I started. Tamlin had never said—never told me the Night Court was responsible for that.
“It’s a long story, and I don’t feel like getting into it, but let’s just say that when she stole our lands out from under us, Amarantha decided that she especially wanted to punish the son of her friend’s murderer—decided that she hated me enough for my father’s deeds that I was to suffer.”
I might have reached a hand toward him, might have offered my apologies—but every thought had dried up in my head. What Amarantha had done to him …
“So,” he said wearily, “here we are, with the fate of our immortal world in the hands of an illiterate human.” His laugh was unpleasant as he hung his head, cupping his forehead in a hand, and closed his eyes. “What a mess.”
Part of me searched for the words to wound him in his vulnerability, but the other half recalled all that he had said, all that he had done, how his head had snapped to the door before he’d kissed me. He’d known Amarantha was coming. Maybe he’d done it to make her jealous, but maybe …
If he hadn’t been kissing me, if he hadn’t shown up and interrupted us, I would have gone out into that throne room covered in smudged paint. And everyone—especially Amarantha—would have known what I’d been up to. It wouldn’t have taken much to figure out whom I’d been with, especially not once they saw the paint on Tamlin. I didn’t want to consider what the punishment might have been.
Regardless of his motives or his methods, Rhysand was keeping me alive. And had done so even before I set foot Under the Mountain.
“I’ve told you too much,” he said as he got to his feet. “Perhaps I should have drugged you first. If you were clever, you’d find a way to use this against me. And if you had any stomach for cruelty, you’d go to Amarantha and tell her the truth about her whore. Perhaps she’d give you Tamlin for it.” He slid his hands into the pockets of his black pants, but even as he faded into shadow, there was something in the curve of his shoulders that made me speak.
“When you healed my arm … You didn’t need to bargain with me. You could have demanded every single week of the year.” My brows knit together as he turned, already half-consumed by the dark. “Every single week, and I would have said yes.” It wasn’t entirely a question, but I needed the answer.
A half smile appeared on his sensuous lips. “I know,” he said, and vanished.
For my final task, I was given my old tunic and pants—stained and torn and reeking—but despite my stench, I kept my chin high as I was escorted to the throne room.
The doors were flung open, and the silence of the room assaulted me. I waited for the jeers and shouts, waited to see gold flash as the onlookers placed their bets, but this time the faeries just stared at me, the masked ones especially intently.
Their world rested on my shoulders, Rhys had said. But I didn’t think it was worry alone that was spread across their features. I had to swallow hard as a few of them touched their fingers to their lips, then extended their hands to me—a gesture for the fallen, a farewell to the honored dead. There was nothing malicious about it. Most of these faeries belonged to the courts of the High Lords—had belonged to those courts long before Amarantha seized their lands, their lives. And if Tamlin and Rhysand were playing games to keep us alive …
I strode up the path they’d cleared—straight for Amarantha. The queen smiled when I stopped in front of her throne. Tamlin was in his usual place beside her, but I wouldn’t look at him—not yet.
“Two trials lie behind you,” Amarantha said, picking at a fleck of dust on her blood-red gown. Her black hair shone, a gleaming darkness that threatened to swallow up her golden crown. “And only one more awaits. I wonder if it will be worse to fail now—when you are so close.” She gave me a pout, and we both awaited the laughter of the faeries.
But only a few laughs hissed from the red-skinned guards. Everyone else remained silent. Even Lucien’s miserable brothers. Even Rhysand, wherever he was in the crowd.
I blinked to clear my burning eyes. Perhaps, like Rhysand’s, their oaths of allegiance and betting on my life and nastiness had been a show. And perhaps now—now that the end was imminent—they, too, would face my potential death with whatever dignity they had left.
Amarantha glared at them, but when her gaze fell upon me, she smiled broadly, sweetly. “Any words to say before you die?”
I came up with a plethora of curses, but I instead looked at Tamlin. He didn’t react—his features were like stone. I wished that I could glimpse his face—if only for a moment. But all I needed to see were those green eyes.
“I love you,” I said. “No matter what she says about it, no matter if it’s only with my insignificant human heart. Even when they burn my body, I’ll love you.” My lips trembled, and my vision clouded before several warm tears slipped down my chilled face. I didn’t wipe them away.
He didn’t react—he didn’t even grip the arms of his throne. I supposed that was his way of enduring it, even if it made my chest cave in. Even if his silence killed me.
Amarantha said sweetly, “You’ll be lucky, my darling, if we even have enough left of you to burn.”
I stared at her long and hard. But her words were not met with jeers or smiles or applause from the crowd. Only silence.
It was a gift that gave me courage, that made me bunch my fists, that made me embrace the tattoo on my arm. I had beaten her until now, fairly or not, and I would not feel alone when I died. I would not die alone. It was all I could ask for.
Amarantha propped her chin on a hand. “You never figured out my riddle, did you?” I didn’t respond, and she smiled. “Pity. The answer is so lovely.”
“Get it over with,” I growled.
Amarantha looked at Tamlin. “No final words to her?” she said, quirking an eyebrow. When he didn’t respond, she grinned at me. “Very well, then.” She clapped her hands twice.
A door swung open, and three figures—two male and one female—with brown sacks tied over their heads were dragged in by the guards. Their concealed faces turned this way and that as they tried to discern the whispers that rippled across the throne room. My knees bent slightly as they approached.
With sharp jabs and blunt shoves, the red-skinned guards forced the three faeries to their knees at the foot of the dais, but facing me. Their bodies and clothes revealed nothing of who they were.