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Chapter no 11

These Hollow Vows (These Hollow Vows, 1)

“LADY ABRIELLA KINCAID OF FAIRSCAPE,” the steward calls from the doors of the throne room. “Her Majesty, Queen Arya of the Seelie Court, and His Royal Highness, Prince Ronan, will see you now.”

I throw a glance over my shoulder at my maids. I need their confidence. They give me the smiles I’m looking for, and I take a fortifying breath, lift my soft white skirts, and follow the steward forward.

The queen’s gray-and-yellow-clad guards line both sides of the path from the doors to the dais, where she sits on her throne in a yellow gown that

sparkles in the sunlight. The jeweled golden crown atop her head looks heavy enough to break a neck, but she keeps her head high. Sebastian

stands beside her, turned away as he speaks with the armed sentry nearest him. He looks nothing short of regal in his uniform of steely gray, a velvet yellow sash hanging across his body.

The space alone is intimidating—too big for so few people, too polished for a girl like me—and each step forward is an effort. But I realize that’s the point. Any girl who doesn’t feel worthy upon entering this room has no business becoming the Seelie princess.

When I reach the foot of the dais, I curtsy deeply. I wish Sebastian would look at me. I need some reassurance—any at all—that he’s going to make

sure I can stay, that it’s going to be okay. But he’s wrapped up in his discussion with his sentry. “Your Majesty,” I say, standing. “Thank you for seeing me this afternoon.”

As I speak, Sebastian whips around and blinks at me. He must not have been paying attention when they announced my name, because he looks

surprised. Slowly, his gaze travels over me, and I feel my skin heat with each detail he observes. My hair curled and pinned neater than he’s ever seen it, my eyes lined with kohl, my lips stained a dark crimson. His gaze

sweeps across my bare shoulders and continues to the swell of décolletage above the dress’s sweetheart neckline, over the bodice covered in glittering silver and gold crystals. My cheeks warm, and when his lips part and he draws in a ragged breath, my entire body warms.

My maids chose well when making their selections. With just enough

white, we can make you look like a bride without wearing a bridal gown. I lift my chin, fighting the instinct to revel in the appreciation in those eyes. A week earlier, I could only dream of Sebastian looking at me like this. It’s a struggle to remember that everything has changed. He’s not the sweet,

struggling apprentice next door. And I’m not an innocent girl looking to become faerie royalty.

“Tell me your name again, girl,” the queen says.

I tear my gaze away from her son to look at the queen. “Abriella

Kincaid,” I answer. I don’t use the title lady like her steward did. I’m no lady, and to pretend otherwise feels like an insult to a female I can’t risk upsetting.

“Abriella. What a lovely name. Congratulations on making it this far. As you’ve seen, countless women have tried and were sent away. More will be sent home today. Tell me, why do you wish to marry my son?”

I open my mouth to answer, then snap it shut again. I was prepared for this question, of course, but in this moment my planned response strikes me as shallow. Sebastian seems to hold his breath as he waits for me to answer. I meet his eyes and imagine an alternate reality where Sebastian never had a secret identity. One where he became a mage and took me to meet his family.

“I can’t claim to know your son well,” I say. It’s in line with the part I’m playing, but it’s also true. “But I’ve met many males, young and old, powerful and powerless.” My voice shakes a bit. “And yet Se—Prince

Ronan is the only one who’s ever made me feel special from his first smile and safe from his nearness alone.”

The queen chuckles and looks to her son. “She sounds quite besotted

with you.” When she looks back to me, she rolls her eyes in an expression that is so young and so human it’s almost difficult to believe that she’s an immortal ruler. “All the girls feel that way, my dear. Don’t feel too special.”

Sebastian shifts uncomfortably, but he doesn’t correct her. How could he if he doesn’t want her to know we already have a relationship?

She arches a brow at her son. “Your thoughts, darling?”

Sebastian looks me over again before clearing his throat. “I’ve had the opportunity to speak with Abriella, and I wish her to stay. I . . . enjoy her company.”

The queen smirks at her son as if to say This one? Really? “You would risk marrying a girl who may not be capable of bearing you children?”

“Mother,” he says softly, warning in his tone.

“I won’t apologize for noticing that she is quite thin.” She taps her nails on the arm of her throne as she studies me. When she lifts her eyes to mine, I’m struck by the emptiness I find there. The sadness. Perhaps immortality does that to a person, but this seems like something more. “My son’s bride will be expected to bear him children. Do you even menstruate regularly?”

I blanch. “Excuse me?”

“Your cycle? Do you have it? Or is it irregular due to”—she waves a hand to indicate my figure—“malnutrition?”

I open my mouth—to say what I’m not sure—but Sebastian speaks first. “I’m sure Lady Abriella isn’t used to speaking freely of such things,

Mother. She comes from a part of Elora where women are expected to keep such information private.”

I’m not sure which part of Elora doesn’t expect that. Girls are taught to dread their cycles, to never speak of them and hide every evidence of their existence. With all the trouble it brings—and risk of pregnancy high on that list when there’s never enough food—menstruation is considered a curse more than a sign of good health.

“She forfeited any right to privacy when she decided she wanted to be your bride.”

“I do,” I blurt. “I mean, my monthly cycle is . . . It’s normal.” My cheeks are on fire. It looks like I got something right about the Seelie Court. This whole tradition is built entirely around human fertility. As if, as a woman, my only worth lies in my ability to give them offspring. It’s a struggle to

smile through this confirmation, but I do my best.

“Truly?” the queen asks. “If I ask my healer to examine you and he tells me you’ve lied—”

“Please, Mother,” Sebastian says. “I’m sure that any gaps in Lady Abriella’s nutrition can be corrected during her stay at the palace.”

The queen brushes her fingers against her son’s wrist but keeps her gaze narrowed on me. “My son’s tender heart will make his future bride so very lucky. He gets it from his father. My Castan was full of compassion and goodness. Beloved by our people.” She nods at me. “You may stay for now, Abriella. But see that you take full advantage of the meals while you’re

here, yes?” She smirks. “I will recommend that my healer visit you for a full physical in two weeks’ time. Assuming that my son hasn’t tired of you by then, of course.”

I nod and curtsy. “Of course, Your Majesty.” I don’t dare look at Sebastian before I allow the queen’s steward to escort me from the room. I’m too afraid the relief on my face will make the queen question my true intentions.

 

 

After locking my bedroom door, I pull up my sleeve and snap a thread of my goblin bracelet.

When Bakken appears, he’s squinty-eyed and scowling.

I allowed my maids to ready me for bed, then waited for them to leave for the night, but every moment since the queen agreed to let me stay, I’ve been itching to start my search. At dinner, I remembered my goblin bracelet and realized that I might not have to search for the mirror.

Bakken blinks a few times, but his scowl turns to a smile when he takes me in. “Fire Girl, where is my payment?”

I pull out a knife I stole from my table setting tonight. I use it to slice off a lock of hair. Bakken yanks it from my grasp before I can offer it to him, quickly tucking it into the pouch at his waist. “Next time you call me, don’t do it from inside this palace. I’m not welcome here.”

“I need the Mirror of Discovery.” I turn to my bed and pull the fake from beneath my mattress. “It looks like this, and the queen is said to have stolen it from the Unseelie during the war.”

Bakken lifts his chin. “The queen keeps the mirror in the sunroom just off her bedchambers.”

The night I searched the castle for the portal, I was never able to search her chambers. They were too brightly lit and well guarded.

Bakken holds the hair to his nose and inhales deeply, like an addict taking a hit.

I open my mouth to ask how I can get past her guards, but he snaps his fingers and disappears as suddenly as he appeared. I have to bite my fist to hold back a howl of frustration.

What a waste of a thread. What a waste of hair.

I unlock my door and crack it to peek down the hall. The guest wing of the castle is quiet but not dark. The corridors are dimly lit by soft orbs of light floating between each room. Quietly I leave my room and slowly close the door behind me.

I met the other eleven girls at dinner, but there’s no sign of them now as I slip past their rooms. Is Sebastian inside with one of them? I tamp down the jealous thought and focus on my mission.

I might need to turn myself to shadow to get through certain parts of the palace, but I’ll wait as long as I can. I’m not in full control of my power yet, and a girl suddenly appearing from shadow is much more conspicuous than one of Sebastian’s potential brides wandering around the palace in the middle of the night.

The guest rooms are in their own wing, and by the time I reach the

entrance to the wing with the royal chambers, the bones in my feet ache from the cold stones. I didn’t think to put on slippers before I left my room.

Sebastian’s room is to the left at the top of the stairs, but I turn right, toward the queen’s chambers, only to scramble back a few steps at the

sunlight filling her hall. No, not sunlight. The window at the end of the hall is still dark with night. It’s as if these walls have been enchanted to glow like the sun. Queen Arya’s guards stand watch every six feet down the hall. Even if I knew how to control my shadows long enough to sneak past these sentries, it wouldn’t help. What good is becoming darkness where there is only light?

“Brie?” I turn to see Sebastian. His eyes flick down to my white nightgown and bare feet before he lifts his chin and trains his gaze on my face, ever the gentleman. “Are you looking for something?”

Yes. I’m looking for a magic mirror your mother had stolen from the

Unseelie Court. Would you fetch it for me? If only it could be that simple.

I sigh and deliver my preplanned lie. “I can’t sleep. I was hoping to find a hot cup of tea in the kitchen, but”—I look around and shrug—“I’m afraid I’ve gotten lost.”

I expect him to question this. Although I’ve not officially been shown the whole castle, I’ve been shown enough to know that the kitchen isn’t in this direction. Or on this floor.

But Sebastian’s too trusting for his own good. He gives me a sympathetic smile. “I can’t sleep either. Come with me and we’ll have some tea

together.”

We don’t exchange a word on the way to the kitchen. Sebastian barely spares me a glance as he leads me into the large, empty space and puts a kettle on the stove. Just two nights earlier I’d fallen through the wall into this kitchen, and these gleaming countertops were covered in enough food to feed hundreds while servants bustled about in every direction. Tonight, there’s no one here but us.

“Has something upset you?” I ask, leaning against the counter.

Sebastian pours steaming liquid from the stove into two mugs. He frowns as he passes me a mug. “Why do you ask that?”

“You’ve barely spoken to me since we headed down here, and I was surprised not to see you at dinner.”

“I’m not upset. I’m preoccupied. I apologize for that.” He blows out a breath. “I’ve just returned from a meeting with my contacts in the Unseelie Court.” He slowly lifts his eyes to mine, and I see the torment there. “They still haven’t found any sign of Jas.”

I can’t even register disappointment as panic has my lungs in a vice-grip. “You have spies in King Mordeus’s court?” Does he know I was there yesterday? Does he know about the deal I made with the king? If Sebastian learns of our bargain through spies, will the king renege on his promises?

Sebastian shrugs, but his answer is clear. Yes, he has spies in the Unseelie Court. Of course he has spies. “I don’t understand what he wants with her,” he mutters.

There’s my answer. Sebastian remains ignorant of my bargain with his enemy court. “None of your sources have any idea either?”

“Nothing helpful.” He hesitates a beat. “Has he tried to contact you?”

“He hasn’t. Do you think you could put me in touch with him?” It’s what I would ask if my lie were true. “Maybe he’ll tell me something about

where he’s keeping Jas. Or maybe he’ll be interested in some sort of—” “No.” Sebastian’s nostrils flare. “Absolutely not. Even if I thought he

could be trusted—and I can’t stress enough that he cannot—there’s nothing he would ask of you that I would let you give.” He curses and drags a hand through his hair. “This is such a mess.”

He really is a wreck about not being able to find Jas. I may still be reluctant to trust Sebastian again, but he’s doing everything he can to help

my sister. It’s impossible to stay angry with him. “Thank you,” I say. He deserves at least that. “Thank you for trying to find her.”

He opens his mouth, and I can tell he wants to say something, but he snaps it shut again and stares at his tea. “How was dinner?”

I bite back a smile. “It was definitely . . . interesting. Gods above and below, Bash, I think those women would skin me alive if they thought it would get them closer to you.” I shake my head. Eleven beautiful, bright-eyed, healthy women, each more excited to be Sebastian’s bride than the last. “You’re really going to marry a stranger?”

His throat bobs as he swallows. “I hope whoever I marry isn’t a stranger when the time comes.”

“You’re evading.” I try to keep my tone light, but I see the weariness in his eyes.

He takes a sip of his tea. “It’s tradition.”

“What is? Choosing a bride like you’d choose a breeding mare?” And there goes my attempt to make nice.

“As awful as it might seem from your point of view, it is important that we continue the royal bloodline. I have no siblings, and my grandparents and great-grandparents were killed in the Great Fae War. My mother and I are the only royal Seelie blood remaining. Though some of my ancestors

had the luxury of marrying for love and hoping to be blessed with children over time, I don’t. Being born into privilege comes with responsibilities.” I bite my lip. I hate this conversation. I hate it because I can’t hide my feelings on this, and I hate that I have feelings on the subject at all. “If you

had the choice, would you prefer to marry a fae female—perhaps a member of the nobility?”

Sebastian puts his mug down and leans against the counter, folding his arms. “Honestly, I would prefer not to be thinking of marriage at all. I’m only twenty-one, which is considered very young among my kind. In an

ideal world, I wouldn’t be thinking of marriage for another decade or more, but my world isn’t ideal. It’s broken. And I find myself in the intimidating and humbling position of fixing it. Part of me would rather be back in Fairscape acting as a mage’s apprentice, but I take my duty to my people

seriously. No matter how much I want to, I don’t get to think of marriage and bonding ceremonies with the same romantic notions my mother did when she was my age.”

“Bonding? What’s romantic about controlling someone?”

He tips his head to the side, and his brow furrows. “Why do you think it’s about control?”

“Isn’t bonding the way you imprison your slaves?”

He shakes his head. “None of my servants have been bonded to me. And while some fae have used the bond to lock humans into lifetimes of

servitude, it was never intended to be used like that. Faeries have incorporated the bonding ceremony into their weddings since the beginning of time. Its origins are pure. Life-bonded fae have a sense of each other at

all times. It’s a heightened empathy that allows you to know when your partner is in danger or hurting. Bonded fae spouses are conscious of each other’s needs always. They feel each other’s pain and happiness like it’s their own. It’s quite beautiful, really.”

“But that’s not what happens when you’re bonded to a human.”

He rocks back on his heels and sighs. “The first faeries to bond with humans didn’t know that it would be different. But you’re right. It is.

Humans aren’t magical, so the bond is more like a one-way street. The human partner doesn’t have the awareness of the other side of the bond the way a faerie would.”

“And it gives faeries a degree of control over their humans,” I say, unwilling to let him keep that piece unspoken. I shake my head. “I can’t imagine why anyone would allow that.”

“They can’t control them the way you think. The human still has free

will, but faeries who don’t respect the bond have certainly used it to compel their humans.”

“That sounds like control to me.”

“But it’s not.” He rubs the back of his neck, thinking. “Imagine that I want you to sleep. If we were bonded, I couldn’t force you to, but I could mentally do the equivalent of turning off the lights and wrapping you in a warm blanket. You still get to choose whether or not to close your eyes.”

“What if your bride-to-be doesn’t want the bond?”

He gives me a sad smile and holds my gaze as he touches my cheek. My skin tingles beneath his callused fingertips. “I think I’m looking at the only woman under this roof who would refuse to be bonded with me.”

Does he want me to apologize for that? Does he expect me to change the way I feel about everything just because he’s not who he pretended to be?

But he doesn’t seem to need an answer, because he goes on. “It can still be beautiful—even between a faerie and a human. It’s about protecting

someone who’s a piece of you. It’s a gift that makes you the best partner possible by heightening your awareness of their . . . needs.”

His gaze dips to the neckline of my nightgown, and my cheeks heat. “It means a lot to you,” I say.

“It does. And after my bride has children, she will drink the Potion of Life, and the bond will work between us as it does between any two faeries.”

“The Potion of Life?”

“That’s the special magic we use to transform humans into fae. They become immortal. Surely you’ve heard of it.”

I have, but I figured it was just another legend to convince humans to put their trust in capitalizing faeries. “What if your bride doesn’t want to be a faerie?”

“Then I suppose I’ll have to decide if I truly want her as my bride. It would be no easy thing to watch and feel my life-bonded partner die, knowing that I have centuries of life ahead of me.” He straightens and backs away. “I’ll take you to bed. You have an early start tomorrow.”

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