“I would never.” She pushed the pillows behind her, making a pile she could lean against. Her damp hair adhered to her neck and shoulders, long locks of pale wet gold.
Her eyes were red-rimmed, as if she’d been crying. Emma rarely cried. He realized her chatter since she’d come into the bedroom was false cheer, something he ought to have known—he, who knew Emma better than anyone.
“Em,” he said, unable to help himself, or the gentleness in his voice. “Are you all right? What happened at the Unseelie Court—”
“I just feel so stupid,” she said, the bravado draining from her voice. Under the artifice was Emma, his Emma, with all her force and intelligence and bravery. Emma, sounding shattered. “I know faeries play tricks. I know they lie without lying. And yet the phouka said to me—he said if I came into Faerie, I would see the face of someone I had loved and lost.”
“Very Fair Folk,” said Julian. “You saw his face, your father’s face, but it wasn’t him. It was an illusion.”
“It was like I couldn’t process it,” she said. “My whole mind was clouded. All I could think was that I had my father back.”
“Your mind probably was clouded,” said Julian. “There are all sorts of subtle enchantments that can blur your thoughts here. And it happened so quickly. I didn’t suspect it was an illusion either. I’ve never heard of one so strong.”
She didn’t say anything. She was leaning back on her hands, her body outlined by the white gown. He felt a flash of almost-pain as if there were a key embedded under his flesh, tightening his skin every time it was turned. Memories attacked his mind ruthlessly—what it was like to slide his hands over her body, the way her teeth felt against his lower lip. The arch of her body fitting into the arch of his: a double crescent, an unraveled infinity sign.
He’d always thought desire was meant to be a pleasurable feeling. He’d never thought it could cut like this, like razors under his skin. He’d thought before that night on the beach with Emma that he wanted her more than anyone had ever wanted. He’d thought the wanting might kill him. But now he knew imagination was a pale thing. That even when it bled from him in the form of paint on canvas, it couldn’t capture the richness of her skin on his, the sweet-hot taste of her mouth. Wanting wouldn’t kill him, he thought, but knowing what he was missing might.
He dug his fingernails into his palms, hard. Unfortunately, he’d bitten them down too far to do much damage.
“Seeing that thing turn out not to be my father—it made me realize how much of my life was an illusion,” Emma said. “I spent so much time looking for revenge, but finding it didn’t make me happy. Cameron didn’t make me happy. I thought all these things would make me happy, but it was all an illusion.” She turned toward him, her eyes wide and impossibly dark. “You’re one of the only real things in my life, Julian.”
He could feel his heart beating through his body. Every other emotion—his jealousy of Mark, the pain of separation from Emma, his worry for the children, his fear of what the Seelie Court held for them—faded. Emma was looking at him and her cheeks were flushed and her lips were parted and if she leaned toward him, if she wanted him at all, he would give up and break down and apart. Even if it meant betraying his brother, he would do it. He would pull her toward him and bury himself in her, in her hair and her skin and her body.
It would be a thing he would remember later with agony that felt like white-hot knives. It would be a further reminder of everything he could never really have. And he would hate himself for hurting Mark. But none of that would stop him. He knew how far his willpower went, and he had reached its limit. Already his body was shaking, his breath quickening. He had only to reach out—
“I want to be parabatai again,” she said. “The way we were before.”
The words exploded like a blow inside his head. She didn’t want him; she wanted to be parabatai, and that was it. He’d been sitting there thinking of what he wanted and how much pain he could take, but it didn’t matter if she didn’t want him. How had he been so stupid?
He spoke evenly. “We’ll always be parabatai, Emma. It’s for life.”
“It’s been weird ever since we—ever since I started dating Mark,” she said, holding his gaze with her own. “But it’s not because of Mark. It’s because of us. What we did.”
“We’ll be fine,” he said. “There’s no rule book for this, no guidance. But we don’t want to hurt each other, so we won’t.”
“There’ve been parabatai in the past who started hating each other. Think of Lucian Graymark and Valentine Morgenstern.”
“That won’t happen to us. We chose each other when we were children. We chose each other again when we were fourteen. I chose you, and you chose me. That’s what the parabatai ceremony is, really, isn’t it? It’s a way of sealing that promise. The one that says that I will always choose you.”
She leaned against his arm, just the lightest touch of her shoulder against his, but it lit up his body like fireworks over the Santa Monica Pier. “Jules?”
He nodded, not trusting himself to speak.
“I will always choose you, too,” she said, and, laying her head on his shoulder, shut her eyes.
Cristina woke out of an uneasy sleep with a start. The room was dim; she was curled on the foot of the bed, her legs drawn up under her. Kieran was sleeping a drugged sleep propped against pillows, and Mark was on the floor, tangled in blankets.
Two hours, Nene had said. She had to check on Kieran every two hours. She looked again at Mark, decided she couldn’t wake him, sighed, and rose to a sitting position, edging up the bed toward the faerie prince.
Many people looked calm in their sleep, but not Kieran. He was breathing hard, eyes darting back and forth behind his eyelids. His hands moved restlessly over the bedcovers. Still, he did not wake when she leaned forward to push up the back of his shirt with awkward fingers.
His skin was fever-hot. He was achingly lovely so close, though: His long cheekbones matched his long eyes, their thick lashes feathering down, his hair a deep blue-black.
She quickly changed out the poultice; the old one was half-soaked with blood. As she leaned forward to pull his shirt back down, a hand clamped around her wrist like a vise.
Black and silver eyes gazed up at her. His lips moved; they were chapped and dry.
“Water?” he whispered.
Somehow, one-handedly, she managed to pour water from a pitcher on the nightstand into a pewter cup and give it to him. He drank it without letting go of her.
“Maybe you do not remember me,” she said. “I am Cristina.”
He put the cup down and stared at her. “I know who you are,” he said, after a moment. “I thought—but no. We are in the Seelie Court.”
“Yes,” she said. “Mark is asleep,” she added, in case he was worried.
But his mind seemed far away. “I thought I would die this night,” he said. “I was prepared for it. I was ready.”
“Things do not always happen when we think they will,” Cristina said. It didn’t seem that convincing a remark to her, but Kieran appeared comforted. Exhaustion was sweeping over his face, like a curtain sliding across a window.
His grip tightened on her. “Stay with me,” he said.
Jolted by surprise, she would have replied—perhaps even refused—but she did not get the chance. He was already asleep.
Julian lay awake.
He wanted to sleep; exhaustion felt as if it had soaked into his bones. But the room was full of dim light and Emma was maddeningly close to him. He could feel the heat from her body as she slept. She had pushed away part of the bedspread that covered her, and he could see her bare shoulder where the dress she wore had slipped down, and the shape of the parabatai rune on her arm.