فصل 18

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CHAPTER

18

Feyre

“You look well,” I said to Lucien when we’d settled in the armchairs before the fire, Elain perched silently on the couch nearby.

Lucien warmed his hands in the glow of the birch fire, the light casting his face in reds and golds—golds that matched his mechanical eye. “You as well.” A sidelong glance toward Elain, swift and fleeting. “Both of you.”

Elain said nothing, but at least she bowed her head in thanks. In the dining room, Nuala and Cerridwen continued to add food to the table, their presence now little more than twin shadows as they walked through the walls.

“You brought presents,” I said uselessly, nodding toward the small stack he’d set by the window.

“It’s Solstice tradition here, isn’t it?”

I stifled my wince. The last Solstice I’d experienced had been at the Spring Court. With Ianthe. And Tamlin.

“You’re welcome to stay for the night,” I said, since Elain certainly wasn’t going to.

Lucien lowered his hands into his lap and leaned back in the armchair. “Thank you, but I have other plans.”

I prayed he didn’t catch the slightly relieved glimmer on Elain’s face.

“Where are you going?” I asked instead, hoping to keep his focus on me. Knowing it was an impossible task.

“I …” Lucien fumbled for the words. Not out of some lie or excuse, I realized a moment later. Realized when he said, “I’ve been at the Spring Court every now and then. But if I’m not here in Velaris, I’ve mostly been staying with Jurian. And Vassa.”

I straightened. “Really? Where?”

“There’s an old manor house in the southeast, in the humans’ territory. Jurian and Vassa were … gifted it.”

From the lines that bracketed his mouth, I knew who had likely arranged for the manor to fall into their hands. Graysen—or his father. I didn’t dare glance at Elain.

“Rhys mentioned that they were still in Prythian. I didn’t realize it was such a permanent base.”

A short nod. “For now. While things are sorted out.”

Like the world without a wall. Like the four human queens who still squatted across the continent. But now wasn’t the time to talk of it. “How are they—Jurian and Vassa?” I’d learned enough from Rhys about how Tamlin was faring. I didn’t care to hear any more of it.

“Jurian …” Lucien blew out a breath, scanning the carved wood ceiling above. “Thank the Cauldron for him. I never thought I’d say that, but it’s true.” He ran a hand through his silken red hair. “He’s keeping everything running. I think he’d have been crowned king by now if it wasn’t for Vassa.” A twitch of the lips, a spark in that russet eye. “She’s doing well enough. Savoring every second of her temporary freedom.”

I had not forgotten her plea to me that night after the last battle with Hybern. To break the curse that kept her human by night, firebird by day. A once-proud queen—still proud, yes, but desperate to reclaim her freedom. Her human body. Her kingdom.

“She and Jurian are getting along?”

I hadn’t seen them interact, could only imagine what the two of them would be like in the same room together. Both trying to lead the humans who occupied the sliver of land at the southernmost end of Prythian. Left ungoverned for so long. Too long.

No king or queen remained in these lands. No memory of their name, their lineage.

At least amongst humans. The Fae might know. Rhys might know.

But all that lingered of whoever had once ruled the southern tip of Prythian was a motley assortment of lords and ladies. Nothing else. No dukes or earls or any of the titles I’d once heard my sisters mention while discussing the humans on the continent. There were no such titles in the Fae lands. Not in Prythian.

No, there were just High Lords and lords. And now a High Lady.

I wondered if the humans had taken to using only lord as a title thanks to the High Fae who lurked above the wall.

Lurked—but no longer.

Lucien considered my question. “Vassa and Jurian are two sides of the same coin. Mercifully, their vision for the future of the human territories is mostly aligned. But the methods on how to attain that …” A frown to Elain, then a wince at me. “This isn’t very Solstice-like talk.”

Definitely not, but I didn’t mind. And as for Elain …

My sister rose to her feet. “I should get refreshments.”

Lucien rose as well. “No need to trouble yourself. I’m—”

But she was already out of the room.

When her footsteps had faded from earshot, Lucien slumped into his armchair and blew out a long breath. “How is she?”

“Better. She makes no mention of her abilities. If they remain.”

“Good. But is she still …” A muscle flickered in his jaw. “Does she still mourn him?”

The words were little more than a growl.

I chewed on my lip, weighing how much of the truth to reveal. In the end, I opted for all of it. “She was deeply in love with him, Lucien.”

His russet eye flashed with simmering rage. An uncontrollable instinct—for a mate to eliminate any threat. But he remained sitting. Even as his fingers dug into the arms of his chair.

I continued, “It has only been a few months. Graysen made it clear that the engagement is ended, but it might take her a while longer to move past it.”

Again that rage. Not from jealousy, or any threat, but—“He’s as fine a prick as any I’ve ever encountered.”

Lucien had encountered him, I realized. Somehow, in living with Jurian and Vassa at that manor, he’d run into Elain’s former betrothed. And managed to leave the human lord breathing.

“I would agree with you on that,” I admitted. “But remember that they were engaged. Give her time to accept it.”

“To accept a life shackled to me?”

My nostrils flared. “That’s not what I meant.”

“She wants nothing to do with me.”

“Would you, if your positions were reversed?”

He didn’t answer.

I tried, “After Solstice wraps up, why don’t you come stay for a week or two? Not in your apartment, I mean. Here, at the town house.”

“And do what?”

“Spend time with her.”

“I don’t think she’ll tolerate two minutes alone with me, so forget about two weeks.” His jaw worked as he studied the fire.

Fire. His mother’s gift.

Not his father’s.

Yes, it was Beron’s gift. The gift of the father who the world believed had sired him. But not the gift of Helion. His true father.

I still hadn’t mentioned it. To anyone other than Rhys.

Now wasn’t the time for that, either.

“I’d hoped,” I ventured to say, “that when you rented the apartment, it meant you would come work here. With us. Be our human emissary.”

“Am I not doing that now?” He arched a brow. “Am I not sending twice-weekly reports to your spymaster?”

“You could come live here, is all I’m saying,” I pushed. “Truly live here, stay in Velaris for longer than a few days at a time. We could get you nicer quarters—”

Lucien got to his feet. “I don’t need your charity.”

I rose as well. “But Jurian and Vassa’s is fine?”

“You’d be surprised to see how the three of us get along.”

Friends, I realized. They had somehow become his friends. “So you’d rather stay with them?”

“I’m not staying with them. The manor is ours.”

“Interesting.”

His golden eye whirred. “What is.”

Not feeling very festive at all, I said sharply, “That you now feel more comfortable with humans than with the High Fae. If you ask me—”

“I’m not.”

“It seems like you’ve decided to fall in with two people without homes of their own as well.”

Lucien stared at me, long and hard. When he spoke, his voice was rough. “Happy Solstice to you, Feyre.”

He turned toward the foyer, but I grabbed his arm to halt him. The corded muscle of his forearm shifted beneath the fine silk of his sapphire jacket, but he made no move to shake me off. “I didn’t mean that,” I said. “You have a home here. If you want it.”

Lucien studied the sitting room, the foyer beyond and dining room on its other side. “The Band of Exiles.”

“The what?”

“That’s what we call ourselves. The Band of Exiles.”

“You have a name for yourselves.” I fought my incredulous tone.

He nodded.

“Jurian isn’t an exile,” I said. Vassa, yes. Lucien, two times over now.

“Jurian’s kingdom is nothing but dust and half-forgotten memory, his people long scattered and absorbed into other territories. He can call himself whatever he likes.”

Yes, after the battle with Hybern, after Jurian’s aid, I supposed he could.

But I asked, “And what, exactly, does this Band of Exiles plan to do? Host events? Organize party-planning committees?”

Lucien’s metal eye clicked faintly and narrowed. “You can be as much of an asshole as that mate of yours, you know that?”

True. I sighed again. “I’m sorry. I just—”

“I don’t have anywhere else to go.” Before I could object, he said, “You ruined any chance I have of going back to Spring. Not to Tamlin, but to the court beyond his house. Everyone either still believes the lies you spun or they believe me complicit in your deceit. And as for here …” He shook off my grip and headed for the door. “I can’t stand to be in the same room as her for more than two minutes. I can’t stand to be in this court and have your mate pay for the very clothes on my back.”

I studied the jacket he wore. I’d seen it before. Back in—

“Tamlin sent it to our manor yesterday,” Lucien hissed. “My clothes. My belongings. All of it. He had it sent from the Spring Court and dumped on the doorstep.”

Bastard. Still a bastard, despite what he’d done for Rhys and me during that last battle. But the blame for that behavior was not on Tamlin’s shoulders alone. I’d created that rift. Ripped it apart with my own two hands.

I didn’t quite feel guilty enough to warrant apologizing for it. Not yet. Possibly not ever.

“Why?” It was the only question I could think to ask.

“Perhaps it had something to do with your mate’s visit the other day.”

My spine stiffened. “Rhys didn’t involve you in that.”

“He might as well have. Whatever he said or did, Tamlin decided he wishes to remain in solitude.” His russet eye darkened. “Your mate should have known better than to kick a downed male.”

“I can’t say I’m particularly sorry that he did.”

“You will need Tamlin as an ally before the dust has settled. Tread carefully.”

I didn’t want to think about it, consider it, today. Any day. “My business with him is done.”

“Yours might be, but Rhys’s isn’t. And you’d do well to remind your mate of that fact.”

A pulse down the bond, as if in answer. Everything all right?

I let Rhys see and hear all that had been said, the conversation conveyed in the blink of an eye. I’m sorry to have caused him trouble, Rhys said. Do you need me to come home?

I’ll handle it.

Let me know if you need anything, Rhys said, and the bond went silent.

“Checking in?” Lucien asked quietly.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said, my face the portrait of boredom.

He gave me a knowing look, continuing to the door and grabbing his heavy overcoat and scarf from the hooks mounted on the wood paneling beside it. “The bigger box is for you. The smaller one is for her.”

It took me a heartbeat to realize he meant the presents. I glanced over my shoulder to the careful silver wrapping, the blue bows atop both boxes.

When I looked back, Lucien was gone.

I found my sister in the kitchen, watching the kettle scream.

“He’s not staying for tea,” I said.

No sign of Nuala or Cerridwen.

Elain simply removed the kettle from the heat.

I knew I wasn’t truly angry with her, not angry with anyone but myself, but I said, “You couldn’t say a single word to him? A pleasant greeting?”

Elain only stared at the steaming kettle as she set it on the stone counter.

“He brought you a present.”

Those doe-brown eyes turned toward me. Sharper than I’d ever seen them. “And that entitles him to my time, my affections?”

“No.” I blinked. “But he is a good male.” Despite our harsh words. Despite this Band of Exiles bullshit. “He cares for you.”

“He doesn’t know me.”

“You don’t give him the chance to even try to do so.”

Her mouth tightened, the only sign of anger in her graceful countenance. “I don’t want a mate. I don’t want a male.”

She wanted a human man.

Solstice. Today was Solstice, and everyone was supposed to be cheerful and happy. Certainly not fighting left and right. “I know you don’t.” I loosed a long breath. “But …”

But I had no idea how to finish that sentence. Just because Lucien was her mate didn’t mean he had a claim on her time. Her affection. She was her own person, capable of making her own choices. Assessing her own needs.

“He is a good male,” I repeated. “And it … it just …” I fought for the words. “I don’t like to see either of you unhappy.”

Elain stared at the worktable, baked goods both finished and incomplete arrayed on the surface, the kettle now cooling on the counter. “I know you don’t.”

There was nothing else to be said. So I touched her shoulder and strode out.

Elain didn’t say a word.

I found Mor sitting on the bottom steps of the stairs, wearing a pair of peach-colored loose pants and a heavy white sweater. A combination of Amren’s usual style and my own.

Gold earrings flashing, Mor offered a grim smile. “Drink?” A decanter and pair of glasses appeared in her hands.

“Mother above, yes.”

She waited until I’d sat beside her on the oak steps and downed a mouthful of amber liquid, the stuff burning its way along my throat and warming my belly, before she asked, “Do you want my advice?”

No. Yes.

I nodded.

Mor drank deeply from her glass. “Stay out of it. She’s not ready, and neither is he, no matter how many presents he brings.”

I lifted a brow. “Snoop.”

Mor leaned back against the steps, utterly unrepentant. “Let him live with his Band of Exiles. Let him deal with Tamlin in his own way. Let him figure out where he wants to be. Who he wants to be. The same goes with her.”

She was right.

“I know you still blame yourself for your sisters being Made.” Mor nudged my knee with her own. “And because of that, you want to fix everything for them now that they’re here.”

“I always wanted to do that,” I said glumly.

Mor smiled crookedly. “That’s why we love you. Why they love you.”

Nesta, I wasn’t so sure about.

Mor continued, “Just be patient. It’ll sort itself out. It always does.”

Another kernel of truth.

I refilled my glass, set the crystal decanter on the step behind us, and drank again. “I want them to be happy. All of them.”

“They will be.”

She said the simple words with such unflagging conviction that I believed her.

I arched a brow. “And you—are you happy?”

Mor knew what I meant. But she just smiled, swirling the liquor in her glass. “It’s Solstice. I’m with my family. I’m drinking. I’m very happy.”

A skilled evasion. But one I was content to partake in. I clinked my heavy glass against hers. “Speaking of our family … Where the hell are they?”

Mor’s brown eyes lit up. “Oh—oh, he didn’t tell you, did he?”

My smile faltered. “Tell me what.”

“What the three of them do every Solstice morning.”

“I’m beginning to be nervous.”

Mor set down her glass, and gripped my arm. “Come with me.”

Before I could object, she’d winnowed us out.

Blinding light hit me. And cold.

Brisk, brutal cold. Far too cold for the sweaters and pants we wore.

Snow. And sun. And wind.

And mountains.

And—a cabin.

The cabin.

Mor pointed to the endless field atop the mountain. Covered in snow, just as I’d last seen it. But rather than a flat, uninterrupted expanse …

“Are those snow forts?”

A nod.

Something white shot across the field, white and hard and glistening, and then—

Cassian’s yowl echoed off the mountains around us. Followed by, “You bastard!”

Rhys’s answering laugh was bright as the sun on snow.

I surveyed the three walls of snow—the barricades—that bordered the field as Mor erected an invisible shield against the bitter wind. It did little to drive away the cold, though. “They’re having a snowball fight.”

Another nod.

“Three Illyrian warriors,” I said. “The greatest Illyrian warriors. Are having a snowball fight.”

Mor’s eyes practically glowed with wicked delight. “Since they were children.”

“They’re over five hundred years old.”

“Do you want me to tell you the running tally of victories?”

I gaped at her. Then at the field beyond. At the snowballs that were indeed flying with brutal, swift precision as dark heads popped over the walls they’d built.

“No magic,” Mor recited, “no wings, no breaks.”

“They’ve been out here since noon.” It was nearly three. My teeth began chattering.

“I’ve always stayed in to drink,” Mor supplied, as if that were an answer.

“How do they even decide who wins?”

“Whoever doesn’t get frostbite?”

I gaped at her again over my clacking teeth. “This is ridiculous.”

“There’s more alcohol in the cabin.”

Indeed, none of the males seemed to even notice us. Not as Azriel popped up, launched two snowballs sky-high, and vanished behind his wall of snow again.

A moment later, Rhys’s vicious curse barked toward us. “Asshole.”

Laughter laced every syllable.

Mor looped her arm through mine again. “I don’t think your mate is going to be the victor this year, my friend.”

I leaned into her warmth, and we waded through the shin-high snow toward the cabin, the chimney already puffing against the clear blue sky.

Illyrian babies indeed.

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