فصل 33

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CHAPTER

33

Seer.

The word clanged through me.

She’d known. She’d warned Nesta about the Ravens. And in the chaos of the attack, that little realization had slipped from me. Slipped from me as reality and dream slipped and entwined for Elain. Seer.

Elain turned to Mor, who was now gaping at my sister from her spot beside her on the couch. “Is that what this is?”

And the words, the tone … they were so normal-sounding that my chest tightened.

Mor’s gaze darted across my sister’s face, as if weighing the words, the question, the truth or lie within.

Mor at last blinked, mouth parting. Like that magic of hers had at last solved some puzzle. Slowly, clearly, she nodded. Lucien silently slid into one of the chairs, before the window, that metal eye whirring as it roved over my sister.

It made sense, I supposed, that Azriel alone had listened to her. The male who heard things others could not … Perhaps he, too, had suffered as Elain had before he understood what gift he possessed. He asked Elain, “There is another queen?”

Elain squinted, as if the question required some inner clarification, some … path into looking the right way at whatever had addled and plagued her. “Yes.”

“The sixth queen,” Mor breathed. “The queen who the golden one said wasn’t ill …”

“She said not to trust the other queens because of it,” I added.

And as soon as the words left my mouth … It was like stepping back from a painting to see the entire picture. Up close, the words had been muddled and messy. But from a distance …

“You stole from the Cauldron,” I said to Nesta, who seemed ready to jump between all of us and Elain. “But what if the Cauldron gave something to Elain?”

Nesta’s face drained of color. “What?”

Equally ashen, Lucien seemed inclined to echo Nesta’s hoarse question.

But Azriel nodded. “You knew,” he said to Elain. “About the young queen turning into a crone.”

Elain blinked and blinked, eyes clearing again. As if the understanding, our understanding … it freed her from whatever murky realm she’d been in.

“The sixth queen is alive?” Azriel asked, calm and steady, the voice of the High Lord’s spymaster, who had broken enemies and charmed allies.

Elain cocked her head, as if listening to some inner voice. “Yes.”

Lucien just stared and stared at my sister, as if he’d never seen her before.

I whipped my face to Rhys. A potential ally?

I don’t know, he answered. If the others cursed her …

“What sort of curse?” my mate asked before he’d even finished speaking to me.

Elain shifted her face toward him. Another blink. “They sold her—to … to some darkness, to some … sorcerer-lord …” She shook her head. “I can never see him. What he is. There is an onyx box that he possesses, more vital than anything … save for them. The girls. He keeps other girls—others so like her—but she … By day, she is one form, by night, human again.”

“A bird of burning feathers,” I said.

“Firebird by day,” Rhys mused, “woman by night … So she’s held captive by this sorcerer-lord?”

Elain shook her head. “I don’t know. I hear her—her screaming. With rage. Utter rage …” She shuddered.

Mor leaned forward. “Do you know why the other queens cursed her—sold her to him?”

Elain studied the table. “No. No—that is all mist and shadow.”

Rhys blew out a breath. “Can you sense where she is?”

“There is … a lake. Deep in—in the continent, I think. Hidden amongst mountains and ancient forests.” Elain’s throat bobbed. “He keeps them all at the lake.”

“Other women like her?”

“Yes—and no. Their feathers are white as snow. They glide across the water—while she rages through the skies above it.”

Mor said to Rhys, “What information do we have on this sixth queen?”

“Little,” Azriel answered for him. “We know little. Young—somewhere in her mid-twenties. Scythia lies along the wall, to the east. It’s smallest amongst the human queens’ realms, but rich in trade and arms. She goes by Vassa, but I never got a report with her full name.”

Rhys considered. “She must have posed a considerable threat to the queens if they turned on her. And considering their agenda …”

“If we can find Vassa,” I cut in, “she could be vital in convincing the human forces to fight. And giving us an ally on the continent.”

“If we can find her,” Cassian countered, stepping up to Azriel’s side, his wings flaring slightly. “It could take months. Not to mention, facing the male who holds her captive could be harder than expected. We can’t afford all those potential risks. Or the time it’d take. We should focus on this meeting with the other High Lords first.”

“But we could stand to gain much,” Mor said. “Perhaps she has an army—”

“Perhaps she does,” Cassian cut her off. “But if she’s cursed, who will lead it? And if her kingdom is so far away … they have to travel the mortal way, too. You remember how slowly they moved, how quickly they died—”

“It’s worth a try,” Mor sniped.

“You’re needed here,” Cassian said. Azriel looked inclined to agree, even as he kept quiet. “I need you on a battlefield—not traipsing through the continent. The human half of it. If those queens have rallied armies to offer Hybern, they’re no doubt standing between you and Queen Vassa.”

“You don’t give me orders—”

“No, but I do,” Rhys said. “Don’t give me that look. He’s right—we need you here, Mor.”

“Scythia,” Mor said, shaking her head. “I remember them. They’re horse people. A mounted cavalry could travel far faster—”

“No.” Sheer will blazed in Rhys’s eyes. The order was final.

But Mor tried again. “There is a reason why Elain is seeing these things. She was right about the other queen turning old, about the Ravens’ attack—why is she being sent this image? Why is she hearing this queen? It must be vital. If we ignore it, perhaps we’ll deserve to fail.”

Silence. I surveyed them all. Vital. Each of them was vital here. But me …

I sucked in a breath.

“I’ll go.”

Lucien was staring at Elain as he spoke.

We all looked at him.

Lucien shifted his focus to Rhys, to me. “I’ll go,” he repeated, rising to his feet. “To find this sixth queen.”

Mor opened and shut her mouth.

“What makes you think you could find her?” Rhys asked. Not rudely, but—from a commander’s perspective. Sizing up the skills Lucien offered against the risks, the potential benefits.

“This eye …” Lucien gestured to the metal contraption. “It can see things that others … can’t. Spells, glamours … Perhaps it can help me find her. And break her curse.” He glanced at Elain, who was again studying her lap. “I’m not needed here. I’ll fight if you need me to, but …” He offered me a grim smile. “I do not belong in the Autumn Court. And I’m willing to bet I’m no longer welcome at h—the Spring Court.” Home, he had almost said. “But I cannot sit here and do nothing. Those queens with their armies—there is a threat in that regard, too. So use me. Send me. I will find Vassa, see if she can … bring help.”

“You will be going into the human territory,” Rhys warned. “I can’t spare a force to guard you—”

“I don’t need one. I travel faster on my own.” His chin lifted. “I will find her. And if there’s an army to bring back, or at least some way for her own story to sway the human forces … I’ll find a way to do that, too.”

My friends glanced to each other. Mor said, “It will be—very dangerous.”

A half smile curved Lucien’s mouth. “Good. It’d be boring otherwise.”

Only Cassian returned the grin. “I’ll load you up with some Illyrian steel.”

Elain now watched Lucien warily. Blinking every now and then. She revealed no hint of whatever she might be seeing—sensing. None.

Rhys pushed off the archway. “I’ll winnow you as close as we can get—to wherever you need to be to begin your hunt.” Lucien had indeed been studying all those maps lately. Perhaps at the quiet behest of whatever force had guided us all. My mate added, “Thank you.”

Lucien shrugged. And it was that gesture alone that made me say at last, “Are you sure?”

He only glanced at Elain, whose face was again a calm void while she traced a finger over the embroidery on the couch cushions. “Yes. Let me help in whatever way I can.”

Even Nesta seemed relatively concerned. Not for him, no doubt, but the fact that if he were hurt, or killed … What would it do to Elain? The severing of the mating bond … I shut out the thought of what it’d do to me.

I asked Lucien, “When do you want to leave?”

“Tomorrow.” I hadn’t heard him sound so assertive in … a long time. “I’ll prepare for the rest of today, and leave after breakfast tomorrow morning.” He added to Rhys, “If that works for you.”

My mate waved an idle hand. “For what you’re about to do, Lucien, we’ll make it work.”

Silence fell once more. If he could find that missing queen and perhaps bring back some sort of human army, or at least sway the mortal forces from Hybern’s thrall … If I could find a way to get the Carver to fight for us that did not involve using that terrible mirror … Would it be enough?

The meeting with the High Lords, it seemed, would decide that.

Rhys jerked his chin at Azriel, who took it as an order to vanish—to no doubt check in on Amren.

“Find out if Keir and his Darkbringers had any attacks,” my mate ordered Mor and Cassian, who nodded and left as well. Alone with my sisters and Lucien, Rhys and I caught Nesta’s eye.

And for once, my sister rose to her feet and came toward us, the three of us not so subtly heading upstairs. Leaving Lucien and Elain alone.

It was an effort not to linger atop the landing, to listen to what was said.

If anything was said at all.

But I made myself take Rhys’s hand, flinching at the blood still caked on his skin, and led him to our bathing room. Nesta’s bedroom door clicked shut down the hall.

Rhys wordlessly watched me as I turned on the bathtub faucet and grabbed a washcloth from the chest against the wall. I took up a seat at the edge of the tub, testing the water temperature against my wrist, and patted the porcelain rim beside me. “Sit.”

He obeyed, his head drooping as he sat.

I took one of his hands, guided it to the gurgling stream of water, and held it beneath.

Red flowed off his skin, eddying in the water beneath. I plucked up the cloth and scrubbed gently, more blood flaking off, water splashing onto the still-immaculate sleeves of his jacket. “Why not shield your hands?”

“I wanted to feel it—their lives ending beneath my fingers.”

Cold, flat words.

I scrubbed at his nails, the blood wedged into the cracks where it met his skin. The arcs beneath. “Why is it different this time?” Different from the Attor’s ambush, Hybern’s attack in the woods, the attack on Velaris … all of it. I’d seen him in a rage before, but never … never so detached. As if morality and kindness were things that lurked on a surface far, far above the frozen depths he’d plunged into.

I turned his palm into the spray, getting at the space between his fingers.

“What is the point of it,” he said, “of all this power … if I can’t protect those who are most vulnerable in my city? If it can’t detect an incoming attack?”

“Even Azriel didn’t learn of it—”

“The king used an archaic spell and walked in the front door. If I can’t …” Rhys shook his head, and I lowered his now-clean hand and reached for the other. More blood stained the water. “If I can’t protect them here … How can …” His throat bobbed. I lifted his chin with a hand. Icy rage had slipped into something a bit shattered and aching. “Those priestesses have endured enough. I failed them today. That library … it will no longer feel safe for them. The one place they’ve had to themselves, where they knew they were protected … Hybern took that away today.”

And from him. He had gone to that library for his own need for healing—for safety.

He said, “Perhaps it’s punishment for taking away Velaris from Mor—in granting Keir access here.”

“You can’t think like that—it won’t end well.” I finished washing his other hand, rinsed the cloth, then began swiping it along his neck, his temples … Soothing, warm presses, not to clean but to relax.

“I’m not angry about the bargain,” he said, closing his eyes as I swiped the cloth over his brow. “In case you were … worried.”

“I wasn’t.”

Rhys opened his eyes, as if he could hear the smile in my voice, and studied me while I chucked the cloth into the tub with a wet slap and turned off the faucet.

He was still studying me when I took his face in my damp hands. “What happened today was not your fault,” I said, the words filling the sun-drenched bathing room. “None of it. It all lies on Hybern—and when we face the king again, we will remember these attacks, these injuries to our people. We forgot Amarantha’s spell book—to our own loss. But we have a Book of our own—hopefully with the spell we need. And for now … for now, we will prepare, and we will face the consequences. For now, we move ahead.”

He turned his head to kiss my palm. “Remind me to give you a salary raise.”

I choked on a cough. “For what?”

“For the sage counsel—and the other vital services you provide me.” He winked.

I laughed in earnest, and squeezed his face as I pressed a swift kiss to his mouth. “Shameless flirt.”

The warmth returned to his eyes at last.

So I reached for an ivory towel and bundled his hands, now clean and warm, into the folds of soft fabric.

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