A Court of Mist and Fury Page 22

The faerie exposed her palms, but Tamlin interrupted her. “There are no exceptions. You have three days to present what is owed—or offer double next Tithe.”

It was an effort to keep from gaping at the immovable face, and the pitiless words. In the back, Ianthe gave a nod of confirmation to no one in particular.

The water-wraith had nothing to eat—how could he expect her to give him food?

“Please,” she whispered through her pointed teeth, her silvery, mottled skin glistening as she began trembling. “There is nothing left in the lake.”

Tamlin’s face didn’t change. “You have three days—”

“But we have no gold!”

“Do not interrupt me,” he said. I looked away, unable to stomach that merciless face.

She ducked her head even lower. “Apologies, my lord.”

“You have three days to pay, or bring double next month,” he repeated. “If you fail to do so, you know the consequences.” Tamlin waved a hand in dismissal. Conversation over.

After a final, hopeless look at Tamlin, she walked from the chamber. As the next faerie—a goat-legged fawn bearing what looked to be a basket of mushrooms—patiently waited to be invited to approach the dais, I twisted to Tamlin.

“We don’t need a basket of fish,” I murmured. “Why make her suffer like that?”

He flicked his eyes to where Ianthe had stepped aside to let the creature pass, a hand on the jewels of her belt. As if the female would snatch them right off her to use as payment. Tamlin frowned. “I cannot make exceptions. Once you do, everyone will demand the same treatment.”

I clutched the arms of my chair, a small seat of oak beside his giant throne of carved roses. “But we don’t need these things. Why do we need a golden fleece, or a jar of jam? If she has no fish left, three days won’t make a difference. Why make her starve? Why not help her replenish the pond?” I’d spent enough years with an aching belly to not be able to drop it, to want to scream at the unfairness of it.

His emerald eyes softened as if he read each thought on my face, but he said: “Because that’s the way it is. That’s the way my father did it, and his father, and the way my son shall do it.” He offered a smile, and reached for my hand. “Someday.”

Someday. If we ever got married. If I ever became less of a burden, and we both escaped the shadows haunting us. We hadn’t broached the subject at all. Ianthe, mercifully, had not said anything, either. “We could still help her—find some way to keep that pond stocked.”

“We have enough to deal with as it is. Giving handouts won’t help her in the long run.”

I opened my mouth, but shut it. Now wasn’t the time for debate.

So I pulled my hand from his as he motioned the goat-legged fawn to approach at last. “I need some fresh air,” I said, and slid from my chair. I didn’t give Tamlin a chance to object before I stalked off the dais. I tried not to notice the three sentries Tamlin sent after me, or the line of emissaries who gaped and whispered as I crossed the hall.

Ianthe tried to catch me as I stormed by, but I ignored her.

I cleared the front doors and walked as fast as I dared past the gathered line snaking down the steps and onto the gravel of the main drive. Through the latticework of various bodies, High Fae and lesser faeries alike, I spotted the retreating form of the wraith heading around the corner of our house—toward the pond beyond the grounds. She trudged along, wiping at her eyes.

“Excuse me,” I called, catching up to her, the sentries on my trail keeping a respectful distance behind.

She paused at the edge of the house, whirling with preternatural smoothness. I avoided the urge to take a step back as those unearthly features devoured me. Keeping only a few paces away, the guards monitored us with hands on their blades.

Her nose was little more than two slits, and delicate gills flared beneath her ears.

She inclined her head slightly. Not a full bow—because I was no one, but recognition that I was the High Lord’s plaything.

“Yes?” she hissed, her pike’s teeth gleaming.

“How much is your Tithe?”

My heart beat faster as I beheld the webbed fingers and razor-sharp teeth. Tamlin had once told me that the water-wraiths ate anything. And if there were no fish left … “How much gold does he want—what is your fish worth in gold?”

“Far more than you have in your pocket.”

“Then here,” I said, unfastening a ruby-studded gold bracelet from my wrist, one Ianthe had told me better suited my coloring than the silver I’d almost worn. I offered it to her. “Take this.” Before she could grasp it, I ripped the gold necklace from my throat, and the diamond teardrops from my ears. “And these.” I extended my hands, glittering with gold and jewels. “Give him what you owe, then buy yourself some food,” I said, swallowing as her eyes widened. The nearby village had a small market every week—a fledgling gathering of vendors for now, and one I’d hoped to help thrive. Somehow.

“And what payment do you require?”

“Nothing. It’s—it’s not a bargain. Just take it.” I extended my hands further. “Please.”

She frowned at the jewels draping from my hands. “You desire nothing in return?”

“Nothing.” The faeries in the line were now staring unabashedly. “Please, just take them.”

With a final assessing look, her cold, clammy fingers brushed mine, gathering up the jewelry. It glimmered like light on water in her webbed hands.

“Thank you,” she said, and bowed deeply this time. “I will not forget this kindness.” Her voice slithered over the words, and I shivered again as her black eyes threatened to swallow me whole. “Nor will any of my sisters.”

She stalked back toward the manor, the faces of my three sentries tight with reproach.

I sat at the dinner table with Lucien and Tamlin. Neither of them spoke, but Lucien’s gaze kept bouncing from me, to Tamlin, then to his plate.

After ten minutes of silence, I set down my fork and said to Tamlin, “What is it?”

Tamlin didn’t hesitate. “You know what it is.”

I didn’t reply.

“You gave that water-wraith your jewelry. Jewelry I gave you.”

“We have a damned house full of gold and jewels.”

Lucien took a deep breath that sounded a lot like: “Here we go.”

“Why shouldn’t I give them to her?” I demanded. “Those things don’t mean anything to me. I’ve never worn the same piece of jewelry twice! Who cares about any of it?”

Tamlin’s lips thinned. “Because you undermine the laws of this court when you behave like that. Because this is how things are done here, and when you hand that gluttonous faerie the money she needs, it makes me—it makes this entire court—look weak.”

“Don’t you talk to me like that,” I said, baring my teeth. He slammed his hand on the table, claws poking through his flesh, but I leaned forward, bracing my own hands on the wood. “You still have no idea what it was like for me—to be on the verge of starvation for months at a time. And you can call her a glutton all you like, but I have sisters, too, and I remember what it felt like to return home without any food.” I calmed my heaving chest, and that force beneath my skin stirred, undulating along my bones. “So maybe she’ll spend all that money on stupid things—maybe she and her sisters have no self-control. But I’m not going to take that chance and let them starve, because of some ridiculous rule that your ancestors invented.”

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