فصل 21

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CHAPTER

21

I froze, the ring now in the pocket of my jacket. She’d finished the last song—maybe she’d start another.

Maybe.

The spinning wheel slowed.

I backed a step toward the door. Then another.

Slower and slower, each rotation of the ancient wheel longer than the last.

Only ten steps to the door.

Five.

The wheel went round, one last time, so slow I could see each of the spokes.

Two.

I turned for the door as she lashed out with a white hand, gripping the wheel and stopping it wholly.

The door before me snicked shut.

I lunged for the handle, but there was none.

Window. Get to the window—

“Who is in my house?” she said softly.

Fear—undiluted, unbroken fear—slammed into me, and I remembered. I remembered what it was to be human and helpless and weak. I remembered what it was to want to fight to live, to be willing to do anything to stay breathing—

I reached the window beside the door. Sealed. No latch, no opening. Just glass that was not glass. Solid and impenetrable.

The Weaver turned her face toward me.

Wolf or mouse, it made no difference, because I became no more than an animal, sizing up my chance of survival.

Above her young, supple body, beneath her black, beautiful hair, her skin was gray—wrinkled and sagging and dry. And where eyes should have gleamed instead lay rotting black pits. Her lips had withered to nothing but deep, dark lines around a hole full of jagged stumps of teeth—like she had gnawed on too many bones.

And I knew she would be gnawing on my bones soon if I did not get out.

Her nose—perhaps once pert and pretty, now half-caved in—flared as she sniffed in my direction.

“What are you?” she said in a voice that was so young and lovely.

Out—out, I had to get out—

There was another way.

One suicidal, reckless way.

I did not want to die.

I did not want to be eaten.

I did not want to go into that sweet darkness.

The Weaver rose from her little stool.

And I knew my borrowed time had run out.

“What is like all,” she mused, taking one graceful step toward me, “but unlike all?”

I was a wolf.

And I bit when cornered.

I lunged for the sole candle burning on the table in the center of the room. And hurled it against the wall of woven thread—against all those miserable, dark bolts of fabric. Woven bodies, skins, lives. Let them be free.

Fire erupted, and the Weaver’s shriek was so piercing I thought my head might shatter; thought my blood might boil in its veins.

She dashed for the flames, as if she’d put them out with those flawless white hands, her mouth of rotted teeth open and screaming like there was nothing but black hell inside her.

I hurtled for the darkened hearth. For the fireplace and chimney above.

A tight squeeze, but wide—wide enough for me.

I didn’t hesitate as I grabbed onto the ledge and hauled myself up, arms buckling. Immortal strength—it got me only so far, and I’d become so weak, so malnourished.

I had let them make me weak. Bent to it like some wild horse broken to the bit.

The soot-stained bricks were loose, uneven. Perfect for climbing.

Faster—I had to go faster.

But my shoulders scraped against the brick, and it reeked in here, like carrion and burned hair, and there was an oily sheen on the stone, like cooked fat—

The Weaver’s screaming was cut short as I was halfway up her chimney, sunlight and trees almost visible, every breath a near-sob.

I reached for the next brick, fingernails breaking as I hauled myself up so violently that my arms barked in protest against the squeezing of the stone around me, and—

And I was stuck.

Stuck, as the Weaver hissed from within her house, “What little mouse is climbing about in my chimney?”

I had just enough room to look down as the Weaver’s rotted face appeared below.

She put that milk-white hand on the ledge, and I realized how little room there was between us.

My head emptied out.

I pushed against the grip of the chimney, but couldn’t budge.

I was going to die here. I was going to be dragged down by those beautiful hands and ripped apart and eaten. Maybe while I was still alive, she’d set that hideous mouth on my flesh and gnaw and tear and bite and—

Black panic crushed in, and I was again trapped under a nearby mountain, in a muddy trench, the Middengard Wyrm barreling for me. I’d barely escaped, barely—

I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t breathe, couldn’t breathe—

The Weaver’s nails scratched against the brick as she took a step up.

No, no, no, no, no—

I kicked and kicked against the bricks.

“Did you think you could steal and flee, thief?”

I would have preferred the Middengard Wyrm. Would have preferred those massive, sharp teeth to her jagged stumps—

Stop.

The word came out of the darkness of my mind.

And the voice was my own.

Stop, it said—I said.

Breathe.

Think.

The Weaver came closer, brick crumbling under her hands. She’d climb up like a spider—like I was a fly in her web—

Stop.

And that word quieted everything.

I mouthed it.

Stop, stop, stop.

Think.

I had survived the Wyrm—survived Amarantha. And I had been granted gifts. Considerable gifts.

Like strength.

I was strong.

I slammed a hand against the chimney wall, as low as I could get. The Weaver hissed at the debris that rained down. I smashed my fist again, rallying that strength.

I was not a pet, not a doll, not an animal.

I was a survivor, and I was strong.

I would not be weak, or helpless again. I would not, could not be broken. Tamed.

I pounded my fist into the bricks over and over, and the Weaver paused.

Paused long enough for the brick I’d loosened to slide free into my waiting palm.

And for me to hurl it at her hideous, horrible face as hard as I could.

Bone crunched and she roared, black blood spraying. But I rammed my shoulders into the sides of the chimney, skin tearing beneath my leather. I kept going, going, going, until I was stone breaking stone, until nothing and no one held me back and I was scaling the chimney.

I didn’t dare stop, not as I reached the lip and hauled myself out, tumbling onto the thatched roof. Which was not thatched with hay at all.

But hair.

And with all that fat lining the chimney—all that fat now gleaming on my skin … the hair clung to me. In clumps and strands and tufts. Bile rose, but the front door banged open—a shriek following it.

No—not that way. Not to the ground.

Up, up, up.

A tree branch hung low and close by, and I scrambled across that heinous roof, trying not to think about who and what I was stepping on, what clung to my skin, my clothes. A heartbeat later, I’d jumped onto the waiting branch, scrambling into the leaves and moss as the Weaver screamed, “WHERE ARE YOU?”

But I was running through the tree—running toward another one nearby. I leaped from branch to branch, bare hands tearing on the wood. Where was Rhysand?

Farther and farther I fled, her screams chasing me, though they grew ever-distant.

Where are you, where are you, where are you—

And then, lounging on a branch in a tree before me, one arm draped over the edge, Rhysand drawled, “What the hell did you do?”

I skidded to a stop, breathing raw. I thought my lungs might actually be bleeding.

“You,” I hissed.

But he raised a finger to his lips and winnowed to me—grabbing my waist with one hand and cupping the back of my neck with his other as he spirited us away—

To Velaris. To just above the House of Wind.

We free-fell, and I didn’t have breath to scream as his wings appeared, spreading wide, and he curved us into a steady glide … right through the open windows of what had to be a war room. Cassian was there—in the middle of arguing with Amren about something.

Both froze as we landed on the red floor.

There was a mirror on the wall behind them, and I glimpsed myself long enough to know why they were gaping.

My face was scratched and bloody, and I was covered in dirt and grease—boiled fat—and mortar dust, the hair stuck to me, and I smelled—

“You smell like barbecue,” Amren said, cringing a bit.

Cassian loosened the hand he’d wrapped around the fighting knife at his thigh.

I was still panting, still trying to gobble down breath. The hair clinging to me scratched and tickled, and—

“You kill her?” Cassian said.

“No,” Rhys answered for me, loosely folding his wings. “But given how much the Weaver was screaming, I’m dying to know what Feyre darling did.”

Grease—I had the grease and hair of people on me—

I vomited all over the floor.

Cassian swore, but Amren waved a hand and it was instantly gone—along with the mess on me. But I could feel the ghost of it there, the remnants of people, the mortar of those bricks …

“She … detected me somehow,” I managed to say, slumping against the large black table and wiping my mouth against the shoulder of my leathers. “And locked the doors and windows. So I had to climb out through the chimney. I got stuck,” I added as Cassian’s brows rose, “and when she tried to climb up, I threw a brick at her face.”

Silence.

Amren looked to Rhysand. “And where were you?”

“Waiting, far enough away that she couldn’t detect me.”

I snarled at him, “I could have used some help.”

“You survived,” he said. “And found a way to help yourself.” From the hard glimmer in his eye, I knew he was aware of the panic that had almost gotten me killed, either through mental shields I’d forgotten to raise or whatever anomaly in our bond. He’d been aware of it—and let me endure it.

Because it had almost gotten me killed, and I’d be no use to him if it happened when it mattered—with the Book. Exactly like he’d said.

“That’s what this was also about,” I spat. “Not just this stupid ring,” I reached into my pocket, slamming the ring down on the table, “or my abilities, but if I can master my panic.”

Cassian swore again, his eyes on that ring.

Amren shook her head, sheet of dark hair swaying. “Brutal, but effective.”

Rhys only said, “Now you know. That you can use your abilities to hunt our objects, and thus track the Book at the Summer Court, and master yourself.”

“You’re a prick, Rhysand,” Cassian said quietly.

Rhys merely tucked his wings in with a graceful snap. “You’d do the same.”

Cassian shrugged, as if to say fine, he would.

I looked at my hands, my nails bloody and cracked. And I said to Cassian, “I want you to teach me—how to fight. To get strong. If the offer to train still stands.”

Cassian’s brows rose, and he didn’t bother looking to Rhys for approval. “You’ll be calling me a prick pretty damn fast if we train. And I don’t know anything about training humans—how breakable your bodies are. Were, I mean,” he added with a wince. “We’ll figure it out.”

“I don’t want my only option to be running,” I said.

“Running,” Amren cut in, “kept you alive today.”

I ignored her. “I want to know how to fight my way out. I don’t want to have to wait on anyone to rescue me.” I faced Rhys, crossing my arms. “Well? Have I proved myself?”

But he merely picked up the ring and gave me a nod of thanks. “It was my mother’s ring.” As if that were all the explanation and answers owed.

“How’d you lose it?” I demanded.

“I didn’t. My mother gave it to me as a keepsake, then took it back when I reached maturity—and gave it to the Weaver for safekeeping.”

“Why?”

“So I wouldn’t waste it.”

Nonsense and idiocy and—I wanted a bath. I wanted quiet and a bath. The need for those things hit me strong enough that my knees buckled.

I’d barely looked at Rhys before he grabbed my hand, flared his wings, and had us soaring back through the windows. We free-fell for five thunderous, wild heartbeats before he winnowed to my bedroom in the town house. A hot bath was already running. I staggered to it, exhaustion hitting me like a physical blow, when Rhys said, “And what about training your other … gifts?”

Through the rising steam from the tub, I said, “I think you and I would shred each other to bits.”

“Oh, we most definitely will.” He leaned against the bathing room threshold. “But it wouldn’t be fun otherwise. Consider our training now officially part of your work requirements with me.” A jerk of the chin. “Go ahead—try to get past my shields.”

I knew which ones he was talking about. “I’m tired. The bath will go cold.”

“I promise it’ll be just as hot in a few moments. Or, if you mastered your gifts, you might be able to take care of that yourself.”

I frowned. But took a step toward him, then another—making him yield a step, two, into the bedroom. The phantom grease and hair clung to me, reminded me what he’d done—

I held his stare, those violet eyes twinkling.

“You feel it, don’t you,” he said over the burbling and chittering garden birds. “Your power, stalking under your skin, purring in your ear.”

“So what if I do?”

A shrug. “I’m surprised Ianthe didn’t carve you up on an altar to see what that power looks like inside you.”

“What, precisely, is your issue with her?”

“I find the High Priestesses to be a perversion of what they once were—once promised to be. Ianthe among the worst of them.”

A knot twisted in my stomach. “Why do you say that?”

“Get past my shields and I’ll show you.”

So that explained the turn in conversation. A taunt. Bait.

Holding his stare … I let myself fall for it. I let myself imagine that line between us—a bit of braided light … And there was his mental shield at the other end of the bond. Black and solid and impenetrable. No way in. However I’d slipped through before … I had no idea. “I’ve had enough tests for the day.”

Rhys crossed the two feet between us. “The High Priestesses have burrowed into a few of the courts—Dawn, Day, and Winter, mostly. They’ve entrenched themselves so thoroughly that their spies are everywhere, their followers near-fanatic with devotion. And yet, during those fifty years, they escaped. They remained hidden. I would not be surprised if Ianthe sought to establish a foothold in the Spring Court.”

“You mean to tell me they’re all black-hearted villains?”

“No. Some, yes. Some are compassionate and selfless and wise. But there are some who are merely self-righteous … Though those are the ones that always seem the most dangerous to me.”

“And Ianthe?”

A knowing sparkle in his eyes.

He really wouldn’t tell me. He’d dangle it before me like a piece of meat—

I lunged. Blindly, wildly, but I sent my power lashing down that line between us.

And yelped as it slammed against his inner shields, the reverberations echoing in me as surely as if I’d hit something with my body.

Rhys chuckled, and I saw fire. “Admirable—sloppy, but an admirable effort.”

Panting a bit, I seethed.

But he said, “Just for trying … ,” and took my hand in his. The bond went taut, that thing under my skin pulsing, and—

There was dark, and the colossal sense of him on the other side of his mental barricade of black adamant. That shield went on forever, the product of half a millennia of being hunted, attacked, hated. I brushed a mental hand against that wall.

Like a mountain cat arching into a touch, it seemed to purr—and then relaxed its guard.

His mind opened for me. An antechamber, at least. A single space he’d carved out, to allow me to see—

A bedroom carved from obsidian; a mammoth bed of ebony sheets, large enough to accommodate wings.

And on it, sprawled in nothing but her skin, lay Ianthe.

I reeled back, realizing it was a memory, and Ianthe was in his bed, in his court beneath that mountain, her full breasts peaked against the chill—

“There is more,” Rhys’s voice said from far away as I struggled to pull out. But my mind slammed into the shield—the other side of it. He’d trapped me in here—

“You kept me waiting,” Ianthe sulked.

The sensation of hard, carved wood digging into my back—Rhysand’s back—as he leaned against the bedroom door. “Get out.”

Ianthe gave a little pout, bending her knee and shifting her legs wider, baring herself to him. “I see the way you look at me, High Lord.”

“You see what you want to see,” he—we—said. The door opened beside him. “Get out.”

A coy tilt of her lips. “I heard you like to play games.” Her slender hand drifted low, trailing past her belly button. “I think you’ll find me a diverting playmate.”

Icy wrath crept through me—him—as he debated the merits of splattering her on the walls, and how much of an inconvenience it’d cause. She’d hounded him relentlessly—stalked the other males, too. Azriel had left last night because of it. And Mor was about one more comment away from snapping her neck.

“I thought your allegiance lay with other courts.” His voice was so cold. The voice of the High Lord.

“My allegiance lies with the future of Prythian, with the true power in this land.” Her fingers slid between her legs—and halted. Her gasp cleaved the room as he sent a tendril of power blasting for her, pinning that arm to the bed—away from herself. “Do you know what a union between us could do for Prythian, for the world?” she said, eyes devouring him still.

“You mean yourself.”

“Our offspring could rule Prythian.”

Cruel amusement danced through him. “So you want my crown—and for me to play stud?”

She tried to writhe her body, but his power held her. “I don’t see anyone else worthy of the position.”

She’d be a problem—now, and later. He knew it. Kill her now, end the threat before it began, face the wrath of the other High Priestesses, or … see what happened. “Get out of my bed. Get out of my room. And get out of my court.”

He released his power’s grip to allow her to do so.

Ianthe’s eyes darkened, and she slithered to her feet, not bothering with her clothes, draped over his favorite chair. Each step toward him had her generous breasts bobbing. She stopped barely a foot away. “You have no idea what I can make you feel, High Lord.”

She reached a hand for him, right between his legs.

His power lashed around her fingers before she could grab him.

He crunched the power down, twisting.

Ianthe screamed. She tried backing away, but his power froze her in place—so much power, so easily controlled, roiling around her, contemplating ending her existence like an asp surveying a mouse.

Rhys leaned close to breathe into her ear, “Don’t ever touch me. Don’t ever touch another male in my court.” His power snapped bones and tendons, and she screamed again. “Your hand will heal,” he said, stepping back. “The next time you touch me or anyone in my lands, you will find that the rest of you will not fare so well.”

Tears of agony ran down her face—the effect wasted by the hatred lighting her eyes. “You will regret this,” she hissed.

He laughed softly, a lover’s laugh, and a flicker of power had her thrown onto her ass in the hallway. Her clothes followed a heartbeat later. Then the door slammed.

Like a pair of scissors through a taut ribbon, the memory was severed, the shield behind me fell, and I stumbled back, blinking.

“Rule one,” Rhys told me, his eyes glazed with the rage of that memory, “don’t go into someone’s mind unless you hold the way open. A daemati might leave their minds spread wide for you—and then shut you inside, turn you into their willing slave.”

A chill went down my spine at the thought. But what he’d shown me …

“Rule two,” he said, his face hard as stone, “when—”

“When was that,” I blurted. I knew him well enough not to doubt its truth. “When did that happen between you?”

The ice remained in his eyes. “A hundred years ago. At the Court of Nightmares. I allowed her to visit after she’d begged for years, insisting she wanted to build ties between the Night Court and the priestesses. I’d heard rumors about her nature, but she was young and untried, and I hoped that perhaps a new High Priestess might indeed be the change her order needed. It turned out that she was already well trained by some of her less-benevolent sisters.”

I swallowed hard, my heart thundering. “She—she didn’t act that way at …”

Lucien.

Lucien had hated her. Had made vague, vicious allusions to not liking her, to being approached by her—

I was going to throw up. Had she … had she pursued him like that? Had he … had he been forced to say yes because of her position?

And if I went back to the Spring Court one day … How would I ever convince Tamlin to dismiss her? What if, now that I was gone, she was—

“Rule two,” Rhys finally went on, “be prepared to see things you might not like.”

Only fifty years later, Amarantha had come. And done exactly to Rhys what he’d wanted to kill Ianthe for. He’d let it happen to him. To keep them safe. To keep Azriel and Cassian from the nightmares that would haunt him forever, from enduring any more pain than what they’d suffered as children …

I lifted my head to ask him more. But Rhys had vanished.

Alone, I peeled off my clothes, struggling with the buckles and straps he’d put on me—when had it been? An hour or two ago?

It felt as if a lifetime had passed. And I was now a certified Book-tracker, it seemed.

Better than a party-planning wife for breeding little High Lords. What Ianthe had wanted to make me—to serve whatever agenda she had.

The bath was indeed hot, as he’d promised. And I mulled over what he’d shown me, seeing that hand again and again reach between his legs, the ownership and arrogance in that gesture—

I shut out the memory, the bath water suddenly cold.

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