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PART THREE

HIGH LADY CHAPTER

51

Even at the height of summer, the Illyrian mountain-camp was damp. Brisk. There were some truly lovely days, Rhys assured me when I scowled as we winnowed in, but cooler weather was better anyway, when an army was involved. Heat made tempers rise. Especially when it was too hot to sleep comfortably. And considering the Illyrians were a testy lot to begin with … It was a blessing that the sky was cloudy and the wind mist-kissed.

But even the weather wasn’t enough to make the greeting party look pleasant.

I only recognized one of the muscle-bound Illyrians in full armor waiting for us. Lord Devlon. The sneer was still on his face—though milder compared to the outright contempt contorting the features of a few. Like Azriel and Cassian, they possessed dark hair and eyes of assorted hazel and brown. And like my friends, their skin was rich shades of golden brown, some flecked with bone-white scars of varying severity.

But unlike my friends, one or two Siphons adorned their hands. The seven Azriel and Cassian wore seemed almost vulgar by comparison.

But the gathered males only looked at Rhys, as if the two Illyrians flanking him were little more than trees. Mor and I remained on either side of Nesta, who had changed into a dark blue, practical dress and now surveyed the camp, the winged warriors, the sheer size of the host assembled in the camp around us …

We kept Elain half-hidden behind the wall of our bodies. Considering the backward view of the Illyrians toward females, I’d suggested we remain a step away on this meeting—literally. There were only a few female fighters in the legion … Now was not the time to test the tolerance of the Illyrians. Later—later, if we won this war. If we survived.

Devlon was speaking, “It’s true, then. The wall came down.”

“A temporary failure,” Rhys crooned. He was still wearing his fine jacket and pants from the meeting with the High Lords. For whatever reason, he hadn’t chosen to wear the Illyrian leathers. Or the wings.

It’s because they already know I trained with them, am one of them. They need to remember that I’m also their High Lord. And I have no intention of loosening the leash.

The words were a silk-covered scrape of nails down my mind.

Rhys began giving unwavering, cold instructions about the impending push southward. The voice of the High Lord—the voice of a warrior who had fought in the War and had no intention of losing this one. Cassian frequently added his own orders and clarifications.

Azriel—Azriel just stared them all down. He had not wanted to come to the camp months ago. Disliked being back here. Hated these people, his heritage.

The other lords kept glancing to the shadowsinger in dread and rage and disgust. He only leveled that lethal gaze back at them.

On and on they went, until Devlon looked over Rhys’s shoulder—to where we stood.

A scowl at Mor. A frown at me—wisely subdued. Then he noticed Nesta.

“What is that,” Devlon asked.

Nesta merely stared at him, one hand clamping the edges of her gray cloak together at her chest. One of the other camp-lords made some sign against evil.

“That,” Cassian said too quietly, “is none of your concern.”

“Is she a witch.”

I opened my mouth, but Nesta said flatly, “Yes.”

And I watched as nine full-grown, weathered Illyrian warlords flinched.

“She may act like one sometimes,” Cassian clarified, “but no—she is High Fae.”

“She is no more High Fae than we are,” Devlon countered.

A pause that went on for too long. Even Rhys seemed at a loss for words. Devlon had complained when we’d first met that Amren and I were Other. As if he possessed some sense for such things. Devlon muttered, “Keep her away from the females and children.”

I clutched Nesta’s free hand in silent warning to remain quiet.

Mor let out a snort that made the Illyrians stiffen. But she shifted, revealing Elain behind her. Elain was just blinking, wide-eyed, at the camp. The army.

Devlon let out a grunt at the sight of her. But Elain wrapped her own blue cloak around herself, averting her eyes from all of those towering, muscled warriors, the army camp bustling toward the horizon … She was a rose bloom in a mud field. Filled with galloping horses.

“Don’t be afraid of them,” Nesta said beneath lowered brows.

If Elain was a blooming flower in this army camp, then Nesta … she was a freshly forged sword, waiting to draw blood.

Take them into our war tent, Rhys said silently to me. Devlon honestly might throw a hissy fit if he has to face Nesta for another minute.

I’d pay good money to see that.

So would I.

I hid my smile. “Let’s find something warm to drink,” I said to my sisters, beckoning Mor to join. We aimed for the largest of the tents in the camp, a black banner sewn with a mountain and three silver stars flapping from its apex. Warriors and females laboring around the fires silently monitored us. Nesta stared them all down. Elain kept her focus on the dry, rocky ground.

The tent’s interior was simple yet luxurious: thick carpets covered the low wooden platform on which the tent had been erected to keep out the damp; braziers of faelights flickered throughout, chairs and a few chaise longues were scattered around, covered in thick furs. A massive desk with several chairs occupied one half of the main space. And behind a curtain in the back … I assumed our bed waited.

Mor flung herself onto the nearest chaise. “Welcome to an Illyrian war-camp, ladies. Try to keep your awe contained.”

Nesta drifted toward the desk, the maps atop it. “What is the difference,” she asked none of us in particular, “between a faerie and a witch?”

“Witches amass power beyond their natural reserve,” Mor answered with sudden seriousness. “They use spells and archaic tools to harness more power to them than the Cauldron allotted—and use it for whatever they desire, good or ill.”

Elain silently surveyed the tent, head tipping back. Her mass of heavy brown-gold hair shifted with the movement, the faelight dancing among the silken strands. She’d left it half-up, the style arranged to hide her ears should the glamours fail at Graysen’s estate. Tamlin’s hadn’t worked on Nesta—perhaps Graysen and his father would have a similar immunity to such things.

Elain at last slid into the chair near Mor’s, her dawn-pink dress—finer than the ones she usually wore—crinkling beneath her. “Will—will many of these soldiers die?”

I cringed, but Nesta said, “Yes.” I could almost see the unspoken words Nesta reined in. Your mate might die sooner than them, though.

Mor said, “Whenever you’re ready, Elain, I’ll glamour you.”

“Will it hurt?” Elain asked.

“It didn’t when Tamlin glamoured your memories,” Nesta said, leaning against the desk.

Mor still said, “No. It might … tingle. Just act as you would as a human.”

“It’s the same as how I act now.” Elain began wringing her slender fingers.

“Yes,” I said, “but … try to keep the vision-talk … to yourself. While we’re there.” I added quickly, “Unless it’s something that you can’t—”

“I can,” Elain said, squaring her slim shoulders. “I will.”

Mor smiled tightly. “Deep breath.”

Elain obeyed. I blinked, and it was done.

Gone was the faint glow of immortal health; the face that had become a bit sharper. Gone were the pointed ears, the grace. Muted. Drab—or in the way that someone as beautiful as Elain could be drab. Even her hair seemed to have lost its luster, the gold now brassy, the brown mousy.

Elain studied her hands, turning them over. “I hadn’t realized … how ordinary it looked.”

“You’re still lovely,” Mor said a bit gently.

Elain offered a half smile. “I suppose that war makes wanting things like that unimportant.”

Mor was quiet for a heartbeat. “Perhaps. But you should not let war steal it from you regardless.”

Elain’s palm was clammy in mine as Rhys winnowed us into the human lands, Mor taking Azriel and Nesta. And though her face was calm when we found ourselves blinking at the heat and sunshine of a full mortal summer, her grip on my hand was as strong as the iron ring around her finger.

The heat lay heavy over the estate we now faced—the stone guardhouse the only opening I could see in either direction.

The only opening in the towering stone wall rising up before us, solid as some mammoth beast, so high I had to crane my neck back to spy the spikes jutting from its top.

The guards at the thick iron gates …

Rhys slid his hands into his pockets, a shield already around us. Mor and Azriel took up defensive positions at our sides.

Twelve guards at this gate. All armed, faces hidden beneath thick helmets, despite the heat. Their bodies were equally covered in plated armor, right down to their boots.

Any of us could end their lives without lifting a hand. And the wall they guarded, the gates they held … I did not think they would last long, either.

But … if we could place wards here, perhaps set up a bastion of Fae warriors … Through those open gates, I glimpsed sprawling lands—fields and pastures and groves and a lake … And beyond it … a solid, bulky fortress of dark brown stone.

Nesta had been right. It was like a prison, this place. Its lord had prepared to weather the storm from inside, a king over these resources. But there was room. Plenty of room for people.

And the would-be mistress of this prison … Head high, Elain said to the guards, to the dozen arrows now pointed at her slender throat, “Tell Graysen that his betrothed has come for him. Tell him … tell him that Elain Archeron begs for sanctuary.”

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