“You traitorous piece of filth,” she seethed at Rhysand. “You’re just as bad as these human beasts.” One by one, as if a hand were shoving them in, his talons pushed back into his skin, leaving blood in their wake. He swore, low and vicious. “You were planning this all along.”
Her magic sent him sprawling, and it then hurled into Rhysand again—so hard that his head cracked against the stones and the knife dropped from his splayed fingers. No one made a move to help him, and she struck him once more with her power. The red marble splintered where he hit it, spiderwebbing toward me. With wave after wave she hit him. Rhys groaned.
“Stop,” I breathed, blood filling my mouth as I strained a hand to reach her feet. “Please.”
Rhys’s arms buckled as he fought to rise, and blood dripped from his nose, splattering on the marble. His eyes met mine.
The bond between us went taut. I flashed between my body and his, seeing myself through his eyes, bleeding and broken and sobbing.
I snapped back into my own mind as Amarantha turned to me again. “Stop? Stop? Don’t pretend you care, human,” she crooned, and curled her finger. I arched my back, my spine straining to the point of cracking, and Rhysand bellowed my name as I lost my grip on the room.
Then the memories began—a compilation of the worst moments of my life, a storybook of despair and darkness. The final page came, and I wept, not entirely feeling the agony of my body as I saw that young rabbit, bleeding out in that forest clearing, my knife through her throat. My first kill—the first life I’d taken.
I’d been starving, desperate. Yet afterward, once my family had devoured it, I had crept back into the woods and wept for hours, knowing a line had been crossed, my soul stained.
“Say that you don’t love him!” Amarantha shrieked, and the blood on my hands became the blood of that rabbit—became the blood of what I had lost.
But I wouldn’t say it. Because loving Tamlin was the only thing I had left, the only thing I couldn’t sacrifice.
A path cleared through my red-and-black vision. I found Tamlin’s eyes—wide as he crawled toward Amarantha, watching me die, and unable to save me while his wound slowly healed, while she still gripped his power.
Amarantha had never intended for me to live, never intended to let him go.
“Amarantha, stop this,” Tamlin begged at her feet as he clutched the gaping wound in his chest. “Stop. I’m sorry—I’m sorry for what I said about Clythia all those years ago. Please.”
Amarantha ignored him, but I couldn’t look away. Tamlin’s eyes were so green—green like the meadows of his estate. A shade that washed away the memories flooding through me, that pushed aside the evil breaking me apart bone by bone. I screamed again as my kneecaps strained, threatening to crack in two, but I saw that enchanted forest, saw that afternoon we’d lain in the grass, saw that morning we’d watched the sunrise, when for a moment—just one moment—I’d known true happiness.
“Say that you don’t truly love him,” Amarantha spat, and my body twisted, breaking bit by bit. “Admit to your inconstant heart.”
“Amarantha, please,” Tamlin moaned, his blood spilling onto the floor. “I’ll do anything.”
“I’ll deal with you later,” she snarled at him, and sent me falling into a fiery pit of pain.
I would never say it—never let her hear that, even if she killed me. And if it was to be my downfall, so be it. If it would be the weakness that would break me, I would embrace it with all my heart. If this was—
For though each of my strikes lands a powerful blow,
When I kill, I do it slow …
That’s what these three months had been—a slow, horrible death. What I felt for Tamlin was the cause of this. There was no cure—not pain, or absence, or happiness.
But scorned, I become a difficult beast to defeat.
She could torture me all she liked, but it would never destroy what I felt for him. It would never make Tamlin want her—never ease the sting of his rejection.
The world became dark at the borders of my vision, taking the edge off the pain.
But I bless all those who are brave enough to dare.
For so long, I had run from it. But opening myself to him, to my sisters—that had been a test of bravery as harrowing as any of my trials.
“Say it, you vile beast,” Amarantha hissed. She might have lied her way out of our bargain, but she’d sworn differently with the riddle—instantaneous freedom, regardless of her will.
Blood filled my mouth, warm as it dribbled out between my lips. I gazed at Tamlin’s masked face one last time.
“Love,” I breathed, the world crumbling into a blackness with no end. A pause in Amarantha’s magic. “The answer to the riddle …,” I got out, choking on my own blood, “is … love.”
Tamlin’s eyes went wide before something forever cracked in my spine.
I was far away but still seeing—seeing through eyes that weren’t mine, eyes attached to a person who slowly rose from his position on a cracked, bloodied floor.
Amarantha’s face slackened. There my body was, prostrate on the ground, my head snapped to one side at a horribly wrong angle. A flash of red hair in the crowd. Lucien.
Tears shone in Lucien’s remaining eye as he raised his hands and removed the fox mask.
The brutally scarred face beneath was still handsome—his features sharp and elegant. But my host was looking at Tamlin now, who slowly faced my dead body.
Tamlin’s still-masked face twisted into something truly lupine as he raised his eyes to the queen and snarled. Fangs lengthened.
Amarantha backed away—away from my corpse. She only whispered “Please” before golden light exploded.
The queen was blasted back, thrown against the far wall, and Tamlin let out a roar that shook the mountain as he launched himself at her. He shifted into his beast form faster than I could see—fur and claws and pound upon pound of lethal muscle.
She had no sooner hit the wall than he gripped her by the neck, and the stones cracked as he shoved her against it with a clawed paw.
She thrashed but could do nothing against the brutal onslaught of Tamlin’s beast. Blood ran down his furred arm from where she scratched.
The Attor and the guards rushed for the queen, but several faeries and High Fae, their masks clattering to the ground, jumped into their path, tackling them. Amarantha screeched, kicking at Tamlin, lashing at him with her dark magic, but a wall of gold encompassed his fur like a second skin. She couldn’t touch him.