فصل 24

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CHAPTER

24

It took hours for Elain to work her charm on the staff to swiftly pack their bags and leave, each with a purse of money to hasten the process. Mrs. Laurent, though the last to depart, promised to keep what she’d seen to herself.

I didn’t know where Rhys, Cassian, and Azriel had been waiting, but when Mrs. Laurent had hauled herself into the carriage crammed with the last of the staff, heading down to the village to catch transportation to wherever they all had family, there was a knock on the door.

The light was already fading, and the world outside was thick with shades of blue and white and gray, stained golden as I opened the front door and found them waiting.

Nesta and Elain were in the large dining room—the most open space in the house.

Looking at Rhys, Cassian, and Azriel, I knew I’d been right to select it as the meeting spot.

They were enormous—wild and rough and ancient.

Rhys’s brows lifted. “You’d think they’d been told plague had befallen the house.”

I pulled the door open wide enough to let them in, then quickly shut it against the bitter cold. “My sister Elain can convince anyone to do anything with a few smiles.”

Cassian let out a low whistle as he turned in place, surveying the grand entry hall, the ornate furniture, the paintings. All of it paid for by Tamlin—initially. He’d taken such care of my family, yet his own … I didn’t want to think about his family, murdered by a rival court for whatever reason no one had ever explained to me. Not now that I was living amongst them—

He’d been good—there was a part of Tamlin that was good—

Yes. He’d given me everything I needed to become myself, to feel safe. And when he got what he wanted … He’d stopped. Had tried, but not really. He’d let himself remain blind to what I needed after Amarantha.

“Your father must be a fine merchant,” Cassian said. “I’ve seen castles with less wealth.”

I found Rhys studying me, a silent question written across his face. I answered, “My father is away on business—and attending a meeting in Neva about the threat of Prythian.”

“Prythian?” Cassian said, twisting toward us. “Not Hybern?”

“It’s possible my sisters were mistaken—your lands are foreign to them. They merely said ‘above the wall.’ I assumed they thought it was Prythian.”

Azriel came forward on feet as silent as a cat’s. “If humans are aware of the threat, rallying against it, then that might give us an advantage when contacting the queens.”

Rhys was still watching me, as if he could see the weight that had pressed into me since arriving here. The last time I’d been in this house, I’d been a woman in love—such frantic, desperate love that I went back into Prythian, I went Under the Mountain, as a mere human. As fragile as my sisters now seemed to me.

“Come,” Rhys said, offering me a subtle, understanding nod before motioning to lead the way. “Let’s make this introduction.”

My sisters were standing by the window, the light of the chandeliers coaxing the gold in their hair to glisten. So beautiful, and young, and alive—but when would that change? How would it be to speak to them when I remained this way while their skin had grown paper-thin and wrinkled, their backs curved with the weight of years, their white hands speckled?

I would be barely into my immortal existence when theirs was wiped out like a candle before a cold breath.

But I could give them a few good years—safe years—until then.

I crossed the room, the three males a step behind, the wooden floors as shining and polished as a mirror beneath us. I had removed my cloak now that the servants were gone, and it was to me—not the Illyrians—that my sisters first looked. At the Fae clothes, the crown, the jewelry.

A stranger—this part of me was now a stranger to them.

Then they took in the winged males—or two of them. Rhys’s wings had vanished, his leathers replaced with his fine black jacket and pants.

My sisters both stiffened at Cassian and Azriel, at those mighty wings tucked in tight to powerful bodies, at the weapons, and then at the devastatingly beautiful faces of all three males.

Elain, to her credit, did not faint.

And Nesta, to hers, did not hiss at them. She just took a not-so-subtle step in front of Elain, and ducked her fisted hand behind her simple, elegant amethyst gown. The movement did not go unnoticed by my companions.

I halted a good four feet away, giving my sisters breathing space in a room that had suddenly been deprived of all air. I said to the males, “My sisters, Nesta and Elain Archeron.”

I had not thought of my family name, had not used it, for years and years. Because even when I had sacrificed and hunted for them, I had not wanted my father’s name—not when he sat before that little fire and let us starve. Let me walk into the woods alone. I’d stopped using it the day I’d killed that rabbit, and felt its blood stain my hands, the same way the blood of those faeries had marred it years later like an invisible tattoo.

My sisters did not curtsy. Their hearts wildly pounded, even Nesta’s, and the tang of their terror coated my tongue—

“Cassian,” I said, inclining my head to the left. Then I shifted to the right, grateful those shadows were nowhere to be found as I said, “Azriel.” I half turned. “And Rhysand, High Lord of the Night Court.”

Rhys had dimmed it, too, I realized. The night rippling off him, the otherworldly grace and thrum of power. But looking in those star-flecked violet eyes, no one would ever mistake him for anything but extraordinary.

He bowed to my sisters. “Thank you for your hospitality—and generosity,” he said with a warm smile. But there was something strained in it.

Elain tried to return the smile but failed.

And Nesta just looked at the three of them, then at me, and said, “The cook left dinner on the table. We should eat before it goes cold.” She didn’t wait for my agreement before striding off—right to the head of the polished cherry table.

Elain rasped, “Nice to meet you,” before hustling after her, the silk skirts of her cobalt dress whispering over the parquet floor.

Cassian was grimacing as we trailed them, Rhys’s brows were raised, and Azriel looked more inclined to blend into the nearest shadow and avoid this conversation all together.

Nesta was waiting at the head of the table, a queen ready to hold court. Elain trembled in the upholstered, carved wood chair to her left.

I did them all a favor and took the one to Nesta’s right. Cassian claimed the spot beside Elain, who clenched her fork as if she might wield it against him, and Rhys slid into the seat beside me, Azriel on his other side. A faint smile bloomed upon Azriel’s mouth as he noticed Elain’s fingers white-knuckled on that fork, but he kept silent, focusing instead, as Cassian was subtly trying to do, on adjusting his wings around a human chair. Cauldron damn me. I should have remembered. Though I doubted either would appreciate it if I now brought in two stools.

I sighed through my nose and yanked the lids off the various dishes and casseroles. Poached salmon with dill and lemon from the hothouse, whipped potatoes, roast chicken with beets and turnips from the root cellar, and some casserole of egg, game meat, and leeks. Seasonal food—whatever they had left at the end of the winter.

I scooped food onto my plate, the sounds of my sisters and companions doing the same filling the silence. I took a bite and fought my cringe.

Once, this food would have been rich and flavorful.

Now it was ash in my mouth.

Rhys was digging into his chicken without hesitation. Cassian and Azriel ate as if they hadn’t had a meal in months. Perhaps being warriors, fighting in wars, had given them the ability to see food as strength—and put taste aside.

I found Nesta watching me. “Is there something wrong with our food?” she said flatly.

I made myself take another bite, each movement of my jaw an effort. “No.” I swallowed and gulped down a healthy drink of water.

“So you can’t eat normal food anymore—or are you too good for it?” A question and a challenge.

Rhys’s fork clanked on his plate. Elain made a small, distressed noise.

And though Nesta had let me use this house, though she’d tried to cross the wall for me and we’d worked out a tentative truce, the tone, the disgust and disapproval …

I laid my hand flat on the table. “I can eat, drink, fuck, and fight just as well as I did before. Better, even.”

Cassian choked on his water. Azriel shifted on his seat, angling to spring between us if need be.

Nesta let out a low laugh.

But I could taste fire in my mouth, hear it roaring in my veins, and—

A blind, solid tug on the bond, cooling darkness sweeping into me, my temper, my senses, calming that fire—

I scrambled to throw my mental shields up. But they were intact.

Rhys didn’t so much as blink at me before he said evenly to Nesta, “If you ever come to Prythian, you will discover why your food tastes so different.”

Nesta looked down her nose at him. “I have little interest in ever setting foot in your land, so I’ll have to take your word on it.”

“Nesta, please,” Elain murmured.

Cassian was sizing up Nesta, a gleam in his eyes that I could only interpret as a warrior finding himself faced with a new, interesting opponent.

Then, Mother above, Nesta shifted her attention to Cassian, noticing that gleam—what it meant. She snarled softly, “What are you looking at?”

Cassian’s brows rose—little amusement to be found now. “Someone who let her youngest sister risk her life every day in the woods while she did nothing. Someone who let a fourteen-year-old child go out into that forest, so close to the wall.” My face began heating, and I opened my mouth. To say what, I didn’t know. “Your sister died—died to save my people. She is willing to do so again to protect you from war. So don’t expect me to sit here with my mouth shut while you sneer at her for a choice she did not get to make—and insult my people in the process.”

Nesta didn’t bat an eyelash as she studied the handsome features, the muscled torso. Then turned to me. Dismissing him entirely.

Cassian’s face went almost feral. A wolf who had been circling a doe … only to find a mountain cat wearing its hide instead.

Elain’s voice wobbled as she noted the same thing and quickly said to him, “It … it is very hard, you understand, to … accept it.” I realized the dark metal of her ring … it was iron. Even though I had told them about iron being useless, there it was. The gift from her Fae-hating soon-to-be-husband’s family. Elain cast pleading eyes on Rhys, then Azriel, such mortal fear coating her features, her scent. “We are raised this way. We hear stories of your kind crossing the wall to hurt us. Our own neighbor, Clare Beddor, was taken, her family murdered …”

A naked body spiked to a wall. Broken. Dead. Nailed there for months.

Rhys was staring at his plate. Unmoving. Unblinking.

He had given Amarantha Clare’s name—given it, despite knowing I’d lied to him about it.

Elain said, “It’s all very disorienting.”

“I can imagine,” Azriel said. Cassian flashed him a glare. But Azriel’s attention was on my sister, a polite, bland smile on his face. Her shoulders loosened a bit. I wondered if Rhys’s spymaster often got his information through stone-cold manners as much as stealth and shadows.

Elain sat a little higher as she said to Cassian, “And as for Feyre’s hunting during those years, it was not Nesta’s neglect alone that is to blame. We were scared, and had received no training, and everything had been taken, and we failed her. Both of us.”

Nesta said nothing, her back rigid.

Rhys gave me a warning look. I gripped Nesta’s arm, drawing her attention to me. “Can we just … start over?”

I could almost taste her pride roiling in her veins, barking to not back down.

Cassian, damn him, gave her a taunting grin.

But Nesta merely hissed, “Fine.” And went back to eating.

Cassian watched every bite she took, every bob of her throat as she swallowed.

I forced myself to clean my plate, aware of Nesta’s own attention on my eating.

Elain said to Azriel, perhaps the only two civilized ones here, “Can you truly fly?”

He set down his fork, blinking. I might have even called him self-conscious. He said, “Yes. Cassian and I hail from a race of faeries called Illyrians. We’re born hearing the song of the wind.”

“That’s very beautiful,” she said. “Is it not—frightening, though? To fly so high?”

“It is sometimes,” Azriel said. Cassian tore his relentless attention from Nesta long enough to nod his agreement. “If you are caught in a storm, if the current drops away. But we are trained so thoroughly that the fear is gone before we’re out of swaddling.” And yet, Azriel had not been trained until long after that. You get used to the wording, he’d told me earlier. How often did he have to remind himself to use such words? Did “we” and “our” and “us” taste as foreign on his tongue as they did on mine?

“You look like High Fae,” Nesta cut in, her voice like a honed blade. “But you are not?”

“Only the High Fae who look like them,” Cassian drawled, waving a hand to me and Rhys, “are High Fae. Everyone else, any other differences, mark you as what they like to call ‘lesser’ faeries.”

Rhysand at last said, “It’s become a term used for ease, but masks a long, bloody history of injustices. Many lesser faeries resent the term—and wish for us all to be called one thing.”

“Rightly so,” Cassian said, drinking from his water.

Nesta surveyed me. “But you were not High Fae—not to begin. So what do they call you?” I couldn’t tell if it was a jab or not.

Rhys said, “Feyre is whoever she chooses to be.”

Nesta now examined us all, raising her eyes to that crown. But she said, “Write your letter to the queens tonight. Tomorrow, Elain and I will go to the village to dispatch it. If the queens do come here,” she added, casting a frozen glare at Cassian, “I’d suggest bracing yourselves for prejudices far deeper than ours. And contemplating how you plan to get us all out of this mess should things go sour.”

“We’ll take that into account,” Rhys said smoothly.

Nesta went on, utterly unimpressed by any of us, “I assume you’ll want to stay the night.”

Rhys glanced at me in silent question. We could easily leave, the males finding the way home in the dark, but … Too soon, perhaps, the world would go to hell. I said, “If it’s not too much trouble, then yes. We’ll leave after breakfast tomorrow.”

Nesta didn’t smile, but Elain beamed. “Good. I think there are a few bedrooms ready—”

“We’ll need two,” Rhys interrupted quietly. “Next to each other, with two beds each.”

I narrowed my brows at him.

Rhys explained to me, “Magic is different across the wall. So our shields, our senses, might not work right. I’m taking no chances. Especially in a house with a woman betrothed to a man who gave her an iron engagement ring.”

Elain flushed a bit. “The—the bedrooms that have two beds aren’t next to each other,” she murmured.

I sighed. “We’ll move things around. It’s fine. This one,” I added with a glare in Rhys’s direction, “is only cranky because he’s old and it’s past his bedtime.”

Rhys chuckled, Cassian’s wrath slipping enough that he grinned, and Elain, noticing Azriel’s ease as proof that things weren’t indeed about to go badly, offered one of her own as well.

Nesta just rose to her feet, a slim pillar of steel, and said to no one in particular, “If we’re done eating, then this meal is over.”

And that was that.

Rhys wrote the letter for me, Cassian and Azriel chiming in with corrections, and it took us until midnight before we had a draft we all thought sounded impressive, welcoming, and threatening enough.

My sisters cleaned the dishes while we worked, and had excused themselves to bed hours before, mentioning where to find our rooms.

Cassian and Azriel were to share one, Rhys and I the other.

I frowned at the large guest bedroom as Rhys shut the door behind us. The bed was large enough for two, but I wasn’t sharing it. I whirled to him, “I’m not—”

Wood thumped on carpet, and a small bed appeared by the door. Rhys plopped onto it, tugging off his boots. “Nesta is a delight, by the way.”

“She’s … her own creature,” I said. It was perhaps the kindest thing I could say about her.

“It’s been a few centuries since someone got under Cassian’s skin that easily. Too bad they’re both inclined to kill the other.”

Part of me shuddered at the havoc the two would wreak if they decided to stop fighting.

“And Elain,” Rhys said, sighing as he removed his other boot, “should not be marrying that lord’s son, not for about a dozen reasons, the least of which being the fact that you won’t be invited to the wedding. Though maybe that’s a good thing.”

I hissed. “That’s not funny.”

“At least you won’t have to send a gift, either. I doubt her father-in-law would deign to accept it.”

“You have a lot of nerve mocking my sisters when your own friends have equally as much melodrama.” His brows lifted in silent question. I snorted. “Oh, so you haven’t noticed the way Azriel looks at Mor? Or how she sometimes watches him, defends him? And how both of them do such a good job letting Cassian be a buffer between them most of the time?”

Rhys leveled a look at me. “I’d suggest keeping those observations to yourself.”

“You think I’m some busybody gossip? My life is miserable enough as it is—why would I want to spread that misery to those around me as well?”

“Is it miserable? Your life, I mean.” A careful question.

“I don’t know. Everything is happening so quickly that I don’t know what to feel.” It was more honest than I’d been in a while.

“Hmmm. Perhaps once we return home, I should give you the day off.”

“How considerate of you, my lord.”

He snorted, unbuttoning his jacket. I realized I stood in all my finery—with nothing to wear to sleep.

A snap of Rhys’s fingers, and my nightclothes—and some flimsy underthings—appeared on the bed. “I couldn’t decide which scrap of lace I wanted you to wear, so I brought you a few to choose from.”

“Pig,” I barked, snatching the clothes and heading to the adjoining bathing room.

The room was toasty when I emerged, Rhys in the bed he’d summoned from wherever, all light gone save for the murmuring embers in the hearth. Even the sheets were warm as I slid between them.

“Thank you for warming the bed,” I said into the dimness.

His back was to me, but I heard him clearly as he said, “Amarantha never once thanked me for that.”

Any warmth leeched away. “She didn’t suffer enough.”

Not even close, for what she had done. To me, to him, to Clare, to so many others.

Rhys didn’t answer. Instead he said, “I didn’t think I could get through that dinner.”

“What do you mean?” He’d been rather … calm. Contained.

“Your sisters mean well, or one of them does. But seeing them, sitting at that table … I hadn’t realized it would hit me as strongly. How young you were. How they didn’t protect you.”

“I managed just fine.”

“We owe them our gratitude for letting us use this house,” he said quietly, “but it will be a long while yet before I can look at your sisters without wanting to roar at them.”

“A part of me feels the same way,” I admitted, nestling down into the blankets. “But if I hadn’t gone into those woods, if they hadn’t let me go out there alone … You would still be enslaved. And perhaps Amarantha would now be readying her forces to wipe out these lands.”

Silence. Then, “I am paying you a wage, you know. For all of this.”

“You don’t need to.” Even if … even if I had no money of my own.

“Every member of my court receives one. There’s already a bank account in Velaris for you, where your wages will be deposited. And you have lines of credit at most stores. So if you don’t have enough on you when you’re shopping, you can have the bill sent to the House.”

“I—you didn’t have to do that.” I swallowed hard. “And how much, exactly, am I getting paid each month?”

“The same amount the others receive.” No doubt a generous—likely too generous—salary. But he suddenly asked, “When is your birthday?”

“Do I even need to count them anymore?” He merely waited. I sighed. “It’s the Winter Solstice.”

He paused. “That was months ago.”

“Mmmhmm.”

“You didn’t … I don’t remember seeing you celebrate it.”

Through the bond, through my unshielded, mess of a mind. “I didn’t tell anyone. I didn’t want a party when there was already all that celebrating going on. Birthdays seem meaningless now, anyway.”

He was quiet for a long minute. “You were truly born on the Winter Solstice?”

“Is that so hard to believe? My mother claimed I was so withdrawn and strange because I was born on the longest night of the year. She tried one year to have my birthday on another day, but forgot to do it the next time—there was probably a more advantageous party she had to plan.”

“Now I know where Nesta gets it. Honestly, it’s a shame we can’t stay longer—if only to see who’ll be left standing: her or Cassian.”

“My money’s on Nesta.”

A soft chuckle that snaked along my bones—a reminder that he’d once bet on me. Had been the only one Under the Mountain who had put money on me defeating the Middengard Wyrm. He said, “So’s mine.”

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