فصل 27

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CHAPTER

27

We found Nesta and Amren waiting outside the throne room, both of them looking pissy and tired.

Well, that made six of us.

I didn’t doubt Keir’s claim about the mirror—and risking gazing into it … None of us could afford it. To be broken. Driven mad. None of us—not right now. Perhaps the Bone Carver had known that. Had sent me on a fool’s errand to amuse himself.

We did not bother with good-byes to the whispering court as we winnowed to the town house. To Velaris—the peace and beauty that now felt infinitely more fragile.

Cassian had come off the roof at some point to join Lucien in the sitting room, the books from the wall spread on the low-lying table between them. Both got to their feet at the expressions on our faces.

Cassian was halfway to Mor when she whirled on Rhys and said, “Why?”

Her voice broke.

And something in my chest cracked, too, at the tears that began running down her face.

Rhys just stood there, staring down at her. His face unreadable.

Watching as she slammed her hands into his chest and shouted, “Why?”

He yielded a step. “Eris found Azriel—our hands were tied. I made the best of it.” His throat bobbed. “I’m sorry.”

Cassian was sizing them up, frozen halfway across the room. And I assumed Rhys was telling him mind to mind, assumed he was telling Amren and perhaps even Lucien and Nesta, from their surprised blinks.

Mor whirled on Azriel. “Why didn’t you say anything?”

Azriel held her gaze unflinchingly. Didn’t so much as rustle his wings. “Because you would have tried to stop it. And we can’t afford to lose Keir’s alliance—and face the threat of Eris.”

“You’re working with that prick,” Cassian cut in, whatever catching-up now over, apparently. He moved to Mor’s side, a hand on her back. He shook his head at Azriel and Rhys, disgust curling his lip. “You should have spiked Eris’s fucking head to the front gates.”

Azriel only watched them with that icy indifference. But Lucien crossed his arms, leaning against the back of the couch. “I have to agree with Cassian. Eris is a snake.”

Perhaps Rhys had not filled him in on everything, then. On what Eris had claimed about saving his youngest brother in whatever way he could. Of his defiance.

“Your whole family is despicable,” Amren said to Lucien from where she and Nesta lingered in the archway. “But Eris may prove a better alternative. If he can find a way to kill Beron off and make sure the power shifts to himself.”

“I’m sure he will,” Lucien said.

But Mor was still staring at Rhys, those silent tears streaming down her flushed cheeks. “It’s not about Eris,” she said, voice wobbling. “It’s about here.” She waved a hand to the town house, the city. “This is my home, and you are going to let Keir destroy it.”

“I took precautions,” Rhys said—an edge to his voice I had not heard in some time. “Many of them. Starting with meeting with the governors of the Palaces and getting them to agree never to serve, shelter, or entertain Keir or anyone from the Court of Nightmares.”

Mor blinked. Cassian’s hand moved to her shoulder and squeezed.

“They have been sending out the word to every business owner in the city,” Rhys went on, “every restaurant and shop and venue. So Keir and his ilk may come here … But they will not find it a welcoming place. Or one where they can even procure lodgings.”

Mor shook her head as she whispered, “He’ll still destroy it.”

Cassian slid his arm around her shoulders, his face harder than I’d ever seen it as he studied Rhys. Then Azriel. “You should have warned us.”

“I should have,” Rhys said—though he didn’t sound sorry for it. Azriel just remained a foot away, wings tucked in tight and Siphons glimmering.

I stepped in at last. “We’ll set limitations—on when and how often they come.”

Mor shook her head, still not looking anywhere but at Rhys. “If Amarantha were alive …” The word slithered through the room, darkening the corners. “If she were alive and I offered to work with her—even if it was to save us all—how would you feel?”

Never—they had never come this close to discussing what had happened to him.

I approached Rhys’s side, brushing my fingers against his. His own curled around mine.

“If Amarantha offered us a slim shot at survival,” Rhys said, his gaze unflinching, “then I would not give a shit that she made me fuck her for all those years.”

Cassian flinched. The entire room flinched.

“If Amarantha showed up at that door right now,” Rhys snarled, pointing toward the foyer entry, “and said she could buy us a chance at defeating Hybern, at keeping all of you alive, I would thank the fucking Cauldron.”

Mor shook her head, tears slipping free again. “You don’t mean that.”

“I do.”

Rhys.

But the bond, the bridge between us … it was a howling void. A raging, dark tempest.

Too far—this was pushing them both too far. I tried to catch Cassian’s gaze, but he was monitoring them closely, his golden-brown skin unnaturally pale. Azriel’s shadows gathered close, half veiling him from view. And Amren—

Amren stepped between Rhys and Mor. They both towered over her.

“I kept this unit from breaking for forty-nine years,” Amren said, eyes flaring bright as lightning. “I am not going to let you rip it to shreds now.” She faced Mor. “Working with Keir and Eris is not forgiving them. And when this war is over, I will hunt them down and butcher them with you, if that is what you wish.” Mor said nothing—though she at last looked away from Rhys.

“My father will poison this city.”

“I will not allow him to,” Amren said.

I believed her.

And I think Mor did, too, for the tears that continued sliding free … they seemed to shift, somehow.

Amren turned to Rhys, whose face had now edged toward—devastation.

I slid my hand through his. I see you, I said, giving him the words I’d once whispered all those months ago. And it does not frighten me.

Amren said to him, “You’re a sneaky bastard. You always have been, and likely always will be. But it doesn’t excuse you, boy, from not warning us. Warning her, not where those two monsters are involved. Yes, you made the right call—played it well. But you also played it badly.”

Something like shame dimmed his eyes. “I’m sorry.”

The words—to Mor, to Amren.

Amren’s dark hair swayed as she assessed them. Mor just shook her head at last—more acceptance than denial.

I swallowed, my voice rough as I said, “This is war. Our allies are few and already don’t trust us.” I met each of them in the eye—my sister, Lucien, Mor, and Azriel and Cassian. Then Amren. Then my mate. I squeezed his hand at the guilt now sinking its claws deep into him. “You all have been to war and back—when I’ve never even set foot on a battlefield. But … I have to imagine that we will not last long if … we cleave apart. From within.”

Stumbling, near-incoherent words, but Azriel said at last, “She’s right.”

Mor didn’t so much as look in his direction. I could have sworn guilt clouded Azriel’s eyes, there and gone in a blink.

Amren stepped back to Nesta’s side as Cassian asked me, “What happened with the mirror?”

I shook my head. “Keir says it’s mine, if I dare to take it. Apparently, what you see inside will break you—or drive you insane. No one’s ever walked away from it.”

Cassian swore.

“Exactly,” I said. It was a risk perhaps none of us were entirely prepared to face. Not when we were all needed—each one of us.

Mor added a bit hoarsely, straightening the ebony pleats and panels of her gossamer gown, “My father spoke true about that. I was raised with legends of the mirror. None were pleasant. Or successful.”

Cassian frowned at me, at Rhys. “So what—”

“You are talking about the Ouroboros,” Amren said.

I blinked. Shit. Shit—

“Why do you want that mirror?” Her voice had slipped to a low timbre.

Rhys slid his free hand into his pocket. “If honesty is the theme of the night … Because the Bone Carver requested it.”

Amren’s nostrils flared. “You went to the Prison.”

“Your old friends say hello,” Cassian drawled, leaning a shoulder against the sitting room archway.

Amren’s face tightened, Nesta glancing between them—carefully. Reading us. Especially as Amren’s quicksilver eyes swirled. “Why did you go.”

I opened my mouth, but the gold of Lucien’s eye caught my attention. Snared it.

My hesitation must have been indication enough of my wariness.

Jaw tight with a hint of frustration, Lucien excused himself to his room. Frustration—and perhaps disappointment. I blocked it out—what it did to my stomach.

“We had some questions for the Carver.” Cassian gave Amren a slash of a smile when Lucien was gone. “And we have some for you.”

Amren’s smoke-filled eyes flared. “You are going to unleash the Carver.”

I said simply, “Yes.” A one-monster army.

“That is impossible.”

“I’ll remind you that you, sweet Amren, escaped,” Rhys countered smoothly. “And have stayed free. So it can be done. Perhaps you could tell us how you did it.”

Cassian had stationed himself by the doorway, I realized, to be closer to Nesta. To grab her if Amren decided she didn’t particularly care for where this conversation was headed. Or for any of the furniture in this room.

Precisely why Rhys now placed himself on Amren’s other side—to draw her attention away from me, and Mor behind us, every muscle in her lithe body on alert.

Cassian was staring at Nesta—hard enough that my sister at last twisted toward him. Met his gaze. His head tilted—slightly. A silent order.

Nesta, to my shock, obeyed. Drifted over to Cassian’s side as Amren replied to Rhys, “No.”

“It wasn’t a request,” Rhys said.

He’d once admitted that merely questioning Amren had been something she’d allowed him to do only in recent years. But giving her an order, pushing her like this …

“Feyre and Cassian spoke to the Bone Carver. He wants the Ouroboros in exchange for serving us—fighting Hybern for us. But we need you to explain how to get him out.” The bargain Rhys or I would strike with him would suffice to hold him to our will.

“Anything else?” Her voice was too calm, too sweet.

“When we’re done with all of this,” Rhys said, “then my promise from months ago still holds: use the Book to send yourself home, if you want.”

Amren stared up at him. It was so quiet that the clock on the sitting room mantel could be heard. And beyond that—the fountain in the garden—

“Call off your dog,” Amren said with that lethal tone.

Because the shadow in the corner behind Amren … that was Azriel. The obsidian hilt of Truth-Teller in his scarred hand. He’d moved without my realizing it—though I had no doubt the others had likely been aware.

Amren bared her teeth at him. Azriel’s beautiful face didn’t so much as shift.

Rhys remained where he was as he asked Amren, “Why won’t you tell us?”

Cassian casually slid Nesta behind him, his fingers snagging in the skirts of her black gown. As if to reassure himself that she wasn’t in Amren’s direct path. Nesta only rose onto her toes to peer over his shoulder.

“Because the stone beneath this house has ears, the wind has ears—all of it listening,” Amren said. “And if it reports back … They will remember, Rhysand, that they have not caught me. And I will not let them put me in that black pit again.”

My ears hollowed out as a shield clicked into place. “No one will hear beyond this room.”

Amren surveyed the books lying forgotten on the low table in the sitting room.

Her brows narrowed. “I had to give something up. I had to give me up. To walk out, I had to become something else entirely, something the Prison would not recognize. So I—I bound myself into this body.”

I’d never heard her stumble over a word before.

“You said someone else bound you,” Rhys questioned carefully.

“I lied—to cover what I’d done. So none could know. To escape the Prison, I made myself mortal. Immortal as you are, but … mortal compared to—to what I was. And what I was … I did not feel, the way you do. The way I do now. Some things—loyalty and wrath and curiosity—but not the full spectrum.” Again, that faraway look. “I was perfect, according to some. I did not regret, did not mourn—and pain … I did not experience it. And yet … yet I wound up here, because I was not quite like the others. Even as—as what I was, I was different. Too curious. Too questioning. The day the rip appeared in the sky … it was curiosity that drove me. My brothers and sisters fled. Upon the orders of our ruler, we had just laid waste to twin cities, smote them wholly into rubble on the plain, and yet they fled from that rip in the world. But I wanted to look. I wanted. I was not built or bred to feel such selfish things as want. I’d seen what happened to those of my kind who strayed, who learned to place their needs first. Who developed … feeling. But I went through the tear in the sky. And here I am.”

“And you gave all that up to get out of the Prison?” Mor asked softly.

“I yielded my grace—my perfect immortality. I knew that once I did … I would feel pain. And regret. I would want, and I would burn with it. I would … fall. But I was—the time locked away down there … I didn’t care. I had not felt the wind on my face, had not smelled the rain … I did not even remember what they felt like. I did not remember sunlight.”

It was to Azriel that her attention drifted—the shadowsinger’s darkness pulling away to reveal eyes full of understanding. Locked away.

“So I bound myself into this body. I shoved my burning grace deep into me. I gave up everything I was. The cell door just … unlocked. And so I walked out.”

A burning grace … That still smoldered far within her, visible only through the smoke in her gray eyes.

“That will be the cost of freeing the Carver,” Amren said. “You will have to bind him into a body. Make him … Fae. And I doubt he will agree to it. Especially without the Ouroboros.”

We were silent.

“You should have asked me before you went,” she said, that sharpness returning to her tone. “I would have spared you the visit.”

Rhysand swallowed. “Can you be—unbound?”

“Not by me.”

“What would happen if you were?”

Amren stared at him for a long while. Then me. Cassian. Azriel. Mor. Nesta. Finally back to my mate. “I would not remember you. I would not care for any of you. I would either smite you or abandon you. What I feel now … it would be foreign to me—it would hold no sway. Everything I am, this body … it would cease to be.”

“What were you,” Nesta breathed, coming around Cassian to stand at his side.

Amren toyed with one of her black pearl earrings. “A messenger—and soldier-assassin. For a wrathful god who ruled a young world.”

I could feel the questions of the others brewing. Rhys’s eyes were near-glowing with them.

“Was Amren your name?” Nesta asked.

“No.” The smoke swirled in her eyes. “I do not remember the name I was given. I used Amren because—it’s a long story.”

I almost begged her to tell it, but soft footsteps thudded, and then—

“Oh.”

Elain started—enough so that I realized she couldn’t hear us. Had no idea we were here, thanks to the shield that kept sound from escaping.

It instantly dropped. But my sister remained near the stairs. She’d covered her nightgown with a silk shawl of palest blue, her fingers grappling into the fabric as she held herself.

I went to her immediately. “Do you need anything?”

“No. I … I was sleeping, but I heard …” She shook her head. Blinked at our formal attire, the dark crown atop my head—and Rhysand’s. “I didn’t hear you.”

Azriel stepped forward. “But you heard something else.”

Elain seemed about to nod, but only backed away. “I think I was dreaming,” she murmured. “I think I’m always dreaming these days.”

“Let me get you some hot milk,” I said, putting a hand on her elbow to guide her into the sitting room.

But Elain shook me off, heading back to the stairs. She said as she climbed the first steps, “I can hear her—crying.”

I gripped the bottom post of the banister. “Who?”

“Everyone thinks she’s dead.” Elain kept walking. “But she’s not. Only—different. Changed. As I was.”

“Who,” I pushed.

But Elain continued up the stairs, that shawl drooping down her back. Nesta stalked from Cassian’s side to approach my own. We both sucked in a breath, to say what, I didn’t know but—

“What did you see,” Azriel said, and I tried not to flinch as I found him at my other side, not having seen him move. Again.

Elain paused halfway up the stairs. Slowly, she turned to look back at him. “I saw young hands wither with age. I saw a box of black stone. I saw a feather of fire land on snow and melt it.”

My stomach dropped to the floor. One glance at Nesta confirmed that she felt it, too. Saw it.

Mad. Elain might very well have gone mad—

“It was angry,” Elain said quietly. “It was so, so angry that something was taken. So it took something from them as punishment.”

We said nothing. I didn’t know what to say—what to even ask or demand. If the Cauldron had done something to her as well …

I faced Azriel, exposing my palms to him. “What does that mean?”

Azriel’s hazel eyes churned as he studied my sister, her too-thin body. And without a word, he winnowed away. Mor watched the space where he’d been standing long after he was gone.

I waited until the others had left—Cassian and Rhys slipping away to ponder the possibilities or lack thereof of our would-be allies, Amren storming off to be rid of us entirely, and Mor striding out to enjoy what she deemed as her last few days of peace in this city, a brittleness still in her voice—before I cornered Nesta in the sitting room.

“What happened at the Hewn City—with you and Amren? You didn’t mention it.”

“It was fine.”

I clenched my jaw. “What happened?”

“She brought me to a room full of treasure. Strange objects. And it …” She tugged at the tight sleeve of her gown. “Some of it wanted to hurt us. As if it were alive—aware. Like … like in all those stories and lies we were fed over the wall.”

“Are you all right?” I couldn’t find any signs of harm on either of them, and neither had said anything to suggest—

“It was a training exercise. With a form of magic designed to repel intruders.” The words were recited. “As the wall will likely be. She wanted me to breach the defenses—find weaknesses.”

“And repair them?”

“Just find the weaknesses. Repairing is another thing,” Nesta said, her eyes going distant as she frowned at the still-open books on the low table before the fireplace.

I sighed. “So … that went right, at least.”

Those eyes went razor-sharp again. “I failed. Every time. So, no. It did not go right.”

I didn’t know what to say. Sympathy would likely earn me a tongue-lashing. So I opted for another route. “We need to do something about Elain.”

Nesta stiffened. “And what solution do you propose, exactly? Letting your mate into her mind to scramble things around?”

“I’d never do that. I don’t think Rhys can even … fix things like that.”

Nesta paced in front of the darkened fireplace. “Everything has a cost. Maybe the cost of her youth and immortality was losing part of her sanity.”

My knees wobbled enough that I took a seat on the deep-cushioned couch. “What was your cost?”

Nesta stopped moving. “Perhaps it was to see Elain suffer—while I got away unscathed.”

I shot to my feet. “Nesta—”

“Don’t bother.” But I trailed her as she strode for the stairs. To where Lucien was now descending the steps—and winced at the sight of her approach.

He gave her a wide berth as she stormed past him. One look at his taut face had me bracing myself—and returning to the sitting room.

I slumped into the nearest armchair, surprised to find myself still in my black dress as the fabric scraped against my bare skin. How long had I been back from the Hewn City? Thirty minutes? Less? And had the Prison only been that morning?

It felt like days ago. I rested my head against the embroidered back of the chair and watched Lucien take a seat on the rolled arm of the nearest couch. “Long day?”

I grunted my response.

That metal eye tightened. “I thought the Prison was another myth.”

“Well, it’s not.”

He weighed my tone, and crossed his arms. “Let me do something. About Elain. I heard—from my room. Everything that happened just now. It wouldn’t hurt to have a healer look her over. Externally and internally.”

I was tired enough that I could barely summon the breath to ask, “Do you think the Cauldron made her insane?”

“I think she went through something terrible,” Lucien countered carefully. “And it wouldn’t hurt to have your best healer do a thorough examination.”

I rubbed my hand over my face. “All right.” My breath snagged on the words. “Tomorrow morning.” I managed a shallow nod, rallying my strength to rise from the chair. Heavy—there was an old heaviness in me. Like I could sleep for a hundred years and it wouldn’t be enough.

“Please tell me,” Lucien said when I crossed the threshold into the foyer. “What the healer says. And if—if you need me for anything.”

I gave him one final nod, speech suddenly beyond me.

I knew Nesta still wasn’t asleep as I walked past her room. Knew she’d heard every word of our conversation thanks to that Fae hearing. And I knew she heard as I listened at Elain’s door, knocked once, and poked my head in to find her asleep—breathing.

I sent a request to Madja, Rhysand’s preferred healer, to come the next day at eleven. I did not explain why or who or what. Then went into my bedroom, crawled onto the mattress, and cried.

I didn’t really know why.

Strong, broad hands rubbed down my spine, and I opened my eyes to find the room wholly black, Rhysand perched on the mattress beside me. “Do you want anything to eat?” His voice was soft—tentative.

I didn’t raise my head from the pillow. “I feel … heavy again,” I breathed, voice breaking.

Rhys said nothing as he gathered me up into his arms. He was still in his jacket, as if he’d just come in from wherever he’d been talking with Cassian.

In the dark, I breathed in his scent, savored his warmth. “Are you all right?”

Rhys was quiet for a long minute. “No.”

I slid my arms around him, holding him tightly.

“I should have found another way,” he said.

I stroked my fingers through his silken hair.

Rhys murmured, “If she …” His swallow was audible. “If she showed up at this house …” I knew who he meant. “I would kill her. Without even letting her speak. I would kill her.”

“I know.” I would, too.

“You asked me at the library,” he whispered. “Why I … Why I’d rather take all of this upon myself. Tonight is why. Seeing Mor cry is why. I made a bad call. Tried to find some other way around this shithole we’re in.” And had lost something—Mor had lost something—in the process.

We held each other in silence for minutes. Hours. Two souls, twining in the dark. I lowered my shields, let him in fully. His mind curled around mine.

“Would you risk looking into it—the Ouroboros?” I asked.

“Not yet,” was all Rhys said, holding me tighter. “Not yet.”

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