I nodded, still not trusting my voice. I glanced around the room and saw that Titania was gone, which was probably a good thing. The less she and I saw of one another, the more likely I’d survive to adulthood.
It took a while for the implications of the Erlking’s words to sink in. All your wounds are healed, he’d said. Meaning the burn, too?
“The mark would have finished repairing itself in another day or two,” he said, answering my unspoken question. “I merely sped it along.”
“So Ethan’s face will heal, too?” I asked, and discovered my voice was hoarse and my throat raw. How much had I screamed? I didn’t want to know.
He nodded. “When Titania releases him, I will fix his mark as well. I’m sure he will be more pleasing to your eye without a suppurating wound on his face.”
“And coincidentally, he’ll be a lot easier for you to control.”
“Maybe, maybe not.”
I frowned at him. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I have a proposition for you.”
I quickly scrambled to my feet, and although dizziness threatened to swamp me again, I gritted my teeth and fought through it. “Oh, no!” I snapped, taking a step back from him. “No more of your propositions!”
He laughed and stayed seated. I was severely tempted to call the magic back. The Erlking was an independent power, not a member of the Seelie Court, which meant he wasn’t covered under my agreement with Titania.
“I think you’ll want to hear this proposition,” he said.
No, I didn’t exactly want to hear it. But I wasn’t sure I could afford not to hear it. Damn him!
The Erlking must have sensed my capitulation, though I didn’t say anything. Keeping a careful eye on me—if I didn’t know better, I might almost think he was afraid of me—he rose to his feet. I had to practically crane my neck to meet his eyes.
“I’ve come to know you rather well over the course of our acquaintance,” he said in that deep, rumbly voice of his.
Way too well, in my opinion. Half the time I swore he could predict my actions before I had a clue what I was going to do.
“I once thought I could persuade you to fulfill our agreement over time, but now I’m not so sure.”
“But you can’t go back on our agreement, right?” I asked in alarm.
He patted the air with his hand in a calming gesture. “No, no, that’s not where I’m going with this.”
I’d have let out a breath of relief if I didn’t suspect that wherever he was going with this was going to be worse.
“You have obviously become very protective of Elizabeth,” he continued.
Yeah, I was so protective of her that I’d given her up. Twice.
“You did not accept Titania’s proposal that you pledge allegiance to the Seelie Court, and therefore you are free to warn Elizabeth about me.”
I’d been trying not to think about that, but of course I never seemed to be able to avoid unpleasantness for long.
“I haven’t forgotten you hold Connor hostage,” I said, staring at the floor in hopes that Arawn wouldn’t read anything in my face. Because I was going to have to make a choice between protecting Elizabeth and protecting Connor, and I wasn’t sure what choice I’d end up making. Connor was my brother, but Elizabeth had already been through so much in her short life. I felt so sorry for her I could almost taste it.
“But perhaps that isn’t enough to persuade you to hold your tongue,” the Erlking said.
So much for trying to hide what I was thinking.
“Besides,” he said, his voice gentling, “Connor has been a member of my Hunt for many centuries. As I’ve tried to tell you, I’m not the monster you think I am. I can like and dislike people just as anyone else can, and I like Connor. I would very much prefer not to be forced to hurt him for something that is not his fault. I will do it if you force my hand, but I don’t wish to. Do you understand?”
I was too exhausted to manage much of a glare, but I did the best I could. “Yeah, I get it. It would hurt you as much as it would hurt him, blah, blah, blah.”
Arawn’s lips twitched like he was suppressing a smile. “My proposal is this: I will unconditionally release Ethan from the Hunt and from my service. I will remove my mark from him, and it will be like his capture never happened.”
Suddenly, my knees felt all weak and wobbly again, and I hurried to sit in one of the chairs before I collapsed. “Would that mean…?” I couldn’t even speak the words, almost afraid of the answer.
“It means Ethan would no longer be my hostage. It means I could no longer bind him to my Hunt should you bestow your virginity upon another.”
To be freed from my agreement with the Erlking … My mind could barely encompass what that would mean.
In the weeks since I’d made my devil’s bargain, I’d tried to resign myself to a truly depressing future. I would never be able to have sex without losing Ethan to the Wild Hunt, and even if he and I broke up someday, I’d never have been willing to sacrifice him like that. I’d tried to convince myself that I could stand the idea of dying a virgin, that I could still have a good life even if I could never hope to get married or have kids or even have anything resembling a normal relationship with a guy. I hadn’t had any success fooling myself.
“You’re too strong-willed for me to believe you will ever give yourself to me,” the Erlking said. “There seems little point in keeping our agreement intact.”