I swallowed hard. “If I never encounter a naga again, I’ll consider myself fortunate.”
“What were you doing out in the western woods?”
Truth or lie, lie or truth … both. “I heard a legend once about a creature who answers your questions, if you can catch it.”
Tamlin flinched as his claws shot out, slicing his face. But the wounds closed as soon as they opened, leaving only a smear of blood running down his golden skin—which he wiped away with the back of his sleeve. “You went to catch the Suriel.”
“I caught the Suriel,” I corrected.
“And did it tell you what you wanted to know?” I wasn’t sure he was breathing.
“We were interrupted by the naga before it could tell me anything worthwhile.”
His mouth tightened. “I’d start shouting, but I think today was punishment enough.” He shook his head. “You actually snared the Suriel. A human girl.”
Despite myself, despite the afternoon, my lips twitched upward. “Is it supposed to be hard?”
He chuckled, then fished something out of his pocket. “Well, if I’m lucky, I won’t have to trap the Suriel to learn what this is about.” He lifted my crumpled list of words.
My heart dropped to my stomach. “It’s …” I couldn’t think of a suitable lie—everything was absurd.
“Unusual? Queue? Slaying? Conflagration?” He read the list. I wanted to curl up and die. Words I couldn’t recognize from the books—words that now seemed so simple, so absurdly easy as he was saying them aloud. “Is this a poem about murdering me and then burning my body?”
My throat closed up, and I had to clench my hands into fists to keep from hiding my face behind them. “Good night,” I said, barely more than a whisper, and stood on shaking knees.
I was nearly to the door when he spoke again. “You love them very much, don’t you?”
I half turned to him. His green eyes met mine as he rose from his chair to walk to me. He stopped a respectable distance away.
The list of malformed words was still clutched in his hand. “I wonder if your family realizes it,” he murmured. “That everything you’ve done wasn’t about that promise to your mother, or for your sake, but for theirs.” I said nothing, not trusting my voice to keep my shame hidden. “I know—I know that when I said it earlier, it didn’t come out well, but I could help you write—”
“Leave me alone,” I said. I was almost through the door when I ran into someone—into him. I stumbled back a step. I’d forgotten how fast he was.
“I’m not insulting you.” His quiet voice made it all the worse.
“I don’t need your help.”
“Clearly not,” he said with a half smile. But the smile faded. “A human who can take down a faerie in a wolf’s skin, who ensnared the Suriel and killed two naga on her own …” He choked on a laugh, and shook his head. The firelight danced along his mask. “They’re fools. Fools for not seeing it.” He winced. But his eyes held no mischief. “Here,” he said, extending the list of words.
I shoved it into my pocket. I turned, but he gently grabbed my arm. “You gave up so much for them.” He lifted his other hand as if to brush my cheek. I braced myself for the touch, but he lowered it before making contact. “Do you even know how to laugh?”
I shook off his arm, unable to stop the angry words. High Lord be damned. “I don’t want your pity.”
His jade eyes were so bright I couldn’t look away. “What about a friend?”
“Can faeries be friends with mortals?”
“Five hundred years ago, enough faeries were friends with mortals that they went to war on their behalf.”
“What?” I’d never heard that before. And it hadn’t been in that mural in the study.
“How do you think the human armies survived as long as they did, and did such damage that my kind even came to agree to a treaty? With ash weapons alone? There were faeries who fought and died at the humans’ sides for their freedom, and who mourned when the only solution was to separate our peoples.”
“Were you one of them?”
“I was a child at the time, too young to understand what was happening—or even to be told,” he said. A child. Which meant he had to be over … “But had I been old enough, I would have. Against slavery, against tyranny, I would gladly go to my death, no matter whose freedom I was defending.”
I wasn’t sure if I would do the same. My priority would be to protect my family—and I would have picked whatever side could keep them safest. I hadn’t thought of it as a weakness until now.
“For what it’s worth,” Tamlin said, “your family knows you’re safe. They have no memory of a beast bursting into their cottage, and think a long-lost, very wealthy aunt called you away to aid her on her deathbed. They know you’re alive, and fed, and cared for. But they also know that there have been rumors of a … threat in Prythian, and are prepared to run should any of the warning signs about the wall faltering occur.”
“You—you altered their memories?” I took a step back. Faerie arrogance, such faerie arrogance to change our minds, to implant thoughts as if it wasn’t a violation—
“Glamoured their memories—like putting a veil over them. I was afraid your father might come after you, or persuade some villagers to cross the wall with him and further violate the Treaty.”
And they all would have died anyway, once they ran into things like the puca or the Bogge or the naga. A silence blanketed my mind, until I was so exhausted I could barely think, and couldn’t stop myself from saying, “You don’t know him. My father wouldn’t have bothered to do either.”
Tamlin looked at me for a long moment. “Yes, he would have.”
But he wouldn’t—not with that twisted knee. Not with it as an excuse. I’d realized that the moment the puca’s illusion had been ripped away.
Fed, comfortable, and safe—they’d even been warned about the blight, whether they understood that warning or not. His eyes were open, honest. He had gone farther than I would have ever guessed toward assuaging my every concern. “You truly warned them about—the possible threat?”
A grave nod. “Not an outright warning, but … it’s woven into the glamour on their memories—along with an order to run at the first sign of something being amiss.”