I tried not to look at my left arm as I scrubbed at the floors of the hallway. The ink—which, in the light, was actually a blue so dark it appeared black
—was a cloud upon my thoughts, and those were bleak enough even without knowing I’d sold myself to Rhysand. I couldn’t look at the eye on my palm. I had an absurd, creeping feeling that it watched me.
I dunked the large brush into the bucket the red-skinned guards had thrown into my arms. I could barely comprehend them through their mouths full of long yellow teeth, but when they gave me the brush and bucket and shoved me into a long hallway of white marble, I understood.
“If it’s not washed and shining by supper,” one of them had said, its teeth clicking as it grinned, “we’re to tie you to the spit and give you a few good turns over the fire.”
With that, they left. I had no idea when supper
was, and so I frantically began washing. My back already ached like fire, and I hadn’t been scrubbing the marble hall for more than thirty minutes. But the water they’d given me was filthy, and the more I scrubbed the floor, the dirtier it became. When I went to the door to ask for a bucket of clean water, I found it locked. There would be no help.
An impossible task—a task to torment me. The spit—perhaps that was the source of the constant screaming in the dungeons. Would a few turns on the spit melt all the flesh from me, or just burn me badly enough to force me into another bargain with Rhysand? I cursed as I scrubbed harder, the coarse bristles of the brush crinkling and whispering against the tiles. A rainbow of brown was left in their wake, and I growled as I dunked the brush again. Filthy water came out with it, dripping all over the floor.
A trail of brown muck grew with each sweep. Breathing quickly, I hurled the brush to the ground and covered my face with my wet hands. I lowered my left hand when I realized the eye was pressed
against my cheek.
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
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
whore, 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?”
I swallowed my curse and brought it out—but didn’t put it down.
“A valiant effort, but useless,” he said. True— so true, when he didn’t even need to take his hands
out of his pockets to grip Lucien’s mind.
“How is it that you have such power still and the others don’t? I thought she robbed all of you of your abilities.”
He lifted a groomed, dark brow. “Oh, she took my powers. This …” A caress of talons against my mind. I jerked back a step, slamming into the fireplace. The pressure on my mind vanished. “This is just the remnant. The scraps I get to play with. Your Tamlin has brute strength and shape-shifting; my arsenal is a far deadlier assortment.”
I knew he wasn’t bluffing—not when I’d felt those talons in my mind. “So you can’t shape-shift? It’s not some High Lord specialty?”
“Oh, all the High Lords can. Each of us has a beast roaming beneath our skin, roaring to get out. While your Tamlin prefers fur, I find wings and talons to be more entertaining.”
A lick of cold kissed down my spine. “Can you shift now, or did she take that, too?”
“So many questions from a little human.”
But the darkness that hovered around him began to writhe and twist and flare as he rose to his feet.
I blinked, and it was done.
I lifted the iron poker, just a little bit.
“Not a full shift, you see,” Rhysand said, clicking the black razor-sharp talons that had replaced his fingers. Below the knee, darkness stained his skin—but talons also gleamed in lieu of toes. “I don’t particularly like yielding wholly to my baser side.”
Indeed, it was still Rhysand’s face, his powerful male body, but flaring out behind him were massive black membranous wings—like a bat’s, like the Attor’s. He tucked them in neatly behind him, but the single claw at the apex of each peeked over his broad shoulders. Horrific, stunning—the face of a thousand nightmares and dreams. That again-useless part of me stirred at the sight, the way the candlelight shone through the wings, illuminating the veins, the way it bounced off his talons.
Rhysand rolled his neck, and it all vanished in a flash—the wings, the talons, the feet, leaving only the male behind, well-dressed and unruffled. “No attempts at flattery?”
I had made a very, very big mistake in offering my life to him.
But I said, “You have a high-enough opinion of yourself already. I doubt the flattery of a little human matters much to you.”
He let out a low laugh that slid along my bones, warming my blood. “I can’t decide whether I should consider you admirable or very stupid for being so bold with a High Lord.”
Only around him did I have trouble keeping my mouth shut, it seemed. So I dared to ask, “Do you know the answer to the riddle?”
He crossed his arms. “Cheating, are you?” “She never said I couldn’t ask for help.”
“Ah, but after she had you beaten to hell, she ordered us not to help you.” I waited. But he shook his head. “Even if I felt like helping you, I couldn’t. She gives the order, and we all bow to it.” He picked a fleck of dust off his black jacket. “It’s a good thing she likes me, isn’t it?”
I opened my mouth to press him—to beg him. If it meant instantaneous freedom—
“Don’t waste your breath,” he said. “I can’t tell
you—no one here can. If she ordered us all to stop breathing, we would have to obey that, too.” He frowned at me and snapped his fingers. The soot, the dirt, the ash vanished off my skin, leaving me as clean as if I’d bathed. “There. A gift—for having the balls to even ask.”
I gave him a flat stare, but he motioned to the hearth.
It was spotless—and my bucket was filled with lentils. The door swung open of its own accord, revealing the guards who’d dragged me here. Rhysand waved a lazy hand at them. “She accomplished her task. Take her back.”
They grabbed for me, but he bared his teeth in a smile that was anything but friendly—and they halted. “No more household chores, no more tasks,” he said, his voice an erotic caress. Their yellow eyes went glazed and dull, their sharp teeth gleaming as their mouths slackened. “Tell the others, too. Stay out of her cell, and don’t touch her. If you do, you’re to take your own daggers and gut yourselves. Understood?”
Dazed, numb nods, then they blinked and
straightened. I hid my trembling. Glamour, mind control—whatever it was he had done, it worked. They beckoned—but didn’t dare touch me.
Rhysand smiled at me. “You’re welcome,” he purred as I walked out.