Chapter 22

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That plan wound up requiring heights and a rigorous climb into the treacherous upper floors where willowy shoots of stunted trees and jagged spires of once soaring arched windows were held in place by ropes of ivy. The ground floor saw at least some daily traffic, keeping the scrub brush at bay. Higher up, there was nothing keeping the flora of Tree Spring from reclaiming its natural place.

Hissy made the assent look easy, hopping from one rock to the next with all the nimble grace of a squirrel. Ria wasn't nearly as surefooted or dexterous. Or light, for that matter, her human weight causing more than one shelf of gravel to slip out from under her and crash thunderously to earth, but she kept pace with her leafy guide, years of tree-climbing instinct keeping her aloft.

Overcoming the last shaky stretch of sinewy roots and crumbling granite, Ria hoisted herself onto the lip of a stable ledge and took a moment to catch her breath, half the castle and the yard beyond unrolling beneath her swinging feet. It was amazing how heights and physical exertion could bring things into perspective, distancing someone from their troubled mind. With each puff of wind, she could feel her anger cooling.

Perched like a lark in a bush, Ria took in the oddity of Tree Spring with the passive eye of an onlooker rather than a player in a deadly game of chance. Had this part of the castle not been so dilapidated and structurally unsafe-it was a wonder the crumbling mortar hadn't collapsed under its own weight eons ago-Ria might have actually entertained the idea of moving her sleeping space up here. No fae. No Orin. No connection to the riotous earth and its debilitating magic. Instead, it was quiet and secluded, only the monstrous canopy of the great tree and the old skeletal bones of a long-dead castle for company.

"What a magnificent prison I find myself in," she sighed to no one in particular. Because at the end of the day, that's what Tree Spring was, and that understanding turned her temperamental mood gray.

For much of her life, all Ria had known was a cage. London had been a cage. A festering, burning corpse trapping her people behind bars of bureaucracy and mortal fear.

Then came Sors, a cage of a lighter degree but with bars of the same making as before. Couldn't leave. Couldn't put down roots. Always looking, waiting, anticipating the Huntsmen. Vigilance was her family's best weapon that failed them at the eleventh hour. Her parents swung like the rest of her kind.

And now here she was in yet another cage, in a beautiful prison filled with inmates who hated her with a vehemence that bordered on the obscene. Her stay would be the shortest but would cost her the most, and Ria felt old wounds breathed into fresh life. When was it her turn to hit back against the cards the universe dealt her?

"So what's this bright idea that's going to keep my soul from being sucked out by the fae court?" she asked instead of indulging the anger that not long ago had her swinging at a fae creature almost twice her size. Mal would have been proud.

Hissy scrunched her face in distaste, ears flattened. "Wow, you humans really don't understand how the fae work, do you?" Before Ria could metastasize an answer, the madag continued. "Step one was getting you out of sight and away from Orin. Don't need you two locking horns again."

"For what it's worth, he deserved it."

"You'll hear no argument from me." Hissy plopped down much like a puppy would, back toes pointed skyward. "The way I see it, I'm glad someone had the quills to put him back I his place. Anyway, no one comes up here for the ceremony. Even the lesser fae and our flying cousins stay close to the ground. They'll all be in the courtyard."

Ria nodded along, idly watching a mound-dweller lumber across the lawn like a hill given sentience and legs to move with. "Out of sight out of mind. So far so good. I assume there's a step two?"

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