Because I was human, and I would grow old and—I didn’t let myself get that far as he came closer still. Slowly, as if giving me time to pull away, he brushed his lips against my cheek. Soft and warm and heartbreakingly gentle. It was hardly more than a caress before he straightened. I hadn’t moved from the moment his mouth had met my skin.
“One day—one day there will be answers for everything,” he said, releasing my hand and stepping away. “But not until the time is right. Until it’s safe.” In the dark, his tone was enough to know that his eyes were flecked with bitterness.
He left me, and I took a gasping breath, not realizing I’d been holding it.
Not realizing that I craved his warmth, his nearness, until he was gone.
Lingering mortification over what I’d admitted, what had … changed between us had me skulking out of the manor after breakfast, fleeing for the sanctuary of the woods for some fresh air—and to study the light and colors. I brought my bow and arrows, along with the jeweled hunting knife that Lucien had given me. Better to be armed than caught empty-handed.
I crept through the trees and brush for no more than an hour before I felt a presence behind me—coming ever closer, sending the animals running for cover. I smiled to myself, and twenty minutes later, I settled in the crook of a towering elm and waited.
Brush rustled—hardly more than a breeze’s passing, but I knew what to expect, knew the signs.
A snap and roar of fury echoed across the lands, scattering the birds.
When I climbed out of the tree and walked into the little clearing, I merely crossed my arms and looked up at the High Lord, dangling by his legs from the snare I’d laid.
Even upside down, he smiled lazily at me as I approached. “Cruel human.”
“That’s what you get for stalking someone.”
He chuckled, and I came close enough to dare stroke a finger along the silken golden hair dangling just above my face, admiring the many colors within it—the hues of yellow and brown and wheat. My heart thundered, and I knew he could probably hear it. But he leaned his head toward me, a silent invitation, and I ran my fingers through his hair—gently, carefully. He purred, the sound rumbling through my fingers, arms, legs, and core. I wondered how that sound would feel if he were fully pressed up against me, skin-to-skin. I stepped back.
He curled upward in a smooth, powerful motion and swiped with a single claw at the creeping vine I’d used for rope. I took a breath to shout, but he flipped as he fell, landing smoothly on his feet. It would be impossible for me to ever forget what he was, and what he was capable of. He took a step closer to me, the laughter still dancing on his face. “Feeling better today?”
I mumbled some noncommittal response.
“Good,” he said, either ignoring or hiding his amusement. “But just in case, I wanted to give you this,” he added, pulling some papers from his tunic and extending them to me.
I bit the inside of my cheek as I stared down at the three pieces of paper. It was a series of five-lined … poems. There were five of them altogether, and I began sweating at words I didn’t recognize. It would take me an entire day just to figure out what these words meant.
“Before you bolt or start yelling …,” he said, coming around to peer over my shoulder. If I’d dared, I could have leaned back into his chest. His breath warmed my neck, the shell of my ear.
He cleared his throat and read the first poem.
There once was a lady most beautiful
Spirited, if a little unusual
Her friends were few
But how the men did queue
But to all she gave a refusal.
My brows rose so high I thought they’d touch my hairline, and I turned, blinking at him, our breath mingling as he finished the poem with a smile.
Without waiting for my response, Tamlin took the papers and stepped a pace away to read the second poem, which wasn’t nearly as polite as the first. By the time he read the third poem, my face was burning. Tamlin paused before he read the fourth, then handed me back the papers.
“Final word in the second and fourth line of each poem,” he said, jerking his chin toward the papers in my hands.
Unusual. Queue. I looked at the second poem. Slaying. Conflagration.
“These are—” I started.
“Your list of words was too interesting to pass up. And not good for love poems at all.” When I lifted my brow in silent inquiry, he said, “We had contests to see who could write the dirtiest limericks while I was living with my father’s war-band by the border. I don’t particularly enjoy losing, so I took it upon myself to become good at them.”
I didn’t know how he’d remembered that long list I’d compiled—I didn’t want to. Sensing I wasn’t about to draw an arrow and shoot him, Tamlin took the papers and read the fifth poem, the dirtiest and foulest of them all.
When he finished, I tipped back my head and howled, my laughter like sunshine shattering age-hardened ice.
I was still smiling when we walked out of the park and toward the rolling hills, meandering back to the manor. “You said—that night in the rose garden …” I sucked on my teeth for a moment. “You said that your father had it planted for your parents upon their mating—not wedding?”
“High Fae mostly marry,” he said, his golden skin flushing a bit. “But if they’re blessed, they’ll find their mate—their equal, their match in every way. High Fae wed without the mating bond, but if you find your mate, the bond is so deep that marriage is … insignificant in comparison.”
I didn’t have the nerve to ask if faeries had ever had mating bonds with humans, but instead dared to say, “Where are your parents? What happened to them?”
A muscle feathered in his jaw, and I regretted the question, if only for the pain that flickered in his eyes. “My father …” His claws gleamed at his knuckles but didn’t go out any farther. I’d definitely asked the wrong question. “My father was as bad as Lucien’s. Worse. My two older brothers were just like him. They kept slaves—all of them. And my brothers … I was young when the Treaty was forged, but I still remember what my brothers used to …” He trailed off. “It left a mark—enough of a mark that when I saw you, your house, I couldn’t—wouldn’t let myself be like them. Wouldn’t bring harm to your family, or you, or subject you to faerie whims.”
Slaves—there had been slaves here. I didn’t want to know—had never looked for traces of them, even five hundred years later. I was still little better than chattel to most of his people, his world. That was why—why he’d offered the loophole, why he’d offered me the freedom to live wherever I wished in Prythian.