فصل 32

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CHAPTER

32

Cassian gave us both a glass of brandy. A tall glass.

Seated in an armchair in the family library high above, Nesta drank hers in one gulp.

I claimed the chair across from her, took a sip, shuddered at the taste, and made to set it down on the low-lying table between us.

“Keep drinking,” Cassian ordered. The wrath wasn’t toward me.

No—it was toward whatever was below. What had happened.

“Are you hurt?” Cassian asked me. Each word was clipped—brutal.

I shook my head.

That he didn’t ask Nesta … he must have found her first. Ascertained for himself.

I started, “Is the king—the city—”

“No sign of him.” A muscle twitched in his jaw.

We sat in silence. Until Rhys appeared between the open doors, shadows trailing in his wake.

Blood coated his hands—but nothing else.

So much blood, ruby-bright in the midmorning sun.

Like he’d clawed through them with his bare hands.

His eyes were wholly frozen with rage.

But they dipped to my left arm, the sleeve filthy but still rolled up—

Like a slim band of black iron around my forearm, a tattoo now lay there.

It’s custom in my court for bargains to be permanently marked upon flesh, Rhys had told me Under the Mountain.

“What did you give it.” I hadn’t heard that voice since that visit to the Court of Nightmares.

“It—it said it wanted company. Someone to tell it about life. I said yes.”

“Did you volunteer yourself.”

“No.” I drained the rest of the brandy at the tone, his frozen face. “It just said someone. And it didn’t specify when.” I grimaced at the solid black band, no thicker than the width of my finger, interrupted only by two slender gaps near the side of my forearm. I tried to stand, to go to him, to take those bloody hands. But my knees still wobbled enough that I couldn’t move. “Are the king’s Ravens dead?”

“They nearly were when I arrived. It left enough of their minds functioning for me to have a look. And finish them when I was done.”

Cassian was stone-faced, glancing between Rhys’s bloody hands and his ice-cold eyes.

But it was to my sister that my mate turned. “Hybern hunts you because of what you took from the Cauldron. The queens want you dead for vengeance—for robbing them of immortality.”

“I know.” Nesta’s voice was hoarse.

“What did you take.”

“I don’t know.” The words were barely more than a whisper. “Even Amren can’t figure it out.”

Rhys stared her down. But Nesta looked to me—and I could have sworn fear shone there, and guilt and … some other feeling. “You told me to run.”

“You’re my sister,” was all I said. She’d once tried to cross the wall to save me.

But she started. “Elain—”

“Elain is fine,” Rhys said. “Azriel was at the town house. Lucien is headed back, and Mor is nearly there. They know of the threat.”

Nesta leaned her head back against the armchair’s cushion, going a bit boneless.

I said to Rhys, “Hybern infiltrated our city. Again.”

“The prick held on to that fleeting spell until he really needed it.”

“Fleeting spell?”

“A spell of mighty power, able to be wielded only once—to great effect. One capable of cleaving wards … He must have been biding his time.”

“Are the wards here—”

“Amren is currently adapting them against such things. And will then begin combing through this city to find if the king also deposited any other cronies before he vanished.”

Beneath the cold rage, there was a sharpness—honed enough that I said, What’s wrong?

“What’s wrong?” he replied—verbally, as if he could no longer distinguish between the two. “What’s wrong is that those pieces of shit got into my house and attacked my mate. What’s wrong is that my own damn wards worked against me, and you had to make a bargain with that thing to keep yourself from being taken. What’s wrong—”

“Calm down,” I said quietly, but not weakly.

His eyes glowed, like lightning had struck an ocean. But he inhaled deeply, blowing out the breath through his nose, and his shoulders loosened—barely.

“Did you see what it was—that thing down there?”

“I guessed enough about it to close my eyes,” he said. “I only opened them when it had stepped away from their bodies.”

Cassian’s skin had turned ashen. He’d seen it. He’d seen it again. But he said nothing.

“Yes, the king got past our defenses,” I said to Rhys. “Yes, things went badly. But we weren’t hurt. And the Ravens revealed some key pieces of information.”

Sloppy, I realized. Rhys had been sloppy in killing them. Normally, he would have kept them alive for Azriel to question. But he’d taken what he needed, quickly and brutally, and ended it. He’d shown more restraint about the Attor—

“We know why the Cauldron doesn’t work at its full strength now,” I went on. “We know that Nesta is more of a priority for the king than I am.”

Rhys mulled it over. “Hybern showed part of his hand, in bringing them here. He has to have a sliver of doubt of his conquest if he’d risk it.”

Nesta looked like she was going to be sick. Cassian wordlessly refilled her glass. But I asked, “How—how did you know that we were in trouble?”

“Clotho,” Rhys said. “There’s a spelled bell inside the library. She rang it, and it went out to all of us. Cassian got there first.”

I wondered what had happened in those initial moments, when he’d found my sister.

As if he’d read my thoughts, Rhys sent the image to me, no doubt courtesy of Cassian.

Panic—and rage. That was all he knew as he shot down into the heart of the pit, spearing for that ancient darkness that had once shaken him to his very marrow.

Nesta was there—and Feyre.

It was the former he saw first, stumbling out of the dark, wide-eyed, her fear a tang that whetted his rage into something so sharp he could barely think, barely breathe—

She let out a small, animal sound—like some wounded stag—as she saw him. As he landed so hard his knees popped.

He said nothing as Nesta launched herself toward him, her dress filthy and disheveled, her arms stretching for him. He opened his own for her, unable to stop his approach, his reaching—

She gripped his leathers instead. “ Feyre,” she rasped, pointing behind her with a free hand, shaking him solidly with the other. Strength—such untapped strength in that slim, beautiful body. “Hybern.”

That was all he needed to hear. He drew his sword—then Rhys was arrowing for them, his power like a gods-damned volcanic eruption. Cassian charged ahead into the gloom, following the screaming—

I pulled away, not wanting to see any further. See what Cassian had witnessed down there.

Rhys strode to me, and lifted a hand to brush my hair—but stopped upon seeing the blood crusting his fingers. He instead studied the tattoo now marring my left arm. “As long as we don’t have to invite it to solstice dinner, I can live with it.”

“You can live with it?” I lifted my brows.

A ghost of a smile, even with all that had happened, that now lay before us. “At least now if one of you misbehaves, I know the perfect punishment. Going down there to talk to that thing for an hour.”

Nesta scowled with distaste, but Cassian let out a dark laugh. “I’ll take scrubbing toilets, thank you.”

“Your second encounter seemed less harrowing than the first.”

“It wasn’t trying to eat me this time.” But shadows still darkened his eyes.

Rhys saw them, too. Saw them and said quietly, again with that High Lord’s voice, “Warn whoever needs to know to stay indoors tonight. Children off the streets at sundown, none of the Palaces will remain open past moonrise. Anyone on the streets faces the consequences.”

“Of what?” I asked, the liquor in my stomach now burning.

Rhys’s jaw tightened, and he surveyed the sparkling city beyond the windows. “Of Amren on the hunt.”

Elain was nestled beside a too-casual Mor on the sitting room couch when we arrived at the town house. Nesta strode past me, right to Elain, and took up a seat on her other side, before turning her attention to where we remained in the foyer. Waiting—somehow sensing the meeting that was about to unfold.

Lucien, stationed by the front window, turned from watching the street. Monitoring it. A sword and dagger hung from his belt. No humor, no warmth graced his face—only fierce, grim determination.

“Azriel’s coming down from the roof,” Rhys said to none of us in particular, leaning against the archway into the sitting room and crossing his arms.

And as if he’d summoned him, Azriel stepped out of a pocket of shadow by the stairs and scanned us from head to toe. His eyes lingered on the blood crusting Rhys’s hands.

I took up a spot at the opposite doorway post while Cassian and Azriel remained between us.

Rhys was quiet for a moment before he said, “The priestesses will keep silent about what happened today. And the people of this city won’t learn why Amren is now preparing to hunt. We can’t afford to let the other High Lords know. It would unnerve them—and destabilize the image we have worked so hard to create.”

“The attack on Velaris,” Mor countered from her place on the couch, “already showed we’re vulnerable.”

“That was a surprise attack, which we handled quickly,” Cassian said, Siphons flickering. “Az made sure the information came out portraying us as victors—able to defeat any challenge Hybern throws our way.”

“We did that today,” I said.

“It’s different,” Rhys said. “The first time, we had the element of their surprise to excuse us. This second time … it makes us look unprepared. Vulnerable. We can’t risk that getting out before the meeting in ten days. So for all appearances, we will remain unruffled as we prepare for war.”

Mor sagged against the couch cushions. “A war where we have no allies beyond Keir, either in Prythian or beyond it.”

Rhys gave her a sharp look. But Elain said quietly, “The queen might come.”

Silence.

Elain was staring at the unlit fireplace, eyes lost to that vague murkiness.

“What queen,” Nesta said, more tightly than she usually spoke to our sister.

“The one who was cursed.”

“Cursed by the Cauldron,” I clarified to Nesta, pushing off the archway. “When it threw its tantrum after you … left.”

“No.” Elain studied me, then her. “Not that one. The other.”

Nesta took a steadying breath, opening her mouth to either whisk Elain upstairs or move on.

But Azriel asked softly, taking a single step over the threshold and into the sitting room, “What other?”

Elain’s brows twitched toward each other. “The queen—with the feathers of flame.”

The shadowsinger angled his head.

Lucien murmured to me, eye still fixed on Elain, “Should we—does she need …?”

“She doesn’t need anything,” Azriel answered without so much as looking at Lucien.

Elain was staring at the spymaster now—unblinkingly.

“We’re the ones who need …” Azriel trailed off. “A seer,” he said, more to himself than us. “The Cauldron made you a seer.”

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