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Everything about the stranger radiated sensual grace and ease. High Fae, no doubt. His short black hair gleamed like a raven’s feathers, offsetting his pale skin and blue eyes so deep they were violet, even in the firelight. They twinkled with amusement as he beheld me.
For a moment, we said nothing. Thank you didn’t seem to cover what he’d done for me, but something about the way he stood with absolute stillness, the night seeming to press in closer around him, made me hesitate to speak—made me want to run in the other direction.
He, too, wasn’t wearing a mask. From another court, then.
A half smile played on his lips. “What’s a mortal woman doing here on Fire Night?” His voice was a lover’s purr that sent shivers through me, caressing every muscle and bone and nerve.
I took a step back. “My friends brought me.”
The drumming was increasing in tempo, building to a climax I didn’t understand. It had been so long since I’d seen a bare face that looked even vaguely human. His clothes—all black, all finely made—were cut close enough to his body that I could see how magnificent he was. As if he’d been molded from the night itself.
“And who are your friends?” He was still smiling at me—a predator sizing up prey.
“Two ladies,” I lied again.
“Their names?” He prowled closer, slipping his hands into his pockets. I retreated a little more and kept my mouth shut. Had I just traded three monsters for something far worse?
When it became apparent I wouldn’t answer, he chuckled. “You’re welcome,” he said. “For saving you.” I bristled at his arrogance but retreated another step. I was close enough to the bonfire, to that little hollow where the faeries were all gathered, that I could make it if I sprinted. Maybe someone would take pity on me—maybe Lucien or Alis were there.
“Strange for a mortal to be friends with two faeries,” he mused, and began circling me. I could have sworn tendrils of star-kissed night trailed in his wake. “Aren’t humans usually terrified of us? And aren’t you, for that matter, supposed to keep to your side of the wall?” I was terrified of him, but I wasn’t about to let him know. “I’ve known them my whole life. I’ve never had anything to fear from them.” He paused his circling. He now stood between me and the bonfire—and my escape route. “And yet they brought you to the Great Rite and abandoned you.” “They went to get refreshments,” I said, and his smile grew. Whatever I’d just said had given me away. I’d spotted the servants hauling off the food, but—maybe it wasn’t here.
He smiled for a heartbeat longer. I had never seen anyone so handsome—and never had so many warning bells pealed in my head because of it.
“I’m afraid the refreshments are a long way off,” he said, coming closer now. “It might be a while before they return. May I escort you somewhere in the meantime?” He removed a hand from his pocket to offer his arm.
He’d been able to scare off those faeries without lifting a finger. “No,” I said, my tongue thick and heavy.
He waved his hand toward the hollow—toward the drums. “Enjoy the Rite, then. Try to stay out of trouble.” His eyes gleamed in a way that suggested staying out of trouble meant staying far, far away from him.
Though it might have been the biggest risk I’d ever taken, I blurted, “So you’re not a part of the Spring Court?” He returned to me, every movement exquisite and laced with lethal power, but I held my ground as he gave me a lazy smile. “Do I look like I’m part of the Spring Court?” The words were tinged with an arrogance that only an immortal could achieve. He laughed under his breath. “No, I’m not a part of the noble Spring Court. And glad of it.” He gestured to his face, where a mask might go.
I should have walked away, should have shut my mouth. “Why are you here, then?”
The man’s remarkable eyes seemed to glow—with enough of a deadly edge that I backed up a step. “Because all the monsters have been let out of their cages tonight, no matter what court they belong to. So I may roam wherever I wish until the dawn.” More riddles and questions to be answered. But I’d had enough—especially as his smile turned cold and cruel. “Enjoy the Rite,” I repeated as blandly as I could.
I hurried back to the hollow, too aware of the fact that I was putting my back to him. I was grateful to lose myself in the crowd milling along the path to the cave, still waiting for some moment to occur.
When I stopped shaking, I looked around at the gathered faeries. Most of them still wore masks, but there were some, like that lethal stranger and those three horrible faeries, who wore no masks at all—either faeries with no allegiance or members of other courts. I couldn’t tell them apart. As I scanned the crowd, my eyes met with those of a masked faerie across the path. One was russet and shone as brightly as his red hair. The other was—metal. I blinked at the same moment he did, and then his eyes went wide. He vanished into nothing, and a second later, someone grabbed my elbow and yanked me out of the crowd.
“Have you lost your senses?” Lucien shouted above the drums. His face was ghostly pale. “What are you doing here?” None of the faeries noticed us—they were all staring intensely down the path, away from the cave. “I wanted to—” I started, but Lucien cursed violently.
“Idiot!” he yelled at me, then glanced behind him toward where the other faeries stared. “Useless human fool.” Without further word, he slung me over his shoulder as if I were a sack of potatoes.
Despite my wriggling and shouts of protest, despite my demands that he get my horse, he held firm, and when I looked up, I found that he was running—fast. Faster than anything should be able to move. It made me so nauseated that I shut my eyes. He didn’t stop until the air was cooler and calmer, and the drumming was distant.
Lucien dropped me on the floor of the manor hallway, and when I steadied myself, I found his face just as pale as before. “You stupid mortal,” he snapped. “Didn’t he tell you to stay in your room?” Lucien looked over his shoulder, toward the hills, where the drumming became so loud and fast that it was like a rainstorm.
“That was hardly anything—”
“That wasn’t even the ceremony!” It was only then that I saw the sweat on his face and the panicked gleam in his eyes. “By the Cauldron, if Tam found you there …” “So what?” I said, shouting as well. I hated feeling like a disobedient child.
“It’s the Great Rite, Cauldron boil me! Didn’t anyone tell you what it is?” My silence was answer enough. I could almost see the drumbeats pulsing against his skin, beckoning him to rejoin the crowd. “Fire Night signals the official start of spring—in Prythian, as well as in the mortal world,” Lucien said. While his words were calm, they trembled slightly. I leaned against the wall of the hallway, forcing myself into a casualness I didn’t feel. “Here, our crops depend upon the magic we regenerate on Calanmai—tonight.” I stuffed my hands into the pockets of my pants. Tamlin had said something similar two days ago. Lucien shuddered, as if shaking off an invisible touch. “We do this by conducting the Great Rite. Each of the seven High Lords of Prythian performs this every year, since their magic comes from the earth and returns to it at the end—it’s a give-and-take.” “But what is it?” I asked, and he clicked his tongue.
“Tonight, Tam will allow … great and terrible magic to enter his body,” Lucien said, staring at the distant fires. “The magic will seize control of his mind, his body, his soul, and turn him into the Hunter. It will fill him with his sole purpose: to find the Maiden. From their coupling, magic will be released and spread to the earth, where it will regenerate life for the year to come.” My face became hot, and I fought the urge to fidget.
“Tonight, Tam won’t be the faerie you know,” Lucien said. “He won’t even know his name. The magic will consume everything in him but that one basic command—and need.” “Who … who’s the Maiden?” I got out.
Lucien snorted. “No one knows until it’s time. After Tam hunts down the white stag and kills it for the sacrificial offering, he’ll make his way to that sacred cave, where he’ll find the path lined with faerie females waiting to be chosen as his mate for tonight.” “What?”
Lucien laughed. “Yes—all those female faeries around you were females for Tamlin to pick. It’s an honor to be chosen, but it’s his instincts that select her.” “But you were there—and other male faeries.” My face burned so hot that I began sweating. That was why those three horrible faeries had been there—and they’d thought that just by my presence, I was happy to comply with their plans.
“Ah.” Lucien chuckled. “Well, Tam’s not the only one who gets to perform the rite tonight. Once he makes his choice, we’re free to mingle. Though it’s not the Great Rite, our own dalliances tonight will help the land, too.” He shrugged off that invisible hand a second time, and his eyes fell upon the hills. “You’re lucky I found you when I did, though,” he said. “Because he would have smelled you, and claimed you, but it wouldn’t have been Tamlin who brought you into that cave.” His eyes met mine, and a chill went over me. “And I don’t think you would have liked it. Tonight is not for lovemaking.” I swallowed my nausea.
“I should go,” Lucien said, gazing at the hills. “I need to return before he arrives at the cave—at least to try to control him when he smells you and can’t find you in the crowd.” It made me sick—the thought of Tamlin forcing me, that magic could strip away any sense of self, of right or wrong. But hearing that … that some feral part of him wanted me … My breath was painful.
“Stay in your room tonight, Feyre,” Lucien said, walking to the garden doors. “No matter who comes knocking, keep the door locked. Don’t come out until morning.” Image
At some point, I dozed off while sitting at my vanity. I awoke the moment the drums stopped. A shuddering silence went through the house, and the hair on my arms arose as magic swept past me, rippling outward.
Though I tried not to, I thought about the probable source and blushed, even as my chest tightened. I glanced at the clock. It was past two in the morning.
Well, he’d certainly taken his time with the ritual, which meant the girl was probably beautiful and charming, and appealed to his instincts.
I wondered whether she was glad to be chosen. Probably. She’d come to the hill of her own free will. And after all, Tamlin was a High Lord, and it was a great honor. And I supposed Tamlin was handsome. Terribly handsome. Even though I couldn’t see the upper part of his face, his eyes were fine, and his mouth beautifully curved and full. And then there was his body, which was … was … I hissed and stood.
I stared at my door, at the snare I’d rigged. How utterly absurd—as if bits of rope and wood could protect me from the demons in this land.
Needing to do something with my hands, I carefully disassembled the snare. Then I unlocked the door and strode into the hallway. What a ridiculous holiday. Absurd. It was good that humans had cast them aside.
I made it to the empty kitchen, gobbled down half a loaf of bread, an apple, and a lemon tart. I nibbled on a chocolate cookie as I walked to my little painting room. I needed to get some of the furious images out of my mind, even if I had to paint by candlelight.
I was about to turn down the hallway when a tall male figure appeared before me. The moonlight from the open window turned his mask silver, and his golden hair—unbound and crowned with laurel leaves—gleamed.
“Going somewhere?” Tamlin asked. His voice was not entirely of this world.
I suppressed a shudder. “Midnight snack,” I said, and I was keenly aware of every movement, every breath I took as I neared him.
His bare chest was painted with whorls of dark blue woad, and from the smudges in the paint, I knew exactly where he’d been touched. I tried not to notice that they descended past his muscled midriff.
I was about to pass him when he grabbed me, so fast that I didn’t see anything until he had me pinned against the wall. The cookie dropped from my hand as he grasped my wrists. “I smelled you,” he breathed, his painted chest rising and falling so close to mine. “I searched for you, and you weren’t there.” He reeked of magic. When I looked into his eyes, remnants of power flickered there. No kindness, none of the wry humor and gentle reprimands. The Tamlin I knew was gone.
“Let go,” I said as evenly as I could, but his claws punched out, imbedding in the wood above my hands. Still riding the magic, he was half-wild.
“You drove me mad,” he growled, and the sound trembled down my neck, along my breasts until they ached. “I searched for you, and you weren’t there. When I didn’t find you,” he said, bringing his face closer to mine, until we shared breath, “it made me pick another.” I couldn’t escape. I wasn’t entirely sure that I wanted to.
“She asked me not to be gentle with her, either,” he snarled, his teeth bright in the moonlight. He brought his lips to my ear. “I would have been gentle with you, though.” I shuddered as I closed my eyes. Every inch of my body went taut as his words echoed through me. “I would have had you moaning my name throughout it all. And I would have taken a very, very long time, Feyre.” He said my name like a caress, and his hot breath tickled my ear. My back arched slightly.
He ripped his claws free from the wall, and my knees buckled as he let go. I grasped the wall to keep from sinking to the floor, to keep from grabbing him—to strike or caress, I didn’t know. I opened my eyes. He still smiled—smiled like an animal.
“Why should I want someone’s leftovers?” I said, making to push him away. He grabbed my hands again and bit my neck.
I cried out as his teeth clamped onto the tender spot where my neck met my shoulder. I couldn’t move—couldn’t think, and my world narrowed to the feeling of his lips and teeth against my skin. He didn’t pierce my flesh, but rather bit to keep me pinned. The push of his body against mine, the hard and the soft, made me see red—see lightning, made me grind my hips against his. I should hate him—hate him for his stupid ritual, for the female he’d been with tonight … His bite lightened, and his tongue caressed the places his teeth had been. He didn’t move—he just remained in that spot, kissing my neck. Intently, territorially, lazily. Heat pounded between my legs, and as he ground his body against me, against every aching spot, a moan slipped past my lips.
He jerked away. The air was bitingly cold against my freed skin, and I panted as he stared at me. “Don’t ever disobey me again,” he said, his voice a deep purr that ricocheted through me, awakening everything and lulling it into complicity.
Then I reconsidered his words and straightened. He grinned at me in that wild way, and my hand connected with his face.
“Don’t tell me what to do,” I breathed, my palm stinging. “And don’t bite me like some enraged beast.” He chuckled bitterly. The moonlight turned his eyes to the color of leaves in shadow. More—I wanted the hardness of his body crushing against mine; I wanted his mouth and teeth and tongue on my bare skin… Everywhere—I wanted him everywhere. I was drowning in that need.
His nostrils flared as he scented me—scented every burning, raging thought that was pounding through my body, my senses. The breath rushed from him in a mighty whoosh.
He growled once, low and frustrated and vicious, before prowling away.
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