فصل 30

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CHAPTER

30

Cassian might have been cocky grins and vulgarity most of the time, but in the sparring ring in a rock-carved courtyard atop the House of Wind the next afternoon, he was a stone-cold killer.

And when those lethal instincts were turned on me …

Beneath the fighting leathers, even with the brisk temperature, my skin was slick with sweat. Each breath ravaged my throat, and my arms trembled so badly that any time I so much as tried to use my fingers, my pinkie would start shaking uncontrollably.

I was watching it wobble of its own accord when Cassian closed the gap between us, gripped my hand, and said, “This is because you’re hitting on the wrong knuckles. Top two—pointer and middle finger—that’s where the punches should connect. Hitting here,” he said, tapping a callused finger on the already-bruised bit of skin in the vee between my pinkie and ring finger, “will do more damage to you than to your opponent. You’re lucky the Attor didn’t want to get into a fistfight.”

We’d been going at it for an hour now, walking through the basic steps of hand-to-hand combat. And it turned out that I might have been good at hunting, at archery, but using my left side? Pathetic. I was as uncoordinated as a newborn fawn attempting to walk. Punching and stepping with the left side of my body at once had been nearly impossible, and I’d stumbled into Cassian more often than I’d hit him. The right punches—those were easy.

“Get a drink,” he said. “Then we’re working on your core. No point in learning to punch if you can’t even hold your stance.”

I frowned toward the sound of clashing blades in the open sparring ring across from us.

Azriel, surprisingly, had returned from the mortal realm by lunch. Mor had intercepted him first, but I’d gotten a secondhand report from Rhys that he’d found some sort of barrier around the queens’ palace, and had needed to return to assess what might be done about it.

Assess—and brood, it seemed, since Azriel had barely managed a polite hello to me before launching into sparring with Rhysand, his face grim and tight. They’d been at it now for an hour straight, their slender blades like flashes of quicksilver as they moved around and around. I wondered if it was as much for practice as it was for Rhys to help his spymaster work off his frustration.

At some point since I’d last looked, despite the sunny winter day, they’d removed their leather jackets and shirts.

Their tan, muscled arms were both covered in the same manner of tattoos that adorned my own hand and forearm, the ink flowing across their shoulders and over their sculpted pectoral muscles. Between their wings, a line of them ran down the column of their spine, right beneath where they typically strapped their blades.

“We get the tattoos when we’re initiated as Illyrian warriors—for luck and glory on the battlefield,” Cassian said, following my stare. I doubted Cassian was drinking in the rest of the image, though: the stomach muscles gleaming with sweat in the bright sun, the bunching of their powerful thighs, the rippling strength in their backs, surrounding those mighty, beautiful wings.

Death on swift wings.

The title came out of nowhere, and for a moment, I saw the painting I’d create: the darkness of those wings, faintly illuminated with lines of red and gold by the radiant winter sun, the glare off their blades, the harshness of the tattoos against the beauty of their faces—

I blinked, and the image was gone, like a cloud of hot breath on a cold night.

Cassian jerked his chin toward his brothers. “Rhys is out of shape and won’t admit it, but Azriel is too polite to beat him into the dirt.”

Rhys looked anything but out of shape. Cauldron boil me, what the hell did they eat to look like that?

My knees wobbled a bit as I strode to the stool where Cassian had brought a pitcher of water and two glasses. I poured one for myself, my pinkie trembling uncontrollably again.

My tattoo, I realized, had been made with Illyrian markings. Perhaps Rhys’s own way of wishing me luck and glory while facing Amarantha.

Luck and glory. I wouldn’t mind a little of either of those things these days.

Cassian filled a glass for himself and clinked it against mine, so at odds from the brutal taskmaster who, moments ago, had me walking through punches, hitting his sparring pads, and trying not to crumple on the ground to beg for death. So at odds from the male who had gone head to head with my sister, unable to resist matching himself against Nesta’s spirit of steel and flame.

“So,” Cassian said, gulping down the water. Behind us, Rhys and Azriel clashed, separated, and clashed again. “When are you going to talk about how you wrote a letter to Tamlin, telling him you’ve left for good?”

The question hit me so viciously that I sniped, “How about when you talk about how you tease and taunt Mor to hide whatever it is you feel for her?” Because I had no doubt that he was well aware of the role he played in their little tangled web.

The beat of crunching steps and clashing blades behind us stumbled—then resumed.

Cassian let out a startled, rough laugh. “Old news.”

“I have a feeling that’s what she probably says about you.”

“Get back in the ring,” Cassian said, setting down his empty glass. “No core exercises. Just fists. You want to mouth off, then back it up.”

But the question he’d asked swarmed in my skull. You’ve left for good; you’ve left for good; you’ve left for good.

I had—I’d meant it. But without knowing what he thought, if he’d even care that much … No, I knew he’d care. He’d probably trashed the manor in his rage.

If my mere mention of him suffocating me had caused him to destroy his study, then this … I had been frightened by those fits of pure rage, cowed by them. And it had been love—I had loved him so deeply, so greatly, but …

“Rhys told you?” I said.

Cassian had the wisdom to look a bit nervous at the expression on my face. “He informed Azriel, who is … monitoring things and needs to know. Az told me.”

“I assume it was while you were out drinking and dancing.” I drained the last of my water and walked back into the ring.

“Hey,” Cassian said, catching my arm. His hazel eyes were more green than brown today. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to hit a nerve. Az only told me because I told him I needed to know for my own forces; to know what to expect. None of us … we don’t think it’s a joke. What you did was a hard call. A really damn hard call. It was just my shitty way of trying to see if you needed to talk about it. I’m sorry,” he repeated, letting go.

The stumbling words, the earnestness in his eyes … I nodded as I resumed my place. “All right.”

Though Rhysand kept at it with Azriel, I could have sworn his eyes were on me—had been on me from the moment Cassian had asked me that question.

Cassian shoved his hands into the sparring pads and held them up. “Thirty one-two punches; then forty; then fifty.” I winced at him over his gloves as I wrapped my hands. “You didn’t answer my question,” he said with a tentative smile—one I doubted his soldiers or Illyrian brethren ever saw.

It had been love, and I’d meant it—the happiness, the lust, the peace … I’d felt all of those things. Once.

I positioned my legs at twelve and five and lifted my hands up toward my face.

But maybe those things had blinded me, too.

Maybe they’d been a blanket over my eyes about the temper. The need for control, the need to protect that ran so deep he’d locked me up. Like a prisoner.

“I’m fine,” I said, stepping and jabbing with my left side. Fluid—smooth like silk, as if my immortal body at last aligned.

My fist slammed into Cassian’s sparring pad, snatching back as fast as a snake’s bite as I struck with my right, shoulder and foot twisting.

“One,” Cassian counted. Again, I struck, one-two. “Two. And fine is good—fine is great.”

Again, again, again.

We both knew “fine” was a lie.

I had done everything—everything for that love. I had ripped myself to shreds, I had killed innocents and debased myself, and he had sat beside Amarantha on that throne. And he couldn’t do anything, hadn’t risked it—hadn’t risked being caught until there was one night left, and all he’d wanted to do wasn’t free me, but fuck me, and—

Again, again, again. One-two; one-two; one-two—

And when Amarantha had broken me, when she had snapped my bones and made my blood boil in its veins, he’d just knelt and begged her. He hadn’t tried to kill her, hadn’t crawled for me. Yes, he’d fought for me—but I’d fought harder for him.

Again, again, again, each pound of my fists on the sparring pads a question and an answer.

And he had the nerve once his powers were back to shove me into a cage. The nerve to say I was no longer useful; I was to be cloistered for his peace of mind. He’d given me everything I needed to become myself, to feel safe, and when he got what he wanted—when he got his power back, his lands back … he stopped trying. He was still good, still Tamlin, but he was just … wrong.

And then I was sobbing through my clenched teeth, the tears washing away that infected wound, and I didn’t care that Cassian was there, or Rhys or Azriel.

The clashing steel stopped.

And then my fists connected with bare skin, and I realized I’d punched through the sparring pads—no, burned through them, and—

And I stopped, too.

The wrappings around my hands were now mere smudges of soot. Cassian’s upraised palms remained before me—ready to take the blow, if I needed to make it. “I’m all right,” he said quietly. Gently.

And maybe I was exhausted and broken, but I breathed, “I killed them.”

I hadn’t said the words aloud since it had happened.

Cassian’s lips tightened. “I know.” Not condemnation, not praise. But grim understanding.

My hands slackened as another shuddering sob worked its way through me. “It should have been me.”

And there it was.

Standing there under the cloudless sky, the winter sun beating on my head, nothing around me save for rock, no shadows in which to hide, nothing to cling to … There it was.

Then darkness swept in, soothing, gentle darkness—no, shade—and a sweat-slick male body halted before me. Gentle fingers lifted my chin until I looked up … at Rhysand’s face.

His wings had wrapped around us, cocooned us, the sunlight casting the membrane in gold and red. Beyond us, outside, in another world, maybe, the sounds of steel on steel—Cassian and Azriel sparring—began.

“You will feel that way every day for the rest of your life,” Rhysand said. This close, I could smell the sweat on him, the sea-and-citrus scent beneath it. His eyes were soft. I tried to look away, but he held my chin firm. “And I know this because I have felt that way every day since my mother and sister were slaughtered and I had to bury them myself, and even retribution didn’t fix it.” He wiped away the tears on one cheek, then another. “You can either let it wreck you, let it get you killed like it nearly did with the Weaver, or you can learn to live with it.”

For a long moment, I just stared at the open, calm face—maybe his true face, the one beneath all the masks he wore to keep his people safe. “I’m sorry—about your family,” I rasped.

“I’m sorry I didn’t find a way to spare you from what happened Under the Mountain,” Rhys said with equal quiet. “From dying. From wanting to die.” I began to shake my head, but he said, “I have two kinds of nightmares: the ones where I’m again Amarantha’s whore or my friends are … And the ones where I hear your neck snap and see the light leave your eyes.”

I had no answer to that—to the tenor in his rich, deep voice. So I examined the tattoos on his chest and arms, the glow of his tan skin, so golden now that he was no longer caged inside that mountain.

I stopped my perusal when I got to the vee of muscles that flowed beneath the waist of his leather pants. Instead, I flexed my hand in front of me, my skin warm from the heat that had burned through those pads.

“Ah,” he said, wings sweeping back as he folded them gracefully behind him. “That.”

I squinted at the flood of sunlight. “Autumn Court, right?”

He took my hand, examining it, the skin already bruised from sparring. “Right. A gift from its High Lord, Beron.”

Lucien’s father. Lucien—I wondered what he made of all this. If he missed me. If Ianthe continued to … prey on him.

Still sparring, Cassian and Azriel were trying their best not to look like they were eavesdropping.

“I’m not well versed in the complexities of the other High Lords’ elemental gifts,” Rhys said, “but we can figure it out—day by day, if need be.”

“If you’re the most powerful High Lord in history … does that mean the drop I got from you holds more sway over the others?” Why I’d been able to break into his head that one time?

“Give it a try.” He jerked his chin toward me. “See if you can summon darkness. I won’t ask you to try to winnow,” he added with a grin.

“I don’t know how I did it to begin with.”

“Will it into being.”

I gave him a flat stare.

He shrugged. “Try thinking of me—how good-looking I am. How talented—”

“How arrogant.”

“That, too.” He crossed his arms over his bare chest, the movement making the muscles in his stomach flicker.

“Put a shirt on while you’re at it,” I quipped.

A feline smile. “Does it make you uncomfortable?”

“I’m surprised there aren’t more mirrors in this house, since you seem to love looking at yourself so much.”

Azriel launched into a coughing fit. Cassian just turned away, a hand clamped over his mouth.

Rhys’s lips twitched. “There’s the Feyre I adore.”

I scowled, but closed my eyes and tried to look inward—toward any dark corner of myself I could find. There were too many.

Far too many.

And right now—right now they each contained that letter I’d written yesterday.

A good-bye.

For my own sanity, my own safety …

“There are different kinds of darkness,” Rhys said. I kept my eyes shut. “There is the darkness that frightens, the darkness that soothes, the darkness that is restful.” I pictured each. “There is the darkness of lovers, and the darkness of assassins. It becomes what the bearer wishes it to be, needs it to be. It is not wholly bad or good.”

I only saw the darkness of that dungeon cell; the darkness of the Bone Carver’s lair.

Cassian swore, but Azriel murmured a soft challenge that had their blades striking again.

“Open your eyes.” I did.

And found darkness all around me. Not from me—but from Rhys. As if the sparring ring had been wiped away, as if the world had yet to begin.

Quiet.

Soft.

Peaceful.

Lights began twinkling—little stars, blooming irises of blue and purple and white. I reached out a hand toward one, and starlight danced on my fingertips. Far away, in another world perhaps, Azriel and Cassian sparred in the dark, no doubt using it as a training exercise.

I shifted the star between my fingers like a coin on the hand of a magician. Here in the soothing, sparkling dark, a steady breath filled my lungs.

I couldn’t remember the last time I’d done such a thing. Breathed easily.

Then the darkness splintered and vanished, swifter than smoke on a wind. I found myself blinking back the blinding sun, arm still out, Rhysand still before me.

Still without a shirt.

He said, “We can work on it later. For now.” He sniffed. “Go take a bath.”

I gave him a particularly vulgar gesture—and asked Cassian to fly me home instead.

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