فصل 15

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CHAPTER

15

My sisters had been living in the House of Wind since they’d arrived in Velaris.

They did not leave the palace built into the upper parts of a flat-topped mountain overlooking the city. They did not ask for anything, or anyone.

So I would go to them.

Lucien was waiting in the sitting room when Rhys and I came downstairs at last, my mate having given the silent order for them to return.

Unsurprisingly, Cassian and Azriel were casually seated in the dining room across the hall, eating lunch and marking every single breath Lucien emitted. Cassian smirked at me, brows flicking up.

I shot him a warning glare that dared him to comment. Azriel, thankfully, just kicked Cassian under the table.

Cassian gawked at Azriel as if to declare I wasn’t going to say anything while I approached the open archway into the sitting room, Lucien rising to his feet.

I fought my cringe as I halted in the threshold. Lucien was still in his travel-worn, filthy clothes. His face and hands, at least, were clean, but … I should have gotten him something else. Remembered to offer him—

The thought rippled away into nothing as Rhys appeared at my side.

Lucien did not bother to hide the slight curling of his lip.

As if he could see the mating bond glowing between Rhys and me.

His eyes—both russet and golden—slid down my body. To my hand.

To the ring now on my finger, at the star sapphire sky-bright against the silver. A simple silver band sat on Rhysand’s matching finger.

We’d slid them onto each other’s hands before coming downstairs—more intimate and searing than any publicly made vows.

I’d told Rhys before we did so that I had half a mind to deposit his ring at the Weaver’s cottage and make him retrieve it.

He’d laughed and said that if I truly felt it was necessary to settle the score between us, perhaps I could find some other creature for him to battle—one that wouldn’t delight in removing my favorite part from his body. I’d only kissed him, murmuring about someone thinking rather highly of themselves, and had placed the ring he’d selected for himself, bought here in Velaris while I’d been away, onto his finger.

Any joy, any lingering laughter from that moment, those silent vows … It curled up like leaves in a fire as Lucien sneered at our rings. How close we stood. I swallowed.

Rhys noted it, too. It was impossible to miss.

My mate leaned against the carved archway and drawled to Lucien, “I assume Cassian or Azriel has explained that if you threaten anyone in this house, this territory, we’ll show you ways to die you’ve never even imagined.”

Indeed, the Illyrians smirked from where they lingered in the dining room threshold. Azriel was by far the more terrifying of the pair.

Something twisted in my gut at the threat—the smooth, sleek aggression.

Lucien was—had been—my friend. He wasn’t my enemy, not entirely—

“But,” Rhys continued, sliding his hands into his pockets, “I can understand how difficult this past month has been for you. I know Feyre explained we aren’t exactly as rumor suggests …” I’d let him into my mind before we’d come down—shown him all that had occurred at the Spring Court. “But hearing it and seeing it are two different things.” He shrugged with one shoulder. “Elain has been cared for. Her participation in life here has been entirely her choice. No one but us and a few trusted servants have entered the House of Wind.”

Lucien remained silent.

“I was in love with Feyre,” Rhys said quietly, “long before she ever returned the feeling.”

Lucien crossed his arms. “How fortunate that you got what you wanted in the end.”

I closed my eyes for a heartbeat.

Cassian and Azriel stilled, waiting for the order.

“I will only say this once,” warned the High Lord of the Night Court. Even Lucien flinched. “I suspected Feyre was my mate before I ever knew she was involved with Tamlin. And when I learned of it … If it made her happy, I was willing to step back.”

“You came to our house and stole her away on her wedding day.”

“I was going to call the wedding off,” I cut in, taking a step toward Lucien. “You knew it.”

Rhysand went on before Lucien could snap a reply, “I was willing to lose my mate to another male. I was willing to let them marry, if it brought her joy. But what I was not willing to do was let her suffer. To let her fade away into a shadow. And the moment that piece of shit blew apart his study, the moment he locked her in that house …” His wings ripped from him, and Lucien started.

Rhys bared his teeth. My limbs turned light, trembling at the dark power curling in the corners of the room. Not fear—never fear of him. But at the shattered control as Rhys snarled at Lucien, “My mate may one day find it in herself to forgive him. Forgive you. But I will never forget how it felt to sense her terror in those moments.” My cheeks heated, especially as Cassian and Azriel stalked closer, those hazel eyes now filled with a mix of sympathy and wrath.

I had never talked about it to them—what had gone on that day Tamlin had destroyed his study, or the day he’d sealed me inside the manor. I’d never asked Rhys if he’d informed them. From the fury rippling from Cassian, the cold rage seeping from Azriel … I didn’t think so.

Lucien, to his credit, didn’t back away a step. From Rhys, or me, or the Illyrians.

The Clever Fox Stares Down Winged Death. The painting flashed into my mind.

“So, again, I will say this only once,” Rhys went on, his expression smoothing into lethal calm, dragging me from the colors and light and shadows gathering in my mind. “Feyre did not dishonor or betray Tamlin. I revealed the mating bond months later—and she gave me hell for it, don’t worry. But now that you’ve found your mate in a similar situation, perhaps you will try to understand how it felt. And if you can’t be bothered, then I hope you’re wise enough to keep your mouth shut, because the next time you look at my mate with that disdain and disgust, I won’t bother to explain it again, and I will rip out your fucking throat.”

Rhys said it so mildly that the threat took a second to register. To settle in me like a stone plunked into a pool.

Lucien only shifted on his feet. Wary. Considering. I counted the heartbeats, debating how much I’d interfere if he said something truly stupid, when he at last murmured, “There is a longer story to be told, it seems.”

Smart answer. The rage ebbed from Rhys’s face—and Cassian’s and Azriel’s shoulders relaxed ever so slightly.

Just once, Lucien had said to me, during those days on the run. That was all he wanted—to see Elain only once.

And then … I’d have to figure out what to do with him. Unless my mate already had some plan in motion.

One look at Rhys, who lifted his brows as if to say He’s all yours, told me it was my call. But until then … I cleared my throat.

“I’m going to see my sisters up at the House,” I said to Lucien, whose eyes snapped to mine, the metal one tightening and whirring. I forced a grim smile to my face. “Would you like to come?”

Lucien weighed my offer—and the three males monitoring his every blink and breath.

He only nodded. Another wise decision.

We were gone within minutes, the quick walk up to the roof of the town house serving as Lucien’s tour of my home. I didn’t bother to point out the bedrooms. Lucien certainly didn’t ask.

Azriel left us as we took to the skies, murmuring that he had some pressing business to attend to. From the glare Cassian gave him, I wondered if the shadowsinger had invented it to avoid carrying Lucien to the House of Wind, but Rhys’s subtle nod to Azriel told me enough.

There were indeed matters afoot. Plans in motion, as they always were. And once I finished visiting my sisters … I’d get answers of my own.

So Cassian bore a stone-faced Lucien into the skies, and Rhys swept me into his arms, shooting us gracefully into the cloudless blue.

With every wing beat, with every deep inhale of the citrus-and-salt breeze … some tightness in my body uncoiled.

Even if every wing beat brought us closer to the House looming above Velaris. To my sisters.

The House of Wind had been carved into the red, sun-warmed stone of the flat-topped mountains that lurked over one edge of the city, with countless balconies and patios jutting to overhang the thousand-foot drop to the valley floor. Velaris’s winding streets flowed right to the sheer wall of the mountain itself, and snaking through it wove the Sidra, a glittering, bright band in the midday sun.

As we landed on the veranda that edged our usual dining room, Cassian and Lucien alighting behind us, I let it sink in: the city and the river and the distant sea, the jagged mountains on the other side of Velaris and the blazing blue of the sky above. And the House of Wind, my other home. The grand, formal sister to the town house—our public home, I supposed. Where we would hold meetings and receive guests who weren’t family.

A far more pleasant alternative to my other residence. The Court of Nightmares. At least there, I could stay in the moonstone palace high atop the mountain under which the Hewn City had been built. Though the people I’d rule over … I shut them from my thoughts as I adjusted my braid, tucking in strands that had been whipped free by the gentle wind Rhys had allowed through his shield while flying.

Lucien just walked to the balcony rail and stared out. I didn’t quite blame him.

I glanced over a shoulder to where Rhys and Cassian now stood. Rhys lifted a brow.

Wait inside.

Rhys’s smile was sharp. So you won’t have any witnesses when you push him over the railing?

I gave him an incredulous look and strode for Lucien, Rhys’s murmur to Cassian about getting a drink in the dining room the only indication of their departure. That, and the near-silent opening and closing of the glass doors that led into the dining room beyond. The same room where I’d first met most of them—my new family.

I came up beside Lucien, the wind ripping strands of his red hair free from where he’d tied it at his nape.

“This isn’t what I expected,” he said, taking in the sprawl of Velaris.

“The city is still rebuilding after the Hybern attack.”

His eyes dropped to the carved balcony rail. “Even though we had no part in that … I’m sorry. But—that’s not what I meant.” He glanced behind us, to where Rhys and Cassian waited inside the dining room, drinks now in hand, leaning all too casually against the giant oak table in its center.

They became immensely interested in some spot or stain on the surface between them.

I scowled at them, but swallowed. And even though my sisters waited inside, even though the urge to see them was so tangible I wouldn’t have been surprised to find a rope tugging me into the House, I said to Lucien, “Rhys saved my life on Calanmai.”

So I told him. All of it—the story that perhaps would help him understand. And realize how truly safe Elain was—he now was. I eventually summoned Rhys to explain his own history—and he gave Lucien the barest details. None of the vulnerable, sorrowful bits that had reduced me to tears in that mountain cabin. But it painted a clear enough picture.

Lucien said nothing while Rhys spoke. Or when I continued with my tale, Cassian often chiming in with his own account of how it’d been to live with two mated-yet-un-mated people, to pretend Rhys wasn’t courting me, to welcome me into their little circle.

I didn’t know how long had passed when we finished, though Rhys and Cassian used the time to unabashedly sun their wings by the open balcony ledge. I left off our story at Hybern—at the day I’d gone back to the Spring Court.

Silence fell, and Rhys and Cassian again walked away, understanding the emotion swimming in Lucien’s eye—the meaning of the long breath he blew out.

When we were alone, Lucien rubbed his eyes. “I’ve seen Rhysand do such … horrible things, seen him play the dark prince over and over. And yet you tell me it was all a lie. A mask. All to protect this place, these people. And I would have laughed at you for believing it, and yet … this city exists. Untouched—or until recently, I suppose. Even the Dawn Court’s cities are nothing so lovely as this.”

“Lucien—”

“And you love him. And he—he truly does love you.” Lucien dragged a hand through his red hair. “And all these people I have spent my centuries hating, even fearing … They are your family.”

“I think Amren would probably deny that she feels any affection for us—”

“Amren is a bedtime story they told us as younglings to make us behave. Amren was who would drink my blood and carry me to hell if I acted out of line. And yet there she was, acting more like a cranky old aunt than anything.”

“We don’t—we don’t enforce protocol and rank here.”

“Obviously. Rhys lives in a town house, by the Cauldron.” He waved an arm to encompass the city.

I didn’t know what to say, so I kept silent.

“I hadn’t realized I was a villain in your narrative,” Lucien breathed.

“You weren’t.” Not entirely.

The sun danced on the distant sea, turning the horizon into a glittering sprawl of light.

“She doesn’t know anything about you. Only the basics that Rhys gave her: you are a High Lord’s son, serving in the Spring Court. And you helped me Under the Mountain. Nothing else.”

I didn’t add that Rhys had told me my sister hadn’t asked about him at all.

I straightened. “I would like to see them first. I know you’re anxious—”

“Just do it,” Lucien said, bracing his forearms on the stone rail of the veranda. “Come get me when she’s ready.”

I almost patted his shoulder—almost said something reassuring.

But words failed me again as I headed for the dim interior of the House.

Rhys had given Nesta and Elain a suite of connecting rooms, all with views overlooking the city and river and distant mountains beyond.

But it was in the family library that Rhys tracked down Nesta.

There was a coiled, razor-sharp tension in Cassian as the three of us strode down the stairways of the House, the red stone halls dim and echoing with the rustle of Cassian’s wings and the faint howl of wind rattling at every window. A tension that grew more taut with every step toward the double doors of the library. I hadn’t asked if they had seen each other, or spoken, since that day in Hybern.

Cassian volunteered no information.

And I might have asked Rhys down the bond had he not opened one of the doors.

Had I not immediately spied Nesta curled in an armchair, a book on her knees, looking—for once—very un-Nesta-like. Casual. Perhaps relaxed.

Perfectly content to be alone.

The moment my shoes scuffed against the stone floor, she shot straight up, back going stiff, closing her book with a muffled thud. Yet her gray-blue eyes didn’t so much as widen as they beheld me.

As I took her in.

Nesta had been beautiful as a human woman.

As High Fae, she was devastating.

From the utter stillness with which Cassian stood beside me, I wondered if he thought the same thing.

She was in a pewter-colored gown, its make simple, yet the material fine. Her hair was braided over the crown of her head, accentuating her long, pale neck—a neck Cassian’s eyes darted to, then quickly away from, as she sized us up and said to me, “You’re back.”

With her hair styled like that, it hid the pointed ears. But there was nothing to hide the ethereal grace as she took one step. As her focus again returned to Cassian and she added, “What do you want?”

I felt the blow like a punch to my gut. “At least immortality hasn’t changed some things about you.”

Nesta’s look was nothing short of icy. “Is there a purpose to this visit, or may I return to my book?”

Rhys’s hand brushed mine in silent comfort. But his face … hard as stone. And even less amused.

But Cassian sauntered over to Nesta, a half smile spreading across his face. She stood stiffly while he picked up the book, read the title, and chuckled. “I wouldn’t have pegged you for a romance reader.”

She gave him a withering glare.

Cassian leafed through the pages and drawled to me, “You haven’t missed much while you were off destroying our enemies, Feyre. It’s mostly been this.”

Nesta whirled to me. “You—accomplished it?”

I clenched my jaw. “We’ll see how it plays out. I made sure Ianthe suffered.” At the hint of rage and fear that crept into Nesta’s eyes, I amended, “Not enough, though.”

I glanced at her hand—the one she’d pointed with at the King of Hybern. Rhys had mentioned no signs of special powers from either of my sisters. Yet that day in Hybern, when Nesta had opened her eyes … I had seen it. Seen something great and terrible within them.

“And, again, why are you here?” She snatched her book from Cassian, who allowed her to do so, but remained standing beside her. Watching every breath, every blink.

“I wanted to see you,” I said quietly. “See how you were doing.”

“See if I’ve accepted my lot and found myself grateful for becoming one of them?”

I steeled my spine. “You’re my sister. I watched them hurt you. I wanted to see if you were all right.”

A low, bitter laugh. But she turned to Cassian, looked him over as if she were a queen on a throne, and then declared to all of us, “What do I care? I get to be young and beautiful forever, and I never have to go back to those sycophantic fools over the wall. I get to do as I wish, since apparently no one here has any regard for rules or manners or our traditions. Perhaps I should thank you for dragging me into this.”

Rhys put a hand on the small of my back before the words even struck their target.

Nesta snorted. “But it’s not me you should be checking on. I had as little at stake on the other side of the wall as I do here.” Hate rippled over her features—enough hate that I felt sick. Nesta hissed. “She will not leave her room. She will not stop crying. She will not eat, or sleep, or drink.”

Rhys’s jaw clenched. “I have asked you over and over if you needed—”

“Why should I allow any of you”—the last word was shot at Cassian with as much venom as a pit viper—“to get near her? It is no one’s business but our own.”

“Elain’s mate is here,” I said.

And it was the wrong thing to utter in Nesta’s presence.

She went white with rage.

“He is no such thing to her,” she snarled, advancing on me enough that Rhys slid a shield into place between us.

As if he, too, had glimpsed that mighty power in her eyes that day in Hybern. And did not know how it would manifest.

“If you bring that male anywhere near her, I’ll—”

“You’ll what?” Cassian crooned, trailing her at a casual pace as she stopped perhaps five feet from me. He lifted a brow as she whirled on him. “You won’t join me for practice, so you sure as hell aren’t going to hold your own in a fight. You won’t talk about your powers, so you certainly aren’t going to be able to wield them. And you—”

“Shut your mouth,” she snapped, every inch the conquering empress. “I told you to stay the hell away from me, and if you—”

“You come between a male and his mate, Nesta Archeron, and you’re going to learn about the consequences the hard way.”

Nesta’s nostrils flared. Cassian only gave her a crooked grin.

I cut in, “If Elain is not up for it, then she won’t see him. I won’t force the meeting on her. But he does wish to see her, Nesta. I’ll ask on his behalf, but the decision will be hers.”

“The male who sold us out to Hybern.”

“It’s more complicated than that.”

“Well, it will certainly be more complicated when Father returns and finds us gone. What do you plan to tell him about all this?”

“Seeing as he hasn’t sent word from the continent in months, I’ll worry about that later,” I sniped back. And thank the Cauldron for it—that he was off trading in some lucrative territory.

Nesta only shook her head, turning toward the chair and her book. “I don’t care. Do what you want.”

A stinging dismissal, if not admission that she still trusted me enough to consider Elain’s needs first. Rhys jerked his chin at Cassian in a silent order to leave, and as I followed them, I said softly, “I’m sorry, Nesta.”

She didn’t answer as she sat stiffly in her chair, picked up her book, and dutifully ignored us. A blow to the face would have been better.

When I looked ahead, I found Cassian staring back at Nesta as well.

I wondered why no one had yet mentioned what now shone in Cassian’s eyes as he gazed at my sister.

The sorrow. And the longing.

The suite was filled with sunlight.

Every curtain shoved back as far as it could go, to let in as much sun as possible.

As if any bit of darkness was abhorrent. As if to chase it away.

And seated in a small chair before the sunniest of the windows, her back to us, was Elain.

Where Nesta had been in contented silence before we found her, Elain’s silence was … hollow.

Empty.

Her hair was down—not even braided. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen it unbound. She wore a moon-white silk dressing robe.

She did not look, or speak, or even flinch as we entered.

Her too-thin arms rested on her chair. That iron engagement ring still encircled her finger.

Her skin was so pale it looked like fresh snow in the harsh light.

I realized then that the color of death, of sorrow, was white.

The lack of color. Of vibrancy.

I left Cassian and Rhys by the door.

Nesta’s rage was better than this … shell.

This void.

My breath caught as I edged around her chair. Beheld the city view she stared so blankly at.

Then beheld the hollowed-out cheeks, the bloodless lips, the brown eyes that had once been rich and warm, and now seemed utterly dull. Like grave dirt.

She didn’t so much as look at me as I said softly, “Elain?”

I didn’t dare reach for her hand.

I didn’t dare get too close.

I had done this. I had brought this upon them—

“I’m back,” I added a bit limply. Uselessly.

All she said was, “I want to go home.”

I closed my eyes, my chest unbearably tight. “I know.”

“He’ll be looking for me,” she whispered.

“I know,” I said again. Not Lucien—she wasn’t talking about him at all.

“We were supposed to be married next week.”

I put a hand on my chest, as if it’d stop the cracking in there. “I’m sorry.”

Nothing. Not even a flicker of emotion. “Everyone keeps saying that.” Her thumb brushed the ring on her finger. “But it doesn’t fix anything, does it?”

I couldn’t get enough air in. I couldn’t—I couldn’t breathe, looking at this broken, carved-out thing my sister had become. What I’d robbed her of, what I’d taken from her—

Rhys was there, an arm sliding around my waist. “Can we get you anything, Elain?” He spoke with such gentleness I could barely stand it.

“I want to go home,” she repeated.

I couldn’t ask her—about Lucien. Not now. Not yet.

I turned away, fully prepared to bolt and completely fall apart in another room, another section of the House. But Lucien was standing in the doorway.

And from the devastation on his face, I knew he’d heard every word. Seen and heard and felt the hollowness and despair radiating from her.

Elain had always been gentle and sweet—and I had considered it a different sort of strength. A better strength. To look at the hardness of the world and choose, over and over, to love, to be kind. She had been always so full of light.

Perhaps that was why she now kept all the curtains open. To fill the void that existed where all of that light had once been.

And now nothing remained.

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