We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from Lexi Ryan’s These Hollow Vows, a sexy, action-packed YA fantasy about a girl who is caught between two treacherous faerie courts and their dangerously seductive princes, available on July 20th from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Brie hates the Fae and refuses to have anything to do with them, even if that means starving on the street. But when her sister is sold to the sadistic king of the Unseelie court to pay a debt, she’ll do whatever it takes to get her back—including making a deal with the king himself to steal three magical relics from the Seelie court.
Gaining unfettered access to the Seelie court is easier said than done. Brie’s only choice is to pose as a potential bride for Prince Ronan, and she soon finds herself falling for him. Unwilling to let her heart distract her, she accepts help from a band of Unseelie misfits with their own secret agenda. As Brie spends time with their mysterious leader, Finn, she struggles to resist his seductive charm.
Caught between two dangerous courts, Brie must decide who to trust with her loyalty. And with her heart.
My body locks up in terror. The guards surrounding me are thickly muscled, with curling horns on their heads and forked tongues that dart out every few seconds like a frog’s would. Although I know the beautiful elven fae nobility are just as deadly as any, the sight of these sentries makes me want to run and hide. I wish I could disappear or become shadow, but any power I had in the queen’s palace eludes me now. A clawed hand closes around my wrist, and I yank my arm away. “Stop!” “No one makes the king wait.”
“I will speak to him only if I remain unharmed.”
The sentry holding my wrist snorts, unswayed by my threat, and two more like him step forward and grab my other arm.
“Release me.” My bravado turns to panic. “Let me go now, and I promise to follow you.”
Two of the guards exchange a look of amused bafflement. The third laughs and tells the others, “She thinks we trust her.”
Their hands pinch my arms and wrists as they lead me out of the room and down a dimly lit hallway. My panic rises with every turn.
They’re going to take me to the king, and he will throw me into a dungeon. They’re going to enslave me, just as they’ve enslaved so many humans. But worse than knowing that my own life is over is knowing that I failed to rescue Jas.
Suddenly they pull me into a room that is brighter than every hallway we’ve been in before. Globes of light dance high above my head to the rhythm of the music. Faeries of all kinds dance under the moonlight that shines in through a domed glass ceiling.
The Court of the Moon is beautiful beyond imagining, and the gathering before me is no drunken reverie. I pictured human sacrifices above great bonfires, torture in every corner, and curdling screams of pain. But this? This is a ball, as lovely as the one happening at the golden court, and though the guards escorting me are terrifying, the elven fae in their fine attire are as lovely as the nobility in the queen’s palace.
We enter, and the sentries drag me forward, as if they’ve been awaiting my arrival. The crowd hushes, then parts, revealing a polished ebony throne sitting atop a dais at the opposite end of the room. And standing beside it, his arms crossed, is a male who could be no other than King Mordeus.
Even from across the room I can see his silver eyes. He fixes them on me as I approach. Arrogance and entitlement roll off him in waves. He stands with his legs wide, oozing power and confidence. His dark hair is tied back at the nape of his neck save for two white braids that hang free, framing his sharp jaw and high cheekbones. If it weren’t for the cruelty gleaming in those eyes, I might call him beautiful. But those eyes…
A sharp chill runs through me. This is the male who bought my sister as if she were an item to be owned. This is a ruler who will stop at nothing to get what he believes is his.
He holds up a hand, and the music stops. The crowd falls silent. He crooks a finger. “Bring her to me.”
The sentries obey, dragging me to the dais faster than my feet will follow.
“Abriella, the Fire Girl,” the king says, his calculating eyes roaming over me possessively. “No one told me how pretty the human thief is.”
I want to spit and claw at him. This piece of evil may have already hurt Jasalyn—or worse. Maybe he sees that on my face because as the guards shove me forward, he laughs.
I stumble, but when I right myself, a sentry knocks me in the back of the knees, and I slam into the cold marble floor. “You will bow before His Majesty, King of the Shadows, Lord of the Night, Ruler of the Stars.”
Pain radiates up my legs, and when I try to stand, I can’t.
Invisible bonds force me to kneel before this wicked king.
Anger flares through me, as hot as the fire from my nightmares. For a beat, darkness floods the room, so thick that nothing is visible in any direction.
I gasp, and it’s gone. Is the king showing off? Trying to prove his power to a lowly human girl?
“Impressive,” the king says, smiling down on me. “So impressive.”
Is he complimenting his own magic? I lift my chin. They can force me to my knees, but I will fight them before I bow to their king.
“They said it couldn’t be done,” the king says. “They said no human could move through the Golden Palace undetected. But I knew. You’re special.”
“Where’s my sister?” My words are but a hiss of steam from the rage that boils inside me.
The king’s smile could be described as nothing but welcoming—the comforting expression of a friend who wants you to know that everything will be okay—but no smile can hide the ice in his eyes. “Your sister is safe. For now.”
“Why do you want her? You’re a faerie king. You can have any- one you choose. There are countless human women who would line up for a chance to be with you.” The fools, I add silently.
I wonder if he hears my thoughts, because he smirks and chuckles quietly. “I don’t want your sister.”
“Then why —” “I want you.”
I yank against the invisible bonds. “That makes no sense.” “Doesn’t it?”
“If you wanted me, why did you buy her?”
“Would you have come to me if I’d asked? Would you have done my bidding if I’d bought your contract instead of hers?” His gleaming eyes lock onto me with such intensity, I feel like he’s studying my soul. “No, a girl like you wouldn’t help me, not even to save her own life. But if you had to help, if your sister’s life depended on it…”
“Why would you need my help? You’re a faerie king. I’m a mortal girl.”
“Abriella, even you know you’re far more than that.” He toys with the end of one of his white braids. “You managed to sneak through the golden queen’s castle and wander her hallways. You found her portal and came through undetected. You have impressed even me, the Lord of the Night. I believe you can do a job for me that no one else can.”
“I doubt it,” I spit, then wish I could yank the words back. As long as he has my sister, I’m at his mercy, and he knows it. If this job is the only leverage I have to free Jas, I need him to believe I can do whatever he asks. “I won’t do anything as long as you have my sister prisoner. Send her home and I’ll talk to you about whatever help you need from me.”
“Home? You mean send her back to that moldy cellar beneath the witch’s cottage?” He laughs again, and this time the whole court laughs behind me. I hate them all. “You expect me to believe that if I release your sister, you will give your services freely?”
“You expect me to believe you’ll release her if I help you?”
He nods. “Of course. Yet you don’t have a choice but to believe. I think we can make a deal— a bargain if you will. In return for your services, I’ll let your sister go. I’ll send her home safely. But only after you return what the golden court has stolen.”
“Why not do this job yourself? You’re the all-powerful Lord of the Night.”
He grins, and again I’m rocked by his sinister beauty. “Thank you for the compliment, but I won’t abandon my throne to be an errand boy.”
I nod toward the sentry standing beside me. “Then send one of your guards.”
“This is not a job for a faerie.” He steeples his fingers and taps them together. “Queen Arya’s son is searching for a bride, a human bride. I believe Prince Ronan will find you quite to his liking.”
“What does the prince have to do with—”
He stops my words with a wave of his hand. Literally stops them. I’m moving my mouth, but no words are coming out. I grab my throat and glare at him with all the hate in my heart.
“Tomorrow,” the king continues, “the prince will choose a dozen young women to stay at the Golden Palace as potential brides. You’ll offer yourself as his bride and infiltrate my enemy’s court. While you’re trying to win young Ronan’s hand, you’ll retrieve some of my belongings that the queen has had for a bit too long now.” Another smile. “You will need to win the young prince’s heart and his trust to gain access to the magical artifacts that have been stolen from my court—you must bring all three to me if you want your sister to return home.”
Suddenly the magical gag on my voice is released. A cry slips from my lips before I can stop it. “You’re mad. I don’t know the first thing about winning a faerie’s heart.” And even if I did… Shudder. The idea of seducing a faerie makes my stomach churn. “What makes you so sure he’ll choose me out of the hundreds clamoring for the chance?”
The king laughs. “You need to understand that nothing in my realm is a coincidence, human. If you present yourself to the prince, he will do everything in his power to keep you close. He will give you the access you need.”
“I couldn’t even pretend to care for a faerie—”
“Do you want your sister back or not?” he snaps. His smile slips, revealing the fringes of a dangerous temper.
I swallow. “How do I know you even have her? How do I know this isn’t all a trick?”
He pulls a tiny pink swatch of fabric from his pocket and tosses it in front of me. “This is the best I can do.”
I choke back a sob and snatch the scrap of Jas’s sewing smock from the floor. “Let me see her.”
“You want me to trust Elora’s most talented thief with my most valuable possession? I wouldn’t dare. However”—he clasps his hands together and steps forward—“the first artifact you retrieve for me will allow you to see your sister. It’s a magical mirror. In it, you can see whatever you wish.”
“You want me to trust a mirror?”
He arches a brow as if to say, You want me to trust you?
“Let me see my sister, and then we can discuss this task you have for me.” What if he doesn’t have her?
What if he’s hurting her right now? What if she’s already gone? The thought makes the simmering rage steam in my blood. “You’ve gone to a lot of trouble to get me here, so the least you can do is take me to my sister. This isn’t negotiable.”
“You think you’re in position to negotiate?”
I yank against my invisible bonds again. When they don’t budge, I spit at him. Mordeus’s eyes flash and his nostrils flare. He lifts his open hand in my direction and sends a ball of darkness rolling toward me.
I jerk away from it, but I’m too late. The moment it hits me, I find myself in a brightly lit room that smells faintly of mildew and urine. My thin dress does nothing to insulate me from the ice- cold stone floor, and my teeth chatter as I push to my feet.
Where am I?
There are no windows, no doors. At least none that I can see. Just four stone walls, a stone floor, and blinding light that seems to pour from the ceiling. Does the shadow court use light to torture their prisoners?
Shaking—half with cold, half with rage—I walk the perimeter of the room, pushing against the walls, searching for cracks between stones, anything, but I don’t see a way out.
I wrap my arms around myself and squint against the light as I try to make out a trapdoor above me. This must be some sort of oubliette, but all I can see above me is blinding brightness. “Hello?” My voice echoes off the stone. “Is anyone there?”
“I demand to speak with the king!”
I kick the wall, and pain lashes through my foot. “Get me out of here!”
I stare at my hands, willing them to disappear into shadow the way they did at the castle, but there’s no shadow here. There’s no darkness to hide in or slip through.
I slide down the wall and wrap my arms around my legs. I’m so tired. I haven’t slept since the few hours I got on Nik’s floor before running from Gorst’s men, and a full day has passed since I came through the portal.
I don’t have the energy for tears, and my rage ate up what little I did have. I’m drained from my journey, but I refuse to believe I’m stuck. I didn’t come all this way for nothing.
I rest my head on my knees and close my eyes. I imagine my sister curled in a ball in a room much like this one, crying herself to sleep. I think of the tenderness in Sebastian’s eyes as he gave me the crystal pendant of protection. When he returns to Fairscape, what will he think when I’m not there?
I’m two places at once. Two people at once. I’m the sleeping would- be rescuer curled against the wall in Mordeus’s oubliette, the girl who failed to save her sister. And I’m the eight-year-old protector, the girl who’s snuggled under the blankets with my little sister, spoon-feeding her hope so she doesn’t drown in the sadness.
Dreams can be so strange. I know I’m dreaming, but I don’t want to wake up. Because Jas is with me in this dream. And if she’s with me, she’s safe.
We’re in the upstairs bedroom that we shared before Uncle Devlin died, and I wipe away her tears as she cries. She’s missing Mother tonight. I am too, but my grief will only intensify hers, so I lock it up tight and brush her chestnut hair from her eyes.
“I miss her,” Jas says on a shaky sob.
“I bet she misses us too,” I whisper. “So much that she’s planning a way to come get us.”
Jas sniffles. “Tell me a story?”
I sweep her hair from her face and weave a story of faerie castles and elven royalty. The story comes, and I feel like it’s important, but it’s almost like I’m watching myself from a distance. I can’t make out my own words. They’re as fuzzy as a murmur from another room.
Jas grips my hand, and I know I’ve gotten to an exciting part. “Now what?” she asks.
“The cruel king waits for the day the princess of shadows will come to his castle.” I’d forgotten this tale— one our mother told us only once, the night before she left for Faerie. “The false king knew she could command the shadows, but he didn’t know that her big heart and her endless love would cost him his throne.”
Jasalyn closes her eyes, and her face softens with sleep. I don’t know if she’s dreaming or half awake when she says, “The prince will help you find me.”
I blink away from her to the darkness at the foot of the bed. The silver-eyed male I saw at the ball is there and then gone, flickering like a fading, precious memory.
“Who told you that story?” he asks. He’s more shadow than corporeal.
I sit up and smile at him, oddly comforted by his appearance and my sister’s words. I feel safe here, under the intense gaze of this faerie who is all but a stranger to me. I feel less alone. The prince will help you find me. I climb out of bed and tuck the blankets around Jas. “Our mother told us many stories.”
“Then why do you feel so powerless?”
Suddenly our bedroom becomes the cold, doorless, windowless cell in the evil king’s castle. And I remember. I’m a prisoner. This is a dream. “Because I am.”
Something like anger flashes in those silver eyes, and then I’m standing beneath a vast, starry sky, the moon a comforting bea-con over my shoulder.
The silver-eyed faerie fully materializes, as if strengthened by the starlight. His dark curls are pulled back from his face and his brow is creased with worry. “You’re only powerless if you believe you are.” He sneers as he looks me over, and in his eyes I see a reflection of starlight. “We don’t have much time.”
“He won’t let you go—he won’t release either of you—until you agree. I’ll help you get her back. Come find me.”
“You’re Unseelie. Why would I want your help? You’re probably working for him.”
His eyes flash. “Never. I swear it on my magic.” He blinks and turns his head. “They’re coming.”
He disappears, and the dark night around me is erased by too-bright light.
“Wake up, Fire Girl.” The command is followed by a dry cackle, and I open my eyes.
A goblin stands in the center of the cell. He grins down at me, his gnarled fingers extended toward my hair, his bulging eyes bright with excitement. But I’m still half in my dreamworld and can barely focus on the creature before me.
Why did I dream of that faerie? He had seemed so real. Why hadn’t I dreamed of Sebastian giving me advice— or Jasalyn? Or anyone I knew?
The goblin offers his hand, pulling me from my thoughts.
“The king believes a night’s sleep may have made you change your mind. We go to him now.”
My instinct is to refuse, but what will that accomplish?
Nodding, I take his bony hand. I’m still crouched on the ground when we appear in the throne room again. Unlike last night, the room is empty except for Mordeus, who stands before his throne like he’s been pacing. Despite the bright morning sun pouring in through the windows and the domed glass ceiling, the space seems bigger and colder.
“Has the mortal reconsidered my offer?” King Mordeus asks his goblin, his eyes hard. A ruler who doesn’t tolerate being refused.
My stomach hurts, but I force myself to take one deep breath after another. I don’t trust faeries, and I specifically don’t trust this one, but I do trust my dreams. I swear it on my magic. Did my mother once tell me that a faerie can’t break a promise made on their power? I have to believe that my subconscious pulled this information from my memories for a reason.
I push myself off the floor only to be bound by those invisible chains again. I have to bite my lip to keep from snarling at him. “I have reconsidered.”
Pretend I want to marry the prince so I can infiltrate the castle, steal a few magical faerie artifacts, and free my sister. I can do this. “If I retrieve these three artifacts and return them to…” I hesitate. I don’t want to give anything to this male who thinks human girls are objects to be purchased, and some instinct has me subtly reworking his terms. “If I return the artifacts to the Unseelie Court, you will return my sister safely to a location of my choice in the human realm.” It’s not a question. These are my terms.
His silver eyes glow. He knows he’s won. “You have my word, Fire Girl.”
“Swear it on your power.”
He flinches, and his features harden for a beat before he replaces his friendly mask. “Who told you about that?”
I shrug. “Everyone knows,” I lie. “Unfortunately, it’s the only way I can trust you.”
“Fine. With one caveat. If you tell anyone from the Seelie Court about this arrangement, our bargain is over and I’ll give your sister to my goblins as a solstice gift. Do you understand?”
Who would I tell? The only soul I trust in this realm is Jasalyn. “I understand.”
He smiles. “We have a deal then. Once the three artifacts are returned to my court where they belong, I will send your sister safely back to a location of your choice in the human realm.”
“Alive,” I snap. It seems like safe should cover that, but I won’t allow him to work a loophole.
“Alive. I swear it on my power.” With a snap of his fingers, a silver-gilded mirror appears in his hand. “This is a replica of the Mirror of Discovery. When you find it, replace it with this so the queen won’t know it’s missing.”
“What happens when she realizes it’s a fake?”
He shakes his head. “Only one with Unseelie blood can tell the difference.”
“Where will I find this mirror?”
He shrugs. “All I know is that Arya has hidden it away in the Seelie Court. You may have to search to get your hands on it, but that shouldn’t be a problem for someone who found her portal.” He smirks and offers me the mirror. “You may stand.”
I shift experimentally and find that the invisible bonds have slipped away. Standing, I realize I’m still clutching the scrap of Jas’s smock in one hand. I take the mirror in the other, willing myself not to shake. “Will I bring it to you through the portal once I’ve found it?”
“The portal’s been… disabled.” His goblin laughs, and Mordeus smirks in his direction. “My goblin will retrieve you and it when the time is right.”
I don’t enjoy feeling like the butt of a joke, but I let my pride get the best of me last night and lost hours — hours I could have been searching for the mirror. If I get to take my sister home, they can laugh at me all they want.
“What are the other two artifacts?”
“Focus on one task at a time, my girl. I will tell you the second when I have the first.”
He claps his hands, and a trio of elven fae females appear around me. They share the king’s pale skin but have short, light blue hair. “Dress Abriella for the Seelie Court. Make her look like his future queen, then return her to the Golden Palace.”
The three females bow their heads in acquiescence. “Yes, Your Majesty,” they say in unison. One takes my arm, and I follow them toward a door in the back of the room.
“Abriella,” the king says. I stop and turn to him, meeting his eyes. “When you meet Prince Ronan, remember that you need him. Hold his trust, or you will be unable to infiltrate his court.”
“I understand my mission.”
He spreads his fingers, and a ball of darkness bleeds like an inkblot between them. “You’ll be fine if you remember what’s at stake.” The ball of darkness shifts until it’s not darkness at all, but an image of Jasalyn and me sitting on the floor at Madame V’s. She’s in her pajamas, and she looks like she just crawled out of bed. The smile on her face makes me step closer to that image, despite the man holding it.
He adds, “Or, I should say… who.”
Excerpted from These Hollow Vows, copyright © 2021 by Lexi Ryan.