Chapter no 2

These Hollow Vows (These Hollow Vows, 1)

THE SECOND I STEP into our shared bedroom in the cellar, Jas launches herself at me. “Brie! You’re home!” Our bedroom is little more than a

storage room with a bed in it. I found the cinderblock walls claustrophobic when Madame V first moved us down here, but now we’ve made the space our own. One of Jas’s handsewn tapestries hangs over the bed, and our

assortment of personal trinkets—odd stones and shiny scraps of cloth that have value only to us—decorate the top of the rickety dresser.

I hug my sister tight, breathing in the fresh linen scent of her. She might be only three years younger than I am, but in some ways she’ll always be the toddler I wrapped in my arms to rescue from the house fire.

Jas pulls back and grins. Her brown eyes are bright, and her sleek

chestnut hair is bound in a knot on top of her head. My sister is my opposite

—all soft beauty, like her cheerful personality. I’m all hard angles and stubborn will, with hair the color of a blazing fire, much like the rage I carry inside me.

“I heard you up there,” she says. “I would’ve come to help, but I was

working on new dresses for Stella and Cassia.” She nods at the gowns now hanging on the stand in the corner.

“What’s wrong with the eighty other dresses they have?”

“They’ll never do!” she says in a mock-falsetto imitation of our cousins. I would’ve thought I was too exhausted for it, but I laugh. Whatever the losses of my day, whatever new penalties tomorrow’s missed payment will

bring, I’m glad to be home. To be here with Jas, who’s unusually chipper for this late hour. I narrow my eyes. “What has you so excited?”

“Didn’t you hear?” She has the absolute worst poker face, and her big smile reveals that she has some exciting news.

I’ve been working all day. Other than my short visit with Nik and Fawn tonight, I haven’t talked to anyone. The kind of people I work for believe the help should be neither seen nor heard. “Hear what?”

She’s practically bouncing. “In one day’s time, Queen Arya will open the doors to the Court of the Sun. She’s giving humans safe passage to Faerie to

attend the celebration at her castle.” “What? Why?”

“She wants to find a human bride for her son.”

I grunt out a disgusted huff. “Of course she does.” The fae are good at many things, but reproducing isn’t one of them, and without offspring, their lines die off—especially when so many immortals were lost in the Great Fae War. Good riddance.

“You really didn’t hear about it? It’s all the girls at work were talking about today. A Faerie Ball. We’re swamped with rush orders for new dresses.”

“You’ll have to remind me to stay far away from the portals.”

She giggles at my cynicism. “Brie! This is the Seelie Court. The good faeries! The faeries of light and joy.”

“You don’t know that,” I snap. “You don’t know they’re good.” Her smile falls away. I’m a jerk.

The last thing I want to do right now is pick a fight. “Sorry. I’m just tired.” So tired.

“Look at your hands.” She runs her thumb across my cracked knuckles where the skin is raw from cleaning compounds. “Do you really want to be stuck in this basement for the rest of our lives?”

“Anyone who goes to that court has a death wish, Jas. You know as well as I do that there are no good faeries. Just degrees of evil and cruel.”

“Not so different from humans then.” She drops my hands. “I heard you

and Madame V talking. I know the next payment is coming due, and despite your efforts to keep me in the dark—”

“I don’t want you to worry.” All I truly want is to protect her, my sweet sister with her optimism and joy, who loves me even when I’m a hateful grump. I’m not sure I deserve her.

“I know the contract as well as you do,” she says. “She keeps adding those penalties, and we’re never going to escape her without some sort of miracle.”

“And the miracle you’re counting on is beneficent faeries? I think we’d be better off going to the gambling underground and trying our luck at


She turns to a lavender dress in the corner and smooths the fabric of the deep neckline. “One of the girls I work with has a cousin whose friend fell

in love with a golden fae lord. She comes back and visits with her family. She’s happy.”

“It’s always a friend of a friend—do you notice that?” I try to keep the bite out of my tone this time. “No one who tells these stories actually knows the person who’s supposedly lucked out with the good faeries.”

She turns away from the dress to frown at me. “There are more good faeries than bad, just like humans.”

I’m not convinced that’s true of either. “Even so, a ball? Like, with dresses and fancy stuff? Faerie nonsense aside, I’m supposed to try to impress some stuck-up noble prince? Can’t you just hang me by my toenails instead?”

She rolls her eyes and sits on the edge of the bed. “You don’t have to go, but want to.”

I recognize the stubborn edge to her voice. She’s going to go whether I want her to or not. I don’t even have to take a full step to sink onto the bed beside her. I fall to my back and stare at the ceiling. “I don’t like it.”

“I thought you two might still be up.”

Jas and I both whip around, and the sight of Sebastian’s broad frame filling the doorway sends the small amount of adrenaline I have left zipping through me. My heart pounds a little faster, my blood runs a little hotter,

and longing clenches my stomach in its fist. Sebastian is just a friend, he’d never see a scrappy thing like me as more than that, but no matter how many times I lecture my heart, it refuses to listen.

He ducks his head and leans against the frame, his sea-green eyes

scanning the space as if he hasn’t been here hundreds of times before.

Madame V moved us down here not long after Uncle Devlin died, claiming we’d have more privacy this way. Even then, we knew that the cold, dark room with concrete walls, no windows, and space for little more than a

shared double bed and a dresser was an attempt to put us in our place. Jas and I are short enough that the ceiling height isn’t a problem, but

Sebastian’s over six feet tall and has smacked his head more than once. Not that it keeps him from visiting. He’s been sneaking down here for the last two years, since he started his apprenticeship with Mage Trifen next door.

He’s the one who unlocks the door and sneaks us food and water when our cousins are feeling cruel and lock us in.

“Still up,” I say, yawning despite the burst of energy I felt at his arrival, “but not for long.”

“What don’t you like?” he asks, his brow creasing with his frown. “What were you talking about when I came in?”

“Jas wants to become some faerie prince’s bride,” I say, scooting over on the bed to make room for him.

My sister’s cheeks flame red. “Thanks a lot, Brie.”

Sebastian sits between me and Jas before reaching out with one long leg to kick the door closed. He murmurs an incantation and snaps his fingers, giving a self-satisfied smirk when the lock on our side slides into place.

Mage showoff.

My cousins have made more than one crack about Sebastian’s friendship with me and Jas. They blackmailed us for months the first time they caught him down here, but I know they’re just bitter that Sebastian, a lowly

apprentice mage, won’t waste his time looking in their direction. What Sebastian lacks in money and family connections, he makes up for in good looks—tall and broad-shouldered, gleaming white hair he keeps tied back at the base of his neck, and eyes like the raging sea. He’s the most beautiful man I’ve ever seen.

Objectively speaking, of course.

Sebastian leaves in two days for another part of his apprenticeship, and I won’t be able to look forward to these late-night visits—the brightest spot in my life next to Jas. He’s taken trips before, but his training will keep him away for months this time. I’m dreading it.

“I don’t want to be a faerie prince’s bride,” Jas says, pulling my thoughts back to the matter at hand. She shakes her head. “I just . . . It’s not that.”

I arch a brow. “Really? Why else would you want to go?” When she looks at her hands, realization hits me so hard it forces the breath from my lungs. “You’re hoping to find our mother.”

“If the stories she told us are true and the faerie she loved was a noble, they’d be expected to attend the ball.”

“And what then, Jas? You think she’s going to see us and change her mind about what kind of mother she is? She abandoned us.”

“She knew we wouldn’t be safe in Faerie.”

When I flash her a hard look, she holds up her hands.

“She had a terrible choice to make, and I’m not saying she did the right thing. I’m not even saying she isn’t selfish. I’m just saying that she is our mother, and if she knew about our lives, about the contract with Madame V

. . .” She shakes her head. “I don’t know. Maybe she doesn’t have any money. Maybe this lord she said loved her so much has no money, no lands, nothing that could help us. But maybe he does. And maybe she’s been living under the assumption that we’re happy and cared for.”

My stomach knots. I don’t know how Jas maintains so much hope when everything about our life should have beaten it out of her by now. “If she really cared, wouldn’t she have checked on us sometime in the last nine years?”

She swallows. “Then we’ll use guilt to our best advantage. Maybe she doesn’t care but will feel obligated to help us. We have to try. We can’t keep living like this.” She takes my other hand this time and frowns at the bandage. “You can’t keep living like this.”

I bite back an objection. She’s right that something needs to change, but I’m not the kind of girl who looks to Faerie for answers. I turn to Sebastian. “You’re being awfully quiet.”

He stands and attempts to pace in the three feet of space between the bed and the door. If his face weren’t creased with worry, it might be comical.

“It’s dangerous.”

Jas throws up her hands. “Thousands of humans are going to be there, dying for the chance to be a faerie prince’s bride.”

Dying being the key word,” I mutter. But she’s right. Though some will sneer at the girls planning to go, at least twice as many will put on their finest clothes and line up in hopes of becoming a faerie princess.

“The golden queen is powerful,” Sebastian says, putting his hands behind his head in his typical thinking posture. “She’ll use her magic to protect the humans in her palace, but I don’t like the idea of you two going to Faerie

and poking around looking for your mother. There are too many creatures over there who would love to snatch you at the first opportunity to fulfill their nefarious cravings.”

I giggle at the ceiling and roll to my side to look at my sister. “Remember the time Cassia snuck into the golden queen’s solstice celebration and that goblin stole all her hair?”

Jas laughs. “Oh gods, she could not pull off a bald head. And the wigs V bought her while it grew back . . .”

“Atrocious.” I sigh. If it makes me shallow and catty to talk about my cousins this way, I don’t care. They’ve made our lives miserable from the moment Mother put us under Uncle Devlin’s charge. They’re cruel girls

who wish the worst for everyone but themselves. It’s hard not to delight in the occasional poor fortune of someone like that.

“I’m talking about creatures much worse than goblins,” Sebastian says.

He knows goblins don’t scare us. They’re the messengers between the realms, the only creatures from either who are allowed to freely travel between them. We’re used to goblins. Even Madame Vivias has a house goblin who lives under the second-story stairs. He’s a greedy little thing who holds secrets ransom and has a disturbing collection of human hair.

“I know,” I say, because he’s right about what lives in Faerie. Evil fae, wild beasts, and monsters we’ve never imagined. There’s a reason our realms are kept separate—and maybe even a reason our mother left us behind.

In a lower voice he adds, “If a faerie from the shadow court got his hands on you . . .”

“Make no bargains or ties with the silver eyes,” Jas and I singsong together. Because, yes, the shadow fae are so dangerous that they teach children songs about them.

“I think we should risk it,” Jas says. “I know it’s dangerous, but it would be more dangerous if I had blind faith in the queen’s protection. I’m going to go with my eyes open, and I’m going to find Mother.”

“Do you really think you can find her in the middle of the masses that’ll show up for this thing?” I ask.

“It’s only one castle to search rather than an entire realm.” She shrugs. “And even if we can’t find our mother there, imagine what treasure we might find, Brie.”

So much of what I know about Faerie comes from the bedtime stories Mother liked to whisper as we drifted off to sleep.

Once upon a time, a golden faerie princess fell in love with the shadow king, but their kingdoms had battled for hundreds of years and her parents were sworn enemies of the king and his kingdom . . .

The rest of what I know about Faerie comes from legends everyone knows—pieces of truth and superstition that humans pass through the generations. One of those pieces is of the Seelie queen and the jewels she hoards.

“You’re crazy if you think her sentries will allow you anywhere near her treasures,” Sebastian says, spotting the smile that’s curved my lips.

“They won’t allow anyone,” Jas says, her words measured as she studies me. “I know only one person who could search her grounds undetected.”

Sebastian shakes his head. “Impossible.” I smile. “But it would be so fun to try.”

He arches a brow at me then turns to frown at Jas. “You see what you’ve done?”

“She’s right,” I say. “I could do it.” And if the thrill that rushes through my blood at the thought of stealing from fae nobility is more satisfying than the prospect of finding my mother, so what?

“You two are forgetting one possibility.” Sebastian slides down the wall and onto the floor, props his elbows on his knees, and looks back and forth between us.

“What?” Jas says, annoyed.

His steady gaze meets mine, and I see the worry there.

I reach for Jas’s hand and squeeze. “He means that maybe Mom is dead.

Maybe that’s why she never came back.”

Jas shrugs. “One can hope. It’s the only excusable reason for not returning for us.” She says it with such lightness, I might believe it if I didn’t know her so well. But I know Jas better than anyone, and she doesn’t hope that our mother is dead. No, she’d rather forgive the woman for

abandoning us during our most formative years than accept that she won’t ever see her again.

Personally, I don’t hope. Not ever. Hope is addictive, and you start relying on it. In a world this cruel, I won’t be caught needing a crutch.

“It would be nice to know,” I admit. “But I’m still not convinced a visit to Faerie is in our best interests. We are humans. Even Mother, for all her romanticizing of the fae, warned that their realm was dangerous.”

Jas bites her lip, her eyes dancing. “But maybe—

“I can’t decide right now.” I’ve put off sleep too long, and exhaustion falls over me like a heavy blanket. Yawning, I stretch my arms over my

head before curling up on my side. “Someone blow out the candles. Or don’t. I don’t care. I’m sleeping.”

“Abriella! Jasalyn!” Cassia calls from upstairs. “There’s a bug in my room!”

“I’ll get it,” Jas says, squeezing my arm. “You sleep.”

“Thanks, sis,” I say without opening my eyes. I’m faintly aware of her leaving the room, the sound of her feet on the steps, then the soft puff of breath as the candles are extinguished.

“Good night, Brie,” Sebastian says softly. “Good night,” I mumble, half asleep.

But then there’s a hand on my forehead, smoothing back my hair, and the tickle of lips against my ear. “Don’t go to the ball.”

I smile. It’s sweet that he’s so concerned. “Don’t worry. I want nothing to do with that place.”

Then a kiss. Lips on my forehead—there and gone in a breath.

I open my eyes to see Sebastian’s silhouette shrinking toward the cellar door.

And now I’m wide-awake.



The click of raqon clanging together gives me a stomachache. Each month, for nine years, Jas and I have counted out our money to give to Madame Vivias. Sometimes we’ve had enough. Sometimes we had more than we needed and headed into the next month with a head start. But too often

we’ve fallen short. With each short month, all the following payments increased and the penalties compounded until, without what I could steal, it became impossible to scrape together what we owe.

“How much?” Jas asks, voice shaking. “We’re seventeen hundred short.”

She flinches. I hate that she understands what this means for us. I want to save her from that. Maybe I need her to be the one who always believes in the best when I can’t. The idea of this world beating that out of her makes the pain in my stomach sharper.

“We have to go to Faerie,” she says softly.

I shake my head. “Sebastian’s right. It’s too dangerous.”

She swallows. “For humans, yes.” She lifts her gaze from the pile of raqon on the bed and meets my eyes. “But what if we attended as fae? We

could buy potions for an elven glamour from Mage Trifen so we’d look like fae nobility. Wouldn’t that be an added protection?”

I drag my fingers through the coins; the tinking is a delicious torture.

We’re killing ourselves to get out of this contract, but the hole sinks faster than we can climb. Something has to change. “Let’s do it,” I say, nodding. “Let’s try.”

She grins so widely I know I never had a chance of denying her. I love my sister, and if searching for Mother will make her feel that she’s done her part in obtaining our freedom, then we’ll make it happen.

“We’ll need dresses,” she says. “To fit in!” she adds at my cringe. She pulls a bolt of muslin out from under the bed and practically squeaks with delight. “I’ve wanted to make a dress for you forever.

“Well, don’t get used to it,” I say. Still, I can’t help but smile.

“When I’m done with you, Prince Ronan won’t be able to take his eyes off you—whether you want him to or not.”

I strip down to my underwear and let her wrap me in the muslin she uses to plan our cousins’ new dresses. She has me pinned into a mockup of a dress when there’s a rapping at the door.

Three taps. Pause. Two taps. Sebastian’s signature knock.

“Come in!” Jas and I call out in unison. Her hands pause their pinning at my waist.

We both turn to the door as it swings open. When Sebastian sees me, his eyes go wide and he throws a hand over his eyes. “Sorry, I . . . Sorry.”

“I’m decent.” I laugh at his pink cheeks. “Come on in.”

“Shut the door behind you,” Jas says, speaking low. “We don’t need Madame V coming in here.”

Sebastian gives a curt nod and steps into our room, shutting the door as requested. “You look really nice,” he tells me. The words come out

strangled, as if he’s not sure how to give me a compliment. And why would he? I don’t know if he’s ever seen me in anything fancier than cleaning

scrubs or the fitted black pants I favor for excursions into the night.

“Thanks.” I consider the thin brown fabric pinned around me. He’s just being kind. I don’t look nice. Just . . . awkward.

“Wait until you see it in the proper fabric—think a thin velvet the color of the deepest emerald,” Jas says, smiling up at me. “You’ll be stunning.”

It’s my turn to blush. I keep my head bowed so Sebastian won’t notice.

I can’t believe I’m actually excited about this gown. Jas knows how I feel about dresses and not being able to move freely, so she designed mine as loose-legged pants that’ll pass as a skirt when I stand. On top is a sleeveless fitted bodice that dips a little too low for my taste. It’s the kind of outfit our cousins would kill for—or at the very least whine and beg for until we gave it up.

“What’s the occasion?” Sebastian asks.

Jas resumes her task of fitting the muslin at my hips and sticks a pin in her mouth as she adjusts the seams, leaving me to speak.

Guilt rushes through me at the memory of Sebastian’s sweet kiss on my forehead last night, his request that we not go. “We don’t have a choice, Sebastian,” I say gently. “If there’s any chance—”

“You’re not serious.” Sebastian’s gaze swivels between me and Jas before landing on me. “But you hate the fae. Tell me how anything good can come of this. And don’t tell me you’re going to steal from the queen. I’ll tell you now, that’s a death sentence.”

“I’ll be careful.” I hate the disappointment in his eyes. “We have to do something.”

He stares at me, his jaw ticking and those wild sea eyes bright with his frustration. When I’m convinced he’s going to say more, he turns on his heel and storms out of our room.

I lunge forward to rush after him, but Jas grabs my arm. “The dress.”

“Help me,” I squeak desperately. I don’t know what I’m going to say to Sebastian. I’ve promised Jas we’ll go to the ball, and I won’t back out now, but Sebastian’s been my rock for two years and I can’t stand the idea of him being angry.

Jas works quickly to remove the right pins so I can step out of the thin cotton. I pull on a pair of slacks and a tank before rushing up the cellar

stairs and into the courtyard that Madame V shares with Mage Trifen.

A shock of white in my periphery catches my attention. Sebastian’s

sitting on the stoop just outside the courtyard, his big hands sharpening the tip of his staff.

My stomach always goes wild at the sight of him—not just a little flip-flop, but a full-on tumble down a hill that never ends.

Unlike my cousins, I was too busy surviving my adolescence to have crushes or worry about falling in love. But then Sebastian moved in next

door, and the first moment I saw him, I felt something different . . . in my stomach. In my lungs. All along my skin.

The first time he smiled at me, it was as if my chest opened up, as if my heart were trying to reach out and grab him. Somehow I got around my

awkwardness, we became friends, and I got to see him almost every morning. We didn’t spend a lot of time together—just enough that he became a bright spot—and his smile got me through my fair share of hard days.

He’s not smiling now.

I lower myself onto the stoop beside him, tucking my knees to my chest and wrapping my arms around my legs. I sit there for long minutes. He

sharpens his staff to a deadly point, and I watch. We let the birds in the courtyard do all the talking.

I’m not good at feelings. I’m good at working and doing, and the only person I’ve ever been any good at sharing my emotions with is Jas. No one else has ever mattered enough to be worth the effort.

“I’m sorry,” I finally say. It’s not enough, and it only brushes against

what I want to explain—that we’re running out of options, that I love how much he values our safety, that I’ll do everything in my power to come back home—if only because I desperately want to see him again.

Sebastian lifts his head, and those sea-green eyes seem to see right through me. He searches my face. “Do you have any idea how dangerous it is for humans in Faerie?”

“Sure I do, but—” “So don’t go.

My fingers itch to reach out and touch him. To stroke the side of his jaw or grab his muscled forearms. He’s never hinted that he has the same feelings for me that I harbor for him, so I’ve never allowed myself that sort of connection with him. I’ve never had the courage to risk rejection, keeping my feelings secret from everyone—even Jas. “If our debt gets much worse, we’ll never escape it. Even now, it would take . . .”

He squeezes his eyes shut. I know he hates that he can’t help us. He’s given us money before, but he’s only an apprentice. He doesn’t have the resources to make a dent in what we owe to Madame V.

When he opens his eyes, he studies me for a long time. So long that my cheeks heat. My skin tingles. My breath comes short as I wait for his soft lips to find their way toward mine.

“Just hold off a little longer,” he finally says. “Just hold off until I can help. Someday I’ll end your contract. I’ll free you from her.”

I know he believes it, but—

“I promise we’ll be safe,” I say. It’s not the promise he wants, so I stand and wipe my sweaty palms on my pants. I was foolish to think he might kiss me, foolish to focus on that when we’re arguing about something so important. “I have to go get ready for work.”

There’s something in his eyes I’ve never seen before. Desperation. I walk away because I understand that emotion all too well.

I’ve taken three steps when he says, “What if he’s not what you think?” I stop and turn back to see him stand. “What?”

“Prince Ronan. What if you end up . . . what if you realize you could like


I shake my head. “Bash, I’m not going in hopes of becoming a faerie princess. I’m not that girl.”

“But if he isn’t what you expect . . . if he’s better than you’ve let yourself believe?”

I fold my arms. “Are you worried I’m going to fall for a faerie?” Are you worried I’ll forget you? Because I promise I won’t. I couldn’t.

“Abriella . . .” “What?”

His throat bobs as he swallows. “Just promise me you’ll do everything you can to be safe. If you go to the ball, you’ll be under the queen’s protection, but if you wander off her land, that protection no longer


“I know how it works, Sebastian. I promise.”

With a single step, he closes the distance between us. He touches my

cheek with two fingers and tucks an errant lock of hair behind my ear. I’m entranced by the sensation of his rough calluses against my skin.

A cackling laughter cleaves the air behind me. I spin around to see Cassia standing in the courtyard, her hands on her hips. Her blond hair is piled in

carefully pinned curls on top of her head, and her breasts nearly spill from her mint green dress. “Here I thought you’d be crying and moaning, but you aren’t losing any tears over her at all, are you?”

What is she blathering about now?

Sebastian puts a comforting hand on my arm, and I just shake my head, prepared to ignore my cousin’s jealous nonsense.

“Now that little sister’s out of the way, you can finally score the hunky apprentice? Is that how this works?”

I roll my eyes. “What are you talking about?”

She grins, blue eyes bright. “You don’t know? You’re officially too far behind on your payments, and Mother has had enough. Bakken just took Jasalyn to the faerie traders.” She makes fists with both hands and then opens them dramatically. “Poof! Gone. Just like that.”

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