I wished there were a stool, a bench, a chair for me to slump into. Alis slammed shut the final drawer and limped for the pantry.
“Now they call her the Deceiver—she who trapped the seven High Lords and built her palace beneath the sacred Mountain in the heart of our land.” Alis paused before the pantry door and covered her face again, taking a few steadying breaths.
The sacred mountain—that bald, monstrous peak I’d spotted in the mural in the library all those months ago. “But … the sickness in the lands … Tamlin said that the blight took their power—”
“She is the sickness in these lands,” Alis snapped, lowering her hands and entering the pantry. “There is no blight but her. The borders were collapsing because she laid them to rubble. She found it amusing to send her creatures to attack our lands, to test whatever strength Tamlin had left.”
If the blight was Amarantha, then the threat to the human realm … She was the threat to the human realm.
Alis emerged from the pantry, her arms full of various root vegetables. “You could have been the one to stop her.” Her eyes were hard upon me, and she bared her teeth. They were alarmingly sharp. She shoved the turnips and beets into the bag. “You could have been the one to free him and his power, had you not been so blind to your own heart. Humans,” she spat.
“I—I …” I lifted my hands, exposing my palms to her. “I didn’t know.”
“You couldn’t know,” Alis said bitterly, her laugh harsh as she entered the pantry again. “It was part of Tamlin’s curse.”
My head swam, and I pressed myself further against the wall. “What was?” I fought the rising hitch in my voice. “What was his curse? What did she do to him?”
Alis yanked remaining spice jars off the pantry shelf. “Tamlin and Amarantha knew each other before—his family had long been tied to Hybern. During the War, the Spring Court allied with Hybern to keep the humans enslaved. So his father—his father, who was a fickle and vicious Lord—was very close with the King of Hybern, to Amarantha. Tamlin as a child often accompanied him on trips to Hybern. And he met Amarantha in the process.”
Tamlin had once said to me that he would fight to protect someone’s freedom—that he would never allow slavery. Had it been solely because of shame for his own legacy, or because he … he’d come to somehow know what it was to be enslaved?
“Amarantha eventually grew to desire Tamlin—to lust for him with her entire wicked heart. But he’d heard the stories from others about the War, and knew what Amarantha and his father and the Hybern king had done to faeries and humans alike. What she did to Jurian as punishment for her sister’s death. He was wary of her when she came here, despite her attempts to lure him into her bed—and kept his distance, right up until she stole his powers. Lucien … Lucien was sent to her as Tamlin’s emissary, to try to treat for peace between them.”
Bile rose in my throat.
“She refused, and … Lucien told her to go back to the shit-hole she’d crawled out of. She took his eye as punishment. Carved it out with her own fingernail, then scarred his face. She sent him back so bloody that Tamlin … The High Lord vomited when he saw his friend.”
I couldn’t let myself imagine what state Lucien had been in, then, if it had made Tamlin sick.
Alis tapped on her mask, the metal pinging beneath her nails. “After that, she hosted a masquerade Under the Mountain for herself. All the courts were present. A party, she said—to make amends for what she’d done to Lucien, and a masquerade so he didn’t have to reveal the horrible scarring on his face. The entire Spring Court was to attend, even the servants, and to wear masks—to honor Tamlin’s shape-shifting powers, she said. He was willing to try to end the conflict without slaughter, and he agreed to go—to bring all of us.”
I pressed my hands against the stone wall behind me, savoring its coolness, its steadiness.
Pausing in the center of the kitchen, Alis set down her satchel, now full of food and supplies. “When all were assembled, she claimed that peace could be had—if Tamlin joined her as her lover and consort. But when she tried to touch him, he refused to let her near. Not after what she’d done to Lucien. He said—in front of everyone that night—that he would sooner take a human to his bed, sooner marry a human, than ever touch her. She might have let it go, had he not then said that her own sister had preferred a human’s company to hers, that her own sister had chosen Jurian over her.”
I winced, already knowing what Alis would say as she braced her hands on her hips and went on. “You can guess how well that went over with Amarantha. But she told Tamlin that she was in a generous mood—told him she’d give him a chance to break the spell she’d put upon him to steal his power.
“He spat in her face, and she laughed. She said he had seven times seven years before she claimed him, before he had to join her Under the Mountain. If he wanted to break her curse, he need only find a human girl willing to marry him. But not any girl—a human with ice in her heart, with hatred for our kind. A human girl willing to kill a faerie.” The ground rocked beneath me, and I was grateful for the wall I leaned against. “Worse, the faerie she killed had to be one of his men, sent across the wall by him like lambs to slaughter. The girl could only be brought here to be courted if she killed one of his men in an unprovoked attack—killed him for hatred alone, just as Jurian had done to Clythia … So he could understand her sister’s pain.”
“That was all a lie. There was no provision for that in the Treaty. You can kill as many innocent faeries as you want and never suffer the consequences. You just killed Andras, sent out by Tamlin as that day’s sacrifice.” Andras was looking for a cure, Tamlin had said. Not for some magical blight—but a cure to save Prythian from Amarantha, a cure for this curse.
The wolf—Andras had just … stared at me before I killed him. Let me kill him. So it could begin this chain of events, so that Tamlin might stand a chance of breaking the spell. And if Tamlin had sent Andras across the wall, knowing he might very well die … Oh, Tamlin.
Alis stooped to gather up a butter knife, twisted and bent, and carefully straightened out the blade. “It was all a cruel joke, a clever punishment, to Amarantha. You humans loathe and fear faeries so much it would be impossible—impossible for the same girl who slaughtered a faerie in cold blood to then fall in love with one. But the spell on Tamlin could only be broken if she did just that before the forty-nine years were over—if that girl said to his face that she loved him, and meant it with her entire heart. Amarantha knows humans are preoccupied with beauty, and thus bound the masks to all our faces, to his face, so it would be more difficult to find a girl willing to look beyond the mask, beyond his faerie nature, and to the soul beneath. Then she bound us so we couldn’t say a word about the curse. Not a single word. We could hardly tell you a thing about our world, about our fate. He couldn’t tell you—none of us properly could. The lies about the blight—that was the best he could do, the best we could all do. That I can tell you now … it means the game is over, to her.” She pocketed the knife.