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CHAPTER

16

Rhys sauntered toward the two males standing by the dining room doors, giving me the option to stay or join.

One word, he’d promised, and we could go.

Both of them were tall, their wings tucked in tight to powerful, muscled bodies covered in plated, dark leather that reminded me of the worn scales of some serpentine beast. Identical long swords were each strapped down the column of their spines—the blades beautiful in their simplicity. Perhaps I needn’t have bothered with the fine clothes after all.

The slightly larger of the two, his face masked in shadow, chuckled and said, “Come on, Feyre. We don’t bite. Unless you ask us to.”

Surprise sparked through me, setting my feet moving.

Rhys slid his hands into his pockets. “The last I heard, Cassian, no one has ever taken you up on that offer.”

The second one snorted, the faces of both males at last illuminated as they turned toward the golden light of the dining room, and I honestly wondered why no one hadn’t: if Rhysand’s mother had also been Illyrian, then its people were blessed with unnatural good looks.

Like their High Lord, the males—warriors—were dark-haired, tan-skinned. But unlike Rhys, their eyes were hazel and fixed on me as I at last stepped close—to the waiting House of Wind behind them.

That was where any similarities between the three of them halted.

Cassian surveyed Rhys from head to foot, his shoulder-length black hair shifting with the movement. “So fancy tonight, brother. And you made poor Feyre dress up, too.” He winked at me. There was something rough-hewn about his features—like he’d been made of wind and earth and flame and all these civilized trappings were little more than an inconvenience.

But the second male, the more classically beautiful of the two … Even the light shied from the elegant planes of his face. With good reason. Beautiful, but near-unreadable. He’d be the one to look out for—the knife in the dark. Indeed, an obsidian-hilted hunting knife was sheathed at his thigh, its dark scabbard embossed with a line of silver runes I’d never seen before.

Rhys said, “This is Azriel—my spymaster.” Not surprising. Some buried instinct had me checking that my mental shields were intact. Just in case.

“Welcome,” was all Azriel said, his voice low, almost flat, as he extended a brutally scarred hand to me. The shape of it was normal—but the skin … It looked like it had been swirled and smudged and rippled. Burns. They must have been horrific if even their immortal blood had not been able to heal them.

The leather plates of his light armor flowed over most of it, held by a loop around his middle finger. Not to conceal, I realized as his hand breached the chill night air between us. No, it was to hold in place the large, depthless cobalt stone that graced the back of the gauntlet. A matching one lay atop his left hand; and twin red stones adorned Cassian’s gauntlets, their color like the slumbering heart of a flame.

I took Azriel’s hand, and his rough fingers squeezed mine. His skin was as cold as his face.

But the word Cassian had used a moment ago snagged my attention as I released his hand and tried not to look too eager to step back to Rhys’s side. “You’re brothers?” The Illyrians looked similar, but only in the way that people who had come from the same place did.

Rhysand clarified, “Brothers in the sense that all bastards are brothers of a sort.”

I’d never thought of it that way. “And—you?” I asked Cassian.

Cassian shrugged, wings tucking in tighter. “I command Rhys’s armies.”

As if such a position were something that one shrugged off. And—armies. Rhys had armies. I shifted on my feet. Cassian’s hazel eyes tracked the movement, his mouth twitching to the side, and I honestly thought he was about to give me his professional opinion on how doing so would make me unsteady against an opponent when Azriel clarified, “Cassian also excels at pissing everyone off. Especially amongst our friends. So, as a friend of Rhysand … good luck.”

A friend of Rhysand—not savior of their land, not murderer, not human-faerie-thing. Maybe they didn’t know—

But Cassian nudged his bastard-brother-whatever out of the way, Azriel’s mighty wings flaring slightly as he balanced himself. “How the hell did you make that bone ladder in the Middengard Wyrm’s lair when you look like your own bones can snap at any moment?”

Well, that settled that. And the question of whether he’d been Under the Mountain. But where he’d been instead … Another mystery. Perhaps here—with these people. Safe and coddled.

I met Cassian’s gaze, if only because having Rhysand defend me might very well make me crumble a bit more. And maybe it made me as mean as an adder, maybe I relished being one, but I said, “How the hell did you manage to survive this long without anyone killing you?”

Cassian tipped back his head and laughed, a full, rich sound that bounced off the ruddy stones of the House. Azriel’s brows flicked up with approval as the shadows seemed to wrap tighter around him. As if he were the dark hive from which they flew and returned.

I tried not to shudder and faced Rhys, hoping for an explanation about his spymaster’s dark gifts.

Rhys’s face was blank, but his eyes were wary. Assessing. I almost demanded what the hell he was looking at, until Mor breezed onto the balcony with, “If Cassian’s howling, I hope it means Feyre told him to shut his fat mouth.”

Both Illyrians turned toward her, Cassian bracing his feet slightly farther apart on the floor in a fighting stance I knew all too well.

It was almost enough to distract me from noticing Azriel as those shadows lightened, and his gaze slid over Mor’s body: a red, flowing gown of chiffon accented with gold cuffs, and combs fashioned like gilded leaves swept back the waves of her unbound hair.

A wisp of shadow curled around Azriel’s ear, and his eyes snapped to mine. I schooled my face into bland innocence.

“I don’t know why I ever forget you two are related,” Cassian told Mor, jerking his chin at Rhys, who rolled his eyes. “You two and your clothes.”

Mor sketched a bow to Cassian. Indeed, I tried not to slump with relief at the sight of the fine clothes. At least I wouldn’t look overdressed now. “I wanted to impress Feyre. You could have at least bothered to comb your hair.”

“Unlike some people,” Cassian said, proving my suspicions correct about that fighting stance, “I have better things to do with my time than sit in front of the mirror for hours.”

“Yes,” Mor said, tossing her long hair over a shoulder, “since swaggering around Velaris—”

“We have company,” was Azriel’s soft warning, wings again spreading a bit as he herded them through the open balcony doors to the dining room. I could have sworn tendrils of darkness swirled in their wake.

Mor patted Azriel on the shoulder as she dodged his outstretched wing. “Relax, Az—no fighting tonight. We promised Rhys.”

The lurking shadows vanished entirely as Azriel’s head dipped a bit—his night-dark hair sliding over his handsome face as if to shield him from that mercilessly beautiful grin.

Mor gave no indication that she noticed and curved her fingers toward me. “Come sit with me while they drink.” I had enough dignity remaining not to look to Rhys for confirmation it was safe. So I obeyed, falling into step beside her as the two Illyrians drifted back to walk the few steps with their High Lord. “Unless you’d rather drink,” Mor offered as we entered the warmth and red stone of the dining room. “But I want you to myself before Amren hogs you—”

The interior dining room doors opened on a whispering wind, revealing the shadowed, crimson halls of the mountain beyond.

And maybe part of me remained mortal, because even though the short, delicate woman looked like High Fae … as Rhys had warned me, every instinct was roaring to run. To hide.

She was several inches shorter than me, her chin-length black hair glossy and straight, her skin tan and smooth, and her face—pretty, bordering on plain—was bored, if not mildly irritated. But Amren’s eyes …

Her silver eyes were unlike anything I’d ever seen; a glimpse into the creature that I knew in my bones wasn’t High Fae. Or hadn’t been born that way.

The silver in Amren’s eyes seemed to swirl like smoke under glass.

She wore pants and a top like those I’d worn at the other mountain-palace, both in shades of pewter and storm cloud, and pearls—white and gray and black—adorned her ears, fingers, and wrists. Even the High Lord at my side felt like a wisp of shadow compared to the power thrumming from her.

Mor groaned, slumping into a chair near the end of the table, and poured herself a glass of wine. Cassian took a seat across from her, wiggling his fingers for the wine bottle. But Rhysand and Azriel just stood there, watching—maybe monitoring—as the female approached me, then halted three feet away.

“Your taste remains excellent, High Lord. Thank you.” Her voice was soft—but honed sharper than any blade I’d encountered. Her slim, small fingers grazed a delicate silver-and-pearl brooch pinned above her right breast.

So that’s who he’d bought the jewelry for. The jewelry I was to never, under any circumstances, try to steal.

I studied Rhys and Amren, as if I might be able to read what further bond lay between them, but Rhysand waved a hand and bowed his head. “It suits you, Amren.”

“Everything suits me,” she said, and those horrible, enchanting eyes again met my own. Like leashed lightning.

She took a step closer, sniffing delicately, and though I stood half a foot taller, I’d never felt meeker. But I held my chin up. I didn’t know why, but I did.

Amren said, “So there are two of us now.”

My brows nudged toward each other.

Amren’s lips were a slash of red. “We who were born something else—and found ourselves trapped in new, strange bodies.”

I decided I really didn’t want to know what she’d been before.

Amren jerked her chin at me to sit in the empty chair beside Mor, her hair shifting like molten night. She claimed the seat across from me, Azriel on her other side as Rhys took the one across from him—on my right.

No one at the head of the table.

“Though there is a third,” Amren said, now looking at Rhysand. “I don’t think you’ve heard from Miryam in … centuries. Interesting.”

Cassian rolled his eyes. “Please just get to the point, Amren. I’m hungry.”

Mor choked on her wine. Amren slid her attention to the warrior to her right. Azriel, on her other side, monitored the two of them very, very carefully. “No one warming your bed right now, Cassian? It must be so hard to be an Illyrian and have no thoughts in your head save for those about your favorite part.”

“You know I’m always happy to tangle in the sheets with you, Amren,” Cassian said, utterly unfazed by the silver eyes, the power radiating from her every pore. “I know how much you enjoy Illyrian—”

“Miryam,” Rhysand said, as Amren’s smile became serpentine, “and Drakon are doing well, as far as I’ve heard. And what, exactly, is interesting?”

Amren’s head tilted to the side as she studied me. I tried not to shrink from it. “Only once before was a human Made into an immortal. Interesting that it should happen again right as all the ancient players have returned. But Miryam was gifted long life—not a new body. And you, girl …” She sniffed again, and I’d never felt so laid bare. Surprise lit Amren’s eyes. Rhys just nodded. Whatever that meant. I was tired already. Tired of being assessed and evaluated. “Your very blood, your veins, your bones were Made. A mortal soul in an immortal body.”

“I’m hungry,” Mor said nudging me with a thigh. She snapped a finger, and plates piled high with roast chicken, greens, and bread appeared. Simple, but … elegant. Not formal at all. Perhaps the sweater and pants wouldn’t have been out of place for such a meal. “Amren and Rhys can talk all night and bore us to tears, so don’t bother waiting for them to dig in.” She picked up her fork, clicking her tongue. “I asked Rhys if I could take you to dinner, just the two of us, and he said you wouldn’t want to. But honestly—would you rather spend time with those two ancient bores, or me?”

“For someone who is the same age as me,” Rhys drawled, “you seem to forget—”

“Everyone wants to talk-talk-talk,” Mor said, giving a warning glare at Cassian, who had indeed opened his mouth. “Can’t we eat-eat-eat, and then talk?”

An interesting balance between Rhys’s terrifying Second and his disarmingly chipper Third. If Mor’s rank was higher than that of the two warriors at this table, then there had to be some other reason beyond that irreverent charm. Some power to allow her to get into the fight with Amren that Rhys had mentioned—and walk away from it.

Azriel chuckled softly at Mor, but picked up his fork. I followed suit, waiting until he’d taken a bite before doing so. Just in case—

Good. So good. And the wine—

I hadn’t even realized Mor had poured me a glass until I finished my first sip, and she clinked her own against mine. “Don’t let these old busybodies boss you around.”

Cassian said, “Pot. Kettle. Black.” Then he frowned at Amren, who had hardly touched her plate. “I always forget how bizarre that is.” He unceremoniously took her plate, dumping half the contents on his own before passing the rest to Azriel.

Azriel said to Amren as he slid the food onto his plate, “I keep telling him to ask before he does that.”

Amren flicked her fingers and the empty plate vanished from Azriel’s scarred hands. “If you haven’t been able to train him after all these centuries, boy, I don’t think you’ll make any progress now.” She straightened the silverware on the vacant place setting before her.

“You don’t—eat?” I said to her. The first words I’d spoken since sitting.

Amren’s teeth were unnervingly white. “Not this sort of food.”

“Cauldron boil me,” Mor said, gulping from her wine. “Can we not?”

I decided I didn’t want to know what Amren ate, either.

Rhys chuckled from my other side. “Remind me to have family dinners more often.”

Family dinners—not official court gatherings. And tonight … either they didn’t know that I was here to decide if I truly wished to work with Rhys, or they didn’t feel like pretending to be anything but what they were. They’d no doubt worn whatever they felt like—I had the rising feeling that I could have shown up in my nightgown and they wouldn’t have cared. A unique group indeed. And against Hybern … who would they be, what could they do, as allies or opponents?

Across from me, a cocoon of silence seemed to pulse around Azriel, even as the others dug into their food. I again peered at that oval of blue stone on his gauntlet as he sipped from his glass of wine. Azriel noted the look, swift as it had been—as I had a feeling he’d been noticing and cataloging all of my movements, words, and breaths. He held up his hands, the backs to me so both jewels were on full display. “They’re called Siphons. They concentrate and focus our power in battle.”

Only he and Cassian wore them.

Rhys set down his fork, and clarified for me, “The power of stronger Illyrians tends toward ‘incinerate now, ask questions later.’ They have little magical gifts beyond that—the killing power.”

“The gift of a violent, warmongering people,” Amren added. Azriel nodded, shadows wreathing his neck, his wrists. Cassian gave him a sharp look, face tightening, but Azriel ignored him.

Rhys went on, though I knew he was aware of every glance between the spymaster and army commander, “The Illyrians bred the power to give them advantage in battle, yes. The Siphons filter that raw power and allow Cassian and Azriel to transform it into something more subtle and varied—into shields and weapons, arrows and spears. Imagine the difference between hurling a bucket of paint against the wall and using a brush. The Siphons allow for the magic to be nimble, precise on the battlefield—when its natural state lends itself toward something far messier and unrefined, and potentially dangerous when you’re fighting in tight quarters.”

I wondered how much of that any of them had needed to do. If those scars on Azriel’s hands had come from it.

Cassian flexed his fingers, admiring the clear red stones adorning the backs of his own broad hands. “Doesn’t hurt that they also look damn good.”

Amren muttered, “Illyrians.”

Cassian bared his teeth in feral amusement, and took a drink of his wine.

Get to know them, try to envision how I might work with them, rely on them, if this conflict with Hybern exploded … I scrambled for something to ask and said to Azriel, those shadows gone again, “How did you—I mean, how do you and Lord Cassian—”

Cassian spewed his wine across the table, causing Mor to leap up, swearing at him as she used a napkin to mop her dress.

But Cassian was howling, and Azriel had a faint, wary smile on his face as Mor waved a hand at her dress and the spots of wine appeared on Cassian’s fighting—or perhaps flying, I realized—leathers. My cheeks heated. Some court protocol that I’d unknowingly broken and—

“Cassian,” Rhys drawled, “is not a lord. Though I’m sure he appreciates you thinking he is.” He surveyed his Inner Circle. “While we’re on the subject, neither is Azriel. Nor Amren. Mor, believe it or not, is the only pure-blooded, titled person in this room.” Not him? Rhys must have seen the question on my face because he said, “I’m half-Illyrian. As good as a bastard where the thoroughbred High Fae are concerned.”

“So you—you three aren’t High Fae?” I said to him and the two males.

Cassian finished his laughing. “Illyrians are certainly not High Fae. And glad of it.” He hooked his black hair behind an ear—rounded; as mine had once been. “And we’re not lesser faeries, though some try to call us that. We’re just—Illyrians. Considered expendible aerial cavalry for the Night Court at the best of times, mindless soldier grunts at the worst.”

“Which is most of the time,” Azriel clarified. I didn’t dare ask if those shadows were a part of being Illyrian, too.

“I didn’t see you Under the Mountain,” I said instead. I had to know without a doubt—if they were there, if they’d seen me, if it’d impact how I interacted while working with—

Silence fell. None of them, even Amren, looked at Rhysand.

It was Mor who said, “Because none of us were.”

Rhys’s face was a mask of cold. “Amarantha didn’t know they existed. And when someone tried to tell her, they usually found themselves without the mind to do so.”

A shudder went down my spine. Not at the cold killer, but—but … “You truly kept this city, and all these people, hidden from her for fifty years?”

Cassian was staring hard at his plate, as if he might burst out of his skin.

Amren said, “We will continue to keep this city and these people hidden from our enemies for a great many more.”

Not an answer.

Rhys hadn’t expected to see them again when he’d been dragged Under the Mountain. Yet he had kept them safe, somehow.

And it killed them—the four people at this table. It killed them all that he’d done it, however he’d done it. Even Amren.

Perhaps not only for the fact that Rhys had endured Amarantha while they had been here. Perhaps it was also for those left outside of the city, too. Perhaps picking one city, one place, to shield was better than nothing. Perhaps … perhaps it was a comforting thing, to have a spot in Prythian that remained untouched. Unsullied.

Mor’s voice was a bit raw as she explained to me, her golden combs glinting in the light, “There is not one person in this city who is unaware of what went on outside these borders. Or of the cost.”

I didn’t want to ask what price had been demanded. The pain that laced the heavy silence told me enough.

Yet if they might all live through their pain, might still laugh … I cleared my throat, straightening, and said to Azriel, who, shadows or no, seemed the safest and therefore was probably the least so, “How did you meet?” A harmless question to feel them out, learn who they were. Wasn’t it?

Azriel merely turned to Cassian, who was staring at Rhys with guilt and love on his face, so deep and agonized that some now-splintered instinct had me almost reaching across the table to grip his hand.

But Cassian seemed to process what I’d asked and his friend’s silent request that he tell the story instead, and a grin ghosted across his face. “We all hated each other at first.”

Beside me, the light had winked out of Rhys’s eyes. What I’d asked about Amarantha, what horrors I’d made him remember …

A confession for a confession—I thought he’d done it for my sake. Maybe he had things he needed to voice, couldn’t voice to these people, not without causing them more pain and guilt.

Cassian went on, drawing my attention from the silent High Lord at my right, “We are bastards, you know. Az and I. The Illyrians … We love our people, and our traditions, but they dwell in clans and camps deep in the mountains of the North, and do not like outsiders. Especially High Fae who try to tell them what to do. But they’re just as obsessed with lineage, and have their own princes and lords among them. Az,” he said, pointing a thumb in his direction, his red Siphon catching the light, “was the bastard of one of the local lords. And if you think the bastard son of a lord is hated, then you can’t imagine how hated the bastard is of a war-camp laundress and a warrior she couldn’t or wouldn’t remember.” His casual shrug didn’t match the vicious glint in his hazel eyes. “Az’s father sent him to our camp for training once he and his charming wife realized he was a shadowsinger.”

Shadowsinger. Yes—the title, whatever it meant, seemed to fit.

“Like the daemati,” Rhys said to me, “shadowsingers are rare—coveted by courts and territories across the world for their stealth and predisposition to hear and feel things others can’t.”

Perhaps those shadows were indeed whispering to him, then. Azriel’s cold face yielded nothing.

Cassian said, “The camp lord practically shit himself with excitement the day Az was dumped in our camp. But me … once my mother weaned me and I was able to walk, they flew me to a distant camp, and chucked me into the mud to see if I would live or die.”

“They would have been smarter throwing you off a cliff,” Mor said, snorting.

“Oh, definitely,” Cassian said, that grin going razor-sharp. “Especially because when I was old and strong enough to go back to the camp I’d been born in, I learned those pricks worked my mother until she died.”

Again that silence fell—different this time. The tension and simmering anger of a unit who had endured so much, survived so much … and felt each other’s pain keenly.

“The Illyrians,” Rhys smoothly cut in, that light finally returning to his gaze, “are unparalleled warriors, and are rich with stories and traditions. But they are also brutal and backward, particularly in regard to how they treat their females.”

Azriel’s eyes had gone near-vacant as he stared at the wall of windows behind me.

“They’re barbarians,” Amren said, and neither Illyrian male objected. Mor nodded emphatically, even as she noted Azriel’s posture and bit her lip. “They cripple their females so they can keep them for breeding more flawless warriors.”

Rhys cringed. “My mother was low-born,” he told me, “and worked as a seamstress in one of their many mountain war-camps. When females come of age in the camps—when they have their first bleeding—their wings are … clipped. Just an incision in the right place, left to improperly heal, can cripple you forever. And my mother—she was gentle and wild and loved to fly. So she did everything in her power to keep herself from maturing. She starved herself, gathered illegal herbs—anything to halt the natural course of her body. She turned eighteen and hadn’t yet bled, to the mortification of her parents. But her bleeding finally arrived, and all it took was for her to be in the wrong place, at the wrong time, before a male scented it on her and told the camp’s lord. She tried to flee—took right to the skies. But she was young, and the warriors were faster, and they dragged her back. They were about to tie her to the posts in the center of camp when my father winnowed in for a meeting with the camp’s lord about readying for the War. He saw my mother thrashing and fighting like a wildcat, and …” He swallowed. “The mating bond between them clicked into place. One look at her, and he knew what she was. He misted the guards holding her.”

My brows narrowed. “Misted?”

Cassian let out a wicked chuckle as Rhys floated a lemon wedge that had been garnishing his chicken into the air above the table. With a flick of his finger, it turned to citrus-scented mist.

“Through the blood-rain,” Rhys went on as I shut out the image of what it’d do to a body, what he could do, “my mother looked at him. And the bond fell into place for her. My father took her back to the Night Court that evening and made her his bride. She loved her people, and missed them, but never forgot what they had tried to do to her—what they did to the females among them. She tried for decades to get my father to ban it, but the War was coming, and he wouldn’t risk isolating the Illyrians when he needed them to lead his armies. And to die for him.”

“A real prize, your father,” Mor grumbled.

“At least he liked you,” Rhys countered, then clarified for me, “my father and mother, despite being mates, were wrong for each other. My father was cold and calculating, and could be vicious, as he had been trained to be since birth. My mother was soft and fiery and beloved by everyone she met. She hated him after a time—but never stopped being grateful that he had saved her wings, that he allowed her to fly whenever and wherever she wished. And when I was born, and could summon the Illyrian wings as I pleased … She wanted me to know her people’s culture.”

“She wanted to keep you out of your father’s claws,” Mor said, swirling her wine, her shoulders loosening as Azriel at last blinked, and seemed to shake off whatever memory had frozen him.

“That, too,” Rhys added drily. “When I turned eight, my mother brought me to one of the Illyrian war-camps. To be trained, as all Illyrian males were trained. And like all Illyrian mothers, she shoved me toward the sparring ring on the first day, and walked away without looking back.”

“She abandoned you?” I found myself saying.

“No—never,” Rhys said with a ferocity I’d heard only a few times, one of them being this afternoon. “She was staying at the camp as well. But it is considered an embarrassment for a mother to coddle her son when he goes to train.”

My brows lifted and Cassian laughed. “Backward, like he said,” the warrior told me.

“I was scared out of my mind,” Rhys admitted, not a shade of shame to be found. “I’d been learning to wield my powers, but Illyrian magic was a mere fraction of it. And it’s rare amongst them—usually possessed only by the most powerful, pure-bred warriors.” Again, I looked at the slumbering Siphons atop the warriors’ hands. “I tried to use a Siphon during those years,” Rhys said. “And shattered about a dozen before I realized it wasn’t compatible—the stones couldn’t hold it. My power flows and is honed in other ways.”

“So difficult, being such a powerful High Lord,” Mor teased.

Rhys rolled his eyes. “The camp-lord banned me from using my magic. For all our sakes. But I had no idea how to fight when I set foot into that training ring that day. The other boys in my age group knew it, too. Especially one in particular, who took a look at me, and beat me into a bloody mess.”

“You were so clean,” Cassian said, shaking his head. “The pretty half-breed son of the High Lord—how fancy you were in your new training clothes.”

“Cassian,” Azriel told me with that voice like darkness given sound, “resorted to getting new clothes over the years by challenging other boys to fights, with the prize being the clothes off their backs.” There was no pride in the words—not for his people’s brutality. I didn’t blame the shadowsinger, though. To treat anyone that way …

Cassian, however, chuckled. But I was now taking in the broad, strong shoulders, the light in his eyes.

I’d never met anyone else in Prythian who had ever been hungry, desperate—not like I’d been.

Cassian blinked, and the way he looked at me shifted—more assessing, more … sincere. I could have sworn I saw the words in his eyes: You know what it is like. You know the mark it leaves.

“I’d beaten every boy in our age group twice over already,” Cassian went on. “But then Rhys arrived, in his clean clothes, and he smelled … different. Like a true opponent. So I attacked. We both got three lashings apiece for the fight.”

I flinched. Hitting children—

“They do worse, girl,” Amren cut in, “in those camps. Three lashings is practically an encouragement to fight again. When they do something truly bad, bones are broken. Repeatedly. Over weeks.”

I said to Rhys, “Your mother willingly sent you into that?” Soft fire indeed.

“My mother didn’t want me to rely on my power,” Rhysand said. “She knew from the moment she conceived me that I’d be hunted my entire life. Where one strength failed, she wanted others to save me.

“My education was another weapon—which was why she went with me: to tutor me after lessons were done for the day. And when she took me home that first night to our new house at the edge of the camp, she made me read by the window. It was there that I saw Cassian trudging through the mud—toward the few ramshackle tents outside of the camp. I asked her where he was going, and she told me that bastards are given nothing: they find their own shelter, own food. If they survive and get picked to be in a war-band, they’ll be bottom-ranking forever, but receive their own tents and supplies. But until then, he’d stay in the cold.”

“Those mountains,” Azriel added, his face hard as ice, “offer some of the harshest conditions you can imagine.”

I’d spent enough time in frozen woods to get it.

“After my lessons,” Rhys went on, “my mother cleaned my lashings, and as she did, I realized for the first time what it was to be warm, and safe, and cared for. And it didn’t sit well.”

“Apparently not,” Cassian said. “Because in the dead of night, that little prick woke me up in my piss-poor tent and told me to keep my mouth shut and come with him. And maybe the cold made me stupid, but I did. His mother was livid. But I’ll never forget the look on her beautiful face when she saw me and said, ‘There is a bathtub with hot running water. Get in it or you can go back into the cold.’ Being a smart lad, I obeyed. When I got out, she had clean nightclothes and ordered me into bed. I’d spent my life sleeping on the ground—and when I balked, she said she understood because she had felt the same once, and that it would feel as if I was being swallowed up, but the bed was mine for as long as I wanted it.”

“And you were friends after that?”

“No—Cauldron no,” Rhysand said. “We hated each other, and only behaved because if one of us got into trouble or provoked the other, then neither of us ate that night. My mother started tutoring Cassian, but it wasn’t until Azriel arrived a year later that we decided to be allies.”

Cassian’s grin grew as he reached around Amren to clap his friend on the shoulder. Azriel sighed—the sound of the long-suffering. The warmest expression I’d seen him make. “A new bastard in the camp—and an untrained shadowsinger to boot. Not to mention he couldn’t even fly thanks to—”

Mor cut in lazily, “Stay on track, Cassian.”

Indeed, any warmth had vanished from Azriel’s face. But I quieted my own curiosity as Cassian again shrugged, not even bothering to take note of the silence that seemed to leak from the shadowsinger. Mor saw, though—even if Azriel didn’t bother to acknowledge her concerned stare, the hand that she kept looking at as if she’d touch, but thought better of it.

Cassian went on, “Rhys and I made his life a living hell, shadowsinger or no. But Rhys’s mother had known Az’s mother, and took him in. As we grew older, and the other males around us did, too, we realized everyone else hated us enough that we had better odds of survival sticking together.”

“Do you have any gifts?” I asked him. “Like—them?” I jerked my chin to Azriel and Rhys.

“A volatile temper doesn’t count,” Mor said as Cassian opened his mouth.

He gave her that grin I realized likely meant trouble was coming, but said to me, “No. I don’t—not beyond a heaping pile of the killing power. Bastard-born nobody, through and through.” Rhys sat forward like he’d object, but Cassian forged ahead, “Even so, the other males knew that we were different. And not because we were two bastards and a half-breed. We were stronger, faster—like the Cauldron knew we’d been set apart and wanted us to find each other. Rhys’s mother saw it, too. Especially as we reached the age of maturity, and all we wanted to do was fuck and fight.”

“Males are horrible creatures, aren’t they?” Amren said.

“Repulsive,” Mor said, clicking her tongue.

Some surviving, small part of my heart wanted to … laugh at that.

Cassian shrugged. “Rhys’s power grew every day—and everyone, even the camp-lords, knew he could mist everyone if he felt like it. And the two of us … we weren’t far behind.” He tapped his crimson Siphon with a finger. “A bastard Illyrian had never received one of these. Ever. For Az and me to both be appointed them, albeit begrudgingly, had every warrior in every camp across those mountains sizing us up. Only pure-blood pricks get Siphons—born and bred for the killing power. It still keeps them up at night, puzzling over where the hell we got it from.”

“Then the War came,” Azriel took over. Just the way he said the words made me sit up. Listen. “And Rhys’s father visited our camp to see how his son had fared after twenty years.”

“My father,” Rhys said, swirling his wine once—twice, “saw that his son had not only started to rival him for power, but had allied himself with perhaps the two deadliest Illyrians in history. He got it into his head that if we were given a legion in the War, we might very well turn it against him when we returned.”

Cassian snickered. “So the prick separated us. He gave Rhys command of a legion of Illyrians who hated him for being a half-breed, and threw me into a different legion to be a common foot soldier, even when my power outranked any of the war-leaders. Az, he kept for himself as his personal shadowsinger—mostly for spying and his dirty work. We only saw each other on battlefields for the seven years the War raged. They’d send around casualty lists amongst the Illyrians, and I read each one, wondering if I’d see their names on it. But then Rhys was captured—”

“That is a story for another time,” Rhys said, sharply enough that Cassian lifted his brows, but nodded. Rhys’s violet eyes met mine, and I wondered if it was true starlight that flickered so intensely in them as he spoke. “Once I became High Lord, I appointed these four to my Inner Circle, and told the rest of my father’s old court that if they had a problem with my friends, they could leave. They all did. Turns out, having a half-breed High Lord was made worse by his appointment of two females and two Illyrian bastards.”

As bad as humans, in some ways. “What—what happened to them, then?”

Rhys shrugged, those great wings shifting with the movement. “The nobility of the Night Court fall into one of three categories: those who hated me enough that when Amarantha took over, they joined her court and later found themselves dead; those who hated me enough to try to overthrow me and faced the consequences; and those who hated me, but not enough to be stupid and have since tolerated a half-breed’s rule, especially when it so rarely interferes with their miserable lives.”

“Are they—are they the ones who live beneath the mountain?”

A nod. “In the Hewn City, yes. I gave it to them, for not being fools. They’re happy to stay there, rarely leaving, ruling themselves and being as wicked as they please, for all eternity.”

That was the court he must have shown Amarantha when she first arrived—and its wickedness must have pleased her enough that she modeled her own after it.

“The Court of Nightmares,” Mor said, sucking on a tooth.

“And what is this court?” I asked, gesturing to them. The most important question.

It was Cassian, eyes clear and bright as his Siphon, who said, “The Court of Dreams.”

The Court of Dreams—the dreams of a half-breed High Lord, two bastard warriors, and … the two females. “And you?” I said to Mor and Amren.

Amren merely said, “Rhys offered to make me his Second. No one had ever asked me before, so I said yes, to see what it might be like. I found I enjoyed it.”

Mor leaned back in her seat, Azriel now watching every movement she made with subtle, relentless focus.

“I was a dreamer born into the Court of Nightmares,” Mor said. She twirled a curl around a finger, and I wondered if her story might be the worst of all of them as she said simply, “So I got out.”

“What’s your story, then?” Cassian said to me with a jerk of his chin.

I’d assumed Rhysand had told them everything. Rhys merely shrugged at me.

So I straightened. “I was born to a wealthy merchant family, with two older sisters and parents who only cared about their money and social standing. My mother died when I was eight; my father lost his fortune three years later. He sold everything to pay off his debts, moved us into a hovel, and didn’t bother to find work while he let us slowly starve for years. I was fourteen when the last of the money ran out, along with the food. He wouldn’t work—couldn’t, because the debtors came and shattered his leg in front of us. So I went into the forest and taught myself to hunt. And I kept us all alive, if not near starvation at times, for five years. Until … everything happened.”

They fell quiet again, Azriel’s gaze now considering. He hadn’t told his story. Did it ever come up? Or did they never discuss those burns on his hands? And what did the shadows whisper to him—did they speak in a language at all?

But Cassian said, “You taught yourself to hunt. What about to fight?” I shook my head. Cassian braced his arms on the table. “Lucky for you, you’ve just found yourself a teacher.”

I opened my mouth, protesting, but— Rhysand’s mother had given him an arsenal of weapons to use if the other failed. What did I have in my own beyond a good shot with a bow and brute stubbornness? And if I had this new power—these other powers …

I would not be weak again. I would not be dependent on anyone else. I would never have to endure the touch of the Attor as it dragged me because I was too helpless to know where and how to hit. Never again.

But what Ianthe and Tamlin had said … “You don’t think it sends a bad message if people see me learning to fight—using weapons?”

The moment the words were out, I realized the stupidity of them. The stupidity of—of what had been shoved down my throat these past few months.

Silence. Then Mor said with a soft venom that made me understand the High Lord’s Third had received training of her own in that Court of Nightmares, “Let me tell you two things. As someone who has perhaps been in your shoes before.” Again, that shared bond of anger, of pain throbbed between them all, save for Amren, who was giving me a look dripping with distaste. “One,” Mor said, “you have left the Spring Court.” I tried not to let the full weight of those words sink in. “If that does not send a message, for good or bad, then your training will not, either. Two,” she continued, laying her palm flat on the table, “I once lived in a place where the opinion of others mattered. It suffocated me, nearly broke me. So you’ll understand me, Feyre, when I say that I know what you feel, and I know what they tried to do to you, and that with enough courage, you can say to hell with a reputation.” Her voice gentled, and the tension between them all faded with it. “You do what you love, what you need.”

Mor would not tell me what to wear or not wear. She would not allow me to step aside while she spoke for me. She would not … would not do any of the things that I had so willingly, desperately, allowed Ianthe to do.

I had never had a female friend before. Ianthe … she had not been one. Not in the way that mattered, I realized. And Nesta and Elain, in those few weeks I’d been at home before Amarantha, had started to fill that role, but … but looking at Mor, I couldn’t explain it, couldn’t understand it, but … I felt it. Like I could indeed go to dinner with her. Talk to her.

Not that I had much of anything to offer her in return.

But what she’d said … what they’d all said … Yes, Rhys had been wise to bring me here. To let me decide if I could handle them—the teasing and intensity and power. If I wanted to be a part of a group who would likely push me, and overwhelm me, and maybe frighten me, but … If they were willing to stand against Hybern, after already fighting them five hundred years ago …

I met Cassian’s gaze. And though his eyes danced, there was nothing amused in them. “I’ll think about it.”

Through the bond in my hand, I could have sworn I felt a glimmer of pleased surprise. I checked my mental shields—but they were intact. And Rhysand’s calm face revealed no hint of its origin.

So I said clearly, steadily to him, “I accept your offer—to work with you. To earn my keep. And help with Hybern in whatever way I can.”

“Good,” Rhys merely replied. Even as the others raised their brows. Yes, they’d obviously not been told this was an interview of sorts. “Because we start tomorrow.”

“Where? And what?” I sputtered.

Rhys interlaced his fingers and rested them on the table, and I realized there was another point to this dinner beyond my decision as he announced to all of us, “Because the King of Hybern is indeed about to launch a war, and he wants to resurrect Jurian to do it.”

Jurian—the ancient warrior whose soul Amarantha had imprisoned within that hideous ring as punishment for killing her sister. The ring that contained his eye …

“Bullshit,” Cassian spat. “There’s no way to do that.”

Amren had gone still, and it was she whom Azriel was observing, marking.

Amarantha was just the beginning, Rhys had once told me. Had he known this even then? Had those months Under the Mountain merely been a prelude to whatever hell was about to be unleashed? Resurrecting the dead. What sort of unholy power—

Mor groaned, “Why would the king want to resurrect Jurian? He was so odious. All he liked to do was talk about himself.”

The age of these people hit me like a brick, despite all they’d told me minutes earlier. The War—they had all … they had all fought in the War five hundred years ago.

“That’s what I want to find out,” Rhysand said. “And how the king plans to do it.”

Amren at last said, “Word will have reached him about Feyre’s Making. He knows it’s possible for the dead to be remade.”

I shifted in my seat. I’d expected brute armies, pure bloodshed. But this—

“All seven High Lords would have to agree to that,” Mor countered. “There’s not a chance it happens. He’ll take another route.” Her eyes narrowed to slits as she faced Rhys. “All the slaughtering—the massacres at temples. You think it’s tied to this?”

“I know it’s tied to this. I didn’t want to tell you until I knew for certain. But Azriel confirmed that they’d raided the memorial in Sangravah three days ago. They’re looking for something—or found it.” Azriel nodded in confirmation, even as Mor cast a surprised look in his direction. Azriel gave her an apologetic shrug back.

I breathed, “That—that’s why the ring and the finger bone vanished after Amarantha died. For this. But who …” My mouth went dry. “They never caught the Attor, did they?”

Rhys said too quietly, “No. No, they didn’t.” The food in my stomach turned leaden. He said to Amren, “How does one take an eye and a finger bone and make it into a man again? And how do we stop it?”

Amren frowned at her untouched wine. “You already know how to find the answer. Go to the Prison. Talk to the Bone Carver.”

“Shit,” Mor and Cassian both said.

Rhys said calmly, “Perhaps you would be more effective, Amren.”

I was grateful for the table separating us as Amren hissed, “I will not set foot in the Prison, Rhysand, and you know it. So go yourself, or send one of these dogs to do it for you.”

Cassian grinned, showing his white, straight teeth—perfect for biting. Amren snapped hers once in return.

Azriel just shook his head. “I’ll go. The Prison sentries know me—what I am.”

I wondered if the shadowsinger was usually the first to throw himself into danger. Mor’s fingers stilled on the stem of her wineglass, her eyes narrowing on Amren. The jewels, the red gown—all perhaps a way to downplay whatever dark power roiled in her veins—

“If anyone’s going to the Prison,” Rhys said before Mor opened her mouth, “it’s me. And Feyre.”

“What?” Mor demanded, palms now flat on the table.

“He won’t talk to Rhys,” Amren said to the others, “or to Azriel. Or to any of us. We’ve got nothing to offer him. But an immortal with a mortal soul …” She stared at my chest as if she could see the heart pounding beneath … And I contemplated yet again what she ate. “The Bone Carver might be willing indeed to talk to her.”

They stared at me. As if waiting for me to beg not to go, to curl up and cower. Their quick, brutal interview to see if they wanted to work with me, I supposed.

But the Bone Carver, the naga, the Attor, the Suriel, the Bogge, the Middengard Wyrm … Maybe they’d broken whatever part of me truly feared. Or maybe fear was only something I now felt in my dreams.

“Your choice, Feyre,” Rhys said casually.

To shirk and mourn or face some unknown horror—the choice was easy. “How bad can it be?” was my response.

“Bad,” Cassian said. None of them bothered to contradict him.

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