فصل 40

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CHAPTER

40

The mortal queens were a mixture of age, coloring, height, and temperament. The eldest of them, clad in an embroidered wool dress of deepest blue, was brown-skinned, her eyes sharp and cold, and unbent despite the heavy wrinkles carved into her face.

The two who appeared middle-aged were opposites: one dark, one light; one sweet-faced, one hewn from granite; one smiling and one frowning. They even wore gowns of black and white—and seemed to move in question and answer to each other. I wondered what their kingdoms were like, what relations they had. If the matching silver rings they each wore bound them in other ways.

And the youngest two queens … One was perhaps a few years older than me, black-haired and black-eyed, careful cunning oozing from every pore as she surveyed us.

And the final queen, the one who spoke first, was the most beautiful—the only beautiful one of them. These were women who, despite their finery, did not care if they were young or old, fat or thin, short or tall. Those things were secondary; those things were a sleight of hand.

But this one, this beautiful queen, perhaps no older than thirty …

Her riotously curly hair was as golden as Mor’s, her eyes of purest amber. Even her brown, freckled skin seemed dusted with gold. Her body was supple where she’d probably learned men found it distracting, lithe where it showed grace. A lion in human flesh.

“Well met,” Rhysand said, remaining still as their stone-faced guards scanned us, the room. As the queens now took our measure.

The sitting room was enormous enough that one nod from the golden queen had the guards peeling off to hold positions by the walls, the doors. My sisters, silent before the bay window, shuffled aside to make room.

Rhys stepped forward. The queens all sucked in a little breath, as if bracing themselves. Their guards casually, perhaps foolishly, rested a hand on the hilt of their broadswords—so large and clunky compared to Illyrian blades. As if they stood a chance—against any of us. Myself included, I realized with a bit of a start.

But it was Cassian and Azriel who would play the role of mere guards today—distractions.

But Rhys bowed his head slightly and said to the assembled queens, “We are grateful you accepted our invitation.” He lifted a brow. “Where is the sixth?”

The ancient queen, her blue gown heavy and rich, merely said, “She is unwell, and could not make the journey.” She surveyed me. “You are the emissary.”

My back stiffened. Beneath her gaze, my crown felt like a joke, like a bauble, but—“Yes,” I said. “I am Feyre.”

A cutting glance toward Rhysand. “And you are the High Lord who wrote us such an interesting letter after your first few were dispatched.”

I didn’t dare look at him. He’d sent many letters through my sisters by now.

You didn’t ask what was inside them, he said mind to mind with me, laughter dancing along the bond. I’d left my mental shields down—just in case we needed to silently communicate.

“I am,” Rhysand said with a hint of a nod. “And this is my cousin, Morrigan.”

Mor stalked toward us, her crimson gown floating on a phantom wind. The golden queen sized her up with each step, each breath. A threat—for beauty and power and dominance. Mor bowed at my side. “It has been a long time since I met with a mortal queen.”

The black-clad queen placed a moon-white hand on her lower bodice. “Morrigan—the Morrigan from the War.”

They all paused as if in surprise. And a bit of awe and fear.

Mor bowed again. “Please—sit.” She gestured to the chairs we’d laid out a comfortable distance from each other, all far enough apart that the guards could flank their queens as they saw fit.

Almost as one, the queens sat. Their guards, however, remained at their posts around the room.

The golden-haired queen smoothed her voluminous skirts and said, “I assume those are our hosts.” A cutting look at my sisters.

Nesta had gone straight-backed, but Elain bobbed a curtsy, flushing rose pink.

“My sisters,” I clarified.

Amber eyes slid to me. To my crown. Then Rhys’s. “An emissary wears a golden crown. Is that a tradition in Prythian?”

“No,” Rhysand said smoothly, “but she certainly looks good enough in one that I can’t resist.”

The golden queen didn’t smile as she mused, “A human turned into a High Fae … and who is now standing beside a High Lord at the place of honor. Interesting.”

I kept my shoulders back, chin high. Cassian had been teaching me these weeks about how to feel out an opponent—what were her words but the opening movements in another sort of battle?

The eldest declared to Rhys, “You have an hour of our time. Make it count.”

“How is it that you can winnow?” Mor asked from her seat beside me.

The golden queen now gave a smile—a small, mocking one—and replied, “It is our secret, and our gift from your kind.”

Fine. Rhys looked to me, and I swallowed as I inched forward on my seat. “War is coming. We called you here to warn you—and to beg a boon.”

There would be no tricks, no stealing, no seduction. Rhys could not even risk looking inside their heads for fear of triggering the inherent wards around the Book and destroying it.

“We know war is coming,” the oldest said, her voice like crackling leaves. “We have been preparing for it for many years.”

It seemed the three others were positioned as observers while the eldest and the golden-haired one led the charge.

I said as calmly and clearly as I could, “The humans in this territory seem unaware of the larger threat. We’ve seen no signs of preparation.” Indeed, Azriel had gleaned as much these weeks, to my dismay.

“This territory,” the golden one explained coolly, “is a slip of land compared to the vastness of the continent. It is not in our interests to defend it. It would be a waste of resources.”

No. No, that—

Rhys drawled, “Surely the loss of even one innocent life would be abhorrent.”

The eldest queen folded her withered hands in her lap. “Yes. To lose one life is always a horror. But war is war. If we must sacrifice this tiny territory to save the majority, then we shall do it.”

I didn’t dare look at my sisters. Look at this house, that might very well be turned to rubble. I rasped, “There are good people here.”

The golden queen sweetly parried with, “Then let the High Fae of Prythian defend them.”

Silence.

And it was Nesta who hissed from behind us, “We have servants here. With families. There are children in these lands. And you mean to leave us all in the hands of the Fae?”

The eldest one’s face softened. “It is no easy choice, girl—”

“It is the choice of cowards,” Nesta snapped.

I interrupted before Nesta could dig us a deeper grave, “For all that your kind hate ours … You’d leave the Fae to defend your people?”

“Shouldn’t they?” the golden one asked, sending that cascade of curls sliding over a shoulder as she angled her head to the side. “Shouldn’t they defend against a threat of their own making?” A snort. “Should Fae blood not be spilled for their crimes over the years?”

“Neither side is innocent,” Rhys countered calmly. “But we might protect those who are. Together.”

“Oh?” said the eldest, her wrinkles seeming to harden, deepen. “The High Lord of the Night Court asks us to join with him, save lives with him. To fight for peace. And what of the lives you have taken during your long, hideous existence? What of the High Lord who walks with darkness in his wake, and shatters minds as he sees fit?” A crow’s laugh. “We have heard of you, even on the continent, Rhysand. We have heard what the Night Court does, what you do to your enemies. Peace? For a male who melts minds and tortures for sport, I did not think you knew the word.”

Wrath began simmering in my blood; embers crackled in my ears. But I cooled that fire I’d slowly been stoking these past weeks and tried, “If you will not send forces here to defend your people, then the artifact we requested—”

“Our half of the Book, child,” the crone cut me off, “does not leave our sacred palace. It has not left those white walls since the day it was gifted as part of the Treaty. It will never leave those walls, not while we stand against the terrors in the North.”

“Please,” was all I said.

Silence again.

“Please,” I repeated. Emissary—I was their emissary, and Rhys had chosen me for this. To be the voice of both worlds. “I was turned into this—into a faerie—because one of the commanders from Hybern killed me.”

Through our bond, I could have sworn I felt Rhys flinch.

“For fifty years,” I pushed on, “she terrorized Prythian, and when I defeated her, when I freed its people, she killed me. And before she did, I witnessed the horrors that she unleashed on human and faerie alike. One of them—just one of them was able to cause such destruction and suffering. Imagine what an army like her might do. And now their king plans to use a weapon to shatter the wall, to destroy all of you. The war will be swift, and brutal. And you will not win. We will not win. Survivors will be slaves, and their children’s children will be slaves. Please … Please, give us the other half of the Book.”

The eldest queen swapped a glance with the golden one before saying gently, placatingly, “You are young, child. You have much to learn about the ways of the world—”

“Do not,” Rhys said with deadly quiet, “condescend to her.” The eldest queen—who was but a child to him, to his centuries of existence—had the good sense to look nervous at that tone. Rhys’s eyes were glazed, his face as unforgiving as his voice as he went on, “Do not insult Feyre for speaking with her heart, with compassion for those who cannot defend themselves, when you speak from only selfishness and cowardice.”

The eldest stiffened. “For the greater good—”

“Many atrocities,” Rhys purred, “have been done in the name of the greater good.”

No small part of me was impressed that she held his gaze. She said simply, “The Book will remain with us. We will weather this storm—”

“That’s enough,” Mor interrupted.

She got to her feet.

And Mor looked each and every one of those queens in the eye as she said, “I am the Morrigan. You know me. What I am. You know that my gift is truth. So you will hear my words now, and know them as truth—as your ancestors once did.”

Not a word.

Mor gestured behind her—to me. “Do you think it is any simple coincidence that a human has been made immortal again, at the very moment when our old enemy resurfaces? I fought side by side with Miryam in the War, fought beside her as Jurian’s ambition and bloodlust drove him mad, and drove them apart. Drove him to torture Clythia to death, then battle Amarantha until his own.” She took a sharp breath, and I could have sworn Azriel inched closer at the sound. But Mor blazed on, “I marched back into the Black Land with Miryam to free the slaves left in that burning sand, the slavery she had herself escaped. The slaves Miryam had promised to return to free. I marched with her—my friend. Along with Prince Drakon’s legion. Miryam was my friend, as Feyre is now. And your ancestors, those queens who signed that Treaty … They were my friends, too. And when I look at you … ” She bared her teeth. “I see nothing of those women in you. When I look at you, I know that your ancestors would be ashamed.

“You laugh at the idea of peace? That we can have it between our peoples?” Mor’s voice cracked, and again Azriel subtly shifted nearer to her, though his face revealed nothing. “There is an island in a forgotten, stormy part of the sea. A vast, lush island, shielded from time and spying eyes. And on that island, Miryam and Drakon still live. With their children. With both of their peoples. Fae and human and those in between. Side by side. For five hundred years, they have prospered on that island, letting the world believe them dead—”

“Mor,” Rhys said—a quiet reprimand.

A secret, I realized, that perhaps had remained hidden for five centuries.

A secret that had fueled the dreams of Rhysand, of his court.

A land where two dreamers had found peace between their peoples.

Where there was no wall. No iron wards. No ash arrows.

The golden queen and ancient queen looked to each other again.

The ancient one’s eyes were bright as she declared, “Give us proof. If you are not the High Lord that rumor claims, give us one shred of proof that you are as you say—a male of peace.”

There was one way. Only one way to show them, prove it to them.

Velaris.

My very bones cried out at the thought of revealing that gem to these … spiders.

Rhys rose in a fluid motion. The queens did the same. His voice was like a moonless night as he said, “You desire proof?” I held my breath, praying … praying he wouldn’t tell them. He shrugged, the silver thread in his jacket catching the sunlight. “I shall get it for you. Await my word, and return when we summon you.”

“We are summoned by no one, human or faerie,” the golden queen simpered.

Perhaps that was why they’d taken so long to reply. To play some power game.

“Then come at your leisure,” Rhys said, with enough of a bite that the queens’ guards stepped forward. Cassian only grinned at them—and the wisest among them instantly paled.

Rhys barely inclined his head as he added, “Perhaps then you’ll comprehend how vital the Book is to both our efforts.”

“We will consider it once we have your proof.” The ancient one nearly spat the word. Some part of me reminded myself that she was old, and royal, and smacking that sneer off her face would not be in our best interests. “That book has been ours to protect for five hundred years. We will not hand it over without due consideration.”

The guards flanked them—as if the words had been some predetermined signal. The golden queen smirked at me, and said, “Good luck.”

Then they were gone. The sitting room was suddenly too big, too quiet.

And it was Elain—Elain—who sighed and murmured, “I hope they all burn in hell.”

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