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It was the most uncomfortable thirty minutes I could recall.
Mor and I sipped chilled mint tea by the bay window, the replies of the three High Lords piled on the little table between our twin chairs, pretending to be watching the summer-kissed street beyond us, the children, High Fae and faerie, darting about with kites and streamers and all manner of toys.
Pretending, while Lucien and Elain sat in stilted silence by the dim fireplace, an untouched tea service between them. I didn’t dare ask if he was trying to get into her head, or if he was feeling a bond similar to that black adamant bridge between Rhys’s mind and my own. If a normal mating bond felt wholly different.
A teacup rattled and rasped against a saucer, and Mor and I glanced over.
Elain had picked up the teacup, and now sipped from it without so much as looking toward him.
In the dining room across the hall, I knew Nesta was craning her neck to look.
Knew, because Amren snapped at my sister to pay attention.
They were building walls—in their minds, Amren had told me as she ordered Nesta to sit at the dining room table, directly across from her.
Walls that Amren was teaching her to sense—to find the holes she’d laid throughout. And repair them. If the fell objects at the Court of Nightmares had not allowed my sister to grasp what must be done, then this was their next attempt—a different, invisible route. Not all magic was flash and glittering, Amren had declared, and then shooed me out.
But any sign of that power within my sister … I did not hear it or see it or feel it. And neither offered any explanation for what it was, exactly, that they were trying to coax from within her.
Outside the house, movement again caught our eye, and we found Rhys and Cassian strolling in through the low front gate, returning from their first meeting with Keir’s Darkbringer army commanders—already rallying and preparing. At least that much had gone right yesterday.
Both of them spotted us in the window within a heartbeat. Stopped cold.
Don’t come in, I warned him through the bond. Lucien is trying to sense what’s wrong with Elain. Through the bond.
Rhys murmured what I’d said to Cassian, who now angled his head, much in the way I had no doubt Nesta had done, to peer beyond us.
Rhys said wryly, Does Elain know this?
She was invited down for tea. So we’re having it.
Rhys muttered again to Cassian, who choked on a laugh and turned right around, heading into the street. Rhys lingered, sliding his hands into his pockets. He’s getting a drink. I’m inclined to join him. When can I return without fearing for my life?
I gave him a vulgar gesture through the window. Such a big, strong Illyrian warrior.
Illyrian warriors know when to pick their battles. And with Nesta watching everything like a hawk and you two circling like vultures … I know who will walk away from that fight.
I made the gesture again, and Mor figured out enough of what was being said that she echoed the movement. Rhys laughed quietly and sketched a bow.
The High Lords sent replies, I said as he strolled away. Day, Dawn, and Winter will come.
I know, he said. And I just received word from Cresseida that Tarquin is contemplating it.
Better than nothing. I said as much.
Rhys smiled at me over his shoulder. Enjoy your tea, you overbearing chaperone.
I could have used a chaperone around you, you realize.
You had four of them in this house.
I smiled as he finally reached the low front gate where Cassian waited, apparently using the momentary delay to stretch out his wings, to the delight of the half-dozen children now gawking at them.
Amren hissed from the other room, “Focus.” The dining table rattled.
The sound seemed to startle Elain, who swiftly set down her teacup. She rose to her feet, and Lucien shot to his.
“I’m sorry,” he blurted.
“What—what was that?”
Mor put a hand on my knee to keep me from rising, too.
“It—it was a tug. On the bond.”
Amren snapped, “Don’t you—wicked girl.”
Then Nesta was standing in the threshold. “What did you do.” The words were as sharp as a blade.
Lucien looked to her, then over to me. A muscle feathered in his jaw. “Nothing,” he said, and again faced his mate. “I’m sorry—if that unsettled you.”
Elain sidled toward Nesta, who seemed to be at a near-simmer. “It felt … strange,” Elain breathed. “Like you pulled on a thread tied to a rib.”
Lucien exposed his palms to her. “I’m sorry.”
Elain only stared at him for a long moment. And any lucidity faded away as she shook her head, blinking twice, and said to Nesta, “Twin ravens are coming, one white and one black.”
Nesta hid the devastation well. The frustration. “What can I get you, Elain?”
Only with Elain did she use that voice.
But Elain shook her head once more. “Sunshine.”
Nesta cut me a furious stare before guiding our sister down the hall—to the sunny garden in the back.
Lucien waited until the glass door had opened and closed before he loosed a long breath.
“There’s a bond—it’s a real thread,” he said, more to himself than us.
“And?” Mor asked.
Lucien ran both hands through his long red hair. His skin was darker—a deep golden-brown, compared to the paleness of Eris’s coloring. “And I got to Elain’s end of it when she ran off.”
“Did you sense anything?”
“No—I didn’t have time. I felt her, but …” A blush stained his cheek. Whatever he’d felt, it wasn’t what we were looking for. Even if we had no idea what, precisely, that was.
“We can try again—another day,” I offered.
Lucien nodded, but looked unconvinced.
Amren snapped from the dining room, “Someone go retrieve your sister. Her lesson isn’t over.”
I sighed. “Yes, Amren.”
Lucien’s attention slid behind me, to the various letters on different styles and makes of paper. That golden eye narrowed. As Tamlin’s emissary, he no doubt recognized them. “Let me guess: they said yes, but picking the location is now going to be the headache.”
Mor frowned. “Any suggestions?”
Lucien tied back his hair with a strap of brown leather. “Do you have a map?”
I supposed that left me to retrieve Nesta.
“That pine tree wasn’t there a moment ago.”
Azriel let out a quiet laugh from where he sat atop a boulder two days later, watching me pluck pine needles out of my hair and jacket. “Judging by its size, I’d say it’s been there for … two hundred years at least.”
I scowled, brushing off the shards of bark and my bruised pride.
That coldness, that aloofness that had been there in the wake of Mor’s anger and rejection … It’d warmed. Either from Mor choosing to sit next to him at dinner last night—a silent offer of forgiveness—or simply needing time to recover from it. Even if I could have sworn some kernel of guilt had flickered every time Azriel had looked at Mor. What Cassian had thought of it, of his own anger toward Azriel … he’d been all smiles and lewd comments. Glad all was back to normal—for now at least.
My cheeks burned as I scaled the boulder he perched on, the drop at least fifteen feet to the forest floor below, the lake a sparkling sprawl peeking through the pine trees. Including the tree I’d collided with face-first on my latest attempt to leap off the boulder and simply sail to the lake.
I braced my hands on my hips, examining the drop, the trees, the lake beyond. “What did I do wrong?”
Azriel, who had been sharpening Truth-Teller in his lap, flicked his hazel eyes up to me. “Aside from the tree?”
The shadowsinger had a sense of humor. Dry and quiet, but … alone together, it came out far more often than it did amongst our group.
I’d spent these past two days either poring over ancient volumes for any hint on repairing the wall to hand over to Amren and Nesta, who continued to silently, invisibly build and mend walls within their minds, or debating with Rhys and the others about how to reply to the volley of letters now being exchanged with the other High Lords regarding where the meeting would take place. Lucien had indeed given us an initial location, and several more when those were struck down. But that was to be expected, Lucien had said, as if he’d arranged such things countless times. Rhys had only nodded in agreement—and approval.
And when I wasn’t doing that … I was combing through more books, any and all Clotho could find me, all regarding the Ouroboros. How to master it.
The mirror was notorious. Every known philosopher had ruminated on it. Some had dared face it—and gone mad. Some had approached—and run away in terror.
I could not find an account of anyone who had mastered it. Faced what lurked within and walked away with the mirror in their possession.
Save for the Weaver in the Wood—who certainly seemed insane enough, perhaps thanks to the mirror she’d so dearly loved. Or perhaps whatever evil lurked in her had tainted the mirror, too. Some of the philosophers had suggested as much, though they hadn’t known her name—only that a dark queen had once possessed it, cherished it. Spied on the world with it—and used it to hunt down beautiful young maidens to keep her eternally young.
I supposed Keir’s family owning the Ouroboros for millennia suggested the success rate of walking away was low. It was not heartening. Not when all the texts agreed on one thing: there was no way around it. No loophole. Facing the terror within … that was the only route to claim it.
Which meant I perhaps had to consider alternatives—other ways to entice the Bone Carver to join us. When I found a moment.
Azriel sheathed his legendary fighting knife and examined the wings I’d spread wide. “You’re trying to steer with your arms. The muscles are in the wings themselves—and in your back. Your arms are unnecessary—they’re more for balancing than anything. And even that’s mostly a mental comfort.”
It was more words than I’d ever heard from him.
He lifted a brow at my gaping, and I shut my mouth. I frowned at the drop ahead. “Again?” I grumbled.
A soft laugh. “We can find a lower ledge to jump from, if you want.”
I cringed. “You said this was low.”
Azriel leaned back on his hands and waited. Patient, cool.
But I felt the bark tear into my palms, the thud of my knees into its rough side—
“You are immortal,” he said quietly. “You are very hard to break.” A pause. “That’s what I told myself.”
“Hard to break,” I said glumly, “but it still hurts.”
“Tell that to the tree.”
I huffed a laugh. “I know the drop isn’t far, and I know it won’t kill me. Can’t you just … push me?”
For it was that initial leap of utter faith, that initial lurch into motion that had my limbs locking up.
“No.” A simple answer.
I still hesitated.
Useless—this fear. I had faced down the Attor, falling through the sky for a thousand feet.
And the rage at its memory, at what it had done with its miserable life, what more like it might do again, had me gritting my teeth and sprinting off the boulder.
I snapped my wings out wide, my back protesting as they caught the wind, but my lower half began to drop, my legs a dead weight as my core yielded—
The infernal tree rose up before me, and I swerved hard to the right.
Right into another tree.
The sound of bone and sinew on wood, then earth, hit me before the pain did. So did Azriel’s soft curse.
A small noise came out of me. The stinging of my palms registered first—then in my knees.
Then my back—
“Shit,” was all I could say as Azriel knelt before me.
“You’re all right. Just stunned.”
The world was still reordering itself.
“You banked well,” he offered.
“Into another tree.”
“Being aware of your surroundings is half of flying.”
“You said that already,” I snapped. He had. A dozen times just this morning.
Azriel only sat on his heels and offered me a hand up. My flesh burned as I gripped his fingers, a mortifying number of pine needles and splinters tumbling off me. My back throbbed enough that I lowered my wings, not caring if they dragged in the dirt as Azriel led me toward the lake edge.
In the blinding sun off the turquoise water, his shadows were gone, his face stark and clear. More … human than I had ever seen him.
“There’s no chance that I’ll be able to fly in the legions, is there?” I asked, kneeling beside him as he tended to my skinned palms with expert care and gentleness. The sun was brutal against his scars, hiding not one twisted, rippling splotch.
“Likely not,” he said. My chest hollowed out at that. “But it doesn’t hurt to practice until the last possible moment. You never know when any measure of training may be useful.”
I winced as he fished out a large splinter from my palm, then washed it clean.
“It was very hard for me to learn how to fly,” he said. I didn’t dare respond. “Most Illyrians learn as toddlers. But … I assume Rhysand told you the particulars of my early childhood.”
I nodded. He finished the one hand and started on the other. “Because I was so old, I had a fear of flying—and did not trust my instincts. It was an … embarrassment to be taught so late. Not just to me, but to all in the war-camp once I arrived. But I learned, often going off by myself. Cassian, of course, found me first. Mocked me, beat me to hell, then offered to train me. Rhys was there the next day. They taught me to fly.”
He finished my other hand, and sat on the shore, the stones murmuring as they shifted beneath him. I sat beside him, bracing my sore palms faceup on my knees, letting my wings sag behind me.
“Because it was such an effort … A few years after the War, Rhys brought me back a story. It was a gift—the story. For me. He—he went to see Miryam and Drakon in their new home, the visit so secret even we hadn’t known it was happening until he returned. We knew their people hadn’t drowned in the sea, as everyone believed, as they wanted people to believe. You see, when Miryam freed her people from the queen of the Black Land, she led all of them—nearly fifty thousand of them—across the desert, all the way to the shores of the Erythrian Sea, Drakon’s aerial legion providing cover. But they got to the sea and found the ships they’d arranged to transport them over the narrow channel to the next kingdom had been destroyed. Destroyed by the queen herself, who sent her lingering armies to drag her former slaves back.
“Drakon’s people—the Seraphim—are winged. Like us, but their wings are feathered. And unlike us, their army and society allow women to lead, to fight, to rule. All of them are gifted with mighty magic of wind and air. And when they beheld that army charging after them, they knew their own force was too small to face them. So they cleaved the sea itself—made a path through the water, all the way through the channel, and ordered the humans to run.
“They did, but Miryam insisted on remaining behind until every last one of her people had crossed. Not one human would she leave behind. Not one. They were about halfway through the crossing when the army reached them. The Seraphim were spent—their magic could barely hold the sea passage. And Drakon knew that if they held it any longer … that army would make it across and butcher the humans on the other side. The Seraphim fought off the vanguard on the floor of the sea, and it was bloody and brutal and chaotic … And during the melee, they didn’t see Miryam skewered by the queen herself. Drakon didn’t see. He thought she made it out, carried by one of his soldiers. He ordered the parted sea to come down to drown the enemy force.
“But a young Seraphim cartographer named Nephelle saw Miryam go down. Nephelle’s lover was one of Drakon’s generals, and it was she who realized Miryam and Nephelle were missing. Drakon was frantic, but their magic was spent and no force in the world could hold back the sea as it barreled down, and no one could reach his mate in time. But Nephelle did.
“Nephelle, you see, was a cartographer because she’d been rejected from the legion’s fighting ranks. Her wings were too small, the right one somewhat malformed. And she was slight—short enough that she’d be a dangerous gap in the front lines when they fought shield to shield. Drakon had let her try out for the legion as a courtesy to her lover, but Nephelle failed. She could barely carry the Seraphim shield, and her smaller wings hadn’t been strong enough to keep up with the others. So she had made herself invaluable as a cartographer during the War, helping Drakon and her lover find the geographical advantages in their battles. And she became Miryam’s dearest friend during those long months as well.
“And that day on the seafloor, Nephelle remembered that her friend had been in the back of the line. She returned for her, even as all others fled for the distant shore. She found Miryam skewered on the queen’s spear, bleeding out. The sea wall started to come down—on the opposite shore. Killing the approaching army first—racing toward them.
“Miryam told Nephelle to save herself. But Nephelle would not abandon her friend. She picked her up and flew.”
Azriel’s voice was soft with awe.
“When Rhys spoke to Drakon about it years later, he still didn’t have words to describe what happened. It defied all logic, all training. Nephelle, who had never been strong enough to hold a Seraphim shield, carried Miryam—triple the weight. And more than that … She flew. The sea was crashing down upon them, but Nephelle flew like the best of Seraphim warriors. The seafloor was a labyrinth of jagged rocks, too narrow for the Seraphim to fly through. They’d tried during their escape and crashed into them. But Nephelle, with her smaller wings … Had they been one inch wider, she would not have fit. And more than that … Nephelle soared through them, Miryam dying in her arms, as fast and skilled as the greatest of Seraphim. Nephelle, who had been passed over, who had been forgotten … She outraced death itself. There was not a foot of room between her and the water on either side of her when she shot up from the seafloor; not half of that rising up at her feet. And yet her too-small wingspan, that deformed wing … they did not fail her. Not once. Not for one wing beat.”
My eyes burned.
“She made it. Suffice to say her lover made Nephelle her wife that night, and Miryam … well, she is alive today because of Nephelle.” Azriel picked up a flat, white stone and turned it over in his hands. “Rhys told me the story when he returned. And since then we have privately adapted the Nephelle Philosophy with our own armies.”
I raised a brow. Azriel shrugged. “We—Rhys, Cass, and I—will occasionally remind each other that what we think to be our greatest weakness can sometimes be our biggest strength. And that the most unlikely person can alter the course of history.”
“The Nephelle Philosophy.”
He nodded. “Apparently, every year in their kingdom, they have the Nephelle Run to honor her flight. On dry land, but … She and her wife crown a new victor every year in commemoration of what happened that day.” He chucked the stone back amongst its brethren on the shore, the sound clattering over the water. “So we’ll train, Feyre, until the last possible day. Because we never know if just one extra hour will make the difference.”
I weighed his words, Nephelle’s story. I rose to my feet and spread my wings. “Then let’s try again.”
I groaned as I limped into our bedroom that night to find Rhys sitting at the desk, poring over more books.
“I warned you that Azriel’s a hard bastard,” he said without looking at me. He lifted a hand, and water gurgled in the adjacent bathing room.
I grumbled a thank-you and trudged toward it, gritting my teeth against the agony in my back, my thighs, my bones. Every part hurt, and since the muscles needed to re-form around the wings, I had to carry them, too. Their scraping along the wood and carpet, then wood again, was the only sound beyond my weary feet. I beheld the steaming bath that would require some balancing to get into and whimpered.
Even removing my clothes would entail using muscles that had nearly given out.
A chair scraped in the bedroom, followed by cat-soft feet, then—
“I’m sure you already know this, but you need to actually climb into a bath to get clean—not stare at it.”
I didn’t have the strength to even glare at him, and I managed all of one stumbling, stiff step toward the water when he caught me.
My clothes vanished, presumably to the laundry downstairs, and Rhys swept me into his arms, lowering my naked body into the water. With the wings, the fit was tight, and—
I groaned from deep in my throat at the glorious heat and didn’t bother to do anything other than lean my head against the back of the tub.
“I’ll be right back,” he said, and left the bathroom, then the bedroom itself.
By the time he returned, I only knew I’d fallen asleep thanks to the hand he put on my shoulder. “Out,” he said, but lifted me himself, toweled me off, and led me to the bed.
He lay me down belly-first, and I noted the oils and balms he’d set there, the faint odor of rosemary and—something I was too tired to notice but smelled lovely floating to me. His hands gleamed as he applied generous amounts to his palms, and then his hands were on me.
My groan was about as undignified as they came as he kneaded the aching muscles of my back. The sorer areas drew out rather pathetic-sounding whimpers, but he rubbed them gently, until the tension was a dull ache rather than sharp, blinding pain.
And then he started on my wings.
Relief and ecstasy, as muscles eased and those sensitive areas were lovingly, tauntingly grazed over.
My toes curled, and just as he reached the sensitive spot that had my stomach clenching, his hands slid to my calves. He began a slow progression, higher and higher, up my thighs, teasing strokes between them that left me panting through my nose. Rising up until he got to my backside, where his massaging was equally professional and sinful. And then up—up my lower back, to my wings.
His touch turned different. Exploring. Broad strokes and featherlight ones, arches and swirls and direct, searing lines.
My core heated, turning molten, and I bit down on my lip as he lightly scraped a fingernail so, so close to that inner, sensitive spot. “Too bad you’re so sore from training,” Rhys mused, making idle, lazy circles.
I could only manage a garbled strand of words that were both plea and insult.
He leaned in, his breath warming the space of skin between my wings. “Did I ever tell you that you have the dirtiest mouth I’ve ever heard?”
I muttered words that only offered more proof of that claim.
He chuckled and skimmed the edge of that sensitive spot, right as his other hand slid between my legs.
Brazenly, I lifted my hips in silent demand. But he just circled with a finger, as lazy as the strokes along my wing. He kissed my spine. “How shall I make love to you tonight, Feyre darling?”
I writhed, rubbing against the folds of the blankets beneath me, desperate for any sort of friction as he dangled me over that edge.
“So impatient,” he purred, and that finger glided into me. I moaned, the sensation too much, too consuming, with his hand between my legs and the other stroking closer and closer to that spot on my wing, a predator circling prey.
“Will it ever stop?” he mused, more to himself than me as another finger joined the one sliding in and out of me with taunting, indolent strokes. “Wanting you—every hour, every breath. I don’t think I can stand a thousand years of this.” My hips moved with him, driving him deeper. “Think of how my productivity will plummet.”
I growled something at him that was likely not very romantic, and he chuckled, slipping out both fingers. I made a little whining noise of protest.
Until his mouth replaced where his fingers had been, his hands gripping my hips to raise me up, to lend him better access as he feasted on me. I groaned, the sound muffled by the pillow, and he only delved deeper, taunting and teasing with every stroke.
A low moan broke from me, my hips rolling. Rhys’s grip on them tightened, holding me still for his ministrations. “I never got to take you in the library,” he said, dragging his tongue right up my center. “We’ll have to remedy that.”
“Rhys.” His name was a plea on my lips.
“Hmmm,” was all he said, a rumble of the sound against me … I panted, hands fisting in the sheets.
His hands drifted from my hips at last, and I again breathed his name, in thanks and relief and anticipation of him at last giving me what I wanted—
But his mouth closed around the bundle of nerves at the apex of my thighs while his hand … He went right to that damned spot at the inner edge of my left wing and stroked lightly.
My climax tore through me with a hoarse cry, sending me soaring out of my body. And when the shuddering ripples and starlight faded …
A bone-weary exhaustion settled over me, permanent and unending as the mating bond between us. Rhys curled into bed behind me, tucking my wings in so he could fold me against him. “That was a fun experiment,” he murmured into my ear.
I could feel him against my backside, hard and ready, but when I made to reach for him, Rhys’s arms only tightened around me. “Sleep, Feyre,” he told me.
So I laid a hand on his forearm, savoring the corded strength beneath, and nestled my head back against his chest. “I wish I had days to spend with you—like this,” I managed to say as my eyelids drooped. “Just me and you.”
“We will.” He kissed my hair. “We will.”
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