But there were the days when Tamlin was called away to face the latest threat to his borders, and even painting couldn’t distract me until he returned, covered in blood that wasn’t his own, sometimes in his beast form, sometimes as the High Lord. He never gave me details, and I didn’t presume to ask about them; his safe return was enough.
Around the manor itself, there was no sign of creatures like the naga or the Bogge, but I stayed well away from the western woods, even though I painted them often enough from memory. And though my dreams continued to be plagued by the deaths I’d witnessed, the deaths I’d caused, and that horrible pale woman ripping me to shreds—all watched over by a shadow I could never quite glimpse—I slowly stopped being so afraid. Stay with the High Lord. You will be safe. So I did.
The Spring Court was a land of rolling green hills and lush forests and clear, bottomless lakes. Magic didn’t just abound in the bumps and the hollows—it grew there. Try as I might to paint it, I could never capture it—the feel of it. So sometimes I dared to paint the High Lord, who rode at my side when we wandered his grounds on lazy days—the High Lord, whom I was happy to talk to or spend hours in comfortable silence with.
It was probably the lulling of magic that clouded my thoughts, and I didn’t think of my family until I passed the outer hedge wall one morning, scouting for a new spot to paint. A breeze from the south ruffled my hair—fresh and warm. Spring was now dawning on the mortal world.
My family, glamoured, cared for, safe, still had no idea where I was. The mortal world … it had moved on without me, as if I had never existed. A whisper of a miserable life—gone, unremembered by anyone whom I’d known or cared for.
I didn’t paint, nor did I go riding with Tamlin that day. Instead, I sat before a blank canvas, no colors at all in my mind.
No one would remember me back home—I was as good as dead to them. And Tamlin had let me forget them. Maybe the paints had even been a distraction—a way to get me to stop complaining, to stop being a pain in his ass about wanting to see my family. Or maybe they were a distraction from whatever was happening with the blight and Prythian. I’d stopped asking, just as the Suriel had ordered—like a stupid, useless, obedient human.
It was an effort of stubborn will to make it through dinner. Tamlin and Lucien noticed my mood and kept conversation between themselves. It didn’t do much for my growing rage, and when I had eaten my fill, I stalked into the moonlit garden and lost myself in its labyrinth of hedges and flower beds.
I didn’t care where I was going. After a while, I paused in the rose garden. The moonlight stained the red petals a deep purple and cast a silvery sheen on the white blooms.
“My father had this garden planted for my mother,” Tamlin said from behind me. I didn’t bother to face him. I dug my nails into my palms as he stopped by my side. “It was a mating present.”
I stared at the flowers without seeing anything. The flowers I’d painted on the table at home were probably crumbling or gone by now. Nesta might have even scraped them off.
My nails pricked the skin of my palms. Tamlin providing for them or no, glamouring their memories or no, I’d been … erased from their lives. Forgotten. I’d let him erase me. He’d offered me paints and the space and time to practice; he’d shown me pools of starlight; he’d saved my life like some kind of feral knight in a legend, and I’d gulped it down like faerie wine. I was no better than those zealot Children of the Blessed.
His mask was bronze in the darkness, and the emeralds glittered. “You seem … upset.”
I stalked to the nearest rosebush and ripped off a rose, my fingers tearing on the thorns. I ignored the pain, the warmth of the blood that trickled down. I could never paint it accurately—never render it the way those artists had in the gallery pieces. I would never be able to paint Elain’s little garden outside the cottage the way I remembered it, even if my family didn’t remember me.
He didn’t reprimand me for taking one of his parents’ roses—parents who were as absent as my own, but who had probably loved each other and loved him better than mine cared for me. A family that would have offered to go in his place if someone had come to steal him away.
My fingers stung and ached, but I still held on to the rose as I said, “I don’t know why I feel so tremendously ashamed of myself for leaving them. Why it feels so selfish and horrible to paint. I shouldn’t—shouldn’t feel that way, should I? I know I shouldn’t, but I can’t help it.” The rose hung limply from my fingers. “All those years, what I did for them … And they didn’t try to stop you from taking me.” There it was, the giant pain that cracked me in two if I thought about it too long. “I don’t know why I expected them to—why I believed that the puca’s illusion was real that night. I don’t know why I bother still thinking about it. Or still caring.” He was silent long enough that I added, “Compared to you—to your borders and magic being weakened—I suppose my self-pity is absurd.”
“If it grieves you,” he said, the words caressing my bones, “then I don’t think it’s absurd at all.”
“Why?” A flat question, and I chucked the rose into the bushes.
He took my hands. His callused fingers, strong and sturdy, were gentle as he lifted my bleeding hand to his mouth and kissed my palm. As if that were answer enough.
His lips were smooth against my skin, his breath warm, and my knees buckled as he lifted my other hand to his mouth and kissed it, too. Kissed it carefully—in a way that made heat begin pounding in my core, between my legs.
When he withdrew, my blood shone on his mouth. I glanced at my hands, which he still held, and found the wounds gone. I looked at his face again, at his gilded mask, the tanness of his skin, the red of his blood-covered lips as he murmured, “Don’t feel bad for one moment about doing what brings you joy.” He stepped closer, releasing one of my hands to tuck the rose I’d plucked behind my ear. I didn’t know how it had gotten into his hand, or where the thorns had gone.
I couldn’t stop myself from pushing. “Why—why do any of this?”
He leaned in closer, so close that I had to tip my head back to see him. “Because your human joy fascinates me—the way you experience things, in your life span, so wildly and deeply and all at once, is … entrancing. I’m drawn to it, even when I know I shouldn’t be, even when I try not to be.”