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CHAPTER

20

“I’ve never been to a library before,” I admitted to Rhys after lunch, as we strode down level after level beneath the House of Wind, my words echoing off the carved red stone. I winced with every step, rubbing at my back.

Azriel had given me a tonic that would help with the soreness, but I knew that by tonight, I’d be whimpering. If hours of researching any way to patch up those holes in the wall didn’t make me start first.

“I mean,” I clarified, “not counting the private libraries here and at the Spring Court, and my family had one as well, but not … Not a real one.”

Rhys glanced sidelong at me. “I’ve heard that the humans have free libraries on the continent—open to anyone.”

I wasn’t sure if it was a question or not, but I nodded. “In one of the territories, they allow anyone in, regardless of their station or bloodline.” I considered his words. “Did … were there libraries before the War?”

Of course there had been, but what I meant—

“Yes. Great libraries, full of cranky scholars who could find you tomes dating back thousands of years. But humans were not allowed inside—unless you were someone’s slave on an errand, and even then you were closely watched.”

“Why?”

“Because the books were full of magic, and things they wanted to keep humans from knowing.” Rhys slid his hands into his pockets, leading me down a corridor lit only by bowls of faelight upraised in the hands of beautiful female statues, their forms High Fae and faerie alike. “The scholars and librarians refused to keep slaves of their own—some for personal reasons, but mainly because they didn’t want them accessing the books and archives.”

Rhys gestured down another curving stairwell. We must have been far beneath the mountain, the air dry and cool—and heavy. As if it had been trapped inside for ages. “What happened to the libraries once the wall was built?”

Rhys tucked in his wings as the stairs became tighter, the ceiling dropping. “Most scholars had enough time to evacuate—and were able to winnow the books out. But if they didn’t have the time or the brute power …” A muscle ticked in his jaw. “They burned the libraries. Rather than let the humans access their precious information.”

A chill snaked down my spine. “They’d rather have lost that information forever?”

He nodded, the dim light gilding his blue-black hair. “Prejudices aside, the fear was that the humans would find dangerous spells—and use them on us.”

“But we—I mean, they don’t have magic. Humans don’t have magic.”

“Some do. Usually the ones who can claim distant Fae ancestry. But some of those spells don’t require magic from the wielder—only the right words, or use of ingredients.”

His words snagged on something in my mind. “Could—I mean, obviously they did, but … Humans and Fae once interbred. What happened to the offspring? If you were half Fae, half human, where did you go once the wall went up?”

Rhys stepped into a hall at the foot of the stairs, revealing a wide passageway of carved red stone and a sealed set of obsidian doors, veins of silver running throughout. Beautiful—terrifying. Like some great beast was kept behind them.

“It did not go well for the half-breeds,” he said after a moment. “Many were offspring of unwanted unions. Most usually chose to stay with their human mothers—their human families. But once the wall went up, amongst humans, they were a … reminder of what had been done, of the enemies lurking above the wall. At best, they were outcasts and pariahs, their children—if they bore the physical traits—as well. At worst … Humans were angry in those initial years, and that first generation afterward. They wanted someone to pay for the slavery, for the crimes against them. Even if the half-breed had done nothing wrong … It did not end well.”

He approached the doors, which opened on a phantom wind, as if the mountain itself lived to serve him.

“And the ones above the wall?”

“They were deemed even lower than lesser faeries. Either they were unwanted everywhere they went, or … many found work on the streets. Selling themselves.”

“Here in Velaris?” My words were a bare brush of air.

“My father was still High Lord then,” Rhys said, his back stiffening. “We had not allowed any humans, slave or free, into our territory in centuries. He did not allow them in—either to whore or to find sanctuary.”

“And once you were High Lord?”

Rhys halted before the gloom that spread beyond us. “By then, it was too late for most of them. It is hard to … offer refuge to someone without being able to explain where we were offering them a safe place. To get the word out about it while maintaining our illusion of ruthless cruelty.” The starlight guttered in his eyes. “Over the years, we encountered a few. Some were able to make it here. Some were … beyond our help.”

Something moved in the darkness beyond the doors, but I kept my focus on his face, on his tensed shoulders. “If the wall comes down, will …?” I couldn’t finish the words.

Rhys slid his fingers through mine, interlacing our hands. “Yes. If there are those, human or faerie, who need a safe place … this city will be open to them. Velaris has been closed off for so long—too long, perhaps. Adding new people, from different places, different histories and cultures … I do not see how that could be a bad thing. The transition might be more complex than we anticipate, but … yes. The gates to this city will be open for those who need its protection. To any who can make it here.”

I squeezed his hand, savoring the hard-earned calluses on it. No, I would not let him bear the burden of this war, its cost, alone.

Rhys glanced to the open doors—to the hooded and cloaked figure patiently waiting in the shadows beyond them. Every aching sinew and bone locked up as I took in the pale robes, the hood crowned with a limpid blue stone, the panel that could be lowered over the eyes—

Priestess.

“This is Clotho,” Rhys said calmly, releasing my hand to guide me toward the awaiting female. The weight of his hand on my lower back told me enough about how much he realized the sight of her would jar me. “She’s one of the dozens of priestesses who work here.”

Clotho lowered her head in a bow, but said nothing.

“I—I didn’t know that the priestesses left their temples.”

“A library is a temple of sorts,” Rhys said with a wry smile. “But the priestesses here …” As we entered the library proper, golden lights flickered to life. As if Clotho had been in utter darkness until we’d entered. “They are special. Unique.”

She angled her head in what might have been amusement. Her face remained in shadow, her slim body concealed in those pale, heavy robes. Silence—and yet life danced around her.

Rhys smiled warmly at the priestess. “Did you find the texts?”

And it was only when she bobbed her head in a sort of “so-so” motion that I realized either she could not or would not speak. Clotho gestured to her left—into the library itself.

And I dragged my eyes away from the mute priestess long enough to take in the library.

Not a cavernous room in a manor. Not even close.

This was …

It was as if the base of the mountain had been hollowed out by some massive digging beast, leaving a pit descending into the dark heart of the world. Around that gaping hole, carved into the mountain itself, spiraled level after level of shelves and books and reading areas, leading into the inky black. From what I could see of the various levels as I drifted toward the carved stone railing overlooking the drop, the stacks shot far into the mountain itself, like the spokes of a mighty wheel.

And through it all, fluttering like moth’s wings, the rustle of paper and parchment.

Silent, and yet alive. Awake and humming and restless, some many-limbed beast at constant work. I peered upward, finding more levels rising toward the House above. And lurking far below … Darkness.

“What’s at the bottom of the pit?” I asked as Rhys came up beside me, his shoulder brushing mine.

“I once dared Cassian to fly down and see.” Rhys braced his hands on the railing, gazing down into the gloom.

“And?”

“And he came back up, faster than I’ve ever seen him fly, white as death. He never told me what he saw. The first few weeks, I thought it was a joke—just to pique my curiosity. But when I finally decided to see for myself a month later, he threatened to tie me to a chair. He said some things were better left unseen and undisturbed. It’s been two hundred years, and he still won’t tell me what he saw. If you even mention it, he goes pale and shaky and won’t talk for a few hours.”

My blood chilled. “Is it … some sort of monster?”

“I have no idea.” Rhys jerked his chin toward Clotho, the priestess patiently waiting a few steps behind us, her face still in shadow. “They don’t speak or write of it, so if they know … They certainly won’t tell me. So if it doesn’t bother us, then I won’t bother it. That is, if it’s even an it. Cassian never said if he saw anything living down there. Perhaps it’s something else entirely.”

Considering the things I’d already witnessed … I didn’t want to think about what lay at the bottom of the library. Or what could make Cassian, who had seen more dreadful and deadly parts of the world than I could ever imagine, so terrified.

Robes rustling, Clotho aimed for the sloping walkway into the library, and we fell into step behind her. The floors were red stone, like the rest of the place, but smooth and polished. I wondered if any of the priestesses had ever gone sledding down the spiraling path.

Not that I know of, Rhys said into my mind. But Mor and I once tried when we were children. My mother caught us on our third level down, and we were sent to bed without supper.

I clamped down on my smile. Was it such a crime?

It was when we’d oiled up the floor, and the scholars were falling on their faces.

I coughed to cover my laugh, lowering my head, even with Clotho a few steps ahead.

We passed stacks of books and parchment, the shelves either built into the stone itself or made of dark, solid wood. Hallways lined with both vanished into the mountain itself, and every few minutes, a little reading area popped up, full of tidy tables, low-burning glass lamps, and deep-cushioned chairs and couches. Ancient woven rugs adorned the floors beneath them, usually set before fireplaces that had been carved into the rock and kept well away from any shelves, their grates fine-meshed enough to retain any wandering embers.

Cozy, despite the size of the space; warm, despite the unknown terror lurking below.

If the others piss me off too much, I like to come down here for some peace and quiet.

I smiled slightly at Rhys, who kept looking ahead as we spoke mind to mind.

Don’t they know by now that they can find you down here?

Of course. But I never go to the same spot twice in a row, so it usually takes them so long to find me that they don’t bother. Plus, they know that if I’m here, it’s because I want to be alone.

Poor baby High Lord, I crooned. Having to run away to find solitude perfect for brooding.

Rhys pinched my behind, and I clamped down on my lip to keep from yelping.

I could have sworn Clotho’s shoulders shook with laughter.

But before I could bite off Rhys’s head for the rippling pain my aching back muscles felt in the wake of the sudden movement, Clotho led us into a reading area about three levels down, the massive worktable laden with fat, ancient books bound in various dark leathers.

A neat stack of paper was set to one side, along with an assortment of pens, and the reading lamps were at full glow, merry and sparkling in the gloom. A silver tea service gleamed on a low-lying table between the two leather couches before the grumbling fireplace, steam curling from the arched spout of the kettle. Biscuits and little sandwiches filled the platter beside it, along with a fat pile of napkins that subtly hinted we use them before touching the books.

“Thank you,” Rhys told the priestess, who only pulled a book off the pile she’d undoubtedly gathered and opened it to a marked page. The ancient velvet ribbon was the color of old blood—but it was her hand that struck me as it met the golden light of the lamps.

Her fingers were crooked. Bent and twisted at such angles I would have thought her born with them were it not for the scarring.

For a heartbeat, I was in a spring wood. For a heartbeat, I heard the crunch of stone on flesh and bone as I made another priestess smash her hand. Over and over.

Rhys put a hand on my lower back. The effort it must have taken Clotho to move everything into place with those gnarled hands …

But she looked toward another book—or at least her head turned that way—and it slid over to her.

Magic. Right.

She gestured with a finger that was bent in two different directions to the page she’d selected, then to the book.

“I’ll look,” Rhys said, then inclined his head. “We’ll give a shout if we need anything.”

Clotho bowed her head again and began striding away, careful and silent.

“Thank you,” I said to her.

The priestess paused, looking back, and bowed her head, hood swaying.

Within seconds, she was gone.

I stared after her, even as Rhys slid into one of the two chairs before the piles of books.

“A long time ago, Clotho was hurt very badly by a group of males,” Rhys said quietly.

I didn’t need details to know what that had entailed. The edge in Rhys’s voice implied enough.

“They cut out her tongue so she couldn’t tell anyone who had hurt her. And smashed her hands so she couldn’t write it.” Every word was more clipped than the last, and darkness snarled through the small space.

My stomach turned. “Why not kill her?”

“Because it was more entertaining for them that way. That is, until Mor found her. And brought her to me.”

When he’d undoubtedly looked into her mind and seen their faces.

“I let Mor hunt them.” His wings tucked in tightly. “And when she finished, she stayed down here for a month. Helping Clotho heal as best as could be expected, but also … wiping away the stain of them.” Mor’s trauma had been different, but … I understood why she’d done it, wanted to be here. I wondered if it had granted her any measure of closure.

“Cassian and Azriel were healed completely after Hybern. Nothing could be done for Clotho?”

“The males were … healing her as they hurt her. Making the injuries permanent. When Mor found her, the damage had been set. They hadn’t finished her hands, so we were able to salvage them, give her some use, but … To heal her, the wounds would have needed to be ripped open again. I offered to take the pain away while it was done, but … She could not endure it—what having the wounds open again would trigger in her mind. Her heart. She has lived down here since then—with others like her. Her magic helps with her mobility.”

I knew we should begin working, but I asked, “Are … all the priestesses in this library like her?”

“Yes.”

The word held centuries of rage and pain.

“I made this library into a refuge for them. Some come to heal, work as acolytes, and then leave; some take the oaths to the Cauldron and Mother to become priestesses and remain here forever. But it belongs to them whether they stay a week or a lifetime. Outsiders are allowed to use the library for research, but only if the priestesses approve. And only if they take binding oaths to do no harm while they visit. This library belongs to them.”

“Who was here before them?”

“A few cranky old scholars, who cursed me soundly when I relocated them to other libraries in the city. They still get access, but when and where is always approved by the priestesses.”

Choice. It had always been about my choice with him. And for others as well. Long before he’d ever learned the hard way about it. The question must have been in my eyes because Rhys added, “I came here a great deal in those weeks after Under the Mountain.”

My throat tightened as I leaned in to brush a kiss to his cheek. “Thank you for sharing this place with me.”

“It belongs to you, too, now.” And I knew he meant not just in terms of us being mates, but … in the ways it belonged to the other females here. Who had endured and survived.

I gave him a half smile. “I suppose it’s a miracle that I can even stand to be underground.”

But his features remained solemn, contemplative. “It is.” He added softly, “I’m very proud of you.”

My eyes burned, and I blinked as I faced the books. “And I suppose,” I said with an effort at lightness, “that it’s a miracle I can actually read these things.”

Rhys’s answering smile was lovely—and just a bit wicked. “I believe my little lessons helped.”

“Yes, ‘Rhys is the greatest lover a female can hope for’ is undoubtedly how I learned to read.”

“I was only trying to tell you what you now know.”

My blood heated a bit. “Hmmm,” was all I said, pulling a book toward me.

“I’ll take that hmmm as a challenge.” His hand slid down my thigh, then cupped my knee, his thumb brushing along its side. Even through my leathers, the heat of him seeped to my very bones. “Maybe I’ll haul you between the stacks and see how quiet you can be.”

“Hmmm.” I flipped through the pages, not seeing any of the text.

His hand began a lethal, taunting exploration up my thigh, his fingers grazing along the sensitive inside. Higher, higher. He leaned in to drag a book toward himself, but whispered in my ear, “Or maybe I’ll spread you out on this desk and lick you until you scream loud enough to wake whatever is at the bottom of the library.”

I whipped my head toward him. His eyes were glazed—almost sleepy.

“I was fully committed to that plan,” I said, even as his hand stopped very, very close to the apex of my thighs, “until you brought in that thing down below.”

A feline smile. He held my stare as his tongue brushed his bottom lip.

My breasts tightened beneath my shirt, and his gaze dropped—watching. “I would have thought,” he mused, “that our bout this morning would be enough to tide you over until tonight.” His hand slid between my legs, brazenly cupping me, his thumb pushing down on an aching spot. A low groan slipped from me, and my cheeks heated in its wake. “Apparently, I didn’t do a good enough job sating you, if you’re so easily riled after a few hours.”

“Prick,” I breathed, but the word was ragged. His thumb pressed down harder, circling roughly.

Rhys leaned in again, kissing my neck—that place right under my ear—and said against my skin, “Let’s see what names you call me when my head is between your legs, Feyre darling.”

And then he was gone.

He’d winnowed away, half the books with him. I started, my body foreign and cold, dizzy and disoriented.

Where the hell are you? I scanned around me, and found nothing but shadow and merry flame and books.

Two levels below.

And why are you two levels below? I shoved out of my chair, back aching in protest as I stormed for the walkway and rail beyond, then peered down into the gloom.

Sure enough, in a reading area two levels below, I could spy his dark hair and wings—could spy him leaning back in his chair before an identical desk, an ankle crossed over a knee. Smirking up at me. Because I can’t work with you distracting me.

I scowled at him. I’m distracting you?

If you’re sitting next to me, the last thing on my mind is reading dusty old books. Especially when you’re in all that tight leather.

Pig.

His chuckle echoed up through the library amid the fluttering papers and scratching pens of the priestesses working throughout.

How can you winnow inside the House? I thought there were wards against it.

The library makes its own rules, apparently.

I snorted.

Two hours of work, he promised me, turning back to the table and flaring his wings—a veritable screen to block my view of him. And his view of me. Then we can play.

I gave him a vulgar gesture.

I saw that.

I did it again, and his laugh floated to me as I faced the books stacked before me and began to read.

We found a myriad of information about the wall and its forming. When we compared our notes two hours later, many of the texts were conflicting, all of them claiming absolute authority on the subject. But there were a few similar details that Rhys had not known.

He had been healing at the cabin in the mountains when they’d formed the wall, when they’d signed that Treaty. The details that emerged had been murky at best, but the various texts Clotho had dug up on the wall’s formation and rules agreed on one thing: it had never been made to last.

No, initially, the wall had been a temporary solution—to cleave human and faerie until peace settled long enough for them to later reconvene. And decide how they were to live together—as one people.

But the wall had remained. Humans had grown old and died, and their children had forgotten the promises of their parents, their grandparents, their ancestors. And the High Fae who survived … it was a new world, without slaves. Lesser faeries stepped in to replace the missing free labor; territory boundaries had been redrawn to accommodate those displaced. Such a great shift in the world in those initial centuries, so many working to move past war, to heal, that the wall … the wall became permanent. The wall became legend.

“Even if all seven courts ally,” I said as we plucked grapes from a silver bowl in a quiet sitting room in the House of Wind, having left the dim library for some much-needed sunshine, “even if Keir and the Court of Nightmares join, too … Will we stand a chance in this war?”

Rhys leaned back in the embroidered chair before the floor-to-ceiling window. Velaris was a glittering sprawl below and beyond—serene and lovely, even with the scars of battle now peppering it. “Army against army, the possibility of victory is slim.” Blunt, honest words.

I shifted in my own identical chair on the other side of the low-lying table between us. “Could you … If you and the King of Hybern went head to head …”

“Would I win?” Rhys lifted a brow, and studied the city. “I don’t know. He’s been smart about keeping the extent of his power hidden. But he had to resort to trickery and threats to beat us that day in Hybern. He has thousands of years of knowledge and training. If he and I fought … I doubt he will let it come to that. He stands a better chance at sure victory by overwhelming us with numbers, in stretching us thin. If we fought one-on-one, if he’d even accept an open challenge from me … the damage would be catastrophic. And that’s without him wielding the Cauldron.”

My heart stumbled. Rhys went on, “I’m willing to take the brunt of it, if it means the others will at least stand with us against him.”

I clenched the tufted arms of the chair.

“You shouldn’t have to.”

“It might be the only choice.”

“I don’t accept that as an option.”

He blinked at me. “Prythian might need me as an option.” Because with that power of his … He’d take on the king and his entire army. Burn himself out until he was—

“I need you. As an option. In my future.”

Silence. And even with the sun warming my feet, a terrible cold spread through me.

His throat bobbed. “If it means giving you a future, then I’m willing to do—”

“You will do no such thing.” I panted through my bared teeth, leaning forward in my chair.

Rhys only watched me, eyes shadowed. “How can you ask me not to give everything I have to ensure that you, that my family and people, survive?”

“You’ve given enough.”

“Not enough. Not yet.”

It was hard to breathe, to see past the burning in my eyes. “Why? Where does this come from, Rhys?”

For once, he didn’t answer.

And there was something brittle enough in his expression, some long unhealed wound that glimmered there, that I sighed, rubbed my face, and then said, “Just—work with me. With all of us. Together. This isn’t your burden alone.”

He plucked another grape from its stem, chewed. His lips tilted in a faint smile. “So what do you propose, then?”

I could still see that vulnerability in his eyes, still feel it in that bond between us, but I angled my head. I sorted through all I knew, all that had happened. Considered the books I’d read in the library below. A library that housed—

“Amren warned us to never put the two halves of the Book together,” I mused. “But we—I did. She said that older things might be … awoken by it. Might come sniffing.”

Rhys crossed an ankle over a knee.

“Hybern might have the numbers,” I said, “but what if we had the monsters? You said Hybern will see an alliance with all the courts coming—but perhaps not one with things wholly unconnected.” I leaned forward. “And I’m not talking about the monsters roaming across the world. I am talking about one in particular—who has nothing to lose and everything to gain.”

One that I would do everything in my power to use, rather than let Rhys face the brunt of this alone.

His brows rose. “Oh?”

“The Bone Carver,” I clarified. “He and Amren have both been looking for a way back to their own worlds.” The Carver had been insistent, relentless, in asking me that day in the Prison about where I had gone during death. I could have sworn Rhys’s golden-brown skin paled, but I added, “I wonder if it’s time to ask him what he’d give to go back home.”

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