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A Court of Thorns and Roses 3.1 - A Court of Frost and Starlight

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Hope warms the coldest night.

Feyre, Rhys, and their close-knit circle of friends are still busy rebuilding the Night Court and the vastly-changed world beyond. But Winter Solstice is finally near, and with it, a hard-earned reprieve. 

Yet even the festive atmosphere can't keep the shadows of the past from looming. As Feyre navigates her first Winter Solstice as High Lady, she finds that those dearest to her have more wounds than she anticipated--scars that will have far-reaching impact on the future of their Court.
 
Volume:
3.1
Year:
2018
Language:
english
Pages:
272
ISBN 13:
9781681196312
Series:
A Court of Thorns and Roses
File:
EPUB, 774 KB
Download (epub, 774 KB)

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3 comments
 
Jul
All of the relationships are abusive or at least toxic, most of the characters are poorly written, there's underlaying racism and every ruler in this land is a bad ruler who should be deposed. YES EVERY ONE. Even the one the fandom praises as a great and just ruler (Rhys). He's not, and this book isn't feminist AT ALL. Please don't read it, or if you read it do it with open eyes
06 May 2021 (17:04) 
Ria
AWESOME!!!;)Love the author and I've read all her books( over and over) and loved them.I really fell in love with the male's and their personalities.Hope I find love like that someday.
08 May 2021 (07:55) 
USA
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09 May 2021 (20:26) 

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To the readers who look up at the stars and wish





BOOKS BY SARAH J. MAAS

The Throne of Glass series

The Assassin’s Blade

Throne of Glass

Crown of Midnight

Heir of Fire

Queen of Shadows

Empire of Storms

Tower of Dawn

•

The Throne of Glass Colouring Book



A Court of Thorns and Roses series

A Court of Thorns and Roses

A Court of Mist and Fury

A Court of Wings and Ruin

A Court of Frost and Starlight

•

A Court of Thorns and Roses Colouring Book





CONTENTS

Chapter 1: Feyre

Chapter 2: Rhysand

Chapter 3: Cassian

Chapter 4: Feyre

Chapter 5: Feyre

Chapter 6: Morrigan

Chapter 7: Rhysand

Chapter 8: Cassian

Chapter 9: Feyre

Chapter 10: Feyre

Chapter 11: Rhysand

Chapter 12: Feyre

Chapter 13: Feyre

Chapter 14: Rhysand

Chapter 15: Feyre

Chapter 16: Rhysand

Chapter 17: Feyre

Chapter 18: Feyre

Chapter 19: Feyre

Chapter 20: Feyre

Chapter 21: Cassian

Chapter 22: Feyre

Chapter 23: Rhysand

Chapter 24: Morrigan

Chapter 25: Feyre

Chapter 26: Rhysand

Chapter 27: Feyre

Chapter 28: Feyre

Teaser

Acknowledgments





CHAPTER

1

Feyre




The first snow of winter had begun whipping through Velaris an hour earlier.

The ground had finally frozen solid last week, and by the time I’d finished devouring my breakfast of toast and bacon, washed down with a heady cup of tea, the pale cobblestones were dusted with fine, white powder.

I had no idea where Rhys was. He hadn’t been in bed when I’d awoken, the mattress on his side already cold. Nothing unusual, as we were both busy to the point of exhaustion these days.

Seated at the long cherrywood dining table at the town house, I frowned at the whirling snow beyond the leaded glass windows.

Once, I had dreaded that first snow, had lived in terror of long, brutal winters.

But it had been a long, brutal winter that had brought me so deep into the woods that day nearly two years ago. A long, brutal winter that had made me desperate enough to kill a wolf, that had eventually led me here—to this life, this … happiness.

The snow fell, thick c; lumps plopping onto the dried grass of the tiny front lawn, crusting the spikes and arches of the decorative fence beyond it.

Deep inside me, rising with every swirling flake, a sparkling, crisp power stirred. I was High Lady of the Night Court, yes, but also one blessed with the gifts of all the courts. It seemed Winter now wanted to play.

Finally awake enough to be coherent, I lowered the shield of black adamant guarding my mind and cast a thought down the soul-bridge between me and Rhys. Where’d you fly off to so early?

My question faded into blackness. A sure sign that Rhys was nowhere near Velaris. Likely not even within the borders of the Night Court. Also not unusual—he’d been visiting our war allies these months to solidify our relationships, build trade, and keep tabs on their post-wall intentions. When my own work allowed it, I often joined him.

I scooped up my plate, draining my tea to the dregs, and padded toward the kitchen. Playing with ice and snow could wait.

Nuala was already preparing for lunch at the worktable, no sign of her twin, Cerridwen, but I waved her off as she made to take my dishes. “I can wash them,” I said by way of greeting.

Up to the elbows in making some sort of meat pie, the half-wraith gave me a grateful smile and let me do it. A female of few words, though neither twin could be considered shy. Certainly not when they worked—spied—for both Rhys and Azriel.

“It’s still snowing,” I observed rather pointlessly, peering out the kitchen window at the garden beyond as I rinsed off the plate, fork, and cup. Elain had already readied the garden for winter, veiling the more delicate bushes and beds with burlap. “I wonder if it’ll let up at all.”

Nuala laid the ornate lattice crust atop the pie and began pinching the edges together, her shadowy fingers making quick, deft work of it. “It’ll be nice to have a white Solstice,” she said, voice lilting and yet hushed. Full of whispers and shadows. “Some years, it can be fairly mild.”

Right. The Winter Solstice. In a week. I was still new enough to being High Lady that I had no idea what my formal role was to be. If we’d have a High Priestess do some odious ceremony, as Ianthe had done the year before—

A year. Gods, nearly a year since Rhys had called in his bargain, desperate to get me away from the poison of the Spring Court, to save me from my despair. Had he been only a minute later, the Mother knew what would have happened. Where I’d now be.

Snow swirled and eddied in the garden, catching in the brown fibers of the burlap covering the shrubs.

My mate—who had worked so hard and so selflessly, all without hope that I would ever be with him.

We had both fought for that love, bled for it. Rhys had died for it.

I still saw that moment, in my sleeping and waking dreams. How his face had looked, how his chest had not risen, how the bond between us had shredded into ribbons. I still felt it, that hollowness in my chest where the bond had been, where he had been. Even now, with that bond again flowing between us like a river of star-flecked night, the echo of its vanishing lingered. Drew me from sleep; drew me from a conversation, a painting, a meal.

Rhys knew exactly why there were nights when I would cling tighter to him, why there were moments in the bright, clear sunshine that I would grip his hand. He knew, because I knew why his eyes sometimes turned distant, why he occasionally just blinked at all of us as if not quite believing it and rubbed his chest as if to ease an ache.

Working had helped. Both of us. Keeping busy, keeping focused—I sometimes dreaded the quiet, idle days when all those thoughts snared me at last. When there was nothing but me and my mind, and that memory of Rhys lying dead on the rocky ground, the King of Hybern snapping my father’s neck, all those Illyrians blasted out of the sky and falling to earth as ashes.

Perhaps one day, even the work wouldn’t be a battlement to keep the memories out.

Mercifully, plenty of work remained for the foreseeable future. Rebuilding Velaris after the attacks from Hybern being only one of many monumental tasks. For other tasks required doing as well—both in Velaris and beyond it: in the Illyrian Mountains, in the Hewn City, in the vastness of the entire Night Court. And then there were the other courts of Prythian. And the new, emerging world beyond.

But for now: Solstice. The longest night of the year. I turned from the window to Nuala, who was still fussing over the edges of her pie. “It’s a special holiday here as well, right?” I asked casually. “Not just in Winter and Day.” And Spring.

“Oh, yes,” Nuala said, stooping over the worktable to examine her pie. Skilled spy—trained by Azriel himself—and master cook. “We love it dearly. It’s intimate, warm, lovely. Presents and music and food, sometimes feasting under the starlight …” The opposite of the enormous, wild, days-long party I’d been subjected to last year. But—presents.

I had to buy presents for all of them. Not had to, but wanted to.

Because all my friends, now my family, had fought and bled and nearly died as well.

I shut out the image that tore through my mind: Nesta, leaning over a wounded Cassian, the two of them prepared to die together against the King of Hybern. My father’s corpse behind them.

I rolled my neck. We could use something to celebrate. It had become so rare for all of us to be gathered for more than an hour or two.

Nuala went on, “It’s a time of rest, too. And a time to reflect on the darkness—how it lets the light shine.”

“Is there a ceremony?”

The half-wraith shrugged. “Yes, but none of us go. It’s more for those who wish to honor the light’s rebirth, usually by spending the entire night sitting in absolute darkness.” A ghost of a smirk. “It’s not quite such a novelty for my sister and me. Or for the High Lord.”

I tried not to look too relieved that I wouldn’t be dragged to a temple for hours as I nodded.

Setting my clean dishes to dry on the little wooden rack beside the sink, I wished Nuala luck on lunch, and headed upstairs to dress. Cerridwen had already laid out clothes, but there was still no sign of Nuala’s twin as I donned the heavy charcoal sweater, the tight black leggings, and fleece-lined boots before loosely braiding back my hair.

A year ago, I’d been stuffed into fine gowns and jewels, made to parade in front of a preening court who’d gawked at me like a prized breeding mare.

Here … I smiled at the silver-and-sapphire band on my left hand. The ring I’d won for myself from the Weaver in the Wood.

My smile faded a bit.

I could see her, too. See Stryga standing before the King of Hybern, covered in the blood of her prey, as he took her head in his hands and snapped her neck. Then threw her to his beasts.

I clenched my fingers into a fist, breathing in through my nose, out through my mouth, until the lightness in my limbs faded, until the walls of the room stopped pressing on me.

Until I could survey the blend of personal objects in Rhys’s room—our room. It was by no means a small bedroom, but it had lately started to feel … tight. The rosewood desk against one wall was covered in papers and books from both of our own dealings; my jewelry and clothes now had to be divided between here and my old bedroom. And then there were the weapons.

Daggers and blades, quivers and bows. I scratched my head at the heavy, wicked-looking mace that Rhys had somehow dumped beside the desk without my noticing.

I didn’t even want to know. Though I had no doubt Cassian was somehow behind it.

We could, of course, store everything in the pocket between realms, but … I frowned at my own set of Illyrian blades, leaning against the towering armoire.

If we got snowed in, perhaps I’d use the day to organize things. Find room for everything. Especially that mace.

It would be a challenge, since Elain still occupied a bedroom down the hall. Nesta had chosen her own home across the city, one that I opted to not think about for too long. Lucien, at least, had taken up residence in an elegant apartment down by the river the day after he’d returned from the battlefields. And the Spring Court.

I hadn’t asked Lucien any questions about that visit—to Tamlin.

Lucien hadn’t explained the black eye and cut lip, either. He’d only asked Rhys and me if we knew of a place to stay in Velaris, since he did not wish to inconvenience us further by staying at the town house, and did not wish to be isolated at the House of Wind.

He hadn’t mentioned Elain, or his proximity to her. Elain had not asked him to stay, or to go. And whether she cared about the bruises on his face, she certainly hadn’t let on.

But Lucien had remained, and found ways to keep busy, often gone for days or weeks at a time.

Yet even with Lucien and Nesta staying in their own apartments, the town house was a bit small these days. Even more so if Mor, Cassian, and Azriel stayed over. And the House of Wind was too big, too formal, too far from the city proper. Nice for a night or two, but … I loved this house.

It was my home. The first I’d really had in the ways that counted.

And it’d be nice to celebrate the Solstice here. With all of them, crowded as it might be.

I scowled at the pile of papers I had to sort through: letters from other courts, priestesses angling for positions, and kingdoms both human and faerie. I’d put them off for weeks now, and had finally set aside this morning to wade through them.

High Lady of the Night Court, Defender of the Rainbow and the … Desk.

I snorted, flicking my braid over a shoulder. Perhaps my Solstice gift to myself would be to hire a personal secretary. Someone to read and answer those things, to sort out what was vital and what could be put aside. Because a little extra time to myself, for Rhys …

I’d look through the court budget that Rhys never really cared to follow and see what could be moved around for the possibility of such a thing. For him and for me.

I knew our coffers ran deep, knew we could easily afford it and not make so much as a dent in our fortune, but I didn’t mind the work. I loved the work, actually. This territory, its people—they were as much my heart as my mate. Until yesterday, nearly every waking hour had been packed with helping them. Until I’d been politely, graciously, told to go home and enjoy the holiday.

In the wake of the war, the people of Velaris had risen to the challenge of rebuilding and helping their own. Before I’d even come up with an idea of how to help them, multiple societies had been created to assist the city. So I’d volunteered with a handful of them for tasks ranging from finding homes for those displaced by the destruction to visiting families affected during the war to helping those without shelter or belongings ready for winter with new coats and supplies.

All of it was vital; all of it was good, satisfying work. And yet … there was more. There was more that I could do to help. Personally. I just hadn’t figured it out yet.

It seemed I wasn’t the only one eager to assist those who’d lost so much. With the holiday, a surge of fresh volunteers had arrived, cramming the public hall near the Palace of Thread and Jewels, where so many of the societies were headquartered. Your help has been crucial, Lady, one charity matron had said to me yesterday. You have been here nearly every day—you have worked yourself to the bone. Take the week off. You’ve earned it. Celebrate with your mate.

I’d tried to object, insisting that there were still more coats to hand out, more firewood to be distributed, but the faerie had just motioned to the crowded public hall around us, filled to the brim with volunteers. We have more help than we know what to do with.

When I’d tried objecting again, she’d shooed me out the front door. And shut it behind me.

Point taken. The story had been the same at every other organization I’d stopped by yesterday afternoon. Go home and enjoy the holiday.

So I had. At least, the first part. The enjoying bit, however …

Rhys’s answer to my earlier inquiry about his whereabouts finally flickered down the bond, carried on a rumble of dark, glittering power. I’m at Devlon’s camp.

It took you this long to respond? It was a long distance to the Illyrian Mountains, yes, but it shouldn’t have taken minutes to hear back.

A sensual huff of laughter. Cassian was ranting. He didn’t take a breath.

My poor Illyrian baby. We certainly do torment you, don’t we?

Rhys’s amusement rippled toward me, caressing my innermost self with night-veiled hands. But it halted, vanishing as quickly as it had come. Cassian’s getting into it with Devlon. I’ll check in later. With a loving brush against my senses, he was gone.

I’d get a full report about it soon, but for now …

I smiled at the snow waltzing outside the windows.





CHAPTER

2

Rhysand




It was barely nine in the morning, and Cassian was already pissed.

The watery winter sun tried and failed to bleed through the clouds looming over the Illyrian Mountains, the wind a boom across the gray peaks. Snow already lay inches deep over the bustling camp, a vision of what would soon befall Velaris.

It had been snowing when I departed at dawn—perhaps there would be a good coating already on the ground by the time I returned. I hadn’t had a chance to ask Feyre about it during our brief conversation down the bond minutes ago, but perhaps she would go for a walk with me through it. Let me show her how the City of Starlight glistened under fresh snow.

Indeed, my mate and city seemed a world away from the hive of activity in the Windhaven camp, nestled in a wide, high mountain pass. Even the bracing wind that swept between the peaks, belying the camp’s very name by whipping up dervishes of snow, didn’t deter the Illyrians from going about their daily chores.

For the warriors: training in the various rings that opened onto a sheer drop to the small valley floor below, those not present out on patrol. For the males who hadn’t made the cut: tending to various trades, whether merchants or blacksmiths or cobblers. And for the females: drudgery.

They didn’t see it as such. None of them did. But their required tasks, whether old or young, remained the same: cooking, cleaning, child-rearing, clothes-making, laundry … There was honor in such tasks—pride and good work to be found in them. But not when every single one of the females here was expected to do it. And if they shirked those duties, either one of the half-dozen camp-mothers or whatever males controlled their lives would punish them.

So it had been, as long as I’d known this place, for my mother’s people. The world had been reborn during the war months before, the wall blasted to nothingness, and yet some things did not alter. Especially here, where change was slower than the melting glaciers scattered amongst these mountains. Traditions going back thousands of years, left mostly unchallenged.

Until us. Until now.

Drawing my attention away from the bustling camp beyond the edge of the chalk-lined training rings where we stood, I schooled my face into neutrality as Cassian squared off against Devlon.

“The girls are busy with preparations for the Solstice,” the camp-lord was saying, his arms crossed over his barrel chest. “The wives need all the help they can get, if all’s to be ready in time. They can practice next week.”

I’d lost count of how many variations of this conversation we’d had during the decades Cassian had been pushing Devlon on this.

The wind whipped Cassian’s dark hair, but his face remained hard as granite as he said to the warrior who had begrudgingly trained us, “The girls can help their mothers after training is done for the day. We’ll cut practice down to two hours. The rest of the day will be enough to assist in the preparations.”

Devlon slid his hazel eyes to where I lingered a few feet away. “Is it an order?”

I held that gaze. And despite my crown, my power, I tried not to fall back into the trembling child I’d been five centuries ago, that first day Devlon had towered over me and then hurled me into the sparring ring. “If Cassian says it’s an order, then it is.”

It had occurred to me, during the years we’d been waging this same battle with Devlon and the Illyrians, that I could simply rip into his mind, all their minds, and make them agree. Yet there were some lines I could not, would not cross. And Cassian would never forgive me.

Devlon grunted, his breath a curl of steam. “An hour.”

“Two hours,” Cassian countered, wings flaring slightly as he held a hard line that I’d been called in this morning to help him maintain.

It had to be bad, then, if my brother had asked me to come. Really damn bad. Perhaps we needed a permanent presence out here, until the Illyrians remembered things like consequences.

But the war had impacted us all, and with the rebuilding, with the human territories crawling out to meet us, with other Fae kingdoms looking toward a wall-less world and wondering what shit they could get away with … We didn’t have the resources to station someone out here. Not yet. Perhaps next summer, if the climate elsewhere was calm enough.

Devlon’s cronies loitered in the nearest sparring ring, sizing up Cassian and me, the same way they had our entire lives. We’d slaughtered enough of them in the Blood Rite all those centuries ago that they still kept back, but … It had been the Illyrians who had bled and fought this summer. Who had suffered the most losses as they took on the brunt of Hybern and the Cauldron.

That any of the warriors survived was a testament to their skill and Cassian’s leadership, but with the Illyrians isolated and idle up here, that loss was starting to shape itself into something ugly. Dangerous.

None of us had forgotten that during Amarantha’s reign, a few of the war-bands had gleefully bowed to her. And I knew none of the Illyrians had forgotten that we’d spent those first few months after her downfall hunting down those rogue groups. And ending them.

Yes, a presence here was needed. But later.

Devlon pushed, crossing his muscled arms. “The boys need a nice Solstice after all they endured. Let the girls give one to them.”

The bastard certainly knew what weapons to wield, both physical and verbal.

“Two hours in the ring each morning,” Cassian said with that same hard tone that even I knew not to push unless I wanted a flat-out brawl. He didn’t break Devlon’s gaze. “The boys can help decorate, clean, and cook. They’ve got two hands.”

“Some do,” Devlon said. “Some came home without one.”

I felt, more than saw, the wound strike deep in Cassian.

It was the cost of leading my armies: each injury, death, scar—he took them all as his own personal failings. And being around these warriors, seeing those missing limbs and brutal injuries still healing or that would never heal …

“They practice for ninety minutes,” I said, soothing the dark power that began to roil in my veins, seeking a path into the world, and slid my chilled hands into my pockets. Cassian, wisely, pretended to look outraged, his wings spreading wide. Devlon opened his mouth, but I cut him off before he could shout something truly stupid. “An hour and a half every morning, then they do the housework, the males pitching in whenever they can.” I glanced toward the permanent tents and small stone and wood houses scattered along the wide pass and up into the tree-crusted peaks behind us. “Do not forget that a great number of the females, Devlon, also suffered losses. Perhaps not a hand, but their husbands and sons and brothers were out on those battlefields. Everyone helps prepare for the holiday, and everyone gets to train.”

I jerked my chin at Cassian, indicating for him to follow me to the house across the camp that we now kept as our semi-permanent base of operations. There wasn’t a surface inside where I hadn’t taken Feyre—the kitchen table being my particular favorite, thanks to those raw initial days after we’d first mated, when I could barely stand to be near her and not be buried inside her.

How long ago, how distant, those days seemed. Another lifetime ago.

I needed a holiday.

Snow and ice crunched under our boots as we aimed for the narrow, two-level stone house by the tree line.

Not a holiday to rest, not to visit anywhere, but just to spend more than a handful of hours in the same bed as my mate.

To get more than a few hours to sleep and bury myself in her. It seemed to be one or the other these days. Which was utterly unacceptable. And had turned me about twenty kinds of foolish.

Last week had been so stupidly busy and I’d been so desperate for the feel and taste of her that I’d taken her during the flight down from the House of Wind to the town house. High above Velaris—for all to see, if it weren’t for the cloaking I had thrown into place. It’d required some careful maneuvering, and I’d planned for months now on actually making a moment of it, but with her against me like that, alone in the skies, all it had taken was one look into those blue-gray eyes and I was unfastening her pants.

A moment later, I’d been inside her, and had nearly sent us crashing into the rooftops like an Illyrian whelp. Feyre had just laughed.

I’d climaxed at the husky sound of it.

It had not been my finest moment, and I had no doubt I’d sink to lower levels before the Winter Solstice bought us a day’s reprieve.

I choked my rising desire until it was nothing but a vague roaring in the back of my mind, and didn’t speak until Cassian and I were nearly through the wooden front door.

“Anything else I should know about while I’m here?” I knocked the snow from my boots against the door frame and stepped into the house. That kitchen table lay smack in the middle of the front room. I banished the image of Feyre bent over it.

Cassian blew out a breath and shut the door behind him before tucking in his wings and leaning against it. “Dissension’s brewing. With so many clans gathering for the Solstice, it’ll be a chance for them to spread it even more.”

A flicker of my power had a fire roaring in the hearth, the small downstairs warming swiftly. It was barely a whisper of magic, yet its release eased that near-constant strain of keeping all that I was, all that dark power, in check. I took up a spot against that damned table and crossed my arms. “We’ve dealt with this shit before. We’ll deal with it again.”

Cassian shook his head, the shoulder-length dark hair shining in the watery light leaking through the front windows. “It’s not like it was before. Before, you, me, and Az—we were resented for what we are, who we are. But this time … we sent them to battle. I sent them, Rhys. And now it’s not only the warrior-pricks who are grumbling, but also the females. They believe you and I marched them south as revenge for our own treatment as children; they think we specifically stationed some of the males on the front lines as payback.”

Not good. Not good at all. “We have to handle this carefully, then. Find out where this poison comes from and put an end to it—peacefully,” I clarified when he lifted his brows. “We can’t kill our way out of this one.”

Cassian scratched at his jaw. “No, we can’t.” It wouldn’t be like hunting down those rogue war-bands who’d terrorized any in their path. Not at all.

He surveyed the dim house, the fire crackling in the hearth, where we’d seen my mother cook so many meals during our training. An old, familiar ache filled my chest. This entire house, every inch of it, was full of the past. “A lot of them are coming in for the Solstice,” he went on. “I can stay here, keep an eye on things. Maybe hand out presents to the children, some of the wives. Things that they really need but are too proud to ask for.”

It was a solid idea. But—“It can wait. I want you home for Solstice.”

“I don’t mind—”

“I want you home. In Velaris,” I added when he opened his mouth to spew some Illyrian loyalist bullshit that he still believed, even after they had treated him like less than nothing his entire life. “We’re spending Solstice together. All of us.”

Even if I had to give them a direct order as High Lord to do it.

Cassian angled his head. “What’s eating at you?”

“Nothing.”

As far as things went, I had little to complain about. Taking my mate to bed on a regular basis wasn’t exactly a pressing issue. Or anyone’s concern but our own.

“Wound a little tight, Rhys?”

Of course he’d seen right through it.

I sighed, frowning at the ancient, soot-speckled ceiling. We’d celebrated the Solstice in this house, too. My mother always had gifts for Azriel and Cassian. For the latter, the initial Solstice we’d shared here had been the first time he’d received any sort of gift, Solstice or not. I could still see the tears Cassian had tried to hide as he’d opened his presents, and the tears in my mother’s eyes as she watched him. “I want to jump ahead to next week.”

“Sure that power of yours can’t do it for you?”

I leveled a dry look at him. Cassian just gave me a cocky grin back.

I never stopped being grateful for them—my friends, my family, who looked at that power of mine and did not balk, did not become scented with fear. Yes, I could scare the shit out of them sometimes, but we all did that to each other. Cassian had terrified me more times than I wanted to admit, one of them being mere months ago.

Twice. Twice, in the span of a matter of weeks, it had happened.

I still saw him being hauled by Azriel off that battlefield, blood spilling down his legs, into the mud, his wound a gaping maw that sliced down the center of his body.

And I still saw him as Feyre had seen him—after she’d let me into her mind to reveal what, exactly, had occurred between her sisters and the King of Hybern. Still saw Cassian, broken and bleeding on the ground, begging Nesta to run.

Cassian had not yet spoken of it. About what had occurred in those moments. About Nesta.

Cassian and my mate’s sister did not speak to each other at all.

Nesta had successfully cloistered herself in some slummy apartment across the Sidra, refusing to interact with any of us save for a few brief visits with Feyre every month.

I’d have to find a way to fix that, too.

I saw how it ate away at Feyre. I still soothed her after she awoke, frantic, from nightmares about that day in Hybern when her sisters had been Made against their will. Nightmares about the moment when Cassian was near death and Nesta was sprawled over him, shielding him from that killing blow, and Elain—Elain—had taken up Azriel’s dagger and killed the King of Hybern instead.

I rubbed my brows between my thumb and forefinger. “It’s rough now. We’re all busy, all trying to hold everything together.” Az, Cassian, and I had yet again postponed our annual five days of hunting up at the cabin this fall. Put off for next year—again. “Come home for Solstice, and we can sit down and figure out a plan for the spring.”

“Sounds like a festive event.”

With my Court of Dreams, it always was.

But I made myself ask, “Is Devlon one of the would-be rebels?”

I prayed it wasn’t true. I resented the male and his backwardness, but he’d been fair with Cassian, Azriel, and me under his watch. Treated us to the same rights as full-blooded Illyrian warriors. Still did that for all the bastard-born under his command. It was his absurd ideas about females that made me want to throttle him. Mist him. But if he had to be replaced, the Mother knew who would take his position.

Cassian shook his head. “I don’t think so. Devlon shuts down any talk like that. But it only makes them more secretive, which makes it harder to find out who’s spreading this bullshit around.”

I nodded, standing. I had a meeting in Cesere with the two priestesses who had survived Hybern’s massacre a year ago regarding how to handle pilgrims who wanted to come from outside our territory. Being late wouldn’t lend any favors to my arguments to delay such a thing until the spring. “Keep an eye on it for the next few days, then come home. I want you there two nights before Solstice. And for the day after.”

A hint of a wicked grin. “I assume our Solstice-day tradition will still be on, then. Despite you now being such a grown-up, mated male.”

I winked at him. “I’d hate for you Illyrian babies to miss me.”

Cassian chuckled. There were indeed some Solstice traditions that never grew tiresome, even after the centuries. I was almost at the door when Cassian said, “Is …” He swallowed.

I spared him the discomfort of trying to mask his interest. “Both sisters will be at the house. Whether they want to or not.”

“Nesta will make things unpleasant if she decides she doesn’t want to be there.”

“She’ll be there,” I said, grinding my teeth, “and she’ll be pleasant. She owes Feyre that much.”

Cassian’s eyes flickered. “How is she?”

I didn’t bother to put any sort of spin on it. “Nesta is Nesta. She does what she wants, even if it kills her sister. I’ve offered her job after job, and she refuses them all.” I sucked on my teeth. “Perhaps you can talk some sense into her over Solstice.”

Cassian’s Siphons gleamed atop his hands. “It’d likely end in violence.”

It indeed would. “Then don’t say a word to her. I don’t care—just keep Feyre out of it. It’s her day, too.”

Because this Solstice … it was her birthday. Twenty-one years old.

It hit me for a moment, how small that number was.

My beautiful, strong, fierce mate, shackled to me—

“I know what that look means, you bastard,” Cassian said roughly, “and it’s bullshit. She loves you—in a way I’ve never seen anybody love anyone.”

“It’s hard sometimes,” I admitted, staring toward the snow-coated field outside the house, the training rings and dwellings beyond it, “to remember that she picked it. Picked me. That it’s not like my parents, shoved together.”

Cassian’s face turned uncharacteristically solemn, and he remained quiet for a moment before he said, “I get jealous sometimes. I’d never begrudge you for your happiness, but what you two have, Rhys …” He dragged a hand through his hair, his crimson Siphon glinting in the light streaming through the window. “It’s the legends, the lies, they spin us when we’re children. About the glory and wonder of the mating bond. I thought it was all bullshit. Then you two came along.”

“She’s turning twenty-one. Twenty-one, Cassian.”

“So? Your mother was eighteen to your father’s nine hundred.”

“And she was miserable.”

“Feyre is not your mother. And you are not your father.” He looked me over. “Where is this coming from, anyway? Are things … not good?”

The opposite, actually. “I get this feeling,” I said, pacing a step, the ancient wood floorboards creaking beneath my boots, my power a writhing, living thing prowling through my veins, “that it’s all some sort of joke. Some sort of cosmic trick, and that no one—no one—can be this happy and not pay for it.”

“You’ve already paid for it, Rhys. Both of you. And then some.”

I waved a hand. “I just …” I trailed off, unable to finish the words.

Cassian stared at me for a long moment.

Then he crossed the distance between us, gathering me in an embrace so tight I could barely breathe. “You made it. We made it. You both endured enough that no one would blame you if you danced off into the sunset like Miryam and Drakon and never bothered with anything else again. But you are bothering—you’re both still working to make this peace last. Peace, Rhys. We have peace, and the true kind. Enjoy it—enjoy each other. You paid the debt before it was ever a debt.”

My throat tightened, and I gripped him hard around his wings, the scales of his leathers digging into my fingers. “What about you?” I asked, pulling away after a moment. “Are you … happy?”

Shadows darkened his hazel eyes. “I’m getting there.”

A halfhearted answer.

I’d have to work on that, too. Perhaps there were threads to be pulled, woven together.

Cassian jerked his chin toward the door. “Get going, you bastard. I’ll see you in three days.”

I nodded, opening the door at last. But paused on the threshold. “Thanks, brother.”

Cassian’s crooked grin was bright, even if those shadows still guttered in his eyes. “It’s an honor, my lord.”





CHAPTER

3

Cassian




Cassian wasn’t entirely certain that he could deal with Devlon and his warriors without throttling them. At least, not for the next good hour or so.

And since that would do little to help quell the murmurings of discontent, Cassian waited until Rhys had winnowed out into the snow and wind before vanishing himself.

Not winnowing, though that would have been one hell of a weapon against enemies in battle. He’d seen Rhys do it with devastating results. Az, too—in the strange way that Az could move through the world without technically winnowing.

He’d never asked. Azriel certainly had never explained.

But Cassian didn’t mind his own method of moving: flying. It certainly had served him well enough in battle.

Stepping out the front door of the ancient wooden house so that Devlon and the other pricks in the sparring rings would see him, Cassian made a good show of stretching. First his arms, honed and still aching to pummel in a few Illyrian faces. Then his wings, wider and broader than theirs. They’d always resented that, perhaps more than anything else. He flared them until the strain along the powerful muscles and sinews was a pleasurable burn, his wings casting long shadows across the snow.

And with a mighty flap, he shot into the gray skies.

The wind was a roar around him, the temperature cold enough that his eyes watered. Bracing—freeing. He flapped higher, then banked left, aiming for the peaks behind the camp pass. No need to do a warning sweep over Devlon and the sparring rings.

Ignoring them, projecting the message that they weren’t important enough to even be considered threats were far better ways of pissing them off. Rhys had taught him that. Long ago.

Catching an updraft that sent him soaring over the nearest peaks and then into the endless, snow-coated labyrinth of mountains that made up their homeland, Cassian breathed in deep. His flying leathers and gloves kept him warm enough, but his wings, exposed to the chill wind … The cold was sharp as a knife.

He could shield himself with his Siphons, had done it in the past. But today, this morning, he wanted that biting cold.

Especially with what he was about to do. Where he was going.

He would have known the path blindfolded, simply by listening to the wind through the mountains, inhaling the smell of the pine-crusted peaks below, the barren rock fields.

It was rare for him to make the trek. He usually only did it when his temper was likely to get the better of him, and he had enough lingering control to know he needed to head out for a few hours. Today was no exception.

In the distance, small, dark shapes shot through the sky. Warriors on patrol. Or perhaps armed escorts leading families to their Solstice reunions.

Most High Fae believed the Illyrians were the greatest menace in these mountains.

They didn’t realize that far worse things prowled between the peaks. Some of them hunting on the winds, some crawling out from deep caverns in the rock itself.

Feyre had braved facing some of those things in the pine forests of the Steppes. To save Rhys. Cassian wondered if his brother had ever told her what dwelled in these mountains. Most had been slain by the Illyrians, or sent fleeing to those Steppes. But the most cunning of them, the most ancient … they had found ways to hide. To emerge on moonless nights to feed.

Even five centuries of training couldn’t stop the chill that skittered down his spine as Cassian surveyed the empty, quiet mountains below and wondered what slept beneath the snow.

He cut northward, casting the thought from his mind. On the horizon, a familiar shape took form, growing larger with each flap of his wings.

Ramiel. The sacred mountain.

The heart of not only Illyria, but the entirety of the Night Court.

None were permitted on its barren, rocky slopes—save for the Illyrians, and only once a year at that. During the Blood Rite.

Cassian soared toward it, unable to resist Ramiel’s ancient summons. Different—the mountain was so different from the barren, terrible presence of the lone peak in the center of Prythian. Ramiel had always felt alive, somehow. Awake and watchful.

He’d only set foot on it once, on that final day of the Rite. When he and his brothers, bloodied and battered, had scaled its side to reach the onyx monolith at its summit. He could still feel the crumbling rock beneath his boots, hear the rasp of his breathing as he half hauled Rhys up the slopes, Azriel providing cover behind. As one, the three of them had touched the stone—the first to reach its peak at the end of that brutal week. The uncontested winners.

The Rite hadn’t changed in the centuries since. Early each spring, it still went on, hundreds of warrior-novices deposited across the mountains and forests surrounding the peak, the territory off-limits during the rest of the year to prevent any of the novices from scouting ahead for the best routes and traps to lay. There were varying qualifiers throughout the year to prove a novice’s readiness, each slightly different depending on the camp. But the rules remained the same.

All novices competed with wings bound, no Siphons—a spell restraining all magic—and no supplies beyond the clothes on your back. The goal: make it to the summit of that mountain by the end of that week and touch the stone. The obstacles: the distance, the natural traps, and each other. Old feuds played out; new ones were born. Scores were settled.

A week of pointless bloodshed, Az insisted.

Rhys often agreed, though he often also agreed with Cassian’s point: the Blood Rite offered an escape valve for dangerous tensions within the Illyrian community. Better to settle it during the Rite than risk civil war.

Illyrians were strong, proud, fearless. But peacemakers, they were not.

Perhaps he’d get lucky. Perhaps the Rite this spring would ease some of the malcontent. Hell, he’d offer to participate himself, if it meant quieting the grumbling.

They’d barely survived this war. They didn’t need another one. Not with so many unknowns gathering outside their borders.

Ramiel rose higher still, a shard of stone piercing the gray sky. Beautiful and lonely. Eternal and ageless.

No wonder that first ruler of the Night Court had made this his insignia. Along with the three stars that only appeared for a brief window each year, framing the uppermost peak of Ramiel like a crown. It was during that window when the Rite occurred. Which had come first: the insignia or the Rite, Cassian didn’t know. Had never really cared to find out.

The conifer forests and ravines that dotted the landscape flowing to Ramiel’s foot gleamed under fresh snow. Empty and clean. No sign of the bloodshed that would occur come the start of spring.

The mountain neared, mighty and endless, so wide that he might as well have been a mayfly in the wind. Cassian soared toward Ramiel’s southern face, rising high enough to catch a glimpse of the shining black stone jutting from its top.

Who had put that stone atop the peak, he didn’t know, either. Legend said it had existed before the Night Court formed, before the Illyrians migrated from the Myrmidons, before humans had even walked the earth. Even with the fresh snow crusting Ramiel, none had touched the pillar of stone.

A thrill, icy and yet not unwelcome, flooded his veins.

It was rare for anyone in the Blood Rite to make it to the monolith. Since he and his brothers had done it five centuries ago, Cassian could recall only a dozen or so who’d not only reached the mountain, but also survived the climb. After a week of fighting, of running, of having to find and make your own weapons and food, that climb was worse than every horror before it. It was the true test of will, of courage. To climb when you had nothing left; to climb when your body begged you to stop … It was when the breaking usually occurred.

But when he’d touched the onyx monolith, when he’d felt that ancient force sing into his blood in the heartbeat before it had whisked him back to the safety of Devlon’s camp … It had been worth it. To feel that.

With a solemn bow of his head toward Ramiel and the living stone atop it, Cassian caught another swift wind and soared southward.

An hour’s flight had him approaching yet another familiar peak.

One that no one but him and his brothers bothered to come to. What he’d so badly needed to see, to feel, today.

Once, it had been as busy a camp as Devlon’s.

Once. Before a bastard had been born in a freezing, lone tent on the outskirts of the village. Before they’d thrown a young, unwed mother out into the snow only days after giving birth, her babe in her arms. And then taken that babe mere years later, tossing him into the mud at Devlon’s camp.

Cassian landed on the flat stretch of mountain pass, the snowdrifts higher than at Windhaven. Hiding any trace of the village that had stood here.

Only cinders and debris remained anyway.

He’d made sure of it.

When those who had been responsible for her suffering and torment had been dealt with, no one had wanted to remain here a moment longer. Not with the shattered bone and blood coating every surface, staining every field and training ring. So they’d migrated, some blending into other camps, others making their own lives elsewhere. None had ever come back.

Centuries later, he didn’t regret it.

Standing in the snow and wind, surveying the emptiness where he’d been born, Cassian didn’t regret it for a heartbeat.

His mother had suffered every moment of her too-short life. It only grew worse after she’d given birth to him. Especially in the years after he’d been taken away.

And when he’d been strong and old enough to come back to look for her, she was gone.

They’d refused to tell him where she was buried. If they’d given her that honor, or if they’d thrown her body into an icy chasm to rot.

He still didn’t know. Even with their final, rasping breaths, those who’d made sure she never knew happiness had refused to tell him. Had spat in his face and told him every awful thing they’d done to her.

He’d wanted to bury her in Velaris. Somewhere full of light and warmth, full of kind people. Far away from these mountains.

Cassian scanned the snow-covered pass. His memories here were murky: mud and cold and too-small fires. But he could recall a lilting, soft voice, and gentle, slender hands.

It was all he had of her.

Cassian dragged his hands through his hair, fingers catching on the wind-tangled snarls.

He knew why he’d come here, why he always came here. For all that Amren taunted him about being an Illyrian brute, he knew his own mind, his own heart.

Devlon was a fairer camp-lord than most. But for the females who were less fortunate, who were preyed upon or cast out, there was little mercy.

So training these women, giving them the resources and confidence to fight back, to look beyond their campfires … it was for her. For the mother buried here, perhaps buried nowhere. So it might never happen again. So his people, whom he still loved despite their faults, might one day become something more. Something better.

The unmarked, unknown grave in this pass was his reminder.

Cassian stood in silence for long minutes before turning his gaze westward. As if he might see all the way to Velaris.

Rhys wanted him home for the Solstice, and he’d obey.

Even if Nesta—

Nesta.

Even in his thoughts, her name clanged through him, hollow and cold.

Now wasn’t the time to think of her. Not here.

He very rarely allowed himself to think of her, anyway. It usually didn’t end well for whoever was in the sparring ring with him.

Spreading his wings wide, Cassian took a final glance around the camp he’d razed to the ground. Another reminder, too: of what he was capable of when pushed too far.

To be careful, even when Devlon and the others made him want to bellow. He and Az were the most powerful Illyrians in their long, bloody history. They wore an unprecedented seven Siphons each, just to handle the tidal wave of brute killing power they possessed. It was a gift and a burden that he’d never taken lightly.

Three days. He had three days until he was to go to Velaris.

He’d try to make them count.





CHAPTER

4

Feyre




The Rainbow was a hum of activity, even with the drifting veils of snow.

High Fae and faeries alike poured in and out of the various shops and studios, some perched on ladders to string up drooping garlands of pine and holly between the lampposts, some sweeping gathered clusters of snow from their doorsteps, some—no doubt artists—merely standing on the pale cobblestones and turning in place, faces uplifted to the gray sky, hair and skin and clothes dusted with fine powder.

Dodging one such person in the middle of the street—a faerie with skin like glittering onyx and eyes like swirling clusters of stars—I aimed for the front of a small, pretty gallery, its glass window revealing an assortment of paintings and pottery. The perfect place to do some Solstice shopping. A wreath of evergreen hung on the freshly painted blue door, brass bells dangling from its center.

The door: new. The display window: new.

Both had been shattered and stained with blood months ago. This entire street had.

It was an effort not to glance at the white-dusted stones of the street, sloping steeply down to the meandering Sidra at its base. To the walkway along the river, full of patrons and artists, where I had stood months ago and summoned wolves from those slumbering waters. Blood had been streaming down these cobblestones then, and there hadn’t been singing and laughter in the streets, but screaming and pleading.

I took a sharp inhale through my nose, the chilled air tickling my nostrils. Slowly, I released it in a long breath, watching it cloud in front of me. Watching myself in the reflection of the store window: barely recognizable in my heavy gray coat, a red-and-gray scarf that I’d pilfered from Mor’s closet, my eyes wide and distant.

I realized a heartbeat later that I was not the only one staring at myself.

Inside the gallery, no fewer than five people were doing their best not to gawk at me as they browsed the collection of paintings and pottery.

My cheeks warmed, heart a staccato beat, and I offered a tight smile before continuing on.

No matter that I’d spotted a piece that caught my eye. No matter that I wanted to go in.

I kept my gloved hands bundled in the pockets of my coat as I strode down the steep street, mindful of my steps on the slick cobblestones. While Velaris had plenty of spells upon it to keep the palaces and cafés and squares warm during the winter, it seemed that for this first snow, many of them had been lifted, as if everyone wanted to feel its chill kiss.

I’d indeed braved the walk from the town house, wanting to not only breathe in the crisp, snowy air, but to also just absorb the crackling excitement of those readying for Solstice, rather than merely winnowing or flying over them.

Though Rhys and Azriel still instructed me whenever they could, though I truly loved to fly, the thought of exposing sensitive wings to the cold made me shiver.

Few people recognized me while I strode by, my power firmly restrained within me, and most too concerned with decorating or enjoying the first snow to note those around them, anyway.

A small mercy, though I certainly didn’t mind being approached. As High Lady, I hosted weekly open audiences with Rhys at the House of Wind. The requests ranged from the small—a faelight lamppost was broken—to the complicated—could we please stop importing goods from other courts because it impacted local artisans.

Some were issues Rhys had dealt with for centuries now, but he never acted like he had.

No, he listened to each petitioner, asked thorough questions, and then sent them on their way with a promise to send an answer to them soon. It had taken me a few sessions to get the hang of it—the questions he used, the way he listened. He hadn’t pushed me to step in unless necessary, had granted me the space to figure out the rhythm and style of these audiences and begin asking questions of my own. And then begin writing replies to the petitioners, too. Rhys personally answered each and every one of them. And I now did, too.

Hence the ever-growing stacks of paperwork in so many rooms of the town house.

How he’d lasted so long without a team of secretaries assisting him, I had no idea.

But as I eased down the steep slope of the street, the bright-colored buildings of the Rainbow glowing around me like a shimmering memory of summer, I again mulled it over.

Velaris was by no means poor, its people mostly cared for, the buildings and streets well kept. My sister, it seemed, had managed to find the only thing relatively close to a slum. And insisted on living there, in a building that was older than Rhys and in dire need of repairs.

There were only a few blocks in the city like that. When I’d asked Rhys about them, about why they had not been improved, he merely said that he had tried. But displacing people while their homes were torn down and rebuilt … Tricky.

I hadn’t been surprised two days ago when Rhys had handed me a piece of paper and asked if there was anything else I would like to add to it. On the paper had been a list of charities that he donated to around Solstice-time, everything from aiding the poor, sick, and elderly to grants for young mothers to start their own businesses. I’d added only two items, both to societies that I’d heard about through my own volunteering: donations to the humans displaced by the war with Hybern, as well as to Illyrian war widows and their families. The sums we allocated were sizable, more money than I’d ever dreamed of possessing.

Once, all I had wanted was enough food, money, and time to paint. Nothing more. I would have been content to let my sisters wed, to remain and care for my father.

But beyond my mate, my family, beyond being High Lady—the mere fact that I now lived here, that I could walk through an entire artists’ quarter whenever I wished …

Another avenue bisected the street midway down its slope, and I turned onto it, the neat rows of houses and galleries and studios curving away into the snow. But even amongst the bright colors, there were patches of gray, of emptiness.

I approached one such hollow place, a half-crumbled building. Its mint-green paint had turned grayish, as if the very light had bled from the color as the building shattered. Indeed, the few buildings around it were also muted and cracked, a gallery across the street boarded up.

A few months ago, I’d begun donating a portion of my monthly salary—the idea of receiving such a thing was still utterly ludicrous—to rebuilding the Rainbow and helping its artists, but the scars remained, on both these buildings and their residents.

And the mound of snow-dusted rubble before me: who had dwelled there, worked there? Did they live, or had they been slaughtered in the attack?

There were many such places in Velaris. I’d seen them in my work, while handing out winter coats and meeting with families in their homes.

I blew out another breath. I knew I lingered too often, too long at such sites. I knew I should continue on, smiling as if nothing bothered me, as if all were well. And yet …

“They got out in time,” a female voice said behind me.

I turned, boots slipping on the slick cobblestones. Throwing out a hand to steady me, I gripped the first thing I came into contact with: a fallen chunk of rock from the wrecked house.

But it was the sight of who, exactly, stood behind me, gazing at the rubble, that made me abandon any mortification.

I had not forgotten her in the months since the attack.

I had not forgotten the sight of her standing outside that shop door, a rusted pipe raised over one shoulder, squaring off against the gathered Hybern soldiers, ready to go down swinging for the terrified people huddled inside.

A faint rose blush glowed prettily on her pale green skin, her sable hair flowing past her chest. She was bundled against the cold in a brown coat, a pink scarf wrapped around her neck and lower half of her face, but her long, delicate fingers were gloveless as she crossed her arms.

Faerie—and not a kind I saw too frequently. Her face and body reminded me of the High Fae, though her ears were slenderer, longer than mine. Her form slimmer, sleeker, even with the heavy coat.

I met her eyes, a vibrant ochre that made me wonder what paints I’d have to blend and wield to capture their likeness, and offered a small smile. “I’m glad to hear it.”

Silence fell, interrupted by the merry singing of a few people down the street and the wind gusting off the Sidra.

The faerie only inclined her head. “Lady.”

I fumbled for words, for something High Lady–ish and yet accessible, and came up empty. Came up so empty that I blurted, “It’s snowing.”

As if the drifting veils of white could be anything else.

The faerie inclined her head again. “It is.” She smiled at the sky, snow catching in her inky hair. “A fine first snow at that.”

I surveyed the ruin behind me. “You—you know the people who lived here?”

“I did. They’re living at a relative’s farm in the lowlands now.” She waved a hand toward the distant sea, to the flat expanse of land between Velaris and the shore.

“Ah,” I managed to say, then jerked my chin at the boarded-up shop across the street. “What about that one?”

The faerie surveyed where I’d indicated. Her mouth—painted a berry pink—tightened. “Not so happy an ending, I’m afraid.”

My palms turned sweaty within my wool gloves. “I see.”

She faced me again, silken hair flowing around her. “Her name was Polina. That was her gallery. For centuries.”

Now it was a dark, quiet husk.

“I’m sorry,” I said, uncertain what else to offer.

The faerie’s slim, dark brows narrowed. “Why should you be?” She added, “My lady.”

I gnawed on my lip. Discussing such things with strangers … Perhaps not a good idea. So I ignored her question and asked, “Does she have any family?” I hoped they’d made it, at least.

“They live out in the lowlands, too. Her sister and nieces and nephews.” The faerie again studied the boarded-up front. “It’s for sale now.”

I blinked, grasping the implied offer. “Oh—oh, I wasn’t asking after it for that reason.” It hadn’t even entered my mind.

“Why not?”

A frank, easy question. Perhaps more direct than most people, certainly strangers, dared to be with me. “I—what use would I have for it?”

She gestured to me with a hand, the motion effortlessly graceful. “Rumor has it that you’re a fine artist. I can think of many uses for the space.”

I glanced away, hating myself a bit for it. “I’m not in the market, I’m afraid.”

The faerie shrugged with one shoulder. “Well, whether you are or aren’t, you needn’t go skulking around here. Every door is open to you, you know.”

“As High Lady?” I dared ask.

“As one of us,” she said simply.

The words settled in, strange and yet like a piece I had not known was missing. An offered hand I had not realized how badly I wanted to grasp.

“I’m Feyre,” I said, removing my glove and extending my arm.

The faerie clasped my fingers, her grip steel-strong despite her slender build. “Ressina.” Not someone prone to excessive smiling, but still full of a practical sort of warmth.

Noon bells chimed in a tower at the edge of the Rainbow, the sound soon echoed across the city in the other sister-towers.

“I should be going,” I said, releasing Ressina’s hand and retreating a step. “It was nice to meet you.” I tugged my glove back on, my fingers already stinging with cold. Perhaps I’d take some time this winter to master my fire gifts more precisely. Learning how to warm clothes and skin without burning myself would be mighty helpful.

Ressina pointed to a building down the street—across the intersection I had just passed through. The same building she’d defended, its walls painted raspberry pink, and doors and windows a bright turquoise, like the water around Adriata. “I’m one of the artists who uses that studio space over there. If you ever want a guide, or even some company, I’m there most days. I live above the studio.” An elegant wave toward the tiny round windows on the second level.

I put a hand on my chest. “Thank you.”

Again that silence, and I took in that shop, the doorway Ressina had stood before, guarding her home and others.

“We remember it, you know,” Ressina said quietly, drawing my stare away. But her attention had landed on the rubble behind us, on the boarded-up studio, on the street, as if she, too, could see through the snow to the blood that had run between the cobblestones. “That you came for us that day.”

I didn’t know what to do with my body, my hands, so I opted for stillness.

Ressina met my stare at last, her ochre eyes bright. “We keep away to let you have your privacy, but don’t think for one moment that there isn’t a single one of us who doesn’t know and remember, who isn’t grateful that you came here and fought for us.”

It hadn’t been enough, even so. The ruined building behind me was proof of that. People had still died.

Ressina took a few unhurried steps toward her studio, then stopped. “There’s a group of us who paint together at my studio. One night a week. We’re meeting in two days’ time. It would be an honor if you joined us.”

“What sort of things do you paint?” My question was soft as the snow falling past us.

Ressina smiled slightly. “The things that need telling.”



Even with the icy evening soon descending upon Velaris, people packed the streets, laden with bags and boxes, some lugging enormous fruit baskets from one of the many stands now occupying either Palace.

My fur-lined hood shielding me against the cold, I browsed through the vendor carts and storefronts in the Palace of Thread and Jewels, surveying the latter, mostly.

Some of the public areas remained heated, but enough of Velaris had now been temporarily left exposed to the bitter wind that I wished I’d opted for a heavier sweater that morning. Learning how to warm myself without summoning a flame would be handy indeed. If I ever had the time to do it.

I was circling back to a display in one of the shops built beneath the overhanging buildings when an arm looped through mine and Mor drawled, “Amren would love you forever if you bought her a sapphire that big.”

I laughed, tugging back my hood enough to see her fully. Mor’s cheeks were flushed against the cold, her braided golden hair spilling into the white fur lining her cloak. “Unfortunately, I don’t think our coffers would return the feeling.”

Mor smirked. “You do know that we’re well-off, don’t you? You could fill a bathtub with those things”—she jerked her chin toward the egg-sized sapphire in the window of the jewelry shop—“and barely make a dent in our accounts.”

I knew. I’d seen the lists of assets. I still couldn’t wrap my mind around the enormity of Rhys’s wealth. My wealth. It didn’t feel real, those numbers and figures. Like it was children’s play money. I only bought what I needed.

But now … “I’m looking for something to get her for Solstice.”

Mor surveyed the lineup of jewels, both uncut and set, in the window. Some gleamed like fallen stars. Others smoldered, as if they had been carved from the burning heart of the earth. “Amren does deserve a decent present this year, doesn’t she?”

After what Amren had done during that final battle to destroy Hybern’s armies, the choice she’d made to remain here … “We all do.”

Mor nudged me with an elbow, though her brown eyes gleamed. “And will Varian be joining us, do you think?”

I snorted. “When I asked her yesterday, she hedged.”

“I think that means yes. Or he’ll at least be visiting her.”

I smiled at the thought, and pulled Mor along to the next display window, pressing against her side for warmth. Amren and the Prince of Adriata hadn’t officially declared anything, but I sometimes dreamed of it, too—that moment when she had shed her immortal skin and Varian had fallen to his knees.

A creature of flame and brimstone, built in another world to mete out a cruel god’s judgment, to be his executioner upon the masses of helpless mortals. Fifteen thousand years, she had been stuck in this world.

And had not loved, not in the way that could alter history, alter fate, until that silver-haired Prince of Adriata. Or at least loved in the way that Amren was capable of loving anything.

So, yes: nothing was declared between them. But I knew he visited her, secretly, in this city. Mostly because some mornings, Amren would strut into the town house smirking like a cat.

But for what she’d been willing to walk away from, so that we could be saved …

Mor and I spied the piece in the window at the same moment. “That one,” she declared.

I was already moving for the glass front door, a silver bell ringing merrily as we entered.

The shopkeeper was wide-eyed but beaming as we pointed to the piece, and swiftly laid it out on a black velvet pad. She made a sweet-tempered excuse to retrieve something from the back, granting us privacy to examine it as we stood before the polished wood counter.

“It’s perfect,” Mor breathed, the stones fracturing the light and burning with their own inner fire.

I ran a finger over the cool silver settings. “What do you want as a present?”

Mor shrugged, her heavy brown coat bringing out the rich soil of her eyes. “I’ve got everything I need.”

“Try telling Rhys that. He says Solstice isn’t about getting gifts you need, but rather ones you’d never buy for yourself.” Mor rolled her eyes. Even though I was inclined to do the same, I pushed, “So what do you want?”

She ran a finger along a cut stone. “Nothing. I—there’s nothing I want.”

Beyond things she perhaps was not ready to ask for, search for.

I again examined the piece and casually asked, “You’ve been at Rita’s a great deal lately. Is there anyone you might want to bring to Solstice dinner?”

Mor’s eyes sliced to mine. “No.”

It was her business, when and how to inform the others what she’d told me during the war. When and how to tell Azriel especially.

My only role in it was to stand by her—to have her back when she needed it.

So I went on, “What are you getting the others?”

She scowled. “After centuries of gifts, it’s a pain in my ass to find something new for all of them. I’m fairly certain Azriel has a drawer full of all the daggers I’ve bought him throughout the centuries that he’s too polite to throw away, but won’t ever use.”

“You honestly think he’d ever give up Truth-Teller?”

“He gave it to Elain,” Mor said, admiring a moonstone necklace in the counter’s glass case.

“She gave it back,” I amended, failing to block out the image of the black blade piercing through the King of Hybern’s throat. But Elain had given it back—had pressed it into Azriel’s hands after the battle, just as he had pressed it into hers before. And then walked away without looking back.

Mor hummed to herself. The jeweler returned a moment later, and I signed the purchase to my personal credit account, trying not to cringe at the enormous sum of money that just disappeared with a stroke of a golden pen.

“Speaking of Illyrian warriors,” I said as we strode into the crammed Palace square and edged around a red-painted cart selling cups of piping hot molten chocolate, “what the hell do I get either of them?”

I didn’t have the nerve to ask what I should get for Rhys, since, even though I adored Mor, it felt wrong to ask another person for advice on what to buy my mate.

“You could honestly get Cassian a new knife and he’d kiss you for it. But Az would probably prefer no presents at all, just to avoid the attention while opening it.”

I laughed. “True.”

Arm in arm, we continued on, the aromas of roasting hazelnuts, pine cones, and chocolate replacing the usual salt-and-lemon-verbena scent that filled the city. “Do you plan to visit Viviane during Solstice?”

In the months since the war had ended, Mor had remained in contact with the Lady of the Winter Court, perhaps soon to be High Lady, if Viviane had anything to do about it. They’d been friends for centuries, until Amarantha’s reign had severed contact, and though the war with Hybern had been brutal, one of the good things to come of it had been the rekindling of their friendship. Rhys and Kallias had a still-lukewarm alliance, but it seemed Mor’s relationship with the High Lord of Winter’s mate would be the bridge between our two courts.

My friend smiled warmly. “Perhaps a day or two after. Their celebrating lasts for a whole week.”

“Have you been before?”

A shake of her head, golden hair catching in the faelight lamps. “No. They usually keep their borders closed, even to friends. But with Kallias now in power, and especially with Viviane at his side, they’re starting to open up once more.”

“I can only imagine their celebrations.”

Her eyes glowed. “Viviane told me about them once. They make ours look positively dull. Dancing and drinking, feasting and gifting. Roaring fires made from entire tree trunks and cauldrons full of mulled wine, the singing of a thousand minstrels flowing throughout their palace, answered by the bells ringing on the large sleighs pulled by those beautiful white bears.” She sighed. I echoed it, the image she’d crafted hovering in the frosty air between us.

Here in Velaris, we would celebrate the longest night of the year. In Kallias’s territory, it seemed, they would celebrate the winter itself.

Mor’s smile faded. “I did find you for a reason, you know.”

“Not just to shop?”

She nudged me with an elbow. “We’re to head to the Hewn City tonight.”

I cringed. “We as in all of us?”

“You, me, and Rhys, at least.”

I bit back a groan. “Why?”

Mor paused at a vendor, examining the neatly folded scarves displayed. “Tradition. Around Solstice, we make a little visit to the Court of Nightmares to wish them well.”

“Really?”

Mor grimaced, nodding to the vendor and continuing on. “As I said, tradition. To foster goodwill. Or as much of it as we have. And after the battles this summer, it wouldn’t hurt.”

Keir and his Darkbringer army had fought, after all.

We eased through the densely packed heart of the Palace, passing beneath a latticework of faelights just beginning to twinkle awake overhead. From a slumbering, quiet place inside me, the painting name flitted by. Frost and Starlight.

“So you and Rhys decided to tell me mere hours before we go?”

“Rhys has been away all day. I decided that we’re to go tonight. Since we don’t want to ruin the actual Solstice by visiting, now is best.”

There were plenty of days between now and Solstice Eve to do it. But Mor’s face remained carefully casual.

I still pushed, “You preside over the Hewn City, and deal with them all the time.” She as good as ruled over it when Rhys wasn’t there. And handled her awful father plenty.

Mor sensed the question within my statement. “Eris will be there tonight. I heard it from Az this morning.”

I remained quiet, waiting.

Mor’s brown eyes darkened. “I want to see for myself just how cozy he and my father have become.”

It was good enough reason for me.





CHAPTER

5

Feyre




I was curled up on the bed, toasty and drowsy atop the layers of blankets and down quilts, when Rhys finally returned home as dusk fell.

I felt his power beckoning to me long before he got near the house, a dark melody through the world.

Mor had announced we wouldn’t be going to the Hewn City for another hour or so, long enough that I’d forgone touching that paperwork on the rosewood writing desk across the room and had instead picked up a book. I’d barely managed ten pages before Rhys opened the bedroom door.

His Illyrian leathers gleamed with melted snow, and more of it shone on his dark hair and wings as he quietly shut the door. “Right where I left you.”

I smiled, setting down the book beside me. It was nearly swallowed by the ivory down duvet. “Isn’t this all I’m good for?”

A rogue smile tugging up one corner of his mouth, Rhys began removing his weapons, then the clothes. But despite the humor lighting his eyes, each movement was heavy and slow—as if he fought exhaustion with every breath.

“Maybe we should tell Mor to delay the meeting at the Court of Nightmares.” I frowned.

He shucked off his jacket, the leathers thumping as they landed on the desk chair. “Why? If Eris will indeed be there, I’d like to surprise him with a little visit of my own.”

“You look exhausted, that’s why.”

He put a dramatic hand over his heart. “Your concern warms me more than any winter fire, my love.”

I rolled my eyes and sat up. “Did you at least eat?”

He shrugged, his dark shirt straining across his broad shoulders. “I’m fine.” His gaze slid over my bare legs as I pushed back the covers.

Heat bloomed in me, but I shoved my feet into slippers. “I’ll get you food.”

“I don’t want—”

“When did you last eat?”

A sullen silence.

“I thought so.” I hauled a fleece-lined robe around my shoulders. “Wash up and change. We’re leaving in forty minutes. I’ll be back soon.”

He tucked in his wings, the faelight gilding the talon atop each one. “You don’t need to—”

“I want to, and I’m going to.” With that, I was out the door and padding down the cerulean-blue hallway.

Five minutes later, Rhys held the door open for me wearing nothing but his undershorts as I strode in, tray in my hands.

“Considering that you brought the entire damn kitchen,” he mused as I headed for the desk, still not anywhere near dressed for our visit, “I should have just gone downstairs.”

I stuck out my tongue, but scowled as I scanned the cluttered desk for any spare space. None. Even the small table by the window was covered with things. All important, vital things. I made do with the bed.

Rhys sat, folding his wings behind him before reaching to pull me into his lap, but I dodged his hands and kept a healthy distance away. “Eat the food first.”

“Then I’ll eat you after,” he countered, grinning wickedly, but tore into the food.

The rate and intensity of that eating was enough to bank any rising heat in me at his words. “Did you eat at all today?”

A flash of violet eyes as he finished off his bread and began on the cold roast beef. “I had an apple this morning.”

“Rhys.”

“I was busy.”

“Rhys.”

He set down his fork, his mouth twitching toward a smile. “Feyre.”

I crossed my arms. “No one is too busy to eat.”

“You’re fussing.”

“It’s my job to fuss. And besides, you fuss plenty. Over far more trivial things.”

“Your cycle isn’t trivial.”

“I was in a little bit of pain—”

“You were thrashing on the bed as if someone had gutted you.”

“And you were acting like an overbearing mother hen.”

“I didn’t see you screaming at Cassian, Mor, or Az when they expressed concern for you.”

“They didn’t try to spoon-feed me like an invalid!”

Rhys chuckled, finishing off his food. “I’ll eat regular meals if you allow me to turn into an overbearing mother hen twice a year.”

Right—because my cycle was so different in this body. Gone were the monthly discomforts. I’d thought it a gift.

Until two months ago. When the first one had happened.

In place of those monthly, human discomforts was a biannual week of stomach-shredding agony. Even Madja, Rhys’s favored healer, could do little for the pain short of rendering me unconscious. There had been a point during that week when I’d debated it, the pain slicing from my back and stomach down to my thighs, up to my arms, like living bands of lightning flashing through me. My cycle had never been pleasant as a human, and there had indeed been days when I couldn’t get out of bed. It seemed that in being Made, the amplification of my attributes hadn’t stopped at strength and Fae features. Not at all.

Mor had little to offer me beyond commiseration and ginger tea. At least it was only twice a year, she’d consoled me. That was two times too many, I’d managed to groan to her.

Rhys had stayed with me the entire time, stroking my hair, replacing the heated blankets that I soaked with sweat, even helping me clean myself off. Blood was blood, was all he said when I’d objected to him seeing me peel off the soiled undergarments. I’d been barely able to move at that point without whimpering, so the words hadn’t entirely sunken in.

Along with the implication of that blood. At least the contraceptive brew he took was working. But conceiving amongst the Fae was rare and difficult enough that I sometimes wondered if waiting until I was ready for children might wind up biting me in the ass.

I hadn’t forgotten the Bone Carver’s vision, how he’d appeared to me. I knew Rhys hadn’t, either.

But he hadn’t pushed, or asked. I’d once told him that I wanted to live with him, experience life with him, before we had children. I still held to that. There was so much to do, our days too busy to even think about bringing a child into the world, my life full enough that even though it would be a blessing beyond measure, I would endure the twice-a-year agony for the time being. And help my sisters with them, too.

Fae fertility cycles had never been something I’d considered, and explaining them to Nesta and Elain had been uncomfortable, to say the least.

Nesta had only stared at me in that unblinking, cold way. Elain had blushed, muttering about the impropriety of such things. But they had been Made nearly six months ago. It was coming. Soon. If being Made somehow didn’t interfere with it.

I’d have to find some way to convince Nesta to send word when hers started. Like hell would I allow her to endure that pain alone. I wasn’t sure she could endure that pain alone.

Elain, at least, would be too polite to send Lucien away when he wanted to help. She was too polite to send him away on a normal day. She just ignored him or barely spoke to him until he got the hint and left. As far as I knew, he hadn’t come within touching distance since the aftermath of that final battle. No, she tended to her gardens here, silently mourning her lost human life. Mourning Graysen.

How Lucien withstood it, I didn’t know. Not that he’d shown any interest in bridging that gap between them.

“Where did you go?” Rhys asked, draining his wine and setting aside the tray.

If I wanted to talk, he’d listen. If I didn’t want to, he would let it go. It had been our unspoken bargain from the start—to listen when the other needed, and give space when it was required. He was still slowly working his way through telling me all that had been done to him, all he’d witnessed Under the Mountain. There were still nights when I’d kiss away his tears, one by one.

This subject, however, was not so difficult to discuss. “I was thinking about Elain,” I said, leaning against the edge of the desk. “And Lucien.”

Rhys arched a brow, and I told him.

When I finished, his face was contemplative. “Will Lucien be joining us for the Solstice?”

“Is it bad if he does?”

Rhys let out a hum, his wings tucking in further. I had no idea how he withstood the cold while flying, even with a shield. Whenever I’d tried these past few weeks, I’d barely lasted more than a few minutes. The only time I’d managed had been last week, when our flight from the House of Wind had turned far warmer.

Rhys said at last, “I can stomach being around him.”

“I’m sure he’d love to hear that thrilling endorsement.”

A half smile that had me walking toward him, stopping between his legs. He braced his hands idly on my hips. “I can let go of the taunts,” he said, scanning my face. “And the fact that he still harbors some hope of one day reuniting with Tamlin. But I cannot let go of how he treated you after Under the Mountain.”

“I can. I’ve forgiven him for that.”

“Well, you’ll forgive me if I can’t.” Icy rage darkened the stars in those violet eyes.

“You still can barely talk to Nesta,” I said. “Yet Elain you can talk to nicely.”

“Elain is Elain.”

“If you blame one, you have to blame the other.”

“No, I don’t. Elain is Elain,” he repeated. “Nesta is … she’s Illyrian. I mean that as a compliment, but she’s an Illyrian at heart. So there is no excuse for her behavior.”

“She more than made up for it this summer, Rhys.”

“I cannot forgive anyone who made you suffer.”

Cold, brutal words, spoken with such casual grace.

But he still didn’t care about those who’d made him suffer. I ran a hand over the swirls and whorls of tattoos across his muscled chest, tracing the intricate lines. He shuddered under my fingers, wings twitching. “They’re my family. You have to forgive Nesta at some point.”

He rested his brow against my chest, right between my breasts, and wrapped his arms around my waist. For a long minute, he only breathed in the scent of me, as if taking it deep into his lungs. “Should that be my Solstice gift to you?” he murmured. “Forgiving Nesta for letting her fourteen-year-old sister go into those woods?”

I hooked a finger under his chin and tugged his head up. “You won’t get any Solstice gift at all from me if you keep up this nonsense.”

A wicked grin.

“Prick,” I hissed, making to step back, but his arms tightened around me.

We fell silent, just staring at each other. Then Rhys said down the bond, A thought for a thought, Feyre darling?

I smiled at the request, the old game between us. But it faded as I answered, I went into the Rainbow today.

Oh? He nuzzled the plane of my stomach.

I dragged my hands through his dark hair, savoring the silken strands against my calluses. There’s an artist, Ressina. She invited me to come paint with her and some others in two nights.

Rhys pulled back to scan my face, then arched a brow. “Why do you not sound excited about it?”

I gestured to our room, the town house, and blew out a breath. “I haven’t painted anything in a while.”

Not since we’d returned from battle. Rhys remained quiet, letting me sort through the jumble of words inside me.

“It feels selfish,” I admitted. “To take the time, when there is so much to do and—”

“It is not selfish.” His hands tightened on my hips. “If you want to paint, then paint, Feyre.”

“People in this city still don’t have homes.”

“You taking a few hours every day to paint won’t change that.”

“It’s not just that.” I leaned down until my brow rested on his, the citrus-and-sea scent of him filling my lungs, my heart. “There are too many of them—things I want to paint. Need to. Picking one …” I took an unsteady breath and pulled back. “I’m not quite certain I’m ready to see what emerges when I paint some of them.”

“Ah.” He traced soothing, loving lines down my back. “Whether you join them this week, or two months from now, I think you should go. Try it out.” He surveyed the room, the thick rug, as if he could see the entire town house beneath. “We can turn your old bedroom into a studio, if you want—”

“It’s fine,” I cut him off. “It—the light isn’t ideal in there.” At his raised brows, I admitted, “I checked. The only room that’s good for it is the sitting room, and I’d rather not fill up the house with the reek of paint.”

“I don’t think anyone would mind.”

“I’d mind. And I like privacy, anyway. The last thing I want is Amren standing behind me, critiquing my work as I go.”

Rhys chuckled. “Amren can be dealt with.”

“I’m not sure you and I are talking about the same Amren, then.”

He grinned, tugging me close again, and murmured against my stomach, “It’s your birthday on Solstice.”

“So?” I’d been trying to forget that fact. And let the others forget it, too.

Rhys’s smile became subdued—feline. “So, that means you get two presents.”

I groaned. “I never should have told you.”

“You were born on the longest night of the year.” His fingers again stroked down my back. Lower. “You were meant to be at my side from the very beginning.”

He traced the seam of my backside with a long, lazy stroke. With me standing before him like this, he could instantly smell the shift in my scent as my core heated.

I managed to say down the bond before words failed me, Your turn. A thought for a thought.

He pressed a kiss to my stomach, right over my navel. “Have I told you about that first time you winnowed and tackled me into the snow?”

I smacked his shoulder, the muscle beneath hard as stone. “That’s your thought for a thought?”

He smiled against my stomach, his fingers still exploring, coaxing. “You tackled me like an Illyrian. Perfect form, a direct hit. But then you lay on top of me, panting. All I wanted to do was get us both naked.”

“Why am I not surprised?” Yet I threaded my fingers through his hair.

The fabric of my dressing gown was barely more than cobwebs between us as he huffed a laugh onto my belly. I hadn’t bothered putting on anything beneath. “You drove me out of my mind. All those months. I still don’t quite believe I get to have this. Have you.”

My throat tightened. That was the thought he wanted to trade, needed to share. “I wanted you, even Under the Mountain,” I said softly. “I chalked it up to those horrible circumstances, but after we killed her, when I couldn’t tell anyone how I felt—about how truly bad things were, I still told you. I’ve always been able to talk to you. I think my heart knew you were mine long before I ever realized it.”

His eyes gleamed, and he buried his face between my breasts again, hands caressing my back. “I love you,” he breathed. “More than life, more than my territory, more than my crown.”

I knew. He’d given up that life to reforge the Cauldron, the fabric of the world itself, so I might survive. I hadn’t had it in me to be furious with him about it afterward, or in the months since. He’d lived—it was a gift I would never stop being grateful for. And in the end, though, we’d saved each other. All of us had.

I kissed the top of his head. “I love you,” I whispered onto his blue-black hair.

Rhys’s hands clamped on the back of my thighs, the only warning before he smoothly twisted us, pinning me to the bed as he nuzzled my neck. “A week,” he said onto my skin, gracefully folding his wings behind him. “A week to have you in this bed. That’s all I want for Solstice.”

I laughed breathlessly, but he flexed his hips, driving against me, the barriers between us little more than scraps of cloth. He brushed a kiss against my mouth, his wings a dark wall behind his shoulders. “You think I’m joking.”

“We’re strong for High Fae,” I mused, fighting to concentrate as he tugged on my earlobe with his teeth, “but a week straight of sex? I don’t think I’d be able to walk. Or you’d be able to function, at least with your favorite part.”

He nipped the delicate arch of my ear, and my toes curled. “Then you’ll just have to kiss my favorite part and make it better.”

I slid a hand to that favorite part—my favorite part—and gripped him through his undershorts. He groaned, pressing himself into my touch, and the garment disappeared, leaving only my palm against the velvet hardness of him.

“We need to get dressed,” I managed to say, even as my hand stroked over him.

“Later,” he ground out, sucking on my lower lip.

Indeed. Rhys pulled back, tattooed arms braced on either side of my head. One was covered with his Illyrian markings, the other with the twin tattoo to the one on my arms: the last bargain we’d made. To remain together through all that waited ahead.

My core pounded, sister to my thunderous heartbeat, the need to have him buried inside me, to have him—

As if in mockery of those twin beats within me, a knocking rattled the bedroom door. “Just so you’re aware,” Mor chirped from the other side, “we do have to go soon.”

Rhys let out a low growl that skittered over my skin, his hair slipping over his brow as he turned his head toward the door. Nothing but predatory intent in his glazed eyes. “We have thirty minutes,” he said with remarkable smoothness.

“And it takes you two hours to get dressed,” Mor quipped through the door. A sly pause. “And I’m not talking about Feyre.”

Rhys grumbled a laugh and lowered his brow against mine. I closed my eyes, breathing him in, even while my fingers unfurled from around him. “This isn’t finished,” he promised me, his voice rough, before he kissed the hollow of my throat and pulled away. “Go terrorize someone else,” he called to Mor, rolling his neck as his wings vanished and he stalked for the bathing room. “I need to primp.”

Mor chuckled, her light footsteps soon fading away.

I slumped against the pillows and breathed deep, cooling the need that coursed through me. Water gurgled in the bathing room, followed by a soft yelp.

I wasn’t the only one in need of cooling, it seemed.

Indeed, when I strode into the bathing room a few minutes later, Rhys was still cringing as he washed himself in the tub.

A dip of my fingers into the soapy water confirmed my suspicions: it was ice-cold.





CHAPTER

6

Morrigan




There was no light in this place.

There never had been.

Even the evergreen garlands, holly wreaths, and crackling birchwood fires in honor of the Solstice couldn’t pierce the eternal darkness that dwelled in the Hewn City.

It was not the sort of darkness that Mor had come to love in Velaris, the sort of darkness that was as much a part of Rhys as his blood.

It was the darkness of rotting things, of decay. The smothering darkness that withered all life.

And the golden-haired male standing before her in the throne room, amongst the towering pillars carved with those scaled, slithering beasts—he had been created from it. Thrived in it.

“I apologize if we interrupted your festivities,” Rhysand purred to him. To Keir. And to the male beside him.

Eris.

The throne room was empty now. A word from Feyre, and the usual ilk who dined and danced and schemed here were gone, leaving only Keir and the High Lord of Autumn’s eldest son.

The former spoke first, adjusting the lapels on his black jacket. “To what do we owe this pleasure?”

The sneering tone. She could still hear the hissed insults beneath it, whispered long ago in her family’s private suite, whispered at every meeting and gathering when her cousin was not present. Half-breed monstrosity. A disgrace to the bloodline.

“High Lord.”

The words came out of her without thought. And her voice, the voice she used here … Not her own. Never her own, never down here with them in the darkness. Mor kept her voice just as cold and unforgiving as she corrected, “To what do we owe this pleasure, High Lord.”

She didn’t bother to keep her teeth from flashing.

Keir ignored her.

His preferred method of insult: to act as if a person weren’t worth the breath it’d take to speak with them.

Try something new, you miserable bastard.

Rhys cut in before Mor could contemplate saying just that, his dark power filling the room, the mountain, “We came, of course, to wish you and yours well for the Solstice. But it seems you already had a guest to entertain.”

Az’s information had been flawless, as it always was. When he’d found her reading up on Winter Court customs in the House of Wind’s library this morning, she hadn’t asked how he’d learned that Eris was to come tonight. She’d long since learned that Az was just as likely not to tell her.

But the Autumn Court male standing beside Keir … Mor made herself look at Eris. Into his amber eyes.

Colder than any hall of Kallias’s court. They had been that way from the moment she’d met him, five centuries ago.

Eris laid a pale hand on the breast of his pewter-colored jacket, the portrait of Autumn Court gallantry. “I thought I’d extend some Solstice greetings of my own.”

That voice. That silky, arrogant voice. It had not altered, not in tone or timbre, in the passing centuries, either. Had not changed since that day.

Warm, buttery sunlight through the leaves, setting them glowing like rubies and citrines. The damp, earthen scent of rotting things beneath the leaves and roots she lay upon. Had been thrown and left upon.

Everything hurt. Everything. She couldn’t move. Couldn’t do anything but watch the sun drift through the rich canopy far overhead, listen to the wind between the silvery trunks.

And the center of that pain, radiating outward like living fire with each uneven, rasping breath …

Light, steady steps crunched on the leaves. Six sets. A border guard, a patrol.

Help. Someone to help—

A male voice, foreign and deep, swore. Then went silent.

Went silent as a single pair of steps approached. She couldn’t turn her head, couldn’t bear the agony. Could do nothing but inhale each wet, shuddering breath.

“Don’t touch her.”

Those steps stopped.

It was not a warning to protect her. Defend her.

She knew the voice that spoke. Had dreaded hearing it.

She felt him approach now. Felt each reverberation in the leaves, the moss, the roots. As if the very land shuddered before him.

“No one touches her,” he said. Eris. “The moment we do, she’s our responsibility.”

Cold, unfeeling words.

“But—but they nailed a—”

“No one touches her.”

Nailed.

They had spiked nails into her.

Had pinned her down as she screamed, pinned her down as she roared at them, then begged them. And then they had taken out those long, brutal iron nails. And the hammer.

Three of them.

Three strikes of the hammer, drowned out by her screaming, by the pain.

She began shaking, hating it as much as she’d hated the begging. Her body bellowed in agony, those nails in her abdomen relentless.

A pale, beautiful face appeared above her, blocking out the jewel-like leaves above. Unmoved. Impassive. “I take it you do not wish to live here, Morrigan.”

She would rather die here, bleed out here. She would rather die and return—return as something wicked and cruel, and shred them all apart.

He must have read it in her eyes. A small smile curved his lips. “I thought so.”

Eris straightened, turning. Her fingers curled in the leaves and loamy soil.

She wished she could grow claws—grow claws as Rhys could—and rip out that pale throat. But that was not her gift. Her gift … her gift had left her here. Broken and bleeding.

Eris took a step away.

Someone behind him blurted, “We can’t just leave her to—”

“We can, and we will,” Eris said simply, his pace unfaltering as he strode away. “She chose to sully herself; her family chose to deal with her like garbage. I have already told them my decision in this matter.” A long pause, crueler than the rest. “And I am not in the habit of fucking Illyrian leftovers.”

She couldn’t stop it, then. The tears that slid out, hot and burning.

Alone. They would leave her alone here. Her friends did not know where she had gone. She barely knew where she was.

“But—” That dissenting voice cut in again.

“Move out.”

There was no dissension after that.

And when their steps faded away, then vanished, the silence returned.

The sun and the wind and the leaves.

The blood and the iron and the soil beneath her nails.

The pain.

A subtle nudge of Feyre’s hand against her own drew her out, away from that bloody clearing just over the border of the Autumn Court.

Mor threw her High Lady a grateful glance, which Feyre smartly ignored, already returning her attention to the conversation. Never having taken her focus off it in the first place.

Feyre had fallen into the role of mistress of this horrible city with far more ease than she had. Clad in a sparkling onyx gown, the crescent-moon diadem atop her head, her friend looked every part the imperious ruler. As much a part of this place as the twining, serpentine beasts carved and etched everywhere. What Keir, perhaps, had one day pictured for Mor herself.

Not the red gown Mor wore, bright and bold, or the gold jewelry at her wrists, her ears, shimmering like sunlight down here in the gloom.

“If you wanted this little liaison to remain private,” Rhys was saying with lethal calm, “perhaps a public gathering was not the wisest place to meet.”

Indeed.

The Steward of the Hewn City waved a hand. “Why should we have anything to hide? After the war, we’re all such good friends.”

She often dreamed of gutting him. Sometimes with a knife; sometimes with her own bare hands.

“And how does your father’s court fare, Eris?” A mild, bored question from Feyre.

His amber eyes held nothing but distaste.

A roaring filled Mor’s head at that look. She could barely hear his drawled answer. Or Rhys’s reply.

It had once been her delight to taunt Keir and this court, to keep them on their toes. Hell, she’d even snapped a few of the Steward’s bones this spring—after Rhys had shattered his arms into uselessness. Had been glad to do it, after what Keir had said to Feyre, and then delighted when her mother had banished her from their private quarters. An order that still held. But from the moment Eris had walked into that council chamber all those months ago …

You are over five hundred years old, she often reminded herself. She could face it, handle it better than this.

I am not in the habit of fucking Illyrian leftovers.

Even now, even after Azriel had found her in those woods, after Madja had healed her until no trace of those nails marred her stomach … She should not have come here tonight.

Her skin became tight, her stomach roiling. Coward.

She had faced down enemies, fought in many wars, and yet this, these two males together—

Mor felt more than saw Feyre stiffen beside her at something Eris had said.

Her High Lady answered Eris, “Your father is forbidden to cross into the human lands.” No room for compromise with that tone, with the steel in Feyre’s eyes.

Eris only shrugged. “I don’t think it’s your call.”

Rhys slid his hands into his pockets, the portrait of casual grace. Yet the shadows and star-flecked darkness that wafted from him, that set the mountain shuddering beneath his every step—that was the true face of the High Lord of the Night Court. The most powerful High Lord in history. “I would suggest reminding Beron that territory expansion is not on the table. For any court.”

Eris wasn’t fazed. Nothing had ever disturbed him, ruffled him. Mor had hated it from the moment she’d met him—that distance, that coldness. That lack of interest or feeling for the world. “Then I would suggest to you, High Lord, that you speak to your dear friend Tamlin about it.”

“Why.” Feyre’s question was sharp as a blade.

Eris’s mouth curved in an adder’s smile. “Because Tamlin’s territory is the only one that borders the human lands. I’d think that anyone looking to expand would have to go through the Spring Court first. Or at least obtain his permission.”

Another person she’d one day kill. If Feyre and Rhys didn’t do it first.

It didn’t matter what Tamlin had done in the war, if he’d brought Beron and the human forces with him. If he’d played Hybern.

It was another day, another female lying on the ground, that Mor would not forget, could not forgive.

Rhys’s cold face turned contemplative, though. She could easily read the reluctance in his eyes, the annoyance at having Eris tip him off, but information was information.

Mor glanced toward Keir and found him watching her.

Save for her initial order to the Steward, she had not spoken a word. Contributed to this meeting. Stepped up.

She could see that in Keir’s eyes. The satisfaction.

Say something. Think of something to say. To strip him down to nothing.

But Rhys deemed they were done, linking his arm through Feyre’s and guiding them away, the mountain indeed trembling beneath their steps. What he’d said to Eris, Mor had no idea.

Pathetic. Cowardly and pathetic.

Truth is your gift. Truth is your curse.

Say something.

But the words to strike down her father did not come.

Her red gown flowing behind her, Mor turned her back on him, on the smirking heir to Autumn, and followed her High Lord and Lady through the darkness and back into the light.





CHAPTER

7

Rhysand




“You really do know how to give Solstice presents, Az.”

I turned from the wall of windows in my private study at the House of Wind, Velaris awash in the hues of early morning.

My spymaster and brother remained on the other side of the sprawling oak desk, the maps and documents he’d presented littering the surface. His expression might as well have been stone. Had been that way from the moment he’d knocked on the double doors to the study just after dawn. As if he’d known that sleep had been futile for me last night after Eris’s not-so-subtle warning about Tamlin and his borders.

Feyre hadn’t mentioned it when we’d returned home. Hadn’t seemed ready to discuss it: how to deal with the High Lord of Spring. She’d quickly fallen asleep, leaving me to brood before the fire in the sitting room.

It was little wonder I’d flown up here before sunrise, eager for the biting cold to chase the weight of the sleepless night away from me. My wings were still numb in spots from the flight.

“You wanted information,” Az said mildly. At his side, Truth-Teller’s obsidian hilt seemed to absorb the first rays of the sun.

I rolled my eyes, leaning against the desk and gesturing to what he’d compiled. “You couldn’t have waited until after Solstice for this particular gem?”

One glance at Azriel’s unreadable face and I added, “Don’t bother to answer that.”

A corner of Azriel’s mouth curled up, the shadows about him sliding over his neck like living tattoos, twins to the Illyrian ones marked beneath his leathers.

Shadows different from anything my powers summoned, spoke to. Born in a lightless, airless prison meant to break him.

Instead, he had learned its language.

Though the cobalt Siphons were proof that his Illyrian heritage ran true, even the rich lore of that warrior-people, my warrior-people, did not have an explanation for where the shadowsinger gifts came from. They certainly weren’t connected to the Siphons, to the raw killing power most Illyrians possessed and channeled through the stones to keep from destroying everything in its path. The bearer included.

Drawing my eyes from the stones atop his hands, I frowned at the stack of papers Az had presented moments ago. “Have you told Cassian?”

“I came right here,” Azriel said. “He’ll arrive soon enough, anyway.”

I chewed on my lip as I studied the territory map of Illyria. “It’s more clans than I expected,” I admitted and sent a flock of shadows skittering across the room to soothe the power now stirring, restless, in my veins. “Even in my worst-case calculations.”

“It’s not every member of these clans,” Az said, his grim face undermining his attempt to soften the blow. “This overall number just reflects the places where discontent is spreading, not where the majorities lie.” He pointed with a scarred finger to one of the camps. “There are only two females here who seem to be spewing poison about the war. One a widow, and one a mother to a soldier.”

“Where there’s smoke, there’s fire,” I countered.

Azriel studied the map for a long minute. I gave him the silence, knowing that he’d speak only when he was damn well ready. As boys, Cassian and I had devoted hours to pummeling Az, trying to get him to speak. He’d never once yielded.

“The Illyrians are pieces of shit,” he said too quietly.

I opened my mouth and shut it.

Shadows gathered around his wings, trailing off him and onto the thick red rug. “They train and train as warriors, and yet when they don’t come home, their families make us into villains for sending them to war?”

“Their families have lost something irreplaceable,” I said carefully.

Azriel waved a scarred hand, his cobalt Siphon glinting with the movement as his fingers cut through the air. “They’re hypocrites.”

“And what would you have me do, then? Disband the largest army in Prythian?”

Az didn’t answer.

I held his gaze, though. Held that ice-cold stare that still sometimes scared the shit out of me. I’d seen what he’d done to his half brothers centuries ago. Still dreamed of it. The act itself wasn’t what lingered. Every bit of it had been deserved. Every damn bit.

But it was the frozen precipice that Az had plummeted into that sometimes rose from the pit of my memory.

The beginnings of that frost cracked over his eyes now. So I said calmly, yet with little room for argument, “I am not going to disband the Illyrians. There is nowhere for them to go, anyway. And if we try to drag them out of those mountains, th