The figure turned slightly toward me.
I cried out, and the figure screeched as I shoved away the door. “Alis.”
She gaped at me, a hand on her heart, her usual brown dress torn and dirty, her apron gone entirely. Not bloodied, though—nothing save for the slight limp that favored her right ankle as she rushed for me, her tree-bark skin bleaching birch white. “You can’t be here.” She took in my knife, the bow and quiver. “You were told to stay away.”
“Is he alive?”
My knees buckled at the onslaught of relief. “And Lucien?”
“Alive as well. But—.”
“Tell me what happened—tell me everything.” I kept an eye on the window, listening to the manor and grounds around us. Not a sound.
Alis grasped my arm and pulled me from the room. She didn’t speak as we hurried through the empty, too-quiet halls—all of them wrecked and bloodied, but … no bodies. Either they’d been hauled away, or—I didn’t let myself consider it as we entered the kitchen.
A fire had scorched the giant room, and it was little more than cinders and blackened stone. After sniffing about and listening for any signs of danger, Alis released me. “What are you doing here?”
“I had to come back. I thought something had gone wrong—I couldn’t stay away. I had to help.”
“He told you not to come back,” Alis snapped.
“Where is he?”
Alis covered her face with her long, bony hands, her fingertips grappling into the upper edge of her mask as if trying to tear it from her face. But the mask remained, and Alis sighed as she lowered her tree-bark hands. “She took him,” she said, and my blood went cold. “She took him to her court Under the Mountain.”
“Who?” But I already knew the answer.
“Amarantha,” Alis whispered, and glanced again around the kitchen as if fearful that speaking her name would summon her.
“Why? And who is she—what is she? Please, please just tell me—just give me the truth.”
Alis shuddered. “You want the truth, girl? Then here it is: she took him for the curse—because the seven times seven years were over, and he hadn’t shattered her curse. She’s summoned all the High Lords to her court this time—to make them watch her break him.”
“What is she—wh-what curse?” A curse—the curse she had put on this place. A curse that I had failed to even see.
“Amarantha is High Queen of this land. The High Queen of Prythian,” Alis breathed, her eyes wide with some memory of horror.
“But the seven High Lords rule Prythian—equally. There’s no High Queen.”
“That’s how it used to be—how it’s always been. Until a hundred years ago, when she appeared in these lands as an emissary from Hybern.” Alis grabbed a large satchel that she must have left by the door. It was already half full of what looked like clothes and supplies.
As she began sifting through the ruined kitchen, gathering up knives and any food that had survived, I wondered at the information the Suriel had given me—of a wicked faerie king who had spent centuries resenting the Treaty he’d been forced to sign, and who had sent out his deadliest commanders to infiltrate the other faerie kingdoms and courts to see if they felt as he did—to see if they might consider reclaiming the human lands for themselves. I leaned against one of the soot-stained walls.
“She went from court to court,” Alis went on, turning an apple over in her hands as she inspected it, deemed it good enough, and stuffed it into the bag, “charming the High Lords with talk of more trade between Hybern and Prythian, more communication, more sharing of assets. The Never-Fading Flower, they called her. And for fifty years, she lived here as a courtier bound to no court, making amends, she claimed, for her own actions and the actions of Hybern during the War.”
“She fought in the War against mortals?”
Alis paused her gathering. “Her story is legend among our kind—legend, and nightmare. She was the King of Hybern’s most lethal general—she fought on the front lines, slaughtering humans and any High Fae and faeries who dared defend them. But she had a younger sister, Clythia, who fought at her side, as vicious and wretched as she … until Clythia fell in love with a mortal warrior. Jurian.” Alis loosed a shaking sigh. “Jurian commanded mighty human armies, but Clythia still secretly sought him out, still loved him with an unrelenting madness. She was too blind to realize that Jurian was using her for information about Amarantha’s forces. Amarantha suspected, but could not persuade Clythia to leave him—and could not bring herself to kill him, not when it would cause her sister such pain.” Alis clicked her tongue and began opening the cabinets, scanning their ravaged insides. “Amarantha delighted in torture and killing, and yet she loved her sister enough to stay her hand.”
“What happened?” I breathed.
“Oh, Jurian betrayed Clythia. After months of stomaching being her lover, he got the information he needed, then tortured and butchered her, crucifying her with ash wood so she couldn’t move while he did it. He left the pieces of her for Amarantha to find. They say Amarantha’s wrath could have brought down the skies themselves, had her king not ordered her to stand down. But she and Jurian had their final confrontation later—and since then, Amarantha has hated humans with a rage you cannot imagine.” Alis found what looked to be a jar of preserves and added it to the satchel.
“After the two sides made the Treaty,” Alis said, now going through the drawers, “she butchered her own slaves, rather than free them.” I blanched. “But centuries later, the High Lords believed her when she told them that the death of her sister had changed her—especially when she opened trade lines between our two territories. The High Lords never knew that those same ships that brought over Hybernian goods also brought over her own personal forces. The King of Hybern didn’t know, either. But we all soon learned that, in those fifty years she was here, she had decided she wanted Prythian for her own, to begin amassing power and use our lands as a launching point to one day destroy your world once and for all, with or without her king’s blessing. So forty-nine years ago, she struck.
“She knew—knew that even with her personal army, she could never conquer the seven High Lords by numbers or power alone. But she was also cunning and cruel, and she waited until they absolutely trusted her, until they gathered at a ball in her honor, and that night she slipped a potion stolen from the King of Hybern’s unholy spell book into their wine. Once they drank, the High Lords were prone, their magic laid bare—and she stole their powers from where they originated inside their bodies—plucked them out as if she were taking an apple from its branch, leaving them with only the basest elements of their magic. Your Tamlin—what you saw of him here was a shade of what he used to be, the power that he used to command. And with the High Lords’ power so greatly decreased, Amarantha wrested control of Prythian from them in a matter of days. For forty-nine years, we have been her slaves. For forty-nine years, she has been biding her time, waiting for the right moment to break the Treaty and take your lands—and all human territories beyond it.”