It was the best thing I’d ever tasted. I drank from the thick mug as she brushed my hair, nearly purring at the feel of her thin fingers along my scalp.
But when the other maids had gone downstairs to help with the evening meal, I lowered my mug into my lap. “If more faeries keep crossing the court borders and attacking, is there going to be a war?” Maybe we should just take a stand—maybe it’s time to say enough, Lucien had said to Tamlin that first night.
The brush stilled. “Don’t ask such questions. You’ll call down bad luck.”
I twisted in my seat, glaring up into her masked face. “Why aren’t the other High Lords keeping their subjects in line? Why are these awful creatures allowed to roam wherever they want? Someone—someone began telling me a story about a king in Hybern—”
Alis grabbed my shoulder and pivoted me around. “It’s none of your concern.”
“Oh, I think it is.” I turned around again, gripping the back of the wooden chair. “If this spills into the human world—if there’s war, or this blight poisons our lands …” I pushed back against the crushing panic. I had to warn my family—had to write to them. Soon.
“The less you know, the better. Let Lord Tamlin deal with it—he’s the only one who can.” The Suriel had said as much. Alis’s brown eyes were hard, unforgiving. “You think no one would tell me what you asked the kitchen to give you today, or realize what you went to trap? Foolish, stupid girl. Had the Suriel not been in a benevolent mood, you would have deserved the death it gave you. I don’t know what’s worse: this, or your idiocy with the puca.”
“Would you have done anything else? If you had a family—”
“I do have a family.”
I looked her up and down. There was no ring on her finger.
Alis noticed my stare and said, “My sister and her mate were murdered nigh on fifty years ago, leaving two younglings behind. Everything I do, everything I work for, is for those boys. So you don’t get the right to give me that look and ask me if I would do anything different, girl.”
“Where are they? Do they live here?” Perhaps that was why there were children’s books in the study. Maybe those two small, shining figures in the garden … maybe that had been them.
“No, they don’t live here,” she said, too sharply. “They are somewhere else—far away.”
I considered what she said, then cocked my head. “Do faerie children age differently?” If their parents had been killed almost fifty years ago, they could hardly be boys.
“Ah, some age like you and can breed as often as rabbits, but there are kinds—like me, like the High Fae—who are rarely able to produce younglings. The ones who are born age quite a bit slower. We all had a shock when my sister conceived the second one only five years later—and the eldest won’t even reach adulthood until he’s seventy-five. But they’re so rare—all our young are—and more precious to us than jewels or gold.” She clenched her jaw tightly enough that I knew that was all I would likely get from her.
“I didn’t mean to question your dedication to them,” I said quietly. When she didn’t reply, I added, “I understand what you mean—about doing everything for them.”
Alis’s lips thinned, but she said, “The next time that fool Lucien gives you advice on how to trap the Suriel, you come to me. Dead chickens, my sagging ass. All you needed to do was offer it a new robe, and it would have groveled at your feet.”
By the time I entered the dining room I’d stopped shaking, and some semblance of warmth had returned to my veins. High Lord of Prythian or no, I wouldn’t cower—not after what I’d been through today.
Lucien and Tamlin were already waiting for me at the table. “Good evening,” I said, moving to my usual seat. Lucien cocked his head in a silent inquiry, and I gave him a subtle nod as I sat. His secret was still safe, though he deserved to be walloped for sending me so unprepared to the Suriel.
Lucien slouched a bit in his chair. “I heard you two had a rather exciting afternoon. I wish I could have been there to help.”
A hidden, perhaps halfhearted apology, but I gave him another little nod.
He said with forced lightness, “Well, you still look lovely, regardless of your Hell-sent afternoon.”
I snorted. I’d never looked lovely a day in my life. “I thought faeries couldn’t lie.”
Tamlin choked on his wine, but Lucien grinned, that scar stark and brutal. “Who told you that?”
“Everyone knows it,” I said, piling food on my plate even as I began wondering about everything they’d said to me so far, every statement I’d accepted as pure truth.
Lucien leaned back in his chair, smiling with feline delight. “Of course we can lie. We find lying to be an art. And we lied when we told those ancient mortals that we couldn’t speak an untruth. How else would we get them to trust us and do our bidding?”
My mouth became a thin, tight line. He was telling the truth—because if he was lying … The logic of it made my head spin. “Iron?” I managed to say.
“Doesn’t do us a lick of harm. Only ash, as you well know.”
My face warmed. I’d taken everything they said as truth. Perhaps the Suriel had been lying today, too, with that long-winded explanation about the politics of the faerie realms. About staying with the High Lord, and everything being fixed in the end.
I looked to Tamlin. High Lord. That wasn’t a lie—I could feel its truth in my bones. Even though he didn’t act like the High Lords of legend who had sacrificed virgins and slaughtered humans at will. No—Tamlin was … exactly as those fanatic, calf-eyed Children of the Blessed had depicted the bounties and comforts of Prythian.
“Even though Lucien revealed some of our closely guarded secrets,” Tamlin said, throwing the last word at his companion with a growl, “we’ve never used your misinformation against you.” His gaze met mine. “We never willingly lied to you.”
I managed a nod and took a long sip of water. I ate in silence, so busy trying to decipher every word I’d overheard since arriving that I didn’t realize when Lucien excused himself before dessert. I was left alone with the most dangerous being I’d ever encountered.
The walls of the room pressed in on me.
“Are you feeling … better?” Though he had his chin propped on a fist, concern—and perhaps surprise at that concern—shone in his eyes.