فصل 22

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CHAPTER

22

Word still hadn’t come from the Summer Court the following morning, so Rhysand made good on his decision to bring us to the mortal realm.

“What does one wear, exactly, in the human lands?” Mor said from where she sprawled across the foot of my bed. For someone who claimed to have been out drinking and dancing until the Mother knew when, she appeared unfairly perky. Cassian and Azriel, grumbling and wincing over breakfast, had looked like they’d been run over by wagons. Repeatedly. Some small part of me wondered what it would be like to go out with them—to see what Velaris might offer at night.

I rifled through the clothes in my armoire. “Layers,” I said. “They … cover everything up. The décolletage might be a little daring depending on the event, but … everything else gets hidden beneath skirts and petticoats and nonsense.”

“Sounds like the women are used to not having to run—or fight. I don’t remember it being that way five hundred years ago.”

I paused on an ensemble of turquoise with accents of gold—rich, bright, regal. “Even with the wall, the threat of faeries remained, so … surely practical clothes would have been necessary to run, to fight any that crept through. I wonder what changed.” I pulled out the top and pants for her approval.

Mor merely nodded—no commentary like Ianthe might have provided, no beatific intervention.

I shoved away the thought, and the memory of what she’d tried to do to Rhys, and went on, “Nowadays, most women wed, bear children, and then plan their children’s marriages. Some of the poor might work in the fields, and a rare few are mercenaries or hired soldiers, but … the wealthier they are, the more restricted their freedoms and roles become. You’d think that money would buy you the ability to do whatever you pleased.”

“Some of the High Fae,” Mor said, pulling at an embroidered thread in my blanket, “are the same.”

I slipped behind the dressing screen to untie the robe I’d donned moments before she’d entered to keep me company while I prepared for our journey today.

“In the Court of Nightmares,” she went on, that voice falling soft and a bit cold once more, “females are … prized. Our virginity is guarded, then sold off to the highest bidder—whatever male will be of the most advantage to our families.”

I kept dressing, if only to give myself something to do while the horror of what I began to suspect slithered through my bones and blood.

“I was born stronger than anyone in my family. Even the males. And I couldn’t hide it, because they could smell it—the same way you can smell a High Lord’s Heir before he comes to power. The power leaves a mark, an … echo. When I was twelve, before I bled, I prayed it meant no male would take me as a wife, that I would escape what my elder cousins had endured: loveless, sometimes brutal, marriages.”

I tugged my blouse over my head, and buttoned the velvet cuffs at my wrists before adjusting the sheer, turquoise sleeves into place.

“But then I began bleeding a few days after I turned seventeen. And the moment my first blood came, my power awoke in full force, and even that gods-damned mountain trembled around us. But instead of being horrified, every single ruling family in the Hewn City saw me as a prize mare. Saw that power and wanted it bred into their bloodline, over and over again.”

“What about your parents?” I managed to say, slipping my feet into the midnight-blue shoes. It’d be the end of winter in the mortal lands—most shoes would be useless. Actually, my current ensemble would be useless, but only for the moments I’d be outside—bundled up.

“My family was beside themselves with glee. They could have their pick of an alliance with any of the other ruling families. My pleas for choice in the matter went unheard.”

She got out, I reminded myself. Mor got out, and now lived with people who cared for her, who loved her.

“The rest of the story,” Mor said as I emerged, “is long, and awful, and I’ll tell you some other time. I came in here to say I’m not going with you—to the mortal realm.”

“Because of how they treat women?”

Her rich brown eyes were bright, but calm. “When the queens come, I will be there. I wish to see if I recognize any of my long-dead friends in their faces. But … I don’t think I would be able to … behave with any others.”

“Did Rhys tell you not to go?” I said tightly.

“No,” she said, snorting. “He tried to convince me to come, actually. He said I was being ridiculous. But Cassian … he gets it. The two of us wore him down last night.”

My brows rose a bit. Why they’d gone out and gotten drunk, no doubt. To ply their High Lord with alcohol.

Mor shrugged at the unasked question in my eyes. “Cassian helped Rhys get me out. Before either had the real rank to do so. For Rhys, getting caught would have been a mild punishment, perhaps a bit of social shunning. But Cassian … he risked everything to make sure I stayed out of that court. And he laughs about it, but he believes he’s a low-born bastard, not worthy of his rank or life here. He has no idea that he’s worth more than any other male I met in that court—and outside of it. Him and Azriel, that is.”

Yes—Azriel, who kept a step away, whose shadows trailed him and seemed to fade in her presence. I opened my mouth to ask about her history with him, but the clock chimed ten. Time to go.

My hair had been arranged before breakfast in a braided coronet atop my head, a small diadem of gold—flecked with lapis lazuli—set before it. Matching earrings dangled low enough to brush the sides of my neck, and I picked up the twisting gold bracelets that had been left out on the dresser, sliding one onto either wrist.

Mor made no comment—and I knew that if had worn nothing but my undergarments, she would have told me to own every inch of it. I turned to her. “I’d like my sisters to meet you. Maybe not today. But if you ever feel like it …”

She cocked her head.

I rubbed the back of my bare neck. “I want them to hear your story. And know that there is a special strength … ” As I spoke I realized I needed to hear it, know it, too. “A special strength in enduring such dark trials and hardships … And still remaining warm, and kind. Still willing to trust—and reach out.”

Mor’s mouth tightened and she blinked a few times.

I went for the door, but paused with my hand on the knob. “I’m sorry if I was not as welcoming to you as you were to me when I arrived at the Night Court. I was … I’m trying to learn how to adjust.”

A pathetic, inarticulate way of explaining how ruined I’d become.

But Mor hopped off the bed, opened the door for me, and said, “There are good days and hard days for me—even now. Don’t let the hard days win.”

Today, it seemed, would indeed be yet another hard day.

With Rhys, Cassian, and Azriel ready to go—Amren and Mor remaining in Velaris to run the city and plan our inevitable trip to Hybern—I was left with only one choice: who to fly with.

Rhys would winnow us off the coast, right to the invisible line where the wall bisected our world. There was a tear in its magic about half a mile offshore—which we’d fly through.

But standing in that hallway, all of them in their fighting leathers and me bundled in a heavy, fur-lined cloak, I took one look at Rhys and felt those hands on my thighs again. Felt how it’d been to look inside his mind, felt his cold rage, felt him … defend himself, his people, his friends, using the power and masks in his arsenal. He’d seen and endured such … such unspeakable things, and yet … his hands on my thighs had been gentle, the touch like—

I didn’t let myself finish the thought as I said, “I’ll fly with Azriel.”

Rhys and Cassian looked as if I’d declared I wanted to parade through Velaris in nothing but my skin, but the shadowsinger merely bowed his head and said, “Of course.” And that, thankfully, was that.

Rhys winnowed in Cassian first, returning a heartbeat later for me and Azriel.

The spymaster had waited in silence. I tried not to look too uncomfortable as he scooped me into his arms, those shadows that whispered to him stroking my neck, my cheek. Rhys was frowning a bit, and I just gave him a sharp look and said, “Don’t let the wind ruin my hair.”

He snorted, gripped Azriel’s arm, and we all vanished into a dark wind.

Stars and blackness, Azriel’s scarred hands clenching tightly around me, my arms entwined around his neck, bracing, waiting, counting—

Then blinding sunlight, roaring wind, a plunge down, down—

Then we tilted, shooting straight. Azriel’s body was warm and hard, though those brutalized hands were considerate as he gripped me. No shadows trailed us, as if he’d left them in Velaris.

Below, ahead, behind, the vast, blue sea stretched. Above, fortresses of clouds plodded along, and to my left … A dark smudge on the horizon. Land.

Spring Court land.

I wondered if Tamlin was on the western sea border. He’d once hinted about trouble there. Could he sense me, sense us, now?

I didn’t let myself think about it. Not as I felt the wall.

As a human, it had been nothing but an invisible shield.

As a faerie … I couldn’t see it, but I could hear it crackling with power—the tang of it coating my tongue.

“It’s abhorrent, isn’t it,” Azriel said, his low voice nearly swallowed up by the wind.

“I can see why you—we were deterred for all these centuries,” I admitted. Every heartbeat had us racing closer to that gargantuan, nauseating sense of power.

“You’ll get used to it—the wording,” he said. Clinging to him so tightly, I couldn’t see his face. I watched the light shift inside the sapphire Siphon instead, as if it were the great eye of some half-slumbering beast from a frozen wasteland.

“I don’t really know where I fit in anymore,” I admitted, perhaps only because the wind was screeching around us and Rhys had already winnowed ahead to where Cassian’s dark form flew—beyond the wall.

“I’ve been alive almost five and a half centuries, and I’m not sure of that, either,” Azriel said.

I tried to pull back to read the beautiful, icy face, but he tightened his grip, a silent warning to brace myself.

How Azriel knew where the cleft was, I had no idea. It all looked the same to me: invisible, open sky.

But I felt the wall as we swept through. Felt it lunge for me, as if enraged we’d slipped past, felt the power flare and try to close that gap but failing—

Then we were out.

The wind was biting, the temperature so cold it snatched the breath from me. That bitter wind seemed somehow less alive than the spring air we’d left behind.

Azriel banked, veering toward the coastline, where Rhys and Cassian were now sweeping over the land. I shivered in my fur-lined cloak, clinging to Azriel’s warmth.

We cleared a sandy beach at the base of white cliffs, and flat, snowy land dotted with winter-ravaged forests spread beyond them.

The human lands.

My home.

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