“Then you’ve got your work cut out for you, old son,” Lucien said. “I’m sure her life will be a fine replacement for Andras’s—maybe she can even train with the others on the border.”
A snarl of irritation resonated through the air.
The shining, spotless halls swallowed me up before I could hear more.
Alis led me through halls of gold and silver until we came to a lavish bedroom on the second level. I’ll admit I didn’t fight that hard when Alis and two other servants—also masked—bathed me, cut my hair, and then plucked me until I felt like a chicken being prepared for dinner. For all I knew, I might very well be their next meal.
It was only the High Fae’s promise—to live out my days in Prythian instead of dying—that kept me from being sick at the thought. While these faeries also looked human, save for their ears, I’d never learned what the High Fae called their servants. But I didn’t dare to ask, or to speak to them at all, not when just having their hands on me, having them so close was enough to make me focus solely on not trembling.
Still, I took one look at the velvet turquoise dress Alis had placed on the bed and wrapped my white dressing gown tightly around me, sinking into a chair and pleading for my old clothes to be returned. Alis refused, and when I begged again, trying my best to sound pathetic and sad and pitiful, she stormed out. I hadn’t worn a dress in years. I wasn’t about to start, not when escape was my main priority. I wouldn’t be able to move freely in a gown.
Bundled in my robe, I sat for minute after minute, the chattering of small birds in the garden beyond the windows the only sounds. No screaming, no clashing weapons, no hint of any slaughter or torture.
The bedroom was larger than our entire cottage. Its walls were pale green, delicately sketched with patterns of gold, and the moldings were golden as well. I might have thought it tacky had the ivory furniture and rugs not complemented it so well. The gigantic bed was of a similar color scheme, and the curtains that hung from the towering headboard drifted in the faint breeze from the open windows. My dressing gown was of the finest silk, edged with lace—simple and exquisite enough that I ran a finger along the lapels.
The few stories I’d heard had been wrong—or five hundred years of separation had muddled them. Yes, I was still prey, still born weak and useless compared to them, but this place was … peaceful. Calm. Unless that was an illusion, too, and the loophole in the Treaty was a lie—a trick to set me at ease before they destroyed me. The High Fae liked to play with their food.
The door creaked, and Alis returned—a bundle of clothing in her hands. She lifted a sodden grayish shirt. “You want to wear this?” I gaped at the holes in the sides and sleeves. “It fell apart the moment the laundresses put it in water.” She held up a few scraps of brown. “Here’s what’s left of your pants.”
I clamped down on the curse building in my chest. She might be a servant, but she could easily kill me, too.
“Will you wear the dress now?” she demanded. I knew I should get up, should agree, but I slumped farther into my seat. Alis stared me down for a moment before leaving again.
She returned with trousers and a tunic that fit me well, both of them rich with color. A bit fancy, but I didn’t complain when I donned the white shirt, nor when I buttoned the dark blue tunic and ran my hands over the scratchy, golden thread embroidered on the lapels. It had to cost a fortune in itself—and it tugged at that useless part of my mind that admired lovely and strange and colorful things.
I was too young to remember much before my father’s downfall. He’d tolerated me enough to allow me to loiter about his offices, and sometimes even explained various goods and their worth, the details of which I’d long since forgotten. My time in his offices—full of the scents of exotic spices and the music of foreign tongues—made up the majority of my few happy memories. I didn’t need to know the worth of everything in this room to understand that the emerald curtains alone—silk, with gold velvet—could have fed us for a lifetime.
A chill scuttled down my spine. It had been days since I’d left. The venison would be running low already.
Alis herded me into a low-backed chair before the darkened fireplace, and I didn’t fight back as she ran a comb through my hair and began braiding it.
“You’re hardly more than skin and bones,” she said, her fingers luxurious against my scalp.
“Winter does that to poor mortals,” I said, fighting to keep the sharpness from my tone.
She huffed a laugh. “If you’re wise, you’ll keep your mouth shut and your ears open. It’ll do you more good here than a loose tongue. And keep your wits about you—even your senses will try to betray you here.”
I tried not to cringe at the warning. Alis went on. “Some folk are bound to be upset about Andras. Yet if you ask me, Andras was a good sentinel, but he knew what he would face when he crossed the wall—knew he’d likely find trouble. And the others understand the terms of the Treaty, too—even if they might resent your presence here, thanks to the mercy of our master. So keep your head down, and none of them will bother you. Though Lucien—he could do with someone snapping at him, if you’ve the courage for it.”
I didn’t, and when I went to ask more about whom I should try to avoid, she had already finished with my hair and opened the door to the hall.
The golden-haired High Fae and Lucien were lounging at the table when Alis returned me to the dining room. They no longer had plates before them, but still sipped from golden goblets. Real gold—not paint or foil. Our mismatched cutlery flashed through my mind as I paused in the middle of the room. Such wealth—such staggering wealth, when we had nothing.
A half-wild beast, Nesta had called me. But compared to him, compared to this place, compared to the elegant, easy way they held their goblets, the way the golden-haired one had called me human … we were all half-wild beasts to the High Fae. Even if they were the ones who could don fur and claws.
Food still remained on the table, the array of spices lingering in the air, beckoning. I was starving, my head unnervingly light.
The golden-haired High Fae’s mask gleamed with the last rays of the afternoon sunshine. “Before you ask again: the food is safe for you to eat.” He pointed to the chair at the other end of the table. No sign of his claws. When I didn’t move, he sighed sharply. “What do you want, then?”