The answer was so close—one little answer and we could all be free. Immediately, she’d said—as opposed to … wait, had the conditions of my trials been different from those of the riddle? She’d emphasized immediately only when talking about solving the riddle. No, I couldn’t think about that right now. I had to solve this riddle. We could all be free. Free.
But I couldn’t do it—I couldn’t even come up with a possibility. I’d be better off slitting my own throat and ending my suffering there, before she could rip me to shreds. I was a fool—a common human idiot. I looked to Tamlin. The gold in his eyes flickered, but his face betrayed nothing.
“Think on it,” Amarantha said consolingly, and flicked a grin down at her ring—at the eye swiveling within. “When it comes to you, I’ll be waiting.”
I gazed at Tamlin even as I was pulled away to the dungeons, my vacant mind reeling.
As they locked me in my cell once more, I knew I was going to lose.
I spent two days in that cell, or at least I figured it was two days, based on the meal pattern I’d begun to work out. I ate the decent parts of the half-moldy food, and though I hoped for it, Lucien never came to see me. I knew better than to wish for Tamlin.
I had little to do other than ponder Amarantha’s riddle. The more I thought about it, the less sense it made. I dwelled on various kinds of poisons and venomous animals—and that yielded nothing beyond my growing sense of stupidity. Not to mention the nagging feeling that she might have wound up tricking me with this bargain when she’d emphasized immediately regarding the riddle. Maybe she meant she would not free us immediately after I finished her trials. That she could take however long she wanted. No—no, I was just being paranoid. I was overthinking it. But the riddle could free us all—instantaneously. I had to solve it.
While I’d sworn not to think too long on what tasks awaited me, I didn’t doubt Amarantha’s imagination, and I often awoke sweating and panting from my restless dreams—dreams in which I was trapped within a crystal ring, forever silent and forced to witness their bloodthirsty, cruel world, cleaved from everything I’d ever loved. Amarantha had claimed there wouldn’t be enough left of me to play with if I failed a trial—and I prayed that she hadn’t lied. Better to be obliterated than to endure Jurian’s fate.
Still, fear like nothing I had ever known swallowed me whole when my cell door opened and the red-skinned guards told me that the full moon had arisen.
The sounds of a teeming crowd reverberated against the passageway. My armed escort didn’t bother with drawn weapons as they tugged me forward. I wasn’t even shackled. Someone or something would catch me before I moved three feet and gut me where I stood.
The cacophony of laughter, shouting, and unearthly howls worsened when the hall opened into what had to be a massive arena. There had been no attempts to decorate the torch-lit cavern—and I couldn’t tell if it had been hewn from the rock or if it was formed by nature. The floor was slick and muddy, and I struggled to keep my footing as we walked.
But it was the enormous, riotous crowd that turned my insides cold as they stared at me. I couldn’t decipher what they were shouting, but I had a good-enough idea. Their cruel, ethereal faces and wide grins told me everything I needed to know. Not just lesser faeries but High Fae, too, their excitement making their faces almost as feral as their more unearthly brethren.
I was hauled toward a wooden platform erected above the crowd. Atop it sat Amarantha and Tamlin, and before it …
I did my best to keep my chin high as I beheld the exposed labyrinth of tunnels and trenches running along the floor. The crowd stood along the banks, blocking my view of what lay within as I was thrown to my knees before Amarantha’s platform. The half-frozen mud seeped into my pants.
I rose on trembling legs. Around the platform stood a group of six males, secluded from the main crowd. From their cold, beautiful faces, from that echo of power still about them, I knew they were the other High Lords of Prythian. I ignored Rhysand as soon as I noticed his feline smile, the corona of darkness around him.
Amarantha had only to raise a hand and the roaring crowd silenced.
It became so quiet that I could almost hear my heart beating. “Well, Feyre,” the Faerie Queen said. I tried not to look at the hand she rested on Tamlin’s knee, that ring as vulgar as the gesture itself. “Your first task is here. Let us see how deep that human affection of yours runs.”
I ground my teeth and almost exposed them to her. Tamlin’s face remained blank.
“I took the liberty of learning a few things about you,” Amarantha drawled. “It was only fair, you know.”
Every instinct, every bit of me that was intrinsically human, screamed to run, but I kept my feet planted, locking my knees to avoid them giving out.
“I think you’ll like this task,” she said. She waved a hand, and the Attor stepped forward to part the crowd, clearing the way to the lip of a trench. “Go ahead. Look.”
I obeyed. The trenches, probably twenty feet deep, were slick with mud—in fact, they seemed to have been dug from mud. I fought to keep my footing as I peered in farther. The trenches ran in a maze along the entire floor of the chamber, and their path made little sense. It was full of pits and holes, which undoubtedly led to underground tunnels, and—
Hands slammed into my back, and I cried out as I had the sickening feeling of falling before being suddenly jerked up by a bone-hard grip—up, up into the air. Laughter echoed through the chamber as I dangled from the Attor’s claws, its powerful wing-beats booming across the arena. It swooped down into the trench and dropped me on my feet.
Mud squelched, and I swung my arms as I teetered and slipped. More laughter, even as I remained upright.
The mud smelled atrocious, but I swallowed my gag. I turned to find Amarantha’s platform now floating to the lip of the trench. She looked down at me, smiling that serpent’s grin.
“Rhysand tells me you’re a huntress,” she said, and my heartbeat faltered.
He must have read my thoughts again, or … or maybe he’d found my family, and—
Amarantha flicked her fingers in my direction. “Hunt this.”
The faeries cheered, and I saw gold flash between spindly, multi-hued palms. Betting on my life—on how long I would last once this started.
I raised my eyes to Tamlin. His emerald gaze was frozen, and I memorized the lines of his face, the shape of his mask, the shade of his hair, one last time.