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The next morning, my paint and supplies arrived from wherever Tamlin or the servants had dug them up, but before Tamlin let me see them, he brought me down hall after hall until we were in a wing of the house I’d never been to, even in my nocturnal exploring. I knew where we were going without his having to say. The marble floors shone so brightly that they had to have been freshly mopped, and that rose-scented breeze floated in through the opened windows. All this—he’d done this for me. As if I would have cared about cobwebs or dust.
When he paused before a set of wooden doors, the slight smile he gave me was enough to make me blurt, “Why do anything—anything this kind?” The smile faltered. “It’s been a long time since there was anyone here who appreciated these things. I like seeing them used again.” Especially when there was such blood and death in every other part of his life.
He opened the gallery doors, and the breath was knocked from me.
The pale wooden floors gleamed in the clean, bright light pouring in from the windows. The room was empty save for a few large chairs and benches for viewing the … the … I barely registered moving into the long gallery, one hand absentmindedly wrapping around my throat as I looked up at the paintings.
So many, so different, yet all arranged to flow together seamlessly … Such different views and snippets and angles of the world. Pastorals, portraits, still lifes … each a story and an experience, each a voice shouting or whispering or singing about what that moment, that feeling, had been like, each a cry into the void of time that they had been here, had existed. Some had been painted through eyes like mine, artists who saw in colors and shapes I understood. Some showcased colors I had not considered; these had a bend to the world that told me a different set of eyes had painted them. A portal into the mind of a creature so unlike me, and yet … and yet I looked at its work and understood, and felt, and cared.
“I never knew,” Tamlin said from behind me, “that humans were capable of …” He trailed off as I turned, the hand I’d put on my throat sliding down to my chest, where my heart roared with a fierce sort of joy and grief and overwhelming humility—humility before that magnificent art.
He stood by the doors, head cocked in that animalistic way, the words still lost on his tongue.
I wiped at my damp cheeks. “It’s …” Perfect, wonderful, beyond my wildest imaginings didn’t cover it. I kept my hand over my heart. “Thank you,” I said. It was all I could find to show him what these paintings—to be allowed into this room—meant.
“Come here whenever you want.”
I smiled at him, hardly able to contain the brightness in my heart. His returning smile was tentative but shining, and then he left me to admire the gallery at my own leisure.
I stayed for hours—stayed until I was drunk on the art, until I was dizzy with hunger and wandered out to find food.
After lunch, Alis showed me to an empty room on the first floor with a table full of canvases of various sizes, brushes whose wooden handles gleamed in the perfect, clear light, and paints—so, so many paints, beyond the four basic ones I’d hoped for, that the breath was knocked from me again.
And when Alis was gone and the room was quiet and waiting and utterly mine …
Then I began to paint.
Weeks passed, the days melting together. I painted and painted, most of it awful and useless.
I never let anyone see it, no matter how much Tamlin prodded and Lucien smirked at my paint-splattered clothes; I never felt satisfied that my work matched the images burning in my mind. Often I painted from dawn until dusk, sometimes in that room, sometimes out in the garden. Occasionally I’d take a break to explore the Spring lands with Tamlin as my guide, coming back with fresh ideas that had me leaping out of bed the next morning to sketch or scribble down the scenes or colors as I’d glimpsed them.
But there were the days when Tamlin was called away to face the latest threat to his borders, and even painting couldn’t distract me until he returned, covered in blood that wasn’t his own, sometimes in his beast form, sometimes as the High Lord. He never gave me details, and I didn’t presume to ask about them; his safe return was enough.
Around the manor itself, there was no sign of creatures like the naga or the Bogge, but I stayed well away from the western woods, even though I painted them often enough from memory. And though my dreams continued to be plagued by the deaths I’d witnessed, the deaths I’d caused, and that horrible pale woman ripping me to shreds—all watched over by a shadow I could never quite glimpse—I slowly stopped being so afraid. Stay with the High Lord. You will be safe. So I did.
The Spring Court was a land of rolling green hills and lush forests and clear, bottomless lakes. Magic didn’t just abound in the bumps and the hollows—it grew there. Try as I might to paint it, I could never capture it—the feel of it. So sometimes I dared to paint the High Lord, who rode at my side when we wandered his grounds on lazy days—the High Lord, whom I was happy to talk to or spend hours in comfortable silence with.
It was probably the lulling of magic that clouded my thoughts, and I didn’t think of my family until I passed the outer hedge wall one morning, scouting for a new spot to paint. A breeze from the south ruffled my hair—fresh and warm. Spring was now dawning on the mortal world.
My family, glamoured, cared for, safe, still had no idea where I was. The mortal world … it had moved on without me, as if I had never existed. A whisper of a miserable life—gone, unremembered by anyone whom I’d known or cared for.
I didn’t paint, nor did I go riding with Tamlin that day. Instead, I sat before a blank canvas, no colors at all in my mind.
No one would remember me back home—I was as good as dead to them. And Tamlin had let me forget them. Maybe the paints had even been a distraction—a way to get me to stop complaining, to stop being a pain in his ass about wanting to see my family. Or maybe they were a distraction from whatever was happening with the blight and Prythian. I’d stopped asking, just as the Suriel had ordered—like a stupid, useless, obedient human.
It was an effort of stubborn will to make it through dinner. Tamlin and Lucien noticed my mood and kept conversation between themselves. It didn’t do much for my growing rage, and when I had eaten my fill, I stalked into the moonlit garden and lost myself in its labyrinth of hedges and flower beds.
I didn’t care where I was going. After a while, I paused in the rose garden. The moonlight stained the red petals a deep purple and cast a silvery sheen on the white blooms.
“My father had this garden planted for my mother,” Tamlin said from behind me. I didn’t bother to face him. I dug my nails into my palms as he stopped by my side. “It was a mating present.” I stared at the flowers without seeing anything. The flowers I’d painted on the table at home were probably crumbling or gone by now. Nesta might have even scraped them off.
My nails pricked the skin of my palms. Tamlin providing for them or no, glamouring their memories or no, I’d been … erased from their lives. Forgotten. I’d let him erase me. He’d offered me paints and the space and time to practice; he’d shown me pools of starlight; he’d saved my life like some kind of feral knight in a legend, and I’d gulped it down like faerie wine. I was no better than those zealot Children of the Blessed.
His mask was bronze in the darkness, and the emeralds glittered. “You seem … upset.”
I stalked to the nearest rosebush and ripped off a rose, my fingers tearing on the thorns. I ignored the pain, the warmth of the blood that trickled down. I could never paint it accurately—never render it the way those artists had in the gallery pieces. I would never be able to paint Elain’s little garden outside the cottage the way I remembered it, even if my family didn’t remember me.
He didn’t reprimand me for taking one of his parents’ roses—parents who were as absent as my own, but who had probably loved each other and loved him better than mine cared for me. A family that would have offered to go in his place if someone had come to steal him away.
My fingers stung and ached, but I still held on to the rose as I said, “I don’t know why I feel so tremendously ashamed of myself for leaving them. Why it feels so selfish and horrible to paint. I shouldn’t—shouldn’t feel that way, should I? I know I shouldn’t, but I can’t help it.” The rose hung limply from my fingers. “All those years, what I did for them … And they didn’t try to stop you from taking me.” There it was, the giant pain that cracked me in two if I thought about it too long. “I don’t know why I expected them to—why I believed that the puca’s illusion was real that night. I don’t know why I bother still thinking about it. Or still caring.” He was silent long enough that I added, “Compared to you—to your borders and magic being weakened—I suppose my self-pity is absurd.” “If it grieves you,” he said, the words caressing my bones, “then I don’t think it’s absurd at all.” “Why?” A flat question, and I chucked the rose into the bushes.
He took my hands. His callused fingers, strong and sturdy, were gentle as he lifted my bleeding hand to his mouth and kissed my palm. As if that were answer enough.
His lips were smooth against my skin, his breath warm, and my knees buckled as he lifted my other hand to his mouth and kissed it, too. Kissed it carefully—in a way that made heat begin pounding in my core, between my legs.
When he withdrew, my blood shone on his mouth. I glanced at my hands, which he still held, and found the wounds gone. I looked at his face again, at his gilded mask, the tanness of his skin, the red of his blood-covered lips as he murmured, “Don’t feel bad for one moment about doing what brings you joy.” He stepped closer, releasing one of my hands to tuck the rose I’d plucked behind my ear. I didn’t know how it had gotten into his hand, or where the thorns had gone.
I couldn’t stop myself from pushing. “Why—why do any of this?”
He leaned in closer, so close that I had to tip my head back to see him. “Because your human joy fascinates me—the way you experience things, in your life span, so wildly and deeply and all at once, is … entrancing. I’m drawn to it, even when I know I shouldn’t be, even when I try not to be.” Because I was human, and I would grow old and—I didn’t let myself get that far as he came closer still. Slowly, as if giving me time to pull away, he brushed his lips against my cheek. Soft and warm and heartbreakingly gentle. It was hardly more than a caress before he straightened. I hadn’t moved from the moment his mouth had met my skin.
“One day—one day there will be answers for everything,” he said, releasing my hand and stepping away. “But not until the time is right. Until it’s safe.” In the dark, his tone was enough to know that his eyes were flecked with bitterness.
He left me, and I took a gasping breath, not realizing I’d been holding it.
Not realizing that I craved his warmth, his nearness, until he was gone.
Lingering mortification over what I’d admitted, what had … changed between us had me skulking out of the manor after breakfast, fleeing for the sanctuary of the woods for some fresh air—and to study the light and colors. I brought my bow and arrows, along with the jeweled hunting knife that Lucien had given me. Better to be armed than caught empty-handed.
I crept through the trees and brush for no more than an hour before I felt a presence behind me—coming ever closer, sending the animals running for cover. I smiled to myself, and twenty minutes later, I settled in the crook of a towering elm and waited.
Brush rustled—hardly more than a breeze’s passing, but I knew what to expect, knew the signs.
A snap and roar of fury echoed across the lands, scattering the birds.
When I climbed out of the tree and walked into the little clearing, I merely crossed my arms and looked up at the High Lord, dangling by his legs from the snare I’d laid.
Even upside down, he smiled lazily at me as I approached. “Cruel human.”
“That’s what you get for stalking someone.”
He chuckled, and I came close enough to dare stroke a finger along the silken golden hair dangling just above my face, admiring the many colors within it—the hues of yellow and brown and wheat. My heart thundered, and I knew he could probably hear it. But he leaned his head toward me, a silent invitation, and I ran my fingers through his hair—gently, carefully. He purred, the sound rumbling through my fingers, arms, legs, and core. I wondered how that sound would feel if he were fully pressed up against me, skin-to-skin. I stepped back.
He curled upward in a smooth, powerful motion and swiped with a single claw at the creeping vine I’d used for rope. I took a breath to shout, but he flipped as he fell, landing smoothly on his feet. It would be impossible for me to ever forget what he was, and what he was capable of. He took a step closer to me, the laughter still dancing on his face. “Feeling better today?” I mumbled some noncommittal response.
“Good,” he said, either ignoring or hiding his amusement. “But just in case, I wanted to give you this,” he added, pulling some papers from his tunic and extending them to me.
I bit the inside of my cheek as I stared down at the three pieces of paper. It was a series of five-lined … poems. There were five of them altogether, and I began sweating at words I didn’t recognize. It would take me an entire day just to figure out what these words meant.
“Before you bolt or start yelling …,” he said, coming around to peer over my shoulder. If I’d dared, I could have leaned back into his chest. His breath warmed my neck, the shell of my ear.
He cleared his throat and read the first poem.
There once was a lady most beautiful
Spirited, if a little unusual
Her friends were few
But how the men did queue
But to all she gave a refusal.
My brows rose so high I thought they’d touch my hairline, and I turned, blinking at him, our breath mingling as he finished the poem with a smile.
Without waiting for my response, Tamlin took the papers and stepped a pace away to read the second poem, which wasn’t nearly as polite as the first. By the time he read the third poem, my face was burning. Tamlin paused before he read the fourth, then handed me back the papers.
“Final word in the second and fourth line of each poem,” he said, jerking his chin toward the papers in my hands.
Unusual. Queue. I looked at the second poem. Slaying. Conflagration.
“These are—” I started.
“Your list of words was too interesting to pass up. And not good for love poems at all.” When I lifted my brow in silent inquiry, he said, “We had contests to see who could write the dirtiest limericks while I was living with my father’s war-band by the border. I don’t particularly enjoy losing, so I took it upon myself to become good at them.” I didn’t know how he’d remembered that long list I’d compiled—I didn’t want to. Sensing I wasn’t about to draw an arrow and shoot him, Tamlin took the papers and read the fifth poem, the dirtiest and foulest of them all.
When he finished, I tipped back my head and howled, my laughter like sunshine shattering age-hardened ice.
I was still smiling when we walked out of the park and toward the rolling hills, meandering back to the manor. “You said—that night in the rose garden …” I sucked on my teeth for a moment. “You said that your father had it planted for your parents upon their mating—not wedding?” “High Fae mostly marry,” he said, his golden skin flushing a bit. “But if they’re blessed, they’ll find their mate—their equal, their match in every way. High Fae wed without the mating bond, but if you find your mate, the bond is so deep that marriage is … insignificant in comparison.” I didn’t have the nerve to ask if faeries had ever had mating bonds with humans, but instead dared to say, “Where are your parents? What happened to them?” A muscle feathered in his jaw, and I regretted the question, if only for the pain that flickered in his eyes. “My father …” His claws gleamed at his knuckles but didn’t go out any farther. I’d definitely asked the wrong question. “My father was as bad as Lucien’s. Worse. My two older brothers were just like him. They kept slaves—all of them. And my brothers … I was young when the Treaty was forged, but I still remember what my brothers used to …” He trailed off. “It left a mark—enough of a mark that when I saw you, your house, I couldn’t—wouldn’t let myself be like them. Wouldn’t bring harm to your family, or you, or subject you to faerie whims.” Slaves—there had been slaves here. I didn’t want to know—had never looked for traces of them, even five hundred years later. I was still little better than chattel to most of his people, his world. That was why—why he’d offered the loophole, why he’d offered me the freedom to live wherever I wished in Prythian.
“Thank you,” I said. He shrugged, as if that would dismiss his kindness, the weight of the guilt that still bore down on him. “What about your mother?” Tamlin loosed a breath. “My mother—she loved my father deeply. Too deeply, but they were mated, and … Even if she saw what a tyrant he was, she wouldn’t say an ill word against him. I never expected—never wanted—my father’s title. My brothers would have never let me live to adolescence if they had suspected that I did. So the moment I was old enough, I joined my father’s war-band and trained so that I might someday serve my father, or whichever of my brothers inherited his title.” He flexed his hands, as if imagining the claws beneath. “I’d realized from an early age that fighting and killing were about the only things I was good at.” “I doubt that,” I said.
He gave me a wry smile. “Oh, I can play a mean fiddle, but High Lords’ sons don’t become traveling minstrels. So I trained and fought for my father against whomever he told me to fight, and I would have been happy to leave the scheming to my brothers. But my power kept growing, and I couldn’t hide it—not among our kind.” He shook his head. “Fortunately or unfortunately, they were all killed by the High Lord of an enemy court. I was spared for whatever reason or Cauldron-granted luck. My mother, I mourned. The others …” A too-tight shrug. “My brothers would not have tried to save me from a fate like yours.” I looked up at him. Such a brutal, harsh world—with families killing each other for power, for revenge, for spite and control. Perhaps his generosity, his kindness, was a reaction to that—perhaps he’d seen me and found it to be like gazing into a mirror of sorts. “I’m sorry about your mother,” I said, and it was all I could offer—all he’d once been able to offer me. He gave me a small smile. “So that’s how you became High Lord.” “Most High Lords are trained from birth in manners and laws and court warfare. When the title fell to me, it was a … rough transition. Many of my father’s courtiers defected to other courts rather than have a warrior-beast snarling at them.” A half-wild beast, Nesta had once called me. It was an effort to not take his hand, to not reach out to him and tell him that I understood. But I just said, “Then they’re idiots. You’ve kept these lands protected from the blight, when it seems that others haven’t fared so well. They’re idiots,” I said again.
But darkness flickered in Tamlin’s eyes, and his shoulders seemed to curve inward ever so slightly. Before I could ask about it, we cleared the little wood, a spread of hills and knolls laid out ahead. In the distance, there were masked faeries atop many of them, building what seemed to be unlit fires. “What are those?” I asked, halting.
“They’re setting up bonfires—for Calanmai. It’s in two days.”
I shook my head. “We don’t celebrate holidays in the human realm. Not after you—your people left. In some places, it’s forbidden. We don’t even remember the names of your gods. What does Cala—Fire Night celebrate?” He rubbed his neck. “It’s just a spring ceremony. We light bonfires, and … the magic that we create helps regenerate the land for the year ahead.” “How do you create the magic?”
“There’s a ritual. But it’s … very faerie.” He clenched his jaw and continued walking, away from the unlit fires. “You might see more faeries around than usual—faeries from this court, and from other territories, who are free to wander across the borders that night.” “I thought the blight had scared many of them away.”
“It has—but there will be a number of them. Just … stay away from them all. You’ll be safe in the house, but if you run into one before we light the fires at sundown in two days, ignore them.” “And I’m not invited to your ceremony?”
“No. You’re not.” He clenched and loosened his fingers, again and again, as if trying to keep the claws contained.
Though I tried to ignore it, my chest caved a bit.
We walked back in the sort of tense silence we hadn’t endured in weeks.
Tamlin went rigid the moment we entered the gardens. Not from me or our awkward conversation—it was quiet with that horrible stillness that usually meant one of the nastier faeries was around. Tamlin bared his teeth in a low snarl. “Stay hidden, and no matter what you overhear, don’t come out.” Then he was gone.
Alone, I looked to either side of the gravel path, like some gawking idiot. If there was indeed something here, I’d be caught in the open. Perhaps it was shameful not to go to his aid, but—he was a High Lord. I would just get in the way.
I had just ducked behind a hedge when I heard Tamlin and Lucien approaching. I silently swore and froze. Maybe I could sneak across the fields to the stables. If there was something amiss, the stables not only had shelter but also a horse for me to flee on. I was about to make for the high grasses mere steps beyond the edge of the gardens when Tamlin’s snarl rippled through the air on the other side of the hedge.
I turned—just enough to spy them through the dense leaves. Stay hidden, he’d said. If I moved now, I would surely be noticed.
“I know what day it is,” Tamlin said—but not to Lucien. Rather, the two of them faced … nothing. Someone who wasn’t there. Someone invisible. I would have thought they were playing a prank on me had I not heard a low, disembodied voice reply.
“Your continued behavior is garnering a lot of interest at court,” the voice said, deep and sibilant. I shivered, despite the warmth of the day. “She has begun wondering—wondering why you haven’t given up yet. And why four naga wound up dead not too long ago.” “Tamlin’s not like the other fools,” Lucien snapped, his shoulders pushed back to raise himself to his full height, more warrior-like than I’d yet seen him. No wonder he had all those weapons in his room. “If she expected bowed heads, then she’s more of an idiot than I thought.” The voice hissed, and my blood went cold at the noise. “Speak you so ill of she who holds your fate in her hands? With one word, she could destroy this pathetic estate. She wasn’t pleased when she heard of you dispatching your warriors.” The voice now seemed turned toward Tamlin. “But, as nothing has come of it, she has chosen to ignore it.” There was a deep-throated growl from the High Lord, but his words were calm as he said, “Tell her I’m getting sick of cleaning up the trash she dumps on my borders.” The voice chuckled, the sound like sand shifting. “She sets them loose as gifts—and reminders of what will happen if she catches you trying to break the terms of—” “He’s not,” Lucien snarled. “Now, get out. We have enough of your ilk swarming on the borders—we don’t need you defiling our home, too. For that matter, stay the hell out of the cave. It’s not some common road for filth like you to travel through as they please.” Tamlin loosed a growl of agreement.
The invisible thing laughed again, such a horrible, vicious sound. “Though you have a heart of stone, Tamlin,” it said, and Tamlin went rigid, “you certainly keep a host of fear inside it.” The voice sank into a croon. “Don’t worry, High Lord.” It spat the title like a joke. “All will be right as rain soon enough.” “Burn in Hell,” Lucien replied for Tamlin, and the thing laughed again before a flap of leathery wings boomed, a foul wind bit my face, and everything went silent.
They breathed deeply after another moment. I closed my eyes, needing a steadying breath as well, but massive hands clamped onto my shoulders, and I yelped.
“It’s gone,” Tamlin said, releasing me. It was all I could do not to sag against the hedges.
“What did you hear?” Lucien demanded, coming around the corner and crossing his arms. I shifted my gaze to Tamlin’s face, but found it to be so white with anger—anger at that thing—that I had to look again at Lucien.
“Nothing—I … well, nothing I understood,” I said, and meant it. None of it made any sense. I couldn’t stop shaking. Something about that voice had ripped away the warmth from me. “Who—what was that?” Tamlin began pacing, the gravel churning beneath his boots. “There are certain faeries in Prythian who inspired the legends that you humans are so afraid of. Some, like that one, are myth given flesh.” Inside that hissing voice I’d heard the screaming of human victims, the pleading of young maidens whose chests had been split open on sacrificial altars. Mentions of “court,” seemingly different from Tamlin’s own—was that she the one who had killed Tamlin’s parents? A High Lady, perhaps, in lieu of a Lord. Considering how ruthless the High Fae were to their families, they had to be nightmarish to their enemies. And if there was to be warring between the courts, if the blight had left Tamlin already weakened … “If the Attor saw her—” Lucien said, glancing around.
“It didn’t,” Tamlin said.
“Are you certain it—”
“It didn’t,” Tamlin growled over his shoulder, then looked at me, his face still pale with fury, lips tight. “I’ll see you at dinner.” Understanding a dismissal, and craving the locked door of my bedroom, I trudged back to the house, contemplating who this she was to make Tamlin and Lucien so nervous and to command that thing as her messenger.
The spring breeze whispered that I didn’t want to know.
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