Mara raised the knife up from where it rested at her hip and leveled it from her shoulder pointing to him.

She quirked an eyebrow, daring him for another go.

This time they went slowly, testing each other, purely experimental. None of the heaving breaths and rapid pace from before.

“I don’t understand this Tithe. What does that mean?” Mara asked as she parried a swipe from him with a soft ting.

He tried again but still she blocked, “They capture and sacrifice a mortal, someone of interest or importance. A poet they favor, or a mortal with the Second Sight, or- or someone close to the Court.

“Sometimes they will change the mortal into a faery like them. More often than not, though-”

Mara stabbed up and in, forcing him to leap back.

“Death,” she finished for him.

“When the ritual is completed, the Solitary fae, the less powerful and those without noble consideration are bound to the Court as subjects, like a Vow but it only remains for seven years, in which the ritual must repeat itself anew.”

Deaglan tried the angled strike that defeated him before, but they both knew that at this slow speed she could see it coming a mile away and easily counter it.

She slid back and they circled again.

“And the Solitary agree to this?”

“In a sense. The Court offers protections, revelry, wine and a continued disdain for the mortals of the city. It’s… a begrudging accord.”

She leapt in, blocked, another jump, parried, spun, turned, laid the knife at the side of his neck once again.

“And has the Tithe ever not been completed?”

“Only the once, long before us both. It was madness absolute, the province – maybe even the whole country barely survived it. This time, though, we will.”

Deaglan suddenly dropped down to kneel to the ground and swept up one of her hands in his.

“Hear this, my Vow. I swear to you, my Faehunter, that no undue harm will befall you, that I shall devote all that I am, all that I may to your cause. If it is within my power, I will protect you in all ways until the time comes that you no longer require my service.”

Mara’s breath caught in her throat. A Vow. Deaglan was no faery, but it was evident that he spent enough time around them to understand the true weight of such words.

It had been said that a faery Vow must be completed or upheld at all costs, otherwise that faery’s magic will wane until they die. A mortal being bound in such a way was impossible, but the gesture was the same.

He swore his everything to her.

She squeezed his hand, tugging him up.

“Thank you, Deaglan. It means a lot to know I have you by my side.”

“Now and always, Faehunter.”