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No one said anything.
Nesta only lifted her chin. “I …” I’d never seen her stumble for words. “I do not want to be remembered as a coward.”
“No one would say that,” I offered quietly.
“I would.” Nesta surveyed us all, her gaze jumping past Cassian. Not to slight him, but … avoid answering the look he was giving her. Approval—more. “It was some distant thing,” she said. “War. Battle. It … it’s not anymore. I will help, if I can. If it means … telling them what happened.”
“You’ve given enough,” I said, my dress rustling as I braved a solitary step toward her. “Amren claimed you were close to mastering whatever skill you need. You should stay—focus on that.”
“No.” The word was steady, clear. “A day or two delay with my training won’t make any difference. Perhaps by the time we return, Amren will have decoded that spell in the Book.” She shrugged with a shoulder. “You went off to battle for a court you barely know—who barely see you as friends. Amren showed me the blood ruby. And when I asked you why … you said because it was the right thing. People needed help.” Her throat bobbed. “No one is going to fight to save the humans beneath the wall. No one cares. But I do.” She toyed with a fold in her dress. “I do.”
Rhys stepped up to my side. “As High Lady, Feyre is no longer my emissary to the human world.” He gave Nesta a tentative smile. “Want the job?”
Nesta’s face yielded nothing, but I could have sworn some spark flared. “Consider this meeting a trial basis. And I’ll make you pay through the teeth for my services.”
Rhys sketched a bow. “I would expect nothing less of an Archeron sister.” I poked him in the ribs, and he huffed a laugh. “Welcome to the court,” he said to her. “You’re about to have one hell of a first day.”
And to my eternal shock, a smile tugged at Nesta’s mouth.
“No going back now,” Cassian said to Rhys, gesturing to his wings.
Rhys slid his hands into his pockets. “I figure it’s time for the world to know who really has the largest wingspan.”
Cassian laughed, and even Azriel smiled. Mor gave me a look that had me biting my lip to keep from howling.
“Twenty gold marks says there’s a fight in the first hour,” Cassian said, still not really looking at Nesta.
“Thirty, and I say within forty-five minutes,” Mor said, crossing her arms.
“You do remember there are vows and wards of neutrality,” Rhys said mildly.
“You lot don’t need fists or magic to fight,” Mor chirped.
Azriel said from the door, “Fifty, and I say within thirty minutes. Started by Autumn.”
Rhys rolled his eyes. “Try not to look like you’re all gambling on them. And no cheating by provoking fights.” Their answering grins were anything but reassuring. Rhys sighed. “A hundred marks on a fight within fifteen minutes.”
Nesta let out a soft snort. But they all looked to me, waiting.
I shrugged. “Rhys and I are a team. He can gamble away our money on this bullshit.”
They all looked deeply offended.
Rhys looped his elbow through mine. “A queen in appearance—”
“Don’t even finish that,” I said.
He laughed. “Shall we?”
He’d winnow me in, Mor would now take Cassian and Nesta, and Azriel would carry himself. Rhys glanced toward the sitting room clock and gave the shadowsinger a nod.
Azriel instantly vanished. First to arrive—first to see if any trap awaited.
In silence, we waited. One minute. Two.
Then Rhys blew out a breath and said, “Clear.” He threaded his fingers through mine, gripping tightly.
Mor sagged a bit, jewelry glinting with the movement, and went to take Cassian’s arm.
But he’d at last approached Nesta. And as the world began to turn to shadows and wind, I saw Cassian tower over my sister, saw her chin lift defiantly, and heard him growl, “Hello, Nesta.”
Rhys seemed to halt his winnowing as my sister said, “So you’re alive.”
Cassian bared his teeth in a feral grin, wings flaring slightly. “Were you hoping otherwise?”
Mor was watching—watching so closely, every muscle tense. She again reached for his arm, but Cassian angled out of reach, not tearing his eyes from Nesta’s blazing gaze.
Nesta blurted, “You didn’t come to—” She stopped herself.
The world seemed to go utterly still at that interrupted sentence, nothing and no one more so than Cassian. He scanned her face as if furiously reading some battle report.
Mor just watched as Cassian took Nesta’s slim hand in his own, interlacing their fingers. As he folded in his wings and blindly reached his other hand back toward Mor in a silent order to transport them.
Cassian’s eyes did not leave Nesta’s; nor did hers leave his. There was no warmth, no tenderness on either of their faces. Only that raging intensity, that blend of contempt and understanding and fire.
Rhys began to winnow us again, and just as the dark wind swept in, I heard Cassian say to Nesta, his voice low and rough, “The next time, Emissary, I’ll come say hello.”
I’d learned enough from Rhys about what to expect of the Dawn Court, but even the vistas he’d painted for me didn’t do the sight justice.
It was the clouds I saw first.
Enormous clouds drifting in the cobalt sky, soft and magnanimous, still tinged by the rose remnants of sunrise, their round edges gilded with the golden light. The dewy freshness of morning lingered in the balmy air as we peered up at the mountain-palace spiraling into the heavens above.
If the palace above the Court of Nightmares had been crafted of moonstone, this was made from … sunstone. I didn’t have a word for the near-opalescent golden stone that seemed to hold the gleaming of a thousand sunrises within it.
Steps and balconies and archways and verandas and bridges linked the towers and gilded domes of the palace, periwinkle morning glories climbing the pillars and neatly cut blocks of stone to drink in the gilded mists wafting by.
Wafting by, because the mountain on which the palace stood … There was a reason I beheld the clouds first.
The veranda that we’d appeared on was empty, save for Azriel and a slim-hipped attendant in the gold-and-ruby livery of Dawn. Light, loose robes—layered and yet flattering.
The male bowed, his brown skin smooth with youth and beauty. “This way, High Lord.”
Even his voice was as lovely as the first glimmer of gold on the horizon. Rhys returned his bow with a shallow nod, and offered his arm to me.
Mor muttered behind us, falling into rank with Nesta at her side, “If you ever feel like building a new house, Rhys, let’s use this one for inspiration.”
Rhys threw her an incredulous look over a shoulder. Cassian and Azriel snorted softly.
I glanced to Nesta as the attendant led us not to the archway beyond the veranda, but the spiral stairs climbing upward—along the bare face of a tower.
Nesta seemed as out of place as all of us—save Mor—but …
That was awe on my sister’s face.
Utter awe at the castle in the clouds, at the verdant countryside rippling away far below, speckled with red-roofed little villages and broad, sparkling rivers. A lush, eternal countryside, rich with the weight of summer upon it.
And I wondered if my face had appeared like that—the day I’d first seen Velaris. The mix of awe and anger and the realization that the world was large, and beautiful, and sometimes so overwhelming in its wonder that it was impossible to drink it down all at once.
There were other palaces within Dawn’s territory—set in small cities that specialized in tinkering and clockwork and clever things. Here … beyond those little villages nestled in the country hills, there was no industry. Nothing beyond the palace and the sky and the clouds.
We ascended the spiral stairs, the drop off the too-near edge falling away into warm-colored rock peppered with clusters of pale roses and fluffy, magenta peonies. A beautiful, colorful death.
Every step had me bracing myself as we wound up and up the tower, Rhys’s grip on my hand unwavering.
The wings remained out. He did not falter a single step.
His eyes slid to mine, amused and questioning. He said down the bond, And do you think I need to redecorate our home?
We passed open-air chambers full of fat, silk pillows and plush carpets, passed windows whose panes were arranged in colorful medleys, passed urns overflowing with lavender and fountains gurgling clearest water under the mild rays of the sun.
It’s not a competition, I trilled to him.
His hand tightened on mine. Well, even if Thesan has a prettier palace, I’m the only one blessed with a High Lady at my side.
I couldn’t help my blush.
Especially as Rhys added, Tonight, I want you to wear that crown to bed. Only the crown.
I smiled, and he leaned in smoothly to brush a kiss to my cheek.
Mor muttered a plea for mercy from mates.
Muted voices reached us from the open-air chamber atop the sunstone tower—some deep, some sharp, some lilting—before we finished the last rotation around it, the arched, glassless windows offering no barrier to the conversation within.
Three others are here already, Rhys warned me, and I had the feeling that was what Azriel was now murmuring to Mor and Cassian. Helion, Kallias, and Thesan.
The High Lords of Day, Winter, and our host, Dawn.
Meaning Autumn and Summer—Beron and Tarquin—had not arrived yet. Or Spring.
I still doubted Tamlin would come at all, but Beron and Tarquin … Perhaps the battle had changed Tarquin’s mind. And Beron was awful enough to perhaps have sided with Hybern already, regardless of Eris’s manipulating.
I caught the bob of Rhys’s throat as we cleared the final steps to the open doorway. A long bridge connected the other half of the tower to the palace interior, its rails drooping with dawn-pale wisteria. I wondered if the others had been led up these stairs, or if it was somehow meant to be an insult.
Shields up? Rhys asked, but I knew he was aware mine had been raised since Velaris.
Just as I was aware that he’d put a shield, mental and physical, around all of us, terms of peace or no.
And though his face was calm, his shoulders thrown back, I said, I see all of you, Rhys. And there is not one part that I do not love with everything that I am.
His hand squeezed mine in answer before he laid my fingers on his arm, raising it enough that we must have painted a rather courtly portrait as we entered the chamber.
You bow to no one, was all he replied.
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