Even in my shocky and exhausted state of mind, it wasn’t hard to guess what the catch was. “You mean now that you know there’s another Faeriewalker you can prey on. One who’s more likely to give you what you want.”
“Indeed. In return for Ethan’s release, you will accept a geis that will prevent you from revealing my secret.”
“So I can gain my freedom, but only if I make no attempt to warn Elizabeth away from you.” I felt tears of anger and frustration building in my eyes and fought to keep them from falling.
He nodded. His eyes looked almost kind, but it was a total lie. “One of the hardest lessons to learn in life is that you cannot save everyone. I think that lesson is particularly hard for you.”
A part of me knew he was right, but I refused to give up without a fight. I hummed a note. The magic came to my call, but it felt sluggish, and the room spun around me. The Erlking didn’t look even mildly alarmed.
“Magic takes its toll,” he said, “and you’ve used a lot of it today.”
“I bet I can manage one more spell,” I panted, though I wasn’t so sure. I barely had hold of any magic at all right now, and I suspected it took rather a lot to cast my special spell.
The Erlking sat down, completely relaxed despite what he’d seen my magic do earlier. “I honestly don’t think your spell will work on me.”
Like he would tell me if he thought it would.
His brow creased in thought, and he hesitated as if trying to pick his words carefully. “I was not born,” he said. “I have no parents, no memories of childhood, no memories of being anything other than what I am now. There’s a reason I’m immortal, and I think it may be that I’m not exactly alive in the first place. I am a force of nature, or a construct of magic, or an integral element of Faerie. But I am not something that can be killed.”
I let the magic go, but only because my whole body was shaking with the strain of trying to hold even a thimbleful of it. The Erlking sounded sincere, and maybe he really believed what he was saying. But I certainly wouldn’t put it past him to be making this up to discourage me from casting my spell. As far as I could tell, he’d never outright lied to me, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t.
“You have saved your friends and you have saved your father, against all odds,” he said. “Be content with that. Let Titania shoulder the burden of protecting Elizabeth. Titania and I have danced this dance before many times. Sometimes I win, sometimes she does. But in any case, you do not leave the child undefended if you look out for your own best interests for once.”
I hate giving up. Maybe I’m just a naturally contrary person, but I always feel like there’s a solution to every problem if only I dig deep enough. But I was tired of digging. Tired, period.
“What about Connor?” I asked. Part of my current agreement with the Erlking was that he’d let Connor go if and when I actually fulfilled my part.
“Do you honestly mean to suggest that one day you would have done what was necessary to free him?”
I sighed, my shoulders slumping. “No.” My voice was little more than a defeated whisper.
“He has been bound to me, to the Wild Hunt, for most of his life. I’m not certain how he would have fared had you managed to free him. Let him be.”
“And your mark? Will you get it off of me?”
He shook his head. “You have amply demonstrated your power, and it’s true that when word reaches Mab of what you can do, she might hesitate to attack you. But she might not. She is more capricious than Titania. You can still use my mark to summon me, should you ever need me. Even if we void our agreement, I am still your ally.” His face broke into a smile. “Whether you want me as one or not.”
I made an undignified snorting sound.
The Erlking pulled his knife out of his boot. Titania must have given it back to him after she finished slicing me open with it. I really wasn’t looking forward to another blood oath.
“We can seal our new bargain with a kiss, if you’d prefer,” the Erlking said, but not like he thought I’d go for it.
I shook my head and held out my hand, wincing in anticipation. “Let’s just get this over with.”
By the time I’d finished swearing my new oath with the Erlking, I was so exhausted it was all I could do to stay conscious. My legs refused to hold me up, and the Erlking ended up carrying me to the bedroom I’d shared so briefly with Kimber when we’d first arrived at the palace. We seemed to make it there in about ten seconds, which made me suspect I’d lost consciousness along the way, and the moment he laid me on the bed, sleep dragged at me so hard I couldn’t resist. The last thing I remembered was the Erlking sitting on the edge of the bed and prying off my filth-encrusted shoes.
My internal clock told me it was at least several hours later, if not a whole day or more, when I next woke up. My head felt about three feet thick, and my mouth tasted like something had crawled in there and died. My eyes were all crusty with sleep when I blinked them open.
Sunlight was pouring in the windows, confirming my guess that I’d been out for a long time. I tried a tentative stretch, which every muscle in my body objected to. I still felt like I could sleep another week, but as my brain cells began to wake up one by one and I started remembering everything that had happened, sleep seemed like a less likely option.
Licking my lips, trying to get the bad taste out of my mouth, I propped myself up on my elbows and looked around. Tears stung my eyes when I saw Kimber curled up on a poofy chair, her nose buried in an ancient-looking book that probably weighed as much as I did. She was so absorbed in the book she didn’t even notice me moving.