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CHAPTER

54

I stared at Rhys.

He stared at me.

His cheeks were tinged pink with cold, his dark hair ruffled, and he honestly looked freezing as he stood there, wings tucked in tight.

And I knew that one word from me, and he’d go flying off into the crisp night. That if I shut the door, he’d go and not push it.

His nostrils flared, scenting the paint behind me, but he didn’t break his stare. Waiting.

Mate.

My—mate.

This beautiful, strong, selfless male … Who had sacrificed and wrecked himself for his family, his people, and didn’t feel it was enough, that he wasn’t enough for anyone … Azriel thought he didn’t deserve someone like Mor. And I wondered if Rhys … if he somehow felt the same about me. I stepped aside, holding the door open for him.

I could have sworn I felt a pulse of knee-wobbling relief through the bond.

But Rhys took in the painting I’d done, gobbling down the bright colors that now made the cottage come alive, and said, “You painted us.”

“I hope you don’t mind.”

He studied the threshold to the bedroom hallway. “Azriel, Mor, Amren, and Cassian,” he said, marking the eyes I’d painted. “You do know that one of them is going to paint a moustache under the eyes of whoever pisses them off that day.”

I clamped my lips to keep the smile in. “Oh, Mor already promised to do that.”

“And what about my eyes?”

I swallowed. All right, then. No dancing around it.

My heart was pounding so wildly I knew he could hear it. “I was afraid to paint them.”

Rhys faced me fully. “Why?”

No more games, no more banter. “At first, because I was so mad at you for not telling me. Then because I was worried I’d like them too much and find that you … didn’t feel the same. Then because I was scared that if I painted them, I’d start wishing you were here so much that I’d just stare at them all day. And it seemed like a pathetic way to spend my time.”

A twitch of his lips. “Indeed.”

I glanced at the shut door. “You flew here.”

He nodded. “Mor wouldn’t tell me where you’d gone, and there are only so many places that are as secure as this one. Since I didn’t want our Hybern friends tracking me to you, I had to do it the old-fashioned way. It took … a while.”

“You’re—better?”

“Healed completely. Quickly, considering the bloodbane. Thanks to you.”

I avoided his stare, turning for the kitchen. “You must be hungry. I’ll heat something up.”

Rhys straightened. “You’d—make me food?”

“Heat,” I said. “I can’t cook.”

It didn’t seem to make a difference. But whatever it was, the act of offering him food … I dumped some cold soup into a pan and lit the burner. “I don’t know the rules,” I said, my back to him. “So you need to explain them to me.”

He lingered in the center of the cabin, watching my every move. He said hoarsely, “It’s an … important moment when a female offers her mate food. It goes back to whatever beasts we were a long, long time ago. But it still matters. The first time matters. Some mated pairs will make an occasion of it—throwing a party just so the female can formally offer her mate food … That’s usually done amongst the wealthy. But it means that the female … accepts the bond.”

I stared into the soup. “Tell me the story—tell me everything.”

He understood my offer: tell me while I cooked, and I’d decide at the end whether or not to offer him that food.

A chair scraped against the wood floor as he sat at the table. For a moment, there was only silence, interrupted by the clack of my spoon against the pot.

Then Rhys said, “I was captured during the War. By Amarantha’s army.”

I paused my stirring, my gut twisting.

“Cassian and Azriel were in different legions, so they had no idea that my forces and I had been taken prisoner. And that Amarantha’s captains held us for weeks, torturing and slaughtering my warriors. They put ash bolts through my wings, and they had those same chains from the other night to keep me down. Those chains are one of Hybern’s greatest assets—stone delved from deep in their land, capable of nullifying a High Fae’s powers. Even mine. So they chained me up between two trees, beating me when they felt like it, trying to get me to tell them where the Night Court forces were, using my warriors—their deaths and pain—to break me.

“Only I didn’t break,” he said roughly, “and they were too dumb to know that I was an Illyrian, and all they had to do to get me to yield would have been to try to cut off my wings. And maybe it was luck, but they never did. And Amarantha … She didn’t care that I was there. I was yet another High Lord’s son, and Jurian had just slaughtered her sister. All she cared about was getting to him—killing him. She had no idea that every second, every breath, I plotted her death. I was willing to make it my last stand: to kill her at any cost, even if it meant shredding my wings to break free. I’d watched the guards and learned her schedule, so I knew where she’d be. I set a day, and a time. And I was ready—I was so damned ready to make an end of it, and wait for Cassian and Azriel and Mor on the other side. There was nothing but my rage, and my relief that my friends weren’t there. But the day before I was to kill Amarantha, to make my final stand and meet my end, she and Jurian faced each other on the battlefield.”

He paused, swallowing.

“I was chained in the mud, forced to watch as they battled. To watch as Jurian took my killing blow. Only—she slaughtered him. I watched her rip out his eye, then rip off his finger, and when he was prone, I watched her drag him back to the camp. Then I listened to her slowly, over days and days, tear him apart. His screaming was endless. She was so focused on torturing him that she didn’t detect my father’s arrival. In the panic, she killed Jurian rather than see him liberated, and fled. So my father rescued me—and told his men, told Azriel, to leave the ash spikes in my wings as punishment for getting caught. I was so injured that the healers informed me if I tried to fight before my wings healed, I’d never fly again. So I was forced to return home to recover—while the final battles were waged.

“They made the Treaty, and the wall was built. We’d long ago freed our slaves in the Night Court. We didn’t trust the humans to keep our secrets, not when they bred so quickly and frequently that my forefathers couldn’t hold all their minds at once. But our world was changed nonetheless. We were all changed by the War. Cassian and Azriel came back different; I came back different. We came here—to this cabin. I was still so injured that they carried me here between them. We were here when the messages arrived about the final terms of the Treaty.

“They stayed with me when I roared at the stars that Amarantha, for all she had done, for every crime committed, would go unpunished. That the King of Hybern would go unpunished. Too much killing had occurred on either side for everyone to be brought to justice, they said. Even my father gave me an order to let it go—to build toward a future of co-existence. But I never forgave what Amarantha had done to my warriors. And I never forgot it, either. Tamlin’s father—he was her friend. And when my father slaughtered him, I was so damn smug that perhaps she’d feel an inkling of what I’d felt when she murdered my soldiers.”

My hands were shaking as I stirred the soup. I’d never known … never thought …

“When Amarantha returned to these shores centuries later, I still wanted to kill her. The worst part was, she didn’t even know who I was. Didn’t even remember that I was the High Lord’s son that she’d held captive. To her, I was merely the son of the man who had killed her friend—I was just the High Lord of the Night Court. The other High Lords were convinced she wanted peace and trade. Only Tamlin mistrusted her. I hated him, but he’d known Amarantha personally—and if he didn’t trust her … I knew she hadn’t changed.

“So I planned to kill her. I told no one. Not even Amren. I’d let Amarantha think I was interested in trade, in alliance. I decided I’d go to the party thrown Under the Mountain for all the courts to celebrate our trade agreement with Hybern … And when she was drunk, I’d slip into her mind, make her reveal every lie and crime she’d committed, and then I’d turn her brain to liquid before anyone could react. I was prepared to go to war for it.”

I turned, leaning against the counter. Rhys was looking at his hands, as if the story were a book he could read between them.

“But she thought faster—acted faster. She had been trained against my particular skill set, and had extensive mental shields. I was so busy working to tunnel through them that I didn’t think about the drink in my hand. I hadn’t wanted Cassian or Azriel or anyone else there that night to witness what I was to do—so no one bothered to sniff my drink.

“And as I felt my powers being ripped away by that spell she’d put on it at the toast, I flung them out one last time, wiping Velaris, the wards, all that was good, from the minds of the Court of Nightmares—the only ones I’d allowed to come with me. I threw the shield around Velaris, binding it to my friends so that they had to remain or risk that protection collapsing, and used the last dregs to tell them mind to mind what was happening, and to stay away. Within a few seconds, my power belonged wholly to Amarantha.”

His eyes lifted to mine. Haunted, bleak.

“She slaughtered half the Court of Nightmares right then and there. To prove to me that she could. As vengeance for Tamlin’s father. And I knew … I knew in that moment there was nothing I wouldn’t do to keep her from looking at my court again. From looking too long at who I was and what I loved. So I told myself that it was a new war, a different sort of battle. And that night, when she kept turning her attention to me, I knew what she wanted. I knew it wasn’t about fucking me so much as it was about getting revenge at my father’s ghost. But if that was what she wanted, then that was what she would get. I made her beg, and scream, and used my lingering powers to make it so good for her that she wanted more. Craved more.”

I gripped the counter to keep from sliding to the ground.

“Then she cursed Tamlin. And my other great enemy became the one loophole that might free us all. Every night that I spent with Amarantha, I knew that she was half wondering if I’d try to kill her. I couldn’t use my powers to harm her, and she had shielded herself against physical attacks. But for fifty years—whenever I was inside her, I’d think about killing her. She had no idea. None. Because I was so good at my job that she thought I enjoyed it, too. So she began to trust me—more than the others. Especially when I proved what I could do to her enemies. But I was glad to do it. I hated myself, but I was glad to do it. After a decade, I stopped expecting to see my friends or my people again. I forgot what their faces looked like. And I stopped hoping.”

Silver gleamed in his eyes, and he blinked it away. “Three years ago,” he said quietly, “I began to have these … dreams. At first, they were glimpses, as if I were staring through someone else’s eyes. A crackling hearth in a dark home. A bale of hay in a barn. A warren of rabbits. The images were foggy, like looking through cloudy glass. They were brief—a flash here and there, every few months. I thought nothing of them, until one of the images was of a hand … This beautiful, human hand. Holding a brush. Painting—flowers on a table.”

My heart stopped beating.

“And that time, I pushed a thought back. Of the night sky—of the image that brought me joy when I needed it most. Open night sky, stars, and the moon. I didn’t know if it was received, but I tried, anyway.”

I wasn’t sure I was breathing.

“Those dreams—the flashes of that person, that woman … I treasured them. They were a reminder that there was some peace out there in the world, some light. That there was a place, and a person, who had enough safety to paint flowers on a table. They went on for years, until … a year ago. I was sleeping next to Amarantha, and I jolted awake from this dream … this dream that was clearer and brighter, like that fog had been wiped away. She—you were dreaming. I was in your dream, watching as you had a nightmare about some woman slitting your throat, while you were chased by the Bogge … I couldn’t reach you, speak to you. But you were seeing our kind. And I realized that the fog had probably been the wall, and that you … you were now in Prythian.

“I saw you through your dreams—and I hoarded the images, sorting through them over and over again, trying to place where you were, who you were. But you had such horrible nightmares, and the creatures belonged to all courts. I’d wake up with your scent in my nose, and it would haunt me all day, every step. But then one night, you dreamed of standing amongst green hills, seeing unlit bonfires for Calanmai.”

There was such silence in my head.

“I knew there was only one celebration that large; I knew those hills—and I knew you’d probably be there. So I told Amarantha … ” Rhys swallowed. “I told her that I wanted to go to the Spring Court for the celebration, to spy on Tamlin and see if anyone showed up wishing to conspire with him. We were so close to the deadline for the curse that she was paranoid—restless. She told me to bring back traitors. I promised her I would.”

His eyes lifted to mine again.

“I got there, and I could smell you. So I tracked that scent, and … And there you were. Human—utterly human, and being dragged away by those piece-of-shit picts, who wanted to … ” He shook his head. “I debated slaughtering them then and there, but then they shoved you, and I just … moved. I started speaking without knowing what I was saying, only that you were there, and I was touching you, and … ” He loosed a shuddering breath.

There you are. I’ve been looking for you.

His first words to me—not a lie at all, not a threat to keep those faeries away.

Thank you for finding her for me.

I had the vague feeling of the world slipping out from under my feet like sand washing away from the shore.

“You looked at me,” Rhys said, “and I knew you had no idea who I was. That I might have seen your dreams, but you hadn’t seen mine. And you were just … human. You were so young, and breakable, and had no interest in me whatsoever, and I knew that if I stayed too long, someone would see and report back, and she’d find you. So I started walking away, thinking you’d be glad to get rid of me. But then you called after me, like you couldn’t let go of me just yet, whether you knew it or not. And I knew … I knew we were on dangerous ground, somehow. I knew that I could never speak to you, or see you, or think of you again.

“I didn’t want to know why you were in Prythian; I didn’t even want to know your name. Because seeing you in my dreams had been one thing, but in person … Right then, deep down, I think I knew what you were. And I didn’t let myself admit it, because if there was the slightest chance that you were my mate … They would have done such unspeakable things to you, Feyre.

“So I let you walk away. I told myself after you were gone that maybe … maybe the Cauldron had been kind, and not cruel, for letting me see you. Just once. A gift for what I was enduring. And when you were gone, I found those three picts. I broke into their minds, reshaping their lives, their histories, and dragged them before Amarantha. I made them confess to conspiring to find other rebels that night. I made them lie and claim that they hated her. I watched her carve them up while they were still alive, protesting their innocence. I enjoyed it—because I knew what they had wanted to do to you. And knew that it would have paled in comparison to what Amarantha would have done if she’d found you.”

I wrapped a hand around my throat. I had my reasons to be out then, he’d once said to me Under the Mountain. Do not think, Feyre, that it did not cost me.

Rhys kept staring at the table as he said, “I didn’t know. That you were with Tamlin. That you were staying at the Spring Court. Amarantha sent me that day after the Summer Solstice because I’d been so successful on Calanmai. I was prepared to mock him, maybe pick a fight. But then I got into that room, and the scent was familiar, but hidden … And then I saw the plate, and felt the glamour, and … There you were. Living in my second-most enemy’s house. Dining with him. Reeking of his scent. Looking at him like … Like you loved him.”

The whites of his knuckles showed.

“And I decided that I had to scare Tamlin. I had to scare you, and Lucien, but mostly Tamlin. Because I saw how he looked at you, too. So what I did that day … ” His lips were pale, tight. “I broke into your mind and held it enough that you felt it, that it terrified you, hurt you. I made Tamlin beg—as Amarantha had made me beg, to show him how powerless he was to save you. And I prayed my performance was enough to get him to send you away. Back to the human realm, away from Amarantha. Because she was going to find you. If you broke that curse, she was going to find you and kill you.

“But I was so selfish—I was so stupidly selfish that I couldn’t walk away without knowing your name. And you were looking at me like I was a monster, so I told myself it didn’t matter, anyway. But you lied when I asked. I knew you did. I had your mind in my hands, and you had the defiance and foresight to lie to my face. So I walked away from you again. I vomited my guts up as soon as I left.”

My lips wobbled, and I pressed them together.

“I checked back once. To ensure you were gone. I went with them the day they sacked the manor—to make my performance complete. I told Amarantha the name of that girl, thinking you’d invented it. I had no idea … I had no idea she’d send her cronies to retrieve Clare. But if I admitted my lie … ” He swallowed hard. “I broke into Clare’s head when they brought her Under the Mountain. I took away her pain, and told her to scream when expected to. So they … they did those things to her, and I tried to make it right, but … After a week, I couldn’t let them do it. Hurt her like that anymore. So while they tortured her, I slipped into her mind again and ended it. She didn’t feel any pain. She felt none of what they did to her, even at the end. But … But I still see her. And my men. And the others that I killed for Amarantha.”

Two tears slid down his cheeks, swift and cold.

He didn’t wipe them away as he said, “I thought it was done after that. With Clare’s death, Amarantha believed you were dead. So you were safe, and far away, and my people were safe, and Tamlin had lost, so … it was done. We were done. But then … I was in the back of the throne room that day the Attor brought you in. And I have never known such horror, Feyre, as I did when I watched you make that bargain. Irrational, stupid terror—I didn’t know you. I didn’t even know your name. But I thought of those painter’s hands, the flowers I’d seen you create. And how she’d delight in breaking your fingers apart. I had to stand and watch as the Attor and its cronies beat you. I had to watch the disgust and hatred on your face as you looked at me, watched me threaten to shatter Lucien’s mind. And then—then I learned your name. Hearing you say it … it was like an answer to a question I’d been asking for five hundred years.

“I decided, then and there, that I was going to fight. And I would fight dirty, and kill and torture and manipulate, but I was going to fight. If there was a shot of freeing us from Amarantha, you were it. I thought … I thought the Cauldron had been sending me these dreams to tell me that you would be the one to save us. Save my people.

“So I watched your first trial. Pretending—always pretending to be that person you hated. When you were hurt so badly against the Wyrm … I found my way in with you. A way to defy Amarantha, to spread the seeds of hope to those who knew how to read the message, and a way to keep you alive without seeming too suspicious. And a way to get back at Tamlin … To use him against Amarantha, yes, but … To get back at him for my mother and sister, and for … having you. When we made that bargain, you were so hateful that I knew I’d done my job well.

“So we endured it. I made you dress like that so Amarantha wouldn’t suspect, and made you drink the wine so you would not remember the nightly horrors in that mountain. And that last night, when I found you two in the hall … I was jealous. I was jealous of him, and pissed off that he’d used that one shot of being unnoticed not to get you out, but to be with you, and … Amarantha saw that jealousy. She saw me kissing you to hide the evidence, but she saw why. For the first time, she saw why. So that night, after I left you, I had to … service her. She kept me there longer than usual, trying to squeeze the answers out of me. But I gave her what she wanted to hear: that you were nothing, that you were human garbage, that I’d use and discard you. Afterward … I wanted to see you. One last time. Alone. I thought about telling you everything—but who I’d become, who you thought I was … I didn’t dare shatter that deception.

“But your final trial came, and … When she started torturing you, something snapped in a way I couldn’t explain, only that seeing you bleeding and screaming undid me. It broke me at last. And I knew as I picked up that knife to kill her … I knew right then what you were. I knew that you were my mate, and you were in love with another male, and had destroyed yourself to save him, and that … that I didn’t care. If you were going to die, I was going to die with you. I couldn’t stop thinking it over and over as you screamed, as I tried to kill her: you were my mate, my mate, my mate.

“But then she snapped your neck.”

Tears rolled down his face.

“And I felt you die,” he whispered.

Tears were sliding down my own cheeks.

“And this beautiful, wonderful thing that had come into my life, this gift from the Cauldron … It was gone. In my desperation, I clung to that bond. Not the bargain—the bargain was nothing, the bargain was like a cobweb. But I grabbed that bond between us and I tugged, I willed you to hold on, to stay with me, because if we could get free … If we could get free, then all seven of us were there. We could bring you back. And I didn’t care if I had to slice into all of their minds to do it. I’d make them save you.” His hands were shaking. “You’d freed us with your last breath, and my power—I wrapped my power around the bond. The mating bond. I could feel you flickering there, holding on.”

Home. Home had been at the end of the bond, I’d told the Bone Carver. Not Tamlin, not the Spring Court, but … Rhysand.

“So Amarantha died, and I spoke to the High Lords mind to mind, convincing them to come forward, to offer that spark of power. None of them disagreed. I think they were too stunned to think of saying no. And … I again had to watch as Tamlin held you. Kissed you. I wanted to go home, to Velaris, but I had to stay, to make sure things were set in motion, that you were all right. So I waited as long as I could, then I sent a tug through the bond. Then you came to find me.

“I almost told you then, but … You were so sad. And tired. And for once, you looked at me like … like I was worth something. So I promised myself that the next time I saw you, I’d free you of the bargain. Because I was selfish, and knew that if I let go right then, he’d lock you up and I’d never get to see you again. When I went to leave you … I think transforming you into Fae made the bond lock into place permanently. I’d known it existed, but it hit me then—hit me so strong that I panicked. I knew if I stayed a second longer, I’d damn the consequences and take you with me. And you’d hate me forever.

“I landed at the Night Court, right as Mor was waiting for me, and I was so frantic, so … unhinged, that I told her everything. I hadn’t seen her in fifty years, and my first words to her were, ‘She’s my mate.’ And for three months … for three months I tried to convince myself that you were better off without me. I tried to convince myself that everything I’d done had made you hate me. But I felt you through the bond, through your open mental shields. I felt your pain, and sadness, and loneliness. I felt you struggling to escape the darkness of Amarantha the same way I was. I heard you were going to marry him, and I told myself you were happy. I should let you be happy, even if it killed me. Even if you were my mate, you’d earned that happiness.

“The day of your wedding, I’d planned to get rip-roaring drunk with Cassian, who had no idea why, but … But then I felt you again. I felt your panic, and despair, and heard you beg someone—anyone—to save you. I lost it. I winnowed to the wedding, and barely remembered who I was supposed to be, the part I was supposed to play. All I could see was you, in your stupid wedding dress—so thin. So, so thin, and pale. And I wanted to kill him for it, but I had to get you out. Had to call in that bargain, just once, to get you away, to see if you were all right.”

Rhys looked up at me, eyes desolate. “It killed me, Feyre, to send you back. To see you waste away, month by month. It killed me to know he was sharing your bed. Not just because you were my mate, but because I … ” He glanced down, then up at me again. “I knew … I knew I was in love with you that moment I picked up the knife to kill Amarantha.

“When you finally came here … I decided I wouldn’t tell you. Any of it. I wouldn’t let you out of the bargain, because your hatred was better than facing the two alternatives: that you felt nothing for me, or that you … you might feel something similar, and if I let myself love you, you would be taken from me. The way my family was—the way my friends were. So I didn’t tell you. I watched as you faded away. Until that day … that day he locked you up.

“I would have killed him if he’d been there. But I broke some very, very fundamental rules in taking you away. Amren said if I got you to admit that we were mates, it would keep any trouble from our door, but … I couldn’t force the bond on you. I couldn’t try to seduce you into accepting the bond, either. Even if it gave Tamlin license to wage war on me. You had been through so much already. I didn’t want you to think that everything I did was to win you, just to keep my lands safe. But I couldn’t … I couldn’t stop being around you, and loving you, and wanting you. I still can’t stay away.”

He leaned back, loosing a long breath.

Slowly, I turned around, to where the soup was now boiling, and ladled it into a bowl.

He watched every step I took to the table, the steaming bowl in my hands.

I stopped before him, staring down.

And I said, “You love me?”

Rhys nodded.

And I wondered if love was too weak a word for what he felt, what he’d done for me. For what I felt for him.

I set the bowl down before him. “Then eat.”

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