Tamlin shrugged. “Yes. Yet they had never known freedom, or known the seasons as you do. They didn’t know what to do in the mortal world. But yes—most of them were very, very happy to leave.” Each word was more ground out than the next. “I was happy to see them go, even if my father wasn’t.” Despite the stillness with which he stood, his claws poked out from above his knuckles.
No wonder he’d been so awkward with me, had no idea what to do with me, when I’d first arrived. But I said quietly, “You’re not your father, Tamlin. Or your brothers.” He glanced away, and I added, “You never made me feel like a prisoner—never made me feel like little more than chattel.”
The shadows that flickered in his eyes as he nodded his thanks told me there was more—still more that he had yet to tell me about his family, his life before they’d been killed and this title had been thrust upon him. I wouldn’t ask, not with the blight pressing down on him—not until he was ready. He’d given me space and respect; I could offer him no less.
Still, I couldn’t bring myself to paint that day.
Tamlin was called away to one of the borders hours after I found that head—where and why, he wouldn’t tell me. But I sensed enough from what he didn’t say: the blight was indeed crawling from other courts, directly toward ours.
He stayed the night—the first he’d ever spent away—but sent Lucien to inform me that he was alive. Lucien had emphasized that last word enough that I slept terribly, even as a small part of me marveled that Tamlin had bothered to let me know about his well-being. I knew—I knew I was headed down a path that would likely end in my mortal heart being left in pieces, and yet … And yet I couldn’t stop myself. I hadn’t been able to since that day with the naga. But seeing that head … the games these courts played, with people’s lives as tokens on a board … it was an effort to keep food down whenever I thought about it.
Yet despite the creeping malice, I awoke the next day to the sound of merry fiddling, and when I looked out the window I found the garden bedecked in ribbons and streamers. On the distant hills, I spied the makings of fires and maypoles being raised. When I asked Alis—whose people, I’d learned, were called the urisk—she simply said, “Summer Solstice. The main celebration used to be at the Summer Court, but … things are different. So now we have one here, too. You’re going.”
Summer—in the weeks that I’d been painting and dining with Tamlin and wandering the court lands at his side, summer had come. Did my family still truly believe me to be visiting some long-lost aunt? What were they doing with themselves? If it was the solstice, then there would be a small gathering in the village center—nothing religious, of course, though the Children of the Blessed might wander in to try to convert the young people; just some shared food, donated ale from the solitary tavern, and maybe some line dances. The only thing to celebrate was a day’s break from the long summer days of planting and tilling. From the decorations around the estate, I could tell this would be something far grander—far more spirited.
Tamlin remained gone for most of the day. Worry gnawed at me even as I painted a quick, loose rendering of the streamers and ribbons in the garden. Perhaps it was petty and selfish, given the returning blight, but I also quietly hoped that the solstice didn’t require the same rites as Fire Night. I didn’t let myself think too much about what I would do if Tamlin had a flock of beautiful faeries lining up for him.
It wasn’t until late afternoon that I heard Tamlin’s deep voice and Lucien’s braying laugh echo through the halls all the way to my painting room. Relief sent my chest caving in, but as I rushed to find them, Alis yanked me upstairs. She stripped off my paint-splattered clothes and insisted I change into a flowing, cornflower-blue chiffon gown. She left my hair unbound but wove a garland of pink, white, and blue wildflowers around the crown of my head.
I might have felt childish with it on, but in the months I’d been there, my sharp bones and skeletal form had filled out. A woman’s body. I ran my hands over the sweeping, soft curves of my waist and hips. I had never thought I would feel anything but muscle and bone.
“Cauldron boil me,” Lucien whistled as I came down the stairs. “She looks positively Fae.”
I was too busy looking Tamlin over—scanning for any injury, any sign of blood or mark that the blight might have left—to thank Lucien for the compliment. But Tamlin was clean, almost glowing, completely unarmed—and smiling at me. Whatever he’d gone to deal with had left him unscathed. “You look lovely,” Tamlin murmured, and something in his soft tone made me want to purr.
I squared my shoulders, disinclined to let him see how much his words or voice or sheer well-being impacted me. Not yet. “I’m surprised I’m even allowed to participate tonight.”
“Unfortunately for you and your neck,” Lucien countered, “tonight’s just a party.”
“Do you lie awake at night to come up with all your witty replies for the following day?”
Lucien winked at me, and Tamlin laughed and offered me his arm. “He’s right,” the High Lord said. I was aware of every inch where we touched, of the hard muscles beneath his green tunic. He led me into the garden, and Lucien followed. “Solstice celebrates when day and night are equal—it’s a time of neutrality, when everyone can take down their hair and simply enjoy being a faerie—not High Fae or faerie, just us, and nothing else.”
“So there’s singing and dancing and excessive drinking,” Lucien chimed in, falling into step beside me. “And dallying,” he added with a wicked grin.
Indeed, every brush of Tamlin’s body against mine made it harder to avoid the urge to lean into him entirely, to smell him and touch him and taste him. Whether he noticed the heat singeing my neck and face, or heard my uneven heartbeat, he revealed nothing, holding my arm tighter as we walked out of the garden and into the fields beyond.
The sun was beginning its final descent when we reached the plateau on which the festivities were to be held. I tried not to gawk at the faeries gathered, even as I was in turn gawked at by them. I’d never seen so many in one place before, at least not without the glamour hiding them from me. Now that my eyes were open to the sight, the exquisite dresses and lithe forms that were shaped and colored and built so strangely and differently were a marvel to behold. Yet what little novelty my own presence by the High Lord’s side offered soon wore off—helped by a low, warning growl from Tamlin that sent the others scattering to mind their own business.