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CHAPTER

41

The next two days were so busy that the lesson with Azriel was the only time I trained with him. The spymaster had returned from dispatching the messages Mor had written about the meeting moving up. They had agreed on the date, at least. But Mor’s declaration of the spot, despite her unyielding language, had been universally rejected. Thus continued the endless back-and-forth between courts.

Under the Mountain had once been their neutral meeting place.

Even if it hadn’t been sealed, no one was inclined to meet there now.

So the debate raged about who would host the gathering of all the High Lords.

Well, six of them. Beron, at last, had deigned to join. But no word had come from the Spring Court, though we knew the messages had been received.

All of us would go—save Amren and Nesta, who the former insisted needed to practice more. Especially when Amren had found a passage in the Book last night that might be what we needed to fix the wall.

With only hours to spare the evening before, it was finally agreed that the meeting would take place in the Dawn Court. It was close enough to the middle of the land, and since Kallias, High Lord of Winter, would not allow anyone into his territory after the horrors Amarantha had wrought upon its people, it was the only other area flanking that neutral middle land.

Rhys and Thesan, High Lord of the Dawn Court, were on decent terms. Dawn was mostly neutral in any conflict, but as one of the three Solar Courts, their allegiance always leaned toward each other. Not as strong an ally as Helion Spell-Cleaver in the Day Court, but strong enough.

It didn’t stop Rhys, Mor, and Azriel from gathering around the dining table at the town house the night before to go over every kernel of information they’d ever learned about Thesan’s palace—about possible pitfalls and traps. And escape routes.

It was an effort not to pace, not to ask if perhaps the risks outweighed the benefits. So much had gone wrong in Hybern. So much was going wrong throughout the world. Every time Azriel spoke, I heard his roar of pain as that bolt went through his chest. Every time Mor countered an argument, I saw her pale-faced and backing away from the king. Every time Rhys asked for my opinion, I saw him kneeling in his friends’ blood, begging the king not to sever our bond.

Nesta and Amren paused their practicing in the sitting room every so often so that the latter could chime in with some bit of advice or warning regarding the meeting. Or so that Amren could snap at Nesta to concentrate, to push harder. While she herself combed through the Book.

A few more days, Amren declared when Nesta at last went upstairs, complaining of a headache. A few more days, and my sister, through whatever mysterious power, might be able to do something. That is, Amren added, if she could crack that promising section of the Book in time. And with that, the dark-haired female bid us good night—to go read until her eyes were bleeding, she claimed.

Considering how awful the Book was, I wasn’t entirely sure if she was joking.

The others weren’t, either.

I barely touched my dinner. And I barely slept that night, twisting in the sheets until Rhys woke and patiently listened to me murmur my fears until they were nothing but shadows.

Dawn broke, and as I dressed, the morning unfurled into a sunny, dry day.

Though we would be going to the meeting as we truly were, our usual attire remained the same: Rhys in his preferred black jacket and pants, Azriel and Cassian in their Illyrian armor, all seven Siphons polished and gleaming. Mor had forgone her usual red gown for one of midnight blue. It was cut with the same revealing panels and flowing, gauzy skirts, but there was something … restrained in it. Regal. A princess of the realm.

The usual attire—except my own.

I had not found a new gown. For there was no other gown that could top the one I now wore as I stood in the foyer while the clock on the sitting room mantel struck eleven.

Rhys hadn’t yet come downstairs, and there was no sign of Amren or Nesta to see us off. We’d gathered a few minutes earlier, but … I looked down at myself again. Even in the warm faelight of the foyer, the gown glittered and gleamed like a fresh-cut jewel.

We had taken my gown from Starfall and refashioned it, adding sheer silk panels to the back shoulders, the glittering material like woven starlight as it flowed behind me in lieu of a veil or cape. If Rhysand was Night Triumphant, I was the star that only glowed thanks to his darkness, the light only visible because of him.

I scowled up the stairs. That is, if he bothered to show up on time.

My hair, Nuala had swept into an ornate, elegant arc across my head, and in front of it …

I caught Cassian glancing at me for the third time in less than a minute and demanded, “What?”

His lips twitched at the corners. “You just look so …”

“Here we go,” Mor muttered from where she picked at her red-tinted nails against the stair banister. Rings glinted at every knuckle, on every finger; stacks of bracelets tinkled against each other on either wrist.

“Official,” Cassian said with an incredulous look in her direction. He waved a Siphon-topped hand to me. “Fancy.”

“Over five hundred years old,” Mor said, shaking her head sadly, “a skilled warrior and general, famous throughout territories, and complimenting ladies is still something he finds next to impossible. Remind me why we bring you on diplomatic meetings?”

Azriel, wreathed in shadows by the front door, chuckled quietly. Cassian shot him a glare. “I don’t see you spouting poetry, brother.”

Azriel crossed his arms, still smiling faintly. “I don’t need to resort to it.”

Mor let out a crow of laughter, and I snorted, earning a jab in the ribs from Cassian. I batted his hand away, but refrained from the shove I wanted to give him, only because it was the first I’d seen of him since Adriata and shadows still dimmed his eyes—and because of the precarious-feeling thing atop my head.

The crown.

Rhys had crowned me at each and every meeting and function we’d had, long before I was his mate, long before I was his High Lady. Even Under the Mountain.

I’d never questioned the tiaras and diadems and crowns that Nuala or Cerridwen wove into my hair. Never objected to them—even before things between us had been this way. But this one … I peered up the stairs as Rhys’s strolling, unhurried footsteps thudded on the carpet.

This crown was heavier. Not unwelcome, but … strange. And as Rhys appeared at the top of the stairs, resplendent in that black jacket, his wings out and gleaming as if he’d polished them, I was again in that room he’d brought me to late last night, after I’d awoken him with my thrashing and twisting in bed.

It was contained a level above the library in the House of Wind, and warded with so many spells that it had taken him a few moments to work through them. Only he and I—and any future offspring, he added with a soft smile—were able to enter. Unless we brought guests.

The chamber was a cool, chill black—as if we’d stepped inside the mind of some sleeping beast. And within its round space gleamed glittering islands of light. Of jewels.

Ten thousand years’ worth of treasure.

It was neatly organized, in podiums and open drawers and busts and racks.

“The family jewels,” Rhys said with a devious grin. “Some of the pieces we don’t like are kept at the Court of Nightmares, just so they don’t get pissy and because we sometimes loan them to Mor’s family, but these … these are for the family.”

He led me past displays that sparkled like small constellations, the worth of each … Even as a merchant’s daughter, I could not calculate the worth of any of it.

And toward the back of the chamber, shrouded in a heavier darkness …

I’d heard of catacombs on the continent, where skulls of beloved or infamous people were kept in little alcoves—dozens or hundreds of them to a wall.

The concept here was the same: carved into the rock was an entire wall of crowns. They each had their own resting place, lined with black velvet, each illuminated by—

“Glowworms,” Rhys told me as the tiny, bluish globs crusted in the arches of each nook seemed to glitter like the entire night sky. In fact … What I’d taken for small faelights in the ceiling high above … It was all glowworms. Pale blue and turquoise, their light as silken as moonlight, illumining the jewels with their ancient, silent fire.

“Pick one,” Rhys whispered in my ear.

“A glowworm?”

He nipped at my earlobe. “Smartass.” He steered me back toward the wall of crowns, each wholly different—as individual as skulls. “Pick whichever crown you like.”

“I can’t just—take one.”

“You most certainly can. They belong to you.”

I lifted a brow. “They don’t—not really.”

“By law and tradition, this is all yours. Sell it, melt it, wear them—do whatever you want.”

“You don’t care about it?” I gestured to the trove worth more than most kingdoms.

“Oh, I have favorite pieces that I might convince you to spare, but … This is yours. Every last piece of it.”

Our eyes met, and I knew he, too, recalled the words that I’d whispered to him months ago. That every piece of my still-healing heart belonged to him. I smiled, and brushed a hand down his arm before approaching the wall of crowns.

I had been terrified once, in Tamlin’s court, of being given a crown. Had dreaded it. And I supposed that I indeed had never fretted over it when it came to Rhys. As if some small part of me had always known that this was where I was meant to be: at his side, as his equal. His queen.

Rhys inclined his head as if to say yes—he saw and understood and had always known.

Now striding down the town house stairs, Rhys’s attention went right to that crown atop my head. And the emotion that rippled across his face was enough to make even Mor and Cassian look away.

I’d let the crown call to me. I hadn’t picked it for style or comfort, but for the draw I felt to it, as if it were that ring in the Weaver’s cottage.

My crown was crafted of silver and diamond, all fashioned into swirls of stars and various phases of the moon. Its arching apex held aloft a crescent moon of solid diamond, flanked by two exploding stars. And with the glittering dress from Starfall …

Rhys stepped off the stairs and took my hand.

Night Triumphant—and the Stars Eternal.

If he was the sweet, terrifying darkness, I was the glittering light that only his shadows could make clear.

“I thought you were leaving,” Nesta’s voice cut in from atop the stairs.

I braced myself, dragging my attention away from Rhys.

Nesta was in a gown of darkest blue, no jewelry to be seen, her hair swept up and unadorned as well. I supposed that with her stunning beauty, she needed no ornamentation. It would have been like putting jewelry on a lion. But for her to be dressed like that …

She strode down the stairs, and when the others were silent, I realized …

I tried not to look too obvious as I glanced at Cassian.

They had not seen each other since Adriata.

But the warrior only gave her a cursory once-over and turned toward Azriel to say something. Mor was watching both carefully—the warning she’d given my sister ringing silently between them. And Nesta, Mother damn it all, seemed to remember. Seemed to rein in whatever words she’d been about to spit and just approached me.

And nearly made my heart stop dead with shock as she said, “You look beautiful.”

I blinked at her.

Mor said, “That, Cassian, was what you were attempting to say.”

He grumbled something we chose not to hear. I said to Nesta, “Thank you. You do as well.”

Nesta only shrugged.

I pushed, “Why are you dressed so nicely? Shouldn’t you be practicing with Amren?”

I felt Cassian’s attention slide to us, felt them all look as Nesta said, “I’m going with you.”

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