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I shouldn’t have been surprised. Not when Rhysand liked to make a spectacle of everything. And found pissing off Tamlin to be an art form.
But there he was.
Rhysand, High Lord of the Night Court, now stood beside me, darkness leaking from him like ink in water.
He angled his head, his blue-black hair shifting with the movement. Those violet eyes sparkled in the golden faelight as they fixed on Tamlin, as he held up a hand to where Tamlin and Lucien and their sentries had their swords half-drawn, sizing up how to get me out of the way, how to bring him down—
But at the lift of that hand, they froze.
Ianthe, however, was backing away slowly, face drained of color.
“What a pretty little wedding,” Rhysand said, stuffing his hands into his pockets as those many swords remained in their sheaths. The remaining crowd was pressing back, some climbing over seats to get away.
Rhys looked me over slowly, and clicked his tongue at my silk gloves. Whatever had been building beneath my skin went still and cold.
“Get the hell out,” growled Tamlin, stalking toward us. Claws ripped from his knuckles.
Rhys clicked his tongue again. “Oh, I don’t think so. Not when I need to call in my bargain with Feyre darling.”
My stomach hollowed out. No—no, not now.
“You try to break the bargain, and you know what will happen,” Rhys went on, chuckling a bit at the crowd still falling over themselves to get away from him. He jerked his chin toward me. “I gave you three months of freedom. You could at least look happy to see me.”
I was shaking too badly to say anything. Rhys’s eyes flickered with distaste.
The expression was gone when he faced Tamlin again. “I’ll be taking her now.”
“Don’t you dare,” Tamlin snarled. Behind him, the dais was empty; Ianthe had vanished entirely. Along with most of those in attendance.
“Was I interrupting? I thought it was over.” Rhys gave me a smile dripping with venom. He knew—through that bond, through whatever magic was between us, he’d known I was about to say no. “At least, Feyre seemed to think so.”
Tamlin snarled, “Let us finish the ceremony—”
“Your High Priestess,” Rhys said, “seems to think it’s over, too.”
Tamlin stiffened as he looked over a shoulder to find the altar empty. When he faced us again, the claws had eased halfway back into his hands. “Rhysand—”
“I’m in no mood to bargain,” Rhys said, “even though I could work it to my advantage, I’m sure.” I jolted at the caress of his hand on my elbow. “Let’s go.”
I didn’t move.
“Tamlin,” I breathed.
Tamlin took a single step toward me, his golden face turning sallow, but remained focused on Rhys. “Name your price.”
“Don’t bother,” Rhys crooned, linking elbows with me. Every spot of contact was abhorrent, unbearable.
He’d take me back to the Night Court, the place Amarantha had supposedly modeled Under the Mountain after, full of depravity and torture and death—
“Such dramatics,” Rhysand said, tugging me closer.
But Tamlin didn’t move—and those claws were wholly replaced by smooth skin. He fixed his gaze on Rhys, his lips pulling back in a snarl. “If you hurt her—”
“I know, I know,” Rhysand drawled. “I’ll return her in a week.”
No—no, Tamlin couldn’t be making those kinds of threats, not when they meant he was letting me go. Even Lucien was gaping at Tamlin, his face white with fury and shock.
Rhys released my elbow only to slip a hand around my waist, pressing me into his side as he whispered in my ear, “Hold on.”
Then darkness roared, a wind tearing me this way and that, the ground falling away beneath me, the world gone around me. Only Rhys remained, and I hated him as I clung to him, I hated him with my entire heart—
Then the darkness vanished.
I smelled jasmine first—then saw stars. A sea of stars flickering beyond glowing pillars of moonstone that framed the sweeping view of endless snowcapped mountains.
“Welcome to the Night Court,” was all Rhys said.
It was the most beautiful place I’d ever seen.
Whatever building we were in had been perched atop one of the gray-stoned mountains. The hall around us was open to the elements, no windows to be found, just towering pillars and gossamer curtains, swaying in that jasmine-scented breeze.
It must be some magic, to keep the air warm in the dead of winter. Not to mention the altitude, or the snow coating the mountains, mighty winds sending veils of it drifting off the peaks like wandering mist.
Little seating, dining, and work areas dotted the hall, sectioned off with those curtains or lush plants or thick rugs scattered over the moonstone floor. A few balls of light bobbed on the breeze, along with colored-glass lanterns dangling from the arches of the ceiling.
Not a scream, not a shout, not a plea to be heard.
Behind me, a wall of white marble arose, broken occasionally by open doorways leading into dim stairwells. The rest of the Night Court had to be through there. No wonder I couldn’t hear anyone screaming, if they were all inside.
“This is my private residence,” Rhys said casually. His skin was darker than I’d remembered—golden now, rather than pale.
Pale, from being locked Under the Mountain for fifty years. I scanned him, searching for any sign of the massive, membranous wings—the ones he’d admitted he loved flying with. But there was none. Just the male, smirking at me.
And that too-familiar expression— “How dare you—”
Rhys snorted. “I certainly missed that look on your face.” He stalked closer, his movements feline, those violet eyes turning subdued—lethal. “You’re welcome, you know.”
Rhys paused less than a foot away, sliding his hands into his pockets. The night didn’t seem to ripple from him here—and he appeared, despite his perfection, almost normal. “For saving you when asked.”
I stiffened. “I didn’t ask for anything.”
His stare dipped to my left hand.
Rhys gave no warning as he gripped my arm, snarling softly, and tore off the glove. His touch was like a brand, and I flinched, yielding a step, but he held firm until he’d gotten both gloves off. “I heard you begging someone, anyone, to rescue you, to get you out. I heard you say no.”
“I didn’t say anything.”
He turned my bare hand over, his hold tightening as he examined the eye he’d tattooed. He tapped the pupil. Once. Twice. “I heard it loud and clear.”
I wrenched my hand away. “Take me back. Now. I didn’t want to be stolen away.”
He shrugged. “What better time to take you here? Maybe Tamlin didn’t notice you were about to reject him in front of his entire court—maybe you can now simply blame it on me.”
“You’re a bastard. You made it clear enough that I had … reservations.”
“Such gratitude, as always.”
I struggled to get down a single, deep breath. “What do you want from me?”
“Want? I want you to say thank you, first of all. Then I want you to take off that hideous dress. You look … ” His mouth cut a cruel line. “You look exactly like the doe-eyed damsel he and that simpering priestess want you to be.”
“You don’t know anything about me. Or us.”
Rhys gave me a knowing smile. “Does Tamlin? Does he ever ask you why you hurl your guts up every night, or why you can’t go into certain rooms or see certain colors?”
I froze. He might as well have stripped me naked. “Get the hell out of my head.”
Tamlin had horrors of his own to endure, to face down.
“Likewise.” He stalked a few steps away. “You think I enjoy being awoken every night by visions of you puking? You send everything right down that bond, and I don’t appreciate having a front-row seat when I’m trying to sleep.”
Another chuckle. But I wouldn’t ask about what he meant—about the bond between us. I wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of looking curious. “As for what else I want from you … ” He gestured to the house behind us. “I’ll tell you tomorrow at breakfast. For now, clean yourself up. Rest.” That rage flickered in his eyes again at the dress, the hair. “Take the stairs on the right, one level down. Your room is the first door.”
“Not a dungeon cell?” Perhaps it was foolish to reveal that fear, to suggest it to him.
But Rhys half turned, brows lifting. “You are not a prisoner, Feyre. You made a bargain, and I am calling it in. You will be my guest here, with the privileges of a member of my household. None of my subjects are going to touch you, hurt you, or so much as think ill of you here.”
My tongue was dry and heavy as I said, “And where might those subjects be?”
“Some dwell here—in the mountain beneath us.” He angled his head. “They’re forbidden to set foot in this residence. They know they’d be signing their death warrant.” His eyes met mine, stark and clear, as if he could sense the panic, the shadows creeping in. “Amarantha wasn’t very creative,” he said with quiet wrath. “My court beneath this mountain has long been feared, and she chose to replicate it by violating the space of Prythian’s sacred mountain. So, yes: there’s a court beneath this mountain—the court your Tamlin now expects me to be subjecting you to. I preside over it every now and then, but it mostly rules itself.”
“When—when are you taking me there?” If I had to go underground, had to see those kinds of horrors again … I’d beg him—beg him not to take me. I didn’t care how pathetic it made me. I’d lost any sort of qualms about what lines I’d cross to survive.
“I’m not.” He rolled his shoulders. “This is my home, and the court beneath it is my … occupation, as you mortals call it. I do not like for the two to overlap very often.”
My brows rose slightly. “ ‘You mortals’?”
Starlight danced along the planes of his face. “Should I consider you something different?”
A challenge. I shoved away my irritation at the amusement again tugging at the corners of his lips, and instead said, “And the other denizens of your court?” The Night Court territory was enormous—bigger than any other in Prythian. And all around us were those empty, snow-blasted mountains. No sign of towns, cities, or anything.
“Scattered throughout, dwelling as they wish. Just as you are now free to roam where you wish.”
“I wish to roam home.”
Rhys laughed, finally sauntering toward the other end of the hall, which ended in a veranda open to the stars. “I’m willing to accept your thanks at any time, you know,” he called to me without looking back.
Red exploded in my vision, and I couldn’t breathe fast enough, couldn’t think above the roar in my head. One heartbeat, I was staring after him—the next, I had my shoe in a hand.
I hurled it at him with all my strength.
All my considerable, immortal strength.
I barely saw my silk slipper as it flew through the air, fast as a shooting star, so fast that even a High Lord couldn’t detect it as it neared—
And slammed into his head.
Rhys whirled, a hand rising to the back of his head, his eyes wide.
I already had the other shoe in my hand.
Rhys’s lip pulled back from his teeth. “I dare you.” Temper—he had to be in some mood today to let his temper show this much.
Good. That made two of us.
I flung my other shoe right at his head, as swift and hard as the first one.
His hand snatched up, grabbing the shoe mere inches from his face.
Rhys hissed and lowered the shoe, his eyes meeting mine as the silk dissolved to glittering black dust in his fist. His fingers unfurled, the last of the sparkling ashes blowing into oblivion, and he surveyed my hand, my body, my face.
“Interesting,” he murmured, and continued on his way.
I debated tackling him and pummeling that face with my fists, but I wasn’t stupid. I was in his home, on top of a mountain in the middle of absolutely nowhere, it seemed. No one would be coming to rescue me—no one was even here to witness my screaming.
So I turned toward the doorway he’d indicated, heading for the dim stairwell beyond.
I’d nearly reached it, not daring to breathe too loudly, when a bright, amused female voice said behind me—far away, from wherever Rhys had gone to at the opposite end of the hall, “So, that went well.”
Rhys’s answering snarl sent my footsteps hurrying.
My room was … a dream.
After scouring it for any sign of danger, after learning every exit and entrance and hiding place, I paused in the center to contemplate where, exactly, I’d be staying for the next week.
Like the upstairs living area, its windows were open to the brutal world beyond—no glass, no shutters—and sheer amethyst curtains fluttered in that unnatural, soft breeze. The large bed was a creamy white-and-ivory concoction, with pillows and blankets and throws for days, made more inviting by the twin golden lamps beside it. An armoire and dressing table occupied a wall, framed by those glass-less windows. Across the room, a chamber with a porcelain sink and toilet lay behind an arched wooden door, but the bath …
Occupying the other half of the bedroom, my bathtub was actually a pool, hanging right off the mountain itself. A pool for soaking or enjoying myself. Its far edge seemed to disappear into nothing, the water flowing silently off the side and into the night beyond. A narrow ledge on the adjacent wall was lined with fat, guttering candles whose glow gilded the dark, glassy surface and wafting tendrils of steam.
Open, airy, plush, and … calm.
This room was fit for an empress. With the marble floors, silks, velvets, and elegant details, only an empress could have afforded it. I tried not to think what Rhys’s chamber was like, if this was how he treated his guests.
Well … the room proved it.
I didn’t bother barricading the door. Rhys could likely fly in if he felt like it. And I’d seen him shatter a faerie’s mind without so much as blinking. I doubted a bit of wood would keep out that horrible power.
I again surveyed the room, my wedding gown hissing on the warm marble floors.
I peered down at myself.
You look ridiculous.
Heat itched along my cheeks and neck.
It didn’t excuse what he’d done. Even if he’d … saved me—I choked on the word—from having to refuse Tamlin. Having to explain.
Slowly, I tugged the pins and baubles from my curled hair, piling them onto the dressing table. The sight was enough for me to grit my teeth, and I swept them into an empty drawer instead, slamming it shut so hard the mirror above the table rattled. I rubbed at my scalp, aching from the weight of the curls and prodding pins. This afternoon, I’d imagined Tamlin pulling them each from my hair, a kiss for every pin, but now—
I swallowed against the burning in my throat.
Rhys was the least of my concerns. Tamlin had seen the hesitation, but had he understood that I was about to say no? Had Ianthe? I had to tell him. Had to explain that there couldn’t be a wedding, not for a while yet. Maybe I’d wait until the mating bond snapped into place, until I knew for sure it couldn’t be some mistake, that … that I was worthy of him.
Maybe wait until he, too, had faced the nightmares stalking him. Relaxed his grip on things a bit. On me. Even if I understood his need to protect, that fear of losing me … Perhaps I should explain everything when I returned.
But—so many people had seen it, seen me hesitate—
My lower lip trembled, and I began unbuttoning my gown, then tugged it off my shoulders.
I let it slide to the ground in a sigh of silk and tulle and beading, a deflated soufflé on the marble floor, and took a large step out of it. Even my undergarments were ridiculous: frothy scraps of lace, intended solely for Tamlin to admire—and then tear into ribbons.
I snatched up the gown, storming to the armoire and shoving it inside. Then I stripped off the undergarments and chucked them in as well.
My tattoo was stark against the pile of white silk and lace. My breath came faster and faster. I didn’t realize I was weeping until I grabbed the first bit of fabric within the armoire I could find—a set of turquoise nightclothes—and shoved my feet into the ankle-length pants, then pulled the short-sleeved matching shirt over my head, the hem grazing the top of my navel. I didn’t care that it had to be some Night Court fashion, didn’t care that they were soft and warm.
I climbed into that big, fluffy bed, the sheets smooth and welcoming, and could barely draw a breath steady enough to blow out the lamps on either side.
But as soon as darkness enveloped the room, my sobs hit in full—great, gasping pants that shuddered through me, flowing out the open windows, and into the starry, snow-kissed night.
Rhys hadn’t been lying when he said I was to join him for breakfast.
My old handmaidens from Under the Mountain appeared at my door just past dawn, and I might not have recognized the pretty, dark-haired twins had they not acted like they knew me. I had never seen them as anything but shadows, their faces always concealed in impenetrable night. But here—or perhaps without Amarantha—they were fully corporeal.
Nuala and Cerridwen were their names, and I wondered if they’d ever told me. If I had been too far gone Under the Mountain to even care.
Their gentle knock hurled me awake—not that I’d slept much during the night. For a heartbeat, I wondered why my bed felt so much softer, why mountains flowed into the distance and not spring grasses and hills … and then it all poured back in. Along with a throbbing, relentless headache.
After the second, patient knock, followed by a muffled explanation through the door of who they were, I scrambled out of bed to let them in. And after a miserably awkward greeting, they informed me that breakfast would be served in thirty minutes, and I was to bathe and dress.
I didn’t bother to ask if Rhys was behind that last order, or if it was their recommendation based on how grim I no doubt looked, but they laid out some clothes on the bed before leaving me to wash in private.
I was tempted to linger in the luxurious heat of the bathtub for the rest of the day, but a faint, endlessly amused tug cleaved through my headache. I knew that tug—had been called by it once before, in those hours after Amarantha’s downfall.
I ducked to my neck in the water, scanning the clear winter sky, the fierce wind whipping the snow off those nearby peaks … No sign of him, no pound of beating wings. But the tug yanked again in my mind, my gut—a summoning. Like some servant’s bell.
Cursing him soundly, I scrubbed myself down and dressed in the clothes they’d left.
And now, striding across the sunny upper level as I blindly followed the source of that insufferable tug, my magenta silk shoes near-silent on the moonstone floors, I wanted to shred the clothes off me, if only for the fact that they belonged to this place, to him.
My high-waisted peach pants were loose and billowing, gathered at the ankles with velvet cuffs of bright gold. The long sleeves of the matching top were made of gossamer, also gathered at the wrists, and the top itself hung just to my navel, revealing a sliver of skin as I walked.
Comfortable, easy to move in—to run. Feminine. Exotic. Thin enough that, unless Rhysand planned to torment me by casting me into the winter wasteland around us, I could assume I wasn’t leaving the borders of whatever warming magic kept the palace so balmy.
At least the tattoo, visible through the sheer sleeve, wouldn’t be out of place here. But—the clothes were still a part of this court.
And no doubt part of some game he intended to play with me.
At the very end of the upper level, a small glass table gleamed like quicksilver in the heart of a stone veranda, set with three chairs and laden with fruits, juices, pastries, and breakfast meats. And in one of those chairs … Though Rhys stared out at the sweeping view, the snowy mountains near-blinding in the sunlight, I knew he’d sensed my arrival from the moment I cleared the stairwell at the other side of the hall. Maybe since I’d awoken, if that tug was any indication.
I paused between the last two pillars, studying the High Lord lounging at the breakfast table and the view he surveyed.
“I’m not a dog to be summoned,” I said by way of greeting.
Slowly, Rhys looked over his shoulder. Those violet eyes were vibrant in the light, and I curled my fingers into fists as they swept from my head to my toes and back up again. He frowned at whatever he found lacking. “I didn’t want you to get lost,” he said blandly.
My head throbbed, and I eyed the silver teapot steaming in the center of the table. A cup of tea … “I thought it’d always be dark here,” I said, if only to not look quite as desperate for that life-giving tea so early in the morning.
“We’re one of the three Solar Courts,” he said, motioning for me to sit with a graceful twist of his wrist. “Our nights are far more beautiful, and our sunsets and dawns are exquisite, but we do adhere to the laws of nature.”
I slid into the upholstered chair across from him. His tunic was unbuttoned at the neck, revealing a hint of the tanned chest beneath. “And do the other courts choose not to?”
“The nature of the Seasonal Courts,” he said, “is linked to their High Lords, whose magic and will keeps them in eternal spring, or winter, or fall, or summer. It has always been like that—some sort of strange stagnation. But the Solar Courts—Day, Dawn, and Night—are of a more … symbolic nature. We might be powerful, but even we cannot alter the sun’s path or strength. Tea?”
The sunlight danced along the curve of the silver teapot. I kept my eager nod to a restrained dip of my chin. “But you will find,” Rhysand went on, pouring a cup for me, “that our nights are more spectacular—so spectacular that some in my territory even awaken at sunset and go to bed at dawn, just to live under the starlight.”
I splashed some milk in the tea, watching the light and dark eddy together. “Why is it so warm in here, when winter is in full blast out there?”
“Obviously.” I set down my teaspoon and sipped, nearly sighing at the rush of heat and smoky, rich flavor. “But why?”
Rhys scanned the wind tearing through the peaks. “You heat a house in the winter—why shouldn’t I heat this place as well? I’ll admit I don’t know why my predecessors built a palace fit for the Summer Court in the middle of a mountain range that’s mildly warm at best, but who am I to question?”
I took a few more sips, that headache already lessening, and dared to scoop some fruit onto my plate from a glass bowl nearby.
He watched every movement. Then he said quietly, “You’ve lost weight.”
“You’re prone to digging through my head whenever you please,” I said, stabbing a piece of melon with my fork. “I don’t see why you’re surprised by it.”
His gaze didn’t lighten, though that smile again played about his sensuous mouth, no doubt his favorite mask. “Only occasionally will I do that. And I can’t help it if you send things down the bond.”
I contemplated refusing to ask as I had done last night, but … “How does it work—this bond that allows you to see into my head?”
He sipped from his own tea. “Think of the bargain’s bond as a bridge between us—and at either end is a door to our respective minds. A shield. My innate talents allow me to slip through the mental shields of anyone I wish, with or without that bridge—unless they’re very, very strong, or have trained extensively to keep those shields tight. As a human, the gates to your mind were flung open for me to stroll through. As Fae … ” A little shrug. “Sometimes, you unwittingly have a shield up—sometimes, when emotion seems to be running strong, that shield vanishes. And sometimes, when those shields are open, you might as well be standing at the gates to your mind, shouting your thoughts across the bridge to me. Sometimes I hear them; sometimes I don’t.”
I scowled, clenching my fork harder. “And how often do you just rifle through my mind when my shields are down?”
All amusement faded from his face. “When I can’t tell if your nightmares are real threats or imagined. When you’re about to be married and you silently beg anyone to help you. Only when you drop your mental shields and unknowingly blast those things down the bridge. And to answer your question before you ask, yes. Even with your shields up, I could get through them if I wished. You could train, though—learn how to shield against someone like me, even with the bond bridging our minds and my own abilities.”
I ignored the offer. Agreeing to do anything with him felt too permanent, too accepting of the bargain between us. “What do you want with me? You said you’d tell me here. So tell me.”
Rhys leaned back in his chair, folding powerful arms that even the fine clothes couldn’t hide. “For this week? I want you to learn how to read.”
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