I lay entangled in Torin’s sheets and took a deep, shuddering breath. I’d been asleep a few hours, I think, and I’d dreamed of Torin jumping in front of the sword. I’d dreamed of my fall from the tower, but with wings that never burst from my back. And then I’d dreamed of Moria, her body dangling limply from that vine, the blood spilling out beneath her.
I shuddered, bringing my gaze to the sun-drenched glass ceiling above Torin’s bed. Apricot light streamed through the leaves of the tree in his room, dappling everything with coral.
It was all over now, wasn’t it?
At least, I hoped it was. Worry scratched the surface of my thoughts. I still had no idea where Shalini had been when the wave hit. My throat felt tight.
I rose, my gaze sweeping over the apple tree that grew in the center of his room. Torin had carried me in here, and he’d told me to eat as many apples as I’d wanted. Instead, I’d simply fallen into a deep sleep tormented by nightmares.
I plucked a cherry-red apple from the tree and bit into it. The taste exploded on my tongue. Gods, this was heaven. Torin said he thought the tree had been dead until we’d killed Modron.
I crawled back into his bed, eating my way through the apple. When my gaze flicked up to the glass ceiling, my heart jolted with joy at the sight of the sunset once more. I’d never seen it this gorgeous in Faerie.
As I was finishing my apple, Torin opened the door to his room, flashing me a lopsided smile as he took off his shoes. “You’re awake.”
My pulse raced. “Did you find Shalini and Orla?”
“Both of them, in fact. And Aeron. He was leading them to a cabin in the woods when the flood hit, but they were within the boundary of our walls.”
I exhaled a long breath. “Are they okay?”
He slid into the bed next to me, sunlight washing over him from above. “They will be, but Moria hung them in cages. They need time to recover.”
My eyes widened, cold fury crackling through my chest. “Shalini, too? What the fuck did Shalini ever do to anyone?”
“Nothing, of course. It’s just that she was your friend, and thus a demon lover.”
I supposed it was a good thing the person I wanted to murder was already dead. Saved me the effort. “And she’s fine?”
“She had some frostbite, but I healed it. In a way, she seems better than Orla. Orla was in the cage longer, I think. She seems very rattled by the whole thing.” He ran a hand through his hair. “She keeps talking about the cold like she can’t get warm.”
I shuddered, shadows flitting through my thoughts. “It must have been horrible. Can I see Shalini?”
“She’s sleeping, but soon. Of course.” He slid into the bed next to me. Sunlight slanted in through his ceiling, lighting up his features with dabs of gold.
I turned to lay on Torin’s chest, and he stroked a finger down my lower back. I licked my lips, and they tasted of sweet, tangy apples. Light warmed my skin, and I felt as if I fed off it, just like trees.
My muscles throbbed with exhaustion. After I’d burned all the power from my body, strength was slowly seeping back into my limbs. Still, I wanted to sleep for days, wrapped in Torin’s arms.
I traced my fingertips over the red scar at his throat. “See? I’m still alive.” I arched an eyebrow. “No curse.”
“I still don’t understand.” He caught my finger in his hand. “How were you so certain?”
I hadn’t been one hundred percent certain, but I didn’t need to mention that now.
I turned onto my back and nestled in the crook of his arm. “Mab told me several times that what she wanted was her heirs on the throne of Faerie. With us, she could get that.” My mouth curved in a smile as I felt Torin’s heart against my arm. For so long, I’d thought he was dead. I’d never take the feeling of his beating heart for granted.
“Yes…but why torture us, then?”
I sighed. “Everything that happened there was a test. First, they wanted to see if I’d come as a spy. But really, what she wanted to know was whether you loved me, and if I was strong enough to be queen. You broke me out of the cell, and that suggested you cared about me. When they captured us again, they wanted to know if you loved me enough to make me queen. She issued the most horrific threats to castrate you if you came to see me. And you did it anyway. She could have stopped that from happening, I’m sure. She could have put us on opposite sides of the castle, guarded. But that was part of the test. She wanted to know if you’d risk your own life. Because if you would do that for me, maybe I could end up on the throne of Faerie. Even as an Unseelie, horns and all.”
He arched an eyebrow. “The fight was to see if I would sacrifice myself for you. Did she care if you loved me?”
I nodded slowly. “I think she did, because they kept telling me the strength of Unseelie magic came from the pain of love. Maybe from the desperate anxiety of needing to keep loved ones safe. She wanted me to be strong. Without magic, without my wings, I wouldn’t be a Dark Cromm queen. So, the next test was whether I was strong enough to be her heir, strong enough to take down my enemies, like we did today.”
“Love,” he said doubtfully. “Their version of love is twisted.”
“It’s not the gentle, comforting kind of love. They worship the ash goddess. Their love is a forge that burns them and everyone around them. It’s the kind of love that makes a mother throw her child off the side of a castle to see if she can fly.”
“Is that love?” Torin sounded disbelieving. “It sounds like Moria’s father putting her outside in a cage to make her strong.”
“Maybe.” I sat up and stretched my arms over my head. “But she was a little girl, and I’m supposed to be a warrior. I still don’t know if Mab wanted Morgant to fly after me to keep me safe, or if he did that himself. But I suppose nothing there happens without her consent, does it? It all worked out like she hoped, and she took the curse away. Now she can have what she wants, a Dark Cromm heir on the throne of Faerie.”
“You’re not going to convince me to be grateful to her.”
“I wouldn’t dream of it.” A phantom breeze rippled over us, carrying with it the scent of apples. I licked my lips, considering another one. “Those apples are surprisingly addictive, Torin.”
His pale blue eyes lifted to the tree that arched above his room. “Yes. They’re called Blood of the Avon apples. They’re bright red, named after the brutal battle of the Avon River between the Seelie and Unseelie centuries ago. We nearly wiped each other out. The apples hardly ever grew in our kingdom because of the curse. They need exactly the right temperature and sunlight, and the soil must be fed with blood. And if not, they grow up twisted and thorny.”
“Hang on. What?”
He stroked his hand down my hair. “Ava, I think I know why Finvarra banished Modron.”
I blinked, trying to rid myself of the image of Torin carrying a bucket of blood into his bedroom. “Because she was a living nightmare?”
“The legends were that once, the Seelie and Unseelie lived in these lands together. And among them lived a set of twins, old as the earth itself. Cala and Modron. I’ve also heard that King Finvarra had a taste for Unseelie women, and he kept giving his mistresses more favors. More land and titles. I think Modron told everyone his business. Showed them, even, what happened behind the king’s closed doors. So Finvarra banished her, and a war broke out between the two factions.”
“Aren’t you directly related to him?” I asked. “A taste for Unseelie women must run in the blood.”
“I don’t have a taste for Unseelie women. Just you.”
I wrapped my arm around his waist. “Do you think the Seelie will ever accept someone like me?”
“It will take time. Even I’m still shocked at the idea that the Seelie and demons belong together.”
“You’re never going to stop calling me demon, are you?”
“Sorry, changeling.” A fingertip stroked up my horn, sending hot shivers through my body.
“I don’t know if Seelie and demons belong together. But you and I belong together. I’m just not sure your subjects will agree.”
“They will. When everyone understands the curse is gone for good, and that you helped save the kingdom, they won’t care if you have wings or horns. People just want to feed their families and keep them safe. If we give it a few months, they will love you as I do.” His eyes danced in the sunlight, and a wicked smile curled his lips. “Well, not exactly as I do.”
A smile spread over my lips.
When I’d first arrived in this place, I’d thought them all ruthless and powerful as gods. And they were. But a person—even a fae—was like these Blood of Avon trees. They could be delicious and beautiful, even if fed on blood. But if you miss out on important elements that they need to thrive, they grow up twisted and thorny.
I swallowed hard. I’d heard how Moria had been kept in a cage. That Milisandia was the only person who’d ever shown her an ounce of kindness. Once her sister died, the rot began to set in.
I slid my fingertips under Torin’s shirt and skimmed them over his tattoos. It was only this morning—just this morning as dawn broke—that I’d thought to never see him again. Before that, in the dungeon of the Court of Shadows, I’d been certain his heart would never beat again.
And here we were, limbs entwined.
This was where I belonged. Here, in Faerie, the smoke rose from the ruins of an ancient war. Peace reigned, even if nightmares would plague us for a while.
The fae had been tempered in the fires of a mountain goddess to live lives that were wild and incandescent. But we didn’t need bloodshed. The Unseelie lived for duty, the Seelie for pleasure.
And now, I was pretty sure I wanted nothing more than to indulge in the Seelie world.
But as I lay back in his bed, a familiar magic skimmed over my skin, the warm, liquid power I’d felt when my brother had healed me.
I rose from Torin’s bed and crossed to one of his towering windows. Spring had blossomed outside already—within just hours, the snow had melted. The icy walls still stood, but they were fast becoming slush. Green grass spread out from the castle, and a carpet of bluebells strained for the setting sun.
But my breath caught at the sight of two dark-winged figures standing at the edge of the forest, their long shadows slanting over the grass. Twilight, when the worlds thinned…
Morgant and Mab stared at my window, washed in rosy light. My heartbeat sped up, and I felt as if I were looking at ghosts. I stared at them and lifted a hand.
In the distance, my brother waved back.
“What do you think you will do here, as queen?” asked Torin.
I turned back to him, my heart slamming hard. Flat on his back, he threaded his fingers behind his head.
When I glanced outside again, Mab and Morgant had disappeared. My heart clenched, and I breathed out slowly.
“Who says I plan to be queen here?” I asked, my voice shaking.
His lips quirked. “We do technically have a contract.”
I pressed my hands to my chest. “That’s so romantic. You also owe me fifty million, by the way.”
He went very still. “You are staying, aren’t you?”
As if there was any question. I climbed back into the bed next to him, feeling as if I’d just woken from another dream. “I suppose I could open my bar here. Chloe’s? That’s been my whole plan all along, really.”
He brushed his knuckles along my bicep. “The Seelie king and his demon bride.”
“We can get married, but at the wedding, I draw the line at sacrifices. We should fuck around bonfires and in the woods. I was promised this kind of party when I first got here.”
A mischievous smile curled his lips. “At a wedding, changeling? Honestly.”
“A Beltane wedding.” I smiled. “Don’t you remember promising me Beltane? We fuck each other hard up against the oak trees,” I began in my best imitation of his voice, “rending the forest air with the sounds of our ecstasy. When was the last time you forgot your name? That you forgot your own mortality? Because that is what it means to be fae. I could make you ache with pleasure until you forgot the name of every human who ever made you think there was anything wrong with you.”
He stared at me, his dark pupils dilated. The look he was giving me sent a hot electric thrill through me, and the power of his magic caressed my skin. “You remembered that word for word.”
“It’s seared into my memory, and I plan to have it engraved on your tombstone.”
“Are you plotting my death already?”
“Just reminding you of what you promised.”
“Who am I to tell the demon queen no?” He stroked a finger lightly up one of my horns, sending a shudder through me.
He slid his hand into my hair, then pressed his lips against mine, capturing my mouth with his. The kiss started sweet, then deepened into something fiercer, hungrier. Desperate. As if we could sweep away the nightmares of death with the sensual magic of a kiss.
If anyone possessed that kind of magic, I was certain it was my Seelie king.