فصل 18

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CHAPTER

18

“Please don’t say we need to go to the Court of Nightmares,” Cassian grumbled around a mouthful of food.

Rhys lifted a brow. “Not in the mood to terrorize our friends there?”

Mor’s golden face paled. “You mean to ask my father to fight in this war,” she said to Rhys.

I reined in my sharp intake of breath.

“What is the Court of Nightmares?” Nesta demanded.

Lucien answered for us. “The place where the rest of the world believes the majority of the Night Court to be.” He jerked his chin at Rhys. “The seat of his power. Or it was.”

“Oh, it still is,” Rhys said. “To everyone outside Velaris.” He leveled a steady look at Mor. “And yes. Keir’s Darkbringer legion is considerable enough that a meeting is warranted.”

The last meeting had resulted in Keir’s arm being shattered in so many places it had gone saggy. I doubted the male would be inclined to help us anytime soon—perhaps why Rhys wanted this meeting.

Nesta’s brows narrowed. “Why not just order them? Don’t they answer to you?”

Cassian set down his fork, food forgotten. “Unfortunately, there are protocols in place between our two subcourts regarding this sort of thing. They mostly govern themselves—with Mor’s father their steward.”

Mor’s throat bobbed. Azriel watched her carefully, his mouth a tight line.

“The steward of the Hewn City is legally entitled to refuse to aid my armies,” Rhys explained to Nesta, to me. “It was part of the agreement my ancestor made with the Court of Nightmares all those thousands of years ago. They would remain within that mountain, would not challenge or disturb us beyond its borders … and would retain the right to decide not to assist in war.”

“And have they—refused?” I asked.

Mor nodded gravely. “Twice. Not my father.” She nearly choked on the word. “But … there were two wars. Long, long ago. They chose not to fight. We won, but … barely. At great cost.”

And with this war upon us … we would need every ally we could muster. Every army.

“We leave in two days,” Rhys said.

“He’ll say no,” Mor countered. “Don’t waste your time.”

“Then I shall have to find a way to convince him otherwise.”

Mor’s eyes flashed. “What?”

Azriel and Cassian shifted in their seats, and Amren clicked her tongue at Rhys. Disapproval.

“He fought in the War,” Rhys said calmly. “Perhaps we’ll be lucky this time, too.”

“I’ll remind you that the Darkbringer legion was nearly as bad as the enemy when it came to their behavior,” Mor said, pushing her plate away.

“There will be new rules.”

“You will not be in a position to make rules, and you know it,” Mor snapped.

Rhys only swirled his wine again. “We’ll see.”

I glanced to Cassian. The general shook his head subtly. Stay out of this one. For now.

I swallowed, nodding back with equal faintness.

Mor whipped her head toward Azriel. “What do you think?”

The shadowsinger held her stare, his face unreadable. Considering. I tried not to hold my breath. Defending the female he loved or siding with his High Lord … “It’s not my call to make.”

“That’s a bullshit answer,” Mor challenged.

I could have sworn hurt flickered in Azriel’s eyes, but he only shrugged, his face again a mask of cold indifference. Mor’s lips pursed.

“You don’t need to come, Mor,” Rhys said with that calm, even voice.

“Of course I’m coming. It’ll make it worse if I’m not there.” She drained her wine in one swift tilt of her head. “I suppose I have two days now to find a dress suitable to horrify my father.”

Amren, at least, chuckled at that, Cassian rumbling a laugh as well.

But Rhys watched Mor for a long minute, some of the stars in his eyes winking out. I debated asking if there was some other way, some path to avoid this awfulness between us, but … Earlier, I had snapped at him. And with Lucien and my sister here … I kept my mouth shut.

Well, about that matter. In the silence that fell, I scrambled for any scrap of normalcy and turned again to Cassian. “Let’s train at eight tomorrow. I’ll meet you in the ring.”

“Seven thirty,” he said with a disarming grin—one that most of his enemies would likely run from. Lucien went back to picking at his food. Mor refilled her wineglass, Azriel monitoring every move she made, his fork clenched in his scarred hand.

“Eight,” I countered with a flat look. I turned to Nesta, silent and watchful through all of this. “Care to join?”

“No.”

The beat of silence was too pointed to be dismissed. But I gave my sister a casual shrug, reaching for the wine jug. Then I said to none of them in particular, “I want to learn how to fly.”

Mor spewed her wine across the table, splattering it right across Azriel’s chest and neck. The shadowsinger was too busy gawking at me to even notice.

Cassian looked torn between howling at Azriel and gaping.

My magic was still too weak to grow those Illyrian wings, but I gestured to the Illyrians and said, “I want you to teach me.”

Mor blurted, “Really?” while Lucien—Lucien—said, “Well, that explains the wings.”

Nesta leaned forward to appraise me. “What wings?”

“I can—shape-shift,” I admitted. “And with the oncoming conflict,” I declared to all of them, “knowing how to fly might be … useful.” I jerked my chin toward Cassian, who now studied me with unnerving intensity—sizing me up. “I assume the battles against Hybern will include Illyrians.” A shallow nod from the general. “Then I plan to fight with you. In the skies.”

I waited for the objections, for Rhys to shut it down.

There was only the howling wind outside the dining room windows.

Cassian whooshed out a breath. “I don’t know if it’s technically even possible—time-wise. You’d have to learn not only how to fly, but how to bear the weight of your shield and weapons—and how to work within an Illyrian unit. It takes us decades to master that last part alone. We have months at best—weeks at worst.”

My chest sank a bit.

“Then we’ll teach her what we know until then,” Rhys said. But the stars in his eyes turned stone-cold as he added, “I’ll give her any shot at an advantage—at getting away if things go to shit. Even a day of training might make a difference.”

Azriel tucked in his wings, his beautiful features uncharacteristically soft. Contemplative. “I’ll teach you.”

“Are you … certain?” I asked.

The unreadable mask slipped back over Azriel’s face. “Rhys and Cass were taught how to fly so young that they barely remember it.”

But Azriel, locked in his hateful father’s dungeons like some criminal until he was eleven, denied the ability to fly, to fight, to do anything his Illyrian instincts screamed at him to do …

Darkness rumbled down the bond. Not anger at me, but … as Rhys, too, remembered what had been done to his friend. He’d never forgotten. None of them had. It was an effort not to look at the brutal scars coating Azriel’s hands. I prayed Nesta wouldn’t inquire about it.

“We’ve taught plenty of younglings the basics,” Cassian countered.

Azriel shook his head, shadows twining around his wrists. “It’s not the same. When you’re older, the fears, the mental blocks … it’s different.”

None of them, not even Amren, said anything.

Azriel only said to me, “I’ll teach you. Train with Cass for a few hours, and I’ll meet you when you’re through.” He added to Lucien, who did not balk from those writhing shadows, “After lunch, we’ll meet.”

I swallowed, but nodded. “Thank you.” And perhaps Azriel’s kindness snapped some sort of tether in me, but I turned to Nesta. “The King of Hybern is trying to bring down the wall by using the Cauldron to expand the holes already in it.” Her blue-gray eyes revealed nothing—only simmering rage at the king’s name. “I might be able to patch up those holes, but you … being made of the Cauldron itself … if the Cauldron can widen those holes, perhaps you can close them, too. With training—in whatever time we have.”

“I can show you,” Amren clarified to my sister. “Or, in theory I can. If we start soon—tomorrow morning.” She considered, then declared to Rhys, “When you go to the Court of Nightmares, we will go with you.”

I whipped my head to Amren. “What?” The thought of Nesta in that place—

“The Hewn City is a trove of objects of power,” Amren explained. “There may be opportunities to practice. Let the girl get a feel for what something like the wall or the Cauldron might be like.” She added when Azriel seem poised to object, “Covertly.”

Nesta said nothing.

I waited for her outright refusal, the cold shutdown of all hope.

But Nesta only asked, “Why not just kill the King of Hybern before he can act?”

Utter silence.

Amren said a bit softly, “If you want his killing blow, girl, it’s yours.”

Nesta’s gaze drifted toward the open interior doors of the dining room. As if she could see all the way to Elain. “What happened to the human queens?”

I blinked. “What do you mean?”

“Were they made immortal?” This question went to Azriel.

Azriel’s Siphons smoldered. “Reports have been murky and inconsistent. Some say yes, others say no.”

Nesta examined her wineglass.

Cassian braced his forearms on the table. “Why?”

Nesta’s eyes shot right to his face. She spoke quietly to me, to all of us, even as she held Cassian’s gaze as if he were the only one in the room. “By the end of this war, I want them dead. The king, the queens—all of them. Promise me you’ll kill them all, and I’ll help you patch up the wall. I’ll train with her”—a jerk of her chin to Amren—“I’ll go to the Hewn City or whatever it is … I’ll do it. But only if you promise me that.”

“Fine,” I said. “And we might need your assistance during the meeting with the High Lords—to provide testimony to other courts and allies of what Hybern is capable of. What was done to you.”

“No.”

“You don’t mind fixing the wall or going to the Court of Nightmares, but speaking to people is where you draw your line?”

Nesta’s mouth tightened. “No.”

High Lady or sister; sister or High Lady … “People’s lives might depend on your account of it. The success of this meeting with the High Lords might depend upon it.”

She gripped the arms of her chair, as if restraining herself. “Don’t talk down to me. My answer is no.”

I angled my head. “I understand that what happened to you was horrible—”

“You have no idea what it was or was not. None. And I am not going to grovel like one of those Children of the Blessed, begging High Fae who would have gladly killed me as a mortal to help us. I’m not going to tell them that story—my story.”

“The High Lords might not believe our account, which makes you a valuable witness—”

Nesta shoved her chair back, chucking her napkin on her plate, gravy soaking through the fine linen. “Then it is not my problem if you’re unreliable. I’ll help you with the wall, but I am not going to whore my story around to everyone on your behalf.” She shot to her feet, color rising to her ordinarily pale face, and hissed, “And if you even dare suggest to Elain that she do such a thing, I will rip out your throat.”

Her eyes lifted from mine to sweep over everyone—extending the threat.

None of us spoke as she left the dining room and slammed the door shut behind her.

I slumped in my chair, resting my head against the back.

Something thumped in front of me. A bottle of wine. “It’s fine if you drink directly from it,” was all Mor said.

“I’d say Nesta rivals Amren for sheer bloodthirstiness,” Rhys mused hours later as he and I walked alone through the streets of Velaris. “The only difference is that Amren actually drinks it.”

I snorted, shaking my head as we turned onto the broad street beside the Sidra and meandered along the star-flecked river.

So many scars still marred the lovely buildings of Velaris, streets gouged from fallen debris and claws. Most of it had been repaired, but some storefronts had been left boarded up, some homes along the river no more than mounds of rubble. We’d flown down from the House as soon as we’d finished dinner—well, the wine, I supposed. Mor had taken another bottle with her when she’d disappeared into the House, Azriel frowning after her.

Rhys and I hadn’t invited anyone else with us. He’d only asked me through the bond, Walk with me? And I’d merely given him a subtle nod.

And here we were. We’d walked for over an hour now, mostly quiet, mostly … thinking. Of the words and information and threats shared today. Neither of us slowed our steps until we reached that little restaurant where we had all dined under the stars one night.

Something tight in my chest eased as I beheld the untouched building, the potted citrus plants sighing in the river breeze. And on that breeze … those delectable, rich spices, garlicky meat, simmering tomatoes … I leaned my back against the rail along the river walkway, watching the restaurant workers serve the packed tables.

“Who knows,” I murmured, answering him at last. “Perhaps Nesta will take up the blood-drinking habit, too. I certainly believe her threat to rip out my throat. Maybe she’ll enjoy the taste.”

Rhys chuckled, the sound rumbling into my bones as he took up a spot beside me, his elbows braced on the rail, wings tucked in tight. I breathed in deeply, taking the citrus-and-sea scent of him into my lungs, my blood. His mouth grazed my neck. “Will you hate me if I say that Nesta is … difficult?”

I laughed softly. “I’d say this went fairly well, all things considered. She agreed to one thing, at least.” I chewed on my lower lip. “I shouldn’t have asked her in public. I made a mistake.”

He remained silent, listening.

“With the others,” I asked, “how do you find that balance—between High Lord and family?”

Rhys considered. “It isn’t easy. I’ve made plenty of bad calls over the centuries. So I hate to tell you that tonight might only be the start of it.”

I loosed a long sigh. “I should have considered that telling strangers what happened to her in Hybern might … might not be something she was comfortable with. My sister has been a private person her entire life, even amongst us.”

Rhys leaned in to kiss my neck again. “Earlier today—at the loft,” he said, pulling back to meet my eyes. Unflinching. Open. “I didn’t mean to insult her.”

“I’m sorry I snapped at you.”

He lifted a dark brow. “Why in hell would you be? I insulted your sister; you defended her. You had every right to kick my ass for it.”

“I didn’t mean to … undermine you.”

Shadows flickered in his eyes. “Ah.” He twisted toward the Sidra, and I followed suit. The water meandered past, its dark surface rippling with golden faelights from the streetlamps and the bright jewels of the Rainbow. “That was why it was … strange between us this afternoon.” He cringed and faced me fully. “Mother above, Feyre.”

My cheeks heated and I interrupted before he could continue. “I get why, though. A solid, unified front is important.” I scratched at the smooth wood of the rail with a finger. “Especially for us.”

“Not amongst our family.”

Warmth spread through me at the words—our family.

He took my hand, interlacing our fingers. “We can make whatever rules we want. You have every right to question me, push me—both in private and in public.” A snort. “Of course, if you decide to truly kick my ass, I might request that it’s done behind closed doors so I don’t have to suffer centuries of teasing, but—”

“I won’t undermine you in public. And you won’t undermine me.”

He remained quiet, letting me think, speak.

“We can question each other through the bond if we’re around people other than our friends,” I said. “But for now, for these initial years, I’d like to show the world a unified front … That is, if we survive.”

“We’ll survive.” Uncompromising will in those words, that face. “But I want you to feel comfortable pushing me, calling me out—”

“When have I ever not done that?” He smiled. But I added, “I want you to do the same—for me.”

“Deal. But amongst our family … call me on my bullshit all you want. I insist, actually.”

“Why?”

“Because it’s fun.”

I nudged him with an elbow.

“Because you’re my equal,” he said. “And as much as that means having each other’s backs in public, it also means that we grant each other the gift of honesty. Of truth.”

I surveyed the bustling city around us. “Can I give you a bit of truth, then?”

He stilled, but said, “Always.”

I blew out a breath. “I think you should be careful—working with Keir. Not for how despicable he is, but because … I think you could truly wound Mor if you don’t play it right.”

Rhys dragged a hand through his hair. “I know. I know.”

“Is it worth it—whatever troops he can offer? If it means hurting her?”

“We’ve been working with Keir for centuries. She should be used to it by now. And yes—his troops are worth it. The Darkbringers are well trained, powerful, and have been idle too long.”

I considered. “The last time we went to the Court of Nightmares, I played your whore.”

He winced at the word.

“But I am now your High Lady,” I went on, stroking a finger over the back of his hand. He tracked the movement. My voice dropped lower. “To get Keir to agree to aid us … Any tips on what mask I should wear to the Hewn City?”

“It’s for you to decide,” he said, still watching my finger trace idle circles on his skin. “You’ve seen how I am there—how we are. It is for you to decide how to play into that.”

“I suppose I’d better decide soon—not just for this, but the meeting with the other High Lords in two weeks.”

Rhys slid a sidelong glance to me. “Every court is invited.”

“I doubt he’ll come, given that he is Hybern’s ally and knows we’d kill him.”

The river breeze stirred his blue-black hair. “The meeting will occur with a binding spell that forces us all into cease-fire. If someone breaks it while the meeting occurs, the magic will demand a steep cost. Probably their life. Tamlin wouldn’t be stupid enough to attack—nor us him.”

“Why invite him at all?”

“Excluding him will only give him more ammunition against us. Believe me, I have little desire to see him. Or Beron. Who perhaps is higher on my kill list than Tamlin right now.”

“Tarquin will be there. And we are pretty high on his kill list.”

“Even with the blood rubies, he wouldn’t be stupid enough to attack during the meeting.” Rhys sighed through his nose.

“How many allies can we count on? Beyond Keir and the Hewn City, I mean.” I glanced down the river walkway. The diners and revelers were too busy enjoying themselves to even note our presence, even with Rhys’s recognizable wings. Still—perhaps not the best place for this conversation.

“I’m not sure,” Rhys admitted. “Helion and his Day Court, probably. Kallias … maybe. Things have been strained with the Winter Court since Under the Mountain.”

“I assume Azriel is going to be finding out more.”

“He’s already on the hunt.”

I nodded. “Amren claimed she and Nesta needed help researching ways to repair the wall.” I gestured to the city. “Point me toward the best library to find that sort of thing.”

Rhys’s brows lifted. “Right now? Your work ethic puts mine to shame.”

I hissed, “Tomorrow, smartass.”

He chuckled, wings flaring and tucking in tight. Wings … wings he’d allowed Lucien to see.

“You trust Lucien.”

Rhys angled his head at the not-quite question. “I trust in the fact that we currently have possession of the one thing he wants above all else. And as long as that remains, he’ll try to stay on our good side. But if that changes … His talent was wasted in the Spring Court. There was a reason he had that fox mask, you know.” His mouth tugged to the side. “If he got Elain away, back to Spring or wherever … do you believe, deep down, that he wouldn’t sell what he knows? Either for gain, or to ensure she stays safe?”

“You let him hear everything tonight, though.”

“None of it is information that would let Hybern wreck us. The king likely already knows that we’ll go for Keir’s alliance—that we’ll try to find a way to stop him from bringing down the wall. He wasn’t subtle with Dagdan and Brannagh’s searching. And he’ll expect us to try to band the High Lords together. Which is why the meeting location will not be decided until later. Will I tell Lucien then? Bring him along?”

I considered his question: Did I trust Lucien? “I don’t know, either,” I admitted, and sighed. “I don’t like that Elain is a pawn in this.”

“I know. It’s never easy.”

He’d dealt with such things for centuries. “I want to wait—see what Lucien does over the next two weeks. How he acts, with us and Elain. What Azriel thinks of him.” I frowned. “He’s not a bad person—he’s not evil.”

“He certainly isn’t.”

“I just …” I met his calm, steady stare. “There is risk in trusting him without question.”

“Did he discuss what he feels regarding Tamlin?”

“No. I didn’t want to push on that. He was … remorseful about what happened with me, and Hybern, and Elain. Would he have felt that way without Elain in the mix? I don’t know—maybe. I don’t think he would have left, though.”

Rhys brushed the hair from my face. “It’s all part of the game, Feyre darling. Who to trust, when to trust them—what information to barter.”

“Do you enjoy it?”

“Sometimes. Right now, I don’t. Not when the risks are this high.” His fingers grazed my brow. “When I have so much to lose.”

I laid my palm on his chest, right over those Illyrian tattoos beneath his clothes, right over his heart. Felt the sturdy beat echoing into my skin and bones.

I forgot the city around us as he met my eyes, lips hovering over my skin, and murmured, “We will keep planning for the future, war or no war. I will keep planning for our future.”

My throat burned, and I nodded.

“We deserve to be happy,” he said, his eyes sparkling enough to tell me that he recalled the words I’d given him on the town house roof after the attack. “And I will fight with everything I have to ensure it.”

“We will fight,” I said hoarsely. “Not just you—not anymore.”

Too much. He had given too much already, and still seemed to think it was not enough.

But Rhys only peered over his broad shoulder, to the cheerful restaurant behind us. “That first night we all came here,” he said, and I followed his gaze, watching the workers set the tables with loving precision. “When you told Sevenda that you felt awake while eating her food …” He shook his head. “It was the first time you had looked … peaceful. Like you were indeed awake, alive again. I was so relieved I thought I’d puke right onto the table.”

I recalled the long, strange look he’d given me when I’d finally spoken. Then the long walk we’d taken home, when we’d heard that music he’d sent to my cell Under the Mountain.

I pushed off the rail and tugged him toward the bridge that spanned the Sidra—the bridge to take us home. Let the debate over who’d give the most in this war rest for now. “Walk with me—through the Rainbow.” The glittering, colorful jewel of the city, the beating heart that housed the artists’ quarter. Vibrant and thrumming at this hour of the night.

I linked arms with him before saying, “You and this city helped wake me up—helped bring me back to life.” His eyes flickered as I smiled up at him. “I will fight with everything I have, too, Rhys. Everything.”

He only kissed the top of my head, tugging me closer as we crossed the Sidra under the starry sky.

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