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CHAPTER

26

Rhysand

The girls were in the training ring.

Only six of them, and none looking too pleased, but they were there, cringing their way through Devlon’s halfhearted orders on how to handle a dagger. At least Devlon had given them something relatively simple to learn. Unlike the Illyrian bows, a stack of them lingering by the girls’ chalk-lined ring. As if in a taunt.

A good number of males couldn’t muster the strength to wield those mighty bows. I could still feel the whip of the string against my cheek, my wrist, my fingers during the years it had taken to master it.

If one of the girls decided to take up the Illyrian bow, I’d oversee her lessons myself.

I lingered with Cassian and Azriel at the far end of the sparring rings, the Windhaven camp glaringly bright with the fresh snow that had been dumped by the storm.

As expected, the storm had finished yesterday—two days after Solstice. And as promised, Devlon had the girls in the ring. The youngest was around twelve, the eldest sixteen.

“I thought there were more,” Azriel muttered.

“Some left with their families for Solstice,” Cassian said, eyes on the training, hissing every now and then when one of the girls did a painfully wrong maneuver that went uncorrected. “They won’t be back for a few more days.”

We’d shown him the lists Az had compiled of the possible troublemakers in these camps. Cassian had been distant ever since. More malcontents than we’d expected. A good number of them from the Ironcrest camp, notorious rival of this clan, where Kallon, son of its lord, was taking pains to stir up as much dissent as possible. All directed toward Cassian and myself.

A ballsy move, considering Kallon was still a warrior-novice. Not even due to take the Rite until this spring or the next. But he was as bad as his brute of a father. Worse, Az claimed.

Accidents happen in the Rite, I’d only suggested when Cass’s face had tightened with the news.

We won’t dishonor the Rite by tampering with it, was his only reply.

Accidents happen in the skies all the time, then, Azriel had coolly countered.

If the whelp wants to bust my balls, he can grow a pair himself and do it to my face, Cassian had growled, and that was that.

I knew him well enough to leave him to it—to decide how and when to deal with Kallon.

“Despite the grumblings in the camps,” I said to Cassian, gesturing toward the training rings. The males kept a healthy distance from where the few females trained, as if frightened of catching some deadly disease. Pathetic. “This is a good sign, Cass.”

Azriel nodded his agreement, his shadows twining around him. Most of the camp women had ducked into their homes when he’d appeared.

A rare visit from the shadowsinger. Both myth and terror. Az looked just as displeased to be here, but he’d come when I asked.

It was healthy, perhaps, for Az to sometimes remember where he’d come from. He still wore the Illyrian leathers. Had not tried to get the tattoos removed. Some part of him was Illyrian still. Always would be. Even if he wished to forget it.

Cassian said nothing for a minute, his face a mask of stone. He’d been distant even before we’d gathered around the table in my mother’s old house to deliver the report this morning. Distant since Solstice. I’d bet decent money on why.

“It will be a good sign,” Cassian said at last, “when there are twenty girls out there and they’ve shown up for a month straight.”

Az snorted softly. “I’ll bet you—”

“No bets,” Cassian said. “Not on this.”

Az held Cassian’s stare for a moment, cobalt Siphons flickering, and then nodded. Understood. This mission of Cassian’s, hatched years ago and perhaps close to fruition … It went beyond bets for him. Went down to a wound that had never really healed.

I slung my arm around Cassian’s shoulders. “Small steps, brother.” I threw him a grin, knowing it didn’t meet my eyes. “Small steps.”

For all of us.

Our world might very well depend on it.

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