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It was a party like any other—even if it would likely be my last. Faeries drank and lounged and danced, laughing and singing bawdy and ethereal songs. No glimmer of anticipation for what might occur tomorrow—what I stood to alter for them, for their world. Perhaps they knew I would die, too.
I lurked by a wall, forgotten by the crowd, waiting for Rhysand to beckon me to drink the wine and dance or do whatever it was he wished of me. I was clothed in my typical attire, tattooed from the neck down with that blue-black paint. Tonight my gossamer gown was a shade of sunset pink, the color too bright and feminine against the whorls of paint on my skin. Too cheery for what awaited me tomorrow.
Rhysand was taking longer than usual to summon me—though it was probably because of the supple-bodied faerie perched in his lap, caressing his hair with her long greenish fingers. He’d tire of her soon.
I didn’t bother to look at Amarantha. I was better off pretending she wasn’t there. Lucien never spoke to me in public, and Tamlin … It had become difficult to look at him in recent days.
I just wanted it done. I wanted that wine to carry me through this last night and bring me to my fate. I was so intent on anticipating Rhysand’s order to serve him that I didn’t notice that someone stood beside me until the heat from his body leaked onto mine.
I went rigid when I smelled that rain and earthen scent, and didn’t dare to turn to Tamlin. We stood side by side, staring out at the crowd, as still and unnoticeable as statues.
His fingers brushed mine, and a line of fire went through me, burning me so badly that my eyes pricked with tears. I wished—wished he wasn’t touching my marred hand, that his fingers didn’t have to caress the contours of that wretched tattoo.
But I lived in that moment—my life became beautiful again for those few seconds when our hands grazed.
I kept my face set in a mask of cold. He dropped his hand, and, as quickly as he had come, he sauntered off, weaving through the crowd. It was only when he glanced over his shoulder and inclined his head ever so slightly that I understood.
My heart beat faster than it ever had during my trials, and I made myself look as bored as possible before I pushed off the wall and casually strolled after him. I took a different route, but headed toward the small door half hidden by a tapestry near which he lingered. I had only moments before Rhysand would begin looking for me, but a moment alone with Tamlin would be enough.
I could scarcely breathe as I moved nearer and nearer to the door, past Amarantha’s dais, past a group of giggling faeries … Tamlin disappeared through the door as quick as lightning, and I slowed my steps to a meandering pace. These days no one really paid attention to me until I became Rhys’s drugged plaything. All too quickly, the door was before me, and it swung open noiselessly to let me in.
Darkness encompassed me. I saw only a flash of green and gold before the warmth of Tamlin’s body slammed into me and our lips met.
I couldn’t kiss him deeply enough, couldn’t hold him tightly enough, couldn’t touch enough of him. Words weren’t necessary.
I tore at his shirt, needing to feel the skin beneath one last time, and I had to stifle the moan that rose up in me as he grasped my breast. I didn’t want him to be gentle—because what I felt for him wasn’t at all like that. What I felt was wild and hard and burning, and so he was with me.
He tore his lips from mine and bit my neck—bit it as he had on Fire Night. I had to grind my teeth to keep myself from moaning and giving us away. This might be the last time I touched him, the last time we could be together. I wouldn’t waste it.
My fingers grappled with his belt buckle, and his mouth found mine again. Our tongues danced—not a waltz or a minuet, but a war dance, a death dance of bone drums and screaming fiddles.
I wanted him—here.
I hooked a leg around his middle, needing to be closer, and he ground his hips harder against me, crushing me into the icy wall. I pried the belt buckle loose, whipping the leather free, and Tamlin growled his desire in my ear—a low, probing sort of sound that made me see red and white and lightning. We both knew what tomorrow would bring.
I tossed away his belt and started fumbling for his pants. Someone coughed.
“Shameful,” Rhysand purred, and we whirled to find him faintly illuminated by the light that broke in through the doorway. But he stood behind us—farther into the passage, rather than toward the door. He hadn’t come in through the throne room. With that ability of his, he had probably walked through the walls. “Just shameful.” He stalked toward us. Tamlin remained holding me. “Look at what you’ve done to my pet.” Panting, neither of us said anything. But the air became a cold kiss upon my skin—upon my exposed breasts.
“Amarantha would be greatly aggrieved if she knew her little warrior was dallying with the human help,” Rhysand went on, crossing his arms. “I wonder how she’d punish you. Or perhaps she’d stay true to habit and punish Lucien. He still has one eye to lose, after all. Maybe she’ll put it in a ring, too.” Ever so slowly, Tamlin removed my hands from his body and stepped out of my embrace.
“I’m glad to see you’re being reasonable,” Rhysand said, and Tamlin bristled. “Now, be a clever High Lord and buckle your belt and fix your clothes before you go out there.” Tamlin looked at me, and, to my horror, did as Rhysand instructed. My High Lord never took his eyes off my face as he straightened his tunic and hair, then retrieved and fastened his belt again. The paint on his hands and clothes—paint from me—vanished.
“Enjoy the party,” Rhysand crooned, pointing to the door.
Tamlin’s green eyes flickered as they continued to stare into mine. He softly said, “I love you.” Without another glance at Rhysand, he left.
I was temporarily blinded by the brightness that poured in when he opened the door and slipped out. He did not look back at me before the door snicked shut and darkness returned to the dim hall.
Rhysand chuckled. “If you’re that desperate for release, you should have asked me.”
“Pig,” I snapped, covering my breasts with the folds of my gown.
With a few easy steps, he crossed the distance between us and pinned my arms to the wall. My bones groaned. I could have sworn shadow-talons dug into the stones beside my head. “Do you actually intend to put yourself at my mercy, or are you truly that stupid?” His voice was composed of sensuous, bone-breaking ire.
“I’m not your slave.”
“You’re a fool, Feyre. Do you have any idea what could have happened had Amarantha found you two in here? Tamlin might refuse to be her lover, but she keeps him at her side out of the hope that she’ll break him—dominate him, as she loves to do with our kind.” I kept silent. “You’re both fools,” he murmured, his breathing uneven. “How did you not think that someone would notice you were gone? You should thank the Cauldron Lucien’s delightful brothers weren’t watching you.” “What do you care?” I barked, and his grip tightened enough on my wrists that I knew my bones would snap with a little more pressure.
“What do I care?” he breathed, wrath twisting his features. Wings—those membranous, glorious wings—flared from his back, crafted from the shadows behind him. “What do I care?” But before he could go on, his head snapped to the door, then back to my face. The wings vanished as quickly as they had appeared, and then his lips were crushing into mine. His tongue pried my mouth open, forcing himself into me, into the space where I could still taste Tamlin. I pushed and thrashed, but he held firm, his tongue sweeping over the roof of my mouth, against my teeth, claiming my mouth, claiming me— The door was flung wide, and Amarantha’s curved figure filled its space. Tamlin—Tamlin was beside her, his eyes slightly wide, shoulders tight as Rhys’s lips still crushed mine.
Amarantha laughed, and a mask of stone slammed down on Tamlin’s face, void of feeling, void of anything vaguely like the Tamlin I’d been tangled up with moments before.
Rhys casually released me with a flick of his tongue over my bottom lip as a crowd of High Fae appeared behind Amarantha and chimed in with her laughter. Rhysand gave them a lazy, self-indulgent grin and bowed. But something sparked in the queen’s eyes as she looked at Rhysand. Amarantha’s whore, they’d called him.
“I knew it was a matter of time,” she said, putting a hand on Tamlin’s arm. The other she lifted—lifted so Jurian’s eye might see as she said, “You humans are all the same, aren’t you.” I kept my mouth shut, even as I could have died for shame, even as I ached to explain. Tamlin had to realize the truth.
But I wasn’t given the luxury of learning whether Tamlin understood as Amarantha clicked her tongue and turned away, taking her entourage with her. “Typical human trash with their inconstant, dull hearts,” she said to herself—nothing more than a satisfied cat.
Following them, Rhys grabbed my arm to drag me back into the throne room. It was only when the light hit me that I saw the smudges and smears on my paint—smudges along my breasts and stomach, and the paint that had mysteriously appeared on Rhysand’s hands.
“I’m tired of you for tonight,” Rhys said, giving me a light shove toward the main exit. “Go back to your cell.” Behind him, Amarantha and her court smiled with glee, their grins widening when they beheld the marred paint. I looked for Tamlin, but he was stalking for his usual throne on the dais, keeping his back to me. As if he couldn’t stand to look.
I don’t know what time it was, but hours later, footsteps sounded inside my cell. I jolted into a sitting position, and Rhys stepped out of a shadow.
I could still feel the heat of his lips against mine, the smooth glide of his tongue inside my mouth, even though I’d washed my mouth out three times with the bucket of water in my cell.
His tunic was unbuttoned at the top, and he ran a hand through his blue-black hair before he wordlessly slumped against the wall across from me and slid to the floor.
“What do you want?” I demanded.
“A moment of peace and quiet,” he snapped, rubbing his temples.
I paused. “From what?”
He massaged his pale skin, making the corners of his eyes go up and down, out and in. He sighed. “From this mess.” I sat up farther on my pallet of hay. I’d never seen him so candid.
“That damned bitch is running me ragged,” he went on, and dropped his hands from his temples to lean his head against the wall. “You hate me. Imagine how you’d feel if I made you serve in my bedroom. I’m High Lord of the Night Court—not her harlot.” So the slurs were true. And I could imagine very easily how much I would hate him—what it would do to me—to be enslaved to someone like that. “Why are you telling me this?” The swagger and nastiness were gone. “Because I’m tired and lonely, and you’re the only person I can talk to without putting myself at risk.” He let out a low laugh. “How absurd: a High Lord of Prythian and a—” “You can leave if you’re just going to insult me.”
“But I’m so good at it.” He flashed one of his grins. I glared at him, but he sighed. “One wrong move tomorrow, Feyre, and we’re all doomed.” The thought struck a chord of such horror that I could hardly breathe.
“And if you fail,” he went on, more to himself than to me, “then Amarantha will rule forever.”
“If she captured Tamlin’s power once, who’s to say she can’t do it again?” It was the question I hadn’t yet dared voice.
“He won’t be tricked again so easily,” he said, staring up at the ceiling. “Her biggest weapon is that she keeps our powers contained. But she can’t access them, not wholly—though she can control us through them. It’s why I’ve never been able to shatter her mind—why she’s not dead already. The moment you break Amarantha’s curse, Tamlin’s wrath will be so great that no force in the world will keep him from splattering her on the walls.” A chill went through me.
“Why do you think I’m doing this?” He waved a hand to me.
“Because you’re a monster.”
He laughed. “True, but I’m also a pragmatist. Working Tamlin into a senseless fury is the best weapon we have against her. Seeing you enter into a fool’s bargain with Amarantha was one thing, but when Tamlin saw my tattoo on your arm … Oh, you should have been born with my abilities, if only to have felt the rage that seeped from him.” I didn’t want to think much about his abilities. “Who’s to say he won’t splatter you as well?”
“Perhaps he’ll try—but I have a feeling he’ll kill Amarantha first. That’s what it all boils down to, anyway: even your servitude to me can be blamed on her. So he’ll kill her tomorrow, and I’ll be free before he can start a fight with me that will reduce our once-sacred mountain to rubble.” He picked at his nails. “And I have a few other cards to play.” I lifted my brows in silent question.
“Feyre, for Cauldron’s sake. I drug you, but you don’t wonder why I never touch you beyond your waist or arms?” Until tonight—until that damned kiss. I gritted my teeth, but even as my anger rose, a picture cleared.
“It’s the only claim I have to innocence,” he said, “the only thing that will make Tamlin think twice before entering into a battle with me that would cause a catastrophic loss of innocent life. It’s the only way I can convince him I was on your side. Believe me, I would have liked nothing more than to enjoy you—but there are bigger things at stake than taking a human woman to my bed.” I knew, but I still asked, “Like what?”
“Like my territory,” he said, and his eyes held a far-off look that I hadn’t yet seen. “Like my remaining people, enslaved to a tyrant queen who can end their lives with a single word. Surely Tamlin expressed similar sentiments to you.” He hadn’t—not entirely. He hadn’t been able to, thanks to the curse.
“Why did Amarantha target you?” I dared ask. “Why make you her whore?”
“Beyond the obvious?” He gestured to his perfect face. When I didn’t smile, he loosed a breath. “My father killed Tamlin’s father—and his brothers.” I started. Tamlin had never said—never told me the Night Court was responsible for that.
“It’s a long story, and I don’t feel like getting into it, but let’s just say that when she stole our lands out from under us, Amarantha decided that she especially wanted to punish the son of her friend’s murderer—decided that she hated me enough for my father’s deeds that I was to suffer.” I might have reached a hand toward him, might have offered my apologies—but every thought had dried up in my head. What Amarantha had done to him … “So,” he said wearily, “here we are, with the fate of our immortal world in the hands of an illiterate human.” His laugh was unpleasant as he hung his head, cupping his forehead in a hand, and closed his eyes. “What a mess.” Part of me searched for the words to wound him in his vulnerability, but the other half recalled all that he had said, all that he had done, how his head had snapped to the door before he’d kissed me. He’d known Amarantha was coming. Maybe he’d done it to make her jealous, but maybe … If he hadn’t been kissing me, if he hadn’t shown up and interrupted us, I would have gone out into that throne room covered in smudged paint. And everyone—especially Amarantha—would have known what I’d been up to. It wouldn’t have taken much to figure out whom I’d been with, especially not once they saw the paint on Tamlin. I didn’t want to consider what the punishment might have been.
Regardless of his motives or his methods, Rhysand was keeping me alive. And had done so even before I set foot Under the Mountain.
“I’ve told you too much,” he said as he got to his feet. “Perhaps I should have drugged you first. If you were clever, you’d find a way to use this against me. And if you had any stomach for cruelty, you’d go to Amarantha and tell her the truth about her whore. Perhaps she’d give you Tamlin for it.” He slid his hands into the pockets of his black pants, but even as he faded into shadow, there was something in the curve of his shoulders that made me speak.
“When you healed my arm … You didn’t need to bargain with me. You could have demanded every single week of the year.” My brows knit together as he turned, already half-consumed by the dark. “Every single week, and I would have said yes.” It wasn’t entirely a question, but I needed the answer.
A half smile appeared on his sensuous lips. “I know,” he said, and vanished.
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