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A few days before the wedding ceremony, guests began arriving, and I was grateful that I’d never be High Lady, never be Tamlin’s equal in responsibility and power.
A small, forgotten part of me roared and screamed at that, but …
Dinner after dinner, luncheons and picnics and hunts.
I was introduced and passed around, and my face hurt from the smile I kept plastered there day and night. I began looking forward to the wedding just knowing that once it was over, I wouldn’t have to be pleasant or talk to anyone or do anything for a week. A month. A year.
Tamlin endured it all—in that quiet, near-feral way of his—and told me again and again that the parties were a way to introduce me to his court, to give his people something to celebrate. He assured me that he hated the gatherings as much as I did, and that Lucien was the only one who really enjoyed himself, but … I caught Tamlin grinning sometimes. And truthfully, he deserved it, had earned it. And these people deserved it, too.
So I weathered it, clinging to Ianthe when Tamlin wasn’t at my side, or, if they were together, letting the two of them lead conversations while I counted down the hours until everyone would leave.
“You should head to bed,” Ianthe said, both of us watching the assembled revelers packing the great hall. I’d spotted her by the open doors thirty minutes ago, and was grateful for the excuse to leave the gaggle of Tamlin’s friends I’d been stuck talking to. Or not talking to. Either they outright stared at me, or they tried so damn hard to come up with common topics. Hunting, mostly. Conversation usually stalled after three minutes.
“I’ve another hour before I need to sleep,” I said. Ianthe was in her usual pale robe, hood up and that circlet of silver with its blue stone atop it.
High Fae males eyed her as they meandered past where we stood by the wood-paneled wall near the main doors, either from awe or lust or perhaps both, their gazes occasionally snagging on me. I knew the wide eyes had nothing to do with my bright green gown or pretty face (fairly bland compared to Ianthe’s). I tried to ignore them.
“Are you ready for tomorrow? Is there anything I can do for you?” Ianthe sipped from her glass of sparkling wine. The gown I wore tonight was a gift from her, actually—Spring Court green, she’d called it. Alis had merely lingered while I dressed, unnervingly silent, letting Ianthe claim her usual duties.
“I’m fine.” I’d already contemplated how pathetic it would be if I asked her to permanently stay after the wedding. If I revealed that I dreaded her leaving me to this court, these people, until Nynsar—a minor spring holiday to celebrate the end of seeding the fields and to pass out the first flower clippings of the season. Months and months from now. Even having her live at her own temple felt too removed.
Two males that had circled past twice already finally worked up the courage to approach us—her.
I leaned against the wall, the wood digging into my back, as they flanked Ianthe. Handsome, in the way that most of them were handsome, armed with weapons that marked them as two of the High Fae who guarded Tamlin’s lands. Perhaps they even worked under Ianthe’s father. “Priestess,” one said, bowing deep.
By now, I’d become accustomed to people kissing her silver rings and beseeching her for prayers for themselves, their families, or their lovers. Ianthe received it all without that beautiful face shifting in the slightest.
“Bron,” she said to the one on her left, brown-haired and tall. “And Hart,” she said to the one on her right, black-haired and built a bit more powerfully than his friend. She gave a coy, pretty tilt of her lips that I’d learned meant she was now on the hunt for nighttime companionship. “I haven’t seen you two troublemakers in a while.”
They parried with flirtatious comments, until the two males began glancing my way.
“Oh,” Ianthe said, hood shifting as she turned. “Allow me to introduce Lady Feyre.” She lowered her eyes, angling her head in a deep nod. “Savior of Prythian.”
“We know,” Hart said quietly, bowing with his friend at the waist. “We were Under the Mountain with you.”
I managed to incline my head a bit as they straightened. “Congratulations on tomorrow,” Bron said, grinning. “A fitting end, eh?”
A fitting end would have been me in a grave, burning in hell.
“The Cauldron,” Ianthe said, “has blessed all of us with such a union.” The males murmured their agreement, bowing their heads again. I ignored it.
“I have to say,” Bron went on, “that trial—with the Middengard Wyrm? Brilliant. One of the most brilliant things I ever saw.”
It was an effort not to push myself wholly flat against the wall, not to think about the reek of that mud, the gnashing of those flesh-shredding teeth bearing down upon me. “Thank you.”
“Oh, it sounded terrible,” Ianthe said, stepping closer as she noted I was no longer wearing that bland smile. She put a hand on my arm. “Such bravery is awe-inspiring.”
I was grateful, so pathetically grateful, for the steadying touch. For the squeeze. I knew then that she’d inspire hordes of young Fae females to join her order—not for worshipping their Mother and Cauldron, but to learn how she lived, how she could shine so brightly and love herself, move from male to male as if they were dishes at a banquet.
“We missed the hunt the other day,” Hart said casually, “so we haven’t had a chance to see your talents up close, but I think the High Lord will be stationing us near the estate next month—it’d be an honor to ride with you.”
Tamlin wouldn’t allow me out with them in a thousand years. And I had no desire to tell them that I had no interest in ever using a bow and arrow again, or hunting anything at all. The hunt I’d been dragged on two days ago had almost been too much. Even with everyone watching me, I hadn’t drawn an arrow.
They were still waiting for a reply, so I said, “The honor would be mine.”
“Does my father have you two on duty tomorrow, or will you be attending the ceremony?” Ianthe said, putting a distracting hand on Bron’s arm. Precisely why I sought her out at events.
Bron answered her, but Hart’s eyes lingered on me—on my crossed arms. On my tattooed fingers. He said, “Have you heard from the High Lord at all?”
Ianthe stiffened, and Bron immediately cut his gaze toward my inked flesh.
“No,” I said, holding Hart’s gaze.
“He’s probably running scared now that Tamlin’s got his powers back.”
“Then you don’t know Rhysand very well at all.”
Hart blinked, and even Ianthe kept silent. It was probably the most assertive thing I’d said to anyone during these parties.
“Well, we’ll take care of him if need be,” Hart said, shifting on his feet as I continued to hold his gaze, not bothering to soften my expression.
Ianthe said to him, to me, “The High Priestesses are taking care of it. We will not allow our savior to be treated so ill.”
I schooled my face into neutrality. Was that why Tamlin had initially sought out Ianthe? To make an alliance? My chest tightened a bit. I turned to her. “I’m going up. Tell Tamlin I’ll see him tomorrow.”
Tomorrow, because tonight, Ianthe had told me, we’d spend apart. As dictated by their long-held traditions.
Ianthe kissed my cheek, her hood shielding me from the room for a heartbeat. “I’m at your disposal, Lady. Send word if you need anything.”
I wouldn’t, but I nodded.
As I slipped from the room, I peered toward the front—where Tamlin and Lucien were surrounded by a circle of High Fae males and females. Perhaps not as refined as some of the others, but … They had the look of people who had been together a long time, fought at each other’s sides. Tamlin’s friends. He’d introduced me to them, and I’d immediately forgotten their names. I hadn’t tried to learn them again.
Tamlin tipped his head back and laughed, the others howling with him.
I left before he could spot me, easing through the crowded halls until I was in the dim, empty upstairs of the residential wing.
Alone in my bedroom, I realized I couldn’t remember the last time I’d truly laughed.
The ceiling pushed down, the large, blunt spikes so hot I could see the heat rippling off them even from where I was chained to the floor. Chained, because I was illiterate and couldn’t read the riddle written on the wall, and Amarantha was glad to let me be impaled.
Closer and closer. There was no one coming to save me from this horrible death.
It’d hurt. It’d hurt and be slow, and I’d cry—I might even cry for my mother, who had never cared for me, anyway. I might beg her to save me—
My limbs flailed as I shot upright in bed, yanking against invisible chains.
I would have lurched for the bathing room had my legs and arms not shook so badly, had I been able to breathe, breathe, breathe—
I scanned the bedroom, shuddering. Real—this was real. The horrors, those were nightmares. I was out; I was alive; I was safe.
A night breeze floated through the open windows, ruffling my hair, drying the cold sweat on me. The dark sky beckoned, the stars so dim and small, like speckles of frost.
Bron had sounded as if watching my encounter with the Middengard Wyrm was a sporting match. As if I hadn’t been one mistake away from being devoured whole and my bones spat out.
Savior and jester, apparently.
I stumbled to the open window, and pushed it wider, clearing my view of the star-flecked darkness.
I rested my head against the wall, savoring the cool stones.
In a few hours, I’d be married. I’d have my happy ending, whether I deserved it or not. But this land, these people—they would have their happy ending, too. The first few steps toward healing. Toward peace. And then things would be fine.
Then I’d be fine.
I really, truly hated my wedding gown.
It was a monstrosity of tulle and chiffon and gossamer, so unlike the loose gowns I usually wore: the bodice fitted, the neckline curved to plump my breasts, and the skirts … The skirts were a sparkling tent, practically floating in the balmy spring air.
No wonder Tamlin had laughed. Even Alis, as she’d dressed me, had hummed to herself, but said nothing. Most likely because Ianthe had personally selected the gown to complement whatever tale she’d weave today—the legend she’d proclaim to the world.
I might have dealt with it all if it weren’t for the puffy capped sleeves, so big I could almost see them glinting from the periphery of my vision. My hair had been curled, half up, half down, entwined with pearls and jewels and the Cauldron knew what, and it had taken all my self-control to keep from cringing at the mirror before descending the sweeping stairs into the main hall. My dress hissed and swished with each step.
Beyond the shut patio doors where I paused, the garden had been bedecked in ribbons and lanterns in shades of cream, blush, and sky blue. Three hundred chairs were assembled in the largest courtyard, each seat occupied by Tamlin’s court. I’d make my way down the main aisle, enduring their stares, before I reached the dais at the other end—where Tamlin would be waiting.
Then Ianthe would sanction and bless our union right before sundown, as a representative of all twelve High Priestesses. She’d hinted that they’d pushed to be present—but through whatever cunning, she’d managed to keep the other eleven away. Either to claim the attention for herself, or to spare me from being hounded by the pack of them. I couldn’t tell. Perhaps both.
My mouth went paper-dry as Alis fluffed out the sparkling train of my gown in the shadow of the garden doors. Silk and gossamer rustled and sighed, and I gripped the pale bouquet in my gloved hands, nearly snapping the stems.
Elbow-length silk gloves—to hide the markings. Ianthe had delivered them herself this morning in a velvet-lined box.
“Don’t be nervous,” Alis clucked, her tree-bark skin rich and flushed in the honey-gold evening light.
“I’m not,” I rasped.
“You’re fidgeting like my youngest nephew during a haircut.” She finished fussing over my dress, shooing away some servants who’d come to spy on me before the ceremony. I pretended I didn’t see them, or the glittering, sunset-gilded crowd seated in the courtyard ahead, and toyed with some invisible fleck of dust on my skirts.
“You look beautiful,” Alis said quietly. I was fairly certain her thoughts on the dress were the same as my own, but I believed her.
“And you sound like you’re going to your funeral.”
I plastered a grin on my face. Alis rolled her eyes. But she nudged me toward the doors as they opened on some immortal wind, lilting music streaming in. “It’ll be over faster than you can blink,” she promised, and gently pushed me into the last of the sunlight.
Three hundred people rose to their feet and pivoted toward me.
Not since my last trial had so many gathered to watch me, judge me. All in finery so similar to what they’d worn Under the Mountain. Their faces blurred, melded.
Alis coughed from the shadows of the house, and I remembered to start walking, to look toward the dais—
The breath knocked from me, and it was an effort to keep going down the stairs, to keep my knees from buckling. He was resplendent in a tunic of green and gold, a crown of burnished laurel leaves gleaming on his head. He’d loosened the grip on his glamour, letting that immortal light and beauty shine through—for me.
My vision narrowed on him, on my High Lord, his wide eyes glistening as I stepped onto the soft grass, white rose petals scattered down it—
And red ones.
Like drops of blood amongst the white, red petals had been sprayed across the path ahead.
I forced my gaze up, to Tamlin, his shoulders back, head high.
So unaware of the true extent of how broken and dark I was inside. How unfit I was to be clothed in white when my hands were so filthy.
Everyone else was thinking it. They had to be.
Every step was too fast, propelling me toward the dais and Tamlin. And toward Ianthe, clothed in dark blue robes tonight, beaming beneath that hood and silver crown.
As if I were good—as if I hadn’t murdered two of their kind.
I was a murderer and a liar.
A cluster of red petals loomed ahead—just like that Fae youth’s blood had pooled at my feet.
Ten steps from the dais, at the edge of that splatter of red, I slowed.
Everyone was watching, exactly as they had when I’d nearly died, spectators to my torment.
Tamlin extended a broad hand, brows narrowing slightly. My heart beat so fast, too fast.
I was going to vomit.
Right over those rose petals; right over the grass and ribbons trailing into the aisle from the chairs flanking it.
And between my skin and bones, something thrummed and pounded, rising and pushing, lashing through my blood—
So many eyes, too many eyes, pressed on me, witnesses to every crime I’d committed, every humiliation—
I don’t know why I’d even bothered to wear gloves, why I’d let Ianthe convince me.
The fading sun was too hot, the garden too hedged in. As inescapable as the vow I was about to make, binding me to him forever, shackling him to my broken and weary soul. The thing inside me was roiling now, my body shaking with the building force of it as it hunted for a way out—
Forever—I would never get better, never get free of myself, of that dungeon where I’d spent three months—
“Feyre,” Tamlin said, his hand steady as he continued to reach for mine. The sun sank past the lip of the western garden wall; shadows pooled, chilling the air.
If I turned away, they’d start talking, but I couldn’t make the last few steps, couldn’t, couldn’t, couldn’t—
I was going to fall apart, right there, right then—and they’d see precisely how ruined I was.
Help me, help me, help me, I begged someone, anyone. Begged Lucien, standing in the front row, his metal eye fixed on me. Begged Ianthe, face serene and patient and lovely within that hood. Save me—please, save me. Get me out. End this.
Tamlin took a step toward me—concern shading those eyes.
I retreated a step. No.
Tamlin’s mouth tightened. The crowd murmured. Silk streamers laden with globes of gold faelight twinkled into life above and around us.
Ianthe said smoothly, “Come, Bride, and be joined with your true love. Come, Bride, and let good triumph at last.”
Good. I was not good. I was nothing, and my soul, my eternal soul, was damned—
I tried to get my traitorous lungs to draw air so I could voice the word. No—no.
But I didn’t have to say it.
Thunder cracked behind me, as if two boulders had been hurled against each other.
People screamed, falling back, a few vanishing outright as darkness erupted.
I whirled, and through the night drifting away like smoke on a wind, I found Rhysand straightening the lapels of his black jacket.
“Hello, Feyre darling,” he purred.
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