فصل 45

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CHAPTER

45

The Illyrian war-camp deep in the northern mountains was freezing. Apparently, spring was still little more than a whisper in the region.

Mor winnowed us all in, Rhysand and Cassian flanking us.

We had danced. All of us together. And I had never seen Rhys so happy, laughing with Azriel, drinking with Mor, bickering with Cassian. I’d danced with each of them, and when the night had shifted toward dawn and the music became soft and honeyed, I had let Rhys take me in his arms and dance with me, slowly, until the other guests had left, until Mor was asleep on a settee in the dining room, until the gold disc of the sun gilded Velaris.

He’d flown me back to the town house through the pink and purple and gray of the dawn, both of us silent, and had kissed my brow once before walking down the hall to his own room.

I didn’t lie to myself about why I waited for thirty minutes to see if my door would open. Or to at least hear a knock. But nothing.

We were bleary-eyed but polite at the lunch table hours later, Mor and Cassian unusually quiet, talking mostly to Amren and Azriel, who had come to bid us farewell. Amren would continue working on the Book until we received the second half—if we received it; the shadowsinger was heading out to gather information and manage his spies stationed at the other courts and attempting to break into the human one. I managed to speak to them, but most of my energy went into not looking at Rhysand, or thinking about the feeling of his body pressed to mine as we’d danced for hours, that brush of his mouth on my skin.

I’d barely been able to fall asleep because of it.

Traitor. Even if I’d left Tamlin, I was a traitor. I’d been gone for two months—just two. In faerie terms, it was probably considered less than a day.

Tamlin had given me so much, done so many kind things for me and my family. And here I was, wanting another male, even as I hated Tamlin for what he’d done, how he’d failed me. Traitor.

The word continued echoing in my head as I stood at Mor’s side, Rhys and Cassian a few steps ahead, and peered out at the wind-blown camp. Mor had barely given Azriel more than a brief embrace before bidding him good-bye. And for all the world, the spymaster looked like he didn’t care—until he gave me a swift, warning look. I was still torn between amusement and outrage at the assumption I’d stick my nose into his business. Indeed.

Built near the top of a forested mountain, the Illyrian camp was all bare rock and mud, interrupted only by crude, easy-to-pack tents centered around large fire pits. Near the tree line, a dozen permanent buildings had been erected of the gray mountain stone. Smoke puffed from their chimneys against the brisk cloudy morning, occasionally swirled by the passing wings overhead.

So many winged males soaring past on their way to other camps or in training.

Indeed, on the opposite end of the camp, in a rocky area that ended in a sheer plunge off the mountain, were the sparring and training rings. Racks of weapons were left out to the elements; in the chalk-painted rings males of all ages now trained with sticks and swords and shields and spears. Fast, lethal, brutal. No complaints, no shouts of pain.

There was no warmth here, no joy. Even the houses at the other end of the camp had no personal touches, as if they were used only for shelter or storage.

And this was where Rhys, Azriel, and Cassian had grown up—where Cassian had been cast out to survive on his own. It was so cold that even bundled in my fur-lined leather, I was shivering. I couldn’t imagine a child going without adequate clothing—or shelter—for a night, much less eight years.

Mor’s face was pale, tight. “I hate this place,” she said under her breath, the heat of it clouding the air in front of us. “It should be burned to the ground.”

Cassian and Rhys were silent as a tall, broad-shouldered older male approached, flanked by five other Illyrian warriors, wings all tucked in, hands within casual reach of their weapons.

No matter that Rhys could rip their minds apart without lifting a finger.

They each wore Siphons of varying colors on the backs of their hands, the stones smaller than Azriel and Cassian’s. And only one. Not like the seven apiece that my two friends wore to manage their tremendous power.

The male in front said, “Another camp inspection? Your dog,” he jerked his chin at Cassian, “was here just the other week. The girls are training.”

Cassian crossed his arms. “I don’t see them in the ring.”

“They do chores first,” the male said, shoulders pushing back and wings flaring slightly, “then when they’ve finished, they get to train.”

A low snarl slipped past Mor’s mouth, and the male turned our way. He stiffened. Mor flashed him a wicked smile. “Hello, Lord Devlon.”

The leader of the camp, then.

He gave her a dismissive once-over and looked back to Rhys. Cassian’s warning growl rumbled in my stomach.

Rhys said at last, “Pleasant as it always is to see you, Devlon, there are two matters at hand: First, the girls, as you were clearly told by Cassian, are to train before chores, not after. Get them out on the pitch. Now.” I shuddered at the pure command in that tone. He continued, “Second, we’ll be staying here for the time being. Clear out my mother’s old house. No need for a housekeeper. We’ll look after ourselves.”

“The house is occupied by my top warriors.”

“Then un-occupy it,” Rhysand said simply. “And have them clean it before they do.”

The voice of the High Lord of the Night Court—who delighted in pain, and made his enemies tremble.

Devlon sniffed at me. I poured every bit of cranky exhaustion into holding his narrowed gaze. “Another like that … creature you bring here? I thought she was the only one of her ilk.”

“Amren,” Rhys drawled, “sends her regards. And as for this one … ” I tried not to flinch away from meeting his stare. “She’s mine,” he said quietly, but viciously enough that Devlon and his warriors nearby heard. “And if any of you lay a hand on her, you lose that hand. And then you lose your head.” I tried not to shiver, as Cassian and Mor showed no reaction at all. “And once Feyre is done killing you,” Rhys smirked, “then I’ll grind your bones to dust.”

I almost laughed. But the warriors were now assessing the threat Rhys had established me as—and coming up short with answers. I gave them all a small smile, anyway, one I’d seen Amren make a hundred times. Let them wonder what I could do if provoked.

“We’re heading out,” Rhys said to Cassian and Mor, not even bothering to dismiss Devlon before walking toward the tree line. “We’ll be back at nightfall.” He gave his cousin a look. “Try to stay out of trouble, please. Devlon hates us the least of the war-lords and I don’t feel like finding another camp.”

Mother above, the others must be … unpleasant, if Devlon was the mildest of them.

Mor winked at us both. “I’ll try.”

Rhys just shook his head and said to Cassian, “Check on the forces, then make sure those girls are practicing like they should be. If Devlon or the others object, do what you have to.”

Cassian grinned in a way that showed he’d be more than happy to do exactly that. He was the High Lord’s general … and yet Devlon called him a dog. I didn’t want to imagine what it had been like for Cassian without that title growing up.

Then finally Rhys looked at me again, his eyes shuttered. “Let’s go.”

“You heard from my sisters?”

A shake of the head. “No. Azriel is checking today if they received a response. You and I … ” The wind rustled his hair as he smirked. “We’re going to train.”

“Where?”

He gestured to the sweeping land beyond—to the forested steppes he’d once mentioned. “Away from any potential casualties.” He offered his hand as his wings flared, his body preparing for flight.

But all I heard were those two words he’d said, echoing against the steady beat of traitor, traitor:

She’s mine.

Being in Rhys’s arms again, against his body, was a test of stubbornness. For both of us. To see who’d speak about it first.

We’d been flying over the most beautiful mountains I’d ever seen—snowy and flecked with pines—heading toward rolling steppes beyond them when I said, “You’re training female Illyrian warriors?”

“Trying to.” Rhys gazed across the brutal landscape. “I banned wing-clipping a long, long time ago, but … at the more zealous camps, deep within the mountains, they do it. And when Amarantha took over, even the milder camps started doing it again. To keep their women safe, they claimed. For the past hundred years, Cassian has been trying to build an aerial fighting unit amongst the females, trying to prove that they have a place on the battlefield. So far, he’s managed to train a few dedicated warriors, but the males make life so miserable that many of them left. And for the girls in training … ” A hiss of breath. “It’s a long road. But Devlon is one of the few who even lets the girls train without a tantrum.”

“I’d hardly call disobeying orders ‘without a tantrum.’ ”

“Some camps issued decrees that if a female was caught training, she was to be deemed unmarriageable. I can’t fight against things like that, not without slaughtering the leaders of each camp and personally raising each and every one of their offspring.”

“And yet your mother loved them—and you three wear their tattoos.”

“I got the tattoos in part for my mother, in part to honor my brothers, who fought every day of their lives for the right to wear them.”

“Why do you let Devlon speak to Cassian like that?”

“Because I know when to pick my fights with Devlon, and I know Cassian would be pissed if I stepped in to crush Devlon’s mind like a grape when he could handle it himself.”

A whisper of cold went through me. “Have you thought about doing it?”

“I did just now. But most camp-lords never would have given the three of us a shot at the Blood Rite. Devlon let a half-breed and two bastards take it—and did not deny us our victory.”

Pines dusted with fresh snow blurred beneath us.

“What’s the Blood Rite?”

“So many questions today.” I squeezed his shoulder hard enough to hurt, and he chuckled. “You go unarmed into the mountains, magic banned, no Siphons, wings bound, with no supplies or clothes beyond what you have on you. You, and every other Illyrian male who wants to move from novice to true warrior. A few hundred head into the mountains at the start of the week—not all come out at the end.”

The frost-kissed landscape rolled on forever, unyielding as the warriors who ruled over it. “Do you—kill each other?”

“Most try to. For food and clothes, for vengeance, for glory between feuding clans. Devlon allowed us to take the Rite—but also made sure Cassian, Azriel, and I were dumped in different locations.”

“What happened?”

“We found each other. Killed our way across the mountains to get to each other. Turns out, a good number of Illyrian males wanted to prove they were stronger, smarter than us. Turns out they were wrong.”

I dared a look at his face. For a heartbeat, I could see it: blood-splattered, savage, fighting and slaughtering to get to his friends, to protect and save them.

Rhys set us down in a clearing, the pine trees towering so high they seemed to caress the underside of the heavy, gray clouds passing on the swift wind.

“So, you’re not using magic—but I am?” I said, taking a few steps from him.

“Our enemy is keyed in on my powers. You, however, remain invisible.” He waved his hand. “Let’s see what all your practicing has amounted to.”

I didn’t feel like it. I just said, “When—when did you meet Tamlin?”

I knew what Rhysand’s father had done. I hadn’t let myself think too much about it.

About how he’d killed Tamlin’s father and brothers. And mother.

But now, after last night, after the Court of Nightmares … I had to know.

Rhys’s face was a mask of patience. “Show me something impressive, and I’ll tell you. Magic—for answers.”

“I know what sort of game you’re playing—” I cut myself off at the hint of a smirk. “Very well.”

I held out my hand before me, palm cupped, and willed silence into my veins, my mind.

Silence and calm and weight, like being underwater.

In my hand, a butterfly of water flapped and danced.

Rhys smiled a bit, but the amusement died as he said, “Tamlin was younger than me—born when the War started. But after the War, when he’d matured, we got to know each other at various court functions. He … ” Rhys clenched his jaw. “He seemed decent for a High Lord’s son. Better than Beron’s brood at the Autumn Court. Tamlin’s brothers were equally as bad, though. Worse. And they knew Tamlin would take the title one day. And to a half-breed Illyrian who’d had to prove himself, defend his power, I saw what Tamlin went through … I befriended him. Sought him out whenever I was able to get away from the war-camps or court. Maybe it was pity, but … I taught him some Illyrian techniques.”

“Did anyone know?”

He raised his brows—giving a pointed look to my hand.

I scowled at him and summoned songbirds of water, letting them flap around the clearing as they’d flown around my bathing room at the Summer Court.

“Cassian and Azriel knew,” Rhys went on. “My family knew. And disapproved.” His eyes were chips of ice. “But Tamlin’s father was threatened by it. By me. And because he was weaker than both me and Tamlin, he wanted to prove to the world that he wasn’t. My mother and sister were to travel to the Illyrian war-camp to see me. I was supposed to meet them halfway, but I was busy training a new unit and decided to stay.”

My stomach turned over and over and over, and I wished I had something to lean against as Rhys said, “Tamlin’s father, brothers, and Tamlin himself set out into the Illyrian wilderness, having heard from Tamlin—from me—where my mother and sister would be, that I had plans to see them. I was supposed to be there. I wasn’t. And they slaughtered my mother and sister anyway.”

I began shaking my head, eyes burning. I didn’t know what I was trying to deny, or erase, or condemn.

“It should have been me,” he said, and I understood—understood what he’d said that day I’d wept before Cassian in the training pit. “They put their heads in boxes and sent them down the river—to the nearest camp. Tamlin’s father kept their wings as trophies. I’m surprised you didn’t see them pinned in the study.”

I was going to vomit; I was going to fall to my knees and weep.

But Rhys looked at the menagerie of water-animals I’d crafted and said, “What else?”

Perhaps it was the cold, perhaps it was his story, but hoarfrost cracked in my veins, and the wild song of a winter wind howled in my heart. I felt it then—how easy it would be to jump between them, join them together, my powers.

Each one of my animals halted mid-air … and froze into perfectly carved bits of ice.

One by one, they dropped to the earth. And shattered.

They were one. They had come from the same, dark origin, the same eternal well of power. Once, long ago—before language was invented and the world was new.

Rhys merely continued, “When I heard, when my father heard … I wasn’t wholly truthful to you when I told you Under the Mountain that my father killed Tamlin’s father and brothers. I went with him. Helped him. We winnowed to the edge of the Spring Court that night, then went the rest of the way on foot—to the manor. I slew Tamlin’s brothers on sight. I held their minds, and rendered them helpless while I cut them into pieces, then melted their brains inside their skulls. And when I got to the High Lord’s bedroom—he was dead. And my father … my father had killed Tamlin’s mother as well.”

I couldn’t stop shaking my head.

“My father had promised not to touch her. That we weren’t the kind of males who would do that. But he lied to me, and he did it, anyway. And then he went for Tamlin’s room.”

I couldn’t breathe—couldn’t breathe as Rhys said, “I tried to stop him. He didn’t listen. He was going to kill him, too. And I couldn’t … After all the death, I was done. I didn’t care that Tamlin had been there, had allowed them to kill my mother and sister, that he’d come to kill me because he didn’t want to risk standing against them. I was done with death. So I stopped my father before the door. He tried to go through me. Tamlin opened the door, saw us—smelled the blood already leaking into the hallway. And I didn’t even get to say a word before Tamlin killed my father in one blow.

“I felt the power shift to me, even as I saw it shift to him. And we just looked at each other, as we were both suddenly crowned High Lord—and then I ran.”

He’d murdered Rhysand’s family. The High Lord I’d loved—he’d murdered his friend’s family, and when I’d asked how his family died, he’d merely told me a rival court had done it. Rhysand had done it, and—

“He didn’t tell you any of that.”

“I—I’m sorry,” I breathed, my voice hoarse.

“What do you possibly have to be sorry for?”

“I didn’t know. I didn’t know that he’d done that—”

And Rhys thought I’d been comparing him—comparing him against Tamlin, as if I held him to be some paragon …

“Why did you stop?” he said, motioning to the ice shards on the pine-needle carpet.

The people he’d loved most—gone. Slaughtered in cold blood. Slaughtered by Tamlin.

The clearing exploded in flame.

The pine needles vanished, the trees groaned, and even Rhys swore as fire swept through the clearing, my heart, and devoured everything in its path.

No wonder he’d made Tamlin beg that day I’d been formally introduced to him. No wonder he’d relished every chance to taunt Tamlin. Maybe my presence here was just to—

No. I knew that wasn’t true. I knew my being here had nothing to do with what was between him and Tamlin, though he no doubt enjoyed interrupting our wedding day. Saved me from that wedding day, actually.

“Feyre,” Rhys said as the fire died.

But there it was—crackling inside my veins. Crackling beside veins of ice, and water.

And darkness.

Embers flared around us, floating in the air, and I sent out a breath of soothing dark, a breath of ice and water, as if it were a wind—a wind at dawn, sweeping clean the world.

The power did not belong to the High Lords. Not any longer.

It belonged to me—as I belonged only to me, as my future was mine to decide, to forge.

Once I discovered and mastered what the others had given me, I could weave them together—into something new, something of every court and none of them.

Flame hissed as it was extinguished so thoroughly that no smoke remained.

But I met Rhys’s stare, his eyes a bit wide as he watched me work. I rasped, “Why didn’t you tell me sooner?”

The sight of him in his Illyrian fighting gear, wings spread across the entire width of the clearing, his blade peeking over his shoulder …

There, in that hole in my chest—I saw the image there. At first interpretation, he’d look terrifying, vengeance and wrath incarnate. But if you came closer … the painting would show the beauty on his face, the wings flared not to hurt, but to carry me from danger, to shield me.

“I didn’t want you to think I was trying to turn you against him,” he said.

The painting—I could see it; feel it. I wanted to paint it.

I wanted to paint.

I didn’t wait for him to stretch out his hand before I went to him. And looking up into his face I said, “I want to paint you.”

He gently lifted me into his arms. “Nude would be best,” he said in my ear.

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