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A set of keys to the estate gates had gone missing.
But after last night’s incident, Tamlin didn’t appear to care.
Breakfast was silent, the Hybern royals sullen at being kept waiting so long to see the second cleft in the wall, and Jurian, for once, too tired to do anything but shovel meat and eggs into his hateful mouth.
Tamlin and Lucien, it seemed, had spoken before the meal, but the latter made a point to keep a healthy distance from me. To not look at or speak to me, as if still needing to convince Tamlin of our innocence.
I debated asking Jurian outright if he’d stolen the keys from whatever guard had lost them, but the silence was a welcome reprieve.
Until Ianthe breezed in, carefully avoiding acknowledging me, as if I was indeed the blinding sun that had been stolen from her.
“I am sorry to interrupt your meal, but there is a matter to discuss, High Lord,” Ianthe said, pale robes swirling at her feet as she halted halfway to the table.
All of us perked up at that.
Tamlin, brooding and snarly, demanded, “What is it.”
She made a show of realizing the Hybern royals were present. Listening. I tried not to snort at the oh-so-nervous glance she threw their way, then to Tamlin. The next words were no surprise whatsoever. “Perhaps we should wait until after the meal. When you are alone.”
No doubt a power play, to remind them that she did, in fact, have sway here—with Tamlin. That Hybern, too, might want to remain on her good side, considering the information she bore. But I was cruel enough to say sweetly, “If we can trust our allies in Hybern to go to war with us, then we can trust them to use discretion. Go ahead, Ianthe.”
She didn’t so much as look in my direction. But now caught between outright insult and politeness … Tamlin weighed our company against Ianthe’s posture and said, “Let’s hear it.”
Her white throat bobbed. “There is … My acolytes discovered that the land around my temple is … dying.”
Jurian rolled his eyes and went back to his bacon.
“Then tell the gardeners,” Brannagh said, returning to her own food. Dagdan snickered into his cup of tea.
“It is not a matter of gardening.” Ianthe straightened. “It is a blight upon the land. Grass, root, bud—all of it, shriveled up and sickly. It reeks of the naga.”
It was an effort not to glance to Lucien—to see if he also noticed the too-eager gleam in her eye. Even Tamlin loosed a sigh, as if he saw it for what it was: an attempt to regain some ground, perhaps a scheme to poison the earth and then miraculously heal it.
“There are other spots in the woods where things have died and are not coming back,” Ianthe went on, pressing a silver-adorned hand to her chest. “I fear it’s a warning that the naga are gathering—and plan to attack.”
Oh, I’d gotten under her skin. I’d been wondering what she’d do after yesterday’s solstice, after I’d robbed her of her moment and power. But this … Clever.
I hid my smirk down deep and said gently, “Ianthe, perhaps it is a case for the groundskeepers.”
She stiffened, at last facing me. You think you’re playing the game, I itched to tell her, but you have no idea that every choice you made last night and this morning were only steps I nudged you toward.
I jerked my chin toward the royals, then Lucien. “We’re heading out this afternoon to survey the wall, but if the problem remains when we return in a few days, I’ll help you look into it.”
Those silver-ringed fingers curled into loose fists at her sides. But like the true viper she was, Ianthe said to Tamlin, “Will you be joining them, High Lord?”
She looked to me and Lucien—the assessment too lingering to be casual.
A faint, low headache was already forming, made worse with every word out of her mouth. I’d been up too late, and had gotten too little sleep—and I needed my strength for the days ahead. “He will not,” I said, cutting off Tamlin before he could reply.
He set down his utensils. “I think I will.”
“I don’t need an escort.” Let him unravel the layers of defensiveness in that statement.
Jurian snorted. “Starting to doubt our good intentions, High Lord?”
Tamlin snarled at him. “Careful.”
I placed a hand flat on the table. “I’ll be fine with Lucien and the sentries.”
Lucien seemed inclined to sink into his seat and disappear forever.
I surveyed Dagdan and Brannagh and smiled a bit. “I can defend myself, if it comes to that,” I said to Tamlin.
The daemati smiled back at me. I hadn’t felt another touch on my mental barriers, or the ones I’d been working to keep around as many people here as possible. The constant use of my power was wearing on me, however—being away from this place for four or five days would be a welcome relief.
Especially as Ianthe murmured to Tamlin, “Perhaps you should go, my friend.” I waited—waited for whatever nonsense was about to come out of that pouty mouth— “You never know when the Night Court will attempt to snatch her away.”
I had a blink to debate my reaction. To opt for leaning back in my chair, shoulders curling inward, hauling up those images of Clare, of Rhys with those ash arrows through his wings—any sort of way to dredge my scent in fear. “Have you news?” I whispered.
Brannagh and Dagdan looked very interested at that.
The priestess opened her mouth, but Jurian cut her off, drawling, “There is no news. Their borders are secure. Rhysand would be a fool to push his luck by coming here.”
I stared at my plate, the portrait of bowed terror.
“A fool, yes,” Ianthe countered, “but one with a vendetta.” She faced Tamlin, the morning sun catching in the jewel atop her head. “Perhaps if you returned to him his family’s wings, he might … settle.”
For a heartbeat, silence rippled through me.
Followed by a wave of roaring that drowned out nearly every thought, every self-preserving instinct. I could barely hear over that bellowing in my blood, my bones.
But the words, the offer … A cheap attempt at snaring me. I pretended not to hear, not to care. Even as I waited and waited for Tamlin’s reply.
When Tamlin answered, his voice was low. “I burned them a long time ago.”
I could have sworn there was something like remorse—remorse and shame—in his words.
Ianthe only tsked. “Too bad. He might have paid handsomely for them.”
My limbs ached with the effort of not leaping over the table to smash her head into the marble floor.
But I said to Tamlin, soothing and gentle, “I’ll be fine out there.” I touched his hand, brushing my thumb over the back of his palm. Held his stare. “Let’s not start down this road again.”
As I pulled away, Tamlin merely fixed Lucien with a look, any trace of that guilt gone. His claws slid free, embedding in the scar-flecked wood of his chair’s arm. “Be careful.”
None of us pretended it was anything but a threat.
It was a two-day ride, but took us only a day to get there with winnowing-walking-winnowing. We could manage a few miles at a time, but Dagdan was slower than I’d anticipated, given that he had to carry his sister and Jurian.
I didn’t fault him for it. With each of us bearing another, the drain was considerable. Lucien and I both bore a sentry, minor lords’ sons who had been trained to be polite and watchful. Supplies, as a result, were limited. Including tents.
By the time we made it to the cleft in the wall, darkness was falling.
The few supplies we’d hauled also had encumbered our winnowing through the world, and I let the sentries erect the tents for us, ever the lady keen to be waited on. Our dinner around the small fire was near-silent, none of us bothering to speak, save for Jurian, who questioned the sentries endlessly about their training. The twins retreated to their own tent after they’d picked at the meat sandwiches we’d packed, frowning at them as if they were full of maggots instead, and Jurian wandered off into the woods soon after, claiming he wanted a walk before he retired.
I hauled myself into the canvas tent when the fire was dying out, the space barely big enough for Lucien and me to sleep shoulder to shoulder.
His red hair gleamed in the faint firelight a moment later as he shoved through the flaps and swore. “Maybe I should sleep out there.”
I rolled my eyes. “Please.”
A wary, considering glance as he knelt and removed his boots. “You know Tamlin can be … sensitive about things.”
“He can also be a pain in my ass,” I snapped, and slithered under the blankets. “If you yield to him on every bit of paranoia and territorialism, you’ll just make it worse.”
Lucien unbuttoned his jacket but remained mostly dressed as he slid onto his sleeping roll. “I think it’s made worse because you two haven’t … I mean, you haven’t, right?”
I stiffened, tugging the blanket higher onto my shoulders. “No. I don’t want to be touched like that—not for a while.”
His silence was heavy—sad. I hated the lie, hated it for how filthy it felt to wield it. “I’m sorry,” he said. And I wondered what else he was apologizing for as I faced him in the darkness of our tent.
“Isn’t there some way to get out of this deal with Hybern?” My words were barely louder than the murmuring embers outside. “I’m back, I’m safe. We could find some way around it—”
“No. The King of Hybern crafted his bargain with Tamlin too cleverly, too clearly. Magic bound them—magic will strike him if he does not allow Hybern into these lands.”
“In what way? Kill him?”
Lucien’s sigh ruffled my hair. “It will claim his own powers, maybe kill him. Magic is all about balance. It’s why he couldn’t interfere with your bargain with Rhysand. Even the person who tries to sever the bargain faces consequences. If he’d kept you here, the magic that bound you to Rhys might have come to claim his life as payment for yours. Or the life of someone else he cared about. It’s old magic—old and strange. It’s why we avoid bargains unless it’s necessary: even the scholars at the Day Court don’t know how it works. Believe me, I’ve asked.”
“For me—you asked them for me.”
“Yes. I went last winter to inquire about breaking your bargain with Rhys.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I—we didn’t want to give you false hope. And we didn’t dare let Rhysand get wind of what we were doing, in case he found a way to interfere. To stop it.”
“So Ianthe pushed Tamlin to Hybern instead.”
“He was frantic. The scholars at the Day Court worked too slowly. I begged him for more time, but you’d already been gone for months. He wanted to act, not wait—despite that letter you sent. Because of that letter you sent. I finally told him to go ahead with it after—after that day in the forest.”
I turned onto my back, staring at the sloped ceiling of the tent.
“How bad was it?” I asked quietly.
“You saw your room. He trashed it, the study, his bedroom. He—he killed the sentries who’d been on guard. After he got the last bit of information from them. He executed them in front of everyone in the manor.”
My blood chilled. “You didn’t stop him.”
“I tried. I begged him for mercy. He didn’t listen. He couldn’t listen.”
“The sentries didn’t try to stop him, either?”
“They didn’t dare. Feyre, he’s a High Lord. He’s a different breed.”
I wondered if he’d say the same thing if he knew what I was.
“We were backed into a corner with no options. None. It was either go to war with the Night Court and Hybern, or ally with Hybern, let them try to stir up trouble, and then use that alliance to our own advantage further down the road.”
“What do you mean,” I breathed.
But Lucien realized what he’d said, and hedged, “We have enemies in every court. Having Hybern’s alliance will make them think twice.”
Liar. Trained, clever liar.
I loosed a heaving, sleepy breath. “Even if they’re now our allies,” I mumbled, “I still hate them.”
A snort. “Me too.”
Blinding sunlight cut into the tent, and I hissed.
The order was drowned out by Lucien’s snarl as he sat up. “Out,” he ordered Jurian, who looked us over once, sneered, and stalked away.
I’d rolled onto Lucien’s bedroll at some point, any schemes indeed second to my most pressing demand—warmth. But I had no doubt Jurian would tuck away the information to throw in Tamlin’s face when we returned: we’d shared a tent, and had been very cozy upon awakening.
I washed in the nearby stream, my body stiff and aching from a night on the ground, with or without the help of a bedroll.
Brannagh was prowling for the stream by the time I’d finished. The princess gave me a cold, thin smile. “I’d pick Beron’s son, too.”
I stared at the princess beneath lowered brows.
She shrugged, her smile growing. “Autumn Court males have fire in their blood—and they fuck like it, too.”
“I suppose you know from experience?”
A chuckle. “Why do you think I had so much fun in the War?”
I didn’t bother to hide my disgust.
Lucien caught me cringing at him when her words replayed for the tenth time an hour later, while we hiked the half mile toward the crack in the wall. “What?” he demanded.
I shook my head, trying not to imagine Elain subject to that … fire.
“Nothing,” I said, just as Jurian swore ahead.
We were both moving at his barked curse—and then broke into a run at the sound of a sword whining free of its sheath. Leaves and branches whipped at me, but then we were at the wall, that invisible, horrible marker humming and throbbing in my head.
And staring right at us through the hole were three Children of the Blessed.
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