It didn’t quite excuse everything Lucien had said and done to me, but … I understood now. I could understand the walls and barriers he had no doubt constructed around himself. My chest was too tight, too small to fit the ache building in it. I looked at the pool of glittering starlight and let out a heavy breath. I needed to change the subject. “What would happen if I were to drink the water?”
Tamlin straightened a bit—then relaxed, as if glad to release that old sadness. “Legend claims you’d be happy until your last breath.” He added, “Perhaps we both need a glass.”
“I don’t think that entire pool would be enough for me,” I said, and he laughed.
“Two jokes in one day—a miracle sent from the Cauldron,” he said. I cracked a smile. He came a step closer, as if forcibly leaving behind the dark, sad stain of what had happened to Lucien, and the starlight danced in his eyes as he said, “What would be enough to make you happy?”
I blushed from my neck to the top of my head. “I—I don’t know.” It was true—I’d never given that sort of thing any thought beyond getting my sisters safely married off and having enough food for me and my father, and time to learn to paint.
“Hmm,” he said, not stepping away. “What about the ringing of bluebells? Or a ribbon of sunshine? Or a garland of moonlight?” He grinned wickedly.
High Lord of Prythian indeed. High Lord of Foolery was more like it. And he knew—he knew I’d say no, that I’d squirm a bit from merely being alone with him.
No. I wouldn’t let him have the satisfaction of embarrassing me. I’d had enough of that lately, enough of … of that girl encased in ice and bitterness. So I gave him a sweet smile, doing my best to pretend that my stomach wasn’t flipping over itself. “A swim sounds delightful.”
I didn’t allow myself room for second-guessing. And I took no small amount of pride in the fact that my fingers didn’t tremble once as I removed my boots, then unbuttoned my tunic and pants and shucked them onto the grass. My undergarments were modest enough that I wasn’t showing much, but I still looked straight at him as I stood on the grassy bank. The air was warm and mild, and a soft breeze kissed its way across my bare stomach.
Slowly, so slowly, his eyes roved down, then up. As if he were studying every inch, every curve of me. And even though I wore my ivory underthings, that gaze alone stripped me bare.
His eyes met mine and he gave me a lazy smile before removing his clothes. Button by button. I could have sworn the gleam in his eyes turned hungry and feral—enough so that I had to look anywhere but at his face.
I let myself indulge in the glimpse of a broad chest, arms corded with muscle, and long, strong legs before I walked right into that pool. He wasn’t built like Isaac, whose body had very much still been in that gangly place between boy and man. No—Tamlin’s glorious body was honed by centuries of fighting and brutality.
The liquid was delightfully warm, and I strode in until it was deep enough to swim out a few strokes and casually tread in place. Not water, but something smoother, thicker. Not oil, but something purer, thinner. Like being wrapped in warm silk. I was so busy savoring the tug of my fingers through the silvery substance that I didn’t notice him until he was treading beside me.
“Who taught you to swim?” he asked, and dunked his head under the surface. When he came up, he was grinning, sparkling streams of starlight running along the contours of his mask.
I didn’t go under, didn’t quite know if he’d been joking about the water making me mirthful if I drank it. “When I was twelve, I watched the village children swimming at a pond and figured it out myself.”
It had been one of the most terrifying experiences of my life, and I’d swallowed half the pond in the process, but I’d gotten the gist of it, managed to conquer my blind panic and terror and trust myself. Knowing how to swim had seemed like a vital ability—one that might someday mean the difference between life and death. I’d never expected it would lead to this, though.
He went under again, and when he emerged, he ran a hand through his golden hair. “How did your father lose his fortune?”
“How’d you know about that?”
Tamlin snorted. “I don’t think born peasants have your kind of diction.”
Some part of me wanted to come up with a comment about snobbery, but … well, he was right, and I couldn’t blame him for being a skilled observer.
“My father was called the Prince of Merchants,” I said plainly, treading that silky, strange water. I hardly had to put any effort into it—the water was so warm, so light, that it felt as if I were floating in air, every ache in my body oozing away into nothing. “But that title, which he’d inherited from his father, and his father before that, was a lie. We were just a good name that masked three generations of bad debts. My father had been trying to find a way to ease those debts for years, and when he found an opportunity to pay them off, he took it, regardless of the risks.” I swallowed. “Eight years ago, he amassed our wealth on three ships to sail to Bharat for invaluable spices and cloth.”
Tamlin frowned. “Risky indeed. Those waters are a death trap, unless you go the long way.”
“Well, he didn’t go the long way. It would have taken too much time, and our creditors were breathing down his neck. So he risked sending the ships directly to Bharat. They never reached Bharat’s shores.” I tipped my hair back in the water, clearing the memory of my father’s face the day that news arrived of the sinking. “When the ships sank, the creditors circled him like wolves. They ripped him apart until there was nothing left of him but a broken name and a few gold pieces to purchase that cottage. I was eleven. My father … he just stopped trying after that.” I couldn’t bring myself to mention that final, ugly moment when that other creditor had come with his cronies to wreck my father’s leg.
“That’s when you started hunting?”
“No; even though we moved to the cottage, it took almost three years for the money to entirely run out,” I said. “I started hunting when I was fourteen.”
His eyes twinkled—no trace of the warrior forced to accept a High Lord’s burden. “And here you are. What else did you figure out for yourself?”
Maybe it was the enchanted pool, or maybe it was the genuine interest behind the question, but I smiled and told him about those years in the woods.