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.
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.