Swallow The Sun
Chapter 3: Your Breath On My Neck
Read: Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | | AO3
Summary: Amera settles into Day Court while Helion tries to make her comfortable. Elain meets a potential suitor in Winter Court while Lucien explores his strange new magic. Eris is forced into a confrontation and Gwyn meets someone unexpected in the Autumn Court forest.
Autumn was not like Night and Gwyn, after a week walking Eris’s halls, wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or a bad thing. Every ugly thing Night kept hidden seemed to be out in the open in Autumn, for better or worse. It was impossible not to notice how delighted the courtiers were with the drama unfolding around them. Sure, too many called for the blood of Eris’s mother, but Gwyn was learning it wasn’t true vengeance they were after…just a general enjoyment of watching their rulers slowly disintegrate before them.
The jockeying for power was another thing. Eris allowed it, eyes glittering with malice, one arm casually draped over the throne he’d been so afraid to sit on. No one but her knew that and it was a secret Gwyn intended to take to her grave. For all his posturing, Eris was scared and if anyone ever found out, she had no doubt they’d kill him and put one of his brothers on the throne.
If they even wanted to rule. Gwyn found the Vanserra’s as a clan to be…peculiar. The three remaining—Tanwen, Cadmus, and Conall—were just as cold and cruel outwardly as their eldest brother. They sniped publicly, they challenged Eris whenever they felt they could, and had their little court alliances that would back them if there was ever a true contest for the throne.
But privately…privately they seemed to like each other, and not in the begrudging way she might expect from siblings positioned against each other, but genuine enjoyment. In the privacy of their own quarters, outside the prying eyes of the courtiers and other nobility, she caught them punching each other in the ribs for laughs, telling filthy jokes, and drinking to their mothers memory with soft, dreamy expressions. As if they wished they’d been there to watch her kill their father and regretted not participating.
They were also more than a little interested in her. They kept quiet regarding her potential relative but she wasn’t stupid. If the red hair hadn’t been a dead giveaway, their willingness to train her—likely to see just how much Vanserra magic she’d inherited—was. They were all nice…in their own ways, which she decided counted for something. It was clear kindness was in short supply in Autumn Court and Gwyn leaned into whatever she found, matching it tenfold without an ounce of embarrassment.
It was what drove her outside to the forest, though, when she needed space. The last time she’d been around so many people had been in Sangravah and Gwyn found herself often overwhelmed. She’d see a child run by, giggling wildly while their mother chased them down and her mind would flash to the children in the temple. What had happened to them? Did they escape? Her mind ruminated constantly, dragging her back to the years before Hybern, before the attack, before…
Gwyn blew out a breath, watching how it clouded around her face. Leaving was the right thing to do, she reminded herself. She wanted to help the Lady of Autumn and she wanted to find family…but Gwyn was awash in her own anxiety. Her mind half begged her to ask Eris to take her back to the library where she could take refuge in the silence of books.
As if the silence did any better job keeping the memories at bay. Still, the cool afternoon air and the rustle of the multicolored leaves settled some of her fear. Gwyn swallowed against the threat of her rising panic. She wasn’t defenseless, she reminded herself. No one could hurt her.
A twig snapped behind her and Gwyn whirled, reaching for the dagger hidden beneath her cloak. Her hand froze, gripping the cool metal of the hilt, when her eyes found Azriel, half shrouded in shadow, stepping from behind a particularly large oak tree.
“You shouldn’t be here,” she said automatically, her heart clenching slightly at the sight of him. His face—always so beautiful—-was impossibly sad. Hazel eyes swam with regret, his wings tucked so tightly against him she almost didn’t register them. What was he doing here? Shouldn’t he be in Night making amends?
“I know,” he agreed, his voice hoarse from what she suspected was disuse.
“If Eris finds out…” she trailed off. How would Eris find out? Gwyn had no intention of telling Eris Azriel was hiding in the woods. “Why are you here?”
Azriel’s gaze sharpened, his shadows leaning over her shoulder just out of reach of a sunbeam, to peer at her. “Why are you?”
Gwyn crossed her arms over her chest. “Am I not allowed?”
Her words seemed to chase some of the sadness from his body and though she was irritated he thought she needed to be followed and watched, the relief she felt at his shifting mood was instant.
“There are nicer courts.”
“Why do I get the feeling the only court you approve of is Night?” she shot back. This was familiar. Azriel took a cautious step towards her and Gwyn didn’t budge. Azriel was the first male who’d ever made her feel comfortable…feel safe. Even the Vanserra’s, who were likely cousins of some sort, gave her a little hesitation. Cassian too, for all his careful movements and his eyes that only lingered on Nesta, made her jumpy if he got too close.
It was the quiet stillness that radiated from Azriel. He seemed cognizant of his voice, his hands, his whole body, muscular as it was. There was an innate awareness to his movements that put Gwyn at ease. He eased the anxiety that was always so close to the surface and Gwyn couldn’t help but revel in it, at least a little.
“I like Dawn,” he informed her, catching her by surprise. She smiled and Azriel’s stiffness evaporated. He almost looked like himself again.
“I’ve never seen Dawn,” she admitted. “Maybe…” Maybe when she wasn’t so scared of the world she’d go. Maybe she’d ask him to take her.
“Why did you do it?” she asked him instead. Azriel stilled and Gwyn wondered how many others had asked the exact same question. Had he answered them at all? Did he know himself? “Do you love her?”
Azriel flinched beneath the weight of her question. “No.” The hoarseness of his voice was back. “I…”
She took a step towards him this time, eyes moving between his anguished face and his shadows that seemed to delight in her presence. Surely that was her imagination but…it warmed her all the same.
“I was jealous,” he admitted, taking Gwyn by surprise.
“Of Lucien.” he spoke Lucien’s name as if it were the foulest curse, the coldness of his tone sending a shiver up her spine. “He ignores her, he doesn’t want her…a mate.”
Gwyn didn’t know Elain or Lucien well enough to know how true Azriel’s words were. She supposed they were true to him, which was all that mattered. Still, she felt a little bad for Elain Archeron, who was nothing more than an object to all these males, something to be acquired or a trophy that inferred some sort of meaning she herself was likely unaware of. Not a person with feelings or dreams, but a mate that might be fought over.
“And her?” Gwyn demanded, suddenly indignant. She crossed her arms over her chest and Azriel’s anger shifted into wariness, as though she made him nervous. “Did she want you?”
Azriel hung his head. “No.”
“Then you’re no better, are you?” she said, deciding he ought to hear it. She doubted anyone else had called him on his bad behavior, in part because he was hiding in Autumn and watching over her.
“No, I’m not.”
That took her by surprise. Azriel looked back up at her, shadows slithering down his body as though to protect him, to hide him from the truth of her words. “I don’t deserve a mate.”
His words were a punch to the gut. “You deserve a mate who wants you,” Gwyn insisted. Azriel looked up at her, his eyes so haunted they threatened to drag her down with him. “Not someone else’s.”
“No one thinks that,” Azriel mumbled.
“I do,” she insisted. “Don’t you think you deserve to be loved as you are, Azriel?”
He paled, lips pressed together. No.
There was a time she might have related to the self-loathing he felt, where he could have dragged her into the fathomless depths he was still drowning in. He’d helped pull her out and Gwyn supposed she could do the same. After all, he was already in Autumn, wasn’t he? Gwyn walked to him, stopping when she was close enough to press her hand to the soft black leather he wore. Azriel stilled, looking down at the contact between them.
“You deserve good things, even when you make mistakes,” she whispered, aware of her runaway heartbeat.
“No one thinks that, Gwyn,” he murmured in response, sending a shiver rippling up her spine. They’d talked a million times before. What was wrong with her?
“I think that,” she retorted with just a little too much bite. It made him smile, though.
“You’re the only one.” His hand wrapped around her wrist, pulling her from his body. He released her quickly and for the first time in memory, Gwyn felt disappointment.
“I’m fine with that, Az.”
She left him in the forest, her whole body alive and electric. Gwyn swallowed.
She wasn’t ready to face the feeling.
Elain stood at the front of the palace, facing off with a stone faced Lucien. They hadn’t spoken since they’d arrived, avoiding the other deftly. It was a dance they both had memorized, moving around the other to avoid detection. Helion seemed determined to force them to speak, even if it was just a goodbye. She doubted very much Lucien was sad to see her go.
At the bottom of the steps, the scholar Elain had been paired with—Arina—-was pretending not to notice them awkwardly looking at the other.
“I should go,” Lucien finally said, looking at the beautiful blonde waiting on them. “You don’t know anything about our politics.”
That stung, she reflected, though he wasn’t entirely wrong. “That’s what Arina is for.”
Lucien’s expression darkened only slightly. Elain focused on his face and not his chest, half exposed beneath the white toga he wore. She refused to admit she found any part of him appealing. That was just the mating bond, she told herself over and over. It was nothing but a physical reaction, it wasn’t her.
She was exceptionally good at lying to herself.
“You don’t need to be punished—”
“Oh? What do I need, then?” she asked peevishly, catching him by surprise. She was so tired of people telling her what she needed. What she needed was for people to shut up about her needs, her wants, her feelings.
Lucien nodded once. “If you…ah…if anything happens and you want some help just…let me know.”
“Right,” she agreed. She had no intention at all of calling on him. Tugging her fur lined cape a little tighter, Elain turned her back to Lucien to join Arina at the bottom of the steps.
“Elain! Wait, I—” Lucien called. Elain turned, trying to pretend she was dying beneath the burning Day Court sun. She waited, just as he asked, unsure of what she hoped he might say.
“I didn’t think you were incapable,” he finally rushed out. “Just…be careful, okay?”
She nodded, leaving everything he couldn’t say lingering in the warm air between them. “I will.”
He nodded again, leaving her to join Arina. She turned once, looking over her shoulder to find him watching her with a moody expression. Arina, who Elain didn’t know well, said nothing about what Elain was sure she’d heard and instead held out a bangled hand.
No, but there was no going back. Not when Lucien was standing there watching her. Not when no one thought her capable of anything outside of her garden and her clothes. If she backed out, she’d prove them all right and Elain was so tired of the pretty cages designed only for her.
Arina could winnow. Elain wondered, when their boots landed in knee deep snow, if Arina could teach her to winnow, too. Blinking against the blinding glare of sun on pristine, fresh snow, Elain resolved herself to ask once she had her bearings. Instead, she followed behind the Day Court scholar, cutting across a lawn of white for the crystal ice path that led towards Winter Courts palace. Ice, she realized, staring up at the massive, turreted castle. Winter’s palace was made of some material that looked exactly like ice.
She wanted to touch it but her hand was hidden beneath a mitten and besides, she didn’t want to give the impression she was struck dumb with child-like wonder…if it that was exactly what was happening. Winter was a thing of frozen beauty, the opposite of the warm summer paradise she’d just left.
“Hate this place,” Arina mumbled, her breath hanging like a thick fog around her bright blonde hair.
Arched glass doors swung open of their own accord, blowing warm air into the wintry morning. Elain let her hood drop and inhaled. The Lady of Winter, Vivianne, made her way towards them in a thin blue dress that glittered in the pooling sun. Behind her, another woman with that same ice white hair trailed respectfully behind though pale blue eyes watched the pair with interest.
“Elain Archeron,” Vivianne crooned happily, foregoing pleasantries to throw her arms around Elain’s body. “The Kingslayer herself.”
Embarrassment heated Elain’s formerly frigid body. Arina glanced over at Elain, eyebrows raised in interest. “Elain is fine.”
“Finally escaped the Court of Nightmares?” Vivianne asked, gesturing for Arina and Elain to follow her. “I’ll bet that feels good.”
“It’s a change,” Elain agreed, careful not to let Vivianne know just how pleased she was to not be trapped in the River house.
“Oh, I’m sure. I’m told the beaches of Day are to die for,” Vivianne continued. Arina nodded with a look of yearning.
“We have a lake,” the other icy blonde commented, earning a pretty laugh from Vivianne.
“Yes, with the loveliest glacial beach you’ve ever seen.”
Elain wasn’t sure she wanted to see it, though she nodded politely all the same.
“This is Sera, my emissary,” Vivianne continued, walking them over navy floors that seemed to churn with some unseen storm. Elain wondered if each court was required to craft a palace representative of their magic or if they chose to. The icy walls that didn’t melt and the glassy floors certainly made Elain feel more Faerie than human for the first time in a long time. The effect was disconcerting. Pulling off her glove and ignoring the conversation happening around her, she reached out to skim her fingers over the walls.
Cold. She tucked her hand back beneath her cloak, grateful when they paused outside another shimmering, frosted door.
“Your rooms are beside each other. Let me know if you require any warmer clothing or blankets…or anything at all, really. We look forward to having you with us this week.”
Vivianne, for all her cold, icy features, extruded warmth and Elain genuinely believed her offer. Arina, too, inclined her head ever so slightly. “Of course.”
Arina trotted after Elain into the large bedroom, closing the door behind her with a sigh. “I hate the cold.”
Elain nodded, sitting on the edge of a pale blue duvet. Arina shrugged off her white cape, revealing a clingy, long-sleeved dress made of liquid gold. She was stunning, a beam of light in a storm and Elain couldn’t help but stare for a beat.
Arina tossed her hair over her shoulder before sitting beside Elain. “Did you see how Sera was staring at you?”
“Who is Sera?” Elain asked, feeling stupid quicker than she imagined. Had Lucien been right?
“Vivianne’s emissary,” Arina reminded her patiently. Ah, right. The icy blonde with the cool blue eyes. “I knew she’d show up to greet you. She must be fascinated.”
“Why would she be?” Elain questioned, wondering if perhaps Sera had been human once, too.
Her and Lucien were lovers, once. Famously so, depending on who you ask. It was quite the scandal.
Oh. Elain looked down at her hands. “What happened?”
Arina shrugged, reclining backwards on the bed. “You’d have to ask him if you wanted the truth of it. I only deal in rumors.”
It was a test. Elain could shrug it off and pretend she didn’t care. It was what she ought to do. Arina was waiting, would defer to whatever choice Elain made.
“What were the rumors?” She was weak.
Arina grinned. “The usual sort of thing you’d expect from one of the Vanserra’s. They burn hot for a moment…supposedly, of course….before growing bored. She was a fairly decent match for him, given he was the seventh son of Autumn—we didn’t know any better at the time—-and she was a minor nobleman’s daughter. They met at some party, they were young and attractive and everyone thought Winter and Autumn might finally make a worthwhile alliance.”
Arina shrugged. “If the rumors are true, they say he left her for a lesser fae female his father of course, murdered.”
Elain’s blood chilled. “What?”
Arina’s face paled. “Ah. I ah…I shouldn’t…I just assumed you must know.”
Elain wanted to ask how she could possibly know anything about him, but it suddenly felt shameful she knew so little at all. Arina was better informed simply by being a gossip. Lucien, of course, knew all about her. He’d thought to ask.
“Why did he kill the lesser fae?”
Arina sighed. “He didn’t think it was appropriate for his High Fae son. Beron was an asshole and I think he liked the thought of killing his son's potential mate.”
Potential mate. The words clanged through her. Elain didn’t want to talk about Lucien any longer, didn’t want to admit how little she knew. She turned to Arina.
“Tell me about this treaty.”
Elain had been gone four days. Lucien tried to pretend that wasn’t driving him insane, that he was resisting the urge to just show up and see what was happening. She’d be so hurt if he did and yet Lucien wanted to anyway. He wanted to tell her what he knew about their court, wanted her to lean close while he whispered every salacious piece of gossip he’d collected over the years. He wanted her to ask him for help.
Lucien decided he didn’t really know what he wanted when it came to her and did his best to shove his personal feelings deep, deep down. Taking a page from his mothers book, Lucien avoided Helion and explored the city instead. His. Rhodes, the capital of Day, was his by birthright and blood. Lucien was bent on uncovering every little nook and cranny until he knew the place like the back of his hand.
It distracted him, this slow exploration, driving Elain from his mind. He kept waiting for Day Court to feel like home but Lucien dragged himself into bed each night more exhausted than before, his mind wandering back to his mate, and the rest of him strangely void.
Unwanted, his voice whispered. No one wanted him around. He was the cast-off, the person no one really wanted. So lost in his self-loathing, he nearly collapsed on the letter waiting on his pillow.
It wasn’t from Elain. Still, Lucien would take any Winter Court correspondence, even if it was Kallias.
Surely you remember what happens to young, pretty females that spend time alone in my court? Your mate is quite lovely and has become popular among the unmated, unmarried males in my court. I am doing my best to keep them away but one smile has them reeled back in.
I’m throwing a party. It’s a celebration of the treaty your mate so successfully negotiated (with little more than a few simple smiles, I might add). Helion has advised he is unable to attend and counseled me to reach out to his son, who might attend on his behalf.
Don’t make me beg, Lucien. Remember all the trouble we used to get into? Join me for an evening, have some wine…cause trouble on purpose with me.
Perhaps you might find Elain a willing dance partner, as well. Who am I to say?
Matchmaking was beneath Kallias and yet Lucien grinned all the same, pleased by the invitation. He’d need to talk with Helion but Lucien fell back into bed with a smile on his face for the first time since he’d arrived in Day. Was Elain causing trouble in Kallias’s court? He didn’t doubt it. For all her faults—of which he felt there were many—-she was too beautiful for her own good. He hoped she was using it to her advantage instead of walking around blithely unaware of the effect she had on the people around her. There was something enticing to him about Elain weaponizing what she had at her disposal to get what she wanted.
He practically ran out of the Day Court palace that next morning, stopping only to tell his mother to have a little fun in his absence. He knew he ought to temper his expectations but Lucien never learned. It wasn’t as though Elain herself had written to him. Kallias was, as a favor to their friendship. Still, he wanted to see her in another court, wanted to see her doing the only thing he’d ever really excelled at.
Wanted proof they’d been paired together on purpose. Kallias was waiting, his icy blonde hair perfectly styled to look as if he’d just strolled out of bed. That was his way, had always been his aesthetic. How Kallias ever landed a female like Vivianne was pure luck and Lucien suspected Kallias knew it.
“You look tan, friend,” Kallias teased, clapping Lucien in a near painful hug.
“Who knew the sun agreed so well with me?” he agreed with a laid back smile. Kallias chuckled, gesturing for Lucien to follow him.
“Any reason Helion sent one of the Archeron’s to sign off on this deal?” he asked, not bothering with any more niceties. Kallias wasn’t a fool and Lucien knew him well enough to know it likely irked him a little. “It was a done thing before she ever arrived.”
“Has she been bothering you?” Lucien questioned. Kallias shook his head.
“I wish all my courtiers were half as polite. I just assumed the Archeron’s were more interested in war than peace and here Elain is, negotiating for better relations…after what happened in Night.”
Lucien bit back his sigh of frustration. That incident was going to haunt him for the rest of his life.
“You know, if you’re looking to be rid of her, she could stay here. I have it on good authority Aleks intends to ask her to be his wife. You could wash your hands of this whole thing.”
“Is that what you would do?” Lucien replied with a little more anger than he meant to.
“If it were Vivianne?” Kallias asked incredulously, turning to look at Lucien. “Fuck no. I would have made Azriel feel my wrath and burned that fucking court to the ground…which I’m told you did. Mates are special…it's enough to make a lesser male insane. I spent fifty years waiting on mine and there was nothing she could ever have done that would have changed my mind. I don’t blame you for wanting her, I just…if you don’t. Don’t torture yourself with her presence in your court.”
With what he could only describe as cold horror, Lucien turned to Elain, her eyes wide. Dressed in a stunning lilac and white gown, Lucien understood what had captivated Aleks, whoever he was.
“You’re leaving me in Winter?” Her bottom lip trembled even as squared her shoulders.
“Sorry,” whispered Kallias before taking off, leaving Lucien to untangle this mess without making things any worse between him and his mate.
“No,” he said, walking towards her. He was fascinated by her hair, golden blonde and long, half twisted off her face with luminous pearls that shifted purple in the light. He wanted to plunge his hands into the curls, wanted to bury his face in them. “Not at all.”
Her expression, wary as it was, didn’t change. “Why are you here, then?”
“To save you from a very awkward proposal,” he replied with what he hoped was a charming—not creepy—smile.
Her eyes became wider somehow and Lucien’s knees wobbled. “Proposal?”
“You’re apparently very charming. Who is Aleks, Elain?” She exhaled. “You’re so stupid.”
That wasn’t the answer he’d expected. “Excuse me?”
“Did Kallias tell you to come?” she continued, crossing her arms over her chest. “Would you like to meet Aleks?”
“Cauldron boil me, I didn’t come to stake a claim, Elain. I came to celebrate your success on behalf of Helion, who is so busy chasing my mother he can’t be bothered to celebrate you himself.”
She backed down, some of the fire in her eyes receding. “You swear?”
He offered her his pinky and Elain accepted, linking hers with his. “I swear,” he agreed solemnly. “Surely…surely you know by now I’m not that kind of male?”
Elain merely shrugged. Lucien got a thrill of offering her his arm and watching the female who’d long spurned him accept without any ounce of hesitation.
“It’s been a long week, Lucien.”
He swallowed the groan that threatened to spill from his throat. Was she aware of what she was doing to him? One glance told him no, and he needed to get his shit together lest he scare her off. She was being friendly, bolstered by her success in Winter. She didn’t need him posturing like a possessive alphamale.
“Tell me about Winter,” he said, dropping his voice to make them conspirators. Her eyes lit up. “What have you learned.”
She leaned close. “I met Sera.”
Oh fuck. “Did you?”
She burst out giggling, pulling her arm from his grasp to catch a running child no older than four that was coming right at her.
“Kiss,” the child demanded and Elain complied, kissing his cheek sweetly. “Aleks, have you met the son of the High Lord of the Day Court, Lucien?”
Aleks turned wide, pale blue eyes on Lucien who might have slid into the floor, embarrassed as he was. “Hi,” Aleks offered shyly. Lucien leaned close, in part to inhale the sweet honeysuckle scent of Elain.
“I heard you intend to marry my mate.”
Aleks looked up at Elain, his chubby face surprised. “When I’m big, I’m gonna marry Lady Elain.”
Elain looked to Lucien, waiting for his response. Lucien decided to take his chances.
“You can get in line, right behind me.”
Elain smiled and Lucien felt good for the first time in centuries.
He lived and died by that smile.
Alone. For the first time in Amera’s life, she was well and truly alone. She went to bed when she wanted and woke up whenever she felt like. There was no schedule, no one yanking open curtains or demanding she eat with them. No Beron, save for the persistent nightmare she couldn’t shake. No one climbing into bed beside her demanding she wake up and attend to his needs, no one deciding what she’d eat, how she’d dress. Helion had taken the hint and was too busy bothering Lucien to notice what she was up to and Amera was taking advantage of that.
After all, Helion was High Lord and High Lords had other things to do besides lounge about all day.
“I’m leaving,” Lucien informed her at lunch, joining her on an outdoor patio with a glass of what she assumed was wine. He seemed to do a lot of drinking and she’d chosen not to comment on it.
His cheeks heated. “For Winter. Kallias…” he trailed off, his embarrassment palpable.
“Going to see Sera, are you?” she couldn’t help but ask, irked he was chasing after Elain Archeron. She knew better than to say anything else. Lucien seemed bound and determined to figure the female out, and if she made her disapproval any better known she’d send him straight down the aisle. Lucien always had been defiant that way.
“Kallias asked me to attend on behalf of Helion,” Lucien said instead, straightening just a little. That pleased her.
“As Helion’s heir?” she questioned softly. Lucien bit his bottom lip.
Good. If Kallias recognized Lucien, the other High Lords would, too. She could bear the shame of being unfaithful…of being a murderer but she could never stand the shame of Lucien’s shunning from society because of his parentage. Privately, she wondered what kind of string pulling Helion had done in order to make it happen. Kallias and Lucien had been friendly enough when the males were younger and Amera liked to believe it had taken nothing more than a polite request on Helion’s part but it warmed her just the same.
“Have fun,” she told her son, pleased when he bent to press a swift kiss to her cheek.
“You should leave the palace,” he told her, his one good eye warm with affection. “Go for a swim.”
She had once loved swimming. Beron, of course, found the whole thing indecent. He didn’t want anyone looking at any part of her exposed body. She’d been a possession, a toy only for him but now she was her own person again.
“Behave yourself,” she told her sons retreating back, grateful Lucien would be in another court. She might have talked herself out of the swim attire she was given, might have worried of what he would think of her if he saw the exceptionally skimpy, emerald green pieces a servant helped tie around her body.
As it stood, she’d waited a whole day to actually put the outfit on, mere ribbons that covered her breasts and ass and little more. She’d been assured Helion was in a very important meeting but a winking servant though she’d still wrapped a short, silken robe around her body and dashed as quickly as her sandals allowed through the palace.
If he caught her…if he looked at her with those dark, sultry eyes…she decided not to think about it. Leaving the robe on even when she was out in the bright, burning light of early afternoon, Amera thought she’d never been happier. Sure, she still had some hangups about her body and she was likely going to have to hide in Day Court until she died but…was that really so bad? After centuries of living in the cold in a cage fashioned only for her, she had freedom. No one was following behind her, waiting to report some misstep to the High Lord. Would Helion even care if someone went tattling? She could picture his amber eyes rolling with annoyance. She could hear his deep voice demanding to know why he ought to care in the first place.
Once at the white, sandy shoreline of the beach, Amera decided to trekk further down, where it was more sparsely populated, towards the craggy cliffs that turned the placid ocean water into large, private pools. She’d come here once as a younger woman with Helion, tipsy and giggling under the cover of darkness and a blanket of stars.
Shedding her robe, Amera waded into the water, the tips of her long hair swirling around her. The water was bath warm, the air clean and salty. She closed her eyes, the sun pleasantly hot against her face, and smiled.
So lost in her moment, of reveling in the fact that Beron might have won the fight but she’d won his war, she didn’t realize anyone was behind her until large, strong hands ghosted over her arms.
“Beron!” she gasped before she could stop herself, stumbling on the soft, salty ocean bottom. She plunged beneath the clear blue water with a gasp of air only to be immediately set right by a shirtless, ashen faced Helion.
“Beron?” he asked her the moment she’d stopped spluttering, standing in the waist deep water. “You thought I was him?” How did she explain Beron was haunting her? “Sorry,” she said instead.
“Don’t apologize,” he demanded, his words so authoritative she swore the ocean quaked in response. “Never apologize.”
Amera swallowed hard, nodding her head. “I just meant…”
“You’re perfect,” he insisted when it became clear she couldn’t explain what she meant. “You always have been.”
She reached out, pressing a wet hand against his sun warmed bare chest. “Helion,” she warned. They were on dangerous ground. She knew better, knew what it was like to be so close to him. Her control was tenuous and Helion was so, so handsome it made her teeth ache.
“I’ve missed you,” he murmured, gliding a hand through the water to sit on the curve of her waist.
“Shouldn’t you be working?” she asked instead of confessing that she’d missed him too. Amusement sparked through Helion’s gaze.
“That’s what I have a son for, remember?” Utterly unrepentant, is what Helion was. His grip tightened and she wished he would pull her against him almost as much as she wished he’d push her away.
“Lucien is in Winter,” she whispered, the waves pushing them closer together. Helion’s smile was purely masculine.
“So he is. I’m working, in my own way,” he informed her. She raised her brow, pressing her other hand against his chest. She was merely bracing herself, she told herself, a brazen lie if she’d ever heard one.
Helion’s head dipped, his shoulder length, onyx hair missing his typical golden crown. He looked so young, so carefree…so un-High Lord like. She couldn’t resist brushing a wind swept piece of hair from his face.
“You’re my life’s work, Amera.”
She might have broken down in heavy, ugly sobs had he not ghosted his lips over hers. It was hardly a kiss and yet more than a kiss all at once, over too soon.
“My advisors insist I find a wife,” he told her, his voice rough with the want she felt too. “They’re demanding I hold a ball, that I…come. Just, come. Even if you don’t want anything else from me.”
She caressed his cheek. “I want too much from you.”
His skin erupted in goosebumps. “You’ll come?”
“And if they ask you to choose a wife at the end of it?” she demanded, jealousy rising in her chest.
“You’ll have the pleasure of rejecting me in front of my whole court,” he teased, releasing his hold on her. Helion turned, clearly pleased he’d gotten what he wanted and began wading towards the shore.
“I will!” she called after him, her heart pounding in her throat. He looked over his shoulder.
“You’ll give me another son?” he responded as though he hadn’t heard her. She splashed water in his direction though he was too far for it to matter.
“Two more sons?”
“I hate you!”
“No you don’t,” he replied with a grin.
And that was the problem, wasn’t it?
She’d give him anything he wanted.
He ought to have called Arina, Lucien, and Elain back from Winter but Helion quite liked the idea of an evening with just Amera. He lounged in the bathtub, one hand resting on his thigh, eyes closed as he replayed Amera in the ocean. She was a goddess, Helion her devoted servant. He’d wanted to do so much more than merely touch her and might have, had she not nearly drowned herself in her fear that Beron had somehow found her.
Beron, even cold in the grave, was still between Helion and Amera. Helion wondered if he might bribe Eris into handing over his fathers corpse so Helion could set him on fire and scatter the ashes to the wind. No grave markers, no mourners, nothing but a whispered thanks to the Mother that she’d seen fit to take him at all.
There could be no future for Amera and Helion as long as she saw Beron everywhere she went. Helion hoped this ball might be a new start, a reminder of what they’d almost had and that, despite the time lost, what they might have again. After all, Lucien’s parentage was a done thing. No longer was the future of his court in question and the squabbling over whether he needed a wife was more ceremony than real threat. It was an open secret he wanted Amera and the only argument against her was Beron’s death, admittedly by her own hand.
Helion was willing to risk his life to have her.
“And if she tries to kill you?”
As if Helion didn’t live and die by her hands already. He reached for his still hard cock, stroking slowly to the memory of her hands on his chest, of her soft hair swaying in the water around her. He wanted her so bad it made his whole body hurt. It wasn’t becoming, wasn’t right for a High Lord to be so easily swayed by something. High Lords were like mountains, unmovable and unshakable. Helion didn’t care about any of that, dragging his hand up and down his shaft in that tub of warm, soapy water.
If he told him to crawl he would do it in front of his whole court. He would have handed over his crown, his jewels, anything she demanded. Pleasure rippled through his gut at the thought of draping her in Day Court's best, of seeing her wearing gold and white…of her perched atop his throne, a living flame only he could touch.
He shuddered, finishing over his hand with a jerk of his body. Spent and reality slowly washing over him, Helion abandoned his tainted water to dress himself, deciding on a ceremonial chiton of white, embroidered in gold. He sighed as he set the sun shaped golden crown atop his head, feeling the weight of it more heavily than ever before.
It occurred to him, as he laced up his sandals, that she might not want another Lord for a partner, High Lord or otherwise. Especially a High Lord. That darkened his mood and by the time he left his chambers for the ball, Helion was visibly and noticeably angry. He wanted Arina back. He regretted sending her off to Winter, for thinking he could handle this on his own. He could hear his court whispering, what they’d say to him tomorrow morning.
She’s the wrong choice.
Consider what others might say.
Pick a female from Day Court who might strengthen your bloodline—
Choose someone else, start a family with someone else, someone whose child might challenge Lucien as heir. Who might purge them of the Autumn influence they all feared. He wasn’t the last one in—Amera wasn’t there at all which did nothing to improve his feelings. When he stepped in the music began and his court cheered, excited for any excuse to party. Helion dropped onto his golden throne, set atop a white marble dais and framed by massive, wall to ceiling windows that bathed the room in soft daylight.
With sunset approaching, Helion raised his hand lazily, igniting the chandeliers overhead just in case he was so lost in his cups he forgot and they had another party bathed in darkness. Not that he minded. It was so much easier to pretend, besides. He took a goblet of wine from the smiling daughter of one of his Lords, wondering if he ought to just let himself go and wait for Amera to be ready for him.
If she ever was.
It was a tempting though and one he banished when the woman herself stepped through the sheer curtains that blocked the rest of his palace from the ballroom. Helion sat up, gripping the arms of his throne to keep himself from jumping from his seat. Her hair was loose just like it’d been in the ocean, curling softly down her exposed back. He wondered who had given her the dress, some flesh toned thing covered in glittering white jewels that made it seem as if she’d been strategically painted. He couldn’t breathe. The room melted into nothingness and it was only her.
Her eyes found his and she smiled and Helion was done. Why was he trying to be something he wasn’t? He’d been in love with her for eight centuries, from his twenties until that moment. Time had done nothing to dull those feelings.
He knew what everyone would say.
Are you willing to go to war for this woman?
The answer was yes. Seeing her bathed in light, Helion would have called his army to the city and prepare them to lay siege to Autumn or Night or Prythian itself if it meant her safety. He could hear her gasp of fear, the name Beron slipping from her mouth. Her belief he could come back and snatch the happiness she’d taken for herself was what forced Helion out of his chair. This was how he beat Beron. Let Beron Helion watch from hell as Helion loved his wife, as Helion banished Beron’s memory from her body. Let Beron watch her forget him.
“Don’t get up on my account,” she teased, taking the hand he offered and stepping down that last, wide step.
“You look…” he tried to find the right word but none of them felt right. Her cheeks flushed, eyes cast downward just as she’d done when they were young. “Dance with me.”
“Surely there are others…”
He heard her swallow, a reflection of his own fear that eased his nerves. They were in this together, whatever it was. She let him lead her through the mingling throngs, all eyes on her back. He didn’t see them at all. For all Helion knew, they were alone in his bedroom. It was the closest she’d allowed him to be in centuries, since before Lucien was born, more intimate than they’d been in the ocean. He pulled her so close there was only a whisper of air between their bodies.
“Everyone is staring,” she whispered, looking around nervously.
“They’re jealous of me,” he replied confidently.
“Are you sure about that?” she asked, eyes wide as she looked at him. No. No one saw what he’d always seen and for that, Helion could be grateful. He thought he might kill anyone looking too closely at her and figured she was unlikely to appreciate that.
“Yes,” he murmured, swaying softly to the music around them. She took a step back, face paling.
“I shouldn’t have come,” she told him, pulling herself from his grasp.
“Amera,” he called but she was quick, turning heel and running from the room as quickly as she dared. Helion followed behind her, unwilling to let her go.
“Amera!” he shouted down an empty hall, reaching for her arm. He spun her around, expecting her to list every reason being with him was a mistake. He braced himself for the hurt, reminding himself he’d heard this speech before and survived. He could do it again.
Her mouth crashed against his own, hands holding his face in place. Helion froze for one embarrassing moment, his brain short circuiting. Kissing, they were kissing—
He reached for her, hauling her against him, his arms lifting her off the ground so he could press her between his body and the wall behind them.
Some small, rational voice in Helion’s mind urged him to slow down, to stop before he took things too far. He banished the thought when her tongue swept into his mouth, plunging one hand into her hair to angle her head so he might taste more of her. She arched against his body, sighing hot against his lips. It was enough to prompt him to start walking them out of that hall before he yanked up her dress and took her in front of his entire court.
He’d never know how he got there. He never stopped kissing her, couldn’t keep from groping at her ass. He was painfully erect the entire time which certainly helped nothing. All Helion knew was the bed he dropped her, giving her only a moment to catch her breath before he laid himself over her, reveling in the feel of their bodies. Too long, they’d been apart too long.
“I missed you,” he groaned, nipping softly down her neck. She tugged at his hair, dragging him back to her mouth, hands desperately searching for a button or a zipper or anything that would get her out of the gown she wore.
She was having a much easier time, fingers gripping the hem of his chiton and lifting. He was all too happy to help, removing it when she got stuck over his head.
“There is nothing underneath,” she whispered, eyes dark with desire.
“There never is,” he replied with an unrepentant grin. His feeling of smug satisfaction vanished the moment her hand slid over his thigh, wedged between her own, his body electric beneath her touch. Resolving himself to her later anger, Helion gave up trying to politely remove the dress from Amera’s still hidden body and ripped roughly. Gems went flying, scattering over the hardwood floors loudly. She gasped, pulling away from him to look down at her now exposed chest.
“The buttons were in the back,” she complained.
“And now they’re on the floor,” Helion replied, lowering his face to her breasts. He forgot about the gown, still pooled at her waist, momentarily fascinated with her form. It was one he’d seen a million times before, a body he’d mapped with his mouth over the centuries. It was different to him now. Sitting on his haunches, nestled between her legs, his fingers traced the freckles along her collarbone, over the pebbled peaks of her pale breasts, and down her flat stomach and the faint purple marks that lingered, proof his son had once lived there.
She lifted her hips and Helion removed the tattered remains of the dress, tossing it aside like trash. He could have cried at the sight of her illuminated in the early evening glow. She was so perfect and Helion was almost afraid to touch her, afraid if he reached for her she might evaporate and he’d find the whole thing had been a dream.
Dumbstruck, Helion didn’t notice her rise forward until her hands were pressed against his chest, shoving him backwards.
“You have such a soft heart,” she whispered, mouth burning against his neck. “I missed you, too.”
His heart was beating out of his chest, every inch of him burning with unchecked, runaway desire. She was sliding down his body, her mouth trailing a burning path across his skin, down, down, down until he felt her lick the length of his shaft.
“Amera—” he reached for her but she swatted at him and Helion, so stupidly in love with the woman kneeling between his legs, had never once been able to deny her a thing. Still, her wicked mouth was going to be his ruination. Hands fisting silken sheets, Helion watched her take the tip of his cock into his mouth, lips curved with a smile. He exhaled hard, eyes locked on her. They’d done this before but for Helion, it was like the first time all over again. He felt untested, brand new and utterly besotted with the girl from Autumn he’d met that night. Eight hundred years stood between their first meeting but in some ways, nothing changed at all.
“Relax,” she ordered, her words muffled from his penis still lodged in her throat. He couldn’t help but laugh. He wouldn’t relax until she put the crown of Day Court’s Lady on her head.
“If you don’t stop, I’m going to finish,” he growled in warning, hating how delighted she seemed by his suffering. Taking his words as a personal challenge, Amera slid her mouth down the length of him, tongue gliding over the underside of his shaft, until she had nearly every inch of him in her throat.
Helion looked up at the ceiling, counting in his head to control his wild urge to pump himself into her. He could do this, had slept with countless others, had gone for hours without coming.
No one was her. Helion reached for her, pulling her off his cock with the intention to slide her beneath him. She had other ideas, shoving him back to the mattress.
“Amera,” he whispered, suddenly terrified though he couldn’t explain why. “Sweetheart. Come here.”
She shook her head. “Stop talking.”
He reached for her, sitting up as she straddled his lap. She sank onto him just as he encased her in his arms, pressing her into his chest. Helion exhaled roughly, caught off guard by the sensation of being inside her again, of feeling the warmth of her body wrapped around him like a second skin.
Amera didn’t move, frozen in the embrace. Helion kissed her forehead. “Tell me.” She burst into loud, body wracking sobs. Helion carefully extracted himself from her body, repositioning himself so she was just in his lap, head on his shoulder. The loss of her was overwhelming, her tears utterly heart wrenching.
“No one…” she began, her words lost to violent hiccups. “No one touches me like that.”
He rubbed the smooth skin of her exposed back, his own tears sliding softly down his cheek. “I don’t deserve this,” she whispered.
“Why would you say that?” he asked, his hold on her tightening.
“If I had been better I would—”
“You did the right thing,” he interrupted fiercely, his voice rising. “You did nothing wrong.”
“I…” her words were garbled into his skin and Helion thought it was better they stayed unheard. He kissed the top of her head, working to keep his own hurt from his voice. “I would rather you stay with him another eight hundred years than risk your own life.”
She sobbed harder and he wondered if he’d said the wrong thing.
“You’re going to get married,” she wailed, finally looking up at him with tear stained eyes. “And I can’t stand it and it’s selfish—” He silenced her with a kiss. “There is no one but you, Amera. No one.” His words were an oath, the vows he’d always wanted to say. “And I will wait forever for you.” “You deserve more than that.”
“Let me be the judge of what I deserve,” he murmured.
“They won’t accept me,” she told him even as he wiped her tears with his thumbs.
“I don’t care.”
“They’ll leave your court.”
“I don’t care if they take the crown off my head,” he snarled, holding her beautiful, soft face in his hands. “Let them try and take you. I would raize this world before I’m parted from you again.”
She shivered at his words, feeling the magic laced in between. “It’s all worthless to me without you.”
She opened her mouth and Helion could almost hear the protests. He silenced her with another kiss. “Did you ever think that perhaps it was you who deserved better?”
Her eyes swam with tears again. “I should have—”
“Done whatever you had to in order to stay safe with a male who you had no say in marrying,” Helion finished definitively. He was done arguing this point. What she needed was time to see the truth of his words. “And you did it perfectly, but Amera, you always deserved better than what you got, and there was nothing you did that made you somehow deserving of his treatment, his abuse.”
She trembled, clinging to him as if he might evaporate. He pressed his forehead against her own. “I’m not going anywhere. I told you that the night we met and it's still true today.”
“I’m scared,” she admitted, closing her eyes.
He wasn’t, though.
He’d never been more sure of anything in his life.
Elain wasn’t entirely sure how she felt about Arina. Arina was Helion’s friend, his scholar and some part of Elain wondered what, exactly, Arina had been told about Elain. Arina was better practiced at moving through the courtiers despite her insistent claim she’d grown up common. If that were true, Arina was certainly a quick study. No one questioned her right to be there and Arina was the only reason Elain was making friends.
The pair walked the lively, icy halls of Winter, arms linked though they didn’t speak. Elain needed a friend, someone who wasn’t her mate or his family or her sisters. Deciding Arina likely didn’t like her for all the same reasons everyone else did, she blurted out, “I never slept with Azriel, you know.”
Arina tripped over the hem of her dress. “What?”
Elain felt instant embarrassment. “I didn’t sleep with him. Everyone thinks I had some clandestine affair and that’s why he tried to kill Lucien.”
“Then what did happen?” Arina asked, green eyes alight with interest. Gossip. This was how she made friends, by offering up a piece of herself for ridicule, for potential betrayal. Elain swallowed. She’d spent so long trying to project an aura of perfection that it was hard to give that all up.
“Some…almost hand holding….one near kiss. A lot of nothing, honestly,” Elain admitted, aware of how pathetic it all sounded.
“Why didn’t you just break the bond?” Arina asked. No one had ever asked Elain that save for Lucien, who had demanded she do it.
Elain looked down at her hands, utterly ashamed. “I just…I just wanted to pretend it wasn’t happening.”
Arina said nothing for a beat. “Can I tell you something?”
Elain glanced up, waiting to be reprimanded like she had been by everyone else. Arina’s tanned skin was paler than usual, though it might have just been their extended Winter Court stay that made her seem so.
“I’m doing the same thing.”
Elain blinked. “You’re…pretending you don’t have a mate?”
Arina nodded, biting the inside of her cheek. “I’ve been trying to tell you all week but you’ve been so busy and I didn’t want to steal this moment from you.”
“Who? Is it…is it someone terrible?” Elain asked, glancing around the empty hall. Arina, too, seemed to realize they were just out in the open. Grabbing Elain’s hand, she turned them back towards Elain’s bedroom, slamming the door shut behind her. She paused for a moment, taking a breath.
“Was Lucien in here?”
Elain flushed, embarrassed. “Just…he just came by to say good night,” she mumbled.
“We are absolutely coming back to that,” Arina teased, walking towards the bed and flinging herself atop it. “If I tell you, swear you won’t tell anyone.” As if Elain had anyone to tell. She wasn’t exactly popular in social circles. “I swear.”
Arina closed her eyes. “It’s Eris Vanserra.”
Elain clapped her hand over her mouth to keep her from laughing. “Seriously.”
“I am serious,” Arina replied, eyes narrowed. “And you’re laughing.”
“I’m not!” Elain protested. “I’m not laughing, I'm just…really?”
Arina sighed. “Yes.” She ignored how giggles slipped through Elain’s fingers. “Get it over with.”
“That would make us…sisters, wouldn’t it?”
Arina’s eyes turned sharp. “Are you going to accept the bond then?”
Whoops. She hadn’t thought the whole sisters thing through. She was just excited to have a potential friend she’d gotten ahead of herself. “Are you?”
“Absolutely not. I’m going to keep pretending it doesn’t exist.”
“Do you think he will?” Elain asked, walking to the bed so she could sit beside Arina. Arina gestured.
“Do you see him hanging around? Kallias wrote to Lucien and despite everything he came running like a dog on a leash. I don’t see his brother doing the same. As far as I can tell he’s happy enough being High Lord.”
“Does that bother you?” Elain questioned, catching the way Arina’s face wrinkled with worry.
“He’s High Lord…like his father.”
Oh. “Maybe he’s….” Maybe he’s not violent, Elain started to say. She hardly knew anything about him, could only remember he’d once asked Nesta to marry him and had apparently hurt Morrigan badly. “Maybe we could invite him to Day Court? Helion surely would protect you.”
Arina nodded. “He would…just…how would I even know?” “Make him court you,” Elain said quickly. Arina scowled.
“Yeah. Human men have to do this if they want a woman to marry them. Why not make Eris court you?”
“What would I even do?” she asked, leaning up on her elbows. Blonde hair spilled over her violet colored dress and Elain thought Eris was in over his head if he was a decent man.
“What would you normally do if you liked someone?”
“Sex,” Arina said almost instantly. Elain’s heart stuttered. Was Lucien expecting that? Would he know she’d want him to court her before they got anywhere close to that? Did she even want him to court her?
She banished the thoughts.
“Okay, well, this comes before…that,” she replied. “It’s usually talking. A lot of talking.”
“How do you know if the sex is good—”
“Oh my gosh, Arina. You can sleep with him if you want, just make him court you, too. The whole point is to make them work for you.”
“And you’re doing this with Lucien?” Arina demanded. “We’ll make them court us together.”
“Fine,” Elain agreed, stomach twisting in knots. Arina glanced over at Elain slyly, as though she’d guessed Elain had very little experience sexually.
“You know what they say about males from Autumn Court, right?”
“Don’t tell me,” Elain begged. Arina laughed.
“They’ve got fire in their blood…Lucien doubly so, you know Helion has a massive—”
“Lalala,” Elain sang loudly, hands clapped over her ears. She didn’t need to be thinking of Lucien’s massive anything, especially if she was going to ask him to court her.
“I’m just saying,” Arina said smugly. “You might ask Sera what it was like.”
“What polite dinner conversation,” Elain retorted.
“Only humans are so polite. If you asked her what he was like in the bedroom, she’d tell you. Although…maybe you should get a little experience of your own, hm?”
“I couldn’t,” Elain insisted. “I…I wouldn’t know how.”
“It’s easy,” Arina said, eyes shining with mischief. “Walk up to any male you like ask them to have sex with you.”
“Arina!” Elain gasped, smacking her friend lightly on the arm. Arina cackled.
Elain pressed her hand over Arina’s mouth, grossed out when Arina immediately licked her palm. “Stop talking.”
“You’re so easily embarrassed. We’ve got to work on that.”
And despite the truth of Arina’s assessment of her, Elain was pleased all the same.
It was nice to have a friend.
Lucien had hoped to escort Elain to the ball but it seemed Arina had the honor, and Lucien couldn’t bring himself to get in between the two. Elain was smiling, she seemed happy and at ease for the first time, at least in his limited interactions with her. There was no hint of the nervous female he so often encountered and he thought the rare glimpse he was being given made him feel almost hopeful of a future…assuming she even wanted one.
“Hey stranger,” Sera stood beside him at a tall table, resting her elbows atop the glossy black surface, drink in hand. “I haven’t seen you in ages.”
“Centuries, even,” he replied easily. Like everyone in Winter, Sera had wintry blonde hair and pale blue eyes, her skin translucently fair. She wore a dark navy dress that seemed nearly painted on her. The effect was pretty and Lucien remembered exactly what he’d liked about her. Determined he’d never marry a courtier, Sera set about to prove him wrong and even though she failed, they’d ended on good terms.
“How are you?” she asked, her voice soft with concern. Few knew his father better than her. After all, Lucien had seriously considered taking her as a wife purely to escape Autumn. That was before he learned she’d have to join him…before he met Jesminda.
“The same as ever,” he replied easily, resting one hand over hers in a show of friendly camaraderie.
“So I’ve heard. Still everyone’s favorite punching bag,” she replied, squeezing his fingers. “We wouldn’t treat you so badly here, you know.”
“Hey,” he murmured, turning to face her fully.
“I mean it, Lucien,” she told him, her eyes swimming with concern. The music drowned, replaced with a buzzing he couldn’t clear. “I heard about Spring…and Night. I asked Kallias to reach out to you but he says you’re in Day now?”
Lucien nodded. “I think I’ll stay but Sera…you don’t need to worry about me.”
“I’m sure I’m not the only female scattered in other courts worrying over you,” she replied, her tone light.
“Now you’re just flattering me.”
Elain’s voice cut through the buzzing, bring him back to reality. “Sorry. Am I interrupting?”
There was no malice to her words, no hint of jealousy. She was asking earnestly, eyes wide and if he told her yes, he was certain she’d scamper across the white marble dance floor, vanishing into the throng of dancers.
“Not at all,” Sera assured her. “Just catching up.”
Elain smiled and Lucien’s heart squeezed. She was too trusting, too unaware that, had she kept her distance, he was tempted to take Sera up on what he knew she’d been about to offer.
“Do you want to dance?” Elain asked him, her expression betraying her. She looked as though she fully expected him to decline. Perhaps he should. He’d already come running after her, hadn’t he? Just as he always did, only to be rejected in the end.
Still. No one could compare to Elain, dressed in a long sleeved, sage gown that made her look like something out of a dream. She’d pulled her hair half off her face again, pinned with the same pearls from the day before and he wondered if she’d done it for him.
“Of course,” he agreed smoothly, vaguely aware that his jacket was nearly the same shade of her dress, his white pants a match for the pins in her hair. Lucien took a steadying breath as he stepped around the table. He swore he could hear his boots clacking against the smooth floor. Overhead, the faelights seemed to catch against Elain’s skin, creating a soft glow that only served to highlight how lovely she was.
They stood on the edge of the dance floor, close enough their elbows brushed, waiting for the song to end. Elain glanced up at him a few times as though waiting for Lucien to say something. He had no idea what to tell her— “You’re pretty.”
Elain looked back up, eyes wide with surprise. “What did you say?”
“You look pretty,” he amended, feeling stupid. “Ah…the dress…you. You look pretty.” Smooth.
She flushed, following him onto the dance floor in time for the next dance. Lucien was careful to leave a respectful distance between them though he couldn’t pretend it didn’t feel good to be holding her. “Thank you…you look nice, too.”
“A compliment?” he teased. “How far we’ve come.”
She frowned. “About that.”
Ah, fuck. “Yes?” He spun her, reflecting that it might be the last dance they ever had.
She came back to him quicker than he prepared for, too distracted by her shiny hair and the swell of her breasts peeking from beneath the neckline of her gown.
“I want you to court me.”
“I—what?” he asked her, pulling her a hair closer. He was sure he’d heard her wrong. Elain seemed resolved, glancing over her shoulder towards Arina, who offered two thumbs up in response. Had…had they planned this moment? Was she nervous?
“Courting,” Elain continued, her voice hardly audible over the music. “It’s where a man—”
“I understand courting, Elain,” he interrupted hastily. “It’s just…typically males court when they…” When they wanted a female to marry them.
“It’s okay if you don’t want to,” she told him, eyes dropping to the floor. Lucien tightened his grip on her body.
“I do,” he insisted, bringing his head closer to her neck. She smelled soft, like sunlight and honey. “I’m just surprised you want to be courted.”
“It’s how things were done when I was…when I was human. Besides, it’ll be a way for us to get to know each other.”
“You might find you like me,” he teased, his heart pounding a mile a minute. Elain smiled softly, looking back up at him through fanned, dark lashes.
“You might find you don’t like me.”
He very much doubted that but he let her think so all the same. “Does tonight count?”
“Would you like it to?” she replied, squeezing his hand nervously.
The music ended just in time for Lucien to tell her, “yes,” emphatically, but also so he had an excuse to lead her off the floor.
“Have you seen the green house?” he asked her, aware she was letting him hold her hand.
“No.” she sounded breathless and Lucien couldn’t help but hope it was because of him and not the prospect of new plants. Puffed up by his own success, Lucien strode from the ballroom, fingers laced with her own, as if his mind wasn’t screaming at the shared contact.
Touching, you’re touching—
“How much time did you spend in Winter?” she asked curiously. Lucien refocused himself. Courting was polite—it definitely wasn’t the vaguely inappropriate thoughts that were floating through his mind.
“Ah…not much.” How much did she want to know about his sexual exploits, anyway? She’d find someone like Sera in every court which perhaps reflected poorly on him.
“Did you like it?”
In his daze, it occurred to Lucien she was carrying the conversation. “Er—yes. What about you, Elain? How have you enjoyed Winter.”
She seemed surprised. “Oh. I don’t prefer the cold.”
He chuckled. “Missing Day Court already?”
Her hand slid from his home, coming to her stomach. Lucien’s heart sank. “A little,” she admitted. “Do you think…do you think Helion will ever forgive me?”
“Will you?” she continued, stopping just outside of the doors to the greenhouse. She wasn’t looking at it all—only him.
“There is nothing to forgive,” he told her thickly which was the truth of the matter. She was his mate and he was starting to learn there was nothing Elain could do he couldn’t forgive…though she could hurt him.
Elain stared up at him silently, filling him with self-doubt.
“The ah, the greenhouse—” Surging upwards on her tiptoes, Elain reached for the back of his neck, dragging his face towards her. Lucien had only a second to realize her intention before their mouths crashed together in a messy, inelegant kiss. It wasn’t how he’d pictured kissing her the first time—something soft, maybe under a dusky evening sky.
He’d take it, he decided, grabbing her waist to hold her closer. There was nothing sweet about this. Her mouth was hungry, the fingers in his hair almost desperate. It wasn’t just a kiss, it was something more, something that had been simmering between them since they’d first locked eyes, a beast they’d tried so desperately to keep caged.
Courting was going to go poorly now that he knew how her body felt pressed against his own. He swept his tongue into her mouth, taking as much as she was offering without an ounce of regret. She stumbled backwards until her back hit the wall and Lucien was all too happy to haul her into his arms if only to feel her ass through her dress.
“Lucien,” she gasped, lips swollen, her ruined. He groaned against her neck, kissing her hotly though he knew he needed to stop. She’d asked to be courted, asked to take things slow and the first chance he got, he was pawing at her like an animal.
He broke the kiss regretfully, half-erect and too aroused. He set her gently to her feet, brushing a messy curl from her face.
“I shouldn’t have…” He searched her expression but found only open defiance gazing back at him. “The greenhouse?”
Her hand slid back into his.
She wasn’t alone. Amera jerked awake with a start, surprised to see Helion beside her, face down in a pillow, his broad, muscular back exposed. The sun wasn’t quite up yet though the room was lit by the faint glow that always seemed to be emanating just beneath his skin. Amera looked around, heart sinking when she saw Beron sitting cross-legged across the room in white chair. She sat up, wrapping a silken sheet around her torso
“Jumping into another males bed already?” he tisked, drumming his fingers on the arm.
“Nothing happened,” she whispered, shame welling in her stomach.
“But you wanted it to, wife,” he snarled, leaning forward. “Is my body even cold, yet?”
“Was it ever warm?” she countered, recognizing she was arguing with her own guilt and not Beron himself. He smiled cruelly.
“I recall no complaints.”
“You never asked if I enjoyed it,” she reminded him impatiently. “And I faked it every time.”
Beron shrugged, just as he imagined he might were he actually alive. “So you say.”
“Go away,” she demanded.
Beron only smiled. “Why don’t you make me?”
“Amera?” Helion mumbled, reaching across the sheets until he found her. Helion’s touch was warm, gentle, dragging her back to him. She settled into the blankets, pulling the up until the two were hidden from the outside world.
“Best sleep I ever got,” he murmured, opening his eyes to look at her. “Move in with me.”
“I already live with you,” she reminded him patiently, heart hammering. Helion’s smile was a thing of beauty and though he’d argued the point only hours before, she knew she didn’t deserve to be looked at the way he was.
“In my bed,” he clarified, brushing hair out of her face. “Even if all we do is sleep, I like having you here.”
“As if you’ve ever just slept with a female in your life,” she teased, trying to ease her own frayed nerves.
“You’re different,” he insisted. “I’m in love with you.”
She envied the way he said the words so easily. She was choking on them, drowning in everything he was offering. He brushed his thumb over her bottom lip. “You don’t have to…but you can, if you like.” And that was the problem. He’d wait on her forever. “What if…what if I’m always like this?” she whispered. No male wanted a broken female, not even Helion.
“Lucky me,” Helion smiled, kissing her gently. “I’ll take it all.”
“I am begging you,” Lucien’s voice announced from somewhere in the room. “To tell me that is not my mother beneath that blanket.”
“Ah, Lucien,” Helion ripped the blanket off their faces, revealing the fact that not only were they in bed, but they were naked. Lucien spun around but the flash of his shocked face was burned in her memory. “I forgot we agreed to meet this morning.”
“You couldn’t have sent a message?” Lucien demanded, his voice strained.
“My hands were preoccupied but—”
Lucien strode out of the room, slamming the door loudly behind him. Amera looked at Helion, elbowing him gently in the chest. “You’ve made him angry.”
“Walking in on your naked parents is a Day Court rite of passage,” Helion replied without an ounce of regret. “He needs to get used to it.”
She held the sheet to her chest as he rose from the bed, every inch of his glorious, muscular body on display in the early morning light. Her mouth dried out at the sight and Helion very obviously caught her staring.
“Does he?” she asked, voice strained. Helion turned, revealing a half hard erection hanging thickly between his thighs.
“We host a lot of orgies in my court. The amount of times I saw my father—”
“Helion,” she chided softly but Helion was having none of it.
“It’ll make him strong. And besides, he knows to know our traditions if he’s going to rule someday.”
“I would prefer if he didn’t see us in any capacity.”
“In my defense, when I arranged this early morning meeting, I did not imagine I would wake up beside you. I also thought he might stay in Winter a little later.”
She frowned, eyes still locked on his cock. “Are you meddling in Lucien’s love life.”
Helion’s smile widened. “Absolutely.”
“Can you get dressed?” she asked him, her self control hanging by the barest thread.
“Do you want me to?”
It took him no time at all to drape a toga over his body, hiding his thighs, his chest…everything she loved to look at from view.
“You never wear anything beneath that?” she asked, watching as he adjusted his golden armband.
“Why don’t you come sit in my lap later this afternoon and find out?” he teased.
“If I did move in here…we could just sleep?” she asked, brushing off his offer. Helion was all innuendo, especially when he was nervous. He looked at her fully then, amber eyes wide with too much hope.
“Anything you like,” he promised. He was making so many promises with so little effort. Like he’d been waiting his whole life to say these things to her. “Which includes nothing at all.”
“I’ll stay,” she murmured, another selfish agreement on her part. She didn’t want to be alone and missed feeling wanted. Helion beamed, true personification of the sun he represented. He came to her, caging her between his arms to press a kiss to her forehead.
“You won’t regret this,” he swore before leaving her alone in his bedroom. Amera wasn’t entirely certain he was right though she had no desire to argue with him. Not after the night before. How many males stopped sex before it even began, who let a charged moment shift into her broken crying? He hadn’t complained, hadn’t tried to bring it back up or asked her to touch him at all. He’d merely tucked her into bed beside him until, cried out, she’d fallen into a deep, dreamless slumber.
Certain he was gone and hoping he was handling Lucien with tact, she padded to his bathroom and slid into the bathtub, letting the water rush over her body until she was covered in the scalding water. There was no trace of Beron left on her body just as there was no trace of Helion from the night before. Staring at the expanse of skin, all Amera saw was the marks left behind from her children, reminding her life had existed.
Wiping tears from her face, she considered that perhaps Beron hadn’t been able to take everything after all. He’d taken more than she’d ever wanted to give, had robbed her of her joy…but perhaps it wasn’t permanent.
Did she deserve to be happy? Was Helion right when he’d said she’d done nothing wrong? She certainly felt she’d done things wrong, to him, to Lucien, to Beron, even. She’d ended Beron’s life…was she any better than him? She’d tried so hard to prove she was better, that if she was soft and kind and loving Beron would stop…but in the end, the only thing that ever stopped him was with the same violence he’d employed so often against her.
“I fucking beat you,” she whispered into the morning glow. She waited for his response, waited for him to appear with some taunt.
“I beat you, motherfucker.”
Only silence responded.
Helion strode into the throne room where Lucien waited, his face alive with fury. Helion grinned. “Sorry about—”
Lucien’s fist connected with Helion’s face not for the first time. He’d let it slide once but this was his court and he was still High Lord. It took nothing to blast Lucien against the room, slamming his body roughly into the carved marble column in the middle of the room.
“Don’t try that again,” Helion warned as Lucien scrambled to his feet. His nose was bleeding all over the front of his toga which, he thought with a twinge of pleasure, gave him an excuse to go bother Amera.
“You couldn’t wait five fucking seconds before taking advantage of my mother?” Lucien snarled. Helion scowled.
“That’s not how I recall the evening going. Give your mother some credit…and me, while you’re at it. We don’t treat females like—” “Watch your fucking mouth,” Lucien warned, flames wreathed around his wrist. That fascinated Helion more than he wanted to admit.
“I’m not apologizing for my feelings for you mother,” Helion stated, letting Lucien feel his cold authority. “Nor will I explain them to you. You are far too young to understand the depth of my affection.”
“I know your reputation,” Lucien countered. “She’s special, she—”
“Yes, Lucien,” Helion interrupted dryly. “Thank you for explaining my feelings so succinctly. I trust you are the expert on eight hundred years of love and will defer to your wisdom in the future.”
Lucien scowled but Helion didn’t care if Lucien was mad again. “I take it Winter didn’t go well?”
Lucien needed to get laid. Or maybe he had, Helion thought with a little delight, catching how Lucien’s cheeks darkened with embarrassment. “Winter was fine.” “I hope you were kind with Ms. Archeron. She doesn’t seem particularly experienced.”
Luciens anger snapped back to the surface. “Shut your mouth.”
Helion only shrugged, turning his back on his son. It wasn’t how he’d imagined their relationship but the Vanserra’s were a rough bunch, so quick to anger and openly suspicious of anyone trying to be nice to them. Beron sure had left his mark on everything he touched and it was ugly. Lucien would require the same soft hand his mother did.
Helion would leave that to Elain considering. “Show me your magic.”
Lucien looked down at the flame in his hands, his metal eye never leaving Helion’s face. “I don’t understand all of it.” “That’s what I’m here for. Blow me up like you blew up that bat.”
That made Lucien smile, if only a little. Helion could weather Lucien’s rage, having once been subjected to it himself. He’d destroyed an entire olive grove learning to control his own magic, much to his fathers displeasure. Lucien had destroyed an ecosystem which made Helion oddly proud. Father and son shared some commonality, even if Lucien didn’t realize it.
Lucien concentrated and flame and light merged, creating a blinding wall of blazing heat, enough to send Helion stumbling back a step. Lucien’s magic was different from his own, nearly identical save for what he’d inherited from his mother. Helion held up a hand, sucking the magic out of Lucien just as his father had done to him when Helion was in danger of burning himself out.
“You’ve always been able to do this?” he questioned. How had no one guessed? Lucien seemed to glow, panting loudly in the empty throne room.
“No,” he finally managed. “Not until…not until Elain was captured by Hybern.”
That was unusual but Lucien didn’t seem to be covered in any spells that might have bound him. “What happened in Hybern?”
“The King had us bound with his magic and I broke it,” Lucien replied, his confusion plain. That could explain it, Helion thought. Perhaps whatever bound Lucien had been broken when his mate instinct overrode whatever magic held him. Those spells were notoriously weak to start and tended to erode with time. Whoever cast it would have had to have been powerful and if Helion had to guess, Eris Vanserra was at the top of his list.
He shared none of these thoughts with Lucien. Ultimately, it hardly mattered. The magic Lucien had displayed marked him Helion's heir and likely his lack of ability before Elain had kept him and his mother safe.
He dragged Lucien through more drills until Lucien was scowling and sweaty, his magic nearly tapped out. Helion doubted he had enough to winnow which suited Helion just fine. “Before you go,” Helion called lazily from his place on his throne. “Thesan wants to see me in Dawn.”
Lucien stiffened. “Go in my stead?”
“Are you High Lord or am I?” Lucien complained.
“They need to get used to your face as part of my court. Come,” Helion added, gesturing for Lucien to follow. Lucien did, too tired to argue. Wistfully, Helion wondered what it would have been like to raise the man from a stubborn little baby into a man. Helion could imagine a chubby, sandaled baby running through the halls with messy hands. He banished the thought lest his anger get the better of him.
Beron had taken so much. He would take no more, Helion vowed, leading Lucien down a winding flight of stairs into his personal trove. He kept everything precious of Day Court down here, which included the crown he’d once worn before his father died. Now it would be Luciens no matter how much Lucien kicked and screamed.
Lucien hesitated in the arched doorway, looking around cautiously as the dimly lit space. Helion reached for the golden circlet, grabbing two others for good measure and sliding them over his hand like bracelets. Lucien didn’t move as Helion set it atop his messy red hair, marveling for a moment at the twinned suns and rays glowing a top that fiery colored hair.
“Wear that,” he instructed, pulling a more delicate golden circlet with a golden tear drop pearl meant to sit in the center of the wearer's forehead to Lucien as well. “And when you’re ready, give that to Elain. Regardless of how things pan out, though…she’s not allowed to return to Night Court unless she’s wearing that.”
Branded. Lucien and Elain belonged to him, now, and he’d be damned if all of Prythian didn’t know it. Lucien stared at the delicate object in his hand while Helion waited for him to protest.
“And that?” he asked, gesturing towards the crown meant for the Lady of Day.
“This is for your mother,” Helion replied softly. “When she’s ready.”
“Have you considered that she may never be ready?” Lucien murmured, no anger in his voice. “Beron was…”
Helion held up a hand. He couldn’t bear to hear what Beron had been. He knew enough.
“What happens if she never wants it? Any of this?” Lucien continued, clearly wondering if Helion had thought his mother through.
“Your mother is not my prisoner. She can leave if she likes…she has done it before.”
“Why didn’t you fight for her?” Lucien asked suddenly, his voice edged with a quiet desperation. “Why didn’t you challenge Beron for her? You were within your rights…you could have…”
“She asked me not to,” Helion told Lucien, his stomach twisting in knots. “She told me she chose Beron and I…if I forced her back, was I any better than him?”
“It’s different,” Lucien insisted. “She stayed out of duty, she wasn’t happy.”
That knowledge was a punch to the gut when it came from Lucien’s mouth.
“She’s allowed to make her own choices,” Helion told Lucien. “Even if I disagree with the reasons.”
“I wish you had,” Lucien confessed, his voice cracking. “I can’t stand knowing…all those centuries wondering why he hated me and now I think…”
Lucien swallowed. “I’ll go to Dawn.”
“Take Elain,” Helion told Lucien, putting a hand on Lucien’s shoulder. “Show her the court.”
Lucien nodded. “Thanks.”
Helion watched Lucien retreat back up the stairs, surprised to find his hopes suddenly pinned in a male he’d once resented so deeply.
Helions heir would go to Dawn.
As his son.
Fuck fuck fuck, a panicked scream seemed to echo through Eris, the fear slicing through his chest and dragging him from a restless sleep.
Mate! His body screamed, roaring to life. Instinct took over, pulling him out of bed before he could think through his actions. Eris had been governed by careful planning his whole life and this new feeling filled him with a burning kind of terror. He managed to get his boots on before he raced out of his bedroom, out of the Forest House completely, and winnowed into Day. He was in a white shirt and trousers, hardly a distinguished look for a High Lord and he knew if he could see himself, his shortly cropped hair was a mess.
He burst into the quiet Day Court palace, letting the ebbing fear drag him through winding marble halls. He bristled at how open Day was, how everyone could just look in and see everyone's business. How did Helion do any scheming? Or did he imagine himself above such things?
Eris burst into a bedroom, snarling loudly, a mate prepared to defend what was his.
Elain screamed. “Lucien!”
On the floor wearing an absurdly tight sleep top and flowing pants sat Arina—Gwyn had helpfully and discreetly helped Eris discover her name—- a cut dripping blood down her forehead. Elain was half undressed and it was clear he’d overreacted. He couldn’t stop himself, even as embarrassment washed over him, from walking to her to examine the wound. “Don’t touch me,” she whispered when he reached for her, her breath betraying her intoxication. They were drunk. Eris stood just in time for Lucien to explode into the room, sword drawn despite his lack of shirt.
Lucien blinked. “Eris?”
“Oh no,” Elain whispered comically loud.
“Oh no indeed,” Eris agreed dryly.
“What are you doing here?” Lucien demanded, setting his sword on a nearby coffee table. He glanced at Elain, the straps of her dress hanging off her arms, the top of the gown held up only by Elain’s hand. “Are you two drunk?”
“You’re drunk,” Arina countered cleverly. He hated the smile that tugged at his lips.
“We’re not drunk,” Elain assured Lucien, tripping as she tried to stand. “We’re just…” she looked to Arina, who burst into giggles.
“Drunk,” Eris finished for the two. “I thought ladies were above such things.”
“Maybe in your stuffy court,” Arina countered, using Elain’s head to push herself up to her feet. “But here in Day, we can have some fun, okay?” her finger pointed in his face. Lucien inhaled for a moment before shaking his head.
“Helion is going to kill you.”
“As if I had a choice,” Eris hissed, rounding on his brother. “I tried to stay away but this one can’t keep out of trouble for five fucking minutes!”
“Hey!” Elain complained, reaching up a hand to Lucien so he could haul her to her feet. “She only hurt herself because there are so many stairs, alright? How is that her fault?”
“Yeah!” Arian agreed indignantly, hands on attractively curved hips. “I didn’t build this place you stupid.”
“You’re stupid,” Elain agreed. Lucien pressed a hand against his mouth while Eris scowled at their assessment.
“So you drank so much you can’t walk,” Eris summed up. “And then dragged me out of bed.”
“I don’t know how this works!” Arina complained. “I feel all your stupid panic too, you know.”
Eris raised his eyebrows. “I don’t panic.”
“I see your dreams, too,” she whispered with a mocking smile. “You want to fuck me so bad it makes you look dumb.”
“Can you see my dreams?” Lucien asked Elain suddenly who hiccuped loudly.
“Sometimes,” she admitted, tripping through the bathroom door and slamming it with a bang. Lucien ran a hand down his face. “Oh…Cauldron take me.”
Eris was too focused on Arina and the shirt riding up her golden skin, revealing smooth skin just beneath. “I don’t want you at all.”
She squared up, taller than Elain but not as tall as him. “Yeah,” she replied, eyes glancing from his eyes to his lips and fuck he wasn’t doing a good job of lying. Every inch of him wanted to grab her, wanted to pull her out of her clothes, wanted to fuck her against the wall until she begged him to stop.
Lucien put a hand on his shoulder, dragging him out of his haze. “Not like this, Eris.”
“Elain says you have to court me, anyway,” Arina declared, crossing her arms over what he assumed were likely a perfect pair of breasts.
“Is Elain the boss now?”
Elain stumbled back out of the bathroom in a short white nightdress. Lucien’s scent shifted and Eris reflected they were both in bad shape. These Day Court females were torturing the Vanserra’s and he didn’t know what could be done about it.
“Yes!” Elain declared breathlessly, blowing wisps of hair from her flushed face. “Like a gentleman!”
“No one has ever accused me of being such,” Eris replied haughtily. Arina arched a brow.
“And here I thought Autumn Court males prided themselves on being gentlemen.”
Elain frowned. “But you said they fucked like they had fire in their blood?”
Lucien choked on the air he breathed, coughing loudly. Elain looked over with concern, too drunk to realize the words coming out of her mouth. Eris stared Arina down.
“She’s right, you know.”
“I don’t want to fuck you,” Arina lied, her scent so potent he could practically taste it.
“Liar,” Eris crooned. Elain shoved the two of them apart.
“You have to court her,” Elain insisted, crossing her arms over her chest. Eris growled which earned him nothing but Lucien’s hand on his shoulder again.
“Maybe I don’t want to court you.”
“Then I’ll tell Helion you’re not allowed to be here.”
That stung more than Eris was willing to admit. The potential for rejection was high. He knew his reputation, knew she likely felt bold because of the alcohol and if he returned with flowers and sonnets he’d be met with wide, frightened eyes.
He looked back down at Elain. “How much courting before she’s allowed to fuck me?”
“Don’t be crude,” Elain chided, as if she hadn’t just used the same language herself. “And until you love her.”
Eris rubbed at his jaw. “Fine.”
“Fine?” Arina asked, trotting after him as he strode from the room. He let her catch up in the hall, well aware Lucien was acting as chaperone. It irked him, Lucien’s expectation Eris might force himself on an unwilling female. “You’ll do it?”
Begrudgingly, Eris nodded. “You’ll crack anyway.”
She frowned, emerald eyes blazing. “Oh?”
“Elain is filled with her sweet human ideals but you and I are Faerie and I can smell you.”
Arina squared her delicate shoulders. “I can smell you too, mate. You’ll break well before me.”
Eris turned his back to walk away, excitement and arousal flipping through his stomach in equal measure.
“We’ll see,” he called.
Eris loved a challenge.