فصل 57

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CHAPTER

57

Spring had at last dawned on the human world, crocuses and daffodils poking their heads out of the thawed earth.

Only the eldest and the golden-haired queens came this time.

They were escorted by just as many guards, however.

I once again wore my flowing, ivory gown and crown of gold feathers, once again beside Rhysand as the queens and their sentries winnowed into the sitting room.

But now Rhys and I stood hand in hand—unflinching, a song without end or beginning.

The eldest queen slid her cunning eyes over us, our hands, our crowns, and merely sat without our bidding, adjusting the skirts of her emerald gown around her. The golden queen remained standing for a moment longer, her shining, curly head angling slightly. Her red lips twitched upward as she claimed the seat beside her companion.

Rhys did not so much as lower his head to them as he said, “We appreciate you taking the time to see us again.”

The younger queen merely gave a little nod, her amber gaze leaping over to our friends behind us: Cassian and Azriel on either side of the bay of windows where Elain and Nesta stood in their finery, Elain’s garden in bloom behind them. Nesta’s shoulders were already locked. Elain bit her lip.

Mor stood on Rhys’s other side, this time in blue-green that reminded me of the Sidra’s calm waters, the onyx box containing the Veritas in her tan hands.

The ancient queen, surveying us all with narrowed eyes, let out a huff. “After being so gravely insulted the last time … ” A simmering glare thrown at Nesta. My sister leveled a look of pure, unyielding flame right back at her. The old woman clicked her tongue. “We debated for many days whether we should return. As you can see, three of us found the insult to be unforgivable.”

Liar. To blame it on Nesta, to try to sow discord between us for what Nesta had tried to defend … I said with surprising calm, “If that is the worst insult any of you have ever received in your lives, I’d say you’re all in for quite a shock when war comes.”

The younger one’s lips twitched again, amber eyes alight—a lion incarnate. She purred to me, “So he won your heart after all, Cursebreaker.”

I held her stare as Rhys and I both sat in our chairs, Mor sliding into one beside him. “I do not think,” I said, “that it was mere coincidence that the Cauldron let us find each other on the eve of war returning between our two peoples.”

“The Cauldron? And two peoples?” The golden one toyed with a ruby ring on her finger. “Our people do not invoke a Cauldron; our people do not have magic. The way I see it, there is your people—and ours. You are little better than those Children of the Blessed.” She lifted a groomed brow. “What does happen to them when they cross the wall?” She angled her head at Rhys, at Cassian and Azriel. “Are they prey? Or are they used and discarded, and left to grow old and infirm while you remain young forever? Such a pity … so unfair that you, Cursebreaker, received what all those fools no doubt begged for. Immortality, eternal youth … What would Lord Rhysand have done if you had aged while he did not?”

Rhys said evenly, “Is there a point to your questions, other than to hear yourself talk?”

A low chuckle, and she turned to the ancient queen, her yellow dress rustling with the movement. The old woman simply extended a wrinkled hand to the box in Mor’s slender fingers. “Is that the proof we asked for?”

Don’t do it, my heart began bleating. Don’t show them.

Before Mor could so much as nod, I said, “Is my love for the High Lord not proof enough of our good intentions? Does my sisters’ presence here not speak to you? There is an iron engagement ring upon my sister’s finger—and yet she stands with us.”

Elain seemed to be fighting the urge to tuck her hand behind the skirts of her pale pink and blue dress, but stayed tall while the queens surveyed her.

“I would say that it is proof of her idiocy,” the golden one sneered, “to be engaged to a Fae-hating man … and to risk the match by associating with you.”

“Do not,” Nesta hissed with quiet venom, “judge what you know nothing about.”

The golden one folded her hands in her lap. “The viper speaks again.” She raised her brows at me. “Surely the wise move would have been to have her sit this meeting out.”

“She offers up her house and risks her social standing for us to have these meetings,” I said. “She has the right to hear what is spoken in them. To stand as a representative of the people of these lands. They both do.”

The crone interrupted the younger before she could reply, and again waved that wrinkled hand at Mor. “Show us, then. Prove us wrong.”

Rhys gave Mor a subtle nod. No—no, it wasn’t right. Not to show them, not to reveal the treasure that was Velaris, that was my home …

War is sacrifice, Rhys said into my mind, through the small sliver I now kept open for him. If we do not gamble Velaris, we risk losing Prythian—and more.

Mor opened the lid of the black box.

The silver orb inside glimmered like a star under glass. “This is the Veritas,” Mor said in a voice that was young and old. “The gift of my first ancestor to our bloodline. Only a few times in the history of Prythian have we used it—have we unleashed its truth upon the world.”

She lifted the orb from its velvet nest. It was no larger than a ripe apple, and fit within her cupped palms as if her entire body, her entire being, had been molded for it.

“Truth is deadly. Truth is freedom. Truth can break and mend and bind. The Veritas holds in it the truth of the world. I am the Morrigan,” she said, her eyes not wholly of this earth. The hair on my arms rose. “You know I speak truth.”

She set the Veritas onto the carpet between us. Both queens leaned in.

But it was Rhys who said, “You desire proof of our goodness, our intentions, so that you may trust the Book in our hands?” The Veritas began pulsing, a web of light spreading with each throb. “There is a place within my lands. A city of peace. And art. And prosperity. As I doubt you or your guards will dare pass through the wall, then I will show it to you—show you the truth of these words, show you this place within the orb itself.”

Mor stretched out a hand, and a pale cloud swirled from the orb, merging with its light as it drifted past our ankles.

The queens flinched, the guards edging forward with hands on their weapons. But the clouds continued roiling as the truth of it, of Velaris, leaked from the orb, from whatever it dragged up from Mor, from Rhys. From the truth of the world.

And in the gray gloom, a picture appeared.

It was Velaris, as seen from above—as seen by Rhys, flying in. A speck in the coast, but as he dropped down, the city and the river became clearer, vibrant.

Then the image banked and swerved, as if Rhys had flown through his city just this morning. It shot past boats and piers, past the homes and streets and theaters. Past the Rainbow of Velaris, so colorful and lovely in the new spring sun. People, happy and thoughtful, kind and welcoming, waved to him. Moment after moment, images of the Palaces, of the restaurants, of the House of Wind. All of it—all of that secret, wondrous city. My home.

And I could have sworn that there was love in that image. I could not explain how the Veritas conveyed it, but the colors … I understood the colors, and the light, what they conveyed, what the orb somehow picked up from whatever link it had to Rhys’s memories.

The illusion faded, color and light and cloud sucked back into the orb.

“That is Velaris,” Rhys said. “For five thousand years, we have kept it a secret from outsiders. And now you know. That is what I protect with the rumors, the whispers, the fear. Why I fought for your people in the War—only to begin my own supposed reign of terror once I ascended my throne, and ensured everyone heard the legends about it. But if the cost of protecting my city and people is the contempt of the world, then so be it.”

The two queens were gaping at the carpet as if they could still see the city there. Mor cleared her throat. The golden one, as if Mor had barked, started and dropped an ornate lace handkerchief on the ground. She leaned to pick it up, cheeks a bit red.

But the crone raised her eyes to us. “Your trust is … appreciated.”

We waited.

Both of their faces turned grave, unmoved. And I was glad I was sitting as the eldest added at last, “We will consider.”

“There is no time to consider,” Mor countered. “Every day lost is another day that Hybern gets closer to shattering the wall.”

“We will discuss amongst our companions, and inform you at our leisure.”

“Do you not understand the risks you take in doing so?” Rhys said, no hint of condescension. Only—only perhaps shock. “You need this alliance as much as we do.”

The ancient queen shrugged her frail shoulders. “Did you think we would be moved by your letter, your plea?” She jerked her chin to the guard closest, and he reached into his armor to pull out a folded letter. The old woman read, “I write to you not as a High Lord, but as a male in love with a woman who was once human. I write to you to beg you to act quickly. To save her people—to help save my own. I write to you so one day we might know true peace. So I might one day be able to live in a world where the woman I love may visit her family without fear of hatred and reprisal. A better world.” She set down the letter.

Rhys had written that letter weeks ago … before we’d mated. Not a demand for the queens to meet—but a love letter. I reached across the space between us and took his hand, squeezing gently. Rhys’s fingers tightened around my own.

But then the ancient one said, “Who is to say that this is not all some grand manipulation?”

“What?” Mor blurted.

The golden queen nodded her agreement and dared say to Mor, “A great many things have changed since the War. Since your so-called friendships with our ancestors. Perhaps you are not who you say you are. Perhaps the High Lord has crept into our minds to make us believe you are the Morrigan.”

Rhys was silent—we all were. Until Nesta said too softly, ‘This is the talk of madwomen. Of arrogant, stupid fools.”

Elain grabbed for Nesta’s hand to silence her. But Nesta stalked forward a step, face white with rage. “Give them the Book.”

The queens blinked, stiffening.

My sister snapped, “Give them the Book.”

And the eldest queen hissed, “No.”

The word clanged through me.

But Nesta went on, flinging out an arm to encompass us, the room, the world, “There are innocent people here. In these lands. If you will not risk your necks against the forces that threaten us, then grant those people a fighting chance. Give my sister the Book.”

The crone sighed sharply through her nose. “An evacuation may be possible—”

“You would need ten thousand ships,” Nesta said, her voice breaking. “You would need an armada. I have calculated the numbers. And if you are readying for war, you will not send your ships to us. We are stranded here.”

The crone gripped the polished arms of her chair as she leaned forward a bit. “Then I suggest asking one of your winged males to carry you across the sea, girl.”

Nesta’s throat bobbed. “Please.” I didn’t think I’d ever heard that word from her mouth. “Please—do not leave us to face this alone.”

The eldest queen remained unmoved. I had no words in my head.

We had shown them … we had … we had done everything. Even Rhys was silent, his face unreadable.

But then Cassian crossed to Nesta, the guards stiffening as the Illyrian moved through them as if they were stalks of wheat in a field.

He studied Nesta for a long moment. She was still glaring at the queens, her eyes lined with tears—tears of rage and despair, from that fire that burned her so violently from within. When she finally noticed Cassian, she looked up at him.

His voice was rough as he said, “Five hundred years ago, I fought on battlefields not far from this house. I fought beside human and faerie alike, bled beside them. I will stand on that battlefield again, Nesta Archeron, to protect this house—your people. I can think of no better way to end my existence than to defend those who need it most.”

I watched a tear slide down Nesta’s cheek. And I watched as Cassian reached up a hand to wipe it away.

She did not flinch from his touch.

I didn’t know why, but I looked at Mor.

Her eyes were wide. Not with jealousy, or irritation, but … something perhaps like awe.

Nesta swallowed and at last turned away from Cassian. He stared at my sister a moment longer before facing the queens.

Without signal, the two women rose.

Mor demanded, on her feet as well, “Is it a sum you’re after? Name your price, then.”

The golden queen snorted as their guards closed in around them. “We have all the riches we need. We will now return to our palace to deliberate with our sisters.”

“You’re already going to say no,” Mor pushed.

The golden queen smirked. “Perhaps.” She took the crone’s withered hand.

The ancient queen lifted her chin. “We appreciate the gesture of your trust.”

Then they were gone.

Mor swore. And I looked at Rhys, my own heart breaking, about to demand why he hadn’t pushed, why he hadn’t said more—

But his eyes were on the chair where the golden queen had been seated.

Beneath it, somehow hidden by her voluminous skirts while she’d sat, was a box.

A box … that she must have removed from wherever she was hiding it when she’d leaned down to pick up her handkerchief.

Rhys had known it. Had stopped speaking to get them out as fast as possible.

How and where she’d smuggled in that lead box was the least of my concerns.

Not as the voice of the second and final piece of the Book filled the room, sang to me.

Life and death and rebirth

Sun and moon and dark

Rot and bloom and bones

Hello, sweet thing. Hello, lady of night, princess of decay. Hello, fanged beast and trembling fawn. Love me, touch me, sing me.

Madness. Where the first half had been cold cunning, this box … this was chaos, and disorder, and lawlessness, joy and despair.

Rhys smoothly picked it up and set it on the golden queen’s chair. He did not need my power to open it—because no High Lord’s spells had been keyed to it.

Rhys flipped back the lid. A note lay atop the golden metal of the book.

I read your letter. About the woman you love. I believe you. And I believe in peace.

I believe in a better world.

If anyone asks, you stole this during the meeting.

Do not trust the others. The sixth queen was not ill.

That was it.

Rhys picked up the Book of Breathings.

Light and dark and gray and light and dark and gray—

He said to my two sisters, Cassian sticking close to Nesta, “It is your choice, ladies, whether you wish to remain here, or come with us. You have heard the situation at hand. You have done the math about an evacuation.” A nod of approval as he met Nesta’s gray-blue stare. “Should you choose to remain, a unit of my soldiers will be here within the hour to guard this place. Should you wish to come live with us in that city we just showed them, I’d suggest packing now.”

Nesta looked to Elain, still silent and wide-eyed. The tea she’d prepared—the finest, most exotic tea money could buy—sat undisturbed on the table.

Elain thumbed the iron ring on her finger.

“It is your choice,” Nesta said with unusual gentleness. For her, Nesta would go to Prythian.

Elain swallowed, a doe caught in a snare. “I—I can’t. I …”

But my mate nodded—kindly. With understanding. “The sentries will be here, and remain unseen and unfelt. They will look after themselves. Should you change your minds, one will be waiting in this room every day at noon and at midnight for you to speak. My home is your home. Its doors are always open to you.”

Nesta looked between Rhys and Cassian, then to me. Despair still paled her face, but … she bowed her head. And said to me, “That was why you painted stars on your drawer.”

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