There was a deep-throated growl from the High Lord, but his words were calm as he said, “Tell her I’m getting sick of cleaning up the trash she dumps on my borders.”
The voice chuckled, the sound like sand shifting. “She sets them loose as gifts—and reminders of what will happen if she catches you trying to break the terms of—”
“He’s not,” Lucien snarled. “Now, get out. We have enough of your ilk swarming on the borders—we don’t need you defiling our home, too. For that matter, stay the hell out of the cave. It’s not some common road for filth like you to travel through as they please.”
Tamlin loosed a growl of agreement.
The invisible thing laughed again, such a horrible, vicious sound. “Though you have a heart of stone, Tamlin,” it said, and Tamlin went rigid, “you certainly keep a host of fear inside it.” The voice sank into a croon. “Don’t worry, High Lord.” It spat the title like a joke. “All will be right as rain soon enough.”
“Burn in Hell,” Lucien replied for Tamlin, and the thing laughed again before a flap of leathery wings boomed, a foul wind bit my face, and everything went silent.
They breathed deeply after another moment. I closed my eyes, needing a steadying breath as well, but massive hands clamped onto my shoulders, and I yelped.
“It’s gone,” Tamlin said, releasing me. It was all I could do not to sag against the hedges.
“What did you hear?” Lucien demanded, coming around the corner and crossing his arms. I shifted my gaze to Tamlin’s face, but found it to be so white with anger—anger at that thing—that I had to look again at Lucien.
“Nothing—I … well, nothing I understood,” I said, and meant it. None of it made any sense. I couldn’t stop shaking. Something about that voice had ripped away the warmth from me. “Who—what was that?”
Tamlin began pacing, the gravel churning beneath his boots. “There are certain faeries in Prythian who inspired the legends that you humans are so afraid of. Some, like that one, are myth given flesh.”
Inside that hissing voice I’d heard the screaming of human victims, the pleading of young maidens whose chests had been split open on sacrificial altars. Mentions of “court,” seemingly different from Tamlin’s own—was that she the one who had killed Tamlin’s parents? A High Lady, perhaps, in lieu of a Lord. Considering how ruthless the High Fae were to their families, they had to be nightmarish to their enemies. And if there was to be warring between the courts, if the blight had left Tamlin already weakened …
“If the Attor saw her—” Lucien said, glancing around.
“It didn’t,” Tamlin said.
“Are you certain it—”
“It didn’t,” Tamlin growled over his shoulder, then looked at me, his face still pale with fury, lips tight. “I’ll see you at dinner.”
Understanding a dismissal, and craving the locked door of my bedroom, I trudged back to the house, contemplating who this she was to make Tamlin and Lucien so nervous and to command that thing as her messenger.
The spring breeze whispered that I didn’t want to know.
After a tense dinner during which Tamlin hardly spoke to Lucien or me, I lit all the candles in my room to chase away the shadows.
I didn’t go outside the following day, and when I sat down to paint, what emerged on my canvas was a tall, skeletally thin gray creature with bat ears and giant, membranous wings. Its snout was open in a roar, revealing row after row of fangs as it leaped into flight. As I painted it, I could have sworn that I could smell breath that reeked of carrion, that the air beneath its wings whispered promises of death.
The finished product was chilling enough that I had to set aside the painting in the back of the room and go try to persuade Alis to let me help with the Fire Night food preparations in the kitchen. Anything to avoid going into the garden, where the Attor might appear.
The day of Fire Night—Calanmai, Tamlin had called it—dawned, and I didn’t see Tamlin or Lucien all day. As the afternoon shifted into dusk, I found myself again at the main crossroads of the house. None of the bird-faced servants were to be found. The kitchen was empty of staff and the food they’d been preparing for two days. The sound of drums issued.
The drumbeats came from far away—beyond the garden, past the game park, into the forest that lay beyond. They were deep, probing. A single beat, echoed by two responding calls. Summoning.
I stood by the doors to the garden, staring out over the property as the sky became awash in hues of orange and red. In the distance, upon the sloping hills that led into the woods, a few fires flickered, plumes of dark smoke marring the ruby sky—the unlit bonfires I’d spotted two days ago. Not invited, I reminded myself. Not invited to whatever party had all the kitchen faeries tittering and laughing among one another.
The drums turned faster—louder. Though I’d grown accustomed to the smell of magic, my nose pricked with the rising tang of metal, stronger than I’d yet sensed it. I took a step forward, then halted on the threshold. I should go back in. Behind me, the setting sun stained the black-and-white tiles of the hall floor a shimmering shade of tangerine, and my long shadow seemed to pulse to the beat of the drums.
Even the garden, usually buzzing with the orchestra of its denizens, had quieted to hear the drums. There was a string—a string tied to my gut that pulled me toward those hills, commanding me to go, to hear the faerie drums …
I might have done just that had Tamlin not appeared from down the hall.
He was shirtless, with only the baldric across his muscled chest. The pommel of his sword glinted golden in the dying sunlight, and the feathered tops of arrows were stained red as they poked above his broad shoulder. I stared at him, and he watched me back. The warrior incarnate.
“Where are you going?” I managed to get out.
“It’s Calanmai,” he said flatly. “I have to go.” He jerked his chin to the fires and drums.
“To do what?” I asked, glancing at the bow in his hand. My heart echoed the drums outside, building into a wilder beat.
His green eyes were shadowed beneath the gilded mask. “As a High Lord, I have to partake in the Great Rite.”
“What’s the Great—”
“Go to your chamber,” he snarled, and glanced toward the fires. “Lock your doors, set up a snare, whatever you do.”
“Why?” I demanded. The Attor’s voice snaked through my memory. Tamlin had said something about a very faerie ritual—what the hell was it? From the weapons, it had to be brutal and violent—especially if Tamlin’s beast form wasn’t weapon enough.