فصل 9

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Chapter 9

The following morning, as Alis and the other servant woman prepared my bath, I contemplated my plan. Tamlin had mentioned that he and Lucien had various duties, and aside from running into him in the house yesterday, I’d seen neither of them around. So, locating Lucien—alone—would be the first order of business.

A casual question tossed in Alis’s direction had her revealing that she believed Lucien was on border patrol today—and would be at the stables, preparing to leave.

I was halfway through the gardens, hurrying toward the outcropping of buildings I’d spied the day before, when Tamlin said from behind me, “No trip wires today?” I froze midstep and looked over my shoulder. He was standing a few feet away.

How had he crept up so silently on the gravel? Faerie stealth, no doubt. I willed calm into my veins, my head. I said as politely as I could, “You said I was safe here. So I listened.” His eyes narrowed slightly, but he put on what I supposed was his attempt at a pleasant smile. “My morning work was postponed,” he said. Indeed, his usual tunic was off, the baldric gone, and the sleeves of his white shirt had been rolled up to the elbows to reveal tanned forearms corded with muscle. “If you want a ride across the grounds—if you’re interested in your new … residence, I can take you.” Again, that effort to be accommodating, even when every word seemed to pain him. Maybe he could eventually be swayed by Lucien. And until then … how much could I get away with, if he was going to such lengths to make his people swear not to harm me, to shield me from the Treaty? I smiled blandly and said, “I’d prefer to spend today alone, I think. But thank you for the offer.” He tensed. “What about—”

“No, thank you,” I interrupted, marveling a bit at my own audacity. But I had to catch Lucien alone, had to feel him out. He might already be gone.

Tamlin clenched his hands into fists, as if fighting against the claws itching to burst out. But he didn’t reprimand me, didn’t do anything other than prowl back into the house without another word.

Soon enough, if I was lucky, Tamlin wouldn’t be my problem anymore. I hurried for the stables, tucking away the information. Maybe one day, if I was ever released, if there was an ocean and years between us, I would think back and wonder why he’d bothered.

I tried not to look too eager, too out of breath when I finally reached the pretty, painted stables. It didn’t surprise me that the stableboys all wore horse masks. For them I felt a shred of pity at what the blight had done, the ridiculous masks they now had to wear until someone could figure out how to undo the magic binding them to their faces. But none of the stable hands even looked at me—either because I wasn’t worth it or because they, too, resented me for the death of Andras. I didn’t blame them.

Any attempt at casualness took a stumble when I finally found Lucien astride a black gelding, grinning down at me with too-white teeth.

“Morning, Feyre.” I tried to hide the stiffening in my shoulders, tried to smile a bit. “Going for a ride, or merely reconsidering Tam’s offer to live with us?” I tried to recall the words I’d come up with earlier, the words to win him, but he laughed—and not pleasantly. “Come now. I’m to patrol the southern woods today, and I’m curious about the … abilities you used to bring down my friend, whether accidental or not. It’s been a while since I encountered a human, let alone a Fae-killer. Indulge me in a hunt.” Perfect—at least that part of this had gone well, even if it sounded as lovely as facing a bear in its den. So I stepped aside to let a stableboy pass. He moved with a fluid smoothness, like all of them here. And didn’t look at me, either—no indication at all of what he thought of having a Fae-killer in his stable.

But my kind of hunting couldn’t be done on horseback. Mine consisted of careful stalking and well-laid traps and snares. I didn’t know how to give chase atop a horse. Lucien accepted a quiver of arrows from the returning stableboy with a nod of thanks. Lucien smiled in a way that didn’t meet that metal eye—or the russet one. “No ash arrows today, unfortunately.” I clenched my jaw to keep a retort from slipping off my tongue. If he was forbidden from hurting me, I couldn’t fathom why he would invite me along, save to mock me in whatever way he could. Perhaps he was truly that bored. Better for me.

So I shrugged, looking as bored as I could. “Well … I suppose I’m already dressed for a hunt.”

“Perfect,” Lucien said, his metal eye gleaming in the sunlight slanting in through the open stable doors. I prayed Tamlin wouldn’t come prowling through them—prayed he wouldn’t decide to go for a ride on his own and catch us here.

“Let’s go, then,” I said, and Lucien motioned for them to prepare a horse. I leaned against a wooden wall as I waited, keeping an eye on the doorway for signs of Tamlin, and offered my own bland replies to Lucien’s remarks about the weather.

Mercifully, I was soon astride a white mare, riding with Lucien through the spring-shrouded woods beyond the gardens. I kept a healthy distance from the fox-masked faerie on the broad path, hoping that eye of his couldn’t see through the back of his head.

The thought didn’t sit well, and I shoved it away—along with the part of me that marveled at the way the sun illuminated the leaves, and the clusters of crocuses that grew like flashes of vibrant purple against the brown and green. Those were things that weren’t necessary to my plans, useless details that only blocked out everything else: the shape and slope of the path, what trees were good for climbing, sounds of nearby water sources. Those things could help me survive if I ever needed to. But, like the rest of the grounds, the forest was utterly empty. No sign of faeries, nor any High Fae wandering around. Just as well.

“Well, you certainly have the quiet part of hunting down,” Lucien said, falling back to ride beside me. Good—let him come to me, rather than me seeming too eager, too friendly.

I adjusted the weight of the quiver strap across my chest, then ran a finger along the smooth curve of the yew bow in my lap. The bow was larger than the one I used at home, the arrows heavier and heads thicker. I would probably miss whatever target I found until I adjusted to the weight and balance of the bow.

Five years ago I’d taken the very last of my father’s coppers from our former fortune to purchase my bow and arrows. I’d since allotted a small sum every month for arrows and replacement strings.

“Well?” Lucien pressed. “No game good enough for you to slaughter? We’ve passed plenty of squirrels and birds.” The canopy above cast shadows upon his fox mask—light and dark and gleaming metal.

“You seem to have enough food on your table that I don’t need to add to it, especially when there’s always plenty left over.” I doubted squirrel would be good enough for their table.

Lucien snorted but didn’t say anything else as we passed beneath a flowering lilac, its purple cones drooping low enough to graze my cheek like cool, velvety fingers. The sweet, crisp scent lingered in my nose even as we rode on. Not useful, I told myself. Although … the thick brush beyond it would be a good hiding spot, if I needed one.

“You said you were an emissary for Tamlin,” I ventured. “Do emissaries usually patrol the grounds?” A casual, disinterested question.

Lucien clicked his tongue. “I’m Tamlin’s emissary for formal uses, but this was Andras’s shift. So someone needed to fill in. It’s an honor to do it.” I swallowed hard. Andras had a place here, and friends here—he hadn’t been just some nameless, faceless faerie. No doubt he was more missed than I was. “I’m … sorry,” I said—and meant it. “I didn’t know what—what he meant to you all.” Lucien shrugged. “Tamlin said as much, which was no doubt why he brought you here. Or maybe you looked so pathetic in those rags that he took pity on you.” “I wouldn’t have joined you if I’d known you would use this ride as an excuse to insult me.” Alis had mentioned that Lucien could use someone who snapped back at him. Easy enough.

Lucien smirked. “Apologies, Feyre.”

I might have called him a liar for that apology had I not known he couldn’t lie. Which made the apology … sincere? I couldn’t sort it out.

“So,” he said, “when are you going to start trying to persuade me to beseech Tamlin to find a way to free you from the Treaty’s rules?” I tried not to jolt. “What?”

“That’s why you agreed to come out here, isn’t it? Why you wound up at the stables exactly as I was leaving?” He shot me a sideways glance with that russet eye of his. “Honestly, I’m impressed—and flattered you think I have that kind of sway with Tamlin.” I wouldn’t reveal my hand—not yet. “What are you talking—”

His cocked head was answer enough. He chuckled and said, “Before you waste one of your precious few human breaths, let me explain two things to you. One: if I had my way, you’d be gone, so it wouldn’t take much convincing on your part. Two: I can’t have my way, because there is no alternative to what the Treaty demands. There’s no extra loophole.” “But—but there has to be something—”

“I admire your balls, Feyre—I really do. Or maybe it’s stupidity. But since Tam won’t gut you, which was my first choice, you’re stuck here. Unless you want to rough it on your own in Prythian, which”—he looked me up and down—“I’d advise against.” No—no, I couldn’t just … just stay here. Forever. Until I died. Maybe … maybe there was some other way, or someone else who could find a way out. I mastered my uneven breathing, shoving away the panicked, bleating thoughts.

“A valiant effort,” Lucien said with a smirk.

I didn’t bother hiding the glare I cut in his direction.

We rode on in silence, and aside from a few birds and squirrels, I saw nothing—heard nothing—unusual. After a few minutes I’d quieted my riotous thoughts enough to say, “Where is the rest of Tamlin’s court? They all fled this blight on magic?” “How’d you know about the court?” he asked so quickly that I realized he thought I meant something else.

I kept my face blank. “Do normal estates have emissaries? And servants chatter. Isn’t that why you made them wear bird masks to that party?” Lucien scowled, that scar stretching. “We each chose what to wear that night to honor Tamlin’s shape-shifting gifts. The servants, too. But now, if we had the choice, we’d peel them off with our bare hands,” he said, tugging on his own. It didn’t move.

“What happened to the magic to make it act that way?”

Lucien let out a harsh laugh. “Something was sent from the shit-holes of Hell,” he said, then glanced around and swore. “I shouldn’t have said that. If word got back to her—” “Who?”

The color had leeched from his sun-kissed skin. He dragged a hand through his hair. “Never mind. The less you know, the better. Tam might not find it troublesome to tell you about the blight, but I wouldn’t put it past a human to sell the information to the highest bidder.” I bristled, but the few bits of information he’d released lay before me like glittering jewels. A her who scared Lucien enough to make him worry—to make him afraid someone might be listening, spying, monitoring his behavior. Even out here. I studied the shadows between the trees but found nothing.

Prythian was ruled by seven High Lords—perhaps this she was whoever governed this territory; if not a High Lord, then a High Lady. If that was even possible.

“How old are you?” I asked, hoping he’d keep divulging some more useful information. It was better than knowing nothing.

“Old,” he said. He scanned the brush, but I had a feeling his darting eyes weren’t looking for game. His shoulders were too tense.

“What sort of powers do you have? Can you shape-shift like Tamlin?”

He sighed, looking skyward before he studied me warily, that metal eye narrowing with unnerving focus. “Trying to figure out my weaknesses so you can—” I glowered at him. “Fine. No, I can’t shape-shift. Only Tam can.” “But your friend—he appeared as a wolf. Unless that was his—”

“No, no. Andras was High Fae, too. Tam can shift us into other shapes if need be. He saves it for his sentries only, though. When Andras went across the wall, Tam changed him into a wolf so he wouldn’t be spotted as a faerie. Though his size was probably indication enough.” A shudder went down my spine, violent enough that I didn’t acknowledge the red-hot glare Lucien lobbed my way. I didn’t have the nerve to ask if Tamlin could change me into another shape.

“Anyway,” Lucien went on, “the High Fae don’t have specific powers the way the lesser faeries do. I don’t have a natural-born affinity, if that’s what you’re asking. I don’t clean everything in sight or lure mortals to a watery death or grant you answers to whatever questions you might have if you trap me. We just exist—to rule.” I turned in the other direction so he couldn’t see as I rolled my eyes. “I suppose if I were one of you, I’d be one of the faeries, not High Fae? A lesser faerie like Alis, waiting on you hand and foot?” He didn’t reply, which amounted to a yes. With that arrogance, no wonder Lucien found my presence as a replacement for his friend to be abhorrent. And since he would probably loathe me forever, since he’d ended my scheming before it had even begun, I asked, “How’d you get that scar?” “I didn’t keep my mouth shut when I should have, and was punished for it.”

“Tamlin did that to you?”

“Cauldron, no. He wasn’t there. But he got me the replacement afterward.”

More answers-that-weren’t-answers. “So there are faeries who will actually answer any question if you trap them?” Maybe they’d know how to free me from the Treaty’s terms.

“Yes,” he said tightly. “The Suriel. But they’re old and wicked, and not worth the danger of going out to find them. And if you’re stupid enough to keep looking so intrigued, I’m going to become rather suspicious and tell Tam to put you under house arrest. Though I suppose you would deserve it if you were indeed stupid enough to seek one out.” They had to lurk nearby, then, if he was this concerned. Lucien whipped his head to the right, listening, his eye whirring softly. The hair on my neck stood, and I had my bow drawn in a heartbeat, pointing in the direction Lucien stared.

“Put your bow down,” he whispered, his voice low and rough. “Put your damned bow down, human, and look straight ahead.” I did as he said, the hair on my arms rising as something rustled in the brush.

“Don’t react,” Lucien said, forcing his gaze ahead, too, the metal eye going still and silent. “No matter what you feel or see, don’t react. Don’t look. Just stare ahead.” I started trembling, gripping the reins in my sweaty hands. I might have wondered if this was some kind of horrible joke, but Lucien’s face had gone so very, very pale. Our horses’ ears flattened against their heads, but they continued walking, as if they’d also understood Lucien’s command.

And then I felt it.

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