My awe might have subdued my fear had the place not been so wholly empty and silent. Even the garden through which we walked, following a gravel path to the main doors of the house, seemed hushed and sleeping. Above the array of amethyst irises and pale snowdrops and butter-yellow daffodils swaying in the balmy breeze, the faint stench of metal ticked my nostrils.
Of course it would be magic, because it was spring here. What wretched power did they possess to make their lands so different from ours, to control the seasons and weather as if they owned them? Sweat trickled down my spine as my layers of clothes turned suffocating. I rotated my wrists and shifted in the saddle. Whatever bonds had held me were gone.
The faerie meandered on ahead, leaping nimbly up the grand marble staircase that led to the giant oak doors in one mighty, fluid movement. The doors swung open for him on silent hinges, and he prowled inside. He’d planned this entire arrival, no doubt—keeping me unconscious so I didn’t know where I was, didn’t know the way home or what other deadly faerie territories might be lurking between me and the wall. I felt for my knife, but found only layers of frayed clothes.
The thought of those claws pawing through my cloak to find my knife made my mouth go dry. I shoved away the fury and terror and disgust as my horse came to a stop of her own accord at the foot of the stairs. The message was clear enough. The towering estate house seemed to be watching, waiting.
I glanced over my shoulder toward the still-open gates. If I were to bolt, it would have to be now.
South—all I had to do was go south, and I would eventually make it to the wall. If I didn’t encounter anything before then. I tugged on the reins, but the mare remained stationary—even as I dug my heels into her sides. I let out a low, sharp hiss. Fine. On foot.
My knees buckled as I hit the ground, bits of light flashing in my vision. I grasped the saddle and winced as soreness and hunger racked my senses. Now—I had to go now. I made to move, but the world was still spinning and flashing.
Only a fool would run with no food, no strength.
I wouldn’t get half a mile like this. I wouldn’t get half a mile before he caught me and tore me to ribbons, as he’d promised.
I took a long, shuddering breath. Food—getting food, then running at the next opportune moment. It sounded like a solid plan.
When I was steady enough to walk, I left the horse at the bottom of the stairs, taking the steps one at a time. My breath tight in my chest, I passed through the open doors and into the shadows of the house.
Inside, it was even more opulent. Black-and-white checkered marble shone at my feet, flowing to countless doors and a sweeping staircase. A long hall stretched ahead to the giant glass doors at the other end of the house, and through them I glimpsed a second garden, grander than the one out front. No sign of a dungeon—no shouts or pleas rising up from hidden chambers below. No, just the low growl from a nearby room, so deep that it rattled the vases overflowing with fat clusters of hydrangea atop the scattered hall tables. As if in response, an open set of polished wooden doors swung wider to my left. A command to follow.
My fingers shook as I rubbed my eyes. I’d known the High Fae had once built themselves palaces and temples around the world—buildings that my mortal ancestors had destroyed after the War out of spite—but I’d never considered how they might live today, the elegance and wealth they might possess. Never contemplated that the faeries, these feral monsters, might own estates grander than any mortal dwelling.
I tensed as I entered the room.
A long table—longer than any we’d ever possessed at our manor—filled most of the space. It was laden with food and wine—so much food, some of it wafting tendrils of steam, that my mouth watered. At least it was familiar, and not some strange faerie delicacy: chicken, bread, peas, fish, asparagus, lamb … it could have been a feast at any mortal manor. Another surprise. The beast padded to the oversized chair at the head of the table.
I lingered by the threshold, gazing at the food—all that hot, glorious food—that I couldn’t eat. That was the first rule we were taught as children, usually in songs or chants: If misfortune forced you to keep company with a faerie, you never drank their wine, never ate their food. Ever. Unless you wanted to wind up enslaved to them in mind and soul—unless you wanted to wind up dragged back to Prythian. Well, the second part had already happened, but I might stand a chance at avoiding the first.
The beast plopped into the chair, the wood groaning, and, in a flash of white light, turned into a golden-haired man.
I stifled a cry and pushed myself against the paneled wall beside the door, feeling for the molding of the threshold, trying to gauge the distance between me and escape. This beast was not a man, not a lesser faerie. He was one of the High Fae, one of their ruling nobility: beautiful, lethal, and merciless.
He was young—or at least what I could see of his face seemed young. His nose, cheeks, and brows were covered by an exquisite golden mask embedded with emeralds shaped like whorls of leaves. Some absurd High Fae fashion, no doubt. It left only his eyes—looking the same as they had in his beast form, strong jaw, and mouth for me to see, and the latter tightened into a thin line.
“You should eat something,” he said. Unlike the elegance of his mask, the dark green tunic he wore was rather plain, accented only with a leather baldric across his broad chest. It was more for fighting than style, even though he bore no weapons I could detect. Not just one of the High Fae, but … a warrior, too.
I didn’t want to consider what might require him to wear a warrior’s attire and tried not to look too hard at the leather of the baldric gleaming in the sunlight streaming in through the bank of windows behind him. I hadn’t seen a cloudless sky like that in months. He filled a glass of wine from an exquisitely cut crystal decanter and drank deeply. As if he needed it.
I inched toward the door, my heart beating so fast I thought I’d vomit. The cool metal of the door’s hinges bit into my fingers. If I moved fast, I could be out of the house and sprinting for the gate within seconds. He was undoubtedly faster—but chucking some of those pretty pieces of hallway furniture in his path might slow him down. Though his Fae ears—with their delicate, pointed arches—would pick up any whisper of movement from me.
“Who are you?” I managed to say. His light golden hair was so similar to the color of his beast form’s pelt. Those giant claws undoubtedly still lurked just below the surface of his skin.
“Sit,” he said gruffly, waving a broad hand to encompass the table. “Eat.”