An assembled crowd took up most of the space, some of them dancing to strange, off-kilter music, some milling about chatting—a party of sorts. I thought I spied some glittering masks among the attendees, but everything was a blur of sharp teeth and fine clothing. The Attor hurled me forward, and the world spun.
The cold marble floor was unyielding as I slammed into it, my bones groaning and barking. I pushed myself up, sparks dancing in my eyes, but stayed on the ground, kept low, as I beheld the dais before me. A few steps led onto the platform. I lifted my head higher.
There, lounging on a black throne, was Amarantha.
Though lovely, she wasn’t as devastatingly beautiful as I had imagined, wasn’t some goddess of darkness and spite. It made her all the more petrifying. Her red-gold hair was neatly braided and woven through her golden crown, the deep color enriching her snow-white skin, which, in turn, set off her ruby lips. But while her ebony eyes shone, there was … something that sucked at her beauty, some kind of permanent sneer to her features that made her allure seem contrived and cold. To paint her would have driven me to madness.
The highest commander of the King of Hybern. She’d slaughtered human armies centuries ago, had murdered her slaves rather than free them. And she’d captured all of Prythian in a matter of days.
Then I looked to the black rock throne beside her, and my arms buckled beneath me.
He was still wearing that golden mask, still wearing his warrior’s clothes, that baldric—even though there were no knives sheathed along it, not a single weapon anywhere on him. His eyes didn’t widen; his mouth didn’t tighten. No claws, no fangs. He just stared at me, unfeeling—unmoved. Unimpressed.
“What’s this?” Amarantha said, her voice lilting despite the adder’s smile she gave me. From her slender, creamy neck hung a long, thin chain—and from it dangled a single, age-worn bone the size of a finger. I didn’t want to consider whom it might have belonged to as I remained on the floor. If I shifted my arm, I could draw my dagger—
“Just a human thing I found downstairs,” the Attor hissed, and a forked tongue darted out between its razor-sharp teeth. It flapped its wings once, blasting foul-smelling air at me, and then neatly tucked them behind its skeletal body.
“Obviously,” Amarantha purred. I avoided meeting her eyes, focusing on Tamlin’s brown boots. He was ten feet from me—ten feet, and not saying a word, not even looking horrified or angry. “But why should I bother with her?”
The Attor chuckled, the sound like sizzling water on a griddle, and a taloned foot jabbed my side. “Tell Her Majesty why you were sneaking around the catacombs—why you came out of the old cave that leads to the Spring Court.”
Would it be better to kill the Attor, or to try to make it to Amarantha? The Attor kicked me again, and I winced as its claws bit into my ribs. “Tell Her Majesty, you human filth.”
I needed time—I needed to figure out my surroundings. If Tamlin was under some kind of spell, then I would have to worry about grabbing him. I eased to my feet, keeping my hands within casual reach of my daggers. I stared at Amarantha’s glittering golden gown rather than meet her eyes.
“I came to claim the one I love,” I said quietly. Perhaps the curse could still be broken. Again I looked at him, and the sight of those emerald eyes was a balm.
“Oh?” Amarantha said, leaning forward.
“I’ve come to claim Tamlin, High Lord of the Spring Court.”
A gasp rippled through the assembled court. But Amarantha tipped back her head and laughed—a raven’s caw.
The High Queen turned to Tamlin, and her lips pulled back in a wicked smile. “You certainly were busy all those years. Developed a taste for human beasts, did you?”
He said nothing, his face impassive. What had she done? He didn’t move—her curse had worked, then. I was too late. I’d failed him, damned him.
“But,” Amarantha said slowly. I could sense the Attor and the entire court looming behind me. “It makes me wonder—if only one human girl could be taken once she killed your sentinel …” Her eyes sparked. “Oh, you are delicious. You let me torture that innocent girl to keep this one safe? You lovely thing! You actually made a human worm love you. Marvelous.” She clapped her hands, and Tamlin merely looked away from her, the only reaction I’d seen from him.
Tortured. She’d tortured—
“Let him go,” I said, trying to keep my voice steady.
Amarantha laughed again. “Give me one reason why I shouldn’t destroy you where you stand, human.” Her teeth were so straight and white—almost glowing.
My blood pounded in my veins, but I kept my chin high as I said, “You tricked him—he is bound unfairly.” Tamlin had gone very, very still.
Amarantha clicked her tongue and looked at one of her slender white hands—at the ring on her index finger. A ring, I noticed as she lowered her hand again, set with what looked like … like a human eye encased in crystal. I could have sworn it swiveled inside. “You human beasts are so uncreative. We spent years teaching you poetry and fine speech, and that is all you can come up with? I should rip out your tongue for letting it go to waste.”
I clamped my teeth together.
“But I’m curious: What eloquence will pour from your lips when you behold what you should have been?” My brows narrowed as Amarantha pointed behind me, that hideous eye ring indeed looking with her, and I turned.
There, nailed high on the wall of the enormous cavern, was the mangled corpse of a young woman. Her skin was burned in places, her fingers were bent at odd angles, and garish red lines crisscrossed her naked body. I could hardly hear Amarantha over the roar in my ears.
“Perhaps I should have listened when she said she’d never seen Tamlin before,” Amarantha mused. “Or when she insisted she’d never killed a faerie, never hunted a day in her life. Though her screaming was delightful. I haven’t heard such lovely music in ages.” Her next words were directed at me. “I should thank you for giving Rhysand her name instead of yours.”
This was where they’d taken her, what they’d done to her after they burned her family alive in their house. This was what I’d done to her, by giving Rhysand her name to protect my family.
My insides twisted; it was a concentrated effort not to empty my stomach onto the stones.
The Attor’s talons dug into my shoulders as it shoved me around to face Amarantha, who was still giving me that snake’s smile. I had as good as killed Clare. I’d saved my own life and damned her. That rotting body on the wall should be mine. Mine.