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Rhysand had mocked me about it once—had asked me while we were Under the Mountain if forcing me to learn how to read would be my personal idea of torture.
“No, thank you,” I said, gripping my fork to keep from chucking it at his head.
“You’re going to be a High Lord’s wife,” Rhys said. “You’ll be expected to maintain your own correspondences, perhaps even give a speech or two. And the Cauldron knows what else he and Ianthe will deem appropriate for you. Make menus for dinner parties, write thank-you letters for all those wedding gifts, embroider sweet phrases on pillows … It’s a necessary skill. And, you know what? Why don’t we throw in shielding while we’re at it. Reading and shielding—fortunately, you can practice them together.”
“They are both necessary skills,” I said through my teeth, “but you are not going to teach me.”
“What else are you going to do with yourself? Paint? How’s that going these days, Feyre?”
“What the hell does it even matter to you?”
“It serves various purposes of mine, of course.”
“You’ll have to agree to work with me to find out, I’m afraid.”
Something sharp poked into my hand.
I’d folded the fork into a tangle of metal.
When I set it down on the table, Rhys chuckled. “Interesting.”
“You said that last night.”
“Am I not allowed to say it twice?”
“That’s not what I was implying and you know it.”
His gaze raked over me again, as if he could see beneath the peach fabric, through the skin, to the shredded soul beneath. Then it drifted to the mangled fork. “Has anyone ever told you that you’re rather strong for a High Fae?”
“I’ll take that as a no.” He popped a piece of melon into his mouth. “Have you tested yourself against anyone?”
“Why would I?” I was enough of a wreck as it was.
“Because you were resurrected and reborn by the combined powers of the seven High Lords. If I were you, I’d be curious to see if anything else transferred to me during that process.”
My blood chilled. “Nothing else transferred to me.”
“It’d just be rather … interesting,” he smirked at the word, “if it did.”
“It didn’t, and I’m not going to learn to read or shield with you.”
“Why? From spite? I thought you and I got past that Under the Mountain.”
“Don’t get me started on what you did to me Under the Mountain.”
Rhys went still.
As still as I’d ever seen him, as still as the death now beckoning in those eyes. Then his chest began to move, faster and faster.
Across the pillars towering behind him, I could have sworn the shadow of great wings spread.
He opened his mouth, leaning forward, and then stopped. Instantly, the shadows, the ragged breathing, the intensity were gone, the lazy grin returning. “We have company. We’ll discuss this later.”
“No, we won’t.” But quick, light footsteps sounded down the hall, and then she appeared.
If Rhysand was the most beautiful male I’d ever seen, she was his female equivalent.
Her bright, golden hair was tied back in a casual braid, and the turquoise of her clothes—fashioned like my own—offset her sun-kissed skin, making her practically glow in the morning light.
“Hello, hello,” she chirped, her full lips parting in a dazzling smile as her rich brown eyes fixed on me.
“Feyre,” Rhys said smoothly, “meet my cousin, Morrigan. Mor, meet the lovely, charming, and open-minded Feyre.”
I debated splashing my tea in his face, but Mor strode toward me. Each step was assured and steady, graceful, and … grounded. Merry but alert. Someone who didn’t need weapons—or at least bother to sheath them at her side. “I’ve heard so much about you,” she said, and I got to my feet, awkwardly jutting out my hand.
She ignored it and grabbed me into a bone-crushing hug. She smelled like citrus and cinnamon. I tried to relax my taut muscles as she pulled away and grinned rather fiendishly. “You look like you were getting under Rhys’s skin,” she said, strutting to her seat between us. “Good thing I came along. Though I’d enjoy seeing Rhys’s balls nailed to the wall.”
Rhys slid incredulous eyes at her, his brows lifting.
I hid the smile that tugged on my lips. “It’s—nice to meet you.”
“Liar,” Mor said, pouring herself some tea and loading her plate. “You want nothing to do with us, do you? And wicked Rhys is making you sit here.”
“You’re … perky today, Mor,” Rhys said.
Mor’s stunning eyes lifted to her cousin’s face. “Forgive me for being excited about having company for once.”
“You could be attending your own duties,” he said testily. I clamped my lips tighter together. I’d never seen Rhys … irked.
“I needed a break, and you told me to come here whenever I liked, so what better time than now, when you brought my new friend to finally meet me?”
I blinked, realizing two things at once: one, she actually meant what she said; two, hers was the female voice I’d heard speak last night, mocking Rhys for our squabble. So, that went well, she’d teased. As if there were any other alternative, any chance of pleasantness, where he and I were concerned.
A new fork had appeared beside my plate, and I picked it up, only to spear a piece of melon. “You two look nothing alike,” I said at last.
“Mor is my cousin in the loosest definition,” he said. She grinned at him, devouring slices of tomato and pale cheese. “But we were raised together. She’s my only surviving family.”
I didn’t have the nerve to ask what happened to everyone else. Or remind myself whose father was responsible for the lack of family at my own court.
“And as my only remaining relative,” Rhys went on, “Mor believes she is entitled to breeze in and out of my life as she sees fit.”
“So grumpy this morning,” Mor said, plopping two muffins onto her plate.
“I didn’t see you Under the Mountain,” I found myself saying, hating those last three words more than anything.
“Oh, I wasn’t there,” she said. “I was in—”
“Enough, Mor,” he said, his voice laced with quiet thunder.
It was a trial in itself not to sit up at the interruption, not to study them too closely.
Rhysand set his napkin on the table and rose. “Mor will be here for the rest of the week, but by all means, do not feel that you have to oblige her with your presence.” Mor stuck out her tongue at him. He rolled his eyes, the most human gesture I’d ever seen him make. He examined my plate. “Did you eat enough?” I nodded. “Good. Then let’s go.” He inclined his head toward the pillars and swaying curtains behind him. “Your first lesson awaits.”
Mor sliced one of the muffins in two in a steady sweep of her knife. The angle of her fingers, her wrist, indeed confirmed my suspicions that weapons weren’t at all foreign to her. “If he pisses you off, Feyre, feel free to shove him over the rail of the nearest balcony.”
Rhys gave her a smooth, filthy gesture as he strode down the hall.
I eased to my feet when he was a good distance ahead. “Enjoy your breakfast.”
“Whenever you want company,” she said as I edged around the table, “give a shout.” She probably meant that literally.
I merely nodded and trailed after the High Lord.
I agreed to sit at the long, wooden table in a curtained-off alcove only because he had a point. Not being able to read had almost cost me my life Under the Mountain. I’d be damned if I let it become a weakness again, his personal agenda or no. And as for shielding … I’d be a damned fool not to take up the offer to learn from him. The thought of anyone, especially Rhys, sifting through the mess in my mind, taking information about the Spring Court, about the people I loved … I’d never allow it. Not willingly.
But it didn’t make it any easier to endure Rhysand’s presence at the wooden table. Or the stack of books piled atop it.
“I know my alphabet,” I said sharply as he laid a piece of paper in front of me. “I’m not that stupid.” I twisted my fingers in my lap, then pinned my restless hands under my thighs.
“I didn’t say you were stupid,” he said. “I’m just trying to determine where we should begin.” I leaned back in the cushioned seat. “Since you’ve refused to tell me a thing about how much you know.”
My face warmed. “Can’t you hire a tutor?”
He lifted a brow. “Is it that hard for you to even try in front of me?”
“You’re a High Lord—don’t you have better things to do?”
“Of course. But none as enjoyable as seeing you squirm.”
“You’re a real bastard, you know that?”
Rhys huffed a laugh. “I’ve been called worse. In fact, I think you’ve called me worse.” He tapped the paper in front of him. “Read that.”
A blur of letters. My throat tightened. “I can’t.”
The sentence had been written in elegant, concise print. His writing, no doubt. I tried to open my mouth, but my spine locked up. “What, exactly, is your stake in all this? You said you’d tell me if I worked with you.”
“I didn’t specify when I’d tell you.” I peeled back from him as my lip curled. He shrugged. “Maybe I resent the idea of you letting those sycophants and war-mongering fools in the Spring Court make you feel inadequate. Maybe I indeed enjoy seeing you squirm. Or maybe—”
“I get it.”
Rhys snorted. “Try to read it, Feyre.”
Prick. I snatched the paper to me, nearly ripping it in half in the process. I looked at the first word, sounding it out in my head. “Y-you … ” The next I figured out with a combination of my silent pronunciation and logic. “Look … ”
“Good,” he murmured.
“I didn’t ask for your approval.”
“Ab … Absolutely.” It took me longer than I wanted to admit to figure that out. The next word was even worse. “De … Del … ”
I deigned to glance at him, brows raised.
“Delicious,” he purred.
My brows now knotted. I read the next two words, then whipped my face toward him. “You look absolutely delicious today, Feyre?! That’s what you wrote?”
He leaned back in his seat. As our eyes met, sharp claws caressed my mind and his voice whispered inside my head: It’s true, isn’t it?
I jolted back, my chair groaning. “Stop that!”
But those claws now dug in—and my entire body, my heart, my lungs, my blood yielded to his grip, utterly at his command as he said, The fashion of the Night Court suits you.
I couldn’t move in my seat, couldn’t even blink.
This is what happens when you leave your mental shields down. Someone with my sort of powers could slip inside, see what they want, and take your mind for themselves. Or they could shatter it. I’m currently standing on the threshold of your mind … but if I were to go deeper, all it would take would be half a thought from me and who you are, your very self, would be wiped away.
Distantly, sweat slid down my temple.
You should be afraid. You should be afraid of this, and you should be thanking the gods-damned Cauldron that in the past three months, no one with my sorts of gifts has run into you. Now shove me out.
I couldn’t. Those claws were everywhere—digging into every thought, every piece of self. He pushed a little harder.
Shove. Me. Out.
I didn’t know where to begin. I blindly pushed and slammed myself into him, into those claws that were everywhere, as if I were a top loosed in a circle of mirrors.
His laughter, low and soft, filled my mind, my ears. That way, Feyre.
In answer, a little open path gleamed inside my mind. The road out.
It’d take me forever to unhook each claw and shove the mass of his presence out that narrow opening. If I could wash it away—
A wave. A wave of self, of me, to sweep all of him out—
I didn’t let him see the plan take form as I rallied myself into a cresting wave and struck.
The claws loosened—reluctantly. As if letting me win this round. He merely said, “Good.”
My bones, my breath and blood, they were mine again. I slumped in my seat.
“Not yet,” he said. “Shield. Block me out so I can’t get back in.”
I already wanted to go somewhere quiet and sleep for a while—
Claws at that outer layer of my mind, stroking—
I imagined a wall of adamant snapping down, black as night and a foot thick. The claws retracted a breath before the wall sliced them in two.
Rhys was grinning. “Very nice. Blunt, but nice.”
I couldn’t help myself. I grabbed the piece of paper and shredded it in two, then four. “You’re a pig.”
“Oh, most definitely. But look at you—you read that whole sentence, kicked me out of your mind, and shielded. Excellent work.”
“Don’t condescend to me.”
“I’m not. You’re reading at a level far higher than I anticipated.”
That burning returned to my cheeks. “But mostly illiterate.”
“At this point, it’s about practice, spelling, and more practice. You could be reading novels by Nynsar. And if you keep adding to those shields, you might very well keep me out entirely by then, too.”
Nynsar. It’d be the first Tamlin and his court would celebrate in nearly fifty years. Amarantha had banned it on a whim, along with a few other small, but beloved Fae holidays that she had deemed unnecessary. But Nynsar was months from now. “Is it even possible—to truly keep you out?”
“Not likely, but who knows how deep that power goes? Keep practicing and we’ll see what happens.”
“And will I still be bound by this bargain at Nynsar, too?”
I pushed, “After—after what happened—” I couldn’t mention specifics on what had occurred Under the Mountain, what he’d done for me during that fight with Amarantha, what he’d done after— “I think we can agree that I owe you nothing, and you owe me nothing.”
His gaze was unflinching.
I blazed on, “Isn’t it enough that we’re all free?” I splayed my tattooed hand on the table. “By the end, I thought you were different, thought that it was all a mask, but taking me away, keeping me here … ” I shook my head, unable to find the words vicious enough, clever enough to convince him to end this bargain.
His eyes darkened. “I’m not your enemy, Feyre.”
“Tamlin says you are.” I curled the fingers of my tattooed hand into a fist. “Everyone else says you are.”
“And what do you think?” He leaned back in his chair again, but his face was grave.
“You’re doing a damned good job of making me agree with them.”
“Liar,” he purred. “Did you even tell your friends about what I did to you Under the Mountain?”
So that comment at breakfast had gotten under his skin. “I don’t want to talk about anything related to that. With you or them.”
“No, because it’s so much easier to pretend it never happened and let them coddle you.”
“I don’t let them coddle me—”
“They had you wrapped up like a present yesterday. Like you were his reward.”
“So?” A flicker of rage, then it was gone.
“I’m ready to be taken home,” I merely said.
“Where you’ll be cloistered for the rest of your life, especially once you start punching out heirs. I can’t wait to see what Ianthe does when she gets her hands on them.”
“You don’t seem to have a particularly high opinion of her.”
Something cold and predatory crept into his eyes. “No, I can’t say that I do.” He pointed to a blank piece of paper. “Start copying the alphabet. Until your letters are perfect. And every time you get through a round, lower and raise your shield. Until that is second nature. I’ll be back in an hour.”
“Copy. The. Alphabet. Until—”
“I heard what you said.” Prick. Prick, prick, prick.
“Then get to work.” Rhys uncoiled to his feet. “And at least have the decency to only call me a prick when your shields are back up.”
He vanished into a ripple of darkness before I realized that I’d let the wall of adamant fade again.
By the time Rhys returned, my mind felt like a mud puddle.
I spent the entire hour doing as I’d been ordered, though I’d flinched at every sound from the nearby stairwell: quiet steps of servants, the flapping of sheets being changed, someone humming a beautiful and winding melody. And beyond that, the chatter of birds that dwelled in the unnatural warmth of the mountain or in the many potted citrus trees. No sign of my impending torment. No sentries, even, to monitor me. I might as well have had the entire place to myself.
Which was good, as my attempts to lower and raise that mental shield often resulted in my face being twisted or strained or pinched.
“Not bad,” Rhys said, peering over my shoulder.
He’d appeared moments before, a healthy distance away, and if I hadn’t known better, I might have thought it was because he didn’t want to startle me. As if he’d known about the time Tamlin had crept up behind me, and panic had hit me so hard I’d knocked him on his ass with a punch to his stomach. I’d blocked it out—the shock on Tam’s face, how easy it had been to take him off his feet, the humiliation of having my stupid terror so out in the open …
Rhys scanned the pages I’d scribbled on, sorting through them, tracking my progress.
Then, a scrape of claws inside my mind—that only sliced against black, glittering adamant.
I threw my lingering will into that wall as the claws pushed, testing for weak spots …
“Well, well,” Rhysand purred, those mental claws withdrawing. “Hopefully I’ll be getting a good night’s rest at last, if you can manage to keep the wall up while you sleep.”
I dropped the shield, sent a word blasting down that mental bridge between us, and hauled the walls back up. Behind it, my mind wobbled like jelly. I needed a nap. Desperately.
“Prick I might be, but look at you. Maybe we’ll get to have some fun with our lessons after all.”
I was still scowling at Rhys’s muscled back as I kept a healthy ten steps behind him while he led me through the halls of the main building, the sweeping mountains and blisteringly blue sky the only witnesses to our silent trek.
I was too drained to demand where we were now going, and he didn’t bother explaining as he led me up, up—until we entered a round chamber at the top of a tower.
A circular table of black stone occupied the center, while the largest stretch of uninterrupted gray stone wall was covered in a massive map of our world. It had been marked and flagged and pinned, for whatever reasons I couldn’t tell, but my gaze drifted to the windows throughout the room—so many that it felt utterly exposed, breathable. The perfect home, I supposed, for a High Lord blessed with wings.
Rhys stalked to the table, where there was another map spread, figurines dotting its surface. A map of Prythian—and Hybern.
Every court in our land had been marked, along with villages and cities and rivers and mountain passes. Every court … but the Night Court.
The vast, northern territory was utterly blank. Not even a mountain range had been etched in. Strange, likely part of some strategy I didn’t understand.
I found Rhysand watching me—his raised brows enough to make me shut my mouth against the forming question.
“Nothing to ask?”
A feline smirk danced on his lips, but Rhys jerked his chin toward the map on the wall. “What do you see?”
“Is this some sort of way of convincing me to embrace my reading lessons?” Indeed, I couldn’t decipher any of the writing, only the shapes of things. Like the wall, its massive line bisecting our world.
“Tell me what you see.”
“A world divided in two.”
“And do you think it should remain that way?”
I whipped my head toward him. “My family—” I halted on the word. I should have known better than to admit to having a family, that I cared for them—
“Your human family,” Rhys finished, “would be deeply impacted if the wall came down, wouldn’t they? So close to its border … If they’re lucky, they’ll flee across the ocean before it happens.”
“Will it happen?”
Rhysand didn’t break my stare. “Maybe.”
“Because war is coming, Feyre.”
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