Chapter 25 – A Court of Thorns and Roses

Chapter 25

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.

Table after table of food had been lined up along the far edge of the plateau, and I lost Tamlin while I waited in line to fill a plate, leaving me to try my best not to look like I was some human plaything of his. Music started near the giant, smoking bonfire—fiddles and drums and merry instruments that had me tapping my feet in the grass. Light and joyous and open, the mirthful sister to the bloodthirsty Fire Night.

Lucien, of course, excelled at disappearing when I needed him, and so I ate my fill of strawberry shortcake, apple tart, and blueberry pie—no different from summer treats in the mortal realm—alone beneath a sycamore covered with silken lanterns and sparkling ribbons.

I didn’t mind the solitude—not when I was busy contemplating the way the lanterns and ribbons shone, the shadows they cast; perhaps it would be my next painting. Or maybe I would paint the ethereal faeries beginning to dance. Such angles and colors to them. I wondered if any of them had been the subjects of the painters whose work was displayed in the gallery.

I moved only to get myself something to drink. The plateau became more crowded as the sun sank toward the horizon. Across the hills, other bonfires and parties began, their music filtering through the occasional pause in ours. I was pouring myself a goblet of golden sparkling wine when Lucien finally appeared behind me, peering over my shoulder. “I wouldn’t drink that if I were you.”

“Oh?” I said, frowning at the fizzing liquid. “Faerie wine at the solstice,” Lucien hinted.

“Hmm,” I said, taking a sniff. It didn’t reek of alcohol. In fact, it smelled like summers spent lying in the grass and bathing in cool pools. I’d never smelled anything so fantastic.

“I’m serious,” Lucien said as I lifted the glass to my lips, my brows raised. “Remember the last time you ignored my warning?” He poked me in the neck, and I batted his hand away.

“I also remember you telling me how witchberries were harmless, and the next thing I knew, I was half-delirious and falling all over myself,” I said, recalling the afternoon from a few weeks ago. I’d had hallucinations for hours afterward, and Lucien had laughed himself sick—enough so that Tamlin had chucked him into the reflection pool. I shook away the thought. Today—just for today—I would indeed let my hair down. Today, let caution be damned. Forget the blight hovering at the edges of the court, threatening my High Lord and his lands. Where was Tamlin, anyway? If there had been some threat, surely Lucien would have known—surely they would have called off the celebration.

“Well, I mean it this time,” Lucien said, and I shifted my goblet out of his reach. “Tam would gut me if he caught you drinking that.”

“Always looking after your best interests,” I said, and pointedly chugged the contents of the glass.

It was like a million fireworks exploding inside me, filling my veins with starlight. I laughed aloud, and Lucien groaned.

“Human fool,” he hissed. But his glamour had been ripped away. His auburn hair burned like hot metal, and his russet eye smoldered like a bottomless forge. That was what I would capture next.

“I’m going to paint you,” I said, and giggled—actually giggled—as the words popped out.

“Cauldron boil and fry me,” he muttered, and I laughed again. Before he could stop me, I’d downed another glass of faerie wine. It was the most glorious thing I’d ever tasted. It liberated me from bonds I hadn’t known existed.

The music became a siren song. The melody was my lodestone, and I was powerless against its lure. With each step, I savored the dampness of the grass beneath my bare feet. I didn’t remember when I’d lost my shoes.

The sky was an eddy of molten amethyst, sapphire, and ruby, all bleeding into a final pool of onyx. I wanted to swim in it, wanted to bathe in its colors and feel the stars twinkling between my fingers.

I stumbled, blinking, and found myself standing at the edge of the ring of dancing. A cluster of musicians played their faerie instruments, and I swayed on my feet as I watched the faeries dancing, circling the bonfire. Not formal dancing. It was like they were as loose as I was. Free. I loved them for it.

“Damn it, Feyre,” Lucien said, gripping my elbow. “Do you want me to kill myself trying to keep you from impaling your mortal hide on another rock?”

“What?” I said, turning to him. The whole world spun with me, delightful and entrancing.

“Idiot,” he said when he looked at my face. “Drunken idiot.”

The tempo increased. I wanted to be in the music, wanted to ride its speed and weave between its notes. I could feel the music around me, like a living, breathing thing of wonder and joy and beauty.

“Feyre, stop,” Lucien said, and grabbed me again. I’d been dancing away, and my body was still swaying toward the pull of the sound.

“You stop. Stop being so serious,” I said, shaking him off. I wanted to hear the music, wanted to hear it hot off the instruments. Lucien swore as I burst into movement.

I skipped between the dancers, twirling my skirts. The seated, masked musicians didn’t look up at me as I leaped before them, dancing in place. No chains, no boundaries—just me and the music, dancing and dancing. I wasn’t faerie, but I was a part of this earth, and the earth was a part of me, and I would be content to dance upon it for the rest of my life.

One of the musicians looked up from his fiddling, and I halted.

Sweat gleamed on the strong column of his neck as he rested his chin upon the dark wood of the fiddle. He’d rolled up the sleeves of his shirt, revealing the cords of muscle along his forearms. He had once mentioned that he would have liked to be a traveling minstrel if not a warrior or a High Lord—now, hearing him play, I knew he could have made a fortune from it.

“I’m sorry, Tam,” Lucien panted, appearing from nowhere. “I left her alone for a little at one of the food tables, and when I caught up to her, she was drinking the wine, and—”

Tamlin didn’t pause in his playing. His golden hair damp with sweat, he looked marvelously handsome—even though I couldn’t see most of his face. He gave me a feral

smile as I began to dance in place before him. “I’ll look after her,” Tamlin murmured above the music, and I glowed, my dancing becoming faster. “Go enjoy yourself.” Lucien fled.

I shouted over the music, “I don’t need a keeper!” I wanted to spin and spin and spin. “No, you don’t,” Tamlin said, never once stumbling over his playing. How his bow did

dance upon the strings, his fingers sturdy and strong, no signs of those claws that I had come to stop fearing … “Dance, Feyre,” he whispered.

So I did.

I was loosened, a top whirling around and around, and I didn’t know who I danced with or what they looked like, only that I had become the music and the fire and the night, and there was nothing that could slow me down.

Through it all, Tamlin and his musicians played such joyous music that I didn’t think the world could contain it all. I sashayed over to him, my faerie lord, my protector and warrior, my friend, and danced before him. He grinned at me, and I didn’t break my dancing as he rose from his seat and knelt before me in the grass, offering up a solo on his fiddle to me.

Music just for me—a gift. He played on, his fingers fast and hard upon the strings of his fiddle. My body slithering like a snake, I tipped my head back to the heavens and let Tamlin’s music fill all of me.

There was a pressure at my waist, and I was swept away in someone’s arms as they whisked me back into the ring of dancing. I laughed so hard I thought I’d combust, and when I opened my eyes, I found Tamlin there, spinning me round and round.

Everything became a blur of color and sound, and he was the only object in it, tethering me to sanity, to my body, which glowed and burned in every place he touched.

I was filled with sunshine. It was like I’d never experienced summer before, like I’d never known who was waiting to emerge from that forest of ice and snow. I didn’t want it to end—I never wanted to leave this hilltop.

The music came to a close, and, gasping for breath, I glanced at the moon—it was near setting. Sweat slid down every part of my body.

Tamlin, panting as well, took my hand. “Time goes faster when you’re drunk on faerie wine.”

“I’m not drunk,” I said, snorting. He only chuckled and led me from the dancing. I dug my heels into the ground as we neared the edge of the firelight. “They’re starting again,” I said, pointing to the dancers gathering before the refreshed musicians.

He leaned close, his breath caressing the shell of my ear as he whispered, “I want to show you something better.”

I stopped objecting.

He led me off the hill, navigating his way by moonlight. Whatever path he chose, he did so out of consideration for my bare feet, for only soft grass cushioned my steps. Soon, even the music faded away, replaced by the sighing of trees in the night breeze.

“Here,” Tamlin said, pausing at the edge of a vast meadow. His hand lingered on my shoulder as we looked out.

The high grasses moved like water as the last of the moonlight danced upon them. “What is it?” I breathed, but he put a finger to his lips and beckoned me to look.

For a few minutes, there was nothing. Then, from the opposite side of the meadow, dozens of shimmering shapes floated out across the grass, little more than mirages of moonlight. That was when the singing began.

It was a collective voice, but in it existed both male and female—two sides of the same coin, singing to each other in a call and response. I raised a hand to my throat as their music rose and they danced. Ghostly and ethereal, they waltzed across the field, no more than slender slants of moonlight.

“What are they?”

“Will-o’-the-wisps—spirits of air and light,” he said softly. “Come to celebrate the solstice.”

“They’re beautiful.”

His lips grazed my neck as he murmured against my skin, “Dance with me, Feyre.” “Really?” I turned and found my face mere inches from his.

He cracked a lazy smile. “Really.” As though I were nothing but air myself, he pulled me into a sweeping dance. I barely remembered any of the steps I’d learned in childhood, but he compensated for it with his feral grace, never faltering, always sensing any stumble before I made it as we danced across the spirit-riddled field.

I was as unburdened as a piece of dandelion fluff, and he was the wind that stirred me about the world.

He smiled at me, and I found myself smiling back. I didn’t need to pretend, didn’t need to be anything but what I was right then, being twirled about the meadow, the will-o’-the- wisps dancing around us like dozens of moons.

Our dancing slowed and we stood there, holding each other as we swayed to the songs of the spirits. He rested his chin upon my head and stroked my hair, his fingers grazing the bare skin of my neck.

“Feyre,” he whispered onto my head. He made my name sound beautiful. “Feyre,” he whispered again—not in question, but simply as if he enjoyed saying it.

As quickly as they’d appeared, the spirits vanished, taking their music with them. I blinked. The stars were fading, and the sky had turned grayish purple.

Tamlin’s face was inches from my own. “It’s almost dawn.”

I nodded, mesmerized by the sight of him, the smell and feel of him holding me. I reached up to touch his mask. It was so cold, despite how flushed his skin was just beyond it. My hand shook, and my breathing became shallow as I grazed the skin of his jaw. It was smooth—and hot.

He wet his lips, his breathing as uneven as my own. His fingers contracted against the plane of my lower back, and I let him tug me closer to him—until our bodies were touching, and the warmth of him seeped into me.

I had to tilt my head back to see his face. His mouth was caught somewhere between a smile and a wince.

“What?” I asked, and put a hand on his chest, preparing to shove myself back. But his other hand slipped under my hair, resting at the base of my neck.

“I’m thinking I might kiss you,” he said quietly, intently. “Then do it.” I blushed at my own boldness.

But Tamlin only gave that breathy laugh, and leaned in.

His lips brushed mine—testing, soft and warm. He pulled back a little. He was still staring at me, and I stared right back as he kissed me again, harder, but nothing like the way he’d kissed my neck. He withdrew more fully this time and watched me.

“That’s it?” I demanded, and he laughed and kissed me fiercely.

My hands went around his neck, pulling him closer, crushing myself against him. His hands roved my back, playing in my hair, grasping my waist, as if he couldn’t touch enough of me at once.

He let out a low groan. “Come,” he said, kissing my brow. “We’ll miss it if we don’t go now.”

“Better than will-o’-the-wisps ?” I asked, but he kissed my cheeks, my neck, and finally my lips. I followed him into the trees, through the ever-lightening world. His hand was solid and unmovable around mine as we passed through the low-lying mists, and he helped me up a bare hill slick with dew.

We sat atop its crest, and I hid my smile as Tamlin put an arm around my shoulders, tucking me in close. I rested my head against his chest while he toyed with the flowers in my garland.

In silence, we stared out over the rolling green expanse.

The sky shifted into periwinkle, and the clouds filled with pink light. Then, like a shimmering disk too rich and clear to be described, the sun slipped over the horizon and lined everything with gold. It was like seeing the world being born, and we were the sole witnesses.

Tamlin’s arm tightened around me, and he kissed the top of my head. I pulled back, looking up at him.

The gold in his eyes, bright with the rising sun, flickered. “What?”

“My father once told me that I should let my sisters imagine a better life—a better world. And I told him that there was no such thing.” I ran my thumb over his mouth, marveling, and shook my head. “I never understood—because I couldn’t … couldn’t believe that it was even possible.” I swallowed, lowering my hand. “Until now.”

His throat bobbed. His kiss that time was deep and thorough, unhurried and intent.

I let the dawn creep inside me, let it grow with each movement of his lips and brush of his tongue against mine. Tears pricked beneath my closed eyes.

It was the happiest moment of my life.

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