I dragged my hands through his dark hair, savoring the silken strands against my calluses. There’s an artist, Ressina. She invited me to come paint with her and some others in two nights.
Rhys pulled back to scan my face, then arched a brow. “Why do you not sound excited about it?”
I gestured to our room, the town house, and blew out a breath. “I haven’t painted anything in a while.”
Not since we’d returned from battle. Rhys remained quiet, letting me sort through the jumble of words inside me.
“It feels selfish,” I admitted. “To take the time, when there is so much to do and—”
“It is not selfish.” His hands tightened on my hips. “If you want to paint, then paint, Feyre.”
“People in this city still don’t have homes.”
“You taking a few hours every day to paint won’t change that.”
“It’s not just that.” I leaned down until my brow rested on his, the citrus-and-sea scent of him filling my lungs, my heart. “There are too many of them—things I want to paint. Need to. Picking one …” I took an unsteady breath and pulled back. “I’m not quite certain I’m ready to see what emerges when I paint some of them.”
“Ah.” He traced soothing, loving lines down my back. “Whether you join them this week, or two months from now, I think you should go. Try it out.” He surveyed the room, the thick rug, as if he could see the entire town house beneath. “We can turn your old bedroom into a studio, if you want—”
“It’s fine,” I cut him off. “It—the light isn’t ideal in there.” At his raised brows, I admitted, “I checked. The only room that’s good for it is the sitting room, and I’d rather not fill up the house with the reek of paint.”
“I don’t think anyone would mind.”
“I’d mind. And I like privacy, anyway. The last thing I want is Amren standing behind me, critiquing my work as I go.”
Rhys chuckled. “Amren can be dealt with.”
“I’m not sure you and I are talking about the same Amren, then.”
He grinned, tugging me close again, and murmured against my stomach, “It’s your birthday on Solstice.”
“So?” I’d been trying to forget that fact. And let the others forget it, too.
Rhys’s smile became subdued—feline. “So, that means you get two presents.”
I groaned. “I never should have told you.”
“You were born on the longest night of the year.” His fingers again stroked down my back. Lower. “You were meant to be at my side from the very beginning.”
He traced the seam of my backside with a long, lazy stroke. With me standing before him like this, he could instantly smell the shift in my scent as my core heated.
I managed to say down the bond before words failed me, Your turn. A thought for a thought.
He pressed a kiss to my stomach, right over my navel. “Have I told you about that first time you winnowed and tackled me into the snow?”
I smacked his shoulder, the muscle beneath hard as stone. “That’s your thought for a thought?”
He smiled against my stomach, his fingers still exploring, coaxing. “You tackled me like an Illyrian. Perfect form, a direct hit. But then you lay on top of me, panting. All I wanted to do was get us both naked.”
“Why am I not surprised?” Yet I threaded my fingers through his hair.
The fabric of my dressing gown was barely more than cobwebs between us as he huffed a laugh onto my belly. I hadn’t bothered putting on anything beneath. “You drove me out of my mind. All those months. I still don’t quite believe I get to have this. Have you.”
My throat tightened. That was the thought he wanted to trade, needed to share. “I wanted you, even Under the Mountain,” I said softly. “I chalked it up to those horrible circumstances, but after we killed her, when I couldn’t tell anyone how I felt—about how truly bad things were, I still told you. I’ve always been able to talk to you. I think my heart knew you were mine long before I ever realized it.”
His eyes gleamed, and he buried his face between my breasts again, hands caressing my back. “I love you,” he breathed. “More than life, more than my territory, more than my crown.”
I knew. He’d given up that life to reforge the Cauldron, the fabric of the world itself, so I might survive. I hadn’t had it in me to be furious with him about it afterward, or in the months since. He’d lived—it was a gift I would never stop being grateful for. And in the end, though, we’d saved each other. All of us had.
I kissed the top of his head. “I love you,” I whispered onto his blue-black hair.
Rhys’s hands clamped on the back of my thighs, the only warning before he smoothly twisted us, pinning me to the bed as he nuzzled my neck. “A week,” he said onto my skin, gracefully folding his wings behind him. “A week to have you in this bed. That’s all I want for Solstice.”
I laughed breathlessly, but he flexed his hips, driving against me, the barriers between us little more than scraps of cloth. He brushed a kiss against my mouth, his wings a dark wall behind his shoulders. “You think I’m joking.”
“We’re strong for High Fae,” I mused, fighting to concentrate as he tugged on my earlobe with his teeth, “but a week straight of sex? I don’t think I’d be able to walk. Or you’d be able to function, at least with your favorite part.”
He nipped the delicate arch of my ear, and my toes curled. “Then you’ll just have to kiss my favorite part and make it better.”
I slid a hand to that favorite part—my favorite part—and gripped him through his undershorts. He groaned, pressing himself into my touch, and the garment disappeared, leaving only my palm against the velvet hardness of him.
“We need to get dressed,” I managed to say, even as my hand stroked over him.
“Later,” he ground out, sucking on my lower lip.
Indeed. Rhys pulled back, tattooed arms braced on either side of my head. One was covered with his Illyrian markings, the other with the twin tattoo to the one on my arms: the last bargain we’d made. To remain together through all that waited ahead.
My core pounded, sister to my thunderous heartbeat, the need to have him buried inside me, to have him—
As if in mockery of those twin beats within me, a knocking rattled the bedroom door. “Just so you’re aware,” Mor chirped from the other side, “we do have to go soon.”
Rhys let out a low growl that skittered over my skin, his hair slipping over his brow as he turned his head toward the door. Nothing but predatory intent in his glazed eyes. “We have thirty minutes,” he said with remarkable smoothness.
“And it takes you two hours to get dressed,” Mor quipped through the door. A sly pause. “And I’m not talking about Feyre.”
Rhys grumbled a laugh and lowered his brow against mine. I closed my eyes, breathing him in, even while my fingers unfurled from around him. “This isn’t finished,” he promised me, his voice rough, before he kissed the hollow of my throat and pulled away. “Go terrorize someone else,” he called to Mor, rolling his neck as his wings vanished and he stalked for the bathing room. “I need to primp.”
Mor chuckled, her light footsteps soon fading away.
I slumped against the pillows and breathed deep, cooling the need that coursed through me. Water gurgled in the bathing room, followed by a soft yelp.
I wasn’t the only one in need of cooling, it seemed.
Indeed, when I strode into the bathing room a few minutes later, Rhys was still cringing as he washed himself in the tub.
A dip of my fingers into the soapy water confirmed my suspicions: it was ice-cold.
There was no light in this place.
There never had been.
Even the evergreen garlands, holly wreaths, and crackling birchwood fires in honor of the Solstice couldn’t pierce the eternal darkness that dwelled in the Hewn City.
It was not the sort of darkness that Mor had come to love in Velaris, the sort of darkness that was as much a part of Rhys as his blood.
It was the darkness of rotting things, of decay. The smothering darkness that withered all life.
And the golden-haired male standing before her in the throne room, amongst the towering pillars carved with those scaled, slithering beasts—he had been created from it. Thrived in it.
“I apologize if we interrupted your festivities,” Rhysand purred to him. To Keir. And to the male beside him.
The throne room was empty now. A word from Feyre, and the usual ilk who dined and danced and schemed here were gone, leaving only Keir and the High Lord of Autumn’s eldest son.
The former spoke first, adjusting the lapels on his black jacket. “To what do we owe this pleasure?”
The sneering tone. She could still hear the hissed insults beneath it, whispered long ago in her family’s private suite, whispered at every meeting and gathering when her cousin was not present. Half-breed monstrosity. A disgrace to the bloodline.
The words came out of her without thought. And her voice, the voice she used here … Not her own. Never her own, never down here with them in the darkness. Mor kept her voice just as cold and unforgiving as she corrected, “To what do we owe this pleasure, High Lord.”