p>Maybe I'd always been broken and dark inside.
Maybe someone who'd been born whole and good would have put down the ash dagger and embraced death rather than what lay before me.
There was blood everywhere.
It was an effort to keep a grip on the dagger as my blood-soaked hand trembled. As I fractured bit by bit while the sprawled corpse of the High Fae youth cooled on the marble floor.
I couldn't let go of the blade, couldn't move from my place before him.
"Good," Amarantha purred from her throne. "Again."
There was another ash dagger waiting, and another Fae kneeling. Female.
I knew the words she'd say. The prayer she'd recite.
I knew I'd slaughter her, as I'd slaughtered the youth before me.
To free them all, to free Tamlin, I would do it.
I was the butcher of innocents, and the savior of a land.
"Whenever you're ready, lovely Feyre," Amarantha drawled, her deep red hair as bright as the blood on my hands. On the marble.
Murderer. Butcher. Monster. Liar. Deceiver.
I didn't know who I meant. The lines between me and the queen had long since blurred.
My fingers loosened on the dagger, and it clattered to the ground, splattering the spreading pool of blood. Flecks splashed onto my worn boots-remnants of a mortal life so far behind me it might as well have been one of my fever-dreams these few last months.
I faced the female waiting for death, that hood sagging over her head, her lithe body steady. Braced for the end I was to give her, the sacrifice she was to become.
I reached for the second ash dagger atop a black velvet pillow, its hilt icy in my warm, damp hand. The guards yanked off her hood.
I knew the face that stared up at me.
Knew the blue-gray eyes, the brown-gold hair, the full mouth and sharp cheekbones. Knew the ears that had now become delicately arched, the limbs that had been streamlined, limned with power, any human imperfections smoothed into a subtle immortal glow.
Knew the hollowness, the despair, the corruption that leaked from that face.
My hands didn't tremble as I angled the dagger.
As I gripped the fine-boned shoulder, and gazed into that hated face-my face.
And plunged the ash dagger into my awaiting heart.
THE HOUSE OF BEASTS
I vomited into the toilet, hugging the cool sides, trying to contain the sounds of my retching.
Moonlight leaked into the massive marble bathing room, providing the only illumination as I was quietly, thoroughly sick.
Tamlin hadn't stirred as I'd jolted awake. And when I hadn't been able to tell the darkness of my chamber from the endless night of Amarantha's dungeons, when the cold sweat coating me felt like the blood of those faeries, I'd hurtled for the bathing room.
I'd been here for fifteen minutes now, waiting for the retching to subside, for the lingering tremors to spread apart and fade, like ripples in a pool.
Panting, I braced myself over the bowl, counting each breath.
Only a nightmare. One of many, asleep and waking, that haunted me these days.
It had been three months since Under the Mountain. Three months of adjusting to my immortal body, to a world struggling to piece itself together after Amarantha had fractured it apart.
I focused on my breathing-in through my nose, out through my mouth. Over and over.
When it seemed like I was done heaving, I eased from the toilet-but didn't go far. Just to the adjacent wall, near the cracked window, where I could see the night sky, where the breeze could caress my sticky face. I leaned my head against the wall, flattening my hands against the chill marble floor. Real.
This was real. I had survived; I'd made it out.
Unless it was a dream-just a fever-dream in Amarantha's dungeons, and I'd awaken back in that cell, and-
I curled my knees to my chest. Real. Real.
I mouthed the words.
I kept mouthing them until I could loosen my grip on my legs and lift my head. Pain splintered through my hands-
I'd somehow curled them into fists so tight my nails were close to puncturing my skin.
Immortal strength-more a curse than a gift. I'd dented and folded every piece of silverware I'd touched for three days upon returning here, had tripped over my longer, faster legs so often that Alis had removed any irreplaceable valuables from my rooms (she'd been particularly grumpy about me knocking over a table with an eight-hundred-year-old vase), and had shattered not one, not two, but five glass doors merely by accidentally closing them too hard.
Sighing through my nose, I unfolded my fingers.
My right hand was plain, smooth. Perfectly Fae.
I tilted my left hand over, the whorls of dark ink coating my fingers, my wrist, my forearm all the way to the elbow, soaking up the darkness of the room. The eye etched into the center of my palm seemed to watch me, calm and cunning as a cat, its slitted pupil wider than it'd been earlier that day. As if it adjusted to the light, as any ordinary eye would.
I scowled at it.
At whoever might be watching through that tattoo.
I hadn't heard from Rhys in the three months I'd been here. Not a whisper. I hadn't dared ask Tamlin, or Lucien, or anyone-lest it'd somehow summon the High Lord of the Night Court, somehow remind him of the fool's bargain I'd struck Under the Mountain: one week with him every month in exchange for his saving me from the brink of death.
But even if Rhys had miraculously forgotten, I never could. Nor could Tamlin, Lucien, or anyone else. Not with the tattoo.
Even if Rhys, at the end ... even if he hadn't been exactly an enemy.
To Tamlin, yes. To every other court out there, yes. So few went over the borders of the Night Court and lived to tell. No one really knew what existed in the northernmost part of Prythian.
Mountains and darkness and stars and death.
But I hadn't felt like Rhysand's enemy the last time I'd spoken to him, in the hours after Amarantha's defeat. I'd told no one about that meeting, what he'd said to me, what I'd confessed to him.
Be glad of your human heart, Feyre. Pity those who don't feel anything at all.
I squeezed my fingers into a fist, blocking out that eye, the tattoo. I uncoiled to my feet, and flushed the toilet before padding to the sink to rinse out my mouth, then wash my face.
I wished I felt nothing.
I wished my human heart had been changed with the rest of me, made into immortal marble. Instead of the shredded bit of blackness that it now was, leaking its ichor into me.
Tamlin remained asleep as I crept back into my darkened bedroom, his naked body sprawled across the mattress. For a moment, I just admired the powerful muscles of his back, so lovingly traced by the moonlight, his golden hair, mussed with sleep and the fingers I'd run through it while we made love earlier.
For him, I had done this-for him, I'd gladly wrecked myself and my immortal soul.
And now I had eternity to live with it.
I continued to the bed, each step heavier, harder. The sheets were now cool and dry, and I slipped in, curling my back to him, wrapping my arms around myself. His breathing was deep-even. But with my Fae ears ... sometimes I wondered if I heard his breath catch, only for a heartbeat. I never had the nerve to ask if he was awake.
He never woke when the nightmares dragged me from sleep; never woke when I vomited my guts up night after night. If he knew or heard, he said nothing about it.
I knew similar dreams chased him from his slumber as often as I fled from mine. The first time it had happened, I'd awoken-tried to speak to him. But he'd shaken off my touch, his skin clammy, and had shifted into that beast of fur and claws and horns and fangs. He'd spent the rest of the night sprawled across the foot of the bed, monitoring the door, the wall of windows.
He'd since spent many nights like that.
Curled in the bed, I pulled the blanket higher, craving its warmth against the chill night. It had become our unspoken agreement-not to let Amarantha win by acknowledging that she still tormented us in our dreams and waking hours.
It was easier to not have to explain, anyway. To not have to tell him that though I'd freed him, saved his people and all of Prythian from Amarantha ... I'd broken myself apart.
And I didn't think even eternity would be long enough to fix me.
"I want to go."
I crossed my arms, tucking my tattooed hand under my right bicep, and spread my feet slightly further apart on the dirt floor of the stables. "It's been three months. Nothing's happened, and the village isn't even five miles-"
"No." The midmorning sun streaming through the stable doors burnished Tamlin's golden hair as he finished buckling the bandolier of daggers across his chest. His face-ruggedly handsome, exactly as I'd dreamed it during those long months he'd worn a mask-was set, his lips a thin line.
Behind him, already atop his dapple-gray horse, along with three other Fae lord-sentries, Lucien silently shook his head in warning, his metal eye narrowing. Don't push him, he seemed to say.
But as Tamlin strode toward where his black stallion had already been saddled, I gritted my teeth and stormed after him. "The village needs all the help it can get."
"And we're still hunting down Amarantha's beasts," he said, mounting his horse in one fluid motion. Sometimes, I wondered if the horses were just to maintain an appearance of civility-of normalcy. To pretend that he couldn't run faster than them, didn't live with one foot in the forest. His green eyes were like chips of ice as the stallion started into a walk. "I don't have the sentries to spare to escort you."
I lunged for the bridle. "I don't need an escort." My grip tightened on the leather as I tugged the horse to a stop, and the golden ring on my finger-along with the square-cut emerald glittering atop it-flashed in the sun.
It had been two months since Tamlin had proposed-two months of enduring presentations about flowers and clothes and seating arrangements and food. I'd had a small reprieve a week ago, thanks to the Winter Solstice, though I'd traded contemplating lace and silk for selecting evergreen wreaths and garlands. But at least it had been a break.
Three days of feasting and drinking and exchanging small presents, culminating in a long, rather odious ceremony atop the foothills on the longest night to escort us from one year to another as the sun died and was born anew. Or something like that. Celebrating a winter holiday in a place that was permanently entrenched in spring hadn't done much to improve my general lack of festive cheer.
I hadn't particularly listened to the explanations of its origins-and the Fae themselves debated whether it had emerged from the Winter Court or Day Court. Both now claimed it as their holiest holiday. All I really knew was that I'd had to endure two ceremonies: one at sunset to begin that endless night of presents and dancing and drinking in honor of the old sun's death; and one at the following dawn, bleary-eyed and feet aching, to welcome the sun's rebirth.
It was bad enough that I'd been required to stand before the gathered courtiers and lesser faeries while Tamlin made his many toasts and salutes. Mentioning that my birthday had also fallen on that longest night of the year was a fact I'd conveniently forgotten to tell anyone. I'd received enough presents, anyway-and would no doubt receive many, many more on my wedding day. I had little use for so many things.