فصل 29

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CHAPTER

29

Despite the chill night, every shop was open as we walked through the city. Musicians played in the little squares, and the Palace of Thread and Jewels was packed with shoppers and performers, High Fae and lesser faeries alike. But we continued past, down to the river itself, the water so smooth that the stars and lights blended on its dark surface like a living ribbon of eternity.

The five of them were unhurried as we strolled across one of the wide marble bridges spanning the Sidra, often moving forward or dropping back to chat with one another. From the ornate lanterns that lined either side of the bridge, faelight cast golden shadows on the wings of the three males, gilding the talons at the apex of each.

The conversation ranged from the people they knew, matches and teams for sports I’d never heard of (apparently, Amren was a vicious, obsessive supporter of one), new shops, music they’d heard, clubs they favored … Not a mention of Hybern or the threats we faced—no doubt from secrecy, but I had a feeling it was also because tonight, this time together … they did not want that terrible, hideous presence intruding. As if they were all just ordinary citizens—even Rhys. As if they weren’t the most powerful people in this court, maybe in all of Prythian. And no one, absolutely no one, on the street balked or paled or ran.

Awed, perhaps a little intimidated, but … no fear. It was so unusual that I kept silent, merely observing them—their world. The normalcy that they each fought so hard to preserve. That I had once raged against, resented.

But there was no place like this in the world. Not so serene. So loved by its people and its rulers.

The other side of the city was even more crowded, with patrons in finery out to attend the many theaters we passed. I’d never seen a theater before—never seen a play, or a concert, or a symphony. In our ramshackle village, we’d gotten mummers and minstrels at best—herds of beggars yowling on makeshift instruments at worst.

We strolled along the riverside walkway, past shops and cafés, music spilling from them. And I thought—even as I hung back from the others, my gloved hands stuffed into the pockets of my heavy blue overcoat—that the sounds of it all might have been the most beautiful thing I’d ever heard: the people, and the river, and the music; the clank of silverware on plates; the scrape of chairs being pulled out and pushed in; the shouts of vendors selling their wares as they ambled past.

How much had I missed in these months of despair and numbness?

But no longer. The lifeblood of Velaris thrummed through me, and in rare moments of quiet, I could have sworn I heard the clash of the sea, clawing at the distant cliffs.

Eventually, we entered a small restaurant beside the river, built into the lower level of a two-story building, the whole space bedecked in greens and golds and barely big enough to fit all of us. And three sets of Illyrian wings.

But the owner knew them, and kissed them each on the cheek, even Rhysand. Well, except for Amren, whom the owner bowed to before she hustled back into her kitchen and bade us sit at the large table that was half in, half out of the open storefront. The starry night was crisp, the wind rustling the potted palms placed with loving care along the riverside walkway railing. No doubt spelled to keep from dying in the winter—just as the warmth of the restaurant kept the chill from disturbing us or any of those dining in the open air at the river’s edge.

Then the food platters began pouring out, along with the wine and the conversation, and we dined under the stars beside the river. I’d never had such food—warm and rich and savory and spicy. Like it filled not only my stomach, but that lingering hole in my chest, too.

The owner—a slim, dark-skinned female with lovely brown eyes—was standing behind my chair, chatting with Rhys about the latest shipment of spices that had come to the Palaces. “The traders were saying the prices might rise, High Lord, especially if rumors about Hybern awakening are correct.”

Down the table, I felt the others’ attention slide to us, even as they kept talking.

Rhys leaned back in his seat, swirling his goblet of wine. “We’ll find a way to keep the prices from skyrocketing.”

“Don’t trouble yourself, of course,” the owner said, wringing her fingers a bit. “It’s just … so lovely to have such spices available again—now that … that things are better.”

Rhys gave her a gentle smile, the one that made him seem younger. “I wouldn’t be troubling myself—not when I like your cooking so much.”

The owner beamed, flushing, and looked to where I’d half twisted in my seat to watch her. “Is it to your liking?”

The happiness on her face, the satisfaction that only a day of hard work doing something you love could bring, hit me like a stone.

I—I remembered feeling that way. After painting from morning until night. Once, that was all I had wanted for myself. I looked to the dishes, then back at her, and said, “I’ve lived in the mortal realm, and lived in other courts, but I’ve never had food like this. Food that makes me … feel awake.”

It sounded about as stupid as it felt coming out, but I couldn’t think of another way to say it. But the owner nodded like she understood and squeezed my shoulder. “Then I’ll bring you a special dessert,” she said, and strode into her kitchen.

I turned back to my plate, but found Rhysand’s eyes on me. His face was softer, more contemplative than I’d ever seen it, his mouth slightly open.

I lifted my brows. What?

He gave me a cocky grin and leaned in to hear the story Mor was telling about—

I forgot what she was talking about as the owner emerged with a metal goblet full of dark liquid and placed it before Amren.

Rhys’s Second hadn’t touched her plate, but pushed the food around like she might actually be trying to be polite. When she saw the goblet laid before her, she flicked her brows up. “You didn’t have to do that.”

The owner shrugged her slim shoulders. “It’s fresh and hot, and we needed the beast for tomorrow’s roast, anyway.”

I had a horrible feeling I knew what was inside.

Amren swirled the goblet, the dark liquid lapping at the sides like wine, then sipped from it. “You spiced it nicely.” Blood gleamed on her teeth.

The owner bowed. “No one leaves my place hungry,” she said before walking away.

Indeed, I almost asked Mor to roll me out of the restaurant by the time we were done and Rhys had paid the tab, despite the owner’s protests. My muscles were barking thanks to my earlier training in the mortal forest, and at some point during the meal, every part of me I’d used while tackling Rhys into the snow had started to ache.

Mor rubbed her stomach in lazy circles as we paused beside the river. “I want to go dancing. I won’t be able to fall asleep when I’m this full. Rita’s is right up the street.”

Dancing. My body groaned in protest and I glanced about for an ally to shoot down this ridiculous idea.

But Azriel—Azriel said, his eyes wholly on Mor, “I’m in.”

“Of course you are,” Cassian grumbled, frowning at him. “Don’t you have to be off at dawn?”

Mor’s frown now mirrored Cassian’s—as if she realized where and what he’d be doing tomorrow. She said to Azriel, “We don’t have to—”

“I want to,” Azriel said, holding her gaze long enough that Mor dropped it, twisted toward Cassian, and said, “Will you deign to join us, or do you have plans to ogle your muscles in the mirror?”

Cassian snorted, looping his elbow through hers and leading her up the street. “I’ll go—for the drinks, you ass. No dancing.”

“Thank the Mother. You nearly shattered my foot the last time you tried.”

It was an effort not to stare at Azriel as he watched them head up the steep street, arm in arm and bickering with every step. The shadows gathered around his shoulders, like they were indeed whispering to him, shielding him, perhaps. His broad chest expanded with a deep breath that sent them skittering, and then he set into an easy, graceful stroll after them. If Azriel was going with them, then any excuse I might make not to—

I turned pleading eyes to Amren, but she’d vanished.

“She’s getting more blood in the back to take home with her,” Rhys said in my ear, and I nearly jumped out of my skin. His chuckle was warm against my neck. “And then she’ll be going right to her apartment to gorge herself.”

I tried not to shudder as I faced him. “Why blood?”

“It doesn’t seem polite to ask.”

I frowned up at him. “Are you going dancing?”

He peered over my shoulder at his friends, who had almost scaled the steep street, some people pausing to greet them. “I’d rather walk home,” Rhys said at last. “It’s been a long day.”

Mor turned back at the top of the hill, her purple clothes floating around her in the winter wind, and raised a dark gold brow. Rhys shook his head, and she waved, followed by short waves from Azriel and Cassian, who’d dropped back to talk with his brother-in-arms.

Rhys gestured forward. “Shall we? Or are you too cold?”

Consuming blood with Amren in the back of the restaurant sounded more appealing, but I shook my head and fell into step beside him as we walked along the river toward the bridge.

I drank in the city as greedily as Amren had gobbled down the spiced blood, and I almost stumbled as I spied the glimmer of color across the water.

The Rainbow of Velaris glowed like a fistful of jewels, as if the paint they used on their houses came alive in the moonlight.

“This is my favorite view in the city,” Rhys said, stopping at the metal railing along the river walkway and gazing toward the artists’ quarter. “It was my sister’s favorite, too. My father used to have to drag her kicking and screaming out of Velaris, she loved it so much.”

I fumbled for the right response to the quiet sorrow in those words. But like a useless fool, I merely asked, “Then why are both your houses on the other side of the river?” I leaned against the railing, watching the reflections of the Rainbow wobble on the river surface like bright fishes struggling in the current.

“Because I wanted a quiet street—so I could visit this clamor whenever I wished and then have a home to retreat to.”

“You could have just reordered the city.”

“Why the hell would I change one thing about this place?”

“Isn’t that what High Lords do?” My breath clouded in front of me in the brisk night. “Whatever they please?”

He studied my face. “There are a great many things that I wish to do, and don’t get to.”

I hadn’t realized how close we were standing. “So when you buy jewelry for Amren, is it to keep yourself in her good graces or because you’re—together?”

Rhys barked a laugh. “When I was young and stupid, I once invited her to my bed. She laughed herself hoarse. The jewelry is just because I enjoy buying it for a friend who works hard for me, and has my back when I need it. Staying in her good graces is an added bonus.”

None of it surprised me. “And you didn’t marry anyone.”

“So many questions tonight.” I stared at him until he sighed. “I’ve had lovers, but I never felt tempted to invite one of them to share a life with me. And I honestly think that if I’d asked, they all would have said no.”

“I would have thought they’d be fighting each other to win your hand.” Like Ianthe.

“Marrying me means a life with a target on your back—and if there were offspring, then a life of knowing they’d be hunted from the moment they were conceived. Everyone knows what happened to my family—and my people know that beyond our borders, we are hated.”

I still didn’t know the full story, but I asked, “Why? Why are you hated? Why keep the truth of this place secret? It’s a shame no one knows about it—what good you do here.”

“There was a time when the Night Court was a Court of Nightmares and was ruled from the Hewn City. Long ago. But an ancient High Lord had a different vision, and rather than allowing the world to see his territory vulnerable at a time of change, he sealed the borders and staged a coup, eliminating the worst of the courtiers and predators, building Velaris for the dreamers, establishing trade and peace.”

His eyes blazed, as if he could peer all the way back in time to see it. With those remarkable gifts of his, it wouldn’t surprise me.

“To preserve it,” Rhys continued, “he kept it a secret, and so did his offspring, and their offspring. There are many spells on the city itself—laid by him, and his Heirs, that make those who trade here unable to spill our secrets, and grant them adept skills at lying in order to keep the origin of their goods, their ships, hidden from the rest of the world. Rumor has it that ancient High Lord cast his very life’s blood upon the stones and river to keep that spell eternal.

“But along the way, despite his best intentions, darkness grew again—not as bad as it had once been … But bad enough that there is a permanent divide within my court. We allow the world to see the other half, to fear them—so that they might never guess this place thrives here. And we allow the Court of Nightmares to continue, blind to Velaris’s existence, because we know that without them, there are some courts and kingdoms that might strike us. And invade our borders to discover the many, many secrets we’ve kept from the other High Lords and courts these millennia.”

“So truly none of the others know? In the other courts?”

“Not a soul. You will not find it on a single map, or mentioned in any book beyond those written here. Perhaps it is our loss to be so contained and isolated, but … ” He gestured to the city around us. “My people do not seem to be suffering much for it.”

Indeed, they did not. Thanks to Rhys—and his Inner Circle. “Are you worried about Az going to the mortal lands tomorrow?”

He tapped a finger against the rail. “Of course I am. But Azriel has infiltrated places far more harrowing than a few mortal courts. He’d find my worrying insulting.”

“Does he mind what he does? Not the spying, I mean. What he did to the Attor today.”

Rhys loosed a breath. “It’s hard to tell with him—and he’d never tell me. I’ve witnessed Cassian rip apart opponents and then puke his guts up once the carnage stopped, sometimes even mourn them. But Azriel … Cassian tries, I try—but I think the only person who ever gets him to admit to any sort of feeling is Mor. And that’s only when she’s pestered him to the point where even his infinite patience has run out.”

I smiled a bit. “But he and Mor—they never … ?”

“That’s between them—and Cassian. I’m not stupid or arrogant enough to get in the middle of it.” Which I would certainly be if I shoved my nose in their business.

We walked in silence across the packed bridge to the other side of the river. My muscles quivered at the steep hills between us and the town house.

I was about to beg Rhys to fly me home when I caught the strands of music pouring from a group of performers outside a restaurant.

My hands slackened at my sides. A reduced version of the symphony I’d heard in a chill dungeon, when I had been so lost to terror and despair that I had hallucinated—hallucinated as this music poured into my cell … and kept me from shattering.

And once more, the beauty of it hit me, the layering and swaying, the joy and peace.

They had never played a piece like it Under the Mountain—never this sort of music. And I’d never heard music in my cell save for that one time.

“You,” I breathed, not taking my eyes from the musicians playing so skillfully that even the diners had set down their forks in the cafés nearby. “You sent that music into my cell. Why?”

Rhysand’s voice was hoarse. “Because you were breaking. And I couldn’t find another way to save you.”

The music swelled and built. I’d seen a palace in the sky when I’d hallucinated—a place between sunset and dawn … a house of moonstone pillars. “I saw the Night Court.”

He glanced sidelong at me. “I didn’t send those images to you.”

I didn’t care. “Thank you. For everything—for what you did. Then … and now.”

“Even after the Weaver? After this morning with my trap for the Attor?”

My nostrils flared. “You ruin everything.”

Rhys grinned, and I didn’t notice if people were staring as he slid an arm under my legs, and shot us both into the sky.

I could learn to love it, I realized. The flying.

I was reading in bed, listening to the merry chatter of the toasty birch fire across the room, when I turned the page of my book and a piece of paper fell out.

I took one look at the cream stationery and the handwriting and sat up straight.

On it, Rhysand had written,

I might be a shameless flirt, but at least I don’t have a horrible temper. You should come tend to my wounds from our squabble in the snow. I’m bruised all over thanks to you.

Something clicked against the nightstand, and a pen rolled across the polished mahogany. Hissing, I snatched it up and scribbled:

Go lick your wounds and leave me be.

The paper vanished.

It was gone for a while—far longer than it should have taken to write the few words that appeared on the paper when it returned.

I’d much rather you licked my wounds for me.

My heart pounded, faster and faster, and a strange sort of rush went through my veins as I read the sentence again and again. A challenge.

I clamped my lips shut to keep from smiling as I wrote,

Lick you where, exactly?

The paper vanished before I’d even completed the final mark.

His reply was a long time coming. Then,

Wherever you want to lick me, Feyre.

I’d like to start with “Everywhere,” but I can choose, if necessary.

I wrote back,

Let’s hope my licking is better than yours. I remember how horrible you were at it Under the Mountain.

Lie. He’d licked away my tears when I’d been a moment away from shattering.

He’d done it to keep me distracted—keep me angry. Because anger was better than feeling nothing; because anger and hatred were the long-lasting fuel in the endless dark of my despair. The same way that music had kept me from breaking.

Lucien had come to patch me up a few times, but no one risked quite so much in keeping me not only alive, but as mentally intact as I could be considering the circumstances. Just as he’d been doing these past few weeks—taunting and teasing me to keep the hollowness at bay. Just as he was doing now.

I was under duress, his next note read. If you want, I’d be more than happy to prove you wrong. I’ve been told I’m very, very good at licking.

I clenched my knees together and wrote back, Good night.

A heartbeat later, his note said, Try not to moan too loudly when you dream about me. I need my beauty rest.

I got up, chucked the letter in the burbling fire, and gave it a vulgar gesture.

I could have sworn laughter rumbled down the hall.

I didn’t dream about Rhys.

I dreamed about the Attor, its claws on me, gripping me as I was punched. I dreamed about its hissing laughter and foul stench.

But I slept through the night. And did not wake once.

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