فصل 14

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CHAPTER

14

Rhysand

Even with workers seldom halting their repairs, the rebuilding was still years from being finished. Especially along the Sidra, where Hybern had hit hardest.

Little more than rubble remained of the once-great estates and homes along the southeastern bend of the river, their gardens overgrown and private boathouses half sunken in the gentle flow of the turquoise waters.

I’d grown up in these houses, attending the parties and feasts that lasted long into the night, spending bright summer days lazing on the sloping lawns, cheering the summer boat races on the Sidra. Their facades had been as familiar as any friend’s face. They’d been built long before I was born. I’d expected them to last long after I was gone.

“You haven’t heard from the families about when they’ll be returning, have you?”

Mor’s question floated to me above the crunch of pale stone beneath our feet as we ambled along the snow-dusted grounds of one such estate.

She’d found me after lunch—a rare, solitary meal these days. With Feyre and Elain out shopping in the city, when my cousin had appeared in the foyer of the town house, I hadn’t hesitated to invite her for a walk.

It had been a long while since Mor and I had walked together.

I wasn’t stupid enough to believe that though the war had ended, all wounds had been healed. Especially between Mor and me.

And I wasn’t stupid enough to delude myself into thinking that I hadn’t put off this walk for a while now—and so had she.

I’d seen her eyes go distant the other night at the Hewn City. Her silence after her initial snarled warning at her father had told me enough about where her mind had drifted.

Another casualty of this war: working with Keir and Eris had dimmed something in my cousin.

Oh, she hid it well. Save for when she was face-to-face with the two males who had—

I didn’t let myself finish the thought, summon the memory. Even five centuries later, the rage threatened to swallow me until I’d left the Hewn City and Autumn Court in ruins.

But those were her deaths to claim. They always had been. I had never asked why she’d waited so long.

We’d quietly meandered through the city for half an hour now, going mostly unnoticed. A small blessing of Solstice: everyone was too busy with their own preparations to mark who strolled through the packed streets.

How we’d wound up here, I had no idea. But here we were, nothing but the fallen and cracked blocks of stone, winter-dry weeds, and gray sky for company.

“The families,” I said at last, “are at their other estates.” I knew them all, wealthy merchants and nobles who had defected from the Hewn City long before the two halves of my realm had been officially severed. “With no plans to return anytime soon.” Perhaps forever. I’d heard from one of them, a matriarch of a merchant empire, that they were likely going to sell rather than face the ordeal of building from scratch.

Mor nodded absently, the chill wind whipping strands of her hair over her face as she paused in the middle of what had once been a formal garden sloping from the house to the icy river itself. “Keir is coming here soon, isn’t he.”

So rarely would she ever refer to him as her father. I didn’t blame her. That male hadn’t been her father for centuries. Long before that unforgivable day.

“He is.”

I’d managed to keep Keir at bay since the war had ended—had prepared for him to inevitably decide that no matter the work I dumped in his lap, no matter how I might interrupt his little visits with Eris, he would visit this city.

Perhaps I had brought this upon myself, by enforcing the Hewn City’s borders for so long. Perhaps their horrible traditions and narrow minds had only grown worse while being contained. It was their territory, yes, but I’d given them nothing else. No wonder they were so curious about Velaris. Though Keir’s desire to visit only stemmed from one need: to torment his daughter.

“When.”

“Likely in the spring, if I’m guessing correctly.”

Mor’s throat bobbed, her face going cold in a way I so rarely witnessed. In a way I hated, if only because I was to blame for it.

I’d told myself it had been worth it. Keir’s Darkbringers had been crucial in our victory. And he’d suffered losses because of it. The male was a prick in every sense of the word, but he’d come through on his end.

I had little choice but to hold up my own.

Mor scanned me from head to toe. I’d opted for a black jacket crafted from heavier wool, and forgone wings entirely. Just because Cassian and Azriel had to suffer through having them be freezing all the time didn’t mean I had to. I remained still, letting Mor arrive at her own conclusions. “I trust you,” she said at last.

I bowed my head. “Thank you.”

She waved a hand, launching into a walk again down the pale gravel paths of the garden. “But I still wish there had been another way.”

“I do, too.”

She twisted the ends of her thick red scarf before tucking them into her brown overcoat.

“If your father comes here,” I offered, “I can make sure you’re away.” No matter that she had been the one to push for the minor confrontation with the Steward and Eris the other night.

She scowled. “He’ll see it for what it is: hiding. I won’t give him that satisfaction.”

I knew better than to ask if she thought her mother would come along. We didn’t discuss Mor’s mother. Ever.

“Whatever you decide, I’ll support you.”

“I know that.” She paused between two low-lying boxwoods and watched the icy river beyond.

“And you know that Az and Cassian are going to be monitoring them like hawks for the entire visit. They’ve been planning the security protocols for months now.”

“They have?”

I nodded gravely.

Mor blew out a breath. “I wish we were still able to threaten to unleash Amren on the entire Hewn City.”

I snorted, gazing across the river to the quarter of the city just barely visible over the rise of a hill. “Half of me wonders if Amren wishes the same.”

“I assume you’re getting her a very good present.”

“Neve was practically skipping with glee when I left the shop.”

A small laugh. “What did you get Feyre?”

I slid my hands into my pockets. “This and that.”

“So, nothing.”

I dragged a hand through my hair. “Nothing. Any ideas?”

“She’s your mate. Shouldn’t this sort of thing be instinctual?”

“She’s impossible to shop for.”

Mor gave me a wry look. “Pathetic.”

I nudged her with an elbow. “What did you get her?”

“You’ll have to wait until Solstice evening to see.”

I rolled my eyes. In the centuries I’d known her, Mor’s present-buying abilities had never improved. I had a drawer full of downright hideous cuff links that I’d never worn, each gaudier than the next. I was lucky, though: Cassian had a trunk crammed with silk shirts of varying colors of the rainbow. Some even had ruffles on them.

I could only imagine the horrors in store for my mate.

Thin sheets of ice lazily drifted down the Sidra. I didn’t dare ask Mor about Azriel—what she’d gotten him, what she planned to do with him. I had little interest in being chucked right into that icy river.

“I’m going to need you, Mor,” I said quietly.

The amusement in Mor’s eyes sharpened to alertness. A predator. There was a reason she’d held her own in battle, and could hold her own against any Illyrian. My brothers and I had overseen much of the training ourselves, but she’d spent years traveling to other lands, other territories, to learn what they knew.

Which was precisely why I said, “Not with Keir and the Hewn City, not with holding the peace long enough for things to stabilize.”

She crossed her arms, waiting.

“Az can infiltrate most courts, most lands. But I might need you to win those lands over.” Because the pieces that were now strewn on the table … “Treaty negotiations are dragging on too long.”

“They’re not happening at all.”

Truth. With the rebuilding, too many tentative allies had claimed they were busy and would reconvene in the spring to discuss the new terms.

“You wouldn’t need to be gone for months. Just visits here and there. Casual.”

“Casual, but make the kingdoms and territories realize that if they push too far or enter into human lands, we’ll obliterate them?”

I huffed a laugh. “Something like that. Az has lists of the kingdoms most likely to cross the line.”

“If I’m flitting about the continent, who will deal with the Court of Nightmares?”

“I will.”

Her brown eyes narrowed. “You’re not doing this because you think I can’t handle Keir, are you?”

Careful, careful territory. “No,” I said, and wasn’t lying. “I think you can. I know you can. But your talents are better wielded elsewhere for now. Keir wants to build ties to the Autumn Court—let him. Whatever he and Eris are scheming up, they know we’re watching, and know how stupid it would be for either of them to push us. One word to Beron, and Eris’s head will roll.”

Tempting. So damn tempting to tell the High Lord of Autumn that his eldest son coveted his throne—and was willing to take it by force. But I’d made a bargain with Eris, too. Perhaps a fool’s bargain, but only time would tell in that regard.

Mor fiddled with her scarf. “I’m not afraid of them.”

“I know you’re not.”

“I just—being near them, together …” She shoved her hands into her pockets. “It’s probably what it feels like for you to be around Tamlin.”

“If it’s any consolation, cousin, I behaved rather poorly the other day.”

“Is he dead?”

“No.”

“Then I’d say you controlled yourself admirably.”

I laughed. “Bloodthirsty of you, Mor.”

She shrugged, again watching the river. “He deserves it.”

He did indeed.

She glanced sidelong at me. “When would I need to leave?”

“Not for another few weeks, maybe a month.”

She nodded, and fell quiet. I debated asking her if she wished to know where Azriel and I thought she might go first, but her silence said enough. She’d go anywhere.

Too long. She’d been cooped up within the borders of this court for too long. The war barely counted. And it wouldn’t happen in a month, or perhaps a few years, but I could see it: the invisible noose tightening around her neck with every day spent here.

“Take a few days to think about it,” I offered.

She whipped her head toward me, golden hair catching in the light. “You said you needed me. It didn’t seem like there was much room for choice.”

“You always have a choice. If you don’t want to go, then it’s fine.”

“And who would do it instead? Amren?” A knowing look.

I laughed again. “Certainly not Amren. Not if we want peace.” I added, “Just—do me a favor and take some time to think about it before you say yes. Consider it an offer, not an order.”

She fell silent once more. Together, we watched the ice floes drift down the Sidra, toward the distant, wild sea. “Does he win if I go?” A quiet, tentative question.

“You have to decide that for yourself.”

Mor turned toward the ruined house and grounds behind us. Staring not at them, I realized, but eastward.

Toward the continent and the lands within. As if wondering what might be waiting there.

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