It had seemed so terrifying once—so lethal and hungry and brutal. And now it just seemed … plain. Ordinary.
I gazed again at that sad, dark house—the place that had been a prison. Elain had said she missed it, and I wondered what she saw when she looked at the cottage. If she beheld not a prison but a shelter—a shelter from a world that had possessed so little good, but she tried to find it anyway, even if it had seemed foolish and useless to me.
She had looked at it that cottage with hope; I had looked at it with nothing but hatred. And I knew which one of us had been stronger.
I had one task left to do before I returned to my father’s manor. The villagers who had once sneered at or ignored me instead gaped now, and a few stepped into my path to ask about my aunt, my fortune, on and on. I firmly but politely refused to fall into conversation with them, to give them anything to gossip over. But it still took me so long to reach the poor part of our village that I was fully drained by the time I knocked on the first dilapidated door.
The impoverished of our village didn’t ask questions when I handed them the little bags of silver and gold. They tried to refuse, some of them not even recognizing me, but I left the money anyway. It was the least I could do.
As I walked back to my father’s manor, I passed Tomas Mandray and his cronies lurking by the village fountain, chatting about some house that had burned down with its family trapped inside a week before and whether there was anything to loot from it. He gave me a too-long look, his eyes roving freely over my body, with a half smile I’d seen him give to the village girls a hundred times before. Why had Nesta changed her mind? I just stared him down and continued along.
I was almost out of town when a woman’s laugh flitted over the stones, and I turned a corner to come face-to-face with Isaac Hale—and a pretty, plump young woman who could only be his new wife. They were arm in arm, both smiling—both lit up from within.
His smile faltered as he beheld me.
Human—he seemed so human, with his gangly limbs, his simple handsomeness, but that smile he’d had moments before had transformed him into something more.
His wife looked between us, perhaps a bit nervously. As if whatever she felt for him—the love I’d already seen shining—was so new, so unexpected, that she was still worried it would vanish. Carefully, Isaac inclined his head to me in greeting. He’d been a boy when I left, and yet this person who now approached me … whatever had blossomed with his wife, whatever was between them, it had made him into a man.
Nothing—there was nothing in my chest, my soul, for him beyond a vague sense of gratitude.
A few more steps had us passing each other. I smiled broadly at him, at them both, and bowed my head, wishing them well with my entire heart.
The ball my father was throwing in my honor was in two days, and the house was already a flurry of activity. Such money being thrown away on things we’d never dreamed of having again, even for a moment. I would have begged him not to host it, but Elain had taken charge of planning and finding me a last-minute dress, and … it would only be for an evening. An evening of enduring the people who had shunned us and let us starve for years.
The sun was near to setting as I stopped my work for the day: digging out a new square of earth for Elain’s next garden. The gardeners had been slightly horrified that another one of us had taken up the activity—as if we’d soon be doing all their work ourselves and would get rid of them. I reassured them I had no green thumb and just wanted something to do with my day.
But I hadn’t yet figured out what I would be doing with my week, or my month, or anything after that. If there was indeed a surge in the blight happening over the wall, if that Amarantha woman was sending out creatures to take advantage of it … It was hard not to dwell on that shadow in my heart, the shadow that trailed my every step. I hadn’t felt like painting since I’d arrived—and that place inside me where all those colors and shapes and lights had come from had become still and quiet and dull. Soon, I told myself. Soon I would purchase some paints and start again.
I slid the shovel into the ground and set my foot atop it, resting for a moment. Perhaps the gardeners had just been horrified by the tunic and pants I’d scrounged up. One of them had even gone running to fetch me one of those big, floppy hats that Elain wore. I wore it for their sake; my skin had already become tan and freckled from months roaming the Spring Court lands.
I glanced at my hands, clutching the top of the shovel. Callused and flecked with scars, arcs of dirt under my nails. They’d surely be horrified when they beheld me splattered with paint.
“Even if you washed them, there’d be no hiding it,” Nesta said behind me, coming over from that tree she liked to sit by. “To fit in, you’d have to wear gloves and never take them off.”
She wore a simple, pale lavender muslin gown, her hair half-up and billowing behind her in a sheet of gold-brown. Beautiful, imperious, still as one of the High Fae.
“Maybe I don’t want to fit in with your social circles,” I said, turning back to the shovel.
“Then why are you bothering to stay here?” A sharp, cold question.
I plunged the shovel deeper, my arms and back straining as I heaved up a pile of dark soil and grass. “It’s my home, isn’t it?”
“No, it’s not,” she said flatly. I slammed the shovel back into the earth. “I think your home is somewhere very far away.”
I left the shovel in the ground and slowly turned to face her. “Aunt Ripleigh’s house—”
“There is no Aunt Ripleigh.” Nesta reached into her pocket and tossed something onto the churned-up earth.
It was a chunk of wood, as if it had been ripped from something. Painted on its smooth surface was a pretty tangle of vines and—foxglove. Foxglove painted in the wrong shade of blue.
My breath hitched. All this time, all these months …
“Your beast’s little trick didn’t work on me,” she said with quiet steel. “Apparently, an iron will is all it takes to keep a glamour from digging in. So I had to watch as Father and Elain went from sobbing hysterics into nothing. I had to listen to them talk about how lucky it was for you to be taken to some made-up aunt’s house, how some winter wind had shattered our door. And I thought I’d gone mad—but every time I did, I would look at that painted part of the table, then at the claw marks farther down, and know it wasn’t in my head.”