After we had eaten our fill, the plates were cleared away, and more wine was poured, as free as water. I took care with my cup; the little Fair servants pounced on any chance to refill it, and I did not wish to get drunk.
“A fine feast,” Orias said. He leaned over and took my hand—the hand with the shackle at the wrist. Idly he laced his fingers between mine. “Now I yearn to be entertained.”
The servants melted away without further instruction, some with backward glances over their shoulders—whatever was to happen next was not for their eyes.
Orias smiled. “Two kinds of sweet music, I think? Alessa, will you choose a singing partner?”
She looked down. Her hair, loose and dark, hid a smile. “I choose Sallos.”
A Fair lord with skin as dark as Orias’s and hair of mottled gray rose from his chair. He took Alessa by the hand and pulled her atop the table. Plates and cups clattered to the floor. He took an obsidian dagger from his side, deadly sharp. With a single, deft stroke he sliced open her robes and left her naked save her bracelet. The robes fluttered to the table, making a bed for Alessa and Sallos; he laid her down and trailed his blade along her body, between her breasts and down to the shadow of dark hair between her legs. There he cut a lock of hair and clutched it in his fist. “My trophy,” he said.
Orias tightened his grip on my hand. “Now make her sing.”
Sallos threw down the knife. His mouth went where his blade had been. Alessa breathed out hard and began to moan. I watched—I could do nothing but watch, my gaze held captive. Alessa had closed her eyes; her lips glistened. Sallos rose and parted her legs farther with long-fingered hands. She reached for him, eager fingers opening his robes. He was bare beneath them, his sex proud. When he slid inside her, she let out a strangled sob of pleasure.
“Ranwell, it is your turn now.”
Ranwell stood, hands behind his back. He cleared his throat and then began to sing. The breath caught in my throat. I had never heard a voice so sweet, so clear. The Fair stole lords, and they stole bards—there was no question now why they had let Ranwell make his bargain. He sang “Three Hounds a Hunting,” and my hands ached for my smallharp that I might play along with his song. All the while, Sallos kept up his rhythm, and Alessa cried and writhed beneath him, her hands tangled in his mottled hair.
A howl cut through the song and through the moans then, and both stopped. Sallos drew away from Alessa; she lay back on the table, breathing heavily. Orias released my hand. Gone silent, Ranwell watched the door with wide eyes. Silhouettes appeared in it: one figure tall and broad, one tall and thin, followed by a crowd of slavering wolves. A few of the servants trailed in behind them, with eyes wide; it seemed even the Fair could be spooked.
“Is this how my sweet brother spends his nights?”
The wolves made their way around the tables. I froze, breaths shallow and rapid, but no one else seemed afraid. Indeed, the only expression I could read on Orias’s face was annoyance.
“Sweet sister,” he said, cool and calm as a frozen lake. “How…rare…that you honor us with your presence.”
The slender figure stepped into the circle of moonlight. She was as pale as bone with close-shorn hair the color of snow. She was lean and hard and wiry and wore scraps of leather and fur where the other Fair wore fine embroidered robes, but her face shared certain lines with Orias’s, the same proud mouth and pointed chin.
She was beautiful, I thought. Like lightning or a blizzard was beautiful—a beauty best seen from a distance. A big gray wolf stalked at her feet, its eyes gleaming. Her own eyes were entirely black, showing neither white nor iris.
“Are you not going to introduce me to your new plaything, Orias?” She looked down at me. I could read no feeling in her black, shining eyes—but I could guess that she saw me less as guest and more as prey.
“You’ve hardly cared before.” He sounded almost petulant.
“That is because I know them all.” She lifted a pale, perfect hand and pointed at each of the human guests in turn. “Andrey Richalmer, Ranwell Fulla, Alessa Fior. I saw you bring them to our home, and I marked well their names. This
one I do not know.”
“My name is Leith Inmer, milady.” I do not know where I had found the courage to speak.
One corner of her mouth lifted in something like a smile. “Leith Inmer. Very well. I am Beleth. Some call me the Bloodless. I will sit and feast with you.”
She took the seat beside me, where Alessa had sat before, and lifted Alessa’s wine cup to drain it in one swallow. Then she pounded the cup on the table. “More! And not this weak shit the next time.”
The little Fair serving children scrambled to meet her demand. The wolf pack gathered around her, and with them the figure that had stood behind her in the doorway.
He took up a place behind her left shoulder, like an honor guard. It was the man I’d glimpsed at the foot of the Citadel. There could be no mistaking him, so different from the half bloods and the Fair: broad and rough and human—unmistakably so. Was that the familiarity I had sensed about him? I wondered if Beleth had chosen him to contrast with her own pale, cutting beauty.
His black hair hung loose around his shoulders, and stubble shadowed a strong jaw; that much I had glimpsed already from a distance. Now I saw more of him: the keen angles of his eyebrows and cheekbones sharpened his broad, northern features, and his swordsman’s arms were crisscrossed with white scars. His muscular neck held another scar; I nearly winced when I saw it. It looked as if a collar of hot metal had once lain against his flesh. A red, angry mark encircled his neck like the shadow of a noose.
Will they make him take me?
The thought startled me. My throat felt suddenly tight, heartbeat too close to my skin.
I imagined one of the Fair laughing, saying Let’s have
this one make him sing
and cups clattering to the ground as he swept the table clean and laid me down on the wood, taking his pleasure of me in front of the whole assembly. Would he use his sword to cut the clothes clean off me?
His gaze fell on mine; he’d caught me at my staring. They were mismatched, those eyes, one dark and one blue as old ice—but both cold with contempt. For a wild moment I feared he’d plucked the errant thought right from my head and found it offended him.
I felt the blood come rushing to my cheeks. At least it won’t show on my skin, I thought. Not in this light. With slow deliberation, I turned away from his gaze, trying for something like dignity, trying to look as if I hadn’t imagined him taking his pleasure of me a moment before.
Alessa had gathered the remnants of her robe around her and found a spot across the table, as far from Beleth as she could go without leaving the circle of Orias’s friends. Sallos was with her, an arm slung around her shoulders almost protectively. Ranwell remained where he stood, his mouth still open until I glanced in his direction; he clapped it closed and moved behind Orias with slow, shuffling steps.
A girl had appeared with a dusty carafe; she poured a wine so thick and dark into Beleth’s cup that it seemed like mingled ink and mud. Beleth took a swallow, then offered me the cup.
I felt rather than saw Orias stiffen behind me. I looked over my shoulder at him, remembering the flowers, but he did not save me from his sister’s hospitality. I took the cup from her hand and sipped carefully at the wine.
“What’s the matter?” Beleth’s voice was mocking. “It isn’t poison.”
Emboldened, I took a swallow. The wine tasted strange—sweet and spicy with an undertone of copper. It warmed my gullet on the way down. I handed the cup back; she snatched it from my fingers and finished this one in one swallow as well, then tossed the cup over her shoulder.
The man behind her caught it deftly, snatching it out of the air, and set it down beside her on the table. “You’ve broken enough of your brother’s things,” he said. His voice was low and gruff with a trace of a northern accent. I thought he might hail from the Second City or the windblown steppes outside its walls.
“I can break what I like. This is my house.” She turned her eyes on me again and smiled. It was the smile of a wolf baring its teeth before the kill.
“Beleth,” Orias said with a long-suffering sigh, “what are you doing here?”
“The moon is high,” she said, “and I have a need for food and drink. Once in a while even I want to sit among my…peers and share their meat. Besides”—she looked over her shoulder, still grinning—“I think poor Ash was growing lonely.”
The man behind her—Ash
—barked out something like a laugh.
“In that case you are welcome,” Orias said, “though I wish you would not bring your entire pack with you wherever you go.”
pack?” She laughed. “Well, it’s Ash who feeds them and keeps them, but perhaps you are right. He might be their nanny, but they are my
A few of the wolves had leaped onto the table to finish off the last scraps of meat that remained. One had laid its dark head in a Fair lord’s lap and gone to sleep. Another was relieving itself against a chair.
“Of course they are.” The sweetness of Orias’s voice could have curdled milk. “If they are your children, it makes them my nieces and nephews, after all.”
Beleth snorted. “We gave your last niece
to the Lords of Hell as tribute.”
He stiffened. “Such talk is no longer fit for the feast table, sweet sister.”
“Of course. Not anymore.” Her black eyes slid again in my direction. “So what does this one do?”
“Leith is the son of a castle lord. He plays the harp and fences passing well.”
To hear me so summed up by Orias’s clipped words gave me pause. Was that all I was? What had I done in life, save give myself to the Fair?
“Perhaps I should have him fence with Ash. What do you think, brother?”
I surreptitiously glanced over at the scarred, broad-shouldered man. He wore a sword at his back, a great clumsy-looking thing of polished bronze. I doubted he had learned the southern, lordly style, but one hit with that sword, and I’d be laid out flat—I had no doubt of it.
“I will not have him hurt,” Orias said. “He is my guest, Beleth.”
“And your little peach to bruise, of course, of course.” She shrugged. “But he could at least play for us, no?”
“Of course.” His voice was icy. “I will send someone to fetch his harp.”
“That would be very kind of you, little brother. Very kind indeed.”
A Fair serving boy with hair the color of moss came running shortly, my smallharp in his hands. He handed it over to me with solemn ceremony. I took it; it felt snug and right in my hands. I hadn’t realized how much I’d missed it on the journey from Castle Calish to the Citadel. I breathed out a sigh, almost of relief. For a moment I didn’t even see Beleth’s black eyes on me.
“Well then, Leith,” Orias said, almost nervously. “Will you play for my sister?”
“What song shall I play, my lord?”
“Why don’t you ask me that?” Beleth’s lip twitched in another wolfish smile. “It is me that you are playing for, lord’s son.”
I forced myself to meet her gaze. “Of course. What would you like to hear, milady?”
She waved her hand. “Play one of your human songs—something that you find suitable. Surprise
“Beleth—” A warning note sounded in Orias’s voice.
“Quiet, little brother. I want to hear the lord’s son play.”
I adjusted the smallharp’s pegs, caressed its neck, took a breath, and began.