فصل 03

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CHAPTER

3

The spring woods fell silent as we rode between the budding trees, birds and small furred beasts having darted for cover long before we passed.

Not from me, or Lucien, or the three sentries trailing a respectful distance behind. But from Jurian and the two Hybern commanders who rode in the center of our party. As if they were as awful as the Bogge, as the naga.

We reached the wall without incident or Jurian trying to bait us into distraction. I’d been awake most of the night, casting my awareness through the manor, hunting for any sign that Dagdan and Brannagh were working their daemati influence on anyone else. Mercifully, the curse-breaking ability I’d inherited from Helion Spell-Cleaver, High Lord of the Day Court, had detected no tangles, no spells, save for the wards around the house itself, preventing anyone from winnowing in or out.

Tamlin had been tense at breakfast, but had not asked me to remain behind. I’d even gone so far as to test him by asking what was wrong—to which he’d only replied that he had a headache. Lucien had just patted him on the shoulder and promised to look after me. I’d nearly laughed at the words.

But laughter was now far from my lips as the wall pulsed and throbbed, a heavy, hideous presence that loomed from half a mile away. Up close, though … Even our horses were skittish, tossing their heads and stomping their hooves on the mossy earth as we tied them to the low-hanging branches of blooming dogwoods.

“The gap in the wall is right up here,” Lucien was saying, sounding about as thrilled as me to be in such company. Stomping over the fallen pink blossoms, Dagdan and Brannagh slid into step beside him, Jurian slithering off to survey the terrain, the sentries remaining with our mounts.

I followed Lucien and the royals, keeping a casual distance behind. I knew my elegant, fine clothes weren’t fooling the prince and princess into forgetting that a fellow daemati now walked at their backs. But I’d still carefully selected the embroidered sapphire jacket and brown pants—adorned only with the jeweled knife and belt that Lucien had once gifted me. A lifetime ago.

“Who cleaved the wall here?” Brannagh asked, surveying the hole that we could not see—no, the wall itself was utterly invisible—but rather felt, as if the air had been sucked from one spot.

“We don’t know,” Lucien replied, the dappled sunlight glinting along the gold thread adorning his fawn-brown jacket as he crossed his arms. “Some of the holes just appeared over the centuries. This one is barely wide enough for one person to get through.”

An exchanged glance between the twins. I came up behind them, studying the gap, the wall around it that made every instinct recoil at its … wrongness. “This is where I came through—that first time.”

Lucien nodded, and the other two lifted their brows. But I took a step closer to Lucien, my arm nearly brushing his, letting him be a barrier between us. They’d been more careful at breakfast this morning about pushing against my mental shields. Yet now, letting them think I was physically cowed by them … Brannagh studied how closely I stood to Lucien; how he shifted slightly to shield me, too.

A little, cold smile curled her lips. “How many holes are in the wall?”

“We’ve counted three along our entire border,” Lucien said tightly. “Plus one off the coast—about a mile away.”

I didn’t let my cool mask falter as he offered up the information.

But Brannagh shook her head, dark hair devouring the sunlight. “The sea entrances are of no use. We need to break it on the land.”

“The continent surely has spots, too.”

“Their queens have an even weaker grasp on their people than you do,” Dagdan said. I plucked up that gem of information, studied it.

“We’ll leave you to explore it, then,” I said, waving toward the hole. “When you’re done, we’ll ride to the next.”

“It’s two days from here,” Lucien countered.

“Then we’ll plan a trip for that excursion,” I said simply. Before Lucien could object, I asked, “And the third hole?”

Lucien tapped a foot against the mossy ground, but said, “Two days past that.”

I turned to the royals, arching a brow. “Can both of you winnow?”

Brannagh flushed, straightening. But it was Dagdan who admitted, “I can.” He must have carried both Brannagh and Jurian when they arrived. He added, “Only a few miles if I bear others.”

I merely nodded and headed toward a tangle of stooping dogwoods, Lucien following close behind. When there was nothing but ruffling pink blossoms and trickling sunlight through the thatch of branches, when the royals had busied themselves with the wall, out of sight and sound, I took up a perch on a smooth, bald rock.

Lucien sat against a nearby tree, folding one booted ankle over another. “Whatever you’re planning, it’ll land us knee-deep in shit.”

“I’m not planning anything.” I plucked up a fallen pink blossom and twirled it between my thumb and forefinger.

That golden eye narrowed, clicking softly.

“What do you even see with that thing?”

He didn’t answer.

I chucked the blossom onto the soft moss between us. “Don’t trust me? After all we’ve been through?”

He frowned at the discarded blossom, but still said nothing.

I busied myself by sorting through my pack until I found the canteen of water. “If you’d been alive for the War,” I asked him, taking a swig, “would you have fought on their side? Or fought for the humans?”

“I would have been a part of the human-Fae alliance.”

“Even if your father wasn’t?”

“Especially if my father wasn’t.”

But Beron had been part of that alliance, if I correctly recalled my lessons with Rhys all those months ago.

“And yet here you are, ready to march with Hybern.”

“I did it for you, too, you know.” Cold, hard words. “I went with him to get you back.”

“I never realized what a powerful motivator guilt can be.”

“That day you—went away,” he said, struggling to avoid that other word—left. “I beat Tamlin back to the manor—received the message when we were out on the border and raced here. But the only trace of you was that ring, melted between the stones of the parlor. I got rid of it a moment before Tam arrived home to see it.”

A probing, careful statement. Of the facts that pointed not toward abduction.

“They melted it off my finger,” I lied.

His throat bobbed, but he just shook his head, the sunlight leaking through the forest canopy setting the ember-red of his hair flickering.

We sat in silence for minutes. From the rustling and murmuring, the royals were finishing up, and I braced myself, calculating the words I’d need to wield without seeming suspicious.

I said quietly, “Thank you. For coming to Hybern to get me.”

He pulled at the moss beside him, jaw tight. “It was a trap. What I thought we were to do there … it did not turn out that way.”

It was an effort not to bare my teeth. But I walked to him, taking up a place at his side against the wide trunk of the tree. “This situation is terrible,” I said, and it was the truth.

A low snort.

I knocked my knee against his. “Don’t let Jurian bait you. He’s doing it to feel out any weaknesses between us.”

“I know.”

I turned my face to him, resting my knee against his in silent demand. “Why?” I asked. “Why does Hybern want to do this beyond some horrible desire for conquest? What drives him—his people? Hatred? Arrogance?”

Lucien finally looked at me, the intricate pieces and carvings on the metal eye much more dazzling up close. “Do you—”

Brannagh and Dagdan shoved through the bushes, frowning to find us sitting there.

But it was Jurian—right on their heels, as if he’d been divulging the details of his surveying—who smiled at the sight of us, knee to knee and nearly nose to nose.

“Careful, Lucien,” the warrior sneered. “You see what happens to males who touch the High Lord’s belongings.”

Lucien snarled, but I shot him a warning glare.

Point proven, I said silently.

And despite Jurian, despite the sneering royals, a corner of Lucien’s mouth tugged upward.

Ianthe was waiting at the stables when we returned.

She’d made her grand arrival at the end of breakfast hours before, breezing into the dining room when the sun was shining in shafts of pure gold through the windows.

I had no doubt she’d planned the timing, just as she had planned the stop in the middle of one of those sunbeams, angled so her hair glowed and the jewel atop her head burned with blue fire. I would have titled the painting Model Piety.

After she’d been briefly introduced by Tamlin, she’d mostly cooed over Jurian—who had only scowled at her like some insect buzzing in his ear.

Dagdan and Brannagh had listened to her fawning with enough boredom that I was starting to wonder if the two of them perhaps preferred no one’s company but each other’s. In whatever unholy capacity. Not a blink of interest toward the beauty who often made males and females stop to gape. Perhaps any sort of physical passion had long ago been drained away, alongside their souls.

So the Hybern royals and Jurian had tolerated Ianthe for about a minute before they’d found their food more interesting. A slight that no doubt explained why she had decided to meet us here, awaiting our return as we rode in.

It was my first time on a horse in months, and I was stiff enough that I could barely move as the party dismounted. I gave Lucien a subtle, pleading look, and he barely hid his smirk as he sauntered over to me.

Our dispersing party watched as he braced my waist in his broad hands and easily hefted me off the horse, none more closely than Ianthe.

I only patted Lucien on the shoulder in thanks. Ever the courtier, he bowed back.

It was hard, sometimes, to remember to hate him. To remember the game I was already playing.

Ianthe trilled, “A successful journey, I hope?”

I jerked my chin toward the royals. “They seemed pleased.”

Indeed, whatever they’d been looking for, they’d found agreeable. I hadn’t dared ask too many prying questions. Not yet.

Ianthe bowed her head. “Thank the Cauldron for that.”

“What do you want,” Lucien said a shade too flatly.

She frowned but lifted her chin, folding her hands before her as she said, “We’re to have a party in honor of our guests—and to coincide with the Summer Solstice in a few days. I wished to speak to Feyre about it.” A two-faced smile. “Unless you have an objection to that.”

“He doesn’t,” I answered before Lucien could say something he’d regret. “Give me an hour to eat and change, and I’ll meet you in the study.”

Perhaps a tinge more assertive than I’d once been, but she nodded all the same. I linked my elbow with Lucien’s and steered him away. “See you soon,” I told her, and felt her gaze on us as we walked from the dim stables and into the bright midday light.

His body was taut, near-trembling.

“What happened between you?” I hissed when we were lost among the hedges and gravel paths of the garden.

“It’s not worth repeating.”

“When I—was taken,” I ventured, almost stumbling on the word, almost saying left. “Did she and Tamlin …”

I was not faking the twisting low in my gut.

“No,” he said hoarsely. “No. When Calanmai came along, he refused. He flat-out refused to participate. I replaced him in the Rite, but …”

I’d forgotten. Forgotten about Calanmai and the Rite. I did a mental tally of the days.

No wonder I’d forgotten. I’d been in that cabin in the mountains. With Rhys buried in me. Perhaps we’d generated our own magic that night.

But Lucien … “You took Ianthe into that cave on Calanmai?”

He wouldn’t meet my gaze. “She insisted. Tamlin was … Things were bad, Feyre. I went in his stead, and I did my duty to the court. I went of my own free will. And we completed the Rite.”

No wonder she’d backed off him. She’d gotten what she wanted.

“Please don’t tell Elain,” he said. “When we—when we find her again,” he amended.

He might have completed the Great Rite with Ianthe of his own free will, but he certainly hadn’t enjoyed it. Some line had been blurred—badly.

And my heart shifted a bit in my chest as I said to him with no guile whatsoever, “I won’t tell anyone unless you say so.” The weight of that jeweled knife and belt seemed to grow. “I wish I had been there to stop it. I should have been there to stop it.” I meant every word.

Lucien squeezed our linked arms as we rounded a hedge, the house rising up before us. “You are a better friend to me, Feyre,” he said quietly, “than I ever was to you.”

Alis frowned at the two dresses hanging from the armoire door, her long brown fingers smoothing over the chiffon and silk.

“I don’t know if the waist can be taken out,” she said without peering back at where I sat on the edge of the bed. “We took so much of it in that there’s not much fabric left to play with … You might very well need to order new ones.”

She faced me then, running an eye over my robed body.

I knew what she saw—what lies and poisoned smiles couldn’t hide: I had become wraith-thin while living here after Amarantha. Yet for all Rhys had done to harm me, I’d gained back the weight I’d lost, put on muscle, and discarded the sickly pallor in favor of sun-kissed skin.

For a woman who had been tortured and tormented for months, I looked remarkably well.

Our eyes held across the room, the silence hewn only by the humming of the few remaining servants in the hallway, busy with preparations for the solstice tomorrow morning.

I’d spent the past two days playing the pretty pet, allowed into meetings with the Hybern royals mostly because I remained quiet. They were as cautious as we were, hedging Tamlin and Lucien’s questions about the movements of their armies, their foreign allies—and other allies within Prythian. The meetings went nowhere, as all they wanted to know was information about our own forces.

And about the Night Court.

I fed Dagdan and Brannagh details both true and false, mixing them together seamlessly. I laid out the Illyrian host amongst the mountains and steppes, but selected the strongest clan as their weakest; I mentioned the efficiency of those blue stones from Hybern against Cassian’s and Azriel’s power but failed to mention how easily they’d worked around them. Any questions I couldn’t evade, I feigned memory loss or trauma too great to bear recalling.

But for all my lying and maneuvering, the royals were too guarded to reveal much of their own information. And for all my careful expressions, Alis seemed the only one who noted the tiny tells that even I couldn’t control.

“Do you think there are any gowns that will fit for solstice?” I said casually as her silence continued. “The pink and green ones fit, but I’ve worn them thrice already.”

“You never cared for such things,” Alis said, clicking her tongue.

“Am I not allowed to change my mind?”

Those dark eyes narrowed slightly. But Alis yanked open the armoire doors, the dresses swaying with it, and riffled through its dark interior. “You could wear this.” She held up an outfit.

A set of turquoise Night Court clothes, cut so similarly to Amren’s preferred fashion, dangled from her spindly fingers. My heart lurched.

“That—why—” Words stumbled out of me, bulky and slippery, and I silenced myself with a sharp yank on my inner leash. I straightened. “I have never known you to be cruel, Alis.”

A snort. She chucked the clothes back into the armoire. “Tamlin shredded the two other sets—missed this one because it was in the wrong drawer.”

I wove a mental thread into the hallway to ensure no one was listening. “He was upset. I wish he’d destroyed that pair, too.”

“I was there that day, you know,” Alis said, folding her spindly arms across her chest. “I saw the Morrigan arrive. Saw her reach into that cocoon of power and pick you up like a child. I begged her to take you out.”

My swallow wasn’t feigned.

“I never told him that. Never told any of them. I let them think you’d been abducted. But you clung to her, and she was willing to slaughter all of us for what had happened.”

“I don’t know why you’d assume that.” I tugged the edges of my silk robe tighter around me.

“Servants talk. And Under the Mountain, I never heard of or saw Rhysand laying a hand on a servant. Guards, Amarantha’s cronies, the people he was ordered to kill, yes. But never the meek. Never those unable to defend themselves.”

“He’s a monster.”

“They say you came back different. Came back wrong.” A crow’s laugh. “I never bother to tell them I think you came back right. Came back right at last.”

A precipice yawned open before me. Lines—there were lines here, and my survival and that of Prythian depended upon navigating them. I rose from the bed, hands shaking slightly.

But then Alis said, “My cousin works in the palace at Adriata.”

Summer Court. Alis had originally been from the Summer Court, and had fled here with her two nephews after her sister had been brutally murdered during Amarantha’s reign.

“Servants in that palace are not meant to be seen or heard, but they see and hear plenty when no one believes they’re present.”

She was my friend. She had helped me at great risk Under the Mountain. Had stood by me in the months after. But if she jeopardized everything—

“She said you visited. And that you were healthy, and laughing, and happy.”

“It was a lie. He made me act that way.” The wobble in my voice didn’t take much to summon.

A knowing, crooked smile. “If you say so.”

“I do say so.”

Alis pulled out a dress of creamy white. “You never got to wear this one. I had it ordered for after your wedding day.”

It wasn’t exactly bride-like, but rather pure. Clean. The kind of gown I’d have resented when I returned from Under the Mountain, desperate to avoid any comparison to my ruined soul. But now … I held Alis’s stare, and wondered which of my plans she’d deciphered.

Alis whispered, “I will only say this once. Whatever you plan to do, I beg you leave my boys out of it. Take whatever retribution you desire, but please spare them.”

I would never—I almost began. But I only shook my head, knotting my brows, utterly confused and distressed. “All I want is to settle back into life here. To heal.”

Heal the land of the corruption and darkness spreading across it.

Alis seemed to understand it, too. She set the dress on the armoire door, airing out the loose, shining skirts.

“Wear this on solstice,” she said quietly.

So I did.

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