This was worse—so much worse than I had thought when I warned Nesta and my family to stay on alert and leave at the slightest sign of trouble. I felt sick to think of what kind of company Tamlin was keeping—sick at the thought of him being so desperate, so stricken by guilt and grief over having to sacrifice his sentries and never being able to tell me … And he’d let me go. Let all their sacrifices, let Andras’s sacrifice, be in vain.
He’d known that if I remained, I would be at risk of Amarantha’s wrath, even if I freed him.
“I can’t even protect myself against them, against what’s happening in Prythian … Even if we stood against the blight, they would hunt you down—she would find a way to kill you.”
I remembered that pathetic effort to flatter me upon my arrival—and then he’d given up on it, on any attempt to win me when I’d seemed so desperate to get away, to never talk to him. But he’d fallen in love with me despite all that—known I’d loved him, and let me go with days to spare. He had put me before his entire court, before all of Prythian.
“If Tamlin were freed—if he had his full powers,” I said, staring at a blackened bit of wall, “would he be able to destroy Amarantha?”
“I don’t know. She tricked the High Lords through cunning, not force. Magic’s a specific kind of thing—it likes rules, and she manipulated them too well. She keeps their powers locked up inside herself, as if she can’t use them, or can access very little of them, at least. She has her own deadly powers, yes, so if it came down to a fight—”
“But is he stronger?” I started wringing my hands.
“He’s a High Lord,” Alis replied, as if that were answer enough. “But none of that matters now. He’s to be her slave, and we’re all to wear these masks until he agrees to become her lover—even then, he’ll never regain his full powers. And she’ll never let those Under the Mountain go.”
I pushed off the table and squared my shoulders. “How do I get Under the Mountain?”
She clicked her tongue. “You can’t go Under the Mountain. No human who goes in ever comes out.”
I squeezed my fists so hard that my nails bit into my flesh. “How. Do. I. Get. There.”
“It’s suicide—she’ll kill you, even if you get close enough to see her.”
Amarantha had tricked him—she had hurt him so badly. Hurt them all so badly.
“You’re a human,” Alis went on, standing as well. “Your flesh is paper-thin.”
Amarantha must also have taken Lucien—she had carved out Lucien’s eye and scarred him like that. Did his mother grieve for him?
“You were too blind to see Tamlin’s curse,” Alis continued. “How do you expect to face Amarantha? You’ll make things worse.”
Amarantha had taken everything I wanted, everything I finally dared desire. “Show me the way,” I said, my voice trembling, but not with tears.
“No.” Alis slung her satchel over a shoulder. “Go home. I’ll take you as far as the wall. There’s naught to be done now. Tamlin will remain her slave forever, and Prythian will stay under her rule. That’s what Fate dealt, that was what the Eddies of the Cauldron decided.”
“I don’t believe in Fate. Nor do I believe in some ridiculous Cauldron.”
She shook her head again, her wild brown hair like glistening mud in the dim light.
“Take me to her,” I insisted.
If Amarantha ripped out my throat, at least I would die doing something for him—at least I would die trying to fix the destruction I hadn’t prevented, trying to save the people I’d doomed. At least Tamlin would know it was for him, and that I loved him.
Alis studied me for a moment before her eyes softened. “As you wish.”
I might have been going to my death, but I wouldn’t arrive unarmed.
I tightened the strap of the quiver across my chest and then grazed my fingers over the arrow feathers peeking over my shoulder. Of course, there were no ash arrows. But I would make do with what I’d found scattered throughout the manor. I could have taken more, but weapons would only weigh me down, and I didn’t know how to use most of them anyway. So I wore a full quiver, two daggers at my waist, and a bow slung over a shoulder. Better than nothing, even if I was up against faeries who’d been born knowing how to kill.
Alis led me through the silent woods and foothills, pausing every so often to listen, to alter our course. I didn’t want to know what she heard or smelled out there, not when such stillness blanketed the lands. Stay with the High Lord, the Suriel had said. Stay with him, fall in love with him, and all would be righted. If I had stayed, if I had admitted what I’d felt … None of this would have happened.
The world steadily filled with night, and my legs ached from the steep slopes of the hills, but Alis pressed on—never once looking back to see that I followed.
I was beginning to wonder whether I should have brought more than a day’s worth of food when she stopped in the hollow between two hills. The air was cold—far colder than the air at the top of the hill, and I shivered as my eyes fell upon a slender cave mouth. There was no way this was the entrance—not when that mural had painted Under the Mountain to be in the center of Prythian. It was weeks of travel away.
“All dark and miserable roads lead Under the Mountain,” Alis said so quietly that her voice was nothing more than the rustling of leaves. She pointed to the cave. “It’s an ancient shortcut—once considered sacred, but no more.”
This was the cave Lucien had ordered the Attor not to use that day. I tried to master my trembling. I loved Tamlin, and I would go to the ends of the earth to make it right, to save him, but if Amarantha was worse than the Attor … if the Attor wasn’t the wickedest of her cronies … if even Tamlin had been scared of her …
“I reckon you’re regretting your hotheadedness right now.”
I straightened. “I will free him.”
“You’ll be lucky if she gives you a clean death. You’ll be lucky if you even get brought before her.” I must have turned pale, because she pursed her lips and patted me on the shoulder. “A few rules to remember, girl,” she said, and we both stared at the cave mouth. The darkness reeked from its maw to poison the fresh night air. “Don’t drink the wine—it’s not like what we had at the Solstice, and will do more harm than good. Don’t make deals with anyone unless your life depends on it—and even then, consider whether it’s worth it. And most of all: don’t trust a soul in there—not even your Tamlin. Your senses are your greatest enemies; they will be waiting to betray you.”