فصل 04

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CHAPTER

4

Summer Solstice was exactly as I had remembered: streamers and ribbons and garlands of flowers everywhere, casks of ale and wine hauled out to the foothills surrounding the estate, High Fae and lesser faeries alike flocking to the celebrations.

But what had not existed here a year ago was Ianthe.

The celebrating would be sacrilege, she intoned, if we did not give thanks first.

So we all were up two hours before the dawn, bleary-eyed and none of us too keen to endure her ceremony as the sun crested the horizon on the longest day of the year. I wondered if Tarquin had to weather such tedious rituals in his shining palace by the sea. Wondered what sort of celebrations would occur in Adriata today, with the High Lord of Summer who had come so very close to being a friend.

As far as I knew, despite the murmurings between servants, Tarquin still had never sent word to Tamlin about the visit Rhys, Amren, and I had made. What did the Summer lord now think of my changed circumstances? I had little doubt Tarquin had heard. And I prayed he stayed out of it until my work here was finished.

Alis had found me a luxurious white velvet cloak for the brisk ride into the hills, and Tamlin had lifted me onto a moon-pale mare with wildflowers woven into her silver mane. If I had wanted to paint a picture of serene purity, it would have been the image I cast that morning, my hair braided above my head, a crown of white hawthorn blossoms upon it. I’d dabbed rouge onto my cheeks and lips—a slight hint of color. Like the first blush of spring across a winter landscape.

As our procession arrived at the hill, a gathered crowd of hundreds already atop it, all eyes turned to me. But I kept my gaze ahead, to where Ianthe stood before a rudimentary stone altar bedecked in flowers and the first fruits and grains of summer. The hood was off her pale blue robe for once, the silver circlet now resting directly atop her golden head.

I smiled at her, my mare obediently pausing at the northern arc of the half circle that the crowd had formed around the hill’s edge and Ianthe’s altar, and wondered if Ianthe could spy the wolf grinning beneath.

Tamlin helped me off the horse, the gray light of predawn shimmering along the golden threads in his green jacket. I forced myself to meet his eyes as he set me on the soft grass, aware of every other stare upon us.

The memory gleamed in his gaze—in the way his gaze dipped to my mouth.

A year ago, he had kissed me on this day. A year ago, I’d danced amongst these people, carefree and joyous for the first time in my life, and had believed it was the happiest I’d ever been and ever would be.

I gave him a little, shy smile and took the arm he extended. Together, we crossed the grass toward Ianthe’s stone altar, the Hybern royals, Jurian, and Lucien trailing behind.

I wondered if Tamlin was also remembering another day all those months ago, when I’d worn a different white gown, when there had also been flowers strewn about.

When my mate had rescued me after I’d decided not to go through with the wedding, some fundamental part of me knowing it wasn’t right. I had believed I didn’t deserve it, hadn’t wanted to burden Tamlin for an eternity with someone as broken as I’d been at the time. And Rhys … Rhys would have let me marry him, believing me to be happy, wanting me to be happy even if it killed him. But the moment I had said no … He had saved me. Helped me save myself.

I glanced sidelong at Tamlin.

But he was studying my hand, braced on his arm. The empty finger where that ring had once perched.

What did he make of it—where did he think that ring had gone, if Lucien had hidden the evidence? For a heartbeat, I pitied him.

Pitied that not only Lucien had lied to him, but Alis as well. How many others had seen the truth of my suffering—and tried to spare him from it?

Seen my suffering and done nothing to help me.

Tamlin and I paused before the altar, Ianthe offering us a serene, regal nod.

The Hybern royals shifted on their feet, not bothering to hide their impatience. Brannagh had made barely veiled complaints about the solstice at dinner last night, declaring that in Hybern they did not bother with such odious things and got on with the revelry. And implying, in her way, that soon, neither would we.

I ignored the royals as Ianthe lifted her hands and called to the crowd behind us, “A blessed solstice to us all.”

Then began an endless string of prayers and rituals, her prettiest young acolytes assisting with the pouring of sacred wine, with the blessing of the harvest goods on the altar, with beseeching the sun to rise.

A lovely, rehearsed little number. Lucien was half-asleep behind me.

But I’d gone over the ceremony with Ianthe, and knew what was coming when she lifted the sacred wine and intoned, “As the light is strongest today, let it drive out unwanted darkness. Let it banish the black stain of evil.”

Jab after jab at my mate, my home. But I nodded along with her.

“Would Princess Brannagh and Prince Dagdan do us the honor of imbibing this blessed wine?”

The crowd shifted. The Hybern royals blinked, frowning to each other.

But I stepped aside, smiling prettily at them and gesturing to the altar.

They opened their mouths, no doubt to refuse, but Ianthe would not be denied. “Drink, and let our new allies become new friends,” she declared. “Drink, and wash away the endless night of the year.”

The two daemati were likely testing that cup for poison through whatever magic and training they possessed, but I kept the bland smile on my face as they finally approached the altar and Brannagh accepted the outstretched silver cup.

They each barely had a sip before they made to step back. But Ianthe cooed at them, insisting they come behind the altar to witness our ceremony at her side.

I had made sure she knew precisely how disgusted they were with her rituals. How they would do their best to stomp out her usefulness as a leader of her people once they arrived. She now seemed inclined to convert them.

More prayers and rituals, until Tamlin was summoned to the other side of the altar to light a candle for the souls extinguished in the past year—to now bring them back into the light’s embrace when the sun rose.

Pink began to stain the clouds behind them.

Jurian was also called forward to recite one final prayer I’d requested Ianthe add, in honor of the warriors who fought for our safety each day.

And then Lucien and I were standing alone in the circle of grass, the altar and horizon before us, the crowd at our backs and sides.

From the rigidity of his posture, the dart of his gaze over the site, I knew he was now running through the prayers and how I had worked with Ianthe on the ceremony. How he and I remained on this side of the line right as the sun was about to break over the world, and the others had been maneuvered away.

Ianthe stepped toward the hill’s edge, her golden hair tumbling freely down her back as she lifted her arms to the sky. The location was intentional, as was the positioning of her arms.

She’d made the same gesture on Winter Solstice, standing in the precise spot where the sun would rise between her upraised arms, filling them with light. Her acolytes had discreetly marked the place in the grass with a carved stone.

Slowly, the golden disc of the sun broke over the hazy greens and blues of the horizon.

Light filled the world, clear and strong, spearing right for us.

Ianthe’s back arched, her body a mere vessel for the solstice’s light to fill, and what I could see of her face was already limned in pious ecstasy.

The sun rose, a held, gilded note echoing through the land.

The crowd began to murmur.

Then cry out.

Not at Ianthe.

But at me.

At me, resplendent and pure in white, beginning to glow with the light of day as the sun’s path flowed directly over me instead.

No one had bothered to confirm or even notice that Ianthe’s marker stone had moved five feet to the right, too busy with my parading arrival to spy a phantom wind slide it through the grass.

It took Ianthe longer than anyone else to look.

To turn to see that the sun’s power was not filling her, blessing her.

I released the damper on the power that I had unleashed in Hybern, my body turning incandescent as light shone through. Pure as day, pure as starlight.

“Cursebreaker,” some murmured. “Blessed,” others whispered.

I made a show of looking surprised—surprised and yet accepting of the Cauldron’s choice. Tamlin’s face was taut with shock, the Hybern royals’ nothing short of baffled.

But I turned to Lucien, my light radiating so brightly that it bounced off his metal eye. A friend beseeching another for help. I reached a hand toward him.

Beyond us, I could feel Ianthe scrambling to regain control, to find some way to spin it.

Perhaps Lucien could, too. For he took my hand, and then knelt upon one knee in the grass, pressing my fingers to his brow.

Like stalks of wheat in a wind, the others fell to their knees as well.

For in all of her preening ceremonies and rituals, never had Ianthe revealed any sign of power or blessing. But Feyre Cursebreaker, who had led Prythian from tyranny and darkness …

Blessed. Holy. Undimming before evil.

I let my glow spread, until it, too, rippled from Lucien’s bowed form.

A knight before his queen.

When I looked to Ianthe and smiled again, I let a little bit of the wolf show.

The festivities, at least, remained the same.

Once the uproar and awe had ebbed, once my own glow had vanished when the sun crested higher than my head, we made our way to the nearby hills and fields, where those who had not attended the ceremony had already heard about my small miracle.

I kept close to Lucien, who was inclined to indulge me, as everyone seemed to be torn between joy and awe, question and concern.

Ianthe spent the next six hours trying to explain what had happened. The Cauldron had blessed her chosen friend, she told whoever would listen. The sun had altered its very path to show how glad it was for my return.

Only her acolytes really paid attention, and half of them appeared only mildly interested.

Tamlin, however, seemed the wariest—as if the blessing had somehow upset me, as if he remembered that same light in Hybern and could not figure out why it disturbed him so.

But duty had him fielding thanks and good wishes from his subjects, warriors, and the lesser lords, leaving me free to wander. I was stopped every now and then by fervent, adoring faeries who wished to touch my hand, to weep a bit over me.

Once, I would have cringed and winced. Now I received their thanks and prayers beatifically, thanking them, smiling at them.

Some of it was genuine. I had no quarrel with the people of these lands, who had suffered alongside the rest. None. But the courtiers and sentries who sought me out … I put on a better show for them. Cauldron-blessed, they called me. An honor, I merely replied.

On and on I repeated those words, through breakfast and lunch, until I returned to the house to freshen up and take a moment for myself.

In the privacy of my room, I set my crown of flowers on the dressing table and smiled slightly at the eye tattooed into my right palm.

The longest day of the year, I said into the bond, sending along flickers of all that had occurred atop that hill. I wish I could spend it with you.

He would have enjoyed my performance—would have laughed himself hoarse afterward at the expression on Ianthe’s face.

I finished washing up and was about to head out into the hills again when Rhysand’s voice filled my mind.

It’d be an honor, he said, laughter in every word, to spend even a moment in the company of Feyre Cauldron-blessed.

I chuckled. The words were distant, strained. Keep it quick—I had to keep it quick, or risk exposure. And more than anything, I needed to ask, to know—

Is everyone all right?

I waited, counting the minutes. Yes. As well as we can be. When do you come home to me?

Each word was quieter than the last.

Soon, I promised him. Hybern is here. I’ll be done soon.

He didn’t reply—and I waited another few minutes before I again donned my flower crown and strode down the stairs.

As I emerged into the bedecked garden, though, Rhysand’s faint voice filled my head once more. I wish I could spend today with you, too.

The words wrapped a fist around my heart, and I forced them from my mind as I returned to the party in the hills, my steps heavier than they’d been when I floated into the house.

But lunch had been cleared away, and dancing had begun.

I saw him waiting on the outskirts of one of the circles, observing every move I took.

I glanced between the grass and the crowd and the cluster of musicians coaxing such lively music from drums and fiddles and pipes as I approached, no more than a shy, hesitant doe.

Once, those same sounds had shaken me awake, had made me dance and dance. I supposed they were now little more than weapons in my arsenal as I stopped before Tamlin, lowered my lashes, and asked softly, “Will you dance with me?”

Relief, happiness, and a slight edge of concern. “Yes,” he breathed. “Yes, of course.”

So I let him lead me into the swift dance, spinning and tilting me, people gathering to cheer and clap. Dance after dance after dance, until sweat was running down my back as I worked to keep up, keep that smile on my face, to remember to laugh when my hands were within strangling distance of his throat.

The music eventually shifted into something slower, and Tamlin eased us into the melody. When others had found their own partners more interesting to watch, he murmured, “This morning … Are you all right?”

My head snapped up. “Yes. I—I don’t know what that was, but yes. Is Ianthe … mad?”

“I don’t know. She didn’t see it coming—I don’t think she handles surprises very well.”

“I should apologize.”

His eyes flashed. “What for? Perhaps it was a blessing. Magic still surprises me. If she’s angry, it’s her problem.”

I made a show of considering, then nodded. Pressed closer, loathing every place where our bodies touched. I didn’t know how Rhys had endured it—endured Amarantha. For five decades.

“You look beautiful today,” Tamlin said.

“Thank you.” I made myself peer up into his face. “Lucien—Lucien told me that you didn’t complete the Rite at Calanmai. That you refused.”

And you let Ianthe take him into that cave instead.

His throat bobbed. “I couldn’t stomach it.”

And yet you could stomach making a deal with Hybern, as if I were a stolen item to be returned. “Maybe this morning was not just a blessing for me,” I offered.

A stroke of his hand down my back was his only reply.

That was all we said for the next three dances, until hunger dragged me toward the tables where dinner had now been laid out. I let him fill a plate for me, let him serve me himself as we found a spot under a twisted old oak and watched the dancing and the music.

I nearly asked if it was worth it—if giving up this sort of peace was worth it, in order to have me back. For Hybern would come here, use these lands. And there would be no more singing and dancing. Not once they arrived.

But I kept quiet as the sunlight faded and night finally fell.

The stars winked into existence, dim and small above the blazing fires.

I watched them through the long hours of celebrating, and could have sworn that they kept me company, my silent and stalwart friends.

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