Chapter no 16

These Hollow Vows (These Hollow Vows, 1)

“WHO TAUGHT YOU TO HOLD a sword like that?” Jalek asks with a sneer.

“No one.” No matter how many times I adjust my grip on the bamboo training stick, I can’t mirror the way the Seelie rebel grasps his sword.

After three days of waiting around the Golden Palace for Mordeus’s goblin, Pretha insisted that I leave with her today. The goblin, she promised, would find me when he wanted to and not a moment sooner.

When I arrived at Finn’s house this morning, I was given a change of

clothes—pants for once, thank the gods—brought to a training room in the basement, and told that I was going to learn how to physically defend myself. “I have never held a sword before today.”

Jalek’s face is grim as he surveys me. “We should have started with her physical training on her first day here,” he says, speaking to Pretha without taking his eyes off me. “Look at those arms. They’re little more than twigs. She couldn’t defend herself against a sprite.”

“I can hear you,” I snap.

“If she masters her power, she won’t need swords,” Pretha says, folding her arms across her chest.

“I have no intention of getting into a sword fight anyway,” I mutter.

Jalek studies my stance. “Shoulders back, chin up. Feet shoulder-width apart.” He taps my training stick with his sword, and I wobble to the side. “Keep your knees soft.”


We all spin toward the sound of her gasped name to see Finn and Tynan on the stairs. Finn’s face is pale and contorted with pain. He’s slouched

sideways as Tynan holds him up with one arm.

Jalek drops his sword, and he and Pretha rush toward their prince, helping Tynan get him to a chair in the corner of the room.

“I found him collapsed at the top of the stairs,” Tynan says.

Finn is grasping his side, and his lids flutter like he’s struggling to hold on to consciousness.

“What happened?” Pretha asks, kneeling before him.

“I let my guard down,” Finn whispers.

“No shit,” Jalek barks. “What the hell were you doing out there? You have something that needs taking care of, you send one of us. You sure as fuck don’t go alone.”

“I was with Kane.” Finn’s pants are bloody, but it’s not until he leans back that I see the bright red blood coating his fingers.

“Kane?” Jalek barks. “Great. Our entire realm in the hands of two

Unseelie idiots.”

“We got a lead,” Finn says through clenched teeth, “and none of you were available. I’m not going to sit on my ass until old age kills me.”

“What kind of creature did this to you?” Jalek asks. “Is there any chance the wound is poisoned?”

Finn shakes his head. “Sword—” he coughs out. “Kane and I were

smuggling a group out of the queen’s northern camp. The sentinels posted around the perimeter were dressed like her royal guard, and we assumed

they were Seelie. She’s never deigned to dress Wild Fae in her sacred colors before, but it appears the old hag has wised up.”

“One of ours did this?” Tynan asks, glancing toward Pretha. Pretha sneers. “Dirty traitors.”

Tynan draws in a ragged breath. “Where is Kane?”

“Kane made it out with the group while I brought down the guards,” Finn says. “Dara and Luna are with him. They should be back in a few hours,

after he gets the refugees through the portal.”

“So the bastard who did this is dead?” Jalek asks, those dark green eyes blazing.

“By my own sword,” Finn says.

Camps? Refugees? Traitor Wild Fae? “Why are Wild Fae more dangerous than Seelie guards?” I ask, understanding nothing.

They all ignore me. Pretha shoves Finn’s hands aside to study the wound.

Her expression is a study in tenderness and gut-deep worry.

I step forward to get a closer look at the wound. It’s deep, but yesterday I watched Riaan slice his arm open when he was training with Sebastian. It healed so quickly I could practically see the flesh knitting itself back together, but there’s no sign of that with Finn’s wound. “Why aren’t you healing?”

Finn ignores my question and lifts his chin in Jalek’s direction. “I have a med kit in the safe. Grab it for me.” His voice is rough with pain.

“Finn?” I wait for him to acknowledge me—my question—but he just closes his eyes and leans back.

Pretha chokes back a sob as she hovers a hand over the wound.

“Don’t waste your energy, Pretha,” Finn says softly. He gently touches her face, and something uncomfortable twists in my chest. I scowl. I

shouldn’t care about their relationship beyond how it affects my training

and my bargain with the king. “This isn’t a deathblow,” he whispers. “I will


Pretha swallows and nods. I can practically see her pulling herself together. “You’re losing too much blood.”

Jalek pulls a small table next to Finn’s chair and puts the med kit on top of it. “We need to enlist a human healer to teach us how to use this mortal shit,” he mutters, his eyes fixed on the ointments and salves.

Finn lifts his head and meets my gaze. “Do you have any experience stitching up wounds, Princess?”

“Some.” I’ve stitched myself up a few times, but never anything this big. “But it will hurt, and my stitches are more likely to leave an ugly scar than a neat one.”

Finn grunts. “You hear that, Tynan.” His words are breathy, and he

winces as if it hurts to talk. “Maybe mine will be uglier than Kane’s, and he’ll stop his gloating.”

“I will never understand you males,” Pretha mutters, pushing to her feet before turning to me. “What do you need, Abriella?”

I sort through the pile of ointments and find a disinfecting salve, a healing salve, and a numbing salve. Unfortunately, with a wound like this, none of them can be applied until after I stitch him up.

“Can you do something for his pain?” I ask her. “After the Barghest

attacked, Sebastian numbed my leg until the healer could get to me. Could you do something like that?”

Pretha purses her lips and shakes her head. “I could try, but it wouldn’t help.”

“Finn’s tough,” Jalek says, showing his first hint of a smile since he spotted Finn on the stairs. “He doesn’t need anything.”

“I’ll get you a drink,” Tynan says, and a decanter of amber liquid and a tumbler appear on the small table. He fills it with shaking hands and passes it to Finn, who doesn’t hesitate before draining the whole glass in two gulps.

“Do it, Princess.”

I gather the thread and needle from the kit, but when I look down at my hands, I see they’re shaking as badly as Tynan’s. “Can you spare a bit of that for me?” I ask him. “Just to calm the nerves.”

“Happily.” Tynan summons another glass. He pours half the amount he poured for Finn and hands it to me.

I take one large swallow and cough as the burning liquor hits my throat. “That’s enough for me,” I mutter. I nod to Finn. “We need to wash the


Finn gingerly sits up, and Pretha returns to his side to help with the buttons and peel the shirt off him. His dark, muscular chest is covered with a smattering of rune tattoos. My mouth goes dry at the sight, and I turn

away. Bad enough to gawk at him while he’s injured, but worse to do it in front of his . . . What is Pretha? His wife? His mate? Just a friend?

Am I jealous? Not of her for having him, but of the connection they have, of the trust and honesty between them that I can’t have with Sebastian even if I could trust him again. Thanks to my bargain with Mordeus, I can never have that.

Nevertheless, I turn away, using the time while Pretha cleans the area to prepare the needle and thread for stitching. My mother taught me to sew, but I never took to it the way Jas did. It was only through Jas’s persistence that I learned how to make strong, clean stitch lines.

When Pretha’s done prepping the area, I take her place and kneel at Finn’s side. Now that he’s cleaned up, the wound doesn’t look as gruesome as before, but it is deep, and I hesitate before plunging the needle into his


“Do it,” Finn says. He flinches at the first slide of the needle, but he doesn’t move.

My stomach churns at the sight of the oozing blood, but I blow out a long breath and keep stitching. I can do this. “Will someone tell me about these camps of the queen’s?” I ask without looking away from my task.

I can sense them looking at one another as I stitch, sense that they’re having a silent conversation and deciding what to tell me.

“Don’t let the word camp confuse you,” Jalek says. “They’re prisons.” “For criminals?” I ask.

Jalek shakes his head. “Their only crime is being caught on Seelie land with Unseelie blood.”

“What do you mean by prison?” I never bought into the idea that the Seelie were “good,” since I never trusted any of the fae, but I have trouble believing that they would be cruel to their own kind without a good reason, even if the faeries in question were from a rival court.

“The adults are put into labor camps, forced to work eighteen hours a day with minimal provisions,” Jalek says, his face so somber I can’t help but believe him. “They’re executed if they don’t fall in line.”

Does Sebastian know about this?

“Your prince has tried to get his mother to end the camps—at least as they are now,” Finn says, grimacing through the pain and reading me like always. “But she refuses.”

I release a breath, and relief courses through me. Sebastian might not be the male I once believed he was, but I could not stomach a world in which the kind and caring mage’s apprentice I once longed for was responsible for such atrocities.

Tried my ass,” Jalek mumbles. “If he really wanted to see the end of the cruelty, he’d assassinate the queen himself, but he doesn’t have the backbone. I thought he’d snap when he found out about the children, but—”

“What about the children?” I ask.

Pretha meets Finn’s eyes for a beat, as if getting his permission before

she explains. “They separate the children from their parents. They say it’s to discourage families from crossing into Seelie lands, but they brainwash them, feeding them propaganda about the queen and teaching them that they are, by their very birth, beneath the Seelie and therefore meant to


I still my hands. I have to close my eyes for a beat at the thought of those children. I know what it’s like to be without your parents and forced to

serve those who feed and shelter you. How naïve was I to think that all the fae led easy lives?

This time when my stomach heaves, it has nothing to do with the sight of blood.

“Well, look at that,” Pretha whispers.

“Princess,” Finn says, and I open my eyes to see that I’ve blanketed the two of us in darkness. The only light between us comes from those

captivating silver eyes. “We find the children and get them to safety in the Wild Fae territory. Kane is transporting two dozen as we speak.”

I hold his gaze as I coil my power back into myself. It hisses through my blood like a wild animal flailing inside a cage. “Why do any Unseelie come here if it’s so bad?”

“Because their existence under Mordeus’s rule is so grim that the risk is worth it,” Pretha says. “He’s greedy and selfish, and he doesn’t care about taking care of his whole kingdom. His laws favor the rich and powerful and punish the less fortunate.”

I let my gaze flick up to Finn’s for a beat, and I can’t help but think that the anguish I see on his face has less to do with the wound in his side or the needle in his skin, and more to do with the state of his kingdom.

“Many choose to flee rather than to stay in such conditions,” Jalek says, continuing for Pretha. “But the Unseelie land is surrounded by vast and treacherous seas on every side except the one that borders the Seelie lands. Like Finn said, the Wild Fae will take in refugees, but the Unseelie have to get there—either by trekking through the whole of the Seelie territory or by finding a portal.”

I continue stitching, but I have to focus to keep the rage inside me from filling the room with darkness. “Why don’t they use goblins to transport them?”

Jalek grunts, clearly disgusted. “Those creatures are more selfish than Mordeus. There’s nothing the refugees can offer that’s worth getting on the bad side of both Mordeus and Arya.”

“Anyway,” Pretha says, “a goblin can transport only two at a time at best. The easiest path to Wild Fae territory for groups of any significant size is a portal.”

Tynan’s been so quiet, I’m almost surprised when he speaks. “The Wild Fae king and queen have been doing their best to welcome the displaced Unseelie—temporarily only, just until Finn can take his rightful place on the throne. But for their own border security, they can’t allow portals

directly from Mordeus’s land to theirs. The usurper would use it against them and send his nastiest creatures through to torture Wild Fae innocents.” The webbing on his forehead glows brighter and pulses until he rolls his neck and draws in a deep breath. “We’ve been setting up portals near the Seelie border and trying to get the Unseelie through before the queen’s guard catches them.”

“The portals have to be opened, closed, and moved frequently to dodge Arya’s guard,” Pretha says, pouring herself a drink. “It’s draining on our forces, but it’s the best solution we’ve come up with for the time being.”

I finish the final stitches, and when I lift my gaze to Finn’s again, he’s watching me. I don’t bother trying to hide my devastation from him. I quietly apply the necessary salves across the stitches, but my mind is reeling. The children.

“Is he going to die?” The tiny, tear-stained question comes from the

stairs. I wonder how long the child’s been standing there and whether she saw the extent of Finn’s wound. I instinctively stand and step toward her.

I don’t get far before Tynan scoops her into his arms. “Nah, kiddo. He’s going to be just fine. See?” He carries her to Finn, who reaches up and tickles her bare foot. She giggles and wipes away her tears.

If she were human, I’d guess her to be five or six years old. She has light brown skin and silky dark hair like Pretha’s. On her forehead, she has the beginnings of the silver webbing that Pretha and Tynan both have, but her big eyes are silver, and her smile—it’s just like Finn’s.

“Lark, I told you to stay upstairs when we have guests,” Pretha says, glancing at me. Her meaning is clear. We might be helping each other, but I’m not to be trusted with knowledge of her child. Never mind that I just stitched up her—whatever Finn is to her.

“But I saw her in a fire,” Lark says, and points to me. She cocks her head, as if trying to put together a puzzle. “Your sister isn’t in there.”

“Lark, stop!” Pretha pulls the child from Tynan’s arms and buries her face in her hair. “What did Mommy say about using your sight?”

“Pretha,” Jalek says, his voice gentle, “we might need to know about this fire if—”

“Then find a seer,” she snaps. There are tears in her eyes. “Not my daughter.”

“I’m sorry, Mommy.” Lark puts her little hands on her mother’s cheeks. “I don’t try. I just see. And I don’t want her to die in the fire. She did that already.”

My heart squeezes hard at the worry in this sweet child’s voice. “I didn’t.” I hold out my arms. “See? I was in a fire a long time ago, but I survived.”

Lark isn’t paying attention to me. She looks at her mom when she says, “Next time she dies, it has to be during a bonding ceremony. Otherwise,

she’ll never be queen.”

My blood chills. Next time she dies . . . “Queen?” Jalek barks.

“Please stop, baby.” Tears stream down Pretha’s cheeks. She’s beyond distressed.

Jalek spins on me. “You do love the golden prince.” He mutters a curse. “You must tell us before you promise him anything.”

I ignore Jalek and pretend I don’t notice Finn’s piercing silver gaze on me. “I didn’t die,” I tell Lark. “And I’m not going to be the Seelie queen.”

She giggles. “You could never be the Seelie queen.”

This should be a relief. And yet the words are a little splinter in the

wistful part of my heart that I keep hidden from the world—from myself. The part that wants Sebastian, the part that wants to be good enough to be

. . .

No. I don’t want that.

Jalek gives Finn a hard look before turning back to study the child’s face. “You mean the Unseelie queen, Lark?”

Pretha shoots him a glare so angry, everyone in the room withers under it, but Lark smiles. “She could if she wanted, but she won’t have a chance if

she dies in the fire.”

“Tynan,” Pretha says, passing her daughter into his arms. “Take Lark to her room, please.”

Tynan nods, and Lark wraps her arms around his neck. “You promised you’d teach me how to play your card game. Can we do that now?” Tynan asks as he starts up the stairs.

“Okay, but I’m really good,” she says. “You can’t get mad if I win.” “I promise to be a good sport,” he says, and their voices fade away. “Well, that was . . . enlightening,” Jalek says.

Pretha glares at him.

“Lark can’t help it,” Finn says softly. “Her magic isn’t like yours, Pretha.

There’s no on and off. It just comes.

“Are we going to talk about what she saw?” Jalek asks.

“Right, the fiery death.” Finn looks at me, and his brows disappear into his mop of curls. “Thoughts, Princess?”

“I think she’s just a kid and it doesn’t mean anything.” I hold my arms out to my sides. “See? I’m not dead. Humans don’t get to keep walking around after we die.”

Jalek grunts. I have no idea what that means.

Pretha wipes away her tears and drags in a breath, composing herself before she turns to Finn. “Ask your spies in the Unseelie Court if they know anything about an attack on the Golden Palace. Maybe something with fire or explosives.” She turns to me and forces a smile. “And you? Stop, drop,

and roll, okay?”

I barely refrain from rolling my eyes. “Can we go back to the situation with the camps and the refugees?” Finn looks more ragged and tired than

I’ve ever seen him, but I need to know. “This would stop if you were on the Throne of Shadows?” I ask him.

“I can’t change Seelie law,” Finn says, “but I could make life better in my court. I would do everything in my power to make it so my people didn’t need to run. Everything I do I do to protect my people and give them a safe home.” His eyes lock on mine, so intense you’d think I alone had the power to give him his father’s throne. “That is a king’s true responsibility.”

I need Jas back, and that has to remain my first priority, but I can’t stop thinking of those Unseelie children, stuck in veritable prisons and being told they’re less worthy because of their birth. If Finn overthrows Mordeus, the bargain would be moot. Finn would give my sister back. I know he

would. “Tell me how I can help.”

Finn’s face goes cold, and he turns to Jalek. “Help me to my room?” “The girl wants to help,” Jalek says.

Finn pushes out of the chair and flinches in pain as he straightens. “Or I’ll get there by myself.”

“Fine.” Jalek studies me for a long beat before helping his prince up the stairs.

“Did I say something wrong?” I ask Pretha.

She shakes her head. “I think that was enough excitement for the day.

Let’s head back to the castle early.”

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