فصل 38

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CHAPTER

38

Amren took the Book to wherever it was she lived in Velaris, leaving the five of us to eat. While Rhys told them of our visit to the Summer Court, I managed to scarf down breakfast before the exhaustion of staying up all night, unlocking those doors, and very nearly dying hit me. When I awoke, the house was empty, the afternoon sunlight warm and golden, and the day so unusually warm and lovely that I brought a book down to the small garden in the back.

The sun eventually shifted, shading the garden to the point of frigidness again. Not quite willing to give up the sun yet, I trudged the three levels to the rooftop patio to watch it set.

Of course—of course—Rhysand was already lounging in one of the white-painted iron chairs, an arm slung over the back while his other hand idly gripped a glass of some sort of liquor, a crystal decanter full of it set on the table before him.

His wings were draped behind him on the tile floor, and I wondered if he was also taking advantage of the unusually mild day to sun them as I cleared my throat.

“I know you’re there,” he said without turning from the view of the Sidra and the red-gold sea beyond.

I scowled. “If you want to be alone, I can go.”

He jerked his chin toward the empty seat at the iron table. Not a glowing invitation, but … I sat down.

There was a wood box beside the decanter—and I might have thought it was something for whatever he was drinking had I not noticed the dagger fashioned of mother-of-pearl in the lid.

Had I not sworn I could smell the sea and heat and soil that was Tarquin. “What is that?”

Rhys drained his glass, held up a hand—the decanter floating to him on a phantom wind—and poured himself another knuckle’s length before he spoke.

“I debated it for a good while, you know,” he said, staring out at his city. “Whether I should just ask Tarquin for the Book. But I thought that he might very well say no, then sell the information to the highest bidder. I thought he might say yes, and it’d still wind up with too many people knowing our plans and the potential for that information to get out. And at the end of the day, I needed the why of our mission to remain secret for as long as possible.” He drank again, and dragged a hand through his blue-black hair. “I didn’t like stealing from him. I didn’t like hurting his guards. I didn’t like vanishing without a word, when, ambition or no, he did truly want an alliance. Maybe even friendship. No other High Lords have ever bothered—or dared. But I think Tarquin wanted to be my friend.”

I glanced between him and the box and repeated, “What is that?”

“Open it.”

I gingerly flipped back the lid.

Inside, nestled on a bed of white velvet, three rubies glimmered, each the size of a chicken egg. Each so pure and richly colored that they seemed crafted of—

“Blood rubies,” he said.

I pulled back the fingers that had been inching toward the stones.

“In the Summer Court, when a grave insult has been committed, they send a blood ruby to the offender. An official declaration that there is a price on their head—that they are now hunted, and will soon be dead. The box arrived at the Court of Nightmares an hour ago.”

Mother above. “I take it one of these has my name on it. And yours. And Amren’s.”

The lid flipped shut on a dark wind. “I made a mistake,” he said. I opened my mouth, but he went on, “I should have wiped the minds of the guards and let them continue on. Instead, I knocked them out. It’s been a while since I had to do any sort of physical … defending like that, and I was so focused on my Illyrian training that I forgot the other arsenal at my disposal. They probably awoke and went right to him.”

“He would have noticed the Book was missing soon enough.”

“We could have denied that we stole it and chalked it up to coincidence.” He drained his glass. “I made a mistake.”

“It’s not the end of the world if you do that every now and then.”

“You’ve been told you are now public enemy number one of the Summer Court and you’re fine with it?”

“No. But I don’t blame you.”

He loosed a breath, staring out at his city as the warmth of the day succumbed to winter’s bite once more. It didn’t matter to him.

“Perhaps you could return the Book once we’ve neutralized the Cauldron—apologize.”

Rhys snorted. “No. Amren will get that book for as long as she needs it.”

“Then make it up to him in some way. Clearly, you wanted to be his friend as much as he wanted to be yours. You wouldn’t be so upset otherwise.”

“I’m not upset. I’m pissed off.”

“Semantics.”

He gave me a half smile. “Feuds like the one we just started can last centuries—millennia. If that’s the cost of stopping this war, helping Amren … I’ll pay it.”

He’d pay with everything he had, I realized. Any hopes for himself, his own happiness.

“Do the others know—about the blood rubies?”

“Azriel was the one who brought them to me. I’m debating how I’ll tell Amren.”

“Why?”

Darkness filled those remarkable eyes. “Because her answer would be to go to Adriata and wipe the city off the map.”

I shuddered.

“Exactly,” he said.

I stared out at Velaris with him, listening to the sounds of the day wrapping up—and the night unfolding. Adriata felt rudimentary by comparison.

“I understand,” I said, rubbing some warmth into my now-chilled hands, “why you did what you had to in order to protect this city.” Imagining the destruction that had been wreaked upon Adriata here in Velaris made my blood run cold. His eyes slid to me, wary and dull. I swallowed. “And I understand why you will do anything to keep it safe during the times ahead.”

“And your point is?”

A bad day—this was a bad day, I realized, for him. I didn’t scowl at the bite in his words. “Get through this war, Rhysand, and then worry about Tarquin and the blood rubies. Nullify the Cauldron, stop the king from shattering the wall and enslaving the human realm again, and then we’ll figure out the rest after.”

“You sound as if you plan to stay here for a while.” A bland, but edged question.

“I can find my own lodging, if that’s what you’re referring to. Maybe I’ll use that generous paycheck to get myself something lavish.”

Come on. Wink at me. Play with me. Just—stop looking like that.

He only said, “Spare your paycheck. Your name has already been added to the list of those approved to use my household credit. Buy whatever you wish. Buy yourself a whole damn house if you want.”

I ground my teeth, and maybe it was panic or desperation, but I said sweetly, “I saw a pretty shop across the Sidra the other day. It sold what looked to be lots of lacy little things. Am I allowed to buy that on your credit, too, or does that come out of my personal funds?”

Those violet eyes again drifted to me. “I’m not in the mood.”

There was no humor, no mischief. I could go warm myself by a fire inside, but …

He had stayed. And fought for me.

Week after week, he’d fought for me, even when I had no reaction, even when I had barely been able to speak or bring myself to care if I lived or died or ate or starved. I couldn’t leave him to his own dark thoughts, his own guilt. He’d shouldered them alone long enough.

So I held his gaze. “I never knew Illyrians were such morose drunks.”

“I’m not drunk—I’m drinking,” he said, his teeth flashing a bit.

“Again, semantics.” I leaned back in my seat, wishing I’d brought my coat. “Maybe you should have slept with Cresseida after all—so you could both be sad and lonely together.”

“So you’re entitled to have as many bad days as you want, but I can’t get a few hours?”

“Oh, take however long you want to mope. I was going to invite you to come shopping with me for said lacy little unmentionables, but … sit up here forever, if you have to.”

He didn’t respond.

I went on, “Maybe I’ll send a few to Tarquin—with an offer to wear them for him if he forgives us. Maybe he’ll take those blood rubies right back.”

His mouth barely, barely tugged up at the corners. “He’d see that as a taunt.”

“I gave him a few smiles and he handed over a family heirloom. I bet he’d give me the keys to his territory if I showed up wearing those undergarments.”

“Someone thinks mighty highly of herself.”

“Why shouldn’t I? You seem to have difficulty not staring at me day and night.”

There it was—a kernel of truth and a question.

“Am I supposed to deny,” he drawled, but something sparked in those eyes, “that I find you attractive?”

“You’ve never said it.”

“I’ve told you many times, and quite frequently, how attractive I find you.”

I shrugged, even as I thought of all those times—when I’d dismissed them as teasing compliments, nothing more. “Well, maybe you should do a better job of it.”

The gleam in his eyes turned into something predatory. A thrill went through me as he braced his powerful arms on the table and purred, “Is that a challenge, Feyre?”

I held that predator’s gaze—the gaze of the most powerful male in Prythian. “Is it?”

His pupils flared. Gone was the quiet sadness, the isolated guilt. Only that lethal focus—on me. On my mouth. On the bob of my throat as I tried to keep my breathing even. He said, slow and soft, “Why don’t we go down to that store right now, Feyre, so you can try on those lacy little things—so I can help you pick which one to send to Tarquin.”

My toes curled inside my fleece-lined slippers. Such a dangerous line we walked together. The ice-kissed night wind rustled our hair.

But Rhys’s gaze cut skyward—and a heartbeat later, Azriel shot from the clouds like a spear of darkness.

I wasn’t sure whether I should be relieved or not, but I left before Azriel could land, giving the High Lord and his spymaster some privacy.

As soon as I entered the dimness of the stairwell, the heat rushed from me, leaving a sick, cold feeling in my stomach.

There was flirting, and then there was … this.

I had loved Tamlin. Loved him so much I had not minded destroying myself for it—for him. And then everything had happened, and now I was here, and … and I might have very well gone to that pretty shop with Rhysand.

I could almost see what would have happened:

The shop ladies would have been polite—a bit nervous—and given us privacy as Rhys sat on the settee in the back of the shop while I went behind the curtained-off chamber to try on the red lace set I’d eyed thrice now. And when I emerged, mustering up more bravado than I felt, Rhys would have looked me up and down. Twice.

And he would have kept staring at me as he informed the shop ladies that the store was closed and they should all come back tomorrow, and we’d leave the tab on the counter.

I would have stood there, naked save for scraps of red lace, while we listened to the quick, discreet sounds of them closing up and leaving.

And he would have looked at me the entire time—at my breasts, visible through the lace; at the plane of my stomach, now finally looking less starved and taut. At the sweep of my hips and thighs—between them. Then he would have met my gaze again, and crooked a finger with a single murmured, “Come here.”

And I would have walked to him, aware of every step, as I at last stopped in front of where he sat. Between his legs.

His hands would have slid to my waist, the calluses scraping my skin. Then he’d have tugged me a bit closer before leaning in to brush a kiss to my navel, his tongue—

I swore as I slammed into the post of the stairwell landing.

And I blinked—blinked as the world returned and I realized …

I glared at the eye tattooed in my hand and hissed both with my tongue and that silent voice within the bond itself, “Prick.”

In the back of my mind, a sensual male voice chuckled with midnight laughter.

My face burning, cursing him for the vision he’d slipped past my mental shields, I reinforced them as I entered my room. And took a very, very cold bath.

I ate with Mor that night beside the crackling fire in the town house dining room, Rhys and the others off somewhere, and when she finally asked why I kept scowling every time Rhysand’s name was mentioned, I told her about the vision he’d sent into my mind. She’d laughed until wine came out of her nose, and when I scowled at her, she told me I should be proud: when Rhys was prepared to brood, it took nothing short of a miracle to get him out of it.

I tried to ignore the slight sense of triumph—even as I climbed into bed.

I was just starting to drift off, well past two in the morning thanks to chatting with Mor on the couch in the living room for hours and hours about all the great and terrible places she’d seen, when the house let out a groan.

Like the wood itself was being warped, the house began to moan and shudder—the colored glass lights in my room tinkling.

I jolted upright, twisting to the open window. Clear skies, nothing—

Nothing but the darkness leaking into my room from the hall door.

I knew that darkness. A kernel of it lived in me.

It rushed in from the cracks of the door like a flood. The house shuddered again.

I vaulted from bed, yanked the door open, and darkness swept past me on a phantom wind, full of stars and flapping wings and—pain.

So much pain, and despair, and guilt and fear.

I hurtled into the hall, utterly blind in the impenetrable dark. But there was a thread between us, and I followed it—to where I knew his room was. I fumbled for the handle, then—

More night and stars and wind poured out, my hair whipping around me, and I lifted an arm to shield my face as I edged into the room. “Rhysand.”

No response. But I could feel him there—feel that lifeline between us.

I followed it until my shins banged into what had to be his bed. “Rhysand,” I said over the wind and dark. The house shook, the floorboards clattering under my feet. I patted the bed, feeling sheets and blankets and down, and then—

Then a hard, taut male body. But the bed was enormous, and I couldn’t get a grip on him. “Rhysand! ”

Around and around the darkness swirled, the beginning and end of the world.

I scrambled onto the bed, lunging for him, feeling what was his arm, then his stomach, then his shoulders. His skin was freezing as I gripped his shoulders and shouted his name.

No response, and I slid a hand up his neck, to his mouth—to make sure he was still breathing, that this wasn’t his power floating away from him—

Icy breath hit my palm. And, bracing myself, I rose up on my knees, aiming blindly, and slapped him.

My palm stung—but he didn’t move. I hit him again, pulling on that bond between us, shouting his name down it like it was a tunnel, banging on that wall of ebony adamant within his mind, roaring at it.

A crack in the dark.

And then his hands were on me, flipping me, pinning me with expert skill to the mattress, a taloned hand at my throat.

I went still. “Rhysand.” I breathed. Rhys, I said through the bond, putting a hand against that inner shield.

The dark shuddered.

I threw my own power out—black to black, soothing his darkness, the rough edges, willing it to calm, to soften. My darkness sang his own a lullaby, a song my wet nurse had hummed when my mother had shoved me into her arms to go back to attending parties.

“It was a dream,” I said. His hand was so cold. “It was a dream.”

Again, the dark paused. I sent my own veils of night brushing up against it, running star-flecked hands down it.

And for a heartbeat, the inky blackness cleared enough that I saw his face above me: drawn, lips pale, violet eyes wide—scanning.

“Feyre,” I said. “I’m Feyre.” His breathing was jagged, uneven. I gripped the wrist that held my throat—held, but didn’t hurt. “You were dreaming.”

I willed that darkness inside myself to echo it, to sing those raging fears to sleep, to brush up against that ebony wall within his mind, gentle and soft …

Then, like snow shaken from a tree, his darkness fell away, taking mine with it.

Moonlight poured in—and the sounds of the city.

His room was similar to mine, the bed so big it must have been built to accommodate wings, but all tastefully, comfortably appointed. And he was naked above me—utterly naked. I didn’t dare look lower than the tattooed panes of his chest.

“Feyre,” he said, his voice hoarse. As if he’d been screaming.

“Yes,” I said. He studied my face—the taloned hand at my throat. And released me immediately.

I lay there, staring up at where he now knelt on the bed, rubbing his hands over his face. My traitorous eyes indeed dared to look lower than his chest—but my attention snagged on the twin tattoos on each of his knees: a towering mountain crowned by three stars. Beautiful—but brutal, somehow.

“You were having a nightmare,” I said, easing into a sitting position. Like some dam had been cracked open inside me, I glanced at my hand—and willed it to vanish into shadow. It did.

Half a thought scattered the darkness again.

His hands, however, still ended in long, black talons—and his feet … they ended in claws, too. The wings were out, slumped down behind him. And I wondered how close he’d been to fully shifting into that beast he’d once told me he hated.

He lowered his hands, talons fading into fingers. “I’m sorry.”

“That’s why you’re staying here, not at the House. You don’t want the others seeing this.”

“I normally keep it contained to my room. I’m sorry it woke you.”

I fisted my hands in my lap to keep from touching him. “How often does it happen?”

Rhys’s violet eyes met mine, and I knew the answer before he said, “As often as you.”

I swallowed hard. “What did you dream of tonight?”

He shook his head, looking toward the window—to where snow had dusted the nearby rooftops. “There are memories from Under the Mountain, Feyre, that are best left unshared. Even with you.”

He’d shared enough horrific things with me that they had to be … beyond nightmares, then. But I put a hand on his elbow, naked body and all. “When you want to talk, let me know. I won’t tell the others.”

I made to slither off the bed, but he grabbed my hand, keeping it against his arm. “Thank you.”

I studied the hand, the ravaged face. Such pain lingered there—and exhaustion. The face he never let anyone see.

I pushed up onto my knees and kissed his cheek, his skin warm and soft beneath my mouth. It was over before it started, but—but how many nights had I wanted someone to do the same for me?

His eyes were a bit wide as I pulled away, and he didn’t stop me as I eased off the bed. I was almost out the door when I turned back to him.

Rhys still knelt, wings drooping across the white sheets, head bowed, his tattoos stark against his golden skin. A dark, fallen prince.

The painting flashed into my mind.

Flashed—and stayed there, glimmering, before it faded.

But it remained, shining faintly, in that hole inside my chest.

The hole that was slowly starting to heal over.

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