A face that looked like it had been crafted from dried, weatherworn bone, its skin either forgotten or discarded, a lipless mouth and too-long teeth held by blackened gums, slitted holes for nostrils, and eyes … eyes that were nothing more than swirling pits of milky white—the white of death, the white of sickness, the white of clean-picked corpses.
Peeking above the ragged neck of its dark robes was a body of veins and bones, as dried and solid and horrific as the texture of its face. It let go of the snare, and its too-long fingers clicked against each other as it studied me.
“Human,” it said, and its voice was at once one and many, old and young, beautiful and grotesque. My bowels turned watery. “Did you set this clever, wicked trap for me?”
“Are you one of the Suriel?” I asked again, my words scarcely more than a ragged breath.
“Indeed I am.” Click, click, click went its fingers against each other, one for each word.
“Then the trap was for you,” I managed. Run, run, run.
It remained sitting, its bare, gnarled feet caught in my snares. “I have not seen a human woman for an age. Come closer so I might look upon my captor.”
I did no such thing.
It let out a huffing, awful laugh. “And which of my brethren betrayed my secrets to you?”
“None of them. My mother told me stories of you.”
“Lies—I can smell the lies on your breath.” It sniffed again, its fingers clacking together. It cocked its head to the side, an erratic, sharp movement, the dark veil snapping with it. “What would a human woman want from the Suriel?”
“You tell me,” I said softly.
It let out another low laugh. “A test? A foolish and useless test, for if you dared to capture me, then you must want knowledge very badly.” I said nothing, and it smiled with that lipless mouth, its grayed teeth horrifically large. “Ask me your questions, human, and then free me.”
I swallowed hard. “Is there—is there truly no way for me to go home?”
“Not unless you seek to be killed, and your family with you. You must remain here.”
Whatever last shred of hope I’d been clinging to, whatever foolish optimism, shriveled and died. This changed nothing. Before my fight with Tamlin that morning, I hadn’t even entertained the idea, anyway. Perhaps I’d only come here out of spite. So, fine—if I was here, facing sure death, then I might as well learn something. “What do you know about Tamlin?”
“More specific, human. Be more specific. For I know a good many things about the High Lord of the Spring Court.”
The earth tilted beneath me. “Tamlin is—Tamlin is a High Lord?”
Click, click, click. “You did not know. Interesting.”
Not just some petty faerie lord of a manor, but … but a High Lord of one of the seven territories. A High Lord of Prythian.
“Did you also not know that this is the Spring Court, little human?”
“Yes—yes, I knew about that.”
The Suriel settled on the ground. “Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter, Dawn, Day, and Night,” it mused, as if I hadn’t even answered. “The seven Courts of Prythian, each ruled by a High Lord, all of them deadly in their own way. They are not merely powerful—they are Power.” That was why Tamlin had been able to face the Bogge and live. High Lord.
I tucked away my fear. “Everyone at the Spring Court is stuck wearing a mask, and yet you aren’t,” I said cautiously. “Are you not a member of the Court?”
“I am a member of no Court. I am older than the High Lords, older than Prythian, older than the bones of this world.”
Lucien had definitely overestimated my abilities. “And what can be done about this blight that has spread in Prythian, stealing and altering the magic? Where did it come from?”
“Stay with the High Lord, human,” the Suriel said. “That’s all you can do. You will be safe. Do not interfere; do not go looking for answers after today, or you will be devoured by the shadow over Prythian. He will shield you from it, so stay close to him, and all will be righted.”
That wasn’t exactly an answer. I repeated, “Where did the blight come from?”
Those milky eyes narrowed. “The High Lord does not know that you came here today, does he? He does not know that his human woman came to trap a Suriel, because he cannot give her the answers she seeks. But it is too late, human—for the High Lord, for you, perhaps for your realm as well …”
Despite all that it had said, despite its order to stop asking questions and stay with Tamlin, it was his human woman that echoed in my head. That made me clench my teeth.
But the Suriel went on. “Across the violent western sea, there is another faerie kingdom called Hybern, ruled by a wicked, powerful king. Yes, a king,” he said when I raised a brow. “Not a High Lord—there, his territory is not divided into courts. There, he is law unto himself. Humans no longer exist in that realm—though his throne is made of their bones.”
That large island I’d seen on the map, the one that hadn’t yielded any lands to humans after the Treaty. And—a throne of bones. The cheese I’d eaten turned leaden in my stomach.
“For some time now, the King of Hybern has found himself unhappy with the Treaty the other ruling High Fae of the world made with you humans long ago. He resents that he was forced to sign it, to let his mortal slaves go and to remain confined to his damp green isle at the edge of the world. And so, a hundred years ago, he dispatched his most-trusted and loyal commanders, his deadliest warriors, remnants of the ancient armies that he once sailed to the continent to wage such a brutal war against you humans, all of them as hungry and vile as he. As spies and courtiers and lovers, they infiltrated the various High Fae courts and kingdoms and empires around the world for fifty years, and when they had gathered enough information, he made his plan. But nearly five decades ago, one of his commanders disobeyed him. The Deceiver. And—” The Suriel straightened. “We are not alone.”
I drew my bow farther but kept it pointed at the ground as I scanned the trees. But everything had already gone silent in the presence of the Suriel.
“Human, you must free me and run,” it said, those death-filled eyes widening. “Run for the High Lord’s manor. Do not forget what I told you—stay with the High Lord, and live to see everything righted.”
“What is it?” If I knew what came, I could stand a better chance of—