The faeries brought me up through dusty stairwells and down forgotten halls until we reached a nondescript room where they stripped me naked, bathed me roughly, and then—to my horror—began to paint my body.
Their brushes were unbearably cold and ticklish, and their shadowy grips were firm when I wriggled. Things only worsened when they painted more intimate parts of me, and it was an effort to keep from kicking one of them in the face. They offered no explanation for why—no hint of whether this was another torment sent by Amarantha. Even if I fled, there was nowhere to escape to—not without damning Tamlin further. So I stopped demanding answers, stopped fighting back, and let them finish.
From the neck up, I was regal: my face was adorned with cosmetics—rouge on my lips, a smearing of gold dust on my eyelids, kohl lining my eyes—and my hair was coiled around a small golden diadem imbedded with lapis lazuli. But from the neck down, I was a heathen god’s plaything. They had continued the pattern of the tattoo on my arm, and once the blue-black paint had dried, they placed on me a gauzy white dress.
If you could call it a dress. It was little more than two long shafts of gossamer, just wide enough to cover my breasts, pinned at each shoulder with gold brooches. The sections flowed down to a jeweled belt slung low across my hips, where they joined into a single piece of fabric that hung between my legs and to the floor. It barely covered me, and from the cold air on my skin, I knew that most of my backside was left exposed.
The cold breeze caressing my bare skin was enough to kindle my rage. The two High Fae ignored my demands to be clothed in something else, their impossibly shadowed faces veiled from me, but held my arms firm when I tried to rip the shift off.
“I wouldn’t do that,” a deep, lilting voice said from the doorway. Rhysand was leaning against the wall, his arms crossed over his chest.
I should have known it was his doing, should have known from the matching designs all over my body. “Our bargain hasn’t started yet,” I snapped. The instincts that had once told me to be quiet around Tam and Lucien utterly failed me when Rhysand was near.
“Ah, but I need an escort for the party.” His violet eyes glittered with stars. “And when I thought of you squatting in that cell all night, alone …” He waved a hand, and the faerie servants vanished through the door behind him. I flinched as they walked through the wood—no doubt an ability everyone in the Night Court possessed—and Rhysand chuckled. “You look just as I hoped you would.”
From the cobwebs of my memory, I recalled similar words Tamlin had once whispered into my ear. “Is this necessary?” I said, gesturing to the paint and clothing.
“Of course,” he said coolly. “How else would I know if anyone touches you?”
He approached, and I braced myself as he ran a finger along my shoulder, smearing the paint. As soon as his finger left my skin, the paint fixed itself, returning the design to its original form. “The dress itself won’t mar it, and neither will your movements,” he said, his face close to mine. His teeth were far too near to my throat. “And I’ll remember precisely where my hands have been. But if anyone else touches you—let’s say a certain High Lord who enjoys springtime—I’ll know.” He flicked my nose. “And, Feyre,” he added, his voice a caressing murmur, “I don’t like my belongings tampered with.”
Ice wrapped around my stomach. He owned me for a week every month. Apparently, he thought that extended to the rest of my life, too.
“Come,” Rhysand said, beckoning with a hand. “We’re already late.”
We walked through the halls. The sounds of merriment rose ahead of us, and my face burned as I silently bemoaned the too-sheer fabric of my dress. Beneath it, my breasts were visible to everyone, the paint hardly leaving anything to the imagination, and the cold cave air raised goose bumps on my skin. With my legs, sides, and most of my stomach exposed save for the slender shafts of fabric, I had to clench my teeth to keep them from chattering. My bare feet were half-frozen, and I hoped that wherever we were going would have a giant fire.
Queer, off-kilter music brayed through two stone doors that I immediately recognized. The throne room. No. No, anyplace but here.
Faeries and High Fae gawked as we passed through the entrance. Some bowed to Rhysand, while others gaped. I spied several of Lucien’s older brothers gathered just inside the doors. The smiles they gave me were nothing short of vulpine.
Rhysand didn’t touch me, but he walked close enough for it to be obvious that I was with him—that I belonged to him. I wouldn’t have been surprised if he’d attached a collar and leash around my neck. Maybe he would at some point, now that I was bound to him, the bargain marked on my flesh.
Whispers snaked under the shouts of celebrating, and even the music quieted as the crowd parted and made a path for us to Amarantha’s dais. I lifted my chin, the weight of the crown digging into my skull.
I’d beaten her first task. I’d beaten her menial chores. I could keep my head high.
Tamlin was seated beside her on that same throne, in his usual clothing, no weapons sheathed anywhere on him. Rhysand had said that he wanted to tell him at the right moment, that he’d wanted to hurt Tamlin by revealing the bargain I’d made. Prick. Scheming, wretched prick.
“Merry Midsummer,” Rhysand said, bowing to Amarantha. She wore a rich gown of lavender and orchid-purple—surprisingly modest. I was a savage before her cultivated beauty.
“What have you done with my captive?” she said, but her smile didn’t reach her eyes.
Tamlin’s face was like stone—like stone, save for the white-knuckled grip on the arms of his throne. No claws. He was able to keep that sign of his temper at bay, at least.
I’d done such a foolish thing in binding myself to Rhysand. Rhysand, with the wings and talons lurking beneath that beautiful, flawless surface; Rhysand, who could shatter minds. I did it for you, I wanted to shout.
“We made a bargain,” Rhysand said. I flinched as he brushed a stray lock of my hair from my face. He ran his fingers down my cheek—a gentle caress. The throne room was all too quiet as he spoke his next words to Tamlin. “One week with me at the Night Court every month in exchange for my healing services after her first task.” He raised my left arm to reveal the tattoo, whose ink didn’t shine as much as the paint on my body. “For the rest of her life,” he added casually, but his eyes were now upon Amarantha.