One of them ran a hand down my side, its bony fingers digging into my ribs, my hips. I jerked back, only to slam into the third one, who wove his long fingers through my hair and pressed close. No one looked; no one noticed.
“Stop it,” I said, but the words came out in a strangled gasp as they began herding me toward the line of trees, toward the darkness. I pushed and thrashed against them; they only hissed. One of them shoved me and I staggered, falling out of their grasp. The ground welled up beneath me, and I reached for my knives, but sturdy hands grasped me under the shoulders before I could draw them or hit the grass.
They were strong hands—warm and broad. Not at all like the prodding, bony fingers of the three faeries who went utterly still as whoever caught me gently set me upright.
“There you are. I’ve been looking for you,” said a deep, sensual male voice I’d never heard. But I kept my eyes on the three faeries, bracing myself for flight as the male behind me stepped to my side and slipped a casual arm around my shoulders.
The three lesser faeries paled, their dark eyes wide.
“Thank you for finding her for me,” my savior said to them, smooth and polished. “Enjoy the Rite.” There was enough of a bite beneath his last words that the faeries stiffened. Without further comment, they scuttled back to the bonfires.
I stepped out of the shelter of my savior’s arm and turned to thank him.
Standing before me was the most beautiful man I’d ever seen.
Everything about the stranger radiated sensual grace and ease. High Fae, no doubt. His short black hair gleamed like a raven’s feathers, offsetting his pale skin and blue eyes so deep they were violet, even in the firelight. They twinkled with amusement as he beheld me.
For a moment, we said nothing. Thank you didn’t seem to cover what he’d done for me, but something about the way he stood with absolute stillness, the night seeming to press in closer around him, made me hesitate to speak—made me want to run in the other direction.
He, too, wasn’t wearing a mask. From another court, then.
A half smile played on his lips. “What’s a mortal woman doing here on Fire Night?” His voice was a lover’s purr that sent shivers through me, caressing every muscle and bone and nerve.
I took a step back. “My friends brought me.”
The drumming was increasing in tempo, building to a climax I didn’t understand. It had been so long since I’d seen a bare face that looked even vaguely human. His clothes—all black, all finely made—were cut close enough to his body that I could see how magnificent he was. As if he’d been molded from the night itself.
“And who are your friends?” He was still smiling at me—a predator sizing up prey.
“Two ladies,” I lied again.
“Their names?” He prowled closer, slipping his hands into his pockets. I retreated a little more and kept my mouth shut. Had I just traded three monsters for something far worse?
When it became apparent I wouldn’t answer, he chuckled. “You’re welcome,” he said. “For saving you.”
I bristled at his arrogance but retreated another step. I was close enough to the bonfire, to that little hollow where the faeries were all gathered, that I could make it if I sprinted. Maybe someone would take pity on me—maybe Lucien or Alis were there.
“Strange for a mortal to be friends with two faeries,” he mused, and began circling me. I could have sworn tendrils of star-kissed night trailed in his wake. “Aren’t humans usually terrified of us? And aren’t you, for that matter, supposed to keep to your side of the wall?”
I was terrified of him, but I wasn’t about to let him know. “I’ve known them my whole life. I’ve never had anything to fear from them.”
He paused his circling. He now stood between me and the bonfire—and my escape route. “And yet they brought you to the Great Rite and abandoned you.”
“They went to get refreshments,” I said, and his smile grew. Whatever I’d just said had given me away. I’d spotted the servants hauling off the food, but—maybe it wasn’t here.
He smiled for a heartbeat longer. I had never seen anyone so handsome—and never had so many warning bells pealed in my head because of it.
“I’m afraid the refreshments are a long way off,” he said, coming closer now. “It might be a while before they return. May I escort you somewhere in the meantime?” He removed a hand from his pocket to offer his arm.
He’d been able to scare off those faeries without lifting a finger. “No,” I said, my tongue thick and heavy.
He waved his hand toward the hollow—toward the drums. “Enjoy the Rite, then. Try to stay out of trouble.” His eyes gleamed in a way that suggested staying out of trouble meant staying far, far away from him.
Though it might have been the biggest risk I’d ever taken, I blurted, “So you’re not a part of the Spring Court?”
He returned to me, every movement exquisite and laced with lethal power, but I held my ground as he gave me a lazy smile. “Do I look like I’m part of the Spring Court?” The words were tinged with an arrogance that only an immortal could achieve. He laughed under his breath. “No, I’m not a part of the noble Spring Court. And glad of it.” He gestured to his face, where a mask might go.
I should have walked away, should have shut my mouth. “Why are you here, then?”
The man’s remarkable eyes seemed to glow—with enough of a deadly edge that I backed up a step. “Because all the monsters have been let out of their cages tonight, no matter what court they belong to. So I may roam wherever I wish until the dawn.”
More riddles and questions to be answered. But I’d had enough—especially as his smile turned cold and cruel. “Enjoy the Rite,” I repeated as blandly as I could.
I hurried back to the hollow, too aware of the fact that I was putting my back to him. I was grateful to lose myself in the crowd milling along the path to the cave, still waiting for some moment to occur.
When I stopped shaking, I looked around at the gathered faeries. Most of them still wore masks, but there were some, like that lethal stranger and those three horrible faeries, who wore no masks at all—either faeries with no allegiance or members of other courts. I couldn’t tell them apart. As I scanned the crowd, my eyes met with those of a masked faerie across the path. One was russet and shone as brightly as his red hair. The other was—metal. I blinked at the same moment he did, and then his eyes went wide. He vanished into nothing, and a second later, someone grabbed my elbow and yanked me out of the crowd.