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A Court of Thorns and Roses / (by Sarah J. Maas, 2015) -

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A Court of Thorns and Roses /     (by Sarah J. Maas, 2015) -

A Court of Thorns and Roses / (by Sarah J. Maas, 2015) -

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A Court of Thorns and Roses / (by Sarah J. Maas, 2015) -
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2015
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Sarah J. Maas
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Jennifer Ikeda
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/ / / upper-intermediate
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upper-intermediate
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16:08:00
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128 kbps
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mp3, pdf, doc

A Court of Thorns and Roses / :

.doc (Word) sarah_j_maas_-_a_court_of_thorns_and_roses.doc [2.69 Mb] (c: 3) .
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: A Court of Thorns and Roses

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The forest had become a labyrinth of snow and ice. I_d been monitoring the parameters of the thicket for an hour, and my vantage point in the crook of a tree branch had turned useless. The gusting wind blew thick flurries to sweep away my tracks, but buried along with them any signs of potential quarry. Hunger had brought me farther from home than I usually risked, but winter was the hard time. The animals had pulled in, going deeper into the woods than I could follow, leaving me to pick off stragglers one by one, praying they_d last until spring. They hadn_t. I wiped my numb fingers over my eyes, brushing away the flakes clinging to my lashes. Here there were no telltale trees stripped of bark to mark the deer_s passing_they hadn_t yet moved on. They would remain until the bark ran out, then travel north past the wolves_ territory and perhaps into the faerie lands of Prythian_where no mortals would dare go, not unless they had a death wish. A shudder skittered down my spine at the thought, and I shoved it away, focusing on my surroundings, on the task ahead. That was all I could do, all I_d been able to do for years: focus on surviving the week, the day, the hour ahead. And now, with the snow, I_d be lucky to spot anything_especially from my position up in the tree, scarcely able to see fifteen feet ahead. Stifling a groan as my stiff limbs protested at the movement, I unstrung my bow before easing off the tree. The icy snow crunched under my fraying boots, and I ground my teeth. Low visibility, unnecessary noise_I was well on my way to yet another fruitless hunt. Only a few hours of daylight remained. If I didn_t leave soon, I_d have to navigate my way home in the dark, and the warnings of the town hunters still rang fresh in my mind: giant wolves were on the prowl, and in numbers. Not to mention whispers of strange folk spotted in the area, tall and eerie and deadly. Anything but faeries, the hunters had beseeched our long-forgotten gods_and I had secretly prayed alongside them. In the eight years we_d been living in our village, two days_ journey from the immortal border of Prythian, we_d been spared an attack_though traveling peddlers sometimes brought stories of distant border towns left in splinters and bones and ashes. These accounts, once rare enough to be dismissed by the village elders as hearsay, had in recent months become commonplace whisperings on every market day. I had risked much in coming so far into the forest, but we_d finished our last loaf of bread yesterday, and the remainder of our dried meat the day before. Still, I would have rather spent another night with a hungry belly than found myself satisfying the appetite of a wolf. Or a faerie. Not that there was much of me to feast on. I_d turned gangly by this time of the year, and could count a good number of my ribs. Moving as nimbly and quietly as I could between the trees, I pushed a hand against my hollow and aching stomach. I knew the expression that would be on my two elder sisters_ faces when I returned to our cottage empty-handed yet again. After a few minutes of careful searching, I crouched in a cluster of snow-heavy brambles. Through the thorns, I had a half-decent view of a clearing and the small brook flowing through it. A few holes in the ice suggested it was still frequently used. Hopefully something would come by. Hopefully. I sighed through my nose, digging the tip of my bow into the ground, and leaned my forehead against the crude curve of wood. We wouldn_t last another week without food. And too many families had already started begging for me to hope for handouts from the wealthier townsfolk. I_d witnessed firsthand exactly how far their charity went. I eased into a more comfortable position and calmed my breathing, straining to listen to the forest over the wind. The snow fell and fell, dancing and curling like sparkling spindrifts, the white fresh and clean against the brown and gray of the world. And despite myself, despite my numb limbs, I quieted that relentless, vicious part of my mind to take in the snow-veiled woods. Once it had been second nature to savor the contrast of new grass against dark, tilled soil, or an amethyst brooch nestled in folds of emerald silk; once I_d dreamed and breathed and thought in color and light and shape. Sometimes I would even indulge in envisioning a day when my sisters were married and it was only me and Father, with enough food to go around, enough money to buy some paint, and enough time to put those colors and shapes down on paper or canvas or the cottage walls. Not likely to happen anytime soon_perhaps ever. So I was left with moments like this, admiring the glint of pale winter light on snow. I couldn_t remember the last time I_d done it_bothered to notice anything lovely or interesting. Stolen hours in a decrepit barn with Isaac Hale didn_t count; those times were hungry and empty and sometimes cruel, but never lovely. The howling wind calmed into a soft sighing. The snow fell lazily now, in big, fat clumps that gathered along every nook and bump of the trees. Mesmerizing_the lethal, gentle beauty of the snow. I_d soon have to return to the muddy, frozen roads of the village, to the cramped heat of our cottage. Some small, fragmented part of me recoiled at the thought. Bushes rustled across the clearing. Drawing my bow was a matter of instinct. I peered through the thorns, and my breath caught. Less than thirty paces away stood a small doe, not yet too scrawny from winter, but desperate enough to wrench bark from a tree in the clearing. A deer like that could feed my family for a week or more. My mouth watered. Quiet as the wind hissing through dead leaves, I took aim. She continued tearing off strips of bark, chewing slowly, utterly unaware that her death waited yards away. I could dry half the meat, and we could immediately eat the rest_stews, pies _ Her skin could be sold, or perhaps turned into clothing for one of us. I needed new boots, but Elain needed a new cloak, and Nesta was prone to crave anything someone else possessed. My fingers trembled. So much food_such salvation. I took a steadying breath, double-checking my aim. But there was a pair of golden eyes shining from the brush adjacent to mine. The forest went silent. The wind died. Even the snow paused. We mortals no longer kept gods to worship, but if I had known their lost names, I would have prayed to them. All of them. Concealed in the thicket, the wolf inched closer, its gaze set on the oblivious doe. He was enormous_the size of a pony_and though I_d been warned about their presence, my mouth turned bone-dry. But worse than his size was his unnatural stealth: even as he inched closer in the brush, he remained unheard, unspotted by the doe. No animal that massive could be so quiet. But if he was no ordinary animal, if he was of Prythian origin, if he was somehow a faerie, then being eaten was the least of my concerns. If he was a faerie, I should already be running. Yet maybe _ maybe it would be a favor to the world, to my village, to myself, to kill him while I remained undetected. Putting an arrow through his eye would be no burden. But despite his size, he looked like a wolf, moved like a wolf. Animal, I reassured myself. Just an animal. I didn_t let myself consider the alternative_not when I needed my head clear, my breathing steady. I had a hunting knife and three arrows. The first two were ordinary arrows_simple and efficient, and likely no more than bee stings to a wolf that size. But the third arrow, the longest and heaviest one, I_d bought from a traveling peddler during a summer when we_d had enough coppers for extra luxuries. An arrow carved from mountain ash, armed with an iron head. From songs sung to us as lullabies over our cradles, we all knew from infancy that faeries hated iron. But it was the ash wood that made their immortal, healing magic falter long enough for a human to make a killing blow. Or so legend and rumor claimed. The only proof we had of the ash_s effectiveness was its sheer rarity. I_d seen drawings of the trees, but never one with my own eyes_not after the High Fae had burned them all long ago. So few remained, most of them small and sickly and hidden by the nobility within high-walled groves. I_d spent weeks after my purchase debating whether that overpriced bit of wood had been a waste of money, or a fake, and for three years, the ash arrow had sat unused in my quiver. Now I drew it, keeping my movements minimal, efficient_anything to avoid that monstrous wolf looking in my direction. The arrow was long and heavy enough to inflict damage_possibly kill him, if I aimed right. My chest became so tight it ached. And in that moment, I realized my life boiled down to one question: Was the wolf alone? I gripped my bow and drew the string farther back. I was a decent shot, but I_d never faced a wolf. I_d thought it made me lucky_even blessed. But now _ I didn_t know where to hit or how fast they moved. I couldn_t afford to miss. Not when I had only one ash arrow. And if it was indeed a faerie_s heart pounding under that fur, then good riddance. Good riddance, after all their kind had done to us. I wouldn_t risk this one later creeping into our village to slaughter and maim and torment. Let him die here and now. I_d be glad to end him. The wolf crept closer, and a twig snapped beneath one of his paws_each bigger than my hand. The doe went rigid. She glanced to either side, ears straining toward the gray sky. With the wolf_s downwind position, she couldn_t see or smell him. His head lowered, and his massive silver body_so perfectly blended into the snow and shadows_sank onto its haunches. The doe was still staring in the wrong direction. I glanced from the doe to the wolf and back again. At least he was alone_at least I_d been spared that much. But if the wolf scared the doe off, I was left with nothing but a starving, oversize wolf_possibly a faerie_looking for the next-best meal. And if he killed her, destroying precious amounts of hide and fat _ If I judged wrongly, my life wasn_t the only one that would be lost. But my life had been reduced to nothing but risks these past eight years that I_d been hunting in the woods, and I_d picked correctly most of the time. Most of the time. The wolf shot from the brush in a flash of gray and white and black, his yellow fangs gleaming. He was even more gargantuan in the open, a marvel of muscle and speed and brute strength. The doe didn_t stand a chance. I fired the ash arrow before he destroyed much else of her. The arrow found its mark in his side, and I could have sworn the ground itself shuddered. He barked in pain, releasing the doe_s neck as his blood sprayed on the snow_so ruby bright. He whirled toward me, those yellow eyes wide, hackles raised. His low growl reverberated in the empty pit of my stomach as I surged to my feet, snow churning around me, another arrow drawn. But the wolf merely looked at me, his maw stained with blood, my ash arrow protruding so vulgarly from his side. The snow began falling again. He looked, and with a sort of awareness and surprise that made me fire the second arrow. Just in case_just in case that intelligence was of the immortal, wicked sort. He didn_t try to dodge the arrow as it went clean through his wide yellow eye. He collapsed to the ground. Color and darkness whirled, eddying in my vision, mixing with the snow. His legs were twitching as a low whine sliced through the wind. Impossible_he should be dead, not dying. The arrow was through his eye almost to the goose fletching. But wolf or faerie, it didn_t matter. Not with that ash arrow buried in his side. He_d be dead soon enough. Still, my hands shook as I brushed off snow and edged closer, still keeping a good distance. Blood gushed from the wounds I_d given him, staining the snow crimson. He pawed at the ground, his breathing already slowing. Was he in much pain, or was his whimper just his attempt to shove death away? I wasn_t sure I wanted to know. The snow swirled around us. I stared at him until that coat of charcoal and obsidian and ivory ceased rising and falling. Wolf_definitely just a wolf, despite his size. The tightness in my chest eased, and I loosed a sigh, my breath clouding in front of me. At least the ash arrow had proved itself to be lethal, regardless of who or what it took down. A rapid examination of the doe told me I could carry only one animal_and even that would be a struggle. But it was a shame to leave the wolf. Though it wasted precious minutes_minutes during which any predator could smell the fresh blood_I skinned him and cleaned my arrows as best I could. If anything, it warmed my hands. I wrapped the bloody side of his pelt around the doe_s death-wound before I hoisted her across my shoulders. It was several miles back to our cottage, and I didn_t need a trail of blood leading every animal with fangs and claws straight to me. Grunting against the weight, I grasped the legs of the deer and spared a final glance at the steaming carcass of the wolf. His remaining golden eye now stared at the snow-heavy sky, and for a moment, I wished I had it in me to feel remorse for the dead thing. But this was the forest, and it was winter. Chapter 2 The sun had set by the time I exited the forest, my knees shaking. My hands, stiff from clenching the legs of the deer, had gone utterly numb miles ago. Not even the carcass could ward off the deepening chill. The world was awash in hues of dark blue, interrupted only by shafts of buttery light escaping from the shuttered windows of our dilapidated cottage. It was like striding through a living painting_a fleeting moment of stillness, the blues swiftly shifting to solid darkness. As I trudged up the path, each step fueled only by near-dizzying hunger, my sisters_ voices fluttered out to meet me. I didn_t need to discern their words to know they most likely were chattering about some young man or the ribbons they_d spotted in the village when they should have been chopping wood, but I smiled a bit nonetheless. I kicked my boots against the stone door frame, knocking the snow from them. Bits of ice came free from the gray stones of the cottage, revealing the faded ward-markings etched around the threshold. My father had once convinced a passing charlatan to trade the engravings against faerie harm in exchange for one of his wood carvings. There was so little that my father was ever able to do for us that I hadn_t possessed the heart to tell him the engravings were useless _ and undoubtedly fake. Mortals didn_t possess magic_didn_t possess any of the superior strength and speed of the faeries or High Fae. The man, claiming some High Fae blood in his ancestry, had just carved the whorls and swirls and runes around the door and windows, muttered a few nonsense words, and ambled on his way. I yanked open the wooden door, the frozen iron handle biting my skin like an asp. Heat and light blinded me as I slipped inside. _Feyre!_ Elain_s soft gasp scraped past my ears, and I blinked back the brightness of the fire to find my second-eldest sister before me. Though she was bundled in a threadbare blanket, her gold-brown hair_the hair all three of us had_was coiled perfectly about her head. Eight years of poverty hadn_t stripped from her the desire to look lovely. _Where did you get that?_ The undercurrent of hunger honed her words into a sharpness that had become too common in recent weeks. No mention of the blood on me. I_d long since given up hope of them actually noticing whether I came back from the woods every evening. At least until they got hungry again. But then again, my mother hadn_t made them swear anything when they stood beside her deathbed. I took a calming breath as I slung the doe off my shoulders. She hit the wooden table with a thud, rattling a ceramic cup on its other end. _Where do you think I got it?_ My voice had turned hoarse, each word burning as it came out. My father and Nesta still silently warmed their hands by the hearth, my eldest sister ignoring him, as usual. I peeled the wolf pelt from the doe_s body, and after removing my boots and setting them by the door, I turned to Elain. Her brown eyes_my father_s eyes_remained pinned on the doe. _Will it take you long to clean it?_ Me. Not her, not the others. I_d never once seen their hands sticky with blood and fur. I_d only learned to prepare and harvest my kills thanks to the instruction of others. Elain pushed her hand against her belly, probably as empty and aching as my own. It wasn_t that Elain was cruel. She wasn_t like Nesta, who had been born with a sneer on her face. Elain sometimes just _ didn_t grasp things. It wasn_t meanness that kept her from offering to help; it simply never occurred to her that she might be capable of getting her hands dirty. I_d never been able to decide whether she actually didn_t understand that we were truly poor or if she just refused to accept it. It still hadn_t stopped me from buying her seeds for the flower garden she tended in the milder months, whenever I could afford it. And it hadn_t stopped her from buying me three small tins of paint_red, yellow, and blue_during that same summer I_d had enough to buy the ash arrow. It was the only gift she_d ever given me, and our house still bore the marks of it, even if the paint was now fading and chipped: little vines and flowers along the windows and thresholds and edges of things, tiny curls of flame on the stones bordering the hearth. Any spare minutes I_d had that bountiful summer I used to bedeck our house in color, sometimes hiding clever decorations inside drawers, behind the threadbare curtains, underneath the chairs and table. We hadn_t had a summer that easy since. _Feyre._ My father_s deep rumble came from the fire. His dark beard was neatly trimmed, his face spotless_like my sisters_. _What luck you had today_in bringing us such a feast._ From beside my father, Nesta snorted. Not surprising. Any bit of praise for anyone_me, Elain, other villagers_usually resulted in her dismissal. And any word from our father usually resulted in her ridicule as well. I straightened, almost too tired to stand, but braced a hand on the table beside the doe as I shot Nesta a glare. Of us, Nesta had taken the loss of our fortune the hardest. She had quietly resented my father from the moment we_d fled our manor, even after that awful day one of the creditors had come to show just how displeased he was at the loss of his investment. But at least Nesta didn_t fill our heads with useless talk of regaining our wealth, like my father. No, she just spent whatever money I didn_t hide from her, and rarely bothered to acknowledge my father_s limping presence at all. Some days, I couldn_t tell which of us was the most wretched and bitter. _We can eat half the meat this week,_ I said, shifting my gaze to the doe. The deer took up the entirety of the rickety table that served as our dining area, workspace, and kitchen. _We can dry the other half,_ I went on, knowing that no matter how nicely I phrased it, I_d still do the bulk of it. _And I_ll go to the market tomorrow to see how much I can get for the hides,_ I finished, more to myself than to them. No one bothered to confirm they_d heard me, anyway. My father_s ruined leg was stretched out before him, as close to the fire_s heat as it could get. The cold, or the rain, or a change in temperature always aggravated the vicious, twisted wounds around his knee. His simply carved cane was propped up against his chair_a cane he_d made for himself _ and that Nesta was sometimes prone to leaving far out of his reach. He could find work if he wasn_t so ashamed, Nesta always said when I hissed about it. She hated him for the injury, too_for not fighting back when that creditor and his thugs had burst into the cottage and smashed his knee again and again. Nesta and Elain had fled into the bedroom, barricading the door. I had stayed, begging and weeping through every scream of my father, every crunch of bone. I_d soiled myself_and then vomited right on the stones before the hearth. Only then did the men leave. We never saw them again. We_d used a massive chunk of our remaining money to pay for the healer. It had taken my father six months to even walk, a year before he could go a mile. The coppers he brought in when someone pitied him enough to buy his wood carvings weren_t enough to keep us fed. Five years ago, when the money was well and truly gone, when my father still couldn_t_wouldn_t_move much about, he hadn_t argued when I announced that I was going hunting. He hadn_t bothered to attempt to stand from his seat by the fire, hadn_t bothered to look up from his wood carving. He just let me walk into those deadly, eerie woods that even the most seasoned hunters were wary of. He_d become a little more aware now_sometimes offered signs of gratitude, sometimes hobbled all the way into town to sell his carvings_but not much. _I_d love a new cloak,_ Elain said at last with a sigh, at the same moment Nesta rose and declared: _I need a new pair of boots._ I kept quiet, knowing better than to get in the middle of one of their arguments, but I glanced at Nesta_s still-shiny pair by the door. Beside hers, my too-small boots were falling apart at the seams, held together only by fraying laces. _But I_m freezing with my raggedy old cloak,_ Elain pleaded. _I_ll shiver to death._ She fixed her wide eyes on me and said, _Please, Feyre._ She drew out the two syllables of my name_fay-ruh_into the most hideous whine I_d ever endured, and Nesta loudly clicked her tongue before ordering her to shut up. I drowned them out as they began quarreling over who would get the money the hide would fetch tomorrow and found my father now standing at the table, one hand braced against it to support his weight as he inspected the deer. His attention slid to the giant wolf pelt. His fingers, still smooth and gentlemanly, turned over the pelt and traced a line through the bloody underside. I tensed. His dark eyes flicked to mine. _Feyre,_ he murmured, and his mouth became a tight line. _Where did you get this?_ _The same place I got the deer,_ I replied with equal quiet, my words cool and sharp. His gaze traveled over the bow and quiver strapped to my back, the wooden-hilted hunting knife at my side. His eyes turned damp. _Feyre _ the risk __ I jerked my chin at the pelt, unable to keep the snap from my voice as I said, _I had no other choice._ What I really wanted to say was: You don_t even bother to attempt to leave the house most days. Were it not for me, we would starve. Were it not for me, we_d be dead. _Feyre,_ he repeated, and closed his eyes. My sisters had gone quiet, and I looked up in time to see Nesta crinkle her nose with a sniff. She picked at my cloak. _You stink like a pig covered in its own filth. Can_t you at least try to pretend that you_re not an ignorant peasant?_ I didn_t let the sting and ache show. I_d been too young to learn more than the basics of manners and reading and writing when our family had fallen into misfortune, and she_d never let me forget it. She stepped back to run a finger over the braided coils of her gold-brown hair. _Take those disgusting clothes off._ I took my time, swallowing the words I wanted to bark back at her. Older than me by three years, she somehow looked younger than I did, her golden cheeks always flushed with a delicate, vibrant pink. _Can you make a pot of hot water and add wood to the fire?_ But even as I asked, I noticed the woodpile. There were only five logs left. _I thought you were going to chop wood today._ Nesta picked at her long, neat nails. _I hate chopping wood. I always get splinters._ She glanced up from beneath her dark lashes. Of all of us, Nesta looked the most like our mother_especially when she wanted something. _Besides, Feyre,_ she said with a pout, _you_re so much better at it! It takes you half the time it takes me. Your hands are suited for it_they_re already so rough._ My jaw clenched. _Please,_ I asked, calming my breathing, knowing an argument was the last thing I needed or wanted. _Please get up at dawn to chop that wood._ I unbuttoned the top of my tunic. _Or we_ll be eating a cold breakfast._ Her brows narrowed. _I will do no such thing!_ But I was already walking toward the small second room where my sisters and I slept. Elain murmured a soft plea to Nesta, which earned her a hiss in response. I glanced over my shoulder at my father and pointed to the deer. Filtered the knives ready,_ I said, not bothering to sound pleasant. _I_ll be out soon._ Without waiting for an answer, I shut the door behind me. The room was large enough for a rickety dresser and the enormous ironwood bed we slept in. The sole remnant of our former wealth, it had been ordered as a wedding gift from my father to my mother. It was the bed in which we_d been born, and the bed in which my mother died. In all the painting I_d done to our house these past few years, I_d never touched it. I slung off my outer clothes onto the sagging dresser_frowning at the violets and roses I_d painted around the knobs of Elain_s drawer, the crackling flames I_d painted around Nesta_s, and the night sky_whorls of yellow stars standing in for white_around mine. I_d done it to brighten the otherwise dark room. They_d never commented on it. I don_t know why I_d ever expected them to. Groaning, it was all I could do to keep from collapsing onto the bed. We dined on roasted venison that night. Though I knew it was foolish, I didn_t object when each of us had a small second helping until I declared the meat off-limits. I_d spend tomorrow preparing the deer_s remaining parts for consumption, then I_d allot a few hours to currying up both hides before taking them to the market. I knew a few vendors who might be interested in such a purchase_though neither was likely to give me the fee I deserved. But money was money, and I didn_t have the time or the funds to travel to the nearest large town to find a better offer. I sucked on the tines of my fork, savoring the remnants of fat coating the metal. My tongue slipped over the crooked prongs_the fork was part of a shabby set my father had salvaged from the servants_ quarters while the creditors ransacked our manor home. None of our utensils matched, but it was better than using our fingers. My mother_s dowry flatware had long since been sold. My mother. Imperious and cold with her children, joyous and dazzling among the peerage who frequented our former estate, doting on my father_the one person whom she truly loved and respected. But she also had truly loved parties_so much so that she didn_t have time to do anything with me at all save contemplate how my budding abilities to sketch and paint might secure me a future husband. Had she lived long enough to see our wealth crumble, she would have been shattered by it_more so than my father. Perhaps it was a merciful thing that she died. If anything, it left more food for us. There was nothing left of her in the cottage beyond the ironwood bed_and the vow I_d made. Every time I looked toward a horizon or wondered if I should just walk and walk and never look back, I_d hear that promise I made eleven years ago as she wasted away on her deathbed. Stay together, and look after them. I_d agreed, too young to ask why she hadn_t begged my elder sisters, or my father. But I_d sworn it to her, and then she_d died, and in our miserable human world_shielded only by the promise made by the High Fae five centuries ago_in our world where we_d forgotten the names of our gods, a promise was law; a promise was currency; a promise was your bond. There were times when I hated her for asking that vow of me. Perhaps, delirious with fever, she hadn_t even known what she was demanding. Or maybe impending death had given her some clarity about the true nature of her children, her husband. I set down the fork and watched the flames of our meager fire dance along the remaining logs, stretching out my aching legs beneath the table. I turned to my sisters. As usual, Nesta was complaining about the villagers_they had no manners, they had no social graces, they had no idea just how shoddy the fabric of their clothes was, even though they pretended that it was as fine as silk or chiffon. Since we had lost our fortune, their former friends dutifully ignored them, so my sisters paraded about as though the young peasants of the town made up a second-rate social circle. I took a sip from my cup of hot water_we couldn_t even afford tea these days_as Nesta continued her story to Elain. _Well, I said to him, _If you think you can just ask me so nonchalantly, sir, I_m going to decline!_ And you know what Tomas said?_ Arms braced on the table and eyes wide, Elain shook her head. _Tomas Mandray?_ I interrupted. _The woodcutter_s second son?_ Nesta_s blue-gray eyes narrowed. _Yes,_ she said, and shifted to address Elain again. _What does he want?_ I glanced at my father. No reaction_no hint of alarm or sign that he was even listening. Lost to whatever fog of memory had crept over him, he was smiling mildly at his beloved Elain, the only one of us who bothered to really speak to him at all. _He wants to marry her,_ Elain said dreamily. I blinked. Nesta cocked her head. I_d seen predators use that movement before. I sometimes wondered if her unrelenting steel would have helped us better survive_thrive, even_if she hadn_t been so preoccupied with our lost status. _Is there a problem, Feyre?_ She flung my name like an insult, and my jaw ached from clenching it so hard. My father shifted in his seat, blinking, and though I knew it was foolish to react to her taunts, I said, _You can_t chop wood for us, but you want to marry a woodcutter_s son?_ Nesta squared her shoulders. _I thought all you wanted was for us to get out of the house_to marry off me and Elain so you can have enough time to paint your glorious masterpieces._ She sneered at the pillar of foxglove I_d painted along the edge of the table_the colors too dark and too blue, with none of the white freckling inside the trumpets, but I_d made do, even if it had killed me not to have white paint, to make something so flawed and lasting. I drowned the urge to cover up the painting with my hand. Maybe tomorrow I_d just scrape it off the table altogether. _Believe me,_ I said to her, _the day you want to marry someone worthy, I_ll march up to his house and hand you over. But you_re not going to marry Tomas._ Nesta_s nostrils delicately flared. _There_s nothing you can do. Clare Beddor told me this afternoon that Tomas is going to propose to me any day now. And then I_ll never have to eat these scraps again._ She added with a small smile, _At least I don_t have to resort to rutting in the hay with Isaac Hale like an animal._ My father let out an embarrassed cough, looking to his cot by the fire. He_d never said a word against Nesta, from either fear or guilt, and apparently he wasn_t going to start now, even if this was the first he was hearing of Isaac. I laid my palms flat on the table as I stared her down. Elain removed her hand from where it lay nearby, as if the dirt and blood beneath my fingernails would somehow jump onto her porcelain skin. _Tomas_s family is barely better off than ours,_ I said, trying to keep from growling. _You_d be just another mouth to feed. If he doesn_t know this, then his parents must._ But Tomas knew_we_d run into each other in the forest before. I_d seen the gleam of desperate hunger in his eyes when he spotted me sporting a brace of rabbits. I_d never killed another human, but that day, my hunting knife had felt like a weight at my side. I_d kept out of his way ever since. _We can_t afford a dowry,_ I continued, and though my tone was firm, my voice quieted. _For either of you._ If Nesta wanted to leave, then fine. Good. I_d be one step closer to attaining that glorious, peaceful future, to attaining a quiet house and enough food and time to paint. But we had nothing_absolutely nothing_to entice any suitor to take my sisters off my hands. _We_re in love,_ Nesta declared, and Elain nodded her agreement. I almost laughed_when had they gone from mooning over aristos to making doe-eyes at peasants? _Love won_t feed a hungry belly,_ I countered, keeping my gaze as sturdy as possible. As if I_d struck her, Nesta leaped from her seat on the bench. _You_re just jealous. I heard them saying how Isaac is going to marry some Greenfield village girl for a handsome dowry._ So had I; Isaac had ranted about it the last time we_d met. _Jealous?_ I said slowly, digging down deep to bury my fury. _We have nothing to offer them_no dowry; no livestock, even. While Tomas might want to marry you _ you_re a burden._ _What do you know?_ Nesta breathed. _You_re just a half-wild beast with the nerve to bark orders at all hours of the day and night. Keep it up, and someday_someday, Feyre, you_ll have no one left to remember you, or to care that you ever existed._ She stormed off, Elain darting after her, cooing her sympathy. They slammed the door to the bedroom hard enough to rattle the dishes. I_d heard the words before_and knew she only repeated them because I_d flinched that first time she spat them. They still burned anyway. I took a long sip from the chipped mug. The wooden bench beneath my father groaned as he shifted. I took another swallow and said, _You should talk some sense into her._ He examined a burn mark on the table. _What can I say? If it_s love__ _It can_t be love, not on his part. Not with his wretched family. I_ve seen the way he acts around the village_there_s one thing he wants from her, and it_s not her hand in__ _We need hope as much as we need bread and meat,_ he interrupted, his eyes clear for a rare moment. _We need hope, or else we cannot endure. So let her keep this hope, Feyre. Let her imagine a better life. A better world._ I stood from the table, fingers curling into fists, but there was nowhere to run in our two-room cottage. I looked at the discolored foxglove painting at the edge of the table. The outer trumpets were already chipped and faded, the lower bit of the stem rubbed off entirely. Within a few years, it would be gone_leaving no mark that it had ever been there. That I_d ever been there. When I looked at my father, my gaze was hard. _There is no such thing._ Chapter 3 The trampled snow coating the road into our village was speckled with brown and black from passing carts and horses. Elain and Nesta clicked their tongues and grimaced as we made our way along it, dodging the particularly disgusting parts. I knew why they_d come_they_d taken one look at the hides I_d folded into my satchel and grabbed their cloaks. I didn_t bother talking to them, as they hadn_t deigned to speak to me after last night, though Nesta had awoken at dawn to chop wood. Probably because she knew I_d be selling the hides at the market today and would go home with money in my pocket. They trailed me down the lone road wending through the snow-covered fields, all the way into our ramshackle village. The stone houses of the village were ordinary and dull, made grimmer by the bleakness of winter. But it was market day, which meant the tiny square in the center of town would be full of whatever vendors had braved the brisk morning. From a block away, the scent of hot food wafted by_spices that tugged on the edge of my memory, beckoning. Elain let out a low moan behind me. Spices, salt, sugar_rare commodities for most of our village, impossible for us to afford. If I did well at the market, perhaps I_d have enough to buy us something delicious. I opened my mouth to suggest it, but we turned the corner and nearly stumbled into one another as we all halted. _May the Immortal Light shine upon thee, sisters,_ said the pale-robed young woman directly in our path. Nesta and Elain clicked their tongues; I stifled a groan. Perfect. Exactly what I needed, to have the Children of the Blessed in town on market day, distracting and riling everyone. The village elders usually allowed them to stay for only a few hours, but the sheer presence of the fanatic fools who still worshipped the High Fae made people edgy. Made me edgy. Long ago, the High Fae had been our overlords_not gods. And they certainly hadn_t been kind. The young woman extended her moon-white hands in a gesture of greeting, a bracelet of silver bells_real silver_tinkling at her wrist. _Have you a moment to spare so that you might hear the Word of the Blessed?_ _No,_ Nesta sneered, ignoring the girl_s hands and nudging Elain into a walk. _We don_t._ The young woman_s unbound dark hair gleamed in the morning light, and her clean, fresh face glowed as she smiled prettily. There were five other acolytes behind her, young men and women both, their hair long, uncut_all scanning the market beyond for young folk to pester. _It would take but a minute,_ the woman said, stepping into Nesta_s path. It was impressive_truly impressive_to see Nesta go ramrod straight, to square her shoulders and look down her nose at the young acolyte, a queen without a throne. _Go spew your fanatic nonsense to some ninny. You_ll find no converts here._ The girl shrank back, a shadow flickering in her brown eyes. I reined in my wince. Perhaps not the best way to deal with them, since they could become a true nuisance if agitated_ Nesta lifted a hand, pushing down the sleeve of her coat to show the iron bracelet there. The same one Elain wore; they_d bought matching adornments years ago. The acolyte gasped, eyes wide. _You see this?_ Nesta hissed, taking a step forward. The acolyte retreated a step. _This is what you should be wearing. Not some silver bells to attract those faerie monsters._ _How dare you wear that vile affront to our immortal friends__ _Go preach in another town,_ Nesta spat. Two plump and pretty farmers_ wives strolled past on their way to the market, arm in arm. As they neared the acolytes, their faces twisted with identical expressions of disgust. _Faerie-loving whore,_ one of them hurled at the young woman. I couldn_t disagree. The acolytes kept silent. The other villager_wealthy enough to have a full necklace of braided iron around her throat_narrowed her eyes, her upper lip curling back from her teeth. _Don_t you idiots understand what those monsters did to us for all those centuries? What they still do for sport, when they can get away with it? You deserve the end you_ll meet at faerie hands. Fools and whores, all of you._ Nesta nodded her agreement to the women as they continued on their way. We turned back to the young woman still lingering before us, and even Elain frowned in distaste. But the young woman took a breath, her face again becoming serene, and said, _I lived in such ignorance, too, until I heard the Word of the Blessed. I grew up in a village so similar to this_so bleak and grim. But not one month ago, a friend of my cousin went to the border as our offering to Prythian_and she has not been sent back. Now she dwells in riches and comfort as a High Fae_s bride, and so might you, if you were to take a moment to__ _She was likely eaten,_ Nesta said. _That_s why she hasn_t returned._ Or worse, I thought, if a High Fae truly was involved in spiriting a human into Prythian. I_d never encountered the cruel, human-looking High Fae who ruled Prythian itself, or the faeries who occupied their lands, with their scales and wings and long, spindly arms that could drag you deep, deep beneath the surface of a forgotten pond. I didn_t know which would be worse to face. The acolyte_s face tightened. _Our benevolent masters would never harm us. Prythian is a land of peace and plenty. Should they bless you with their attention, you would be glad to live amongst them._ Nesta rolled her eyes. Elain was shooting glances between us and the market ahead_to the villagers now watching, too. Time to go. Nesta opened her mouth again, but I stepped between them and ran an eye along the girl_s pale blue robes, the silver jewelry on her, the utter cleanness of her skin. Not a mark or smudge to be found. _You_re fighting an uphill battle,_ I said to her. _A worthy cause._ The girl beamed beatifically. I gave Nesta a gentle push to get her walking and said to the acolyte, _No, it_s not._ I could feel the acolytes_ attention still fixed on us as we strode into the busy market square, but I didn_t look back. They_d be gone soon enough, off to preach in another town. We_d have to take the long way out of the village to avoid them. When we were far enough away, I glanced over a shoulder at my sisters. Elain_s face remained set in a wince, but Nesta_s eyes were stormy, her lips thin. I wondered if she_d stomp back to the girl and pick a fight. Not my problem_not right now. _I_ll meet you here in an hour,_ I said, and didn_t give them time to cling to me before slipping into the crowded square. It took me ten minutes to contemplate my three options. There were my usual buyers: the weathered cobbler and the sharp-eyed clothier who came to our market from a nearby town. And then the unknown: a mountain of a woman sitting on the lip of our broken square fountain, without any cart or stall, but looking like she was holding court nonetheless. The scars and weapons on her marked her easily enough. A mercenary. I could feel the eyes of the cobbler and clothier on me, sense their feigned disinterest as they took in the satchel I bore. Fine_it would be that sort of day, then. I approached the mercenary, whose thick, dark hair was shorn to her chin. Her tan face seemed hewn of granite, and her black eyes narrowed slightly at the sight of me. Such interesting eyes_not just one shade of black, but _ many, with hints of brown that glimmered amongst the shadows. I pushed against that useless part of my mind, the instincts that had me thinking about color and light and shape, and kept my shoulders back as she assessed me as a potential threat or employer. The weapons on her_gleaming and wicked_were enough to make me swallow. And stop a good two feet away. _I don_t barter goods for my services,_ she said, her voice clipped with an accent I_d never heard before. _I only accept coin._ A few passing villagers tried their best not to look too interested in our conversation, especially as I said, _Then you_ll be out of luck in this sort of place._ She was massive even sitting down. _What is your business with me, girl?_ She could have been aged anywhere from twenty-five to thirty, but I supposed I looked like a girl to her in my layers, gangly from hunger. _I have a wolf pelt and a doe hide for sale. I thought you might be interested in purchasing them._ _You steal them?_ _No._ I held her stare. _I hunted them myself. I swear it._ She ran those dark eyes down me again. _How._ Not a question_a command. Perhaps someone who had encountered others who did not see vows as sacred, words as bonds. And had punished them accordingly. So I told her how I_d brought them down, and when I finished, she flicked a hand toward my satchel. _Let me see._ I pulled out both carefully folded hides. _You weren_t lying about the wolf_s size,_ she murmured. _Doesn_t seem like a faerie, though._ She examined them with an expert eye, running her hands over and under. She named her price. I blinked_but stifled the urge to blink a second time. She was overpaying_by a lot. She looked beyond me_past me. _I_m assuming those two girls watching from across the square are your sisters. You all have that brassy hair_and that hungry look about you._ Indeed, they were still trying their best to eavesdrop without being spotted. _I don_t need your pity._ _No, but you need my money, and the other traders have been cheap all morning. Everyone_s too distracted by those calf-eyed zealots bleating across the square._ She jerked her chin toward the Children of the Blessed, still ringing their silver bells and jumping into the path of anyone who tried to walk by. The mercenary was smiling faintly when I turned back to her. _Up to you, girl._ _Why?_ She shrugged. _Someone once did the same for me and mine, at a time when we needed it most. Figure it_s time to repay what_s due._ I watched her again, weighing. _My father has some wood carvings that I could give you as well_to make it more fair._ _I travel light and have no need for them. These, however__she patted the pelts in her hands__save me the trouble of killing them myself._ I nodded, my cheeks heating as she reached for the coin purse inside her heavy coat. It was full_and weighed down with at least silver, possibly gold, if the clinking was any indication. Mercenaries tended to be well paid in our territory. Our territory was too small and poor to maintain a standing army to monitor the wall with Prythian, and we villagers could rely only on the strength of the Treaty forged five hundred years ago. But the upper class could afford hired swords, like this woman, to guard their lands bordering the immortal realm. It was an illusion of comfort, just as the markings on our threshold were. We all knew, deep down, that there was nothing to be done against the faeries. We_d all been told it, regardless of class or rank, from the moment we were born, the warnings sung to us while we rocked in cradles, the rhymes chanted in schoolyards. One of the High Fae could turn your bones to dust from a hundred yards away. Not that my sisters or I had ever seen it. But we still tried to believe that something_anything_might work against them, if we ever were to encounter them. There were two stalls in the market catering to those fears, offering up charms and baubles and incantations and bits of iron. I couldn_t afford them_and if they did indeed work, they would buy us only a few minutes to prepare ourselves. Running was futile; so was fighting. But Nesta and Elain still wore their iron bracelets whenever they left the cottage. Even Isaac had an iron cuff around one wrist, always tucked under his sleeve. He_d once offered to buy me one, but I_d refused. It had felt too personal, too much like payment, too _ permanent a reminder of whatever we were and weren_t to each other. The mercenary transferred the coins to my waiting palm, and I tucked them into my pocket, their weight as heavy as a millstone. There was no possible chance that my sisters hadn_t spotted the money_no chance they weren_t already wondering how they might persuade me to give them some. _Thank you,_ I said to the mercenary, trying and failing to keep the bite from my voice as I felt my sisters sweep closer, like vultures circling a carcass. The mercenary stroked the wolf pelt. _A word of advice, from one hunter to another._ I lifted my brows. _Don_t go far into the woods. I wouldn_t even get close to where you were yesterday. A wolf this size would be the least of your problems. More and more, I_ve been hearing stories about those things slipping through the wall._ A chill spider-walked down my spine. _Are they_are they going to attack?_ If it were true, I_d find a way to get my family off our miserable, damp territory and head south_head far from the invisible wall that bisected our world before they could cross it. Once_long ago and for millennia before that_we had been slaves to High Fae overlords. Once, we had built them glorious, sprawling civilizations from our blood and sweat, built them temples to their feral gods. Once, we had rebelled, across every land and territory. The War had been so bloody, so destructive, that it took six mortal queens crafting the Treaty for the slaughter to cease on both sides and for the wall to be constructed: the North of our world conceded to the High Fae and faeries, who took their magic with them; the South to we cowering mortals, forever forced to scratch out a living from the earth. _No one knows what the Fae are planning,_ the mercenary said, her face like stone. _We don_t know if the High Lords_ leash on their beasts is slipping, or if these are targeted attacks. I guarded for an old nobleman who claimed it had been getting worse these past fifty years. He got on a boat south two weeks ago and told me I should leave if I was smart. Before he sailed off, he admitted that he_d had word from one of his friends that in the dead of night, a pack of martax crossed the wall and tore half his village apart._ _Martax?_ I breathed. I knew there were different types of faeries, that they varied as much as any other species of animal, but I knew only a few by name. The mercenary_s night-dark eyes flickered. _Body big as a bear_s, head something like a lion_s_and three rows of teeth sharper than a shark_s. And mean_meaner than all three put together. They left the villagers in literal ribbons, the nobleman said._ My stomach turned. Behind us, my sisters seemed so fragile_their pale skin so infinitely delicate and shredable. Against something like the martax, we_d never stand a chance. Those Children of the Blessed were fools_fanatic fools. _So we don_t know what all these attacks mean,_ the mercenary went on, _other than more hires for me, and you keeping well away from the wall. Especially if the High Fae start turning up_or worse, one of the High Lords. They would make the martax seem like dogs._ I studied her scarred hands, chapped from the cold. _Have you ever faced another type of faerie?_ Her eyes shuttered. _You don_t want to know, girl_not unless you want to be hurling up your breakfast._ I was indeed feeling ill_ill and jumpy. _Was it deadlier than the martax?_ I dared ask. The woman pulled back the sleeve of her heavy jacket, revealing a tanned, muscled forearm flecked with gruesome, twisted scars. The arc of them so similar to__Didn_t have the brute force or size of a martax,_ she said, _but its bite was full of poison. Two months_that_s how long I was down; four months until I had the strength to walk again._ She pulled up the leg of her trousers. Beautiful, I thought, even as the horror of it writhed in my gut. Against her tanned skin, the veins were black_solid black, spiderwebbed, and creeping like frost. _Healer said there was nothing to be done for it_that I_m lucky to be walking with the poison still in my legs. Maybe it_ll kill me one day, maybe it_ll cripple me. But at least I_ll go knowing I killed it first._ The blood in my own veins seemed to chill as she lowered the cuff of her pants. If anyone in the square had seen, no one dared speak about it_or to come closer. And I_d had enough for one day. So I took a step back, steadying myself against what she_d told me and shown me. _Thanks for the warnings,_ I said. Her attention flicked behind me, and she gave a faintly amused smile. _Good luck._ Then a slender hand clamped onto my forearm, dragging me away. I knew it was Nesta before I even looked at her. _They_re dangerous,_ Nesta hissed, her fingers digging into my arm as she continued to pull me from the mercenary. _Don_t go near them again._ I stared at her for a moment, then at Elain, whose face had gone pale and tight. _Is there something I need to know?_ I asked quietly. I couldn_t remember the last time Nesta had tried to warn me about anything; Elain was the only one she bothered to really look after. _They_re brutes, and will take any copper they can get, even if it_s by force._ I glanced at the mercenary, who was still examining her new pelts. _She robbed you?_ _Not her,_ Elain murmured. _Some other one who passed through. We had only a few coins, and he got mad, but__ _Why didn_t you report him_or tell me?_ _What could you have done?_ Nesta sneered. _Challenged him to a fight with your bow and arrows? And who in this sewer of a town would even care if we reported anything?_ _What about your Tomas Mandray?_ I said coolly. Nesta_s eyes flashed, but a movement behind me caught her eye, and she gave me what I supposed was her attempt at a sweet smile_probably as she remembered the money I now carried. _Your friend is waiting for you._ I turned. Indeed, Isaac was watching from across the square, arms crossed as he leaned against a building. Though the eldest son of the only well-off farmer in our village, he was still lean from the winter, and his brown hair had turned shaggy. Relatively handsome, soft-spoken, and reserved, but with a sort of darkness running beneath it all that had drawn us to each other, that shared understanding of how wretched our lives were and would always be. We_d vaguely known each other for years_since my family had moved to the village_but I had never thought much about him until we_d wound up walking down the main road together one afternoon. We_d only talked about the eggs he was bringing to market_and I_d admired the variation in colors within the basket he bore_browns and tans and the palest blues and greens. Simple, easy, perhaps a bit awkward, but he_d left me at my cottage feeling not quite so _ alone. A week later, I pulled him into that decrepit barn. He_d been my first and only lover in the two years since. Sometimes we_d meet every night for a week, others we_d go a month without setting eyes on each other. But every time was the same: a rush of shedding clothes and shared breaths and tongues and teeth. Occasionally we_d talk_or, rather, he_d talk about the pressures and burdens his father placed on him. Often, we wouldn_t say a word the entire time. I couldn_t say our lovemaking was particularly skilled, but it was still a release, a reprieve, a bit of selfishness. There was no love between us, and never had been_at least what I assumed people meant when they talked about love_yet part of me had sunk when he_d said he would soon be married. I wasn_t yet desperate enough to ask him to see me after he was wed. Isaac inclined his head in a familiar gesture and then ambled off down the street_out of town and to the ancient barn, where he would be waiting. We were never inconspicuous about our dealings with each other, but we did take measures to keep it from being too obvious. Nesta clicked her tongue, crossing her arms. _I do hope you two are taking precautions._ _It_s a bit late to pretend to care,_ I said. But we were careful. Since I couldn_t afford it, Isaac himself took the contraceptive brew. He knew I wouldn_t have touched him otherwise. I reached into my pocket, drawing out a twenty-mark copper. Elain sucked in a breath, and I didn_t bother to look at either of my sisters as I pushed it into her palm and said, _I_ll see you at home._ Later, after another dinner of venison, when we were all gathered around the fire for the quiet hour before bed, I watched my sisters whispering and laughing together. They_d spent every copper I_d given them_on what, I didn_t know, though Elain had brought back a new chisel for our father_s wood carving. The cloak and boots they_d whined about the night before had been too expensive. But I hadn_t scolded them for it, not when Nesta went out a second time to chop more wood without my asking. Mercifully, they_d avoided another confrontation with the Children of the Blessed. My father was dozing in his chair, his cane laid across his gnarled knee. As good a time as any to broach the subject of Tomas Mandray with Nesta. I turned to her, opening my mouth. But there was a roar that half deafened me, and my sisters screamed as snow burst into the room and an enormous, growling shape appeared in the doorway. Chapter 4 I didn_t know how the wooden hilt of my hunting knife had gotten into my hand. The first few moments were a blur of the snarling of a gigantic beast with golden fur, the shrieking of my sisters, the blistering cold cascading into the room, and my father_s terror-stricken face. Not a martax, I realized_though the relief was short-lived. The beast had to be as large as a horse, and while his body was somewhat feline, his head was distinctly wolfish. I didn_t know what to make of the curled, elk-like horns that protruded from his head. But lion or hound or elk, there was no doubting the damage his black, daggerlike claws and yellow fangs could inflict. Had I been alone in the woods, I might have let myself be swallowed by fear, might have fallen to my knees and wept for a clean, quick death. But I didn_t have room for terror, wouldn_t give it an inch of space, despite my heart_s wild pounding in my ears. Somehow, I wound up in front of my sisters, even as the creature reared onto its hind legs and bellowed through a maw full of fangs: _MURDERERS!_ But it was another word that echoed through me: Faerie. Those ridiculous wards on our threshold were as good as cobwebs against him. I should have asked the mercenary how she_d killed that faerie. But the beast_s thick neck_that looked like a good home for my knife. I dared a glance over my shoulder. My sisters screamed, kneeling against the wall of the hearth, my father crouched in front of them. Another body for me to defend. Stupidly, I took another step toward the faerie, keeping the table between us, fighting the shaking in my hand. My bow and quiver were across the room_past the beast. I_d have to get around him to reach the ash arrow. And buy myself enough time to fire it. _MURDERERS!_ the beast roared again, hackles raised. _P-please,_ my father babbled from behind me, failing to find it in himself to come to my side. _Whatever we have done, we did so unknowingly, and__ _W-w-we didn_t kill anyone,_ Nesta added, choking on her sobs, arm lifted over her head, as if that tiny iron bracelet would do anything against the creature. I snatched another dinner knife off the table, the best I could do unless I found a way to get to the quiver. Filtered out,_ I snapped at the creature, brandishing the knives before me. No iron in sight that I could use as a weapon_unless I chucked my sisters_ bracelets at him. Filtered out, and begone._ With my trembling hands, I could barely keep my grip on the hilts. A nail_I_d take a damned iron nail, if it were available. He bellowed at me in response, and the entire cottage shook, the plates and cups rattling against one another. But it left his massive neck exposed. I hurled my hunting knife. Fast_so fast I could barely see it_he slashed out with a paw, sending it skittering away as he snapped for my face with his teeth. I leaped back, almost stumbling over my cowering father. The faerie could have killed me_could have, yet the lunge had been a warning. Nesta and Elain, weeping, prayed to whatever long-forgotten gods might still be skulking about. _WHO KILLED HIM?_ The creature stalked toward us. He set a paw on the table, and it groaned beneath him. His claws thudded as they embedded in the wood, one by one. I dared another step forward as the beast stretched his snout over the table to sniff at us. His eyes were green and flecked with amber. Not animal eyes, not with their shape and coloring. My voice was surprisingly even as I challenged: _Killed who?_ He growled, low and vicious. _The wolf,_ he said, and my heart stumbled a beat. The roar was gone, but the wrath lingered_perhaps even traced with sorrow. Elain_s wail reached a high-pitched shriek. I kept my chin up. _A wolf?_ _A large wolf with a gray coat,_ he snarled in response. Would he know if I lied? Faeries couldn_t lie_all mortals knew that_but could they smell the lies on human tongues? We had no chance of escaping this through fighting, but there might be other ways. _If it was mistakenly killed,_ I said to the beast as calmly as I could, _what payment could we offer in exchange?_ This was all a nightmare, and I_d awaken in a moment beside the fire, exhausted from my day at the market and my afternoon with Isaac. The beast let out a bark that could have been a bitter laugh. He pushed off the table to pace in a small circle before the shattered door. The cold was so intense that I shivered. _The payment you must offer is the one demanded by the Treaty between our realms._ _For a wolf?_ I retorted, and my father murmured my name in warning. I had vague memories of being read the Treaty during my childhood lessons, but could recall nothing about wolves. The beast whirled on me. _Who killed the wolf?_ I stared into those jade eyes. _I did._ He blinked and glanced at my sisters, then back at me, at my thinness_no doubt seeing only frailness instead. _Surely you lie to save them._ _We didn_t kill anything!_ Elain wept. _Please _ please, spare us!_ Nesta hushed her sharply through her own sobbing, but pushed Elain farther behind her. My chest caved in at the sight of it. My father climbed to his feet, grunting at the pain in his leg as he bobbled, but before he could limp toward me, I repeated: _I killed it._ The beast, who had been sniffing at my sisters, studied me. I squared my shoulders. _I sold its hide at the market today. If I had known it was a faerie, I wouldn_t have touched it._ _Liar,_ he snarled. _You knew. You would have been more tempted to slaughter it had you known it was one of my kind._ True, true, true. _Can you blame me?_ _Did it attack you? Were you provoked?_ I opened my mouth to say yes, but__No,_ I said, letting out a snarl of my own. _But considering all that your kind has done to us, considering what your kind still likes to do to us, even if I had known beyond a doubt, it was deserved._ Better to die with my chin held high than groveling like a cowering worm. Even if his answering growl was the definition of wrath and rage. The firelight shone upon his exposed fangs, and I wondered how they_d feel on my throat, and how loudly my sisters would scream before they, too, died. But I knew_with a sudden, uncoiling clarity_that Nesta would buy Elain time to run. Not my father, whom she resented with her entire steely heart. Not me, because Nesta had always known and hated that she and I were two sides of the same coin, and that I could fight my own battles. But Elain, the flower-grower, the gentle heart _ Nesta would go down swinging for her. It was that flash of understanding that had me angling my remaining knife at the beast. _What is the payment the Treaty requires?_ His eyes didn_t leave my face as he said, _A life for a life. Any unprovoked attacks on faerie-kind by humans are to be paid only by a human life in exchange._ My sisters quieted their weeping. The mercenary in town had killed a faerie_but had attacked her first. _I didn_t know,_ I said. _Didn_t know about that part of the Treaty._ Faeries couldn_t lie_and he spoke plainly enough, no word-twisting. _Most of you mortals have chosen to forget that part of the Treaty,_ he said, _which makes punishing you far more enjoyable._ My knees quaked. I couldn_t escape this, couldn_t outrun this. Couldn_t even try to run, since he blocked the way to the door. _Do it outside,_ I whispered, my voice trembling. _Not _ here._ Not where my family would have to wash away my blood and gore. If he even let them live. The faerie huffed a vicious laugh. _Willing to accept your fate so easily?_ When I just stared at him, he said, _For having the nerve to request where I slaughter you, I_ll let you in on a secret, human: Prythian must claim your life in some way, for the life you took from it. So as a representative of the immortal realm, I can either gut you like swine, or _ you can cross the wall and live out the remainder of your days in Prythian._ I blinked. _What?_ He said slowly, as if I were indeed as stupid as a swine, _You can either die tonight or offer your life to Prythian by living in it forever, forsaking the human realm._ _Do it, Feyre,_ my father whispered from behind me. _Go._ I didn_t look at him as I said, _Live where? Every inch of Prythian is lethal to us._ I_d be better off dying tonight than living in pure terror across the wall until I met my end in doubtlessly an even more awful way. _I have lands,_ the faerie said quietly_almost reluctantly. _I will grant you permission to live there._ _Why bother?_ Perhaps a fool_s question, but_ _You murdered my friend,_ the beast snarled. _Murdered him, skinned his corpse, sold it at the market, and then said he deserved it, and yet you have the nerve to question my generosity?_ How typically human, he seemed to silently add. _You didn_t need to mention the loophole._ I stepped so close the faerie_s breath heated my face. Faeries couldn_t lie, but they could omit information. The beast snarled again. _Foolish of me to forget that humans have such low opinions of us. Do you humans no longer understand mercy?_ he said, his fangs inches from my throat. _Let me make this clear for you, girl: you can either come live at my home in Prythian_offer your life for the wolf_s in that way_or you can walk outside right now and be shredded to ribbons. Your choice._ My father_s hobbling steps sounded before he gripped my shoulder. _Please, good sir_Feyre is my youngest. I beseech you to spare her. She is all _ she is all __ But whatever he meant to say died in his throat as the beast roared again. But hearing those few words he_d managed to get out, the effort he_d made _ it was like a blade to my belly. My father cringed as he said, _Please__ _Silence,_ the creature snapped, and rage boiled up in me so blistering it was an effort to keep from lunging to stab my dagger in his eye. But by the time I had so much as raised my arm, I knew he would have his maw around my neck. _I can get gold__ my father said, and my rage guttered. The only way he would get money was by begging. Even then, he_d be lucky to get a few coppers. I_d seen how pitiless the well-off were in our village. The monsters in our mortal realm were just as bad as those across the wall. The beast sneered. _How much is your daughter_s life worth to you? Do you think it equates to a sum?_ Nesta still had Elain held behind her, Elain_s face so pale it matched the snow drifting in from the open door. But Nesta monitored every move the beast made, her brows lowered. She didn_t bother to look at my father_as if she knew his answer already. When my father didn_t reply, I dared another step toward the beast, drawing his attention to me. I had to get him outFiltered him away from my family. From the way he_d brushed away my knife, any hope of escaping lay in somehow sneaking up on him. With his hearing, I doubted I_d get a chance anytime soon, at least until he believed I was docile. If I tried to attack him or fled before then, he would destroy my family for the sheer enjoyment of it. Then he would find me again. I had no choice but to go. And then, later, I might find an opportunity to slit the beast_s throat. Or at least disable him long enough to flee. As long as the faeries couldn_t find me again, they couldn_t hold me to the Treaty. Even if it made me a cursed oath-breaker. But in going with him, I would be breaking the most important promise I_d ever made. Surely it trumped an ancient treaty that I hadn_t even signed. I loosened my grip on the hilt of my remaining dagger and stared into those green eyes for a long, silent while before I said, _When do we go?_ Those lupine features remained fierce_vicious. Any lingering hope I had of fighting died as he moved to the door_no, to the quiver I_d left behind it. He pulled out the ash arrow, sniffed, and snarled at it. With two movements, he snapped it in half and chucked it into the fire behind my sisters before turning back to me. I could smell my doom on his breath as he said, _Now._ Now. Even Elain lifted her head to gape at me in mute horror. But I couldn_t look at her, couldn_t look at Nesta_not when they were still crouched there, still silent. I turned to my father. His eyes glistened, so I glanced to the few cabinets we had, faded too-yellow daffodils curving over the handles. Now. The beast paced in the doorway. I didn_t want to contemplate where I was going or what he would do with me. Running would be foolish until it was the right time. _The venison should hold you for two weeks,_ I said to my father as I gathered my clothes to bulk up against the cold. _Start on the fresh meat, then work your way through to the jerky_you know how to make it._ _Feyre__ my father breathed, but I continued as I fastened my cloak. _I left the money from the pelts on the dresser,_ I said. _It will last you for a time, if you_re careful._ I finally looked at my father again and allowed myself to memorize the lines of his face. My eyes stung, but I blinked the moisture away as I stuffed my hands into my worn gloves. _When spring comes, hunt in the grove just south of the big bend in Silverspring Creek_the rabbits make their warrens there. Ask _ ask Isaac Hale to show you how to make snares. I taught him last year._ My father nodded, covering his mouth with a hand. The beast growled his warning and prowled out into the night. I made to follow him but paused to look at my sisters, still crouched by the fire, as if they wouldn_t dare to move until I was gone. Elain mouthed my name but kept cowering, kept her head down. So I turned to Nesta, whose face was so similar to my mother_s, so cold and unrelenting. _Whatever you do,_ I said quietly, _don_t marry Tomas Mandray. His father beats his wife, and none of his sons do anything to stop it._ Nesta_s eyes widened, but I added, _Bruises are harder to conceal than poverty._ Nesta stiffened but said nothing_both of my sisters said absolutely nothing_as I turned toward the open door. But a hand wrapped around my arm, tugging me into a stop. Turning me around to face him, my father opened and closed his mouth. Outside, the beast, sensing I_d been detained, sent a snarl rumbling into the cottage. _Feyre,_ my father said. His fingers trembled as he grasped my gloved hands, but his eyes became clearer and bolder than I_d seen them in years. _You were always too good for here, Feyre. Too good for us, too good for everyone._ He squeezed my hands. _If you ever escape, ever convince them that you_ve paid the debt, don_t return._ I hadn_t expected a heart-wrenching good-bye, but I hadn_t imagined this, either. _Don_t ever come back,_ my father said, releasing my hands to shake me by the shoulders. _Feyre._ He stumbled over my name, his throat bobbing. _You go somewhere new_and you make a name for yourself._ Beyond, the beast was just a shadow. A life for a life_but what if the life offered as payment also meant losing three others? The thought alone was enough to steel me, anchor me. I_d never told my father of the promise I_d made my mother, and there was no use explaining it now. So I shrugged off his grip and left. I let the sounds of the snow crunching underfoot drive out my father_s words as I followed the beast to the night-shrouded woods. Chapter 5 Every step toward the line of trees was too swift, too light, too soon carrying me to whatever torment and misery awaited. I didn_t dare look back at the cottage. We entered the line of trees. Darkness beckoned beyond. But a white mare was patiently waiting_unbound_beside a tree, her coat like fresh snow in the moonlight. She only lowered her head_as if in respect, of all things_as the beast lumbered up to her. He motioned with a giant paw for me to mount. Still the horse remained calm, even as he passed close enough to gut her in one swipe. It had been years since I_d ridden, and I_d only ridden a pony at that, but I savored the warmth of the horse against my half-frozen body as I climbed into the saddle and she set into a walk. Without light to guide me, I let her trail the beast. They were nearly the same size. I wasn_t surprised when we headed northward_toward faerie territory_though my stomach clenched so tightly it ached. Live with him. I could live out the rest of my mortal life on his lands. Perhaps this was merciful_but then, he hadn_t specified in what manner, exactly, I would live. The Treaty forbade faeries from taking us as slaves, but_perhaps that excluded humans who_d murdered faeries. We_d likely go to whatever rift in the wall he_d used to get here, to steal me. And once we went through the invisible wall, once we were in Prythian, there was no way for my family to ever find me. I_d be little more than a lamb in a kingdom of wolves. Wolves_wolf. Murdered a faerie. That was what I_d done. My throat went dry. I_d killed a faerie. I couldn_t bring myself to feel badly about it. Not with my family left behind me to surely starve; not when it meant one less wicked, awful creature in the world. The beast had burned my ash arrow_so I_d have to rely on luck to get even a splinter of the wood again, if I was to stand a chance of killing him. Or slowing him down. Knowledge of that weakness, of their susceptibility to ash, was the only reason we_d ever survived against the High Fae during the ancient uprising, a secret betrayed by one of their own. My blood chilled further as I uselessly scanned for any signs of the narrow trunk and explosion of branches that I_d learned marked ash trees. I_d never seen the forest so still. Whatever was out there had to be tame compared to the beast beside me, despite the horse_s ease around him. Hopefully he would keep other faeries away after we entered his realm. Prythian. The word was a death knell that echoed through me again and again. Lands_he_d said he had lands, but what kind of dwelling? My horse was beautiful and its saddle was crafted of rich leather, which meant he had some sort of contact with civilized life. I_d never heard the specifics of what the lives of faeries or High Fae were like_never heard much about anything other than their deadly abilities and appetites. I clenched the reins to keep my hands from shaking. There were few firsthand accounts of Prythian itself. The mortals who went over the wall_either willingly as tributes from the Children of the Blessed or stolen_never came back. I_d learned most of the legends from villagers, though my father had occasionally offered up a milder tale or two on the nights he made an attempt to remember we existed. As far as we knew, the High Fae still governed the northern parts of our world_from our enormous island over the narrow sea separating us from the massive continent, across depthless fjords and frozen wastelands and sandblasted deserts, all the way to the great ocean on the other side. Some faerie territories were empires; some were overseen by kings and queens. Then there were places like Prythian, divided and ruled by seven High Lords_beings of such unyielding power that legend claimed they could level buildings, break apart armies, and butcher you before you could blink. I didn_t doubt it. No one had ever told me why humans chose to linger in our territory, when so little space had been granted to us and we remained in such close proximity to Prythian. Fools_whatever humans had stayed here after the War must have been suicidal fools to live so close. Even with the centuries-old Treaty between the mortal and faerie realms, there were rifts in the warded wall separating our lands, holes big enough for those lethal creatures to slip into our territory to amuse themselves with tormenting us. That was the side of Prythian that the Children of the Blessed never deigned to acknowledge_perhaps a side of Prythian I_d soon witness. My stomach turned. Live with him, I reminded myself, again and again and again. Live, not die. Though I supposed I could also live in a dungeon. He would likely lock me up and forget that I was there, forget that humans needed things like food and water and warmth. Prowling ahead of me, the beast_s horns spiraled toward the night sky, and tendrils of hot breath curled from his snout. We had to make camp at some point; the border of Prythian was days away. Once we stopped, I would keep awake for the entirety of the night and never let him out of my sight. Even though he_d burned my ash arrow, I_d smuggled my remaining knife in my cloak. Maybe tonight would grant me an opportunity to use it. But it was not my own doom I contemplated as I let myself tumble into dread and rage and despair. As we rode on_the only sounds snow crunching beneath paws and hooves_I alternated between a wretched smugness at the thought of my family starving and thus realizing how important I was, and a blinding agony at the thought of my father begging in the streets, his ruined leg giving out on him as he stumbled from person to person. Every time I looked at the beast, I could see my father limping through town, pleading for coppers to keep my sisters alive. Worse_what Nesta might resort to in order to keep Elain alive. She wouldn_t mind my father_s death. But she would lie and steal and sell anything for Elain_s sake_and her own as well. I took in the way the beast moved, trying to find any_any_weakness. I could detect none. _What manner of faerie are you?_ I asked, the words nearly swallowed up by the snow and trees and star-heavy sky. He didn_t bother to turn around. He didn_t bother to say anything at all. Fair enough. I_d killed his friend, after all. I tried again. _Do you have a name?_ Or anything to curse him by. A huff of air that could have been a bitter laugh. _Does it even matter to you, human?_ I didn_t answer. He might very well change his mind about sparing me. But perhaps I would escape before he decided to gut me. I would grab my family and we_d stow away on a ship and sail far, far away. Perhaps I would try to kill him, regardless of the futility, regardless of whether it constituted another unprovoked attack, just for being the one who came to claim my life_my life, when these faeries valued ours so little. The mercenary had survived; maybe I could, too. Maybe. I opened my mouth to again ask him for his name, but a growl of annoyance rippled out of him. I didn_t have a chance to struggle, to fight back, when a charged, metallic tang stung my nose. Exhaustion slammed down upon me and blackness swallowed me whole. I awoke with a jolt atop the horse, secured by invisible bonds. The sun was already high. Magic_that_s what the tang had been, what was keeping my limbs tucked in tight, preventing me from going for my knife. I recognized the power deep in my bones, from some collective mortal memory and terror. How long had it kept me unconscious? How long had he kept me unconscious, rather than have to speak to me? Gritting my teeth, I might have demanded answers from him_might have shouted to where he still lumbered ahead, heedless of me. But then chirping birds flitted past me, and a mild breeze kissed my face. I spied a hedge-bordered metal gate ahead. My prison or my salvation_I couldn_t decide which. Two days_it took two days from my cottage to reach the wall and enter the southernmost border of Prythian. Had I been held in an enchanted sleep for that long? Bastard. The gate swung open without porter or sentry, and the beast continued through. Whether I wanted to or not, my horse followed after him. 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. FoodFilteredting 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. 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. Chapter 7 The golden-haired High Fae and Lucien were lounging at the table when Alis returned me to the dining room. They no longer had plates before them, but still sipped from golden goblets. Real gold_not paint or foil. Our mismatched cutlery flashed through my mind as I paused in the middle of the room. Such wealth_such staggering wealth, when we had nothing. A half-wild beast, Nesta had called me. But compared to him, compared to this place, compared to the elegant, easy way they held their goblets, the way the golden-haired one had called me human _ we were all half-wild beasts to the High Fae. Even if they were the ones who could don fur and claws. Food still remained on the table, the array of spices lingering in the air, beckoning. I was starving, my head unnervingly light. The golden-haired High Fae_s mask gleamed with the last rays of the afternoon sunshine. _Before you ask again: the food is safe for you to eat._ He pointed to the chair at the other end of the table. No sign of his claws. When I didn_t move, he sighed sharply. _What do you want, then?_ I said nothing. To eat, flee, save my family _ Lucien drawled from his seat along the length of the table, _I told you so, Tamlin._ He flicked a glance toward his friend. _Your skills with females have definitely become rusty in recent decades._ Tamlin. He glowered at Lucien, shifting in his seat. I tried not to stiffen at the other bit of information Lucien had given away. Decades. Tamlin didn_t look much older than me, but his kind was immortal. He could be hundreds of years old. Thousands. My mouth dried up as I carefully studied their strange, masked faces_unearthly, primal, and imperious. Like immovable gods or feral courtiers. _Well,_ Lucien said, his remaining russet eye fixed on me, _you don_t look half as bad now. A relief, I suppose, since you_re to live with us. Though the tunic isn_t as pretty as a dress._ Wolves ready to pounce_that_s what they were, just like their friend. I was all too aware of my diction, of the very breath I took as I said, _I_d prefer not to wear that dress._ _And why not?_ Lucien crooned. It was Tamlin who answered for me. _Because killing us is easier in pants._ I kept my face blank, willed my heart to calm as I said, _Now that I_m here, what _ what do you plan to do with me?_ Lucien snorted, but Tamlin said with a snarl of annoyance, _Just sit down._ An empty seat had been pulled out at the end of the table. So many foods, piping hot and wafting those enticing spices. The servants had probably brought out new food while I_d washed. So much wasted. I clenched my hands into fists. _We_re not going to bite._ Lucien_s white teeth gleamed in a way that suggested otherwise. I avoided his gaze, avoided that strange, animated metal eye that focused on me as I inched to my seat and sat down. Tamlin rose, stalking around the table_closer and closer, each movement smooth and lethal, a predator blooded with power. It was an effort to keep still_especially as he picked up a dish, brought it over to me, and piled some meat and sauce on my plate. I said quietly, _I can serve myself._ Anything, anything to keep him well away from me. Tamlin paused, so close that one swipe of those claws lurking under his skin could rip my throat out. That was why the leather baldric bore no weapons: why use them when you were a weapon yourself? _It_s an honor for a human to be served by a High Fae,_ he said roughly. I swallowed hard. He continued piling various foods on my plate, stopping only when it was heaping with meat and sauce and bread, and then filled my glass with pale sparkling wine. I loosed a breath as he prowled back to his seat, though he could probably hear it. I wanted nothing more than to bury my face in the plate and then eat my way down the table, but I pinned my hands beneath my thighs and stared at the two faeries. They watched me, too closely to be casual. Tamlin straightened a bit and said, _You look _ better than before._ Was that a compliment? I could have sworn Lucien gave Tamlin an encouraging nod. _And your hair is _ clean._ Perhaps it was my raging hunger making me hallucinate the piss-poor attempt at flattery. Still, I leaned back and kept my words calm and quiet, the way I might speak to any other predator. _You_re High Fae_faerie nobility?_ Lucien coughed and looked to Tamlin. _You can take that question._ _Yes,_ Tamlin said, frowning_as if searching for anything to say to me. He settled on merely: _We are._ Fine. A man_faerie_of few words. I had killed his friend, was an unwanted guest. I wouldn_t want to talk to me, either. _What do you plan to do with me now that I_m here?_ Tamlin_s eyes didn_t leave my face. _Nothing. Do whatever you want._ _So I_m not to be your slave?_ I dared ask. Lucien choked on his wine. But Tamlin didn_t smile. _I don_t keep slaves._ I ignored the release of tightness in my chest at that. _But what am I to do with my life here?_ I pressed. _Do you_do you wish me to earn my keep? To work?_ A stupid question, if he hadn_t considered it, but _ but I had to know. Tamlin stiffened. _What you do with your life isn_t my problem._ Lucien pointedly cleared his throat, and Tamlin flashed him a glare. After an exchanged look I couldn_t read, Tamlin sighed and said, _Don_t you have any _ interests?_ _No._ Not entirely true, but I wasn_t about to explain the painting to him. Not when he was apparently having a great deal of trouble just talking to me civilly. Lucien muttered, _So typically human._ Tamlin_s mouth quirked to the side. _Do whatever you want with your time. Just stay out of trouble._ _So you truly mean for me to stay here forever._ What I meant was: So I_m to stay in this luxury while my family starves to death? _I didn_t make the rules,_ Tamlin said tersely. _My family is starving,_ I said. I didn_t mind begging_not for this. I_d given my word, and held to that word for so long that I was nothing and no one without it. _Please let me go. There must be_must be some other loophole out of the Treaty_s rules_some other way to atone._ _Atone?_ Lucien said. _Have you even apologized yet?_ Apparently, all attempts to flatter me were dead and gone. So I looked Lucien right in his remaining russet eye and said, _I_m sorry._ Lucien leaned back in his chair. _How did you kill him? Was it a bloody fight, or just cold-blooded murder?_ My spine stiffened. _I shot him with an ash arrow. And then an ordinary arrow through the eye. He didn_t put up a fight. After the first shot, he just stared at me._ _Yet you killed him anyway_though he made no move to attack you. And then you skinned him,_ Lucien hissed. _Enough, Lucien,_ Tamlin said to his courtier with a snarl. _I don_t want to hear details._ He turned to me, ancient and brutal and unyielding. I spoke before he could say anything. _My family won_t last a month without me._ Lucien chuckled, and I gritted my teeth. _Do you know what it_s like to be hungry?_ I demanded, anger rising to devour any common sense. _Do you know what it_s like to not know when your next meal will be?_ Tamlin_s jaw tightened. _Your family is alive and well-cared for. You think so low of faeries that you believe I_d take their only source of income and nourishment and not replace it?_ I straightened. _You swear it?_ Even if faeries couldn_t lie, I had to hear it. A low, incredulous laugh. _On everything that I am and possess._ _Why not tell me that when we left the cottage?_ _Would you have believed me? Do you even believe me now?_ Tamlin_s claws embedded in the arms of his chair. _Why should I trust a word you say? You_re all masters of spinning your truths to your own advantage._ _Some would say it_s unwise to insult a Fae in his home,_ Tamlin ground out. _Some would say you should be grateful for me finding you before another one of my kind came to claim the debt, for sparing your life and then offering you the chance to live in comfort._ I shot to my feet, wisdom be damned, and was about to kick back my chair when invisible hands clapped on my arms and shoved me back into the seat. _Do not do whatever it was you were contemplating,_ Tamlin said. I went still as the tang of magic seared my nose. I tried to twist in the chair, testing the invisible bonds. But my arms were secured, and my back was pressed into the wood so hard that it ached. I glanced at the knife beside my plate. I should have gone for it first_futile effort or no. _I_m going to warn you once,_ Tamlin said too softly. _Only once, and then it_s on you, human. I don_t care if you go live somewhere else in Prythian. But if you cross the wall, if you flee, your family will no longer be cared for._ His words were like a stone to the head. If I escaped, if I even tried to run, I might very well doom my family. And even if I dared risk it _ even if I succeeded in reaching them, where would I take them? I couldn_t stow my sisters away on a ship_and once we arrived somewhere else, somewhere safe, we_d have nowhere to live. But for him to hold my family_s well-being against me, to throw away their survival if I stepped out of line _ I opened my mouth, but his snarl rattled the glasses. _Is that not a fair bargain? And if you flee, then you might not be so lucky with whoever comes to retrieve you next._ His claws slipped back under his knuckles. _The food is not enchanted, or drugged, and it will be your own damn fault if you faint. So you_re going to sit at this table and eat, Feyre. And Lucien will do his best to be polite._ He threw a pointed look in his direction. Lucien shrugged. The invisible bonds loosened, and I winced as I whacked my hands on the underside of the table. The bonds on my legs and middle remained intact. One glance at Tamlin_s smoldering green eyes told me what I wanted to know: his guest or not, I wasn_t going to get up from this table until I_d eaten something. I_d think about the sudden change in my plans to escape later. Now _ for now I eyed the silver fork and carefully picked it up. They still watched me_watched my every move, the flare of my nostrils as I sniffed the food on my plate. No metallic stench of magic. And faeries couldn_t lie. So he had to be right about the food, then. Stabbing a piece of chicken, I took a bite. It was an effort to keep from grunting. I hadn_t had food this good in years. Even the meals we_d had before our downfall were little more than ashes compared to this. I ate my entire plate in silence, too aware of the High Fae observing every bite, but as I reached for a second helping of chocolate torte, the food vanished. Just_vanished, as if it had never existed, not a crumb left behind. Swallowing hard, I set my fork down so they wouldn_t see my hand start to shake. _One more bite and you_ll hurl your guts up,_ Tamlin said, drinking deeply from his goblet. The bonds holding me loosened. Silent permission to leave. _Thank you for the meal,_ I said. It was all I could think of. _Won_t you stay for wine?_ Lucien said with sweet venom from where he lounged in his seat. I braced my hands on my chair to rise. _I_m tired. I_d like to sleep._ _It_s been a few decades since I last saw one of you,_ Lucien drawled, _but you humans never change, so I don_t think I_m wrong in asking why you find our company to be so unpleasant, when surely the men back home aren_t much to look at._ At the other end of the table, Tamlin gave his emissary a long, warning look. Lucien ignored it. _You_re High Fae,_ I said tightly. _I_d ask why you_d even bother inviting me here at all_or dining with me._ Fool_I really should have been killed ten times over already. Lucien said, _True. But indulge me: you_re a human woman, and yet you_d rather eat hot coals than sit here longer than necessary. Ignoring this__he waved a hand at the metal eye and brutal scar on his face__surely we_re not so miserable to look at._ Typical faerie vanity and arrogance. That, at least, the legends had been right about. I tucked the knowledge away. _Unless you have someone back home. Unless there_s a line of suitors out the door of your hovel that makes us seem like worms in comparison._ There was enough dismissal there that I took a little bit of satisfaction in saying, _I was close with a man back in my village._ Before that Treaty ripped me away_before it became clear that you are allowed to do as you please to us, but we can hardly strike back against you. Tamlin and Lucien exchanged glances, but it was Tamlin who said, _Are you in love with this man?_ _No,_ I said as casually as I could. It wasn_t a lie_but even if I_d felt anything like that for Isaac, my answer would have been the same. It was bad enough that High Fae now knew my family existed. I didn_t need to add Isaac to that list. Again, that shared look between the two males. _And do you _ love anyone else?_ Tamlin said through clenched teeth. A laugh burst out of me, tinged with hysteria. _No._ I looked between them. Nonsense. These lethal, immortal beings really had nothing better to do than this? _Is this really what you care to know about me? If I find you more handsome than human men, and if I have a man back home? Why bother to ask at all, when I_ll be stuck here for the rest of my life?_ A hot line of anger sliced through my senses. _We wanted to learn more about you, since you_ll be here for a good while,_ Tamlin said, his lips a thin line. _But Lucien_s pride tends to get in the way of his manners._ He sighed, as if ready to be done with me, and said, _Go rest. We_re both busy most days, so if you need anything, ask the staff. They_ll help you._ _Why?_ I asked. _Why be so generous?_ Lucien gave me a look that suggested he had no idea, either, given that I_d murdered their companion, but Tamlin stared at me for a long moment. _I kill too often as it is,_ Tamlin said finally, shrugging his broad shoulders. _And you_re insignificant enough to not ruffle this estate. Unless you decide to start killing us._ A faint warmth bloomed in my cheeks, my neck. Insignificant_yes, I was insignificant to their lives, their power. As insignificant as the fading, chipped designs I_d painted around the cottage. _Well _,_ I said, not quite feeling grateful at all, _thank you._ He gave a distant nod and motioned for me to leave. Dismissed. Like the lowly human I was. Lucien propped his chin on a fist and gave me a lazy half smile. Enough. I got to my feet and backed toward the door. Putting my back to them would have been like walking away from a wolf, sparing my life or no. They said nothing when I slipped out the door. A moment later, Lucien_s barking laugh echoed into the halls, followed by a sharp, vicious growl that shut him up. I slept fitfully that night, and the lock on my bedroom door felt more like a joke than anything. I was wide awake before dawn, but I remained staring at the filigreed ceiling, watching the growing light creep between the drapes, savoring the softness of the down mattress. I was usually out of the cottage by first light_though my sisters hissed at me every morning for waking them so early. If I were home, I_d already be entering the woods, not wasting a moment of precious sunlight, listening to the drowsy chatter of the few winter birds. Instead, this bedroom and the house beyond were silent, the enormous bed foreign and empty. A small part of me missed the warmth of my sisters_ bodies overlapping with mine. Nesta must be stretching her legs and smiling at the extra room. She was probably content imagining me in the belly of a faerie_probably using the news as a chance to be fussed over by the villagers. Maybe my fate would prompt them to give my family some handouts. Or maybe Tamlin had given them enough money_or food, or whatever he thought _taking care_ of them consisted of_to last through the winter. Or maybe the villagers would turn on my family, not wanting to be associated with people tied with Prythian, and run them out of town. I buried my face in the pillow, pulling the blankets higher. If Tamlin had indeed provided for them, if those benefits would cease the moment I crossed the wall, then they_d likely resent my return more than celebrate it. Your hair is _ clean. A pathetic compliment. I supposed that if he_d invited me to live here, to spare my life, he couldn_t be completely _ wicked. Perhaps he_d just been trying to smooth over our very, very rough beginning. Maybe there would be some way to persuade him to find some loophole, to get whatever magic that bound the Treaty to spare me. And if not some way, then someone _ I was drifting from one thought to another, trying to sort through the jumble, when the lock on the door clicked, and_ There was a screech and a thud, and I bolted upright to find Alis in a heap on the floor. The length of rope I_d made from the curtain trimmings now hung loosely from where I_d rigged it to snap into anyone_s face. It had been the best I could do with what I had. _I_m sorry, I_m sorry,_ I blurted, leaping from the bed, but Alis was already up, hissing at me as she brushed off her apron. She frowned at the rope dangling from the light fixture. _What in the bottomless depths of the Cauldron is__ _I didn_t think anyone would be in here so early, and I meant to take it down, and__ Alis looked me over from head to toe. _You think a bit of rope snapping in my face will keep me from breaking your bones?_ My blood went cold. _You think that will do anything against one of us?_ I might have kept apologizing were it not for the sneer she gave me. I crossed my arms. _It was a warning bell to give me time to run. Not a trap._ She seemed poised to spit on me, but then her sharp brown eyes narrowed. _You can_t outrun us, either, girl._ _I know,_ I said, my heart calming at last. _But at least I wouldn_t face my death unaware._ Alis barked out a laugh. _My master gave his word that you could live here_live, not die. We will obey._ She studied the hanging bit of rope. _But did you have to wreck those lovely curtains?_ I didn_t want to_tried not to, but a hint of a smile tugged on my lips. Alis strode over to the remnants of the curtains and threw them open, revealing a sky that was still a deep periwinkle, splashed with hues of pumpkin and magenta from the rising dawn. _I am sorry,_ I said again. Alis clicked her tongue. _At least you_re willing to put up a fight, girl. I_ll give you that._ I opened my mouth to speak, but another female servant with a bird mask entered, a breakfast tray in hand. She bid me a curt good morning, set the tray on a small table by the window, and disappeared into the attached bathing chamber. The sound of running water filled the room. I sat at the table and studied the porridge and eggs and bacon_bacon. Again, such similar food to what we ate across the wall. I don_t know why I_d expected otherwise. Alis poured me a cup of what looked and smelled like tea: full-bodied, aromatic tea, no doubt imported at great expense. Prythian and my adjoining homeland weren_t exactly easy to reach. _What is this place?_ I asked her quietly. _Where is this place?_ _It_s safe, and that_s all you need to know,_ Alis said, setting down the teapot. _At least the house is. If you go poking about the grounds, keep your wits about you._ Fine_if she wouldn_t answer that _ I tried again. _What sort of_faeries should I look out for?_ _All of them,_ Alis said. _My master_s protection only goes so far. They_ll want to hunt and kill you just for being a human_regardless of what you did to Andras._ Another useless answer. I dug into my breakfast, savoring each rich sip of tea, and she slipped into the bathing chamber. When I was done eating and bathing, I refused Alis_s offer and dressed myself in another exquisite tunic_this one of purple so deep it could have been black. I wished I knew the name for the color, but cataloged it anyway. I pulled on the brown boots I_d worn the night before, and as I sat before a marble vanity letting Alis braid my wet hair, I cringed at my reflection. It wasn_t pleasing_though not for its actual appearance. While my nose was relatively straight, it was the other feature I_d inherited from my mother. I could still remember how her nose would crinkle with feigned amusement when one of her fabulously wealthy friends made some unfunny joke. At least I had my father_s soft mouth, though it made a mockery of my too-sharp cheekbones and hollow cheeks. I couldn_t bring myself to look at my slightly uptilted eyes. I knew I_d see Nesta or my mother looking back at me. I_d sometimes wondered if that was why my sister had insulted me about my looks. I was a far cry from ugly, but _ I bore too much of the people we_d hated and loved for Nesta to stand it. For me to stand it, too. Though I supposed that for Tamlin_for High Fae used to ethereal, flawless beauty_it had been a struggle to find a compliment. Faerie bastard. Alis finished my plait, and I jumped from the bench before she could weave in little flowers from the basket she_d brought. I would have lived up to my namesake were it not for the effects of poverty, but I_d never particularly cared. Beauty didn_t mean anything in the forest. When I asked Alis what I was to do now_what I was to do with the entirety of my mortal life_she shrugged and suggested a walk in the gardens. I almost laughed, but I kept my tongue still. I_d be foolish to push aside potential allies. I doubted she had Tamlin_s ear, and I couldn_t press her about it yet, but _ At least a walk provided a chance to glean some sense of my surroundings_and whether there was anyone else who might plead my case to Tamlin. The halls were silent and empty_strange for such a large estate. They_d mentioned others the night before, but I saw and heard no sign of them. A balmy breeze scented with _ hyacinth, I realized_if only from Elain_s small garden_floated down the halls, carrying with it the pleasant chirping of a bunting, a bird I wouldn_t hear back home for months_if I ever heard them at all. I was almost to the grand staircase when I noticed the paintings. I hadn_t let myself really look yesterday, but now, in the empty hall with no one to see me _ a flash of color amid a shadowy, gloomy background made me stop, a riot of color and texture that compelled me to face the gilded frame. I_d never_never_seen anything like it. It_s just a still life, a part of me said. And it was: a green glass vase with an assortment of flowers drooping over its narrow top, blossoms and leaves of every shape and size and color_roses, tulips, morning glory, goldenrod, maiden_s lace, peonies _ The skill it must have taken to make them look so lifelike, to make them more than lifelike _ Just a vase of flowers against a dark background_but more than that; the flowers seemed to be vibrant with their own light, as if in defiance of the shadows gathered around them. The mastery needed to make the glass vase hold that light, to bend the light with the water within, as if the vase did indeed have weight to it atop its stone pedestal _ Remarkable. I could have stared at it for hours_and the countless paintings along this hall alone could have occupied my entire day_but _ garden. Plans. Still, as I moved on, I couldn_t deny that this place was far more _ civilized than I_d thought. Peaceful, even, if I was willing to admit it. And if the High Fae were indeed gentler than human legend and rumor had led me to believe, then maybe convincing Alis of my misery might not be too hard. If I could win over Alis, convince her that the Treaty had been wrong to demand such payment from me, she might indeed see if there was anything to get me out of this debt and_ _You,_ someone said, and I jumped back a step. In the light of the open glass doors to the garden, a towering male figure stood silhouetted before me. Tamlin. He wore those warrior_s clothes, cut close to show off his toned body, and three simple knives were now sheathed along his baldric_each long enough to look like it could gut me as easily as his beast_s claws. His blond hair had been tied back from his face, revealing those pointed ears and that strange, beautiful mask. _Where are you going?_ he said, gruffly enough that it almost sounded like a demand. You_I wondered if he even remembered my name. It took a moment to will enough strength into my legs to rise from my half crouch. _Good morning,_ I said flatly. At least it was a better greeting than You. _You said my time was to be spent however I wanted. I didn_t realize I was under house arrest._ His jaw tightened. _Of course you_re not under house arrest._ Even as he bit out the words, I couldn_t ignore the sheer male beauty of that strong jaw, the richness of his golden-tan skin. He was probably handsome_if he ever took off that mask. When he realized that I wasn_t going to respond, he bared his teeth in what I supposed was an attempt at a smile and said, _Do you want a tour?_ _No, thank you,_ I managed to get out, conscious of every awkward motion of my body as I edged around him. He stepped into my path_close enough that he conceded a step back. _I_ve been sitting inside all morning. I need some fresh air._ And you_re insignificant enough that you wouldn_t be a bother. _I_m fine,_ I said, casually dodging him. _You_ve _ been generous enough._ I tried to sound like I meant it. A half smile, not so pleasant, no doubt unused to being denied. _Do you have some sort of problem with me?_ _No,_ I said quietly, and walked through the doors. He let out a low snarl. _I_m not going to kill you, Feyre. I don_t break my promises._ I almost stumbled down the garden steps as I glanced over my shoulder. He stood atop the stairs, as solid and ancient as the pale stones of the manor. _Kill_but not harm? Is that another loophole? One that Lucien might use against me_or anyone else here?_ _They_re under orders not to even touch you._ _Yet I_m still trapped in your realm, for breaking a rule I didn_t know existed. Why was your friend even in the woods that day? I thought the Treaty banned your kind from entering our lands._ He just stared at me. Perhaps I_d gone too far, questioned him too much. Perhaps he could tell why I_d really asked. _That Treaty,_ he said quietly, _doesn_t ban us from doing anything, except for enslaving you. The wall is an inconvenience. If we cared to, we could shatter it and march through to kill you all._ I might be forced to live in Prythian forever, but my family _ I dared ask, _And do you care to destroy the wall?_ He looked me up and down, as if deciding whether I was worth the effort of explaining. _I have no interest in the mortal lands, though I can_t speak for my kind._ But he still hadn_t answered my question. _Then what was your friend doing there?_ Tamlin stilled. Such unearthly, primal grace, even to his breathing. _There is _ a sickness in these lands. Across Prythian. There has been for almost fifty years now. It is why this house and these lands are so empty: most have left. The blight spreads slowly, but it has made magic act _ strangely. My own powers are diminished due to it. These masks__he tapped on his__are the result of a surge of it that occurred during a masquerade forty-nine years ago. Even now, we can_t remove them._ Stuck in masks_for nearly fifty years. I would have gone mad, would have peeled my skin off my face. _You didn_t have a mask as a beast_and neither did your friend._ _The blight is cruel like that._ Either live as a beast, or live with the mask. _What_what sort of sickness is it?_ _It_s not a disease_not a plague or illness. It_s focused solely on magic, on those dwelling in Prythian. Andras was across the wall that day because I sent him to search for a cure._ _Can it hurt humans?_ My stomach twisted. _Will it spread over the wall?_ _Yes,_ he said. _There is _ a chance of it affecting mortals, and your territory. More than that, I don_t know. It_s slow-moving, and your kind is safe for now. We haven_t had any progression in decades_magic seems to have stabilized, even though it_s been weakened._ That he_d even admitted so much spoke volumes about how he imagined my future: I was never going home, never going to encounter another human to whom I might spill this secret vulnerability. _A mercenary told me she believed faeries might be thinking of attacking. Is it related?_ A hint of a smile, perhaps a bit surprised. _I don_t know. Do you talk to mercenaries often?_ _I talk to whoever bothers to tell me anything useful._ He straightened, and it was only his promise not to kill me that kept me from cringing. Then he rolled his shoulders, as if shaking off his annoyance. _Was the trip wire you rigged in your room for me?_ I sucked on my teeth. _Can you blame me if it was?_ _I might take an animal form, but I am civilized, Feyre._ So he did remember my name, at least. But I looked pointedly at his hands, at the razor-sharp tips of those long, curved claws poking through his tanned skin. Noticing my stare, he tucked his hands behind his back. He said sharply, _I_ll see you at dinner._ It wasn_t a request, but I still gave him a nod as I strode off between the hedges, not caring where I was going_only that he stayed far behind. A sickness in their lands, affecting their magic, draining it from them _ A magical blight that might one day spread to the human world. After so many centuries without magic, we_d be defenseless against it_against whatever it could do to humans. I wondered if any of the High Fae would bother warning my kind. It didn_t take me long to know the answer. Chapter 8 I pretended to meander through the exquisite and silent gardens, mentally marking the paths and clever places for hiding if I ever needed them. He_d taken my weapons, and I wasn_t stupid enough to hope for an ash tree somewhere on the property with which to make my own. But his baldric had been laden with knives; there had to be an armory somewhere on the estate. And if not, I would find another weapon, then_steal it if I had to. Just in case. Upon inspection the night before, I_d learned that there was no lock on my window. Sneaking out and rappelling down the wisteria vines wouldn_t be difficult at all_I_d climbed enough trees to not mind the height. Not that I planned to escape, but _ it was good to know, at least, how I might do so should I ever be desperate enough to risk it. I didn_t doubt Tamlin_s claim that the rest of Prythian was deadly for a human_and if there was indeed some blight on these lands _ I was better off here for the time being. But not without trying to find someone who might plead my case to Tamlin. Though Lucien_he could do with someone snapping at him, if you_ve the courage for it, Alis had said to me yesterday. I chewed on my stubby nails as I walked, considering every possible plan and pitfall. I_d never been particularly good with words, had never learned the social warfare my sisters and mother had been so adept at, but _ I_d been decent enough when selling hides at the village market. So perhaps I_d seek out Tamlin_s emissary, even if he detested me. He clearly had little interest in my living here_he_d suggested killing me. Perhaps he_d be eager to send me back, to persuade Tamlin to find some other way to fulfill the Treaty. If there even was one. I approached a bench in an alcove blooming with foxglove when the sound of steps on shifting gravel filled the air. Two pairs of light, quick feet. I straightened, peering down the way I_d come, but the path was empty. I lingered at the edge of an open field of lanky meadow buttercups. The vibrant green-and-yellow field was deserted. Behind me arose a gnarled crab apple tree in full, glorious bloom, the petals of its flowers littering the shaded bench on which I_d been about to sit. A breeze set the branches rustling, a waterfall of white petals flittering down like snow. I scanned the garden, the field_carefully, carefully watching and listening for those two sets of feet. There was nothing in the tree, or behind it. A prickling sensation ran down my spine. I_d spent enough time in the woods to trust my instincts. Someone stood behind me_perhaps two of them. A faint sniff and a quiet giggle issued from far too close. My heart leaped into my throat. I cast a subtle glance over my shoulder. But only a shining silvery light flickered in the corner of my vision. I had to turn around. I had to face it. The gravel crunched, nearer now. The shimmering in the corner of my eye grew larger, separating into two small figures no taller than my waist. My hands clenched into fists. _Feyre!_ Alis_s voice cut across the garden. I jumped out of my skin as she called me again. _Feyre, lunch!_ she hollered. I whirled, a shout forming on my lips to alert her to whatever stood behind me, raising my fists, however futile it would be. But the shining things had vanished, along with their sniffing and giggling, and I found myself facing a weathered statue of two merry, bounding lambs. I rubbed my neck. Alis called me again, and I took a shuddering breath as I returned to the manor. But even as I strode through the hedges, carefully retracing my steps back to the house, I couldn_t erase the creeping feeling that someone still watched me, curious and wanting to play. I stole a knife from dinner that night. Just to have something_anything_to defend myself with. It turned out that dinner was the only meal I was invited to attend, which was fine. Three meals a day with Tamlin and Lucien would have been torturous. I could endure an hour of sitting at their fancy table if it made them think I was docile and had no plans to change my fate. While Lucien ranted to Tamlin about some malfunction of the magical, carved eye that indeed allowed him to see, I slipped my knife down the sleeve of my tunic. My heart beat so fast I thought they could hear it, but Lucien continued speaking, and Tamlin_s focus remained on his courtier. I supposed I should have pitied them for the masks they were forced to wear, for the blight that had infected their magic and people. But the less I interacted with them the better, especially when Lucien seemed to find everything I said to be hilariously human and uneducated. Snapping at him wouldn_t help my plans. It would be an uphill battle to win his favor, if only for the fact that I was alive and his friend was not. I_d have to deal with him alone, or risk raising Tamlin_s suspicions too soon. Lucien_s red hair shone in the firelight, the colors flickering with every movement he made, and the jewels in the hilt of his sword glinted_the ornate blade so unlike the baldric of knives still strapped across Tamlin_s chest. But there was no one here to use a sword against. And while the sword was embedded with jewels and filigree, it was large enough to be more than decoration. Perhaps it had something to do with those invisible things in the garden. Maybe he_d lost his eye and earned that scar in battle. I fought against a shudder. Alis had said the house was safe, but warned me to keep my wits about me. What might lurk beyond the house_or be able to use my human senses against me? Just how far would Tamlin_s order not to harm me stretch? What kind of authority did he hold? Lucien paused, and I found him smirking at me, making the scar even more brutal. _Were you admiring my sword, or just contemplating killing me, Feyre?_ _Of course not,_ I said softly, and glanced at Tamlin. The gold flecks in his eyes glowed, even from the other end of the table. My heart beat at a gallop. Had he somehow heard me take the knife, the whisper of metal on wood? I forced myself to look again at Lucien. His lazy, vicious grin was still there. Act civilized, behave, possibly win him to my side _ I could do that. Tamlin broke the silence. _Feyre likes to hunt._ _I don_t like to hunt._ I should have probably used a more polite tone, but I went on. _I hunted out of necessity. And how did you know that?_ Tamlin_s stare was bald, assessing. _Why else were you in the woods that day? You had a bow and arrows in your _ house._ I wondered whether he_d almost said hovel. _When I saw your father_s hands, I knew he wasn_t the one using them._ He gestured to my scarred, callused hands. _You told him about the rations and money from pelts. Faeries might be many things, but we_re not stupid. Unless your ridiculous legends claim that about us, too._ Ridiculous, insignificant. I stared at the crumbs of bread and swirls of remaining sauce on my golden plate. Had I been at home, I would have licked my plate clean, desperate for any extra bit of nourishment. And the plates _ I could have bought a team of horses, a plow, and a field for just one of them. Disgusting. Lucien cleared his throat. _How old are you, anyway?_ _Nineteen._ Pleasant, civilized _ Lucien tsked. _So young, and so grave. And a skilled killer already._ I tightened my hands into fists, the metal of the knife now warm against my skin. Docile, unthreatening, tame _ I_d made my mother a promise, and I_d keep it. Tamlin_s looking after my family wasn_t the same as my looking after them. That wild, small dream could still come to pass: my sisters comfortably married off, and a lifetime with my father, with enough food for us both and enough time to maybe paint a little_or to maybe learn what I wanted. It could still happen_in a faraway land, perhaps_if I ever got out of this bargain. I could still cling to that scrap of a dream, though these High Fae would likely laugh at how typically human it was to think so small, to want so little. Yet any bit of information might help, and if I showed interest in them, perhaps they would warm to me. What was this but another trap in the woods? So I said, _So is this what you do with your lives? Spare humans from the Treaty and have fine meals?_ I gave a pointed glance toward Tamlin_s baldric, the warrior_s clothes, Lucien_s sword. Lucien smirked. _We also dance with the spirits under the full moon and snatch human babes from their cradles to replace them with changelings__ _Didn_t _,_ Tamlin interrupted, his deep voice surprisingly gentle, _didn_t your mother tell you anything about us?_ I prodded the table with my forefinger, digging my short nails into the wood. _My mother didn_t have the time to tell me stories._ I could reveal that part of my past, at least. Lucien, for once, didn_t laugh. After a rather stilted pause, Tamlin asked, _How did she die?_ When I lifted my brows, he added a bit more softly, _I didn_t see signs of an older woman in your house._ Predator or not, I didn_t need his pity. But I said, _Typhus. When I was eight._ I rose from my seat to leave. _Feyre,_ Tamlin said, and I half turned. A muscle feathered in his cheek. Lucien glanced between us, that metal eye roving, but kept silent. Then Tamlin shook his head, the movement more animal than anything, and murmured, _I_m sorry for your loss._ I tried to keep from grimacing as I turned on my heel and left. I didn_t want or need his condolences_not for my mother, not when I hadn_t missed her in years. Let Tamlin dismiss me as a rude, uncouth human not worth his careful watch. I_d be better off persuading Lucien to speak to Tamlin on my behalf_and soon, before any of the others whom they_d mentioned appeared, or this blight of theirs grew. Tomorrow_I_d speak to Lucien then, test him out a bit. In my room, I found a small satchel in the armoire and filled it with a spare set of clothes, along with my stolen knife. It was a pitiful blade, but a piece of cutlery was better than nothing. Just in case I was ever allowed to go_and had to leave at a moment_s notice. Just in case. 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. Chapter 10 My blood froze as a creeping, leeching cold lurched by. I couldn_t see anything, just a vague shimmering in the corner of my vision, but my horse stiffened beneath me. I willed my face into blankness. Even the balmy spring woods seemed to recoil, to wither and freeze. The cold thing whispered past, circling. I could see nothing, but I could feel it. And in the back of my mind, an ancient, hollow voice whispered: I will grind your bones between my claws; I will drink your marrow; I will feast on your flesh. I am what you fear; I am what you dread _ Look at me. Look at me. I tried to swallow, but my throat had closed up. I kept my eyes on the trees, on the canopy, on anything but the cold mass circling us again and again. Look at me. I wanted to look_I needed to see what it was. Look at me. I stared at the coarse trunk of a distant elm, thinking of pleasant things. Like hot bread and full bellies_ I will fill my belly with you. I will devour you. Look at me. A starry, unclouded night sky, peaceful and glittering and endless. Summer sunrise. A refreshing bath in a forest pool. Meetings with Isaac, losing myself for an hour or two in his body, in our shared breaths. It was all around us, so cold that my teeth chattered. Look at me. I stared and stared at that ever-nearing tree trunk, not daring to blink. My eyes strained, filling with tears, and I let them fall, refusing to acknowledge the thing that lurked around us. Look at me. And just as I thought I would give in, when my eyes hurt so much from not looking, the cold disappeared into the brush, leaving a trail of still, recoiling plants behind it. Only after Lucien exhaled and our horses shook their heads did I dare sag in my seat. Even the crocuses seemed to straighten again. _What was that?_ I asked, brushing the tears from my face. Lucien_s face was still pale. _You don_t want to know._ _Please. Was it that _ Suriel you mentioned?_ Lucien_s russet eye was dark as he answered hoarsely. _No. It was a creature that should not be in these lands. We call it the Bogge. You cannot hunt it, and you cannot kill it. Even with your beloved ash arrows._ _Why can_t I look at it?_ _Because when you look at it_when you acknowledge it_that_s when it becomes real. That_s when it can kill you._ A shiver spider-walked down my spine. This was the Prythian I_d expected_the creatures that made humans speak of them in hushed tones even now. The reason I hadn_t hesitated, not for a heartbeat, when I_d considered the possibility of that wolf being a faerie. _I heard its voice in my head. It told me to look._ Lucien rolled his shoulders. _Well, thank the Cauldron that you didn_t. Cleaning up that mess would have ruined the rest of my day._ He gave me a wan smile. I didn_t return it. I still heard the Bogge_s voice whispering between the leaves, calling to me. After an hour of meandering through the trees, hardly speaking to each other, I_d stopped trembling enough to turn to him. _So you_re old,_ I said. _And you carry around a sword, and go on border patrol. Did you fight in the War?_ Fine_perhaps I hadn_t quite let go of my curiosity about his eye. He winced. _Shit, Feyre_I_m not that old._ _Are you a warrior, though?_ Would you be able to kill me if it ever came to that? Lucien huffed a laugh. _Not as good as Tam, but I know how to handle my weapons._ He patted the hilt of his sword. _Would you like me to teach you how to wield a blade, or do you already know how, oh mighty mortal huntress? If you took down Andras, you probably don_t need to learn anything. Only where to aim, right?_ He tapped on his chest. _I don_t know how to use a sword. I only know how to hunt._ _Same thing, isn_t it?_ _For me it_s different._ Lucien fell silent, considering. _I suppose you humans are such hateful cowards that you would have wet yourself, curled up, and waited to die if you_d known beyond a doubt what Andras truly was._ Insufferable. Lucien sighed as he looked me over. _Do you ever stop being so serious and dull?_ _Do you ever stop being such a prick?_ I snapped back. Dead_really, truly, I should have been dead for that. But Lucien grinned at me. _Much better._ Alis, it seemed, had not been wrong. Whatever tentative truce we built that afternoon vanished at the dinner table. Tamlin was lounging in his usual seat, a long claw out and circling his goblet. It paused on the lip as soon as I entered, Lucien on my heels. His green eyes pinned me to the spot. Right. I_d brushed him off that morning, claiming I wanted to be alone. Tamlin slowly looked at Lucien, whose face had turned grave. _We went on a hunt,_ Lucien said. _I heard,_ Tamlin said roughly, glancing between us as we took our seats. _And did you have fun?_ Slowly, his claw sank back into his flesh. Lucien didn_t answer, leaving it to me. Coward. I cleared my throat. _Sort of,_ I said. _Did you catch anything?_ Every word was clipped out. _No._ Lucien gave me a pointed cough, as if urging me to say more. But I had nothing to say. Tamlin stared at me for a long moment, then dug into his food, not all that interested in talking to me, either. Then Lucien quietly said, _Tam._ Tamlin looked up, more animal than fae in those green eyes. A demand for whatever it was Lucien had to say. Lucien_s throat bobbed. _The Bogge was in the forest today._ The fork in Tamlin_s hand folded in on itself. He said with lethal calm, _You ran into it?_ Lucien nodded. _It moved past but came close. It must have snuck through the border._ Metal groaned as Tamlin_s claws punched out, obliterating the fork. He rose to his feet with a powerful, brutal movement. I tried not to tremble at the contained fury, at how his canines seemed to lengthen as he said, _Where in the forest?_ Lucien told him. Tamlin threw a glance in my direction before stalking out of the room and shutting the door behind him with unnerving gentleness. Lucien loosed a breath, pushing away his half-eaten food and rubbing at his temples. _Where is he going?_ I asked, staring toward the door. _To hunt the Bogge._ _You said it couldn_t be killed_that you can_t face it._ _Tam can._ My breath caught a bit. The gruff High Fae halfheartedly flattering me was capable of killing a thing like the Bogge. And yet he_d served me himself that first night, offered me life rather than death. I_d known he was lethal, that he was a warrior of sorts, but _ _So he went to hunt the Bogge where we were earlier today?_ Lucien shrugged. _If he_s going to pick up a trail, it would be there._ I had no idea how anyone could face that immortal horror, but _ it wasn_t my problem. And just because Lucien wasn_t going to eat anymore didn_t mean I wouldn_t. Lucien, lost in thought, didn_t even notice the feast I downed. I returned to my room, and_awake and with nothing else to do_began monitoring the garden beyond for any signs of Tamlin_s return. He didn_t come back. I sharpened the knife I_d hidden away on a bit of stone I_d taken from the garden. An hour passed_and still Tamlin didn_t return. The moon showed her face, casting the garden below in silver and shadow. Ridiculous. Utterly ridiculous to watch for his return, to see if he could indeed survive against the Bogge. I turned from the window, about to drag myself into bed. But something moved out in the garden. I lunged for the curtains beside the window, not wanting to be caught waiting for him, and peered out. Not Tamlin_but someone lurked by the hedges, facing the house. Looking toward me. Male, hunched, and_ The breath went out of me as the faerie hobbled closer_just two steps into the light leaking from the house. Not a faerie, but a man. My father. Chapter 11 I didn_t give myself a chance to panic, to doubt, to do anything but wish I had stolen some food from my breakfast table as I layered on tunic after tunic and bundled myself in a cloak, stuffing the knife I_d stolen into my boot. The extra clothes in the satchel would just be a burden to carry. My father. My father had come to take me_to save me. Whatever benefits Tamlin had given him upon my departure couldn_t be too tempting, then. Maybe he had a ship prepared to take us far, far away_maybe he had somehow sold the cottage and gotten enough money to set us up in a new place, a new continent. My father_my crippled, broken father had come. A quick survey of the ground beneath my window revealed no one outside_and the silent house told me no one had spotted my father yet. He was still waiting by the hedge, now beckoning to me. At least Tamlin had not returned. With a final glance at my room, listening for anyone approaching from the hall, I grasped the nearby trellis of wisteria and eased down the building. I winced at the crunch of gravel beneath my boots, but my father was already moving toward the outer gates, limping along with his cane. How had he even gotten here? There had to be horses nearby, then. He was hardly wearing enough clothing for the winter that would await us once we crossed the wall. But I_d layered on so much that I could spare him some items if need be. Keeping my movements light and silent, carefully avoiding the light of the moon, I hurried after my father. He moved with surprising swiftness toward the darkened hedges and the gate beyond. Only a few hall candles were burning inside the house. I didn_t dare breathe too loudly_didn_t dare call for my father as he limped toward the gate. If we left now, if he indeed had horses, we could be halfway home by the time they realized I was gone. Then we_d flee_flee Tamlin, flee the blight that could soon invade our lands. My father reached the gates. They were already open, the dark forest beyond beckoning. He must have hidden the horses deeper in. He turned toward me, that familiar face drawn and tight, those brown eyes clear for once, and beckoned. Hurry, hurry, every movement of his hand seemed to shout. My heart was a raging beat in my chest, in my throat. Only a few feet now_to him, to freedom, to a new life_ A massive hand wrapped around my arm. _Going somewhere?_ Shit, shit, shit. Tamlin_s claws poked through my layers of clothing as I looked up at him in unabashed terror. I didn_t dare move, not as his lips thinned and the muscles in his jaw quivered. Not as he opened his mouth and I glimpsed fangs_long, throat-tearing fangs shining in the moonlight. He was going to kill me_kill me right there, and then kill my father. No more loopholes, no more flattery, no more mercy. He didn_t care anymore. I was as good as dead. _Please,_ I breathed. _My father__ _Your father?_ He lifted his stare to the gates behind me, and his growl rumbled through me as he bared his teeth. _Why don_t you look again?_ He released me. I staggered back a step, whirling, sucking in a breath to tell my father to run, but_ But he wasn_t there. Only a pale bow and a quiver of pale arrows remained, propped up against the gates. Mountain ash. They hadn_t been there moments before, hadn_t_ They rippled, as if they were nothing but water_and then the bow and quiver became a large pack, laden with supplies. Another ripple_and there were my sisters, huddled together, weeping. My knees buckled. _What is __ I didn_t finish the question. My father now stood there, still hunched and beckoning. A flawless rendering. _Weren_t you warned to keep your wits about you?_ Tamlin snapped. _That your human senses would betray you?_ He stepped beyond me and let out a snarl so vicious that whatever the thing was by the gates shimmered with light and darted out as fast as lightning streaking through the dark. _Fool,_ he said to me, turning. _If you_re ever going to run away, at least do it in the daytime._ He stared me down, and the fangs slowly retracted. The claws remained. _There are worse things than the Bogge prowling these woods at night. That thing at the gates isn_t one of them_and it still would have taken a good, long while devouring you._ Somehow, my mouth began working again. And of all the things to say, I blurted, _Can you blame me? My crippled father appears beneath my window, and you think I_m not going to run for him? Did you actually think I_d gladly stay here forever, even if you_d taken care of my family, all for some Treaty that had nothing to do with me and allows your kind to slaughter humans as you see fit?_ He flexed his fingers as if trying to get the claws back in, but they remained out, ready to slice through flesh and bone. _What do you want, Feyre?_ _I want to go home!_ _Home to what, exactly? You_d prefer that miserable human existence to this?_ _I made a promise,_ I said, my breathing ragged. _To my mother, when she died. That I_d look after my family. That I_d take care of them. All I have done, every single day, every hour, has been for that vow. And just because I was hunting to save my family, to put food in their bellies, I_m now forced to break it._ He stalked toward the house, and I gave him a wide berth before falling into step behind him. His claws slowly, slowly retracted. He didn_t look at me as he said, _You are not breaking your vow_you are fulfilling it, and then some, by staying here. Your family is better cared for now than they were when you were there._ Those chipped, miscolored paintings inside the cottage flashed in my vision. Perhaps they would forget who had even painted them in the first place. Insignificant_that_s what all those years I_d given them would be, as insignificant as I was to these High Fae. And that dream I_d had, of one day living with my father, with enough food and money and paint _ it had been my dream_no one else_s. I rubbed at my chest. _I can_t just give up on it, on them. No matter what you say._ Even if I had been a fool_a stupid, human fool_to believe my father would ever actually come for me. Tamlin eyed me sidelong. _You_re not giving up on them._ _Living in luxury, stuffing myself with food? How is that not__ _They are cared for_they are fed and comfortable._ Fed and comfortable. If he couldn_t lie, if it was true, then _ then it was beyond anything I_d ever dared hope for. Then _ my vow to my mother was fulfilled. It stunned me enough that I didn_t say anything for a moment as we walked. My life was now owned by the Treaty, but _ perhaps I_d been freed in another sort of way. We neared the sweeping stairs that led into the manor, and I finally asked, _Lucien goes on border patrol, and you_ve mentioned other sentries_yet I_ve never seen one here. Where are they all?_ _At the border,_ he said, as if that were a suitable answer. Then he added, _We don_t need sentries if I_m here._ Because he was deadly enough. I tried not to think about it, but still I asked, _Were you trained as a warrior, then?_ _Yes._ When I didn_t reply, he added, _I spent most of my life in my father_s war-band on the borders, training as a warrior to one day serve him_or others. Running these lands _ was not supposed to fall to me._ The flatness with which he said it told me enough about how he felt about his current title, about why the presence of his silver-tongued friend was necessary. But it was too personal, too demanding, to ask what had occurred to change his circumstances so greatly. So I cleared my throat and said, _What manner of faeries prowl the woods beyond this gate, if the Bogge isn_t the worst of them? What was that thing?_ What I_d meant to ask was, What would have tormented and then eaten me? Who are you to be so powerful that they pose no threat to you? He paused on the bottom step, waiting for me to catch up. _A puca. They use your own desires to lure you to some remote place. Then they eat you. Slowly. It probably smelled your human scent in the woods and followed it to the house._ I shivered and didn_t bother tohide it. Tamlin went on. _These lands used to be well guarded. The deadlier faeries were contained within the borders of their native territories, monitored by the local Fae lords, or driven into hiding. Creatures like the puca never would have dared set foot here. But now, the sickness that infected Prythian has weakened the wards that kept them out._ A long pause, like the words were choked out of him. _Things are different now. It_s not safe to travel alone at night_especially if you_re human._ Because humans were defenseless as babes compared to natural-born predators like Lucien_and Tamlin, who didn_t need weapons to hunt. I glanced at his hands but found no trace of the claws. Only tanned, callused skin. _What else is different now?_ I asked, trailing him up the marble front steps. He didn_t stop this time, didn_t even look over his shoulder to see me as he said, _Everything._ So I truly was to live there forever. As much as I longed to ensure that Tamlin_s word about caring for my family was true, as much as his claim that I was taking better care of my family by staying away_even if I was truly fulfilling that vow to my mother by staying in Prythian _ Without the weight of that promise, I was left hollow and empty. Over the next three days, I found myself joining Lucien on Andras_s old patrol while Tamlin hunted the grounds for the Bogge, unseen by us. Despite being an occasional bastard, Lucien didn_t seem to mind my company, and he did most of the talking, which was fine; it left me to brood over the consequences of firing a single arrow. An arrow. I never fired a single one during those three days we rode along the border. That very morning I_d spied a red doe in a glen and aimed out of instinct, my arrow poised to fly right into her eye as Lucien sneered that she was not a faerie, at least. But I_d stared at her_fat and healthy and content_and then slackened the bow, replaced the arrow in my quiver, and let the doe wander on. I never saw Tamlin around the manor_off hunting the Bogge day and night, Lucien informed me. Even at dinner, he spoke little before leaving early_off to continue his hunt, night after night. I didn_t mind his absence. It was a relief, if anything. On the third night after my encounter with the puca, I_d scarcely sat down before Tamlin got up, giving an excuse about not wanting to waste hunting time. Lucien and I stared after him for a moment. What I could see of Lucien_s face was pale and tight. _You worry about him,_ I said. Lucien slumped in his seat, wholly undignified for a Fae lord. _Tamlin gets into _ moods._ _He doesn_t want your help hunting the Bogge?_ _He prefers being alone. And having the Bogge on our lands _ I don_t suppose you_d understand. The puca are minor enough not to bother him, but even after he_s shredded the Bogge, he_ll brood over it._ _And there_s no one who can help him at all?_ _He would probably shred them for disobeying his order to stay away._ A brush of ice slithered across my nape. _He would be that brutal?_ Lucien studied the wine in his goblet. _You don_t hold on to power by being everyone_s friend. And among the faeries, lesser and High Fae alike, a firm hand is needed. We_re too powerful, and too bored with immortality, to be checked by anything else._ It seemed like a cold, lonely position to have, especially when you didn_t particularly want it. I wasn_t sure why it bothered me so much. The snow was falling, thick and merciless, already up to my knees as I pulled the bowstring back_farther and farther, until my arm trembled. Behind me, a shadow lurked_no, watched. I didn_t dare turn to look at it, to see who might be within that shadow, observing, not as the wolf stared at me across the clearing. Just staring. As if waiting, as if daring me to fire the ash arrow. No_no, I didn_t want to do it, not this time, not again, not_ But I had no control over my fingers, absolutely none, and he was still staring as I fired. One shot_one shot straight through that golden eye. A plume of blood splattering the snow, a thud of a heavy body, a sigh of wind. No. It wasn_t a wolf that hit the snow_no, it was a man, tall and well formed. No_not a man. A High Fae, with those pointed ears. I blinked, and then_then my hands were warm and sticky with blood, then his body was red and skinless, steaming in the cold, and it was his skin_his skin_that I held in my hands, and_ I threw myself awake, sweat slipping down my back, and forced myself to breathe, to open my eyes and note each detail of the night-dark bedroom. Real_this was real. But I could still see that High Fae male facedown in the snow, my arrow through his eye, red and bloody all over from where I_d cut and peeled off his skin. Bile stung my throat. Not real. Just a dream. Even if what I_d done to Andras, even as a wolf, was _ was _ I scrubbed at my face. Perhaps it was the quiet, the hollowness, of the past few days_perhaps it was only that I no longer had to think hour to hour about how to keep my family alive, but _ It was regret, and maybe shame, that coated my tongue, my bones. I shuddered as if I could fling it off, and kicked back the sheets to rise from the bed. Chapter 12 I couldn_t entirely shake the horror, the gore of my dream as I walked down the dark halls of the manor, the servants and Lucien long since asleep. But I had to do something_anything_after that nightmare. If only to avoid sleeping. A bit of paper in one hand and a pen gripped in the other, I carefully traced my steps, noting the windows and doors and exits, occasionally jotting down vague sketches and Xs on the parchment. It was the best I could do, and to any literate human, my markings would have made no sense. But I couldn_t write or read more than my basic letters, and my makeshift map was better than nothing. If I were to remain here, it was essential to know the best hiding places, the easiest way out, should things ever go badly for me. I couldn_t entirely let go of the instinct. It was too dim to admire any of the paintings lining the walls, and I didn_t dare risk a candle. These past three days, there had been servants in the halls when I_d worked up the nerve to look at the art_and the part of me that spoke with Nesta_s voice had laughed at the idea of an ignorant human trying to admire faerie art. Some other time, then, I_d told myself. I would find another day, a quiet hour when no one was around, to look at them. I had plenty of hours now_a whole lifetime in front of me. Perhaps _ perhaps I_d figure out what I wished to do with it. I crept down the main staircase, moonlight flooding the black-and-white tiles of the entrance hall. I reached the bottom, my bare feet silent on the cold tiles, and listened. Nothing_no one. I set my little map on the foyer table and drew a few Xs and circles to signify the doors, the windows, the marble stairs of the front hall. I would become so familiar with the house that I could navigate it even if someone blinded me. A breeze announced his arrival_and I turned from the table toward the long hall, to the open glass doors to the garden. I_d forgotten how huge he was in this form_forgotten the curled horns and lupine face, the bearlike body that moved with a feline fluidity. His green eyes glowed in the darkness, fixing on me, and as the doors snicked shut behind him, the clicking of claws on marble filled the hall. I stood still_not daring to flinch, to move a muscle. He limped slightly. And in the moonlight, dark, shining stains were left in his wake. He continued toward me, stealing the air from the entire hall. He was so big that the space felt cramped, like a cage. The scrape of claw, a huff of uneven breathing, the dripping of blood. Between one step and the next, he changed forms, and I squeezed my eyes shut at the blinding flash. When at last my eyes adjusted to the returning darkness, he was standing in front of me. Standing, but_not quite there. No sign of the baldric, or his knives. His clothes were in shreds_long, vicious slashes that made me wonder how he wasn_t gutted and dead. But the muscled skin peering out beneath his shirt was smooth, unharmed. _Did you kill the Bogge?_ My voice was hardly more than a whisper. _Yes._ A dull, empty answer. As if he couldn_t be bothered to remember to be pleasant. As if I were at the very, very bottom of a long list of priorities. _You_re hurt,_ I said even more quietly. Indeed, his hand was covered in blood, even more splattering on the floor beneath him. He looked at it blankly_as if it took some monumental effort to remember that he even had a hand, and that it was injured. What effort of will and strength had it taken to kill the Bogge, to face that wretched menace? How deep had he had to dig inside himself_to whatever immortal power and animal that lived there_to kill it? He glanced down at the map on the table, and his voice was void of anything_any emotion, any anger or amusement_as he said, _What is that?_ I snatched up the map. _I thought I should learn my surroundings._ Drip, drip, drip. I opened my mouth to point out his hand again, but he said, _You can_t write, can you._ I didn_t answer. I didn_t know what to say. Ignorant, insignificant human. _No wonder you became so adept at other things._ I supposed he was so far gone in thinking about his encounter with the Bogge that he hadn_t realized the compliment he_d given me. If it was a compliment. Another splatter of blood on the marble. _Where can we clean up your hand?_ He lifted his head to look at me again. Still and silent and weary. Then he said, _There_s a small infirmary._ I wanted to tell myself that it was probably the most useful thing I_d learned all night. But as I followed him there, avoiding the blood he trailed, I thought of what Lucien had told me about his isolation, that burden, thought of what Tamlin had mentioned about how these estates should not have been his, and felt _ sorry for him. The infirmary was well stocked, but was more of a supply closet with a worktable than an actual place to host sick faeries. I supposed that was all they needed when they could heal themselves with their immortal powers. But this wound_this wound wasn_t healing. Tamlin slumped against the edge of the table, gripping his injured hand at the wrist as he watched me sort through the supplies in the cabinets and drawers. When I_d gathered what I needed, I tried not to balk at the thought of touching him, but _ I didn_t let myself give in to my dread as I took his hand, the heat of his skin like an inferno against my cool fingers. I cleaned off his bloody, dirty hand, bracing for the first flash of those claws. But his claws remained retracted, and he kept silent as I bound and wrapped his hand_surprisingly enough, there were no more than a few vicious cuts, none of them requiring stitching. I secured the bandage in place and stepped away, bringing the bowl of bloody water to the deep sink in the back of the room. His eyes were a brand upon me as I finished cleaning, and the room became too small, too hot. He_d killed the Bogge and walked away relatively unscathed. If Tamlin was that powerful, then the High Lords of Prythian must be near-gods. Every mortal instinct in my body bleated in panic at the thought. I was almost at the open door, stifling the urge to bolt back to my room, when he said, _You can_t write, yet you learned to hunt, to survive. How?_ I paused with my foot on the threshold. _That_s what happens when you_re responsible for lives other than your own, isn_t it? You do what you have to do._ He was still sitting on the table, still straddling that inner line between the here and now and wherever he_d had to go in his mind to endure the fight with the Bogge. I met his feral and glowing stare. _You aren_t what I expected_for a human,_ he said. I didn_t reply. And he didn_t say good-bye as I walked out. The next morning, as I made my way down the grand staircase, I tried not to think too much about the clean-washed marble tiles on the floor below_no sign of the blood Tamlin had lost. I tried not to think too much at all about our encounter, actually. When I found the front hall empty, I almost smiled_felt a ripple in that hollow emptiness that had been hounding me. Perhaps now, perhaps in this moment of quiet, I could at last look through the art on the walls, take time to observe it, learn it, admire it. Heart racing at the thought, I was about to head toward a hall I had noted was nearly covered in painting after painting when low male voices floated out from the dining room. I paused. The voices were tense enough that I made my steps silent as I slid into the shadows behind the open door. A cowardly, wretched thing to do_but what they were saying had me shoving aside any guilt. _I just want to know what you think you_re doing._ It was Lucien_that familiar lazy viciousness coating each word. _What are you doing?_ Tamlin snapped. Through the space between the hinge and the door I could glimpse the two of them standing almost face-to-face. On Tamlin_s nonbandaged hand, his claws shone in the morning light. _Me?_ Lucien put a hand on his chest. _By the Cauldron, Tam_there isn_t much time, and you_re just sulking and glowering. You_re not even trying to fake it anymore._ My brows rose. Tamlin turned away but whirled back a moment later, his teeth bared. _It was a mistake from the start. I can_t stomach it, not after what my father did to their kind, to their lands. I won_t follow in his footsteps_won_t be that sort of person. So back off._ _Back off? Back off while you seal our fates and ruin everything? I stayed with you out of hope, not to watch you stumble. For someone with a heart of stone, yours is certainly soft these days. The Bogge was on our lands_the Bogge, Tamlin! The barriers between courts have vanished, and even our woods are teeming with filth like the puca. Are you just going to start living out there, slaughtering every bit of vermin that slinks in?_ _Watch your mouth,_ Tamlin said. Lucien stepped toward him, exposing his teeth as well. A pulsing kind of air hit me in the stomach, and a metallic stench filled my nose. But I couldn_t see any magic_only feel it. I couldn_t tell if that made it worse. _Don_t push me, Lucien._ Tamlin_s tone became dangerously quiet, and the hair on the back of my neck stood as he emitted a growl that was pure animal. _You think I don_t know what_s happening on my own lands? What I_ve got to lose? What_s lost already?_ The blight. Perhaps it was contained, but it seemed it was still wreaking havoc_still a threat, and perhaps one they truly didn_t want me knowing about, either from lack of trust or because _ because I was no one and nothing to them. I leaned forward, but as I did, my finger slipped and softly thudded against the door. A human might not have heard, but both High Fae whirled. My heart stumbled. I stepped toward the threshold, clearing my throat as I came up with a dozen excuses to shield myself. I looked at Lucien and forced myself to smile. His eyes widened, and I had to wonder if it was because of that smile, or because I looked truly guilty. _Are you going out for a ride?_ I said, feeling a bit sick as I gestured behind me with a thumb. I hadn_t planned on riding with him today, but it sounded like a decent excuse. Lucien_s russet eye was bright, though the smile he gave me didn_t meet it. The face of Tamlin_s emissary_more court-trained and calculating than I_d seen him yet. _I_m unavailable today,_ he said. He jerked his chin to Tamlin. _He_ll go with you._ Tamlin shot his friend a look of disdain that he took few pains to hide. His usual baldric was armed with more knives than I_d seen before, and their ornate metal handles glinted as he turned to me, his shoulders tight. _Whenever you want to go, just say so._ The claws of his free hand slipped back under his skin. No. I almost said it aloud as I turned pleading eyes to Lucien. Lucien merely patted my shoulder as he passed by. _Perhaps tomorrow, human._ Alone with Tamlin, I swallowed hard. He stood there, waiting. _I don_t want to go for a hunt,_ I finally said quietly. True. _I hate hunting._ He cocked his head. _Then what do you want to do?_ Tamlin led me down the halls. A soft breeze laced with the scent of roses slipped in through the open windows to caress my face. _You_ve been going for hunts,_ Tamlin said at last, _but you really don_t have any interest in hunting._ He cast me a sidelong glance. _No wonder you two never catch anything._ No trace of the hollow, cold warrior of the night before, or of the angry Fae noble of minutes before. Just Tamlin right now, it seemed. I_d be a fool to let my guard down around Tamlin, to think that his acting naturally meant anything, especially when something was so clearly amiss at his estate. He_d taken down the Bogge_and that made him the most dangerous creature I_d ever encountered. I didn_t quite know what to make of him, and said somewhat stiltedly, _How_s your hand?_ He flexed his bandaged hand, studying the white bindings, stark and clean against his sun-kissed skin. _I didn_t thank you._ _You don_t need to._ But he shook his head, and his golden hair caught and held the morning light as if it were spun from the sun itself. _The Bogge_s bite was crafted to slow the healing of High Fae long enough to kill us. You have my gratitude._ When I shrugged it off, he added, _How did you learn to bind wounds like this? I can still use the hand, even with the wrappings._ _Trial and error. I had to be able to pull a bowstring the next day._ He was quiet as we turned down another sun-drenched marble hallway, and I dared to look at him. I found him carefully studying me, his lips in a thin line. _Has anyone ever taken care of you?_ he asked quietly. _No._ I_d long since stopped feeling sorry for myself about it. _Did you learn to hunt in a similar manner_trial and error?_ _I spied on hunters when I could get away with it, and then practiced until I hit something. When I missed, we didn_t eat. So learning how to aim was the first thing I figured out._ _I_m curious,_ he said casually. The amber in his green eyes was glowing. Perhaps not all traces of that beast-warrior were gone. _Are you ever going to use that knife you stole from my table?_ I stiffened. _How did you know?_ Beneath the mask, I could have sworn his brows were raised. _I was trained to notice those things. But I could smell the fear on you, more than anything._ I grumbled, _I thought no one noticed._ He gave me a crooked smile, more genuine than all the faked smiles and flattery he_d given me before. _Regardless of the Treaty, if you want to stand a chance at escaping my kind, you_ll need to think more creatively than stealing dinner knives. But with your affinity for eavesdropping, maybe you_ll someday learn something valuable._ My ears flared with heat. _I_I wasn_t _ Sorry,_ I mumbled. But I ran through what I_d overheard. There was no point in pretending I hadn_t eavesdropped. _Lucien said you didn_t have much time. What did he mean? Are more creatures like the Bogge going to come here thanks to the blight?_ Tamlin went rigid, scanning the hall around us, taking in every sight and sound and scent. Then he shrugged, too stiff to be genuine. _I_m an immortal. I have nothing but time, Feyre._ He said my name with such _ intimacy. As if he weren_t a creature capable of killing monsters made from nightmares. I opened my mouth to demand more of an answer, but he cut me off. _The force plaguing our lands and powers_that, too, will pass someday, if we_re Cauldron-blessed. But yes_now that the Bogge entered these lands, I_d say it_s fair to assume others might follow it, especially if the puca was already so bold._ If the borders between the courts were gone, though, as I_d heard Lucien say_if everything in Prythian was different, as Tamlin had claimed, thanks to this blight _ Well, I didn_t want to be caught up in some brutal war or revolution. I doubted I_d survive very long. Tamlin strode ahead and opened a set of double doors at the end of the hall. The powerful muscles of his back shifted beneath his clothes. I_d never forget what he was_what he was capable of. What he_d been trained to do, apparently. _As requested,_ he said, _the study._ I saw what lay beyond him and my stomach twisted. Chapter 13 Tamlin waved his hand, and a hundred candles sprang to life. Whatever Lucien had said about magic being drained and off-kilter thanks to the blight clearly hadn_t affected Tamlin as dramatically, or perhaps he_d been far more powerful to start with, if he could transform his sentries into wolves whenever he pleased. The tang of magic stung my senses, but I kept my chin high. That is, until I peered inside. My palms began sweating as I took in the enormous, opulent study. Tomes lined each wall like the soldiers of a silent army, and couches, desks, and rich rugs were scattered throughout the room. But _ it had been over a week since I left my family. Though my father had said never to return, though my vow to my mother was fulfilled, I could at least let them know I was safe_relatively safe. And warn them about the sickness sweeping across Prythian that might someday soon cross the wall. There was only one method to convey it. _Do you need anything else?_ Tamlin asked, and I jerked. He still stood behind me. _No,_ I said, striding into the study. I couldn_t think about the casual power he_d just shown_the graceful carelessness with which he_d brought so many flames to life. I had to focus on the task at hand. It wasn_t entirely my fault that I was scarcely able to read. Before our downfall, my mother had sorely neglected our education, not bothering to hire a governess. And after poverty struck and my elder sisters, who could read and write, deemed the village school beneath us, they didn_t bother to teach me. I could read enough to function_enough to form my letters, but so poorly that even signing my name was mortifying. It was bad enough that Tamlin knew. I would think about how to get the letter to them once it was finished; perhaps I could beg a favor of him, or Lucien. Asking them to write it would be too humiliating. I could hear their words: typical ignorant human. And since Lucien seemed convinced that I would turn spy the moment I could, he would no doubt burn the letter, and any I tried to write after. So I_d have to learn myself. _I_ll leave you to it, then,_ Tamlin said as our silence became too prolonged, too tense. I didn_t move until he_d closed the doors, shutting me inside. My heartbeat pulsed throughout my body as I approached a shelf. I had to take a break for dinner and to sleep, but I was back in the study before the dawn had fully risen. I_d found a small writing desk in a corner and gathered papers and ink. My finger traced a line of text, and I whispered the words. _ _She grab-bed _ grabbed her shoe, sta _ nd _ standing from her pos _ po _ _ _ I sat back in my chair and pressed the heels of my palms into my eyes. When I felt less near to ripping out my hair, I took the quill and underlined the word: position. With a shaking hand, I did my best to copy letter after letter onto the ever-growing list I kept beside the book. There were at least forty words on it, their letters malformed and barely legible. I would look up their pronunciations later. I rose from the chair, needing to stretch my legs, my spine_or just to get away from that lengthy list of words I didn_t know how to pronounce and the permanent heat that now warmed my face and neck. I suppose the study was more of a library, as I couldn_t see any of the walls thanks to the small labyrinths of stacks flanking the main area and a mezzanine dangling above, covered wall to wall in books. But study sounded less intimidating. I meandered through some of the stacks, following a trickle of sunlight to a bank of windows on the far side. I found myself overlooking a rose garden, filled with dozens of hues of crimson and pink and white and yellow. I might have allowed myself a moment to take in the colors, gleaming with dew under the morning sun, had I not glimpsed the painting that stretched along the wall beside the windows. Not a painting, I thought, blinking as I stepped back to view its massive expanse. No, it was _ I searched for the word in that half-forgotten part of my mind. Mural. That_s what it was. At first I could do nothing but stare at its size, at the ambition of it, at the fact that this masterpiece was tucked back here for no one to ever see, as if it was nothing_absolutely nothing_to create something like this. It told a story with the way colors and shapes and light flowed, the way the tone shifted across the mural. The story of _ of Prythian. It began with a cauldron. A mighty black cauldron held by glowing, slender female hands in a starry, endless night. Those hands tipped it over, golden sparkling liquid pouring out over the lip. No_not sparkling, but _ effervescent with small symbols, perhaps of some ancient faerie language. Whatever was written there, whatever it was, the contents of the cauldron were dumped into the void below, pooling on the earth to form our world _ The map spanned the entirety of our world_not just the land on which we stood, but also the seas and the larger continents beyond. Each territory was marked and colored, some with intricate, ornate depictions of the beings who had once ruled over lands that now belonged to humans. All of it, I remembered with a shudder, all of the world had once been theirs_at least as far as they believed, crafted for them by the bearer of the cauldron. There was no mention of humans_no sign of us here. I supposed we_d been as low as pigs to them. It was hard to look at the next panel. It was so simple, yet so detailed that, for a moment, I stood there on that battlefield, feeling the texture of the bloodied mud beneath me, shoulder to shoulder with the thousands of other human soldiers lined up, facing the faerie hordes who charged at us. A moment of pause before the slaughter. The humans_ arrows and swords seemed so pointless against the High Fae in their glimmering armor, or the faeries bristling with claws and fangs. I knew_knew without another panel to explicitly show me_the humans hadn_t survived that particular battle. The smear of black on the panel beside it, tinged with glimmers of red, said enough. Then another map, of a much-reduced faerie realm. Northern territories had been cut up and divided to make room for the High Fae, who had lost their lands to the south of the wall. Everything north of the wall went to them; everything south was left as a blur of nothing. A decimated, forgotten world_as if the painter couldn_t be bothered to render it. I scanned the various lands and territories now given to the High Fae. Still so much territory_such monstrous power spread across the entire northern part of our world. I knew they were ruled by kings or queens or councils or empresses, but I_d never seen a representation of it, of how much they_d been forced to concede to the South, and how crammed their lands now were in comparison. Our massive island had fared well for Prythian by comparison, with only the bottom tip given over to us miserable humans. The bulk of the sacrifice was borne by the southernmost of the seven territories: a territory painted with crocuses and lambs and roses. Spring lands. I took a step closer, until I could see the dark, ugly smear that acted as the wall_another spiteful touch by the painter. No markers in the human realm, nothing to indicate any of the larger towns or centers, but _ I found the rough area where our village was, and the woods that separated it from the wall. Those two days_ journey seemed so small_too small_compared to the power lurking above us. I traced a line, my finger hovering over the paint, up over the wall, into these lands_the lands of the Spring Court. Again, no markers, but it was filled with touches of spring: trees in bloom, fickle storms, young animals _ At least I was to live out my days in one of the more moderate courts, weather-wise. A small consolation. I looked northward and stepped back again. The six other courts of Prythian occupied a patchwork of territories. Autumn, Summer, and Winter were easy enough to pick out. Then above them, two glowing courts: the southernmost one a softer, redder palate, the Dawn Court; above, in bright gold and yellow and blue, the Day Court. And above that, perched in a frozen mountainous spread of darkness and stars, the sprawling, massive territory of the Night Court. There were things in the shadows between those mountains_little eyes, gleaming teeth. A land of lethal beauty. The hair on my arms rose. I might have examined the other kingdoms across the seas that flanked our land, like the isolated faerie kingdom to the west that seemed to have gotten away with no territory loss and was still law unto itself, had I not looked to the heart of that beautiful, living map. In the center of the land, as if it were the core around which everything else had spread, or perhaps the place where the cauldron_s liquid had first touched, was a small, snowy mountain range. From it arose a mammoth, solitary peak. Bald of snow, bald of life_as if the elements refused to touch it. There were no more clues about what it might be; nothing to indicate its importance, and I supposed that the viewers were already supposed to know. This was not a mural for human eyes. With that thought, I went back to my little table. At least I_d learned the layout of their lands_and I knew to never, ever go north. I eased into my seat and found my place in the book, my face warming as I glanced at the illustrations scattered throughout. A children_s book, and yet I could scarcely make it through its twenty or so pages. Why did Tamlin have children_s books in his library? Were they from his own childhood, or in anticipation of children to come? It didn_t matter. I couldn_t even read them. I hated the smell of these books_the decaying rot of the pages, the mocking whisper of the paper, the rough skin of the binding. I looked at the piece of paper, at all those words I didn_t know. I bunched my list in my hand, crumpling the paper into a ball, and chucked it into the rubbish bin. _I could help you write to them, if that_s why you_re in here._ I jerked back in my seat, almost knocking over the chair, and whirled to find Tamlin behind me, a stack of books in his arms. I pushed back against the heat rising in my cheeks and ears, the panic at the information he might be guessing I_d been trying to send. _Help? You mean a faerie is passing up the opportunity to mock an ignorant mortal?_ He set the books down on the table, his jaw tight. I couldn_t read the titles glinting on the leather spines. _Why should I mock you for a shortcoming that isn_t your fault? Let me help you. I owe you for the hand._ Shortcoming. It was a shortcoming. Yet it was one thing to bandage his hand, to talk to him as if he wasn_t a predator built to kill and destroy, but to reveal how little I truly knew, to let him see that part of me that was still a child, unfinished and raw _ His face was unreadable. Though there had been no pity in his voice, I straightened. _I_m fine._ _You think I_ve got nothing better to do with my time than come up with elaborate ways to humiliate you?_ I thought of that smear of nothing that the painter had used to render the human lands, and didn_t have an answer_at least, not one that was polite. I_d given enough already to them_to him. Tamlin shook his head. _So you_ll let Lucien take you on hunts and__ _Lucien,_ I interrupted quietly but not softly, _doesn_t pretend to be anything but what he is._ _What_s that supposed to mean?_ he growled, but his claws stayed retracted, even as he clenched his hands into fists at his sides. I was definitely walking a dangerous line, but I didn_t care. Even if he_d offered me sanctuary, I didn_t have to fall at his feet. _It means,_ I said with that same cold quiet, _that I don_t know you. I don_t know who you are, or what you really are, or what you want._ _It means you don_t trust me._ _How can I trust a faerie? Don_t you delight in killing and tricking us?_ His snarl set the flames of the candles guttering. _You aren_t what I had in mind for a human_believe me._ I could almost feel the wound deep in my chest as it ripped open and all those awful, silent words came pouring out. Illiterate, ignorant, unremarkable, proud, cold_all spoken from Nesta_s mouth, all echoing in my head with her sneering voice. I pinched my lips together. He winced and lifted a hand slightly, as if about to reach for me. _Feyre,_ he began_softly enough that I just shook my head and left the room. He didn_t stop me. But that afternoon, when I went to retrieve my crumpled list from the wastebasket, it was gone. And my pile of books had been disturbed_the titles out of order. It had probably been a servant, I assured myself, calming the tightness in my chest. Just Alis or some other bird-masked faerie cleaning up. I hadn_t written anything incriminating_there was no way he knew I_d been trying to warn my family. I doubted he would punish me for it, but _ our conversation earlier had been bad enough. Still, my hands were unsteady as I took my seat at the little desk and found my place in the book I_d used that morning. I knew it was shameful to mark the books with ink, but if Tamlin could afford gold plates, he could replace a book or two. I stared at the book without seeing the jumble of letters. Maybe I was a fool for not accepting his help, for not swallowing my pride and having him write the letter in a few moments. Not even a letter of warning, but just_just to let them know I was safe. If he had better things to do with his time than come up with ways to embarrass me, then surely he had better things to do than help me write letters to my family. And yet he_d offered. A nearby clock chimed the hour. Shortcoming_another one of my shortcomings. I rubbed my brows with my thumb and forefinger. I_d been equally foolish for feeling a shred of pity for him_for the lone, brooding faerie, for someone I had so stupidly thought would really care if he met someone who perhaps felt the same, perhaps understood_in my ignorant, insignificant human way_what it was like to bear the weight of caring for others. I should have let his hand bleed that night, should have known better than to think that maybe_maybe there would be someone, human or faerie or whatever, who could understand what my life_what I_had become these past few years. A minute passed, then another. Faeries might not be able to lie, but they could certainly withhold information; Tamlin, Lucien, and Alis had done their best not to answer my specific questions. Knowing more about the blight that threatened them_knowing anything about it, where it had come from, what else it could do, and especially what it could do to a human_was worth my time to learn. And if there was a chance that they might also possess some knowledge about a forgotten loophole of that damned Treaty, if they knew some way to pay the debt I owed and return me to my family so I might warn them about the blight myself _ I had to risk it. Twenty minutes later I had tracked down Lucien in his bedroom. I_d marked on my little map where it was_in a separate wing on the second level, far from mine_and after searching in his usual haunts, it was the last place to look. I knocked on the white-painted double doors. _Come in, human._ He could probably detect me by my breathing patterns alone. Or maybe that eye of his could see through the door. I eased open the door. The room was similar to mine in shape, but was bedecked in hues of orange and red and gold, with faint traces of green and brown. Like being in an autumn wood. But while my room was all softness and grace, his was marked with ruggedness. In lieu of a pretty breakfast table by the window, a worn worktable dominated the space, covered in various weapons. It was there he sat, wearing only a white shirt and trousers, his red hair unbound and gleaming like liquid fire. Tamlin_s court-trained emissary, but a warrior in his own right. _I haven_t seen you around,_ I said, shutting the door and leaning against it. _I had to go sort out some hotheads on the northern border_official emissary business,_ he said, setting down the hunting knife he_d been cleaning, a long, vicious blade. _I got back in time to hear your little spat with Tam, and decided I was safer up here. I_m glad to hear your human heart has warmed to me, though. At least I_m not on the top of your killing list._ I gave him a long look. _Well,_ he went on, shrugging, _it seems that you managed to get under Tam_s fur enough that he sought me out and nearly bit my head off. So I suppose I can thank you for ruining what should have been a peaceful lunch. Thankfully for me, there_s been a disturbance out in the western forest, and my poor friend had to go deal with it in that way only he can. I_m surprised you didn_t run into him on the stairs._ Thank the forgotten gods for some small mercies. _What sort of disturbance?_ Lucien shrugged, but the movement was too tense to be careless. _The usual sort: unwanted, nasty creatures raising hell._ Good_good that Tamlin was away and wouldn_t be here to catch me in what I planned to do. Another bit of luck. _I_m impressed you answered me that much,_ I said as casually as I could, thinking through my words. _But it_s too bad you_re not like the Suriel, spouting any information I want if I_m clever enough to snare you._ For a moment, he blinked at me. Then his mouth twisted to the side, and that metal eye whizzed and narrowed on me. _I suppose you won_t tell me what you want to know._ _You have your secrets, and I have mine,_ I said carefully. I couldn_t tell whether he would try to convince me otherwise if I told him the truth. _But if you were a Suriel,_ I added with deliberate slowness, in case he hadn_t caught my meaning, _how, exactly, would I trap you?_ Lucien set down the knife and picked at his nails. For a moment, I wondered if he would tell me anything at all. Wondered if he would go right to Tamlin and tattle. But then he said, _I_d probably have a weakness for groves of young birch trees in the western woods, and freshly slaughtered chickens, and would probably be so greedy that I wouldn_t notice the double-loop snare rigged around the grove to pin my legs in place._ _Hmm._ I didn_t dare ask why he had decided to be accommodating. There was still a good chance he wouldn_t mind seeing me dead, but I would risk it. _I somehow prefer you as a High Fae._ He smirked, but the amusement was short-lived. _If I were insane and stupid enough to go after a Suriel, I_d also take a bow and quiver, and maybe a knife just like this one._ He sheathed the knife he_d cleaned and set it down at the edge of the table_an offering. _And I_d be prepared to run like hell when I freed it_to the nearest running water, which they hate crossing._ _But you_re not insane, so you_ll be here, safe and sound?_ _I_ll be conveniently hunting on the grounds, and with my superior hearing, I might be feeling generous enough to listen if someone screams from the western woods. But it_s a good thing I had no role in telling you to go out today, since Tam would eviscerate anyone who told you how to trap a Suriel; and it_s a good thing I had planned to hunt anyway, because if anyone caught me helping you, there would be trouble of a whole other hell awaiting us. I hope your secrets are worth it._ He said it with his usual grin, but there was an edge to it_a warning I didn_t miss. Another riddle_and another bit of information. I said, _It_s a good thing that while you have superior hearing, I possess superior abilities to keep my mouth shut._ He snorted as I took the knife from the table and turned to procure the bow from my room. _I think I_m starting to like you_for a murdering human._ Chapter 14 Western woods. Grove of young birch trees. Slaughtered chicken. Double-loop snare. Close to running water. I repeated Lucien_s instructions as I walked out of the manor, through the cultivated gardens, across the wild, rolling grassy hills beyond them, over clear streams, and into the spring woods beyond. No one had stopped me_no one had even been around to see me leave, bow and quiver across my back, Lucien_s knife at my side. I lugged along a satchel stuffed with a freshly dead chicken courtesy of the baffled kitchen staff, and had tucked an extra blade into my boot. The lands were as empty as the manor itself, though I occasionally glimpsed something shining in the corner of my eye. Every time I turned to look, the shimmering transformed into the sunlight dancing on a nearby stream, or the wind fluttering the leaves of a lone sycamore atop a knoll. As I passed a large pond nestled at the foot of a towering hill, I could have sworn I saw four shining female heads poking up from the bright water, watching me. I hurried my steps. Only birds and the chittering and rustling of small animals sounded as I entered the still green western forest. I_d never ridden through these woods on my hunts with Lucien. There was no path here, nothing tame about it. Oaks, elms, and beeches intertwined in a thick weave, almost strangling the trickle of sunlight that crept in through the dense canopy. The moss-covered earth swallowed any sound I made. Old_this forest was ancient. And alive, in a way that I couldn_t describe but could only feel, deep in the marrow of my bones. Perhaps I was the first human in five hundred years to walk beneath those heavy, dark branches, to inhale the freshness of spring leaves masking the damp, thick rot. Birch trees_running water. I made my way through the woods, breath tight in my throat. Night was the dangerous time, I reminded myself. I had only a few hours until sunset. Even if the Bogge had stalked us in the daylight. The Bogge was dead, and whatever horror Tamlin was now dealing with dwelled in another part of these lands. The Spring Court. I wondered in what ways Tamlin had to answer to its High Lord, or if it was his High Lord who had carved out Lucien_s eye. Maybe it was the High Lord_s consort_the she whom Lucien had mentioned_that instilled such fear in them. I pushed away the thought. I kept my steps light, my eyes and ears open, and my heartbeat steady. Shortcomings or no, I could still hunt. And the answers I needed were worth it. I found a glen of young, skinny birch trees, then stalked in ever-widening circles until I encountered the nearest stream. Not deep, but so wide that I_d have to take a running leap to cross it. Lucien had said to find running water, and this was close enough to make escape possible. If I needed to escape. Hopefully I wouldn_t. I traced and then retraced several different routes to the stream. And a few alternate routes, should my access to it somehow be blocked. And when I was sure of every root and rock and hollow in the surrounding area, I returned to the small clearing encircled by those white trees and laid my snare. From my spot up a nearby tree_a sturdy, dense oak whose vibrant leaves hid me entirely from anyone below_I waited. And waited. The afternoon sun crept overhead, hot enough even through the canopy that I had to shrug off my cloak and roll up the sleeves of my tunic. My stomach grumbled, and I pulled a hunk of cheese out of my rucksack. Eating it would be quieter than the apple I_d also swiped from the kitchen on my way out. When I finished it off, I swigged water from the canteen I_d brought, parched from the heat. Did Tamlin or Lucien ever grow tired of day after day of eternal spring, or ever venture into the other territories, if only to experience a different season? I wouldn_t have minded endless, mild spring while looking after my family_winter brought us dangerously close to death every year_but if I were immortal, I might want a little variation to pass the time. I_d probably want to do more than lurk about a manor house, too. Though I still hadn_t worked up the nerve to make the request that had crept into the back of my mind when I saw the mural. I moved about as much as I dared on the branch, only to keep the blood flowing to my limbs. I_d just settled in again when a ripple of silence came toward me. As if the wood thrushes and squirrels and moths held their breath while something passed by. My bow was already strung. Quietly, I loosely nocked an arrow. Closer and closer the silence crept. The trees seemed to lean in, their entwined branches locking tighter, a living cage keeping even the smallest of birds from soaring out of the canopy. Maybe this had been a very bad idea. Maybe Lucien had overestimated my abilities. Or maybe he had been waiting for the chance to lead me to my doom. My muscles strained from holding still atop the branch, but I kept my balance and listened. Then I heard it: a whisper, as if cloth were dragging over root and stone, a hungry, wheezing sniffing from the nearby clearing. I_d laid my snares carefully, making the chicken look as if it had wandered too far and snapped its own neck as it sought to free itself from a fallen branch. I_d taken care to keep my own scent off the bird as much as possible. But these faeries had such keen senses, and even though I_d covered my tracks_ There was a snap, a whoosh, and a hollowed-out, wicked scream that made my bones and muscles and breath lock up. Another enraged shriek pierced the forest, and my snares groaned as they held, and held, and held. I climbed out of the tree and went to meet the Suriel. Lucien, I decided as I crept up to the faerie in the birch glen, really, truly wanted me dead. I hadn_t known what to expect as I entered the ring of white trees_tall and straight as pillars_but it was not the tall, thin veiled figure in dark tattered robes. Its hunched back facing me, I could count the hard knobs of its spine poking through the thin fabric. Spindly, scabby gray arms clawed at the snare with yellowed, cracked fingernails. Run, some primal, intrinsically human part of me whispered. Begged. Run and run and never look back. But I kept my arrow loosely nocked. I said quietly, _Are you one of the Suriel?_ The faerie went rigid. And sniffed. Once. Twice. Then slowly, it turned to me, the dark veil draped over its bald head blowing in a phantom breeze. A face that looked like it had been crafted from dried, weatherworn bone, its skin either forgotten or discarded, a lipless mouth and too-long teeth held by blackened gums, slitted holes for nostrils, and eyes _ eyes that were nothing more than swirling pits of milky white_the white of death, the white of sickness, the white of clean-picked corpses. Peeking above the ragged neck of its dark robes was a body of veins and bones, as dried and solid and horrific as the texture of its face. It let go of the snare, and its too-long fingers clicked against each other as it studied me. _Human,_ it said, and its voice was at once one and many, old and young, beautiful and grotesque. My bowels turned watery. _Did you set this clever, wicked trap for me?_ _Are you one of the Suriel?_ I asked again, my words scarcely more than a ragged breath. _Indeed I am._ Click, click, click went its fingers against each other, one for each word. _Then the trap was for you,_ I managed. Run, run, run. It remained sitting, its bare, gnarled feet caught in my snares. _I have not seen a human woman for an age. Come closer so I might look upon my captor._ I did no such thing. It let out a huffing, awful laugh. _And which of my brethren betrayed my secrets to you?_ _None of them. My mother told me stories of you._ _Lies_I can smell the lies on your breath._ It sniffed again, its fingers clacking together. It cocked its head to the side, an erratic, sharp movement, the dark veil snapping with it. _What would a human woman want from the Suriel?_ _You tell me,_ I said softly. It let out another low laugh. _A test? A foolish and useless test, for if you dared to capture me, then you must want knowledge very badly._ I said nothing, and it smiled with that lipless mouth, its grayed teeth horrifically large. _Ask me your questions, human, and then free me._ I swallowed hard. _Is there_is there truly no way for me to go home?_ _Not unless you seek to be killed, and your family with you. You must remain here._ Whatever last shred of hope I_d been clinging to, whatever foolish optimism, shriveled and died. This changed nothing. Before my fight with Tamlin that morning, I hadn_t even entertained the idea, anyway. Perhaps I_d only come here out of spite. So, fine_if I was here, facing sure death, then I might as well learn something. _What do you know about Tamlin?_ _More specific, human. Be more specific. For I know a good many things about the High Lord of the Spring Court._ The earth tilted beneath me. _Tamlin is_Tamlin is a High Lord?_ Click, click, click. _You did not know. Interesting._ Not just some petty faerie lord of a manor, but _ but a High Lord of one of the seven territories. A High Lord of Prythian. _Did you also not know that this is the Spring Court, little human?_ _Yes_yes, I knew about that._ The Suriel settled on the ground. _Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter, Dawn, Day, and Night,_ it mused, as if I hadn_t even answered. _The seven Courts of Prythian, each ruled by a High Lord, all of them deadly in their own way. They are not merely powerful_they are Power._ That was why Tamlin had been able to face the Bogge and live. High Lord. I tucked away my fear. _Everyone at the Spring Court is stuck wearing a mask, and yet you aren_t,_ I said cautiously. _Are you not a member of the Court?_ _I am a member of no Court. I am older than the High Lords, older than Prythian, older than the bones of this world._ Lucien had definitely overestimated my abilities. _And what can be done about this blight that has spread in Prythian, stealing and altering the magic? Where did it come from?_ _Stay with the High Lord, human,_ the Suriel said. _That_s all you can do. You will be safe. Do not interfere; do not go looking for answers after today, or you will be devoured by the shadow over Prythian. He will shield you from it, so stay close to him, and all will be righted._ That wasn_t exactly an answer. I repeated, _Where did the blight come from?_ Those milky eyes narrowed. _The High Lord does not know that you came here today, does he? He does not know that his human woman came to trap a Suriel, because he cannot give her the answers she seeks. But it is too late, human_for the High Lord, for you, perhaps for your realm as well __ Despite all that it had said, despite its order to stop asking questions and stay with Tamlin, it was his human woman that echoed in my head. That made me clench my teeth. But the Suriel went on. _Across the violent western sea, there is another faerie kingdom called Hybern, ruled by a wicked, powerful king. Yes, a king,_ he said when I raised a brow. _Not a High Lord_there, his territory is not divided into courts. There, he is law unto himself. Humans no longer exist in that realm_though his throne is made of their bones._ That large island I_d seen on the map, the one that hadn_t yielded any lands to humans after the Treaty. And_a throne of bones. The cheese I_d eaten turned leaden in my stomach. _For some time now, the King of Hybern has found himself unhappy with the Treaty the other ruling High Fae of the world made with you humans long ago. He resents that he was forced to sign it, to let his mortal slaves go and to remain confined to his damp green isle at the edge of the world. And so, a hundred years ago, he dispatched his most-trusted and loyal commanders, his deadliest warriors, remnants of the ancient armies that he once sailed to the continent to wage such a brutal war against you humans, all of them as hungry and vile as he. As spies and courtiers and lovers, they infiltrated the various High Fae courts and kingdoms and empires around the world for fifty years, and when they had gathered enough information, he made his plan. But nearly five decades ago, one of his commanders disobeyed him. The Deceiver. And__ The Suriel straightened. _We are not alone._ I drew my bow farther but kept it pointed at the ground as I scanned the trees. But everything had already gone silent in the presence of the Suriel. _Human, you must free me and run,_ it said, those death-filled eyes widening. _Run for the High Lord_s manor. Do not forget what I told you_stay with the High Lord, and live to see everything righted._ _What is it?_ If I knew what came, I could stand a better chance of_ _The naga_faeries made of shadow and hate and rot. They heard my scream, and they smelled you. Free me, human. They will cage me if they catch me here. Free me and return to the High Lord_s side._ Shit. Shit. I lunged for the snare, making to put away my bow and grab my knife. But four shadowy figures slipped through the birch trees, so dark that they seemed made from a starless night. Chapter 15 The naga were sprung from a nightmare. Covered in dark scales and nothing more, they were a horrendous combination of serpentine features and male humanoid bodies whose powerful arms ended in polished black, flesh-shredding talons. Here were the creatures of the blood-filled legends, the ones that slipped through the wall to torment and slaughter mortals. The ones I would have been glad to kill that day in the snowy woods. Their huge, almond-shaped eyes greedily took in the Suriel and me. The four of them paused across the clearing, the Suriel between us, and I trained my arrow toward the one in the center. The creature smiled, a row of razor-sharp teeth greeting me as a silvery forked tongue darted out. _The Dark Mother has sent us a gift today, brothers,_ he said, gazing at the Suriel, who was clawing at the snare now. The naga_s amber eyes shifted toward me again. _And a meal._ _Not much to eat,_ another one said, flexing its claws. I began backing away_toward the stream, toward the manor below, keeping my arrow pointed at them. One scream from me would notify Lucien_but my breath was thin. And he might not come at all, if he_d sent me here. I kept every sense fixed on my retreating steps. _Human,_ the Suriel begged. I had ten arrows_nine, once I fired the one nocked in my bow. None of them ash, but maybe they_d keep the naga down long enough for me to flee. I backed away another step. The four naga crept closer, as if savoring the slowness of the hunt, as if they already knew how I tasted. I had three heartbeats to make up my mind. Three heartbeats to execute my plan. I drew my bowstring back farther, my arm trembling. And then I screamed. Sharp and loud and with every bit of air in my too-tight lungs. With the naga now focused entirely on me, I fired at the tether holding the Suriel in place. The snare shattered. Like a shadow on the wind, the Suriel was off, a blast of dark that set the four naga staggering back. The one closest to me surged toward the Suriel, the strong column of its scaly neck stretching out. No chance of my movements being considered an unprovoked attack anymore_not now that they_d seen my aim. They still wanted to kill me. So I let my arrow fly. The tip glittered like a shooting star through the gloom of the forest. I had all of a blink before it struck home and blood sprayed. The naga toppled back just as the remaining three whirled to me. I didn_t know if it was a killing shot. I was already gone. I raced for the stream using the path I_d calculated earlier, not daring to look back. Lucien had said he_d be nearby_but I was deep in the woods, too far from the manor and help. Branches and twigs snapped behind me_too close_and snarls that sounded like nothing I_d heard from Tamlin or Lucien or the wolf or any animal filled the still woods. My only hope of getting away alive lay in outrunning them long enough to reach Lucien, and then only if he was there as he_d promised to be. I didn_t let myself think of all the hills I would have to climb once I cleared the forest itself. Or what I would do if Lucien had changed his mind. The crashing through the brush became louder, closer, and I veered to the right, leaping over the stream. Running water might have stopped the Suriel, but a hiss and a thud close behind told me it did nothing to hold the naga at bay. I careened through a thicket, and thorns ripped at my cheeks. I barely felt their stinging kisses or the warm blood sliding down my face. I didn_t even have time to wince, not as two dark figures flanked me, closing in to cut me off. My knees groaned as I pushed myself harder, focusing on the growing brightness of the woods_ end. But the naga to my right rushed at me, so fast that I could only leap aside to avoid the slashing talons. I stumbled but stayed upright just as the naga on my left pounced. I hurled myself into a stop, swinging my bow up in a wide arc. I nearly lost my grip as it connected with that serpentine face, and bone crunched with a horrific screech. I hurdled over his enormous fallen body, not pausing to look for the others. I made it three feet before the third naga stepped in front of me. I swung my bow at his head. He dodged it. The other two hissed as they came up behind me, and I gripped the bow harder. Surrounded. I turned in a slow circle, bow ready to strike. One of them sniffed at me, those slitted nostrils flaring. _Scrawny human thing,_ he spat to the others, whose smiles grew sharper. _Do you know what you_ve cost us?_ I wouldn_t go down without a fight, without taking some of them with me. _Go to Hell,_ I said, but it came out in a gasp. They laughed, stepping nearer. I swung the bow at the closest. He dodged it, chuckling. _We_ll have our sport_though you might not find it as amusing._ I gritted my teeth as I swung again. I would not be hunted down like a deer among wolves. I would find a way out of this; I would_ A black-clawed hand closed around the shaft of my bow, and a resounding snap echoed through the too-silent woods. The air left my chest in a whoosh, and I only had time to half turn before one of them grabbed me by the throat and hurled me to the ground. He pounded my arm so hard against the earth that my bones groaned and my fingers splayed, dropping the remnants of my bow. _When we_re done ripping off your skin, you_ll wish you hadn_t crossed into Prythian,_ he breathed into my face, the reek of carrion shoving down my throat. I gagged. _We_ll cut you up so fine there won_t be much for the crows to pick at._ A white-hot flame went through me. Rage or terror or wild instinct, I don_t know. I didn_t think. I grabbed the knife in my boot and slammed it into his leathery neck. Blood rained down onto my face, into my mouth as I bellowed my fury, my terror. The naga slumped back. I scrambled up before the remaining two could pin me, but something rock hard hit my face. I tasted blood and soil and grass as I hit the earth. Stars danced in my vision, and I stumbled to my feet again out of instinct, grabbing for Lucien_s hunting knife. Not like this, not like this, not like this. One of them lunged for me, and I dodged aside. His talons caught in my cloak and yanked, ripping it into ribbons just as his companion threw me to the ground, my arms tearing beneath those claws. _You_ll bleed,_ one of them panted, laughing under his breath at the knife I lifted. _We_ll bleed you nice and slow._ He wiggled his talons_perfect for deep, brutal cutting. He opened his mouth again, and a bone-shattering roar sounded through the clearing. Only it hadn_t come from the creature_s throat. The noise hadn_t finished echoing before the naga went flying off me, crashing into a tree so hard that the wood cracked. I made out the gleaming gold of his mask and hair and the long, deadly claws before Tamlin tore into the creature. The naga holding me shrieked and released his grip, leaping to his feet as Tamlin_s claws shredded through his companion_s neck. Flesh and blood ripped away. I kept low to the ground, knife at the ready, waiting. Tamlin let out another roar that made the marrow of my bones go cold and revealed those lengthened canines. The remaining creature darted for the woods. He got only a few steps away before Tamlin tackled him, pinning him to the earth. And disemboweled the naga in one deep, long swipe. I remained where I lay, my face half buried in leaves and twigs and moss. I didn_t try to raise myself. I was shaking so badly that I thought I would fall apart at the seams. It was all I could do to keep holding the knife. Tamlin got to his feet, wrenching his claws out of the creature_s abdomen. Blood and gore dripped from them, staining the deep green moss. High Lord. High Lord. High Lord. Feral rage still smoldered in his gaze, and I flinched as he knelt beside me. He reached for me again, but I jerked back, away from the bloody claws that were still out. I raised myself into a sitting position before the shaking resumed. I knew I couldn_t get to my feet. _Feyre,_ he said. The wrath faded from his eyes, and the claws slipped back under his skin, but the roar still sounded in my ears. There had been nothing in that sound but primal fury. _How?_ It was all I could manage to say, but he understood me. _I was tracking a pack of them_these four escaped, and must have followed your scent through the woods. I heard you scream._ So he didn_t know about the Suriel. And he_he_d come to help me. He reached a hand toward me, and I shuddered as he ran cool, wet fingers down my stinging, aching cheek. Blood_that was blood on them. And from the stickiness on my face, I knew there was already enough blood splattered on me that it wouldn_t make a difference. The pain in my face and my arm faded, then vanished. His eyes darkened a bit at the bruise I knew was already blossoming on my cheekbone, but the throbbing quickly lessened. The metallic scent of magic wrapped around me, then floated away on a light breeze. _I found one dead half a mile away,_ he went on, his hands leaving my face as he unbuckled his baldric, then shucked off his tunic and handed it to me. The front of my own had been ripped and torn by the talons of the naga. _I saw one of my arrows in his throat, so I followed their tracks here._ I pulled on Tamlin_s tunic over my own, ignoring how easily I could see the cut of his muscles beneath his white shirt, the way the blood soaking it made them stand out even more. A purebred predator, honed to kill without a second thought, without remorse. I shivered again and savored the warmth that leaked from the cloth. High Lord. I should have known, should have guessed. Maybe I hadn_t wanted to_maybe I_d been afraid. _Here,_ he said, rising to his feet and offering me a bloodstained hand. I didn_t dare look at the slaughtered naga as I gripped his extended hand and he pulled me to my feet. My knees buckled, but I stayed upright. I stared at our linked hands, both coated in blood that wasn_t our own. No, he hadn_t been the only one to spill blood just now. And it wasn_t just my blood that still coated my tongue. Perhaps that made me as much of a beast as him. But he_d saved me. Killed for me. I spat onto the grass, wishing I hadn_t lost my canteen. _Do I want to know what you were doing out here?_ he asked. No. Definitely not. Not after he_d warned me plenty of times already. _I thought I wasn_t confined to the house and garden. I didn_t realize I_d come so far._ He dropped my hand. _On the days that I_m called away to deal with _ trouble, stay close to the house._ I nodded a bit numbly. _Thank you,_ I mumbled, fighting past the shaking racking my body, my mind. The naga_s blood on me became nearly unbearable. I spat again. _Not_not just for this. For saving my life, I mean._ I wanted to tell him how much that meant_that the High Lord of the Spring Court thought I was worth saving_but couldn_t find the words. His fangs vanished. _It was _ the least I could do. They shouldn_t have gotten this far onto my lands._ He shook his head, more at himself, his shoulders slumping. _Let_s go home,_ he said, sparing me the effort of explaining why I_d been out here in the first place. I couldn_t bring myself to tell him that the manor wasn_t my home_that I might not even have a home at all anymore. We walked back in silence, both of us blood-drenched and pale. I could still sense the carnage we_d left behind_the blood-soaked ground and trees. The pieces of the naga. Well, I_d learned something from the Suriel, at least. Even if it wasn_t entirely what I_d wanted to hear_or know. Stay with the High Lord. Fine_easy enough. But as for the history lesson it had been in the middle of giving me, about wicked kings and their commanders and however they tied into the High Lord at my side and the blight _ I still didn_t have enough specifics to be able to thoroughly warn my family. But the Suriel had told me not to go looking for further answers. I had a feeling I would surely be a fool to ignore his advice. My family would have to make do with the bare bones of my knowledge, then. Hopefully it would be enough. I didn_t ask Tamlin anything more about the naga_about how many he_d killed before those four slipped away_didn_t ask him anything at all, because I didn_t detect a trace of triumph in him, but rather a deep, unending sort of shame and defeat. Chapter 16 After soaking in the bath for nearly an hour, I found myself sitting in a low-backed chair before my room_s roaring fireplace, savoring the feel of Alis brushing out my damp hair. Though dinner was to be served soon, Alis had a cup of molten chocolate brought up and refused to do anything until I_d had a few sips. It was the best thing I_d ever tasted. I drank from the thick mug as she brushed my hair, nearly purring at the feel of her thin fingers along my scalp. But when the other maids had gone downstairs to help with the evening meal, I lowered my mug into my lap. _If more faeries keep crossing the court borders and attacking, is there going to be a war?_ Maybe we should just take a stand_maybe it_s time to say enough, Lucien had said to Tamlin that first night. The brush stilled. _Don_t ask such questions. You_ll call down bad luck._ I twisted in my seat, glaring up into her masked face. _Why aren_t the other High Lords keeping their subjects in line? Why are these awful creatures allowed to roam wherever they want? Someone_someone began telling me a story about a king in Hybern__ Alis grabbed my shoulder and pivoted me around. _It_s none of your concern._ _Oh, I think it is._ I turned around again, gripping the back of the wooden chair. _If this spills into the human world_if there_s war, or this blight poisons our lands __ I pushed back against the crushing panic. I had to warn my family_had to write to them. Soon. _The less you know, the better. Let Lord Tamlin deal with it_he_s the only one who can._ The Suriel had said as much. Alis_s brown eyes were hard, unforgiving. _You think no one would tell me what you asked the kitchen to give you today, or realize what you went to trap? Foolish, stupid girl. Had the Suriel not been in a benevolent mood, you would have deserved the death it gave you. I don_t know what_s worse: this, or your idiocy with the puca._ _Would you have done anything else? If you had a family__ _I do have a family._ I looked her up and down. There was no ring on her finger. Alis noticed my stare and said, _My sister and her mate were murdered nigh on fifty years ago, leaving two younglings behind. Everything I do, everything I work for, is for those boys. So you don_t get the right to give me that look and ask me if I would do anything different, girl._ _Where are they? Do they live here?_ Perhaps that was why there were children_s books in the study. Maybe those two small, shining figures in the garden _ maybe that had been them. _No, they don_t live here,_ she said, too sharply. _They are somewhere else_far away._ I considered what she said, then cocked my head. _Do faerie children age differently?_ If their parents had been killed almost fifty years ago, they could hardly be boys. _Ah, some age like you and can breed as often as rabbits, but there are kinds_like me, like the High Fae_who are rarely able to produce younglings. The ones who are born age quite a bit slower. We all had a shock when my sister conceived the second one only five years later_and the eldest won_t even reach adulthood until he_s seventy-five. But they_re so rare_all our young are_and more precious to us than jewels or gold._ She clenched her jaw tightly enough that I knew that was all I would likely get from her. _I didn_t mean to question your dedication to them,_ I said quietly. When she didn_t reply, I added, _I understand what you mean_about doing everything for them._ Alis_s lips thinned, but she said, _The next time that fool Lucien gives you advice on how to trap the Suriel, you come to me. Dead chickens, my sagging ass. All you needed to do was offer it a new robe, and it would have groveled at your feet._ By the time I entered the dining room I_d stopped shaking, and some semblance of warmth had returned to my veins. High Lord of Prythian or no, I wouldn_t cower_not after what I_d been through today. Lucien and Tamlin were already waiting for me at the table. _Good evening,_ I said, moving to my usual seat. Lucien cocked his head in a silent inquiry, and I gave him a subtle nod as I sat. His secret was still safe, though he deserved to be walloped for sending me so unprepared to the Suriel. Lucien slouched a bit in his chair. _I heard you two had a rather exciting afternoon. I wish I could have been there to help._ A hidden, perhaps halfhearted apology, but I gave him another little nod. He said with forced lightness, _Well, you still look lovely, regardless of your Hell-sent afternoon._ I snorted. I_d never looked lovely a day in my life. _I thought faeries couldn_t lie._ Tamlin choked on his wine, but Lucien grinned, that scar stark and brutal. _Who told you that?_ _Everyone knows it,_ I said, piling food on my plate even as I began wondering about everything they_d said to me so far, every statement I_d accepted as pure truth. Lucien leaned back in his chair, smiling with feline delight. _Of course we can lie. We find lying to be an art. And we lied when we told those ancient mortals that we couldn_t speak an untruth. How else would we get them to trust us and do our bidding?_ My mouth became a thin, tight line. He was telling the truth_because if he was lying _ The logic of it made my head spin. _Iron?_ I managed to say. _Doesn_t do us a lick of harm. Only ash, as you well know._ My face warmed. I_d taken everything they said as truth. Perhaps the Suriel had been lying today, too, with that long-winded explanation about the politics of the faerie realms. About staying with the High Lord, and everything being fixed in the end. I looked to Tamlin. High Lord. That wasn_t a lie_I could feel its truth in my bones. Even though he didn_t act like the High Lords of legend who had sacrificed virgins and slaughtered humans at will. No_Tamlin was _ exactly as those fanatic, calf-eyed Children of the Blessed had depicted the bounties and comforts of Prythian. _Even though Lucien revealed some of our closely guarded secrets,_ Tamlin said, throwing the last word at his companion with a growl, _we_ve never used your misinformation against you._ His gaze met mine. _We never willingly lied to you._ I managed a nod and took a long sip of water. I ate in silence, so busy trying to decipher every word I_d overheard since arriving that I didn_t realize when Lucien excused himself before dessert. I was left alone with the most dangerous being I_d ever encountered. The walls of the room pressed in on me. _Are you feeling _ better?_ Though he had his chin propped on a fist, concern_and perhaps surprise at that concern_shone in his eyes. I swallowed hard. _If I never encounter a naga again, I_ll consider myself fortunate._ _What were you doing out in the western woods?_ Truth or lie, lie or truth _ both. _I heard a legend once about a creature who answers your questions, if you can catch it._ Tamlin flinched as his claws shot out, slicing his face. But the wounds closed as soon as they opened, leaving only a smear of blood running down his golden skin_which he wiped away with the back of his sleeve. _You went to catch the Suriel._ _I caught the Suriel,_ I corrected. _And did it tell you what you wanted to know?_ I wasn_t sure he was breathing. _We were interrupted by the naga before it could tell me anything worthwhile._ His mouth tightened. _I_d start shouting, but I think today was punishment enough._ He shook his head. _You actually snared the Suriel. A human girl._ Despite myself, despite the afternoon, my lips twitched upward. _Is it supposed to be hard?_ He chuckled, then fished something out of his pocket. _Well, if I_m lucky, I won_t have to trap the Suriel to learn what this is about._ He lifted my crumpled list of words. My heart dropped to my stomach. _It_s __ I couldn_t think of a suitable lie_everything was absurd. _Unusual? Queue? Slaying? Conflagration?_ He read the list. I wanted to curl up and die. Words I couldn_t recognize from the books_words that now seemed so simple, so absurdly easy as he was saying them aloud. _Is this a poem about murdering me and then burning my body?_ My throat closed up, and I had to clench my hands into fists to keep from hiding my face behind them. _Good night,_ I said, barely more than a whisper, and stood on shaking knees. I was nearly to the door when he spoke again. _You love them very much, don_t you?_ I half turned to him. His green eyes met mine as he rose from his chair to walk to me. He stopped a respectable distance away. The list of malformed words was still clutched in his hand. _I wonder if your family realizes it,_ he murmured. _That everything you_ve done wasn_t about that promise to your mother, or for your sake, but for theirs._ I said nothing, not trusting my voice to keep my shame hidden. _I know_I know that when I said it earlier, it didn_t come out well, but I could help you write__ _Leave me alone,_ I said. I was almost through the door when I ran into someone_into him. I stumbled back a step. I_d forgotten how fast he was. _I_m not insulting you._ His quiet voice made it all the worse. _I don_t need your help._ _Clearly not,_ he said with a half smile. But the smile faded. _A human who can take down a faerie in a wolf_s skin, who ensnared the Suriel and killed two naga on her own __ He choked on a laugh, and shook his head. The firelight danced along his mask. _They_re fools. Fools for not seeing it._ He winced. But his eyes held no mischief. _Here,_ he said, extending the list of words. I shoved it into my pocket. I turned, but he gently grabbed my arm. _You gave up so much for them._ He lifted his other hand as if to brush my cheek. I braced myself for the touch, but he lowered it before making contact. _Do you even know how to laugh?_ I shook off his arm, unable to stop the angry words. High Lord be damned. _I don_t want your pity._ His jade eyes were so bright I couldn_t look away. _What about a friend?_ _Can faeries be friends with mortals?_ _Five hundred years ago, enough faeries were friends with mortals that they went to war on their behalf._ _What?_ I_d never heard that before. And it hadn_t been in that mural in the study. _How do you think the human armies survived as long as they did, and did such damage that my kind even came to agree to a treaty? With ash weapons alone? There were faeries who fought and died at the humans_ sides for their freedom, and who mourned when the only solution was to separate our peoples._ _Were you one of them?_ _I was a child at the time, too young to understand what was happening_or even to be told,_ he said. A child. Which meant he had to be over _ _But had I been old enough, I would have. Against slavery, against tyranny, I would gladly go to my death, no matter whose freedom I was defending._ I wasn_t sure if I would do the same. My priority would be to protect my family_and I would have picked whatever side could keep them safest. I hadn_t thought of it as a weakness until now. _For what it_s worth,_ Tamlin said, _your family knows you_re safe. They have no memory of a beast bursting into their cottage, and think a long-lost, very wealthy aunt called you away to aid her on her deathbed. They know you_re alive, and fed, and cared for. But they also know that there have been rumors of a _ threat in Prythian, and are prepared to run should any of the warning signs about the wall faltering occur._ _You_you altered their memories?_ I took a step back. Faerie arrogance, such faerie arrogance to change our minds, to implant thoughts as if it wasn_t a violation_ _Glamoured their memories_like putting a veil over them. I was afraid your father might come after you, or persuade some villagers to cross the wall with him and further violate the Treaty._ And they all would have died anyway, once they ran into things like the puca or the Bogge or the naga. A silence blanketed my mind, until I was so exhausted I could barely think, and couldn_t stop myself from saying, _You don_t know him. My father wouldn_t have bothered to do either._ Tamlin looked at me for a long moment. _Yes, he would have._ But he wouldn_t_not with that twisted knee. Not with it as an excuse. I_d realized that the moment the puca_s illusion had been ripped away. Fed, comfortable, and safe_they_d even been warned about the blight, whether they understood that warning or not. His eyes were open, honest. He had gone farther than I would have ever guessed toward assuaging my every concern. _You truly warned them about_the possible threat?_ A grave nod. _Not an outright warning, but _ it_s woven into the glamour on their memories_along with an order to run at the first sign of something being amiss._ Faerie arrogance, but _ but he had done more than I could. My family might have ignored my letter entirely. Had I known he possessed those abilities, I might have even asked the High Lord to glamour their memories if he hadn_t done it himself. I truly had nothing to fret about, save for the fact that they_d probably forget me sooner than expected. I couldn_t entirely blame them. My vow fulfilled, my task complete_what was left for me? The firelight danced on his mask, warming the gold, setting the emeralds glinting. Such color and variation_colors I didn_t know the names of, colors I wanted to catalog and weave together. Colors I had no reason not to explore now. _Paint,_ I said, barely more than a breath. He cocked his head and I swallowed, squaring my shoulders. _If_if it_s not too much to ask, I_d like some paint. And brushes._ Tamlin blinked. _You like_art? You like to paint?_ His stumbling words weren_t unkind. It was enough for me to say, _Yes. I_m not_not any good, but if it_s not too much trouble _ I_ll paint outside, so I don_t make a mess, but__ _Outside, inside, on the roof_paint wherever you want. I don_t care,_ he said. _But if you need paint and brushes, you_ll also need paper and canvas._ _I can work_help around the kitchen or in the gardens_to pay for it._ _You_d be more of a hindrance. It might take a few days to track them down, but the paint, the brushes, the canvas, and the space are yours. Work wherever you want. This house is too clean, anyway._ _Thank you_I mean it, truly. Thank you._ _Of course._ I turned, but he spoke again. _Have you seen the gallery?_ I blurted, _There_s a gallery in this house?_ He grinned_actually grinned, the High Lord of the Spring Court. _I had it closed off when I inherited this place._ When he inherited a title he seemed to have little joy in holding. _It seemed like a waste of time to have the servants keep it cleaned._ Of course it would, to a trained warrior. He went on. _I_m busy tomorrow, and the gallery needs to be cleaned up, so _ the next day_let me show it to you the next day._ He rubbed at his neck, faint color creeping into those cheeks of his_more alive and warm than I_d yet seen them. _Please_it would be my pleasure._ And I believed him that it would. I nodded dumbly. If the paintings along the halls were exquisite, then the ones selected for the gallery had to be beyond my human imaginings. _I would like that_very much._ He smiled at me still, broadly and without restraint or hesitation. Isaac had never smiled at me like that. Isaac had never made my breath catch, just a little bit. The feeling was startling enough that I walked out, grasping the crumpled paper in my pocket as if doing so could somehow keep that answering smile from tugging on my lips. Chapter 17 I jerked awake in the middle of the night, panting. My dreams had been filled with the clicking of the Suriel_s bone-fingers, the grinning naga, and a pale, faceless woman dragging her bloodred nails across my throat, splitting me open bit by bit. She kept asking for my name, but every time I tried to speak, my blood bubbled out of the shallow wounds on my neck, choking me. I ran my hands through my sweat-damp hair. As my panting eased, a different sound filled the air, creeping in from the front hall through the crack beneath the door. Shouts, and someone_s screams. I was out of my bed in a heartbeat. The shouts weren_t aggressive, but rather commanding_organizing. But the screaming _ Every hair on my body stood upright as I flung open the door. I might have stayed and cowered, but I_d heard screams like that before, in the forest at home, when I didn_t make a clean kill and the animals suffered. I couldn_t stand it. And I had to know. I reached the top of the grand staircase in time to see the front doors of the manor bang open and Tamlin rush in, a screaming faerie slung over his shoulder. The faerie was almost as big as Tamlin, and yet the High Lord carried him as if he were no more than a sack of grain. Another species of the lesser faeries, with his blue skin, gangly limbs, pointed ears, and long onyx hair. But even from atop the stairs, I could see the blood gushing down the faerie_s back_blood from the black stumps protruding from his shoulder blades. Blood that now soaked into Tamlin_s green tunic in deep, shining splotches. One of the knives from his baldric was missing. Lucien rushed into the foyer below just as Tamlin shouted, _The table_clear it off!_ Lucien shoved the vase of flowers off the long table in the center of the hall. Either Tamlin wasn_t thinking straight, or he_d been afraid to waste the extra minutes bringing the faerie to the infirmary. Shattering glass set my feet moving, and I was halfway down the stairs before Tamlin eased the shrieking faerie face-first onto the table. The faerie wasn_t wearing a mask; there was nothing to hide the agony contorting his long, unearthly features. _Scouts found him dumped just over the borderline,_ Tamlin explained to Lucien, but his eyes darted to me. They flashed with warning, but I took another step down. He said to Lucien, _He_s Summer Court._ _By the Cauldron,_ Lucien said, surveying the damage. _My wings,_ the faerie choked out, his glossy black eyes wide and staring at nothing. _She took my wings._ Again, that nameless she who haunted their lives. If she wasn_t ruling the Spring Court, then perhaps she ruled another. Tamlin flicked a hand, and steaming water and bandages just appeared on the table. My mouth dried up, but I reached the bottom of the stairs and kept walking toward the table and the death that was surely hovering in this hall. _She took my wings,_ said the faerie. _She took my wings,_ he repeated, clutching the edge of the table with spindly blue fingers. Tamlin murmured a soft, wordless sound_gentle in a way I hadn_t heard before_and picked up a rag to dunk in the water. I took up a spot across the table from Tamlin, and the breath whooshed from my chest as I beheld the damage. Whoever she was, she hadn_t just taken his wings. She_d ripped them off. Blood oozed from the black velvety stumps on the faerie_s back. The wounds were jagged_cartilage and tissue severed in what looked like uneven cuts. As if she_d sawed off his wings bit by bit. _She took my wings,_ the faerie said again, his voice breaking. As he trembled, shock taking over, his skin shimmered with veins of pure gold_iridescent, like a blue butterfly. _Keep still,_ Tamlin ordered, wringing the rag. _You_ll bleed out faster._ _N-n-no,_ the faerie started, and began to twist onto his back, away from Tamlin, from the pain that was surely coming when that rag touched those raw stumps. It was instinct, or mercy, or desperation, perhaps, to grab the faerie_s upper arms and shove him down again, pinning him to the table as gently as I could. He thrashed, strong enough that I had to concentrate solely on holding him. His skin was velvet-smooth and slippery, a texture I would never be able to paint, not even if I had eternity to master it. But I pushed against him, gritting my teeth and willing him to stop. I looked to Lucien, but the color had blanched from his face, leaving a sickly white-green in its wake. _Lucien,_ Tamlin said_a quiet command. But Lucien kept gaping at the faerie_s ruined back, at the stumps, his metal eye narrowing and widening, narrowing and widening. He backed up a step. And another. And then vomited in a potted plant before sprinting from the room. The faerie twisted again and I held tight, my arms shaking with the effort. His injuries must have weakened him greatly if I could keep him pinned. _Please,_ I breathed. _Please hold still._ _She took my wings,_ the faerie sobbed. _She took them._ _I know,_ I murmured, my fingers aching. _I know._ Tamlin touched the rag to one of the stumps, and the faerie screamed so loudly that my senses guttered, sending me staggering back. He tried to rise but his arms buckled, and he collapsed face-first onto the table again. Blood gushed_so fast and bright that it took me a heartbeat to realize that a wound like this required a tourniquet_and that the faerie had lost far too much blood for it to even make a difference. It poured down his back and onto the table, where it ran to the edge and drip-drip-dripped to the floor near my feet. I found Tamlin_s eyes on me. _The wounds aren_t clotting,_ he said under his breath as the faerie panted. _Can_t you use your magic?_ I asked, wishing I could rip that mask off his face and see his full expression. Tamlin swallowed hard. _No. Not for major damage. Once, but not any longer._ The faerie on the table whimpered, his panting slowing. _She took my wings,_ he whispered. Tamlin_s green eyes flickered, and I knew, right then, that the faerie was going to die. Death wasn_t just hovering in this hall; it was counting down the faerie_s remaining heartbeats. I took one of the faerie_s hands in mine. The skin there was almost leathery, and, perhaps more out of reflex than anything, his long fingers wrapped around mine, covering them completely. _She took my wings,_ he said again, his shaking subsiding a bit. I brushed the long, damp hair from the faerie_s half-turned face, revealing a pointed nose and a mouth full of sharp teeth. His dark eyes shifted to mine, beseeching, pleading. _It will be all right,_ I said, and hoped he couldn_t smell lies the way the Suriel was able to. I stroked his limp hair, its texture like liquid night_another I would never be able to paint but would try to, perhaps forever. _It will be all right._ The faerie closed his eyes, and I tightened my grip on his hand. Something wet touched my feet, and I didn_t need to look down to see that his blood had pooled around me. _My wings,_ the faerie whispered. _You_ll get them back._ The faerie struggled to open his eyes. _You swear?_ _Yes,_ I breathed. The faerie managed a slight smile and closed his eyes again. My mouth trembled. I wished for something else to say, something more to offer him than my empty promises. The first false vow I_d ever sworn. But Tamlin began speaking, and I glanced up to see him take the faerie_s other hand. _Cauldron save you,_ he said, reciting the words of a prayer that was probably older than the mortal realm. _Mother hold you. Pass through the gates, and smell that immortal land of milk and honey. Fear no evil. Feel no pain._ Tamlin_s voice wavered, but he finished. _Go, and enter eternity._ The faerie heaved one final sigh, and his hand went limp in mine. I didn_t let go, though, and kept stroking his hair, even when Tamlin released him and took a few steps from the table. I could feel Tamlin_s eyes on me, but I wouldn_t let go. I didn_t know how long it took for a soul to fade from the body. I stood in the puddle of blood until it grew cold, holding the faerie_s spindly hand and stroking his hair, wondering if he knew I_d lied when I_d sworn he would get his wings back, wondering if, wherever he had now gone, he had gotten them back. A clock chimed somewhere in the house, and Tamlin gripped my shoulder. I hadn_t realized how cold I_d become until the heat of his hand warmed me through my nightgown. _He_s gone. Let him go._ I studied the faerie_s face_so unearthly, so inhuman. Who could be so cruel to hurt him like that? _Feyre,_ Tamlin said, squeezing my shoulder. I brushed the faerie_s hair behind his long, pointed ear, wishing I_d known his name, and let go. Tamlin led me up the stairs, neither of us caring about the bloody footprints I left behind or the freezing blood soaking the front of my nightgown. I paused at the top of the steps, though, twisting out of his grip, and gazed at the table in the foyer below. _We can_t leave him there,_ I said, making to step down. Tamlin caught my elbow. _I know,_ he said, the words so drained and weary. _I was going to walk you upstairs first._ Before he buried him. _I want to go with you._ _It_s too deadly at night for you to__ _I can hold my__ _No,_ he said, his green eyes flashing. I straightened, but he sighed, his shoulders curving inward. _I must do this. Alone._ His head was bowed. No claws, no fangs_there was nothing to be done against this enemy, this fate. No one for him to fight. So I nodded, because I would have wanted to do it alone, too, and turned toward my bedroom. Tamlin remained at the top of the stairs. _Feyre,_ he said_softly enough that I faced him again. _Why?_ He tilted his head to the side. _You dislike our kind on a good day. And after Andras __ Even in the darkened hallway, his usually bright eyes were shadowed. _So why?_ I took a step closer to him, my blood-covered feet sticking to the rug. I glanced down the stairs to where I could still see the prone form of the faerie and the stumps of his wings. _Because I wouldn_t want to die alone,_ I said, and my voice wobbled as I looked at Tamlin again, forcing myself to meet his stare. _Because I_d want someone to hold my hand until the end, and awhile after that. That_s something everyone deserves, human or faerie._ I swallowed hard, my throat painfully tight. _I regret what I did to Andras,_ I said, the words so strangled they were no more than a whisper. _I regret that there was _ such hate in my heart. I wish I could undo it_and _ I_m sorry. So very sorry._ I couldn_t remember the last time_if ever_I_d spoken to anyone like that. But he just nodded and turned away, and I wondered if I should say more, if I should kneel and beg for his forgiveness. If he felt such grief, such guilt, over a stranger, then Andras _ By the time I opened my mouth, he was already down the steps. I watched him_watched every movement he made, the muscles of his body visible through that blood-soaked tunic, watched that invisible weight bearing down on his shoulders. He didn_t look at me as he scooped up the broken body and carried it to the garden doors beyond my line of sight. I went to the window at the top of the stairs, watching as Tamlin carried the faerie through the moonlit garden and into the rolling fields beyond. He never once glanced back.

  • The Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Cabin Fever /  .   (by Jeff Kinney, 2011) -   The Diary of a Wimpy Kid:
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  • Diary of a Wimpy Kid /   (by Jeff Kinney, 2008) -   Diary of a Wimpy Kid /
  • Toy Story /   (Disney, 2012)    Toy Story /

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