“Thank you,” I said. He shrugged, as if that would dismiss his kindness, the weight of the guilt that still bore down on him. “What about your mother?”
Tamlin loosed a breath. “My mother—she loved my father deeply. Too deeply, but they were mated, and … Even if she saw what a tyrant he was, she wouldn’t say an ill word against him. I never expected—never wanted—my father’s title. My brothers would have never let me live to adolescence if they had suspected that I did. So the moment I was old enough, I joined my father’s war-band and trained so that I might someday serve my father, or whichever of my brothers inherited his title.” He flexed his hands, as if imagining the claws beneath. “I’d realized from an early age that fighting and killing were about the only things I was good at.”
“I doubt that,” I said.
He gave me a wry smile. “Oh, I can play a mean fiddle, but High Lords’ sons don’t become traveling minstrels. So I trained and fought for my father against whomever he told me to fight, and I would have been happy to leave the scheming to my brothers. But my power kept growing, and I couldn’t hide it—not among our kind.” He shook his head. “Fortunately or unfortunately, they were all killed by the High Lord of an enemy court. I was spared for whatever reason or Cauldron-granted luck. My mother, I mourned. The others …” A too-tight shrug. “My brothers would not have tried to save me from a fate like yours.”
I looked up at him. Such a brutal, harsh world—with families killing each other for power, for revenge, for spite and control. Perhaps his generosity, his kindness, was a reaction to that—perhaps he’d seen me and found it to be like gazing into a mirror of sorts. “I’m sorry about your mother,” I said, and it was all I could offer—all he’d once been able to offer me. He gave me a small smile. “So that’s how you became High Lord.”
“Most High Lords are trained from birth in manners and laws and court warfare. When the title fell to me, it was a … rough transition. Many of my father’s courtiers defected to other courts rather than have a warrior-beast snarling at them.”
A half-wild beast, Nesta had once called me. It was an effort to not take his hand, to not reach out to him and tell him that I understood. But I just said, “Then they’re idiots. You’ve kept these lands protected from the blight, when it seems that others haven’t fared so well. They’re idiots,” I said again.
But darkness flickered in Tamlin’s eyes, and his shoulders seemed to curve inward ever so slightly. Before I could ask about it, we cleared the little wood, a spread of hills and knolls laid out ahead. In the distance, there were masked faeries atop many of them, building what seemed to be unlit fires. “What are those?” I asked, halting.
“They’re setting up bonfires—for Calanmai. It’s in two days.”
I shook my head. “We don’t celebrate holidays in the human realm. Not after you—your people left. In some places, it’s forbidden. We don’t even remember the names of your gods. What does Cala—Fire Night celebrate?”
He rubbed his neck. “It’s just a spring ceremony. We light bonfires, and … the magic that we create helps regenerate the land for the year ahead.”
“How do you create the magic?”
“There’s a ritual. But it’s … very faerie.” He clenched his jaw and continued walking, away from the unlit fires. “You might see more faeries around than usual—faeries from this court, and from other territories, who are free to wander across the borders that night.”
“I thought the blight had scared many of them away.”
“It has—but there will be a number of them. Just … stay away from them all. You’ll be safe in the house, but if you run into one before we light the fires at sundown in two days, ignore them.”
“And I’m not invited to your ceremony?”
“No. You’re not.” He clenched and loosened his fingers, again and again, as if trying to keep the claws contained.
Though I tried to ignore it, my chest caved a bit.
We walked back in the sort of tense silence we hadn’t endured in weeks.
Tamlin went rigid the moment we entered the gardens. Not from me or our awkward conversation—it was quiet with that horrible stillness that usually meant one of the nastier faeries was around. Tamlin bared his teeth in a low snarl. “Stay hidden, and no matter what you overhear, don’t come out.”
Then he was gone.
Alone, I looked to either side of the gravel path, like some gawking idiot. If there was indeed something here, I’d be caught in the open. Perhaps it was shameful not to go to his aid, but—he was a High Lord. I would just get in the way.
I had just ducked behind a hedge when I heard Tamlin and Lucien approaching. I silently swore and froze. Maybe I could sneak across the fields to the stables. If there was something amiss, the stables not only had shelter but also a horse for me to flee on. I was about to make for the high grasses mere steps beyond the edge of the gardens when Tamlin’s snarl rippled through the air on the other side of the hedge.
I turned—just enough to spy them through the dense leaves. Stay hidden, he’d said. If I moved now, I would surely be noticed.
“I know what day it is,” Tamlin said—but not to Lucien. Rather, the two of them faced … nothing. Someone who wasn’t there. Someone invisible. I would have thought they were playing a prank on me had I not heard a low, disembodied voice reply.
“Your continued behavior is garnering a lot of interest at court,” the voice said, deep and sibilant. I shivered, despite the warmth of the day. “She has begun wondering—wondering why you haven’t given up yet. And why four naga wound up dead not too long ago.”
“Tamlin’s not like the other fools,” Lucien snapped, his shoulders pushed back to raise himself to his full height, more warrior-like than I’d yet seen him. No wonder he had all those weapons in his room. “If she expected bowed heads, then she’s more of an idiot than I thought.”
The voice hissed, and my blood went cold at the noise. “Speak you so ill of she who holds your fate in her hands? With one word, she could destroy this pathetic estate. She wasn’t pleased when she heard of you dispatching your warriors.” The voice now seemed turned toward Tamlin. “But, as nothing has come of it, she has chosen to ignore it.”