Six months later.
I caught my breath, my body wrapped around Aeron’s. I nestled my head into the crook of his throat, inhaling the perfumed scent of the bath. Steam from the bathwater curled into the air, caught in the light from the window.
We’d moved into a new house not far from the castle, with windows overlooking Faerie’s new gardens. Not overlooking the castle. I hated the castle, and I never wanted to see it again.
Beneath our window, roses grew along pebbled paths, and apple trees spread out in rows toward the forest. From here, I had a view of a breeze rustling the sunlit trees.
Aeron rose from the bath, water streaming down his finely cut body in rivulets. I’d never get sick of looking at him naked.
“You still haven’t taken me to your dive bar, Shalini,” he said. “Remember? You wanted to take me for chili dogs.”
I rose from the bath and drained the water. “Well, maybe we don’t need to go back to the Golden Shamrock. Now we’ve got Chloe’s.”
I grabbed a towel. Tonight would be the opening night of Ava’s new cocktail bar—a first for Faerie.
Aeron dried his damp hair. “Doesn’t it seem odd for the future Unseelie queen to open a tavern? In the castle, no less?”
I dried off my limbs, trying not to envision the icy castle walls or the icicles hanging from the iron bars in the cage where I’d been sure I would die.
I found myself staring out the window.
As if reading my thoughts, Aeron asked, “Will you be all right, Shalini, going back there?”
I nodded. “I think so. I can’t miss her opening night. It’s always been Ava’s dream.”
“To be a tavern wench.”
I rolled my eyes, stepping out into our bedroom. Tonight was the first night of many that Ava would be hosting, hundreds invited at a time, until everyone would have the chance to be wined and dined by the future queen.
“I don’t think it will be like a human bar. The idea, I think, is that it will be a way of inviting ordinary Seelie into the castle, to give them food and drink. It’s to make them feel like part of its history. She’s doing it for the people you called the common fae. The people Moria called ‘peasants.’”
“I see.” He strode into our room and pulled open his wardrobe.
“Ordinary fae without magic are the majority of your kingdom, and that’s who she wants to impress. They’ve never been invited into the home of royalty like that before, have they? Unless it was as a soldier or servant. It’s brilliant, really. And she has a lot of work to do if she wants Faerie to accept a queen with wings and horns.”
“It does make sense. I just never would have thought of it. Our traditions are changing so rapidly here, it’s hard to keep up.” He smiled at me, droplets of water glistening on his skin, and kissed me on the forehead. “And that’s a good thing, really, or I’d still be bound by my stupid oath of chastity.”
My gaze flicked up the castle walls, and I felt my chest tightening. In the echoes of my thoughts, I heard the dragon’s roar.
Since I hadn’t gone near the castle in months, I had no idea what I’d be walking into. I felt amazing, sure, in my pale gold gown with a slit up my thigh, but inside, I felt like I couldn’t quite breathe. Dressed in a dark velvety suit, Aeron looped his arm through mine and stroked his hand over my forearm. “I’ll be with you, love.”
Thank the gods for Aeron.
Torches lit the path outside the castle, and I followed a line of guests inside, most of them in ballgowns or velvety formal suits like Aeron’s.
We entered the castle. Torches on the walls lit the way, casting warm, dancing light over the stones and arches. As we walked through the hall, I swallowed hard, trying to banish the memory of being dragged in here, chained. I still hated it here.
But tonight, the whole place seemed transformed, and it helped me to relax a little. Blooming flowers snaked over the walls, and the air smelled alive with flowers.
Stewards guided us to an enormous, vaulted doorway with the name Chloe carved in the stone, surrounded by etchings of vines.
Arm in arm with Aeron, I crossed through the doorway into a hall that was half stone, half open to the night sky. My breath caught as I surveyed the scene.
Red-tipped vines of indigo blue climbed stone columns and walls, and they flickered with tiny white lights. At the top of dark columns, fires burned like bright licks of volcanic flames against the night sky. Music floated through the air, and servants brought around trays with food and flutes of colored drinks. One of these nights, they’d be here as guests, too.
From across the hall, Ava caught my eye. She hurried over to me, a grin lighting up her face. Her skin glowed. “You both look amazing. Shalini, I’m so happy tonight.”
“Ava.” I clapped my hand to my chest. “This is much, much nicer than the Golden Shamrock.”
She gave me a wicked smile. “But I am introducing them to chili dogs and nachos, and they love them. They think they’re very sophisticated.” She leaned in, whispering. “Don’t tell anyone they’re vegetarian.”
I arched an eyebrow, whispering, “Since when did you become vegetarian?”
She shrugged. “It’s an Unseelie thing.”
Aeron plucked two amber cocktails off a tray and handed me one. “So this isn’t really a tavern, then. You’re not charging for any of this.”
Her eyes widened. “No. We don’t need the money. I just want people to have fun here for once. Also, honestly, I want them to accept me. And what is the best way to get people to like you?”
I nodded, raising my cocktail. “Free drinks.”
Torin sauntered over to us, his hands in his pockets. He was beaming with pride over Ava’s efforts.
Ava smiled. “That’s how I ended up kissing Threesome Steve the night we met Torin. He bought me a margarita pitcher.”
I narrowed my eyes. “I don’t think that’s quite what you’re going for here, though, is it? Because that was creepier.”
Torin pressed a finger to his lips, frowning. “Can we go back a moment to what you just said, Ava?”
Ava waved a hand. “The past is the past, and we are here to have fun. That is what the Unseelie do, right? We will dance and drink and love each other until our dying breath.”
The word dying rang in my thoughts for a bit too long, but I inhaled and took in the faces of my beautiful friends. A fragrant wind slipped over us.
Nightmares still plagued me—the feel of the cold gnawing at my skin and the certainty that I would die. The dragon’s roar and the scorching heat of its fire.
Sometimes, I still felt haunted by the memory of frozen ghosts twisting outside my windows.
But I was here now, arm in arm among the people I loved. With them around me, winter had started to recede again, the terror thawing—just as it had in Faerie.