“Come now, precious,” Amarantha said. “What have you to say to that?”
I wanted to spit that she deserved to burn in Hell for eternity, but I could only see Clare’s body nailed there, even as I stared blankly at Tamlin. He’d let them kill Clare like that—to keep them from knowing that I was alive. My eyes stung as bile burned my throat.
“Do you still wish to claim someone who would do that to an innocent?” Amarantha said softly—consolingly.
I snapped my gaze to her. I wouldn’t let Clare’s death be in vain. I wasn’t going down without a fight. “Yes,” I said. “Yes, I do.”
Her lip curled back, revealing too-sharp canines. And as I stared into her black eyes, I realized I was going to die.
But Amarantha leaned back in her throne and crossed her legs. “Well, Tamlin,” she said, putting a proprietary hand on his arm, “I don’t suppose you ever expected this to occur.” She waved a hand in my general direction. A murmur of laughter from those assembled echoed around me, hitting me like stones. “What do you have to say, High Lord?”
I looked at the face I loved so dearly, and his next words almost sent me to my knees. “I’ve never seen her before. Someone must have glamoured her as a joke. Probably Rhysand.” Still trying to protect me, even now, even here.
“Oh, that’s not even a halfway decent lie.” Amarantha angled her head. “Could it be—could it be that you, despite your words so many years ago, return the human’s feelings? A girl with hate in her heart for our kind has managed to fall in love with a faerie. And a faerie whose father once slaughtered the human masses by my side has actually fallen in love with her, too?” She let out that crow’s laugh again. “Oh, this is too good—this is too fun.” She fingered the bone hanging from her necklace and looked at the encased eye upon her hand. “I suppose if anyone can appreciate the moment,” she said to the ring, “it would be you, Jurian.” She smiled prettily. “A pity your human whore on the side never bothered to save you, though.”
Jurian—that was his eye, his finger bone. Horror coiled in my gut. Through whatever evil, whatever power, she somehow held his soul, his consciousness, to the ring, the bone.
Tamlin still looked at me without recognition, without a flicker of feeling. Perhaps she had used that same power to glamour him; perhaps she’d taken all his memories.
The queen picked at her nails. “Things have been awfully boring since Clare decided to die on me. Killing you outright, human, would be dull.” She flicked her gaze to me, then back to her nails—to the ring on her finger. “But Fate stirs the Cauldron in strange ways. Perhaps my darling Clare had to die in order for me to have some true amusement with you.”
My bowels turned watery—I couldn’t help it.
“You came to claim Tamlin?” Amarantha said—it wasn’t a question, but a challenge. “Well, as it happens, I’m bored to tears of his sullen silence. I was worried when he didn’t flinch while I played with darling Clare, when he didn’t even show those lovely claws …
“But I’ll make a bargain with you, human,” she said, and warning bells pealed in my mind. Unless your life depends on it, Alis had said. “You complete three tasks of my choosing—three tasks to prove how deep that human sense of loyalty and love runs, and Tamlin is yours. Just three little challenges to prove your dedication, to prove to me, to darling Jurian, that your kind can indeed love true, and you can have your High Lord.” She turned to Tamlin. “Consider it a favor, High Lord—these human dogs can make our kind so lust-blind that we lose all common sense. Better for you to see her true nature now.”
“I want his curse broken, too,” I blurted. She raised a brow, her smile growing, revealing far too many of those white teeth. “I complete all three of your tasks, and his curse is broken, and we—and all his court—can leave here. And remain free forever,” I added. Magic was specific, Alis had said—that was how Amarantha had tricked them. I wouldn’t let loopholes be my downfall.
“Of course,” Amarantha purred. “I’ll throw in another element, if you don’t mind—just to see if you’re worthy of one of our kind, if you’re smart enough to deserve him.” Jurian’s eye swiveled wildly, and she clicked her tongue at it. The eye stopped moving. “I’ll give you a way out, girl,” she went on. “You’ll complete all the tasks—or, when you can’t stand it anymore, all you have to do is answer one question.” I could barely hear her above the blood pounding in my ears. “A riddle. You solve the riddle, and his curse will be broken. Instantaneously. I won’t even need to lift my finger and he’ll be free. Say the right answer, and he’s yours. You can answer it at any time—but if you answer incorrectly …” She pointed, and I didn’t need to turn to know she gestured to Clare.
I turned her words over, looking for traps and loopholes within her phrasing. But it all sounded right. “And what if I fail your tasks?”
Her smile became almost grotesque, and she rubbed a thumb across the dome of her ring. “If you fail a task, there won’t be anything left of you for me to play with.”
A chill slithered down my spine. Alis had warned me—warned me against bargains. But Amarantha would kill me in an instant if I said no. “What is the nature of my tasks?”
“Oh, revealing that would take all the fun out of it. But I’ll tell you that you’ll have one task every month—at the full moon.”
“And in the meantime?” I dared a glance at Tamlin. The gold in his eyes was brighter than I remembered.
“In the meantime,” Amarantha said a bit sharply, “you shall either remain in your cell or do whatever additional work I require.”
“If you run me ragged, won’t that put me at a disadvantage?” I knew she was losing interest—that she hadn’t expected me to question her so much. But I had to try to gain some kind of edge.
“Nothing beyond basic housework. It’s only fair for you to earn your keep.” I could have strangled her for that, but I nodded. “Then we are agreed.”
I knew she waited for me to echo her response, but I had to make sure. “If I complete your three tasks or solve your riddle, you’ll do as I request?”
“Of course,” Amarantha said. “Is it agreed?”