Brannagh and Dagdan looked like they’d just found second breakfast waiting for them.
Jurian had his sword out, the two young women and one young man gaping between him and the others. Then at us, their eyes widening further as they noted Lucien’s cruel beauty.
They dropped to their knees. “Masters and Mistresses,” they beseeched us, their silver jewelry glinting in the dappled sunlight through the leaves. “You have found us on our journey.”
The two royals smiled so broadly I could see all of their too-white teeth.
Jurian, for once, seemed torn before he snapped, “What are you doing here?”
The dark-haired girl at the front was lovely, her honey-gold skin flushed as she lifted her head. “We have come to dwell in the immortal lands; we have come as tribute.”
Jurian cut cold, hard eyes to Lucien. “Is this true?”
Lucien stared him down. “We accept no tribute from the human lands.
Least of all children.”
Never mind that the three of them appeared only a few years younger than myself.
“Why don’t you come through,” Brannagh cooed, “and we can … enjoy ourselves.” She was indeed sizing up the brown-haired young man and the other girl, her hair a ruddy brown, face sharp but interesting. From the way Dagdan was leering at the beautiful girl in front, I knew he’d silently made his claim already.
I shoved in front of them and said to the three mortals, “Get out. Go back to your villages, back to your families. You cross this wall, and you will die.”
They balked, rising to their feet, faces taut with fear—and awe. “We have come to live in peace.”
“There is no such thing here. There is only death for your kind.”
Their eyes slid to the immortals behind me. The dark-haired girl blushed at Dagdan’s intent stare, seeing the High Fae beauty and none of the predator.
So I struck.
The wall was a screeching, terrible vise, crushing my magic, battering my head.
But I speared my power through that gap, and slammed into their minds. Too hard. The young man flinched a bit.
So soft—defenseless. Their minds yielded like butter melting on my tongue.
I beheld pieces of their lives like shards in a broken mirror, flashing every which way: the dark-haired girl was rich, educated, headstrong—had wanted to escape an arranged marriage and believed Prythian was a better option. The ruddy-haired girl had known nothing but poverty and her father’s fists, which had turned more violent after they’d ended her mother’s life. The young man had sold himself on the streets of a large village until the Children had come one day and offered him something better.
I worked quickly. Neatly.
I was finished before three heartbeats had passed, before Brannagh had even drawn breath to say, “There is no death here. Only pleasure, if you are willing.”
Even if they weren’t willing, I wanted to add. But the three of them now blinked—balking.
Beholding us for what we were: deadly, merciless. The truth behind the spun stories.
“We—perhaps have … made a mistake,” their leader said, retreating a step.
“Or perhaps this was fate,” Brannagh countered with a snake’s smile.
They kept backing away. Kept seeing the histories I’d planted into their minds—that we were here to hurt and kill them, that we had done so with all their friends, that we’d use and discard them. I showed them the naga, the Bogge, the Middengard Wyrm; I showed them Clare and the golden-haired queen, skewered on that lamppost. The memories I gave them became stories they had ignored—but now understood with us before them.
“Come here,” Dagdan ordered.
The words were kindling to their fear. The three of them turned, heavy pale robes twisting with them, and bolted for the trees.
Brannagh tensed, as if she’d charge through the wall after them, but I gripped her arm and hissed, “If you pursue them, then you and I will have a problem.”
In emphasis, I dragged mental talons down her own shield. The princess snarled at me.
But the humans were already gone.
I prayed they’d listen to the other command I’d woven into their minds: to get on a boat, get as many friends as they could, and flee for the continent. To return here only when the war was over, and to warn as many humans as possible to get out before it was too late.
The Hybern royals growled their displeasure, but I ignored it as I took up a spot against a tree and settled in to wait, not trusting them to stay on this side of the border.
The royals resumed their work, stalking up and down the wall. A moment later, a male body came up beside mine.
Not Lucien, I realized with a jolt, but did not so much as flinch. Jurian’s eyes were on the place where the humans had been. “Thank you,” he said, his voice rough.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I replied, well aware that Lucien carefully watched from the shade of a nearby oak.
Jurian gave me a knowing smirk and sauntered after Dagdan.
They took all day.
Whatever it was they were inspecting, whatever they were hunting for, the royals didn’t inform us.
And after the confrontation that morning, I knew pushing them into revealing it wouldn’t happen. I’d used up my allotted tolerance for the day.
So we spent another night in the woods, which was precisely how I wound up sitting across the fire from Jurian after the twins had crawled into their tent and the sentries had taken up their watch positions. Lucien had gone to the stream to get more water, and I watched the flame dance amongst the logs, feeling it echo inside myself.
Spearing my power through the wall had left me with a lingering, pounding headache all day, more than a bit dizzy. I had no doubt sleep would
claim me fast and hard, but the fire was too warm and the spring night too brisk to willingly breach that long gap of darkness between the flame and my tent.
“What happens to the ones who do make it through the wall?” Jurian asked, the hard panes of his face cast in flickering relief by the fire.
I ground the heel of my boot into the grass. “I don’t know. They never came back once they went over. But while Amarantha ruled, creatures prowled these woods, so … I don’t think it ended well. I’ve never encountered a mention of them being at any court.”
“Five hundred years ago, they’d have been flogged for that nonsense,” Jurian said. “We were their slaves and whores and laborers for millennia— men and women fought and died so we’d never have to serve them again. Yet there they are, in those costumes, unaware of the danger, the history.”
“Careful, or you might not sound like Hybern’s faithful pet.”
A low, hateful laugh. “That’s what you think I am, isn’t it. His dog.” “What’s the end goal, then?”
“I have unfinished business.” “Miryam is dead.”
That madness danced again, replacing the rare lucidity. “Everything I did during the War, it was for Miryam and me. For our people to survive and one day be free. And she left me for that pretty-faced prince the moment I put my people before her.”
“I heard she left you because you became so focused on wringing information from Clythia that you lost sight of the real conflict.”
“Miryam told me to go ahead and fuck her for information. Told me to seduce Clythia until she’d sold out all of Hybern and the Loyalists. She had no qualms with that. None.”
“So all of this is to get Miryam back?”
He stretched his long legs before him, crossing one ankle over the other. “It’s to draw her out of her little nest with that winged prick and make her regret it.”
“You get a second shot at life and that’s what you wish to do? Revenge?” Jurian smiled slowly. “Isn’t that what you’re doing?”
Months of working with Rhys had me remembering to furrow my brow in confusion. “Against Rhys, I would one day like it.”
“That’s what they all say, when they pretend he’s a sadistic murderer. You forget I knew him in the War. You forget he risked his legion to save Miryam
from our enemy’s fort. That’s how Amarantha captured him, you know. Rhys knew it was a trap—for Prince Drakon. So Rhys went against orders, and marched in his whole legion to get Miryam out. For his friend, for my lover— and for that bastard Drakon’s sake. Rhys sacrificed his legion in the process, got all of them captured and tortured afterward. Yet everyone insists Rhysand is soulless, wicked. But the male I knew was the most decent of them all. Better than that prick-prince. You don’t lose that quality, no matter the centuries, and Rhys was too smart to do anything but have the vilification of his character be a calculated move. And yet here you are—his mate. The most powerful High Lord in the world lost his mate, and has not yet come to claim her, even when she is defenseless in the woods.” Jurian chuckled. “Perhaps that’s because Rhysand has not lost you at all. But rather unleashed you upon us.”
I had never heard that story, but it seemed so like my mate that I knew the flames between us now smoldered in my eyes as I said, “You love to hear yourself talk, don’t you.”
“Hybern will kill all of you,” was all Jurian replied.
Jurian wasn’t wrong.
Lucien woke me the next morning with a hand over my mouth, warning gleaming in his russet eye. I smelled it a moment later: the coppery tang of blood.
We shoved into our clothes and boots, and I did a quick inventory of the weapons we’d squeezed into the tent with us. I had three daggers. Lucien had two, as well as an elegant short sword. Better than nothing, but not much.
A glance from him communicated our plan well enough: play casual until we assessed the situation.
I had a heartbeat to realize that this was perhaps the first time he and I had worked in tandem. Hunting had never been a joint effort, and Under the Mountain had been one of us looking out for the other—never a team. A unit.
Lucien slid from the tent, limbs loose and ready to shift into a defensive position. He’d been trained, he once told me—at the Autumn Court and at this one. Like Rhys, he usually opted for words to win his battles, but I’d seen him and Tamlin in the practice ring. He knew how to handle a weapon. How to kill, if need be.
I pushed past him, devouring the details of my surroundings as if I were a
starving man at a feast.
The forest was the same. Jurian was crouched before the fire, stirring the embers back to alertness, his face a hard, brooding mask. But the sentries— they were pale as Lucien stalked to them. I followed their shifting attention to the trees behind Jurian.
No sign of the royals. The blood—
A coppery tang, yes. But laced with earth and marrow and—rot. Mortality. I stormed for the trees and dense brush.
“You’re too late,” Jurian said as I passed him, still poking the embers. “They finished two hours ago.”
Lucien was on my heels as I shoved into the brambles, thorns tearing at my hands.
The Hybern royals hadn’t bothered to clean up their mess.
From what was left of the three bodies, their shredded pale robes like fallen ashes through the small clearing, Dagdan and Brannagh must have shut out their screams with some sort of shield.
Lucien swore. “They went through the wall last night. To hunt them down.”
Even with hours separating them, the royals were Fae—swift, immortal. The three Children of the Blessed would have tired after running, would have camped somewhere.
Blood was already drying on the grass, on the trunks of the surrounding trees.
Hybern’s brand of torture wasn’t very creative: Clare, the golden queen, and these three … A similar mutilating and torment.
I unfastened my cloak and carefully laid it over the biggest remains of them I could find: the torso of the young man, clawed up and bloodless. His face was still etched in pain.
Flame heated at my fingertips, begging me to burn them, to give them at least that sort of burial. But— “Do you think it was for sport, or to send us a message?”
Lucien laid his own cloak across the remains of the two young women. His face was as serious as I’d ever seen it. “I think they aren’t accustomed to being denied. I’d call this an immortal temper tantrum.”
I closed my eyes, trying to calm my roiling stomach.
“You aren’t to blame,” he added. “They could have killed them out in the
mortal lands, but they brought them here. To make a statement about their power.”
He was right. The Children of the Blessed would have been dead even if I hadn’t interfered. “They’re threatened,” I mused. “And proud to a fault.” I toed the blood-soaked grass. “Do we bury them?”
Lucien considered. “It sends a message—that we’re willing to clean up their messes.”
I surveyed the clearing again. Considered everything at stake. “Then we send another sort of message.”