It wasn’t pleasing—though not for its actual appearance. While my nose was relatively straight, it was the other feature I’d inherited from my mother. I could still remember how her nose would crinkle with feigned amusement when one of her fabulously wealthy friends made some unfunny joke.
At least I had my father’s soft mouth, though it made a mockery of my too-sharp cheekbones and hollow cheeks. I couldn’t bring myself to look at my slightly uptilted eyes. I knew I’d see Nesta or my mother looking back at me. I’d sometimes wondered if that was why my sister had insulted me about my looks. I was a far cry from ugly, but … I bore too much of the people we’d hated and loved for Nesta to stand it. For me to stand it, too.
Though I supposed that for Tamlin—for High Fae used to ethereal, flawless beauty—it had been a struggle to find a compliment. Faerie b*****d.
Alis finished my plait, and I jumped from the bench before she could weave in little flowers from the basket she’d brought. I would have lived up to my namesake were it not for the effects of poverty, but I’d never particularly cared. Beauty didn’t mean anything in the forest.
When I asked Alis what I was to do now—what I was to do with the entirety of my mortal life—she shrugged and suggested a walk in the gardens. I almost laughed, but I kept my tongue still. I’d be foolish to push aside potential allies. I doubted she had Tamlin’s ear, and I couldn’t press her about it yet, but … At least a walk provided a chance to glean some sense of my surroundings—and whether there was anyone else who might plead my case to Tamlin.
The halls were silent and empty—strange for such a large estate. They’d mentioned others the night before, but I saw and heard no sign of them. A balmy breeze scented with … hyacinth, I realized—if only from Elain’s small garden—floated down the halls, carrying with it the pleasant chirping of a bunting, a bird I wouldn’t hear back home for months—if I ever heard them at all.
I was almost to the grand staircase when I noticed the paintings.
I hadn’t let myself really look yesterday, but now, in the empty hall with no one to see me … a flash of color amid a shadowy, gloomy background made me stop, a riot of color and texture that compelled me to face the gilded frame.
I’d never—never—seen anything like it.
It’s just a still life, a part of me said. And it was: a green glass vase with an assortment of flowers drooping over its narrow top, blossoms and leaves of every shape and size and color—roses, tulips, morning glory, goldenrod, maiden’s lace, peonies …
The skill it must have taken to make them look so lifelike, to make them more than lifelike … Just a vase of flowers against a dark background—but more than that; the flowers seemed to be vibrant with their own light, as if in defiance of the shadows gathered around them. The mastery needed to make the glass vase hold that light, to bend the light with the water within, as if the vase did indeed have weight to it atop its stone pedestal … Remarkable.
I could have stared at it for hours—and the countless paintings along this hall alone could have occupied my entire day—but … garden. Plans.
Still, as I moved on, I couldn’t deny that this place was far more … civilized than I’d thought. Peaceful, even, if I was willing to admit it.
And if the High Fae were indeed gentler than human legend and rumor had led me to believe, then maybe convincing Alis of my misery might not be too hard. If I could win over Alis, convince her that the Treaty had been wrong to demand such payment from me, she might indeed see if there was anything to get me out of this debt and—
“You,” someone said, and I jumped back a step. In the light of the open glass doors to the garden, a towering male figure stood silhouetted before me.
Tamlin. He wore those warrior’s clothes, cut close to show off his toned body, and three simple knives were now sheathed along his baldric—each long enough to look like it could gut me as easily as his beast’s claws. His blond hair had been tied back from his face, revealing those pointed ears and that strange, beautiful mask. “Where are you going?” he said, gruffly enough that it almost sounded like a demand. You—I wondered if he even remembered my name.
It took a moment to will enough strength into my legs to rise from my half crouch. “Good morning,” I said flatly. At least it was a better greeting than You. “You said my time was to be spent however I wanted. I didn’t realize I was under house arrest.”
His jaw tightened. “Of course you’re not under house arrest.” Even as he bit out the words, I couldn’t ignore the sheer male beauty of that strong jaw, the richness of his golden-tan skin. He was probably handsome—if he ever took off that mask.
When he realized that I wasn’t going to respond, he bared his teeth in what I supposed was an attempt at a smile and said, “Do you want a tour?”
“No, thank you,” I managed to get out, conscious of every awkward motion of my body as I edged around him.
He stepped into my path—close enough that he conceded a step back. “I’ve been sitting inside all morning. I need some fresh air.” And you’re insignificant enough that you wouldn’t be a bother.
“I’m fine,” I said, casually dodging him. “You’ve … been generous enough.” I tried to sound like I meant it.
A half smile, not so pleasant, no doubt unused to being denied. “Do you have some sort of problem with me?”
“No,” I said quietly, and walked through the doors.
He let out a low snarl. “I’m not going to kill you, Feyre. I don’t break my promises.”
I almost stumbled down the garden steps as I glanced over my shoulder. He stood atop the stairs, as solid and ancient as the pale stones of the manor. “Kill—but not harm? Is that another loophole? One that Lucien might use against me—or anyone else here?”
“They’re under orders not to even touch you.”
“Yet I’m still trapped in your realm, for breaking a rule I didn’t know existed. Why was your friend even in the woods that day? I thought the Treaty banned your kind from entering our lands.”
He just stared at me. Perhaps I’d gone too far, questioned him too much. Perhaps he could tell why I’d really asked.
“That Treaty,” he said quietly, “doesn’t ban us from doing anything, except for enslaving you. The wall is an inconvenience. If we cared to, we could shatter it and march through to kill you all.”