A court of frost and sta.., p.18
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       A Court of Frost and Starlight, p.18
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         Part #3.10 of A Court of Thorns and Roses series by Sarah J. Maas
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  My heart tightened to the point of pain, and I kissed him back. Kissed him again, and again, the property wide and clear around us. “I will,” I promised.

  CHAPTER

  23

  Rhysand

  The sex had destroyed me.

  Utterly ruined me.

  Any lingering scrap of my soul that hadn’t already belonged to her had unconditionally surrendered last night.

  And seeing Feyre’s expression when I showed her the riverfront estate … I held the memory of her shining, beautiful face close to me as I knocked on the cracked front doors of Tamlin’s manor.

  No answer.

  I waited a minute. Two.

  I unspooled a thread of power through the house, sensing. Half dreading what I might find.

  But there—in the kitchens. A level below. Alive.

  I saw myself in, my steps echoing on the splintered marble floors. I didn’t bother to veil them. He likely sensed my arrival the moment I’d winnowed onto his front step.

  It was a matter of a few minutes to reach the kitchen.

  I wasn’t entirely prepared for what I saw.

  A great elk lay dead on the long worktable in the center of the dark space, the arrow through its throat illumined by the watery light leaking through the small windows. Blood pooled on the gray stone floor, its drip the only sound.

  The only sound as Tamlin sat in a chair before it. Staring at the felled beast.

  “Your dinner is leaking,” I told him by way of greeting, nodding toward the mess gathering on the floor.

  No reply. The High Lord of Spring didn’t so much as look up at me.

  Your mate should have known better than to kick a downed male.

  Lucien’s words to Feyre yesterday had lingered. Perhaps it was why I’d left Feyre to explore the new paints Azriel had given her and winnowed here.

  I surveyed the mighty elk, its dark eyes open and glazed. A hunting knife lay embedded in the wood beside its shaggy head.

  Still no words, not even a whisper of movement. Very well, then.

  “I spoke to Varian, Prince of Adriata,” I said, lingering on the other side of the table, the rack of antlers like a briar of thorns between us. “I requested that he ask Tarquin to dispatch soldiers to your border.” I’d done it last night, pulling Varian aside during dinner. He’d readily agreed, swearing it would be done. “They will arrive within a few days.”

  No reply.

  “Is that acceptable to you?” As part of the Seasonal Courts, Summer and Spring had long been allies—until this war.

  Slowly, Tamlin’s head lifted, his unbound golden hair dull and matted.

  “Do you think she will forgive me?” The question was a rasp. As if he’d been screaming.

  I knew whom he meant. And I didn’t know. I didn’t know if her wishing him happiness was the same as forgiveness. If Feyre would ever want to offer that to him. Forgiveness could be a gift to both, but what he’d done … “Do you want her to?”

  His green eyes were empty. “Do I deserve it?”

  No. Never.

  He must have read it on my face, because he asked, “Do you forgive me—for your mother and sister?”

  “I don’t recall ever hearing an apology.”

  As if an apology would ever right it. As if an apology would ever cover the loss that still ate at me, the hole that remained where their bright, lovely lives had once glowed.

  “I don’t think one will make a difference, anyway,” Tamlin said, staring at the felled elk once more. “For either of you.”

  Broken. Utterly broken.

  You will need Tamlin as an ally before the dust has settled, Lucien had warned my mate. Perhaps that was why I’d come, too.

  I waved a hand, my magic slicing and sundering, and the elk’s coat slid to the floor in a rasp of fur and slap of wet flesh. Another flicker of power, and slabs of meat had been carved from its sides, piled next to the dark stove—which soon kindled.

  “Eat, Tamlin,” I said. He didn’t so much as blink.

  It was not forgiveness—it was not kindness. I could not, would not, ever forget what he’d done to those I loved most.

  But it was Solstice, or had been. And perhaps because Feyre had given me a gift greater than any I could dream of, I said, “You can waste away and die after we’ve sorted out this new world of ours.”

  A pulse of my power, and an iron skillet slid onto the now-hot stove, a steak of meat thumping into it with a sizzle.

  “Eat, Tamlin,” I repeated, and vanished on a dark wind.

  CHAPTER

  24

  Morrigan

  She’d lied to Feyre.

  Sort of.

  She was going to the Winter Court. Just not as soon as she’d said. Viviane, at least, knew when to truly expect her. Although they’d been exchanging letters for months now, Mor still hadn’t told even the Lady of the Winter Court where she’d be between Solstice in Velaris and her visit to Viviane and Kallias’s mountain home.

  She didn’t like telling people about this place. Had never mentioned it to the others.

  And as Mor galloped over the snowy hills, her mare, Ellia, a solid, warm weight beneath her, she remembered why.

  Early-morning mist hung between the bumps and hollows of the sprawling estate. Her estate. Athelwood.

  She’d bought it three hundred years ago for the quiet. Had kept it for the horses.

  Ellia took the hills with unfaltering grace, flowing fast as the west wind.

  Mor hadn’t been raised to ride. Not when winnowing was infinitely faster.

  But with winnowing, it never felt as if she were actually traveling anywhere. As if she were going, running, racing to the next place. She wished it, and there she was.

  The horses, though … Mor felt every inch of land they galloped across. Felt the wind and smelled the hills and snow and could see the passing wall of dense forest to her left.

  Alive. It was all alive, and her ever more so, when she rode.

  Athelwood had come with six horses, the previous owner having grown bored with them. All of them rare and coveted breeds. They’d been worth as much as the sprawling estate and three hundred pristine acres northwest of Velaris. A land of rolling hills and burbling streams, of ancient forests and crashing seas.

  She did not like being alone for long periods of time—couldn’t stand it. But a few days here and there were necessary, vital for her soul. And getting out on Ellia was as rejuvenating as any day spent basking in the sun.

  She pulled Ellia to a halt atop one of the larger hills, letting the mare rest, even as Ellia yanked on the reins. She’d run until her heart gave out—had never been quite as docile as her handlers desired. Mor loved her all the greater for it.

  She had always been drawn to the untamed, wild things of the world.

  Horse and rider breathing hard, Mor surveyed her rolling grounds, the gray sky. Nestled in her Illyrian leathers and heated from the ride, she was comfortably warm. An afternoon reading by the crackling fire in Athelwood’s extensive library followed by a hearty dinner and early bed would be bliss.

  How far away the continent seemed, Rhys’s request with it. To go, to play spy and courtier and ambassador, to see those kingdoms long closed, where friends had once dwelled … Yes, her blood called to her. Go as far and wide as you can. Go on the wind.

  But to leave, to let Keir believe he had made her go with his bargain with Eris …

  Coward. Pathetic coward.

  She shut out the hissing in her head, running a hand down Ellia’s snowy mane.

  She had not mentioned it these past few days in Velaris. Had wanted to make this choice on her own, and had understood how the news might cast a shadow over the merriment.

  She knew Azriel would say no, would want her safe. As he had always done. Cassian would have said yes, Amren with him, and Feyre would have worried but agreed. Az would have been pissed, and withdrawn even further into himself.

  She hadn’t wanted to take his joy
away from him. Any more than she already did.

  But she’d have to tell them, regardless of what she decided, at some point.

  Ellia’s ears went flat against her head.

  Mor stiffened, following the mare’s line of sight.

  To the tangle of wood to their left, little more than a thatch of trees from this distance.

  She rubbed Ellia’s neck. “Easy,” she breathed. “Easy.”

  Even in these woods, ancient terrors had been known to emerge.

  But Mor scented nothing, saw nothing. The tendril of power she speared toward the woods revealed only the usual birds and small beasts. A hart drinking from a hole in an iced-over stream.

  Nothing, except—

  There, between a snarl of thorns. A patch of darkness.

  It did not move, did not seem to do anything but linger. And watch.

  Familiar and yet foreign.

  Something in her power whispered not to touch it, not to go near it. Even from this distance.

  Mor obeyed.

  But she still watched that darkness in the thorns, as if a shadow had fallen asleep amongst them.

  Not like Azriel’s shadows, twining and whispering.

  Something different.

  Something that stared back, watching her in turn.

  Best left undisturbed. Especially with the promise of a crackling fire and glass of wine at home.

  “Let’s take the short route back,” she murmured to Ellia, patting her neck.

  The horse needed no further encouragement before launching into a gallop, turning them from the woods and its shadowy watcher.

  Over and between the hills they rode, until the woods were hidden in the mists behind them.

  What else might she see, witness, in lands where none in the Night Court had ventured for millennia?

  The question lingered with every thunderous step from Ellia over snow and brook and hill.

  Its answer echoed off the rocks and trees and gray clouds overhead.

  Go. Go.

  CHAPTER

  25

  Feyre

  Two days later, I stood in the doorway of Polina’s abandoned studio.

  Gone were the boarded-up windows, the drooping cobwebs. Only open space remained, clean and wide.

  I was still gaping when Ressina found me, halting on her path down the street, no doubt coming from her own studio. “Happy Solstice, my lady,” she said, smiling brightly.

  I didn’t return the smile as I stared and stared at the open door. The space beyond.

  Ressina laid a hand on my arm. “Is something wrong?”

  My fingers curled at my sides, wrapping around the brass key in my palm. “It’s mine,” I said quietly.

  Ressina’s smile began to grow again. “Is it, now?”

  “They—her family gave it to me.”

  It had happened this morning. I’d winnowed to Polina’s family farm, somehow surprising no one when I’d appeared. As if they’d been waiting.

  Ressina angled her head. “So why the face?”

  “They gave it to me.” I splayed my arms. “I tried to buy it. I offered her family money.” I shook my head, still reeling. I hadn’t even been back to the town house. Hadn’t even told Rhys. I’d woken at dawn, Rhys already off to meet with Az and Cassian at Devlon’s camp, and decided to hell with waiting. Putting life off didn’t make a lick of sense. I knew what I wanted. There was no reason to delay. “They handed me the deed, told me to sign my name to it, and gave me the key.” I rubbed my face. “They refused my money.”

  Ressina let out a long whistle. “I’m not surprised.”

  “Polina’s sister, though,” I said, my voice shaking as I pocketed the key in my overcoat, “suggested I use the money for something else. That if I wanted to give it away, I should donate it to the Brush and Chisel. Do you know what that is?”

  I’d been too stunned to ask, to do anything other than nod and say I would.

  Ressina’s ochre eyes softened. “It’s a charity for artists in need of financial help—to provide them and their families with money for food or rent or clothes. So they needn’t go hungry or want for anything while they create.”

  I couldn’t stop the tears that blurred my vision. Couldn’t stop myself from remembering those years in that cottage, the hollow ache of hunger. The image of those three little containers of paint that I’d savored.

  “I didn’t know it existed,” I managed to whisper. Even with all the committees that I volunteered to help, they had not mentioned it.

  I didn’t know that there was a place, a world, where artists might be valued. Taken care of. I’d never dreamed of such a thing.

  A warm, slender hand landed on my shoulder, gently squeezing.

  Ressina asked, “So what are you going to do with it? The studio.”

  I surveyed the empty space before me. Not empty—waiting.

  And from far away, as if it was carried on the cold wind, I heard the Suriel’s voice.

  Feyre Archeron, a request. Leave this world a better place than how you found it.

  I swallowed down my tears, and brushed a stray strand of my hair back into my braid before I turned to the faerie. “You wouldn’t be looking for a wholly inexperienced business partner, would you?”

  CHAPTER

  26

  Rhysand

  The girls were in the training ring.

  Only six of them, and none looking too pleased, but they were there, cringing their way through Devlon’s halfhearted orders on how to handle a dagger. At least Devlon had given them something relatively simple to learn. Unlike the Illyrian bows, a stack of them lingering by the girls’ chalk-lined ring. As if in a taunt.

  A good number of males couldn’t muster the strength to wield those mighty bows. I could still feel the whip of the string against my cheek, my wrist, my fingers during the years it had taken to master it.

  If one of the girls decided to take up the Illyrian bow, I’d oversee her lessons myself.

  I lingered with Cassian and Azriel at the far end of the sparring rings, the Windhaven camp glaringly bright with the fresh snow that had been dumped by the storm.

  As expected, the storm had finished yesterday—two days after Solstice. And as promised, Devlon had the girls in the ring. The youngest was around twelve, the eldest sixteen.

  “I thought there were more,” Azriel muttered.

  “Some left with their families for Solstice,” Cassian said, eyes on the training, hissing every now and then when one of the girls did a painfully wrong maneuver that went uncorrected. “They won’t be back for a few more days.”

  We’d shown him the lists Az had compiled of the possible troublemakers in these camps. Cassian had been distant ever since. More malcontents than we’d expected. A good number of them from the Ironcrest camp, notorious rival of this clan, where Kallon, son of its lord, was taking pains to stir up as much dissent as possible. All directed toward Cassian and myself.

  A ballsy move, considering Kallon was still a warrior-novice. Not even due to take the Rite until this spring or the next. But he was as bad as his brute of a father. Worse, Az claimed.

  Accidents happen in the Rite, I’d only suggested when Cass’s face had tightened with the news.

  We won’t dishonor the Rite by tampering with it, was his only reply.

  Accidents happen in the skies all the time, then, Azriel had coolly countered.

  If the whelp wants to bust my balls, he can grow a pair himself and do it to my face, Cassian had growled, and that was that.

  I knew him well enough to leave him to it—to decide how and when to deal with Kallon.

  “Despite the grumblings in the camps,” I said to Cassian, gesturing toward the training rings. The males kept a healthy distance from where the few females trained, as if frightened of catching some deadly disease. Pathetic. “This is a good sign, Cass.”

  Azriel nodded his agreement, his shadows twining around him. Most of the camp women had ducked into their homes wh
en he’d appeared.

  A rare visit from the shadowsinger. Both myth and terror. Az looked just as displeased to be here, but he’d come when I asked.

  It was healthy, perhaps, for Az to sometimes remember where he’d come from. He still wore the Illyrian leathers. Had not tried to get the tattoos removed. Some part of him was Illyrian still. Always would be. Even if he wished to forget it.

  Cassian said nothing for a minute, his face a mask of stone. He’d been distant even before we’d gathered around the table in my mother’s old house to deliver the report this morning. Distant since Solstice. I’d bet decent money on why.

  “It will be a good sign,” Cassian said at last, “when there are twenty girls out there and they’ve shown up for a month straight.”

  Az snorted softly. “I’ll bet you—”

  “No bets,” Cassian said. “Not on this.”

  Az held Cassian’s stare for a moment, cobalt Siphons flickering, and then nodded. Understood. This mission of Cassian’s, hatched years ago and perhaps close to fruition … It went beyond bets for him. Went down to a wound that had never really healed.

  I slung my arm around Cassian’s shoulders. “Small steps, brother.” I threw him a grin, knowing it didn’t meet my eyes. “Small steps.”

  For all of us.

  Our world might very well depend on it.

  CHAPTER

  27

  Feyre

  The city bells chimed eleven in the morning.

  A month later, Ressina and I stood near the front door, both of us in nearly identical clothes: thick, long sweaters, warm leggings, and sturdy, shearling-lined work boots.

  Boots that were already splattered with paint.

  In the weeks since Polina’s family had gifted me the studio, Ressina and I had been here nearly every day. Readying the place. Figuring out our strategy. The lessons.

  “Any minute now,” Ressina murmured, glancing to the small clock mounted on the bright white walls of the studio. That had been an endless debate: what color to paint the space? We’d wanted yellow, then decided that it might not display the art well enough. Black and gray were too dreary for the atmosphere we wanted, beige could also clash with the art … So we’d gone with white. The back room, at least, we’d painted brightly—a different color on each wall. Green and pink and red and blue.

 
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