I gulped down steadying gasps of air. There had to be a rational way to do this; there had to be some old wives’ trick. The spit—tied to a spit like a roast pig.
I grabbed the brush from where it had bounced away and scrubbed at the floor until my hands throbbed. It looked like someone had spilled mud all over the place. The dirt was actually turning into mud the harder I scrubbed it. I’d probably wail and beg for mercy when they rotated me on that spit. There had been red lines covering Clare’s naked body—what instrument of torture had they come from? My hands trembled, and I set down the brush. I could take down a giant worm, but washing a floor—that was the impossible task.
A door clicked open somewhere down the hall, and I shot to my feet. An auburn head peered at me. I sagged with relief. Lucien—
Not Lucien. The face that turned toward me was female—and unmasked.
She looked perhaps a bit older than Amarantha, but her porcelain skin was exquisitely colored, graced with the faintest blush of rose along her cheeks. Had the red hair not been indication enough, when her russet eyes met mine, I knew who she was.
I bowed my head to the Lady of the Autumn Court, and she inclined her chin slightly. I supposed that was honor enough. “For giving her your name in place of my son’s life,” she said, her voice as sweet as sun-warmed apples. She must have been in the crowd that day. She pointed at the bucket with a long, slender hand. “My debt is paid.” She disappeared through the door she’d opened, and I could have sworn I smelled roasting chestnuts and crackling fires in her wake.
It was only after the door shut that I realized I should have thanked her, and only after I looked in my bucket that I realized I’d been hiding my left arm behind my back.
I knelt beside the bucket and dipped my fingers into the water. They came out clean.
I shuddered, allowing myself a moment to slump over my knees before I dumped some of the water onto the floor and watched it wash away the muck.
To the chagrin of the guards, I had completed their impossible task. But the next day, they smiled at me as they shoved me into a massive, dark bedroom, lit only by a few candles, and pointed to the looming fireplace. “Servant spilled lentils in the ash,” one of the guards grunted, tossing me a wooden bucket. “Clean it up before the occupant returns, or he’ll peel off your skin in strips.”
A slammed door, the click of a lock, and I was alone.
Sorting lentils from ash and embers—ridiculous, wasteful, and—
I approached the darkened fireplace and cringed.
I cast a glance about the bedroom. No windows, no exits save the one I’d just been chucked through. The bed was enormous and neatly made, its black sheets of—of silk. There was nothing else in the room beyond basic furniture; not even discarded clothes or books or weapons. As if its occupant never slept here. I knelt before the fireplace and calmed my breathing.
I had keen eyes, I reminded myself. I could spot rabbits hiding in the underbrush and track most things that wanted to remain unseen. Spotting the lentils couldn’t be that hard. Sighing, I crawled farther into the fireplace and began.
I was wrong.
Two hours later, my eyes were burning and aching, and even though I combed through every inch of that fireplace, there were always more lentils, more and more that I’d somehow not spotted. The guards had never said when the owner of this room would return, and so every tick of the clock on the mantel became a death knell, every footstep outside the door causing me to reach for the iron poker leaning against the hearth wall. Amarantha had never said anything about not fighting back—never specified that I wasn’t allowed to defend myself. At least I’d go down swinging.
I picked through the ashes again and again. My hands were now black and stained, my clothes covered in soot. Surely there couldn’t be any more; surely—
The lock clicked, and I lunged for the poker as I shot to my feet, my back to the hearth and the iron rod hidden behind me.
Darkness entered the room, guttering the candles with a snow-kissed breeze. I gripped the poker harder, pressing against the stone of the fireplace, even as that darkness settled on the bed and took a familiar form.
“As wonderful as it is to see you, Feyre, darling,” Rhysand said, sprawled on the bed, his head propped up by a hand, “do I want to know why you’re digging through my fireplace?”
I bent my knees slightly, preparing to run, to duck, to do anything to get to the door that felt far, far away. “They said I had to clean out lentils from the ashes, or you’d rip off my skin.”
“Did they now.” A feline smile.
“Do I have you to thank for this idea?” I hissed. He wasn’t allowed to kill me, not with my bargain with Amarantha, but … there were other ways to hurt me.
“Oh, no,” he drawled. “No one’s learned of our little bargain yet—and you’ve managed to keep it quiet. Shame riding you a bit hard?”
I clenched my jaw and pointed to the fireplace with one hand, still keeping the poker tucked behind me. “Is this clean enough for you?”
“Why were there lentils in my fireplace to begin with?”
I gave him a flat look. “One of your mistress’s household chores, I suppose.”
“Hm,” he said, examining his nails. “Apparently she or her cronies think I’ll find some sport with you.”
My mouth dried up. “Or it’s a test for you,” I managed to get out. “You said you bet on me during my first task. She didn’t seem pleased about it.”
“And what could Amarantha possibly have to test me about?”
I didn’t balk from that violet stare. Amarantha’s w***e, Lucien had once called him. “You lied to her. About Clare. You knew very well what I looked like.”
Rhysand sat up in a fluid movement and braced his forearms on his thighs. Such grace contained in such a powerful form. I was slaughtering on the battlefield before you were even born, he’d once said to Lucien. I didn’t doubt it. “Amarantha plays her games,” he said simply, “and I play mine. It gets rather boring down here, day after day.”
“She let you out for Fire Night. And you somehow got out to put that head in the garden.”
“She asked me to put that head in the garden. And as for Fire Night …” He looked me up and down. “I had my reasons to be out then. Do not think, Feyre, that it did not cost me.” He smiled again, and it didn’t meet his eyes. “Are you going to put down that poker, or can I expect you to start swinging soon?”