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“Father,” the one now holding a knife to my throat said to Lucien, “is rather put out that you didn’t stop by to say hello.”
“We’re on an errand and can’t be delayed,” Lucien answered smoothly, mastering himself.
That knife pressed a fraction harder into my skin as he let out a humorless laugh. “Right. Rumor has it you two have run off together, cuckolding Tamlin.” His grin widened. “I didn’t think you had it in you, little brother.”
“He had it in her, it seems,” one of the others sniggered.
I slid my gaze to the male above me. “You will release us.”
“Our esteemed father wishes to see you,” he said with a snake’s smile. The knife didn’t waver. “So you will come with us to his home.”
“Eris,” Lucien warned.
The name clanged through me. Above me, mere inches away … Mor’s former betrothed. The male who had abandoned her when he found her brutalized body on the border. The High Lord’s heir.
I could have sworn phantom talons bit into my palms.
A day or two more, and I might have been able to slash them across his throat.
But I didn’t have that time. I only had now. I had to make it count.
Eris merely said to me, cold and bored, “Get up.”
I felt it then—stirring awake as if some stick had poked it. As if being here, in this territory, amongst its blooded royals, had somehow sparked it to life, boiling past that poison. Turning that poison to steam.
With his knife still angled against my neck, I let Eris haul me to my feet, the other two dragging Lucien before he could stand on his own.
Make it count. Use my surroundings.
I caught Lucien’s eye.
And he saw the sweat beading on my temple, my upper lip, as my blood heated.
A slight bob of his chin was his only sign of understanding.
Eris would bring us to Beron, and the High Lord would either kill us for sport, sell us to the highest bidder, or hold us indefinitely. And after what they had done to Lucien’s lover, what they’d done to Mor …
“After you,” Eris said smoothly, lowering that knife at last. He shoved me a step.
I’d been waiting. Balance, Cassian had taught me, was crucial to winning a fight.
And as Eris’s shove caused him to get on uneven footing, I turned my propelled step on him.
Twisting, so fast he didn’t see me get into his open guard, I drove my elbow into his nose.
Eris stumbled back.
Flame slammed into the other two, and Lucien hurtled out of the way as they shouted and fell deeper into the cave.
I unleashed every drop of the flame in me, a wall of it between us and them. Sealing his brothers inside the cave.
“Run,” I gasped out, but Lucien was already at my side, a steadying hand under my arm as I burned that flame hotter and hotter. It wouldn’t keep them contained for long, and I could indeed feel someone’s power rising to challenge mine.
But there was another force to wield.
Lucien understood the same moment I did.
Sweat simmered on Lucien’s brow as a pulse of flame-licked power slammed into the stones just above us. Dust and debris rained down.
I threw any trickle of magic into Lucien’s next blow.
As Eris’s livid face emerged from my net of flame, glowing like a new-forged god of wrath, Lucien and I brought down the cave ceiling.
Fire burst through the small cracks like a thousand flaming serpents’ tongues—but the cave-in did not so much as tremble.
“Hurry,” Lucien panted, and I didn’t waste breath agreeing as we staggered into the night.
Our packs, our weapons, our food … all inside that cave.
I had two daggers on me, Lucien one. I’d been wearing my cloak, but … he’d indeed given me his. He shivered against the cold as we dragged and clawed our way up the mountain slope, and did not dare stop.
Had I still remained human, I would have been dead.
The cold was bone-deep, the screaming wind lashing us like burning whips. My teeth clacked against each other, my fingers so stiff I could scarcely grapple onto the icy granite with each mile we staggered through the mountains. Perhaps both of us were spared from an icy death by the kernel of flame that had just barely kindled inside our veins.
We didn’t pause once, an unspoken fear that if we did, the cold would leech any lingering warmth and we’d never again move. Or Lucien’s brothers would gain ground.
I tried, over and over, to shout down the bond to Rhys. To winnow. To grow wings and attempt to fly us out of the mountain pass we trudged through, the snow waist-deep and so densely packed in places we had to crawl over it, our skin scraped raw from the ice.
But the faebane’s stifling grip still held the majority of my power in check.
We had to be close to the Winter Court border, I told myself as we squinted against a blast of icy wind through the other end of the narrow mountain pass. Close—and once we were over it, Eris and the others wouldn’t dare set foot into another court’s territory.
My muscles screamed with every step, my boots soaked through with snow, my feet perilously numb. I’d spent enough human winters in the forest to know the dangers of exposure—the threat of cold and wet.
Lucien, a step behind me, panted hard as the walls of rock and snow parted to reveal a bitter, star-flecked night—and more mountains beyond. I almost whimpered.
“We’ve got to keep going,” he said, snow crusting the stray strands of his hair, and I wondered if the sound had indeed left me.
Ice tickled my frozen nostrils. “We can’t last long—we need to get warm and rest.”
“We will die if we continue.” Or lose fingers and toes at the best. I pointed to the mountain slope ahead, a hazardous plunge down. “We can’t risk that at night. We need to find a cave and try to make a fire.”
“With what?” he snapped. “Do you see any wood?”
I only continued on. Arguing just wasted energy—and time.
And I didn’t have an answer, anyway.
I wondered if we’d make it through the night.
We found a cave. Deep and shielded from wind or sight. Lucien and I carefully covered our tracks, making sure the wind blew in our favor, veiling our scents.
That was where our luck ran out. No wood to be found; no fire in either of our veins.
So we used our only option: body heat. Huddled in the farthest reaches of the cave, we sat thigh to thigh and arm to arm beneath my cloak, shuddering with cold and dripping wet.
I could scarcely hear the hollow scream of the wind over my chattering teeth. And his.
Find me, find me, find me, I tried shouting down that bond. But my mate’s wry voice didn’t answer.
There was only the roaring void.
“Tell me about her—about Elain,” Lucien said quietly. As if the death that squatted in the dark beside us had drawn his thoughts to his own mate as well.
I debated not saying anything, shaking too hard to dredge up speech, but … “She loves her garden. Always loved growing things. Even when we were destitute, she managed to tend a little garden in the warmer months. And when—when our fortune returned, she took to tending and planting the most beautiful gardens you’ve ever seen. Even in Prythian. It drove the servants mad, because they were supposed to do the work and ladies were only meant to clip a rose here and there, but Elain would put on a hat and gloves and kneel in the dirt, weeding. She acted like a purebred lady in every regard but that.”
Lucien was silent for a long moment. “Acted,” he murmured. “You talk about her as if she’s dead.”
“I don’t know what changes the Cauldron wrought on her. I don’t think going home is an option. No matter how she might yearn to.”
“Surely Prythian is a better alternative, war or no.”
I steeled myself before saying, “She is engaged, Lucien.”
I felt every inch of him go stiff beside me. “To whom.”
Flat, cold words. With the threat of violence simmering beneath.
“To a human lord’s son. The lord hates faeries—has dedicated his life and wealth to hunting them. Us. I was told that though it’s a love match, her betrothed’s father was keen to have access to her considerable dowry to continue his crusade against faerie-kind.”
“Elain loves this lord’s son.” Not quite a question.
“She says she does. Nesta—Nesta thought the father and his obsession with killing faeries was bad enough to raise some alarms. She never voiced the concern to Elain. Neither did I.”
“My mate is engaged to a human male.” He spoke more to himself than to me.
“I’m sorry if—”
“I want to see her. Just once. Just—to know.”
“To know what?”
He hitched my damp cloak higher around us. “If she is worth fighting for.”
I couldn’t bring myself to say she was, to give him that sort of hope when Elain might very well do everything in her power to hold to her engagement. Even if immortality had already rendered it impossible.
Lucien leaned his head back against the rock wall behind us. “And then I’ll ask your mate how he survived it—knowing you were engaged to someone else. Sharing another male’s bed.”
I tucked my freezing hands under my arms, gazing toward the gloom ahead.
“Tell me when you knew,” he demanded, his knee pressing into mine. “That Rhysand was your mate. Tell me when you stopped loving Tamlin and started loving him instead.”
I chose not to answer.
“Was it going on before you even left?”
I whipped my head to him, even if I could barely make out his features in the dark. “I never touched Rhysand like that until months later.”
“You kissed Under the Mountain.”
“I had as little choice in that as I did in the dancing.”
“And yet this is the male you now love.”
He didn’t know—he had no inkling of the personal history, the secrets, that had opened my heart to the High Lord of the Night Court. They were not my stories to tell.
“One would think, Lucien, that you’d be glad I fell in love with my mate, given that you’re in the same situation Rhys was in six months ago.”
“You left us.”
Us. Not Tamlin. Us. The words echoed into the dark, toward the howling wind and lashing snow beyond the bend.
“I told you that day in the woods: you abandoned me long before I ever physically left.” I shivered again, hating every point of contact, that I so desperately needed his warmth. “You fit into the Spring Court as little as I did, Lucien. You enjoyed its pleasures and diversions. But don’t pretend you weren’t made for something more than that.”
His metal eye whirred. “And where, exactly, do you believe I will fit in? The Night Court?”
I didn’t answer. I didn’t have one, honestly. As High Lady, I could likely offer him a position, if we survived long enough to make it home. I’d do it mostly to keep Elain from ever going to the Spring Court, but I had little doubt Lucien would be able to hold his own against my friends. And some small, horrible part of me enjoyed the thought of taking one more thing away from Tamlin, something vital, something essential.
“We should leave at dawn,” was my only reply.
We lasted the night.
Every part of me was stiff and aching when we began our careful trek down the mountain. Not a whisper or trace of Lucien’s brothers—or any sort of life.
I didn’t care, not when we at last passed over the border and into Winter Court lands.
Beyond the mountain, a great ice-plain sparkled into the distance. It would take days to cross, but it didn’t matter: I’d awoken with enough power in my veins to warm us with a small fire. Slowly—so slowly, the effects of the faebane ebbed.
I was willing to wager that we’d be halfway across the ice by the time we could winnow out of here. If our luck held and no one else found us.
I ran through every lesson Rhys had taught me about the Winter Court and its High Lord, Kallias.
Towering, exquisite palaces, full of roaring hearths and bedecked in evergreens. Carved sleighs were the court’s preferred method of transportation, hauled by velvet-antlered reindeer whose splayed hooves were ideal for the ice and snow. Their forces were well trained, but they often relied on the great, white bears that stalked the realm for any unwanted visitors.
I prayed none of them waited on the ice, their coats perfectly blended into the terrain.
The Night Court’s relationship with Winter was fine enough, still tenuous, as all our bonds were, after Amarantha. After she’d butchered so many of them—including, I remembered with no small surge of nausea, dozens of Winter Court children.
I couldn’t imagine it—the loss, the rage and grief. I’d never had the nerve to ask Rhys, in those months of training, who the children had belonged to. What the consequences had been. If it was considered the worst of Amarantha’s crimes, or just one of countless others.
But despite any tentative bonds, Winter was one of the Seasonal Courts. It might side with Tamlin, with Tarquin. Our best allies remained the Solar Courts: Dawn and Day. But they lay far to the north—above the demarcation line between the Solar and Seasonal Courts. That slice of sacred, unclaimed land that held Under the Mountain. And the Weaver’s cottage.
We’d be gone before we ever had to set foot in that lethal, ancient forest.
It was another day and night before we cleared the mountains entirely and set foot on the thick ice. Nothing grew, and I could only tell when we were on solid land by the dense snow packed beneath. Otherwise, too frequently, the ice was clear as glass—revealing dark, depthless lakes beneath.
At least we didn’t encounter any of the white bears. But the real threat, we both quickly realized, was the utter lack of shelter: out on the ice, there was none to be found against the wind and cold. And if we lit a fire with our feeble magic, anyone nearby would spot it. No matter the practicality of lighting a fire atop a frozen lake.
The sun was just slipping above the horizon, staining the plain with gold, the shadows still a bruised blue, when Lucien said, “Tonight, we’ll melt some of the ice pack enough to soften it—and build a shelter.”
I considered. We were barely a hundred feet onto what seemed to be an endless lake. It was impossible to tell where it ended. “You think we’ll be out on the ice for that long?”
Lucien frowned toward the dawn-stained horizon. “Likely, but who knows how far it extends?” Indeed, the snowdrifts hid much of the ice beneath.
“Perhaps there’s some other way around …,” I mused, glancing back toward our abandoned little camp.
We looked at the same time. And both beheld the three figures now standing at the lake edge. Smiling.
Eris lifted a hand wreathed in flame.
Flame—to melt the ice on which we stood.
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