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It was barely nine in the morning, and Cassian was already pissed.
The watery winter sun tried and failed to bleed through the clouds looming over the Illyrian Mountains, the wind a boom across the gray peaks. Snow already lay inches deep over the bustling camp, a vision of what would soon befall Velaris.
It had been snowing when I departed at dawn—perhaps there would be a good coating already on the ground by the time I returned. I hadn’t had a chance to ask Feyre about it during our brief conversation down the bond minutes ago, but perhaps she would go for a walk with me through it. Let me show her how the City of Starlight glistened under fresh snow.
Indeed, my mate and city seemed a world away from the hive of activity in the Windhaven camp, nestled in a wide, high mountain pass. Even the bracing wind that swept between the peaks, belying the camp’s very name by whipping up dervishes of snow, didn’t deter the Illyrians from going about their daily chores.
For the warriors: training in the various rings that opened onto a sheer drop to the small valley floor below, those not present out on patrol. For the males who hadn’t made the cut: tending to various trades, whether merchants or blacksmiths or cobblers. And for the females: drudgery.
They didn’t see it as such. None of them did. But their required tasks, whether old or young, remained the same: cooking, cleaning, child-rearing, clothes-making, laundry … There was honor in such tasks—pride and good work to be found in them. But not when every single one of the females here was expected to do it. And if they shirked those duties, either one of the half-dozen camp-mothers or whatever males controlled their lives would punish them.
So it had been, as long as I’d known this place, for my mother’s people. The world had been reborn during the war months before, the wall blasted to nothingness, and yet some things did not alter. Especially here, where change was slower than the melting glaciers scattered amongst these mountains. Traditions going back thousands of years, left mostly unchallenged.
Until us. Until now.
Drawing my attention away from the bustling camp beyond the edge of the chalk-lined training rings where we stood, I schooled my face into neutrality as Cassian squared off against Devlon.
“The girls are busy with preparations for the Solstice,” the camp-lord was saying, his arms crossed over his barrel chest. “The wives need all the help they can get, if all’s to be ready in time. They can practice next week.”
I’d lost count of how many variations of this conversation we’d had during the decades Cassian had been pushing Devlon on this.
The wind whipped Cassian’s dark hair, but his face remained hard as granite as he said to the warrior who had begrudgingly trained us, “The girls can help their mothers after training is done for the day. We’ll cut practice down to two hours. The rest of the day will be enough to assist in the preparations.”
Devlon slid his hazel eyes to where I lingered a few feet away. “Is it an order?”
I held that gaze. And despite my crown, my power, I tried not to fall back into the trembling child I’d been five centuries ago, that first day Devlon had towered over me and then hurled me into the sparring ring. “If Cassian says it’s an order, then it is.”
It had occurred to me, during the years we’d been waging this same battle with Devlon and the Illyrians, that I could simply rip into his mind, all their minds, and make them agree. Yet there were some lines I could not, would not cross. And Cassian would never forgive me.
Devlon grunted, his breath a curl of steam. “An hour.”
“Two hours,” Cassian countered, wings flaring slightly as he held a hard line that I’d been called in this morning to help him maintain.
It had to be bad, then, if my brother had asked me to come. Really damn bad. Perhaps we needed a permanent presence out here, until the Illyrians remembered things like consequences.
But the war had impacted us all, and with the rebuilding, with the human territories crawling out to meet us, with other Fae kingdoms looking toward a wall-less world and wondering what shit they could get away with … We didn’t have the resources to station someone out here. Not yet. Perhaps next summer, if the climate elsewhere was calm enough.
Devlon’s cronies loitered in the nearest sparring ring, sizing up Cassian and me, the same way they had our entire lives. We’d slaughtered enough of them in the Blood Rite all those centuries ago that they still kept back, but … It had been the Illyrians who had bled and fought this summer. Who had suffered the most losses as they took on the brunt of Hybern and the Cauldron.
That any of the warriors survived was a testament to their skill and Cassian’s leadership, but with the Illyrians isolated and idle up here, that loss was starting to shape itself into something ugly. Dangerous.
None of us had forgotten that during Amarantha’s reign, a few of the war-bands had gleefully bowed to her. And I knew none of the Illyrians had forgotten that we’d spent those first few months after her downfall hunting down those rogue groups. And ending them.
Yes, a presence here was needed. But later.
Devlon pushed, crossing his muscled arms. “The boys need a nice Solstice after all they endured. Let the girls give one to them.”
The bastard certainly knew what weapons to wield, both physical and verbal.
“Two hours in the ring each morning,” Cassian said with that same hard tone that even I knew not to push unless I wanted a flat-out brawl. He didn’t break Devlon’s gaze. “The boys can help decorate, clean, and cook. They’ve got two hands.”
“Some do,” Devlon said. “Some came home without one.”
I felt, more than saw, the wound strike deep in Cassian.
It was the cost of leading my armies: each injury, death, scar—he took them all as his own personal failings. And being around these warriors, seeing those missing limbs and brutal injuries still healing or that would never heal …
“They practice for ninety minutes,” I said, soothing the dark power that began to roil in my veins, seeking a path into the world, and slid my chilled hands into my pockets. Cassian, wisely, pretended to look outraged, his wings spreading wide. Devlon opened his mouth, but I cut him off before he could shout something truly stupid. “An hour and a half every morning, then they do the housework, the males pitching in whenever they can.” I glanced toward the permanent tents and small stone and wood houses scattered along the wide pass and up into the tree-crusted peaks behind us. “Do not forget that a great number of the females, Devlon, also suffered losses. Perhaps not a hand, but their husbands and sons and brothers were out on those battlefields. Everyone helps prepare for the holiday, and everyone gets to train.”
I jerked my chin at Cassian, indicating for him to follow me to the house across the camp that we now kept as our semi-permanent base of operations. There wasn’t a surface inside where I hadn’t taken Feyre—the kitchen table being my particular favorite, thanks to those raw initial days after we’d first mated, when I could barely stand to be near her and not be buried inside her.
How long ago, how distant, those days seemed. Another lifetime ago.
I needed a holiday.
Snow and ice crunched under our boots as we aimed for the narrow, two-level stone house by the tree line.
Not a holiday to rest, not to visit anywhere, but just to spend more than a handful of hours in the same bed as my mate.
To get more than a few hours to sleep and bury myself in her. It seemed to be one or the other these days. Which was utterly unacceptable. And had turned me about twenty kinds of foolish.
Last week had been so stupidly busy and I’d been so desperate for the feel and taste of her that I’d taken her during the flight down from the House of Wind to the town house. High above Velaris—for all to see, if it weren’t for the cloaking I had thrown into place. It’d required some careful maneuvering, and I’d planned for months now on actually making a moment of it, but with her against me like that, alone in the skies, all it had taken was one look into those blue-gray eyes and I was unfastening her pants.
A moment later, I’d been inside her, and had nearly sent us crashing into the rooftops like an Illyrian whelp. Feyre had just laughed.
I’d climaxed at the husky sound of it.
It had not been my finest moment, and I had no doubt I’d sink to lower levels before the Winter Solstice bought us a day’s reprieve.
I choked my rising desire until it was nothing but a vague roaring in the back of my mind, and didn’t speak until Cassian and I were nearly through the wooden front door.
“Anything else I should know about while I’m here?” I knocked the snow from my boots against the door frame and stepped into the house. That kitchen table lay smack in the middle of the front room. I banished the image of Feyre bent over it.
Cassian blew out a breath and shut the door behind him before tucking in his wings and leaning against it. “Dissension’s brewing. With so many clans gathering for the Solstice, it’ll be a chance for them to spread it even more.”
A flicker of my power had a fire roaring in the hearth, the small downstairs warming swiftly. It was barely a whisper of magic, yet its release eased that near-constant strain of keeping all that I was, all that dark power, in check. I took up a spot against that damned table and crossed my arms. “We’ve dealt with this shit before. We’ll deal with it again.”
Cassian shook his head, the shoulder-length dark hair shining in the watery light leaking through the front windows. “It’s not like it was before. Before, you, me, and Az—we were resented for what we are, who we are. But this time … we sent them to battle. I sent them, Rhys. And now it’s not only the warrior-pricks who are grumbling, but also the females. They believe you and I marched them south as revenge for our own treatment as children; they think we specifically stationed some of the males on the front lines as payback.”
Not good. Not good at all. “We have to handle this carefully, then. Find out where this poison comes from and put an end to it—peacefully,” I clarified when he lifted his brows. “We can’t kill our way out of this one.”
Cassian scratched at his jaw. “No, we can’t.” It wouldn’t be like hunting down those rogue war-bands who’d terrorized any in their path. Not at all.
He surveyed the dim house, the fire crackling in the hearth, where we’d seen my mother cook so many meals during our training. An old, familiar ache filled my chest. This entire house, every inch of it, was full of the past. “A lot of them are coming in for the Solstice,” he went on. “I can stay here, keep an eye on things. Maybe hand out presents to the children, some of the wives. Things that they really need but are too proud to ask for.”
It was a solid idea. But—“It can wait. I want you home for Solstice.”
“I don’t mind—”
“I want you home. In Velaris,” I added when he opened his mouth to spew some Illyrian loyalist bullshit that he still believed, even after they had treated him like less than nothing his entire life. “We’re spending Solstice together. All of us.”
Even if I had to give them a direct order as High Lord to do it.
Cassian angled his head. “What’s eating at you?”
As far as things went, I had little to complain about. Taking my mate to bed on a regular basis wasn’t exactly a pressing issue. Or anyone’s concern but our own.
“Wound a little tight, Rhys?”
Of course he’d seen right through it.
I sighed, frowning at the ancient, soot-speckled ceiling. We’d celebrated the Solstice in this house, too. My mother always had gifts for Azriel and Cassian. For the latter, the initial Solstice we’d shared here had been the first time he’d received any sort of gift, Solstice or not. I could still see the tears Cassian had tried to hide as he’d opened his presents, and the tears in my mother’s eyes as she watched him. “I want to jump ahead to next week.”
“Sure that power of yours can’t do it for you?”
I leveled a dry look at him. Cassian just gave me a cocky grin back.
I never stopped being grateful for them—my friends, my family, who looked at that power of mine and did not balk, did not become scented with fear. Yes, I could scare the shit out of them sometimes, but we all did that to each other. Cassian had terrified me more times than I wanted to admit, one of them being mere months ago.
Twice. Twice, in the span of a matter of weeks, it had happened.
I still saw him being hauled by Azriel off that battlefield, blood spilling down his legs, into the mud, his wound a gaping maw that sliced down the center of his body.
And I still saw him as Feyre had seen him—after she’d let me into her mind to reveal what, exactly, had occurred between her sisters and the King of Hybern. Still saw Cassian, broken and bleeding on the ground, begging Nesta to run.
Cassian had not yet spoken of it. About what had occurred in those moments. About Nesta.
Cassian and my mate’s sister did not speak to each other at all.
Nesta had successfully cloistered herself in some slummy apartment across the Sidra, refusing to interact with any of us save for a few brief visits with Feyre every month.
I’d have to find a way to fix that, too.
I saw how it ate away at Feyre. I still soothed her after she awoke, frantic, from nightmares about that day in Hybern when her sisters had been Made against their will. Nightmares about the moment when Cassian was near death and Nesta was sprawled over him, shielding him from that killing blow, and Elain—Elain—had taken up Azriel’s dagger and killed the King of Hybern instead.
I rubbed my brows between my thumb and forefinger. “It’s rough now. We’re all busy, all trying to hold everything together.” Az, Cassian, and I had yet again postponed our annual five days of hunting up at the cabin this fall. Put off for next year—again. “Come home for Solstice, and we can sit down and figure out a plan for the spring.”
“Sounds like a festive event.”
With my Court of Dreams, it always was.
But I made myself ask, “Is Devlon one of the would-be rebels?”
I prayed it wasn’t true. I resented the male and his backwardness, but he’d been fair with Cassian, Azriel, and me under his watch. Treated us to the same rights as full-blooded Illyrian warriors. Still did that for all the bastard-born under his command. It was his absurd ideas about females that made me want to throttle him. Mist him. But if he had to be replaced, the Mother knew who would take his position.
Cassian shook his head. “I don’t think so. Devlon shuts down any talk like that. But it only makes them more secretive, which makes it harder to find out who’s spreading this bullshit around.”
I nodded, standing. I had a meeting in Cesere with the two priestesses who had survived Hybern’s massacre a year ago regarding how to handle pilgrims who wanted to come from outside our territory. Being late wouldn’t lend any favors to my arguments to delay such a thing until the spring. “Keep an eye on it for the next few days, then come home. I want you there two nights before Solstice. And for the day after.”
A hint of a wicked grin. “I assume our Solstice-day tradition will still be on, then. Despite you now being such a grown-up, mated male.”
I winked at him. “I’d hate for you Illyrian babies to miss me.”
Cassian chuckled. There were indeed some Solstice traditions that never grew tiresome, even after the centuries. I was almost at the door when Cassian said, “Is …” He swallowed.
I spared him the discomfort of trying to mask his interest. “Both sisters will be at the house. Whether they want to or not.”
“Nesta will make things unpleasant if she decides she doesn’t want to be there.”
“She’ll be there,” I said, grinding my teeth, “and she’ll be pleasant. She owes Feyre that much.”
Cassian’s eyes flickered. “How is she?”
I didn’t bother to put any sort of spin on it. “Nesta is Nesta. She does what she wants, even if it kills her sister. I’ve offered her job after job, and she refuses them all.” I sucked on my teeth. “Perhaps you can talk some sense into her over Solstice.”
Cassian’s Siphons gleamed atop his hands. “It’d likely end in violence.”
It indeed would. “Then don’t say a word to her. I don’t care—just keep Feyre out of it. It’s her day, too.”
Because this Solstice … it was her birthday. Twenty-one years old.
It hit me for a moment, how small that number was.
My beautiful, strong, fierce mate, shackled to me—
“I know what that look means, you bastard,” Cassian said roughly, “and it’s bullshit. She loves you—in a way I’ve never seen anybody love anyone.”
“It’s hard sometimes,” I admitted, staring toward the snow-coated field outside the house, the training rings and dwellings beyond it, “to remember that she picked it. Picked me. That it’s not like my parents, shoved together.”
Cassian’s face turned uncharacteristically solemn, and he remained quiet for a moment before he said, “I get jealous sometimes. I’d never begrudge you for your happiness, but what you two have, Rhys …” He dragged a hand through his hair, his crimson Siphon glinting in the light streaming through the window. “It’s the legends, the lies, they spin us when we’re children. About the glory and wonder of the mating bond. I thought it was all bullshit. Then you two came along.”
“She’s turning twenty-one. Twenty-one, Cassian.”
“So? Your mother was eighteen to your father’s nine hundred.”
“And she was miserable.”
“Feyre is not your mother. And you are not your father.” He looked me over. “Where is this coming from, anyway? Are things … not good?”
The opposite, actually. “I get this feeling,” I said, pacing a step, the ancient wood floorboards creaking beneath my boots, my power a writhing, living thing prowling through my veins, “that it’s all some sort of joke. Some sort of cosmic trick, and that no one—no one—can be this happy and not pay for it.”
“You’ve already paid for it, Rhys. Both of you. And then some.”
I waved a hand. “I just …” I trailed off, unable to finish the words.
Cassian stared at me for a long moment.
Then he crossed the distance between us, gathering me in an embrace so tight I could barely breathe. “You made it. We made it. You both endured enough that no one would blame you if you danced off into the sunset like Miryam and Drakon and never bothered with anything else again. But you are bothering—you’re both still working to make this peace last. Peace, Rhys. We have peace, and the true kind. Enjoy it—enjoy each other. You paid the debt before it was ever a debt.”
My throat tightened, and I gripped him hard around his wings, the scales of his leathers digging into my fingers. “What about you?” I asked, pulling away after a moment. “Are you … happy?”
Shadows darkened his hazel eyes. “I’m getting there.”
A halfhearted answer.
I’d have to work on that, too. Perhaps there were threads to be pulled, woven together.
Cassian jerked his chin toward the door. “Get going, you bastard. I’ll see you in three days.”
I nodded, opening the door at last. But paused on the threshold. “Thanks, brother.”
Cassian’s crooked grin was bright, even if those shadows still guttered in his eyes. “It’s an honor, my lord.”
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