فصل 09

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CHAPTER

9

Ianthe wasn’t done.

I knew it—braced myself for it. She didn’t flit back to her temple a few miles away.

Rather, she remained at the house, seizing her chance to worm her way closer to Tamlin. She believed she’d gained a foothold, that her declaration of justice served at the bloody end of the whipping hadn’t been anything but a final slap in the face to the guards who watched.

And when that sentry had sagged from his bindings, when the others came to gently untie him, Ianthe merely ushered the Hybern party and Tamlin into the manor for lunch. But I’d remained at the barracks, tending to the groaning sentry, drawing away bloodied bowls of water while the healer quietly patched him up.

Bron and Hart personally escorted me back to the estate hours later. I thanked them each by name. Then apologized that I hadn’t been able to prevent it—Ianthe’s scheming or the unjust punishment of their friend. I meant every word, the crack of the whip still echoing in my ears.

Then they spoke the words I’d been waiting for. They were sorry they hadn’t stopped any of it, either.

Not just today. But the bruises now fading—at last. The other incidents.

If I had asked them, they would have handed me their own knives to slit their throats.

The next evening, I was hurrying back to my room to change for dinner when Ianthe made her next move.

She was to come with us to the wall tomorrow morning.

Her, and Tamlin, too.

If we were all to be a united front, she’d declared over dinner, then she wished to see the wall herself.

The Hybern royals didn’t care. But Jurian winked at me, as if he, too, saw the game in motion.

I packed my own bags that night.

Alis entered right before bed, a third pack in her hands. “Since it’s a longer trip, I brought you supplies.”

Even with Tamlin joining us, it was too many people for him to winnow us directly.

So we’d go, as we’d done before, in segments. A few miles at a time.

Alis laid the pack she’d prepared beside my own. Picked up the brush on the vanity and beckoned me to sit on the cushioned bench before it.

I obeyed. For a few minutes, she brushed my hair in silence.

Then she said, “When you leave tomorrow, I leave, too.”

I lifted my eyes to hers in the mirror.

“My nephews are packed, the ponies ready to take us back to Summer Court territory at last. It has been too long since I saw my home,” she said, though her eyes shone.

“I know the feeling,” was all I said.

“I wish you well, lady,” Alis said, setting down the brush and beginning to braid back my hair. “For the rest of your days, however long they may be, I wish you well.”

I let her finish the plait, then pivoted on the bench to grip her thin fingers in mine. “Don’t ever tell Tarquin you know me well.”

Her brows rose.

“There is a blood ruby with my name on it,” I clarified.

Even her tree-bark skin seemed to blanch. She understood it well enough: I was a hunted enemy of the Summer Court. Only my death would be accepted as payment for my crimes.

Alis squeezed my hand. “Blood rubies or no, you will always have one friend in the Summer Court.”

My throat bobbed. “And you will always have one in mine,” I promised her.

She knew which court I meant. And did not look afraid.

The sentries did not glance at Tamlin, or so much as speak to him unless absolutely necessary. Bron, Hart, and three others were to join us. They had spotted me checking on their friend before dawn—a courtesy I knew none of the others had extended.

Winnowing felt like wading through mud. In fact, my powers had become more of a burden than a help. I had a throbbing headache by noon, and spent the last leg of the journey dizzy and disoriented as we winnowed again and again.

We arrived and set up camp in near-silence. I quietly, shyly asked to share a tent with Ianthe instead of Tamlin, appearing eager to mend the rift the whipping had torn between us. But I did it more to spare Lucien from her attention than to keep Tamlin at bay. Dinner was made and eaten, bedrolls laid out, and Tamlin ordered Bron and Hart on the first watch.

Lying beside Ianthe without slitting her throat was an exercise in patience and control.

But whenever the knife beneath my pillow seemed to whisper her name, I’d remind myself of my friends. The family that was alive—healing in the North.

I repeated their names silently, over and over into the darkness. Rhysand. Mor. Cassian. Amren. Azriel. Elain. Nesta.

I thought of how I had last seen them, so bloodied and hurting. Thought of Cassian’s scream as his wings were shredded; of Azriel’s threat to the king as he advanced on Mor. Nesta, fighting every step toward the Cauldron.

My goal was bigger than revenge. My purpose greater than personal retribution.

Dawn broke, and I found my palm curled around the hilt of my knife anyway. I drew it out as I sat up, staring down at the sleeping priestess.

The smooth column of her neck seemed to glow in the early-morning sun leaking through the tent flaps.

I weighed the knife in my hand.

I wasn’t sure I’d been born with the ability to forgive. Not for terrors inflicted on those I loved. For myself, I didn’t care—not nearly as much. But there was some fundamental pillar of steel in me that could not bend or break in this. Could not stomach the idea of letting these people get away with what they’d done.

Ianthe’s eyes opened, the teal as limpid as her discarded circlet. They went right to the knife in my hand. Then to my face.

“You can’t be too careful while sharing a camp with enemies,” I said.

I could have sworn something like fear shone in her eyes. “Hybern is not our enemy,” she said a tad breathlessly.

From her paleness as I left the tent, I knew my answering smile had done its job well.

Lucien and Tamlin showed the twins where the crack in the wall lay.

And as they had done with the first two, they spent hours surveying it, the surrounding land.

I kept close this time, watching them, my presence now deemed relatively unthreatening if not a nuisance. We’d played our little power games, established I could bite if I wished, but we’d tolerate each other.

“Here,” Brannagh murmured to Dagdan, jerking her chin to the invisible divider. The only markings were the different trees: on our side, they were the bright, fresh green of spring. On the other, they were dark, broad, curling slightly with heat—the height of summer.

“The first one was better,” Dagdan countered.

I sat atop a small boulder, peeling an apple with a paring knife.

“Closer to the western coast, too,” he added to his twin.

“This is closer to the continent—to the strait.”

I sliced deep into the flesh of the apple, carving out a hunk of white meat.

“Yes, but we’d have more access to the High Lord’s supplies.”

Said High Lord was currently off with Jurian, hunting for food more filling than the sandwiches we’d packed. Ianthe had gone to a nearby spring to pray, and I had no idea whatsoever where Lucien or the sentries were.

Good. Easier for me as I shoved the apple slice into my mouth and said around it, “I say go for this one.”

They twisted toward me, Brannagh sneering and Dagdan’s brows high. “What do you know of any of it?” Brannagh demanded.

I shrugged, cutting another piece of apple. “You two talk louder than you realize.”

Shared accusatory glares between them. Proud, arrogant, cruel. I’d been taking their measure this fortnight. “Unless you want to risk the other courts having time to rally and intercepting you before you can cross to the strait, I’d pick this one.”

Brannagh rolled her eyes.

I went on, rambling and bored, “But what do I know? You two have squatted on a little island for five hundred years. Clearly you know more about Prythian and moving armies than me.”

Brannagh hissed, “This is not about armies, so I will trust you to keep that mouth shut until we have use for you.”

I snorted. “You mean to tell me all of this nonsense hasn’t been to find a place to break through the wall and use the Cauldron to also transport the mass of your armies here?”

She laughed, swinging her dark curtain of hair over a shoulder. “The Cauldron is not for transporting grunt armies. It is for remaking worlds. It is for bringing down this hideous wall and reclaiming what we were.”

I merely crossed my legs. “I’d think that with an army of ten thousand you wouldn’t need any magical objects to do your dirty work.”

“Our army is ten times that, girl,” Brannagh sneered. “And twice that number if you count our allies in Vallahan, Montesere, and Rask.”

Two hundred thousand. Mother save us.

“You’ve certainly been busy all these years.” I surveyed them, utterly nonplussed. “Why not strike when Amarantha had the island?”

“The king had not yet found the Cauldron, despite years of searching. It served his purposes to let her be an experiment for how we might break these people. And served as good motivation for our allies on the continent to join us, knowing what would await them.”

I finished off my apple and chucked the core into the woods. They watched it fly like two hounds tracking a pheasant.

“So they’re all going to converge here? I’m supposed to play hostess to so many soldiers?”

“Our own force will take care of Prythian before uniting with the others. Our commanders are preparing for it as we speak.”

“You must think you stand a shot at losing if you’re bothering to use the Cauldron to help you win.”

“The Cauldron is victory. It will wipe this world clean again.”

I lifted my brows in irreverent cynicism. “And you need this exact spot to unleash it?”

“This exact spot,” Dagdan said, a hand on the hilt of his sword, “exists because a person or object of mighty power passed through it. The Cauldron will study the work they’ve already done—and magnify it until the wall collapses entirely. It is a careful, complex process, and one I doubt your mortal mind can grasp.”

“Probably. Though this mortal mind did manage to solve Amarantha’s riddle—and destroy her.”

Brannagh merely turned back to the wall. “Why do you think Hybern let her live for so long in these lands? Better to have someone else do his dirty work.”

I had what I needed.

Tamlin and Jurian were still off hunting, the royals were preoccupied, and I’d sent the sentries to fetch me more water, claiming that some of my bruises still ached and I wanted to make a poultice for them.

They’d looked positively murderous at that. Not at me—but at who had given me those bruises. Who had picked Ianthe over them—and Hybern over their honor and people.

I’d brought three packs, but I’d only need one. The one I’d carefully repacked with Alis’s new supplies, now tucked beside everything I’d anticipated needing to get clear of them and go. The one I’d brought with me on every trip out to the wall, just in case. And now …

I had numbers, I had a purpose, I had a specific location, and the names of foreign territories.

But more than that, I had a people who had lost faith in their High Priestess. I had sentries who were beginning to rebel against their High Lord. And as a result of those things, I had Hybern royals doubting the strength of their allies here. I’d primed this court to fall. Not from outside forces—but its own internal warring.

And I had to be clear of it before it happened. Before the last sliver of my plan fell into place.

The party would return without me. And to maintain that illusion of strength, Tamlin and Ianthe would lie about it—where I’d gone.

And perhaps a day or two after that, one of these sentries would reveal the news, a carefully sprung trap that I’d coiled into his mind like one of my snares.

I’d fled for my life—after being nearly killed by the Hybern prince and princess. I’d planted images in his head of my brutalized body, the markings consistent with what Dagdan and Brannagh had already revealed to be their style. He’d describe them in detail—describe how he helped me get away before it was too late. How I ran for my life when Tamlin and Ianthe refused to intervene, to risk their alliance with Hybern.

And when the sentry revealed the truth, no longer able to stomach keeping quiet when he saw how my sorry fate was concealed by Tamlin and Ianthe, just as Tamlin had sided with Ianthe the day he’d flogged that sentry …

When he described what Hybern had done to me, their Cursebreaker, their newly anointed Cauldron-blessed, before I’d fled for my life …

There would be no further alliance. For there would be no sentry or denizen of this court who would stand with Tamlin or Ianthe after this. After me.

I ducked into my tent to grab my pack, my steps light and swift. Listening, barely breathing, I scanned the camp, the woods.

A few seconds extra had me snatching Tamlin’s bandolier of knives from where he’d left them inside his tent. They’d get in the way while using a bow and arrow, he’d explained that morning.

Their weight was considerable as I slung it across my chest. Illyrian fighting knives.

Home. I was going home.

I didn’t bother to look back at that camp as I slipped into the northern tree line. If I winnowed without stopping between leaps, I’d be at the foothills in an hour—and would vanish through one of the caves not long after that.

I made it about a hundred yards into the cover of the trees before I halted.

I heard Lucien first.

“Back off.”

A low female laugh.

Everything in me went still and cold at that sound. I’d heard it once before—in Rhysand’s memory.

Keep going. They were distracted, horrible as it was.

Keep going, keep going, keep going.

“I thought you’d seek me out after the Rite,” Ianthe purred. They couldn’t be more than thirty feet through the trees. Far enough away not to hear my presence, if I was quiet enough.

“I was obligated to perform the Rite,” Lucien snapped. “That night wasn’t the product of desire, believe me.”

“We had fun, you and I.”

“I’m a mated male now.”

Every second was the ringing of my death knell. I’d primed everything to fall; I’d long since stopped feeling any sort of guilt or doubt about my plan. Not with Alis now safely away.

And yet—and yet—

“You don’t act that way with Feyre.” A silk-wrapped threat.

“You’re mistaken.”

“Am I?” Twigs and leaves crunched, as if she was circling him. “You put your hands all over her.”

I had done my job too well, provoked her jealousy too much with every instance I’d found ways to get Lucien to touch me in her presence, in Tamlin’s presence.

“Do not touch me,” he growled.

And then I was moving.

I masked the sound of my footfalls, silent as a panther as I stalked to the little clearing where they stood.

Where Lucien stood, back against a tree—twin bands of blue stone shackled around his wrists.

I’d seen them before. On Rhys, to immobilize his power. Stone hewn from Hybern’s rotted land, capable of nullifying magic. And in this case … holding Lucien against that tree as Ianthe surveyed him like a snake before a meal.

She slid a hand over the broad panes of his chest, his stomach.

And Lucien’s eyes shot to me as I stepped between the trees, fear and humiliation reddening his golden skin.

“That’s enough,” I said.

Ianthe whipped her head to me. Her smile was innocent, simpering. But I saw her note the pack, Tamlin’s bandolier. Dismiss them. “We were in the middle of a game. Weren’t we, Lucien?”

He didn’t answer.

And the sight of those shackles on him, however she’d trapped him, the sight of her hand still on his stomach—

“We’ll return to the camp when we’re done,” she said, turning to him again. Her hand slid lower, not for his own pleasure, but simply to throw it in my face that she could—

I struck.

Not with my knives or magic, but my mind.

I ripped down the shield I’d kept up around her to avoid the twins’ control—and slammed myself into her consciousness.

A mask over a face of decay. That’s what it was like to go inside that beautiful head and find such hideous thoughts inside it. A trail of males she’d used her power on or outright forced to bed, convinced of her entitlement to them. I pulled back against the tug of those memories, mastering myself. “Take your hands off him.”

She did.

“Unshackle him.”

Lucien’s skin drained of color as Ianthe obeyed me, her face queerly vacant, pliant. The blue stone shackles thumped to the mossy ground.

Lucien’s shirt was askew, the top button on his pants already undone.

The roaring that filled my mind was so loud I could barely hear myself as I said, “Pick up that rock.”

Lucien remained pressed against that tree. And he watched in silence as Ianthe stooped to pick up a gray, rough rock about the size of an apple.

“Put your right hand on that boulder.”

She obeyed, though a tremor went down her spine.

Her mind thrashed and struggled against me, like a fish snared on a line. I dug my mental talons in deeper, and some inner voice of hers began screaming.

“Smash your hand with the rock as hard as you can until I tell you to stop.”

The hand she’d put on him, on so many others.

Ianthe brought the stone up. The first impact was a muffled, wet thud.

The second was an actual crack.

The third drew blood.

Her arm rose and fell, her body shuddering with the agony.

And I said to her very clearly, “You will never touch another person against their will. You will never convince yourself that they truly want your advances; that they’re playing games. You will never know another’s touch unless they initiate, unless it’s desired by both sides.”

Thwack; crack; thud.

“You will not remember what happened here. You will tell the others that you fell.”

Her ring finger had shifted in the wrong direction.

“You are allowed to see a healer to set the bones. But not to erase the scarring. And every time you look at that hand, you are going to remember that touching people against their will has consequences, and if you do it again, everything you are will cease to exist. You will live with that terror every day, and never know where it originates. Only the fear of something chasing you, hunting you, waiting for you the instant you let your guard down.”

Silent tears of pain flowed down her face.

“You can stop now.”

The bloodied rock tumbled onto the grass. Her hand was little more than cracked bones wrapped in shredded skin.

“Kneel here until someone finds you.”

Ianthe fell to her knees, her ruined hand leaking blood onto her pale robes.

“I debated slitting your throat this morning,” I told her. “I debated it all last night while you slept beside me. I’ve debated it every single day since I learned you sold out my sisters to Hybern.” I smiled a bit. “But I think this is a better punishment. And I hope you live a long, long life, Ianthe, and never know a moment’s peace.”

I stared down at her for a moment longer, tying off the tapestry of words and commands I’d woven into her mind, and turned to Lucien. He’d fixed his pants, his shirt.

His wide eyes slid from her to me, then to the bloodied stone.

“The word you’re looking for, Lucien,” crooned a deceptively light female voice, “is daemati.”

We whirled toward Brannagh and Dagdan as they stepped into the clearing, grinning like wolves.

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