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CHAPTER

16

Rhysand silently led Lucien to the suite he’d be occupying at the opposite end of the House of Wind. Cassian and I trailed behind, none of us speaking until my mate opened a set of onyx doors to reveal a sunny sitting room carved from more red stone. Beyond the wall of windows, the city flowed far below, the view stretching to the distant jagged mountains and glittering sea.

Rhys paused in the center of a midnight-blue handwoven rug and gestured to the sealed doors on his left. “Bedroom.” He waved a lazy hand toward the single door on the opposite wall. “Bathing room.”

Lucien surveyed it all with cool indifference. What he felt about Elain, what he planned to do … I didn’t want to ask.

“I assume you’ll need clothes,” Rhys went on, nodding toward Lucien’s filthy jacket and pants—which he’d worn for the past week while we scrambled through territories. Indeed, that was … blood splattered in several spots. “Any preferences for attire?”

That drew Lucien’s attention, the male shifting enough to take in Rhys—to note Cassian and me lurking in the doorway. “Is there a cost?”

“If you’re trying to say that you have no money, don’t worry—the clothes are complimentary.” Rhys gave him a half smile. “If you’re trying to ask if this is some sort of bribe …” A shrug. “You are a High Lord’s son. It would be bad manners not to house and clothe you in your time of need.”

Lucien bristled.

Stop baiting him, I shot down the bond.

But it’s so fun, came the purred reply.

Something had rattled him. Rattled Rhys enough that taunting Lucien was an easy way to take the edge off. I stepped closer, Cassian remaining behind me as I told Lucien, “We’ll be back for dinner in a few hours. Rest a while—bathe. If you need anything, pull that rope by the door.”

Lucien stiffened—not at what I’d said, I realized, but at the tone. A hostess. But he asked, “What of—Elain?”

Your call, Rhys offered.

“I need to think about it,” I answered plainly. “Until I figure out what to do with her, with Nesta, stay out of their way.” I added perhaps too tightly, “This house is warded against winnowing, both from outside and within. There’s one way out—the stairs to the city. It, too, is warded—and guarded. Please don’t do anything stupid.”

“So am I a prisoner?”

I could feel the response simmering in Rhys, but I shook my head. “No. But understand while you may be her mate, Elain is my sister. I’ll do what I must to protect her from further harm.”

“I would never hurt her.”

A bleak sort of honesty in his words.

I simply nodded, loosening a breath, and met Rhysand’s stare in silent urging.

My mate gave no indication of my wordless plea as he said, “You are free to wander where you wish, into the city itself if you feel like braving the stairs, but there are two conditions: you are not to take either sister, and you are not to enter their floor. If you require a book from the library, you will ask the servants. If you wish to speak to Elain or Nesta, you will also ask the servants, who will ask us. If you disregard those rules, I’ll lock you in a room with Amren.”

Then Rhys turned away, hands sliding into his pockets as he offered his hooked elbow to me. I looped my arm through his, but said to Lucien, “We’ll see you in a few hours.”

We were almost to the door, Cassian already in the hall, when Lucien said to me, “Thank you.”

I didn’t dare ask him for what.

We flew right to Amren’s loft, more than a few people waving as we soared over the rooftops of Velaris. My smile wasn’t faked when I waved back to them—my people. Rhys only held me a bit tighter while I did so, his own smile as bright as the sun on the Sidra.

Mor and Azriel were already waiting inside Amren’s apartment, seated like scolded children on the threadbare divan against the wall while the dark-haired female flipped through the pages of books sprawled around her on the floor.

Mor gave me a grateful, relieved look as we entered, Azriel’s own face revealing nothing while he stood, keeping a careful, too-casual distance from her side. But it was Amren who said from the floor, “You should kill Beron and his sons and set up the handsome one as High Lord of Autumn, self-imposed exile or no. It will make life easier.”

“I’ll take that into consideration,” Rhys said, striding toward her while I remained with the others. If they were hanging back … Amren had to be in some mood.

I blew out a breath. “Who else thinks it’s a terrible idea to leave the three of them up at the House of Wind?”

Cassian raised his hand as Rhys and Mor chuckled. The High Lord’s general said, “I give him an hour before he tries to see her.”

“Thirty minutes,” Mor countered, sitting back down on the divan and crossing her legs.

I cringed. “I guarantee Nesta is now guarding Elain. I think she might honestly kill him if he so much as tries to touch her.”

“Not without training she won’t,” Cassian grumbled, tucking in his wings as he claimed the seat beside Mor that Azriel had vacated. The shadowsinger didn’t so much as look at it. No, Azriel just walked to the wall beside Cassian and leaned against the wood paneling.

But Rhys and the others remained quiet enough that I knew to proceed carefully as I asked Cassian, “Nesta spoke as if you’ve been up at the House … often. You’ve offered to train her?”

Cassian’s hazel eyes shuttered as he crossed a booted ankle over another, stretching his muscled legs before him. “I go up there every other day. It’s good exercise for my wings.” Those wings shifted in emphasis. Not a scratch marred them.

“And?”

“And what you saw in the library is a pleasanter version of the conversation we always have.”

Mor’s lips pressed into a thin line, as if she was trying her best not to say anything. Azriel was trying his best to shoot a warning stare at Mor to remind her to indeed keep her mouth shut. As if they’d already discussed this. Many times.

“I don’t blame her,” Cassian said, shrugging despite his words. “She was—violated. Her body stopped belonging wholly to her.” His jaw clenched. Even Amren didn’t dare say anything. “And I am going to peel the King of Hybern’s skin off his bones the next time I see him.”

His Siphons flickered in answer.

Rhys said casually, “I’m sure the king will thoroughly enjoy the experience.”

Cassian glowered. “I mean it.”

“Oh, I have no doubt that you do.” Rhys’s violet eyes were dazzling in the dimness of the loft. “But before you lose yourself in plans for revenge, do remember that we have a war to plan first.”

“Asshole.”

A corner of my mate’s mouth tugged upward. And—Rhys was goading him, working Cassian into a temper to keep that brittle edge of guilt from consuming him. The others letting him take on the task, likely having done it several times themselves these weeks. “I am most definitely that,” Rhys said, “but the fact still remains that revenge is secondary to winning this war.”

Cassian opened his mouth as if he’d keep arguing, but Rhys peered at the books scattered on the lush carpet. “Nothing?” he asked Amren.

“I don’t know why you sent those two buffoons”—a narrowed glance toward Mor and Azriel—“to monitor me.” So this was where Azriel had gone—right to the loft. To no doubt spare Mor from enduring Amren Duty alone. But Amren’s tone … cranky, yes, but perhaps a bit of a front, too. To banish that too-fragile gleam in Cassian’s eyes.

“We’re not monitoring you,” Mor said, tapping her foot on the carpet. “We’re monitoring the Book.”

And as she said it … I felt it. Heard it.

Amren had placed the Book of Breathings on her nightstand.

A glass of old blood atop it.

I didn’t know whether to laugh or cringe. The latter won out as the Book murmured, Hello, sweet-faced liar. Hello, princess with—

“Oh, be quiet,” Amren hissed toward the Book, who—shut up. “Odious thing,” she muttered, and went back to the tome before her.

Rhys gave me a wry smile. “Since the two halves of the Book were joined back together, it has been … known to speak every now and then.”

“What does it say?”

“Utter nonsense,” Amren spat, scowling at the Book. “It just likes to hear itself talk. Like most of the people cramping up my apartment.”

Cassian smirked. “Did someone forget to feed Amren again?”

She pointed a warning finger at him without so much as looking up. “Is there a reason, Rhysand, why you dragged your yapping pack into my home?”

Her home was little more than a giant, converted attic, but none of us dared argue as Mor, Cassian, and Azriel finally came closer, forming a small circle around Amren’s sprawl in the center of the room.

Rhys said to me, “The information you got from Dagdan and Brannagh confirms what we’ve been gathering ourselves while you were gone. Especially Hybern’s potential allies in other territories—on the continent.”

“Vultures,” Mor muttered, and Cassian looked inclined to agree.

But Rhys—Rhys had indeed been spying, while Azriel had been—

Rhys snorted. “I can stay hidden, mate.”

I glared at him, but Azriel cut in. “Having Hybern’s movements confirmed by you, Feyre, is what we needed.”

“Why?”

Cassian crossed his arms. “We barely stand a chance of surviving Hybern’s armies on our own. If armies from Vallahan, Montesere, and Rask join them …” He drew a line across his tan throat.

Mor elbowed him in the ribs. Cassian nudged her right back as Azriel shook his head at both of them, shadows coiling around the tips of his wings.

“Are those three territories … that powerful?” Perhaps it was a foolish question, showing how little I knew of the faerie lands on the continent—

“Yes,” Azriel said, no judgment in his hazel eyes. “Vallahan has the numbers, Montesere has the money, and Rask … it is large enough to have both.”

“And we have no potential allies amongst the other overseas territories?”

Rhys pulled at a stray thread on the cuff of his black jacket. “Not ones that would sail here to help.”

My stomach turned. “What of Miryam and Drakon?” He’d once refused to consider, but— “You fought for Miryam and Drakon centuries ago,” I said to Rhys. He’d done a great deal more than that, if Jurian was to be believed. “Perhaps it’s time to call in that debt.”

But Rhys shook his head. “We tried. Azriel went to Cretea.” The island where Miryam, Drakon, and their unified human and Fae peoples had secretly lived for the past five centuries.

“It was abandoned,” Azriel said. “In ruin. With no trace of what happened or where they went.”

“You think Hybern—”

“There was no sign of Hybern, or of any harm,” Mor cut in, her face taut. They had been her friends, too—during the War. Miryam, and Drakon, and the human queens who had gotten the Treaty signed. And it was worry—true, deep worry—that guttered in her brown eyes. In all their eyes.

“Then do you think they heard about Hybern and ran?” I asked. Drakon had a winged legion, Rhys had once told me. If there was any chance of finding them—

“The Drakon and Miryam I knew wouldn’t have run—not from this,” Rhys said.

Mor leaned forward, her golden hair spilling over her shoulders. “But with Jurian now a player in this conflict … Miryam and Drakon, whether they like it or not, have always been tied to him. I don’t blame them for running, if he truly hunts them.”

Rhys’s face slackened for a heartbeat. “That is what the King of Hybern has on Jurian,” he murmured. “Why Jurian works for him.”

My brow furrowed.

“Miryam died—a spear through her chest during that last battle at the sea,” Rhys explained. “She bled out while she was carried to safety. But Drakon knew of a sacred, hidden island where an object of great and terrible power had been concealed. An object made by the Cauldron itself, legend claimed. He brought her there, to Cretea—used the item to resurrect her, make her immortal. As you were Made, Feyre.”

Amren had said it—months ago. That Miryam had been Made as I was.

Amren seemed to remember it, too, as she said, “The King of Hybern must have promised Jurian to use the Cauldron to track the item. To where Miryam and Drakon now live. Perhaps they figured that out—and left as fast as they could.”

And for revenge, for that insane rage that hounded Jurian … he’d do whatever the King of Hybern asked. So he could kill Miryam himself.

“But where did they go?” I looked to Azriel, the shadowsinger still standing with preternatural stillness against the wall. “You found no trace at all of where they might have vanished to?”

“None,” Rhys answered for him. “We’ve sent messengers back since—to no avail.”

I rubbed at my face, sealing off that path of hope. “Then if they are not a possible ally … How do we keep those other territories on the continent from joining with Hybern—from sending their armies here?” I winced. “That’s our plan—isn’t it?”

Rhys smiled grimly. “It is. One we’ve been working on while you were away.” I waited, trying not to pace as Amren’s silver eyes seemed to glow with amusement. “I looked at Hybern first. At its people. As best I could.”

He’d gone to Hybern—

Rhys smirked at the concern flaring across my face. “I’d hoped that Hybern might have some internal conflict to exploit—to get them to collapse from within. That its people might not want this war, might see it as costly and dangerous and unnecessary. But five hundred years on that island, with little trade, little opportunity … Hybern’s people are hungry for change. Or rather … a change back to the old days, when they had human slaves to do their work, when there were no barriers keeping them from what they now perceive as their right.”

Amren slammed shut the book she’d been perusing. “Fools.” She shook her head, inky hair swaying, as she scowled up at me. “Hybern’s wealth has been dwindling for centuries. Most of their trade routes before the War dealt with the South—with the Black Land. But once it went to the humans … We don’t know if Hybern’s king deliberately failed to establish new trade routes and opportunities for his people in order to one day fuel this war, or if he was just that shortsighted and let everything fall apart. But for centuries now, Hybern’s people have been festering. Hybern let their resentment of their growing stagnation and poverty fester.”

“There are many High Fae,” Mor said carefully, “who believed before the War, and still believe now, that humans … that they are property. There were many High Fae who knew nothing but privilege thanks to those slaves. And when that privilege was ripped away from them, when they were forced to leave their homelands or forced to make room for other High Fae and re-form territories—create new ones—above that wall … They have not forgotten that anger, even centuries later. Especially not in places like Hybern, where their territory and population remained mostly untouched by change. They were one of the few who did not have to yield any land to the wall—and did not yield any land to the Fae territories now looking for a new home. Isolated, growing poorer, with no slaves to do their labor … Hybern has long viewed the days before the War as a golden era. And these centuries since as a dark age.”

I rubbed at my chest. “They’re all insane, to think that.”

Rhys nodded. “Yes—they certainly are. But don’t forget that their king has encouraged these limited world views. He did not expand their trade routes, did not allow other territories to take any of his land and bring their cultures. He considered where things went wrong for the Loyalists in the War. How they ultimately yielded not from being overwhelmed but because they began arguing amongst themselves. Hybern has had a long, long while to think on those mistakes. And how to avoid them at any cost. So he made sure his people are completely for this war, completely for the idea of the wall coming down, because they think it will somehow restore this … gilded vision of the past. Hybern’s people see their king and their armies not as conquerors, but as liberators of High Fae and those who stand with them.”

Nausea churned in my gut. “How can anyone believe that?”

Azriel ran a scarred hand through his hair. “That’s what we’ve been learning. Listening in Hybern. And in territories like Rask and Montesere and Vallahan.”

“We’re to be made an example of, girl,” Amren explained. “Prythian. We were among the fiercest defenders and negotiators of the Treaty. Hybern wants to claim Prythian not only to clear the path to the continent, but to make an example of what happens to High Fae territories that defend the Treaty.”

“But surely other territories would protect it,” I said, scanning their faces.

“Not as many as we’d hoped,” Rhys admitted, wincing. “There are many—too many—who have also felt squashed and suffocated during these centuries. They want their old lands back beneath the wall, and the power and prosperity that came with it. Their vision of the past has been colored by five hundred years of struggling to adjust and thrive.”

“Perhaps we did them a disservice,” Mor mused, “in not sharing enough of our wealth, our territory. Perhaps we are to blame for allowing some of this to rot and fester.”

“That remains to be discussed,” Amren said, waving a delicate hand. “The point is that we are not facing an army hell-bent on destruction. They are hell-bent on what they believe is liberation. Of High Fae stifled by the wall, and what they believe still belongs to them.”

I swallowed. “So how do the other territories play into it—the three Hybern claims will ally with them?” I looked between Rhys and Azriel. “You said you were … over there?”

Rhys shrugged. “Over there, in Hybern, in the other territories …” He winked at my gaping mouth. “I had to keep myself busy to avoid missing you.”

Mor rolled her eyes. But it was Cassian who said, “We can’t afford to let those three territories join with Hybern. If they send armies to Prythian, we’re done.”

“So what do we do?”

Rhys leaned against the carved post of Amren’s bed. “We’ve been keeping them busy.” He jerked his chin to Azriel. “We planted information—truth and lies and a blend of both—for them to find. And also scattered some of it among our old allies, who are now balking at supporting us.” Azriel’s smile was a slash of white. Lies and truth—the shadowsinger and his spies had sowed them in foreign courts.

My brow narrowed. “You’ve been playing the territories on the continent off each other?”

“We’ve been making sure that they’re kept busy with each other,” Cassian said, a hint of wicked humor glinting in his hazel eyes. “Making sure that longtime enemies and rival-nations of Rask, Vallahan, and Montesere have suddenly received information that has them worried about being attacked. And raising their own defenses. Which in turn has made Rask, Vallahan, and Montesere start looking toward their own borders and not our own.”

“If our allies from the War are too scared to come here to fight,” Mor said, folding her arms over her chest, “then as long as they’re keeping the others occupied—keeping them from sailing here—we don’t care.”

I blinked at them. At Rhys.

Brilliant. Utterly brilliant, to keep them so focused and fearful of each other that they stayed away. “So … they won’t be coming?”

“We can only pray,” Amren said. “And pray we deal with this fast enough that they don’t figure out we’ve played them all.”

“What of the human queens, though?” I chewed on the tip of my thumb. “They have to be aware that no bargain with Hybern would ultimately work to their advantage.”

Mor braced her forearms on her thighs. “Who knows what Hybern promised them—lied about? He already granted them immortality through the Cauldron in exchange for their cooperation. If they were foolish enough to agree to it, then I don’t doubt they’ve already thrown open the gates to him.”

“But we don’t know that for certain,” Amren countered. “And none of it explains why they’ve been so quiet—locked up in that palace.”

Rhys and Azriel shook their heads in silent confirmation.

I surveyed them, their fading amusement. “It drives you mad, doesn’t it, that no one has been able to get inside that palace.”

A low growl from both of them before Azriel muttered, “You have no idea.”

Amren just clicked her tongue, her upswept eyes settling on me. “Those Hybern commanders were fools to reveal their plans in regard to breaking the wall. Or perhaps they knew the information would return to us, and their master wants us to stew.”

I angled my head. “You mean shattering the wall through the holes already in it?”

A bob of her sharp chin as she gestured to the books around her. “It’s complex spell work—a loophole through the magic that binds the wall.”

“And it implies,” Mor said, frowning deeply, “that something might be amiss with the Cauldron.”

I raised my brows, considering. “Because the Cauldron should be able to bring that wall down on its own, right?”

“Right,” Rhysand said, striding to the Book on the nightstand. He didn’t dare touch it. “Why bother seeking out those holes to help the Cauldron when he could unleash its power and be done with it?”

“Maybe he used too much of its power transforming my sisters and those queens.”

“It’s likely,” Rhys said, stalking back to my side. “But if he’s going to exploit those tears in the wall, we need to find a way to fix them before he can act.”

I asked Amren, “Are there spells to patch it up?”

“I’m looking,” she said through her teeth. “It’d help if someone dragged their ass to a library to do more research.”

“We are at your disposal,” Cassian offered with a mock bow.

“I wasn’t aware you could read,” Amren said sweetly.

“It could be a fool’s errand,” Azriel cut in before Cassian could voice the retort dancing in his eyes. “To get us to focus on the wall as a decoy—while he strikes from another direction.”

I grimaced at the Book. “Why not just try to nullify the Cauldron again?”

“Because it nearly killed you the last time,” Rhys said in a sort of calm, steady voice that told me enough: there was no way in hell he’d risk me attempting it again.

I straightened. “I wasn’t prepared in Hybern. None of us were. If I tried again—”

Mor cut in. “If you tried again, it might very well kill you. Not to mention, we’d have to actually get to the Cauldron, which isn’t an option.”

“The king,” Azriel clarified at my furrowed brow, “won’t allow the Cauldron out of his sight. And he’s rigged it with more spells and traps than the last time.” I opened my mouth to object, but the shadowsinger added, “We looked into it. It’s not a viable path.”

I believed him—the stark honesty in those hazel eyes was confirmation enough that they’d weighed it thoroughly. “Well, if it’s too risky to nullify the Cauldron,” I mused, “then can I somehow fix the wall? If the wall was made by faeries coming together, and my very magic is a blend of so many …”

Amren considered in the silence that fell. “Perhaps. The relationship would be tenuous, but … yes, perhaps you could patch it up. Though your sisters, directly forged by the Cauldron itself, might bear the sort of magic we—”

“My sisters play no part in this.”

Another beat of silence, interrupted only by the rustle of Azriel’s wings.

“I asked them to help once—and look what happened. I won’t risk them again.”

Amren snorted. “You sound exactly like Tamlin.”

I felt the words like a blow.

Rhys slid a hand against my back, having appeared so fast I didn’t see him move. But before he could reply, Mor said quietly, “Don’t you ever say that sort of bullshit again, Amren.”

There was nothing on Mor’s face beyond cold calm—fury.

I’d never seen her look so … terrifying. She had been furious with the mortal queens, but this … This was the face of the High Lord’s third in command.

“If you’re cranky because you’re hungry, then tell us,” Mor went on with that frozen quiet. “But if you say anything like that again, I will throw you in the gods-damned Sidra.”

“I’d like to see you try.”

A little smile was Mor’s only answer.

Amren slid her attention to me. “We need your sisters—if not for this, then to convince others to join us, of the risk. Since any would-be ally might have some … difficulty believing us after so many years of lies.”

“Apologize,” said Mor.

“Mor,” I murmured.

“Apologize,” she hissed at Amren.

Amren said nothing.

Mor took a step toward her, and I said, “She’s right.”

They both looked to me, brows raised.

I swallowed. “Amren is right.” I walked out of Rhys’s touch—realizing he’d kept silent to let me sort it out. Let me figure out how to deal with both of them, as family, but mostly as their High Lady.

Mor’s face tightened, but I shook my head. “I can—ask my sisters. See if they have any sort of power. See if they’d be willing to … talk to others about what they endured. But I won’t force them to help, if they do not wish to participate. The choice will be theirs.” I glanced at my mate—the male who had always presented me with a choice not as a gift, but as my own gods-given right. Rhys’s violet eyes flickered in acknowledgment. “But I’ll make our … desperation clear.”

Amren huffed, hardly more than a bird of prey puffing its feathers.

“Compromise, Amren,” Rhys purred. “It’s called compromise.”

She ignored him. “If you want to start convincing your sisters, get them out of the House. Being cooped up never helped anyone.”

Rhys said smoothly, “I’m not entirely sure Velaris is prepared for Nesta Archeron.”

“My sister’s not some feral animal,” I snapped.

Rhys recoiled a bit, the others suddenly finding the carpet, the divan, the books incredibly fascinating. “I didn’t mean that.”

I didn’t answer.

Mor frowned in disapproval at Rhys, who I felt watching me carefully, but asked me, “What of Elain?”

I shifted slightly, pushing past the words still hanging between me and Rhys. “I can ask, but … she might not be ready to be around so many people.” I clarified, “She was supposed to be married next week.”

“So she keeps saying, over and over,” Amren grumbled.

I shot her a glare. “Careful.” Amren blinked up at me in surprise. But I went on, “So, we need to find a way to patch up the wall before Hybern uses the Cauldron to break it. And fight this war before any other territories join Hybern’s assault. And eventually get the Cauldron itself. Anything else?”

Rhys said behind me, his own voice carefully casual, “That covers it. As soon as a force can be assembled, we take on Hybern.”

“The Illyrian legions are nearly ready,” Cassian said.

“No,” Rhys said. “I mean a bigger force. A force not just from the Night Court, but from all of Prythian. Our only decent shot at finding allies in this war.”

None of us spoke, none of us moved as Rhys said simply, “Tomorrow, invitations go out to every High Lord in Prythian. For a meeting in two weeks. It’s time we see who stands with us. And make sure they understand the consequences if they don’t.”

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