فصل 55

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CHAPTER

55

“I’m too old for these sorts of surprises,” Mor groused as the war-tent groaned in the howling mountain wind at the northern border of the Winter Court, the Illyrian army settling down for the night. To wait for the attack tomorrow. They’d flown all day, the location remote enough to keep even an army of our size hidden. Until tomorrow, at least.

We’d warned Tarquin—and dispatched messages to Helion and Kallias to join if they could make it in time. But come the hour before dawn, the Illyrian legion would take to the skies and fly hard for that southern battlefield. They would land, hopefully, before it began. Right as Keir and his commanders winnowed in the Darkbringer legion from the Night Court.

And then the slaughter would begin. On either side.

If what Jurian claimed was true. Cassian had choked when we’d told him Jurian’s battle advice. A milder reaction, Azriel said, than his initial response.

I asked Mor from where I sat at the foot of the fur-covered chaise we currently shared, “You never suspected Jurian might be … good?”

She swigged from her wine and leaned back against the cushions piled before the rolled headrest. My sisters were in another tent, not quite as big but equally luxurious, their lodgings flanked by Cassian’s and Azriel’s tents, and Mor’s before it. No one would get to them without my friends knowing. Even if Mor was currently here with me.

“I don’t know,” she said, hauling a heavy wool throw blanket over her legs. “I was never as close to Jurian as I was to some of the others, but … we did fight together. Saved each other. I just assumed Amarantha broke him.”

“Parts of him are broken,” I said, shuddering to recall those memories I’d seen, the feelings. I pulled some of her blanket over my lap.

“We’re all broken,” Mor said. “In our own ways—in places no one might see.”

I angled my head to inquire, but she asked, “Is Elain … all right?”

“No,” was all I said. Elain was not all right.

She had quietly cried while we winnowed here. And in the hours afterward, while the army arrived and the camp was rebuilt. She did not take off her ring. She only lay on the cot in her tent, nestled among the furs and blankets, and stared at nothing.

Any bit of good, any advancement … gone. I debated returning to smash every bone in Graysen’s body, but resisted—if only because it would give Nesta license to unleash herself upon him. And death at Nesta’s hands … I wondered if they’d have to invent a new word for killing when she was done with Graysen.

So Elain silently cried, the tears so unending that I wondered if it was some sign of her heart bleeding out. Some sliver of hope that had shattered today. That Graysen would still love her, still marry her—and that love would trump even a mating bond.

A final tether had been snapped—to her life in the human lands.

Only our father, wherever he was, remained as any sort of connection.

Mor read whatever was on my face and set down the wine on the small wood table beside the chaise. “We should sleep. I don’t even know why I’m drinking.”

“Today was … unexpected.”

“It’s so much harder,” she said, groaning as she chucked the rest of the blanket into my lap and rose to her feet. “When enemies turn into friends. And the opposite, I suppose. What didn’t I see? What did I overlook or dismiss? It always makes me reassess myself more than them.”

“Another joy of war?”

She snorted, heading for the tent flaps. “No—of life.”

I barely slept that night.

Rhys didn’t come to the tent—not once.

I slipped from our bed when the darkness was just starting to yield to gray, following the tug of the mating bond as I had done that day Under the Mountain.

He stood atop a rocky outcropping crusted with patches of ice, watching the stars fade away one by one over the still-slumbering camp.

I wordlessly slid my arm around his waist, and he shifted his wings to fold me into his side.

“A lot of soldiers are going to die today,” he said quietly.

“I know.”

“It never gets easier,” he whispered.

The strong panes of his face were taut, and silver lined his eyes as he studied the stars. Only here, only now, would he show that grief—that worry and pain. Never before his armies; never before his enemies.

He loosed a long breath. “Are you ready?” I would stay near the back of the lines with Mor to get a feel for battle. The flow and terror and structure. My sisters would remain here until it was safe to winnow them afterward. If things didn’t go to hell first.

“No,” I admitted. “But I have no other choice than to be ready.”

Rhys kissed the top of my head, and we stared at the dying stars in silence.

“I’m grateful,” he said after a while, as the camp beneath us stirred in the building light. “To have you at my side. I don’t know if I ever told you that—how grateful I am to have you stand with me.”

I blinked back the burning in my eyes and took his hand. I laid it over my heart, letting him feel its beating while I kissed him one final time, the last of the stars vanishing as the army below us awoke to do battle.

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