My stomach turned over. “If you spot one,” Tamlin continued, “even if it looks harmless but makes you feel uncomfortable, pretend you don’t see it. Don’t talk to it. If it hurts you, I … the results wouldn’t be pleasant for it, or for me. You remember what happened with the naga.”
This was for my own safety, not his amusement. He didn’t want me hurt—he didn’t want to punish them for hurting me. Even if the naga hadn’t been part of his court, had it hurt him to kill them?
Realizing he waited for my answer, I nodded. “The … the blight is growing again?”
“So far, only in other territories. You’re safe here.”
“It’s not my safety I’m worried about.”
Tamlin’s eyes softened, but his lips became a thin line as he said, “It’ll be fine.”
“Is it possible that the surge will be temporary?” A fool’s hope.
Tamlin didn’t reply, which was answer enough. If the blight was becoming active again … I didn’t bother to offer my aid. I already knew he wouldn’t allow me to help with whatever this conflict was.
But I thought of that painting I’d given him, and what he’d said about it … and wished he would let me in anyway.
The next morning, I found a head in the garden.
A bleeding male High Fae head—spiked atop a fountain statue of a great heron flapping its wings. The stone was soaked in enough blood to suggest that the head had been fresh when someone had impaled it on the heron’s upraised bill.
I had been hauling my paints and easel out to the garden to paint one of the beds of irises when I stumbled across it. My tins and brushes had clattered to the gravel.
I didn’t know where I went as I stared at that still-screaming head, the brown eyes bulging, the teeth broken and bloody. No mask—so he wasn’t a part of the Spring Court. Anything else about him, I couldn’t discern.
His blood was so bright on the gray stone—his mouth open so vulgarly. I backed away a step—and slammed into something warm and hard.
I whirled, hands rising out of instinct, but Tamlin’s voice said, “It’s me,” and I stopped cold. Lucien stood beside him, pale and grim.
“Not Autumn Court,” Lucien said. “I don’t recognize him at all.”
Tamlin’s hands clamped on my shoulders as I turned back toward the head. “Neither do I.” A soft, vicious growl laced his words, but no claws pricked my skin as he kept gripping me. His hands tightened, though, while Lucien stepped into the small pool in which the statue stood—striding through the red water until he peered up at the anguished face.
“They branded him behind the ear with a sigil,” Lucien said, swearing. “A mountain with three stars—”
“Night Court,” Tamlin said too quietly.
The Night Court—the northernmost bit of Prythian, if I recalled the mural’s map correctly. A land of darkness and starlight. “Why … why would they do this?” I breathed.
Tamlin let go, coming to stand at my side as Lucien climbed the statue to remove the head. I looked toward a blossoming crab apple tree instead.
“The Night Court does what it wants,” Tamlin said. “They live by their own codes, their own corrupt morals.”
“They’re all sadistic killers,” Lucien said. I dared a glance at him; he was now perched on the heron’s stone wing. I looked away again. “They delight in torture of every kind—and would find this sort of stunt to be amusing.”
“Amusing, but not a message?” I scanned the garden.
“Oh, it’s a message,” Lucien said, and I cringed at the thick, wet sounds of flesh and bone on stone as he yanked the head off. I’d skinned enough animals, but this … Tamlin put another hand on my shoulder. “To get in and out of our defenses, to possibly commit the crime nearby, with the blood this fresh …” A splash as Lucien landed in the water again. “It’s exactly what the High Lord of the Night Court would find amusing. The bastard.”
I gauged the distance between the pool and the house. Sixty, maybe seventy feet. That’s how close they’d come to us. Tamlin brushed a thumb against my shoulder. “You’re still safe here. This was just their idea of a prank.”
“This isn’t connected to the blight?” I asked.
“Only in that they know the blight is again awakening—and want us to know they’re circling the Spring Court like vultures, should our wards fall further.” I must have looked as sick as I felt, because Tamlin added, “I won’t let that happen.”
I didn’t have the heart to say that their masks made it fairly clear that nothing could be done against the blight.
Lucien splashed out of the fountain, but I couldn’t look at him, not with the head he bore, the blood surely on his hands and clothes. “They’ll get what’s coming to them soon enough. Hopefully the blight will wreck them, too.” Tamlin growled at Lucien to take care of the head, and the gravel crunched as Lucien departed.
I crouched to pick up my paints and brushes, my hands shaking as I fumbled for a large brush. Tamlin knelt next to me, but his hands closed around mine, squeezing.
“You’re still safe,” he said again. The Suriel’s command echoed through my mind. Stay with the High Lord, human. You will be safe.
“It’s court posturing,” he said. “The Night Court is deadly, but this was only their lord’s idea of a joke. Attacking anyone here—attacking you—would cause more trouble than it’s worth for him. If the blight truly does harm these lands, and the Night Court enters our borders, we’ll be ready.”
My knees shook as I rose. Faerie politics, faerie courts … “Their idea of jokes must have been even more horrible when we were enslaved to you all.” They must have tortured us whenever they liked—must have done such unspeakable, awful things to their human pets.
A shadow flickered in his eyes. “Some days, I’m very glad I was still a child when my father sent his slaves south of the wall. What I witnessed then was bad enough.”
I didn’t want to imagine. Even now, I still hadn’t looked to see if any hints of those long-ago humans had been left behind. I did not think five centuries would be enough to cleanse the stain of the horrors that my people had endured. I should have let it go—should have, but couldn’t. “Do you remember if they were happy to leave?”