فصل 37

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CHAPTER

37

Blood slid from the tips of Rhys’s twin blades onto the deck. One drop—two. Three.

Mother above. The king—

The King of Hybern wore his own colors: slate gray, embroidered with bone-colored thread. Not a weapon on him. Not a speckle of blood.

Within Rhys’s mind, there was no jagged breath for me to take, no heartbeat to thunder in my chest. There was nothing I could do but watch—watch and keep quiet, so I didn’t distract him, didn’t risk taking his focus away for one blink …

Rhys met the king’s dark eyes, bright beneath heavy brows, and smiled. “Glad to see you’re still not fighting your own battles.”

The king’s answering smile was a brutal slash of white. “I was waiting for more interesting quarry to find me.” His voice was colder than the highest peak of the Illyrian mountains.

Rhys didn’t dare look away from him. Not as his magic unfurled, sniffing out every angle to kill the king. A trap—it had been a trap to discover which High Lord hunted down the source of that damper first.

Rhys had known one of them—the king, his cronies—would be waiting here.

He’d known, and come. Known and not asked us to help him—

If I was smart, Rhys said to me, his voice calm and steady, I’d find some way to take him alive, make Azriel break him—get him to yield the Cauldron. And make an example of him to the other bastards thinking of bringing down that wall.

Don’t, I begged him. Just kill him—kill him and be done with it, Rhys. End this war before it can truly begin.

A pause of consideration. But a death here, quick and brutal … His followers would turn it against me, no doubt.

If he could manage it. The king had not been fighting. Had not depleted his reserves of power. But Rhys …

I felt Rhys size up the odds alongside me. Let one of us come to you. Don’t face him alone—

Because trying to take the king alive without full access to his power …

Information rippled into me, brimming with all Rhys had seen and learned. Taking the king alive depended on whether Azriel was in good enough shape to help. He and Cassian had taken a few blows themselves, but—nothing they couldn’t handle. Nothing to spook the Illyrians still fighting under their command. Yet.

“Seems like the tide is turning,” Rhys observed as the armada around them indeed pushed Hybern’s forces out to sea. He had not seen Tarquin. Or Varian and Cresseida. But the Summer Court still fought. Still pushed Hybern back, back, back from the harbor.

Time. Rhys needed time—

Rhys lunged toward the king’s mind—and met nothing. Not a trace, not a whisper. As if he were nothing but wicked thought and ancient malice—

The king clicked his tongue. “I’d heard that you were a charmer, Rhysand. Yet here you are, groping and pawing at me like a green youth.”

A corner of Rhys’s mouth twitched up. “Always a delight to disappoint Hybern.”

“Oh, on the contrary,” the king said, crossing his arms—muscle shifting beneath. “You’ve always been such a source of entertainment. Especially for my darling Amarantha.”

I felt it—the thought that escaped Rhys.

He wanted to wipe that name from living memory. Perhaps one day he would. One day he’d erase it from every mind in this world, one by one, until she was no one and nothing.

But the king knew that. From that smile, he knew.

And everything he had done … All of it …

Kill him, Rhys. Kill him and be done with it.

It’s not that easy, was his even reply. Not without searching this ship, searching him for that source of the spell on our power, and breaking it.

But if he lingered much longer … I had no doubt the king had some nasty surprise waiting. Designed to spring shut at any moment. I knew Rhys was aware of it, too.

Knew, because he rallied his magic, assessing and weighing, an asp readying to strike.

“The last report I received from Amarantha,” the king went on, sliding his hands into his pockets, “she was still enjoying you.” The soldiers laughed.

My mate was used to it—that laughter. Even if it made me want to roar at them, rend them to pieces. But Rhys didn’t so much as grit his teeth, though the king gave him a smile that told me he was well aware of what sort of scars lingered. What my mate had done to keep Amarantha distracted. Why he’d done it.

Rhys smirked. “Too bad it didn’t end so pleasantly for her.” His magic slithered through the ship, hunting down that tether for the power holding back our forces …

Kill him—kill him now. The word was a chant in my blood, my mind.

In his, too. I could hear it, clear as my own thoughts.

“Such a remarkable girl—your mate,” the king mused. No emotion, not so much as a bit of anger beyond that cold amusement. “First Amarantha, then my pet, the Attor … And then she broke past all the wards around my palace to aid your escape. Not to mention …” A low laugh. “My niece and nephew.” Rage—that was rage starting to blacken in his eyes. “She savaged Dagdan and Brannagh—and for what reason?”

“Perhaps you should ask Tamlin.” Rhys raised a brow. “Where is he, by the way?”

“Tamlin.” Hybern savored the name, the sound of it. “He has plans for you, after what you and your mate did to him. His court. What a mess for him to clean up—though she certainly made it easier for me to plant more of my troops in his lands.”

Mother above—Mother above, I’d done that—

“She’ll be happy to hear that.”

Too long. Rhys had lingered too long, and facing him now … Fight or run. Run or fight.

“Where did her gifts come from, I wonder? Or who?”

The king knew. What I was. What I possessed.

“I’m a lucky male to have her as my mate.”

The king smiled again. “For the little time you have remaining.”

I could have sworn Rhys blocked out the words.

The king went on casually, “It will take everything, you know. To try to stop me. Everything you have. And it still won’t be enough. And when you have given everything and you are dead, Rhysand, when your mate is mourning over your corpse, I am going to take her.”

Rhys didn’t let a flicker of emotion show, sliding on that cool, amused mask over the roaring rage that surrounded me at the thought, the threat. That settled before me like a beast ready to lunge, to defend. “She defeated Amarantha and the Attor,” Rhys countered. “I doubt you’ll be much of an effort, either.”

“We’ll see. Perhaps I’ll give her to Tamlin when I’m done.”

Fury heated Rhys’s blood. And my own.

Strike or flee, Rhys, I begged again. But do it now.

Rhys rallied his power, and I felt it rise within him, felt him grappling to sustain his grip on it.

“The spell will wear off,” the king said, waving a hand. “Another little trick I picked up while rotting away in Hybern.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Rhys said mildly.

They only smiled at each other.

And then Rhys asked, “Why?”

The king knew what he meant.

“There was room at the table for everyone, you and your ilk claimed.” The king snorted. “For humans, lesser faeries, for half-breeds. In this new world of yours, there was room at the table for everyone—so long as they thought like you. But the Loyalists … How you delighted in shutting us out. Looking down your noses at us.” He gestured to the soldiers monitoring them, the battle in the bay. “You want to know why? Because we suffered—when you stifled us, when you shut us out.” Some of his soldiers grunted their agreement. “I have no interest in spending another five centuries seeing my people bow before human pigs—seeing them claw out a living while you shield and coddle those mortals, granting them our resources and wealth in exchange for nothing.” He inclined his head. “So we shall reclaim what is ours. What was always ours, and will always be ours.”

Rhys offered him a sly grin. “You can certainly try.”

My mate didn’t bother saying more as he hurled a slender javelin of power at him, the shot as precise as an arrow.

And when it reached the king—

It went right through him.

He rippled—then steadied.

An illusion. A shade.

The king rumbled a laugh. “Did you think I’d appear at this battle myself?” He waved a hand toward the soldiers still watching. “A taste—this battle is only a taste for you. To whet your appetite.”

Then he was gone.

The magic leaking from the boat, the oily sheen it’d laid over Rhys’s power … it vanished, too.

Rhys allowed the Hybern soldiers aboard the ship, aboard the ones around him, the honor of at least lifting their blades.

Then he turned them all into nothing but red mist and splinters floating on the waves.

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