I'd recognized him instantly. My brother had shared his image in my mind once, years ago, as he explained a turbulent history with the High Lord and let me in on what really happened the day he'd gathered Under the Mountain with the members of our Court of Nightmares. Though I'd missed the party, I would be retrieved by Amarantha soon afterwards.
Too soon. Much too soon.
The faerie male sitting atop the dais alongside our captor moved with miserable carelessness. His long, handsome face dripped with apathy and his eyes bore through the back wall of earth in the great hall Amarantha had called us to. She wailed her usual grievances of a few different fae. Someone was always too quiet, too mischievous, too nice. There was always a reason for her to end life, something deep inside her begged to devour the essence of those around her. She leached kindness.
I looked away for only a second, watching my wine swirl in my glass before I took a light sip. My eyes were drawn right back to the male, his blonde hair poured down his shoulders like melted gold. My breath hitched. I'd recognized this male not only for his history, my brother's stories, or what he meant to the curse that trapped me here. The male's eyes furrowed, only slightly - completely unnoticeable unless you were looking for it - and his slow gaze turned on me. My lungs heaved in my chest and I uncrossed and recrossed my legs, focusing on not shattering the glass of wine between my shaking fingers.
I recognized him the way you recognize yourself in the mirror - a stranger at first, but then… And I knew it, as his eyes met mine and his nostrils flared before he ripped his attention away from me, I knew that he felt it too.
I knew then I had found my mate.
"What's got you so flustered?" a voice tore through my mind and I nearly threw my wine towards it before steadying myself in my seat in a table far, far away from Amarantha's throne. I turned a glare toward my brother and he held his hands up in mock innocence. "It was just a question," he defended with a turn of his lips, the hint of a smile barely there.
I rolled my eyes and drawled, "Rhyyysand, stop."
He replied with a gleaming, pure smile.
"Did you need something?" I scoffed, looking away from him and took another sip of my wine, very aware of the many sets of eyes that typically watched anytime my brother and I were together.
He lifted a brow. "What's going on with you? Why are you being so…" he struggled for a word, coming up short, "like this."
There was a pull in my chest to look back toward the dais - back toward Tamlin - and I made sure to reinforce my mental shields even if it set off red flags to Rhys. He'd spent his entire life protecting me and after the day my mother and I were brought before this ragtag court of Amarantha's beneath this Cauldron-forsaken mountain, I knew he would never forgive himself for letting us be found.
We hadn't seen our mother since that day.
I decided to tell him as much of the truth as I could. "I'm just nervous," I murmured, keeping my voice down. "Tamlin's here. Time is running out."
Rhys nodded. His hands slipped into his pockets and I watched as that far off look took over his entire body like a new skin.
"Hey there, pet." Eris approached us with the same bold, witless swagger he carried himself with back in the Autumn Court. He bypassed Rhys completely, flopping in the chair at my side. "What's up, baby?"
His arm slid behind my shoulders and if I weren't so caught up realizing a damn mating bond I would have laughed at the contortion of my brother's face.
"Eris," he said, his voice clipped.
I let myself lean towards the High Lord's son, ignoring the ache in my chest and the wonder of whether the High Lord of the Spring Court was watching.
"Is this really still happening?" Rhys asked and, to his credit, I was surprised he was finally so forth-coming. I'd long known of my brother's distaste for Eris, but it had been lonely Under the Mountain. After my original introduction to my new home beneath the earth, I'd only been given a cell - a cell with which any male was allowed to visit - and I'd rarely been allowed into the large meetings like this one. But one day I'd overheard Eris and his brothers joking around like they weren't damned awful beasts of men and something Eris said had actually made me laugh.
It didn't take much of a pursuit on my part for him to find interest in me.
Since then, I'd moved into his room. I was allowed in all the meetings, all the dinners, all the celebrations. And since then, well, I wasn't as lonely as I was down in that cell.
"Yes," I said, attempting to placate the Illyrian irritability bubbling to the surface. "It is and it's fine. You have nothing to worry about."
Eris squeezed my shoulder, but said nothing. We weren't monogamous or anything, but if he was fucking other women it wasn't in the bed we shared. Not that I would mind. In my time with the heir to the Autumn Court I'd found comfort and, surprisingly, friendship. But one look at the dual thrones at the heart of the great hall and I knew there was something so much more than this out there - something so much deeper was possible, and maybe, waiting for me.
"Sure," Rhys said, shifting on his heels restlessly. I knew he wanted to get away from Eris, but wouldn't leave me alone with him if he could help it.
I turned to the male at my side and let a slow, conniving grin light my features. "I had fun last night."
Eris laughed, the deep sound barrelling through his broad chest. "Yeah? Me too."
I leaned over him, setting one hand on his thigh while the other tucked a stray auburn hair behind his ear. I could feel Rhysand's presence over my shoulder and my heartbeat quickened with this game.
"I'm still a little sore, but I definitely want to do that again tonight."
I could practically hear Rhysand's face twitching before I felt the empty space he left behind upon his retreat.
"Why do you do that to him?" Eris asked, a goofy smile slathered on his face, his eyes a little glazed - betraying where his thoughts had lead.
I shrugged submitting to my own grin and a soft laugh. "It's fun to get a rise out of him."
A wave of silence fell into us and our heads immediately lifted to the throne. A crowd had gathered all looking to Amarantha, who remained seated as she always did, except now her face was bright, shining with the wild possession that overcame her when the opportunity to torture was delivered to her feet.
I stood, my eyes naturally searching for Tamlin, the fae male I'd never spoken to before, to see that he was still in his seat at her side. His presence was completely withdrawn, his eyes hollow. My chest ached.
Then the shrieking began. I could smell the scent of a human as a girl was carried into the hall and up to the dais, her body wild and writhing beneath the grip of the guards.
Amarantha cackled, "Ah Tamlin, did you think you could hide her from me?"
I took off, leaving Eris still seated next to my empty glass of wine. I didn't run, unwilling to draw too much attention to myself, but I didn't bother being subtle in shoving a few fae out of the way until I was close enough to see without being seen in return. The guards pulled her upright, forcing her into a position as much like standing as possible while her body convulsed with fear. I hoped she wouldn't beg. Begging would only feed Amarantha and make her take her time.
The Attor crept onto the impromptu stage of dirt, created from the wide berth the High Fae always kept from the evil commander and her throne. The leathery creature circled the girl, coming to her front to look her directly in the eye. She finally stopped fighting, finally stopped screaming. I could taste the salt of her tears on my tongue from where I stood more than twenty paces away.
"I'm sure you'll be glad to know Rhysand sold you out, my dear Tamlin." Amarantha's voice had always sounded worse than the gravelly bite of the Attor's in my mind. Her hair pooled in wild waves around her face and she tapped her finger idly on the arm of her chair. The eye of Jurian was completely in view, even from my distance. That was a story I'd never want to hear again.
Then I saw my brother step up into the circle and my heart sped. My feet moved of their own accord, taking a few steps closer, weaving past another few faeries, but I stopped myself before I neared the frontlines. Seeing Rhys in this spotlight Under the Mountain was something that I would never get used to. It would never be easy to watch him be made a spectacle of. It would never be easy to watch him bear the weight of Amarantha's path of destruction and torment.
And watching him approach the girl aside the Attor, looking like the most bored creature in the room, was so, so hard.
My eyes found Tamlin and I realized Rhys was not the most bored member of the court this day. It was as if his body was here with us, sat on a pedestal like a doll, but he himself was somewhere unreachable. He was still, much too still.
"You actually thought you could do it, didn't you?" Amarantha purred, baiting Tamlin to join in on her fun. I wasn't sure if he would be better off playing into her games or clinging to that mask of apathetic other-worldliness.
Tamlin didn't speak. Didn't move. I couldn't even see him breathe.
"Well then, if you don't care for her then I suppose there's no need to keep your human lover alive, is there?"
The screaming began again. I clenched my teeth, willing the girl to shut her mouth. My brother must have felt the same way, for he shot the human an immobilizing glare before her mouth clamped shut, his magic at play. But reigning her in did nothing for the tears that streamed down her face as her dripping nose struggling to keep up with her sobbing breaths.
The guards drug her to the ground and she started kicking, slamming a human's worth of her strength into one guard. He hardly flinched, instead grabbing the foot that kicked him, and then the other. When she was flat on the ground, the Attor began its circling, a slimy gray twist of a smile spread across his face. Rhys moved away, staying in the clearing, but out of the way where Amarantha and Tamlin could have full view.
Full view of the first slice the Attor loosed, barely drawing blood across the girl's cheek. She fought the guards who pinned down her hands and feet tirelessly, but they held firm. The creature ripped off her pallid pea colored dress, yanking at the garments covering her body until he saw only flesh. Each spindly dagger of a finger traced the curves of her body, her skin splitting and spilling its contents. Her screams filled the great hall, shattering any facade of a formal dinner we might have been holding onto only minutes before.
I watched every second of the Attor peeling away the human girl, dissecting her alive, and I thought about my own scars - the ones Eris never spoke of in the quiet of our bed, the ones Rhys looked for every time he came near.
And I wondered if Tamlin would have watched me with the same belligerent disinterest when I had first been brought before Amarantha.