Amarantha clapped her hands again, and three servants clad in black appeared at the side of each of the kneeling faeries. In their long, pale hands, they each carried a dark velvet pillow. And on each pillow lay a single polished wooden dagger. Not metal for a blade, but ash. Ash, because—
“Your final task, Feyre,” Amarantha drawled, gesturing to the kneeling faeries. “Stab each of these unfortunate souls in the heart.”
I stared at her, my mouth opening and closing.
“They’re innocent—not that it should matter to you,” she went on, “since it wasn’t a concern the day you killed Tamlin’s poor sentinel. And it wasn’t a concern for dear Jurian when he butchered my sister. But if it’s a problem … well, you can always refuse. Of course, I’ll take your life in exchange, but a bargain’s a bargain, is it not? If you ask me, though, given your history with murdering our kind, I do believe I’m offering you a gift.”
Refuse and die. Kill three innocents and live. Three innocents, for my own future. For my own happiness. For Tamlin and his court and the freedom of an entire land.
The wood of the razor-sharp daggers had been polished so expertly that it gleamed beneath the colored glass chandeliers.
“Well?” she asked. She lifted her hand, letting Jurian’s eye get a good look at me, at the ash daggers, and purred to it, “I wouldn’t want you to miss this, old friend.”
I couldn’t. I couldn’t do it. It wasn’t like hunting; it wasn’t for survival or defense. It was cold-blooded murder—the murder of them, of my very soul. But for Prythian—for Tamlin, for all of them here, for Alis and her boys … I wished I knew the name of one of our forgotten gods so that I might beg them to intercede, wished I knew any prayers at all to plead for guidance, for absolution.
But I did not know those prayers, or the names of our forgotten gods—only the names of those who would remain enslaved if I did not act. I silently recited those names, even as the horror of what knelt before me began to swallow me whole. For Prythian, for Tamlin, for their world and my own … These deaths would not be wasted—even if it would damn me forever.
I stepped up to the first kneeling figure—the longest and most brutal step I’d ever taken. Three lives in exchange for Prythian’s liberation—three lives that would not be spent in vain. I could do this. I could do this, even with Tamlin watching. I could make this sacrifice—sacrifice them … I could do this.
My fingers trembled, but the first dagger wound up in my hand, its hilt cool and smooth, the wood of the blade heavier than I’d expected. There were three daggers, because she wanted me to feel the agony of reaching for that knife again and again. Wanted me to mean it.
“Not so fast.” Amarantha chuckled, and the guards who held the first kneeling figure snatched the hood off its face.
It was a handsome High Fae youth. I didn’t know him, I’d never seen him, but his blue eyes were pleading. “That’s better,” Amarantha said, waving her hand again. “Proceed, Feyre, dear. Enjoy it.”
His eyes were the color of a sky I’d never see again if I refused to kill him, a color I’d never get out of my mind, never forget no matter how many times I painted it. He shook his head, those eyes growing so large that white showed all around. He would never see that sky, either. And neither would these people, if I failed.
“Please,” he whispered, his focus darting between the ash dagger and my face. “Please.”
The dagger shook between my fingers, and I clenched it tighter. Three faeries—that’s all that stood between me and freedom, before Tamlin would be unleashed upon Amarantha. If he could destroy her … Not in vain, I told myself. Not in vain.
“Don’t,” the faerie youth begged when I lifted the dagger. “Don’t!”
I took a gasping breath, my lips shaking as I quailed. Saying “I’m sorry” wasn’t enough. I’d never been able to say it to Andras—and now … now …
“Please!” he said, and his eyes lined with silver.
Someone in the crowd began weeping. I was taking him away from someone who possibly loved him as much as I loved Tamlin.
I couldn’t think about it, couldn’t think about who he was, or the color of his eyes, or any of it. Amarantha was grinning with wild, triumphant glee. Kill a faerie, fall in love with a faerie, then be forced to kill a faerie to keep that love. It was brilliant and cruel, and she knew it.
Darkness rippled near the throne, and then Rhysand was there, arms crossed—as if he’d moved to better see. His face was a mask of disinterest, but my hand tingled. Do it, the tingling said.
“Don’t,” the young faerie moaned. I began shaking my head. I couldn’t listen to him. I had to do it now, before he convinced me otherwise. “Please!” His voice rose to a shriek.
The sound jarred me so much that I lunged.
With a ragged sob, I plunged the dagger into his heart.
He screamed, thrashing in the guards’ grip as the blade cleaved through flesh and bone, smooth as if it were real metal and not ash, and blood—hot and slick—showered my hand. I wept, yanking out the dagger, the reverberations of his bones against the blade stinging my hand.
His eyes, full of shock and hate, remained on me as he sagged, damning me, and that person in the crowd let out a keening wail.
My bloody dagger clacked on the marble floor as I stumbled back several steps.
“Very good,” Amarantha said.
I wanted to get out of my body; I had to escape the stain of what I’d done; I had to get out—I couldn’t endure the blood on my hands, the sticky warmth between my fingers.
“Now the next. Oh, don’t look so miserable, Feyre. Aren’t you having fun?”
I faced the second figure, still hooded. A female this time. The faerie in black extended the pillow with the clean dagger, and the guards holding her tore off her hood.
Her face was simple, and her hair was gold-brown, like mine. Tears were already rolling down her round cheeks, and her bronze eyes tracked my bloody hand as I reached for the second knife. The cleanness of the wooden blade mocked the blood on my fingers.
I wanted to fall to my knees to beg her forgiveness, to tell her that her death wouldn’t be for naught. Wanted to, but there was such a rift running through me now that I could hardly feel my hands, my shredded heart. What I’d done—
“Cauldron save me,” she began whispering, her voice lovely and even—like music. “Mother hold me,” she went on, reciting a prayer similar to one I’d heard once before, when Tamlin eased the passing of that lesser faerie who’d died in the foyer. Another of Amarantha’s victims. “Guide me to you.” I was unable to raise my dagger, unable to take the step that would close the distance between us. “Let me pass through the gates; let me smell that immortal land of milk and honey.”