فصل 6

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Chapter 6

The estate sprawled across a rolling green land. I’d never seen anything like it; even our former manor couldn’t compare. It was veiled in roses and ivy, with patios and balconies and staircases sprouting from its alabaster sides. The grounds were encased by woods, but stretched so far that I could barely see the distant line of the forest. So much color, so much sunlight and movement and texture … I could hardly drink it in fast enough. To paint it would be useless, would never do it justice.

My awe might have subdued my fear had the place not been so wholly empty and silent. Even the garden through which we walked, following a gravel path to the main doors of the house, seemed hushed and sleeping. Above the array of amethyst irises and pale snowdrops and butter-yellow daffodils swaying in the balmy breeze, the faint stench of metal ticked my nostrils.

Of course it would be magic, because it was spring here. What wretched power did they possess to make their lands so different from ours, to control the seasons and weather as if they owned them? Sweat trickled down my spine as my layers of clothes turned suffocating. I rotated my wrists and shifted in the saddle. Whatever bonds had held me were gone.

The faerie meandered on ahead, leaping nimbly up the grand marble staircase that led to the giant oak doors in one mighty, fluid movement. The doors swung open for him on silent hinges, and he prowled inside. He’d planned this entire arrival, no doubt—keeping me unconscious so I didn’t know where I was, didn’t know the way home or what other deadly faerie territories might be lurking between me and the wall. I felt for my knife, but found only layers of frayed clothes.

The thought of those claws pawing through my cloak to find my knife made my mouth go dry. I shoved away the fury and terror and disgust as my horse came to a stop of her own accord at the foot of the stairs. The message was clear enough. The towering estate house seemed to be watching, waiting.

I glanced over my shoulder toward the still-open gates. If I were to bolt, it would have to be now.

South—all I had to do was go south, and I would eventually make it to the wall. If I didn’t encounter anything before then. I tugged on the reins, but the mare remained stationary—even as I dug my heels into her sides. I let out a low, sharp hiss. Fine. On foot.

My knees buckled as I hit the ground, bits of light flashing in my vision. I grasped the saddle and winced as soreness and hunger racked my senses. Now—I had to go now. I made to move, but the world was still spinning and flashing.

Only a fool would run with no food, no strength.

I wouldn’t get half a mile like this. I wouldn’t get half a mile before he caught me and tore me to ribbons, as he’d promised.

I took a long, shuddering breath. Food—getting food, then running at the next opportune moment. It sounded like a solid plan.

When I was steady enough to walk, I left the horse at the bottom of the stairs, taking the steps one at a time. My breath tight in my chest, I passed through the open doors and into the shadows of the house.

Inside, it was even more opulent. Black-and-white checkered marble shone at my feet, flowing to countless doors and a sweeping staircase. A long hall stretched ahead to the giant glass doors at the other end of the house, and through them I glimpsed a second garden, grander than the one out front. No sign of a dungeon—no shouts or pleas rising up from hidden chambers below. No, just the low growl from a nearby room, so deep that it rattled the vases overflowing with fat clusters of hydrangea atop the scattered hall tables. As if in response, an open set of polished wooden doors swung wider to my left. A command to follow.

My fingers shook as I rubbed my eyes. I’d known the High Fae had once built themselves palaces and temples around the world—buildings that my mortal ancestors had destroyed after the War out of spite—but I’d never considered how they might live today, the elegance and wealth they might possess. Never contemplated that the faeries, these feral monsters, might own estates grander than any mortal dwelling.

I tensed as I entered the room.

A long table—longer than any we’d ever possessed at our manor—filled most of the space. It was laden with food and wine—so much food, some of it wafting tendrils of steam, that my mouth watered. At least it was familiar, and not some strange faerie delicacy: chicken, bread, peas, fish, asparagus, lamb … it could have been a feast at any mortal manor. Another surprise. The beast padded to the oversized chair at the head of the table.

I lingered by the threshold, gazing at the food—all that hot, glorious food—that I couldn’t eat. That was the first rule we were taught as children, usually in songs or chants: If misfortune forced you to keep company with a faerie, you never drank their wine, never ate their food. Ever. Unless you wanted to wind up enslaved to them in mind and soul—unless you wanted to wind up dragged back to Prythian. Well, the second part had already happened, but I might stand a chance at avoiding the first.

The beast plopped into the chair, the wood groaning, and, in a flash of white light, turned into a golden-haired man.

I stifled a cry and pushed myself against the paneled wall beside the door, feeling for the molding of the threshold, trying to gauge the distance between me and escape. This beast was not a man, not a lesser faerie. He was one of the High Fae, one of their ruling nobility: beautiful, lethal, and merciless.

He was young—or at least what I could see of his face seemed young. His nose, cheeks, and brows were covered by an exquisite golden mask embedded with emeralds shaped like whorls of leaves. Some absurd High Fae fashion, no doubt. It left only his eyes—looking the same as they had in his beast form, strong jaw, and mouth for me to see, and the latter tightened into a thin line.

“You should eat something,” he said. Unlike the elegance of his mask, the dark green tunic he wore was rather plain, accented only with a leather baldric across his broad chest. It was more for fighting than style, even though he bore no weapons I could detect. Not just one of the High Fae, but … a warrior, too.

I didn’t want to consider what might require him to wear a warrior’s attire and tried not to look too hard at the leather of the baldric gleaming in the sunlight streaming in through the bank of windows behind him. I hadn’t seen a cloudless sky like that in months. He filled a glass of wine from an exquisitely cut crystal decanter and drank deeply. As if he needed it.

I inched toward the door, my heart beating so fast I thought I’d vomit. The cool metal of the door’s hinges bit into my fingers. If I moved fast, I could be out of the house and sprinting for the gate within seconds. He was undoubtedly faster—but chucking some of those pretty pieces of hallway furniture in his path might slow him down. Though his Fae ears—with their delicate, pointed arches—would pick up any whisper of movement from me.

“Who are you?” I managed to say. His light golden hair was so similar to the color of his beast form’s pelt. Those giant claws undoubtedly still lurked just below the surface of his skin.

“Sit,” he said gruffly, waving a broad hand to encompass the table. “Eat.”

I ran through the chants in my head, again and again. Not worth it—easing my ravenous hunger was definitely not worth the risk of being enslaved to him in mind and soul.

He let out a low growl. “Unless you’d rather faint?”

“It’s not safe for humans,” I managed to say, offense be damned.

He huffed a laugh—more feral than anything. “The food is fine for you to eat, human.” Those strange green eyes pinned me to the spot, as if he could detect every muscle in my body that was priming to bolt. “Leave, if you want,” he added with a flash of teeth. “I’m not your jailer. The gates are open—you can live anywhere in Prythian.” And no doubt be eaten or tormented by a wretched faerie. But while every inch of this place was civilized and clean and beautiful, I had to get out, had to get back. That promise to my mother, cold and vain as she was, was all I had. I made no move toward the food.

“Fine,” he said, the word laced with a growl, and began serving himself.

I didn’t have to face the consequences of refusing him another time, as someone strode past me, heading right for the head of the table.

“Well?” the stranger said—another High Fae: red-haired and finely dressed in a tunic of muted silver. He, too, wore a mask. He sketched a bow to the seated male and then crossed his arms. Somehow, he hadn’t spotted me where I was still pressed against the wall.

“Well, what?” My captor cocked his head, the movement more animal than human.

“Is Andras dead, then?”

A nod from my captor—savior, whatever he was. “I’m sorry,” he said quietly.

“How?” the stranger demanded, his knuckles white as he gripped his muscled arms.

“An ash arrow,” said the other. His red-haired companion hissed. “The Treaty’s summons led me to the mortal. I gave her safe haven.” “A girl—a mortal girl actually killed Andras.” Not a question so much as a venom-coated string of words. He glanced at the end of the table, where my empty chair stood. “And the summons found the girl responsible.” The golden-masked one gave a low, bitter laugh and pointed at me. “The Treaty’s magic brought me right to her doorstep.” The stranger whirled with fluid grace. His mask was bronze and fashioned after a fox’s features, concealing all but the lower half of his face—along with most of what looked like a wicked, slashing scar from his brow down to his jaw. It didn’t hide the eye that was missing—or the carved golden orb that had replaced it and moved as though he could use it. It fixed on me.

Even from across the room, I could see his remaining russet eye widen. He sniffed once, his lips curling a bit to reveal straight white teeth, and then he turned to the other faerie. “You’re joking,” he said quietly. “That scrawny thing brought down Andras with a single ash arrow?” Bastard—an absolute bastard. A pity I didn’t have the arrow now—so I could shoot him instead.

“She admitted to it,” the golden-haired one said tightly, tracing the rim of his goblet with a finger. A long, lethal claw slid out, scraping against the metal. I fought to keep my breathing steady. Especially as he added, “She didn’t try to deny it.” The fox-masked faerie sank onto the edge of the table, the light catching in his long fire-red hair. I could understand his mask, with that brutal scar and missing eye, but the other High Fae seemed fine. Perhaps he wore it out of solidarity. Maybe that explained the absurd fashion. “Well,” the red-haired one seethed, “now we’re stuck with that, thanks to your useless mercy, and you’ve ruined—” I stepped forward—only a step. I wasn’t sure what I was going to say, but being spoken about that way … I kept my mouth shut, but it was enough.

“Did you enjoy killing my friend, human?” the red-haired one said. “Did you hesitate, or was the hatred in your heart riding you too hard to consider sparing him? It must have been so satisfying for a small mortal thing like you to take him down.” The golden-haired one said nothing, but his jaw tightened. As they studied me, I reached for a knife that wasn’t there.

“Anyway,” the fox-masked one continued, facing his companion again with a sneer. He would likely laugh if I ever drew a weapon on him. “Perhaps there’s a way to—” “Lucien,” my captor said quietly, the name echoing with a hint of a snarl. “Behave.”

Lucien went rigid, but he hopped off the edge of the table and bowed deeply to me. “My apologies, lady.” Another joke at my expense. “I’m Lucien. Courtier and emissary.” He gestured to me with a flourish. “Your eyes are like stars, and your hair like burnished gold.” He cocked his head—waiting for me to give him my name. But telling him anything about me, about my family and where I came from— “Her name is Feyre,” said the one in charge—the beast. He must have learned my name at my cottage. Those striking green eyes met mine again and then flicked to the door. “Alis will take you to your room. You could use a bath and fresh clothes.” I couldn’t decide whether it was an insult or not. There was a firm hand at my elbow, and I flinched. A rotund brown-haired woman in a simple brass bird mask tugged on my arm and inclined her head toward the open door behind us. Her white apron was crisp above her homespun brown dress—a servant. The masks had to be some sort of trend, then.

If they cared so much about their clothes, about what even their servants wore, maybe they were shallow and vain enough for me to deceive, despite their master’s warrior clothes. Still, they were High Fae. I would have to be clever and quiet and bide my time until I could escape. So I let Alis lead me away. Room—not cell. A small relief, then.

I’d barely made it a few steps before Lucien growled, “That’s the hand the Cauldron thought to deal us? She brought Andras down? We never should have sent him out there—none of them should have been out there. It was a fool’s mission.” His growl was more bitter than threatening. Could he shape-shift as well? “Maybe we should just take a stand—maybe it’s time to say enough. Dump the girl somewhere, kill her, I don’t care—she’s nothing but a burden here. She’d sooner put a knife in your back than talk to you—or any of us.” I kept my breathing calm, my spine locking, and— “No,” the other bit out. “Not until we know for certain that there is no other way will we make a move. And as for the girl, she stays. Unharmed. End of discussion. Her life in that hovel was Hell enough.” My cheeks heated, even while I loosed a tight breath, and I avoided looking at Alis as I felt her eyes slide to me. A hovel—I suppose that’s what our cottage was when compared to this place.

“Then you’ve got your work cut out for you, old son,” Lucien said. “I’m sure her life will be a fine replacement for Andras’s—maybe she can even train with the others on the border.” A snarl of irritation resonated through the air.

The shining, spotless halls swallowed me up before I could hear more.

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Alis led me through halls of gold and silver until we came to a lavish bedroom on the second level. I’ll admit I didn’t fight that hard when Alis and two other servants—also masked—bathed me, cut my hair, and then plucked me until I felt like a chicken being prepared for dinner. For all I knew, I might very well be their next meal.

It was only the High Fae’s promise—to live out my days in Prythian instead of dying—that kept me from being sick at the thought. While these faeries also looked human, save for their ears, I’d never learned what the High Fae called their servants. But I didn’t dare to ask, or to speak to them at all, not when just having their hands on me, having them so close was enough to make me focus solely on not trembling.

Still, I took one look at the velvet turquoise dress Alis had placed on the bed and wrapped my white dressing gown tightly around me, sinking into a chair and pleading for my old clothes to be returned. Alis refused, and when I begged again, trying my best to sound pathetic and sad and pitiful, she stormed out. I hadn’t worn a dress in years. I wasn’t about to start, not when escape was my main priority. I wouldn’t be able to move freely in a gown.

Bundled in my robe, I sat for minute after minute, the chattering of small birds in the garden beyond the windows the only sounds. No screaming, no clashing weapons, no hint of any slaughter or torture.

The bedroom was larger than our entire cottage. Its walls were pale green, delicately sketched with patterns of gold, and the moldings were golden as well. I might have thought it tacky had the ivory furniture and rugs not complemented it so well. The gigantic bed was of a similar color scheme, and the curtains that hung from the towering headboard drifted in the faint breeze from the open windows. My dressing gown was of the finest silk, edged with lace—simple and exquisite enough that I ran a finger along the lapels.

The few stories I’d heard had been wrong—or five hundred years of separation had muddled them. Yes, I was still prey, still born weak and useless compared to them, but this place was … peaceful. Calm. Unless that was an illusion, too, and the loophole in the Treaty was a lie—a trick to set me at ease before they destroyed me. The High Fae liked to play with their food.

The door creaked, and Alis returned—a bundle of clothing in her hands. She lifted a sodden grayish shirt. “You want to wear this?” I gaped at the holes in the sides and sleeves. “It fell apart the moment the laundresses put it in water.” She held up a few scraps of brown. “Here’s what’s left of your pants.” I clamped down on the curse building in my chest. She might be a servant, but she could easily kill me, too.

“Will you wear the dress now?” she demanded. I knew I should get up, should agree, but I slumped farther into my seat. Alis stared me down for a moment before leaving again.

She returned with trousers and a tunic that fit me well, both of them rich with color. A bit fancy, but I didn’t complain when I donned the white shirt, nor when I buttoned the dark blue tunic and ran my hands over the scratchy, golden thread embroidered on the lapels. It had to cost a fortune in itself—and it tugged at that useless part of my mind that admired lovely and strange and colorful things.

I was too young to remember much before my father’s downfall. He’d tolerated me enough to allow me to loiter about his offices, and sometimes even explained various goods and their worth, the details of which I’d long since forgotten. My time in his offices—full of the scents of exotic spices and the music of foreign tongues—made up the majority of my few happy memories. I didn’t need to know the worth of everything in this room to understand that the emerald curtains alone—silk, with gold velvet—could have fed us for a lifetime.

A chill scuttled down my spine. It had been days since I’d left. The venison would be running low already.

Alis herded me into a low-backed chair before the darkened fireplace, and I didn’t fight back as she ran a comb through my hair and began braiding it.

“You’re hardly more than skin and bones,” she said, her fingers luxurious against my scalp.

“Winter does that to poor mortals,” I said, fighting to keep the sharpness from my tone.

She huffed a laugh. “If you’re wise, you’ll keep your mouth shut and your ears open. It’ll do you more good here than a loose tongue. And keep your wits about you—even your senses will try to betray you here.” I tried not to cringe at the warning. Alis went on. “Some folk are bound to be upset about Andras. Yet if you ask me, Andras was a good sentinel, but he knew what he would face when he crossed the wall—knew he’d likely find trouble. And the others understand the terms of the Treaty, too—even if they might resent your presence here, thanks to the mercy of our master. So keep your head down, and none of them will bother you. Though Lucien—he could do with someone snapping at him, if you’ve the courage for it.” I didn’t, and when I went to ask more about whom I should try to avoid, she had already finished with my hair and opened the door to the hall.

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