Tessa had begun to tremble. This was what she had always wanted someone to say. What she had always, in the darkest corner of her heart, wanted Will to say. Will, the boy who loved the same books she did, the same poetry she did, who made her laugh even when she was furious. And here he was standing in front of her, tell ing her he loved the words of her heart, the shape of her soul. tell ing her something she had never imagined anyone would ever tell her. tell ing her something she would never be told again, not in this way. And not by him.
And it did not matter.
"It’s too late," she said.
"Don’t say that." His voice was half a whisper. "I love you, Tessa. I love you."
She shook her head. "Will. . . stop."
He took a ragged breath. "I knew you would be reluctant to trust me," he said. "Tessa, please, is it that you do not believe me, or is it that you cannot imagine ever loving me back? Because if it is the second-"
"Will. It doesn’t matter-"
"Nothing matters more!" His voice grew in strength. "I know that if you hate me it is because I forced you to. I know that you have no reason to give me a second chance to be regarded by you in a different light. But I am begging you for that chance. I Will do anything. A nything."
His voice cracked, and she heard the echo of another voice inside it. She saw Jem, looking down at her, all the love and light and hope and expectancy in the world caught up in his eyes.
"No," she whispered. "It isn’t possible."
"It is," he said desperately. "It must be. You cannot hate me as much as all that-"
"I don’t hate you at all," she said, with great sadness. "I tried to hate you, Will. But I could never manage it."
"Then, there’s a chance." Hope flared in his eyes. She should not have spoken so gently-oh, God, was there nothing that would make this less awful? She had to tell him. Now. Quickly. Cleanly. "Tessa, if you don’t hate me, then there’s a chance that you might-"
"Jem has proposed to me," she blurted out. "And I have said yes."
"I said that Jem proposed to me," she whispered. "He asked if I would marry him. And I said I would."
Will had gone shockingly white. He said, "Jem. My Jem?"
She nodded, without words to say.
Will staggered and put his hand on the back of a chair for balance. He looked like someone who had been suddenly, viciously kicked in the stomach. "When?"
"This morning. But we have been growing closer, much closer, for a long time."
"You-and Jem?" Will looked as if he were being asked to believe in something impossible-snow in summertime, a London winter without rain.
In answer, Tessa touched with her fingertips the jade pendant Jem had given her. "He gave me this," she said. Her voice was very quiet. "It was his mother’s bridal gift."
Will stared at it, at the Chinese characters on it, as if it were a serpent curled about her throat. "He never told me anything. He never said a word about you to me. Not that way." He pushed his hair back from his face, that characteristic gesture she had seen him make a thousand times, only now his hand was visibly shaking. "Do you love him?"
"Yes, I love him," she said, and she saw Will flinch. "Don’t you?"
"But he would understand," he said dazedly. "If we explained it to him. If we told him . . . he would understand."
For just a moment Tessa imagined herself drawing the pendant off, going down the hal way, knocking on Jem’s door. Giving it back to him. tell ing him she had made a mistake, that she could not marry him. She could tell him, tel him everything about herself and about Will -how she was not sure, how she needed time, how she could not promise him all of her heart, how some part of her belonged to Will and always would.
And then she thought of the first words she had ever heard Jem speak, his eyes closed, his back to her, his face to the moonlight. Will? Will, is that you? The way Will ‘s voice, his face, softened for Jem as it did for no one else; the way Jem had gripped Will ‘s hands in the infirmary while he’d bled, the way Will had called out James! when the warehouse automaton had knocked Jem down.
I cannot sever them, one from the other, she thought. I cannot be responsible for such a thing.
I cannot tell either of them the truth.
She imagined Jem’s face if she called off the engagement. He would be kind. Jem was always kind. But she would be breaking something precious inside him, something essential. He would not be the same afterward, and there would be no Will to comfort him. And he had so little time.
And Will ? What would he do then? Whatever he might think now, she knew that if she broke things off with Jem, even then, he would not touch her, would not be with her, no matter how much he loved her. How could he parade his love for her in front of Jem, knowing his happiness came at the cost of his best friend’s pain? Even if Will told himself he could manage it, to him she would always be the girl Jem loved, until the day Jem died. Until the day she died. He would not betray Jem, even after death. If it had been anyone else, anyone else in the world-but she did not love anyone else in the world.
These were the boys she loved. For better. And for worse.
She made her voice as cold as she could. As calm. "Told him what?"
Will only looked at her. There had been light in his eyes on the stairs, as he’d locked the door, when he’d kissed her-a bril iant, joyous light. And it was going now, fading like the last breath of someone dying. She thought of Nate, bleeding to death in her arms. She had been powerless then, to help him. As she was now. She felt as if she were watching the life bleed out of Will Herondale, and there was nothing she could do to stop it.
"Jem would forgive me," Will said, but there was hopelessness in his face, his voice, already. He had given up, Tessa thought; Will, who never gave up on any fight before it had started. "He . . ."
"He would," she said. "He could never stay angry at you, Will ; he loves you too well for that. I do not even think he would hold anger toward me. But this morning he told me he thought he would die without ever loving anyone as his father loved his mother, without ever being loved like that in return. Do you want me to go down the hal way and knock on his door and take that away from him? And would you love me still, if I did?"
Will looked at her for a long moment. Then he seemed to crumple inside, like paper; he sat down in the armchair, and put his face into his hands. "You promise me," he said. "That you love him. Enough to marry him and make him happy."
"Yes," she said.
"Then, if you love him," he said quietly, "please, Tessa, don’t tell him what I just told you. Don’t tell him that I love you."
"And the curse? He doesn’t know-"
"Please don’t tell him about that either. Nor Henry, nor Charlotte-no one. I must tell them in my own time, in my own way. Pretend I said nothing to you. If you care about me at all, Tessa . . ."
"I Will tell no one," she said. "I swear it. I promise it, on my angel. My mother’s angel. And, Will. . ."
He had lowered his hands, but he still could not seem to look at her. He was gripping the sides of the armchair, his knuckles white. "I think you had better go, Tessa."
But she could not bear to. Not when he was looking like that, like he was dying on the inside. More than anything else, she wanted to go and put her arms around him, to kiss his eyes closed, to make him smile again. "What you have endured," she said, "since you were twelve years old-it would have kil ed most people. You have always believed that no one loved you, that no one could love you, as their continued survival was proof to you that they did not. But Charlotte loves you. And Henry. And Jem. And your family.
They all have always loved you, Will Herondale, for you cannot hide what is good about yourself, however hard you try."
He lifted his head and looked at her. She saw the flame of the fire reflected in his blue eyes. "And you? Do you love me?"
Her nails dug into her palms. "Will," she said.
He looked at her, almost through her, blindly. "Do you love me?"
"I . . ." She took a deep breath. It hurt. "Jem has been right about you all this time. You were better than I gave you credit for being, and for that I am sorry.
Because if this is you, what you are truly like, and I think that it is-then you Will have no difficulty finding someone to love you, Will, someone for whom you come first in their heart. But I . . ."
He made a sound halfway between a choking laugh and a gasp. "’First in your heart,’" he said. "Would you believe that is not the only time you have said that to me?"
She shook her head, bewildered. "Will, I have not-"
"You can never love me," he said flatly, and when she did not respond, when she said nothing, he shuddered-a shudder that ran through his whole body-and pushed away from the armchair without looking at her. He stood up stiffly and crossed the room, groping for the bolt on the door; she watched with her hand across her mouth as, after what seemed like an age, he found it, fumbled it open, and went out into the corridor, slamming the door behind him.
Will, she thought. Will, is that you? The backs of her eyes ached.
Somehow she found that she was sitting on the floor in front of the grate of the fire. She stared at the flames, waiting for the tears to come. Nothing happened. After such a long time of forcing them back, it seemed, she had lost the ability to cry.
She took the poker from the fireplace iron holder and drove the tip of it into the heart of the burning coals, feeling the heat on her face. The jade pendant around her throat warmed, almost burning her skin.
She drew the poker out of the fire. It glowed as red as a heart. She closed her hand around the tip.
For a moment she felt absolutely nothing. And then, as if from a very great distance, she heard herself cry out, and it was like a key turned inside her heart, freeing the tears at last. The poker clattered to the ground.
When Sophie came dashing in, having heard her scream, she found Tessa on her knees by the fire, her burned hand pressed to her chest, sobbing as if her heart would break.
It was Sophie who took Tessa to her room, and Sophie who put her in her nightgown and then in bed, and Sophie who washed her burned hand with a cool flannel and bound it up with a salve that smelled like herbs and spices, the same salve, she told Tessa, that Charlotte had used on Sophie’s cheek when she had first come to the Institute.
"Do you think I’ll have a scar?" Tessa asked, more out of curiosity than because she cared one way or the other. The burn, and the weeping that had fol owed it, seemed to have seared and flooded all the emotion out of her.
She felt as light and hollow as a shell.
"Probably a bit of a one, not like I’ve got," said Sophie frankly, securing the bandage around Tessa’s hand. "Burns hurt worse than they are, if you catch my meaning, and I got to you quickly with the salve. You’l be all right."
"No, I won’t be," said Tessa, looking at her hand, and then over at Sophie.
Sophie, lovely as always, calm and patient in her black dress and white cap, her curls clustering around her face. "I’m sorry again, Sophie," she said. "You were right about Gideon, and I was wrong. I should have listened to you.
You’re the last person on earth inclined to be foolish over men. The next time you say someone is worth trusting, I Will believe you."
Sophie’s smile flashed out, the smile that made even strangers forget her scar. "I understand why you said it."
"I should have trusted you-"
"I shouldn’t have got so angry," Sophie said. "The truth is, I wasn’t sure myself what he was going to do. I wasn’t sure til he came back in the carriage with you all that he would side with us in the end."
"It must be nice, though," Tessa said, playing with the bedclothes, "that he’s going to live here. He’l be so close to you-"
"It Will be the worst thing in the world," Sophie said, and suddenly her eyes were full of tears. Tessa froze in horror, wondering what she could have said so wrong. The tears stood in Sophie’s eyes, without fal ing, making their green shimmer. "If he lives here, he’l see me as I really am. A servant." Her voice cracked. "I knew I should never have gone to see him when he asked me. Mrs. Branwel ‘s not the type to punish her servants for having fol owers and the like, but I knew it was wrong anyway, because he’s himself and I’m me, and we don’t belong together." She reached up a hand and wiped at her eyes, and then the tears did fall, spil ing down both her cheeks, the whole and the scarred one. "I could lose everything if I let myself-and what’s he stand to lose? Nothing."
"Gideon’s not like that."
"He’s his father’s son," Sophie said. "Who says that doesn’t matter? It’s not as if he was going to marry a mundane as it was, but to see me building up his fire, doing the washing-up-"
"If he loves you, he won’t mind all that."
"People always mind all that. They are not so noble as you think."
Tessa thought of Will with his face in his hands, saying, If you love him, please, Tessa, don’t tell him what I just told you. "One finds nobility in the oddest places, Soph. Besides, would you really want to be a Shadowhunter? Wouldn’t you rather-"
"Oh, but I do want it," said Sophie. "More than anything in the world. I always have."
"I never knew," Tessa said, marveling.
"I used to think if I married Master Jem-" Sophie picked at the blanket, then looked up and smiled bleakly. "You haven’t broken his heart yet, have you?"
"No," Tessa said. Just torn my own in two. "I haven’t broken his heart at all."
Chapter 21: Coals of Fire
O brother, the gods were good to you.
Sleep, and be glad while the world endures.
Be well content as the years wear through;
Give thanks for life, and the loves and lures;
Give thanks for life, O brother, and death,