فصل 02

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CHAPTER

2

I’d barely heard a whisper of Jurian these past weeks—hadn’t seen the resurrected human commander since that night in Hybern.

Jurian had been reborn through the Cauldron using the hideous remnants of him that Amarantha had hoarded as trophies for five hundred years, his soul trapped and aware within his own magically preserved eye. He was mad—had gone mad long before the King of Hybern had resurrected him to lead the human queens down a path of ignorant submission.

Tamlin and Lucien had to know. Had to have seen that gleam in Jurian’s eyes.

But … they also did not seem to entirely mind that the King of Hybern possessed the Cauldron—that it was capable of cleaving this world apart. Starting with the wall. The only thing standing between the gathering, lethal Fae armies and the vulnerable human lands below.

No, that threat certainly didn’t seem to keep Lucien or Tamlin awake at night. Or from inviting these monsters into their home.

Tamlin had promised upon my return that I was to be included in the planning, in every meeting. And he was true to his word when he explained that Jurian would arrive with two other commanders from Hybern, and I would be present for it. They indeed wished to survey the wall, to test for the perfect spot to rend it once the Cauldron had recovered its strength.

Turning my sisters into Fae, apparently, had drained it.

My smugness at the fact was short-lived.

My first task: learn where they planned to strike, and how long the Cauldron required to return to its full capacity. And then smuggle that information to Rhysand and the others.

I took extra care dressing the next day, after sleeping fitfully thanks to a dinner with a guilt-ridden Ianthe, who went to excessive lengths to kiss my ass and Lucien’s. The priestess apparently wished to wait until the Hybern commanders were settled before making her appearance. She’d cooed about wanting to ensure they had the chance to get to know us before she intruded, but one look at Lucien told me that he and I, for once, agreed: she had likely planned some sort of grand entrance.

It made little difference to me—to my plans.

Plans that I sent down the mating bond the next morning, words and images tumbling along a night-filled corridor.

I did not dare risk using the bond too often. I had communicated with Rhysand only once since I’d arrived. Just once, in the hours after I’d walked into my old bedroom and spied the thorns that had conquered it.

It had been like shouting across a great distance, like speaking underwater. I am safe and well, I’d fired down the bond. I’ll tell you what I know soon. I’d waited, letting the words travel into the dark. Then I’d asked, Are they alive? Hurt?

I didn’t remember the bond between us being so hard to hear, even when I’d dwelled on this estate and he’d used it to see if I was still breathing, to make sure my despair hadn’t swallowed me whole.

But Rhysand’s response had come a minute later. I love you. They are alive. They are healing.

That was it. As if it was all that he could manage.

I had drifted back to my new chambers, locked the door, and enveloped the entire place in a wall of hard air to keep any scent from my silent tears escaping as I curled up in a corner of the bathing room.

I had once sat in such a position, watching the stars during the long, bleak hours of the night. Now I took in the cloudless blue sky beyond the open window, listened to the birds singing to one another, and wanted to roar.

I had not dared to ask for more details about Cassian and Azriel—or my sisters. In terror of knowing just how bad it had been—and what I’d do if their healing turned grim. What I’d bring down upon these people.

Healing. Alive and healing. I reminded myself of that every day.

Even when I still heard their screams, smelled their blood.

But I did not ask for more. Did not risk touching the bond beyond that first time.

I didn’t know if someone could monitor such things—the silent messages between mates. Not when the mating bond could be scented, and I was playing such a dangerous game with it.

Everyone believed it had been severed, that Rhys’s lingering scent was because he’d forced me, had planted that scent in me.

They believed that with time, with distance, his scent would fade. Weeks or months, likely.

And when it didn’t fade, when it remained … That’s when I’d have to strike, with or without the information I needed.

But out of the possibility that communicating down the bond kept its scent strong … I had to minimize how much I used it. Even if not talking to Rhys, not hearing that amusement and cunning … I would hear those things again, I promised myself over and over. See that wry smile.

And I was again thinking of how pained that face had been the last time I’d seen it, thinking of Rhys, covered in Azriel’s and Cassian’s blood, as Jurian and the two Hybern commanders winnowed into the gravel of the front drive the next day.

Jurian was in the same light leather armor, his brown hair whipping across his face in the blustery spring breeze. He spied us standing on the white marble steps into the house and his mouth curled in that crooked, smug smile.

I willed ice into my veins, the coldness from a court I had never set foot in. But I wielded its master’s gift on myself, turning burning rage into frozen calm as Jurian swaggered toward us, a hand on the hilt of his sword.

But it was the two commanders—one male, one female—that had a sliver of true fear sliding into my heart.

High Fae in appearance, their skin the same ruddy hue and hair the identical inky black as their king. But it was their vacant, unfeeling faces that snagged the eye. A lack of emotion honed from millennia of cruelty.

Tamlin and Lucien had gone rigid by the time Jurian halted at the foot of the sweeping front stairs. The human commander smirked. “You’re looking better than the last time I saw you.”

I dragged my eyes to his. And said nothing.

Jurian snorted and gestured the two commanders forward. “May I present Their Highnesses, Prince Dagdan and Princess Brannagh, nephew and niece to the King of Hybern.”

Twins—perhaps linked in power and mental bonds as well.

Tamlin seemed to remember that these were now his allies and marched down the stairs. Lucien followed.

He’d sold us out. Sold out Prythian—for me. To get me back.

Smoke curled in my mouth. I willed frost to fill it again.

Tamlin inclined his head to the prince and princess. “Welcome to my home. We have rooms prepared for all of you.”

“My brother and I shall reside in one together,” the princess said. Her voice was deceptively light—almost girlish. The utter lack of feeling, the utter authority was anything but.

I could practically feel the snide remark simmering in Lucien. But I stepped down the stairs and said, ever the lady of the house that these people, that Tamlin, had once expected me to gladly embrace, “We can easily make adjustments.”

Lucien’s metal eye whirred and narrowed on me, but I kept my face impassive as I curtsied to them. To my enemy. Which of my friends would face them on the battlefield?

Would Cassian and Azriel have even healed enough to fight, let alone lift a sword? I did not allow myself to dwell on it—on how Cassian had screamed as his wings had been shredded.

Princess Brannagh surveyed me: the rose-colored dress, the hair that Alis had curled and braided over the top of my head in a coronet, the pale pink pearls at my ears.

A harmless, lovely package, perfect for a High Lord to mount whenever he wished.

Brannagh’s lip curled as she glanced at her brother. The prince deemed the same thing, judging by his answering sneer.

Tamlin snarled softly in warning. “If you’re done staring at her, perhaps we can move on to the business between us.”

Jurian let out a low chuckle and strode up the stairs without being given leave to do so. “They’re curious.” Lucien stiffened at the impudence of the gesture, the words. “It’s not every century that the contested possession of a female launches a war. Especially a female with such … talents.”

I only turned on a heel and stalked up the steps after him. “Perhaps if you’d bothered going to war over Miryam, she wouldn’t have left you for Prince Drakon.”

A ripple seemed to go through Jurian. Tamlin and Lucien tensed at my back, torn between monitoring our exchange and escorting the two Hybern royals into the house. Upon my own explanation that Azriel and his network of spies were well trained, we’d cleared any unnecessary servants, wary of spying ears and eyes. Only the most trusted among them remained.

Of course, I’d forgotten to mention that I knew Azriel had pulled his spies weeks ago, the information not worth the cost of their lives. Or that it served my own purposes to have fewer people watching me.

Jurian halted at the top of the stairs, his face a mask of cruel death as I took the last steps to him. “Careful what you say, girl.”

I smiled, breezing past. “Or what? You’ll throw me in the Cauldron?”

I strode between the front doors, edging around the table in the heart of the entry hall, its towering vase of flowers arching to meet the crystal chandelier.

Right there—just a few feet away, I had crumpled into a ball of terror and despair all those months ago. Right there in the center of the foyer, Mor had picked me up and carried me out of this house and into freedom.

“Here’s the first rule of this visit,” I said to Jurian over my shoulder as I headed for the dining room, where lunch awaited. “Don’t threaten me in my own home.”

The posturing, I knew a moment later, had worked.

Not on Jurian, who glowered as he claimed a seat at the table.

But on Tamlin, who brushed a knuckle over my cheek as he passed by, unaware of how carefully I had chosen the words, how I had baited Jurian to serve up the opportunity on a platter.

That was my first step: make Tamlin believe, truly believe, that I loved him and this place, and everyone in it.

So that he would not suspect when I turned them on each other.

Prince Dagdan yielded to his twin’s every wish and order. As if he were the blade she wielded to slice through the world.

He poured her drinks, sniffing them first. He selected the finest cuts of meat from the platters and neatly arranged them on her plate. He always let her answer, and never so much as looked at her with doubt in his eyes.

One soul in two bodies. And from the way they glanced to each other in wordless exchanges, I wondered if they were perhaps … perhaps like me. Daemati.

My mental shields had been a wall of black adamant since arriving. But as we dined, beats of silence going on longer than conversation, I found myself checking them over and over.

“We will set out for the wall tomorrow,” Brannagh was saying to Tamlin. More of an order than a request. “Jurian will accompany us. We require the use of sentries who know where the holes in it are located.”

The thought of them so close to the human lands … But my sisters were not there. No, my sisters were somewhere in the vast territory of my own court, protected by my friends. Even if my father would return home from his business dealings on the continent in a matter of a month or two. I still had not figured out how I’d tell him.

“Lucien and I can escort you,” I offered.

Tamlin whipped his head to me. I waited for the refusal, the shutdown.

But it seemed the High Lord had indeed learned his lesson, was indeed willing to try, as he merely gestured to Lucien. “My emissary knows the wall as well as any sentry.”

You are letting them do this; you are rationally allowing them to bring down that wall and prey upon the humans on the other side. The words tangled and hissed in my mouth.

But I made myself give Tamlin a slow, if not slightly displeased, nod. He knew I’d never be happy about it—the girl he believed had been returned to him would always seek to protect her mortal homeland. Yet he thought I’d stomach it for him, for us. That Hybern wouldn’t feast on the humans once that wall came down. That we’d merely absorb them into our territory.

“We’ll leave after breakfast,” I told the princess. And I added to Tamlin, “With a few sentries as well.”

His shoulders loosened at that. I wondered if he’d heard how I’d defended Velaris. That I had protected the Rainbow against a legion of beasts like the Attor. That I had slaughtered the Attor, brutally, cruelly, for what it had done to me and mine.

Jurian surveyed Lucien with a warrior’s frankness. “I always wondered who made that eye after she carved it out.”

We did not speak of Amarantha here. We had never allowed her presence into this house. And it had stifled me for those months I’d lived here after Under the Mountain, killed me day by day to shove those fears and pain down deep.

For a heartbeat, I weighed who I had been with who I was now supposed to be. Slowly healing—emerging back into the girl Tamlin had fed and sheltered and loved before Amarantha had snapped my neck after three months of torture.

So I shifted in my seat. Studied the table.

Lucien merely leveled a hard look at Jurian as the two Hybern royals watched with impassive faces. “I have an old friend at the Dawn Court. She’s skilled at tinkering—blending magic and machinery. Tamlin got her to craft it for me at great risk.”

A hateful smile from Jurian. “Does your little mate have a rival?”

“My mate is none of your concern.”

Jurian shrugged. “She shouldn’t be any of yours, either, considering she’s probably been fucked by half the Illyrian army by now.”

I was fairly certain that only centuries of training kept Lucien from leaping over the table to rip out Jurian’s throat.

But it was Tamlin’s snarl that rattled the glasses. “You will behave as a proper guest, Jurian, or you will sleep in the stables like the other beasts.”

Jurian merely sipped from his wine. “Why should I be punished for stating the truth? Neither of you were in the War, when my forces allied with the Illyrian brutes.” A sidelong glance at the two Hybern royals. “I suppose you two had the delight of fighting against them.”

“We kept the wings of their generals and lords as trophies,” Dagdan said with a small smile.

It took every bit of concentration not to glance at Tamlin. Not to demand the whereabouts of the two sets of wings his father had kept as trophies after he’d butchered Rhysand’s mother and sister.

Pinned in the study, Rhys had said.

But I hadn’t spotted any trace when I’d gone hunting for them upon returning here, feigning exploration out of sheer boredom on a rainy day. The cellars had yielded nothing, either. No trunks or crates or locked rooms containing those wings.

The two bites of roasted lamb I’d forced down now rebelled against me. But at least any hint of disgust was a fair reaction to what the Hybern prince had claimed.

Jurian indeed smiled at me as he sliced his lamb into little pieces. “You know that we fought together, don’t you? Me and your High Lord. Held the lines against the Loyalists, battled side by side until gore was up to our shins.”

“He is not her High Lord,” Tamlin said with unnerving softness.

Jurian only purred at me, “He must have told you where he hid Miryam and Drakon.”

“They’re dead,” I said flatly.

“The Cauldron says otherwise.”

Cold fear settled into my gut. He’d tried it already—to resurrect Miryam for himself. And had found that she was not amongst the deceased.

“I was told they were dead,” I said again, trying to sound bored, impatient. I took a bite of my lamb, so bland compared to the wealth of spices in Velaris. “I’d think you’d have better things to do, Jurian, than obsess over the lover who jilted you.”

His eyes gleamed, bright with five centuries of madness, as he skewered a morsel of meat with his fork. “They say you were fucking Rhysand before you ever jilted your own lover.”

“That is enough,” Tamlin growled.

But I felt it then. The tap against my mind. Saw their plan, clear and simple: rile us, distract us, while the two quiet royals slid into our minds.

Mine was shielded. But Lucien’s—Tamlin’s—

I reached out with my night-kissed power, casting it like a net. And found two oily tendrils spearing for Lucien’s and Tamlin’s minds, as if they were indeed javelins thrown across the table.

I struck. Dagdan and Brannagh jolted back in their seats as if I’d landed a physical blow, while their powers slammed into a barrier of black adamant around Lucien’s and Tamlin’s minds.

They shot their dark eyes toward me. I held each of their gazes.

“What’s wrong?” Tamlin asked, and I realized how quiet it had become.

I made a good show of furrowing my brow in confusion. “Nothing.” I offered a sweet smile to the two royals. “Their Highnesses must be tired after such a long journey.”

And for good measure, I lunged for their own minds, finding a wall of white bone.

They flinched as I dragged black talons down their mental shields, gouging deep.

The warning blow cost me, a low, pulsing headache forming around my temples. But I merely dug back into my food, ignoring Jurian’s wink.

No one spoke for the rest of the meal.

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