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.”