فصل 44

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CHAPTER

44

Absolute silence. Absolute stillness.

I felt the tremor of magic slide through the room as shield after shield locked into place around each High Lord and his retinue. The one Rhysand had already snapped around us, now reinforcing … Rage laced its essence. Wrath and rage. Even if my mate’s face was bored—lazy.

I tried to school mine into the cold caution with which Nesta regarded him, or the vague distaste on Mor’s. I tried—and failed utterly.

I knew his moods, his temper.

Here was the High Lord who had shredded those naga into bloody ribbons; here was the High Lord who had impaled Amarantha on Lucien’s sword and ripped out her throat with his teeth.

All of it, gleaming in those green eyes as they fixed on me, on Rhys. Tamlin’s teeth were white as crow-picked bones as he smiled broadly.

Thesan rose, his captain remaining seated beside him—albeit with a hand on his sword. “We were not expecting you, Tamlin.” Thesan gestured with a slender hand toward his cringing attendants. “Fetch the High Lord a chair.”

Tamlin did not tear his gaze from me. From us.

His smile turned subdued—yet somehow more unnerving. More vicious.

He wore his usual green tunic—no crown, no adornments. No sign of another bandolier to replace the one I’d stolen.

Beron drawled, “I will admit, Tamlin, that I am surprised to see you here.” Tamlin didn’t alter his focus from me. From every breath I took. “Rumor claims your allegiance now lies elsewhere.”

Tamlin’s gaze shifted—but down. To the ring on my finger. To the tattoo adorning my right hand, flowing beneath the glittering, pale blue sleeve of my gown. Then it rose—right to that crown I’d picked for myself.

I didn’t know what to say. What to do with my body, my breathing.

No more masks, no more lies and deceptions. The truth, now sprawled bare and open before him. What I’d done in my rage, the lies I’d fed him. The people and land I’d laid vulnerable to Hybern. And now that I’d returned to my family, my mate …

My molten wrath had cooled into something sharp-edged and brittle.

The attendants hauled over a chair—setting it between one of Beron’s sons and Helion’s entourage. Neither looked thrilled about it, though they weren’t stupid enough to physically recoil as Tamlin sat.

He said nothing. Not a word.

Helion waved a scar-flecked hand. “Let’s get on with it, then.”

Thesan cleared his throat. No one looked toward him.

Not as Tamlin surveyed the hand Rhys had resting on my sparkling knee.

The loathing in Tamlin’s eyes practically simmered.

No one, not even Amarantha, had ever looked at me with such hatred.

No, Amarantha hadn’t really known me—her loathing had been superficial, driven from a personal history that poisoned everything. Tamlin … Tamlin knew me. And now hated every inch of what I was.

He opened his mouth, and I braced myself.

“It would seem congratulations are in order.”

The words were flat—flat and yet sharp as his claws, currently hidden beneath his golden skin.

I said nothing.

Rhys only held Tamlin’s stare. Held it with a face like ice, and yet utter rage roiled beneath it. Cataclysmic rage, surging and writhing down the bond between us.

But my mate addressed Thesan, who had reclaimed his seat, yet seemed far from any sort of ease, “We can discuss the matter at hand later.”

Tamlin said calmly, “Don’t stop on my account.”

The light in Rhysand’s eyes guttered, as if a hand of darkness wiped away those stars. But he reclined in his chair, withdrawing his hand from my knee to trace idle circles on his seat’s wooden arm. “I’m not in the business of discussing our plans with enemies.”

Helion, across the reflection pool, grinned like a lion.

“No,” Tamlin said with equal ease, “you’re just in the business of fucking them.”

Every thought and sound eddied out of my head.

Cassian, Azriel, and Mor were still as death—their fury rippling off them in silent waves. But whether Tamlin noticed or cared that three of the deadliest people in this room were currently contemplating his demise, he didn’t let on.

Rhys shrugged, smiling faintly. “Seems a far less destructive alternative to war.”

“And yet here you are, having started it in the first place.”

Rhysand’s blink was the only sign of his confusion.

A claw slid out of Tamlin’s knuckle.

Kallias tensed, a hand drifting to the arm of Viviane’s chair—as if he’d throw himself in front of it. But Tamlin only dragged that claw lightly down the carved arm of his own chair—as he’d once dragged them down my skin. He smiled as if he knew precisely what memory it triggered, but said to my mate, “If you hadn’t stolen my bride away in the night, Rhysand, I would not have been forced to take such drastic measures to get her back.”

I said quietly, “The sun was shining when I left you.”

Those green eyes slid to me, glazed and foreign. He let out a low snort, then looked away again.

Dismissal.

Kallias asked, “Why are you here, Tamlin?”

Tamlin’s claw dug into the wood, puncturing deep even as his voice remained mild. I had no doubt that gesture was meant for me, too. “I bartered access to my lands to get back the woman I love from a sadist who plays with minds as if they are toys. I meant to fight Hybern—to find a way around the bargain I made with the king once she was back. Only Rhysand and his cabal had turned her into one of them. And she delighted in ripping open my territory for Hybern to invade. All for a petty grudge—either her own or her … master’s.”

“You don’t get to rewrite the narrative,” I breathed. “You don’t get to spin this to your advantage.”

Tamlin only angled his head at Rhys. “When you fuck her, have you ever noticed that little noise she makes right before she climaxes?”

Heat stained my cheeks. This wasn’t outright battle, but a steady, careful shredding of my dignity, my credibility. Beron beamed, delighted—while Eris carefully monitored.

Rhys turned his head, looking me over from head to toe. Then back to Tamlin. A storm about to be unleashed.

But it was Azriel who said, his voice like cold death, “Be careful how you speak about my High Lady.”

Surprise flashed in Tamlin’s eyes—then vanished. Vanished, swallowed by pure fury as he realized what that tattoo coating my hand was for. “It was not enough to sit at my side, was it?” A hateful smile curled his lips. “You once asked me if you’d be my High Lady, and when I said no …” A low laugh. “Perhaps I underestimated you. Why serve in my court, when you could rule in his?”

Tamlin at last faced the other gathered High Lords and their retinues. “They peddle tales of defending our land and peace. And yet she came to my lands and laid them bare for Hybern. She took my High Priestess and warped her mind—after she shattered her bones for spite. And if you are asking yourself what happened to that human girl who went Under the Mountain to save us … Look to the male sitting beside her. Ask what he stands to gain—what they stand to gain from this war, or lack of it. Would we fight Hybern, only to find ourselves with a Queen and King of Prythian? She’s proved her ambition—and you saw how he was more than happy to serve Amarantha to remain unscathed.”

It was an effort not to snarl, not to grip the arms of my chair and roar at him.

Rhys let out a dark laugh. “Well played, Tamlin. You’re learning.”

Ire contorted Tamlin’s face at the condescension. But he faced Kallias. “You asked why I’m here? I might ask the same of you.” He jerked his chin at the High Lord of Winter, at Viviane—the few other members of their retinue who had remained silent. “You mean to tell me that after Under the Mountain, you can stomach working with him?” A finger flung in Rhysand’s direction.

I wanted to rip that finger right off Tamlin’s hand. And feed it to the Middengard Wyrm.

The silvery glow about Kallias dulled.

Even Viviane seemed to dim. “We came here to decide that for ourselves.”

Mor was staring at her friend in quiet question. Viviane, for the first time since we’d arrived, did not look toward her. Only at her mate.

Rhys said softly to them, to everyone, “I had no involvement in that. None.”

Kallias’s eyes flared like blue flame. “You stood beside her throne while the order was given.”

I watched, stomach twisting, as Rhys’s golden skin paled. “I tried to stop it.”

“Tell that to the parents of the two dozen younglings she butchered,” Kallias said. “That you tried.”

I had forgotten. Forgotten that bit of Amarantha’s despicable history. It had happened while I was still at the Spring Court—a report one of Lucien’s contacts at the Winter Court managed to smuggle out. Of two dozen children killed by the “blight.” By Amarantha.

Rhys’s mouth tightened. “There is not one day that passes when I don’t remember it,” he said to Kallias, to Viviane. To their companions. “Not one day.”

I hadn’t known.

He had told me once, all those months ago, that there were memories he could not bring himself to share—even with me. I had assumed it was only in regard to what Amarantha had done to him. Not … what he might have been forced to witness, too. Forced to endure, bound and trapped.

And standing by, leashed to Amarantha, while she ordered the murder of those children—

“Remembering,” Kallias said, “doesn’t bring them back, does it?”

“No,” Rhys said plainly. “No, it doesn’t. And I am now fighting to make sure it never happens again.”

Viviane glanced between her husband and Rhys. “I was not present Under the Mountain. But I would hear, High Lord, how you tried to—stop her.” Pain tightened her face. She, too, had been unable to prevent it while she guarded her small slice of the territory.

Rhys said nothing.

Beron snorted. “Finally speechless, Rhysand?”

I put a hand on Rhys’s arm. I had no doubt Tamlin marked it. And I didn’t care. I said to my mate, not bothering to keep my voice down, “I believe you.”

“Says the woman,” Beron countered, “who gave an innocent girl’s name in her stead—for Amarantha to butcher as well.”

I blocked out the words, the memory of Clare.

Rhys swallowed. I tightened my grip on his arm.

His voice was rough as he said to Kallias, “When your people rebelled …” They had, I recalled. Winter had rebelled against Amarantha. And the children … that had been Amarantha’s answer. Her punishment for the disobedience. “She was furious. She wanted you dead, Kallias.”

Viviane’s face drained of color.

Rhys went on, “I … convinced her that it would serve little purpose.”

“Who knew,” Beron mused, “that a cock could be so persuasive?”

“Father.” Eris’s voice was low with warning.

For Cassian, Azriel, Mor, and I had fixed our gazes upon Beron. And none of us were smiling.

Perhaps Eris would be High Lord sooner than he planned.

But Rhys went on to Kallias, “She backed off the idea of killing you. Your rebels were dead—I convinced her it was enough. I thought it was the end of it.” His breathing hitched slightly. “I only found out when you did. I think she viewed my defense of you as a warning sign—she didn’t tell me any of it. And she kept me … confined. I tried to break into the minds of the soldiers she sent, but her damper on my power was too strong to hold them—and it was already done. She … she sent a daemati with them. To …” He faltered. The children’s minds—they’d been shattered. Rhys swallowed. “I think she wanted you to suspect me. To keep us from ever allying against her.”

What he must have witnessed within those soldiers’ minds …

“Where did she confine you?” The question came from Viviane, her arms wrapped around her middle.

I wasn’t entirely ready for it when Rhys said, “Her bedroom.”

My friends did not hide their rage, their grief at the details he’d kept even from them.

“Stories and words,” Tamlin said, lounging in his chair. “Is there any proof?”

“Proof—” Cassian snarled, half rising in his seat, wings starting to flare.

“No,” Rhys cut in as Mor blocked Cassian with an arm, forcing him to sit. Rhys added to Kallias, “But I swear it—upon my mate’s life.” His hand at last rested atop mine.

For the first time since I’d known him, Rhys’s skin was clammy.

I reached down the bond, even as Rhys held Kallias’s stare. I did not have any words. Only myself—only my soul, as I curled up against his towering shields of black adamant.

He’d known what coming here, presented just as we were, would cost him. What he might have to reveal beyond the wings he loved so dearly.

Tamlin rolled his eyes. It took every scrap of restraint to keep me from lunging for him—from ripping out those eyes.

But whatever Kallias read in Rhys’s face, his words … He pinned Tamlin with a hard stare as he asked again, “Why are you here, Tamlin?”

A muscle flickered in Tamlin’s jaw. “I am here to help you fight against Hybern.”

“Bullshit,” Cassian muttered.

Tamlin glowered at him. Cassian, folding his wings in neatly as he leaned back in his chair once more, just offered a crooked grin in return.

“You will forgive us,” Thesan interrupted gracefully, “if we are doubtful. And hesitant to share any plans.”

“Even when I have information on Hybern’s movements?”

Silence. Tarquin, across the pool, watched and listened—either because he was the youngest of them, or perhaps he knew some advantage lay in letting us battle it out ourselves.

Tamlin smiled at me. “Why do you think I invited them to the house? Into my lands?” He let out a low snarl, and I felt Rhys tensing as Tamlin said to me, “I once told you I would fight against tyranny, against that sort of evil. Did you think you were enough to turn me from that?” His teeth shone white as bone. “It was so easy for you to call me a monster, despite all I did for you, for your family.” A sneer toward Nesta, who was frowning with distaste. “Yet you witnessed all that he did Under the Mountain, and still spread your legs for him. Fitting, I suppose. He whored for Amarantha for decades. Why shouldn’t you be his whore in return?”

“Watch your mouth,” Mor snapped. I was having difficulty swallowing—breathing.

Tamlin ignored her wholly and waved a hand toward Rhysand’s wings. “I sometimes forget—what you are. Have the masks come off now, or is this another ploy?”

“You’re beginning to become tedious, Tamlin,” Helion said, propping his head on a hand. “Take your lovers’ spat elsewhere and let the rest of us discuss this war.”

“You’d be all too happy for war, considering how well you made out in the last one.”

“No one says war can’t be lucrative,” Helion countered. Tamlin’s lip curled in a silent snarl that made me wonder if he’d gone to Helion to break my bargain with Rhys—if Helion had refused.

“Enough,” Kallias said. “We have our opinions on how the conflict with Hybern should be dealt with.” Those glacial eyes hardened as he again took in Tamlin. “Are you here as an ally of Hybern or Prythian?”

The mocking, hateful gleam faded into granite resolve. “I stand against Hybern.”

“Prove it,” Helion goaded.

Tamlin lifted his hand, and a stack of papers appeared on the little table beside his chair. “Charts of armies, ammunition, caches of faebane … Everything carefully gleaned these months.”

All of this directed at me, as I refused to so much as lower my chin. My back ached from keeping it so straight, a twinge of pain flanking either side of my spine.

“Noble as it sounds,” Helion went on, “who is to say that information is correct—or that you aren’t Hybern’s agent, trying to mislead us?”

“Who is to say that Rhysand and his cronies are not agents of Hybern, all of this a ruse to get you to yield without realizing it?”

Nesta murmured, “You can’t be serious.” Mor gave my sister a look as if to say that he certainly was.

“If we need to ally against Hybern,” Thesan said, “you are doing a good job of convincing us not to band together, Tamlin.”

“I am simply warning you that they might present the guise of honesty and friendship, but the fact remains that he warmed Amarantha’s bed for fifty years, and only worked against her when it seemed the tide was turning. I’m warning you that while he claims his own city was attacked by Hybern, they made off remarkably well—as if they’d been anticipating it. Don’t think he wouldn’t sacrifice a few buildings and lesser faeries to lure you into an alliance, into thinking you had a common enemy. Why is it that only the Night Court got word about the attack on Adriata—and were the only ones to arrive in time to play savior?”

“They received word,” Varian cut in coolly, “because I warned them of it.”

Tarquin whipped his head to his cousin, brows high with surprise.

“Perhaps you’re working with them, too,” Tamlin said to the Prince of Adriata. “You’re next in line, after all.”

“You’re insane,” I breathed to Tamlin as Varian bared his teeth. “Do you hear what you’re saying?” I pointed toward Nesta. “Hybern turned my sisters into Fae—after your bitch of a priestess sold them out!”

“Perhaps Ianthe’s mind was already in Rhysand’s thrall. And what a tragedy to remain young and beautiful. You’re a good actress—I’m sure the trait runs in the family.”

Nesta let out a low laugh. “If you want someone to blame for all of this,” she said to Tamlin, “perhaps you should first look in the mirror.”

Tamlin snarled at her.

Cassian snarled right back, “Watch it.”

Tamlin looked between my sister and Cassian—his gaze lingering on Cassian’s wings, tucked in behind him. Snorted. “Seems like other preferences run in the Archeron family, too.”

My power began to rumble—a behemoth rising up, yawning awake.

“What do you want?” I hissed. “An apology? For me to crawl back into your bed and play nice, little wife?”

“Why should I want spoiled goods returned to me?”

My cheeks heated.

Tamlin growled, “The moment you let him fuck you like an—”

One heartbeat, the poisoned words were spewing from his mouth—where fangs lengthened.

Then they stopped.

Tamlin’s mouth simply stopped emitting sounds. He shut his mouth, opened it—tried again.

No sound, not even a snarl, came out.

There was no smile on Rhysand’s face, not a glint of that irreverent amusement as he rested his head against the back of his chair. “The gasping-fish look is a good one for you, Tamlin.”

The others, who had been watching with disdain and amusement and boredom, now turned to my mate. Now possessed a shadow of fear in their eyes as they realized who and what, exactly, sat amongst them.

Brethren, and yet not. Tamlin was a High Lord, as powerful as any of them.

Except for the one at my side. Rhys was as different from them as humans were to Fae.

They forgot it, sometimes—how deep that well of power went. What manner of power Rhys bore.

But as Rhysand ripped away Tamlin’s ability to speak, they remembered.

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