فصل 12

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CHAPTER

12

Feyre

“What the hell is that?”

Cassian was grinning the next evening as he waved a hand toward the pile of pine boughs dumped on the ornate red rug in the center of the foyer. “Solstice decorations. Straight from the market.”

Snow clung to his broad shoulders and dark hair, and his tan cheeks were flushed with cold. “You call that a decoration?”

He smirked. “A heap of pine in the middle of the floor is Night Court tradition.”

I crossed my arms. “Funny.”

“I’m serious.” I glared, and he laughed. “It’s for the mantels, the banister, and whatever else, smartass. Want to help?” He shrugged off his heavy coat, revealing a black jacket and shirt beneath, and hung it in the hall closet. I remained where I was and tapped my foot.

“What?” he said, brows rising. It was rare to see Cassian in anything but his Illyrian leathers, but the clothes, while not as fine as anything Rhys or Mor usually favored, suited him.

“Dumping a bunch of trees at my feet is really how you say hello these days? A little time in that Illyrian camp and you forget all your manners.”

Cassian was on me in a second, hoisting me off the ground to twirl me until I was going to be sick. I beat at his chest, cursing at him.

Cassian set me down at last. “What’d you get me for Solstice?”

I smacked his arm. “A heaping pile of shut the hell up.” He laughed again, and I winked at him. “Hot cocoa or wine?”

Cassian curved a wing around me, turning us toward the cellar door. “How many good bottles does little Rhysie have left?”

We drank two of them before Azriel arrived, took one look at our drunken attempts at decorating, and set about fixing it before anyone else could see the mess we’d made.

Lounging on a couch before the birch fire in the living room, we grinned like devils as the shadowsinger straightened the wreaths and garlands we’d chucked over things, swept up pine needles we’d scattered over the carpets, and generally shook his head at everything.

“Az, relax for a minute,” Cassian drawled, waving a hand. “Have some wine. Cookies.”

“Take off your coat,” I added, pointing the bottle toward the shadowsinger, who hadn’t even bothered to do so before fixing our mess.

Azriel straightened a sagging section of garland over the windowsill. “It’s almost like you two tried to make it as ugly as possible.”

Cassian clutched at his heart. “We take offense to that.”

Azriel sighed at the ceiling.

“Poor Az,” I said, pouring myself another glass. “Wine will make you feel better.”

He glared at me, then the bottle, then Cassian … and finally stormed across the room, took the bottle from my hand, and chugged the rest. Cassian grinned with delight.

Mostly because Rhys drawled from the doorway, “Well, at least now I know who’s drinking all my good wine. Want another one, Az?”

Azriel nearly spewed the wine into the fire, but made himself swallow and turn, red-faced, to Rhys. “I would like to explain—”

Rhys laughed, the rich sound bouncing off the carved oak moldings of the room. “Five centuries, and you think I don’t know that if my wine’s gone, Cassian’s usually behind it?”

Cassian raised his glass in a salute.

Rhys surveyed the room and chuckled. “I can tell exactly which ones you two did, and which ones Azriel tried to fix before I got here.” Azriel was indeed now rubbing his temple. Rhys lifted a brow at me. “I expected better from an artist.”

I stuck out my tongue at him.

A heartbeat later, he said in my mind, Save that tongue for later. I have ideas for it.

My toes curled in their thick, high socks.

“It’s cold as hell!” Mor called from the front hall, startling me from the warmth pooling in my core. “And who the hell let Cassian and Feyre decorate?”

Azriel choked on what I could have sworn was a laugh, his normally shadowed face lighting up as Mor bustled in, pink with cold and puffing air into her hands. She, however, scowled. “You two couldn’t wait until I got here to break into the good wine?”

I grinned as Cassian said, “We were just getting started on Rhys’s collection.”

Rhys scratched his head. “It is there for anyone to drink, you know. Help yourself to whatever you want.”

“Dangerous words, Rhysand,” Amren warned, strutting through the door, nearly swallowed up by the enormous white fur coat she wore. Only her chin-length dark hair and solid silver eyes were visible above the collar. She looked—

“You look like an angry snowball,” Cassian said.

I clamped my lips together to keep the laugh in. Laughing at Amren wasn’t a wise move. Even now, with her powers mostly gone and permanently in a High Fae body.

The angry snowball narrowed her eyes at him. “Careful, boy. Wouldn’t want to start a war you can’t win.” She unbuttoned the collar so we all heard her clearly as she purred, “Especially with Nesta Archeron coming for Solstice in two days.”

I felt the ripple that went through them—between Cassian, and Mor, and Azriel. Felt the pure temper that rumbled from Cassian, all half-drunk merriness suddenly gone. He said in a low voice, “Shut it, Amren.”

Mor was watching closely enough that it was hard not to stare. I glanced at Rhys instead, but a contemplative look had overtaken his face.

Amren merely grinned, those red lips spreading wide enough to show most of her white teeth as she stalked toward the front hall closet and said over a shoulder, “I’m going to enjoy seeing her shred into you. That’s if she shows up sober.”

And that was enough. Rhys seemed to arrive at the same idea, but before he could say something, I cut in, “Leave Nesta out of it, Amren.”

Amren gave me what might have been considered an apologetic glance. But she merely declared, shoving her enormous coat into the closet, “Varian’s coming, so deal with it.”

Elain was in the kitchen, helping Nuala and Cerridwen prepare the evening meal. Even with Solstice two nights away, everyone had descended upon the town house.

Except one.

“Any word from Nesta?” I said to my sister by way of greeting.

Elain straightened from the piping-hot loaves of bread she’d hauled from the oven, her hair half up, the apron over her rose-pink gown dusted with flour. She blinked, her large brown eyes clear. “No. I told her to join us tonight, and to let me know when she’d decided. I didn’t hear back.”

She waved a dishcloth over the bread to cool it slightly, then lifted a loaf to tap the bottom. A hollow sound thumped back, answer enough for her.

“Do you think it’s worth fetching her?”

Elain slung the dishcloth over her slim shoulder, rolling her sleeves up to the elbow. Her skin had gained color these months—at least, before the cold weather had set in. Her face had filled in, too. “Are you asking me that as her sister, or as a seer?”

I kept my face calm, pleasant, and leaned against the worktable.

Elain had not mentioned any further visions. And we had not asked her to use her gifts. Whether they still existed, with the Cauldron’s destruction and then re-forming, I didn’t know. Didn’t want to ask.

“You know Nesta best,” I answered carefully. “I thought you’d like to weigh in.”

“If Nesta doesn’t want to be here tonight, then it’s more trouble than it’s worth to bring her in.”

Elain’s voice was colder than usual. I glanced at Nuala and Cerridwen, the latter giving me a shake of her head as if to say, Not a good day for her.

Like the rest of us, Elain’s recovery was ongoing. She’d wept for hours the day I’d taken her to a wildflower-covered hill on the outskirts of the city—to the marble headstone I’d had erected there in honor of our father.

I’d turned his body to ashes after the King of Hybern had killed him, but he still deserved a resting place. For all he’d done in the end, he deserved the beautiful stone I’d had carved with his name. And Elain had deserved a place to visit with him, talk with him.

She went at least once a month.

Nesta had never been at all. Had ignored my invitation to come with us that first day. And every time afterward.

I took up a spot beside Elain, grabbing a knife from the other side of the table to begin cutting the bread. Down the hall, the sounds of my family echoed toward us, Mor’s bright laughter ringing out above Cassian’s rumble.

I waited until I had a stack of steaming slices before I said, “Nesta is still a part of this family.”

“Is she?” Elain sawed deep into the next loaf. “She certainly doesn’t act like it.”

I hid my frown. “Did something happen when you saw her today?”

Elain didn’t answer. She just kept slicing the bread.

So I continued as well. I didn’t appreciate when other people pushed me to speak. I’d grant her that same courtesy, too.

In silence, we worked, then set about filling the platters with the food Nuala and Cerridwen signaled was ready, their shadows veiling them more than usual. To grant us some sense of privacy. I threw them a look of gratitude, but they both shook their heads. No thanks necessary. They’d spent more time with Elain than even I had. They understood her moods, what she sometimes needed.

It was only when Elain and I were hauling the first of the serving dishes down the hall toward the dining room that she spoke. “Nesta said she didn’t want to come to Solstice.”

“That’s fine.” Even though something in my chest twisted a bit.

“She said she didn’t want to come to anything. Ever.”

I paused, scanning the pain and fear now shining in Elain’s eyes. “Did she say why?”

“No.” Anger—there was anger in Elain’s face, too. “She just said … She said that we have our lives, and she has hers.”

To say that to me, fine. But to Elain?

I blew out a breath, my stomach gurgling at the platter of slow-roasted chicken I held between my hands, the scent of sage and lemon filling my nose. “I’ll talk to her.”

“Don’t,” Elain said flatly, starting once more into a walk, veils of steam drifting past her shoulders from the roasted rosemary potatoes in her hands, as if they were Azriel’s shadows. “She won’t listen.”

Like hell she wouldn’t.

“And you?” I made myself say. “Are you—all right?”

Elain looked over a shoulder at me as we entered the foyer, then turned left—to the dining room. In the sitting room across the way, all conversation halted at the smell of food. “Why wouldn’t I be all right?” she asked, a smile lighting up her face.

I’d seen those smiles before. On my own damn face.

But the others came barreling in from the sitting room, Cassian kissing Elain’s cheek in greeting before he nearly lifted her out of the way to get to the dining table. Amren came next, giving my sister a nod, her ruby necklace sparkling in the faelights speckled throughout the garlands in the hall. Then Mor, with a smacking kiss for either cheek. Then Rhys, shaking his head at Cassian, who began helping himself to the platters Nuala and Cerridwen winnowed in. As Elain lived here, my mate gave her only a smile of greeting before taking up his seat at Cassian’s right.

Azriel emerged from the sitting room, a glass of wine in hand and wings tucked back to reveal his fine, yet simple black jacket and pants.

I felt, more than saw, my sister go still as he approached. Her throat bobbed.

“Are you just going to hold that chicken all night?” Cassian asked me from the table.

Scowling, I stomped toward him, plunking the platter onto the wooden surface. “I spat in it,” I said sweetly.

“Makes it all the more delicious,” Cassian crooned, smiling right back. Rhys snickered, drinking deeply from his wine.

But I strode to my seat—nestled between Amren and Mor—in time to see Elain say to Azriel, “Hello.”

Az said nothing.

No, he just moved toward her.

Mor tensed beside me.

But Azriel only took Elain’s heavy dish of potatoes from her hands, his voice soft as night as he said, “Sit. I’ll take care of it.”

Elain’s hands remained in midair, as if the ghost of the dish remained between them. With a blink, she lowered them, and noticed her apron. “I—I’ll be right back,” she murmured, and hurried down the hall before I could explain that no one cared if she showed up to dinner covered in flour and that she should just sit.

Azriel set the potatoes in the center of the table, Cassian diving right in. Or he tried to.

One moment, his hand was spearing toward the serving spoon. The next, it was stopped, Azriel’s scarred fingers wrapped around his wrist. “Wait,” Azriel said, nothing but command in his voice.

Mor gaped wide enough that I was certain the half-chewed green beans in her mouth were going to tumble onto her plate. Amren just smirked over the rim of her wineglass.

Cassian gawked at him. “Wait for what? Gravy?”

Azriel didn’t let go. “Wait until everyone is seated before eating.”

“Pig,” Mor supplied.

Cassian gave a pointed look to the plate of green beans, chicken, bread, and ham already half eaten on Mor’s plate. But he relaxed his hand, leaning back in his chair. “I never knew you were a stickler for manners, Az.”

Azriel only released Cassian’s hand, and stared at his wineglass.

Elain swept in, apron gone and hair rebraided. “Please don’t wait on my account,” she said, taking the seat at the head of the table.

Cassian glared at Azriel. Az pointedly ignored him.

But Cassian waited until Elain had filled her plate before he took another scoop of anything. As did the others.

I met Rhys’s stare across the table. What was that about?

Rhys sliced into his glazed ham in smooth, skilled strokes. It had nothing to do with Cassian.

Oh?

Rhys took a bite, gesturing with his knife for me to eat. Let’s just say it hit a little close to home. At my beat of confusion, he added, There are some scars when it comes to how his mother was treated. Many scars.

His mother, who had been a servant—near-slave—when he was born. And afterward. None of us bother to wait for everyone to sit, least of all Cassian.

It can strike at odd times.

I did my best not to look toward the shadowsinger. I see.

Turning to Amren, I studied her plate. Small portions of everything. “Still getting used to it?”

Amren grunted, rolling around her roasted, honeyed carrots. “Blood tastes better.”

Mor and Cassian choked.

“And it didn’t take so much time to consume,” Amren groused, lifting the teensiest scrap of roast chicken to her red-painted lips.

Small, slow meals for Amren. The first normal meal she’d eaten after returning—a bowl of lentil soup—had made her vomit for an hour. So it had been a gradual adjustment. She still couldn’t dive into a meal the way the rest of us were prone to. Whether it was wholly physical or perhaps some sort of personal adjustment period, none of us knew.

“And then there are the other unpleasant results of eating,” Amren went on, slicing her carrots into tiny slivers.

Azriel and Cassian swapped a glance, then both seemed to find their plates very interesting. Even as smiles tugged on their faces.

Elain asked, “What sort of results?”

“Don’t answer that,” Rhys said smoothly, pointing to Amren with his fork.

Amren hissed at him, her dark hair swaying like a curtain of liquid night, “Do you know what an inconvenience it is to need to find a place to relieve myself everywhere I go?”

A fizzing noise came from Cassian’s side of the table, but I clamped my lips together. Mor gripped my knee beneath the table, her body shaking with the effort of keeping her laugh reined in.

Rhys drawled to Amren, “Shall we start building public toilets for you throughout Velaris, Amren?”

“I mean it, Rhysand,” Amren snapped. I didn’t dare meet Mor’s stare. Or Cassian’s. One look and I’d completely dissolve. Amren waved a hand down at herself. “I should have selected a male form. At least you can whip it out and go wherever you like without having to worry about spilling on—”

Cassian lost it. Then Mor. Then me. And even Az, chuckling faintly.

“You really don’t know how to pee?” Mor roared. “After all this time?”

Amren seethed. “I’ve seen animals—”

“Tell me you know how a toilet works,” Cassian burst out, slapping a broad hand on the table. “Tell me you know that much.”

I clapped a hand over my mouth, as if it would push the laugh back in. Across the table, Rhys’s eyes were brighter than stars, his mouth a quivering line as he tried and failed to remain serious.

“I know how to sit on a toilet,” Amren growled.

Mor opened her mouth, laughter dancing on her face, but Elain asked, “Could you have done it? Decided to take a male form?”

The question cut through the laughter, an arrow fired between us.

Amren studied my sister, Elain’s cheeks red from our unfiltered talk at the table. “Yes,” she said simply. “Before, in my other form, I was neither. I simply was.”

“Then why did you pick this body?” Elain asked, the faelight of the chandelier catching in the ripples of her golden-brown braid.

“I was more drawn to the female form,” Amren answered simply. “I thought it was more symmetrical. It pleased me.”

Mor frowned down at her own form, ogling her considerable assets. “True.”

Cassian snickered.

Elain asked, “And once you were in this body, you couldn’t change?”

Amren’s eyes narrowed slightly. I straightened, glancing between them. Unusual, yes, for Elain to be so vocal, but she’d been improving. Most days, she was lucid—perhaps quiet and prone to melancholy, but aware.

Elain, to my surprise, held Amren’s gaze.

Amren said after a moment, “Are you asking out of curiosity for my past, or your own future?”

The question left me too stunned to even reprimand Amren. The others, too.

Elain’s brow furrowed before I could leap in. “What do you mean?”

“There’s no going back to being human, girl,” Amren said, perhaps a tad gently.

“Amren,” I warned.

Elain’s face reddened further, her back straightening. But she didn’t bolt. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” I’d never heard Elain’s voice so cold.

I glanced at the others. Rhys was frowning, Cassian and Mor were both grimacing, and Azriel … It was pity on his beautiful face. Pity and sorrow as he watched my sister.

Elain hadn’t mentioned being Made, or the Cauldron, or Graysen in months. I’d assumed that perhaps she was becoming accustomed to being High Fae, that she’d perhaps begun to let go of that mortal life.

“Amren, you have a spectacular gift for ruining dinner conversation,” Rhys said, swirling his wine. “I wonder if you could make a career out of it.”

His Second glared at him. But Rhys held her stare, silent warning in his face.

Thank you, I said down the bond. A warm caress echoed in answer.

“Pick on someone your own size,” Cassian said to Amren, shoveling roast chicken into his mouth.

“I’d feel bad for the mice,” Azriel muttered.

Mor and Cassian howled, earning a blush from Azriel and a grateful smile from Elain—and no shortage of scowling from Amren.

But something in me eased at that laughter, at the light that returned to Elain’s eyes.

A light I wouldn’t see dimmed further.

I need to go out after dinner, I said to Rhys as I dug into my meal again. Care for a flight across the city?

Nesta didn’t open her door.

I knocked for perhaps a good two minutes, scowling at the dim wooden hallway of the ramshackle building that she’d chosen to live in, then sent a tether of magic through the apartment beyond.

Rhys had erected wards around the entire thing, and with our magic, our souls’ bond, there was no resistance to the thread of power I unspooled through the door and into the apartment itself.

Nothing. No sign of life or—or worse beyond.

She wasn’t at home.

I had a good idea of where she’d be.

Winnowing into the freezing street, I pinwheeled my arms to keep upright as my boots slid on the ice coating the stones.

Leaning against a lamppost, faelight gilding the talons atop his wings, Rhys chuckled. And didn’t move an inch.

“Asshole,” I muttered. “Most males would help their mates if they’re about to break their heads on the ice.”

He pushed off the lamppost and prowled toward me, every movement smooth and unhurried. Even now, I’d gladly spend hours just watching him.

“I have a feeling that if I had stepped in, you would have bitten my head off for being an overbearing mother hen, as you called me.”

I grumbled an answer he chose not to hear.

“Not at home, then?”

I grumbled again.

“Well, that leaves precisely ten other places where she could be.”

I grimaced.

Rhys asked, “Do you want me to look?”

Not physically, but use his power to find Nesta. I hadn’t wanted him to do it earlier, since it felt like some sort of violation of privacy, but given how damned cold it was … “Fine.”

Rhys wrapped his arms, then his wings around me, tucking me into his heat as he murmured onto my hair, “Hold on.”

Darkness and wind tumbled around us, and I buried my face in his chest, breathing in the scent of him.

Then laughter and singing, music blaring, the tangy smell of stale ale, the bite of cold—

I groaned as I beheld where he’d winnowed us, where he’d detected my sister.

“There are wine rooms in this city,” Rhys said, cringing. “There are concert halls. Fine restaurants. Pleasure clubs. And yet your sister …”

And yet my sister managed to find the seediest, most miserable taverns in Velaris. There weren’t many. But she patronized all of them. And this one—the Wolf’s Den—was by far the worst.

“Wait here,” I said over the fiddles and drums spilling from the tavern as I pulled out of his embrace. Down the street, a few drunk revelers spotted us and fell silent. Felt Rhys’s power, perhaps my own as well, and found somewhere else to be for a while.

I had no doubt the same would happen in the tavern, and had no doubt Nesta would resent us for ruining her night. At least I could slip inside mostly unnoticed. If both of us went in there, I knew my sister would see it as an attack.

So it would be me. Alone.

Rhys kissed my brow. “If someone propositions you, tell them we’ll both be free in an hour.”

“Och.” I waved him off, banking my powers to a near-whisper within me.

He blew me a kiss.

I waved that away, too, and slipped through the tavern door.

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