A court of frost and sta.., p.6
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       A Court of Frost and Starlight, p.6
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         Part #3.10 of A Court of Thorns and Roses series by Sarah J. Maas
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  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, they might launch the very assault we’re trying to defuse.”

  Az said nothing.

  “But perhaps more pressing,” I went on, jabbing a finger on the sprawling continent, “is the fact that the human queens have not returned to their own territories. They linger in that joint palace of theirs. Beyond that, Hybern’s general populace is not too thrilled to have lost this war. And with the wall gone, who knows what other Fae territories might make a grab for human lands?” My jaw tightened at that last one. “This peace is tenuous.”

  “I know that,” Az said at last.

  “So we might need the Illyrians again before it is over. Need them willing to shed blood.”

  Feyre knew. I’d been filling her in on every report and meeting. But this latest one … “We will keep an eye on the dissenters,” I finished, letting Az sense a rumble of the power that prowled inside me, let him feel that I meant every word. “Cassian knows it’s growing amongst the camps and is willing to do whatever it takes to fix it.”

  “He doesn’t know just how many there are.”

  “And perhaps we should wait to tell him. Until after the holiday.” Az blinked. I explained quietly, “He’s going to have enough to deal with. Let him enjoy the holiday while he can.”

  Az and I made a point not to mention Nesta. Not amongst each other, and certainly not in front of Cassian. I didn’t let myself contemplate it, either. Neither did Mor, given her unusual silence on the matter since the war had ended.

  “He’ll be pissed at us for
keeping it from him.”

  “He already suspects much of it, so it’s only confirmation at this point.”

  Az ran a thumb down Truth-Teller’s black hilt, the silver runes on the dark scabbard shimmering in the light. “What about the human queens?”

  “We continue to watch. You continue to watch.”

  “Vassa and Jurian are still with Graysen. Do we loop them in?”

  A strange gathering, down in the human lands. With no queen ever having been appointed to the slice of territory at the base of Prythian, only a council of wealthy lords and merchants, Jurian had somehow stepped in to lead. Using Graysen’s family estate as his seat of command.

  And Vassa … She had stayed. Her keeper had granted her a reprieve from her curse—the enchantment that turned her into a firebird by day, woman again by night. And bound her to his lake deep in the continent.

  I’d never seen such spell work. I’d sent my power over her, Helion too, hunting for any possible threads to unbind it. I found none. It was as if the curse was woven into her very blood.

  But Vassa’s freedom would end. Lucien had said as much months ago, and still visited her often enough that I knew nothing in that regard had improved. She would have to return to the lake, to the sorcerer-lord who kept her prisoner, sold to him by the very queens who had again gathered in their joint castle. Formerly Vassa’s castle, too.

  “Vassa knows that the Queens of the Realm will be a threat until they are dealt with,” I said at last. Another tidbit that Lucien had told us. Well, Az and me at least. “But unless the queens step out of line, it’s not for us to face. If we sweep in, even to stop them from triggering another war, we’ll be seen as conquerors, not heroes. We need the humans in other territories to trust us, if we can ever hope to achieve lasting peace.”

  “Then perhaps Jurian and Vassa should deal with them. While Vassa is free to do so.”

  I’d contemplated it. Feyre and I had discussed it long into the night. Several times. “The humans must be given a chance to rule themselves. Decide for themselves. Even our allies.”

  “Send Lucien, then. As our human emissary.”

  I studied the tenseness in Azriel’s shoulders, the shadows veiling half of him from the sunlight. “Lucien is away right now.”

 
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