggers, because she wanted me to feel the agony of reaching for that knife again and again. Wanted me to mean it.

“Not so fast.” Amarantha chuckled, and the guards who held the first kneeling figure snatched the hood off its face.

It was a handsome High Fae youth. I didn’t know him, I’d never seen him, but his blue eyes were pleading. “That’s better,” Amarantha said, waving her hand again. “Proceed, Feyre, dear. Enjoy it.” His eyes were the color of a sky I’d never see again if I refused to kill him, a color I’d never get out of my mind, never forget no matter how many times I painted it. He shook his head, those eyes growing so large that white showed all around. He would never see that sky, either. And neither would these people, if I failed.

“Please,” he whispered, his focus darting between the ash dagger and my face. “Please.” The dagger shook between my fingers, and I clenched it tighter. Three faeries—that’s all that stood between me and freedom, before Tamlin would be unleashed upon Amarantha. If he could destroy her … Not in vain, I told myself. Not in vain.

“Don’t,” the faerie youth begged when I lifted the dagger. “Don’t!”

I took a gasping breath, my lips shaking as I quailed. Saying “I’m sorry” wasn’t enough. I’d never been able to say it to Andras—and now … now … “Please!” he said, and his eyes lined with silver.

Someone in the crowd began weeping. I was taking him away from someone who possibly loved him as much as I loved Tamlin.

I couldn’t think about it, couldn’t think about who he was, or the color of his eyes, or any of it. Amarantha was grinning with wild, triumphant glee. Kill a faerie, fall in love with a faerie, then be forced to kill a faerie to keep that love. It was brilliant and cruel, and she knew it.

Darkness rippled near the throne, and then Rhysand was there, arms crossed—as if he’d moved to better see. His face was a mask of disinterest, but my hand tingled. Do it, the tingling said.

“Don’t,” the young faerie moaned. I began shaking my head. I couldn’t listen to him. I had to do it now, before he convinced me otherwise. “Please!” His voice rose to a shriek.

The sound jarred me so much that I lunged.

With a ragged sob, I plunged the dagger into his heart.

He screamed, thrashing in the guards’ grip as the blade cleaved through flesh and bone, smooth as if it were real metal and not ash, and blood—hot and slick—showered my hand. I wept, yanking out the dagger, the reverberations of his bones against the blade stinging my hand.

His eyes, full of shock and hate, remained on me as he sagged, damning me, and that person in the crowd let out a keening wail.

My bloody dagger clacked on the marble floor as I stumbled back several steps.

“Very good,” Amarantha said.

I wanted to get out of my body; I had to escape the stain of what I’d done; I had to get out—I couldn’t endure the blood on my hands, the sticky warmth between my fingers.

“Now the next. Oh, don’t look so miserable, Feyre. Aren’t you having fun?”

I faced the second figure, still hooded. A female this time. The faerie in black extended the pillow with the clean dagger, and the guards holding her tore off her hood.

Her face was simple, and her hair was gold-brown, like mine. Tears were already rolling down her round cheeks, and her bronze eyes tracked my bloody hand as I reached for the second knife. The cleanness of the wooden blade mocked the blood on my fingers.

I wanted to fall to my knees to beg her forgiveness, to tell her that her death wouldn’t be for naught. Wanted to, but there was such a rift running through me now that I could hardly feel my hands, my shredded heart. What I’d done— “Cauldron save me,” she began whispering, her voice lovely and even—like music. “Mother hold me,” she went on, reciting a prayer similar to one I’d heard once before, when Tamlin eased the passing of that lesser faerie who’d died in the foyer. Another of Amarantha’s victims. “Guide me to you.” I was unable to raise my dagger, unable to take the step that would close the distance between us. “Let me pass through the gates; let me smell that immortal land of milk and honey.” Silent tears slid down my face and neck, where they dampened the filthy collar of my tunic. As she spoke, I knew I would be forever barred from that immortal land. I knew that whatever Mother she meant would never embrace me. In saving Tamlin, I was to damn myself.

I couldn’t do this—couldn’t lift that dagger again.

“Let me fear no evil,” she breathed, staring at me—into me, into the soul that was cleaving itself apart. “Let me feel no pain.” A sob broke from my lips. “I’m sorry,” I moaned.

“Let me enter eternity,” she breathed.

I wept as I understood. Kill me now, she was saying. Do it fast. Don’t make it hurt. Kill me now. Her bronze eyes were steady, if not sorrowful. Infinitely, infinitely worse than the pleading of the dead faerie beside her.

I couldn’t do it.

But she held my gaze—held my gaze and nodded.

As I lifted the ash dagger, something inside me fractured so completely that there would be no hope of ever repairing it. No matter how many years passed, no matter how many times I might try to paint her face.

More faeries wailed now—her kinsmen and friends. The dagger was a weight in my hand—my hand, shining and coated with the blood of that first faerie.

It would be more honorable to refuse—to die, rather than murder innocents. But … but … “Let me enter eternity,” she repeated, lifting her chin. “Fear no evil,” she whispered—just for me. “Feel no pain.” I gripped her delicate, bony shoulder and drove the dagger into her heart.

She gasped, and blood spilled onto the ground like a splattering of rain. Her eyes were closed when I looked at her face again. She slumped to the floor and didn’t move.

I went somewhere far, far away from myself.

The faeries were stirring now—shifting, many whispering and weeping. I dropped the dagger, and the knock of ash on marble roared in my ears. Why was Amarantha still smiling, with only one person left between myself and freedom? I glanced at Rhysand, but his attention was fixed upon Amarantha.

One faerie—and then we were free. Just one more swing of my arm.

And maybe one more after that—maybe one more swing, up and inward and into my own heart.

It would be a relief—a relief to end it by my own hand, a relief to die rather than face this, what I’d done.

The faerie servant offered the last dagger, and I was about to reach for it when the guard removed the hood from the male kneeling before me.

My hands slackened at my sides. Amber-flecked green eyes stared up at me.

Everything came crashing down, layer upon layer, shattering and breaking and crumbling, as I gazed at Tamlin.

I whipped my head to the throne beside Amarantha’s, still occupied by my High Lord, and she laughed as she snapped her fingers. The Tamlin beside her transformed into the Attor, smiling wickedly at me.

Tricked—deceived by my own senses again. Slowly, my soul ripping further from me, I turned back to Tamlin. There was only guilt and sorrow in his eyes, and I stumbled away, almost falling as I tripped over my feet.

“Something wrong?” Amarantha asked, cocking her head.

“Not … Not fair,” I got out.

Rhysand’s face had gone pale—so, so pale.

“Fair?” Amarantha mused, playing with Jurian’s bone on her necklace. “I wasn’t aware you humans knew of the concept. You kill Tamlin, and he’s free.” Her smile was the most hideous thing I’d ever seen. “And then you can have him all to yourself.” My mouth stopped working.

“Unless,” Amarantha went on, “you think it would be more appropriate to forfeit your life. After all: What’s the point? To survive only to lose him?” Her words were like poison. “Imagine all those years you were going to spend together … suddenly alone. Tragic, really. Though a few months ago, you hated our kind enough to butcher us—surely you’ll move on easily enough.” She patted her ring. “Jurian’s human lover did.” Still on his knees, Tamlin’s eyes turned so bright—defiant.

“So,” Amarantha said, but I didn’t look at her. “What will it be, Feyre?”

Kill him and save his court and my life, or kill myself and let them all live as Amarantha’s slaves, let her and the King of Hybern wage their final war against the human realm. There was no bargain to get out of this—no part of me to sell to avoid this choice.

I stared at the ash dagger on that pillow. Alis had been right all those weeks ago: no human who came here ever walked out again. I was no exception. If I were smart, I would indeed stab my own heart before they could grab me. At least then I would die quickly—I wouldn’t endure the torture that surely awaited me, possibly a fate like Jurian’s. Alis had been right. But— Alis—Alis had said something … something to help me. A final part of the curse, a part they couldn’t tell me, a part that would aid me … And all she’d been able to do was tell me to listen. To listen to what I’d heard—as if I’d already learned everything I needed.

I slowly faced Tamlin again. Memories flashed, one after another, blurs of color and words. Tamlin was High Lord of the Spring Court—what did that do to help me? The Great Rite was performed—no.

He lied to me about everything—about why I’d been brought to the manor, about what was happening on his lands. The curse—he hadn’t been allowed to tell me the truth, but he hadn’t exactly pretended that everything was fine. No—he’d lied and explained as best he could and made it painfully obvious to me at every turn that something was very, very wrong.

The Attor in the garden—as hidden from me as I was from it. But Tamlin had hidden me—he’d told me to stay put and then led the Attor right toward me, let me overhear them.

He’d left the dining room doors open when he’d spoken with Lucien about—about the curse, even if I hadn’t realized it at the time. He’d spoken in public places. He’d wanted me to eavesdrop.

Because he wanted me to know, to listen—because this knowledge … I ransacked each conversation, turning over words like stones. A part of the curse I hadn’t grasped, that they couldn’t explicitly tell me, but Tamlin had needed me to know … Milady makes no bargains that are not advantageous to her.

She would never kill what she desired most—not when she wanted Tamlin as much as I did. But if I killed him … she either knew I couldn’t do it, or she was playing a very, very dangerous game.

Conversation after conversation echoed in my memory, until I heard Lucien’s words, and everything froze. And that was when I knew.

I couldn’t breathe, not as I replayed the memory, not as I recalled the conversation I’d overheard one day. Lucien and Tamlin in the dining room, the door wide open for all to hear—for me to hear.

“For someone with a heart of stone, yours is certainly soft these days.”

I looked at Tamlin, my eyes flicking to his chest as another memory flashed. The Attor in the garden, laughing.

“Though you have a heart of stone, Tamlin,” the Attor said, “you certainly keep a host of fear inside it.” Amarantha would never risk me killing him—because she knew I couldn’t kill him.

Not if his heart couldn’t be pierced by a blade. Not if his heart had been turned to stone.

I scanned his face, searching for any glimmer of truth. There was only that bold rebellion within his gaze.

Perhaps I was wrong—perhaps it was just a faerie turn of phrase. But all those times I’d held Tamlin … I’d never felt his heartbeat. I’d been blind to everything until it came back to smack me in the face, but not this time.

That was how she controlled him and his magic. How she controlled all the High Lords, dominating and leashing them just as she kept Jurian’s soul tethered to that eye and bone.

Trust no one, Alis had told me. But I trusted Tamlin—and more than that, I trusted myself. I trusted that I had heard correctly—I trusted that Tamlin had been smarter than Amarantha, I trusted that all I had sacrificed was not in vain.

The entire room was silent, but my attention was upon only Tamlin. The revelation must have been clear on my face, for his breathing became a bit quicker, and he lifted his chin.

I took a step toward him, then another. I was right. I had to be.

I sucked in a breath as I grabbed the dagger off the outstretched pillow. I could be wrong—I could be painfully, tragically wrong.

But there was a faint smile on Tamlin’s lips as I stood over him, ash dagger in hand.

There was such a thing as Fate—because Fate had made sure I was there to eavesdrop when they’d spoken in private, because Fate had whispered to Tamlin that the cold, contrary girl he’d dragged to his home would be the one to break his spell, because Fate had kept me alive just to get to this point, just to see if I had been listening.

And there he was—my High Lord, my beloved, kneeling before me.

“I love you,” I said, and stabbed him.

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