Chapter 21

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"The nerve of that arrogant, pointy-antlered, stubborn... jackass!" Ria snarled, hardly caring where her feet took her, decaying hallways and vestibules sliding by. The boost of adrenaline was slow to subside, magnifying the seismic trembling coursing through her small frame. Fear made her angry and that anger quickly caught on the dry tender of her already frayed nerves, creating a cascading brush fire of ranting temper.

Twelve days.

Twelve loathsome, agonizing, brutal days under the barrier and nothing had gotten easier. So many sleepless, anxiety-fueled nights had long ago started taking their toll. She remained in a constant state of pins-and-needles, expecting the next moment, the next encounter, to be her last. That level of mortal awareness ate away at her, tearing her down like she was a rusted spring under tremendous pressure.

Hissy had been right. She hadn't picked a fight with that hill-with-legs. All she'd done was climb a holly tree and break off a healthy branch before stopping for water. She hadn't meant to stay so long, but her thirst was a constant tormentor, quenched sporadically through gathered puddles of dew or sucked on leaves. One or two gulps was like a soothing balm for her soul but it had cost her.

"He's the master here, not me, but he makes it sound like I'm pissing in his roses just to spite him! 'She needs to learn the territory lines'," Ria mocked, throwing her voice. "Well, who the hell is going to do that? I don't know fae laws. I don't know the customs. I'm doing the best I can with the cards I've been dealt and actually putting in the work while he stalks me from the shadows!"

Ria angrily kicked a stone out of her path, stuck in the memory of all those times she'd caught men watching her with a condescending half-smile while she labored under a heavy crate or juggled an order. It was a not-so-subtle lesson on how much they were needed, a cruel game of manipulation and embarrassment.

Orin was no different.

Every day he watched as she struggled in the mud, foreign magic scorching her skin, turning her blood into buzzing hornets in her veins. Every day he watched her attempt to learn the lay of the land, to get her bearings, to eat, to survive. Every day he was there, looming in the background like an unwanted gargoyle, always silent, always judging, his eyes as cold and empty as black ice under a new moon. The only creature civil enough to give Ria the time of day was Hissy.

"I have a mind to choke him with the holly we gathered. Or beat him with it. Yule tidings and all that shit. No good deed goes unpunished in Tree Spring." Ria said to Hissy, sending another rock careening down the mossy hall.

Beside her, the madag trotted in tense silence, worrying about the carry of Ria's voice but understanding her anger. She felt it too, though in starkly different ways. Just like Ria, she was angry with Orin as much as she was angry with herself. Teaching a human how to live in Tree Spring was harder than it seemed. But regardless of her shortcomings as a teacher, Hissy knew Orin would never treat another fae with such cold indifference, and that bothered her. Tree Spring was neutral ground. Everyone had a chance to live equally. It was the foundation of fae law in this region, and Orin was failing to uphold it.

"My, aren't we an arrogant, upright monkey."

Both Ria and Hissy spun. Bracken lounged atop the remnants of a fat pillar, barely visible against the creeper vines and moss carpeting the bone-white stone. His glowing eyes blinked in the shadows like emerald gems, dangling leg swinging with an easy kind of grace.

"Orin did you a favor stopping the mound-dweller," he continued lazily.

"Orin needs to stop doing favors for me if that's the reaction I get."

Bracken sighed deeply, dragging out his exhale. "I shouldn't expect gratitude from a creature whose purpose in creation is to be a parasite."

Feeling the barb strike a nerve, Ria bared her teeth, shoulders bunching. "Oh, I have no doubt, according to you, I should be thankful I'm alive. I should worship the ground you and Orin walk on and thank my lucky stars I'm not someone's dinner, praising the ancient fae for their benevolence."

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