فصل 44

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CHAPTER

44

But despite the letter, despite the mess between us, as I gaped at the mirror an hour later, I couldn’t quite believe what stared back.

I had been so relieved these past few weeks to be sleeping at all that I’d forgotten to be grateful that I was keeping down my food.

The fullness had come back to my face, my body. What should have taken weeks longer as a human had been hurried along by the miracle of my immortal blood. And the dress …

I’d never worn anything like it, and doubted I’d ever wear anything like it again.

Crafted of tiny blue gems so pale they were almost white, it clung to every curve and hollow before draping to the floor and pooling like liquid starlight. The long sleeves were tight, capped at the wrists with cuffs of pure diamond. The neckline grazed my collarbones, the modesty of it undone by how the gown hugged areas I supposed a female might enjoy showing off. My hair had been swept off my face with two combs of silver and diamond, then left to drape down my back. And I thought, as I stood alone in my bedroom, that I might have looked like a fallen star.

Rhysand was nowhere to be found when I worked up the courage to go to the rooftop garden. The beading on the dress clinked and hissed against the floors as I walked through the nearly dark house, all the lights softened or extinguished.

In fact, the whole city had blown out its lights.

A winged, muscled figure stood atop the roof, and my heart stumbled.

But then he turned, just as the scent hit me. And something in my chest sank a bit as Cassian let out a low whistle. “I should have let Nuala and Cerridwen dress me.”

I didn’t know whether to smile or wince. “You look rather good despite it.” He did. He was out of his fighting clothes and armor, sporting a black tunic cut to show off that warrior’s body. His black hair had been brushed and smoothed, and even his wings looked cleaner.

Cassian held his arms out. His Siphons remained—a metal, fingerless gauntlet that stretched beneath the tailored sleeves of his jacket. “Ready?”

He’d kept me company the past two days, training me each morning. While he’d shown me more particulars on how to use an Illyrian blade—mostly how to disembowel someone with it—we’d chatted about everything: our equally miserable lives as children, hunting, food … Everything, that is, except for the subject of Rhysand.

Cassian had mentioned only once that Rhys was up at the House, and I supposed my expression had told him enough about not wanting to hear anything else. He grinned at me now. “With all those gems and beads, you might be too heavy to carry. I hope you’ve been practicing your winnowing in case I drop you.”

“Funny.” I allowed him to scoop me into his arms before we shot into the sky. Winnowing might still evade me, but I wished I had wings, I realized. Great, powerful wings so I might fly as they did; so I might see the world and all it had to offer.

Below us, every lingering light winked out. There was no moon; no music flitted through the streets. Silence—as if waiting for something.

Cassian soared through the quiet dark to where the House of Wind loomed. I could make out crowds gathered on the many balconies and patios only from the faint gleam of starlight on their hair, then the clink of their glasses and low chatter as we neared.

Cassian set me down on the crowded patio off the dining room, only a few revelers bothering to look at us. Dim bowls of faelight inside the House illuminated spreads of food and endless rows of green bottles of sparkling wine atop the tables. Cassian was gone and returned before I missed him, pressing a glass of the latter into my hand. No sign of Rhysand.

Maybe he’d avoid me the entire party.

Someone called Cassian’s name from down the patio, and he clapped me on the shoulder before striding off. A tall male, his face in shadow, clasped forearms with Cassian, his white teeth gleaming in the darkness. Azriel stood with the stranger already, his wings tucked in tight to keep revelers from knocking into them. He, Cassian, and Mor had all been quiet today—understandably so. I scanned for signs of my other—

Friends.

The word sounded in my head. Was that what they were?

Amren was nowhere in sight, but I spotted a golden head at the same moment she spied me, and Mor breezed to my side. She wore a gown of pure white, little more than a slip of silk that showed off her generous curves. Indeed, a glance over her shoulder revealed Azriel staring blatantly at the back view of it, Cassian and the stranger already too deep in conversation to notice what had drawn the spymaster’s attention. For a moment, the ravenous hunger on Azriel’s face made my stomach tighten.

I’d remembered feeling like that. Remembered how it felt to yield to it. How I’d come close to doing that the other night.

Mor said, “It won’t be long now.”

“Until what?” No one had told me what to expect, as they hadn’t wanted to ruin the surprise of Starfall.

“Until the fun.”

I surveyed the party around us—“This isn’t the fun?”

Mor lifted an eyebrow. “None of us really care about this part. Once it starts, you’ll see.” She took a sip of her sparkling wine. “That’s some dress. You’re lucky Amren is hiding in her little attic, or she’d probably steal it right off you. The vain drake.”

“She won’t take time off from decoding?”

“Yes, and no. Something about Starfall disturbs her, she claims. Who knows? She probably does it to be contrary.”

Even as she spoke, her words were distant—her face a bit tight. I said quietly, “Are you … ready for tomorrow?” Tomorrow, when we’d leave Velaris to keep anyone from noticing our movements in this area. Mor, Azriel had told me tightly over breakfast that morning, would return to the Court of Nightmares. To check in on her father’s … recovery.

Probably not the best place to discuss our plans, but Mor shrugged. “I don’t have any choice but to be ready. I’ll come with you to the camp, then go my way afterward.”

“Cassian will be happy about that,” I said. Even if Azriel was the one trying his best not to stare at her.

Mor snorted. “Maybe.”

I lifted a brow. “So you two … ?”

Another shrug. “Once. Well, not even. I was seventeen, he wasn’t even a year older.”

When everything had happened.

But there was no darkness on her face as she sighed. “Cauldron, that was a long time ago. I visited Rhys for two weeks when he was training in the war-camp, and Cassian, Azriel, and I became friends. One night, Rhys and his mother had to go back to the Night Court, and Azriel went with them, so Cassian and I were left alone. And that night, one thing led to another, and … I wanted Cassian to be the one who did it. I wanted to choose.” A third shrug. I wondered if Azriel had wished to be the one she chose instead. If he’d ever admitted to it to Mor—or Rhys. If he resented that he’d been away that night, that Mor hadn’t considered him.

“Rhys came back the next morning, and when he learned what had happened … ” She laughed under her breath. “We try not to talk about the Incident. He and Cassian … I’ve never seen them fight like that. Hopefully I never will again. I know Rhys wasn’t pissed about my virginity, but rather the danger that losing it had put me in. Azriel was even angrier about it—though he let Rhys do the walloping. They knew what my family would do for debasing myself with a bastard-born lesser faerie.” She brushed a hand over her abdomen, as if she could feel that nail they’d spiked through it. “They were right.”

“So you and Cassian,” I said, wanting to move on from it, that darkness, “you were never together again after that?”

“No,” Mor said, laughing quietly. “I was desperate, reckless that night. I’d picked him not just for his kindness, but also because I wanted my first time to be with one of the legendary Illyrian warriors. I wanted to lie with the greatest of Illyrian warriors, actually. And I’d taken one look at Cassian and known. After I got what I wanted, after … everything, I didn’t like that it caused a rift with him and Rhys, or even him and Az, so … never again.”

“And you were never with anyone after it?” Not the cold, beautiful shadowsinger who tried so hard not to watch her with longing on his face?

“I’ve had lovers,” Mor clarified, “but … I get bored. And Cassian has had them, too, so don’t get that unrequited-love, moony-woo-woo look. He just wants what he can’t have, and it’s irritated him for centuries that I walked away and never looked back.”

“Oh, it drives him insane,” Rhys said from behind me, and I jumped. But the High Lord was circling me. I crossed my arms as he paused and smirked. “You look like a woman again.”

“You really know how to compliment females, cousin,” Mor said, and patted him on the shoulder as she spotted an acquaintance and went to say hello.

I tried not to look at Rhys, who was in a black jacket, casually unbuttoned at the top so that the white shirt beneath—also unbuttoned at the neck—showed the tattoos on his chest peeking through. Tried not to look—and failed.

“Do you plan to ignore me some more?” I said coolly.

“I’m here now, aren’t I? I wouldn’t want you to call me a hateful coward again.”

I opened my mouth, but felt all the wrong words start to come out. So I shut it and looked for Azriel or Cassian or anyone who might talk to me. Going up to a stranger was starting to sound appealing when Rhys said a bit hoarsely, “I wasn’t punishing you. I just … I needed time.”

I didn’t want to have this conversation here—with so many people listening. So I gestured to the party and said, “Will you please tell me what this … gathering is about?”

Rhysand stepped up behind me, snorting as he said into my ear, “Look up.”

Indeed, as I did so, the crowd hushed.

“No speech for your guests?” I murmured. Easy—I just wanted it to be easy between us again.

“Tonight’s not about me, though my presence is appreciated and noted,” he said. “Tonight’s about that.”

As he pointed …

A star vaulted across the sky, brighter and closer than any I’d seen before. The crowd and city below cheered, raising their glasses as it passed right overhead, and only when it had disappeared over the curve of the horizon did they drink deeply.

I leaned back a step into Rhys—and quickly stepped away, out of his heat and power and scent. We’d done enough damage in a similar position at the Court of Nightmares.

Another star crossed the sky, twirling and twisting over itself, as if it were reveling in its own sparkling beauty. It was chased by another, and another, until a brigade of them were unleashed from the edge of the horizon, like a thousand archers had loosed them from mighty bows.

The stars cascaded over us, filling the world with white and blue light. They were like living fireworks, and my breath lodged in my throat as the stars kept on falling and falling.

I’d never seen anything so beautiful.

And when the sky was full with them, when the stars raced and danced and flowed across the world, the music began.

Wherever they were, people began dancing, swaying and twirling, some grabbing hands and spinning, spinning, spinning to the drums, the strings, the glittering harps. Not like the grinding and thrusting of the Court of Nightmares, but—joyous, peaceful dancing. For the love of sound and movement and life.

I lingered with Rhysand at the edge of it, caught between watching the people dancing on the patio, hands upraised, and the stars streaming past, closer and closer until I swore I could have touched them if I’d leaned out.

And there were Mor and Azriel—and Cassian. The three of them dancing together, Mor’s head tipped back to the sky, arms up, the starlight gleaming on the pure white of her gown. Dancing as if it might be her last time, flowing between Azriel and Cassian like the three of them were one unit, one being.

I looked behind me to find Rhys watching them, his face soft. Sad.

Separated for fifty years, and reunited—only to be cleaved apart so soon to fight again for their freedom.

Rhys caught my gaze and said, “Come. There’s a better view. Quieter,” He held a hand out to me.

That sorrow, that weight, lingered in his eyes. And I couldn’t bear to see it—just as I couldn’t bear to see my three friends dancing together as if it was the last time they’d ever do it.

Rhys led me to a small private balcony jutting from the upper level of the House of Wind. On the patios below, the music still played, the people still danced, the stars wheeling by, close and swift.

He let go as I took a seat on the balcony rail. I immediately decided against it as I beheld the drop, and backed away a healthy step.

Rhys chuckled. “If you fell, you know I’d bother to save you before you hit the ground.”

“But not until I was close to death?”

“Maybe.”

I leaned a hand against the rail, peering at the stars whizzing past. “As punishment for what I said to you?”

“I said some horrible things, too,” he murmured.

“I didn’t mean it,” I blurted. “I meant it more about myself than you. And I’m sorry.”

He watched the stars for a moment before he replied. “You were right, though. I stayed away because you were right. Though I’m glad to hear my absence felt like a punishment.”

I snorted, but was grateful for the humor—for the way he’d always been able to amuse me. “Any news with the orb or the queens?”

“Nothing yet. We’re waiting for them to deign to reply.”

We were silent again, and I studied the stars. “They’re not—they’re not stars at all.”

“No.” Rhys came up beside me at the rail. “Our ancestors thought they were, but … They’re just spirits, on a yearly migration to somewhere. Why they pick this day to appear here, no one knows.”

I felt his eyes upon me, and tore my gaze from the shooting stars. Light and shadow passed over his face. The cheers and music of the city far, far below were barely audible over the crowd gathered at the House.

“There must be hundreds of them,” I managed to say, dragging my stare back to the stars whizzing past.

“Thousands,” he said. “They’ll keep coming until dawn. Or, I hope they will. There were less and less of them the last time I witnessed Starfall.”

Before Amarantha had locked him away.

“What’s happening to them?” I looked in time to see him shrug. Something twanged in my chest.

“I wish I knew. But they keep coming back despite it.”

“Why?”

“Why does anything cling to something? Maybe they love wherever they’re going so much that it’s worth it. Maybe they’ll keep coming back, until there’s only one star left. Maybe that one star will make the trip forever, out of the hope that someday—if it keeps coming back often enough—another star will find it again.”

I frowned at the wine in my hand. “That’s … a very sad thought.”

“Indeed.” Rhys rested his forearms on the balcony edge, close enough for my fingers to touch if I dared.

A calm, full silence enveloped us. Too many words—I still had too many words in me.

I don’t know how much time passed, but it must have been a while, because when he spoke again, I jolted. “Every year that I was Under the Mountain and Starfall came around, Amarantha made sure that I … serviced her. The entire night. Starfall is no secret, even to outsiders—even the Court of Nightmares crawls out of the Hewn City to look up at the sky. So she knew … She knew what it meant to me.”

I stopped hearing the celebrations around us. “I’m sorry.” It was all I could offer.

“I got through it by reminding myself that my friends were safe; that Velaris was safe. Nothing else mattered, so long as I had that. She could use my body however she wanted. I didn’t care.”

“So why aren’t you down there with them?” I asked, even as I tucked the horror of what had been done to him into my heart.

“They don’t know—what she did to me on Starfall. I don’t want it to ruin their night.”

“I don’t think it would. They’d be happy if you let them shoulder the burden.”

“The same way you rely on others to help with your own troubles?”

We stared at each other, close enough to share breath.

And maybe all those words bottled up in me … Maybe I didn’t need them right now.

My fingers grazed his. Warm and sturdy—patient, as if waiting to see what else I might do. Maybe it was the wine, but I stroked a finger down his.

And as I turned to him more fully, something blinding and tinkling slammed into my face.

I reeled back, crying out as I bent over, shielding my face against the light that I could still see against my shut eyes.

Rhys let out a startled laugh.

A laugh.

And when I realized that my eyes hadn’t been singed out of their sockets, I whirled on him. “I could have been blinded!” I hissed, shoving him. He took a look at my face and burst out laughing again. Real laughter, open and delighted and lovely.

I wiped at my face, and when I pulled my hands down, I gaped. Pale green light—like drops of paint—glowed in flecks on my hand.

Splattered star-spirit. I didn’t know if I should be horrified or amused. Or disgusted.

When I went to rub it off, Rhys caught my hands. “Don’t,” he said, still laughing. “It looks like your freckles are glowing.”

My nostrils flared, and I went to shove him again, not caring if my new strength knocked him off the balcony. He could summon wings; he could deal with it.

He sidestepped me, veering toward the balcony rail, but not fast enough to avoid the careening star that collided with the side of his face.

He leaped back with a curse. I laughed, the sound rasping out of me. Not a chuckle or snort, but a cackling laugh.

And I laughed again, and again, as he lowered his hands from his eyes.

The entire left side of his face had been hit.

Like heavenly war paint, that’s what it looked like. I could see why he didn’t want me to wipe mine away.

Rhys was examining his hands, covered in the dust, and I stepped toward him, peering at the way it glowed and glittered.

He went still as death as I took one of his hands in my own and traced a star shape on the top of his palm, playing with the glimmer and shadows, until it looked like one of the stars that had hit us.

His fingers tightened on mine, and I looked up. He was smiling at me. And looked so un-High-Lord-like with the glowing dust on the side of his face that I grinned back.

I hadn’t even realized what I’d done until his own smile faded, and his mouth parted slightly.

“Smile again,” he whispered.

I hadn’t smiled for him. Ever. Or laughed. Under the Mountain, I had never grinned, never chuckled. And afterward …

And this male before me … my friend …

For all that he had done, I had never given him either. Even when I had just … I had just painted something. On him. For him.

I’d—painted again.

So I smiled at him, broad and without restraint.

“You’re exquisite,” he breathed.

The air was too tight, too close between our bodies, between our joined hands. But I said, “You owe me two thoughts—back from when I first came here. Tell me what you’re thinking.”

Rhys rubbed his neck. “You want to know why I didn’t speak or see you? Because I was so convinced you’d throw me out on my ass. I just … ” He dragged a hand through his hair, and huffed a laugh. “I figured hiding was a better alternative.”

“Who would have thought the High Lord of the Night Court could be afraid of an illiterate human?” I purred. He grinned, nudging me with an elbow. “That’s one,” I pushed. “Tell me another thought.”

His eyes fell on my mouth. “I’m wishing I could take back that kiss Under the Mountain.”

I sometimes forgot that kiss, when he’d done it to keep Amarantha from knowing that Tamlin and I had been in the forgotten hall, tangled up together. Rhysand’s kiss had been brutal, demanding, and yet … “Why?”

His gaze settled on the hand I’d painted instead, as if it were easier to face. “Because I didn’t make it pleasant for you, and I was jealous and pissed off, and I knew you hated me.”

Dangerous territory, I warned myself.

No. Honesty, that’s what it was. Honesty, and trust. I’d never had that with anyone.

Rhys looked up, meeting my gaze. And whatever was on my face—I think it might have been mirrored on his: the hunger and longing and surprise.

I swallowed hard, traced another line of stardust along the inside of his powerful wrist. I didn’t think he was breathing. “Do you—do you want to dance with me?” I whispered.

He was silent for long enough that I lifted my head to scan his face. But his eyes were bright—silver-lined. “You want to dance?” he rasped, his fingers curling around mine.

I pointed with my chin toward the celebration below. “Down there—with them.” Where the music beckoned, where life beckoned. Where he should spend the night with his friends, and where I wanted to spend it with them, too. Even with the strangers in attendance.

I did not mind stepping out of the shadows, did not mind even being in the shadows to begin with, so long as he was with me. My friend through so many dangers—who had fought for me when no one else would, even myself.

“Of course I’ll dance with you,” Rhys said, his voice still raw. “All night, if you wish.”

“Even if I step on your toes?”

“Even then.”

He leaned in, brushing his mouth against my heated cheek. I closed my eyes at the whisper of a kiss, at the hunger that ravaged me in its wake, that might ravage Prythian. And all around us, as if the world itself were indeed falling apart, stars rained down.

Bits of stardust glowed on his lips as he pulled away, as I stared up at him, breathless, while he smiled. The smile the world would likely never see, the smile he’d given up for the sake of his people, his lands. He said softly, “I am … very glad I met you, Feyre.”

I blinked away the burning in my eyes. “Come on,” I said, tugging on his hand. “Let’s go join the dance.”

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