A Court of Thorns and Roses Page 38

“All right.” He left his tunic unbuttoned. There was only bare, muscled, golden skin beneath.

“Why this place?” I asked, tearing my eyes away from his chest.

“This was my favorite haunt as a boy.”

“Which was when?” I couldn’t stop the question from coming out.

He cut a glance in my direction. “A very long time ago.” He said it so quietly that it made me shift on my feet. A very long time ago indeed, if he’d been a boy during the War.

Well, I’d started down that road, so I ventured to ask, “Is Lucien all right? After last night, I mean.” He seemed back to his usual snide, irreverent self, but he’d vomited at the sight of that dying faerie. “He … didn’t react well.”

Tamlin shrugged, but his words were soft as he said, “Lucien … Lucien has endured things that make times like last night … difficult. Not just the scar and the eye—though I bet last night brought back memories of that, too.”

Tamlin rubbed at his neck, then met my stare. Such an ancient heaviness in his eyes, in the set of his jaw. “Lucien is the youngest son of the High Lord of the Autumn Court.” I straightened. “The youngest of seven brothers. The Autumn Court is … cutthroat. Beautiful, but his brothers see each other only as competition, since the strongest of them will inherit the title, not the eldest. It is the same throughout Prythian, at every court. Lucien never cared about it, never expected to be crowned High Lord, so he spent his youth doing everything a High Lord’s son probably shouldn’t: wandering the courts, making friends with the sons of other High Lords”—a faint gleam in Tamlin’s eyes at that—“and being with females who were a far cry from the nobility of the Autumn Court.” Tamlin paused for a moment, and I could almost feel the sorrow before he said, “Lucien fell in love with a faerie whom his father considered to be grossly inappropriate for someone of his bloodline. Lucien said he didn’t care that she wasn’t one of the High Fae, that he was certain the mating bond would snap into place soon and that he was going to marry her and leave his father’s court to his scheming brothers.” A tight sigh. “His father had her put down. Executed, in front of Lucien, as his two eldest brothers held him and made him watch.”

My stomach turned, and I pushed a hand against my chest. I couldn’t imagine, couldn’t comprehend that sort of loss.

“Lucien left. He cursed his father, abandoned his title and the Autumn Court, and walked out. And without his title protecting him, his brothers thought to eliminate one more contender to the High Lord’s crown. Three of them went out to kill him; one came back.”

“Lucien … killed them?”

“He killed one,” Tamlin said. “I killed the other, as they had crossed into my territory, and I was now High Lord and could do what I wanted with trespassers threatening the peace of my lands.” A cold, brutal statement. “I claimed Lucien as my own—named him emissary, since he’d already made many friends across the courts and had always been good at talking to people, while I … can find it difficult. He’s been here ever since.”

“As emissary,” I began, “has he ever had dealings with his father? Or his brothers?”

“Yes. His father has never apologized, and his brothers are too frightened of me to risk harming him.” No arrogance in those words, just icy truth. “But he has never forgotten what they did to her, or what his brothers tried to do to him. Even if he pretends that he has.”

It didn’t quite excuse everything Lucien had said and done to me, but … I understood now. I could understand the walls and barriers he had no doubt constructed around himself. My chest was too tight, too small to fit the ache building in it. I looked at the pool of glittering starlight and let out a heavy breath. I needed to change the subject. “What would happen if I were to drink the water?”

Tamlin straightened a bit—then relaxed, as if glad to release that old sadness. “Legend claims you’d be happy until your last breath.” He added, “Perhaps we both need a glass.”

“I don’t think that entire pool would be enough for me,” I said, and he laughed.

“Two jokes in one day—a miracle sent from the Cauldron,” he said. I cracked a smile. He came a step closer, as if forcibly leaving behind the dark, sad stain of what had happened to Lucien, and the starlight danced in his eyes as he said, “What would be enough to make you happy?”

I blushed from my neck to the top of my head. “I—I don’t know.” It was true—I’d never given that sort of thing any thought beyond getting my sisters safely married off and having enough food for me and my father, and time to learn to paint.

“Hmm,” he said, not stepping away. “What about the ringing of bluebells? Or a ribbon of sunshine? Or a garland of moonlight?” He grinned wickedly.

High Lord of Prythian indeed. High Lord of Foolery was more like it. And he knew—he knew I’d say no, that I’d squirm a bit from merely being alone with him.

No. I wouldn’t let him have the satisfaction of embarrassing me. I’d had enough of that lately, enough of … of that girl encased in ice and bitterness. So I gave him a sweet smile, doing my best to pretend that my stomach wasn’t flipping over itself. “A swim sounds delightful.”

I didn’t allow myself room for second-guessing. And I took no small amount of pride in the fact that my fingers didn’t tremble once as I removed my boots, then unbuttoned my tunic and pants and shucked them onto the grass. My undergarments were modest enough that I wasn’t showing much, but I still looked straight at him as I stood on the grassy bank. The air was warm and mild, and a soft breeze kissed its way across my bare stomach.

Slowly, so slowly, his eyes roved down, then up. As if he were studying every inch, every curve of me. And even though I wore my ivory underthings, that gaze alone stripped me bare.

His eyes met mine and he gave me a lazy smile before removing his clothes. Button by button. I could have sworn the gleam in his eyes turned hungry and feral—enough so that I had to look anywhere but at his face.

I let myself indulge in the glimpse of a broad chest, arms corded with muscle, and long, strong legs before I walked right into that pool. He wasn’t built like Isaac, whose body had very much still been in that gangly place between boy and man. No—Tamlin’s glorious body was honed by centuries of fighting and brutality.

The liquid was delightfully warm, and I strode in until it was deep enough to swim out a few strokes and casually tread in place. Not water, but something smoother, thicker. Not oil, but something purer, thinner. Like being wrapped in warm silk. I was so busy savoring the tug of my fingers through the silvery substance that I didn’t notice him until he was treading beside me.

“Who taught you to swim?” he asked, and dunked his head under the surface. When he came up, he was grinning, sparkling streams of starlight running along the contours of his mask.

I didn’t go under, didn’t quite know if he’d been joking about the water making me mirthful if I drank it. “When I was twelve, I watched the village children swimming at a pond and figured it out myself.”

It had been one of the most terrifying experiences of my life, and I’d swallowed half the pond in the process, but I’d gotten the gist of it, managed to conquer my blind panic and terror and trust myself. Knowing how to swim had seemed like a vital ability—one that might someday mean the difference between life and death. I’d never expected it would lead to this, though.

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