فصل 04

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CHAPTER

4

Feyre

The Rainbow was a hum of activity, even with the drifting veils of snow.

High Fae and faeries alike poured in and out of the various shops and studios, some perched on ladders to string up drooping garlands of pine and holly between the lampposts, some sweeping gathered clusters of snow from their doorsteps, some—no doubt artists—merely standing on the pale cobblestones and turning in place, faces uplifted to the gray sky, hair and skin and clothes dusted with fine powder.

Dodging one such person in the middle of the street—a faerie with skin like glittering onyx and eyes like swirling clusters of stars—I aimed for the front of a small, pretty gallery, its glass window revealing an assortment of paintings and pottery. The perfect place to do some Solstice shopping. A wreath of evergreen hung on the freshly painted blue door, brass bells dangling from its center.

The door: new. The display window: new.

Both had been shattered and stained with blood months ago. This entire street had.

It was an effort not to glance at the white-dusted stones of the street, sloping steeply down to the meandering Sidra at its base. To the walkway along the river, full of patrons and artists, where I had stood months ago and summoned wolves from those slumbering waters. Blood had been streaming down these cobblestones then, and there hadn’t been singing and laughter in the streets, but screaming and pleading.

I took a sharp inhale through my nose, the chilled air tickling my nostrils. Slowly, I released it in a long breath, watching it cloud in front of me. Watching myself in the reflection of the store window: barely recognizable in my heavy gray coat, a red-and-gray scarf that I’d pilfered from Mor’s closet, my eyes wide and distant.

I realized a heartbeat later that I was not the only one staring at myself.

Inside the gallery, no fewer than five people were doing their best not to gawk at me as they browsed the collection of paintings and pottery.

My cheeks warmed, heart a staccato beat, and I offered a tight smile before continuing on.

No matter that I’d spotted a piece that caught my eye. No matter that I wanted to go in.

I kept my gloved hands bundled in the pockets of my coat as I strode down the steep street, mindful of my steps on the slick cobblestones. While Velaris had plenty of spells upon it to keep the palaces and cafés and squares warm during the winter, it seemed that for this first snow, many of them had been lifted, as if everyone wanted to feel its chill kiss.

I’d indeed braved the walk from the town house, wanting to not only breathe in the crisp, snowy air, but to also just absorb the crackling excitement of those readying for Solstice, rather than merely winnowing or flying over them.

Though Rhys and Azriel still instructed me whenever they could, though I truly loved to fly, the thought of exposing sensitive wings to the cold made me shiver.

Few people recognized me while I strode by, my power firmly restrained within me, and most too concerned with decorating or enjoying the first snow to note those around them, anyway.

A small mercy, though I certainly didn’t mind being approached. As High Lady, I hosted weekly open audiences with Rhys at the House of Wind. The requests ranged from the small—a faelight lamppost was broken—to the complicated—could we please stop importing goods from other courts because it impacted local artisans.

Some were issues Rhys had dealt with for centuries now, but he never acted like he had.

No, he listened to each petitioner, asked thorough questions, and then sent them on their way with a promise to send an answer to them soon. It had taken me a few sessions to get the hang of it—the questions he used, the way he listened. He hadn’t pushed me to step in unless necessary, had granted me the space to figure out the rhythm and style of these audiences and begin asking questions of my own. And then begin writing replies to the petitioners, too. Rhys personally answered each and every one of them. And I now did, too.

Hence the ever-growing stacks of paperwork in so many rooms of the town house.

How he’d lasted so long without a team of secretaries assisting him, I had no idea.

But as I eased down the steep slope of the street, the bright-colored buildings of the Rainbow glowing around me like a shimmering memory of summer, I again mulled it over.

Velaris was by no means poor, its people mostly cared for, the buildings and streets well kept. My sister, it seemed, had managed to find the only thing relatively close to a slum. And insisted on living there, in a building that was older than Rhys and in dire need of repairs.

There were only a few blocks in the city like that. When I’d asked Rhys about them, about why they had not been improved, he merely said that he had tried. But displacing people while their homes were torn down and rebuilt … Tricky.

I hadn’t been surprised two days ago when Rhys had handed me a piece of paper and asked if there was anything else I would like to add to it. On the paper had been a list of charities that he donated to around Solstice-time, everything from aiding the poor, sick, and elderly to grants for young mothers to start their own businesses. I’d added only two items, both to societies that I’d heard about through my own volunteering: donations to the humans displaced by the war with Hybern, as well as to Illyrian war widows and their families. The sums we allocated were sizable, more money than I’d ever dreamed of possessing.

Once, all I had wanted was enough food, money, and time to paint. Nothing more. I would have been content to let my sisters wed, to remain and care for my father.

But beyond my mate, my family, beyond being High Lady—the mere fact that I now lived here, that I could walk through an entire artists’ quarter whenever I wished …

Another avenue bisected the street midway down its slope, and I turned onto it, the neat rows of houses and galleries and studios curving away into the snow. But even amongst the bright colors, there were patches of gray, of emptiness.

I approached one such hollow place, a half-crumbled building. Its mint-green paint had turned grayish, as if the very light had bled from the color as the building shattered. Indeed, the few buildings around it were also muted and cracked, a gallery across the street boarded up.

A few months ago, I’d begun donating a portion of my monthly salary—the idea of receiving such a thing was still utterly ludicrous—to rebuilding the Rainbow and helping its artists, but the scars remained, on both these buildings and their residents.

And the mound of snow-dusted rubble before me: who had dwelled there, worked there? Did they live, or had they been slaughtered in the attack?

There were many such places in Velaris. I’d seen them in my work, while handing out winter coats and meeting with families in their homes.

I blew out another breath. I knew I lingered too often, too long at such sites. I knew I should continue on, smiling as if nothing bothered me, as if all were well. And yet …

“They got out in time,” a female voice said behind me.

I turned, boots slipping on the slick cobblestones. Throwing out a hand to steady me, I gripped the first thing I came into contact with: a fallen chunk of rock from the wrecked house.

But it was the sight of who, exactly, stood behind me, gazing at the rubble, that made me abandon any mortification.

I had not forgotten her in the months since the attack.

I had not forgotten the sight of her standing outside that shop door, a rusted pipe raised over one shoulder, squaring off against the gathered Hybern soldiers, ready to go down swinging for the terrified people huddled inside.

A faint rose blush glowed prettily on her pale green skin, her sable hair flowing past her chest. She was bundled against the cold in a brown coat, a pink scarf wrapped around her neck and lower half of her face, but her long, delicate fingers were gloveless as she crossed her arms.

Faerie—and not a kind I saw too frequently. Her face and body reminded me of the High Fae, though her ears were slenderer, longer than mine. Her form slimmer, sleeker, even with the heavy coat.

I met her eyes, a vibrant ochre that made me wonder what paints I’d have to blend and wield to capture their likeness, and offered a small smile. “I’m glad to hear it.”

Silence fell, interrupted by the merry singing of a few people down the street and the wind gusting off the Sidra.

The faerie only inclined her head. “Lady.”

I fumbled for words, for something High Lady–ish and yet accessible, and came up empty. Came up so empty that I blurted, “It’s snowing.”

As if the drifting veils of white could be anything else.

The faerie inclined her head again. “It is.” She smiled at the sky, snow catching in her inky hair. “A fine first snow at that.”

I surveyed the ruin behind me. “You—you know the people who lived here?”

“I did. They’re living at a relative’s farm in the lowlands now.” She waved a hand toward the distant sea, to the flat expanse of land between Velaris and the shore.

“Ah,” I managed to say, then jerked my chin at the boarded-up shop across the street. “What about that one?”

The faerie surveyed where I’d indicated. Her mouth—painted a berry pink—tightened. “Not so happy an ending, I’m afraid.”

My palms turned sweaty within my wool gloves. “I see.”

She faced me again, silken hair flowing around her. “Her name was Polina. That was her gallery. For centuries.”

Now it was a dark, quiet husk.

“I’m sorry,” I said, uncertain what else to offer.

The faerie’s slim, dark brows narrowed. “Why should you be?” She added, “My lady.”

I gnawed on my lip. Discussing such things with strangers … Perhaps not a good idea. So I ignored her question and asked, “Does she have any family?” I hoped they’d made it, at least.

“They live out in the lowlands, too. Her sister and nieces and nephews.” The faerie again studied the boarded-up front. “It’s for sale now.”

I blinked, grasping the implied offer. “Oh—oh, I wasn’t asking after it for that reason.” It hadn’t even entered my mind.

“Why not?”

A frank, easy question. Perhaps more direct than most people, certainly strangers, dared to be with me. “I—what use would I have for it?”

She gestured to me with a hand, the motion effortlessly graceful. “Rumor has it that you’re a fine artist. I can think of many uses for the space.”

I glanced away, hating myself a bit for it. “I’m not in the market, I’m afraid.”

The faerie shrugged with one shoulder. “Well, whether you are or aren’t, you needn’t go skulking around here. Every door is open to you, you know.”

“As High Lady?” I dared ask.

“As one of us,” she said simply.

The words settled in, strange and yet like a piece I had not known was missing. An offered hand I had not realized how badly I wanted to grasp.

“I’m Feyre,” I said, removing my glove and extending my arm.

The faerie clasped my fingers, her grip steel-strong despite her slender build. “Ressina.” Not someone prone to excessive smiling, but still full of a practical sort of warmth.

Noon bells chimed in a tower at the edge of the Rainbow, the sound soon echoed across the city in the other sister-towers.

“I should be going,” I said, releasing Ressina’s hand and retreating a step. “It was nice to meet you.” I tugged my glove back on, my fingers already stinging with cold. Perhaps I’d take some time this winter to master my fire gifts more precisely. Learning how to warm clothes and skin without burning myself would be mighty helpful.

Ressina pointed to a building down the street—across the intersection I had just passed through. The same building she’d defended, its walls painted raspberry pink, and doors and windows a bright turquoise, like the water around Adriata. “I’m one of the artists who uses that studio space over there. If you ever want a guide, or even some company, I’m there most days. I live above the studio.” An elegant wave toward the tiny round windows on the second level.

I put a hand on my chest. “Thank you.”

Again that silence, and I took in that shop, the doorway Ressina had stood before, guarding her home and others.

“We remember it, you know,” Ressina said quietly, drawing my stare away. But her attention had landed on the rubble behind us, on the boarded-up studio, on the street, as if she, too, could see through the snow to the blood that had run between the cobblestones. “That you came for us that day.”

I didn’t know what to do with my body, my hands, so I opted for stillness.

Ressina met my stare at last, her ochre eyes bright. “We keep away to let you have your privacy, but don’t think for one moment that there isn’t a single one of us who doesn’t know and remember, who isn’t grateful that you came here and fought for us.”

It hadn’t been enough, even so. The ruined building behind me was proof of that. People had still died.

Ressina took a few unhurried steps toward her studio, then stopped. “There’s a group of us who paint together at my studio. One night a week. We’re meeting in two days’ time. It would be an honor if you joined us.”

“What sort of things do you paint?” My question was soft as the snow falling past us.

Ressina smiled slightly. “The things that need telling.”

Even with the icy evening soon descending upon Velaris, people packed the streets, laden with bags and boxes, some lugging enormous fruit baskets from one of the many stands now occupying either Palace.

My fur-lined hood shielding me against the cold, I browsed through the vendor carts and storefronts in the Palace of Thread and Jewels, surveying the latter, mostly.

Some of the public areas remained heated, but enough of Velaris had now been temporarily left exposed to the bitter wind that I wished I’d opted for a heavier sweater that morning. Learning how to warm myself without summoning a flame would be handy indeed. If I ever had the time to do it.

I was circling back to a display in one of the shops built beneath the overhanging buildings when an arm looped through mine and Mor drawled, “Amren would love you forever if you bought her a sapphire that big.”

I laughed, tugging back my hood enough to see her fully. Mor’s cheeks were flushed against the cold, her braided golden hair spilling into the white fur lining her cloak. “Unfortunately, I don’t think our coffers would return the feeling.”

Mor smirked. “You do know that we’re well-off, don’t you? You could fill a bathtub with those things”—she jerked her chin toward the egg-sized sapphire in the window of the jewelry shop—“and barely make a dent in our accounts.”

I knew. I’d seen the lists of assets. I still couldn’t wrap my mind around the enormity of Rhys’s wealth. My wealth. It didn’t feel real, those numbers and figures. Like it was children’s play money. I only bought what I needed.

But now … “I’m looking for something to get her for Solstice.”

Mor surveyed the lineup of jewels, both uncut and set, in the window. Some gleamed like fallen stars. Others smoldered, as if they had been carved from the burning heart of the earth. “Amren does deserve a decent present this year, doesn’t she?”

After what Amren had done during that final battle to destroy Hybern’s armies, the choice she’d made to remain here … “We all do.”

Mor nudged me with an elbow, though her brown eyes gleamed. “And will Varian be joining us, do you think?”

I snorted. “When I asked her yesterday, she hedged.”

“I think that means yes. Or he’ll at least be visiting her.”

I smiled at the thought, and pulled Mor along to the next display window, pressing against her side for warmth. Amren and the Prince of Adriata hadn’t officially declared anything, but I sometimes dreamed of it, too—that moment when she had shed her immortal skin and Varian had fallen to his knees.

A creature of flame and brimstone, built in another world to mete out a cruel god’s judgment, to be his executioner upon the masses of helpless mortals. Fifteen thousand years, she had been stuck in this world.

And had not loved, not in the way that could alter history, alter fate, until that silver-haired Prince of Adriata. Or at least loved in the way that Amren was capable of loving anything.

So, yes: nothing was declared between them. But I knew he visited her, secretly, in this city. Mostly because some mornings, Amren would strut into the town house smirking like a cat.

But for what she’d been willing to walk away from, so that we could be saved …

Mor and I spied the piece in the window at the same moment. “That one,” she declared.

I was already moving for the glass front door, a silver bell ringing merrily as we entered.

The shopkeeper was wide-eyed but beaming as we pointed to the piece, and swiftly laid it out on a black velvet pad. She made a sweet-tempered excuse to retrieve something from the back, granting us privacy to examine it as we stood before the polished wood counter.

“It’s perfect,” Mor breathed, the stones fracturing the light and burning with their own inner fire.

I ran a finger over the cool silver settings. “What do you want as a present?”

Mor shrugged, her heavy brown coat bringing out the rich soil of her eyes. “I’ve got everything I need.”

“Try telling Rhys that. He says Solstice isn’t about getting gifts you need, but rather ones you’d never buy for yourself.” Mor rolled her eyes. Even though I was inclined to do the same, I pushed, “So what do you want?”

She ran a finger along a cut stone. “Nothing. I—there’s nothing I want.”

Beyond things she perhaps was not ready to ask for, search for.

I again examined the piece and casually asked, “You’ve been at Rita’s a great deal lately. Is there anyone you might want to bring to Solstice dinner?”

Mor’s eyes sliced to mine. “No.”

It was her business, when and how to inform the others what she’d told me during the war. When and how to tell Azriel especially.

My only role in it was to stand by her—to have her back when she needed it.

So I went on, “What are you getting the others?”

She scowled. “After centuries of gifts, it’s a pain in my ass to find something new for all of them. I’m fairly certain Azriel has a drawer full of all the daggers I’ve bought him throughout the centuries that he’s too polite to throw away, but won’t ever use.”

“You honestly think he’d ever give up Truth-Teller?”

“He gave it to Elain,” Mor said, admiring a moonstone necklace in the counter’s glass case.

“She gave it back,” I amended, failing to block out the image of the black blade piercing through the King of Hybern’s throat. But Elain had given it back—had pressed it into Azriel’s hands after the battle, just as he had pressed it into hers before. And then walked away without looking back.

Mor hummed to herself. The jeweler returned a moment later, and I signed the purchase to my personal credit account, trying not to cringe at the enormous sum of money that just disappeared with a stroke of a golden pen.

“Speaking of Illyrian warriors,” I said as we strode into the crammed Palace square and edged around a red-painted cart selling cups of piping hot molten chocolate, “what the hell do I get either of them?”

I didn’t have the nerve to ask what I should get for Rhys, since, even though I adored Mor, it felt wrong to ask another person for advice on what to buy my mate.

“You could honestly get Cassian a new knife and he’d kiss you for it. But Az would probably prefer no presents at all, just to avoid the attention while opening it.”

I laughed. “True.”

Arm in arm, we continued on, the aromas of roasting hazelnuts, pine cones, and chocolate replacing the usual salt-and-lemon-verbena scent that filled the city. “Do you plan to visit Viviane during Solstice?”

In the months since the war had ended, Mor had remained in contact with the Lady of the Winter Court, perhaps soon to be High Lady, if Viviane had anything to do about it. They’d been friends for centuries, until Amarantha’s reign had severed contact, and though the war with Hybern had been brutal, one of the good things to come of it had been the rekindling of their friendship. Rhys and Kallias had a still-lukewarm alliance, but it seemed Mor’s relationship with the High Lord of Winter’s mate would be the bridge between our two courts.

My friend smiled warmly. “Perhaps a day or two after. Their celebrating lasts for a whole week.”

“Have you been before?”

A shake of her head, golden hair catching in the faelight lamps. “No. They usually keep their borders closed, even to friends. But with Kallias now in power, and especially with Viviane at his side, they’re starting to open up once more.”

“I can only imagine their celebrations.”

Her eyes glowed. “Viviane told me about them once. They make ours look positively dull. Dancing and drinking, feasting and gifting. Roaring fires made from entire tree trunks and cauldrons full of mulled wine, the singing of a thousand minstrels flowing throughout their palace, answered by the bells ringing on the large sleighs pulled by those beautiful white bears.” She sighed. I echoed it, the image she’d crafted hovering in the frosty air between us.

Here in Velaris, we would celebrate the longest night of the year. In Kallias’s territory, it seemed, they would celebrate the winter itself.

Mor’s smile faded. “I did find you for a reason, you know.”

“Not just to shop?”

She nudged me with an elbow. “We’re to head to the Hewn City tonight.”

I cringed. “We as in all of us?”

“You, me, and Rhys, at least.”

I bit back a groan. “Why?”

Mor paused at a vendor, examining the neatly folded scarves displayed. “Tradition. Around Solstice, we make a little visit to the Court of Nightmares to wish them well.”

“Really?”

Mor grimaced, nodding to the vendor and continuing on. “As I said, tradition. To foster goodwill. Or as much of it as we have. And after the battles this summer, it wouldn’t hurt.”

Keir and his Darkbringer army had fought, after all.

We eased through the densely packed heart of the Palace, passing beneath a latticework of faelights just beginning to twinkle awake overhead. From a slumbering, quiet place inside me, the painting name flitted by. Frost and Starlight.

“So you and Rhys decided to tell me mere hours before we go?”

“Rhys has been away all day. I decided that we’re to go tonight. Since we don’t want to ruin the actual Solstice by visiting, now is best.”

There were plenty of days between now and Solstice Eve to do it. But Mor’s face remained carefully casual.

I still pushed, “You preside over the Hewn City, and deal with them all the time.” She as good as ruled over it when Rhys wasn’t there. And handled her awful father plenty.

Mor sensed the question within my statement. “Eris will be there tonight. I heard it from Az this morning.”

I remained quiet, waiting.

Mor’s brown eyes darkened. “I want to see for myself just how cozy he and my father have become.”

It was good enough reason for me.

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