I took a long sip from the chipped mug. The wooden bench beneath my father groaned as he shifted. I took another swallow and said, “You should talk some sense into her.”
He examined a burn mark on the table. “What can I say? If it’s love—”
“It can’t be love, not on his part. Not with his wretched family. I’ve seen the way he acts around the village—there’s one thing he wants from her, and it’s not her hand in—”
“We need hope as much as we need bread and meat,” he interrupted, his eyes clear for a rare moment. “We need hope, or else we cannot endure. So let her keep this hope, Feyre. Let her imagine a better life. A better world.”
I stood from the table, fingers curling into fists, but there was nowhere to run in our two-room cottage. I looked at the discolored foxglove painting at the edge of the table. The outer trumpets were already chipped and faded, the lower bit of the stem rubbed off entirely. Within a few years, it would be gone—leaving no mark that it had ever been there. That I’d ever been there.
When I looked at my father, my gaze was hard. “There is no such thing.”
The trampled snow coating the road into our village was speckled with brown and black from passing carts and horses. Elain and Nesta clicked their tongues and grimaced as we made our way along it, dodging the particularly disgusting parts. I knew why they’d come—they’d taken one look at the hides I’d folded into my satchel and grabbed their cloaks.
I didn’t bother talking to them, as they hadn’t deigned to speak to me after last night, though Nesta had awoken at dawn to chop wood. Probably because she knew I’d be selling the hides at the market today and would go home with money in my pocket. They trailed me down the lone road wending through the snow-covered fields, all the way into our ramshackle village.
The stone houses of the village were ordinary and dull, made grimmer by the bleakness of winter. But it was market day, which meant the tiny square in the center of town would be full of whatever vendors had braved the brisk morning.
From a block away, the scent of hot food wafted by—spices that tugged on the edge of my memory, beckoning. Elain let out a low moan behind me. Spices, salt, sugar—rare commodities for most of our village, impossible for us to afford.
If I did well at the market, perhaps I’d have enough to buy us something delicious. I opened my mouth to suggest it, but we turned the corner and nearly stumbled into one another as we all halted.
“May the Immortal Light shine upon thee, sisters,” said the pale-robed young woman directly in our path.
Nesta and Elain clicked their tongues; I stifled a groan. Perfect. Exactly what I needed, to have the Children of the Blessed in town on market day, distracting and riling everyone. The village elders usually allowed them to stay for only a few hours, but the sheer presence of the fanatic fools who still worshipped the High Fae made people edgy. Made me edgy. Long ago, the High Fae had been our overlords—not gods. And they certainly hadn’t been kind.
The young woman extended her moon-white hands in a gesture of greeting, a bracelet of silver bells—real silver—tinkling at her wrist. “Have you a moment to spare so that you might hear the Word of the Blessed?”
“No,” Nesta sneered, ignoring the girl’s hands and nudging Elain into a walk. “We don’t.”
The young woman’s unbound dark hair gleamed in the morning light, and her clean, fresh face glowed as she smiled prettily. There were five other acolytes behind her, young men and women both, their hair long, uncut—all scanning the market beyond for young folk to pester. “It would take but a minute,” the woman said, stepping into Nesta’s path.
It was impressive—truly impressive—to see Nesta go ramrod straight, to square her shoulders and look down her nose at the young acolyte, a queen without a throne. “Go spew your fanatic nonsense to some ninny. You’ll find no converts here.”
The girl shrank back, a shadow flickering in her brown eyes. I reined in my wince. Perhaps not the best way to deal with them, since they could become a true nuisance if agitated—
Nesta lifted a hand, pushing down the sleeve of her coat to show the iron bracelet there. The same one Elain wore; they’d bought matching adornments years ago. The acolyte gasped, eyes wide. “You see this?” Nesta hissed, taking a step forward. The acolyte retreated a step. “This is what you should be wearing. Not some silver bells to attract those faerie monsters.”
“How dare you wear that vile affront to our immortal friends—”
“Go preach in another town,” Nesta spat.
Two plump and pretty farmers’ wives strolled past on their way to the market, arm in arm. As they neared the acolytes, their faces twisted with identical expressions of disgust. “Faerie-loving whore,” one of them hurled at the young woman. I couldn’t disagree.
The acolytes kept silent. The other villager—wealthy enough to have a full necklace of braided iron around her throat—narrowed her eyes, her upper lip curling back from her teeth. “Don’t you idiots understand what those monsters did to us for all those centuries? What they still do for sport, when they can get away with it? You deserve the end you’ll meet at faerie hands. Fools and whores, all of you.”
Nesta nodded her agreement to the women as they continued on their way. We turned back to the young woman still lingering before us, and even Elain frowned in distaste.
But the young woman took a breath, her face again becoming serene, and said, “I lived in such ignorance, too, until I heard the Word of the Blessed. I grew up in a village so similar to this—so bleak and grim. But not one month ago, a friend of my cousin went to the border as our offering to Prythian—and she has not been sent back. Now she dwells in riches and comfort as a High Fae’s bride, and so might you, if you were to take a moment to—”
“She was likely eaten,” Nesta said. “That’s why she hasn’t returned.”
Or worse, I thought, if a High Fae truly was involved in spiriting a human into Prythian. I’d never encountered the cruel, human-looking High Fae who ruled Prythian itself, or the faeries who occupied their lands, with their scales and wings and long, spindly arms that could drag you deep, deep beneath the surface of a forgotten pond. I didn’t know which would be worse to face.
The acolyte’s face tightened. “Our benevolent masters would never harm us. Prythian is a land of peace and plenty. Should they bless you with their attention, you would be glad to live amongst them.”