فصل 17

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CHAPTER

17

I let Cassian carry me to the House two hours later, just because he admitted he was still working to strengthen his wings and needed to push himself.

Heat rippled off the tiled roofs and red stone as we soared high over them, the sea breeze a cool kiss against my face.

We’d barely finished debating thirty minutes ago, only stopping when Mor’s stomach had grumbled as loudly as a breaking thunderhead. We’d spent our time weighing the merits of where to meet, who to bring along to the meeting with the High Lords.

Invitations would go out tomorrow—but not specify the meeting place. There was no point in selecting one, Rhys said, when the High Lords would no doubt refuse our initial selection and counter with their own choice of where to gather. All we had chosen was the day and the time—the two weeks a cushion against the bickering that was sure to ensue. The rest … We’d just have to prepare for every possibility.

We’d quickly returned to the town house to change before heading back up to the House—and I’d found Nuala and Cerridwen waiting in my room, smiles on their shadowy faces.

I’d embraced them both, even if Rhys’s hello had been less … enthusiastic. Not for dislike of the half-wraiths, but …

I’d snapped at him. In Amren’s apartment. He hadn’t seemed angry, and yet … I’d felt him carefully watching me these past few hours. It’d made it … strange to look at him. Strange enough that the appetite I’d been steadily building had gone a bit queasy. I’d challenged him before, but … not as High Lady. Not with the … tone.

So I didn’t get to ask him about it as Nuala and Cerridwen helped me dress and he headed into the bathing room to wash up.

Not that there was much finery to bother with. I’d opted for my Illyrian leather pants and a loose, white shirt—and a pair of embroidered slippers that Cassian kept snorting at as we flew.

When he did so for the third time in two minutes, I pinched his arm and said, “It’s hot. Those boots are stuffy.”

His brows rose, the portrait of innocence. “I didn’t say anything.”

“You grunted. Again.”

“I’ve been living with Mor for five hundred years. I’ve learned the hard way not to question shoe choices.” He smirked. “However stupid they may be.”

“It’s dinner. Unless there’s some battle planned afterward?”

“Your sister will be there—I’d say that’s battle aplenty.”

I casually studied his face, noting how hard he worked to keep his features neutral, to keep his gaze fixed anywhere but on my own. Rhys flew nearby, far enough to remain out of earshot as I said, “Would you use her to see if she can somehow fix the wall?”

Hazel eyes shot to me, fierce and clear. “Yes. Not only for our sakes, but … she needs to get out of the House. She needs to …” Cassian’s wings kept up a steady booming beat, the new sections only detectable by their lack of scarring. “She’ll destroy herself if she stays cooped up in there.”

My chest tightened. “Do …” I thought through my words. “The day she was changed, she … I felt something different with her.” I fought against the tensing in my muscles as I recalled those moments. The screaming and the blood and the nausea as I watched my sisters taken against their will, as I could do nothing, as we—

I swallowed down the fear, the guilt. “It was like … everything she was, that steel and fire … It became magnified. Cataclysmic. Like … looking at a house cat and suddenly finding a panther standing there instead.” I shook my head, as if it would clear away the memory of the predator, the rage simmering in those blue-gray eyes.

“I will never forget those moments,” Cassian said quietly, scenting or sensing the memories wreaking havoc on me. “As long as I live.”

“Have you seen any glimpse of it since?”

“Nothing.” The House loomed, golden lights at the walls of windows and doorways beckoning us closer. “But I can feel it—sometimes.” He added a bit ruefully, “Usually when she’s pissed at me. Which is … most of the time.”

“Why?” They’d always been at each other’s throats, but this … yes, the dynamic between them had been different earlier. Sharper.

Cassian shook his dark hair out of his eyes, slightly longer than the last time I’d seen it. “I don’t think Nesta will ever forgive me for what happened in Hybern. To her—but mostly to Elain.”

“Your wings were shredded. You were barely alive.” For that was guilt—ravaging and poisonous—in each of Cassian’s words. What the others had been fighting against in the loft. “You were in no position to save anyone.”

“I made her a promise.” The wind ruffled Cassian’s hair as he squinted at the sky. “And when it mattered, I didn’t keep it.”

I still dreamed of him trying to crawl toward her, reaching for her even in the semi-unconscious state the pain and blood loss had thrown him into. As Rhysand had once done for me during those last moments with Amarantha.

Perhaps only a few wing beats separated us from the broad landing veranda, but I asked, “Why do you bother, Cassian?”

His hazel eyes shuttered as we smoothly landed. And I thought he wouldn’t answer, especially not as we heard the others already in the dining room beyond the veranda, especially not when Rhys gracefully landed beside us and strode in ahead with a wink.

But Cassian said quietly as we headed for the dining room, “Because I can’t stay away.”

Elain, not surprisingly, didn’t leave her room.

Nesta, surprisingly, did.

It wasn’t a formal dinner by any means—though Lucien, standing near the windows and watching the sun set over Velaris, was wearing a fine green jacket embroidered with gold, his cream-colored pants showing off muscled thighs, and his knee-high black boots polished enough that the chandeliers of faelight reflected off them.

He’d always had a casual grace about him, but here, tonight, with his hair tied back and jacket buttoned to his neck, he truly looked the part of a High Lord’s son. Handsome, powerful, a bit rakish—but well-mannered and elegant.

I aimed for him as the others helped themselves to the wine breathing in decanters on the ancient wood table, keenly aware that while my friends chatted, they kept one eye on us. Lucien ran his one eye over me—my casual attire, then the Illyrians in their leathers, and Amren in her usual gray, and Mor in her flowing red gown, and said, “What is the dress code?”

I shrugged, passing him the glass of wine I’d brought over. “It’s … whatever we feel like.”

That gold eye clicked and narrowed, then returned to the city ahead.

“What did you do with yourself this afternoon?”

“Slept,” he said. “Washed. Sat on my ass.”

“I could give you a tour of the city tomorrow morning,” I offered. “If you like.”

Never mind that we had a meeting to plan for. A wall to heal. A war to fight. I could set aside half a day. Show him why this place had become my home, why I had fallen in love with its ruler.

As if sensing my thoughts, Lucien said, “You don’t need to waste your time convincing me. I get it. I get … I get that we were not what you wanted. Or needed. How small and isolated our home must have been for you, once you saw this.” He jerked his chin toward the city, where lights were now sparking into view amid the falling twilight. “Who could compare?”

I almost said Don’t you mean what could compare? but held my tongue.

His focus shifted behind me before he replied—and Lucien shut his mouth. His metal eye whirred softly.

I followed his glance, and tried not to tense as Nesta stepped into the room.

Yes, devastating was a good word for how lovely she’d become as High Fae. And in a long-sleeved, dark blue gown that clung to her curves before falling gracefully to the ground in a spill of fabric …

Cassian looked like someone had punched him in the gut.

But Nesta stared right at me, the faelight shimmering along the silver combs in her upswept hair. The others, she dutifully ignored, chin lifting as she strode for us. I prayed that Mor and Amren, their brows high, wouldn’t say any—

“Where did that dress come from?” Mor said, red gown flowing behind her as she breezed toward Nesta. My sister drew up short, shoulders tensing, readying to—

But Mor was already there, fingering the heavy blue fabric, surveying every stitch. “I want one,” she pouted. Her attempt, no doubt, to segue into an invitation to shop for a larger wardrobe with me. As High Lady, I’d need clothes—fancier ones. Especially for this meeting. My sisters, too.

Mor’s brown eyes flicked to mine, and I had to fight the crushing gratitude that threatened to make my own burn as I approached them. “I assume my mate dug it up somewhere,” I said, throwing a glance over my shoulder at Rhys, who was perched on the edge of the dining table, flanked by Az and Cassian, all three Illyrians pretending that they weren’t listening to every word as they poured the wine amongst themselves.

Busybodies. I sent the thought down the bond, and Rhys’s dark laughter echoed in return.

“He gets all the credit for clothes,” Mor said, examining the fabric of Nesta’s skirt while my sister monitored like a hawk, “and he never tells me where he finds them. He still won’t tell me where he found Feyre’s dress for Starfall.” She threw a glare over her shoulder. “Bastard.”

Rhys chuckled. Cassian, however, didn’t smile, every pore of him seemingly fixed on Nesta and Mor.

On what my sister would do.

Mor only examined the silver combs in Nesta’s hair. “It’s a good thing we’re not the same size—or else I might be tempted to steal that dress.”

“Likely right off her,” Cassian muttered.

Mor’s answering smirk wasn’t reassuring.

But Nesta’s face remained blank. Cold. She looked Mor up and down—noting the dress that exposed much of her midriff, back, and chest, then the flowing skirts with sheer panels that revealed glimpses of her legs. Scandalous, by human fashions. “Fortunately for you,” Nesta said flatly, “I don’t return the sentiment.”

Azriel coughed into his wine.

But Nesta only walked to the table and claimed a seat.

Mor blinked, but confided to me with a wince, “I think we’re going to need a lot more wine.”

Nesta’s spine stiffened. But she said nothing.

“I’ll raid the collection,” Cassian offered, disappearing through the inner hall doors too quickly to be casual.

Nesta stiffened a bit more.

Teasing my sister, poking fun at her … I snatched a seat at Nesta’s side and murmured, “They mean well.”

Nesta just ran a finger over her ivory-and-obsidian place setting, examining the silverware with vines of night-blooming jasmine engraved around the hilts. “I don’t care.”

Amren slid into the seat across from me, right as Cassian returned, a bottle in each hand, and cringed. Amren said to my sister, “You’re a real piece of work.”

Nesta’s eyes flicked up. Amren idly swirled a goblet of blood, watching her like a cat with a new, interesting toy.

Nesta only said, “Why do your eyes glow?”

Little curiosity—just a blunt need for explanation.

And no fear. None.

Amren angled her head. “You know, none of these busybodies have ever asked me that.”

Those busybodies were trying not to look too concerned. As was I.

Nesta only waited.

Amren sighed, her dark bob swaying. “They glow because it was the one part of me the containment spell could not quite get right. The one glimpse into what lurks beneath.”

“And what is beneath?”

None of the others spoke. Or even moved. Lucien, still by the window, had turned the color of fresh paper.

Amren traced a finger along the rim of her goblet, her red-tinted nail gleaming as bright as the blood inside. “They never dared ask me that, either.”

“Why.”

“Because it is not polite to ask—and they are afraid.”

Amren held Nesta’s stare, and my sister did not balk. Did not flinch.

“We are the same, you and I,” Amren said.

I wasn’t sure I was breathing. Through the bond, I wasn’t sure Rhys was, either.

“Not in flesh, not in the thing that prowls beneath our skin and bones …” Amren’s remarkable eyes narrowed. “But … I see the kernel, girl.” Amren nodded, more to herself than anyone. “You did not fit—the mold that they shoved you into. The path you were born upon and forced to walk. You tried, and yet you did not, could not, fit. And then the path changed.” A little nod. “I know—what it is to be that way. I remember it, long ago as it was.”

Nesta had mastered the Fae’s preternatural stillness far more quickly than I had. And she sat there for a few heartbeats, simply staring at the strange, delicate female across from her, weighing the words, the power that radiated from Amren … And then Nesta merely said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Amren’s red lips parted in a wide, serpentine smile. “When you erupt, girl, make sure it is felt across worlds.”

A shiver slithered down my skin.

But Rhys drawled, “Amren, it seems, has been taking drama lessons at the theater down the street from her house.”

She shot him a glare. “I mean it, Rhysand—”

“I’m sure you do,” he said, claiming the seat to my right. “But I’d prefer to eat something before you make us lose our appetites.”

His broad hand warmed my knee as he clasped it beneath the table, giving me a reassuring squeeze.

Cassian took the seat on Amren’s left, Azriel beside him, Mor grabbing the seat opposite him, leaving Lucien …

Lucien frowned at the remaining place setting at the head of the table, then at the blank, barren spot across from Nesta. “I—shouldn’t you sit at the head?”

Rhys raised an eyebrow. “I don’t care where you sit. I only care about eating something right”—he snapped his fingers—“now.”

The food, prepared by cooks I made a point to go meet in the belly of the House, appeared across the table in platters and spreads and bowls. Roast meats, various sauces and gravies, rice and bread, steamed vegetables fresh from the surrounding farms … I nearly sighed at the smells curling around me.

Lucien slid into his seat, looking for all the world like he was perching atop a pincushion.

I leaned past Nesta to explain to Lucien, “You get used to it—the informality.”

“You say that, Feyre darling, like it’s a bad thing,” Rhys said, helping himself to a platter of pan-fried trout before passing it to me.

I rolled my eyes, sliding a few crispy pieces onto my plate. “It took me by surprise that first dinner we all had, just so you know.”

“Oh, I know.” Rhys grinned.

Cassian sniggered.

“Honestly,” I said to Lucien, who wordlessly stacked a pile of buttery green beans onto his plate but didn’t touch it, perhaps marveling at the simple fare, so at odds with the overwrought dishes of Spring, “Azriel is the only polite one.” A few cries of outrage from Mor and Cassian, but a ghost of a smile danced on the shadowsinger’s mouth as he dipped his head and hauled a platter of roast beets sprinkled with goat cheese toward himself. “Don’t even try to pretend that it’s not true.”

“Of course it’s true,” Mor said with a loud sigh, “but you needn’t make us sound like heathens.”

“I would have thought you’d find that term to be a compliment, Mor,” Rhys said mildly.

Nesta was watching the volley of words as if it were a sporting match, eyes darting between us. She didn’t reach for any food, so I took the liberty of dumping spoonfuls of various things onto her plate.

She watched that, too.

And when I paused, moving on to further fill my own plate, Nesta said, “I understand—what you meant about the food.”

It took me a moment to recall—to remember that particular conversation back at our father’s estate, when she and I had been at each other’s throats over the differences between human and Fae food. It was the same in terms of what was served, but it just … tasted better above the wall.

“Is that a compliment?”

Nesta didn’t return my smile as she speared some asparagus with her fork and dug in.

And I figured it was as good a time as any as I said to Cassian, “What time are we back in the training ring tomorrow?”

To his credit, Cassian didn’t so much as glance at Nesta as he replied with a lazy smile, “I’d say dawn, but since I’m feeling rather grateful that you’re back in one piece, I’ll let you sleep in. Let’s meet at seven.”

“I’d hardly call that sleeping in,” I said.

“For an Illyrian, it is,” Mor muttered.

Cassian’s wings rustled. “Daylight is a precious resource.”

“We live in the Night Court,” Mor countered.

Cassian only grimaced at Rhys and Azriel. “I told you that the moment we started letting females into our group, they’d be nothing but trouble.”

“As far as I can recall, Cassian,” Rhys countered drily, “you actually said you needed a reprieve from staring at our ugly faces, and that some ladies would add some much-needed prettiness for you to look at all day.”

“Pig,” Amren said.

Cassian gave her a vulgar gesture that made Lucien choke on his green beans. “I was a young Illyrian and didn’t know better,” he said, then pointed his fork at Azriel. “Don’t try to blend into the shadows. You said the same thing.”

“He did not,” Mor said, and the shadows that Azriel had indeed been subtly weaving around himself vanished. “Azriel has never once said anything that awful. Only you, Cassian. Only you.”

The general of the High Lord’s armies stuck out his tongue. Mor returned the gesture.

Amren scowled at Rhys. “You’d be wise to leave both of them at home for the meeting with the others, Rhysand. They’ll cause nothing but trouble.”

I dared a peek at Lucien—just to gauge his reaction.

His face was indeed controlled, but—a hint of surprise twinkled there. Wariness, too, but … surprise. I risked another glance at Nesta, but she was watching her plate, dutifully ignoring the others.

Rhys said, “It remains to be seen if they’ll be joining us.” Lucien looked at him then, the curiosity in that one eye unmistakable. Rhys noted it and shrugged. “You’ll find out soon enough, I suppose. Invitations are going out tomorrow, calling all the High Lords to gather to discuss this war.”

Lucien’s hand tightened on his fork. “All?”

I wasn’t sure if he meant Tamlin or his father, but Rhys nodded nonetheless.

Lucien considered. “Can I offer my unsolicited advice?”

Rhys smirked. “I think that’s the first time anyone at this table has ever asked such a thing.”

Mor and Cassian now stuck out their tongues at him.

But Rhys waved a lazy hand at Lucien. “By all means, advise away.”

Lucien studied my mate, then me. “I assume Feyre is going.”

“I am.”

Amren sipped from her glass of blood—the only sound in the room as Lucien considered again. “Are you planning to hide her powers?”

Silence.

Rhys at last said, “That was something I’d planned to discuss with my mate. Are you leaning one way or another, Lucien?”

There was still something sharp in his tone, something just a little vicious.

Lucien studied me again, and it was an effort not to squirm. “My father would likely join with Hybern if he thought he stood a chance of getting his power back that way—by killing you.”

A snarl from Rhys.

“Your brothers saw me, though,” I said, setting down my fork. “Perhaps they could mistake the flame as yours, but the ice …”

Lucien jerked his chin to Azriel. “That’s the information you need to gather. What my father knows—if my brothers realized what she was doing. You need to start from there, and build your plan for this meeting accordingly.”

Mor said, “Eris might keep that information to himself and convince the others to as well, if he thinks it’ll be more useful that way.” I wondered if Mor looked at that red hair, the golden-brown skin that was a few shades darker than his brothers’, and still saw Eris.

Lucien said evenly, “Perhaps. But we need to find that out. If Beron or Eris has that information, they’ll use it to their advantage in that meeting—to control it. Or control you. Or they might not show up at all, and instead go right to Hybern.”

Cassian swore softly, and I was inclined to echo the sentiment.

Rhys swirled his wine once, set it down, and said to Lucien, “You and Azriel should talk. Tomorrow.”

Lucien glanced toward the shadowsinger—who only nodded at him. “I’m at your disposal.”

None of us were dumb enough to ask if he’d be willing to reveal details on the Spring Court. If he thought that Tamlin would arrive. That was perhaps a conversation best left for another time. With just him and me.

Rhys leaned back in his seat. Contemplating—something. His jaw tightened, then he let out a near-silent huff of air. Steeling himself.

For whatever he was about to reveal, whatever plans he had decided not to reveal until now. And even as my stomach tightened, some sort of thrill went through me at it—at that clever mind at work.

Until Rhys said, “There is another meeting that needs to be had—and soon.”

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