“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.