فصل 33

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CHAPTER

33

We were given a suite of connecting rooms, all centered on a large, lavish lounge that was open to the sea and city below. My bedroom was appointed in seafoam and softest blue with pops of gold—like the gilded clamshell atop my pale wood dresser. I had just set it down when the white door behind me clicked open and Rhys slid in.

He leaned against the door once he shut it, the top of his black tunic unbuttoned to reveal the upper whorls of the tattoo spanning his chest.

“The problem, I’ve realized, will be that I like Tarquin,” he said by way of greeting. “I even like Cresseida. Varian, I could live without, but I bet a few weeks with Cassian and Azriel, and he’d be thick as thieves with them and I’d have to learn to like him. Or he’d be wrapped around Amren’s finger, and I’d have to leave him alone entirely or risk her wrath.”

“And?” I took up a spot against the dresser, where clothes that I had not packed but were clearly of Night Court origin had been already waiting for me.

The space of the room—the large bed, the windows, the sunlight—filled the silence between us.

“And,” Rhys said, “I want you to find a way to do what you have to do without making enemies of them.”

“So you’re telling me don’t get caught.”

A nod. Then, “Do you like that Tarquin can’t stop looking at you? I can’t tell if it’s because he wants you, or because he knows you have his power and wants to see how much.”

“Can’t it be both?”

“Of course. But having a High Lord lusting after you is a dangerous game.”

“First you taunt me with Cassian, now Tarquin? Can’t you find other ways to annoy me?”

Rhys prowled closer, and I steadied myself for his scent, his warmth, the impact of his power. He braced a hand on either side of me, gripping the dresser. I refused to shrink away. “You have one task here, Feyre. One task that no one can know about. So do anything you have to in order to accomplish it. But get that book. And do not get caught.”

I wasn’t some simpering fool. I knew the risks. And that tone, that look he always gave me … “Anything?” His brows rose. I breathed, “If I fucked him for it, what would you do?”

His pupils flared, and his gaze dropped to my mouth. The wood dresser groaned beneath his hands. “You say such atrocious things.” I waited, my heart an uneven beat. He at last met my eyes again. “You are always free to do what you want, with whomever you want. So if you want to ride him, go ahead.”

“Maybe I will.” Though a part of me wanted to retort, Liar.

“Fine.” His breath caressed my mouth.

“Fine,” I said, aware of every inch between us, the distance smaller and smaller, the challenge heightening with each second neither of us moved.

“Do not,” he said softly, his eyes like stars, “jeopardize this mission.”

“I know the cost.” The sheer power of him enveloped me, shaking me awake.

The salt and the sea and the breeze tugged on me, sang to me.

And as if Rhys heard them, too, he inclined his head toward the unlit candle on the dresser. “Light it.”

I debated arguing, but looked at the candle, summoning fire, summoning that hot anger he managed to rile—

The candle was knocked off the dresser by a violent splash of water, as if someone had chucked a bucketful.

I gaped at the water drenching the dresser, its dripping on the marble floor the only sound.

Rhys, hands still braced on either side of me, laughed quietly. “Can’t you ever follow orders?”

But whatever it was—being here, close to Tarquin and his power … I could feel that water answering me. Feel it coating the floor, feel the sea churning and idling in the bay, taste the salt on the breeze. I held Rhys’s gaze.

No one was my master—but I might be master of everything, if I wished. If I dared.

Like a strange rain, the water rose from the floor as I willed it to become like those stars Rhys had summoned in his blanket of darkness. I willed the droplets to separate until they hung around us, catching the light and sparkling like crystals on a chandelier.

Rhys broke my stare to study them. “I suggest,” he murmured, “you not show Tarquin that little trick in the bedroom.”

I sent each and every one of those droplets shooting for the High Lord’s face.

Too fast, too swiftly for him to shield. Some of them sprayed me as they ricocheted off him.

Both of us now soaking, Rhys gaped a bit—then smiled. “Good work,” he said, at last pushing off the dresser. He didn’t bother to wipe away the water gleaming on his skin. “Keep practicing.”

But I said, “Will he go to war? Over me?”

He knew who I meant. The hot temper that had been on Rhys’s face moments before turned to lethal calm. “I don’t know.”

“I—I would go back. If it came to that, Rhysand. I’d go back, rather than make you fight.”

He slid a still-wet hand into his pocket. “Would you want to go back? Would going to war on your behalf make you love him again? Would that be a grand gesture to win you?”

I swallowed hard. “I’m tired of death. I wouldn’t want to see anyone else die—least of all for me.”

“That doesn’t answer my question.”

“No. I wouldn’t want to go back. But I would. Pain and killing wouldn’t win me.”

Rhys stared at me for a moment longer, his face unreadable, before he strode to the door. He stopped with his fingers on the sea urchin–shaped handle. “He locked you up because he knew—the bastard knew what a treasure you are. That you are worth more than land or gold or jewels. He knew, and wanted to keep you all to himself.”

The words hit me, even as they soothed some jagged piece in my soul. “He did—does love me, Rhysand.”

“The issue isn’t whether he loved you, it’s how much. Too much. Love can be a poison.”

And then he was gone.

The bay was calm enough—perhaps willed to flatness by its lord and master—that the pleasure barge hardly rocked throughout the hours we dined and drank aboard it.

Crafted of richest wood and gold, the enormous boat was amply sized for the hundred or so High Fae trying their best not to observe every movement Rhys, Amren, and I made.

The main deck was full of low tables and couches for eating and relaxing, and on the upper level, beneath a canopy of tiles set with mother-of-pearl, our long table had been set. Tarquin was summer incarnate in turquoise and gold, bits of emerald shining at his buttons and fingers. A crown of sapphire and white gold fashioned like cresting waves sat atop his seafoam-colored hair—so exquisite that I often caught myself staring at it.

As I was now, when he turned to where I sat on his right and noticed my stare.

“You’d think with our skilled jewelers, they could make a crown a bit more comfortable. This one digs in horribly.”

A pleasant enough attempt at conversation, when I’d stayed quiet throughout the first hour, instead watching the island-city, the water, the mainland—casting a net of awareness, of blind power, toward it, to see if anything answered. If the Book slumbered somewhere out there.

Nothing had answered my silent call. So I figured it was as good a time as any as I said, “How did you keep it out of her hands?”

Saying Amarantha’s name here, amongst such happy, celebrating people, felt like inviting in a rain cloud.

Seated at his left, deep in conversation with Cresseida, Rhys didn’t so much as look over at me. Indeed, he’d barely spoken to me earlier, not even noting my clothes.

Unusual, given that even I had been pleased with how I looked, and had again selected it for myself: my hair unbound and swept off my face with a headband of braided rose gold, my sleeveless, dusk-pink chiffon gown—tight in the chest and waist—the near-twin to the purple one I’d worn that morning. Feminine, soft, pretty. I hadn’t felt like those things in a long, long while. Hadn’t wanted to.

But here, being those things wouldn’t earn me a ticket to a life of party planning. Here, I could be soft and lovely at sunset, and awaken in the morning to slide into Illyrian fighting leathers.

Tarquin said, “We managed to smuggle out most of our treasure when the territory fell. Nostrus—my predecessor—was my cousin. I served as prince of another city. So I got the order to hide the trove in the dead of night, fast as we could.”

Amarantha had killed Nostrus when he’d rebelled—and executed his entire family for spite. Tarquin must have been one of the few surviving members, if the power had passed to him.

“I didn’t know the Summer Court valued treasure so much,” I said.

Tarquin huffed a laugh. “The earliest High Lords did. We do now out of tradition, mostly.”

I said carefully, casually, “So is it gold and jewels you value, then?”

“Among other things.”

I sipped my wine to buy time to think of a way to ask without raising suspicions. But maybe being direct about it would be better. “Are outsiders allowed to see the collection? My father was a merchant—I spent most of my childhood in his office, helping him with his goods. It would be interesting to compare mortal riches to those made by Fae hands.”

Rhys kept talking to Cresseida, not even a hint of approval or amusement going through our bond.

Tarquin cocked his head, the jewels in his crown glinting. “Of course. Tomorrow—after lunch, perhaps?”

He wasn’t stupid, and he might have been aware of the game, but … the offer was genuine. I smiled a bit, nodding. I looked toward the crowd milling about on the deck below, the lantern-lit water beyond, even as I felt Tarquin’s gaze linger.

He said, “What was it like? The mortal world?”

I picked at the strawberry salad on my plate. “I only saw a very small slice of it. My father was called the Prince of Merchants—but I was too young to be taken on his voyages to other parts of the mortal world. When I was eleven, he lost our fortune on a shipment to Bharat. We spent the next eight years in poverty, in a backwater village near the wall. So I can’t speak for the entirety of the mortal world when I say that what I saw there was … hard. Brutal. Here, class lines are far more blurred, it seems. There, it’s defined by money. Either you have it and you don’t share it, or you are left to starve and fight for your survival. My father … He regained his wealth once I went to Prythian.” My heart tightened, then dropped into my stomach. “And the very people who had been content to let us starve were once again our friends. I would rather face every creature in Prythian than the monsters on the other side of the wall. Without magic, without power, money has become the only thing that matters.”

Tarquin’s lips were pursed, but his eyes were considering. “Would you spare them if war came?”

Such a dangerous, loaded question. I wouldn’t tell him what we were doing over the wall—not until Rhys had indicated we should.

“My sisters dwell with my father on his estate. For them, I would fight. But for those sycophants and peacocks … I would not mind to see their order disrupted.” Like the hate-mongering family of Elain’s betrothed.

Tarquin said very quietly, “There are some in Prythian who would think the same of the courts.”

“What—get rid of the High Lords?”

“Perhaps. But mostly eliminate the inherent privileges of High Fae over the lesser faeries. Even the terms imply a level of unfairness. Maybe it is more like the human realm than you realize, not as blurred as it might seem. In some courts, the lowest of High Fae servants has more rights than the wealthiest of lesser faeries.”

I became aware that we were not the only people on the barge, at this table. And that we were surrounded by High Fae with animal-keen hearing. “Do you agree with them? That it should change?”

“I am a young High Lord,” he said. “Barely eighty years old.” So he’d been thirty when Amarantha took over. “Perhaps others might call me inexperienced or foolish, but I have seen those cruelties firsthand, and known many good lesser faeries who suffered for merely being born on the wrong side of power. Even within my own residences, the confines of tradition pressure me to enforce the rules of my predecessors: the lesser faeries are neither to be seen nor heard as they work. I would like to one day see a Prythian in which they have a voice, both in my home and in the world beyond it.”

I scanned him for any deceit, manipulation. I found none.

Steal from him—I would steal from him. But what if I asked instead? Would he give it to me, or would the traditions of his ancestors run too deep?

“Tell me what that look means,” Tarquin said, bracing his muscled arms on the gold tablecloth.

I said baldly, “I’m thinking it would be very easy to love you. And easier to call you my friend.”

He smiled at me—broad and without restraint. “I would not object to either.”

Easy—very easy to fall in love with a kind, considerate male.

But I glanced over at Cresseida, who was now almost in Rhysand’s lap. And Rhysand was smiling like a cat, one finger tracing circles on the back of her hand while she bit her lip and beamed. I faced Tarquin, my brows high in silent question.

He made a face and shook his head.

I hoped they went to her room.

Because if I had to listen to Rhys bed her … I didn’t let myself finish the thought.

Tarquin mused, “It has been many years since I saw her look like that.”

My cheeks heated—shame. Shame for what? Wanting to throttle her for no good reason? Rhysand teased and taunted me—he never … seduced me, with those long, intent stares, the half smiles that were pure Illyrian arrogance.

I supposed I’d been granted that gift once—and had used it up and fought for it and broken it. And I supposed that Rhysand, for all he had sacrificed and done … He deserved it as much as Cresseida.

Even if … even if for a moment, I wanted it.

I wanted to feel like that again.

And … I was lonely.

I had been lonely, I realized, for a very, very long time.

Rhys leaned in to hear something Cresseida was saying, her lips brushing his ear, her hand now entwining with his.

And it wasn’t sorrow, or despair, or terror that hit me, but … unhappiness. Such bleak, sharp unhappiness that I got to my feet.

Rhys’s eyes shifted toward me, at last remembering I existed, and there was nothing on his face—no hint that he felt any of what I did through our bond. I didn’t care if I had no shield, if my thoughts were wide open and he read them like a book. He didn’t seem to care, either. He went back to chuckling at whatever Cresseida was telling him, sliding closer.

Tarquin had risen to his feet, scanning me and Rhys.

I was unhappy—not just broken. But unhappy.

An emotion, I realized. It was an emotion, rather than the unending emptiness or survival-driven terror.

“I need some fresh air,” I said, even though we were in the open. But with the golden lights, the people up and down the table … I needed to find a spot on this barge where I could be alone, just for a moment, mission or no.

“Would you like me to join you?”

I looked at the High Lord of Summer. I hadn’t lied. It would be easy to fall in love with a male like him. But I wasn’t entirely sure that even with the hardships he’d encountered Under the Mountain, Tarquin could understand the darkness that might always be in me. Not only from Amarantha, but from years spent being hungry, and desperate.

That I might always be a little bit vicious or restless. That I might crave peace, but never a cage of comfort.

“I’m fine, thank you,” I said, and headed for the sweeping staircase that led down onto the stern of the ship—brightly lit, but quieter than the main areas at the prow. Rhys didn’t so much as look in my direction as I walked away. Good riddance.

I was halfway down the wood steps when I spotted Amren and Varian—both leaning against adjacent pillars, both drinking wine, both ignoring each other. Even as they spoke to no one else.

Perhaps that was another reason why she’d come: to distract Tarquin’s watchdog.

I reached the main deck, found a spot by the wooden railing that was a bit more shadowed than the rest, and leaned against it. Magic propelled the boat—no oars, no sails. So we moved through the bay, silent and smooth, hardly a ripple in our wake.

I didn’t realize I’d been waiting for him until the barge docked at the base of the island-city, and I’d somehow spent the entire final hour alone.

When I filed onto land with the rest of the crowd, Amren, Varian, and Tarquin were waiting for me at the docks, all a bit stiff-backed.

Rhysand and Cresseida were nowhere to be seen.

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