TWENTY

I HAVE TO keep my face impassive, unreadable. It’s easier than I expect because I’m dead inside. I can’t feel anything but a cold, jagged iceberg surrounding my heart.

“McKenzie,” Kyol says as soon as we exit the king’s hall. “What’s wrong?”

I don’t answer, just keep putting one foot in front of the other. I thought I learned what a broken heart felt like when I thought Kyol died trying to protect me from the rebels. That pain had been cutting and deep, but at least I felt something then.

Numb, I turn toward the sculpture garden.

“No.” Kyol ushers me the opposite direction. “This way.”

He’s taking me to his quarters, I realize. I should run, but where am I supposed to go? I’m trapped in the Realm unless a fae fissures me back to my world. I’ll even need a fae to fissure me to Aren.

I stare straight ahead. I fell for the bad guy. It’s such a typical, stupid, girly thing to do. But then, I was sixteen when I met Kyol. Maybe he was part of my teenage rebellion. I was too young, too na?ve, to see past his manipulations.

God, I’ve been so wrong about him. He’s not honorable; he’s conniving. Every smile, every touch, every look of concern he’s ever given me, it’s all a lie. A lie, damn it! And everything Aren’s told me is true.

We climb a staircase. This isn’t all my fault. Kyol’s the real asshole here. I may have spent the last decade reading shadows for the Court, but I can undo all the help I’ve given them in three short syllables. I’m going to find Aren. I’m going to give him the location of the Sidhe Tol.

By the time we reach Kyol’s room, I’m not numb anymore. I’m pissed.

He gently closes the door. “McKenzie, talk to me.”

I shouldn’t say anything. I should pretend everything is okay, but something inside me snaps.

“Talk to you?” I snarl as I turn on him. “Why don’t you talk to me, Kyol? Why don’t you try telling me the truth?”

His silver eyes widen in surprise. He actually staggers back a step. “What are you talking about?”

“Everything,” I say. “But why don’t we start with Naito? You promised he was fine.”

Confusion wrinkles his brow. “He is fine.”

“Bullshit.”

“I swear it.”

I ignore his lie. “Maybe we should talk about something else? Like how you’re going to convince me to cooperate? It’s going to take a hell of a lot more than a kiss to manipulate me this time. You’ll have to rape me because I won’t sleep with you. Not willingly.” I slam my hands into his chest.

Comprehension finally dawns on his face. “You understood.”

“Damn right, I did.”

“Everything?” He braces a hand against the wall. “You understood everything.”

He looks so wounded. A part of me wants to reach out and comfort him, but no. It’s only part of his act.

I hang on to my anger. “I gave up my life for you, Kyol. I haven’t talked to my family in years because they think I’m insane. And they’re right. I was crazy to ever listen to you. I should have a real job now. I should have graduated four years ago. I should be married or at least have had a boyfriend. But no, I never gave anyone a chance because they couldn’t measure up to you. I didn’t think they compared, but every one of them—every one!—was a better man than you.”

I pace the room. “I thought Atroth’s decree kept us apart. Ridiculous. Did I make you sick every time you touched me? Did you have to hold your breath when we kissed? Did you!”

He shakes his head. “No, McKenzie, it’s not like that. I—”

“You knew Aren was a front, didn’t you? Sethan had to hide behind him because you’d go after his family if you knew he was leading the rebels. That’s what you’re doing in Haeth now, isn’t it?”

“McKenzie, we weren’t sure. Please.” He takes a step toward me.

“Stay back!”

He winces, but drops his hand to his sword. I freeze, realizing how easy it would be for him to kill me with that blade. Humans mean nothing to him. We’re only tools.

He releases the hilt quickly and lets his hand hang by his side. Softly, he says, “I’d never hurt you.”

“You already have.”

His Adam’s apple bobs when he swallows. “There were things I couldn’t tell you, but I’ve never lied.”

I laugh, and tears begin to pool in my eyes.

“I haven’t lied,” Kyol insists. “I . . .” He stops, closes his eyes briefly and recomposes himself. “Okay. My omissions could be construed as lies, yes.”

I dig my fingernails into my palms to keep my tears from brimming over. “What else haven’t you told me? Aside from murdering Naito?”

Another grimace. He hangs his head, staring at the floor. “This war, McKenzie, it’s complicated—”

“Yeah. I figured that out.”

He ignores my interruption, continues. “I’ve been friends with Atroth since we were boys. When he took the throne, I supported him. He was a good king—he still is—but the rebels have caused him to make decisions nobody has liked. Yes, there’ve been some atrocities, but they’ve been committed on both sides, and none have been committed by the soldiers serving under me. None. I’ve tried to protect you from the violence as much as possible, but if you’d seen the extent of the rebels’ cruelty—”

“The Court isn’t innocent.”

“The rebels are worse by far—”

“You’ve sent heads as messages!” I shout.

“McKenzie, please.” He reaches for my arm, but I jerk back. I should have turned away, though, because I see the breath whoosh out of his lungs.

“He’s turned you against me,” he says, blindly reaching behind him for the edge of his desk.

I keep my spine straight, my chin up. “He’s turned me against the Court. Yes.”

He shakes his head. “You can’t trust him, McKenzie. Please don’t trust him. He’s spoken mistruths, used your insecurities against you.”

“Insecurities?” I echo. “Insecurities! I’ve waited ten fucking years for you, Kyol! Do you know how pathetic that is? No sane woman would wait on a man for that long, but I did because I was fool enough to believe I was caught in some kind of fairy tale. My delusions let you walk all over me.”

“I’ve treated you well.”

“No, you selfish bastard, you haven’t. You’ve manipulated me. You kissed me when I was sixteen to seal my loyalty to the Court and now you say all the right things to keep me hanging on by the thinnest thread of hope. Well, screw you. You never gave a damn about me.”

“You’re wrong, McKenzie. You’re wrong. I’ve loved you from the moment I first stepped into your world.”

My heart throbs in my chest. I won’t listen to this, won’t let him manipulate me anymore. “I’ve wanted to hear those words for a decade. Convenient you say them now, when I’m threatening to stop reading the shadows for you.”

He steps toward me. “I’m not saying it to—”

I back away. “I don’t believe you anymore.”

“If you’ll just listen.” He presses closer.

My heel hits the wall. “I’ve been listening. I’ve hung on your every fucking word for far too long and I’m through with it. I’m through with y—”

His mouth covers mine, silencing me. He pins me to the wall, pressing against me so hard I couldn’t escape if I wanted to. I should want to. I shouldn’t tremble like this, shouldn’t let my knees go so weak he has to hold me up as he kisses me. The chaos lusters on my skin come alive in frenzied excitement, bolting up my neck, across my jaw, through my lips and into him. He sucks in a breath when the heat hits him.

Beat her, bed her, I don’t care what it takes.

Kyol’s lips leave mine, but he keeps my face cradled between his palms.

“Please, kaesha. You know me.”

I place both my hands on his chest and shove. “No!”

He wouldn’t have budged if he didn’t want to, but he gives me space, moving to the opposite wall. He leans against it, looking defeated and devastated, and I have to turn away. It’s difficult to fall out of love with someone. I don’t want to hurt him, but he’s not the man I thought he was. He’s not Kyol. He’s a stranger. A murderer.

I stare out the window behind his bed. The silver walls surrounding the palace rise up in the distance. Between here and the wall, Corrist’s wealthier merchants and nobles have built their homes. The nobles have residences elsewhere as well, and most of the merchants probably haven’t hand-sold a thing in years, but being permitted to step foot within the capital city means you’re somebody. Maybe I picked up on that, thought I was somebody, too. Meeting the king, knowing Kyol and other members of the Inner Court, made me think I was important. And Kyol took me to the Sidhe Cabred. Most fae aren’t na?ve enough to dream of encountering so much as a leaf from the king’s private paradise. Maybe my vanity put me in this situation.

I jump when Kyol slams his fist against the door. “No!”

Before I realize he’s moving, he’s at my side.

“It’s not ending like this.”

His hand fastens around my arm and he yanks me from his room.

Panicked, I pry at his fingers. “Let go, Kyol.”

“Quiet,” he snaps, ignoring the curious looks of the fae we pass. I’m tempted to plead for help, but no one will cross Kyol, especially when he’s like this, looking like he’ll slaughter anyone who breathes too loudly. His face is rigid, all hint of pain and uncertainty gone.

I’ve screwed up, pushed him too far. I should have kept my mouth shut and disappeared without a word. Now I might not get the chance because—holy hell—I think he’s leading me to the basements. There’s nothing down there but the dungeon and storage.

“Kyol, please.”

He forces me down a staircase. A rack of unlit torches hangs on the wall. He passes his hand over one of them, sending magic into its glass orb, and takes it with us down the dark passageway.

It’s cold and I can’t see anything beyond the torch’s blue-white glow. I feel like a rat in a maze, but Kyol knows exactly where he’s going. I consider trying to buy my freedom with the anchor-stone in my pocket, but I want to give that to Kyol about as much as I wanted to give the location of the Sidhe Tol to Aren. It’s ironic how things can so quickly be flipped on their heads.

Kyol stops before a heavy wooden door, knocks twice. We wait. If I wasn’t terrified, I’d find the silence awkward. I’ve been comfortable with Kyol for the past ten years. I never thought anything could change that, but then, I thought he loved me. I thought I knew him.

“You’re hurting my arm,” I say. Immediately, his hand loosens.

The door cracks open, unmuffling the sounds of moans and murmurings beyond its threshold. A fae woman peeks out and frowns, seeing me first before opening the door wider.

“Sword-master,” she says.

“We’ll only be a minute.” He pulls me inside.

It’s too clean to be the dungeon, and while some fae are tied down to cots, most are free and sitting up. It’s a large chamber, one that reminds me of the temporary shelters the governments in my world set up after a natural disaster. About a dozen workers tend to the sick. I focus on a man moaning and rocking near me. Edarratae, out of place on a fae in the Realm, fade in and out over his skin, casting him in an unhealthy pallor. His eyes are sunken, his face gaunt. It takes me a while to recognize him. I think his name is Kwinn, one of Kyol’s lieutenants.

“This is the rebels’ work,” Kyol says. “Jorreb’s work. When he captures Court fae who might have knowledge of our plans, he takes them to your world and locks them in a room with tech. For hours, for days, for weeks sometimes. As long as it takes to break them. When the rebels have what they need, they send them back like this.”

These fae aren’t like the tor’um in Lynn Valley. Those fae were born without the ability to fissure; they didn’t live their whole lives normally only to have their magic crushed by human technology. Kyol’s described this sickness to me before. He said the fae can’t handle the loss, the damage to something that’s so integral to their existence. Their minds break. Shut down. Close off. And they become . . . this.

Kwinn begins rocking and moaning. I close my eyes, trying to cope with the mix of emotions tangling through me. Aren’s not innocent. He did this.

Kyol’s hand slides down to grasp mine. “I’ve never wanted you to see the horrors of war. Your nightmares are bad enough without seeing fae waste away like this. I’ve kept certain things from you to keep your conscience clean and to keep you safe. Maybe that was a mistake.”

I didn’t need to be coddled. I needed to be given all the facts so I could make my decisions based on what was real, not on someone’s twisted version of the truth.

“Is this not enough?” Kyol asks.

I say nothing. This . . . this torture is one of the things Aren kept hidden from me. He knew it would bolster my resistance to him. And it does. I swear the anchor-stone pulses in my pocket, urging me to hand it over. Are there no good guys in this war?

“Just take me back to my world.”

Kyol’s jaw clenches. “You need more evidence? Fine.”

He pulls me from the room. The blue glow from his torch lights the corridor. We descend another staircase, take a left turn, and eventually stop in front of an iron gate guarded by two swordsmen. They acknowledge Kyol with nods and me with mildly curious glances. The fae on the left turns a key in the lock and swings the gate open.

Swords, spears, bows, and other weapons are propped up in racks against both walls while jaedric cuirasses, helms, and other protective gear I can’t identify are layered in waist-high stacks down the center of the long room. They’re covered in a fine layer of dust, suggesting fae rarely come down here for their gear. A waste. Aren could equip the entire rebellion with a third of the armor and weapons stored here.

Kyol leads me through the labyrinth of arms. At the far end, the room takes a sharp left turn and a fae—I recognize him as Garrad, one of Kyol’s swordsmen—rises from a chair. Kyol signals him to sit as he crosses to the stone wall on the right. He drags an old, wooden cart out of the way and then makes a fist with his right hand before flattening his palm on a stone high up on the wall. Just like with Lorn’s escape tunnel in Lyechaban, blue light surrounds the rectangle, and a moment later, a three-by-five-feet section of the wall grinds aside.

Kyol wedges his torch into the groove in the stone floor and then pulls me beneath the low overhang.

“Now!” someone shouts from inside.

Kyol shoves me back as he draws his sword, swinging and narrowly missing—purposefully missing—the lightning-streaked human charging him. A second man launches himself at me, but Kyol’s there throwing a fist into a face I recognize as Naito’s one second before it hits. The thud of Naito colliding with the back wall echoes in the small stone prison.

“Sword-master?” Garrad rushes into the room, sword at the ready.

“It’s under control,” Kyol says. The guard glances between the two humans, nods once, then retreats back to his post.

It takes me longer to comprehend everything that just occurred than it took for it to actually happen. Now I’m staring at Naito, who’s staring up at me, his right cheek already swelling.

“McKenzie?”

“Naito.” I fall to my knees beside him and help him sit up. “God, I thought you were dead.”

“Not yet,” he says.

Relief floods me and I’m shaking because maybe I wasn’t a complete fool. Maybe I didn’t entirely misjudge Kyol. I peer over my shoulder. His sword is still drawn, the steel a barrier between the other human and me.

I turn back to Naito. “Are you okay?”

“I think my face is shattered but I’m alive.”

“We have to get you out of here.” I help him to his feet, then glance at the other human. “Both of you.”

“That’s not possible,” Kyol says. He still hasn’t lowered his guard.

“You can put your sword away,” I tell him. When he doesn’t budge, I stand and place my hand on his, making him lower the weapon. Edarratae thrum through my fingers.

Slowly, he reaches up and tucks my hair behind my ear. “If I hadn’t taken him through the gate, kaesha, he would have been killed. If I hadn’t later agreed to execute him, he’d be dead.”

“Aren’t you a fucking hero,” Naito says from behind me. A muscle twitches in Kyol’s cheek.

I glare over my shoulder. “You’re not helping.”

Naito crosses his arms and leans against the wall. “I want out of here. I’m not staying locked up for weeks or months like him.”

The other human does look like he’s been here awhile. A grungy shirt hangs over his lean frame and a scraggly beard covers a face that I’m sure would be pale if it weren’t covered in dirt. But he’s alive. They both are. Because of Kyol.

I turn back to him. “You can’t keep them here forever.” “I don’t plan to,” he says. “Tell us where we can find the rebels, McKenzie. When we end the war, I’ll send them both back to your world. I swear it.”

The diamond necklace is heavy in my pocket, but the Court no longer has my allegiance. I won’t help them, not ever again.

“I’ve told you everything I know.”

There’s a glimmer of something in his eyes. Pain? Disappointment? I can’t be sure.

“Kyol, please,” I try again. “They can’t stay—”

“They’re alive. That’s all I can do right now.”

Before I can say anything else, he pulls me from the cell. When he turns to pick up the torch from its groove in the floor, I catch Naito’s eye. I hope the look I give him is reassuring. I hope it tells him I won’t leave him imprisoned. I’ll find a way to get both humans out of here.

I’M not qualified to plan a jailbreak, but I don’t have a choice. As Kyol leads me out of the palace’s basements, I’m plotting how I’m going to return. I’m going to need help breaking Naito and the other human out. That much is clear.

We don’t say anything to each other as we walk, not until we stop in front of the door to a room I’ve stayed in before. He takes my hands in his. My gaze darts down both ends of the corridor, but no other fae are in sight.

“I love you, McKenzie,” he tells me quietly. “Despite what you heard today, I meant what I said last night. I want to be with you. In your world or mine, it doesn’t matter. But I can’t abandon Atroth with the rebels still trying to overthrow him.”

Edarratae dart down my arms, over my wrists and hands, and into him. Things aren’t okay between us. He didn’t kill Naito—thank God for that—but he’s let me believe in things that aren’t true.

When I don’t respond, he lets out a sigh. “I have some things I must take care of today. Will you be okay by yourself for a while? It may be late before I’m able to return.”

I nod, feeling like shit for what I’m about to do.

He starts to say something else, stops and squeezes my hands instead. Then he plants a kiss on the top of my head, turns, and walks away, back to his responsibilities as Atroth’s sword-master. It still hurts, being second to his king.

I don’t go inside my room after he leaves. Being alone with my thoughts? Not a good idea. Instead, I find my way back to the sculpture garden. What I’m planning is risky—I could be betrayed or end up imprisoned or worse—but I have to take the risk.

It doesn’t take long to find who I’m looking for. He’s here, sitting on a bench beside the statue of a cirikith, one not tethered to a merchant’s cart, but wild and rearing, his stone scales intricately carved. When my shadow falls over the fae, he looks up from the document he’s reading.

“My lord,” I say in his language. “Do you still want to earn your daughter’s forgiveness?”

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