Still, my hands were unsteady as I took my seat at the little desk and found my place in the book I’d used that morning. I knew it was shameful to mark the books with ink, but if Tamlin could afford gold plates, he could replace a book or two.
I stared at the book without seeing the jumble of letters.
Maybe I was a fool for not accepting his help, for not swallowing my pride and having him write the letter in a few moments. Not even a letter of warning, but just—just to let them know I was safe. If he had better things to do with his time than come up with ways to embarrass me, then surely he had better things to do than help me write letters to my family. And yet he’d offered.
A nearby clock chimed the hour.
Shortcoming—another one of my shortcomings. I rubbed my brows with my thumb and forefinger. I’d been equally foolish for feeling a shred of pity for him—for the lone, brooding faerie, for someone I had so stupidly thought would really care if he met someone who perhaps felt the same, perhaps understood—in my ignorant, insignificant human way—what it was like to bear the weight of caring for others. I should have let his hand bleed that night, should have known better than to think that maybe—maybe there would be someone, human or faerie or whatever, who could understand what my life—what I—had become these past few years.
A minute passed, then another.
Faeries might not be able to lie, but they could certainly withhold information; Tamlin, Lucien, and Alis had done their best not to answer my specific questions. Knowing more about the blight that threatened them—knowing anything about it, where it had come from, what else it could do, and especially what it could do to a human—was worth my time to learn.
And if there was a chance that they might also possess some knowledge about a forgotten loophole of that damned Treaty, if they knew some way to pay the debt I owed and return me to my family so I might warn them about the blight myself … I had to risk it.
Twenty minutes later I had tracked down Lucien in his bedroom. I’d marked on my little map where it was—in a separate wing on the second level, far from mine—and after searching in his usual haunts, it was the last place to look. I knocked on the white-painted double doors.
“Come in, human.” He could probably detect me by my breathing patterns alone. Or maybe that eye of his could see through the door.
I eased open the door. The room was similar to mine in shape, but was bedecked in hues of orange and red and gold, with faint traces of green and brown. Like being in an autumn wood. But while my room was all softness and grace, his was marked with ruggedness. In lieu of a pretty breakfast table by the window, a worn worktable dominated the space, covered in various weapons. It was there he sat, wearing only a white shirt and trousers, his red hair unbound and gleaming like liquid fire. Tamlin’s court-trained emissary, but a warrior in his own right.
“I haven’t seen you around,” I said, shutting the door and leaning against it.
“I had to go sort out some hotheads on the northern border—official emissary business,” he said, setting down the hunting knife he’d been cleaning, a long, vicious blade. “I got back in time to hear your little spat with Tam, and decided I was safer up here. I’m glad to hear your human heart has warmed to me, though. At least I’m not on the top of your killing list.”
I gave him a long look.
“Well,” he went on, shrugging, “it seems that you managed to get under Tam’s fur enough that he sought me out and nearly bit my head off. So I suppose I can thank you for ruining what should have been a peaceful lunch. Thankfully for me, there’s been a disturbance out in the western forest, and my poor friend had to go deal with it in that way only he can. I’m surprised you didn’t run into him on the stairs.”
Thank the forgotten gods for some small mercies. “What sort of disturbance?”
Lucien shrugged, but the movement was too tense to be careless. “The usual sort: unwanted, nasty creatures raising hell.”
Good—good that Tamlin was away and wouldn’t be here to catch me in what I planned to do. Another bit of luck. “I’m impressed you answered me that much,” I said as casually as I could, thinking through my words. “But it’s too bad you’re not like the Suriel, spouting any information I want if I’m clever enough to snare you.”
For a moment, he blinked at me. Then his mouth twisted to the side, and that metal eye whizzed and narrowed on me. “I suppose you won’t tell me what you want to know.”
“You have your secrets, and I have mine,” I said carefully. I couldn’t tell whether he would try to convince me otherwise if I told him the truth. “But if you were a Suriel,” I added with deliberate slowness, in case he hadn’t caught my meaning, “how, exactly, would I trap you?”
Lucien set down the knife and picked at his nails. For a moment, I wondered if he would tell me anything at all. Wondered if he would go right to Tamlin and tattle.
But then he said, “I’d probably have a weakness for groves of young birch trees in the western woods, and freshly slaughtered chickens, and would probably be so greedy that I wouldn’t notice the double-loop snare rigged around the grove to pin my legs in place.”
“Hmm.” I didn’t dare ask why he had decided to be accommodating. There was still a good chance he wouldn’t mind seeing me dead, but I would risk it. “I somehow prefer you as a High Fae.”
He smirked, but the amusement was short-lived. “If I were insane and stupid enough to go after a Suriel, I’d also take a bow and quiver, and maybe a knife just like this one.” He sheathed the knife he’d cleaned and set it down at the edge of the table—an offering. “And I’d be prepared to run like hell when I freed it—to the nearest running water, which they hate crossing.”
“But you’re not insane, so you’ll be here, safe and sound?”
“I’ll be conveniently hunting on the grounds, and with my superior hearing, I might be feeling generous enough to listen if someone screams from the western woods. But it’s a good thing I had no role in telling you to go out today, since Tam would eviscerate anyone who told you how to trap a Suriel; and it’s a good thing I had planned to hunt anyway, because if anyone caught me helping you, there would be trouble of a whole other hell awaiting us. I hope your secrets are worth it.” He said it with his usual grin, but there was an edge to it—a warning I didn’t miss.