فصل 39

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CHAPTER

39

The Illyrian camp remained in the hills above Adriata.

Mostly because there were so many injured that we couldn’t move them until they’d healed enough to survive it.

Wings shredded, guts dangling out, faces mauled …

I don’t know how my friends were still standing as they tended to the wounded as much as they could. I barely saw Azriel, who had set up a tent to organize the information pouring in from his scouts: the Hybern fleet had retreated. Not to the Spring Court, but across the sea. No sign of any other forces waiting to strike. No whisper of Tamlin or Jurian.

Cassian, though … He limped through the injured laid out on the rocky, dry ground, offering kernels of praise or comfort to the soldiers who had not yet been tended. With the Siphons, he could do quick battlefield patching, but … nothing extensive. Nothing intricate.

His face, whenever we crossed paths as I fetched supplies for the healers working without rest, was grave. Gaunt. He still wore his armor, and though he’d rinsed the blood from his skin, it clung near the neck of his breastplate. The dullness in his hazel eyes was the same as that glazing my own. And Mor’s.

But Rhys … His eyes were clear. Alert. His expression grim, but … It was to him the soldiers looked. And he was everything he should be: a High Lord confident in his victory, whose forces had smashed through the Hybern fleet and saved a city of innocents. The toll it had taken on his own soldiers was difficult, but a worthy cost for victory. He strolled through the camp—overseeing the wounded, the information Azriel handed him, checking in with his commanders—still in his Illyrian armor. But wings gone. They’d vanished before he’d appeared in Tarquin’s chamber.

The sun set, leaving a blanket of darkness over the city lying below. So much darker than I’d last beheld it, alive and glittering with light. But this new darkness … We had seen it in Velaris after the attack—we now knew it too well.

Faelights bobbed over our camp, gilding the talons of all those Illyrian wings as they worked or lay injured. I knew many looked to me—their High Lady.

But I could not muster Rhys’s ease. His quiet triumph.

So I kept fetching bowls of fresh water, kept hauling away the bloodied ones. Helped pin down screaming soldiers until my teeth clacked against each other with the force of their thrashing.

I sat down only when my legs could no longer keep me upright, upon an overturned bucket outside the healers’ tent. Just a few minutes—I’d sit for just a few minutes.

I awoke inside another tent, laid upon a pile of furs, the faelight dim and soft.

Rhys sat beside me, legs crossed, his hair in unusual disarray. Streaked with blood—as if it had coated his hands when he dragged them through it.

“How long was I out?” My words were a rasp.

He lifted his head from where he’d been studying some array of papers spread on the fur before him. “Three hours. Dawn is still far off—you should sleep.”

But I propped myself on my elbows. “You’re not.”

He shrugged, sipping from the water goblet set beside him. “I’m not the one who fell face-first off a bucket into the mud.” His wry smile faded. “How are you feeling?”

I almost said Fine, but … “I’m still figuring out what to feel.”

A careful nod. “Open war is like that … It takes a while to decide how to deal with everything that it brings. The costs.”

I sat up fully, scanning the papers he’d laid out. Casualty lists. Only a hundred or so names on them, but … “Did you know them—the ones who died?”

His violet eyes shuttered. “A few. Tarquin lost many more than we did.”

“Who tells their families?”

“Cassian. He’ll send out lists once dawn arrives—when we see who survives the night. He’ll visit their families if he knew them.”

I remembered that Rhys had once told me he’d scanned casualty lists for his friends in the War—the dread they’d all felt, waiting to see if a familiar name was on them.

So many shadows clouded those violet eyes. I laid a hand on his own. He studied my fingers on his, the arcs of dirt beneath my fingernails.

“The king only came today,” he said at last, “to taunt me. The library attack, this battle … It was a way to toy with me. Us.”

I touched his jaw. Cold—his skin was cold, despite the warm summer night pressing on us. “You are not going to die in this war, Rhysand.”

His attention snapped to me.

I cupped his face in both hands now. “Don’t you listen to a word he says. He knows—”

“He knows about us. Our histories.”

And that scared Rhys to death.

“He knew the library … He picked it for what it meant to me, not just to take Nesta.”

“So we learn where to hit him, and strike hard. Better yet, we kill him before he can do any further harm.”

Rhys shook his head slightly, removing his face from my hands. “If it was only the king to contend with … But with the Cauldron in his arsenal …”

And it was the way his shoulders began to curve in, the way his chin dipped ever so slightly … I grabbed his hand again. “We need allies,” I said, my eyes burning. “We can’t face the brunt of this war alone.”

“I know.” The words were heavy—weary.

“Move the meeting with the High Lords sooner. Three days from now.”

“I will.” I’d never heard that tone—that quiet.

And it was precisely because of it that I said, “I love you.”

His head lifted, eyes churning. “There was a time when I dreamed of hearing that,” he murmured. “When I never thought I’d hear it from you.” He gestured to the tent—to Adriata beyond it. “Our trip here was the first time I let myself … hope.”

To the stars who listen—and the dreams that are answered.

And yet today, with Tarquin …

“The world should know,” I said. “The world should know how good you are, Rhysand—how wonderful all of you are.”

“I can’t tell if I should be worried that you’re saying such nice things about me. Maybe the king’s taunting did get to you.”

I pinched his arm, and he let out a low laugh before raising my face to study my eyes. He angled his head. “Should I be worried?”

I put a hand to his cheek once more, the silken skin now warm. “You are selfless, and brave, and kind. You are more than I ever dreamed for myself, more than I …” The words choked off, and I swallowed, taking a deep breath. I wasn’t sure if he needed to hear it after what the king had said, but I needed to say it. Starlight now danced in his eyes. But I went on, “At this meeting with the other High Lords, what role will you play?”

“The usual one.”

I nodded, having anticipated his answer. “And the others will play their usual roles, too.”

“And?”

I slid my hand from his face and put it over his heart. “I think the time has come for us to remove the masks. To stop playing the part.”

He waited, hearing me out.

“Velaris is secret no longer. The king knows too much about us—who we are. What we are. And if we’re to ally with the other High Lords … I think they need the truth. They will need the truth in order to trust us. The truth about who you really are—who Mor and Cassian and Azriel really are. Look at how poorly things went with Tarquin today. We can’t—we can’t let it continue like this. So no more masks, no more roles to play. We go as ourselves. As a family.”

If anything, the king’s taunting had told me that. Games were over. There would be no more disguises, no more lies. Perhaps he thought it’d drive us toward continuing to do such things. But to stand a chance … perhaps victory lay in the other direction. In honesty. With us standing together—as precisely who we were.

I waited for Rhys to tell me that I was young and inexperienced, that I knew nothing of politics and war.

Yet Rhys only brushed his thumb over my cheek. “They may be angry at the lies we’ve fed them over the centuries.”

“Then we will make it clear that we understand their feelings—and make it clear that we had no alternative way to protect our people.”

“We’ll show them the Court of Dreams,” he said quietly.

I nodded. We’d show them—and also show Keir, and Eris, and Beron. Show who we were to our allies—and our enemies.

Stars glimmered and burned out in those beautiful eyes. “And what of your powers?” The king had known of them, too—or guessed at it.

I knew from his cautious tone that he’d already formed an opinion. But the choice was mine—he’d face it at my side no matter what I decided.

And as I thought it through … “I think they’ll see the revealing of our good sides as manipulative if it also comes out that your mate has stolen power from them all. If the king plans to use that information against us—we’ll deal with that later.”

“Technically, that power was gifted, but … you’re right. We’ll have to walk a fine enough line regarding how we show ourselves—spin it the right way so they don’t think it’s a trap or scheme. But when it comes to you …” Darkness blotted out the stars in his eyes. The darkness of assassins and thieves, the darkness of uncompromising death. “You could tip the scale in Hybern’s favor if any of them are considering an alliance. Beron alone might try to kill you, with or without this war. I doubt even Eris could keep him from it.”

I could have sworn the war-camp shuddered at the power that rumbled awake—the wrath. Voices outside the tent dropped to whispers. Or outright silence.

But I leaned over and kissed him lightly. “We’ll deal with it,” I said onto his mouth.

He pulled his mouth from mine, his face grave. “We keep all your powers but the ones I gave you hidden. As my High Lady, you will have been expected to have received some.”

I swallowed hard, nodding, and took a long drink from his goblet of water. No more lies, no more deceptions—beyond my magic. Let Tarquin be the first and last casualty of our deceit.

I chewed on my lip. “What about Miryam and Drakon? Have you learned anything about where they might have gone?” Along with that legion of aerial warriors?

The question seemed to drag him up from wherever he’d gone while contemplating what now lay before us.

Rhys sighed, scanning those casualty lists again. The dark ink seemed to absorb the dim faelight. “No. Az’s spies have found no trace of them in any of the surrounding territories.” He rubbed his temple. “How do you vanish an entire people?”

I frowned. “I suppose Jurian’s tactic to draw them out worked against him.” Jurian—there hadn’t been a whisper of him at the battle today.

“It would seem so.” He shook his head, the light dancing in the raven-black locks of his hair. “I should have established protocols with them—centuries ago. Ways to contact them, for them to contact us, if we ever needed help.”

“Why didn’t you?”

“They wanted to be forgotten by the world. And when I saw how peaceful Cretea became … I did not want the world to intrude on them, either.” A muscle flickered in his jaw.

“If we did somehow find them … would that be enough, though? If we can stop the wall from sundering first, I mean. Our forces and Drakon’s, perhaps even Queen Vassa if Lucien can find her, against all of Hybern?” Against whatever gambits or spells the king still planned to unleash.

Rhys was quiet for a moment. “It might have to be.”

It was the way his voice went hoarse, the way his eyes guttered, that made me press a kiss to his mouth as I laid a hand upon his chest and pushed him down upon the furs.

His brows rose, but a half smile appeared on his lips. “There’s little privacy in a war-camp,” he warned, some of the light coming back to his eyes.

I only straddled him, unfastening the button at the top of his dark jacket. The one below it. “Then I suppose you’ll have to be quiet,” I said, working my way down the front of the jacket until it gaped open to reveal the shirt beneath. I traced a finger of the whorl of tattoo peeking out near his neck. “When I saw you facing the king today …”

He brushed his fingers against my thighs. “I know. I felt you.”

I tugged on the hem of his shirt, and he rose onto his elbows, helping me remove his jacket, then the shirt beneath. A bruise marred his ribs, an angry splotch—

“It’s fine,” he said before I could speak. “A lucky shot.”

“With what?”

Again, that half smile. “A spear?”

My heart stopped. “A …” I delicately brushed the bruise, swallowing hard.

“Tipped in faebane. My shield blocked most of it—but not enough to avoid the impact.”

Dread curled in my stomach. But I leaned down and brushed a kiss over the bruise.

Rhys loosed a long breath, his body seeming to settle. Calm.

So I kissed the bruise again. Moved lower. He drew idle circles on my shoulder, my back.

I felt his shield settle around our tent as I unbuttoned his pants. As I kissed my way across the muscled pane of his stomach.

Lower. Rhys’s hands slid into my hair as the rest of his clothes vanished.

I stroked my hand over him once, twice—luxuriating in the feel of him, in knowing he was here, we were both here. Safe.

Then I echoed the movement with my mouth.

His growls of pleasure filled the tent, drowning out the distant cries of the injured and dying. Life and death—hovering so close, whispering in our ears.

But I tasted Rhys, worshipped him with my hands and mouth and then my body—and hoped that this shard of life we offered up, this undimming light between us, would drive death a bit further away. At least for another day.

Only a few more Illyrians died during the night. But high up in the hills, the screams and wails of Tarquin’s people rose to us on plumes of smoke from the still-burning fires Hybern had set. They continued burning when we left in the early hours after dawn, winnowing back to Velaris.

Cassian and Azriel remained to lead the Illyrian legions to their new camp on our southern borders—and the former left from there to fly into the Steppes. To offer his condolences to a few of those families.

Nesta was waiting for us in the foyer of the town house, Amren seething in a chair before the unlit fireplace of the sitting room.

No sign of Elain, but before I could ask, Nesta demanded, “What happened?”

Rhys glanced to me, then to Amren, who had shot to her feet and was now watching us with the same expression as Nesta’s. My mate said to my sister, “There was a battle. We won.”

“We know that,” Amren said, her small feet near-silent on the rugs as she strode for us. “What happened with Tarquin?”

Mor took a breath to say something about Varian that would likely not end well for any of us, so I cut in, “Well, he didn’t try to slaughter us on sight, so … things went decently?”

Rhys gave me a bemused look. “The royal family remains alive and well. Tarquin’s armada suffered losses, but Cresseida and Varian were unscathed.”

Something tight in Amren’s face seemed to relax at the words—his careful, diplomatic words.

But Nesta was glancing between us all, her back still stiff, mouth a thin line. “Where is he?”

“Who?” Rhys crooned.

“Cassian.”

I didn’t think I’d ever heard his name from her lips. Cassian had always been him or that one. And Nesta had been … pacing in the foyer.

As if she was worried.

I opened my mouth, but Mor beat me to it. “He’s busy.”

I’d never heard her voice so … sharp. Icy.

Nesta held Mor’s stare. Her jaw tightened, then relaxed, then tightened—as if fighting some battle to keep questions in. Mor didn’t drop her gaze.

Mor had never seemed ruffled by mention of Cassian’s past lovers. Perhaps because they’d never meant much—not in the ways that counted. But if the Illyrian warrior no longer stood as a physical and emotional buffer between her and Azriel … And worse, if the person who caused that vacancy was Nesta …

Mor said flatly, “When he gets back, keep your forked tongue behind your teeth.”

My heart leaped into a furious beat, my arms slack at my sides at the insult, the threat.

But Rhys said, “Mor.”

She slowly—so slowly—looked at him.

There was nothing but uncompromising will in Rhys’s face. “We now leave for the meeting in three days. Send out dispatches to the other High Lords to inform them. And I’m done debating where to meet. Pick a place and be done with it.”

She stared him down for a heartbeat, then dragged her gaze back to my sister.

Nesta’s face had not altered, the coldness limning it unbending. She was so still she seemed to barely be breathing. But she did not balk. She did not avert her eyes from the Morrigan.

Mor vanished with hardly a blink.

Nesta only turned and headed for the sitting room, where I noticed books had been laid on the low-lying table before the hearth.

Amren flowed in behind her, tossing a backward look over a shoulder at Rhys. The motion shifted her gray blouse enough that I caught the sparkle of red peeking beneath the fabric.

The necklace of rubies that she wore, hidden, beneath her shirt. Gifted from Varian.

But Rhys nodded to Amren, and the female asked my sister, “Where were we?”

Nesta sat in the armchair, holding herself tightly enough that the whites of her knuckles arced through her skin. “You were explaining how the territory lines were formed between courts.”

The words were distant—brittle. And—They’ve also taken up history lessons?

I’m as shocked as you are that the house is still standing.

I swallowed my laugh, linking my arm through his and tugging him down the hall. It had been a while since I’d seen him so … dirty. We both needed a bath, but there was something I had to do first. Needed to do.

Behind us, Amren murmured to Nesta, “Cassian has gone to war many times, girl. He isn’t general of Rhys’s forces for nothing. This battle was a skirmish compared to what lies ahead. He’s likely visiting the families of the fallen as we speak. He’ll be back before the meeting.”

Nesta said, “I don’t care.”

At least she was talking again.

I halted Rhys halfway down the hall.

With so many listening ears in the house, I said down the bond, Take me to the Prison. Right now.

Rhys asked no questions.

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