فصل 42

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CHAPTER

42

I was not frightened.

Not of the role that Rhys had asked me to play today. Not of the roaring wind as we winnowed into a familiar, snow-capped mountain range refusing to yield to spring’s awakening kiss. Not of the punishing drop as Rhys flew us between the peaks and valleys, swift and sleek. Cassian and Azriel flanked us; Mor would meet us at the gates to the mountain base.

Rhys’s face was drawn, his shoulders tense as I gripped them. I knew what to expect, but … even after he’d told me what he needed me to do, even after I had agreed, he’d been … aloof. Haunted.

Worried for me, I realized.

And just because of that worry, just to get that tightness off his face, even for these few minutes before we faced his unholy realm beneath that mountain, I said over the wind, “Amren and Mor told me that the span of an Illyrian male’s wings says a lot about the size of … other parts.”

His eyes shot to mine, then to pine-tree-coated slopes below. “Did they now.”

I shrugged in his arms, trying not to think about the naked body that night all those weeks ago—though I hadn’t glimpsed much. “They also said Azriel’s wings are the biggest.”

Mischief danced in those violet eyes, washing away the cold distance, the strain. The spymaster was a black blur against the pale blue sky. “When we return home, let’s get out the measuring stick, shall we?”

I pinched the rock-hard muscle of his forearm. Rhys flashed me a wicked grin before he tilted down—

Mountains and snow and trees and sun and utter free fall through wisps of cloud—

A breathless scream came out of me as we plummeted. Throwing my arms around his neck was instinct. His low laugh tickled my nape. “You’re willing to brave my brand of darkness and put up one of your own, willing to go to a watery grave and take on the Weaver, but a little free fall makes you scream?”

“I’ll leave you to rot the next time you have a nightmare,” I hissed, my eyes still shut and body locked as he snapped out his wings to ease us into a steady glide.

“No, you won’t,” he crooned. “You liked seeing me naked too much.”

“Prick.”

His laugh rumbled against me. Eyes closed, the wind roaring like a wild animal, I adjusted my position, gripping him tighter. My knuckles brushed one of his wings—smooth and cool like silk, but hard as stone with it stretched taut.

Fascinating. I blindly reached again … and dared to run a fingertip along some inner edge.

Rhysand shuddered, a soft groan slipping past my ear. “That,” he said tightly, “is very sensitive.”

I snatched my finger back, pulling away far enough to see his face. With the wind, I had to squint, and my braided hair ripped this way and that, but—he was entirely focused on the mountains around us. “Does it tickle?”

He flicked his gaze to me, then to the snow and pine that went on forever. “It feels like this,” he said, and leaned in so close that his lips brushed the shell of my ear as he sent a gentle breath into it. My back arched on instinct, my chin tipping up at the caress of that breath.

“Oh,” I managed to say. I felt him smile against my ear and pull away.

“If you want an Illyrian male’s attention, you’d be better off grabbing him by the balls. We’re trained to protect our wings at all costs. Some males attack first, ask questions later, if their wings are touched without invitation.”

“And during sex?” The question blurted out.

Rhys’s face was nothing but feline amusement as he monitored the mountains. “During sex, an Illyrian male can find completion just by having someone touch his wings in the right spot.”

My blood thrummed. Dangerous territory; more lethal than the drop below. “Have you found that to be true?”

His eyes stripped me bare. “I’ve never allowed anyone to see or touch my wings during sex. It makes you vulnerable in a way that I’m not … comfortable with.”

“Too bad,” I said, staring out too casually toward the mighty mountain that now appeared on the horizon, towering over the others. And capped, I noted, with that glimmering palace of moonstone.

“Why?” he asked warily.

I shrugged, fighting the upward tugging of my lips. “Because I bet you could get into some interesting positions with those wings.”

Rhys loosed a barking laugh, and his nose grazed my ear. I felt him open his mouth to whisper something, but—

Something dark and fast and sleek shot for us, and he plunged down and away, swearing.

But another one, and another, kept coming.

Not just ordinary arrows, I realized as Rhys veered, snatching one out of the air. Others bounced harmlessly off a shield he blasted up.

He studied the wood in his palm and dropped it with a hiss. Ash arrows. To kill faeries.

And now that I was one …

Faster than the wind, faster than death, Rhys shot for the ground. Flew, not winnowed, because he wanted to know where our enemies were, didn’t want to lose them. The wind bit my face, screeched in my ears, ripped at my hair with brutal claws.

Azriel and Cassian were already hurtling for us. Shields of translucent blue and red encircled them—sending those arrows bouncing off. Their Siphons at work.

The arrows shot from the pine forest coating the mountains, then vanished.

Rhys slammed into the ground, snow flying in his wake, and fury like I hadn’t seen since that day in Amarantha’s court twisted his features. I could feel it thrumming against me, roiling through the clearing we now stood in.

Azriel and Cassian were there in an instant, their colored shields shrinking back into their Siphons. The three of them forces of nature in the pine forest, Rhysand didn’t even look at me as he ordered Cassian, “Take her to the palace, and stay there until I’m back. Az, you’re with me.”

Cassian reached for me, but I stepped away. “No.”

“What?” Rhys snarled, the word near-guttural.

“Take me with you,” I said. I didn’t want to go to that moonstone palace to pace and wait and wring my fingers.

Cassian and Azriel, wisely, kept their mouths shut. And Rhys, Mother bless him, only tucked in his wings and crossed his arms—waiting to hear my reasons.

“I’ve seen ash arrows,” I said a bit breathlessly. “I might recognize where they were made. And if they came from the hand of another High Lord … I can detect that, too.” If they’d come from Tarquin … “And I can track just as well on the ground as any of you.” Except for Azriel, maybe. “So you and Cassian take the skies,” I said, still waiting for the rejection, the order to lock me up. “And I’ll hunt on the ground with Azriel.”

The wrath radiating through the snowy clearing ebbed into frozen, too-calm rage. But Rhys said, “Cassian—I want aerial patrols on the sea borders, stationed in two-mile rings, all the way out toward Hybern. I want foot soldiers in the mountain passes along the southern border; make sure those warning fires are ready on every peak. We’re not going to rely on magic.” He turned to Azriel. “When you’re done, warn your spies that they might be compromised, and prepare to get them out. And put fresh ones in. We keep this contained. We don’t tell anyone inside that court what happened. If anyone mentions it, say it was a training exercise.”

Because we couldn’t afford to let that weakness show, even amongst his subjects.

His eyes at last found mine. “We’ve got an hour until we’re expected at court. Make it count.”

We searched, but the missed arrows had been snatched up by our attackers—and even the shadows and wind told Azriel nothing, as if our enemy had been hidden from them as well.

But that was twice now that they’d known where Rhys and I would be.

Mor found Azriel and me after twenty minutes, wanting to know what the hell had happened. We’d explained—and she’d winnowed away, to spin whatever excuse would keep her horrible family from suspecting anything was amiss.

But at the end of the hour, we hadn’t found a single track. And we could delay our meeting no longer.

The Court of Nightmares lay behind a mammoth set of doors carved into the mountain itself. And from the base, the mountain rose so high I couldn’t see the palace I had once stayed in atop it. Only snow, and rock, and birds circling above. There was no one outside—no village, no signs of life. Nothing to indicate a whole city of people dwelled within.

But I did not let my curiosity or any lingering trepidation show as Mor and I entered. Rhys, Cassian, and Azriel would arrive minutes later.

There were sentries at the stone gates, clothed not in black, as I might have suspected, but in gray and white—armor meant to blend into the mountain face. Mor didn’t so much as look at them as she led me silently inside the mountain-city.

My body clenched as soon as the darkness, the scent of rock and fire and roasting meat, hit me. I had been here before, suffered here—

Not Under the Mountain. This was not Under the Mountain.

Indeed, Amarantha’s court had been the work of a child.

The Court of Nightmares was the work of a god.

While Under the Mountain had been a series of halls and rooms and levels, this … this was truly a city.

The walkway that Mor led us down was an avenue, and around us, rising high into gloom, were buildings and spires, homes and bridges. A metropolis carved from the dark stone of the mountain itself, no inch of it left unmarked or without some lovely, hideous artwork etched into it. Figures danced and fornicated; begged and reveled. Pillars were carved to look like curving vines of night-blooming flowers. Water ran throughout in little streams and rivers tapped from the heart of the mountain itself.

The Hewn City. A place of such terrible beauty that it was an effort to keep the wonder and dread off my face. Music was already playing somewhere, and our hosts still did not come out to greet us. The people we passed—only High Fae—were clothed in finery, their faces deathly pale and cold. Not one stopped us, not one smiled or bowed.

Mor ignored them all. Neither of us had said one word. Rhys had told me not to—that the walls had ears here.

Mor led me down the avenue toward another set of stone gates, thrown open at the base of what looked to be a castle within the mountain. The official seat of the High Lord of the Night Court.

Great, scaled black beasts were carved into those gates, all coiled together in a nest of claws and fangs, sleeping and fighting, some locked in an endless cycle of devouring each other. Between them flowed vines of jasmine and moonflowers. I could have sworn the beasts seemed to writhe in the silvery glow of the bobbing faelights throughout the mountain-city. The Gates of Eternity—that’s what I’d call the painting that flickered in my mind.

Mor continued through them, a flash of color and life in this strange, cold place.

She wore deepest red, the gossamer and gauze of her sleeveless gown clinging to her breasts and hips, while carefully placed shafts left much of her stomach and back exposed. Her hair was down in rippling waves, and cuffs of solid gold glinted around her wrists. A queen—a queen who bowed to no one, a queen who had faced them all down and triumphed. A queen who owned her body, her life, her destiny, and never apologized for it.

My clothes, which she had taken a moment in the pine wood to shift me into, were of a similar ilk, nearly identical to those I had been forced to wear Under the Mountain. Two shafts of fabric that hardly covered my breasts flowed to below my navel, where a belt across my hips joined them into one long shaft that draped between my legs and barely covered my backside.

But unlike the chiffon and bright colors I had worn then, this one was fashioned of black, glittering fabric that sparkled with every swish of my hips.

Mor had fashioned my hair onto a crown atop my head—right behind the black diadem that had been set before it, accented with flecks of diamond that made it glisten like the night sky. She’d darkened and lengthened my eyelashes, sweeping out an elegant, vicious line of kohl at the outer corner of each. My lips she’d painted bloodred.

Into the castle beneath the mountain we strode. There were more people here, milling about the endless halls, watching our every breath. Some looked like Mor, with their gold hair and beautiful faces. They even hissed at her.

Mor smirked at them. Part of me wished she’d rip their throats out instead.

We at last came to a throne room of polished ebony. More of the serpents from the front gates were carved here—this time, wrapped around the countless columns supporting the onyx ceiling. It was so high up that gloom hid its finer details, but I knew more had been carved there, too. Great beasts to monitor the manipulations and scheming within this room. The throne itself had been fashioned out of a few of them, a head snaking around either side of the back—as if they watched over the High Lord’s shoulder.

A crowd had gathered—and for a moment, I was again in Amarantha’s throne room, so similar was the atmosphere, the malice. So similar was the dais at the other end.

A golden-haired, beautiful man stepped into our path toward that ebony throne, and Mor smoothly halted. I knew he was her father without him saying a word.

He was clothed in black, a silver circlet atop his head. His brown eyes were like old soil as he said to her, “Where is he?”

No greeting, no formality. He ignored me wholly.

Mor shrugged. “He arrives when he wishes to.” She continued on.

Her father looked at me then. And I willed my face into a mask like hers. Disinterested. Aloof.

Her father surveyed my face, my body—and where I thought he’d sneer and ogle … there was nothing. No emotion. Just heartless cold.

I followed Mor before disgust wrecked my own icy mask.

Banquet tables against the black walls were covered with fat, succulent fruits and wreaths of golden bread, interrupted with roast meats, kegs of cider and ale, and pies and tarts and little cakes of every size and variety.

It might have made my mouth water … Were it not for the High Fae in their finery. Were it not for the fact that no one touched the food—the power and wealth lying in letting it go to waste.

Mor went right up to the obsidian dais, and I halted at the foot of the steps as she took up a place beside the throne and said to the crowd in a voice that was clear and cruel and cunning, “Your High Lord approaches. He is in a foul mood, so I suggest being on your best behavior—unless you wish to be the evening entertainment.”

And before the crowd could begin murmuring, I felt it. Felt—him.

The very rock beneath my feet seemed to tremble—a pulsing, steady beat.

His footsteps. As if the mountain shuddered at each touch.

Everyone in that room went still as death. As if petrified that their very breathing would draw the attention of the predator now strolling toward us.

Mor’s shoulders were back, her chin high—feral, wanton pride at her master’s arrival.

Remembering my role, I kept my own chin lowered, watching beneath my brows.

First Cassian and Azriel appeared in the doorway. The High Lord’s general and shadowsinger—and the most powerful Illyrians in history.

They were not the males I had come to know.

Clad in battle-black that hugged their muscled forms, their armor was intricate, scaled—their shoulders impossibly broader, their faces a portrait of unfeeling brutality. They reminded me, somehow, of the ebony beasts carved into the pillars they passed.

More Siphons, I realized, glimmered in addition to the ones atop each of their hands. A Siphon in the center of their chest. One on either shoulder. One on either knee.

For a moment, my knees quaked, and I understood what the camp-lords had feared in them. If one Siphon was what most Illyrians needed to handle their killing power … Cassian and Azriel had seven each. Seven.

The courtiers had the good sense to back away a step as Cassian and Azriel strolled through the crowd, toward the dais. Their wings gleamed, the talons at the apex sharp enough to pierce air—like they’d honed them.

Cassian’s focus had gone right to Mor, Azriel indulging in all of a glance before scanning the people around them. Most shirked from the spymaster’s eyes—though they trembled as they beheld Truth-Teller at his side, the Illyrian blade peeking above his left shoulder.

Azriel, his face a mask of beautiful death, silently promised them all endless, unyielding torment, even the shadows shuddering in his wake. I knew why; knew for whom he’d gladly do it.

They had tried to sell a seventeen-year-old girl into marriage with a sadist—and then brutalized her in ways I couldn’t, wouldn’t, let myself consider. And these people now lived in utter terror of the three companions who stood at the dais.

Good. They should be afraid of them.

Afraid of me.

And then Rhysand appeared.

He had released the damper on his power, on who he was. His power filled the throne room, the castle, the mountain. The world. It had no end and no beginning.

No wings. No weapons. No sign of the warrior. Nothing but the elegant, cruel High Lord the world believed him to be. His hands were in his pockets, his black tunic seeming to gobble up the light. And on his head sat a crown of stars.

No sign of the male who had been drinking on the roof; no sign of the fallen prince kneeling on his bed. The full impact of him threatened to sweep me away.

Here—here was the most powerful High Lord ever born.

The face of dreams and nightmares.

Rhys’s eyes met mine briefly from across the room as he strolled between the pillars. To the throne that was his by blood and sacrifice and might. My own blood sang at the power that thrummed from him, at the sheer beauty of him.

Mor stepped off the dais, dropping to one knee in a smooth bow. Cassian and Azriel followed suit.

So did everyone in that room.

Including me.

The ebony floor was so polished I could see my red-painted lips in it; see my own expressionless face. The room was so silent I could hear each of Rhys’s footsteps toward us.

“Well, well,” he said to no one in particular. “Looks like you’re all on time for once.”

Raising his head as he continued kneeling, Cassian gave Rhys a half grin—the High Lord’s commander incarnate, eager to do his bloodletting.

Rhys’s boots stopped in my line of sight.

His fingers were icy on my chin as he lifted my face.

The entire room, still on the floor, watched. But this was the role he needed me to play. To be a distraction and novelty. Rhys’s lips curved upward. “Welcome to my home, Feyre Cursebreaker.”

I lowered my eyes, my kohl-thick lashes tickling my cheek. He clicked his tongue, his grip on my chin tightening. Everyone noticed the push of his fingers, the predatory angle of his head as he said, “Come with me.”

A tug on my chin, and I rose to my feet. Rhys dragged his eyes over me and I wondered if it wasn’t entirely for show as they glazed a bit.

He led me the few steps onto the dais—to the throne. He sat, smiling faintly at his monstrous court. He owned every inch of the throne. These people.

And with a tug on my waist, he perched me on his lap.

The High Lord’s whore. Who I’d become Under the Mountain—who the world expected me to be. The dangerous new pet that Mor’s father would now seek to feel out.

Rhys’s hand slid along my bare waist, the other running down my exposed thigh. Cold—his hands were so cold I almost yelped.

He must have felt the silent flinch. A heartbeat later, his hands had warmed. His thumb, curving around the inside of my thigh, gave a slow, long stroke as if to say Sorry.

Rhys indeed leaned in to bring his mouth near my ear, well aware his subjects had not yet risen from the floor. As if they had once done so before they were bidden, long ago, and had learned the consequences. Rhysand whispered to me, his other hand now stroking the bare skin of my ribs in lazy, indolent circles, “Try not to let it go to your head.”

I knew they could all hear it. So did he.

I stared at their bowed heads, my heart hammering, but said with midnight smoothness, “What?”

Rhys’s breath caressed my ear, the twin to the breath he’d brushed against it merely an hour ago in the skies. “That every male in here is contemplating what they’d be willing to give up in order to get that pretty, red mouth of yours on them.”

I waited for the blush, the shyness, to creep in.

But I was beautiful. I was strong.

I had survived—triumphed. As Mor had survived in this horrible, poisoned house …

So I smiled a bit, the first smile of my new mask. Let them see that pretty, red mouth, and my white, straight teeth.

His hand slid higher up my thigh, the proprietary touch of a male who knew he owned someone body and soul. He’d apologized in advance for it—for this game, these roles we’d have to play.

But I leaned into that touch, leaned back into his hard, warm body. I was pressed so closely against him that I could feel the deep rumble of his voice as he at last said to his court, “Rise.”

As one, they did. I smirked at some of them, gloriously bored and infinitely amused.

Rhys brushed a knuckle along the inside of my knee, and every nerve in my body narrowed to that touch.

“Go play,” he said to them all.

They obeyed, the crowd dispersing, music striking up from a distant corner.

“Keir,” Rhys said, his voice cutting through the room like lightning on a stormy night.

It was all he needed to summon Mor’s father to the foot of the dais. Keir bowed again, his face lined with icy resentment as he took in Rhys, then me—glancing once at Mor and the Illyrians. Cassian gave Keir a slow nod that told him he remembered—and would never forget—what the Steward of the Hewn City had done to his own daughter.

But it was from Azriel that Keir cringed. From the sight of Truth-Teller.

One day, I realized, Azriel would use that blade on Mor’s father. And take a long, long while to carve him up.

“Report,” Rhys said, stroking a knuckle down my ribs. He gave a dismissive nod to Cassian, Mor, and Azriel, and the trio faded away into the crowd. Within a heartbeat, Azriel had vanished into shadows and was gone. Keir didn’t even turn.

Before Rhys, Keir was nothing more than a sullen child. Yet I knew Mor’s father was older. Far older. The Steward clung to power, it seemed.

Rhys was power.

“Greetings, milord,” Keir said, his deep voice polished smooth. “And greetings to your … guest.”

Rhys’s hand flattened on my thigh as he angled his head to look at me. “She is lovely, isn’t she?”

“Indeed,” Keir said, lowering his eyes. “There is little to report, milord. All has been quiet since your last visit.”

“No one for me to punish?” A cat playing with his food.

“Unless you’d like for me to select someone here, no, milord.”

Rhys clicked his tongue. “Pity.” He again surveyed me, then leaned to tug my earlobe with his teeth.

And damn me to hell, but I leaned farther back as his teeth pressed down at the same moment his thumb drifted high on the side of my thigh, sweeping across sensitive skin in a long, luxurious touch. My body went loose and tight, and my breathing … Cauldron damn me again, the scent of him, the citrus and the sea, the power roiling off him … my breathing hitched a bit.

I knew he noticed; knew he felt that shift in me.

His fingers stilled on my leg.

Keir began mentioning people I didn’t know in the court, bland reports on marriages and alliances, blood-feuds, and Rhys let him talk.

His thumb stroked again—this time joined with his pointer finger.

A dull roaring was filling my ears, drowning out everything but that touch on the inside of my leg. The music was throbbing, ancient, wild, and people ground against each other to it.

His eyes on the Steward, Rhys made vague nods every now and then. While his fingers continued their slow, steady stroking on my thighs, rising higher with every pass.

People were watching. Even as they drank and ate, even as some danced in small circles, people were watching. I was sitting in his lap, his own personal plaything, his every touch visible to them … and yet it might as well have been only the two of us.

Keir listed the expenses and costs of running the court, and Rhys gave another vague nod. This time, his nose brushed the spot between my neck and shoulder, followed by a passing graze of his mouth.

My breasts tightened, becoming full and heavy, aching—aching like what was now pooling in my core. Heat filled my face, my blood.

But Keir said at last, as if his own self-control slipped the leash, “I had heard the rumors, and I didn’t quite believe them.” His gaze settled on me, on my breasts, peaked through the folds of my dress, of my legs, spread wider than they’d been minutes before, and Rhys’s hand in dangerous territory. “But it seems true: Tamlin’s pet is now owned by another master.”

“You should see how I make her beg,” Rhys murmured, nudging my neck with his nose.

Keir clasped his hands behind his back. “I assume you brought her to make a statement.”

“You know everything I do is a statement.”

“Of course. This one, it seems, you enjoy putting in cobwebs and crowns.”

Rhys’s hand paused, and I sat straighter at the tone, the disgust. And I said to Keir in a voice that belonged to another woman, “Perhaps I’ll put a leash on you.”

Rhys’s approval tapped against my mental shield, the hand at my ribs now making lazy circles. “She does enjoy playing,” he mused onto my shoulder. He jerked his chin toward the Steward. “Get her some wine.”

Pure command. No politeness.

Keir stiffened, but strode off.

Rhys didn’t dare break from his mask, but the light kiss he pressed beneath my ear told me enough. Apology and gratitude—and more apologies. He didn’t like this any more than I did. And yet to get what we needed, to buy Azriel time … He’d do it. And so would I.

I wondered, then, with his hands beneath my breasts and between my legs, what Rhys wouldn’t give of himself. Wondered if … if perhaps the arrogance and swagger … if they masked a male who perhaps thought he wasn’t worth very much at all.

A new song began, like dripping honey—and edged into a swift-moving wind, punctuated with driving, relentless drums.

I twisted, studying his face. There was nothing warm in his eyes, nothing of the friend I’d made. I opened my shield enough to let him in. What? His voice floated into my mind.

I reached down the bond between us, caressing that wall of ebony adamant. A small sliver cracked—just for me. And I said into it, You are good, Rhys. You are kind. This mask does not scare me. I see you beneath it.

His hands tightened on me, and his eyes held mine as he leaned forward to brush his mouth against my cheek. It was answer enough—and … an unleashing.

I leaned a bit more against him, my legs widening ever so slightly. Why’d you stop? I said into his mind, into him.

A near-silent growl reverberated against me. He stroked my ribs again, in time to the beat of the music, his thumb rising nearly high enough to graze the underside of my breasts.

I let my head drop back against his shoulder.

I let go of the part of me that heard their words—whore, whore, whore—

Let go of the part that said those words alongside them—traitor, liar, whore—

And I just became.

I became the music, and the drums, and the wild, dark thing in the High Lord’s arms.

His eyes were wholly glazed—and not with power or rage. Something red-hot and edged with glittering darkness exploded in my mind.

I dragged a hand down his thigh, feeling the hidden warrior’s strength there. Dragged it back up again in a long, idle stroke, needing to touch him, feel him.

I was going to catch fire and burn. I was going to start burning right here—

Easy, he said with wicked amusement through the open sliver in my shield. If you become a living candle, poor Keir will throw a hissy fit. And then you’d ruin the party for everyone.

Because the fire would let them all know I wasn’t normal—and no doubt Keir would inform his almost-allies in the Autumn Court. Or one of these other monsters would.

Rhys shifted his hips, rubbing against me with enough pressure that for a second, I didn’t care about Keir, or the Autumn Court, or what Azriel might be doing right now to steal the orb.

I had been so cold, so lonely, for so long, and my body cried out at the contact, at the joy of being touched and held and alive.

The hand that had been on my waist slid across my abdomen, hooking into the low-slung belt there. I rested my head between his shoulder and neck, staring at the crowd as they stared at me, savoring every place where Rhys and I connected and wanting more more more.

At last, when my blood had begun to boil, when Rhys skimmed the underside of my breast with his knuckle, I looked to where I knew Keir was standing, watching us, my wine forgotten in his hand.

We both did.

The Steward was staring unabashedly as he leaned against the wall. Unsure whether to interrupt. Half terrified to. We were his distraction. We were the sleight of hand while Az stole the orb.

I knew Rhys was still holding Keir’s gaze as the tip of his tongue slid up my neck.

I arched my back, eyes heavy-lidded, breathing uneven. I’d burn and burn and burn—

I think he’s so disgusted that he might have given me the orb just to get out of here, Rhys said in my mind, that other hand drifting dangerously south. But there was such a growing ache there, and I wore nothing beneath that would conceal the damning evidence if he slid his hand a fraction higher.

You and I put on a good show, I said back. The person who said that, husky and sultry—I’d never heard that voice come out of me before. Even in my mind.

His hand slid to my upper thigh, fingers curving in.

I ground against him, trying to shift those hands away from what he’d learn—

To find him hard against my backside.

Every thought eddied from my head. Only a thrill of power remained as I writhed along that impressive length. Rhys let out a low, rough laugh.

Keir just watched and watched and watched. Rigid. Horrified. Stuck here, until Rhys released him—and not thinking twice about why. Or where the spymaster had gone.

So I turned around again, meeting Rhysand’s now-blazing eyes, and then licked up the column of his throat. Wind and sea and citrus and sweat. It almost undid me.

I faced forward, and Rhys dragged his mouth along the back of my neck, right over my spine, just as I shifted against the hardness pushing into me, insistent and dominating. Precisely as his hand slid a bit too high on my inner thigh.

I felt the predatory focus go right to the slickness he’d felt there. Proof of my traitorous body. His arms tightened around me, and my face burned—perhaps a bit from shame, but—

Rhys sensed my focus, my fire slip. It’s fine, he said, but that mental voice sounded breathless. It means nothing. It’s just your body reacting—

Because you’re so irresistible? My attempt to deflect sounded strained, even in my mind.

But he laughed, probably for my benefit.

We’d danced around and teased and taunted each other for months. And maybe it was my body’s reaction, maybe it was his body’s reaction, but the taste of him threatened to destroy me, consume me, and—

Another male. I’d had another male’s hands all over me, when Tamlin and I were barely—

Fighting my nausea, I pasted a sleepy, lust-fogged smile on my face. Right as Azriel returned and gave Rhys a subtle nod. He’d gotten the orb.

Mor slid up to the spymaster, running a proprietary hand over his shoulders, his chest, as she circled to look into his face. Az’s scar-mottled hand wrapped around her bare waist—squeezing once. The confirmation she also needed.

She offered him a little grin that would no doubt spread rumors, and sauntered into the crowd again. Dazzling, distracting, leaving them thinking Az had been here the whole time, leaving them pondering if she’d extend Azriel an invitation to her bed.

Azriel just stared after Mor, distant and bored. I wondered if he was as much of a mess inside as I was.

Rhys crooked a finger to Keir, who, scowling a bit in his daughter’s direction, stumbled forward with my wine. He’d barely reached the dais before Rhys’s power took it from him, floating the goblet to us.

Rhys set it on the ground beside the throne, a stupid task he’d thought up for the Steward to remind him of his powerlessness, that this throne was not his.

“Should I test it for poison?” Rhys drawled even as he said into my mind, Cassian’s waiting. Go.

Rhys had the same, sex-addled expression on his perfect face—but his eyes … I couldn’t read the shadows in his eyes.

Maybe—maybe for all our teasing, after Amarantha, he didn’t want to be touched by a woman like that. Didn’t even enjoy being wanted like that.

I had been tortured and tormented, but his horrors had gone to another level.

“No, milord,” Keir groveled. “I would never dare harm you.” Another distraction, this conversation. I took that as my cue to stride to Cassian, who was snarling by a pillar at anyone who came too close.

I felt the eyes of the court slide to me, felt them all sniff delicately at what was so clearly written over my body. But as I passed Keir, even with the High Lord at my back, he hissed almost too quietly to hear, “You’ll get what’s coming to you, whore.”

Night exploded into the room.

People cried out. And when the darkness cleared, Keir was on his knees.

Rhys still lounged on the throne. His face a mask of frozen rage.

The music stopped. Mor appeared at the edge of the crowd—her own features set in smug satisfaction. Even as Azriel approached her side, standing too close to be casual.

“Apologize,” Rhys said. My heart thundered at the pure command, the utter wrath.

Keir’s neck muscles strained, and sweat broke out on his lip.

“I said,” Rhys intoned with such horrible calm, “apologize.”

The Steward groaned. And when another heartbeat passed—

Bone cracked. Keir screamed.

And I watched—I watched as his arm fractured into not two, not three, but four different pieces, the skin going taut and loose in all the wrong spots—

Another crack. His elbow disintegrated. My stomach churned.

Keir began sobbing, the tears half from rage, judging by the hatred in his eyes as he looked at me, then Rhys. But his lips formed the words, I’m sorry.

The bones of his other arm splintered, and it was an effort not to cringe.

Rhys smiled as Keir screamed again and said to the room, “Should I kill him for it?”

No one answered.

Rhys chuckled. He said to his Steward, “When you wake up, you’re not to see a healer. If I hear that you do … ” Another crack—Keir’s pinkie finger went saggy. The male shrieked. The heat that had boiled my blood turned to ice. “If I hear that you do, I’ll carve you into pieces and bury them where no one can stand a chance of putting you together again.”

Keir’s eyes widened in true terror now. Then, as if an invisible hand had struck the consciousness from him, he collapsed to the floor.

Rhys said to no one in particular, “Dump him in his room.”

Two males who looked like they could be Mor’s cousins or brothers rushed forward, gathering up the Steward. Mor watched them, sneering faintly—though her skin was pale.

He’d wake up. That’s what Rhys had said.

I made myself keep walking as Rhys summoned another courtier to give him reports on whatever trivial matters.

But my attention remained on the throne behind me, even as I slipped beside Cassian, daring the court to approach, to play with me. None did.

And for the long hour afterward, my focus half remained on the High Lord whose hands and mouth and body had suddenly made me feel awake—burning. It didn’t make me forget, didn’t make me obliterate hurts or grievances, it just made me … alive. Made me feel as if I’d been asleep for a year, slumbering inside a glass coffin, and he had just shattered through it and shaken me to consciousness.

The High Lord whose power had not scared me. Whose wrath did not wreck me.

And now—now I didn’t know where that put me.

Knee-deep in trouble seemed like a good place to start.

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