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To Mate a Faerie

Chapter Text

Elain hurried around the corner, the bouquet of flowers pressed against her chest, into a part of the manor where she typically didn’t go — the far corridor, near the woods, where the prisoners were kept. Graysen hadn’t specifically forbidden her from venturing there, though he’d mentioned that in the defense of the human lands, he and his father and their men sometimes had to do awful things, violent things, that he didn’t care to elaborate on.

She understood. After all, she’d grown up with the stories — she knew full well what dangers they faced, the lethal power that faeries could unleash. Ever since the Beddor manor was attacked, the inhabitants slaughtered, the whole region had been on high alert, and Elain was thankful that her husband and his family were stalwart defenders of humans in the face of the faerie threat.

Lately, Graysen and his men seemed to be spending most of their time patrolling the territory, grim faced, armed with ash arrows, occasionally dragging some screaming creature or man-shaped body, limp and leaking blood, to that far corner of the estate, never to return. Elain always took brisk steps to get away from such scenes, knowing her husband wouldn’t want her to upset herself over such goings on. Graysen could handle it.

And in any case, Elain had a manor to run. She didn’t have time to poke her head into places she didn’t belong.

But today she felt pulled towards the far wing — not because she heard or saw anything, but out of a feeling that she should just go see, go check on it. Maybe the men need refreshments, or fresh supplies, she thought idly, her steps quickening as she got closer. Maybe Graysen has returned early from patrol and will want me to—

Then she heard a roar, deep and primal, and broke into a run.

She should have run away, far away, for that roar was made by no human man, but a faerie.

Elain knew that not all faeries were evil and wicked. Her own sister, Feyre, lived among them, and said that her faeries were good and kind. Her true love was a faerie, a High Lord of Prythian, so she said. Elain hadn’t remembered the night the faerie came to their home, in his guise as a monstrous beast, to take Feyre away, but now Feyre was back in Prythian, hopefully living happily with him. It bothered Elain that she hadn’t had word since her sister crossed back over the Wall, but she knew Feyre was tough. If any human girl could survive amongst the faeries, surely it would be her youngest sister.

Or perhaps Nesta. But Nesta would have nothing to do with faeries, even Feyre’s true love. No, Nesta inhabited their new estate, tending to it while Father bartered and charmed his way across the continent. They took tea together occasionally, Nesta always asking pointed questions about Elain’s treatment by the Nolans, whether they were keeping her in sufficient dignity with enough servants and cooks and the like, whether Graysen was truly a gentleman with her. That was Nesta — suspicious, worldly, protective. Elain bore it as best she could. She knew her sister meant well. With Elain married, and Feyre presumably so, perhaps Nesta would now feel free to look to her own affairs.

Elain felt that she’d been dealt the best hand of the three of them. She was settled, happily married to her true love, the Nolan estate now hers to run as she saw fit. It was more than she’d ever dreamed, being the lady of the manor, soon to become Lady Nolan when the old lord passed away and Graysen inherited his title. She would never go hungry again, never suffer the anxiety of poverty, and she could even help others, giving work and alms to the needy, boosting the village’s simple economy, and offering the protection of Graysen and his men against the predators who occasionally crossed the Wall.

It was more than Elain ever could have dreamed.

Elain turned the last corner, the dungeon room looming into view, and she skidded to a halt.

A crowd of soldiers were wrestling a faerie male. Or trying to.

Elain had never seen any creature with so much strength, at least not one with the body of a man, and she nearly gasped aloud as one soldier, and then another, went flying across the room, sprawling onto the stone floor a good distance away. More guards poured in, footsteps pounding, their shouts turning frantic as their captive fought back.

“Just put him down,” the commander barked, barely audible over the grunting and cursing of the soldiers.

“Lord Nolan wants this one — alive — ow,” one of the soldiers gasped, withdrawing from the melee to stare at his arm. “He burned me!”

Burned?

Elain shuddered at that. She knew faeries could have powers, could wield the forces of nature in ways that were almost godlike. She suddenly felt a spike of fear, wondering if this faerie could burn the whole manor down, incinerate them all in their beds.

“Pull back, we’ll have to use the ash arrows,” the commander snarled.

“The Lord said —“

“Don’t give a shit what the Lord said. The Lord can come get burned himself if this fucking beast is that important to him,” came the hissed reply.

Elain flinched at the vulgar language, though she should have been used to it, with the manor so full of soldiers always passing through, taking their orders from Graysen and his father. Elain knew she should be proud of her husband’s command of the men. Young though he was, he was already so important, so dignified. She wondered where Graysen was at this moment, if he would know what to do with a faerie who could wield fire like a weapon.

I should go. I should run.

But she didn’t. Instead she took a step closer, and then another. She had never seen a faerie up close before, not that she could remember, anyway, and she found that she was curious about what such a creature must look like. It must be huge and monstrous, like the beast Nesta had described.

Finally, one of the foot soldiers seemed to notice her. “Miss Elain, this ain’t no place for a lady,” he said, abandoning the fight to rush over to her. “You’d best get back to safety.”

Elain smiled graciously, recognizing the soldier as Graysen’s faithful servant. “I’m all right, Marlow,” she said serenely. She was always careful to learn the men’s names, to address them as such whenever possible. It bred loyalty, that’s what old Lord Nolan had told her once, when he was instructing her on the ways of running a manor. And he’d been right. Marlow straightened, bowing gallantly to her. She dared to ask, “What’s all this about, anyway?”

“Caught it sneaking around town, poking about,” Marlow told her, shooting a distasteful glance back towards the throng of fighting men, surrounding the faerie opponent she couldn’t see. “Said it’s on official diplomatic business, whatever that means.”

Elain thought of her sister and her High Lord, and said, “Dear me, that sounds complicated.”

“We was bringing it in for questioning,” Marlow went on. “Wasn’t so bad til it seen the ash trees on the compound, then it flipped. Ash kills ‘em, you know.” Elain didn’t know, but she nodded sagely. “It took one look at all that and started to fight.”

A yelp, and then the stench of burning flesh, told her how the fight was going.

“Anyroad,” Marlow said urgently, ghosting a hand near her elbow, as if afraid to actually lay hands on her, “you’d best depart. Won’t be safe here til it’s restrained proper. Maybe not even then. If you asks me, we shoulda killed it on sight.”

Elain took a few halting steps toward the door, but blinked at the idea that faeries had to be killed on sight. It was what all the stories suggested, but her sister’s faerie lord wasn’t like that, was he?

“Marlow, to me!” the commander roared, and Marlow dashed back towards the melee, where the commander was twisting and screaming, trying to get off the jacket on his back that was covered in flames.

Elain’s heart pounded as Marlow tackled the commander, pounding on the jacket to extinguish the flames, and then her heart seemed to stop beating altogether as the figure in the center of the throng became visible to her for the first time.

He was beautiful.

He was a handsome faerie male, tall and lithe and muscular, with long flaming red hair that rippled around his face and shoulders. Elain rapidly took in his trim, well tailored clothes — soiled and disheveled, but richly decorated and elegant, more suited to fine dinners and ballrooms than to battling with soldiers. But she couldn’t tear her eyes from his face, from the brutal scarring down one side of it, and the intricately carved golden eye that sat among the scars. His other eye blazed with a hint of the fire that she’d seen him wield to such devastating effect, and she knew she should be terrified, should run from that destructive power, should let the soldiers handle it.

But she stepped forward anyway, drawn towards this strange male who’d stopped fighting entirely, who was now staring at her with both of his beautiful mismatched eyes.

Murmurs went up amongst the soldiers, who had all gone still, watching the scene unfold.

“Miss Elain!” Marlow saw her, and ran towards her. “Get away, before you’re hurt!”

The faerie snarled, a low rumbling sound that vibrated right through her, and Marlow cursed and stepped back.

“It likes her,” one of the soldiers chortled, then cursed as a burst of flame flickered his way. The faerie hadn’t even turned around.

Dangerous. Lethal, even.

Elain could suddenly understand why all the stories made faeries out to be such formidable opponents, to the point where mortals had no chance of defeating them. None of these trained warriors could even get close to him, not with that power at his fingertips.

Another soldier stepped closer, and the faerie raised a hand, fire sprouting from his fingertips. Elain gasped, dropping the flowers she’d forgotten she was holding. To her surprise, the flames banked, until only wisps of smoke were trailing from his fingertips, wafting into the silent air.

“Talk to it,” Marlow urged her, his voice full of wonder. “Make it understand we’re not to harm it. We just need our questions answered, that’s all.”

The commander snorted, but quickly cleared his throat when Elain turned to look at him. “Tell it just that,” he said, his knuckles white as he kept his hand wrapped around his sword.

“I can hear you, you know,” the faerie said, his voice rich and lilting, sliding across Elain like a caress. His lips were curled into an amused smirk as he beheld the nervous crowd of soldiers, but something in his eyes gleamed more brightly when he looked back to Elain. His gaze was intense enough that it made her flush.

Elain opened her mouth to speak, but suddenly, from across the room, a bow twanged.

Elain screamed as an arrow plunged into the faerie’s chest.

She ran forward, but the soldiers crowded in around him, and she backed up step after step, her gut twisting. Then she turned and fled, sobbing, as the faerie’s roar chased after her.

Chapter Text

Of all the stupid mistakes I’ve ever made, today’s rank among the worst.

Lucien had of course done stupid things before — many, many times, sometimes with disastrous consequences — but never so many in rapid succession. All in one day, like he was going for some kind of record. It was little comfort to remember that he’d survived through all of his mistakes. Maybe this time would actually kill him. And good riddance, too. After the dumb shit he’d pulled, he didn’t deserve to survive.

His first mistake had been to cross the Wall. He should have recalled more acutely, after what Feyre had done to Andras with hate in her heart, that the folk in the human realm despised his kind. That soldier’s bluster about shooting faeries on sight was a commonly shared belief, one that Feyre had apparently subscribed to before Tamlin’s charms had won her over, enough that she blundered right Under the fucking Mountain to bargain for his life. Sometimes Lucien still couldn’t believe it.

But once he’d crossed the Wall, he’d lingered in one of the first villages he encountered — his second mistake. He should have kept moving, kept to his mission. It was clear that the folk knew nothing of Hybern or its creatures, that they would be no help on his fact-finding mission. Yet he’d felt drawn to the village for some unfathomable reason, had convinced himself of the need to stay, and when the patrol had approached him, he’d committed his third, dumbest mistake yet — not immediately winnowing away.

Winnowing across the Wall wouldn’t have been possible, of course, but he could have put distance between himself and those goons who fancied themselves the protectors of these parts. As if Lucien was the threat, and not the monsters he was pursuing. Well, they wouldn’t know that, would they?

A chain attached to his ankle clanked unpleasantly as Lucien shifted, not that he could move much. He’d given the humans a proper scare, shown them exactly how vulnerable they were against a faerie, and they’d locked and tied every inch of him down until he had barely enough room to breathe in and out. That too was his stupid fault — he should have played docile, lulled them into a false sense of security. But he’d seen that fucking ash wood, and thought of Andras, and panicked.

He groaned and shifted again, trying to find a comfortable pose so that he might catch a few minutes of rest. The ropes digging into the flesh of his arms were nothing, would burn away with the slightest whisper of his magic, however many times they were wound around him and the pole they’d lashed him to. The iron weighing on his wrists and ankles was more concerning, but the humans hilariously fancied iron to be deadly to faeries, and not just inconvenient. He could slowly heat up the metal, expand it, then winnow out — or just winnow with the chains attached, if it came to that.

No, the real danger was the ash bolt half-buried in his chest, mercifully not too near his heart or neck. It was sapping his power, slowly draining his lifeblood and preventing his healing. Fired to subdue him, not kill him, thank the Cauldron, or he’d have bled out just like Andras on the cold stone floor.

That had been his final mistake, the most embarrassing of all. He should have seen it coming, should have shielded. Instead he’d been utterly distracted by the human female, had been staring at her rather than monitoring the room. The very first lesson of warrior training, drilled into him as a wisp of a youngling — Stay alert — and he’d failed. If he’d been back in warrior training, he’d have been whipped for this poor of a showing.

He tried not to think about whippings, of being lashed to a pole just like this one, Amarantha’s cackling, the crowd tittering, his brothers leering —

He shifted again, his wrists chafing from the shackles, his shoulders aching from the unnatural angle of his arms wrenched behind his back, the female’s shriek still ringing in his ears.

A human female. Gods, I am losing it.

Three months free from Under the Mountain, and he’d still not regained his sanity. He was still waking up soaked in sweat late nights, half convinced he was shackled to the floor with hot spikes descending on him while Feyre hesitated, or he saw Feyre, drugged and helpless, barely clothed flesh swaying seductively in between Rhys’s spread legs. Or Feyre covered in putrid mud and filth, hurling bones at Amarantha’s feet. Or Feyre, broken and battered, sprawled dead on the floor. Or Feyre —

Stop it. This isn’t helping.

He tried to tell himself that seeing a human woman had triggered some instinct to protect Feyre again, that the female looked enough like his friend that he’d simply been caught off guard, that probably all human women looked alike and it didn’t mean anything, she’d just reminded him of Feyre, that’s all.

But Lucien was far too uncomfortable, and in far too much trouble, to be soothed by stupid lies. And so he shifted again, trying to sit more upright, so he could lean his head on the pole, get a better view of this cold dank room they’d shoved him into, and ponder the mysteries of lovely, innocent human females carrying flowers.

Miss Elain, the guard had called her.

Elain, Elain, Elain. The ash bolt wedged between his collarbone and rib bones pulsed painfully in the rhythm of her name.

You faerie fool, bewitched by a human female, and all she did was look at you with those innocent doe eyes, those rosy cheeks — Lucien wished his hands weren’t chained so that he could give himself a good, hard slap upside the head.

This definitely isn’t helping. Focus on getting free.

But as the minutes — or hours, he’d lost track — trickled by, his breathing grew ragged, each inhale and exhale more acutely painful. Even as his body began to shut down from the effort, his mind refused to accept it. I did not survive Under the Mountain and fucking Beron Vanserra only to perish at the hands of incompetent humans.

But then the door creaked open, and Lucien thought he might die from sheer embarrassment as the human female, as Elain, poked her head in.

She gave the sweetest, tiniest gasp of alarm as she took in his undignified state, his pathetic wounded self tied to a pole like a farmyard creature, and he tried to form his burning cheeks into a reassuring smile that came out more as a grimace. Before he could formulate a hint of a thought, anything gallant to say to her, she covered her mouth with a pale, thin hand, then dashed away, the door to the cell snicking shut behind her.

A deep, dissatisfied snarl tore loose from Lucien’s throat, and he strained against the mass of ropes and chains holding him, as though that glimpse of her had replenished his strength. But he fell back, panting, mechanical eye buzzing unpleasantly, surrendering to the darkness of the room, the hopelessness of his situation, drifting into a sick, helpless stupor.

* * * *

Elain’s shoes clacked on the floor as she strode back to the drawing room, her cheeks burning, her breaths settling down from quick uneven gasps back into a regular rhythm.

Stupid me. I shouldn’t have gone back down there.

She hadn’t meant to. She’d meant to let the matter be. Let Graysen handle it.

But the thought of the faerie in the manor had bothered her all through dinner, to the point where she’d been inattentive, almost rude. She couldn’t get his shining red hair out of her mind, the glowing fire on his fingertips, that golden eye or the open surprised way he’d looked at her. I don’t know what I thought a faerie would be like, but it wasn’t that.

“I know Mrs. Nolan would agree,” Lady Carlisle’s imperious voice had cut through those thoughts. “Wouldn’t you, dear?”

“Oh,” Elain had answered, flustered but quickly recovering her poise, “forgive me, my thoughts had just wandered. But if you think so, Lady Carlisle…”

Lady Carlisle had beamed at her. The only correct response was to agree with the dignified older woman anyway. She was a lady of the ton, presiding over balls and social gatherings all season, and not used to being contradicted. Her daughters, on the other hand, were impish creatures, spiteful, apt to remind Elain of her former station in life, her family’s misfortunes. Elain was used to such slights now, had learned how to keep her head held high, though these dinners pained her more than she cared to admit.

These are Lord Nolan’s friends. Don’t be ungrateful.

The younger Miss Carlisle drawled, “Mama was just saying that something must be done. They can’t be allowed to run wild, you know.”

And her older sister concurred. “It’s bad enough they preach in the villages, but it’s said that they’re crossing the Wall, inviting those things to slip back through with them.”

“Ah,” Elain said noncommittally, wondering if that was how the captured faerie had ended up in their village. Had he been chasing some moon-eyed Child of the Blessed, seeking sport or a meal? She shuddered, determined to put him out of her mind.

Until the older Miss Carlisle pointedly said, “Your younger sister has been gone for an age. Why do we never hear news of her?”

Elain had practiced this answer with Nesta, had agreed on their cover story, and so she replied sweetly, “So sweet of you to inquire. My dear sister Feyre is devoted to our ailing aunt, who lives some miles from here. I don’t get to see her so often as I’d like. But I’ll tell her that you asked after her, Miss Carlisle, I’m sure she’ll be honored.”

At least that had shut up the nosy, petulant creature. The mother began speaking again, something about the village markets and the sort of rabble that passed through them, how something simply must be done, and Elain’s mind had drifted back to the captive faerie again, his roar of pain and outrage when he’d been struck by that arrow, and she’d wondered if a healer was sent, or if he’d had any meals, and suddenly she was up from the table, spilling out some sparkling excuse to the sniveling Carlisles about a sick friend convalescing in the manor and how she would be right back after making inquiries, and she’d been off down the corridors before she could think better of it.

Indeed, she’d thought no thoughts at all except go see, go see, but what she’d seen — oh, it had been too terrible for words. What they’d done to that faerie —

Her steps quickened, and she yanked the door to the drawing room open.

The men had already rejoined the party, meaning she’d been gone far too long, but no one seemed to note it. There was Graysen, still in his riding clothes, his handsome face turning towards her and granting her a small smile before he returned to his conversation. Elain felt a small squeeze in her chest as she looked at her husband, who’d missed dinner again, and felt she should go to him, ask after him, see how his day was. But not when Lord Carlisle himself sat at the checkerboard — it would be frightfully forward of her to interrupt.

So she took her place with the Miss Carlisles, both flipping through books without reading a word, while their mother offered a continuous stream of conversation, and Elain thought of that cursed faerie again, all bloodied and clothes torn, tied up with ropes on the cold floor. Could faeries feel pain? Or did their magic prevent such things?

Let Graysen handle it. It’s not your concern.

Elain sat miserably in the drawing room, the air suddenly too cold, the candles too smoky, as the idea of the hurt faerie settled into her mind like an arrow had been fired and was sinking its way in. She was no nurse, no healer, had been useless to help her father when he’d been injured, before he’d been healed by —

She sat up straighter.

Healed by that faerie.

It had been a faerie. A blond one, a fair lordly male with a jeweled mask. The fuzziness around the memory fizzled out, leaving her mind clearer, more certain than ever. Papa was healed by a faerie.

Did Graysen know? Did Lord Nolan? She doubted they’d believe it, even if she told them so. They would say it was impossible, that faeries wouldn’t help humans, or if they did it would be some vile trick to lull their prey.

“Not like your sister, Mrs. Nolan, I daresay she hasn’t danced one dance all season,” the elder Miss Carlisle was sneering. “Pity that, she used to steal men’s hearts.”

Elain sighed inwardly. They’re jealous of Nesta. But she couldn’t bother thinking about that, not when that faerie was hurt, and alone, and she stared at the clock instead, counting down the minutes until the Carlisles’ carriage was ordered, and she could slip out and back down the corridor again.

In the meantime, she caught sight of her favorite maid and waved her over, determined to be prepared this time.

* * * * *

Lucien was yanked from his half-sleep and almost leaped up, forgetting the restraints on him, when he heard her voice outside the door.

“I understand, Duncan,” she was saying, in a pleasant, lulling tone that had Lucien closing his eyes, sinking back against the pole, the calm assurance of her words washing over him. “I’ll always obey Lord Nolan’s wishes.”

A male voice, presumably the one called Duncan’s, came gruff and apologetic through the door. “My apologies, lady. You know i’taint my rule, just following orders.”

“Of course,” Elain said, “dear fellow, you’re all concerned for my safety. I just thought I’d clean up a bit. A silly notion. But you know how the Lord prides himself on his estate.” Lucien’s eyes opened at that, and he grinned through chapped lips, despite himself, as she went on: “I try to keep things nice for him. It’s really the least I can do, as he’s been so kind to me. I just thought it’d be a lovely surprise to have the rooms freshened up.”

“Well, I.” Duncan clearly had no response to that.

“I do try to help in little ways,” Elain was going on. “With my own father gone to the continent, Lord Nolan has been like a father to me.” Lucien bit his lip to stifle the surprised laugh that bubbled out of him. What sorcery is this? Is she a daemati?

Poor flummoxed Duncan was stammering, saying, “Oh, well, now, you know, I mean —“

“Well, seeing as I’ve got the water all ready, I’ll just start near the door,” Elain said evenly. “I’m sure I’ll be safe with you here to protect me.”

From the big, bad fae, Lucien added ruefully to himself.

He’d yanked back his fire when he saw how it frightened her, but he suspected she’d already seen enough to put her off faeries forever. Which was just fine. Why did he care?

That question rattled around and around in his mind, unmoored, along with the accompanying question — why is she so determined to come in?

Elain’s flattery was the final straw. Duncan had the door open in moments, and in she strode, balancing a tray with a bowl and several towels piled next to it. Lucien straightened, wanting to see her better, but the ash bolt dug painfully into his chest from the movement, wrenching a moan from him.

“Oh,” murmured Elain, stopping a short distance from him, setting the tray down at her feet, twisting her fingers together. Afraid? Surely she sees how thoroughly I’m trapped. Not that he could ever harm her anyway, but she didn’t know that. She lived among folk who hated and feared him, after all. Remember how long it took Feyre to trust you.

Lucien swallowed thickly, forced himself to speak. “I don’t believe we’ve been… properly introduced.”

Her eyes widened, but she just watched him, her hands drifting into the folds of her long skirt. He could almost feel her fluttery nerves, her rapid heartbeat, and tried to put her at ease. “Sorry about all this,” he said, glancing down at himself, wincing at the dried blood crusting his tunic, the holes and rips in his pants from where he’d been wrestled onto the hard stone by the humans he’d inadvertently whipped into a frenzy. “I’m not exactly presentable.”

She blinked, and he cringed at how stupid he must sound. Hundreds of years old, and you can’t think of anything decent to say. Since he couldn’t manage charming, he went with simple. “Sorry I — startled you.”

“You’re a faerie,” she replied, as if that explained everything, then took a halting a step closer.

“Yes,” he said, frowning at her hesitation. 

“But not the bad kind?” she asked hopefully.

He bit down hard on the playful retort that he wanted to make, sensing that now was not the moment. “I hope not,” he said.

“A faerie healed my father,” said Elain. “I’m not supposed to remember.”

Lucien wondered at that, wondered if she meant Tamlin, and wanted to ask. But she went on, “The stories say you’re dangerous.”

The stories are true.

He didn’t say that. Instead, he looked down at himself, at the ropes and chains and ash bolt protruding awkwardly from his chest, and said honestly, “Right now I’m not.”

She nodded at that, seeming to accept it as assurance, and he sucked in a sharp breath as she gracefully sank to her knees, her skirt billowing around her, and reached for her tray. She was at eye level now, and his gaze flicked from her golden brown curly hair to her soft pink lips, then quickly back up to her eyes before his gaze could dip any lower.

Don’t be feral, she wouldn’t like it.

Besides, he suspected those human brutes would gouge out his remaining eye if they caught him staring too hard at the lady. But he stared anyway, would have stared even if he’d had a million other lovely things to look at and not the dark walls and damp stones.

Elain dipped a towel into the bowl, and wrung liquid from it. “You’re hurt,” she said, gingerly laying the towel across his knee, which he suddenly realized was scraped and bloody. He caught the hiss between his teeth before he could startle her.

“It’s not a — problem,” he gritted out, biting back another wince as she moved the towel to his other leg, which somehow had gotten even more banged up than the first. “Just need the — bolt out.”

“The bolt?” She looked at him in alarm. “This?” And she reached for the ash arrow still stuck in his chest.

It took everything Lucien had, every last bit of strength, to keep from howling. The hot searing agony as the bolt quivered under her touch tore through him like lightning. She jerked her hand away, startled, and he said urgently, “Please — just yank it.”

Her face scrunched up. “But that hurt you.”

Such a sweet, innocent creature. The idea of it shredded his already ruined heart.

“It’ll hurt more if it stays in,” he managed to say, keeping his voice low and calm, though it was an effort. “Can’t — heal.”

Her mouth formed a silent Oh, and she stared at the arrow, as if she could will it away just by looking at it. Then she grimaced, wrinkling her nose. “Will it bleed?”

“Probably,” he admitted. “Yes.” She nodded slowly, as if trying to let the thought of blood settle. “You don’t have to look,” he added. “Best if you don’t.”

She nodded again, then reached out her hands and wrapped them around the arrow shaft. Lucien’s vision tinged red as she gave it a little ineffectual tug. “Harder,” he urged her, clamping down forcefully on his shout of pain.

“I can’t —“ Her eyes had gone silvery, like she might cry. Gods, that might hurt even worse than this stupid ash arrow. “I can’t budge it. I’m not strong enough.”

“Don’t be afraid,” he pleaded. “You’re stronger than you think.”

Elain was leaning over him, her hair falling into both their faces, and he thought, Well, there are worse ways to die than this.

But she grabbed the arrow and yanked, falling backwards from the force of it, and Lucien couldn’t totally suppress his cry of pain and relief as the fucking thing ripped free.

Thank the Mother.

His breathing instantly lightened, his pain dulling to a low ache rather than a boiling agony, and he gasped, “My — savior,” as he collapsed back, his eyes closed.

Then his relief turned to horror as he heard voices outside the door.

Elain’s eyes grew wide, and she dropped the bloody arrow, quickly plunging her hand in the bowl of water to clean it off. “I’ve got to go.”

Chapter Text

Graysen slammed the door to the cell so hard that the thunk resounded through the stones, the hinges creaking testily as he stormed in and yanked his wife up and away from the fucking faerie. His innocent, sweet, precious Elain — what in bloody hell was she doing in the faerie’s cell?

His hand shook with rage as he gripped her arm, steering her to face away from the miserable chained thing that snarled and hissed at him like the feral animal it was.

Fucking beast. I’ll deal with it later.

Graysen got her safely out into the corridor, bracing himself against the door, and he cursed his ill luck as he took in her pale frightened face, the glimmer of tears in those beautiful brown eyes. “I’ll have Duncan’s head,” he thundered. “He shouldn’t have let you in here.”

“Oh, don’t hurt Duncan, please,” she cried, her lower lip quivering. She was trembling all over, the poor fluttery thing. Graysen drew her against his chest, holding her tightly to him, and her sweet voice was muffled against his shirt as she breathed, “Have I done wrong?”

“Sweetheart,” he said, low and stern, pulling back to hold her arms, look into her eyes. She’s your wife, show her what’s what, as his father had told him. “You’re not to go near that thing again. It’s too dangerous.”

“I wasn’t near him. It,” she corrected herself. “I was cleaning.”

“Cleaning?” he burst out, shaking her. “You are a lady, not a scullery maid.” He snatched at her hands, examining them for rough spots, but was relieved to see they were only damp with water. “Have you forgotten your station?”

“Sorry,” she cringed, starting to pull back from him, then relenting when he gripped her more firmly. “Old habit, I suppose. I cleaned our cottage when my family couldn’t afford servants—“

“Don’t speak of that shame,” Graysen hissed, glancing about to be sure none of the guards were near. “I married a gentlewoman, not a beggar.”

“Of course,” Elain said meekly, bowing her head, cheeks flushing a dark pink.

“Who gave you the towels?” he demanded to know. He’d have to have a stern conversation with whoever it was, ensure their silence. Perhaps dismiss them from the manor entirely.

“No one. I found them,” Elain told him.

Well, that’s a relief. Hiring new servants was such a bother.

“Then no harm done,” he said, more gently. “I’ll let this incident slide. But don’t embarrass me like this again.”

“Thank you,” Elain said, smiling up at him through those thick eyelashes.

“No more venturing to this wing of the manor,” he said, suppressing the smile he wanted to give back to her. He had to impress upon her the seriousness of the offense, the danger she was just in. “I want you nowhere near such wicked creatures. It could have done anything to you.”

Her eyes grew wide as saucers “Anything? But he — it — was injured.”

“Good,” Graysen said emphatically. “If I had my way, it’d be dead right now. But Father’s got his own plans. Not your concern,” he added quickly, seeing Elain furrow her brows. “The men told me you blundered in here today, got that thing’s attention. Helped them capture it, which is all very well. But if it used its magic on you, lured you back —“

He broke off abruptly, unwilling to consider the idea. Humans bewitched by faeries were a menace, a disgusting perversion of the natural order, deserving death just as much as their wicked overlords. He would not allow Elain to be beguiled, tainted in such a way. The shame to the Nolan family — it would utterly destroy their reputation.

Elain’s face had drained to a stark white, and he ran a comforting hand down her cheek. “It… lured me?” she gasped. “Am I possessed?”

Graysen gritted his teeth. “I don’t think so, sweetheart. You seem all right. Lucky I got to you in time. I won’t let it have you, no matter what foul magic it tries.”

“Oh, how dreadful,” Elain wailed, tears slipping down her cheeks. “What wicked creatures.” She swiped delicately at her face with her fingertips, biting her lip as if she were holding back from saying more.

Graysen frowned at that, but decided now was not the time to pursue the matter. “It’s vital you remember that,” he said, taking her chin firmly between his fingers. “You’re to leave these things to the men. To me. I swore to keep you and protect you, didn’t I?”

Elain nodded.

“And you swore to obey,” he reminded her, rubbing his thumb over her bottom lip, thinking about how he would visit her room later, do his duty as a husband.

“Yes.” It came out as a breathless whisper.

“Then go to your chambers,” he said, . “I’ll come to you shortly.” He glanced back at the cell door, then back at her lovely upturned nose, her flushed cheeks, her sparkling eyes. She’s ready now. 

“Oh,” Elain said with a little gasp. “Graysen.”

He almost caved then, almost swept her into his arms and strode off through the manor with her, not caring who might see such an undignified display. But he had to settle his business first, or it would stick like a splinter in the back of his mind, needling him when he should be enjoying himself.

So he satisfied himself with a pat on her rump, which elicited a startled little squeal from her that made him go semi-hard. Not yet. “Go, wife,” he said roughly, sucking in a sharp breath as he mastered himself. “Get yourself ready.”

She nodded wordlessly, then scurried off, looking back at him just once before disappearing around the corner.

Sweet little thing. I’m lucky, I am.

He straightened his jacket, took a few bracing breaths, ensuring he was fully in control before he opened the cell door, and strode inside.

The faerie was slumped over, eyes closed. It had taken far too many men to bring it down, but he was pleased to see that it smeared with its own blood, obviously worse for wear. Pathetic, vile thing.

It made him angry all over again that Elain had been in the room with that, that it had dared look on her. I’ll teach it.

Graysen gave it a swift kick in the ribs, though his boot connected mostly with the iron chains that bound it to the pole. It grunted, then chuckled. “Such gracious hospitality.”

“Shut up, you wretch,” Graysen growled, sending another kick into its side. “Or I’ll shut your mouth up for you.”

The damn thing kept grinning at him, though it wisely kept its mouth shut. Father said they can be reasoned with. Graysen stalked around to the other side of the pole, aiming another kick at the chained up beast, then crouched down close to it and gripped its hair, yanking its face up so he could get a better view.

Of course it was man-like — he’d been told that — but no one had mentioned the golden eye. It clicked and buzzed like some strange automaton, no doubt some foul magic animating it. Is that what Father sees in this creature?

He’d arrived home too late to ask, what with Lord Carlisle and his ladies to entertain, and the whole manor in uproar. He’d been so flustered, dealing with it all, that he’d almost failed to notice Elain was missing, until the Lady mentioned his wife being distracted at the supper table. He shook his head at that — the Carlisles were far too important to allow such slights to occur. 

The faerie was watching him intently, its regular eye blazing with some strange light of its own, and Graysen rapidly dropped his hold and stepped back, suddenly conscious of how close he was. “You won’t enchant me, fae,” he grunted. “I know your tricks well.”

“Indeed?” the faerie drawled. “Such as?”

“Bewitchment. Tampering with memories,” Graysen spat. “Glamours, probably. For all I know you’re a beast with fur and fangs and curling horns, and claws for nails.”

“Ah, see, that’s my friend,” the faerie said amiably, shifting in its restraints and looking up at him with a cocky smile. “I’m afraid I’ve got no such powers. They’d certainly be handy right now.”

Graysen resisted the temptation to slap the smile off its fucking face. Don’t want that taint on my skin, not when I’m going to touch my wife with these hands. “You burned my men, you’ve got powers aplenty,” he said accusingly.

The faerie’s smile slipped a bit. “Not at the moment. This is iron, isn’t it?” The metal clanked and rattled as the male fidgeted, yanking uselessly at its chained wrists. “What’s the plan, then? Kill me slowly rather than all at once?”

Graysen gave it a satisfied smirk. “If it were me, I’d leave you to rot. You’re not even worth sticking my dagger in.” He let the words sink in, though the faerie didn’t seem overly bothered by them. “But, apparently my father wants you for something. Maybe your gold orb, maybe to sell you outright.”

The faerie straightened, a hopeful gleam illuminating its normal eye. “Sell me? Then you’ll want me in better condition than this.”

Graysen crossed his arms, letting it babble. “Some decent clothes. A meal would be nice. A bath’s probably too much to ask, but I’m sure a buyer would want me clean.” Here it got a crafty look, and Graysen was instantly on alert. “Some other kind of chains, you know, not that it really matters, but these itch my skin, and —“

Graysen began to laugh, making the beast frown petulantly. “What?” it barked.

“You rogue,” Graysen taunted. “The chains itch your skin, do they? Iron does far more than that, and you know it. You admitted that.” He tapped his temple. “You’re not very bright, are you.”

The faerie had the good sense to look guilty. “That’s what my father always says.” Then it glanced back up at him, apparently shaking off its disappointment. “Still. A bit of magic would do me wonders. I wouldn’t burn anything, honest. Just keep myself a little warmer.”

Graysen tsked, “What kind of a fool do you think I am? A bit of magic. You’d lure my wife right back down here, get her to do who knows what.”

“Lure who?” the faerie asked, eyebrows shooting up. “Wife, you said? I didn’t see any lady of the manor here, just a maid tidying up.”

Graysen clenched his teeth in anger, but he was relieved. Elain is safe.

He decided to drop the subject, not wanting the beast to know it had been Elain, after all. So he said, “I’ll order someone to hose you off, get you clean things. Light a fire, if you behave.”

The faerie dipped its head in what Graysen supposed was meant to be gratitude. Then it said hopefully, “The iron —“

“The iron stays,” Graysen said sternly. “And don’t ask again.”

The wretch bowed its head, defeated. “Then I’m good as dead.”

“There you are, I knew you’d get it eventually,” Graysen said. “And they say faeries can’t reason.” 

And he stalked to the door, satisfied with his victory.

Chapter Text

Nesta’s tea sat unconsumed in her cup, growing cold and bitter the longer the tea leaves sat in it, but she barely noticed. Her eyes were on her dearest sister, the one person in the world she truly loved, and Nesta thought she looked… unhappy.

Elain was staring out the window again, eyes unfocused, as if she were contemplating some unpleasant memory. Nesta shifted, hating to see it, hating the melancholic gloom that seemed to be creeping over her sister’s features. Elain had always been the hopeful one, the relentless optimist and lover of beauty, and she’d been so certain that achieving her greatest dream in life — marrying for love, and into such a prosperous and respectable family — would produce permanent bliss.

Something was going on, something that was robbing Elain of her joy, and Nesta was determined to get to the root of it.

“Talk in the village is that you hosted the Carlisles again last night,” Nesta said. “To associate with such a family is a high honor.”

Elain jolted, her tea spilling down the side of her hand, and she quickly set it down. “Yes,” she said, frowning at the brown liquid pooling in the saucer, before smoothing out her brow and pronouncing with forced lightness, “A high honor.”

Nesta watched her carefully, sensing the insincerity. Then her gaze flicked over to the maids bustling about in the far corner of the room, draping a new tablecloth over the formal dining table, arranging flowers in the centerpieces, and she suddenly understood.

“I’ve been indoors too long,” she declared. “Let’s walk in the garden.”

Elain looked at her, her eyes communicating both gratitude and wariness, and she set her cup aside and rose gracefully to her feet. She headed to the door, a certain odd stiffness to her walk that Nesta wondered at, and led them silently through the halls of the manor, mostly empty save a few guards clustered around a far corridor. Elain’s steps slowed as they neared that area, and she glanced furtively in the guards’ direction, before quickening her pace, nearly tripping on her skirts as she reached the exit.

Nesta glanced about the garden, gingerly stepping around a patch of mud to avoid dirtying her shoes as they started down the path towards the copse of trees near the retaining wall that separated the compound from the village beyond. “What did you plant this season?” she asked, hoping to get Elain talking about one of her favorite subjects, gardening.

“Oh,” Elain said, in that odd cheerless tone, “I’m not to soil or rough up my hands in the dirt. And the folk will think we lack the funds for servants, if I’m seen on my hands and knees. It’s unbecoming of a lady of my station.”

Nesta couldn’t disagree, recalled having explained that to Elain on multiple occasions, but it was disconcerting to hear it from her sister’s lips like that, as though she were repeating some well-rehearsed line in a play. “But you love gardening,” she found herself saying.

Elain said peevishly, “I’m too busy running the manor and hosting our many guests to be concerned with such things.”

They had nearly reached the trees, were far enough away that servants would be out of earshot, and Nesta’s hand reached out and snagged Elain’s arm before she could walk any further. “Were the Carlisles rude to you again?”

Elain shrugged with forced nonchalance. “Lady Carlisle is very kind.”

“But the daughters?” Nesta persisted.

“The Miss Carlisles are elegant and distinguished,” Elain said. When Nesta fixed her with a long look, she let out a small sigh. “There’s no point complaining, Nesta. We can’t exactly refuse their company.”

“They think themselves superior, just because they’ve been lucky,” Nesta huffed.

“They each stand to inherit 10,000 a year, and lands of their own, unless Lady Carlisle bears them a brother. What could be luckier than that,” Elain said, tracing a small circle in the dirt with her shoe. Nesta frowned down at it, noting tiny specks of brown — or was that dark red? — flecked around the toe. Elain looked down as well, then hastily withdrew her foot, her gaze shooting back up to Nesta’s.

“Certainly looks like you’ve been in the garden,” Nesta said.

Elain blushed deeply, her gaze drifting back towards the manor. “I’ll speak to Daisy about having them cleaned,” she murmured.

Nesta put her hands on her hips. “Elain. Out with it.”

Elain blinked rapidly. “Out with what?”

“Whatever this is. Whatever’s making you miserable,” Nesta burst out. “And don’t tell me you’re fine, it’s all fine, because it obviously isn’t.” Elain’s chin wobbled, and Nesta bit down on her anger, forcing her tone to become gentle. “I want to be helpful. There’s no one here now — you can tell me.”

Elain’s eyes were welling up with tears. “You’ll keep a secret?”

“I’m keeping Feyre’s,” Nesta pointedly reminded her. “I’m sure yours can’t be as dire.”

“It might be. Or worse,” Elain whispered, brushing away a tear with the back of her hand, before remembering that she had a handkerchief in the little bag she always wore on a delicate belt around her waist.

“What could be worse than living in Prythian, having a faerie as your husband?” Nesta questioned, a knot of dread forming in her stomach.

“There’s a faerie at the manor. It saw me,” Elain confessed, twisting the handkerchief around in her hands so hard that Nesta thought the fabric might fray. “I distracted it long enough for it to be captured, and they chained it up, and —“

It?” Nesta interrupted.

“Him,” Elain said, flushing pink at the tips of her ears. “Graysen says faeries aren’t people, calls them things, but I don’t know, this one felt like a man to me.”

“So not a beast then,” Nesta said, recalling the hideous monster that had broken down their door, rending their table with his talons, screaming at them over the death of his wolf-friend. She wondered whether Elain had ever fully recovered her memory of that night, or if she still blamed the winter wind for their damaged door.

“No, he was handsome,” Elain said, as the pink flush spread further down her ears and across her cheeks.

Elain,” Nesta exclaimed, scandalized. “You’re married!”

Elain was nodding tearfully, twisting the handkerchief until it was hopelessly wrinkled. It was an effort for Nesta not to snatch it from her, smooth it back out, for the jealous care she took of her belongings had never totally dissipated, no matter how rich they became, what sumptuous goods Father brought home from the continent. Nesta would never forget what it was to scrounge for every copper, get into spats with her sisters over the paltry change Feyre could gather from selling pelts at the market. Feyre’s very last sale had been that wolf pelt — that faerie pelt — and it had cost them more than they could ever know.

But Elain — why was she crying? Nesta patted her shoulder awkwardly, a million questions rising up in her throat and then sputtering out before she could utter them. Finally, Elain said, in a small meek voice, “I felt pulled to where he was. Like I needed to help him. He lured me in.”

Nesta’s cheeks heated as a violent rage rose up in her, swift and fierce. “The faerie did that?”

Elain nodded, waving the handkerchief vaguely at the manor, as if pointing through the walls. “That’s what Graysen says.”

Nesta was not at all certain that Graysen would know, but she certainly wouldn’t put it past a faerie to lure her sister. They had ways. They had magic. Of course he would appear as a handsome male to Elain. Or perhaps he just glamoured her memory, as Feyre’s beast had done. Elain was sweet, innocent, susceptible — she had swallowed the story of dear Aunt Ripleigh hook, line, and sinker.

Nesta dug her fingernails into her palms so hard that she scratched the skin, a steely resolve settling in her mind. I will not let one of those blasted creatures sully my sister’s reputation, or ruin her marriage.

“Where is he,” she spat.

“Oh,” Elain stammered, “I’m not to go into that part of the manor again —“

“Not you. Me,” Nesta said icily. “I want to see him.”

“Graysen won’t like it,” Elain protested.

“Graysen doesn’t have to know. Besides,” Nesta said, “I’m doing him a favor. I’m going to get to the bottom of this, and if that faerie did tamper with you, I’ll kill him.”

“Oh, Nesta!” Elain’s tears streamed down her face freely, staining her cheeks. “Don’t say such things.”

Nesta gripped her shoulders. “You care about him.” It wasn’t a question.

Elain opened and closed her mouth several times, but couldn’t seem to provide an answer.

Nesta’s heart thundered as she looked upon her poor, sweet sister.

I might be too late to save her.

The thought made Nesta murderous.

She stormed away from Elain, balling up her hands into fists, not giving her sister a chance to protest. “I’ll be right back.”

* * * *

Lucien was jolted awake by the door banging open.

He’d had a freezing cold shower at the end of a hose, and scraps of a meat pie, before being laden down with enough iron chains to shoe a team of horses. Despite that, he’d managed to warm himself with a bit of his magic, and had even stolen a few minutes of sleep, and had thought the worst of his captivity might be over.

Until this moment.

His pulse hammered in his ears as he snapped to alertness, aware of the threat, wondering if the lord or his brat son had changed their minds and had come to finish him off.

But no, it was far worse. A human woman came storming in.

One look at her furious face told him she was a far greater threat to him than the lordling brat had been. Or the soldiers. Or possibly the ash arrow.

“Show me your true form, you cursed beast,” she spat at him, stomping right into the cell, yanking one of the chains looped around his chest forcefully enough that the other end pulled painfully tight, constricting his breathing.

“You’re — looking — at it,” he gasped out, staring with terror into those steely blue eyes. Where have I seen eyes like that before?

“Don’t try your faerie tricks on me. I can’t be glamoured,” the woman growled.

“I don’t doubt it,” Lucien stammered. “But I swear on the Cauldron, the Mother, or any being you’d care to name, I have no such power.”

She released the chain, and he slumped back against the pole, taking greedy breaths. “We don’t believe in any of those old gods.”

“On the Wall, then,” he offered. “You believe in that.”

“I felt its magic,” she admitted. “It kept me out.”

“You — tried to go into Prythian?” Lucien asked, dumbfounded. Who was this female? He’d thought Feyre the only human woman crazy enough to cross the Wall on purpose.

She nodded stiffly, drawing herself up to her full imperious height. “I was trying to save — someone I knew.”

“Ah,” he said stupidly, sensing that he shouldn’t ask, but Lucien had always been more curious than wise, so he blurted, “Perhaps I know them.”

She looked at him sharply, considering. “Do you know the name Clare Beddor?”

Oh gods. Lucien instinctively squeezed his eyes shut. That day Rhys had terrorized them all at the manor — when he’d invaded Feyre’s mind, made him and Tamlin grovel — that was the name she’d lied with. And what Amarantha had done to that poor innocent girl —

Don’t vomit.

“I’m so sorry,” he gasped.

Her shoulders slumped, ever so slightly. “She is dead, then.”

He nodded, clamping his lips together, not trusting himself to speak or to keep his meal down.

“How.”

“You might not want the details,” he said haltingly, not trusting what might happen to him if the truth angered her further.

She continued to stare at him with that unnerving stillness, and he stole a quick glance at her ears, just to be sure she wasn’t fae. “There was an evil queen, I won’t speak her name here. She mistakenly thought your Clare” — he dared not speculate on who Clare was to her — “was her romantic rival. I’m afraid none of us had the power to challenge her, as she’d stolen our magic.”

“The blight,” the woman said, mostly to herself.

Awareness prickled at the back of Lucien’s neck. Blight. That’s what Tamlin called it, when he explained it to —

“Is it over?” she barked, and he straightened at the furious tone, managing to scrape his right wrist against the sharp edge of the shackle.

But he suppressed the wince, schooled his features to look reassuring. “It’s done. She is dead. The blight is reversed now,” he promised.

She stepped forward again, and he forced himself not to shrink back, to meet that cold fury with calm determination. “Then what are you doing on this side of the Wall,” she said accusingly, “luring my sister?”

“Luring?” he burst out in disbelief. “I would never.” He looked down at his body, gesturing with his chin. “I’m covered in iron —“

“Iron does nothing, and you know it,” she seethed. “Only ash wood. And I’ll get some, and shove it in that good eye of yours, if you don’t stick to the truth.”

He mentally kicked himself for thinking she could be fooled that way. “I swear on anything you might believe in, I didn’t lure her,” he said frantically. “I don’t have that power.”

“Then why did she feel pulled to come in here?” She yanked at his chains again. “Speak.

“I don’t know,” he insisted, trying to keep the panic out of his voice. “I thought she helped me out of pity. I was dying, and she saved me.”

The woman’s eyes roved over him. “You look fine to me.”

“I had a wound from an ash arrow. Once it came out, I recovered.” He shuddered. “I hope the sight of my blood didn’t upset her.”

The woman tilted her head to one side, as if considering something. “That explains her shoes, anyway.” He had no idea what that meant, and was afraid to antagonize her any further, so he just nodded. But then she seemed to get angry again, and snarled, “And why was she limping?”

“Limping?” he exclaimed. What could have caused that? If that bastard hurt her because of me — “She was fine when she left me. She went with her husband.”

“Hmm.” The woman looked unconvinced.

“I’d never hurt her, or any innocent,” he said pleadingly.

His mechanical eye shuttered as she loomed close to him. “You won’t get that chance. You’ll stay away from her, or I’ll rip out your throat.”

He would have burst out laughing, if he hadn’t been so frightened. “I can’t go anywhere,” he said patiently, looking down at his body again, at the chains and ropes criss-crossing him. “I’m trapped here.”

“Good,” she said tightly, and stood up, turning as if to leave.

“Wait,” he called after her, suddenly worried. “Is — is Elain all right?”

“That’s not your concern.” She strode toward the door. “And don’t you say her name again.”

He tried one last time, pulling out the final card he had to play. “You have your sister’s eyes, you know.”

She froze in the doorway. And said, cold as death, “Elain’s eyes are brown.

He took a deep breath. “I meant your other sister.”

Chapter Text

Elain fidgeted nervously as she waited for Nesta, twisting the handkerchief between her fingers, craning her neck to get a better view of the back of the manor through the trees.

Ash trees.

Suddenly, she didn’t want to be in the grove anymore, didn’t want to be anywhere near these awful trees that could poison and kill. She shuddered, remembering that faerie’s pleading with her to remove the arrow, the sight of his blood, his pained cry as she ripped the bolt free.

He’d called her my savior.

No, what I am is a traitor.

She traced her steps back towards the manor, shuddering with relief once she was back in the open, then frowned at her own silliness at having such a reaction. The Nolans defended this land from the faeries, from their inhuman strength, their lethal magic. She knew that. The ash wood was vital, or they’d all end up like the Beddors, slaughtered or taken.

My faerie wouldn’t do that.

She mentally pinched herself. He’s not my faerie.

She kept walking, determined to drive the whole affair from her mind. She had tasks to attend to, dinner to order, the seamstress coming at noon, donations for the village—

She gave a little cry, and nearly lost her balance, as she slammed into a solid figure coming in the other direction.

“Oh! Beggin’ yer pardon, Missus,” her maid Daisy yelped, her rough reddened hands grabbing Elain’s before she could topple onto the muddy ground. “Clumsy, I am. Yer ‘right?”

“Fine, Daisy, thank you,” Elain said hastily, smoothing out her dress, checking her shoes to see if they’d gotten muddy — she almost hoped so, for it would cover those splatters of faerie blood that would give her little act of treachery away. “You’re out early.”

Daisy’s broad face broke into a smile, showing all her crooked teeth. “No rest for t’wicked, as they says.” She gave a little curtsey, then looked at Elain with a shrewd gleam in her eyes. “Yer sure yer ‘right, Missus?”

Elain nodded resolutely. “Other than my shoes being filthy.”

“Oh, leave ‘em out for me, I’ll have ‘em right in no time,” Daisy said brightly. “Tis no trouble.”

Elain inclined her head in thanks, then shifted from one foot to the other, finally daring to ask, “Is — Duncan all right?”

Daisy’s easy smile slid from her face, and she curtseyed again, murmuring, “Ah Missus, he’ll be right soon enough. Relieved that that fae didn’t harm yer.”

“Oh,” Elain assured her, “I’m not harmed.” She knew, deep down, that the faerie wouldn’t harm her, but didn’t know how to explain how she knew, so she only said, “I feel awful that your husband lost his position.”

“He’s a big strong’un, he’ll manage to find work,” Daisy shrugged, but her face looked pinched, worried.

Elain knew firsthand how it felt to have limited income, no resources to fall back on. And Duncan’s troubles were her fault anyway. So she said, “I’ll have my sister hire him. I’m sure the Archeron estate could use a sentry.”

Daisy startled her by grabbing her hand, clasping it in both of hers. “Oh Missus, that’d be somethin’. Honest, I don’ know what we’d do without yer.” Her eyes went watery, and Elain instinctively handed over her handkerchief. “It’s just I’m with babe again, and healers cost plenty, and — dear me, I’m babblin’.” She swiped the cloth across her face, frowning at it. “Will yer look at that, I’ve mussed up yer silk cloth.”

“Keep it,” Elain blurted. “I have others.”

Daisy looked shocked. “Oh no, Missus, such a fine thing’s only fit for a lady. Yer too kind.”

“Not at all,” Elain protested.

“Naw, Missus, we all says so,” Daisy went on. “Yer a bit ‘a gold, in a land of iron. We all of us’d do anything for yer, yer know that.”

Elain ducked her head, unable to stop the tears from welling up in her own eyes. “You don’t know what that means to me, Daisy. Truly.”

A twinge of anxiety stirred in her gut, and her head shot up towards the house. Why hadn’t Nesta returned yet? “I must find my sister,” she said apologetically, squeezing Daisy’s hand in farewell.

Then she took off, hiking up her skirts in one hand so she wouldn’t trip, and ran straight to the faerie’s cell, where she was forbidden to go.

I’m just finding Nesta. That’s all —

But she skidded to a half outside the door when she heard Nesta growl, “You’ll stay away from her, or I’ll rip out your throat.”

Elain tried to tune out the murmured conversation from through the door, cringing to hear such violent talk from her sister. From Feyre she might almost expect it — she was wild and fierce, a huntress who did slit throats, but Nesta had always been a proper lady, conscious of how ladies acted, spoke, and dressed.

Suddenly Nesta’s voice jolted her to alertness, making Elain jump back from the door. Then she pressed her ear close to it, desperate to hear what was going on. “You say one word about her, to anyone, and so help me, Fae, you’ll wish that evil queen killed you instead.”

“Your secret’s safe,” the faerie’s voice said, sounding strained. “And it’s not like that queen didn’t try. Turns out I’m hard to kill.”

“Not for me,” Nesta snarled. “Not if you endanger my family.”

“She saved me,” the faerie protested. “And I tried to return the favor. I swear, I’d never willingly put your family in danger.”

I want you nowhere near such wicked creatures. Graysen had been firm on that.

But this faerie didn’t sound very wicked at all.

Elain knew she shouldn’t go in there. Shouldn’t see the faerie again, not after what Graysen had told her. But she had to know what the secret was, and why Nesta was angry, and what evil queens had to do with it.

You swore to obey.

Elain twisted her skirts in her fingers, considering, agonizing over what to do.

Then she flung open the door.

Nesta was on the other side, breathing hard, hands clenched into fists. When she saw Elain, she grabbed her arm and yanked her inside, making sure the door shut behind them.

“Did you know?” Nesta hissed, her nails digging into the flesh of Elain’s arm.

“Know what? Nesta! What’s going on?” Elain squawked, startled as her sister dragged her away from the door, towards the faerie she’d just threatened to kill.

Elain gave up on any notion of restraint, of obeying Graysen’s wishes to stay away, of any thought that she might be lured or possessed by the faerie’s magic. She let herself look, and once she looked, she couldn’t look away.

He was so beautiful, he was almost glowing.

“Can we do anything to that door,” Nesta was saying. “It won’t lock from the inside.” Her voice was high pitched, almost frantic. Elain gaped at her in confusion. What could possibly have rattled her so?

The faerie nodded, strands of his silken red hair glinting in the light shading in from the windows, and lifted his chained hands a few inches in front of him. “I can heat up the metal in the lock and expand it. It’ll buy us a few minutes.”

“Do it,” Nesta said.

He nodded, adding. “Stand back.”

Elain stifled her shriek as a tendril of flame whipped out, curling itself around the door handle. She stared back at the faerie, heart thumping painfully in her chest.

Nesta uttered a vicious curse under her breath. Where did she learn to talk like that?

“Sorry,” the faerie said. “I forgot you’re not used to magic.”

“I will never get used to magic,” Nesta huffed, drawing herself up stiffly.

But Elain was perching delicately on the stone floor, reaching for the faerie’s hands, grimacing at the rusty iron, wondered how it didn’t hurt him more. She breathed, “How did you do that?”

Elain,” Nesta hissed, crouching next to her, swiping at her hands. “Don’t touch him!”

“They’re quite cool, I won’t burn her,” the faerie said softly, extending his hands out to her as far as he could, the chains clanking against each other with the movement. “It’s just my magic.”

Before she quite knew what she was doing, Elain ran one of her fingertips across the soft skin of each of his, examining each elegantly curved surface. No blisters, no burns. Only callouses, like soldiers had. A tingly sensation ran up her arm, and all thoughts flew out of her mind but one.

I am touching a faerie.

The tips of her ears burned as she stared at his hands, at the thought of how his skin felt beneath her fingertip —

Nesta snatched her wrist, pulling the hand away. “Focus.”

Elain gave a little gasp, stunned at how brazen she’d been to touch him, and all her anxiety about Graysen’s order flooded back. You were told to stay away, she scolded herself.

Tell her, Fae,” Nesta commanded. “And be quick.

The faerie curled his fingers back up, then let his hands fall back down with an unpleasant clunk. Then his eyes met Elain’s, the golden one clicking once as it unfurled like a flower. The other one burned with some kind of strange golden light as he said, “I have news of your sister.”

Elain let out a strangled cry, her hands flying to her mouth. “Our sister?” she exclaimed. Could it be? Prythian was a big place, she’d hardly dared to think that one measly human would draw attention, but —

“The Lady of the Spring Court,” the faerie said. “Your sister, Feyre.”

Hearing that name spoken aloud, on the lips of this faerie, was almost too much. Feyre, alive and well. It was what she had hoped for, though with every silent month that passed, she’d feared more and more. Had Feyre married her true love, after all, the one she’d gone back across the Wall for? Lady of the Spring Court? It sounded like a noble title —

Elain didn’t realize she was crying until Nesta’s arms were around her, and the faerie said in a concerned tone, “Did I upset her?”

“No, no,” she sobbed, “I’m happy.” She fumbled for her handkerchief, then remembered she’d given it to Daisy, so she wiped her face, in rather undignified fashion, on her sleeve. “I’d hoped everything was all right.” She looked to the faerie, his face blurry in her vision amid her tears. “When we didn’t hear from her, I feared the worst.”

He cleared his throat, the golden eye clicking softly. “There were some… complications.”

“Complications?” Nesta spat. “What does that mean?”

“That evil queen I told you about, the one who killed Clare,” the faerie said.

“Clare Beddor?” Elain shrieked, hastily covering her mouth to stifle the shout, misery overtaking her joy. Clare, dead? They’d feared the worst, but to hear it confirmed —

“Go on,” Nesta prodded, poking the chains on the faerie’s leg with the toe of her shoe.

“That evil queen,” the faerie went on, “trapped us all. Feyre saved us.” His normal eye glowed, and his voice became hushed, reverent. “She broke the curse upon us all.”

“Was she hurt?” Elain asked, her voice wobbling. “Was it awful?”

He nodded gravely. “She endured a great deal. Much more than anyone, human or fae, should have had to endure. She fought bravely to complete the queen’s tasks, and came out triumphant.” Then he paused, as if considering what to say next. “The queen was quite displeased.”

Elain’s heart had started to pound again as he went on, “I don’t wish to upset you, but the queen had no intention of allowing her to survive. It’s why Tamlin sent her away in the first place. He never wanted her to come back, never wanted her exposed to the queen’s cruelty.”

“The queen tried to kill her,” Nesta said flatly.

“The queen did kill her,” the faerie said, his golden eye clicking rapidly, and he closed both eyes for a moment, squeezing them shut.

It was too awful — too terrible to contemplate. How Feyre must have suffered, and if she’d been killed —

Elain didn’t know when she had started to cry, but tasted salty tears on her tongue as she said in a soft, small voice, “But you said she survived.”

He nodded, opening his eyes. His fingers stretched and clenched, and he gave his bonds an experimental tug, as if testing to see exactly how far he could move. Then he leaned back against the pole, looking at her with such intensity that she felt a little shiver go down her spine. “The High Lords each gave your sister a kernel of their life force, bringing her back.”

Elain gaped at him, having no idea such a thing was possible. She opened her mouth to ask another question, but just then loud voices filled the corridor. Graysen.

The faerie stiffened. “Your husband doesn’t want you here. I don’t want you in trouble on my account.”

Nesta pressed her lips into a thin line, her eyes narrowing. “If anyone gives her trouble, I’ll give them trouble tenfold.”

“I believe you,” the faerie said, “but I’d prefer no trouble, if we can manage it.”

Nesta inclined her head to him in agreement. It was as close to respect from Nesta as he was likely to get.

Elain stood up shakily, pulling Nesta up with her. “If we go out there now, they’ll see us,” she said worriedly.

The voices echoed more loudly, and Nesta said, “But if they come in here, they’ll see us too.”

Elain sucked in a deep breath, trying not to panic.

This was a terrible idea, coming back here.

“Blame me,” the faerie suggested. “Tell them I did something. Lured you in.”

Elain frowned at him. “They’ll kill you!”

There was a creaking noise, and she whirled around to find a small trap door had popped open in the corner of the cell, and Daisy’s round, grinning face poking through it.“Will yer be needin’ assistance, Missus?”

“Daisy,” Elain cried. “What are you doing here?”

“Thought I’d heard voices,” Daisy said cheerfully. “Thought I’d come check on yer.”

Graysen’s voice rang out just outside the door. “He’s in here. But keep your wits about you. These fae are tricky.”

“Don’t worry,” an unfamiliar male voice drawled, in answer to Graysen. “I’ve dealt with them for ages. I’ve seen it all.”

Elain shot a concerned look at the faerie. “Go. I’ll be all right,” he said, giving her a smile that made her melt a little inside, despite her anxiety.

“Where does that door go?” Nesta asked Daisy, wrinkling her nose.

Daisy’s smile didn’t waver. “To the basement, and servants’ quarters. Beggin’ yer pardon, but best be quick. I’ll show yer where to go.”Then she ducked down, out of sight, to make room for Nesta to lower herself into the entrance.

“Just a moment. The lock feels sticky,” they heard Graysen saying. “Must be all the humidity.”

Saved by that fire magic.

Elain shared one last glance with the faerie, offering him as much of a smile as she could muster, then followed her sister, pulling the trapdoor closed above her.

That was too close.

Chapter Text

Lucien collapsed back against the pole, taking steadying breaths to settle his panic. He ignored the chattering beyond the door, the clicking and jamming of the lock as metal scraped against metal, the heavy weight of the shackles around his wrists, the retreating voices underneath the floorboards as Elain and her sister slipped away, as he stared down at his fingertips, which were tingling and blazing with heat.

He hadn’t allowed himself to fully feel it, not with the harpy sister and her steely eyes scrutinizing his every breath. Hadn’t let himself react, fearing it would spook Elain, break the spell around them in that moment that she’d reached out to him. And he hadn’t wanted to think about what it might mean when his ribs squeezed and ached, and not from the stupid iron chains that could barely hold him, that he’d been weakening bit by bit.

No, what grabbed and tugged at him was far deep inside, magical, unstoppable, and it terrified him. 

Of all the cruel tricks the Cauldron had played on him, this had to top the list. That it would give his broken, battered soul to this sweet, beautiful human, so innocent and young and alive — what had she done to deserve such a fate? To put her in harm’s way, marked for death or worse from being tied to him, with his long list of enemies, was unfair beyond belief. He wasn’t even sure humans could feel magical bonds, that she’d have any notion of what it meant even if she could feel it.

Lucien wanted to laugh and cry and scream — after all these years, after all this time, after burying all his hope and faith in love along with Jesminda’s body — now he was granted a mate?

Well, at least now I know why I was drawn to this place.

He shook his head, chuckling at the ridiculousness of it all. Those foolish humans could have captured him without a single soldier, without arrows or weapons. All they had to do was dangle his mate before him, and he would apparently lose all reason. I never stood a chance.

The lock clicked loudly, and Lucien yanked his thoughts away from the trapdoor, from Elain’s honey and lavender scent still trailing from it. Idiot, get your head back in the game. You’ll be free soon if you don’t blow it.

That thought almost made him burst out laughing. He would never be free now, not for a second. He had a mate, a human mate, and she was married to a human lord, living on the wrong side of the Wall, among people who feared and hated his kind. The best he could hope for was that she’d forget him and be happy, while he watched over her from a distance.

“Finally,” Graysen huffed as the door shoved open, and his mate’s stupid husband strode into the room, trailed by another human in the uniform of — No. It couldn’t be.

Lucien sat up straighter, every muscle and nerve ending on high alert.

“What do we have here?” the new human male drawled, striding up to Lucien with a swagger that suggested he was a high commander, if not a general. What’s a human doing in that uniform?  “You weren’t joking, Nolan. You really hit the jackpot with this one.”

Graysen smiled, though his face stayed tight, as if the idea of selling rather than killing Lucien disturbed him. “Father will be pleased to hear it.”

“Stand him up,” the man said. “Shirt off. Let me see him.”

Graysen moved forward automatically, responding to the sheer dominance in the man’s tone, but then drew up short. “I’m not touching it.”

The man laughed, a sneering, gasping sound. “I forgot how superstitious you lot can be. You can handle them without cursing yourself, or whatever thing you think is going to happen.” His eyes roved over Lucien, calculating and cruel. “Though I’d be careful with this one. He’s a fireling.”

“We found that out the hard way,” Graysen said, still balking. “It burned six of my men before we could get the iron on it.”

“Hmm.” The other man strode forward, lips twisting into a sneering smile. “Is that so.” He cocked his head to the side, staring at Lucien.

Lucien stared right back at him, into those deep brown eyes, and decided to take the risk. “That’s some uniform.”

The man’s smile widened, showing too many of his teeth. “You like it?”

“No,” Lucien said.

The man laughed heartily. “Didn’t expect you would.” He turned back to Graysen, motioning impatiently. “Well? If you won’t touch him, find someone who will. My employer will want a full report on his condition.”

Graysen huffed, but strode to the doorway. “Marlow?” He took a step into the hallway. “Blast it, man, where did you run off to?”

The man turned back to Lucien. “Where’d you get that golden eye of yours?”

Lucien schooled his features to be calm, bored. “Oh, I have an inventor friend.”

“Let me guess. Dawn Court? They always did invent the craziest things,” the man said casually.

Lucien forgot to look indifferent then, but glared at the man in the bone and gray uniform, who knew far too much about Prythian for Lucien’s liking. “Do your hosts have any idea what those colors mean?” he shot back.

“Not in the slightest,” the man sneered. “But you do, I’m sure.”

“War,” Lucien said. “Slavery.”

The man nodded, smiling cruelly, tapping his fingers against the hilt of his sword, sheathed at his side, but before he could respond, Graysen was back, with the one Lucien recognized as Marlow and another bulky man he hadn’t seen before.

In a moment, their hands were hoisting Lucien up, chains clattering and clanking at his feet as they slipped down his chest to his legs, and he winced as they tore at his shirt and ripped the pieces from his body, leaving him bare chested. He gritted his teeth at being handled like chattel, but offered no resistance as they spun him around, yanking the chain holding his shackles together and fastening it to the top of the pole, stretching his arms up painfully.

A wave of revulsion rolled through Lucien, and he swallowed hard, shoving down the memories of the last time he’d been wrestled into this position. To receive his punishment for helping Feyre during the trial with the Wyrm — the evidence of which was now on full display.

The one on his left, the one who wasn’t Marlow, whistled. “Some scars yer got, faerie.”

“Peace, Tom,” Marlow hissed. “Don’t draw its curse.”

Lucien studiously examined the pole in front of him, ignoring the comments, willing his arms not to tremble. Graysen and his guest had both stepped closer, and the two servants stepped away, still arguing with each other in hushed tones whether it was or wasn’t inviting ill luck to address a faerie, even a chained one.

He squeezed his eyes shut as rough callouses — not Graysen’s, he doubted the lordling’s fingers were anything but baby-soft — poked at the longest gash on his back, which slashed from his left shoulder blade almost down to his right hip. “These are too old to be your handiwork,” the man drawled. “Still, he is damaged.”

You got that right, you fucking bastard.

“It pissed off someone,” Graysen said dryly.

“Seems to be a habit,” his guest chuckled.

“Beggin’ yer pardon, sir,” Tom interrupted, “but ’tis said them fae don’t scar. The magic heals ‘em, don’t it?”

“Indeed,” the man said. “Though magic has its limits. It can be blocked through spells and special stones. And it can’t regrow full body parts, usually.”

Lucien jolted at that. Usually. 

The man continued, “It would take an ancient and wicked magic indeed to replace limbs lost in battle, regrow skin or flesh or bone.”

Lucien’s mind was racing, trying to fit pieces of the puzzle into place, what ancient and wicked magic he could be referring to, when the man stepped closer to him, pressing his fingertips to the top of another scar. “There are stories of magical relics. Objects of power, long forgotten. It’s said that such things can wield the power of life and death itself, shatter even the strongest magic.”

The touch turned sharp, as the fingertips pinched Lucien’s skin, and he realized it was a signal to speak. “Such things are myths,” he said, keeping his tone light, even as his knees threatened to buckle as he reeled from the implications of what he was hearing.

“And thank fuck for that,” the man said, slapping Lucien on the back like they were old friends before stepping away. “Or this entire territory would be in the deepest of shit, if that Wall ever came down.”

Lucien’s hands clenched into fists, but he replied serenely, “The High Lords have no interest in the human lands.”

“Maybe they should,” the man said, “if they were smart.”

Graysen snorted. “High Lords, indeed. So noble and proper. Those beasts fancy themselves civilized, do they?”

“They do, most of them,” his guest remarked. “Without their powers, they’re no different from us. Just as vile and scheming, except for the ones who try to be brave, like your fireling here. That scarring on his face? It looks like he lost a fight with a vicious beast.”

“I did,” Lucien said.

“Beast?” Marlow asked.

The man laughed, low and cruel. “Oh, yes. The faerie lands have beasts a-plenty. Some huge and toothy, with leathery wings. And some that look like beautiful queens, with blood red nails.”

“She wasn’t beautiful,” Lucien blurted.

“She thought she was,” the man said, in a bitterly amused tone. “She believed all that flattery a certain High Lord purred in her ears. Maybe you should have tried a bit of that yourself, instead of mouthing off to her as you did.”

“Enough of this chatter, will you buy it or not?” Graysen interrupted impatiently.

“Name your price,” the man said briskly.

Graysen quoted a number of gold pieces that made both Tom and Marlow jolt to attention. But the potential buyer only smirked and proclaimed, “Done.”

Lucien had a feeling that Graysen could have doubled or tripled his number, and the price would have been accepted.

“And don’t leave him dangling there,” the man added. “They’ll want him in top condition.”

Lucien sighed with relief as Tom and Marlow strode forward again, detaching his wrists from the pole and shoving him down to a sitting position. He was relieved enough to have feeling radiating back into his hands and arms that he barely registered the men wrapping the chains back around him. But he didn’t fail to hear Tom’s muffled swearing, or Marlow muttering, “That’d buy a whole manor, that much gold.”

Once the two servants stepped back, the man in the Hybern uniform stepped forward, leaning close, and whispered, “Maybe I’ll see you soon, Lucien,” before adding more loudly, for Graysen’s benefit, “He looks a little sickly. Make sure you feed him.”

Graysen shrugged, as though he didn’t much care one way or the other if his prisoner lived long enough to be sold for any price he cared to name, but said to his servants, “See to it, boys.”

Tom and Marlow both nodded, bowing stiffly, then left the room.

“Now,” Graysen said, gesturing to the cell door, “what were you saying about the Wall coming down?”

His guest strode to the doorway, saying, “Those were ash trees out back, weren’t they? Well, you’d better…”The door clanged shut behind them, the conversation fading away with their retreating footsteps.

Alone in the cell, Lucien gave in to the shock that he’d been keeping at bay all throughout the conversation. This was the information he’d crossed the Wall to seek in the first place — what Hybern might be planning, with Amarantha gone from Prythian — but now that he was really hearing it, really processing what it meant, he felt a sick dread creeping through him.

I’ve got to get out of here. Warn Tamlin, and everyone.

Because Lucien had heard of only one magical object that could create life, that would be powerful enough to shatter the Wall. And if this human in the uniform of a Hybern commander was who he thought, Hybern already had it, and had used it successfully.

Maybe I’ll see you soon, Lucien.

“Only on the battlefield,” he muttered to himself.

Then he focused all his power on the chain links he’d been systematically weakening, heating and cooling repeatedly, and redoubled his efforts.

He couldn’t risk waiting around until the sale was completed, until Jurian — he was almost positive that’s who the human was — returned to take him away. Jurian would know iron couldn’t contain him, would undoubtedly have some of that special stone he’d mentioned to stifle Lucien’s magic.

Though he wondered, with all the hints Jurian had dropped, with how hard he’d worked to make sure Lucien figured the puzzle out, whether he planned to turn Lucien over to Hybern at all.

Can’t take that risk.

It saddened him to leave without saying goodbye, but he’d had some moments with his mate — had gotten to touch her, if only once. And if Hybern planned to shatter the Wall, attack her home, he had no time to waste. She would have to forgive him, then forget him entirely.

It would rip his heart out, but it was safer that way.

Chapter Text

“So our visitor found everything to his satisfaction?” Lord Nolan asked, as soon as they were all seated at the supper table.

“Indeed he did, Father,” Graysen said proudly. “He was most impressed with the ash grove and the retaining wall. He had a few suggestions for fortifications. I’ll discuss them with Tom and the crew in the morning. The south entrance, for instance…”

Elain’s mind began to drift as the two men discussed improvements to the estate, shoring up defenses against some looming threat, and she poked and prodded at the food despite it all being delicious. She’d had a restful afternoon after Nesta returned to her own estate, but couldn’t stop replaying the morning’s events in her mind — Clare Beddor’s death, Feyre’s battle with an evil queen, her faerie’s fingers unburnt despite his fire —

“That much gold, eh?” Lord Nolan commented, giving his son a shrewd look from the head of the table. “And he agreed to it?”

Graysen nodded, plunking his fork down in his mashed potatoes. “You were right, Father.”

“Course I was,” Lord Nolan snapped, then gazed fondly at Elain, saying in a more gentle tone, “He’s finally learning to trust his old man.”

Elain swallowed hard, then managed to say, “We are fortunate to have your wisdom, Lord Nolan.”

“Oh, psh, pretty bird! Flattery will get you everywhere,” Lord Nolan chuckled, then turned back to glare at Graysen. “Don’t know how you were so lucky to snag her, Graysen.”

Graysen scowled, so she said, with more enthusiasm than she felt, “Dear me! But I’m the lucky one.”

Graysen’s scowl melted away, and he gave her a beaming smile. It was so easy to manage his moods — it had been part of what had drawn her to the idea of marrying him. That he wouldn’t be sulky and unpleasant in company, like some other lordlings she could name. He really did mean well, even when his efforts were clumsy.

Elain’s heart squeezed a little as she remembered how she’d disobeyed him, how she’d sworn to Nesta not to reveal what she’d learned from the faerie. Sneaking around, keeping secrets — not the behavior a devoted wife should exhibit towards her husband.

“More wine, Mary,” Lord Nolan crowed, “this calls for a celebration.” The serving maid curtsied, then crossed the room to retrieve a bottle of white wine.

“That sum will be enough to purchase entry to the peerage,” Graysen said, “making our title deed official, after all these years.”

“Well, my lad, you always did have ambitions. That’s all good and proper. But with a new title comes new expenses — a proper carriage, finer jewels for the lady, cloth of gold gowns and horse-dressings and many such things,” Lord Nolan pointed out, leaning to the side to give the serving maid access to his wine glass. “How might we pay for it all? Have you got more faeries ready for market?”

“Faeries?” Elain exclaimed, more vehemently than she’d intended. What does that mean, ready for market?

Lord Nolan patted her hand, mistaking her alarm for fear. “Don’t worry yourself, little bird. You’ll come to no harm from those faeries. We’ll protect you.”

“Oh, thank you, my Lord. Forgive my ignorance, but what does it all mean, about the market?” Elain asked, as Mary swept around toward her, filling her goblet. “Thank you, Mary.”

Mary smiled and curtsied to her.

“Don’t address the staff at table,” Graysen said gruffly. “It’s above their station.”

Mary’s smile slipped, but she discreetly melted back from the table. Elain gave her a sympathetic look, her cheeks flushing with embarrassment — whether at her own lack of proper decorum, or Graysen’s rudeness, she wasn’t sure.

“You know we caught a faerie in the village, I presume,” Lord Nolan said, ignoring the interruption. “Well, apparently the mortal queens on the continent are interested buyers.”

“Buyers!” Elain burst out, then pinched herself under the table. Don’t act so concerned, they’ll suspect something. “Buyers?” she asked, more calmly, but couldn’t quite manage to sound disinterested.

Someone’s going to buy that faerie? Own him?

Her fists clenched under the table as she fought the wave of outrage and revulsion that flooded through her. And fear — fear for what they might do to that faerie, how they might harm him, or  even kill him. He’d be in chains forever, never to see his home again, never to be free.

“Well, faeries may be dangerous, but they’re also valuable,” Lord Nolan said reasonably. “Maybe it’ll be put to work, or studied, or dissected —“

Elain fought to keep from throwing up her dinner at that suggestion.

Graysen must have seen her discomfort, for he said, “Father, don’t upset her.” He reached across the table, extending his hand to Elain, and she took it and squeezed it. “It’s no more than the faeries have done to humans, you know. We’re just returning the favor,” he went on, stroking her hand with his fingers, which felt cold and lifeless against her skin. She resisted the urge to pull her hand away.

“But we’re better than that, aren’t we?” she said calmly. “We’re not like those evil creatures.”

“Indeed we are not,” Lord Nolan agreed heartily. “But in this case, it’s necessary. To win the war that’s brewing, we’ve got to know our enemy, inside and out. Take every advantage. We owe it to our people. If we don’t do everything we can to protect them, we’re neglecting our duty.”

But this faerie isn’t the enemy.

Elain knew it, as surely as she knew her sister Feyre was not the enemy. And if Feyre trusted this faerie, if they’d protected each other against that evil queen —

I can’t let this happen.

Elain’s resolve slammed into place, making her want to jump from the table, rush down to the faerie’s cell and fling the door open, rip off every rope and chain on him, set him free. The thought of him fleeing back over the Wall, to her sister and to safety, both comforted and pained her. She would never see him again, might never even learn his name. But if it was a choice between that and suffering and death, it was no choice at all.

Her nails dug into her palms as she realized how much he’d already suffered, how badly they’d treated him, and under her roof. She’d let it happen. Her cheeks heated, shame coursing through her.

Graysen said softly, “Dear heart, don’t rile yourself. Don’t concern yourself with these things.” She nodded, unable to form any words that would make any sense to the men at the table, and he went on, “Let’s talk of something happier. Was the seamstress’s fabric selection to your satisfaction?”

Elain closed her eyes to prevent tears from rushing out. Who cared about new dresses at such a moment? She had dresses aplenty. If they were going to buy her new things with their ill-gotten gold, selling her faerie to those evil queens, she wanted no part of it.

She said, “Oh, they were all lovely. But I’ve got beautiful gowns already. It’s far too generous.”

“Nonsense, little bird, your beauty represents us,” Lord Nolan said around a mouthful of roast chicken. “All your gowns are from last season. The Miss Carlisles have a new frock for every ball. We’ll look poor if you’re forced to repeat. You wouldn’t want to shame poor Graysen.”

Elain nodded, as if the whole thing weren’t ridiculous, then said hopefully, “The gold from the faerie sale” — even those two words in the same sentence made her stomach clench — “that wouldn’t pay for my wardrobe, would it? I’d rather it didn’t.”

“Don’t be silly, money’s money,” Graysen said, with some irritation.

But Lord Nolan’s eyes crinkled at the corners as he beheld Elain. “What would you have it spent on?” he asked.

Elain gulped. Nothing. Don’t sell him.

But she sensed that she had backed herself into a corner. If she protested too strongly, sounded too much like a faerie sympathizer, she would put herself under suspicion. And if she wanted to sneak through the servant halls that Daisy had shown her, into the faerie’s cell, and actually free him — 

She straightened, deciding to play along. “I thought we could hire a healer for the manor. For the staff, since healers are expensive.”

“What a lovely thought,” said Lord Nolan, though his tone was patronizing, like he was praising a child’s first messy attempts at artwork. “But I’m afraid such a long term expense won’t be possible.”

“Bonuses for the staff, then,” Elain suggested.

“They’re paid market rate,” Graysen grumbled. “Don’t give them notions, or they’ll never stop demanding more.”

“Son, don’t quash her giving spirit,” Lord Nolan scolded him. “Let her have her fancies, however impractical.”

Elain took a big gulp of wine from her goblet to avoid the impulse to say something impolite.

Now I won’t feel guilty for going against their wishes.

She smiled brightly at Lord Nolan, turning on the charm. “I thank you, Sir. I know I’m just a woman, and not a lady born, but to have my ideas considered is flattering.”

Lord Nolan smiled indulgently. “Well said, little sparrow.” He sat back from the table, patting his belly. “Well! That was delicious. Shall we adjourn?”

He rose from the table, and Elain rose as well, though she’d barely touched her dinner. She followed Lord Nolan out into the drawing room, plastering a smile on her face, silently formulating her plan.

Tonight.

* * * *

“Yer jokin’, Marlow. Yer pullin’ our legs,” Daisy said accusingly, waving her fork in the air. “That much gold don’t exist in the whole of the territory.”

“’Tis no joke,” Marlow retorted, sounding offended. “Tom heard it too. The master’s goin’ta be swimmin’ in it.”

Tom shook his head, pushing his half-eaten meal aside. “That poor thing’s back,” he said gravely. “Those scars.”

“Don’t sympathize,” Marlow snapped. “’Tis a faerie, not a man.”

“Who’s sympathizin’?” Tom shot back. “Just sayin’, I knows a bad whippin’ when I sees one.”

“Must’ve been deserved. They’re wicked creatures,” Marlow insisted. “They’d do the same to us, sure as shootin’.”

“Not that’un, I reckon,” Daisy said, pouring herself a glass of wine from the opened bottle. Mary had brought it down as soon as the supper was concluded, since Lord Nolan preferred fresh unopened bottles at each meal. The staff always hoped it was a light night for drinking, so there’d be more to pass around.

Mary swept back in, her face pinched and tight, as it often was after spending the evening waiting on the lord at table. “Save some for the rest of us, willya,” she groaned, sinking into a chair. “I’m spent.”

Daisy passed her the goblet she’d poured for herself, then reached for a fresh glass, deciding to go for water instead of wine, after all, considering her condition. “What’s the news, then?”

Mary rolled her eyes. “The lordling wants to buy his way into the peerage.”

One of the older women started cackling. Daisy turned around, eyes shooting daggers at the clump of them, all clustered around their card game. “What’s funny?”

“Oh,” the woman chortled, “the pretension, that’s all. Ever since the Carlisles deigned to visit, they’ve put on airs.”

“And what wouldya know of it, Cathy?” Tom scoffed.

“My family lost its fortune, you may recall,” Cathy said patiently, no hint of bitterness in her tone despite her loss in status. “I wasn’t always a scullery maid.”

“Ain’t nawt wrong wit’ scullery maids,” Daisy said mildly, though by rights she should have been insulted. But she was sensible enough to know her place, had long been used to the way others viewed her. Just because the lady of the manor spoke familiarly to her, didn’t shy away from clasping her rough hands, didn’t mean she should get delusions of grandeur.

“I didn’t mean offense, dearie,” Cathy said, flipping her hand of cards down onto the table. “Just pointing out that the Nolans are no more noble than any of us.”

Mary pouted. “You wouldn’t know it from that lordling’s airs. I hope his wife stays sweet, despite it.” She took a long sip from the goblet, then said, “You’ll never guess her idea for the fae-gold.” When they all leaned in, waiting impatiently, she went on. “Hiring a healer. For us.

Daisy’s cheeks heated, remembering the secret she’d let slip earlier in the day. She’d mentioned in passing how expensive healers were, and — “She’s too precious,” Daisy exclaimed, clasping her chest as if she could give the lady a hug through her thoughts.

Tom looked up hopefully from his dinner. “Yer think I could get my bum leg looked at?”

Mary shook her head. “Don’t get your hopes up, Lord Nolan called the idea impractical.”

Daisy grumbled, “Our health is impractical, is’t?”

“Hush, woman! Yer not runnin’ the manor, yer donnow what it all costs,” Marlow said indignantly. Always defending that lordling and his kin, no matter what.

“I ran a household once, I know exactly what everything costs,” spoke up Cathy, abandoning the game to settle down at the communal table, swiping a leftover leg of chicken from the serving platter. “And with what they spend on nonsense around here, they could easily afford a healer.”

“That’s just what Mrs. Nolan said, not in those words, of course,” Mary said sagely, swishing the wine around in her goblet. “She didn’t want new gowns or any of it. When they said no to the healer, she suggested bonuses for the staff.”

Even Marlow had to smile at that. “She’s a treasure, that’un.”

“It’s a surprise, what with the mother she had,” Cathy mused. “My sister Ida was their housekeeper, when the daughters were coming up, before they fell on hard times. They were all of them raised to be haughty, spoiled things. It’s a wonder our lady’s so sweet-tempered.”

“Duncan says the lady Nesta’s a good’un,” Daisy put in. “Haughty, aye, an’uptight. But fair.”

“He’s been there a day, give it time,” Cathy snorted.

“What of the third’un?” another of the card players asked. “Ain’t seen her in ages.”

“Aye, the faerie child,” Cathy said. “A wild one, she was.”

Daisy gasped. “Foul slander! Our Elain’s not part o’no faerie family.”

Cathy chuckled, unconcerned with the outraged glares she was getting from several of the staff milling about the parlor. “You’re all too much. There’s faeries, and there’s faeries, you know. Don’t mistake my meaning, the Archerons don’t have fae blood, except from way back before the Wall, as probably we all do.”

If Daisy had had a god to pray to, she would have uttered a heartfelt prayer that she had no faerie blood. Such halflings had long been killed, or worse, for that misfortune.

But Tom said, “There’s old stories me mum used t’tell. They wasn’t all wicked, I suppose.”

Cathy nodded vigorously. “Take our faerie, for instance. He’s never done us harm.”

Marlow almost choked on his dinner. “You shoulda seen him fight. ’Twas terrifyin’. He burned and tossed us off like we was nothin’.”

“He stopped when he saw the lady Elain,” Tom reminded him. “He wouldna harm her.” He tapped his fork against his plate, contemplating. “If he were man, he’d be a decent enough feller. One of us.”

“No, he’s posh,” Marlow insisted. “Didya see them prissy clothes? An’ his talk is lord-like.”

“Well, I heard him talkin’ t’the lady Nesta,” Daisy spoke up. She decided not to mention that Elain had been in there too — no point in spreading that around. What the lady chose to do was her own business, and Daisy wouldn’t betray that confidence no matter what. “Tellin’ her to blame him if any harm befell her. He’s gentlemanly.”

“Snoop,” Marlow said, rolling his eyes. “Yer can’t trust’em, even the fair’uns. Specially the fair’uns. They aim to deceive.”

“What’d a faerie ever do to you?” Cathy asked him.

Marlow glared at her. “I once worked for the Beddors.”

The room lapsed into silence, and they all bowed their heads, acknowledging the atrocity.

Marlow pushed back from the chair. “They never did nothin’ to no one, y’understand. Never tangled with no faeries, yet they was slaughtered. All of ‘em, exceptin’ dear Clare. None know what’s become o’her, but I can guess.” He balled his hands up into fists. “I’ve a mind to go up there now, punch that faerie bloody. One fistful for each victim they killed.”

“Now Marlow,” Tom began.

“Don’t Marlow me,” Marlow growled at him. “Them faeries are killers. Nawt’ll change my mind. It’ll come to ruin if they don’t kill him, while he’s restrained for them to do it.” He paced back and forth, as if deep in thought, then said, “I’m goin’ up there, t’make sure he ain’t up to no tricks.”

Daisy looked around the room, curious about the others’ reactions. Many of them looked uncomfortable, a few outright disdainful of the idea. When she met Cathy’s eyes, the older woman looked downright alarmed.

So Daisy said, “’Tis dangerous to go alone.”

“Indeed. Take Tom with you,” Cathy suggested, shooting the other man a meaningful look.

Tom nodded solemnly and stood. “Aye, lad. I’ll support yer.”

Marlow gave him a suspicious once-over, then sighed. “All right.”

Daisy watched the two men tromp out of the room, her anxiety growing.

And then her heart almost stopped beating altogether, as her lady Elain descended into the parlor.

Chapter Text

A bit more. Just a little bit more.

Lucien gritted his teeth, drawing deeply on his well of magic, mustering up every last drop to channel into the two chain links he’d been weakening. He knew that he had to hold a bit of power back, keep it in reserve for winnowing or, Cauldron forbid, fighting his way out of the compound, but as the evening wore on, he was getting increasingly nervous.

This entire territory would be in the deepest of shit, if that Wall ever came down.

The thought of Hybern soldiers, of the Attor, swooping down on this land, terrorizing these people, his mate

He shuddered, and kept working.

The last chain slipped, clinking far too loudly for his liking, and he slumped against the pole, relieved as hell to only have the ropes to deal with. They were thick, but flammable, and he hoped that the burning smell wouldn’t attract attention. Better wait on that until I’m ready to move.

He took a few panting breaths, willing himself to be calm and logical, to rest one last time while his magic replenished. Panicking was what had gotten him captured in the first place — he couldn’t afford any more mistakes like that. Even if he’d achieved his goal in the end.

You won’t get that lucky twice.

As if in confirmation that his luck had indeed run out, the cell door burst open, and the two burly servants from earlier came trundling in.

He should have expected that someone would come to check on him. He would have thought that someone would be stationed inside the cell with him, except that they all hated and feared faeries to the point where they feared being cursed just by speaking to him. But for enough gold, even that superstition had to give way. Humans are practical creatures.

“Good evening,” Lucien said, thanking the Mother that the chains were still loosely draped around him, that the ropes were all in place, that nothing would seem amiss to their dulled human senses.

But he saw the fury radiating from every pore of the smaller man’s face, and the worry and confusion on the other’s, and quickly realized this was not a sanctioned visit.

“Tom, is it? And Marlow,” he said, inclining his head respectfully. “To what do I owe this pleasure?”

“Get my name out yer fuckin’ mouth, fae,” Marlow spat, storming right up to him and gripping a mass of Lucien’s hair in his meaty hand. “I’ve got a score to settle wit’ yer.”

“Marlow,” Tom said nervously, tugging on his shoulder. “Yer heard what was said, we’re not t’damage him. The sale, all tha’ gold —”

Marlow snarled, “You and I ain’t seein’ that gold anyhow.” He leaned in close to Lucien, eyes narrowing, face reddening the longer he looked. “Gi’ me one good reason I shouldn’ slit yer throat.”

Lucien gaped up at him, struggling to concentrate through the pain shooting across his scalp, but managed, “Tell me what I’ve done wrong, and I’ll make it right.”

Make it right, d’ja hear that,” Marlow exclaimed. “Yer can’t, ‘less your magic can summon the dead back to life, like that feller said.”

“I’m afraid not,” Lucien said, trying to keep his tone steady, not panicked, and clenched his jaw as Marlow yanked him again. “Who did — you — lose?” he gasped out, squeezing his eyes shut, certain that he was going to be partially bald if this kept up much longer.

“Who didn’ I, more like,” Marlow growled. “Yer animals an’ monsters, the lot o’ya. A full manor’s worth o’folk been slaughtered, all ‘cept one, and she was taken.”

Lucien thought frantically, searching for an angle that wouldn’t instantly drive Marlow to murder, and said, “I know of that tragedy. The same bitch that ordered that raid caused my scars.”

Marlow’s hand loosened, though he didn’t release his grip entirely. “Wha’ bitch migh’ that be?” he asked, adding, “Din’ know your type could cuss.”

“Oh, when it comes to that bitch, I’ll swear like a sailor,” Lucien declared. “That fucking queen ripped my eye out when I told her to go back to her shit hole.” He laughed bitterly. “Turns out queens don’t like being disrespected like that.”

Marlow’s lips twitched.

Tom said, “Ain’t got a queen in these lands. They’re nawt but trouble.”

“You’re lucky,” Lucien told him. “We didn’t appreciate having one, either. She stole all our powers, imprisoned us in her underground palace.”

“And t’ scars on yer back? I s’pose yer goin’ta claim that was her as well?” Marlow asked.

“Oh yes. My punishment. I gave information to her enemy, sabotaged one of her plans,” Lucien explained, not suppressing his grimace. “She wanted me killed outright, but a powerful friend begged for my life. The twenty lashes was a compromise.”

“Twenty? Yer lucky yer survived,” Tom said.

Lucien shuddered with the memory. “It was… unfortunate.”

Unfortunate didn’t begin to cover it. For while he’d been laid low, raw from his injuries and out of his mind from pain, Feyre had been suffering in her cell, needing his help, and Rhys had taken the opportunity to prey upon her. Yet another time I failed to protect a vulnerable female when she really needed me. He hadn’t had the heart to tell Feyre’s sisters about that.

But he refocused on the humans, on their wary expressions, and shoved his self-reproach away for another time. “What I went through is nothing compared to what you’ve lost,” he said, and meant it. An entire manor of innocents, men and women and children, cruelly slaughtered with no warning — no wonder the people in these parts despised all faeries.  “I’m sorry, Marlow. The Beddors didn’t deserve it.”

“No, they fuckin’ dint,” Marlow hissed, finally letting go of Lucien’s hair, and he took a few bracing breaths as the pain subsided. Marlow was breathing hard as well, but asked with a low snarl, “Where’s this queen now?”

“Dead,” Lucien assured him, “though some of her monsters got away.That’s what I was doing here in the first place. Tracking them down, finding out what their masters were plotting. There’s a king that rules them from across the sea, who’s got plans of his own.”

“Plans for our territory?” Tom said with alarm.

Lucien nodded gravely. “Keep those ash arrows handy. You’re likely to need them.”

Marlow took a tentative step back, then said to Tom, “D’ya reckon he’s lyin’?”

“Faeries can’t lie,” Tom said solemnly.

Lucien recalled Feyre having the same absurd belief, which he’d teasingly corrected. He decided not to speak up this time, out of self-preservation, carefully keeping his face neutral under their scrutiny.

Marlow asked, “What did yer queen want with the Beddors? Why them?”

Lucien thought frantically. He couldn’t explain the convoluted story of Tamlin’s curse to these folks if he tried. He certainly wasn’t about to reveal that Feyre had blurted out Clare’s name, not realizing the horrors that would be unleashed as a result of it.

But he was spared from having to come up with a suitable response, for at that moment, the trap door in the corner of the room creaked open, and Tom let out a low string of curses.

Lucien’s ribs began to ache, the mating bond pulling painfully tight, and he sucked in a sharp breath as Elain’s face poked out.

What the hell is she doing here?

“Quick, the cell door,” Lucien gasped out.

Tom gaped at him, uncomprehending, but Marlow caught his meaning, rushing to the cell door and firmly shutting it. Then Lucien sent his fire into it, expanding the metal lock as he’d done that morning, earning shocked looks from both men.

“You’ve had yer magic this whole time?” Tom burst out.

“Yer coulda murdered us,” Marlow muttered in disbelief. “An’ with all that iron on!”

“It doesn’t work on faeries,” Lucien told him. “Remember that, if you encounter my kind again.”

Marlow was open-mouthed, as if in shock. “Why th’ hell are yer tellin’ us?”

“Because,” Lucien said impatiently, “you’re decent enough folk. I don’t want your deaths on my conscience.”

Elain was out of the passageway and into the cell now, rushing toward him with a grim, determined expression on her face. If Lucien hadn’t already been on the floor, his knees would have given out at the sight of it.

“I won’t let this happen,” she burst out, “it’s all wrong. It’s shameful.” And she flung herself forward, landing on her knees next to him, so close that he could feel the warmth of her and breathe her scent deeply into his memory, and she was yanking at the ropes, like she could rip them apart with her delicate fingers.

“Please,” he gasped, recovering his voice and most of his wits, “you must go. You’ll be in danger if you’re discovered.”

“You’re in danger now,” she snapped, tugging at the ropes, and despite his terror, despite wishing she hadn’t risked coming back, he couldn’t take his eyes off Elain, off her beautiful pale face streaked with tears, and his heart squeezed to think that his stupid situation had caused her distress.

“Don’t,” he begged. “I’ll be all right.”

“You won’t. They’ve sold you,” she wailed.

Lucien wanted to assure her that he had already broken his chains, that he had a plan, that he really would be all right. But he couldn’t say more, not in front of Tom and Marlow, who were still hovering, watching, silent and wary.

So he tore his gaze from her, and looked to the two men, saying, “When I’m gone, promise me you’ll keep her secrets. Promise me you’ll protect her.”

To his relief, both nodded without hesitation. 

“Here’s what’s going to happen,” Lucien said, trying to sound confident and easy, though his heart was breaking, and the bond was roiling inside him, urging him toward his mate. “You’ll escort the lady back to her room. Forget you saw her in here. Forget you were in here at all.”

Tom and Marlow both nodded again, but Elain said, “First, free the faerie.”

“Don’t trouble yourselves,” Lucien said quickly, when he saw how the men were hesitating. They can only be pushed so far. “I’ll escape on my own.”

The cell door banged, loudly. “Shit, it’s stuck again,” he heard someone swear, and then banging and rattling started in earnest. “Elain? Can you hear me? We’re coming to save you, sweetheart, just hold on!”

Elain’s face went even paler, and she threw an anxious look toward the door. “It’s my husband.”

“Damn it to hell,” Marlow spat out, then looked askance at Elain. “Beggin’ yer pardon, lady.”

“Go,” Lucien urged them. “To the trap door. All of you.”

“I’m not leaving you here,” Elain insisted.

“But you must,” Lucien protested, increasingly frantic.

“Untie him,” Elain ordered the two servants. “Now.

No,” Lucien hissed, “leave me. Get her to safety.”

Marlow and Tom exchanged another look, and Lucien’s stomach twisted. It was too much to ask, too risky to put the servants in this position. It was one thing for them to tolerate faeries, quite another to actively aid his escape. If they turned on Elain, he’d have to fight them, possibly kill them, and —

“We don’ answer to you, fae,” Tom said gravely. “The lady gave us an order. Ain’t that right, Marlow.”

Marlow stood with his fists clenched, stock-still, face reddening, at war with himself over what to do. But he drew himself up and said, “Quite right, Tom.”

Elain smiled sweetly at them, despite her tears. “I knew I could count on you.”

Lucien had no intention of waiting around while they fumbled with the ropes. “All of you, stand back. I’m going to burn them,” he announced. And he closed his eyes, focusing on applying the heat precisely to the weakest strands, coaxing the fire to stay in place, fraying each rope just enough that he could shove out of them.

Tom cursed, and Marlow took another step back, while Elain just stared at him. Mother above, I hope I haven’t scared her.

Lucien leaped up, the burnt ropes and broken chains clattering into a pile around his feet, then reached down and clasped Elain’s hands, pulling her up to her feet as well. It was an effort to wrench his hands away, once they were holding her, but he forced his fingers to open, forced himself to step away.

“What’s going on in there?” Graysen shouted. “Something’s burning. Open this door!”

Marlow’s head whipped toward the door. “If he finds us —“

“Go, Marlow, you’ve done enough,” Elain said gratefully. “You too, Tom. I don’t want either of you taking the blame.” When they balked, she added, “I won’t have you end up like Duncan. Go.

The two men exchanged uneasy looks, but nodded, scrambling to the trap door exit, Tom first, wincing and cursing, and Marlow, white and stricken, behind him.

“You too,” Lucien urged her.

“I know you’ve got her, vile beast,” Graysen howled, from the other side of the door. “If you’ve bewitched or tainted her, I’m going to make your death extra slow. I’m going to make those scars on your back seem like paper cuts—”

Tainted?” Lucien asked, ignoring the stream of cursing and threats that was still coming through the door, wishing he had magic that could block out sound.

Elain made a sour face. “They believe such awful things.”

Lucien felt ready to jump out of his skin. “What would he do if he thought you were tainted?”

She frowned anxiously. “I don’t know.”

A murderous rage began to coil inside him. “Would he hurt you?”

Her eyes grew wide, as if she were considering the possibility for the first time, and she said in a small voice, “Perhaps.”

Lucien’s heart began to pound.

“Do you have someplace safe you can go,” he said urgently, gripping her shoulders. “Name it, and I’ll take you there.”

Her chin wobbled, but she said, “How?”

“I can winnow us,” he said quickly. “It’s sort of like disappearing from one place and appearing in another.”

“You can do that?” she said wonderingly, her voice soft and small. “I can’t stay here, not for one more second. Even if he doesn’t plan to hurt me. He was going to sell you.” Her jaw tightened. “I can’t be with someone like that.”

Lucien’s heart squeezed at that, at how sweet and caring she was, even to a faerie. But there was no time to think about it, not with the door rattling and banging like the men outside were trying to tear it off its hinges. So he said, “Where do you want to go? Nesta’s estate? You’ll have to show me the way once we’re in the village —“

“Not to Nesta, I don’t want Graysen bothering her about me,” Elain said quickly. “I can’t go anywhere he could follow.” She was quiet for a moment, then said, “Take me to Feyre.”

“You want to cross the Wall?” His fingers tightened on her shoulders, his whole body screaming yes, take her home. But he forced himself to focus. What he wanted didn’t matter, as long as she was safe. Did she understand what she was asking him?

She nodded, tears starting to flow again. “Graysen can’t get to me there. And I want to see my sister.”

“You’re certain,” Lucien said, incredulous, hardly daring to hope. “You mean it?”

The lock clicked in the door.

“Nock your arrows,” Graysen barked. “We’ll only get one shot at him.”

Elain grabbed his forearms, nails digging in. “Do it.”

Lucien yanked Elain up against him, banding his arms around her, shielding her from the door.

“Hold on tight,” he murmured, and then winnowed.

Chapter Text

Elain squeezed her eyes shut, feeling the ground drop out from under her feet, and she flung her arms around the faerie’s neck, clinging to him, frightened she’d be swept far away or plummet to the ground, dashing herself to bits. But his arms surrounded her, steadying and warm, and then her feet landed gently underneath her again.

It was all she could do to stand in place, not topple or sway, and she took breaths, and more breaths, every muscle tensed and trembling. I’m on the ground. I’m safe.

“That was too fast,” the faerie fretted, pulling back to peer at her, then clasping her elbow, guiding her to sit on a fallen-down log. She glanced around, realizing they were in a wooded glen, far from anywhere she recognized, and she felt strangely exhilarated and overwhelmed and exhausted all at once, even as the faerie added, “I’m sorry I had to do that.”

“Do what?” she asked, staring up at him, flushing as she got her first proper look at the faerie since he’d been captured and chained.

She’d forgotten how handsome and tall and muscular he was — even more obvious now, since he was somehow shirtless — and how he seemed to radiate with fire and magic.  His red hair seemed alive with flame, his skin golden brown and glinting with light of its own, but it was his eyes that held her attention — one of smoldering russet, one of sparkling gold, fixed steadily on her.

The faerie took a step closer, and the reality of him, of being in the woods alone with him, washed over her. She’d asked him to take her away, but now the magnitude of that decision became clear. For some reason that she couldn’t understand, she trusted this faerie, felt safe with him, but she’d loved and trusted Graysen too. And look how that turned out.

No one knew where she was, or would be able to fetch her. And what chance did any number of humans have against such a powerful creature, much less one woman, alone? What if she’d been wrong, and she was in danger, after all?

The faerie slid gracefully towards the ground, bending over to re-tie his bootlace, and her anxiety melted away, replaced by a keen curiosity, and an unaccountable urge to reach for his hand, pull him up to sit next to her instead of kneeling on the floor. What’s gotten into me?

“Usually winnowing is a little less startling,” he said apologetically, keeping his eyes averted from her. He hadn’t hesitated to sweep her close to him when he’d whisked them away — winnowed, he’d called it — but now that the emergency was over, he seemed more reserved, even nervous.

And Graysen thought the faerie had lured her, tainted her somehow? He’d been nothing but a gentleman. Graysen had been the scary one, threatening to torture and kill her faerie, all under the guise of saving her.

She took a sharp breath, wishing the faerie were a bit closer, wanting a hint of his warmth in the chill night air, and he said without looking up, “I’d offer you my cloak, but I’m not wearing one.”

She giggled, despite herself. “What happened to your shirt?” Then she blushed, realizing she’d pressed herself against his bare skin. She should have found it scandalous, terribly improper, but found she couldn’t be bothered to care. Maybe it’s different rules among faeries. 

His face tilted up to hers, lips curling with wry amusement. “Your husband wanted to show me off to my buyer.”

Hot rage flooded through her, and she wanted to demand that he take her back to the manor so she could find Graysen and slap him for his vile behavior. “I can’t believe he did that to you,” she exclaimed.

But the faerie waved a dismissive hand. “Don’t trouble yourself. Please. I’ve had far worse done to me than that.”

Elain’s heart squeezed at that. She recalled the evil queen, the curse that kept the faeries trapped, but she sensed that these woods were not the place to ask. She stared at the faerie, thinking about how strong he must be to bear all that danger and sorrow, and not go mad.

He switched to his other bootlace, his fingers deftly unraveling and then re-threading the cord, and continued to peer up at her as he asked, “And you? Are you all right?”

She took a shuddering breath. “I’m furious, and ashamed of how you were treated. But I’m all right. And,” she added, looking around the forest, “I’d like to know where I am.”

“This is the entrance to Prythian,” he said, gesturing with one arm, lean the other across his leg. “One of them, anyway. The closest one to your home. The Wall is here, but you won’t see it. You may feel it, if you cross through.”

If? Elain gazed around her, then down at the faerie still crouching in front of her, as if trying to make himself small. Trying not to spook me, perhaps.

“You can still go to Nesta’s, if you’d rather,” he said casually, though there was an edge to his tone, something that told her he did have a preference. “Or anywhere else. You can change your mind at any point, of course. But crossing the Wall does complicate a journey.”

“No,” she said firmly, “I won’t change my mind.” Then a new thought occurred to her. “Unless you don’t want to take me?”

He made a strangled noise, then cleared his throat.“What I want doesn’t matter,” he said resolutely. “Whether you stay in Prythian for a minute, a day, a year, or forever, is entirely up to you.”

“But do you think I’ll be safe there?” she asked, shivering a bit, not entirely from the chill. She knew the tales of the dangers to mortals, how none who entered ever came back. Somehow it hadn’t seemed to matter, back in the faerie’s cell. All she’d cared about was getting those ropes off him, getting him away before that buyer could come take him away.

“I’ll make sure of it,” he swore. “No one and nothing will harm you, as long as I draw breath.”

Elain felt tingly and warm at that, and she stood up, tugging the faerie’s hand, suddenly eager to get moving. There was a whole world beyond the Wall, a secret life she’d only glimpsed in fearful whispers and half-told tales of ancient times, and her sister was there, and her faerie would protect her. “Then we should go.”

He looked up at her, his russet eye sparkling, then curled his fingers around hers, and rose to his full height. “Let me give you something first.”

She looked up at him, crinkling her brow. “What’s that?”

His smile was radiant, eyes sparkling with amusement. “My name.”

“Oh,” she said, blushing. In her mind, she’d been calling him that faerie or my faerie all this time, but of course Prythian was full of faeries, and he had a real name. 

“It’s Lucien,” he said. “Now you can call for me, or curse me, as you please,” he added teasingly. She scowled at that, coaxing a chuckle from him.

Lucien. She rolled his name around in her mind. Lucien, Lucien.

“Just Lucien?” she asked. “Do faeries not have last names?”

“I’m quite notorious, I hardly need one,” he said, with that teasing smile, but an edge of bitterness had crept in, too. “I don’t use my family name. It’s… a story for another time.”

She nodded, saying, “I’m Elain. No last name for me, either.” She wasn’t about to call herself Elain Nolan, not after tonight.

I just gave my name to a faerie.

The old stories were clear in their warnings. One was never to give one’s name to a faerie. But she’d gone and done it anyway, without hesitation, just like everything she’d done when it came to her faerie — to Lucien, she reminded herself, he’s got a name, and he isn’t yours — tossing away every sense of propriety and discretion. When had she become so reckless?

Still, Elain reasoned, he must have known her name already, had heard it spoken at the manor. And Feyre must have told him something of her sisters, which was why he’d known Nesta’s name as well.

He inclined his head gallantly. “Now that we’ve been properly introduced, shall I show you the way to the Wall?”

Elain nodded, every nerve settling inside her as he twined her hand around his arm, as though he were leading her out onto the dance floor rather than to the barrier between realms, and she took one steady step, and then another.

“Just here,” Lucien murmured, “can you feel it?”

Elain closed her eyes, and concentrated. A faint scent of metal infiltrated her nose, and a vague sense of a solid mass pushing against her, but then she looked at Lucien, and he was clenching his jaw, his shoulders stiff, his whole body tense, like it was paining him.

“It’s hurting you,” she gasped.

“It feels like it’s grabbing me, trying to dig in its claws,” he murmured, his voice rough. “I can taste its awful magic on my tongue.”

Elain’s hand tightened around his arm. “Then we’d better hurry.”

“Take your — time,” he gritted out. “Think it over —“

But Elain was done thinking. She wasn’t going to stand here, frozen in the moonlight like a startled deer, while the Wall grabbed and clawed at him. She strode forward, tugging a startled Lucien with her, and the Wall gave way for her.

So this is Prythian.

It seemed to beckon to her, speak to her — hello, lovely fawn, you’ve arrived, welcome home.

Once they passed through the barrier, some invisible magic seemed to propel them forward, and Lucien’s hands shot out to steady her before she could tumble. She turned to look at him, smiling tentatively. “Better?”

“Much,” he gasped.

Elain nodded, and took her first look at her new surroundings, at Prythian stretched out before her. She couldn’t see that it looked much different than the lands she’d called home, but the air was warmer, the breeze more gentle, and she wondered if the colors would be brighter in daylight, if the sun itself might shine differently.

“Now we walk?” she asked.

“Now we winnow,” he said, quickly adding, “I’ll try not to scare you this time.”

Elain took in a deep breath, letting Prythian’s sweet air settle into her lungs, then looked up at him, seeing his concern and — was that guilt? She wondered at that. He’d only rushed them away because of her stupid husband, telling his men to prepare their ash arrows, threatening him with awful tortures.

She assured him, “I’ll be fine.”

She stood stiffly, waiting, wondering if he would draw close, fold her in his arms again, press her against his bare chest — don’t think about his bare chest — but he just said, “Here, take my hands."

So she faced him, looking forthrightly into those mismatched eyes, feeling his strong hands curl around hers, and he whispered, “Close your eyes.”

So Elain did.

The breeze picked up around them, and Elain felt herself lifting up, as if she were being carried by the air, and then her feet touched ground again, and her eyelids fluttered open.

Lucien’s smile was warm. “Better?”

“Much,” Elain said, finding that she was smiling in return.

He released one of her hands and gestured around them. “Welcome to Spring.”

Elain spun in a slow circle, taking in the sweet scent of a thousand flowers, the manor covered in delicate ivy vines, the rose bushes, plump hydrangeas and lush grasses. Even in the moonlight, everything pulsed with life, shone with a beauty that no flowers in the mortal land could ever hope to match. Her heart leaped at the sight of it.

Feyre lives here… and so might I.

“You didn’t tell me it was going to be so beautiful,” she said accusingly, and Lucien let out a hearty laugh.

“You like it?”

Like it? It’s perfect,” she cried.

His smile grew wider, and she could feel his eyes still on her as she took steps towards the garden, towards one meandering path and then another, and she couldn’t decide if she wanted to run through them all, or stroll slowly through each one, examine every petal and bud, discover the secrets of how they grew. Her hands itched to dig into the soil, which must be magical and rich compared to the half-barren silt she’d struggled with at home. 

She was about to turn to Lucien and fill his ears with questions, when a low growl shook her to her core.

She gave a little shriek, and ran back to Lucien, flinging herself behind him in terror at that beastly noise, which was so foreign and yet so familiar — why?

Lucien gave a low chuckle and reached for her, extending a hand for her to cling to, then coaxed her to his side as he called out, “Tam, will you shift? You’re startling the lady.”

Elain peeked out from behind Lucien, taking in the huge furred beast with piercing green eyes, huge snout, and spiraling horns, then gasped as its form rippled, changing into the guise of a tall blond man, strikingly handsome, lordly and stern.

“Lucien, you’ve returned,” the beast-lord said, his voice low and resonant and grave. “And you’ve brought a guest.” He cocked his head to the side, examining Elain, then gave her a solemn bow. “You are Feyre’s sister.”

Elain dropped into a startled curtsey, wondering how he’d known, and Lucien said, “Elain, may I present Tamlin, High Lord of Spring.”

High Lord. Elain didn’t quite know what that meant, but she guessed High Lord meant king of the faeries, or as near to a king as one could be. She looked to Lucien, wondering how to act, if she was supposed to kneel or some such thing, but he only stood casually in the garden, gazing at the High Lord with no fear or special deference.

The High Lord said quietly, “We’ve met before.”

Elain blinked at him, struggling to recall through the fog of her glamoured memories. The beast she now remembered clearly — he’d broken down their cottage door, roaring in fury. She remembered huddling with Nesta while their father pleaded for their lives, while Feyre stared him down. Elain shuddered, the abject terror of those panicked moments washing over her.

Lucien seemed to sense her discomfort, for he curled his hand around hers more tightly, and said, “Where’s Feyre? Elain would like to see her sister.”

The High Lord extended a hand to Elain. “I can take you to her.”

But Elain drew herself back, inching closer to Lucien, squeezing his fingers between hers and coiling her other hand around his wrist. Then she realized what she’d just done, and cringed with embarrassment, though she couldn’t get her hands to unclench.

“Let me play emissary, Tam, I’ve got to earn my keep somehow,” Lucien said, his tone light and easy. “I’ll fill you in on what I’ve learned once Elain is settled.”

The High Lord nodded stiffly, stepping back, and Elain breathed a little bit easier. Then she remembered her manners, and managed to say, “Thank you, High Lord. Your manor is lovely.”

He blinked a few times, as if searching for an answer, then said, “I suppose it is.”

Lucien burst into a cackling laugh. “You haven’t lost your touch with the ladies, Tam.” He turned to Elain. “You’ll have to forgive him. He’s a male of few words.”

Elain reflected that a High Lord who could turn into a beast could say as few words as he wished, and no one would dare say a thing to say about it.

“Feyre’s in the drawing room,” the High Lord said, then frowned at Lucien. “You’re a mess.”

“I’ve had an adventure,” Lucien declared by way of explanation, then turned to Elain. “Shall we?”

Elain nodded gratefully, suddenly fluttery with excitement at seeing Feyre. It had been so long, and so uncertain whether her sister was alive, much less whether they’d ever see each other again. She had so much to tell Feyre, so many questions to ask…

Lucien strode forward through a set of grand oak doors, which opened for him on some silent command, and the elegantly decorated estate passed by Elain in a blur. There were chandeliers and mirrors and flowers everywhere, and she thought that no human palace could be as rich as this, or as tasteful and lovely. She hadn’t thought Feyre much interested in decorating, and wondered if the High Lord’s mother still lived and presided here, or if some strange faerie magic maintained these halls.

But no — there was giggling, and whispers, and Elain became aware that there were faeries crowding in doorways, noticing and commenting as she passed by. She caught a few faces that were wondrously strange, even one maid whose skin rather looked like the bark of a tree. She’d never imagined such creatures, but she smiled at them all, hoping that the same rules of politeness applied north of the Wall. She got startled smiles in return, and a few murmured greetings.

A few faeries snickered, though, causing her to blush, until Lucien said, “Don’t take offense. They’re snickering at me, not you.”

Elain frowned at him. “I’m sorry, I forgot you weren’t dressed.”

His fingers tightened around hers. “It’s nothing these folks haven’t seen before.”

She didn’t have time to ask about that, for they turned a corner, and Lucien paused in the doorway, gesturing to a richly furnished parlor, warm and inviting with plump sofas and a fireplace. “In here.”

A small collection of smartly dressed faeries had gathered, most in the shape of men and women rather than the strange gangly and winged creatures she’d seen in the hallways, though their pointed ears and regal demeanors told Elain they must be faeries too. They all seemed to be gathered around two females, and Elain took a few steps into the room to get a closer look.

One was a beautiful blond in a heavy blue robe, her waist accentuated by a belt of sparkling stones. She held her head high, the silver crown catching the lights in the room. Some sort of queen, or princess, perhaps. Elain was suddenly conscious of her simple velvet gown, which felt frumpy and flat compared to the ethereal beauty on display.

The other female was a thin, pale waif in a pastel pink gown embroidered with flowers, shrinking back from the faeries gathered around her, ignoring their looks of admiration, looking to the silver-crowned faerie rather than speaking herself. Someone asked a question, and she shook her head, making her long, flowing golden brown curls ripple like water.

Elain touched a hand to her own golden brown hair, which she was sure was unkempt and strewn about from her journey, but then the female turned around, and Elain clapped a hand over her mouth to stifle her gasp.

“Elain?” the female yelped.

Elain stared at the female — the faerie female.

Feyre?

Chapter Text

I’m dreaming. This isn’t real. This is some cruel trick of Amarantha’s, dangling my sister in front of me, raising my hopes only to cruelly dash them. It couldn’t be Elain, it’s a puca, slipped into the manor, taunting me, luring me to my death.

But Feyre blinked, and blinked again, and the vision of Elain didn’t budge. Didn’t ripple into some other image, as the puca’s visions had done.

“Feyre?” the vision cried, and it was Elain’s voice, so familiar and real that Feyre’s broken and ruined heart cracked open. “Feyre, is that you?”

Feyre’s eyes scanned the crowd, all of whom had gone quiet and still, watching the creature who looked like Elain. Then their eyes slipped to Feyre, as though gauging her reaction.

Then Feyre registered Lucien, hovering near her sister, grinning like a fiend, and — where was his shirt? This was supposed to be a formal occasion, and he looked ready for a dip in the lake.

I’d never have imagined that; he’s always impeccably dressed.

Real, then. This is real.

Then Elain was running, weaving her way through the guests milling around the parlor, and flinging her arms around Feyre, crying, “It’s you, it’s really you,” and it was all Feyre could do to stay upright, and let herself be hugged and spun and dizzied, Elain’s breathless laugh ringing in her ears. “Nesta and I have missed you. You look so different!”

“Elain,” she gasped out between steadying breaths. “What are you doing here?”

Elain released her embrace, but held Feyre’s shoulders, peering at her with those huge doe eyes, eyebrows raised. “I wanted to see you,” she said, “and here you are! Oh, Feyre, your home is beautiful.” She suddenly seemed to realize that they had an audience, and she glanced over her shoulder to survey the crowd. “Oh! I’ve interrupted your party.”

Several in the crowd chuckled at that, others murmured to one another, but Ianthe smoothly stepped up next to Feyre and cooed, “Oh, not at all. Any relation of our Cursebreaker is most welcome here.”

Elain’s eyes widened as she took in Ianthe up close, and she curtsied sweetly. “Pleased to make your acquaintance.”

Ianthe opened her mouth to say something wise, but Lucien interrupted from the doorway. “If you’re all right here, Elain, I’ll go inform the High Lord of what I learned while I was your guest.”

Elain’s cheeks flushed, though Feyre couldn’t figure out why. But her sister turned to Lucien and said, “You’ll come back, won’t you?”

Lucien declared, “I won’t be able to stay away.” He glanced down at himself, then smiled ruefully. “I might go put on a shirt first.”

“Don’t bother,” a female in the crowd quipped, and several of her friends tittered. 

Lucien, who would usually respond with good-natured teasing of his own, shifted uncomfortably.  And Elain’s flush deepened, surely because she was bothered by the impropriety.

Sweet, innocent Elain. Feyre cringed to think about what this place might do to her, how her sweetest sister might be warped and twisted, or beaten down.

Ianthe glared at the giggling faeries, but then her expression smoothed out into her usual serene self-assurance as she said, “Is that what passes for fashion in the human lands?”

Feyre had no idea what to say to that, but Elain giggled. “Dear me, you must think us such savages. No, not at all.” A hint of something sparkled in her eyes as she added, “I’m afraid we’re both a bit disheveled. You see, Lucien rescued me.”

There were exclamations of concern from the crowd then, and Lucien’s mouth parted in delighted surprise before he shook his head, a satisfied smile spreading across his face, and he bowed to them all before disappearing from the doorway.

“How noble,” Ianthe said, her words a bit clipped.

“Oh, yes, he is,” Elain gushed, linking her arm through Feyre’s. “You should have seen him in action - I’ve never seen anyone who could fight like that.”

“Well, of course,” Ianthe said sympathetically. “Being human, I don’t suppose you’ve ever seen magic before. I rather wonder if you would know what it was.”

“Oh, indeed,” Elain said politely. “It’s all so new to me. What sort of magic do you possess?”

Ianthe’s smile faltered a little. “Why, I’m a High Priestess, child. I have a holy connection to the Mother and the Cauldron.” She patted Elain’s shoulder. “I’d be happy to explain it sometime.”

Elain gave her a little smile. “Delightful.” She turned back to Feyre, as if suddenly realizing her sister hadn’t spoken. “Lucien told me about your trials, how you saved everyone. He quite admires you, Feyre,” she said, putting an arm around Feyre’s shoulders.

No, don’t admire me, I’m a killer.

Feyre wanted to shake her head, protest that it was all a lie, all wrong,  but the assembled faeries were all murmuring agreement, commenting on the Cursebreaker and her bravery and selflessness. It’s all a lie. After the horrors I committed, I don’t deserve these people’s praise.

Ianthe’s brows were furrowed, as if she could see Feyre’s discomfort. “We are all grateful for your sacrifice,” she said sweetly, facing the crowd. “Let us continue the party in Feyre’s honor.” It was a signal to disperse, one that Tamlin’s friends were used to and would normally obey, but many curious onlookers continued to eye Elain, their eyes shifting back and forth as though trying to trace the family resemblance.

Elain squeezed Feyre’s hand. “Will you introduce me to your charming friends?”

Every faerie in the room seemed to straighten at that, as if hoping they might be next.

The crowd blurred around them, the faces blending together. These were all Tamlin’s friends, war buddies and sentries and Feyre didn’t know what else. She’d been introduced to them all, had endured conversations and questions, mainly talk of hunting and effusive thanks for her sacrifices Under the Mountain. She couldn’t remember a single one of them if she tried.

Ianthe saved her from having to answer, crooning, “Oh, but you must be tired, Lady Elain, after your rescue and perilous journey. Especially being human, I’m sure your body craves rest. Surely introductions can wait?”

Elain looked crestfallen for a moment, eyeing Feyre as though she might jump in. But Feyre was so, so tired — tired of these parties, tired of these strangers that all seemed to want to worship her but had nothing to say to her. Tired of pretending that she was the lady of this manor in anything but name.

Tamlin had assured her that after their wedding, she could have a rest, but there was always some holiday or other that required him to host, always some important guest that would feel slighted if their visit wasn’t properly acknowledged with lavish meals and evening affairs. Rituals must be observed, the social ties that bound the court reinforced, the Cursebreaker properly honored. It was enough to make her sick.

When Feyre didn’t chime in, Elain turned back to Ianthe with a polite smile plastered on her face that bordered on insincere. “How thoughtful of you, I’m sure. Why, you remind me so much of my dear friends, the Carlisles, back home.”

The faeries around them seemed to find this hilarious, as this comment provoked a fresh round of whispering and hushed giggles, but Ianthe’s lips pressed into a thin line. “Oh?”

“Oh yes. The Miss Carlisles would die for such beautiful jewelry,” Elain was going on, seemingly oblivious to the effect her comments were having on the crowd. “Such elegant stones! And how they catch the light, how luxurious. I’m sure my human eyes have never seen the like.”

“This is an Invoking Stone,” Ianthe said patiently, tilting her forehead up. “The power of the Mother flows through it, healing and protecting.”

“How wonderful! That must have helped so many people during the recent difficulties with the queen Lucien told me about,” Elain said admiringly.

“Oh, she wasn’t Under the Mountain,” Feyre found the voice to say, self-consciously hiding her tattooed arm behind her back at the thought of healing.

Healing had cost her dearly, had forced a wedge between her and Tamlin that no amount of time could fully alleviate. Even though the black markings were covered by a satin glove, she knew they were there. And so did everyone else. Even though Rhysand had not darkened the door of the manor to demand their bargain be fulfilled, no one had forgotten.

It was why sentries trailed her everywhere she went, why she never left the manor grounds. Why she always wore gloves to her elbows in public, never touching anything or anyone with her bare skin. Why every spring thunderstorm made her jump in anticipation, wondering if it was Rhysand come to claim her for a week under another mountain, or just the weather.

Lucien strode back into the room then, dressed in an elegant silver tunic that seemed to perfectly match Elain’s velvet gown. How did he pull that off so fast?

He caught Feyre’s eye and bowed gallantly, then made a beeline for them.

Ianthe said pointedly, “That is all in the past. Let us not spoil the party by dwelling on such things.” She nodded to the musicians in the far corner. “How about some dancing?” The musicians readily picked up their instruments, though they looked surprised at the request. 

Feyre’s scant dinner sat uneasily in her stomach at the thought of dancing — she had not danced in public since those nights she’d spent writhing under the influence of faerie wine, and she would be more than grateful to never have to exhibit her body in public that way again. Even if the dancing had been a sort of escape, in the end.

“What a lovely notion. My human ears have never heard faerie instruments before,” Elain said, turning towards Lucien, somehow seeming to realize he was there, even though her back had been to him as he’d approached. “Will I be enchanted and dance until I fall over, like the old stories say?”

“If you happen to become enchanted,” Lucien practically purred, offering his hand to her, “I’ll catch you before you fall.”

Feyre gaped at him in shock. Is he… flirting with my sister? She’s already married!

Suddenly she realized that Elain’s husband had not been mentioned, was nowhere to be found. And when Elain said she’d been rescued… what had she meant?

Feyre turned to ask Elain, mentally kicking herself that she hadn’t thought to express concern before, but her sister was already accepting Lucien’s offered hand, whispering, “I don’t know any faerie dances, what if I step on your toes?”

Lucien’s answer was lost to the music and the swirl of the crowd, but Elain’s laugh seemed to ripple through the room, and there were more than a few significant glances at her sister and her choice of partner as the music swelled.

Ianthe perched next to her, a hint of a scowl darkening her usually placid features. She could have any male in this room for her partner, inspired lust and worship in equal measure. But she seemed not to hear the requests of those who dared to approach her, or to register the come-hither looks that were sent her way.

A heavy hand clamped down on Feyre’s shoulder, and she yelped and whirled around, shuddering with relief when she saw it was only Tamlin. “Where’s your — oh,” he interrupted himself, suddenly seeming to notice that Elain was in the midst of the crowd, holding one of Lucien’s hands as he spun her around. Tamlin watched them, looking contemplative, his green eyes sparkling with some unspoken emotion that Feyre couldn’t place.

Then he turned to her, a gentle smile tracing his lips, extending his hand. “Do you want to —“

“No,” Feyre said quickly. “I… I’m tired.”

If Tamlin was disappointed, he didn’t let it show. He simply nodded and turned back to watch the dancers, occasionally murmuring comments to Ianthe or other guests, until he finally turned back to Feyre, whispering, “I’ll come to your room later, darling,” and strode away to join the musicians, taking an offered fiddle and settling among them as though he had rehearsed with them for hours.

Feyre took a step back, and then another, and then she was out of the parlor and halfway down the quiet hallway, the strains of Tamlin’s fiddle playing reverberating off the tiles, and it wasn’t until she reached her own bedroom, and had flung the door shut after her, that she realized she was crying.

Chapter Text

“Come on, Tam,” Lucien chortled, digging into his breakfast. His first real breakfast in days, Cauldron bless him. “You already scolded me last night. It wasn’t as bad as all that.”

Tamlin frowned at him, the talons on his left hand slowly lengthening. “You still don’t seem to appreciate how reckless you were,” he said gravely. “The consequences could have been dire. For all of us, not just you.” He tapped a talon on the side of his glass, producing a high-pitched ringing sound. “You don’t know what Hybern does to its prisoners.”

“Yes, I do,” Lucien retorted, his mechanical eye clicking in agreement.

“Hybern’s magic is ancient and wicked,” Tamlin insisted. “That spell book she used” — they never used Amarantha’s name in the manor, even though the bitch was dead and burnt — “was only the beginning. The very stones of that cursed island are poisonous to us.”

“Then we’ll just have to make sure we never go there,” Lucien shrugged, savoring the delicious aroma of his tea before taking his first sip. “Oh, Tam. I would have sold myself several times over for a cup of tea like this.”

Tamlin blinked at him a few times, not appreciating the joke, but then relented and said, “It’s from Winter. There is a bark of a specific tree that —“

But Lucien never found out how Kallias conjured such a delicious brew, because just then, a vision of loveliness descended the stairs, heading towards the dining room, and Lucien’s ability to comprehend words stuttered out completely.

Lucien was struck all over again by the impossible beauty of his mate, how her golden-brown hair seemed to shimmer, how her skin seemed to glow in the morning sunlight, more radiant than any human’s skin should have been. She was wearing a delicate, airy dress of light purple with hints of spring green, and the staff had even found her shoes and a shawl to match. She seemed to float down the stairs, one pale elegant hand on the bannister, as she gazed about her in admiration, taking in the manor properly for the first time.

All thoughts of his breakfast were forgotten as Lucien watched her descend, and he only chuckled when Tamlin muttered, “If you stare at her any harder, she will catch fire.”

“You were the same with Feyre,” Lucien retorted good-naturedly, then straightened as Elain reached the final step and approached the doorway.

“Oh! Good morning,” Elain said, in a high, fluttery voice, as she stepped into the dining room, her eyes widening at the array of dishes and delicacies spread out on the table. Her eyes flicked to Lucien, and she smiled warmly, before turning to Tamlin and curtsying respectfully. “High Lord.”

Lucien almost burst out laughing at Tamlin’s look of alarm, but his friend looked so earnestly confused and overwhelmed at her very proper greeting that he had to take pity.

“Good morning, Elain,” Lucien drawled, “won’t you join us? Tam and I were just getting started.”

Elain swept back up to her feet, with the same graceful ease she’d shown during their dance last night, and Lucien’s body tingled as her eyes rested back on him, eager and bright. “This all looks delightful,” she said, and he nearly tripped over his own clumsy feet as he raced to pull a chair out for her, thankful that neither she nor Tamlin seemed to notice.

As Lucien slid back into his own chair, sure that he was flushing as red as his hair, she wrinkled her forehead and asked, “I suppose it’s all right, though? For a human to eat faerie food?” And then her eyes shot to Tamlin, as though worried she’d offended him.

“Indeed it is,” Tamlin said, recovering his voice at last. “Your sister had the same concerns. But faerie food and drink is perfectly safe for humans.”

Elain’s eyes rested on Lucien, as if seeking confirmation, and he nodded eagerly. “Try the tea. It’s a Winter Court specialty.”

Elain nodded, then glanced around the table, at the empty seat to Tamlin’s right. “Where is Feyre?” she asked.

Tamlin cleared his throat. “Feyre… likes to sleep in,” he said stiffly.

Lucien frowned at that half-truth. Though he’d been away for some time, he knew full well that Feyre was not simply sleeping late out of preference. She could never seem to get enough sleep, as though she were making up for all those months confined in that freezing cold cell Under the Mountain, where he was sure she barely got rest at all. Between the awful conditions she was kept in, Amarantha’s trials and torments, and a certain piece of shit High Lord drugging her with faerie wine and forcing her to dance until she vomited, then dance some more — he shuddered, swallowing his revulsion down.

He’d visited as often as he dared, fully aware that he was being watched, that he could be caught and whipped again, or worse, or that he could sabotage Feyre’s chances to break the curse if she was punished for accepting his help. The solitude, the constant terror, the humiliation and pain she endured — Lucien guessed that it still haunted her, though she never spoke of it.

Maybe having Elain here will help her, draw her out, remind her that there is life beyond Under the Mountain after all.

“It’s so good you’re here,” Lucien told Elain. So good, you have no idea. “I’m sure you and Feyre will have time to catch up later.”

Elain nodded, seeing to accept the explanation, and her eyes lingered for a moment on his brocade jacket and tunic before flicking back up to his face, a pink flush spreading across her already rosy cheeks.

Lucien tossed her a wicked grin, guessing what she was thinking. He’d given everyone quite an impromptu show, though he couldn’t regret it, not when the memory of it made his mate blush like that. “Do I look appropriately civilized this morning?”

Elain made a little gasp, but then seemed to recover her wits, saying sweetly, “Perhaps. Though you’re no longer the height of human fashion.”

Lucien snorted a laugh, startling Tamlin. He’d enjoyed the hell out of watching Ianthe squirm, every stupid insult she tossed at Elain about humans missing its mark. The nerve of that priestess, speaking to his mate like that, and in front of Feyre, who’d been human too — what was Ianthe trying to prove?

I never should have left Elain with that viper.

But judging by the gossip he’d heard in half-whispers and giggles, Elain had more than held her own.

Lucien supposed that, being a lady in human society, Elain had had her fill of preening snobs and superior types, had learned to deal with the thinly veiled insults and backhanded compliments that passed as civilized conversation. Yet, judging from the loyalty her serving staff had shown her, she had stayed sweet and kind and unpretentious.

What did I ever do to deserve a mate like her?

He proffered the teapot to Elain, asking, “Did you find your room to your liking?”

“It’s wonderful,” Elain gushed, her fingers almost grazing his as she accepted the teapot. “I never imagined such elegance and style. I thought I would be more riled up after all that happened last night, but I slept frightfully well, and your lovely staff is so attentive.” Her gaze snagged on the view out the windows for a moment, and she carefully put the teapot down before continuing, “And such delightful gardens!”

“Perhaps you’d like a tour?” Lucien said eagerly.

Elain nodded. “If it wouldn’t be too much trouble.”

Tamlin cleared his throat. “Lucien has business to attend to.”

“Ah yes, I have some correspondence to catch up on,” Lucien admitted, carelessly adding to Elain, “Just boring emissary nonsense.”

“Summoning our allies to meet about the rising threat is not nonsense,” Tamlin grumbled. But then his eyes shot to Elain, and he added, “Nothing you need be concerned with. You and your sister are quite safe here.”

Elain’s wide brown eyes slid to Lucien’s in silent question.

“Your visitor to the manor yesterday,” he said carefully, mindful not to contradict Tamlin, “informed me of some new developments that we are going to act on. That’s all.”

“Like the Wall coming down?” Elain asked.

Tamlin coughed forcefully on his bite of bacon, then swallowed hard. “How did you hear of that?”

“Lord Nolan and Graysen were discussing it at dinner last night,” Elain said, her face paling. “I was a bit, ah, distracted” — and here she looked meaningfully at Lucien, who felt a pleasant warmth settling over him at the thought that he had been the distraction — “but it sounded serious. They were talking about planting more ash trees, building fortifications.”

“Good,” Lucien said, “so they’ve got some sense after all.”

Tamlin frowned at him, then turned back to Elain. “It will be taken care of. As my guest, you must not trouble yourself. Or Feyre. Mentioning such things would only upset her.”

Elain drew her shoulders up, cocked her head to the side, seeming to take Tamlin’s measure. Then she carefully stirred her tea, and said, “High Lord, you are too kind.”

Moments passed in uncomfortable silence as she waited for Tamlin to answer, but he had gone sullen and distracted, raking a talon up and down the armrest of his chair, and Lucien suddenly realized that Elain was staring at it. “Tamlin had shapeshifting magic,” he said, by way of explanation. “Much to the furniture’s detriment.”

Tamlin gave him a low snarl of displeasure, but caught Elain’s shocked expression and said, “I am sorry if I startled you.”

Elain took a dainty bite of her eggs and swallowed before saying, “I suppose I shall have to get used to many startling things, being a human amongst faeries.” She paused again, looking accusingly at Lucien in a way that struck him as both terrifying and adorable all at once. “You could have told me that my sister became one.”

Lucien winced. He hadn’t quite gotten around to that particular detail during Nesta’s interrogation. “You handled it well,” he said apologetically.

“Well! I wasn’t about to embarrass her in front of all her friends,” Elain snapped, her eyes narrowing at him.

“I was going to tell you,” he protested, his throat going dry.

“You should have led with that,” Elain persisted.

“No, I should not have. You didn’t hear how Nesta threatened me before you walked in,” he said defensively. “She would have throttled me if I’d started off that way. And just when I was getting to that part of the story, your husband showed up with a buyer to poke and prod me like livestock.”

Elain flushed, looking down at her plate. “He should not have done that.”

“Slavery is an evil curse, no matter who practices it,” Tamlin said, shuddering at some memory that Lucien didn’t want to ask about. There had once been slaves — human slaves — at this very manor. Tamlin had been young then, in no position to do anything about it, but Lucien knew that it still bothered his friend.

Best not think about that. Especially not with his human mate sitting here at the table.

“I am sorry you were blindsided,” Lucien said. “But her being fae isn’t so terrible, is it?”

“Not at all. That is not what upset me,” Elain said, but her tone had softened. “Nesta would find it terrible. But I… don’t mind faeries.” And she took a long sip of tea, her fingers shaking ever so slightly around the cup.

“Hear that, Tam? She doesn’t mind faeries,” Lucien exclaimed. “Maybe there’s hope for us yet.”

Humor sparkled in her eyes. “Not for you.”

Mother spare me. Kind Elain was charming enough, but teasing Elain…

“No,” he said, his lips curling into a wry smile, “I’m done for.”

Chapter Text

Elain flitted towards one flower trellis, then another, then found her attention caught by the most fragrant buds yet, and then there were the colors — saturated, iridescent, impossible in their variety. Some of the blooms were softly glowing, others emitting a sheen so bright that Elain could almost hear it sparkling in the soft afternoon sunshine. Forget faerie music or wine, I’ll be ensnared by this garden.

“Do you come out here often?” she asked her sister, tossing the question out over her shoulder as she knelt on the path, scooping the rich, loamy soil into her palm.

“Not really,” Feyre said distantly, her voice high and thin. Elain frowned and turned towards her, again taking in her sister’s slightness, the fragile cut of her collarbones against her flowing dress. This effigy in pink felt like a worn imitation, not the wild, energetic, fierce Feyre that Elain remembered. 

Her sister seemed to be fading in the bright sunshine, as though it was all too much, as though she wanted the shadows, the cover of darkness. She had slipped from her room just before lunch, pale, face drawn, brows pinched together, a purplish tinge underneath each eye despite the maids’ obvious care in applying concealing pigment. Elain saw the blankness in Feyre’s pallid face, the emptiness in her eyes, the sluggishness, the stilted movements despite her new faerie body’s increased strength, speed, and grace. She’d picked at her food, barely spoke a word, only lifted her head to acknowledge comments directed to her, then settled back into that fog of memory that seemed to block out the world.

Feyre just spent months trapped under a mountain, Elain reminded herself. Fought an evil queen, suffered in ways no one could imagine. She’d died, and been brought back.

Who knew what horrors Feyre had seen during that experience, what haunted her? Would I be any different, if I went through a life-shattering event like that?

“You’d be surprised at the goings on in the village, there was a fight at the market the other week. Two women, no less, all over an iron bracelet,” Elain said, aware that she was prattling on, that Feyre had no energy to care for such things. But she cast about for suitable gossip anyway, hoping to provide a distraction. “The Miss Carlisles blame it all on those Children of the Blessed, saying something must be done.”

Feyre gave a listless shrug, and Elain added, “But I think the folk are just desperate. My maid Daisy says the price of food has gone up. If only the village had soil like this.” She massaged the bit of soil she’d picked up between her fingers, imagining that she could feel a spark of life within it, some magic that blessed this land and grew such wonderful bounty. “Come feel this,” Elain said gently, reaching for Feyre’s gloved hand.

Why is she wearing formal satin gloves for a garden stroll?  

Elain thought back to that snobbish High Priestess from last night, snickering about human fashion, and looked down at her own hands, dirt packed underneath her fingernails. Look at me, one night in Prythian and I’m already half-feral. Maybe I need to get gloves like that.

But the sweet maids had been so attentive to every detail, had insisted on coiffing her hair and arranging her shawl just so. No, the gloves must be Feyre’s personal fashion statement, a surprising choice for a scrappy girl who’d spent so many years hunting in the woods, who never seemed to notice when her hands were coated with blood and fur.

Feyre frowned at Elain’s proffered hand, stammering, “I-I don’t want to get my hands dirty.”

“Oh, it’ll all come off in the bath,” Elain said brightly, though her desperation was increasing. “The baths here feel just divine. I couldn’t believe how long the water stayed hot. But you should feel this soil, Feyre. It’s like it’s alive.

Feyre was staring at her gloves, as though they might pipe up with an opinion of their own. But then she said, “I don’t want anyone to see my arm.”

“Oh dear. Were you injured? Is it scarred?” Elain asked in a hush, cringing at the thought that she’d embarrassed Feyre.

“Yes. And no — not scarred. Marked,” Feyre said, ducking her head, the tips of her faerie ears reddening.

Marked? Elain was tempted to ask, but she saw how Feyre curled in on herself at the mere thought of it, and said reassuringly, “No one’s here but us, and — what are their names, the two gentlemen on patrol?”

She glanced past Feyre to the two young-looking lads in dapper uniforms, suddenly thinking of her own Tom and Marlow, hoping they’d escaped Graysen’s detection. She was sure Nesta would give them jobs in a heartbeat — she would accept anyone who loved Elain, that’s what she’d said about Duncan — but it would cause trouble for them if the townsfolk thought they were faerie sympathizers.

Like me.

She could never go back, she knew that. She’d be seen as no better than those Children of the Blessed. Worse, for she’d abandoned her husband, her responsibilities, and had let a faerie carry her away. But she couldn’t bring herself to regret it.

Feyre shrugged, either because she couldn’t or wouldn’t answer, but the two lads stepped forward, their fae hearing having picked up Elain’s question. “Name’s Bron, my lady,” the tall, brown-haired one said, “and this is Hart. At your service.”

Elain inclined her head. “Pleased to make your acquaintance, Bron and Hart.”

Always use their names. Lord Nolan had been right about that, at least. She’d seen how these faeries reacted to compliments and personal attention. Flattery will get you everywhere.

Elain’s gaze swept about the placid rows of flowers, gently swaying in the breeze, the verdant green of the treetops, flickering yellow in the afternoon sunlight. The gardens were utterly peaceful and still, which made the presence of two sentries downright strange.

Perhaps there is some faerie threat I can’t see with my dull human senses, she thought, remembering that silly priestess. So Elain couldn’t resist asking, “Do you often guard the flower beds?”

Bron stifled a chuckle at that, while Hart just cleared his throat uncomfortably. “We are here to escort the Lady Feyre on her walk. And yourself, of course.”

“Ah,” Elain said, rising gracefully and brushing off her hands, scattering bits of soil onto the path. “How very kind. Though the High Lord did assure me that we are quite safe here at the manor.”

“Yes, well,” Bron stammered, shooting Hart a nervous glance, “that’s why we’re here, you know. To make sure of that.”

“Indeed? How kind,” Elain said brightly. “How responsible.” She almost asked the lads what sort of dangers they were here to guard against, but then remembered the High Lord’s insistence that mentioning such things in front of Feyre would only upset her.

I knew it, these lords are all alike.

Graysen and Lord Nolan had been much the same, filling Elain’s head with balls and pretty dresses while they hunted faeries and planted ash groves in the fortress they called a manor.

Feyre shifted on her feet, and Elain suddenly realized that it was the presence of the sentries that was upsetting her sister, that she didn’t want to be watched. So Elain said, “I should like to see that pretty copse of trees at the far end of the garden. Would you mind strolling ahead of us, check it for danger? I’m sure we would feel much better if you did.”

Both guards bowed gallantly, then strode down the path towards the trees.

Elain whirled back around, smiling gently at Feyre. “Better?”

Feyre shuddered. “I don’t like being followed. But it’s for my own safety. In case her monsters come back.” And she tugged at one of her gloves, revealing the pale skin beneath, tattooed with intricate swirls of black.

“Did one of her monsters do that?” Elain asked, peering curiously at it. “It looks rather… elegant.” She’d rather expected raw, jagged lines like Lucien’s, or claw or tooth marks, not delicate decorations that she might have taken for expensive lace, some royal faerie fashion. She ghosted her fingertips over the swirls. “Does it hurt?”

“Sometimes,” Feyre said softly. “Not the skin or the healed bone underneath. But in here.” She clutched at her chest, her eyes squeezing shut. “When I look at it, it’s like I can’t breathe, it hurts so much. I don’t even know why.” A tear slipped down her cheek, and she shrugged helplessly. “Tamlin pretends it doesn’t bother him, but I know it does. That I was marked by — him.” She glanced around nervously, as if speaking the name might be enough to summon the him that she was referencing.

Elain rubbed little circles on Feyre’s back, feeling helpless to offer real comfort. There was clearly some unpleasant tale behind these markings, something terribly important that she was afraid to ask about, since the mere thought of it had upset Feyre so much. And though Elain could guess that the her was the evil queen, who was him that had dared mark her sister?

There was no safe way to ask the questions she really wanted answers to, so she just said, “Can I see the whole design?”

Feyre nodded stiffly and peeled the glove off her left arm, revealing the swirls tracing all the way down to her hand, then turned her palm up. Elain gasped at the eye blinking up at her, slitted like a cat’s. “Is that real?” she asked, trying to keep the fear out of her voice. Feyre didn’t need her silly emotions on top of it all. “Does it… see?”

Feyre peered down at the eye. “I don’t know. Sometimes I think —” She snapped her hand shut, then let her arm drop to her side. “I don’t want to know, actually.”

Elain took Feyre’s left hand, half-wondering if the eye was safe to touch, if it would feel slimy or cold like a real eye would, but Feyre’s palm felt like regular skin. “Here, feel this enchanted soil.” And she tugged Feyre down to the new flower beds, where the first hints of seedlings had already started to poke up in the short time they’d been standing there. Feyre acquiesced, dipping her hand into the rich black soil. “Do you feel it?” Elain asked eagerly.

Feyre’s hands swirled around in the soil, and Elain thought she saw the softest glimmer in her sister’s eyes, but then Feyre’s gaze went dull and unfocused again. “I guess it’s nice.”

“Nice? It’s the most fertile, rich soil I’ve ever seen. Imagine all the food it could grow,” Elain went on. “Imagine if our cottage had had soil like this, rather than that awful dry silt that could barely hold a weed.”

Feyre said quietly, “But your flowers grew well enough.”

Elain stiffened. Not this argument again.

They’d had words over planting seeds many times before — Elain insisting that the dirt was of such bad quality that only the hardiest flowers would grow, that she needed several seasons to enrich the soil before she could grow a vegetable large enough to eat, her sisters telling her to skip all that because they needed food now, and they didn’t care if it was malnourished and small. They didn’t understand that soil could be wrung out, dry up, become barren and inhospitable, and Elain had grown tired of trying to explain. So she’d just declared that life was too hard to not have pretty things, as though her hardy bulbs were just for show.

Feyre withdrew her hand from the ground and brushed it against her skirt, leaving a scattering of soil across the hem. Then she frowned at her tattooed hand, angling it in the fading light, and shoved it back into her glove. “We should get back.”

“Why?” Elain asked, rising from her knees as well, shaking out her dress and slapping her hands together a few times. “It’s the golden hour, the most beautiful time of day. Do you ever paint out here when it’s —“

“No. I don’t paint anymore.” Feyre’s words were clipped, flat, almost bitter.

“Ah,” said Elain, twisting her hands nervously, “well. Well, I suppose you’ve got a lot to do, running a large manor like this. I never felt like I had time for my hobbies either.”

But Feyre hadn’t seemed very busy — she’d slept late, ate a bit of lunch, and had come out here with Elain without speaking to a single maid, ordering dinner, or overseeing the manor’s workings in any way. Does she just drift through all her days like this?

“Tamlin doesn’t like me out late,” Feyre said distantly. “Not safe at night.”

“But with the sentries, and all his power, surely —” Elain objected.

Feyre shook her head. “He worries.”

Elain took her sister’s shoulders, swallowing hard. “Well, I’m worried too.”

Feyre blinked at her. “What do you mean?”

“You’re not yourself, Feyre,” Elain said gently. “I don’t mean to tell you your own mind. But I know you, and this isn’t you.”

“I’m not that human girl anymore,” Feyre snapped, wrenching her shoulders away. “That human girl died Under the Mountain.” And she stormed off towards the trees, in the direction that the sentries had gone.

Elain squared her own shoulders and marched after her sister, declaring, “You may be faerie now, but you survived.

“Did I?” Feyre laughed mirthlessly, her footsteps turning into stomps, kicking up pebbles as she picked up speed. “Sometimes I wonder.”

Elain tried to keep pace with her, but Feyre was fast. She shouted after her sister, “Why didn’t you write to us? Why didn’t you tell us what happened?”

“I thought you’d be ashamed to have a faerie sister,” Feyre threw out. “Especially one who — oh.” Tears were streaming freely down her face, and she stopped abruptly under the canopy of the trees, burying her face in her gloved hands.

Elain caught up to Feyre at last and threw her arms around her sister, pulling her into an embrace that she hoped was comforting, and Feyre began to sob. “Oh, Feyre,” she murmured, stroking her sister’s hair. “Why would you think I’d ever be ashamed of you?”

Nesta might be.

But she didn’t say that. Nesta’s not here.

“I… did things,” Feyre said hoarsely, shuddering, going limp in Elain’s arms. “Awful, shameful things.”

Elain remembered the party from the night before, the worshipful way that the faeries regarded her sister. “No one else seems to think so,” she said hesitantly.

“No one else understands,” Feyre said, still weeping. “These are faeries, they don’t see things the same way. They accept cruelty so easily, act only in their own self-interest.”

“Not always, surely,” Elain protested, thinking about her escape from the manor, how Lucien had insisted that she get to safety and leave him behind.

Feyre pulled back and looked at her sternly. “You don’t know the things I saw, under that mountain. What was done to me, and those who tried to help me. You don’t know what I did, the innocents I harmed, or you’d go mad, Elain. It’d be too much.” She trembled, then stilled, as if consciously reining herself back in. “I must bear it alone.”

“But it’s killing you,” Elain said tearfully.

Feyre blinked slowly a few times. “It’s no more than I deserve.”

Elain exclaimed, “Feyre —

But the two sentries had turned back and were approaching them again, and Feyre shot them a nervous glance, as though she was worried they might overhear. Elain knew that servants talked, that secrets didn’t stay secret long, but she’d come to rely on her own staff’s discretion, had learned whom she could depend on.

Feyre needs allies here.

“Bron,” Elain said hopefully, “Hart. I trust you found everything in good order?”

The two sentries nodded solemnly. “Very much so,” Hart said.

Elain said, “We are grateful. I was hoping it would be possible to get a message to the High Lord, that we wish to stay out until sunset?” Feyre gripped her arm nervously, but she ignored it. “Perhaps have our dinner under the stars?”

The guards eyed her curiously, and she gushed, “It’s my first full day in Prythian, you know. And everything is so beautiful, so much more colorful and all, I want to see if the stars shine more brightly here than they do at home.”

Now both sentries were grinning, and Bron said, “I need to see to a few things back at the manor. I can convey your message.”

“That would be so kind,” Elain said, and he ran off eagerly. So she turned to the other sentry, saying, “Lady Feyre was just showing me this lovely garden.”

Hart’s eyes crinkled in the corners as he said, “My sister was a gardener here. May I show you what she planted?”

“Why, of course,” Elain said, noting the past tense. “Is she —“

“Dead,” said Hart sadly, “Under the Mountain.”

“Oh, dear, I’m so sorry,” said Elain, laying a hand on his arm. On her other side, Feyre was staring at the floor, her face a mask of sorrow.

Hart bowed his head for a moment, collecting his thoughts, then gestured to the path, and they started to walk. “That queen killed many an innocent, I’m afraid. Whether by her own hand, or her monsters. She delighted in wickedness and pain. Most families in these parts lost at least one. And our court was luckier than most.”

“Luckier?” Elain breathed, sneaking a look at Feyre, who seemed to be avoiding her gaze, then back up to Hart, who was giving her a pained smile. “It’s hard to imagine.”

“Aye,” said Hart, “it’ll take a long, long time to fully repair what harm was done, whatever can be repaired. But here. These blossoms,” and he stretched out a hand, indicating a trellis of delicate purple flowers with a delightfully sweet fragrance, “were Willow’s prized plants. She cultivated them over generations.”

“Delightful,” Elain exclaimed, carefully examining them. “So fragrant.”

“She’d be happy you said so, the wild variety’s got no smell all,” Hart said wistfully. “And here’s a secret — they taste amazing. She used to dip them in sugar, or even chocolate.”

Even Feyre was looking up now. “They’re edible?”

“Like candy, but more wholesome,” Hart said proudly. “Willow was a genius.”

“I wish I could have met her, I’d have a million questions,” Elain said, squeezing his arm sympathetically. “I love to garden.”

“Well,” Hart said, swallowing hard, “I’ve got all her notes and dried specimens sitting at home, untouched, if you’d like to see them?”

“Oh! I’d be honored,” Elain burst out.

Then she caught sight of Bron striding back towards them on the path, and Elain’s heart beat a little faster when she saw that Lucien was with him.

“If you’ll be excusing me, lady,” Hart said, giving Elain a gallant bow. “I’ll have those books to you in the morning.” He bowed to Feyre, more formally. “Lady Feyre.”

Feyre acknowledged him with a quiet nod.

“Thank you, Hart, I’ll look forward to it,” Elain said, and then both sentries were gone.

“Stirring up the servants already?” Lucien quipped, his russet eye twinkling. “Should Tamlin fear an uprising?”

“Oh, hush, you,” Elain scolded him. “If you must know, Hart’s sister was a master gardener, and he’s offered to show me her books.”

Lucien’s smirk transformed into a soft, sad smile. “Willow deserved better than she got.”

“You all did,” Elain said meaningfully, staring at Feyre. “All of you.”

Feyre shifted uncomfortably, and Lucien’s golden eye clicked as it moved back and forth between her and Elain, as if his mind were working through the meaning. “I hear we’re to have a picnic,” he said, a little too cheerfully to be casual. “Any requests for the kitchen staff?”

Feyre carefully pulled off her glove, then plucked a sprig of purple flowers from the trellis they’d been examining. “Can they do chocolate-covered flowers?”

Lucien’s smile grew wider. “When did you develop such good taste?” he drawled, carefully not looking down at her exposed arm and the intricate markings on her skin.

“Blame it on Elain,” Feyre shrugged.

Elain pouted at her, but was too pleased by Feyre showing interest in something, anything, to care. Especially when Lucien winked at her and said, “That Elain is pure trouble.”

“Rogue,” she retorted, winking back.

Chapter Text

“What’s that star? The really bright one, in the center of the sky.” Feyre’s sister craned her neck, as if trying to get a better view of the evening sky, and she pointed a delicate finger. “It twinkles so wonderfully.”

“Ah, in Autumn, that’s the Equinox Star,” Lucien said. “It keeps place in the sky year round, but on the Fall Equinox it lines up perfectly with our most ancient trees, signaling the start of the Harvest Festival.” He smiled sadly, no doubt recalling that it had been many years since he’d been able to attend the festival, and quickly added, “But that’s only one of many names.”

Tamlin had been skeptical of the suggestion to eat dinner out here, what with so many creatures from the Middle still roaming freely through court lands. Not that they’d been spotted recently, but one could never be too careful. And he didn’t want to pull any sentries away from the borders, or from lookout positions, in case a certain bastard High Lord decided to use this opportunity to strike under the cover of darkness.

But of course Lucien had insisted, pointing out that Feyre’s sister was their guest, and wanted to cheer Feyre up, and didn’t Tamlin want to be a good host?

Your mate is sweet and charming, but we don’t have to indulge her every whim, Tamlin had protested. She is new to Prythian, with no idea of what is reasonable and what isn’t.

But now he was glad Lucien had talked him into it. The sorrow and terror of the past months seemed less weighty out here, the atmosphere less stifling. The night air was fragrant with night-blooming flowers, the stars sparkling as though trying to impress their audience. Even the thought of the bitch queen’s monsters seemed less alarming in this peaceful setting, as Tamlin could see for himself that the woods were settled and quiet tonight.

Feyre’s silence seemed less alarming, too, as though she was just contemplating the mysteries of the sky, and not remembering some horrible torture. She never ate much, and rarely spoke at mealtimes, but out here, she seemed almost content.

Her sister, meanwhile, was simply delighted by it all, exclaiming about the richness of the flavors in their simple dinner, the magical fae lights, and of course, the stars. She did chatter on, much more than Feyre ever had, but Tamlin supposed that Lucien’s mate would love to talk as much as he did. Though it grated on Tamlin’s nerves after a while, he couldn’t blame her for her enthusiasm, or her myriad questions that Lucien was all too happy to answer.

“Now in the Summer Court it’s called Diomedes’ Star, after their favorite philosopher,” Lucien was saying. “Follow him, and you’ll always find your way home. See the stars trailing after it? Those are the lost souls, finding their way back…”

Tamlin tuned out the rest of the storytelling, which he found ponderous at best — Lucien was probably making half of it up, anyway — and turned to Feyre, who was staring up at the stars, her food utterly forgotten. The soft faelights flickered across her pale face, making her expression look haunted and sorrowful, and he kept his touch gentle as he caressed her shoulder. “You’re quiet, darling.”

“It’s so beautiful,” Feyre whispered, her eyes fixed on some distant point in the night sky. Then she asked, louder, “What are those three stars, close together?”

Lucien turned to her, surprised that she’d shown interest. “Those are the most intriguing of all,” he said. “They appear once a year, in early spring. In some courts, they’re called the Three Sisters, each one associated with one of our sacred mountains in Prythian.” He saw Feyre’s look of disgust at the mention of sacred mountains, and seemed to guess where her thoughts had gone, for he quickly added, “But that’s only one interpretation. In Winter, it’s said that the Three Sisters represent freezing, new snow, and melting, while in the far north, their appearance signals the start of the Blood Rite, an initiation for warriors.”

Tamlin knew exactly where in the far north Lucien was referring to, and gritted his teeth, willing his talons to stay tucked away. Bringing up Rhysand and his cursed court would only upset Feyre, would only remind her of the gods-damned bargain she’d been forced to make, that caused her such embarrassment and fear.

“We do not need to speak of that,” he said, trying and failing to keep his tone light, suppressing the frustrated growl that rose up in his throat. Lucien should know better. 

Feyre’s head whipped towards him, a strange gleam in her eye. “The far north, that’s the Night Court, isn’t it?”

Lucien nodded, saying, “Well done, Feyre. You’ve been studying that map again, haven’t you.”

Tamlin made a mental note to figure out where that map was, and hide it. No wonder Feyre had been so morose lately, she’d probably been staring at the gods-damned Night Court, wondering when she was about to be whisked away to their den of horrors. Why she tortured herself so, he couldn’t figure.

If only she would allow her mind to be diverted by more pleasurable things, he was sure that it would help her. But she hadn’t picked up a paintbrush in ages, only walked in the garden on occasion, and seemed to spend most of her time sleeping. Only when they were intimate together did she show any signs of life, and even then she seemed to be going through the motions. I’ll ask Ianthe to include her in the planning for Nynsar, perhaps that would be diverting.

He noticed that Feyre was staring at him, and realized that she was waiting for his reaction.

“The Night Court is the most cruel and depraved of all the courts, of course their star-tales would be bloodthirsty as well,” Tamlin said, clenching his jaw, shoving down his revulsion, not bothering to wonder where Lucien had picked up stories of their star-lore anyway. Maybe eating out here wasn’t the best idea, after all.

“Bloodthirsty?” Feyre’s sister exclaimed, her hand fluttering up to her throat.

Lucien waved a careless hand, though his voice was a bit strained as he said, “Don’t worry, we’re far, far from them here.”

“Not far enough,” Tamlin muttered to himself, knowing full well that even the manor’s wards and protections wouldn’t be enough to keep a determined Rhysand out. His family had found that out the hard way.

He quickly looked at Feyre, hoping to distract himself from that awful memory, but Feyre was staring at the night sky again, at the three stars twinkling in the distance, lost in her own thoughts. So Tamlin turned to Lucien and asked, “Any word from the other courts? Responses to your letters?”

Lucien took a sip of his wine and then straightened, sliding smoothly into diplomatic mode. “Tarquin is eager to meet with us, has already pledged to do whatever he can. Kallias is willing, but he wants certain assurances first. After… recent events, it’s understandable that he would be wary.”

Tamlin grimaced. The Winter Court had suffered the most catastrophic losses of all during Amarantha’s reign, with the massacre of their younglings. His stomach turned to even think about it.

So he said, “You can promise Kallias that his concerns will be respected. What of Autumn?”

Lucien rolled his eyes, the mechanical one clicking softly with the motion. “No official response, but I expect my father won’t be able to resist an opportunity to throw his influence around.”

“Your father?” Feyre’s sister piped up.

Lucien gave her a tight smile. “The High Lord of the Autumn Court, and a real piece of work. Known for his cruelty and bigoted beliefs —”

“He killed Lucien’s lover,” Feyre suddenly blurted out.

Lucien turned a shade of red that almost matched his hair, and Tamlin winced at his friend’s discomfort, quickly saying, “Darling, please.” What had gotten into her tonight? He bit his tongue, knowing that scolding her in front of her sister and Lucien was sure to end badly.

Feyre’s sister gasped, “Oh! How dreadful, I’m so sorry.”

“It was long ago,” Lucien said quickly, his eye now clicking so rapidly that he was forced to close both of his eyes, as it would surely make him dizzy. “Several centuries.”

“Still,” the sister said plaintively, then seemed to register his answer. “Centuries?”

Lucien nodded, his flush slowly fading. “Yes.”

“How old are you?” she asked, then clapped a hand over her mouth, as if embarrassed that she’d blurted out such a personal question.

“Cauldron, Elain, if I’m to be interrogated, I need dessert first,” Lucien drawled, with a lightness that he surely didn’t feel, and then took a very long gulp of wine, as if bracing himself for the next painful topic.

But she seemed to take the hint, for she asked instead, “Do you often meet with the lords of other courts?”

“Not all at once, usually,” Lucien replied. “I prefer to visit each court individually, they’re more likely to be reasonable when they’re not posturing in front of all their rivals.” He grinned wryly. “Just getting everyone to agree on a meeting place will be a challenge.”

Tamlin shook his head at that. “I thought we were going to host them here.”

Lucien snorted, “You really think Beron will step foot on this territory, after two of his sons were —“ He cut off abruptly, remembering his audience, and said, “No, it’ll have to be a neutral location. I’ve already asked Thesan if he’d consider it.”

Tamlin did not relish the thought of having to visit one of the solar courts. Dawn was far too close to the Night Court for his liking, but he couldn’t deny that it was a good choice otherwise. He would never forget their excellent healing facilities, or their kindness in caring for Lucien as he recovered from his gruesome injury, and Thesan was a decent enough male, with his commitment to neutrality. “That would be acceptable,” he said.

Feyre had perked up at the mention of other courts. “Are we going to travel?” she asked. “I’d love to see someplace new.”

“It’ll be risky,” Tamlin frowned, resolving that there was no way in all the hells that he would parade Feyre in front of the other High Lords, but Lucien said at the same time, “Dawn is beautiful. Ethereal. You’d love the colors. You could even bring your paints, their palaces have views to die for. Though I challenge you to capture the songs of their birds.”

Feyre turned to Tamlin, hope lighting up her face in a way that he hadn’t seen in a long time. “Oh! It sounds lovely.”

Tamlin swallowed hard, hating to quash her spirit, thinking rapidly about how to manage this situation. Saying no outright would disappoint her, and it was so rare that she was excited about anything…

Yes, he decided, he could bring Feyre to Dawn. Thesan was a responsible male, he would have plenty of his peregryns around as eyes and ears, and surely there would be high security with so many visiting dignitaries. And they could ask for extra discretion, considering her delicate health. No one would have to know that she was even there.

“Indeed, anything to lift your spirits,” Tamlin said magnanimously. “And your sister will be welcome too,” he added, inclining his head towards the human female, who was sipping silently from her wine glass, suddenly quiet and thoughtful after having been so talkative earlier in the evening.

Lucien seemed to notice her sudden change in mood as well, for he pointed up at the sky again and asked, “Do you see those seven stars, all clustered close together?” She looked up and then nodded, and he went on, “It’s said those stars are the seven High Lords of Prythian, all trying to outshine each other.”

“I see eight,” Feyre said.

“Do you?” Lucien tilted his head, studying the sky. “If only we had a spyglass — but yes. Actually, I think you’re right.” He laughed. “Imagine that!”

Tamlin squinted, but couldn’t see the eighth star no matter how he tried.

Chapter Text

Stupid, stupid, stupid.

Elain kicked a pebble, sending it skittering across the garden path, then flopped down onto a stone bench in a huff. She started to dump the pile of books down next to her, then reconsidered and placed each one down carefully, reverently, for they represented the life’s work of Hart’s beloved sister Willow, who’d been slain Under the Mountain.

Just because I’m an idiot doesn’t mean I should be ruining these lovely books.

Elain traced idle paths in the gravel with the toe of her borrowed shoe, suddenly hating the bright airy colors she was dressed in. The High Lord’s staff apparently thought she was a butterfly, or a flower, for they had again given her a party dress with tulle skirts and gossamer sleeves, and dainty pastel shoes to match, even weaving matching flowers into her hair in complicated braids she wasn’t sure she could even undo without help. And instead of feeling beautiful, she felt ridiculous.

Oh, the manor was lovely, the sunshine warm and nourishing, the air crisper and cleaner on this side of the Wall. Everything was perfectly placed and elegant — too perfect, she decided. She had a wicked impulse to drag her pristine shoes through the mud, to yank out the flowers from her hair and stomp them. But then she’d only be proving herself the brutish, uncivilized human they probably all thought she was.

She cracked open one of Willow’s botanical journals, gingerly adjusting the volume in her hands so as to keep the delicate pages out of direct sunlight. The handwriting was elegant, curling, difficult to decipher where the ink had faded. Elain thought that she would be much the same, becoming brittle and drying out, fading so quickly in comparison to the fae, who could live for centuries, if not forever. She’d be old and wrinkly while Feyre stayed vital and strong, or as strong as she managed to be, and Lucien —

No, she scolded herself. Don’t think of him.

That had been the trouble in the first place, thinking of Lucien of anything but her sister’s friend, a curiosity to ponder at her leisure while she went on with her life. Instead, she’d gotten her head all mixed up in thoughts of him and his mischievous smile, and his strong hands, and his —

Stop that.

She sighed to herself, flipping another page of Willow’s tome, running a careful finger down one of the pressed flowers.

She’d been startled to find out he was centuries old, that he’d had a lover he might have married, as if she should have expected anything else. Of course a handsome, accomplished male like Lucien would have a partner. It would be odd if he didn’t. She’d told herself that it didn’t matter, that a tragedy from long before her birth was no obstacle to — whatever she thought she might want with him.

As if she wasn’t married herself.

That hadn’t seemed to bother him, especially once she abandoned her marriage, her life, to be whisked away into Prythian. She’d told herself that with her husband on the wrong side of the Wall, whatever she decided to do, with whomever she wished, was her decision alone.

That was before she’d learned who Lucien really was.

Do faeries not have last names? she’d asked him.

And he’d replied, I’m quite notorious, I hardly need one.

Elain had not known what to make of that. And now that she understood, she felt like a fool indeed.

She’d found the priestess and Feyre together in the parlor, a large chart showing tables and chairs spread out before them. The room felt larger, emptier without partygoers and musicians livening things up, and Elain’s footsteps sounded too loud and awkward as she had approached them.

But the priestess had welcomed her, declaring, “Ah! Lady, your sister is still a guest here. I’m sorry, what was your name again?”

Elain had curtsied and answered, then asked if she might join them for a while.

“But of course! We’re planning a party for Nynsar. It’s the planting festival,” the priestess had replied. Ianthe, her name was, Elain remembered, though she wasn’t sure of the etiquette, if priestesses should be addressed by common names, or if they were too important for such casualness.

Feyre had looked utterly bored and indifferent, but Ianthe was going on eagerly, describing flower selections and seating arrangements, the position of the musicians in reference to the buffet table, the giving of seeds as gifts to the assembled guests. It was all so charming that Elain had found herself growing interested, and she found herself giving opinions. The whole affair had reminded Elain of a fancy ball she once attended with her mother and Nesta, when her sister had caught the eye of a nobleman, except that there had been nothing spiritual about it — the whole room had worshipped Nesta’s dancing instead.

The priestess was writing down notes, occasionally finding fault with one suggestion or another, when Lucien had walked in.

“Why, Lucien, it’s unusual to see you around the manor at this early hour,” the priestess had drawled.

Elain had given him a warm smile, but was puzzled when his face remained impassive and cold. “I apologize for the interruption,” he said formally, inclining his head to them. “I had thought this room to be vacant. I will work in the study.”

“But you must weigh in,” the priestess was objecting, up from her seat and moving to intercept him before he could turn and depart. “These decisions are proving most difficult. Lady Elain thinks purple flowers for the centerpieces, but I think yellow. Lady Feyre has no opinion. What do you think?”

“I think I am far too ignorant of flowers to be of any help,” had been Lucien’s reply. “I’ll leave it in your capable hands.” And then he’d departed, without a single word to either Elain or Feyre.

“What do you think of that? Capable hands,” the priestess had chortled, returning to her perch in the high-backed chair, the grandest seat in the room. Elain thought it odd that Feyre, the lady of the manor, didn’t sit there, but her sister seemed preoccupied, staring out the window, and barely noticed who sat where or what they were discussing.

Elain was worried about Feyre’s apathy, how miserable she seemed, and planning this celebration didn’t seem to be improving her mood one bit. Last night at dinner, gazing at the stars, at least she’d spoken, shown interest in something, but she was sinking back down into that listless haze, and Elain didn’t know what to do about it.

And Lucien — what was wrong with him today? Had last night’s discussion offended him, triggered unpleasant memories?

Elain must have been staring too long at the doorway, for the priestess had said, “He is handsome, isn’t he?”

“Who?” Feyre had asked, her gaze never straying from the window.

“Why, Lucien, naturally. He is a catch. I know you only have eyes for your husband, Lady, but to have two such fine males in your household is lucky. Most High Lords’ sons aren’t so cultured or widely traveled,” had been Ianthe’s smug reply. “Whomever he marries will have to be just as high born, as refined and courtly as he is.”

Elain had then remembered that Lucien’s father was the High Lord of another court. But she hadn’t put it together that that made him royalty in Prythian. He didn’t act like a prince or duke, didn’t put on airs or expect any special deference. Maybe he’s just tolerant of humans, being Feyre’s friend, and I’ve been acting improperly all this time.

“In Autumn, they especially care about pedigree, you know,” Ianthe was saying, adjusting the turquoise jewel that adorned her forehead. “Rumor has it that his former lover was a lesser fae. Quite unsuitable for a male of his stature.” Then she had rested a hand on Feyre’s arm. “Dear Lady, I mean no disrespect, knowing you were once human. But you are High Fae now, so it’s quite a different situation.”

The implication had been quite clear — a mere human like Elain would not be suitable for someone like Lucien.

“What’s wrong with humans?” Elain had dared ask.

“Why, nothing, of course,” Ianthe said airily. “Though your lifespans are so short, sadly. I suppose you make the best of things, while you can.”

The rest of the conversation had gone by in a blur after that.

Elain had been relieved when Feyre wanted to rest, and she could slip out to the garden alone. She couldn’t bear another moment in this ostentatious manor, richer and more elegant than any human had a right to live in, and even the perfectly cultivated gardens seemed to taunt her.

A tear slipped down her cheek, and she quickly angled Willow’s book away before the drop could fall. It would be just like a human to ruin this priceless work of art.

Elain didn’t know how much time had passed, how long she’d sat cradling the volume of pressed flowers and notes against her chest, letting the tears of embarrassment and frustration roll down her face. She didn’t regret coming across the Wall; she’d meant what she said about not bringing Graysen to Nesta’s doorstep, and she didn’t have anywhere else to go. She couldn’t even regret enjoying Lucien’s company, though she felt foolish for thinking — she didn’t even know what. What had she even hoped would happen?

And she felt especially silly for crying over nothing, when she was holding these books in her hands, when she was alive and the female who’d painstakingly created these books was dead. Elain’s little disappointments were nothing compared to what Feyre had been through, or Lucien, or the High Lord himself, for he too had a pained, distant look about him, as if he had experienced his own horrors.

I’m ungrateful, and this is ridiculous.

But Elain couldn’t reason her way out of the fierce feelings that were roiling inside her, so she curled up on the stone bench, carefully piling Willow’s books next to her, and closed her eyes.

* * * *

“Elain? Elain! Thank the Mother!” Gentle hands were shaking her, and then the voice called, “I’ve found her!”

Elain blinked, and looked up, and nearly gasped aloud when she saw that it was Lucien hovering over her, anxiously peering into her face. “What’s going on?” she asked weakly, blinking several times to be sure that it was really him. The stiff, cold demeanor was gone, replaced by warm concern, and then he was pulling her to sit up, looking her over carefully, as if scanning her for injuries. “What’s all this about?”

“By the Cauldron,” he burst out, “how can you ask? You’ve been missing for hours.”

Hours? Elain rubbed her neck self consciously. “I must have fallen asleep?” she mumbled, her cheeks flushing red with embarrassment.

“How did you get under here in the first place?” Lucien asked, shoving at the canopy of vines that was providing shade. Suddenly realizing that she must have missed lunch, Elain squinted at the late afternoon sun, then at the mass of vines, which she didn’t remember having been there before.

“I didn’t?” Elain brushed her fingers along the ivy, then grabbed for Willow’s books before they could topple from the bench. “How fast do these grow?”

Lucien shrugged, scooping up the books. “I’ve no idea. I confess I haven’t spent as much time in these gardens as they deserve. Maybe you’ll inspire me.” He examined the volumes’ covers, then tucked them under his arm. “I’d better get you inside. Feyre is frantic.”

“She is?” Elain found that hard to believe. Her sister would be worried about her, of course, but she wondered whether Feyre could muster up the energy to be frantic about anything.

“We all were,” Lucien said hoarsely.

Elain’s heart twanged with guilt, as well as a warm tingly feeling that Lucien cared enough about her to be worried, but she said defensively, “I was only in the garden.”

Lucien huffed a sigh. “The manor really is safe, Elain. I know Tamlin can be overprotective, though he means well. I try to be the voice of reason when he overreacts. But when no one had any idea where you were, for hours…” He trailed off and gave her a small, sheepish grin. “I may have freaked out a little.”

Elain pressed her lips together, but the corners of her mouth turned up anyway, smiling in return. “A little?”

“A lot, actually.” He slid onto the bench next to her, the warmth of him settling over her, and suddenly she hated that he was a prince of the fae, and had to marry someone pedigreed, because those beautiful mismatched eyes were looking at her, and she saw the sincerity behind them. “I won’t tell you what I imagined. Suffice it to say, I’m relieved to find you safe.”

“I’m sorry,” she breathed.

“You did nothing wrong,” Lucien said. “We’re all jumpy as hell, between all the creatures that we’ve chased off this land, and Under the Mountain, and — anyone else who thinks they can waltz in here and mess with us.”

Elain decided not to ask who anyone else was, but wondered if it was the same him that Feyre had mentioned, who’d put those marks on her sister.

Lucien squeezed her hand. “Be patient with us, Elain. After fifty years of being on edge, waiting for the next outrage or atrocity to inflict itself on us, some habits are hard to break.”

Elain shuddered, wanting to curl her fingers around his, except for the little nagging voice in her mind telling her that she was only a human, and that she would grow old, and that he was an immortal High Lord’s heir.

Lucien seemed to sense her discomfort, though he couldn’t have known the cause of it, and he stood up awkwardly, cursing when he had to duck under the canopy of vines, and then chuckled when he found that one tendril had curled around his arm. “These do grow fast.”

He gently unwound the vine, then held the rest up so that Elain could slip out from underneath them. “Come on, I’ll escort you back to the house.”

Elain didn’t think she could take any more solicitous attention, not when she’d so badly misinterpreted what it meant. “Oh, you don’t have to,” she protested, flushing a bit.

But Lucien held out his arm to her, unperturbed. “I know.” The smile he gave her was rakish, playful, and Elain felt her resolve crumbling.

So she slid her hand around his arm, and he murmured, “What a terrible host I’ve been.”

“Not at all,” she protested. “I’ve had a lovely time here.” And it was true, or had been until this morning.

Lucien shook his head. “You’re in a completely new place, among strangers. I should have been more attentive.”

You’re a stranger too, she almost said, though he didn’t feel like one. “I have Feyre,” she insisted.

Lucien’s walk slowed. “How does Feyre seem to you?”

Elain admitted, “She seems to be struggling.”

He sighed. “That’s what I think too.” They walked on for a moment, and he went on, “I think you’re really good for Feyre, you know. Things have been hard for her. She won’t say much to me, and I doubt she’ll tell Tam anything, but I hope she’ll confide in you. She needs a good friend.”

“She has that priestess,” Elain said, somewhat bitterly, and Lucien froze in his tracks, going entirely still except for his golden eye, which buzzed loudly as it roved around the garden path. “What?” Elain asked, starting to grow uncomfortable.

“That priestess,” Lucien said quietly, starting to walk again, but more slowly. “I saw you with her earlier.” His eye clicked, and he shifted, as if he might say more, but then fell silent.

Elain bit her lip, considering the priestess’s condescension, the frosty exchange, and decided to say, “She strikes me as phony, like those Carlisles back home. Full of herself. But I thought she was friends with Feyre.”

“They’re thrown together, more than anything,” Lucien said. “Ianthe has made herself useful, answering Feyre’s questions and helping her with planning events at the manor. But she’s far too pushy, and self-important, and I don’t like how she talks over Feyre. And you’re right, she is phony.” He gave a slight shudder. “Don’t trouble yourself with her.”

“No?” She bit her lower lip when she felt it trembling, hoping she wasn’t letting her sadness show.

But Lucien seemed to have an unnatural ability to discern her feelings, for suddenly he was tugging her closer, his fingers closing around her arm, almost growling, “What did she say to you.”

“Nothing,” Elain stammered, surprised by the intensity of his reaction, then amended, “Well, nothing worth repeating.”

Lucien didn’t seem convinced. “Nothing she says is ever worth repeating. But if she was rude to you, or made you uncomfortable, I’ll tell Tamlin to send her packing.”

Elain gaped at him, and he went on, “Was it more of that nonsense about humans, like she was spouting at the party? I thought you dismissed that wonderfully, by the way.”

A tear slipped down Elain’s cheek, and she furiously swiped at it. No, I won’t cry, not over this. “Not in so many words, but the message was clear enough.”

Lucien swore softly. “Knew it.”

“I know the history of humans in Prythian, but I’d thought after all this time it might be different,” Elain said nervously. “Are we really still looked down on?”

“Oh, Elain. If you’d heard half of the stupid things I’ve said to your sister about being human…” Lucien’s shoulders sagged. “I should beg for her forgiveness on my knees.” He ran a hand through his hair. “Humans are… not appreciated as you should be. Though after what Feyre did for us, that should be changing.”

Elain said sadly, “I suppose it’s not surprising. We’re weaker, have no magic. And our lives are so short, compared to yours.”

Lucien’s fingers tightened on her arm. “Sometimes.”

Elain knew she should pull away, put a safe distance between them, look away, something, but she didn’t do any of those things. She stood staring up at him, her arm tingling where he held her, her mind reeling, as he went on, “Faeries are immortal, until we’re not. And even if we live —“ He broke off for a moment, swallowed hard, and then continued. “It doesn’t mean we get what we want, or hold onto it. We like to think we’re invincible, that we’re entitled to whatever we desire. But you humans, you know better. You know you’ll lose it all, in the end. The only difference is how long we live with our losses and regrets.”

Elain laid a gentle hand on his arm. “Oh, Lucien.”

“Forgive me,” he said roughly, “I’m not done freaking out, apparently.” And he gave her an apologetic smile.

For long moments, they walked along the garden path without saying anything. Lucien seemed to be lost in some unpleasant memory, but occasionally gave her searching looks, as if checking to make sure she was still there. Finally, he said in a lighter tone, “I hope this doesn’t put you off naps in the garden. Though a blanket, on a soft patch of grass, might do better than that slab of stone.”

“I’ll bring lunch with me next time,” Elain said, relieved at the lighter topic of conversation, and suddenly feeling very hungry indeed.

“A picnic, then. I know just the place,” Lucien said. “If you’re comfortable on horseback?”

“I learned to ride, before we lost our fortune,” she replied, relieved that he already knew all about that, that she wouldn’t have to explain. “I’m sure I’d remember, with a bit of practice.” She frowned. “You won’t have work to do?”

Lucien chuckled softly. “There’s always work to do. But I’ve got to eat lunch sometime.”

They were in view of the door to the manor now, and Feyre came running out, crying, “Elain! There you are.”

Elain suppressed a yelp as Feyre threw her thin arms around her neck. She cursed herself for her own silliness, but felt gratified to see Feyre energetic and reacting to the situation. Maybe I should get lost more often.

She turned around to thank Lucien again, but he was already gone.

Chapter Text

“You’re sure you won’t come with us?” Lucien asked Tamlin, tugging on the white mare’s saddle one final time to be sure it was secure, before patting the horse’s rump and sending it on with the stableboy. Elain and Feyre were already outside, mounted on their horses, along with most of the food and the blankets.

Tamlin shook his head. “As much as I would like to, there is a matter that needs my attention.” His green eyes shot to the entryway, where two more stablehands lingered, and he barked, “Leave us.”

“Please see if the ladies need help getting settled,” Lucien called after them in a more conciliatory tone, then turned back to Tamlin. “Well?”

“Night Court spies,” Tamlin growled softly.

Lucien sighed with exasperation. Probably another false alarm. “Where?”

“The woods near the Autumn border,” Tamlin said. “The villagefolk in Glenbriar and Dunmeadow reported strange shadows, moving on their own.”

“That’s all?”

“So far.” Tamlin paced back and forth, his agitation growing. “Any intrusion into my lands is an act of war. These shadows, and their master, must be dealt with.”

Lucien considered that, rolled it around in his mind, then said, “So you’re going to give them something to gawk at, are you?”

“I’m going to kill them,” Tamlin snarled, his talons shooting out from his fingers.

“Who, the shadows?” Lucien shook his head, hitching his satchel higher on his shoulder.

Tamlin bared his teeth. “Rhysand will not get away with this provocation.”

“Don’t let Rhys bait you, Tam.” Lucien couldn’t imagine what Rhys or his ilk would want with rural towns, other than riling Tamlin up.

Or drawing him away from the manor.  

But what would the Night Court gain from such a ploy? Lucien couldn’t figure it.

“What should I do, then,” Tamlin gritted out, forcing the talons back in.

“Come with us,” Lucien cajoled. “Take a break. If Rhys is drawing you out, it means he’s getting desperate. He must have heard about the summit by now, must know that allies are gathering. Let him stew for a while. Don’t give him the showdown he’s looking for.” He dared to take a step closer, hoping to calm Tamlin rather than rile him up further. “If Rhys is poking around, your place is with Feyre.”

Tamlin’s face paled as he considered that. “Perhaps she should not leave the manor today.”

Cauldron boil me, was that the wrong thing to say to him. Lucien craned his neck, taking in Feyre and Elain, and the horses, and their packed lunch, and said hastily, “I think the opposite. If anything, he’ll expect her here at the house.”

“Then I shall stay here, and deal with him,” Tamlin resolved. “Continue your trip, as planned. But do not let Feyre out of your sight for a moment. If harm comes to her —”

Lucien sighed resignedly. “She’ll be fine, Tam, you have my word. I’ll do whatever it takes to ensure her wellbeing.”

His friend nodded tersely, and Lucien strode briskly out of the stables, before Tamlin could change his mind.

* * * *

“Oh, it’s wonderful! It’s everything you said, and more,” Elain gushed, spinning in a circle, taking in the glen carpeted with flowers, dandelion fluff floating past on the air. “I never knew there could be places as beautiful as this.”

Elain’s raptures had started almost as soon as they’d departed the manor, with each new vista impressing her more than the last. His mate’s enthusiasm for nature was infectious and charming; it was impossible to be sour and jaded in the face of Elain’s innocent joy.

Or almost impossible, for Feyre’s face was drawn and pale, her mouth set in a thin line, her eyes flicking passively from one sight to another without seeming to register anything. Lucien’s heart ached to see it. She was only growing more withdrawn, more of a ghost, and even her sister’s presence hadn’t snapped her out of it.

He knew it took time to recover, that they couldn’t expect Feyre to bounce back as though nothing had happened. But it seemed to him that she was sinking deeper into her sorrow, becoming entrenched, and that neither he nor Tamlin had any idea how to handle it.

Elain rushed up to Feyre, grabbing her hands, crying, “Run through the field with me,” and then took off before Feyre could refuse. Feyre yelped, apparently startled by her sister’s wildness, but her legs started moving, and Lucien burst out laughing as the flowers nestled in both of their braids came loose and pelted him and the blanket he’d spread out for their picnic.

That seemed to give Elain an idea, for she reached down and yanked a handful of flowers, then tossed them at Feyre. Feyre gave out a startled, scraping laugh, then grabbed for her own flower-weapon, launching the blooms back in Elain’s direction. Feyre’s aim and strength was much greater, and a ball of dandelion fluff exploded on contact with Elain’s forehead, showering her with the tiny white seeds.

“Wicked!” Elain burst out, brushing the fluff from her face, then smushed a whole handful of flowers directly into Feyre’s hair, panting, “There, now we’re even.”

Then Feyre impulsively grabbed at Elain’s sleeve, almost tearing the sheer fabric as she leaned into her sister’s ear. Elain’s eyes widened, then sparkled with some secret mischief, and the back of Lucien’s neck prickled as both sisters turned to look at him.

“What?” he asked nervously, taking an instinctive step back.

“Oh, nothing,” Elain said innocently, in a sweet voice that could only mean trouble.

“You two,” Lucien huffed, barely suppressing a laugh as he took another step back, “you’re plotting something.”

“Who, us?” Feyre asked. “We’re not plotting anything, are we, Elain.”

“Not us,” said Elain, with mock indignation.

“What terrible manners,” Feyre said, with a gleam in her eye that Lucien hadn’t seen in a long, long time, and he bit his lip to keep from commenting on it.

“So uncivilized,” Elain tsked.

“I think we should civilize him, don’t you, Elain?”

Elain folded her arms in her best imitation of a stern governess. “I think we’d better.”

Lucien said, “If you two think you’re ganging up on me—“

And then yelped, as Feyre shot forward and tackled his legs.

“Cauldron boil me, I forgot how strong you’ve become,” Lucien burst out, a startled laugh escaping him as they both tumbled into the long grass. He just knew he would be covered in grass stains and dirt and pollen, and couldn’t bring himself to care.

Feyre cackled, keeping a firm hold on his legs, calling, “Hurry, Elain!” and Lucien twisted, more to see what nonsense they were up to than to actually throw her off. When was the last time he had seen her run, or exhibit any of that new High Fae strength she had? When was the last time he’d seen her laugh?

So he flopped down amidst the bluebells, feigning surrender, letting the feathery soft grass envelop him, as Elain sat down beside him with a whole pile of white flowers gathered in the extra fabric of her skirt. He’d thought such a fancy dress wholly improper for a ride on horseback, picnic, and dip in the Pool of Starlight, but now she looked ethereally lovely, like a queen of the flowers, and he quite forgot that he was supposed to be an unwilling victim as she began sweetly tucking the blooms into the braids of his hair.

“Hold still,” Feyre barked at him, grabbing at his wrists when he tried to reach up to tuck a flower back in that had jostled loose. “My sister is an expert.”

Elain’s warm hand pressed down on the back of his head, and he shivered a little as she slid the stem of a flower in close to his scalp, and he said, “Indeed, she is.”

“There, you look like a proper faerie,” Elain declared, then said, “Now I’ll make him a crown.”

“I’m only a seventh son,” Lucien protested, entranced by her quick fingers as she wove the flower stems around one another into a flexible wreath. “I’ve never wanted to rule anything.”

“Don’t argue, Your Majesty,” Feyre teased him, tugging him to sit up, and he bowed his head obediently so that Elain could crown him with her wreath of flowers, and though he tried to give his captors a cross look to indicate his kingly displeasure, he was grinning so hard that his cheeks ached.

“Well, since I am King,” Lucien said, standing up and brushing the loose petals and stems from his clothes, “I proclaim that it’s lunchtime.”

Elain tossed him a wrapped sandwich, which he quickly passed to Feyre, who ripped it open and took the biggest bite he’d ever seen.

Then he was digging through the food bag, saying hastily, “I’ll serve myself. I’m a King of the common folk.”

Lucien extracted a sandwich for himself, and one for Elain, and sat back on the blanket, eyeing both females with amusement. “Shall we go swimming after this?”

“Swimming?” Elain cried, startled, her ears and cheeks turning an adorable shade of pink.

Feyre took another big bite of her sandwich before commenting, “You simply have to, Elain. It’s not regular water, it’s — well, you’ll see. I won’t spoil the surprise.”

“But I’m not dressed for swimming,” Elain stammered, looking down at herself.

“Your King commands it,” Lucien said with mock sternness, raising an eyebrow at her.

Elain folded her arms. “We’re staging a coup.”

Feyre said, “I’m with Lucien on this one. The pool of starlight is not to be missed.”

“I’ll be soaking wet,” Elain pouted.

“Just take the dress off,” Feyre shrugged.

The scandalized look on Elain’s face had Lucien clapping a hand over his mouth to stifle his laugh.

“I will wait here,” Elain said primly. “You two have fun.”

“Like hell I’m leaving you here,” Lucien said, recalling the reports of trouble at the borders. Besides, he’d be damned if Elain didn’t get to see the pool of starlight.

Feyre was up from the soft grass and tugging on Elain’s hands. “Come on. It’s like swimming in the night sky.”

Elain relented, letting Feyre pull her up to stand, and then smoothed out her dress around her. Lucien was struck all over again by how lovely she was, and thought about how much the Spring Court agreed with her. She seemed more free, more joyful, more full of life and energy, than she had in that dour, oppressive manor across the Wall, with that lordling brat nipping at her heels.

Lucien led the way through the trees, taking the path slow and easy to accommodate Elain’s wholly unsuitable shoes, extending a hand to help her step across the little streams and large tree roots that they encountered. His heart lurched when he realized he’d lost sight of Feyre, and then happened to glance up into a tree to find her perched there, smirking down at them with a satisfied grin on her face.

“Cauldron, Feyre, you gave me a fright. Tamlin will kill me if I lose you in here,” Lucien called to her, but he couldn’t resist smiling at the color that had crept into her face from the exertion.

Feyre hopped down, and he caught her around the waist, setting her back on her feet. She tilted, and grabbed both Lucien and the tree trunk to steady herself. “I’m so out of shape,” she complained.

Elain eyed her skeptically. “You climbed a tree, Feyre.”

“I’m out of practice,” Feyre grumbled. “I’m weak and wobbly.”

Lucien awkwardly patted her shoulder. “It’ll take time, but you’ll get there.”

“Not if Tamlin refuses to let me do anything,” she muttered, more to herself than to him, and stalked forward, leading the way.

Lucien had no answer for that.

Feyre leaped over the final tree root, then ran down the hill towards the pool, leaving Lucien to offer his hand to Elain. “You’re going to have to — carry — me back,” she panted.

In fact, Lucien had been planning to winnow all of them right back to the horses, but he decided it would be rather uncivilized of him to turn down the lady’s request, so he held out his arms to her. “I’ll carry you now,” he said gallantly.

Elain swatted at him. “You’re just going to toss me in the pool in my dress, aren’t you.”

Lucien burst out laughing. “Well, now I am.”

Elain shrieked playfully, and ran, but she didn’t get far before he lunged for her and swept her up in his arms, calling, “Feyre, don’t hog all the starlight, we’re coming in.”

Elain laughed, squirming in his hold without really trying to get away. “You horrid creature, you’ll have to explain to Alis why my dress is ruined.”

“Cauldron, not Alis,” Lucien groaned. “She hates me as it is. Thinks I’m quite the scoundrel.” Elain looked at him expectantly, and he shrugged. “Oh well, I suppose I have a reputation to uphold.” 

He took a few more steps, then looked at her more seriously. “If you really don’t want to get wet —“

“Oh, go on,” she said, adding impatiently, “I’m not going to watch Feyre have all the fun.”

Lucien was confident that he was the one having all the fun, especially now that he had his mate in his arms, but just grinned at her and said, “Hold on tight.”

Then he charged down the hill, a shrieking Elain flinging her arms around his neck, and then they were both in the water, clothes, shoes, and all.

Elain scooped up a handful of sparkling warm, silvery water in her hands and dumped it over his head. “Careful, you’ll ruin my crown,” he teased her, and couldn’t resist giving her the slightest little squeeze before easing his hold, giving her the chance to swim away.

“This is amazing,” she cried, getting a proper look at the pool. “It really is like swimming in starlight.” She held the water up, letting it drip from her hands, gasping as it sparkled and shimmered in many colors. “Is it really made of starlight?”

“Tamlin said it is,” Feyre remarked, sending little ripples through the pool as she treaded water.

“Tam loves this place,” Lucien said, regretting that Tamlin had chosen to stay behind.

Feyre was silent, contemplative, but Elain asked, “Why couldn’t he come with us today?”

Do I tell them? Lucien knew Tamlin wouldn’t want him to, would warn him not to worry Feyre, but he found himself answering, “There were reports of suspicious activity on one of our borders. He wanted to be sure the manor was secure.”

Elain glanced around nervously. “Do you think we’re all right here?”

Lucien nodded. “We’re nowhere near the border. And I can winnow us to safety, if it comes to that.” Then he looked up at the sky, startled to see how low the sun was already looming towards the horizon. “We should be getting back.”

“No,” Feyre said, “it’s too soon.”

Elain swam towards Lucien, holding out her arms, and he scooped her up and set her, shivering, on the side of the pool. “Hold still, I’ll dry you,” he said, summoning a bit of his power, but keeping the flames pulled back, and holding out his hands to dry the glistening liquid from her skin and dress.

Elain gasped. “That tickles!” Then she turned around, presenting him with a glorious view of her backside. “Keep going.”

Lucien groaned inwardly. She is going to kill me with this.

Feyre kept swimming, ignoring them both as Lucien hefted himself out of the pool, dripping wet, clothes clinging to him. He got to work drying himself, carefully keeping his eyes averted, deciding he couldn’t handle knowing whether Elain was looking at him.

“Are all faeries athletic?” she asked innocently.

Cauldron boil me, she is looking.

Lucien’s left hand burst into flame.

“Oh!” Elain gasped, and he laughed, letting the fire fizzle out. “It’s all right, I just got a little… overzealous,” he said, mentally kicking himself. You haven’t been this nervous around a female in centuries, get it together.

He turned back to the pool, seeing that Feyre had swum away from them, and called out to her. “Come on, Feyre, we’ve got to head back. Tam’s expecting us for dinner.”

Feyre leaned on some rocks on the far edge of the pool. “I don’t want to.”

Lucien opened his mouth and closed it again, flummoxed as to what to say. “You don’t want to?” he repeated stupidly.

“Is there water in your ears?” Feyre snapped. “I said I don’t want to.

“It’s going to get dark, Feyre,” Elain said reasonably.

“I’m not afraid of the dark,” Feyre scoffed. “I want to stay.”

Lucien thought rapidly about what he might say, but Elain was quicker. “But Feyre,” she said gently, “it’s time to go home.”

“Home,” Feyre said bitterly. “You think the manor is home?”

“Isn’t it?” Elain asked. She looked at Lucien quizzically, then back at Feyre.

“Not to me,” Feyre said, leaning her head back against the rocks, letting her body float just underneath the surface of the glittering waters.

Lucien sighed and slid back in, suddenly feeling like she shouldn’t be alone in the water, that things had become fraught in a way that he didn’t know how to manage. He looked back towards Elain, but she had disappeared into her dress — taking it off, he realized, so that she could come back in without getting it wet again.

He forced himself to look away, to stay focused, Cauldron damn it, and asked, “Where is home to you, Feyre?”

Tears were running down her cheeks, but she made no effort to wipe them away. “I don’t know. Not here. Not across the Wall. Maybe that cell Under the Mountain.”

Lucien felt chilled, despite the warmth of the water.

“I don’t think you ever left that cell,” he said quietly. “Not really.”

There was a little splash behind him, and then Elain was swimming towards them.

Feyre said in a small, thin voice, “When I died there… Maybe I didn’t really come back.”

Elain swam to her, and held onto the rocks as well, watching, listening.

“What I did down there,” Feyre went on, her voice cracking. “Maybe I don’t deserve to come back.”

Lucien stammered, “But, but you saved us.”

“I killed those innocents,” Feyre said flatly. “I killed them.”

That third trial. Lucien swore under his breath. Amarantha always seemed to know exactly how to torment her victims, by what trickery or magic he could only guess. Oily horror crept over him as he thought about those fraught final moments before the curse had been broken, what Feyre had been forced to do.

“Forced,” he blurted. “You were forced to do it.”

“I could have refused,” Feyre said miserably, slicking her hair back with her hand, starlight trailing down her forehead and neck. “I could have said no.”

“And killed all the innocents, not just two?” Lucien swam closer, looking at her incredulously. “Amarantha put you in an impossible position. No one faults you for it.”

“But I do,” Feyre cried.

Elain’s lovely face was twisted in sorrow as she stared at her sister. “That evil queen made you kill?”

Feyre averted her eyes from Elain as she answered, “Yes.”

Elain gave a little cry, then held out her arms to Feyre, who stared at them for a long moment before accepting the embrace. “You suffered so much, and we had no idea.”

Lucien watched them, his heart heavy, trying not to think about the waning daylight or the thrashing Tamlin would give him if he didn’t bring Feyre home on time.

I’ll do whatever it takes to ensure her wellbeing.

That had been his promise. And she was finally talking, finally facing what had been eating at her for months.

“I don’t want you to know what it was like,” Feyre said to her sister. “I don’t want you to even imagine.”

Elain smoothed out a loose strand of Feyre’s hair. “You and Nesta have always protected me. Shielded me. But you shouldn’t have to bear this alone.” Feyre opened her mouth to object, but Elain went on. “I know whatever you did, you did to protect others. Because you always put others before yourself, even when we were poor and had nothing. You went out into the woods, put yourself in danger for us, and you were just a child.”

“I did what I had to so we could survive,” Feyre said.

“And that’s what you’re still doing,” Elain pointed out. “You always do everything to protect what you love, no matter what harm it does to you in the process.”

Feyre’s shoulders slumped. “I’m not doing anything now. All I do is sit around the manor. No one wants my help, no one needs me.”

Elain blinked at that, then looked at Lucien.

Tamlin needs you, he almost said.

But somehow, it sounded wrong.

“You’ve never been good at sitting around,” he said instead. “You’re too driven for that.” He sighed, remembering how they’d visited the villages near the manor, how people had been too awed by Feyre to accept any help from her. But he hadn’t realized how much it bothered her, until now.

“That’s not what’s expected of me,” Feyre pointed out. “I’m supposed to represent this manor and this court, but not actually do anything, just look pretty.”

Elain said, “My husband never wanted me to trouble my pretty little head about important things, either.”

Feyre burst out, “Oh, Elain, you do understand.”

Lucien bit back the urge to defend his friend, to protest that Tamlin wasn’t like that, that he thought he was protecting Feyre after her horrible trauma, that there were very real monsters and threats to her that he was keeping at bay.

Feyre’s misery is a real threat, too.

“Is that why you left?” Feyre asked. “Because you were tired of being treated like a pet?”

“I left because he was hurting Lucien,” Elain said. Lucien bit down hard on the inside of his bottom lip, desperately trying to keep his face neutral despite wanting to grin like a fool. “Otherwise I probably would have stayed, but I wouldn’t have been happy.”

Feyre’s eyes flicked to him. “Lucky you came along, then.”

Lucien managed to quip, “I do my best.” But his mind kept rolling around the talk of leaving, and he again remembered how far they were from the manor, how there were shadows at the borders, and prodded gently, “We really should get back.”

Elain nodded solemnly. “We mustn’t make your High Lord worry.”

“No,” Feyre said woodenly, “we mustn’t do that.”

Lucien watched with relief as the sisters swam back to the bank and hoisted themselves up, and he dried them both off while keeping his eyes firmly fixed on some trees in the distance.

But as they headed back in silence, he thought that Tamlin should be very worried, indeed.

Chapter Text

They should have been back by now.

Tamlin paced, trying to shove down the worry that was percolating inside him, threatening to boil over and burst out of him with every moment that passed. Despite Lucien’s assurances that he and the sisters would be back before sundown, they had not returned. Feyre had not returned.

Feyre was out there somewhere.

She could be hurt.

She could be under attack.

Anything could be happening, and Tamlin wouldn’t know it.

The sun pooled orange at the horizon, reddening at the edges, slipping away moment by moment, and Feyre had not come back. It was growing dark, and she could be lost forever, after all they’d been through, after they’d fought so hard to have a life and a future together, she could be gone, she could be —

“Tam?”

Tamlin’s head whipped around, and there was gods-damned Lucien, striding up the front walkway toward him, clothes all wrinkled and askew.

Tamlin rushed forward and grabbed the male’s arms, barking, “What’s happened?”

Lucien paled, yielding a step, trying to tug out of Tamlin’s grasp. Tamlin’s talons punched out, his blood roaring in his ears. “Speak,” he commanded.

“We’re back,” Lucien said, his voice strained to a thin, high yelp.

Behind him, Elain was dismounting from her horse, gracefully hopping down with the help of the stablehands, and behind her —

Thank the Mother.

“Feyre,” Tamlin burst out, releasing Lucien and running to her, taking in her pale frightened face, her gaunt cheeks, sorrowful eyes, and his words came out all in a rush as he pulled her into his embrace. She’s here. I haven’t lost her. She’s safe. “Are you all right. What’s happened? Did something harm you? Are you unwell?”

“I’m fine,” Feyre said, each word clipped. “It was fun.”

“Fun?” Tamlin exclaimed, examining her carefully, holding her at arms’ length so he could scan her for injuries. He grabbed her wrists and examined her palms — no blood, just dirt under her fingernails, and little glimmers of dried starlight from the pool. But her dress was torn near the knee, full of grass stains, and her hair was wild, out of her braids, knotted and damp, as though she’d been running and had had to dive into a stream to get away.

Feyre yanked her hands away, glaring sullenly at him. “I said, I’m fine.”

But she wasn’t. Tamlin could see it. Feyre hadn’t been fine in a long time, not really. And she looked like she’d been in a tussle with some creature, had barely escaped —

“It was lovely,” Elain was gushing, wholly unconcerned, as though they hadn’t all just been in danger, exposed, alone, with Rhysand and his spies and Cauldron knew what monsters on the prowl. “The pool of starlight shimmers divinely. And so warm! And the flowers, I’ve never seen so many wild varieties…”

Tamlin tuned her prattling out. Elain was only human, her senses dulled, her naive mind unattuned to the threats and dangers that lurked in the woods. Feyre had been much the same as a human, though she had been more wary, on guard, her hunter’s instincts giving her a bit of an edge. Still, both sisters were so new to these lands, the creatures that haunted them. It was Lucien who should have been protecting them, who should know better.

Tamlin kissed the top of Feyre’s head, reining himself in, avoiding displaying his growing indignation in front of her. “Why don’t you go clean up before dinner,” he murmured, sliding a gentle hand down her back, caressing her, desperate to make her feel good, to comfort her. She was loved and cherished, and he wanted her to know it.

“I’m not hungry,” Feyre muttered, a pout pulling down the corners of her mouth.

“I’m starving after all that exercise,” Elain said brightly, coming towards Feyre and looping her arm through her sister’s, and they strolled away together, disappearing behind the manor doors.

Tamlin watched them go, his heart clenching, then stormed towards Lucien, gripping the male’s arm and yanking him up the front steps, steering him towards the study. Lucien went pliant, not daring to pull away, and Tamlin shoved him into the room and slammed the door behind them, his rage cresting over him like an engulfing wave, tinging his vision red.

“I trusted you to keep her safe,” he growled, digging his talons into his palms, not caring that he drew blood.

“She is safe, Tam. She was safe the whole time,” Lucien said pleadingly, maneuvering himself so that the desk was between them. As though that would be any obstacle at all.

“Why do you all look like you fought off Hybern’s hordes, then,” Tamlin barked.

Lucien looked confused for a moment, then noticed his own ragged state, and said, “Oh! We were just running through the fields, and the forest, and the starlit pool, that’s all.” He raised his hands in a placating gesture, as though realizing that his words sounded ridiculous. “We had a lovely time. So much so that Feyre didn’t want to leave.”

Tamlin gritted out, “Then why was her dress torn.”

Lucien blinked. “It was?” He considered for a moment. “Maybe she tore it when she climbed the tree?”

“She what?” Tamlin squawked. “Why did she climb a tree? Were you attacked? Was she trying to get away?” His heart pounded as he thought about Feyre having to run for her life, how frightened she must have been —

“No, Tam,” Lucien huffed, shoving a frustrated hand through his hair. “She likes to climb trees, that’s all.”

Tamlin shook his head. “She could have fallen and hurt herself. That was an unnecessary risk.” He examined Lucien again, saying, “You are certain nothing happened?”

“Nothing,” Lucien said firmly, his forehead crinkling, stretching the scars on his face. “We had a lovely day. There was never any danger, none at all.”

But Tamlin zeroed in on Lucien’s torn shirt, saying accusingly, “You are bleeding.”

Lucien tugged at his sleeve, twisting his arm to get a better look, then said quietly, “You did that.”

Oh.

Tamlin said gruffly, “I apologize.”

Lucien nodded in acknowledgement, waving his hand. “You’re all wound up, Tam. You’ve got to relax. Come with us next time, you’ll see it’s all right.”

“Next time?” Tamlin thundered. He couldn’t handle another day like this, constantly on edge about what might be happening, waiting for some disaster to befall Feyre out in the wilderness. “No. This outing was ill-advised. Next time you will choose a destination closer to the manor, where it is safer.”

Lucien frowned, his mechanical eye clicking as he dared a step forward. “Tam. Please. It really was fine. You’ve got to ease up.” He saw Tamlin’s angry expression, rapidly adding, “I understand your concern. Fifty years of danger is hard to get past. But you know I would never willingly put Feyre or her sister in danger.”

“You do not understand,” Tamlin snarled. “Or you would have taken better care of them.”

Lucien bristled at that, snapping, “Feyre was more lively today, more talkative, than she’s been in months. She actually enjoyed herself for once, actually looked alive. When it was time to go, she didn’t want to come back. She is miserable, Tam, hurting inside. Take care of that.

What are you saying,” Tamlin growled.

“I’m saying Feyre is unhappy,” Lucien snapped. “I’m saying she didn’t want to come back here. I’m saying that something is wrong, that this isn’t working, and if you don’t make changes, I fear for what would happen.”

“What would happen?” Tamlin challenged him, but Lucien was backing up now, seeming to realize he’d pushed too far. “Out with it. What would happen?”

“I don’t know, Tam,” Lucien said pleadingly, taking another step back, casting a look over his shoulder as if calculating the distance to the nearest door. He was fast, but Tamlin was faster, and they both knew it. “Something bad. Can’t you see she is full of despair? Wasting away? You’re so focused on enemies out there, don’t you care that she’s dying inside?”

Tamlin’s ears burned as he flung his arm forward, shoving the desk between them out of the way with his power, and then he was shoving Lucien backwards, slamming him against the wall, roaring with fury. How dare Lucien say he didn’t care? He cared about Feyre more than anything, more than life itself, had done everything he could to protect her, to make sure no harm would come to her, and for this male to suggest that he wasn’t taking proper care of her —

There was a shriek outside the door, the sounds of high pitched sobbing, and Tamlin sprang up, instantly alert to the threat. It hadn’t sounded like Feyre, but she was out there, vulnerable, and he raced to the doorway, bellowing, “What’s going on?”

Behind him, Lucien was scrambling up as well, breathing hard, but Tamlin ignored him as he raced down the hall and around the corner, finding Feyre’s sister supported by two maids, who were fanning her and consoling her in low voices. They scattered as he approached, leaving her to peer up at him, tears streaming down her face. “Where is Feyre,” he asked, struggling to make his voice gentle through his panic.

“Still getting changed,” she said, swiping at her reddened cheeks.

“Elain!” Lucien exclaimed, careening around the corner, then rushing forward to her, inserting himself in between her and Tamlin, daring to put his back to the High Lord — a bold move, so typically Lucien, always one to play recklessly with his own life. I never should have trusted him with Feyre.

But the male was putting a comforting arm around his mate, saying, “What’s happened?”

“I don’t know,” Elain sobbed. “I was coming down for dinner, when I just felt this panic — I can’t explain it, it’s like it exploded through me. I know that sounds ridiculous,” she added apologetically, wincing as she looked up at Lucien.

“No, no,” Lucien said softly, tugging a handkerchief from his pocket with his free hand and offering it to her, then looking accusingly at Tamlin over his shoulder as he added, “It doesn’t sound ridiculous at all.”

Tamlin took a step back from them, understanding dawning. She felt Lucien’s emotions through the mating bond.

“It doesn’t? But there’s nothing here, nothing’s happened,” Elain said, dabbing at her cheeks as tears continued to slip out.

“Well,” Lucien said awkwardly, “you may have been picking up on something. It’s possible to sense things, sometimes, through magic.”

“But I don’t have magic,” she objected, frowning. “I’m just a human.”

“You’re not just anything,” Lucien said emphatically. Then, as though suddenly noticing how close he was cradling her, he inched back, relaxing his hold, but not letting go entirely. “Everything is all right now.”

He still hasn’t told her that they’re mates. Tamlin couldn’t understand it.

He was still waiting for his own mating bond to snap into place, couldn’t understand why it hadn’t. Surely when Feyre had been Made fae, when she’d died for him, come back for him, the mating bond should have snapped then? Or when they’d gotten married, or when they’d made love afterwards, or any of the days since?

It frustrated and vexed him that they were still waiting, after all they’d been through together, but that wretch Lucien had his mating bond with so little effort, and with Feyre’s sister, no less. Tamlin knew he should be happy for his friend, should wish him every happiness after all he’d suffered, but it didn’t seem fair. Why shouldn’t Tamlin be happy as well? What was preventing it?

“I should freshen up,” Lucien was saying, cringing at his disheveled appearance, at the blood stains on his shirtsleeves, “but shall I meet you in the dining room?”

Elain nodded, straightening, managing a shaky smile through her tears. “I’ll go see if they need help in the kitchen.”

Tamlin opened his mouth to say certainly not, that the servants took pride in their work and it was not the place of the lady of the manor, or her sister, to toil in the kitchen. But Lucien said, “I’m sure they’ve got it all under control, but would you see if there are any more of those chocolate covered flowers?”

“Oh yes, they were delicious,” Elain agreed, and scampered off, her good humor apparently restored. Tamlin shook his head at it. If it hadn’t been for the physical resemblance, and a certain strength of will that linked the sisters in personality, he might have doubted that she was related to Feyre at all.

Lucien watched her go, his expression soft and contemplative, and then turned to Tamlin, saying quietly, “That cannot happen again.”

Tamlin said brusquely, “I am sorry, Lucien. But —“

“I mean it. That scared her,” Lucien went on, his eyes narrowing.

Tamlin nodded solemnly, conceding the point, and Lucien spun on his heel, heading up the stairs.

He panicked because of me.

Lucien could be sensitive, he knew that. Years of abuse at the hands of his father and brothers had left its mark. Lucien had learned early on to hide his fear and anger, though his emotions sometimes got the better of him, and it was too easy to forget that when he tolerated Tamlin’s outbursts and accepted apologies so readily.

Tamlin grimaced at the thought, then dusted himself off and stalked back towards the study. He groaned once inside, remembering the mess he’d made, then used his magic to fix the desk and the scattered books and papers that had been tossed from it.

Then he jolted when he realized Ianthe was standing there, peering at him with fond concern from underneath her hood. “Rough day?” she asked gently.

He sighed, flopping down into the desk chair, and she took the seat across from him, waiting patiently for him to collect his thoughts. Finally, he said, “Rhysand is agitating, but he won’t show himself. He spies on us from the shadows, biding his time. I was on high alert, waiting for him to make his move all day.” And I was so on edge that I frightened Lucien.

Ianthe said, “I would not expect anything else from that cursed male. He is devious and wicked.”

Tamlin sighed, reaching for a bottle of wine on the shelf behind him and snagging two glasses with his other hand. He poured for both of them, a full cup for himself, a dainty taste for Ianthe, who never drank much, and gulped down a few mouthfuls before asking, “Do you think Feyre is miserable?”

“Oh, dear,” Ianthe murmured, taking a delicate sip before putting the wine glass aside and leaning forward with concern. “Is something the matter?”

“Just something Lucien said,” he replied, trying to recall the precise wording. “That she is full of despair. Wasting away.”

“My goodness, that does sound serious,” Ianthe said breathlessly, clasping her hands to her heart. “I am so sorry to hear it. Feyre has suffered much, for all our sakes, and deserves to be happy. And our people look up to her so. It would be a tragedy indeed if her struggles impact them as well.”

“Quite so,” Tamlin declared, “and I am determined to help her through this. But I do not know what is to be done.”

Ianthe eyed him carefully. “Do you feel anything from her at particular times? Or in some situations more than others?”

Tamlin had to confess, “I do not — the mating bond hasn’t snapped for us yet.”

“Oh,” said Ianthe, her eyes widening. “Forgive me. I had thought — but no matter,” she interrupted herself, “the ways of the Cauldron are mysterious sometimes.”

She would know. Tamlin leaned forward, bracing his chin on his hand, and asked, “Is there anything that could interfere with a mating bond? Block it from manifesting?”

Ianthe considered the question, reaching for her wine glass and taking a careful sip as her brow furrowed in concentration, wrinkling the moon tattoos on her forehead. “Mating bonds are so rare, you know, that not much can be concluded with certainty. But the mating bond is strong. It is Cauldron-granted. Very few things would be powerful enough to counteract it.”

Tamlin nodded. This was his understanding as well. He wished his own parents had been more forthcoming about how their own mating bond worked. Then again, he hoped his bond with Feyre would produce a more joyful relationship than what his parents had had together.

“What magic would be strong enough?” Ianthe was wondering aloud, fingering the edges of her hood with her slender, pale fingers. “Bargain magic, perhaps.”

An oily, chill dread spread through Tamlin as he contemplated that. “You think —“ he stammered, then gulped down the rising bile in his throat, and tried again. “You think her bargain with Rhysand is blocking our mating bond?” He thought of those spidery lines snaking down Feyre’s arm, like it had been injected with poison, and shuddered in distaste.

Ianthe tilted her head. “I can’t say with certainty. But it’s possible.”

“It’s the most likely explanation,” Tamlin said, his jaw clenching, raw fury edging his voice so that each word came out rough as broken glass. “Of course it would interfere. No other magic is strong enough, you said it yourself.”

Ianthe nodded, sliding her hood back further, the invoking stone at her brow glowing softly. “If any could be so powerful as to inflict magic strong enough, it would be Rhysand. His existence is a curse upon us all.”

“I’ll kill him,” growled Tamlin, leaping up from his seat, talons springing out with a powerful motion, slicing through his wine glass and causing the remaining contents to splash onto the desk. Ianthe slid back smoothly, avoiding the spill, as he began to pace, his disgust and anger roiling within him, heating his blood. “I’ll make him pay for all of it.”

“That would eliminate the bargain, surely,” Ianthe said. “And avenge the wrongs he’s done.”

But it would take time to track Rhysand down, form a plan, and Tamlin didn’t have that kind of time. He had to break the bargain, now. “I will exact that vengeance in due time. But I cannot allow his evil magic to sap Feyre for one more day,” he declared. “Not one more hour. She does not deserve that pain.”

And neither do I.

Rhysand would not ruin their happiness. Not this time.

“But what can be done? I have already consulted Helion Spell Cleaver and all his libraries,” he went on. He paused at the desk to clear away the broken wine glass and the spill with his magic before continuing to pace. “I’m told the bargain cannot be broken, except with Rhysand’s death. And killing him will be difficult.” He stopped in front of Ianthe, considering. “You are a High Priestess. Surely you have some pull with the Mother and the Cauldron.”

“We’ve discussed this,” Ianthe said gently, rising to her feet to put a calming hand on his shoulder. He wrenched away and continued to pace, while she followed him, undeterred. “But I have continued to seek out options, and… there may be a way.”

Tamlin froze in mid-pace and whirled around. “Truly?”

Ianthe nodded, her face bright with hope. “I must do more research before I say more, but have hope, my friend. Do not lose heart.” And she patted his shoulder before withdrawing.

Tamlin sank back into the chair, feeling drained, but the rage had cleared, and his heart felt hopeful indeed. Once the mating bond was able to bloom, he and Feyre would be connected in the deepest, most essential way. He would be able to feel her, know she was safe, detect whether she was in distress or pain. And they would have a love beyond any barrier, beyond the need for explanations or conversations he had no words for.

And then I’ll have my revenge on Rhysand, once and for all.

Chapter Text

Elain blinked rapidly, suddenly realizing that everyone at the table was staring at her. “What? Oh, sorry,” she stammered, passing the tray of butter to her sister, flustered at her inattention being caught out. Where was my mind, just now?

Her eyes flicked back across the table, to where Lucien was lounging, drinking deeply from his goblet, ridiculously handsome in his soft blue jacket that contrasted with his copper-red hair, shining in the candlelight. Oh, that’s where.

Lucien seemed to feel her eyes on him, for he gave her a lazy smile and said, “Did we tire you out today?”

Elain admitted, “Indeed. I haven’t been that active in a long time.”

Her life as a dignified lady certainly didn’t allow for it, as it wouldn’t have been proper. Elain had had that drilled into her, first by Nesta and then by her husband.

And before that, she’d been confined to that two-room, tumble-down cottage, nervously watching her father in his limping haze to be sure he didn’t injure himself, and scrubbing the house and the kitchen implements with grimy water they’d pumped from the old well out back. It had been exertion of a sort, but the grinding, tiring kind, not the exuberant, energizing delight of moving her body that she’d felt today, flying through the countryside on horseback, running through fields, hiking through forests and swimming in starlight.

“It was nice,” Feyre suddenly said, the first words she’d spoken all through the meal.

Lucien’s russet eye glowed faintly in the candlelight. “Yes, it was.” He turned to the High Lord, some look passing between them that Elain couldn’t interpret. She thought Tamlin seemed especially gruff and distant tonight, his eyes mostly on his dinner, but he occasionally looked at her sister with a longing, almost hungry expression.

Feyre, for her part, hadn’t looked at anyone, and had only picked at her food, her ravenous appetite and mischievous glee from earlier in the day gone, as if she’d never left the manor at all. Elain had been so hopeful that the trip would turn things around for Feyre, but coming back to the manor — not her home, she’d made that clear — had soured her mood.

Elain wondered what it would take for Feyre to truly find happiness. She must climb one tree every day, for a start.

After an uncomfortable silence, Lucien turned back to Elain, saying, “You’ve been studying Willow’s journals. Learn any secrets?”

“Oh, many things,” Elain exclaimed, relieved to have a topic that she could gush about. “She was breeding such a variety of plants — fragrant blossoms, and edible flowers, and such magical things that I can barely understand. I’m afraid some of the varieties have reverted to their wild types, after years of not being tended. But I’m sure they could be cultivated again.”

“The gardeners are quite busy at this time of year,” Tamlin said curtly, and Lucien’s eye seemed to click at him in annoyance.

“Well, if it wouldn’t be too much trouble, I could tend them,” Elain said hopefully. “I’d be out of the way, you know. I’d just need a few tools.”

Tamlin looked skeptical, but couldn’t seem to think of an objection, so he just nodded. Elain felt a flush of excitement at the prospect of finally having her own garden again. Graysen had never wanted her to get dirt under her fingernails, or be seen stooping in the soil like a common laborer, and she’d missed the daily routine of checking on her garden patch, the satisfaction of helping life grow. She turned to Feyre, saying, “You could help me, if you like.”

Feyre shrugged listlessly, scraping a tiny bit of butter across a huge piece of bread.

“Feyre’s better at climbing trees than planting them,” Lucien joked, though again his eyes were on Tamlin, as if issuing some silent challenge.

“Nynsar is coming up, and Calanmai,” Tamlin said coolly, as though that were an answer. When Lucien just stared at him, he huffed a sigh and went on, “There are many plans to make before then.” Then he looked at Feyre, as though waiting for her to volunteer.

Feyre’s knife scraped again, and Elain remembered how little her sister had cared about planning events with the priestess, how bored and quiet she had been. So Elain said quickly, “I’ve heard about Nynsar. What is Calanmai?”

Lucien started coughing, flushing a deep shade of red, then waved off Tamlin’s offered glass of water, sputtering, “Sorry. Just — sorry.”

Tamlin’s lips pressed into a thin line as he dangled the glass of water from his fingers, his eyes firmly fixed on Feyre, as if expecting some response from her. But Feyre was absentmindedly fingering a spot on her neck and gazing off into the distance, her bread forgotten.

Lucien recovered his voice, saying hoarsely, “Calanmai is a fertility rite. It replenishes the magic of the land for the coming year.” His face slowly regained its normal golden-brown color, and he managed a wry smirk as he looked from Tamlin to Feyre, and back again. “Last year’s rite was… eventful.”

Feyre murmured, more to herself than to the table, “It certainly was.”

Elain didn’t know precisely what a fertility rite was, as they had no such things in the human lands. But if it could make even Lucien blush… She got the distinct impression that she shouldn’t inquire.

Tamlin said, “As a human, you would not be required to participate.”

Lucien bristled, snapping, “What does being human have to do with it?”

The High Lord blinked. “I meant no offense to humans.” He glanced at Feyre, who didn’t react, so he went on. “But the rite depends on magic, and they don’t have any.”

“You sure about that? Because if we’re —“ Lucien cut off abruptly, glancing at Elain with alarm, then turned back to Tamlin. “You know what I mean.”

Elain wrinkled her brow at him, but he suddenly seemed to be deliberately avoiding her gaze. What did he mean? Very strange.

“You could ask Ianthe,” Tamlin said mildly, frowning at Lucien, as though he couldn’t understand what the fuss was all about.

“I am not asking that priestess anything,” Lucien huffed.

Well, thank goodness for some things. Elain had decided that she really didn’t like that priestess, and it was a relief to find that she wasn’t alone.

“I did feel the magic, as a human,” Feyre spoke up, and they both turned to gape at her. She was still staring out the window, as if searching for something. Elain had seen her do the same thing the previous day, had meant to ask her what it was all about, but had quite forgotten amid the excitement of their outing. “The pull. I felt it.”

Tamlin said quietly, “I remember.” He reached a hand out, as if offering it to her, but when she didn’t seem to register it, he settled for patting her awkwardly on the shoulder before returning to his roast chicken.

“Well, it’s not for a few months yet,” Lucien said, his tone bright and easy, but Elain saw how he shifted in his seat, twirled his fork nervously around his fingers. “And at the rate these negotiations are going, we’ll be lucky if we can get the High Lords to meet by then.”

Feyre’s face swiveled to him, and she leaned forward, suddenly alert. “All the High Lords?”

“All our allies,” Tamlin quickly said. “All those who we can count on, if Hybern seeks war.”

Feyre sat back, face going blank, and Elain again felt like she’d missed something important, but didn’t know what questions to ask.

“At least our meeting site in Dawn is confirmed,” Lucien said, finally putting the fork down, seeming to relax as the conversation moved on. “And all the seasonal courts have committed to attend. The only question now is whether Day will join us.”

“Why?” Tamlin asked. “The new High Lord is no friend to Hybern. I understand he fought personally in the last war.”

“I don’t know the story, but I’m sure you’re right,” Lucien said. “I don’t know Helion at all, in fact I can’t recall that we’ve ever met before, so I have no idea what the hesitation could be, or what to offer as a concession in exchange.” He sighed and ran a hand through his hair, making it shimmer as it rippled in the light. “Negotiating with all these new High Lords has been tricky. I’m sure that was part of Hybern’s plan, to soften us up, make us weak.”

“Is there real danger, then?” Elain asked nervously.

Tamlin quickly said, “You are quite safe here,” and threw Lucien a murderous look.

You must not trouble yourself. Or Feyre. Mentioning such things would only upset her.

But Feyre said, “The Suriel mentioned Hybern. I didn’t understand, at the time. I thought it was some sort of odd history lesson. But I think it was trying to warn me, after all.”

“Did the Suriel mention the Wall?” Lucien asked, leaning forward onto his elbows. “Or the Cauldron, by any chance?” His golden eye clicked rapidly.

Feyre shook her head. “We got interrupted.” A pause, and then, “I could catch it again?”

“You’d be willing to do that?” Lucien asked incredulously, at the same time that Tamlin shot to his feet, thundering, “Absolutely not.”

Feyre barked, “Why?”

Elain jolted at the harsh tone, the strength in her sister’s voice, at the way she challenged the High Lord with absolutely no fear. This was the Feyre she’d expected to find, the fierce, passionate sister who would take on any risk, who never gave up. She put aside her confusion at not knowing who Suriels were or why one would want to catch them, and looked worriedly from Feyre’s darkening expression to the High Lord’s piercing green eyes, narrowed under his furrowed eyebrows.

“It could be good, Tam —“ Lucien began.

Silence,” Tamlin growled, and Elain gasped as talons sprung out from his fingers, piercing the edge of the table, a hint of the scary beast he could become. The High Lord took a deep breath, seeming to realize he had frightened her, and said more quietly, “It is far too risky.”

“Riskier than going into war without knowing what we’re doing? This could be a valuable contribution,” Lucien dared to argue. “We could form an actual plan, if the Suriel chooses to talk to Feyre. And I’m sure we would convince Helion to attend, if he knew that we have access to the Suriel’s information.”

“The last time Feyre trapped the Suriel, she was attacked,” Tamlin shot back, his voice edged with fury.

“That was during the blight,” Lucien pointed out. “It’s different now. And we could take up positions nearby to protect her.”

Feyre was glaring openly at Tamlin, her fingers pressed flat against the tablecloth. “The Suriel wanted to tell me, and we ran out of time. I need to finish what I started.”

Tamlin glowered back at her, gritting out, “You already have my answer.”

“If the Suriel wants to talk to me, who are you to stop it,” Feyre snapped.

I am the High Lord of this land,” Tamlin roared, slamming a fist on the table.

Elain looked nervously from Feyre to Tamlin, then caught Lucien’s eye. His jaw was tight, his eyebrows raised in a pained expression, and he looked at her pleadingly, as though urging her to jump in, help defuse the situation. So she said, haltingly, “I-I don’t understand. What is a Suriel?”

“Suriels are ancient faeries with the gift of truth,” Lucien said. “If you can trap one, they must answer whatever question you ask. They can be wicked and deadly, but your sister caught one last year, and showed it kindness.”

“She got lucky,” Tamlin said flatly.

“I did not,” Feyre hissed, and Elain gasped as smoke began to rise from the tablecloth, from underneath her sister’s hands.

Lucien leaped up, launching himself around the table with blinding speed, and was in between Elain and Feyre before Elain had even fully registered that he’d moved. “Feyre,” he gasped, yanking her hands up from the tablecloth, and Elain peered around him to take in the singed fabric, the burns in the shape of her sister’s palms.

Tamlin was frozen in place, hovering over the table, as though he’d forgotten words, but Lucien was crouching by Feyre’s side, carefully tilting her palms up so he could examine them. Feyre had gone pale and shaky, staring down at her palms, which were mercifully unblistered and unburnt. 

Magic.

Elain had seen fire magic before, had examined Lucien’s hands to find them unmarred, and she blurted, “Oh! Feyre, I didn’t know you wielded fire, too.”

“She doesn’t—“ Tamlin started to say.

“She does,” Lucien cut him off, “obviously.” He carefully folded Feyre’s fingers back into her palm, closing her hand in his. “You don’t want to do that by accident.”

Feyre squeezed her eyes shut, then said forlornly, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to.”

Lucien stood up, gently placing her hand back on the table. “We’ve all been there. You should have seen my bedroom as a youngling.” Elain couldn’t see his face, but she felt a pang of sorrow and fear, almost as though Lucien’s feelings had jumped from his own body into hers. But he said nonchalantly,“I’ll show you how to control it.”

Lucien,” Tamlin snarled in warning.

Lucien turned back to the High Lord, raising his chin. “Unless you want the house burned down by accident?”

“I’m not as powerful as all that,” Feyre protested.

Lucien shrugged. “You don’t know how powerful you might be, until you try.”

Tamlin’s hands balled into fists. “Enough. We will deal with this later.” And his eyes rested on Elain. “In private.”

Feyre shot up to her feet. “Whatever you’re going to say, you can say in front of my sister.”

“It’s all right,” Elain said nervously. “I’ll just, um.” She cast about, looking for a safe way to retreat.

Lucien seemed to sense her discomfort, for he quickly said, “Actually, there’s something I wanted to show you.”

“Oh?” Elain was up and out of her seat, accepting his invitation without caring in the slightest what it was. He could show her a patch of mud in the stables for all she cared, she just needed out of this stifling room, away from Tamlin’s anger, and the fury it was provoking in Feyre. I wanted to see her more lively, but not like this.

“This way,” Lucien said, sweeping an arm out to indicate the foyer, then turned to look one more time at Tamlin and Feyre. Whatever he saw had him gripping Elain’s arm just above the elbow and gently prodding her forward, hurrying her out of the room. She had just reached the doorway when Tamlin and Feyre both started shouting, their voices chasing after her as she retreated down the hallway, a grim-faced Lucien at her side.

When they were a safe distance down the hall, she turned to face him, noting his worried expression. “Do you think they’ll be all right in there?” she asked in a hushed voice.

Lucien shook his head gravely. “I don’t know.” He swept a hand over his face, as if trying to clear away his frustration. “They’re both stubborn as hell, and Tamlin is…” He broke off and sighed. “I can’t defend what he’s doing. It’s out of fear, and wanting to protect Feyre after all that’s happened, but I don’t think it’s helping.”

“It isn’t,” Elain said sadly.

Lucien tugged her further down the hallway, then looked around to be sure they were alone. “Listen, Elain,” he said urgently. “Tamlin is a High Lord. He’s one of the most powerful faeries you will ever meet, but his magic was drained until recently. He doesn’t know his own strength sometimes, and when he gets angry…” He winced. “I don’t want you to be in harm’s way.”

Elain sucked in a breath. This was even worse than dealing with Graysen. At least he hadn’t had magical powers.

“If you see him getting riled up, get out of the way,” Lucien was warning her. “Make any excuse, it doesn’t matter. Be rude, if you have to.”

Elain’s hands curled around the lapels of his jacket as she peered anxiously into his face. “Do you think Feyre’s in danger?”

Lucien’s head whipped around to peer back down the corridor, as if it hadn’t occurred to him before that Feyre might need help. “Do you want me to check on her?”

“Please,” she said softly.

He nodded, then gently extricated her hands from his jacket, briefly curling his own hands around hers and squeezing them reassuringly. “I’ll be right back.”

Then he was gone in a puff of smoke, winnowed away. Elain clapped her hands over her mouth to stifle her scream.

She stood alone in the corridor, trying to stay calm, not shake, not tremble, hating that she’d just asked Lucien to put himself in the path of that angry High Lord. But who else could do it? Who else was remotely strong enough to stand up to Tamlin?

Then Lucien was at her elbow again, a bit flushed, but calm and collected. “It’s all right,” he said, “they’re just sitting there and sulking. We can go back, if you want.”

Elain blinked at him. “That’s it? You’re just going to go back in there and act like nothing happened?”

Lucien cocked his head to the side, considering the question. “What else would I do?”

“I don’t know,” Elain admitted, tugging self-consciously at her dress. “Something.

She felt silly, realizing that she wasn’t explaining herself adequately, but Lucien looked thoughtful. “I’m not sure what I could do. One doesn’t just challenge a High Lord in his own home. I cross the line more often than I should, and he mostly overlooks it. But I’m not sure I can push him any further.”

Elain said, “High Lords are like kings, I suppose.”

“In a sense. But even more than a king, in some ways,” Lucien said. “Tamlin is the power in this land. He is magic. It would take another High Lord to really challenge him.”

“But Feyre challenges him,” Elain pointed out.

Lucien’s lips twisted into a grimace. “Yes, she does.” He pressed a hand lightly to Elain’s back, gently guiding her towards the dining room. “She always has, since the first moment she arrived here. Feyre was never one to do as she was bid. He may have even liked that about her.”

Elain said, “But that’s not what a lord expects of a wife.” Her stomach lurched, thinking of her own husband, of the obedience that he expected from her, of the way she’d run out without a second thought.

Lucien looked at her appraisingly. “I suppose you would know.”

“Yes, I would. But I’m done with all that,” Elain declared.

Lucien’s hand pressed more firmly into her back, and she felt a little shiver race up and down her skin. “Indeed. You are free,” he said, and when she looked up into his face, his russet eye was glowing.

Free. Yes, she was free.

But her heart was heavy, all the same. I might be free, but Feyre isn’t.

She asked, “Will you help her? With her magic?”

“Yes,” Lucien said, without hesitation. “Her magic is manifesting, whether he wants it to or not. She needs to know how to control it.”

“Do all faeries wield fire?”

Lucien shook his head. “No. This is very odd, actually. Fire is an Autumn Court power. I’ll have to look into how she got it.”

Elain looked at her own hands, as though fire might spontaneously sprout from them, then up at Lucien. “Thank you. For helping her.”

Lucien sighed, then opened the door to the dining room for her to walk through. “I just hope it’s enough.”

Chapter Text

Lucien forced his fingers to grip his dagger loosely, willing his heart to beat steadily, taking even breaths. Calm. Easy. No sudden moves, you’ll scare it away.

From his position, staked out behind the bushes close to the stream, he watched Feyre as she gently laid the royal blue cloak onto the grassy clearing amid the young birch trees. Her snare was set, and she reached for her bow, nocking an arrow in a smooth, practiced gesture that spoke to the huntress she once had been. He hadn’t seen Feyre wield a bow and actually shoot anything with it, but knew her to have deadly accuracy, and a momentary jolt rippled through him as he recalled dear Andras, felled in this exact way.

He trusted Feyre not to shoot him, but ash arrows made him jumpy, especially now that he’d survived being struck with one. The agony of the bolt itself, the sick helplessness of not being able to heal, the pain of having it ripped back out of him — it was an experience Lucien would be happy to never repeat.

I shouldn’t have talked Tamlin into this.

Everything, all their hopes for the war, was riding on this succeeding, and it was too much pressure. Lucien had already watched Feyre die once, had no desire to see it again, especially knowing his own death would follow swiftly after, that Tamlin would tear him apart for failing to protect her.

Logically, Lucien knew Feyre could handle herself — had handled herself, for years, had become tough and fierce, honing herself into the survivor that she’d needed to be. And now, as a High Fae with burgeoning powers, she’d become downright deadly, a force to be reckoned with.

It had started with fire, three nights ago, at the dinner table, when she’d erupted with fury and singed palm prints into the tablecloth. Lucien had been frantic, knowing how dangerous new untrained powers could be, but Feyre was far more responsible than he or his brothers had been when their fire first started simmering, and there had been no further accidents after that evening.

Tamlin had been reluctant to provoke any further displays of Feyre’s power, had carefully avoided angering her, the way that they all avoided angering him. Had tried to argue that training wasn’t necessary. But the prospect of what might happen if her powers weren’t trained, if the power roiled unchecked beneath her skin, apt to come out in her sleep or in an unguarded moment, was ultimately enough to convince him.

Teaching Feyre the basics of corralling her fire had been fairly easy, though Lucien had quickly learned to wear clothes he didn’t mind discarding, and keep his hair tied back, in case her blasts went astray. Feyre was eager and motivated, and relieved to be doing something, and Lucien thought that she seemed more well-rested, less pallid, more healthy for it. But he couldn’t shake the uneasy question of how Feyre had come to possess Autumn fire, or what Beron might do when he learned about it.

Then there had been yesterday’s lesson, which started out as utter misery. Feyre had been moping, irritable over some spat she’d had with Tamlin, and uninterested in concentrating. Her fire was shooting out erratically, producing lots of smoke and licks of flame in many colors, but sputtered out just as quickly.

Then Lucien had made the mistake of getting too close, never a good idea when fire was involved, only to be blasted with water instead.

“Sorry,” Feyre had cringed, looking down at her dripping wet hands in horror.

Lucien had been so startled, he’d actually laughed. “Well, now you know what to do to rein your fire in.”

But Feyre had not been amused. “Where is this coming from?”

Lucien wiped the rivulets of water from his cheeks, considering the question. “Summer, I think?”

“You know what I mean,” she’d snapped. “Why fire? Why water? Why anything?”

Lucien snagged a towel from the corner of the training ring and tossed it to her, and she swiped carelessly at her dripping hands before tossing the towel back to him. “Well, you did get a kernel of life force from all seven High Lords. Maybe you got a little more than you bargained for.”

Bargain had been the wrong word to say, for her gaze had gone reflexively to her tattooed arm, the mark of her cursed bargain with Rhys woven into her very skin. Shouldn’t have reminded her of that. He knew it made her self-conscious, brought up unpleasant memories, and that she still feared that Rhys might come to claim her, even after months of quiet.

But Lucien had quickly added, “If you have fire and water, perhaps you’ve got more?” Feyre hadn’t looked convinced, but he goaded her, “Try something else.”

“Tamlin won’t like it.”

“Tamlin’s not here,” he’d said mischievously, but then grew more serious. She needs to understand her own magic, whether Tamlin likes it or not. He’d manage Tamlin later, think of a way to break this news in a way that wouldn’t make his friend fly off the handle. “And anyway, you need to know what you’ve got. No more unpleasant surprises.”

Feyre had gritted her teeth and focused, her eyes squeezing shut, her face reddening as she poured effort into her hands, but nothing came out.

“Ease up. It can’t be forced,” he’d said gently. “Think of it like…” He cast around for a metaphor that she could relate to. “It’s like pressure on a bowstring, when you’re firing an arrow. Yank too hard, and your arrow will spin wildly, out of control, or just fall out. Too little tension, and the arrow won’t stay nocked. You’re looking for a balance, a resting point, where your power is ready to be released at any time, with full control.”

Feyre had nodded, her eyes closing gently, and then yelped as her fingers iced over with a layer of glittering frost.

By the fucking Cauldron. Lucien shivered, and not entirely from the sudden chill from Feyre’s Winter magic, whirling around them in a sparkling cloud. Fire, water, ice, what else has she got?

Lucien had tried not to gape. Don’t make it weird for her, she’s freaked out enough already.

But he was getting the uncomfortable sense that he was in the presence of power he didn’t understand, that his entire understanding of what Court powers were and how they were passed on was shifting beneath his feet.

“Well?” Feyre had watched him carefully, studying his reaction.

“You and the Suriel are going to have a lot to talk about,” had been his breathless response.

That had been the final straw, the argument that finally convinced Tamlin to relent. The prospect of war with Hybern, of the Wall coming down, was bad enough, but Feyre’s safety motivated Tamlin above all else, and he had reluctantly agreed that only the Suriel would be able to provide the answers Feyre needed about where her powers came from, and what she should do about them.

Lucien shifted uncomfortably in his hiding place, hoping the Suriel wouldn’t be put off by his presence. He was under no illusions that he could hide from such creatures, who somehow knew the hidden mysteries of this land, even the future. He wondered whether it was truly possible to trap a Suriel at all, or whether they allowed themselves to be caught, knowing full well the consequences of dispensing their prophecies and secrets. If they chose when and how to influence events, to nudge things in a direction.

Lucien felt silly even bothering with the dagger, but there were creatures in these lands that were not Suriels, and the last time he’d sent Feyre out in search of answers, she almost hadn’t come back. He knew Tamlin was prowling in his beast form through the forest, patrolling for monsters, but that if anything approached, Lucien would be the last line of defense.

So he clutched the dagger, contorted himself so that he had a clearer view of Feyre and her trap, and waited.

Having nothing else to do, and never having been particularly patient anyway, Lucien let his thoughts unspool in all directions. He went over the itinerary for the upcoming summit in his mind, the High Lords’ various demands and requests he’d agreed to as the price of cooperation, the details he’d have to double check with Thesan’s folks, the security arrangements. He fretted about Nesta Archeron and how she’d reacted when she learned Elain was gone, if she would one day have his head for daring to spirit Elain across the Wall. He debated discreet ways to research Feyre’s powers in the Day Court libraries without tipping off any nosy busybodies that there was anything unusual going on.

And he tugged on the mating bond, satisfied when he felt Elain’s settled calm and contentment. She’d been on her knees in the garden when he left, hands buried in dirt, tending to Willow’s plants, her hair loosely tied back with strands flying into her face, wearing a dingy old apron and a brilliant smile, and he’d thought she had never looked lovelier.

Thinking of Elain reminded Lucien that he had burning questions of his own, questions that he would have loved for a Suriel to answer. Why had the Cauldron given him a mate now, after all this time? Why a human, whose life span was destined to be so much shorter than his own? Or was his own life destined to be shorter as well?

It wouldn’t be the worst thing, leaving this world with her.

Lucien often felt as though he’d lived too long, seen too much, carried too many awful memories and regrets with him. The idea of carrying on after his mate was gone, mourning her for centuries as he’d mourned Jesminda, was too heavy to contemplate.

There was a snap, and a hiss, and Lucien’s head whipped up, taking in the sight of a gaunt, skeletal figure writhing in Feyre’s snare.

Cauldron boil me, she’s done it again.

Lucien held his breath, forcing his hand to loosen on the dagger, which he was gripping so tightly that the hilt was digging into his palm. He watched Feyre approach it, carefully but without fear, speaking so softly that even his excellent fae hearing couldn’t decipher her words. The Suriel’s back was to him, in the unnatural sudden quiet around them, he could hear a low whine from it, could sense that it was answering.

All of Lucien’s awareness narrowed down to the two figures in the clearing, the hunched, knobby back and scrawny gray arms of the Suriel draped in its tattered black cloak, the lithe huntress in her green and brown tunic, bow lowered towards the ground. He scanned the area, finding nothing amiss, and squinted back at Feyre and the Suriel, straining to hear snippets of their conversation.

Feyre’s voice rose, high and plaintive. “But I thought you said —“

The Suriel’s voice sent a shudder through Lucien. It was scraping and smooth, ancient and new, melodious and discordant, and he instinctively crouched further down when its words floated towards him. “The High Lord, yes. Stay with the High Lord.”

It told her to stay with Tamlin? Is that why she came back to Prythian, after he tried to send her away?  

Lucien’s mind began to spin, evaluating this new information. He had often wondered what had driven Feyre to come back against Tamlin’s wishes, why she was so determined to find her way Under the Mountain, why she had been so passionate in her desire to save Tamlin, and the rest of them by extension. Was it really her own deep love for him? Or was it the Suriel’s prophecy? Did she even truly love Tamlin at all?

She loved him enough to break the curse, at least. Lucien thanked the Cauldron for that.

But Feyre gave a bitter, barking laugh. “You lied. You lied by telling me the truth.”

Lucien stiffened, certain that insulting the Suriel was an unwise thing to do, but the creature only gave its own rasping laugh in return. “Events must unfold, Cursebreaker. I told you what you needed to know. And what you still need to know.”

“So I must — stay? With him?”

The Suriel shifted, its robes fluttering with the movement, and Lucien caught sight of its too-long fingers, waving in the air, before it made a clicking noise that sent a chill skittering down his spine. “He is your mate.”

Lucien bit down hard on the inside of his lower lip, waiting for Feyre’s reaction. He knew this should be thrilling news, that most fae would be giddy at learning they had a mate, much less knowing who it was. He shifted uncomfortably in the dirt, his legs cramped from crouching for too long, and nearly leaped up with his dagger drawn when Feyre cried out, until he registered what she’d said.

“But why?”

The blood roared in Lucien’s ears, stunned as he was by this reaction. Who wouldn’t want their spouse to be their mate?

But the Suriel’s voice had dropped lower, and Lucien fought down his worry and confusion to try to listen, frustrated that he had taken up a position too distant from the clearing. He hadn’t wanted to interfere, sensing this was Feyre’s task alone, but now he was regretting that.

Long moments passed, and Lucien fought to stay still, not crawl forward, not rustle the bushes that served as his cover, and his sense of dread increased with every moment that Feyre and the Suriel stayed quiet, conversing in hushed voices.

Then there was a twang, and Lucien did leap up, for an arrow had been fired.

But Feyre was standing along in the clearing, bow in hand, and the Suriel was gone, freed from the snare.

Thank the Mother.

Feyre strode towards him, grim-faced, jaw set, and Lucien yielded a step, suddenly awed by her, by what she’d just done. “Well?” he managed to get out, his voice high and thin. “Did you get what you came for?”

Feyre’s words were hard, clipped, matter of fact. “When do we leave for Dawn?”

She walked past him, heading resolutely towards the manor, then turned and motioned with irritation when Lucien didn’t follow. The sheer intensity radiating from her stare had him stumbling forward, as though she’d summoned him, and he fell into step beside her as they retraced their path through the woods. 

“The summit starts in three days,” he said, gazing anxiously at her, taking in her determination, her sudden sense of purpose. Whatever the Suriel had revealed to her had galvanized her, added an urgency to her actions that was a welcome contrast from her previous blankness and apathy. “Do you want to talk about —“

“We’ll train again this afternoon,” Feyre interrupted him, opening and closing her palm, summoning a tiny lick of flame that Lucien prayed wouldn’t leap to the nearby trees. “And twice tomorrow. Show me as much as you can.”

“I — of course — but —“ Lucien stammered. “Are you going to share what the Suriel said?”

Feyre’s steely gaze rested on him. “I know how to win this war.”

“That’s great,” he exclaimed, waiting for her to go on. When she didn’t, he prompted, “How?”

She shook her head. “I can’t tell you. Not yet.”

Lucien gaped at her, so stunned that he forgot to keep walking forward. He should have known this was a possibility, that the Suriel would reveal things to Feyre that could not be shared, but to hear it from her was startling anyway. What am I going to tell Tamlin?

Feyre rolled her eyes, striding back to him and grabbing his arm, yanking him forward, and then asked a question that made him stumble.

“How do you feel about crossing the Wall again?”

Chapter Text

“So, what do you think?” Lucien asked, a knowing grin tugging at his lips.

Elain turned in a slow circle, taking in her new surroundings, then turned back to him, shock and wonder coursing through her. “I think you’re playing some faerie trick on me.”

He raised an incredulous eyebrow at her, obviously not expecting this response, but she continued, “This must be a dream. There simply can’t be anywhere as beautiful as this.”

Lucien gave a low laugh of delight — and something like relief. “As fond as I am of faerie tricks, creating a view like this is quite beyond my abilities.” He stepped closer, seeming to take in her rose-colored gown, specially picked out by her maids to complement Dawn Court colors, as well as the delicate flowers woven into her hair. “Yes, the view is very nice, indeed.”

She raised an eyebrow at him — is he flirting with me? — but from behind them, Tamlin cleared his throat. “Where is Thesan? Is he not coming to greet us?”

“Thesan will be up in the main meeting space, presiding. But he is sending a guide to show us the way,” Lucien replied, adding to Elain and Feyre, who stood nearby, “Thesan is the High Lord of Dawn.”

“Imagine, being the High Lord of a place like this,” Elain breathed.

“Being the High Lord of anywhere would be a punishment,” Lucien quipped, but then relented, adding, “One could do worse than this, I suppose.”

Elain guessed he was referring to the Autumn Court - the home of his cruel, wicked, conniving family. Even though Lucien had mostly glossed over the topic, when explaining the summit to her, she wasn’t looking forward to meeting them.

But she could hardly think about that now, when such a marvelous view was spread before her. She gazed in wonder at the enormous, golden-tinged clouds rolling through the rosy sky, breathing in the warm, lush, summery air of the Dawn Court. She hadn’t known quite what to expect, but the sparkling rivers, gently rolling hills, sweet-smelling mists, and elegant stone buildings towering far into the sky were far too lovely to ignore. This land was the dawn, lovely and peaceful and refreshing, and she impulsively reached for her sister’s hand, giddy with excitement.

Feyre was still and silent, gazing out at the endless vistas with a contemplative expression, and barely registered Elain’s hand holding hers. She wore one of her simple tunics, hair bound simply in a single braid, as if she were prepared for a day’s hunt, or a jaunt on horseback through the forest, and not this formal diplomatic occasion. Tamlin had argued with her over it, and she’d simply refused to listen, saying that her clothing was the least important topic of discussion, compared to the war they were trying to prevent.

Although Elain could see the truth of this, she wondered if Feyre did find it important, if she wanted to be seen as the human huntress from Under the Mountain, and not the faerie Spring Court lady that she had become.

Feyre had been rejuvenated, more alive, in the days since she’d discovered her magic, and Elain had hoped that this was a new beginning for her sister, a sign that things were improving. But after her encounter with the Suriel, she’d gone back to being withdrawn and irritable. And Elain didn’t know what to make of it.

Lucien, too, had seemed disturbed, preoccupied that first afternoon, but his usual good humor had soon returned, and he was cheerful about the prospect of using Feyre’s information to hold off the threat that loomed over them all. The fact that Feyre refused to share anything she’d been told only seemed to bother him a little, and then only because the High Lord was so vexed by it that he’d spent most of dinner scolding them both.

Lucien had warned Elain that the High Lord was not to be trifled with, that his anger must be carefully managed, but Feyre had only stared at him stubbornly, holding her ground. Elain only hoped that Tamlin would keep his temper, that he wouldn’t lash out again. Or take it out on Lucien afterwards — she hadn’t failed to notice that blood on his sleeve the other night, surely from Tamlin’s lethal claws. She couldn’t understand why Lucien seemed to brush that off, why he wasn’t more frightened.

“I knew trapping the Suriel was a bad idea,” Tamlin had fumed, after Feyre had stormed out of the dining room in anger. “It could have told her anything.”

“It told her the truth,” Lucien had said patiently, throwing Elain an apologetic look.

“The truth can be dangerous,” Tamlin had persisted. “Why won’t she tell us? What is she hiding?”

“Maybe the Suriel advised her to keep it to herself. We have to trust that she knows what she’s doing,” had been Lucien’s reply. Seeing Tamlin’s angry frown, and lengthening talons, he’d quickly added, “She saved us all Under the Mountain, using what the Suriel told her. This won’t be any different.”

“She died Under the Mountain,” Tamlin had thundered, shoving back from the table with such force that all the dishes and cups rattled.

Lucien had found an excuse to get Elain out of the room soon after that, and they’d wandered the gardens in the moonlight, talking of the Dawn Court and what sorts of faeries she would meet there, and not about Tamlin, her sister, the Suriel, or the possibility of the Wall coming down.

She could see those Dawn Court faeries now, in the distance, their beautiful white wings spread out as they flew through the sky, headed towards the castle in the clouds that was the High Lord’s palace. Peregryns, they were named, and Elain gasped as they twirled and banked in the air, their golden armor glinting in the hazy light.

Then she looked up at the tower, and wished she had wings as well.

“Do we really have to climb all those steps?” she asked nervously, motioning to the steep spiral staircase that surrounded the palace, winding its way around a gleaming golden tower whose very stones seemed to glow from within. “There must be ten thousand!”

Lucien patted her shoulder. “It’s a security precaution. We’ve winnowed as high up as we can. But Kallias specifically requested that each delegation approach on foot, so that no one can sneak up or startle the others.”

“Kallias. Who’s that again?” Elain asked, flustered.

“The new High Lord of Winter. Don’t worry,” Lucien said kindly. “I’ll introduce you to them all, one at a time. No one will expect you to know who they are.”

Elain tried to focus on the beautiful pillars and arches made of sunlit stone, and not her rising worry, but at that moment, a beautiful faerie in a gold and ruby uniform stepped forward to greet them.

"Ah, Eos. It's been a long time," Lucien said warmly, inclining his head to the attendant.

Eos smiled. "Lucien Vanserra. Good to see you all patched up." He bowed to Tamlin and Feyre, murmuring, "High Lord. My lady." Then he looked at Elain quizzically, as if trying to place her.

"Elain Archeron, may I present Eos, master tinkerer, tour guide, and mischief maker," Lucien said.

Elain curtsied, producing a startled smile from the Dawn Court attendant.

"A pleasure, lady. But no mischief this time, High Lord's orders," Eos chuckled, his smooth, youthful face relaxing into a sunny smile.

"Wouldn't dream of it," Lucien said, and winked at Elain.

"Watch this one, he's nothing but trouble," Eos joked to her.

"Oh, I'm aware," she said airily.

Lucien smirked, then reached for her hand, wrapping it around his arm, and said, “Shall we?”

Elain smiled and let him lead her to the stairs, glancing behind her to see that Tamlin and Feyre had paused. Feyre was gazing out through the open archways, as if searching for something, and Tamlin was offering his arm to her, in a gesture mirroring Lucien’s. But Feyre shook herself back to awareness, then strode forward quickly, with purpose in every step, seeming not to notice Tamlin at all.

Elain quickly turned back to Lucien, pretending not to notice how awkward her sister and her husband were around each other, and asked Eos, “Are we the first to arrive?”

The Dawn attendant replied, “The High Lords of Winter and Summer arrived last night, and the others should be arriving shortly. Your suites are prepared as well, if you’d care to freshen up after your journey.”

“Perhaps we could greet the other delegates, then proceed to our accommodations,” Lucien answered smoothly. “Tam, is that all right with y—“ Then he seemed to realize that Tamlin wasn’t with them, and he turned around, frowning when he saw that the High Lord was far behind, his gaze seeming to bore a hole in Feyre’s back.

But Lucien’s poise as a courtier was fully in place in this imposingly grand palace, so he turned back to their guide with a polished smile. “Thank you, Eos. If you would be so kind as to escort us to the main meeting area.”

Eos nodded, and they proceeded upwards, the view broadening out to the verdant countryside, speckled with clusters of red roofed houses and wide pastures, threaded through with waterways glittering yellow and pink in the pale dawn light.

“You said you’ve been here before?” Elain asked Lucien.

“A few times. Though my last visit was under less than ideal conditions,” he said, his golden eye clicking rapidly.

Eos noticed, and smiled broadly, tapping his own left eye. “One of Nuan’s inventions, isn't it?”

Lucien grinned. “Indeed. Works frightfully well, too. Is she around? I’d love to see her.”

Elain’s heart squeezed a little, though she scolded herself for it. Stop being ridiculous. He is a handsome, smart, immortal faerie, a High Lord’s son.

But as usual, Lucien seemed to pick up on her emotions in that uncanny way of his. “Nuan is a friend,” he said casually. “I’m sure she’d love to meet you.”

“She’s in her laboratory. I’m sure you could pop in for a visit,” Eos said.

“That laboratory is something else. I’ve never seen so many machines, and clocks, and all manner of tinkerings in one place,” Lucien said. “You’ll find it fascinating.”

Elain remembered her manners then. “You have a lovely palace here,” she said.

Eos bowed his head in gratitude, but said with a wink, “You haven’t seen the upstairs yet.”

Elain looked around then, startled to see how high up they were. The landscape was shrouded in pale pink and orange clouds, as though they’d ascended up into the sky itself. She gripped Lucien’s arm more tightly, thinking about what it would be like to fall from this great height, and focused on putting one foot in front of the other, determined to be collected and dignified, not the panicked little human that she currently felt like.

“Almost there,” Lucien murmured. “Might be better if you don’t look down.”

She nodded, whispering, “Do I look very frightened? I don’t want to be so obvious.”

“You have the face of a courtier, Elain,” Lucien assured her. “You’re doing fine.”

Then how does he know what I’m feeling?

Elain had noticed the odd way Lucien reacted to her, almost as though he could read her mind — if not her actual thoughts, then certainly whatever emotion she might be feeling at the time. She had kept meaning to ask him if it was some sort of faerie power, though Tamlin and the priestess didn’t seem to possess it.

Even stranger, Elain had begun to suspect that she was sensing Lucien’s feelings, too. Just a few days ago she’d been out in the garden, trimming and weeding, when a strangely icky, uncomfortable dread had washed over her. She’d thought it was her own stomach, perhaps breakfast not agreeing with her, but had no sooner stepped onto the garden path than she’d nearly collided with Lucien, who’d come storming outside, face contorted in obvious distress. The strange uneasiness had vanished as soon as their eyes met, replaced by a settled relief, and she noted the simultaneous change in Lucien’s features, how his furrowed brows had lifted in surprise, how a charming smile had replaced his scowl.

“I — is everything all right?” she’d asked, and noted how his cheeks flushed with the question.

“It is now. Would you show me what you’ve been working on?” he’d answered quickly.

And so she had, though she suspected he didn’t care particularly about Willow’s healing herb garden, but was looking for a distraction. From what, she’d decided not to ask, since she could sense that he didn’t want to talk about it, through that strange connection that she didn’t understand.

“Here we are,” Eos announced, and Elain jolted, realizing they’d reached the top step and were facing an open-air hallway filled with beautiful rooms, fountains, plush furniture, and lush arrangements of flowers. Elain relaxed, now that their arduous climbing was at an end, and surveyed the serene loveliness of the palace as they strolled at a leisurely pace.

Feyre and Tamlin were now close behind them, walking stiffly side by side, and Lucien stepped aside to let them walk in front, leading their little delegation.

“Better?” Lucien asked, his eye clicking and whirring softly as he turned back to her.

“Much,” she said, smiling at the way the gentle golden light seemed to glow across his features, as though the sun itself were seeking him out. “It’s silly, but I’ve never been up so high before.”

“I hadn’t either, before I came here,” Lucien admitted. “We didn’t have palaces like this in Autumn. The tallest things to climb were trees.”

“And you fell out of a few, as I recall,” a voice drawled from behind them.

The briefest flash of pain crossed Lucien’s features, so fleeting that Elain might have missed it, were it not for the strange way that Lucien’s feelings seemed to echo through her. But then his courtier’s mask of calm poise slipped back into place, and he turned around, utterly collected and indifferent.

“Hello, Eris.”

Chapter Text

Eris smirked as he beheld his baby brother, all courtly elegance and boredom despite those savage scars raking down his face, that clicking metal eye, no longer shielded from view by that fox mask that suited clever Lucien so perfectly. Autumn fire still simmered in the other eye, the only hint of the discomfort Lucien surely felt, seeing him so soon after that obnoxious little charade they’d had to put on Under the Mountain.

A pretty human female perched on Lucien’s arm, and Eris allowed himself a brief scan of her features — the Cursebreaker’s sister, if he had to guess, though much more traditionally feminine, not a huntress or scrappy fighter, but graceful and cultured, more at home breaking hearts in a ballroom than breaking the bones of wild creatures. He noted how she peered up admiringly at Lucien, how his brother subtly tugged his arm to draw her closer as Eris approached, and he filed that observation away for later.

The High Lord of Spring loomed nearby, stone-faced and sullen, at a loss for words, just like Under the Mountain, and next to him —

“Feyre Cursebreaker,” Eris addressed the glowering female, giving her a smile that was almost sincere. “On behalf of Autumn, may I thank you for your sacrifice.”

“You may not,” Feyre snapped, to his surprise and delight. At least one person came ready to play.

Tamlin cleared his throat, but Feyre went on, not heeding her husband in the slightest. Eris noted that, too. “I remember you well, and the teeth you bared at me when I spoke up for your brother. How you found our tortures entertaining.”

The human female gave the tiniest gasp, and Tamlin snarled softly at the mention of tortures. Lucien’s metal eye clicked, and he quickly closed his eyes, as if corralling the device back under his control.

But Eris had expected this line of attack, and he said disdainfully, “One does not contradict a queen in her own throne room.”

And he gazed forthrightly at Tamlin, who knew that full well. Amarantha’s chosen bridegroom had bided his time Under the Mountain, had played the game, delegating the danger to Lucien while he maintained a stoic distance. Did Lucien get it yet, or was he still too blinded by loyalty to see it?

So Eris went on, a hint of venom coating his tongue,“My fool brother chose to mouth off, and drew her ire accordingly. Some of us are more strategic than that.”

Eris knew his eyes must be glowing, that he should pull back on his fire, but as he squared off with Feyre, he was startled to find that the same power blazed in her eyes. He’d known she was High Fae now, that she’d have abilities beyond her human origins, but Autumn fire? Eris was half-dismayed at the thought of this sullen female wielding his power, and half-gleeful at the thought of how much his father would hate it.

Lucien noted where his focus had gone, and subtly shifted, as though trying to draw Eris’s attention away. Still shielding them all, to his own detriment, even now. “What do you want, Eris.”

Eris considered, then went with simple and direct. “Mother sends her regards.”

Lucien’s jaw tightened. “Mother isn’t here?”

Their mother had been bitterly disappointed to lose out on the opportunity to see her favorite son, as surely as Lucien was disappointed at her absence. If Eris had been less heartless, less driven towards self-preservation, he would have felt guilty for wielding that disappointment as a weapon. But Eris had not survived for five centuries by being kind and sympathetic.

Still, he added, “Neither is Father,” somehow feeling obliged to toss in that consolation prize.

Beron had been adamant that he would not stoop to be summoned by his disowned bastard, the wretch was responsible for the death of two of his beloved brood. As if his absence were an insult, and not a gift to all Prythian, one that Eris intended to make permanent.

Lucien shrugged. “That will make the negotiations go that much easier.”

Eris inclined his head in agreement. Lucien had always been the most clever of his brothers, and needed every ounce of that intellect to counteract the impulsive hotheadedness that was always landing him deep in shit.

Eris allowed himself another perusal of his brother’s lovely companion, his mind clicking together details from the explanatory letter that accompanied the official invitation. “Aren’t you going to introduce me to your pretty little human?”

“No,” Lucien said flatly.

Eris chuckled, appreciating the audacity, the refreshing honesty, such a rare commodity at these diplomatic conferences. “Then let me assure you, lady,” he drawled, addressing the human female, “not all faeries have such frightfully bad manners. I am Eris Vanserra, the heir to the Autumn Court.”

The little human looked at him forthrightly, her chin jutting out in challenge, then leaned over to Lucien and said in a stage whisper, “I thought we were going to see important people here.”

Tamlin’s heavy brows furrowed, but Lucien’s face lit up as a broad grin spread across his startled features, and Eris tried mightily to tamp down the matching grin that teased at his own lips. “Enchanting,” he said, giving her a sweeping bow, and he meant it. “I can see this is going to be entertaining indeed.”

“This is serious, Eris,” Tamlin growled, missing the point, as usual. “We are here to prevent a war.”

“Yes, yes,” Eris said, waving his hand dismissively. “Before Autumn commits funds or troops so soon after Under the Mountain, I’ve got questions. But brother, what you were doing across the Wall in the first place, and with whom, is clear enough.”

Lucien snarled.

Eris gave a low chuckle. Hit a nerve, did I? Well, that’s one question answered.

He could have laughed aloud at the pathetic contrast as his eyes flicked back to poor Tamlin and his huntress, stony and distant as strangers, no mating bond between them. It seemed the Cauldron had a mean streak, after all.

* * * * *

When Cresseida swept towards them, calling out his name, Lucien was so relieved that he almost didn’t spot the High Lord standing beside her. He pointedly turned his back to Eris, making it clear that this excuse for a conversation was finished, and stepped towards the Summer Court delegation, greeting them in their traditional manner.

The new High Lord, Tarquin, beamed at him with eyes of sparkling turquoise. “Is this the troublesome male I’ve heard so much about?” he asked Cresseida.

Lucien folded his arms in mock consternation. “Troublesome?” he said. “Why, really, Cress. Roguish or dastardly would have been a better description.”

“It’s good to see you too, Lucien,” Cresseida laughed, her silver dress setting off her ebony skin perfectly, the pearls at the hem rattling as she moved gracefully across the marble floors. “It’s been too long.”

“Far too long,” Lucien agreed, “though I hear Adriata survived thanks to your efforts. A fair reward for enduring the long separation.” Then he stepped back, mindful that he was supposed to be making introductions and not just catching up with his old friend, and cleared his throat. “Tamlin, may I present—“

But Tarquin was already striding forward, clasping Tamlin’s arms in the traditional greeting of Summer, exclaiming, “High Lord, I convey our people’s gratitude.” Then his eyes fell on Feyre, who was lingering at the edge of the group, sullen and silent, and he breathed, “Feyre Cursebreaker. It is an honor.”

“I remember you,” Feyre said quietly, looking forthrightly at him.

“Feyre, this is Cresseida, Princess of Adriata,” Lucien said quickly, seeing that she had no intention of touching anyone in greeting, and hoped the Summer Court delegation wouldn’t find it rude.

“You weren’t Under the Mountain,” Feyre said, and he hoped they wouldn’t find that rude, either.

“No, I was defending my city and people,” Cresseida said tightly, but her face relaxed into a warm smile as she turned back to Lucien, saying, “Your eye, it’s not as jarring as I expected. I think it suits you.”

Lucien’s mechanical eye clicked at her, and he said, “You’d tell me if it didn’t.” He turned to Tarquin. “Cresseida is never wrong, you know,” adding mischievously, “apart from that one time she convinced Varian to push me off a pier.”

Tarquin laughed heartily. “I’m sure you deserved it.”

“Oh, I did.” Lucien grinned wryly at the memory. Then, seeing that Feyre and Tamlin had given up all pretense of conversing, and Eris seemed content to hang back and observe the goings-on for some conniving purpose of his own, Lucien put a gentle hand on Elain’s back and nudged her forward. “High Lord Tarquin, Princess Cresseida, this is Elain Archeron.”

Elain froze for a moment, her hands on her skirts as if ready to curtsey, then stepped forward and surprised everyone by giving each of them the traditional greeting that she’d only observed a moment before. Out of the corner of his eye, Lucien saw his brother smirk, as though the sight of a human mingling with High Lords and imitating their customs was just too precious.

But Tarquin and Cresseida were charmed in earnest, and they both started asking questions, and talking excitedly about the Summer Court and how she simply must visit. Lucien threw Feyre and Tamlin another searching look, hoping they would be inspired to stop sulking and participate, but when he heard Elain mention Diomedes’ Star and saw the impressed looks of surprise she was getting, he gave up trying to coax them and rejoined the conversation.

“Of course, you can borrow one of my copies any time you like,” Tarquin was saying smoothly. His simple ruby and diamond crown, undoubtedly selected as a nod to their Dawn Court hosts, glinted in the pale sunshine. “I’m afraid they’re all scribbled on, as I like to take notes while I’m reading.”

“Oh, it’s no trouble for me, I’m used to handwritten notes in books,” Elain said breezily. “The master gardener’s tome that I’m using is full of them.”

Cresseida tilted her head, making the little silver bells woven into her braided hair jingle. “You work as a gardener?”

Lucien tensed for a moment, hoping she hadn’t drawn the wrong conclusion, and his eyes shot to Tamlin, who was ultra-sensitive about the presence of humans at the manor, where there had once been human slaves. But Elain said enthusiastically, “Oh, I don’t know if I’m qualified to call myself that, not here, with such rich soil and magical plants I’ve never seen before. But I’m making a study of it.” Then she asked, “Is the Summer Court known for any particular flowers?”

“Not like Spring, but we do have the most delicious produce. You must try the plumberries,” Tarquin said, and launched into an explanation that Lucien heartily tuned out, content to stare at his charming mate and the growing circle of faeries who were gravitating towards her.

His eye snagged on Eris again, but he quickly turned away when the bastard winked at him. Cauldron boil me, he’s figured it out.

He spotted the High Lord of Winter across the room, conversing with Thesan in low tones, and thought about drawing them in, but just then a flash of bright golden light caught his focus. Tarquin and Cresseida both turned, Tamlin and Feyre stood at stiffer attention, and even Eris drew himself up, wary, alert.

Elain tugged on Lucien in silent question, and he murmured in her ear, “The Day Court delegation.”

Helion Spell-Cleaver stepped forward, his black skin seeming to glow with a golden sheen, white satin chiton fastened over one shoulder and rippling across his muscular legs and bare chest. His gaze swept over the assembled group, fixing briefly on each of the principal people, then settled on Lucien.

And stayed there.

Chapter Text

Helion strode into the gilded meeting hall, trailing his entourage behind him. He always enjoyed Thesan’s hospitality, though he’d found it somewhat less attentive ever since the High Lord had shacked up with that delectable Peregryn. Bet those wings feel as good as they look, soft and sensuous, brushing against the skin.

Helion found both males perched near the reflecting pool, and tossed them a saucy grin, and was not at all insulted when neither grinned back. Thesan was always too soft, too gentle for him anyway, and he supposed any Dawn Court lover of his might be similar.

The two blocks of ice next to Thesan got a polite nod from him — Kallias, so frosty that his partners probably had to wear coats just to lie next to him without shivering, and his beautiful ice princess that only had eyes for her High Lord, understandable since Helion could see their mating bond, golden and strong between them. Pity, for with that knowing smile, that sparkling white hair, the fierce-looking female might actually thaw out if she got the right attention.

Gleaming, gorgeous Tarquin stood not far away, his muscular arms and shoulders beckoning. He was shiny and youthful and idealistic, and Helion thought of how much fun it would be to corrupt him. But there was no chance of that with imperious, shimmering Cresseida perched beside him, watching his every move like the magnificent queen she truly was. He’d missed the regal sight of her Under the Mountain, though he was glad she’d been spared the horror and danger. Amarantha would have slaughtered her out of jealousy alone.

Hulking next to the Summer fae was Tamlin, that blunt and earnest beast that had unwittingly saved them all, simply by refusing Amarantha’s advances, accidentally goading her into bargains and curses rather than outright slaughter. Helion supposed innocence had its benefits, after all. Tamlin was noble in a boring way, had considerable raw power, was probably savage in bed, if unimaginative. But he was graceless, simple-minded, and smelled too much of fresh dirt for Helion’s taste.

No, it was Feyre Cursebreaker who drew Helion’s eye, more than her oafish husband. She was dressed like she was on the hunt, though what or whom she might seek to capture or slay, he couldn’t tell. But he could feel the power roiling in her, almost an echo of his own. He enjoyed those piercing steel eyes that surveyed everyone in the room and found them wanting. It was a challenge, a gauntlet thrown down, and he might have taken it up had she not been shackled in marriage to Tamlin, who had always been uptight and jealous. Still, Helion wondered what fierce Feyre would feel like under his hands, how scintillating she could be, if she ever let that guard down, or if she were a bit less bony and sharp. 

Maybe she’d look like the human female currently drawing the group’s attention. That ethereal creature was filled out, curvy, fresh and pleasing as a newly plucked flower. What any human, much less this precious sweetling, was doing here was an intriguing mystery, one that he was sure would be revealed with patience. But Helion felt no particular attraction to her, despite her obvious beauty. She was too wholesome, too innocent and fresh-faced for an old bastard like him — it just felt wrong to think of her that way.

Helion almost turned away entirely, disgusted by that thought, or perhaps it was the sight of Áine’s eldest brat that twisted his stomach in knots. One look at that flame-red hair, the alabaster freckled skin, the fiery amber eyes he loved so much, all on that fucking Eris Vanserra, made him downright angry. What right did that prissy lordling have to look so much like his mother, to dilute and mingle her beautiful features with Beron Vanserra’s? That cursed combination of cruel Beron and fiery Áine seemed to feel his gaze and grinned roguishly at him, as if his very existence was a deliberate insult he enjoyed hurling at others.

Helion could tell that Áine herself wasn’t there, even apart from the fact that she only appeared in public in her husband’s shadow. Helion always felt her absence as a hollow ache, an emptiness that he could never fill no matter how sated he was with pleasure, or how many lovers he took. He’d steeled himself for the possibility of encountering her, guarded by asshole Beron and his gaggle of sons, and had told himself he wouldn’t care, that he would be calm and indifferent as he’d schooled himself to be Under the Mountain, when every glance of her was a torture beyond any spectacle Amarantha could devise. To be near her, unable to touch, unable to even speak low words or gaze too long at his mate, was a test of Helion’s fortitude, one he thought he’d passed. He’d expected to feel relieved at not encountering her. But now, inside Thesan’s healing walls, the wound was ripped open all over again.

She was mine. Mine, and I lost her.

Still, there was an echo of her here, or an echo of her power, and it called to him, beckoned him towards the crowd of faeries laughing and chatting like old friends.  They were gathered around another fucking Vanserra, the red hair glinting like molten copper under the fae lights, the same boisterous energy and delight that reminded him of Áine in her earlier days, when she was happy and smiling, when she welcomed his embraces and screamed his name in pleasure, before she’d been ground under Beron’s iron-toed boots.

Helion scanned the crowd, his gaze resting squarely on the other Vanserra, a startlingly handsome young lad he couldn’t recall meeting before. His features were more robust and masculine, his skin darker, than Áine’s other boys, and the jagged scars sliced into his face spoke to experience with terror and pain, though he laughed and joked with the others as though he’d shrugged off those memories, despite the physical reminder of them. One of his eyes was a golden orb, catching a glint of sunlight from the windows, while the other blazed with Áine’s fire, a crackling energy Helion would know anywhere.

But there was the thrum of another power, too, one that felt even more familiar, and Helion’s magic flared brightly in recognition, emanating light in all directions.

The burst of power caught the room’s attention, and though startled by it, Helion played it off as purposeful, as though he was making a grand entrance. It was strange for his magic to act up like that, to burst out of its own accord, and he forced his eyes to sweep the room before he turned back to his target, examining the Vanserra more closely, trying to figure out if and how the male had triggered it.

Suddenly Thesan was in his path, smiling in that quiet, glowing way of his, and Helion exchanged glib pleasantries without really hearing anything the male was saying, until he had had enough and flicked his fingers. Phoebus, ever alert and conscientious, caught his gesture, and stepped forward to intercept Thesan, correctly discerning that he had a better shot of distracting the High Lord than any of Helion’s female attendants. Helion gave him the slightest nod of gratitude, then waved a hand towards the others to fan out, mingle with the crowd. Then he strode forward, determined to intercept the Vanserra, get his questions answered once and for all.

The High Lords of the seasonal courts watched him, inclining their heads in greeting, not inclined to engage with him. Helion nodded to each of them — that icicle Kallias, beautiful Tarquin, cloddish Tamlin — and was about to offer his thanks to Feyre Cursebreaker, and inquire after the Vanserra boy’s name, when a sneering voice crooned, “Going for a swim?”

Helion smirked, not bothering to formally acknowledge the preening bastard, but let his eyes flick disdainfully over Eris Vanserra before pointedly looking away. “Not all of us have the physique for Day Court attire. Our style can make some feel… inadequate.”

The prick actually looked pleased to be insulted — probably some kink of his — but Helion couldn’t resist adding, “Is this your first time in such a grand palace?”

Eris snorted. His amber eyes flicked around the sumptuous hall, and he said, “Some High Lords go rather overboard, build too big and gaudy. As if they’re compensating for their shortcomings.”

Ask your mother about my shortcomings, you fucking prick.

Helion shoved down that reaction, and smiled cruelly. “As opposed to your family’s rustic cottage in the woods.”

Eris’s eyes flared molten for a moment, but then he said smugly, “When your magic infuses the very land and sky and weather, no one building can contain it.”

Helion had to chuckle. So arrogant, these seasonal court fae, thinking they should bend the entire climate and character of the land to their whims. “You don’t look like the type to run wild, despite those famous hounds of yours.”

You would enjoy them, like your pegasi. Or do you limit yourself to creatures that walk on two legs?” Eris purred.

Helion almost tossed aside the obvious bait, but it was too good to pass up. “Dear me, how bitter that sounded. Spoken from unwilling inexperience. Pity the only pleasure you indulged in was kissing Amarantha’s ass.”

Eris hissed, “If that bitch queen had known about your proclivities, she might have taken you to bed instead of Rhysand.”

Cauldron forbid. Like all who hailed from Hybern, Amarantha had an irrational disdain for darker-skinned faeries like Helion. It was the only explanation he could think of for why she preferred Tamlin, the palest and blondest of them all. Her loss. “I wasn’t her type,” he boasted.

“I didn’t know she had a type, other than males with no pride or standards,” Eris mused. “Who would want to fuck both Rhysand and Tamlin?”

Who wouldn’t want to fuck Rhysand? The male was a dark and delicious treat, and those wings

Helion shook off the thought of the Night Court and its bevy of attractive faeries, and smirked back at the pompous lordling before him. “You’re just jealous she never looked your way,” he shrugged. When Eris didn’t even react, he went on, “Just like Morrigan.”

To his surprise, Eris laughed heartily. “I’m not Morrigan’s type, either,” then winked and added, “And neither are you.”

Helion decided not to dignify that with a retort, though he wondered what Eris could have meant by it. Instead, he grinned broadly. “Maybe you’d prefer to ride an Illyrian.”

Eris’s nostrils flared. “Now you’re just being vulgar.”

That hit a nerve. Helion filed away that little victory to chuckle over later, and asked, “Was Beron too timid to show his face here?”

“My father has better things to do than stoop to mingle with every manner of faerie from the seven courts,” Eris drawled.

“Six,” Helion corrected, knowing full well that the Night Court had not been invited.

Eris raised an eyebrow. “You’re sure about that?”

Helion raised his own eyebrow in response. “Are you?”

Eris shrugged amiably. “Why else does Feyre Cursebreaker keep staring out the window like she expects Rhysand and his bastard brutes to come flying through it?”

He is observant, I’ll give him that. As he gazed at Feyre and the group around her, a thought occurred to him. “The human female, is that the Cursebreaker’s sister?”

“So I overheard,” Eris said dryly, but then added, with dead seriousness, “She’s off limits.”

Helion wondered at that, if a purebred Vanserra would deign to lay hands on a mere human and what his bigoted father might have to say about it, when there was a burst of laughter, and Helion’s gaze shifted to the group of faeries behind them.

“I did not,” Feyre Cursebreaker was snapping, though a hint of a smile was teasing at her lips. Behind her, Tamlin loomed disapprovingly, his brows furrowed.

“You did,” her sister squealed, tugging at the arm of the golden-brown skinned Vanserra, who was gazing at her in what Helion recognized as adoration. “You tackled him.”

“She’s that strong?” Tarquin asked.

“I didn’t stand a chance,” the Vanserra grinned, as though he was proud of it. “And then this one” — here he indicated the human — “took advantage.”

Helion smirked at the thought of that sweet, innocent creature properly taking advantage of anyone. A faerie can dream, I suppose.

Cresseida laughed. “I’m surprised you let your clothes get soiled, you’re usually so put together.” So she knows the Vanserra from somewhere.

“What can I say? I have a weakness for beautiful females wielding flowers,” the Vanserra laughed, plucking a delicate bloom from the human’s coiffed hair and tucking it into one of his own carefully plaited braids.

“Rascal,” the human scolded him, but her expression told a different story. Smitten. Helion almost envied the Vanserra for being on the receiving end of a look like that. Then she reached up, adjusting the flower so that it sat more neatly against the Vanserra’s hair, and the male practically quivered under her touch.

Helion would have thought it odd, had he not seen the shimmering threads of the mating bond stretched between them. A faerie mated to a human? He had never heard of such a thing. At least, until Feyre had come Under the Mountain to rescue Tamlin. But when he glanced at them, he saw no mating bond at all, just uncomfortable silence. Curious.

He turned to ask Eris for his brother’s name, why he didn’t recall having seen the male before, but Eris had melted back into the crowd, leaving Helion to stride towards the group on his own.

But before he could commandeer the conversation or even be greeted, Thesan announced, “Lunch is served in all of your chambers, so you might rest and relax before the proceedings.”

Hearty cheers of agreement greeted this pronouncement, and the clumps of chattering faeries began to drift apart, headed towards their respective accommodations. Helion frowned, and headed towards the Vanserra anyway, but found that the way was blocked by a crowd of Tarquin’s pearl-encrusted attendants, all whispering excitedly about the Cursebreaker and her sweet human sister, and by the time he could get past them, the Vanserra was gone.

Helion tsked with displeasure. He had the distinct feeling that Eris Vanserra had herded him away, run interference with his taunts and baiting comments, but it was no matter. Helion would get his answers during the meeting, or afterwards, one way or another.

Chapter Text

Cresseida tugged on Tarquin’s sleeve, and he slowed down his pace, pausing in the entrance to their private guest quarters as their courtiers strolled on ahead to the meeting chamber. “What is it, cousin?” Tarquin asked kindly, reaching up self-consciously to adjust his crown.

“You know what,” Cresseida murmured, casting a worried look around the open hallway to ensure they were alone. One could never be too careful in a place like this, with so many fae from competing courts about. She’d caught sly Eris eavesdropping on several such occasions, and Kallias “just walking by” once or twice, and even gentle Thesan had his songbirds, which sang to him of everything that went on in his halls. Cresseida tugged the door shut again, and threw a glamour over them both, just for good measure.

“It will be all right,” Tarquin said nervously, clearly not at all sure it would be. “If Spring’s information is to be believed, there is time to deal with the threat.”

“That is not what I mean, and you know it,” Cresseida said impatiently, envying her cousin’s idealistic spirit even as she was frustrated by it. “We will deal with Hybern, yes. But what of the Book?”

Tarquin blinked. “I thought we discussed this. We will offer it to them, along with our terms.”

“We state our terms first, feel out if they are inclined to agree,” Cresseida corrected him, “and then reveal that we have the Book. Only if they can provide assurances for Adriata. Otherwise, we keep silent.”

Tarquin sighed, tugging at one of his silver locs, a nervous habit that Cresseida wished he could control. He had little practice negotiating, had been thrust into court politics in the worst possible way under the bitch queen’s watchful eye, and it certainly wouldn’t help if he showed too obviously that he was uncomfortable. Tarquin was so open and earnest and idealistic that she worried for him, that he would be eaten alive in situations like this summit, leaving Summer to be picked apart by the vultures.

“You know my objections to that approach, but I have not taken part in this sort of bargaining before. I suppose you know best.” Then Tarquin added slyly, “Your clever redhead certainly thinks so.”

Cresseida tsked, “Lucien? He is all flattery.” When Tarquin just gazed at her, a grin tugging at one corner of his mouth, she huffed, “Lucien is practically my little brother. He spent many summers with Varian and me when we were all younglings.” She waved her hand, dispelling the glamour, and opened the door so that they could start walking again. “Besides, he’s clearly smitten with that sweet little human.”

“Ah, yes. The Cursebreaker’s sister,” Tarquin nodded, his sandals clacking on the marble floor as he strode purposefully down the hall. “I cannot wait to hear the full tale. But is it not strange that two human sisters would both play such a key role in fae affairs?”

Cresseida shrugged, though it did seem strange indeed. “The Cauldron chose them, I suppose.”

Tarquin frowned at that. “The same Cauldron we’re trying to —?”

“Shh,” she hissed, noting that they were approaching a crowded area. Attendants and courtiers dressed in a dazzling array of colors, representing the six invited courts, milled about, talking and gossiping animatedly. Cresseida put on her best bored expression, determined to enter the negotiations giving absolutely no hint of their interest in the proceedings, or their bartering strategy.

The door attendants bowed to them, opening the door to the grand meeting hall, where seats were arranged around Thesan’s beautiful reflecting pool. Helion lounged in one seat, his pose artfully constructed to show off his muscular thighs and gleaming chest. He was radiant and alluring, as always, so Cresseida pointedly looked away, having no intention of entertaining him, or allowing him access to Tarquin either. She nodded instead to their allies Kallias and Viviane, selecting seats beside them.

“Cresseida,” Viviane gushed, grasping her arms in Summer’s traditional greeting, “finally, we meet face to face. Your secret letters sustained me during those long years that these two” — here she indicated Kallias and Tarquin, who were chatting amiably nearby — “were trapped Under the Mountain.”

Cresseida smiled at the pale, white haired female, presenting her with the traditional Winter Court bow of welcome. “It is good to see you in person at last, Viviane. May I extend my condolences on behalf of all Summer.”

Viviane nodded, a hint of tears springing to her blue eyes, but quickly said, “We are here to ensure that such things can never happen again. We will do everything we can, on behalf of our people and for all Prythian, to honor the memory of those sweet younglings.”

Cresseida swallowed hard, careful not to meet Tarquin’s eyes, though she could feel that he was watching her. Tarquin would freely give their sacred artifact without a second thought, without asking for anything in return, and of course he would be touched by such a heartfelt sentiment.

But Tarquin had not spent fifty years defending Adriata from every monster, pirate ship, and roving band of goons that thought the city a jewel to be plundered. And as much as she wished to honor the Winter Court younglings, she had families with younglings depending on her, too. Adriata was on the coast, within easy sailing distance of the enemy, and without assurances that they would be protected, they would be the first to be attacked if Prythian provoked Hybern precipitously.

They were mercifully interrupted by the arrival of the Spring Court delegation, and Cresseida was swept up into animated conversation, a sea of greetings and exclamations and laughter that was in turn interrupted by Thesan’s call for order, to get the meeting underway. Cresseida just had time to witness Eris Vanserra, alone representing Autumn, saunter into the hall as though he owned the place, as though they’d all waited for him so that the meeting could start. The prick of a princeling’s timing was impeccable, she would give him that.

Eris slid gracefully into the seat next to Lucien, tugging on his brother’s sleeve to whisper something in his ear. Whatever it was turned Lucien scowly — another of Eris’s talents, she remembered — and he pointedly turned away, angling his body towards his human companion instead.

The human female’s wide doe eyes were taking in everything and everyone, the awe and appreciation lighting up her pretty face. Though she lacked the poise and grace of the fae, she was uncommonly beautiful for a human, at least what Cresseida remembered from the depictions in her history books. She wondered what the female must think of them all, so much power gathered in one place, if humans could perceive such things. If so, it was rather brave of her to be here at all.

Thesan thanked them all for coming, lightly reminding them of the wards and security measures to prevent use of magic and brawling, producing knowing chuckles from around the room. Cresseida had bet her entourage that Eris would be the first one to provoke a fight, as he had a singular talent for riling up others with well-placed insults. Most fae seemed to think he did it for his own cruel amusement, but Cresseida knew better — it was the Vanserra way of controlling situations, revealing others’ weaknesses, throwing them emotionally off balance. She’d seen Beron use the same tactic on her own father many, many times, had seen it work in the Autumn Court’s favor almost as often as it was tried.

Thesan motioned to Lucien, saying, “Since Lucien called this meeting, I’ll turn it over to him. He has news for us, gathered from his trip to the human lands.”

Eris wasted no time, leering, “That’s not all he gathered from the human lands.”

The human blushed prettily, understanding the insinuation, but Lucien, to his credit, ignored Eris’s barb entirely, addressing the group. “I encountered Jurian, reborn from the ring on Amarantha’s finger and the bone on her necklace. He is fully corporeal again, and he was dressed as a soldier in Hybern’s bone and gray.”

Several of the fae hissed at the mention of Hybern, while Helion leaned forward thoughtfully. “A resurrected being, from an eye and a single bone? How was such a thing accomplished?”

“He spoke of magical relics,” Lucien replied, tapping his slender fingers on his knee as he recalled the precise wording. “Objects of power, long forgotten.”

“That could be many things,” Kallias said doubtfully.

“There was more, if you recall the wording from my letter,” Lucien said. “Jurian said such things can wield the power of life and death itself, shatter even the strongest magic. I would think that only the Cauldron itself would be capable of that.”

Next to Cresseida, Tarquin began to shift nervously, and she shot him a warning look. She knew he was ready to jump in, probably ready to offer their sacred artifact on the spot, but the moment was not yet ripe. He is young, she reminded herself. Hot-headed. Passionate.

“Did he specifically mention the Cauldron?” Helion asked.

“He didn’t, but what other object of power could accomplish such a thing?” Lucien asked. He gazed at Helion thoughtfully, leaning forward as well, and Cresseida found it amusing that each of them sat perched in such similar fashion, as though mirroring each other. She couldn’t recall that the new High Lord of Day had ever visited Summer, or had mingled with any of the seasonal court families, but she could have taken Helion and Lucien for old friends, from the way they seemed to play off each other.

Eris crossed a leg over a knee. “Wouldn’t that be good to find out before we jump in impulsively? I know that’s your style, brother, but some of us have our soldiers’ lives to consider.”

Tamlin snarled, “Do not insult him.”

But Lucien waved a dismissive hand, used to Eris’s needling despite his long absence from Autumn. “Your soldiers won’t stand a chance, if the Cauldron is deployed as a weapon. That’s why we need to do something now, while there’s still time.”

Kallias asked, “Forgive me, I don’t mean to question the accuracy of your story, but are you certain it was Jurian you met?”

“Yes. He knew who I was,” Lucien said. “Knew my name, what powers I had. Knew how I got my scars.” Cresseida shivered, having heard the story, and many of the assembled fae winced, remembering that awful moment firsthand. “He told me I should have tried flattering — her, as a certain High Lord did, instead of mouthing off. No other human male would have known about that.”

Cresseida took in the looks of horror and disgust that this elicited, particularly from Kallias, whose near-translucent skin had taken on a greenish tint. Viviane put a comforting arm around him, whispering something tenderly in his ear. Meanwhile, Feyre Cursebreaker had gone rigid at the mention of a certain High Lord, and Cresseida made a mental note to ask Tarquin about that later.

“Why would Jurian work for Hybern? He was human, and a freedom fighter,” Cresseida spoke up, remembering the history she’d read.

“I don’t know that he was working for Hybern. Not fully,” Lucien said. “He was conducting business on behalf of the mortal queens, who are apparently in Hybern’s thrall. But he was also throwing hints my way. I think he wanted me to deliver this message.”

Tarquin shot Cresseida a worried look, and this time she met his gaze, understanding his train of thought without him having to say a word. Their half of the Book of Breathings would be useless if the mortal queens did not bestow the other half willingly. Hybern was crafty indeed, if the King had already managed to get the mortal queens on his side. It indicated that he did intend to use the Cauldron, after all.

Cresseida calculated how she might handle this, how it would affect their chances of securing a navy to guard Adriata, but stayed silent, hoping there was more information that would turn the tide back in their favor.

To her surprise, the human female spoke up. “That man wanted to help us. He told the lord of the manor to grow more ash trees, and build up the retaining wall around the estate, in case the Wall came down.”

The assembled fae looked aghast at the idea of ash trees, and Lucien visibly shuddered. But Helion was nodding, saying, “Jurian is wily. It seems he is using his position with Hybern to spy, and rally the humans in secret. Smart male. He would have much to tell us, if we could get him here. Imagine what he learned, being on the bitch queen’s finger for all those years, and now wearing their colors, pretending to be one of them.”

Eris snorted. “You’re giving him far too much credit. He’s probably out of his mind. If he was even resurrected with one.”

“He was entirely lucid,” Lucien said patiently. “He made sure I understood the hints about the Cauldron.”

“He also tried to buy you,” Feyre Cursebreaker blurted out.

That threw the room into momentary confusion, and Lucien flushed, though not quite as deeply as the human next to him, who looked miserable and ashamed at this revelation, which suggested to Cresseida that it must be true. Eris sat back, smirking delightedly, while Tarquin tugged at Cresseida’s shawl, murmuring, “Humans practice slavery?”

“The history books didn’t mention that,” she said back, looking quizzically at her flustered friend.  “But apparently it is true.”

“Appalling,” Tarquin said, looking sympathetically at Lucien.

“Hush, all of you, let the male speak,” Helion said crossly. He glared particularly at Eris, who just grinned roguishly at him.

“I believe that was his cover story,” Lucien said carefully, sidestepping the question that they were all wondering about — how the humans had come to capture him in the first place. “But I did not find out. I left shortly after that.”

Escaped, Cresseida supposed, with the help of his human sweetheart, who just happened to be the Cursebreaker’s sister. The female’s presence here makes much more sense now.

“So we don’t actually know his intentions,” Eris pointed out. “He could have planned to turn you over to those queens, or to Hybern directly.”

Lucien’s shoulders sagged a little. “That is a possibility, yes.”

“Then how can we trust any of his information?” Eris challenged.

“Jurian’s existence is the proof that Hybern wields the Cauldron. That part is true, at least,” Helion said, a note of irritation creeping into his voice. “If he is working with Hybern, we should be even more prepared to act, for he saw and heard plenty Under the Mountain that the King could use against us.”

Cresseida’s fingers twisted in the fringe of her shawl. The idea of the King of Hybern knowing how to play the courts off each other, what each High Lord’s vulnerabilities were…

“Say the Cauldron is going to be used to shatter the Wall,” Thesan mused. “What can be done?”

Tarquin said carefully, “There could be ways to disrupt its power.”

Cresseida did not glare at him, did not react outwardly, but she wanted to warn him to be cautious.

“I will have my scholars look into it,” Helion said, flicking his fingers to produce a scroll and writing implement, scribbling a note that vanished into the air.

“Or we just take it for ourselves. Use it against Hybern,” Eris suggested.

Kallias cried, “That is madness! Assuming we could even steal it, who would be powerful enough to wield the Cauldron as a weapon?”

“The High Priestesses, perhaps,” Thesan mused, and Tamlin nodded in agreement.

Eris scoffed, “Have you ever seen a priestess actually use that stone for anything other than jewelry? Because I haven’t.”

“Watch it, Eris,” Tamlin growled at him.

“Or what?” Eris asked sweetly.

Cresseida winked at Tarquin. I’m well on my way to winning that bet.

Helion cleared his throat. “I hate to agree with Eris about anything, but… I suspect he is correct about the priestesses.” Eris gave him a mocking grin, but he went on, “But I do not agree that we should be wielding the Cauldron’s power. It is far too risky.”

“Not as risky as letting the King of Hybern use it,” Eris argued.

“Have you ever used magic? It is complicated and prone to errors,” Helion snapped at him.

Eris bristled. “I am a High Lord’s heir, of course I’ve used magic.”

Helion scoffed, “Setting things on fire is not magic.”

Eris’s eyes flashed. “Would you like a demonstration?”

Lucien held out his hands, murmuring nervously, “This is not helping.”

“Fire away, little lordling,” Helion goaded Eris, rising from his chair. “I’ve been wanting to put you in your place for ages. If you weren’t Áine’s son —“

“Get her name out of your fucking mouth,” Eris snarled, blue flames sparking at his fingertips. Cresseida shrank back, suddenly nervous. There was more to this than she had realized, some long-simmering conflict that she didn’t understand, but she didn’t relish the thought of being caught in the crossfire.

Tamlin had apparently thought the same, for he was leaping in front of Feyre, snarling, “Put that power away before someone gets hurt.”

Lucien whispered something to the human, and she nodded quickly, rising and rushing to stand by her sister’s side, behind Tamlin.

“Pathetic. You’re no match for me,” Helion chortled, a ball of golden light swirling in his palm.

“Please, both of you,” Thesan said. “The wards —“

Helion flicked a finger, and the wards in the room flickered, shimmering into view and then peeling away. “If Beron’s brat wants to be a reckless idiot and challenge me, I’m more than happy to accept.”

Kallias and Viviane were out of their seats and backing away, and Cresseida nodded to Tarquin, deciding that they should do the same. But Lucien was grabbing at Eris’s arm, hissing, “Knock it off, or take it outside, we don’t need this shit right now.”

Eris threw him off, sneering, “Fuck off, little brother. Let the grown ups handle this.”

“If you see any, send them my way,” Helion drawled, tendrils of light swirling around him.

“You are a pompous ass,” Eris retorted. “If you’d spent this much energy defending your mate, instead of fucking anything that moves —“

But he never got to finish his insult.

With a mighty roar, Helion’s blast of light careened towards him, and Eris fired back, shooting a fireball in Helion’s direction.

Cresseida shrieked and shielded, combining her power with Tarquin’s, and she held her hand near her eyes, not wanting to see the damage they’d cause, the injuries they might give each other.

But Lucien lunged in between them, flinging his hands out, yanking Eris’s fire towards him, and Helion’s light.

There were gasps throughout the room as the blasts of magic curved harmlessly around Lucien, giving him an otherworldly glow, as though he were wreathed in glowing flame.

Chapter Text

Three hundred and seventy four.

That was how many steps it would take to get down from the tower.

Three hundred seventy four steps between Eris and escape.

He could make it. He could make it if he ran right now, if he blasted a fireball out behind him to hold Helion off, run down the steps until he’d escaped the wards, then winnow away. Or he could jump from the balcony, plunge past the wards, freefall and then winnow from midair.

Eris took one step, then two.

Three hundred seventy-one steps between him and reaching Autumn, between him and his mother.

He could warn her. He could hide her. He could face Beron later, spin some excuse about Hybern, or the other High Lords threatening their family. Beron might believe it. Beron might believe him, after a bit of torture.

Or Beron would kill him this time, kill his mother, hunt down Lucien, challenge Helion, provoke a war —

He backed up three more steps, then whirled around for the door.

Three hundred sixty-eight, three hundred sixty-seven —

Feyre Cursebreaker stepped into his path, barking, “Where do you think you’re going?”

He shoved at her frantically, hissing, “I’m going to save my mother.”

But Tamlin’s clawed hand, huge and strong, the hand of a fucking beast more than any faerie, clamped around his arm. “Do not push her,” he growled.

Eris sent a lick of flame towards Tamlin, just enough to make the male snarl and drop his arm so that he could shield himself, and took off running again.

Three hundred sixty-six, three hundred sixty-five —

Eris yelped as he tripped and stumbled, his hands flying out to catch himself, and then cursed as he felt the net of binding spells cinch around him, locking up around his legs and arms, sending him sprawling onto the marble floor. He thrashed and flailed as the net yanked tighter, then roared in frustration as his wrists were pinned tightly together, as well as his ankles.

Trapped, with three hundred sixty-four steps to go.

He twisted around, barely able to see past the glittering golden threads that had wound themselves around him. Curse that fucking Helion, does he want Mother to die? But Eris knew that Helion had abandoned his mother long ago, surrendered her to Beron’s cruelty, and that he was the one who was supposed to be protecting her, and Lucien, and their secret.

I shouldn’t have tangled with him.

Eris could just make out where Lucien was standing, glowing flames dancing across his skin, lit up like a fucking beacon for all of Prythian to see. He writhed, trying to get a better view, ignoring the heavy footsteps around him. Probably Tamlin, that calamitous clod. If he’d not interfered, I could have gotten away.

“Lucien?” the little human shrieked, her sweet voice so high and plaintive. Eris wondered how his brother had managed it, had talked his little human into venturing into this cutthroat world, how the stupid fucker expected to protect her when he couldn’t go five minutes without blundering into some new peril.

“He’s all right, it’s just magic,” Tamlin said, with as much gentleness as a beast-lord could muster.

“It is not just magic,” Helion thundered, striding forward and reaching for Lucien with outstretched hands. “It is my magic.”

Not just yours, Eris tried to say, but he found his words strangled in his throat, swallowed up by the spells fucking Helion had woven around him.

Helion drew the light back towards himself with extended fingers, pulling tendril after tendril until they were all writhing and dancing between himself and Lucien, as though they were trying to decide who to obey.

“Let go, boy,” Helion commanded.

Lucien was staring at his own hands, murmuring, “I don’t know how.”

Eris strained, tugging uselessly at his ankles and wrists, but only succeeded in twisting himself up tighter. Stupid binding spells, they tighten when I struggle.

“It’s like any other power, just ease off,” Helion suggested, stepping closer towards Lucien.

“I — can’t —“ Lucien gritted out, his arms shaking with the effort.

There was a scuffle behind Eris somewhere, and he tilted his head back to look, then cursed when the spells tightened around his neck and shoulders. Feyre Cursebreaker barked, “Let me go!”

“We must leave, it’s too dangerous,” Tamlin was murmuring.

“You can’t just leave Lucien in here like that,” Feyre argued.

“Helion will help him. I must keep you safe,” Tamlin insisted. “You and your sister.”

Helion was in front of Lucien now, hands pressed on Lucien’s shoulders, drawing the light towards himself, glowing blinding yellow before the power dissipated, absorbed back into him. Eris sighed with relief, as did everyone else in the room — everyone who hadn’t already fled when the fight had started. Those were the smart ones.

Eris tried not to think about those faeries who’d seen his brother light up with Day Court power, who were already gone, probably spreading the gossip across the six civilized courts for his father to find out about. It’s already too late, even if I can escape.

“Who would like some refreshments?” Thesan said nervously. “We can take tea out on the balcony. Let things settle down.”

“Tea would be lovely,” Cresseida said briskly, stalking towards the exit, tugging Tarquin behind her. Eris tried not to flinch as her sandals clacked next to him, but he couldn’t risk trying to get out of the way, not when Helion’s magic could strangle him, or squeeze him until his limbs were severed, or —

“Good luck,” Tarquin murmured kindly, his dark, handsome face briefly looming in Eris’s vision, blurred by the golden strands of magic keeping Eris trapped.

Tarquin is too good for us all.

Tamlin was out the door next, still arguing with Feyre, while the human female — Lucien’s mate, he was almost positive — lingered for long moments, watching the scene unfold nervously.

“It’s all right, Elain, I’ll be fine,” Lucien assured her, in an entirely unconvincing tone. He was still glowing faintly, a look of utter confusion and shock on his face. He barely seemed to register that Helion had him firmly by the arm and was staring at him intently, studying him, probably figuring out what Eris had spent centuries helping his mother to hide.

It was Viviane, the Lady of the Winter Court, who put her pale arm around Elain’s shoulders, making Eris want to shiver on the human’s behalf. But the lady’s words were warm and friendly. “You can come sit with Kallias and me. Lucien will be along soon, and he’ll be unharmed.” She dared to give Helion a significant look. “Isn’t that right?”

For a moment, Helion was silent, but then he seemed to register that her words had been a prompt for him to speak. “What? Yes, of course,” he said irritably, though his tight grip on Lucien and the angry edge to his tone did not seem convincing.

The human nodded, allowing Viviane to lead her out of the room, and Eris almost chuckled despite his predicament when she hissed at him, “Serves you right.”

See you later, little sister, he tried to reply, remembering too late that the magic binding him extended to his throat and tongue.

Thesan was the last to depart, saying to Helion in a low voice, “Do try not to blast anything.”

“I’ll leave everything intact. Other than Eris,” Helion said, and Thesan departed rapidly, not sparing Eris a glance.

Eris was not comforted by that. Some host you are, he almost snapped.

But he understood. He really did. No one was going to stick their necks out for him. Even his brothers, other than Lucien, would have made no attempt to help him, and his own father might have saved him only to punish him later. And his mother —

Gods, I’ve got to get out of here.

But there was no chance of that. He was pinned tight, utterly helpless, and Helion would be in no mood to listen to his pleas or explanations, even if he had had his voice to speak with. He threw a pleading glance at Lucien, who seemed frozen to the spot, overwhelmed by the power that he’d unwittingly commanded, and the High Lord looming over him, staring intently at him.

But then Eris felt a slight loosening around his neck and chest, and sucked in a deep breath, thankful for the reprieve. He glanced back at Lucien, noting how his brother had extended his fingers, and wondered if Lucien had figured out some other aspect of Helion’s magic, if he wasn’t a spell-cleaver in his own right. He blinked rapidly at his brother, urging him onwards, hoping the male would have the sense to free Eris’s legs, so he could run.

Only three hundred sixty-four steps, if I could just get free.

Helion noticed Eris’s squirming, and yanked Lucien’s arm. “What do you think you’re doing?” But his tone softened somewhat as he added, more softly, “How are you doing that?”

“My mechanical eye,” Lucien answered, his voice surprisingly calm. Eris supposed that, after facing down Amarantha and Rhysand Under the Mountain, his brother wouldn’t find even an angry Helion too frightening. “It sees wards, and spells.”

Helion looked at him skeptically. “Surely that’s not all.” When Lucien shrugged, he went on, “Seeing the spells is not the same as cleaving them.” Then his eyes rested on Eris, and he got a wicked grin on his face. “Let’s test that theory.”

Lucien blurted, “How?”

Helion kept his hold on Lucien’s arm with one hand, then clapped the other over his eyes, wrenching a yelp from the startled male. But Helion only chuckled, saying, “You seem to be able to use my magic. So, use it. Free your brother.”

“I —“ Lucien struggled, trying to pull the hand away that was covering his eyes, but Helion’s large hand gripped his wrist, wrestling his hand back down. “How?”

“No questions now. I’m testing my theory,” Helion said firmly. “Let’s see if you can do it. You have one minute.”

Eris did not want to know what would happen at the end of one minute if Lucien couldn’t do it, and was thankful when Lucien didn’t ask. Instead, his brother went still, quiet, pliant in Helion’s grip, as if realizing that he wasn’t going to win, that he had no choice but to accept the challenge.

For several agonizing moments, nothing happened, and Eris began to wonder if he really would die here tangled up on the floor, strangled by this stupid spiderweb of spell-work.

Suddenly, there was a flash of blinding white light all around him, and then Eris was free, scrambling to his feet, backing up towards the door. Three hundred sixty-three. Three hundred sixty-two. Lucien would just have to understand. Three hundred sixty-one. Three hundred sixty.

“Good!” Helion crowed, releasing the hand over Lucien’s eyes. “Crude, but effective.”

Three hundred fifty-nine.

Three hundred fifty-eight.

“What does this mean?” Lucien asked, his voice plaintive, frowning at Eris slowly backing away.

“That depends,” Helion said, turning Lucien around so they were face to face again. “How old are you?”

Three hundred fifty-seven, fifty-six, fifty-five —

The blood roared in Eris’s ears, and he staggered back, sure as hell now that Helion had figured it out.

Helion looked past Lucien for a moment, his eyes glowing.

“Run,” he breathed.

Eris ran.

Chapter Text

Lucien twisted around, seeking his brother, whose retreating steps echoed on the stone floors, but the High Lord firmly gripping his arm commanded, “Look at me.

So Lucien looked. He resisted the urge to shrink away under Helion’s intense glowing gaze, forcing himself to stay composed, calm, not panicked, not freaked out by the strange magic he’d just unleashed, or the powerful male staring down at him.

He’d leaped in between Helion and Eris to defuse the situation, prevent an all-out brawl, which was the last thing they all needed with an attack from Hybern looming. He’d grabbed for their unleashed magic instinctively, trying to protect himself, protect Elain, whom he never should have brought here, exposing her to danger. He made a mental note to thank Viviane for getting Elain to leave, though he could feel his mate’s lingering anxiety for him through the bond, and it rankled him that he would ever make her feel that way.

But Lucien’s thoughts kept swirling, kept cycling back to his own body, wreathed with light. Light, swirling around him, greeting him, responding to him, as though he commanded it. He had no ability to wield light like that, or to cleave spells, for that matter. Yet he’d done both. There had to be an explanation.

He stared at his hands again, as though the answer would pop out from them. He’d lost his powers during Amarantha’s reign, just like everyone he knew. Had some strange alteration occurred when his powers returned? Or had he always had light inside him, and just not known?

Lucien coaxed himself to breathe deeply, to meet Helion’s eyes forthrightly. Something was happening here that he didn’t understand, though from the look of horror on Eris’s face, he guessed that his brother did. There had to be something between their two courts that Lucien hadn’t known about, some reason for the two males to despise each other. He had no idea what the connection could be. Eris sure as shit hadn’t mentioned it. It was as mysterious as the question of why Helion’s light had responded to him, why it felt familiar.

“Yes,” Helion murmured, more to himself than to Lucien. “Yes, of course.

Lucien made himself calmly ask, “Of course what?”

“Of course you would have your mother’s eyes,” Helion said wistfully.

The hair on the back of Lucien’s neck prickled. He couldn’t recall his family ever having visited the Day Court, nor receiving Helion’s family as guests. Lucien himself had been in Day only a handful of times, usually in one of the libraries, and had never been formally received at the palace. Yet Helion seemed to know exactly what Áine looked like, as though there were a history between them.

“You know my mother?” he asked stupidly.

Helion smirked. “You could say that.”

He ghosted a hand over Lucien’s chest, chuckling ruefully as he coaxed a tendril of light from it. Lucien backed up instinctively, shocked to see the strange energy coming out of his own body, but Helion’s firm hold didn’t let him get far.

“How many times have you used this power?” Helion demanded to know.

“Never — how — where did that come from,” Lucien breathed, clutching at his chest, staring at the light curling in between them, marveling at the way that it swirled and shone.

Helion’s gaze was unyielding as he slammed his palm shut, enclosing the light within it. “It came from me.

Lucien was taken aback. No. That doesn’t make sense. But he couldn’t argue, not when he’d seen Helion pull light out of him right before his eyes.

His mind cast about uselessly for any explanation, coming up blank. He stammered, “But we’ve never met before.”

“I suspect that was deliberately done,” Helion said darkly, his jaw clenching. “They hid you from me. Hid the truth.” He shook his head, his pointed crown glinting sharply under the fae lights. “I should have known. I should have guessed.”

“But — who?” Lucien asked, struggling to catch up. Hid me from him? What does that mean?

“How far the deception goes remains to be seen. Though the way your brother acted just now, I’m certain he was complicit.” Helion frowned. “You had no idea, did you.”

“I still don’t,” Lucien admitted, gaping up at the High Lord, suddenly feeling unsteady on his feet.

“Sit down, before you fall down,” Helion ordered, catching him before he could stumble. “Your magic needs to settle.”

Helion pulled him toward a chair, and Lucien slumped into it, suddenly exhausted and dizzy. He sat for long moments, trying not to squirm under Helion’s unrelenting stare. “Please,” Lucien begged, “just tell me everything.”

Helion folded his powerful arms, the snake armband coiled around his bicep slinking upwards with the movement. He seemed to consider for a moment, then said quietly, “Your mother never mentioned me.”

Lucien raised his eyebrows, surprised, but Helion went on. “Of course she wouldn’t. She wouldn’t dare, not with Beron Vanserra’s boot on her neck. That blasted male ruins everything he touches. And everyone.” He eyed Lucien shrewdly. “Though you escaped.”

“Maybe,” Lucien said, grimacing at the memory of the day he’d escaped Autumn.

Helion sighed softly, seeing his pained expression. “You’ve suffered much.”

Lucien couldn’t deny it, but said, “Not as much as Mother.”

Helion shuddered, a stormcloud of fury passing over his features. “I will make Beron pay for that. For all of it.”

Lucien saw the depth of his anger, how deeply it affected him to think of Áine suffering, and said carefully, “You knew Mother well.”

Helion’s deep eyes glowed faintly. “I thought I did.” He sank into the chair next to Lucien, rubbing a hand over his face, then said, “I saw your mother many times, over the centuries, and got to know her quite… intimately.”

Lucien flushed, his mind stuttering at the thought of this — his mother and Helion? Surely there had to be some mistake. “My father allowed this?”

“Your father,” Helion said, his eyes flashing. “If you mean Beron, then no. Beron would never willingly permit his wife to venture outside their marriage bed.”

If I mean Beron? Lucien’s mind was racing, fitting pieces of the puzzle together, and he grasped the edges of the chair, willing himself to stay on it, not fall over, not crumple to the ground, as the implications fully hit him.

It is not just magic. It is my magic. 

They hid you from me. Hid the truth.

I saw your mother many times, over the centuries, and got to know her quite… intimately.

Lucien breathed hard, staring at Helion, the familiar features resolving into recognition.

“Yes,” Helion breathed. “You see it.”

Lucien did see it. He saw himself in the High Lord of Day, felt the magic connecting them, and he said softly, “You are my father.”

Helion nodded, a tentative smile on his lips, but his eyes were sorrowful. “It seems I am.”

Helion is my father.

Lucien felt the truth of it settle into his bones. It seemed so incredibly obvious now, so logical, that he was certain that his family must have known. His mother, and Beron, and Eris for certain, and perhaps some of his other brothers. They would have seen how he resembled Helion physically, how his skin was darker than any Vanserra, perhaps seen hints of his Day Court heritage. Now that he’d seen for himself, he felt like an idiot.

No wonder I was hated.

Lucien blurted, “I’m sorry.”

Helion snapped, “Whatever for?”

“Well — I — “ Lucien had no idea what to say next, and he winced when he saw Helion’s angry expression. I never did learn when to keep my mouth shut.

“You will not apologize for being born,” Helion said sternly.

“Sorry,” Lucien said, his metal eye clicking rapidly.

Helion sighed heavily, adjusting his armband where it was digging into his bicep. “It’s those fucking Vanserras who should be sorry. They hid this. They lied.” His voice dropped lower, more threatening. “And if I know anything about Beron, I’m willing to bet he made your life hell.”

Lucien nodded tightly, not trusting himself to speak, but unable to deny the truth of it.

Helion sat back, cursing soundly. “Knew it.” He shook his head again, fury coating his words. “Of all the fucking assholes in Prythian, Beron Vanserra raised my son.”

Lucien was trembling, the weight of the revelations pressing down on him. All those years of abuse and pain, Jesminda’s death, that fucking cruelty, and he wasn’t even my father, after all.

He couldn’t imagine life without Beron’s specter looming over him, over his mother, couldn’t even wonder what it would be like if he’d grown up with Helion instead. Things would have been so different as to be unrecognizable.

Then he remembered that his mother had six other sons, all Beron’s, and that she never would have been allowed to leave Autumn. It was a lucky recollection, for it saved him from drowning in regret for how things had turned out.

So he squared his shoulders and said to Helion, “My mother raised me.”

Helion’s eyes sparkled. “Yes. I can see that.” He leaned forward, examining Lucien again. “You are not like Beron’s sons. I saw that immediately. You are a lot like your mother.” He paused, then added, “Or how I remember her, when she was happy.”

Lucien bit his bottom lip, reining in his emotions. “You remember her being happy.” He would give anything to know what it was like, to see his mother happy.

Maybe when Beron’s dead.

For a long moment, neither said anything. There was too much to say, and nowhere to begin.

Helion looked pensive, his anger at Eris seemingly dissipated for the moment. Lucien hoped desperately that Eris had left for Autumn, that he was ensuring that their mother was safe, that Helion wouldn’t do anything rash now that he knew the truth. What would happen when word got back to Beron of what had transpired here? He knew that folks would gossip, that tales of this would spread.

He prayed to the Cauldron that Eris had his head on straight, would figure out how to keep them all safe from Beron’s wrath.

He turned to Helion — to his father — and said, “What happens now?”

“Now,” Helion said, “you’re going to learn how to harness your magic, so that it doesn’t overwhelm you again. And I’m going to introduce you to our court.”

Lucien said, “Our — court?”

Helion sat back, his powerful muscles shifting under his chiton. “Naturally.”

“But —” Lucien began to object, though he couldn’t explain his hesitation. How could he tell Helion that he was in exile, that he didn’t belong anywhere, that he certainly wasn’t part of the Day Court just because its High Lord had sired him, that he was a seventh son with no desire to rule anyone —

“Don’t overthink it,” Helion said, more kindly than Lucien had heard him speak yet. “This will take time. Have dinner with our delegation, you and your mate.”

Lucien jumped, startled. “I haven’t even told her — How did you —“

Helion laughed, tapping his temple, tsking, “Can you not see mating bonds?”

Lucien blinked at that. It hadn’t occurred to him that he would be able to see that sort of magic, but if he had Helion’s power… “I’m not sure. I don’t think so. I can’t see Tamlin and Feyre’s.”

“Oh, they’re not mates,” Helion said. “That’s clear enough, powers or no.”

Lucien frowned. “But the Suriel told her —“ He broke off, considering. Feyre’s reaction had been odd, and she had adamantly refused to talk about it afterwards. “I wonder.”

What did the Suriel tell her, exactly?

“Suriels cannot lie,” Helion said, “but they can give incomplete information. I have often wondered whom they choose to talk to, and why.” He patted Lucien’s shoulder. “I wonder what such a creature would have to say about our situation.”

Lucien wasn’t sure he wanted to know — he had had quite enough revelations for a while — but said, “Maybe Feyre could ask her Suriel for us. It’s spoken to her twice now. It seems to like her.”

Helion smiled. “She is something, isn’t she.” Then he winked. “As is her sister.”

Lucien’s blood heated, and Helion’s smile turned into a hearty laugh. “Don’t look at me like that. Even if she weren’t your mate, she is far too young and innocent for me. Beautiful, though, and a big heart, if her behavior just now was any judge.”

Lucien was struck by a sudden urge to find Elain and throw his arms around her, then spirit her far away, and his father laughed again. “Shall we go see what they’re all doing? We’ve left them unsupervised for far too long, and they’ve eaten all the refreshments by now.” He patted Lucien’s shoulder. “Try not to go feral on any males who might be innocently chatting with her.”

“I do not go feral,” Lucien protested.

Helion gave him a long look. “You are a fae male, and my son. Of course you do.”

“Not with her,” Lucien said. “She is human. It would frighten her.” He caught Helion’s bemused expression, and shrugged. “I must admit it is a mystery to me. Her being human, I mean.”

“Hmm.” Helion was quiet for a moment, considering. “I have heard of only one instance in which a human was mated to a fae male, and that was centuries ago, during the last war. Though Miryam was half-human, now that I think about it.”

Not sure he wanted to know, but desperately curious, Lucien asked, “What happened to her?”

Helion said, “She died, and was Made again by a magical relic.”

Lucien was stunned. “Like Jurian?”

“Yes. Exactly like Jurian,” Helion said. “Ironic, given that they were ex-lovers.” He looked at Lucien thoughtfully. “So you never know what might happen.”

The idea of Elain dying, even with the promise of being Made again, was too painful for Lucien to contemplate. “I’m glad I didn’t talk to the Suriel, after all.”

His father stood up and strode for the door, tugging Lucien along with him. “Come on. Let’s go give those busybodies something to talk about.”

That’s what I’m afraid of.

Chapter Text

Elain glanced around the beautiful Dawn balcony without really seeing it, without focusing on any of the powerful faeries surrounding her, or the pink and peach colored streaks in the sky that were more radiant than any sunrise in the mortal world. She couldn’t process it, not when she’d left Lucien behind in the meeting room, with that angry faerie who could make magic nets and glow with blinding light like the Sun.

But what else could she have done? None of the faeries around her seemed to have any desire or ability to intervene, even with all their magical abilities. What was Elain, a mere human, supposed to do about it?

Not leave him alone.

But he had wanted her to go. Wanted her safe. Was it too much to ask that he stayed safe, in return?

He’s all right, it’s just magic. Tamlin had said so, and Tamlin was a High Lord. He would know, wouldn’t he? And the glowing one, radiating with anger, who wielded the light, he had promised Lucien would be unharmed.

Faeries cannot lie. That was a comfort, at least.

Elain took a bite of the dainty rose-and-orange flavored cookie, though it seemed to turn to ash on her tongue.

Then she realized she was being spoken to, and she struggled to focus on the perfectly lovely faeries sitting with her in the rosy light, peppering her with friendly questions.

“What’s it like being human?” asked the silver-haired female with the piercing turquoise eyes. Cresseida, she remembered. Lucien’s friend from childhood.

“It’s fine?” Elain said stupidly, then realized that wasn’t an answer. “Well, I wouldn’t know what being anything else is like, but I think it suits me.”

The faeries around her chuckled, as if that were a delightfully funny response, and her cheeks burned, the priestess’s old insinuations about her frail humanity echoing in her mind. But Cresseida nodded, her pearl and silver crown glinting in the afternoon sun. “I’ve read history books about your kind. They make being human sound dreadful.”

“I suppose they were written by faeries,” Elain remarked, and the group quieted, as though seriously considering this for the first time. “I suppose our short human lives would seem dreadful, from your perspective.”

The kind white-haired female with the icy beauty — Viviane, her name was — piped up, “Your lives have been veiled from us by the Wall’s magic ever since the War ended. Relations between our two peoples have never been easy.”

“That was not the fault of the humans,” Tamlin rumbled, from further down the table. Everyone turned toward him, surprised, for he had made no effort to participate in the conversation or be at all sociable since the summit had started. “I am sure human history books have much to say on that subject.”

“We were taught you all were killers,” Feyre spoke up, her voice hard. “That you would enslave us again, do all sorts of wicked things, if the Wall ever came down.”

Elain expected the assembled dignitaries to protest, get offended, and a few did frown disapprovingly, whether out of distaste for slavery, or irritation at the implied accusation. But the deep-skinned gorgeous faerie with the ruby and diamond crown said gravely, “And that might still happen, if we fail to plan for Hybern.”

“We’ll reconvene as soon as everyone’s returned,” the host, Thesan, assured him, lounging at the head of the table, his winged Captain of the Guard pouring him tea and nudging various cookies and treats in his direction. They sat close enough to be lovers, especially with the male’s velvety wing wrapped around the High Lord’s back, as if both shielding and caressing him. It made a charming scene. But Elain was even more charmed by the iridescent wings of the songbird perched on Thesan’s shoulder, chirping softly.

“If everyone returns alive,” Viviane drawled, warm amusement sparkling in her piercing eyes. Somehow, this embodiment of winter felt warmer and friendlier than the delegation from Summer sitting right beside her.

But Elain felt a pang of worry. She had been cowering behind Tamlin when the fighting started -- she wasn’t ashamed of that, since even the powerful faeries in the room had backed away once the fighting started — but she’d gotten an eyeful anyway. She’d never forget the terrifying sight of Lucien burning, white and yellow fire whirling around him.

“Eris is gone,” Thesan said, and the songbird took flight, chittering as it disappeared over the balcony’s edge. “Back to Autumn, if I were to guess.” Was that what the songbird had been chirping about? Elain never knew whether her wild imagination was running away with her, or if magic in Prythian was stranger and more complex than anything she could conjure.

“He’s lucky to get out alive. Helion was pissed,” Viviane’s partner, Kallias, said.

“And not just about the insults,” one of the Day Court delegation piped up, a male to whom Elain hadn’t been introduced. “It’s jarring to see an Autumn male wield Day Court magic.”

He means Lucien. Elain’s mouth went dry, and she grabbed her teacup and took a long sip, barely tasting the rich flavoring.

“I’ve known Lucien since we were younglings. I’ve never seen him do that before,” Cresseida said.

“If he’s stolen our High Lord’s magic, he won’t live to do it again,” the Day Court male replied.

Elain gasped, and Viviane patted her arm comfortingly. From down the table, Feyre snapped, “Is that a threat?” while at the same time, Tamlin thundered, “Lucien is under my protection.”

“Peace, Phoebus, and all of you,” Thesan jumped in, holding out his hands placatingly, his flowing jacket rippling in a kaleidoscope of soft colors. “There’s no evidence that anyone has stolen anything.”

“How else would a seasonal court faerie acquire solar court magic?” asked the striking dark-skinned female next to Phoebus, her gold snake necklace seeming to slither as she leaned forward.

“I don’t know, Perse. I’m sure your High Lord will figure it out,” Thesan replied. Elain admired how he could stay unruffled, despite the growing tension. “And no one will be harmed in the process,” he added, catching Elain’s look of alarm.

Cresseida placed her teacup down, the silver rings on her fingers clinking against the porcelain. “I must admit the whole affair puzzles me. I am not acquainted with the High Lord of Day, but my family has had many dealings with the Autumn Court over the years, and I can’t recall ever seeing Eris lose his composure like that.”

“Perhaps he has finally met his intellectual superior,” Perse suggested sweetly.

Cresseida narrowed her eyes at the Day Court female, haughty and beautiful in her purple chiton. Purple was a color reserved for royalty in the human lands, and Elain wondered if Perse was a princess, or had pretensions of being one.

“A superior intellect would have avoided that unseemly display,” Cresseida shot back. “Especially in the midst of a diplomatic meeting.”

Before anyone could fire off another insult, Feyre jumped in. “Eris said ‘If you’d spent this much energy defending your mate’. What did he mean by that?”

After a long moment of uncomfortable silence, Phoebus answered. “That is unknown. Our High Lord has no mate, to our knowledge.” His deep brown eyes flicked to Cresseida, as if anticipating some tart reply. When she just sipped her tea contemplatively, he went on, “But Helion does not often lose his composure, either.”

“Hush, Phoebus,” another finely attired Day Court female hissed at him. “This is none of their business.”

“Come on, Rhode. They’re all going to talk anyway, it might as well be the truth,” Phoebus said irritably.

“Truth can be a dangerous thing,” Tamlin murmured.

Elain wondered what he meant by that. She tried to catch her sister’s eye, to see what Feyre thought of it, but her sister was staring off into the distance, at the puffy clouds rolling across the endless horizon.

“Our High Lord’s love life is none of their concern,” Rhode argued, glaring at Phoebus. “Or yours.”

Phoebus grinned saucily at her. “When Helion summons me to his private chambers, I obey. It’s not my fault if his activities are on display.”

“We are not activities,” Perse barked at him.

Cresseida leaned over to Elain, whispering, “The High Lord of Day takes many lovers. Rumor has it these two females are his current favorites.”

“Ah,” Elain whispered back, her ears burning. She knew that faeries did things differently than humans, that they might not view marriage or love the same way, but the thought of two females sharing a male’s bed —

“Perhaps Helion’s been busier than we thought,” the winged male next to Thesan suggested.

“What is that supposed to mean?” Perse said indignantly.

“Stealing magic would be highly unlikely. But inheriting magic,” the male went on, rustling his beautifully soft white wings. “That is common indeed.”

“That’s true enough. But our High Lord has sired no offspring,” Phoebus said.

“Hasn’t he?” the winged male said, raising an eyebrow.

“Usil,” Thesan murmured, placing a hand on the winged male’s arm.

“Did you not see the resemblance?” Usil went on, ignoring his High Lord’s unspoken warning. “The mannerisms? And the magic. It’s the most logical explanation.”

Usil,” Thesan said, more insistently. “Don’t spread rumors.”

Elain struggled to understand what the male might be suggesting, what the rumor was, but the effect on the faeries around her was immediate. Excited murmuring and whispering broke out all over the balcony, and outright shouting among the Day Court faeries. Tamlin’s talons had sprung out, and he was slowly shaking his head, not saying a word, while Feyre peppered him with questions that he wouldn’t or couldn’t answer.

But she didn’t have time to ponder his words, for she felt a stirring in her gut, a warm feeling that roused her from her chair and sent her running across the balcony before she consciously registered that Lucien had appeared in the doorway.

Before she quite knew what she was doing, or had time to think better of it, Elain flung her arms around Lucien’s neck, and his low chuckle tickled at her ear as he swept her up, his strong arms banding around her and lifting her up onto her toes, then gently lowering her back down, his soft hair falling around her like a curtain. She gave a little sob, all of her anxious feelings flooding out of her at the sight and feel of him, alive and warm and holding her.

Safe. He is safe.

She pulled back to look at him, squinting in concern at his beautiful golden-brown skin, unmarred and unburnt despite the fire she’d seen crackling across it, and his golden eye clicked at her, then seemed to rove across the assembled group, while his russet eye stayed fixed on her, simmering with heat.

“You’re all right,” she breathed, then flushed when she realized the imposing High Lord of Day was right next to him.

“Of course,” Lucien said lightly, his golden eye clicking back to her. “Hoping there are a few cookies left.”

“We’ll get more,” Thesan said immediately, and two songbirds that had been perched on his chair fluttered away, making sweet tittering sounds.

Lucien drew his arm around Elain’s back, pulling her in to his side, and she sank into his warmth, relaxing in his presence, though like everyone else, she was brimming with questions.

As if realizing that, and wanting to get the inevitable over with, Lucien took a deep breath, then said, “Elain Archeron, may I present Helion, the High Lord of the Day Court.”

Elain felt she ought to curtsey, or greet this High Lord in whatever traditions the Day Court possessed — each Court had different customs, she was realizing — but Lucien’s arm tightened around her, as if he was unwilling to let her go, and she sensed that this introduction was different. So she stared up at Helion instead, taking in his handsome face, his gleaming dark skin and deep brown eyes, the spiky diadem atop his braided hair, and thought that after Lucien, he was the most beautiful faerie she’d ever met.

“Hello,” she breathed, then remembered her manners, and bowed her head respectfully.

The High Lord chuckled, and when she looked up, his features had relaxed into a smile. “Welcome to Prythian, Elain. When will you be gracing my court with a visit?”

“I,” Elain began nervously, no idea how to respond to that, but Lucien said, “One thing at a time.”

“Oh, you spoil my fun,” Helion quipped. “You’re going to be a pain, aren’t you.”

“Always,” Lucien smirked.

Elain looked up at Lucien, then at Helion, then back to Lucien. And, suddenly, the winged male’s comments made perfect sense.

Is this male who killed his lover? Lucien wasn’t acting like it. Surely he wouldn’t be smiling and joking, or introducing her, if this male had committed such an awful murder.

“Do you want to say it, or should I,” Lucien asked.

Helion’s smile was catlike. “Let’s see those diplomatic skills in action, Emissary.”

“Who’s the pain now,” Lucien muttered, and Helion’s smile grew.

Elain couldn’t bear it any longer. “He’s your father,” she blurted, then clapped a hand over her mouth at the look of shock on both males’ faces.

Then Helion let out a hearty, booming laugh, startling the entire gathering. “Very good, sweetheart. Yes, I am.” His voice grew louder, addressing the entire balcony, every face riveted on him. “I came to this conference expecting to learn many things. The fact that I have a son was not one of them.”

Lucien cleared his throat, remembering that he was supposed to be exercising his diplomatic skills. “Thank you all for your patience. I apologize that we interrupted the meeting with our personal family matters.”

“Don’t bother. It was quite entertaining,” Phoebus drawled, drawing both giggles and glares from the Day Court retinue.

Lucien grinned at him, apparently sizing him up as an ally. “Nevertheless, we should get back to the matter at hand.”

Helion gestured towards his delegation. “Let me introduce you both.”

“Me?” Elain squawked, but the High Lord just beamed at her. And when Lucien’s hand pressed reassuringly at the small of her back, she decided that she could handle another round of introductions, after all.

She was aware, as they walked towards the Day Court’s table, that everyone was staring, and wondered if it was just at Lucien and his father, or if the faeries were examining her too, noting  Lucien’s arm around her. Or was he like his father, taking lovers wherever he pleased? Did they think she was one of those? Her cheeks flushed, just thinking about it.

She tried to focus as Helion rattled off names, as greetings were exchanged, but she couldn’t help but watch Lucien through it all, wondering how he could be so calm after what he’d just learned, and after that startling magic he’d apparently wielded without even knowing he could do it. His eyes flicked down to her, noting her apprehension, and he just squeezed her comfortingly, murmuring, “I’ll explain later.”

After what seemed like an eternity of names and titles, a few resentful glares, and more than a few curious stares Lucien’s way, Helion declared, “Well! We’ve lost our Autumn delegate” — and here he smirked triumphantly, as though he couldn’t be happier about it — “but the rest of us should get back down to business.”

Thesan straightened, sliding back into his role as host. “Agreed. Shall we adjourn back to the meeting chamber?”

“It’s such a beautiful view, we could stay out here,” Viviane suggested.

Usil frowned. “The wards out here are not as finely woven as those in the meeting hall.”

Helion flicked a finger, and Elain suppressed her gasp as the air around them shimmered gold. “You were saying?”

Usil’s frown deepened, but he wisely stayed silent.

“We’re going to deal with this Hybern problem once and for all,” Helion declared, taking a big bite of his cookie. “Unless anyone’s got any more surprises?”

As if in answer, the deepening sky plunged into midnight black.

Chapter Text

Darkness descended on the Dawn Court like an oncoming storm, thunder cracking, the entire palace shaking, rattling the teacups. And there, on the balcony’s ledge, stood the High Lord of the Night Court, wings flared wide, hands nonchalantly in his pockets, smirking coldly at the crowd.

For the second time that day, faeries fled, this time screaming and knocking over furniture in their zeal to get away. Tamlin was on his feet, talons out, snarling ready to pounce, while sharp icicles glittered at Kallias’s fingertips, even as he shoved Viviane behind him.Thesan’s Peregryn guards had all drawn their swords, but seemed to be frozen in position. Tarquin looked worried, but shielded himself and Cresseida, making no attempt to assume a fighting stance, while Helion merely placed a broad hand on Lucien’s shoulder, murmuring, “This ought to be good.”

Lucien clenched his jaw, irritated at Rhys’s penchant for the dramatic, and drew Elain tightly to his side, some primal part of him satisfied when she clung to him in return. He grimaced as he recalled how he had tried to hide Feyre, then a human female, from Rhys, how Feyre had ended up shaking and cowering from Rhys’s invasion into her mind, and he vowed to go down fighting before he let something like that happen again, especially to his mate.

But Feyre was not cowering now. She had somehow gotten herself out from behind Tamlin and was poised in the middle of the balcony, facing Rhys with folded arms and a grim, determined expression. An expectant hush fell over the balcony as she stared Rhys down.

Rhys purred, “Hello, Feyre darling.”

Feyre lifted her chin in challenge. “You’re late.”

Lucien blanched. Was she expecting him? How did he know to come here?

Murmurs spread across the balcony at this, and Kallias screeched, “You promised. You promised he wouldn’t be here —“

“He wasn’t invited,” Thesan said quickly, reaching out towards Kallias with a conciliatory gesture.

“What a pretty little party,” Rhys crooned, his lips curling into a cruel smile. “I couldn’t pass up such a delightful occasion, even if my own invitation did get lost.”

“Get the hell out,” Tamlin growled, stalking towards him, swiping his claws in the air.

“I wouldn’t do that,” Helion said calmly.

Lucien glanced up at his father in confusion. Helion seemed utterly unbothered by Rhys’s presence, as though he’d expected Rhys to pull this very stunt. As if reading his thoughts, Helion cocked his head towards Lucien, murmuring, “Your brother thought something like this might happen.”

If Eris is the one who invited Rhys here, I’ll kill him myself.

Tamlin stood frozen, unmoving and silent, and Lucien guessed that Rhys was exercising his powers, despite the wards, despite being confronted by the most powerful faeries in Prythian.

“What do you want, Rhys,” Lucien asked, making his voice go flat and bored.

Rhys was still staring at Feyre, his violet eyes sparkling with a strange mix of triumph and sadness, but then his head whipped towards Lucien. “Oh, hello, little fox. Still snapping at my heels. I would have thought you’d learned your lesson after Under the Mountain —“

Helion cleared his throat. “That’s enough, Rhysand.”

Rhys studied them, taking in Helion hovering near Lucien protectively, and then the presence of Elain, and blinked, murmuring, “Interesting.”

Thesan was out of his seat, trying to defuse the situation. “We were not expecting you, Rhysand.” He motioned to one of the peregryns. “Fetch the High Lord a chair.”

“He is not staying,” Kallias seethed.

“Well,” Tarquin said, in a diplomatic tone, “well, dear friend —“

“He slaughtered twenty-four innocent younglings.” Kallias’s words were sharp and cutting as the blades of ice glittering at his fingertips. “He collaborated with that bitch in everything she did. Reveled in cruelty, hers and his own. Enjoyed the power it gave him.”

Rhys’s placid demeanor rippled, the briefest expression of despair flickering across his face, inky darkness leaking out from him. “I had no involvement in that, none. I tried to stop it.”

“Tell that to the parents of the two dozen younglings she butchered,” Kallias snapped. “That you tried.” He strode forward, the air crackling around him, tiny flecks of frost swirling and sparkling in his wake. “You could have joined the rebellion. You could have tried to overthrow her. Instead, you flattered her, and indulged her, and fucked her, and —“

Kallias,” Helion said quietly.

“You know nothing about that,” Rhys snapped.

“We all know what we saw,” Tamlin thundered. “Fifty years’ worth of depravity and terror. Whose head was that you spiked in my garden? Did she order you to do that, or was that for your own amusement?”

“That particular male tried to drag your sweet wife into the forest on Calanmai, with two of his friends,” Rhys said, baring his teeth. “It’s a pity you didn’t have two more statues around. You could have had a matching set.”

Lucien tried to make eye contact with Feyre, but she wouldn’t look at him. He’d found her, and carried her back to the manor, then congratulated himself on managing to find her before any harm came to her. She didn’t tell me she was attacked.

He sighed in resignation. Feyre and her secrets.

Tarquin cleared his throat. “Rhysand spared me Under the Mountain.”

All eyes whirled towards him, and Cresseida tugged on his sleeve frantically. But he went on, “We had forces gathering in all of our cities to storm Under the Mountain. Rhys saw that in my cousin’s mind—I know he did. And yet he lied to her face, and defied her when she gave the order to turn him into a living ghost. Maybe it was for his own schemes, but I know it was a mercy.” Tarquin shook his head. “Sometimes, I think Rhysand … I think he might have been her whore to spare us all from her full attention.”

Rhys was watching him silently, his face a mask of calm. But Feyre — Feyre — snarled, “Do not call him that.”

Cresseida snarled right back. “Do not give a High Lord orders.”

Feyre’s steely eyes flashed with inner fire, and Lucien yanked on his own flames, which rose up in response. “I do what I like. And I say he stays.” She spoke with such command in her voice that every eye stayed fixed on her, every voice quiet. “We must win this war. And we need the Night Court to do it.”

She sounded so utterly confident, so certain of it. Working with Rhys… Lucien suppressed a shudder at the thought. Instead, he asked carefully, “Did the Suriel tell you that?”

Feyre nodded. “Among other things.”

Tamlin raged, “Absolutely not. He is an enemy.” And he glared at Lucien, as though he were somehow responsible for this disaster.

Lucien winced, but refused to cower. Consulting the Suriel had been the right thing to do, regardless of the outcome. I can’t control what the Suriel says. I can’t control the truth.

Rhys was staring at Feyre with quiet admiration and gratitude, his eyes drinking her in as though he’d been starved. And shimmering between them —

“Holy hell,” Helion whispered.

No. It can’t be.

But it was — Rhys, the High Lord of the Night Court, was Feyre’s mate.

Lucien could see the magic, faint and golden, threading between them. Had Helion not seen it too, he would have thought he was hallucinating.

Tamlin wasn’t her mate, but Rhys.

Lucien felt the ground tilt beneath him, his certainty slipping, as he reviewed everything that he knew about Under the Mountain and Rhys’s role in it. Had Rhys known Feyre was his mate when she came to claim Tamlin? How could he sneer at her, and taunt her, and parade her around in those skimpy outfits — that was no way to treat a mate. The very thought of it made Lucien want to vomit, the idea of him ever putting Elain in that position.

I’d sooner let Amarantha rip my other eye out.

Rhys thinks he’s so fucking clever. Had he bargained with her to ensure he could come for her later? What would he do now, with Feyre married to Tamlin?

Lucien hugged Elain close to him, needing to do something to calm his roiling thoughts. Elain’s arms snaked tighter around his middle, her cheek pressing into his shirt, and he thanked the Cauldron again and again that she’d been spared the horrors of Amarantha’s torture. He wished he’d never brought her here, had not exposed her to Rhys, but if Rhys was her sister’s mate —

If Feyre accepts the bond with Rhys, we’ll be family.

Lucien’s eyes shot to Tamlin, who was outwardly calm, but he knew Tamlin too well for that. He could put on a mask, go sullen and quiet, and be seething inside. Tamlin must have seen how Rhys was looking at Feyre, but did he know what it meant? Could he scent the mating bond? Or was he too enraged, too bent on revenge, to notice or care?

Hybern is the enemy,” Thesan said diplomatically. “Any advantage we have would be welcomed.”

“After collaborating with her for fifty years, how can we trust that he won’t betray us?” Tamlin argued.

“Your family was often allied with Hybern, as I recall,” Rhys remarked dryly.

“I will never ally with Hybern,” Tamlin snarled. “I will always fight against tyranny and evil.”

“Fight?” Rhys snorted, flicking an invisible speck of lint off his immaculate black jacket. “When did you ever fight Under the Mountain, Tamlin? You sat like a stone at her side.”

“I did not cooperate,” Tamlin said stubbornly. “My reactions would only give her more ammunition to use against us. Against Feyre.”

“This helps no one,” Helion said impatiently. “What’s done is done. Many of us might have taken opportunities to do things differently Under the Mountain, knowing what we know now.” He patted Lucien’s shoulder, and a warm feeling spread through Lucien as he realized what it meant. He would have tried to help me, had he known who I was. “You two can take your grievances outside, let the rest of us discuss our plans for the war.”

Feyre said firmly, “Everyone will stay.”

Tamlin opened his mouth to argue, but Helion flicked a finger, and the wards peeled away.

Rhys hopped down off the balcony ledge, his wings flaring. Since when does Rhys have wings? Does he have shapeshifting abilities on top of everything else?

The faeries murmured uneasily as Rhys smoothly slid into the offered chair, which had been placed at the Day Court table. Helion’s courtiers — the ones who hadn’t run in terror when Rhys first arrived — shrank back from him, but Helion strode to the chair next to Rhys and calmly sat down in it, then beckoned to Lucien. He followed, heart pounding in trepidation, and Elain went with him, squeezing his hand comfortingly.

Lucien glanced back towards Tamlin, whose face had gone as stony as the expression he had worn Under the Mountain. And then at Feyre, who was still holding court in the middle of the group, as though she were now leading the meeting herself. Perhaps she is.

Gone was the skittish human girl who’d wanted nothing to do with faeries, and gone was the docile, silent Lady of the Spring Court. This Feyre was someone new, someone Lucien had gotten glimpses of during training.

A leader, a fighter, and Rhys’s mate.

Chapter Text

Rhys’s sword clattered to the floor, and he made no effort to block the blow that was coming his way. Cassian pulled his strike back at the last moment, but Rhys went down anyway, crashing to his knees, clutching at his aching rib cage, wonder and terror coursing through his body. Distantly, he registered Cassian cursing and yelling for Azriel and Mor to come quick, that something was wrong, and then they were all crowded around him, shaking his shoulders, calling his name.

“What’d you do to him,” Mor snapped.

“I swear on the Cauldron, I have no idea,” Cassian protested, his rough handsome face twisting with concern. “Did I do something, Rhys? Fucking hell, I didn’t mean to—“

“Didn’t — do anything,” Rhys gasped, staggering to his feet, letting Azriel grasp one elbow and Cassian the other, while Mor scrounged up a chair they could shove him into. “Wasn’t you.”

It was many minutes before he could manage a coherent explanation, as he waved away a series of increasingly strong drinks, the offer to call a healer, and the threat to go get Amren if he didn’t start talking. Even Az’s shadows were jumpy, darting about.

Rhys forced himself to sip water, dust off the dirt of the training ring, and meet each worried pair of eyes that scrutinized his every breath, trying to reassure them that he was fine.

Better than fine. He was ecstatic.

“Gods damn it, Rhys, if you don’t tell us what the fuck is going on, I’m going to make Az interrogate you,” Cassian burst out finally.

Azriel, mercifully, made no attempt to make good on that threat.

“It was a summons,” Rhys managed to say, closing his eyes, laying his hands on his chest, feeling the burning, pulsing of the mating bond that had sat, silent and numb, for the last several months, to the point where he’d started to wonder if he’d just imagined that it was there at all. Now it was a living, writhing thing clawing at his insides, yanking insistently at him to go, go to her, go now, go to Dawn.

“A what?” Mor asked, scrunching up her face. “Who summoned — oh.” Her expression opened up into a radiant smile. “Oh, Rhys.

“She wants to see me,” Rhys whispered, and saying it out loud made it seem so real that a shiver ran down his spine. She wants to see me. He didn’t care what it was for. He had given up hope of ever seeing Feyre again, for any reason at all.

You survived. Feyre survived. He’d told himself that would be enough.

He’d been a specter since Amarantha’s death, an empty, broken, ruined husk, dragging himself through each miserable day. The first few days home were the hardest, when it was too much to get out of bed, when all he could do was look out his bedroom window at the townhouse, taking in the warm bright air of Velaris, the laughter and bustle of the city and its people, knowing he had saved it, but had killed and tortured and degraded himself in ways that his people would recoil from if they only knew. He could sense his friends’ worry, Cassian’s pacing outside the door, Az’s shadows curling around him to check he was breathing, Mor’s hissed questions about whether they should try to get him up. Even Amren deigned to express concern.

Then the temple attacks had started, and he’d been forced to reckon with reality. He was a High Lord and had responsibilities. Three of his temples were ransacked, though what was taken, no one knew. There were too few survivors, with too little information, just as the attackers had surely wanted it. He’d tried and failed to get the Bone Carver to tell him, had tried and failed to trap the Suriel. He suspected Hybern’s involvement, but couldn’t be certain.

So he took out his frustrations on the rogue bands of Illyrians who’d supported Amarantha, ignoring their pleas, their protestations that he’d supported her too. He didn’t bother explaining. He wasn’t sure it mattered anymore.

Little by little, his family coaxed him back into a semblance of his normal life, dragging him to the training ring or the waterfront or Rita’s, insisting he fly with them, tolerating his long sullen silences, sitting on the roof with him during those long sleepless nights. Anything to avoid the nightmares, to avoid Amarantha’s blood red nails raking down his chest, her thighs clamped around him —

Rhys knew Feyre had nightmares too, could feel her jolts of panic, the sorrow and pain as she heaved her guts up late at night. He knew she told no one, that she suffered alone. He’d tried to keep his end of the bond quiet, though he could never quite put her out of his mind. He’d told himself he would not intrude on her life, or add to her trauma or shame, any more than he already had. Rhys knew that she dreaded the day he would show up to take her, worried about being under another cursed mountain, and he wondered why he didn’t just unravel the bargain completely, really set her free. But he’d wondered if she would truly enjoy marriage to Tamlin, if that stupid clod had it in him to love and worship her as he ought. Rhys needed to know, needed an excuse to see her again.

It turned out that he hadn’t needed one.

It had been a day like any other. He’d walked the streets of Velaris, spent several hours in the quiet darkness of the library, and had just emerged blinking into the sunlight when he heard Feyre’s low, sweet voice in his mind. Where are you?

Those three words lit a spark inside him, ignited the embers of his burnt-out soul in a way that he’d thought impossible.

Where I always am, Feyre darling, had been his reply. Then he’d waited and waited, hoping for an answer, but eventually admitted defeat.

But a few days later, during a meeting with the palace governors, her demand rang out loud and clear. Why haven’t you come for me? That time, he couldn’t bring himself to answer. How could he explain that he’d never deserved her, that he was trying to avoid invading her privacy? That she was better off without him complicating her marriage, her pretty little life in Spring?

“Okay, you’re going to have to back way up,” Cassian said, cautiously grinning.

Azriel studied Mor’s expression, then noted the position of Rhys’s hands, and raised an eyebrow. “Who is she?”

“Remember that human girl I told you about, the one Under the Mountain,” Rhys asked, wincing inwardly at the frozen expressions that flashed across their faces at the mention of that gods-damned place. Azriel, especially, hadn’t forgiven him for trapping them in Velaris, for denying them the chance to rescue him, to tear apart Amarantha’s monsters, to stick Truth-Teller in her throat. Cassian was waiting for him to be back to full strength so they could have a proper brawl, and Mor was ready to brawl on the spot when she’d found out how he’d made Feyre dress, drink, and dance.

“The one who tossed the Wyrm’s bone? That spitfire?” Cassian asked, recovering his good humor quicker than the others.

“Feyre,” Rhys said, her name sounding dreamy and lilting on his tongue.

Mor’s lips quirked up into a knowing smile, but Azriel was right behind her. “You did not tell us you were mates.

“I was trying to forget,” Rhys admitted. “She suffered and died for Tamlin. Not me.”

“That piece of shit can burn in the lowest hell,” Cassian muttered, jaw clenched. None of them would forget Tamlin’s betrayal, what it had cost them.

The fact that Tamlin would surely be in Dawn as well -- that gave Rhys pause. He would have to play this carefully, avoid open conflict. With Hybern possibly on the march, the last thing they needed was a war between their courts. But he’d be damned if he let stupid Tamlin ruin things. Not when Feyre had summoned him.

She’d felt so strong, so fierce. So confident and self-assured. Like the spirited human he’d known Under the Mountain, not like the meek Lady of Spring that she’d become.

“If you step foot in Spring, it could provoke Tamlin,” Azriel said matter-of-factly, reminding Rhys of what he already knew.

“She’s not in Spring. She told me to go to Dawn. To Thesan’s palace,” Rhys said.

“Dawn?” Cassian furrowed his brows. “Why there?”

Azriel said, “The reports must be true — there is a meeting taking place there. There’s no other reason for Tamlin to venture so far from his court.”

“We should all go,” Mor suggested. “If the courts are meeting, we should be represented. The nerve of those jerks, not inviting us to begin with.”

“It’s hardly surprising,” Rhys murmured, though he rather shared the sentiment. “After my involvement with Amarantha, they probably think I’m a Hybern sympathizer.”

“That’s bullshit, and you know it,” Cassian fumed, pounding his fist into his hand.

Azriel cleared his throat. “It was Kallias. He refused to attend unless he could be assured of your absence.”

Rhys grimaced, feeling the blood draining from his face. Of course Kallias wouldn’t want him there. He thinks I killed dozens of younglings. 

He hadn’t done it, hadn’t even known about it until it was too late.  But the fact that it even sounded plausible, that everyone would believe him capable of such a thing, made Rhys sick to his stomach.

“I’ll have to deal with that when I get there,” Rhys said. “Given the circumstances, I think I should go alone.”

“No fucking way,” Cassian growled. “The last time you slipped away to a party alone, we didn’t see you for fifty fucking years.

Azriel said nothing, but his shadows pulsed around his shoulders, as if they might lash out and grab Rhys if he tried to fly away.

Mor laid a warm hand on his arm. “You’re certain?”

“Thesan is not Amarantha,” Rhys said firmly. “He’ll have wards to protect the gathering, and to prevent brawls. But I’ll be cautious, anyway.” He stood up, suddenly eager to get going. “I’ve got to change. If I’m going to make an entrance, it can’t be in smelly workout clothes.” And he unfurled his wings, shooting up into the sky, towards the townhouse.

“Don’t break any windows,” Mor called after him.

Rhys got bathed and dressed in record time, wondering how Feyre would react to seeing him. He’d been pale and weakened Under the Mountain, deprived of the opportunity to train or fight — at least with his muscles — and Cassian and Azriel had taken pains to ensure he got back to full combat strength. Even if their motivation was wanting to punch him bloody in a fair fight, he appreciated it.

Rhys took one last look at himself in the mirror, but felt the tug in his ribs intensify. His mate was getting impatient, and it simply would not do to keep her waiting.

He unfurled his wings and soared.

* * * *

Rhys perched on his chair, surveying the balcony, smiling sharply at the assembled faeries, some glaring at him, some averting their gaze, some giving him nervous darting glances when they thought he wasn’t looking. He ignored them all, and he breathed in deeply, to calm his thundering heart.

He’d waited and listened, biding his time for the proper moment to make his entrance, eavesdropping by slipping into the minds of various courtiers. He could feel Feyre nearby, though she had been quiet at first, as though avoiding everyone’s fawning attention. The curiosity about her was only matched by the murmurs and questions about the charming human female on little Lucien’s arm, whom Rhys had immediately realized must be Feyre’s sister.

That was a complication he hadn’t expected — another reason to avoid a fight. And another reminder of Feyre as she once had been, vulnerable, slow-healing, mortal. He resisted the temptation to slip into the little human’s mind, get the full story of what she was doing there.

Instead, he focused on listening in to the proceedings, alarmed to hear that Jurian was alive and fully corporeal again, that the Cauldron might be used as a weapon. It explained the attacks at the temples, if the relics were related to the Cauldron in some way. Another reason they should have invited me, those bastards.

He could feel Feyre’s confusion, her irritated awareness that he was nearby, but hadn’t come in. But he was glad to have waited when Eris brawled with Helion, and even more glad that Cassian and Azriel, and especially Mor, weren’t there, or they would have been too tempted to join in.

The revelation that Helion was Lucien’s father was startling, though in thinking about their physical resemblance, he felt like an idiot for not figuring it out. He had only seen the little fox a handful of times without the mask plastered onto his face. That would have to be his excuse. He didn’t relish the thought of Helion taking him to task for the various ways he’d teased and tortured the son his friend didn’t know he had — especially the threats he’d tossed out carelessly about the Lady of Autumn. He’d said them only to rile up Lucien, not because he intended to act on them, but he knew full well how he would react if someone had spoken about Feyre that way.

So when Eris had come running out of the palace, flushed and disheveled and eager to get away, Rhys had intercepted him.

“Thought you’d be lurking around here,” Eris had tossed out by way of greeting.

“Clever of you,” Rhys had said.

Eris’s eyes were on the horizon, probably calculating exactly how he’d winnow away. Rhys couldn’t easily get into his mind, which was shielded unusually strongly for one from Autumn. “We’ll have to banter some other time, Rhysand, I’ve got to go.”

Rhys lifted a finger, freezing Eris in place. “I know where you’re running off to, and why. And if you want to get your mother safely away from Beron, you’d better listen closely.”

Flames blazed in Eris’s eyes. “It seems I don’t have a choice.”

Rhys took a few steps closer, then threw up a sound barrier, ensuring they would not be overheard. “I have a safe place for females like your mother. Who’ve survived horrors, whether at the hands of partners, or strangers.”

“Where?” Eris asked.

“I can’t tell you that. I’m taking a risk even telling you of its existence,” Rhys said, for he had no intention of revealing Velaris to anyone, for any reason, even in a situation such as this. “You won’t be able to visit. Or write to her. Or tell anyone else anything about where she is.”

“Lucien —“ Eris began to protest.

“Not Lucien. Not Helion. Not anyone,” Rhys emphasized, sending out a pulse of his dark power to rattle Eris a little, make sure he understood how serious this was. “You get her out of Autumn, and I’ll do the rest.”

Eris looked ready to ask questions, to argue, but Rhys said sternly, “Those are my terms.”

“Give me your word that you’ll protect her, keep her safe, and I’ll keep your secret,” Eris said.

Clever male. “It’s a bargain,” Rhys said, and braced himself as magic swirled around them, inking a thin swirl, interwoven with his other tattoos.

Eris was grimacing, looking down at his own arm, where a thin orange-red swirl glinted against his pale skin. “I’m going to have a hell of a time explaining this to Father.”

Rhys waved a hand, glamouring the lines away, and Eris visibly relaxed.

“Can I ask one question,” Eris said. Rhys nodded, pulling back on his magic, and Eris shuddered a little, then asked, “Why do this? Why help me — help her — at all?”

Rhys said, “I owe Helion a favor.”

He didn’t add, And I wasn’t able to save my own mother. Or Tamlin’s.

“Go, get your mother,” he told Eris. “Winnow her out of Autumn, get her to the Night Court border. You must be the one to cross out of your court with her. I can’t get involved there. Once  she’s out, I’ll escort her from there.” He looked at Eris appraisingly. “If you’re caught, you acted alone.”

Eris’s lip curled, but he was too anxious to get going to argue. “Thank you.”

“Thank me when she’s safe,” Rhys replied, and Eris winnowed away.

Thankfully, it had only taken a short time — the Lady had been weepy and confused, and frightened to see the awful High Lord that had terrorized them all Under the Mountain, but Eris spoke in low soothing words to her, explaining that Lucien and Helion had found out their long-kept secret, that she had to leave Autumn as a precaution, that he and Rhys had sworn a bargain, that he didn’t know how long they’d have to be separated, and that he’d deal with Beron, make up some lie.

Mor had arrived then, carefully avoiding Eris’s gaze while she invited the Lady of the Autumn Court to formally request asylum at the Night Court. And then Rhys was on his way back to Dawn, to obey the summons still pulsing in his ribs.

There she was. Feyre, in all her fierce, radiant glory. 

She was just as he remembered her, the wild spirit, the brave soul who’d challenged Amarantha. But now she was High Fae, and thrumming with power — so many kinds of power that it made him giddy. Now that she was so close to him, it took all his willpower, all his self-control, to stay on the chair, and not fall at her feet.

Rhys grinned at her, though she didn’t grin back.

Sorry I’m late, Feyre darling. But I’m here now.

Chapter Text

Lucien rubbed his temples, wincing at the persistent headache that even his healing magic couldn’t dislodge. It was relentless — it was everywhere, and he felt like he’d always had it, and would always have it, would always experience the world through the haze of this pulsing, throbbing, relentless pain.

“I can get you something. Wine, perhaps?” Elain murmured, frowning in concern, rubbing small circles on his back. “Or medicine? I heard them say this is a healing place, surely —”

“S’ok,” he assured her, even though it certainly wasn’t. He didn’t want her to get him a thing, didn’t want anything except her hand pressing gently into his back. “Just stay with me.”

Elain hummed in agreement, drawing closer to him, rubbing his shoulders with both her hands. Lucien sighed contentedly, despite his pounding temples, trying to relax into her touch, asking himself yet again what he’d done to deserve her as a mate.

I don’t deserve her, especially not after exposing her to all this.

He knew they were earning stares, that all of Prythian would be gossiping about them as soon as everyone returned home, but couldn’t bring himself to care. 

Through the open doorway that led back into Thesan’s palace, the sounds of Tamlin and Feyre shouting at each other reverberated up onto the balcony, and more than a few courtiers were unabashedly listening in, while others were politely ignoring the ruckus, pretending to converse or sip refreshments.

Lucien shook his head — he could guess well enough what they were shouting, and he didn’t want to hear it. Nor did he want to hear the whispers and giggles about his mother and Helion, about Eris’s undignified retreat. He fervently hoped that Eris and his mother were safe, but had no way of finding out, not with his own exile from Autumn.

Elain settled back into the chair beside him, whispering, “Is that the faerie who marked my sister?”

Lucien didn’t have to look up to know whom she meant. “Yes,” he said, reaching for her hand, needing to feel the smoothness of her skin, her warmth, her aliveness. “That is Rhysand, the High Lord of the Night Court.”

Rhys was huddled in the corner of the balcony, perched awkwardly on a chair designed for a Peregryn’s wings, talking in a low voice, while a sour, stone-faced Kallias sat rigidly across from him, arms folded defensively across his chest. Neither had moved since the official proceedings had concluded, and it seemed like no progress had been made, either. Kallias would probably never fully forgive Rhys for his actions Under the Mountain, even if he wasn’t directly responsible for the murder of the Winter younglings, but Lucien hoped that they could call a truce, at least until Hybern was dealt with. Thesan hovered nearby, ready to jump in if the conversation got heated.

Elain asked, “The Night Court, is that the cruel and depraved place where they have the Blood Rite?”

“You were paying attention,” he said admiringly, thinking back to their lovely dinner under the stars, when they’d discussed the constellations and each Court’s interpretation of them. Cruel and depraved had been precisely how Tamlin had described the Night Court, and Lucien still couldn’t bring himself to disagree with that characterization, even though Rhys’s actions had been revealed to be more complicated than they’d seemed. He wished he’d warned Elain more thoroughly about the dangers in Prythian.

Maybe I was too eager when she wanted to come here. Maybe I should have tried harder to convince her to stay with Nesta.

Elain had slipped so seamlessly into Lucien’s life, had become so much a part of his daily routine, not to mention his thoughts and dreams and desires, that it seemed like a lifetime ago now since he’d shown her the way into Prythian. He could hardly tear his eyes from her throughout the meeting, had to force himself to focus on dull discussions about troop positions and diplomatic missions and emergency evacuations.

It’s for her, he kept telling himself. For her sister, still south of the Wall. For the folks who supported her, helped us escape.

“Why did Feyre want him here, if he’s so bad?” Elain asked, her gaze flicking briefly over to Rhys, then back to Lucien, and the anxiety in her beautiful brown eyes was almost too much.

How to explain? She didn’t know what a mating bond was, being human, and he wasn’t sure Feyre would want him to be the one to tell Elain this particular secret. She hadn’t mentioned it to anyone after her talk with the Suriel, so he had to assume she wanted it kept private.

So he thought quickly, finally settling on, “They’re connected, beyond what happened Under the Mountain. Fate and magic brought them together.”

Elain’s eyes widened, giving her face such an open, lovely, innocent look that Lucien had to resist the urge to sweep her up in his arms and kiss her breathless, right there on Thesan’s balcony. Fate and magic brought us together, too, can’t you feel it? he wanted to ask her. I’m your mate, he wanted to say. I’m yours.

But just then, a tight-lipped, furious Feyre stormed back in, alone, and she yanked out a chair at their table, plopping into it with such force that all the glasses and plates rattled.

“Where’s —“ Lucien began to ask, but her fiery glare had him closing his mouth again. Her argument with Tamlin had apparently not been settled to her satisfaction.

Rhys’s head whipped around, marking Feyre’s presence, and Lucien suppressed his shudder, as well as any number of indignant and accusatory things he wanted to say, as the High Lord of the Night Court stalked over to their table, smoothly sliding into Tamlin’s empty chair.

Elain shrank in towards Lucien, and he reflected that they were being far too obvious, that making their connection so blatant was practically begging for Rhys to exploit it. But it was far too late for any of that. Every faerie in Prythian would soon know about Elain, would assume or figure out their connection from the way they’d acted together, and the possessive mating instinct within him wasn’t sorry for it, even as the practical, nervous part of him worried that it marked Elain as a target. All he could do now was protect Elain with whatever power or skill he could muster, and hope like hell that it would be enough.

“I think the summit went well, don’t you, Feyre darling?” Rhys asked, tucking his wings in around the chair back. Lucien tried not to stare at the wings, though it was difficult to resist the temptation. How did he hide them? Amarantha would have delighted in sticking ash bolts through them, or ripping them out entirely. Lucien recalled that poor Summer Court faerie who’d been dumped on their border, wings hacked off, and willed himself not to vomit. He tried to focus on what Rhys was saying. “Hybern won’t expect all Prythian to be so united.”

“It won’t be enough,” Feyre said flatly. “Not unless we can prevent them from using the Cauldron.”

“Ah, yes, the matter of Tarquin’s relic,” Rhys said. “I wanted to ask you about that. I believe you have the skill set we need, if we are to retrieve it from the Summer Court.”

Retrieve it?

“That’d be stealing,” Lucien hissed, leaning forward, then glancing around to ensure that none of the remaining Summer Court fae could hear them. Tarquin and Cresseida had both left already, no doubt to beef up the security measures around their half of the Book of Breathings, which Cresseida outright refused to hand over, while her High Lord had wavered. But in the end, he’d capitulated to his cousin’s advice, and they’d left abruptly.

Lucien understood. Cresseida was shrewd, good at playing the game. She’d planned to ask for help defending Adriata in return for the Book, but didn’t want to reveal that she thought Adriata was weak, in case a certain High Lord and his winged warriors decided to attack.

She would have negotiated with us, had Rhys not been here.

Lucien had been disappointed, but was determined to follow up with her later, without Rhys’s interference. But it seemed that Rhys and Feyre didn’t plan to wait that long.

Rhys’s violet eyes glittered dangerously. “Considering the death and destruction that would be unleashed without it, I’d say a little stealing is warranted.”

“They know that it’s needed. They just need assurances,” Lucien argued, working hard to stay calm, keep his voice even.

“They’re your friends. You either talk them into giving the Book to us, or we’ll have to take it,” Rhys said coldly. “And they’d better not find out about our plans, or we’ll know exactly who told them.”

Elain shifted uncomfortably, her fingers twining with Lucien’s and squeezing — whether to comfort him, or to reassure herself, he wasn’t sure — but Feyre ignored Lucien’s look of shock and dismay, as if this was just fine with her. “Do you understand the other part of the Suriel’s message?”

“About the ancient one? I do indeed,” Rhys said. “There is only one being in all Prythian that it could be. She is my Second. You’ll meet her soon enough. She will be able to decipher the Book, once we’ve retrieved both halves of it.”

“The rest of your court is coming here?” Lucien asked carefully. He had had no idea that Rhys even had a Second, much less that it was some ancient creature with the power to handle magical relics.

What other surprises does he have in store for us all? Lucien shuddered to think of it. He certainly didn’t relish the thought of meeting Rhys’s courtiers, who were undoubtedly just as powerful and wicked as their High Lord.

“No, little fox,” Rhys said, flashing him a smug smile. “The summit’s over. I’m calling in my bargain. Feyre darling is coming home to the Night Court with me.”

Lucien’s eyes shot to Feyre, who returned his gaze with a calm, even expression. Elain gave a little gasp, but sensibly said nothing.

“Does… Tamlin know?” Is that what they were just arguing about?

Feyre nodded, pressing her lips into a tight line. “Yes.”

That one word, spoken so matter-of-factly, told Lucien everything he needed to know.

“You’ll be all right?” Lucien asked, fully aware that Rhys was sitting right there, watching him carefully. Good. He wanted Rhys to know that Feyre had friends, family actually, and that he couldn’t just carry her off and expect there to be no consequences.

What would I do, if Feyre got into trouble so far away?

Elain was staring at Feyre, her lower lip trembling. “You’re leaving?”

Feyre turned to her, taking one of her hands in a sisterly gesture. Elain’s eyebrows lifted, as though that surprised her. They weren’t close, growing up, Lucien remembered. Feyre had carried the burdens of hunting for food, preparing the carcasses, all the dangerous work, and seemed to think that both of her sisters did little but spend the family’s meager coppers on frivolities. Lucien figured it had to be more complicated than that, but now was not the time to pry.

Feyre patted Elain’s hand. “I have to, Elain.”

“But,” Elain began to protest. She eyed Rhys nervously, swallowed hard, then tried again. “What if it’s dangerous?”

“You can’t go back on a bargain,” Lucien tried to explain, though Feyre didn’t seem terribly concerned about her safety with Rhys, or reluctant to leave Tamlin. If anything, she seemed… relieved.

“It won’t be dangerous. Rhys helped me Under the Mountain,” Feyre said.

“For a price,” Lucien murmured.

Rhys said, in a deceptively calm voice that Lucien knew had to be covering his true feelings, “I was trying to keep her alive, help her win, without tipping off Amarantha that I was doing so. You experienced firsthand what happened to those who helped Feyre too openly.” His lips curved up into a smile that Lucien almost thought might be genuine. “I will forgive some of the nastier things you’ve said to me, little fox, as repayment for your efforts. But do take care. Any further insults, and you won’t be given the chance to atone or apologize.”

If the situation hadn’t been so fraught, Lucien might have been tempted to laugh. The colossal nerve of Rhys, forgiving me for my actions.

Before he could think better of it, he snapped, “And will you be apologizing to Feyre for drugging her Under the Mountain?”

Elain gasped, covering her mouth with her hands.

I could never keep my mouth shut.

Lucien’s mechanical eye clicked as tense moments of silence passed.

“I have already taken steps to rectify that,” Rhys said, clenching his jaw, tendrils of darkness swirling around his shoulders and wings.

Lucien tapped his fingers on the table, studiously avoiding making eye contact with Feyre. He didn’t know whether she had forgiven Rhys, or planned to confront him privately. Even if she’s made her peace with his actions Under them Mountain, I haven’t. “Such as?” he asked, knowing his tone was becoming too snide, too confrontational.

“You don’t need to know that,” Rhys snarled.

Elain whispered something in Feyre’s ear.

“Yes. Honestly,” Feyre replied. “But if you’re really concerned, you could come with me. See for yourself.”

“What?” Lucien exploded, leaping out of his seat.

“Oh,” Elain stammered, looking nervously at him, then back at Feyre, “oh, I don’t know.”

Rhys was silent, his expression contemplative.

No, no, no.

“You can’t be serious,” Lucien sputtered.

Feyre’s eyes blazed with inner fire. “I’m entirely serious.”

Not Elain. Not my mate. He can’t have her.

“It’s the Night Court, Feyre,” Lucien shouted, his own fire rising up to his fingertips. He clenched his fists quickly, mindful not to ignite anything.

“You’re making a scene,” Rhys murmured mildly.

“I don’t give a shit,” Lucien growled. He’d already created a spectacle of himself today, why stop now? But he lowered his voice anyway, mindful that Elain was watching him with anxious tears in her eyes, and his heart cracked open as he took in her confusion, her anguish over what to do. “You have no bargain with Feyre’s sister.”

“One doesn’t need a bargain to visit my court,” Rhys said reasonably, flicking an invisible speck of lint from his jacket sleeve. Fucking bastard, milking this situation for all it’s worth.

“Then I’ll come along instead,” Lucien challenged. “Your court is the only one I’ve never visited. And it’s been months since I was trapped under a mountain, I’m getting nostalgic.”

Rhys chuckled darkly. “Like I’d let you anywhere near my court. You’re too clever by half. You’d probably uncover secrets I didn’t know I had.”

That’s what I figured, you fucking asshole.

“I don’t want Feyre to be alone,” Elain said hesitantly, twisting her hands in her long skirt. “Maybe I should go.”

Gods, if I lose her…

“Elain,” Lucien cried, whirling around to face her fully, crouching in front of her, gripping her shoulders. “Please. I swore to protect you, but I can’t protect you there.”

“I won’t let anyone hurt my sister,” Feyre said pointedly.

Lucien did not argue the point, though he desperately wanted to point out that Rhys was ancient compared to her, skilled in the use of both magic and deception, and had a whole court full of powerful faeries, warriors, obliged to obey his every whim. Instead, he stayed focused on Elain, staring into her beautiful face, memorizing every feature.

If Rhys takes her… if she never returns…

“Please,” he whispered, grasping her hands, tangling his fingers in hers, “please.”

Elain squeezed his fingers, running her thumbs soothingly over the backs of his hands. “I need to go with Feyre,” she insisted. “She’s protected me all her life. She’s always sacrificed for me, shielded me from everything unpleasant, kept me out of danger.”

“You won’t be in danger,” Rhys said. “I swear it.”

Lucien forced his throat to work, forced his mouth to open and words to come out. “Give us a minute. Please.”

Rhys pushed up from his chair in one smooth movement, wings rustling and then disappearing, murmuring, “As you like.”

Feyre folded her arms, refusing to budge. “Anything he says to my sister, he can say in front of me.”

“I’ll leave you to it, then,” Rhys said calmly, retreating from the table, giving Lucien a long look that might have been almost sympathetic.

Lucien turned back to Elain, his knees pressing into the smooth cool stones of the balcony. “I’m begging you,” he said hoarsely, “think carefully about this. I know you want to help Feyre. I want to help her too. But if he won’t let me come with you —“

“I know it’s risky,” Elain said gently, reaching up one hand to smooth the stray hair from his left cheek. He shivered as her fingers brushed his scars, those ever-present reminders of how dangerous and brutal life could be. “That’s why Feyre shouldn’t go alone.”

But you’re mortal, you can’t protect her, he wanted to scream.

“All those years I should have helped, and didn’t,” Elain went on, pressing her fingertips to the scars, as if trying to memorize their shape. “All those years Feyre was out in the woods alone. I knew it was dangerous, but I didn’t go with her then.”

“This is different,” Lucien protested.

“Is it?” Elain’s palm pressed flat against his cheek, and he leaned into the warmth, the soft caress of it, breathing her gentle scent in, staring into those wide brown eyes. “At home, I had my father to care for. He was often confused, had trouble walking. I did dishes. I cleaned, even if just with muddy well water. But I’m not needed here —“

“You are,” Lucien burst out. Oh, gods, if you only knew how much.

“I’ll bring her back,” Feyre said, in a conciliatory tone. “It won’t be forever.”

Forever. Lucien choked back a sob.

“I can’t tell you what to do,” he made himself say to Elain. “I can’t force you to stay. I don’t want to get between you and your sister. I just want you to be okay. Please, Elain. If anything happens to you up there, and I can’t get there to help you, I don’t know what I’ll do. I need you to be okay.”

“I will be. I am,” Elain said reassuringly, tugging on his hands as if trying to pull him up from the floor, but he wouldn’t budge. He didn’t trust his wobbling muscles to hold him up right now. So she slid down off the chair, kneeling on the floor in front of him. “You’ve been so good to me. So kind. I don’t want you to worry.”

“I’ll try,” Lucien said, knowing full well it was a lie.

Elain seemed to know it too. “You’re frightened for me. I can feel it.” And she pressed a hand to her ribs. “I can feel you — in here.”

Lucien nodded, pressing one of his hands to the identical spot on his chest. “If they frighten you, if they hurt you, I’ll feel it, too.” He pulled her close, huffing out a shuddering breath when her arms snaked around his neck, one hand twining into his hair. Remember this. Remember how she feels in your arms. “And if you need help, I will come for you,” he added, failing to keep the possessive growl fully out of his voice. “I don’t care if I have to fight my way in.”

“You won’t get far, if you try that,” Rhys’s voice said from behind him. “But you have my word, they will not be harmed.”

Your word doesn’t mean shit, Lucien thought angrily. But he bit down on that retort, not wanting Elain to hear the bitterness in it. I don’t want her to remember me that way. So he held Elain, breathing in and out, willing himself be calm be calm be calm, she doesn’t need your stupid panic now.

“I don’t want to rush things, but we really do need to be getting back, before your dear husband decides to come charging back in here and start a brawl,” Rhys was saying to Feyre.

Elain pulled back to look into Lucien’s face. “I’ll see you soon,” she said, and pressed a sweet, soft kiss to his lips.

Then she was on her feet, walking away from him, taking Feyre’s hand.

And disappeared into smoke and shadow, as Rhys winnowed them away

Chapter Text

Elain shivered as the mountains rushed by, forbidding, jagged, dark and cold. So cold. She tried to draw her heavy cloak more tightly around her, but the fabric was trapped between her thigh and the muscular arm of the faerie who was holding her, flying her, high above the frozen wasteland, and if she fell —

She dropped the cloak and clung to him, her cheeks flushing at the too-intimate pose they were in. She didn’t want to be held like this, didn’t want to be pressed up against a stranger, but if she pushed away, if he lost his grip, she would plummet. She would splatter on these rocks. She would break, and she would die.

This whole place was death — empty, silent, devoid of any trees or even shrubs. Just the bare boulders and peaks of the mountains, the bleak sky, the whistling wind, and the beating wings of the warrior clutching her in his arms.

“We’ll clear the mountains soon,” he murmured to her, as if noting her distress.

Elain nodded, not trusting the wind to carry her shouted response up to his ears, or her voice to form words. The flying was making her dizzy, her stomach was in her throat, and unshed tears burned in her eyes, not only from the cold stinging air.

She wasn’t sorry to be leaving the glittering palace on the mountaintop, as beautiful as it was. That grand dwelling could have rivaled the Dawn Court’s luxurious towers, with luminous stones and lush fabrics, but it was an oasis in a frozen desert, surrounded on all sides by danger and death.

And it was dark — so dark.

Elain missed her garden. She missed the sun. There was light, despite the Night Court’s name, but it felt thin and weak. And though the palace was warm, the warmth felt false, like a trick designed to lull her senses.

The faerie carrying her shifted, nudging her into his chest, trying his best to shield her from the freezing wind as they soared above the mountains. Some were snow-covered, but others were bare, or had straggly trees, stunted from the harsh conditions, or just very slow-growing, clawing out an existence in this brutal place. The air was thin, and Elain gasped for breath, wondering how the male was managing it. He didn’t seem bothered by the wind or the cold, and she wondered how his wings and arms didn’t grow tired, what kind of inhuman strength he must have.

“Just here,” the faerie shouted over the wind, and they angled towards a sparkling valley, full of lights and a winding river, nestled in between the mountains, which were a ruddy brick-red, barren as a desert, not even a blade of grass growing on them.

But below, a vibrant city greeted them — the secret city of Velaris, the jewel of the Night Court, hidden and safe. Even the other High Lords didn’t know about this place, and they could not be told. Elain would be the first mortal to step foot here in over five hundred years, and probably the last one, as well.

Beside them, Feyre was chatting animatedly with her High Lord, who was cradling her in his arms, flapping his own majestic wings. Although Elain couldn’t hear their conversation over the roar of the wind, she imagined that her sister was teasing and needling him as she liked to do, while he purred and flirted in response.

Elain had been frightened at the High Lord’s surprise entrance at the summit, the rattling and thunder and swirling darkness. She’d felt how Lucien clung to her, shielded her as though from an enemy, and had clung to him in return, wanting his warmth and protection. But the High Lord of the Night Court had been nothing but kind and friendly to her, just as accepting of her presence in his court as Tamlin had been. More so, for he could see that she was frightened and lonely, and was making an effort to put her at ease.

The first night had been the hardest. She’d been shown to a gorgeous room, given all new clothing, though she’d found the fashions strange, but once she was dressed and bathed, she had nothing to do, no garden to tend, no Lucien seeking her out, nowhere to go. She’d laid on her bed and cried and cried, missing Lucien, thinking of their too-brief kiss, how it had felt to hold his hands, hold him close, bask in his warmth, and now she was cold, and far away, and alone.

But she’d dried her tears, and gone to breakfast the next morning, determined to watch over her sister as she’d set out to do. Feyre was up and strolling the halls, admiring the view, and Elain realized it was the first time since she’d arrived in Prythian that Feyre had woken up first. That Feyre felt alive here, happier, more hopeful than she’d ever been, and Elain thought that her own sadness was nothing, compared to the depressed misery that Feyre had endured. If her sister was happy here, Elain could try to be, too.

So she forced breakfast down her throat, made herself greet the Night Court faeries. The two warriors were the first to arrive, both grinning broadly, though the bulkier, louder one did all the talking and most of the eating, while the sleeker, more mysterious one hung back, wreathed in strange shadows that vanished in a puff of smoke whenever Elain got near them. She forced herself to smile anyway, to ask their names and other polite questions, though they were mostly interested in fawning over Feyre, and let Elain be.

That was fine with Elain, especially once the silver-eyed stern female arrived, a bemused scowl on her lips, and the bubbly blond cousin of the High Lord whose dress exposed more skin than it covered. Elain had never met females like them before — so brazen, outspoken, irreverent and fierce. The blond, in particular, was downright giddy with excitement at Feyre’s arrival, greeting her like a long-lost friend with hugs and exclamations. Feyre immediately warmed up to them all, smiling and talking and asking questions, seamlessly sliding into the conversation as though she’d always been one of them.

Elain found their talk shocking — peppered with insults and vulgarities, full of threats towards one another that she hoped were jokes. They spoke of killing and stealing and revenge with an eagerness that she found vicious, though Feyre seemed to take it in stride, and even agree with it.

“Welcome to Velaris,” the winged warrior said, and Elain nodded solemnly, dutifully impressed with the charming vista before her. The city looked bustling, full of happy people, full of activity, though she thought it might be loud and overwhelming when she got down into it. She was glad to see trees and flower gardens, all artfully planted, and wondered if the sun shone more warmly here, if this place were more alive.

They touched down, and Elain let herself be led into their new dwelling, a stately townhouse that she found far more comfortable than the pretty palace they’d been in. This was a home; this was a life.

But not for her.

This wasn’t her home, she knew that well enough. These were Feyre’s new friends, companions, not Elain’s. They admired Feyre’s spirit, her toughness, her warrior instincts. They didn’t know what to do with a mortal, an innocent.

“This is delicious,” Feyre proclaimed, digging into the stewed tomatoes and eggs that burned Elain’s tongue with their spicy flavoring. “Spring Court food is bland by comparison.”

“Try the meat,” the bulky warrior — Cassian — said, while chewing an enthusiastic mouthful of it. “It’s from our favorite restaurant.”

Feyre dumped a small helping onto her plate, and one onto Elain’s, even though Elain was certain she couldn’t eat another bite of anything. Her stomach was queasy, whether from the flying, the unusual flavorings, or the ache in her ribs that twinged and pulsed, making her feel like she was drowning, like she couldn’t get air in, much less breakfast. But she lifted her fork and took a polite bite anyway, determined not to ruin this for Feyre, and made sure to swallow it.

“What’s the plan, Rhys?” Mor, the bubbly blond, was asking. “Sightseeing? A walk through the Rainbow?”

The Rainbow was a physical place, Elain guessed. She wondered if this place ever got enough rain to produce a real one, what it would look like to fly through it.

“Training,” the High Lord replied. “Feyre darling will be busy with Cassian, sharpening up her skills for the mission to Summer. I’m to meet with the palace governors.”

“Summer?” Elain asked, then wished she hadn’t, as every faerie at the table turned to stare at her. She quickly took another bite of her too-rich meal, hoping she could find room in her stomach for it. If they’re planning on stealing from Lucien’s friends, I’ve got to warn him. But how?

“Don't worry about that,” Feyre said, with a wave of her hand.

“Of course,” Elain shrugged amiably, keeping her face neutral. The more bland and naive they thought her, the better.

“You could walk the downtown area, or the waterfront,” Mor suggested. “It’s so lovely, I’m sure you can find something to occupy your time.”

By myself? Elain didn’t ask, and no one volunteered.

They all had better things to do, of course. Rhys was a High Lord, not a babysitter. Cassian was a general, and in charge of Feyre’s combat training. Mor ruled a distant city, though she seemed much more eager to talk about this place. The silver-eyed one, Amren, seemed dangerous, and looked upon Elain’s plain mortal features with disdain, so she was relieved that that female didn’t offer. And Azriel, the shy beautiful one who’d flown her here, was the spymaster, had missions of his own.

Elain wondered what Lucien would think of this place, whether it matched up to other cities he’d been to in Prythian. She could imagine his hand in hers as she strolled the riverside, how he might comment and joke about places and people they passed. What would he think, if he saw her here, among these warriors with wings?

“Do you have any paper?” Elain asked.

“Certainly,” Rhys replied, but his violet eyes lingered on her a bit too long, before he innocently asked, “Making a list of destinations?”

“Oh, that is a lovely idea,” Elain said politely. “But I’m writing a letter.”

They all sat up a bit straighter at that.

“This place is secret,” Azriel said, his voice cold and flat.

Elain realized her mistake right away. She’d heard all about the history of this strange city, how it had been hidden for thousands of years, even despite the evil queen’s efforts to find and destroy every lovely place in Prythian. And although she didn’t quite understand how magic could hide a huge place with thousands of people in it, she did understand that she mustn’t do anything to betray it.

“Don’t worry, I won’t mention it,” Elain said, trying to keep her voice from wobbling. “I just want to let Lucien know I’m okay.”

Feyre cleared her throat. “Elain, you really shouldn’t.”

“Oh?” Elain asked, the inside of her own throat suddenly feeling rough and thick.

“It’s nothing against that male personally, it’s just that our two courts aren’t all that friendly,” Cassian explained.

“That’s an understatement,” Mor chortled.

“Aren’t you allies in this upcoming war?” Elain dared ask.

“Very good, you were listening,” Rhys said smoothly, floating a platter of eggs on some invisible wind toward his side of the table. Elain gripped the tablecloth, trying to suppress her shock at seeing it. She knew faeries had magic, had seen her own sister use it, but she couldn’t help but be startled by it. Maybe it’s just being in a new place, maybe I’m just on edge from everything that’s happened.

Or maybe it was that Lucien wasn’t there to give her a comforting smile, and to explain it.

“Still, we can’t take the risk,” Rhys was saying. “It’s a security precaution.”

“Of course,” Elain said quickly, deciding that antagonizing such powerful faeries was not in her best interest. She blinked her eyes rapidly, dispelling the tears that were threatening to pool in them. How will he know I’m all right? How will I know how he’s doing?

Rhys said, “Az, maybe you could show her around. Get lunch at one of the outdoor cafes?”

Azriel nodded, giving her a gallant nod. Of all of the assembled faeries, he had the best manners, or at least manners as Elain was familiar with. He’d been gentlemanly enough, flying with her, despite the compromising position she’d been forced into, pressed up against his armored leathers. And he was quiet, unassuming, which she thought might be soothing, as compared to the other brash personalities who might not let her get a word in.

Perhaps they’d realized that abandoning a mortal female to her own devices in a brand new city wasn’t a great idea. But she couldn’t shake the feeling that he was not merely a tour guide. After all, he was still the spymaster. Azriel would be watching her, and reporting back to his High Lord.

Elain had the sinking sensation that her request to send a letter had triggered their suspicions, had put them on alert. What trouble could one mortal woman cause? Apparently enough that she needed an escort.

Elain put on a dutiful smile, as though this bothered her not at all.

It’s temporary. Soon I’ll go home.

Chapter Text

Gone. She’s gone. 

Lucien winnowed, then collapsed to his knees in the garden, breathing in rough, jagged breaths, his fingers curling into the rich soil. He wished it would swallow him up, gulp him down, suffocate him in the darkness, break apart his bones, grow new things from his rotting corpse. He couldn’t take another step toward the manor, couldn’t face Tamlin, couldn’t face the reality of the mockingly beautiful house without her.

Elain. He took Elain. 

A bellow rattled the windows, the shutters thwacking frantically against the bricks, glass shattering on an upper floor, and all the plants swayed as the ground rumbled and shook, Lucien’s bones shaking along with it, and he struggled to raise his aching head as fleeing bodies came hurtling out of the front door, running, shouting, tripping over each other in their haste to depart. 

The manor folk, the innocents. Always the ones to suffer. He hoped they could get away, get far.

He could go too — he could winnow, or he could crawl through the dirt like the wretched worm he was, watering the soil muddy with his useless tears. He could make for the Wall, or seek refuge somewhere, forsake it all.

Or he could go north, plunge into the heart of the Night Court like a sharpened dagger, bathe himself in darkness and horror, slashing and ripping the world apart. He could go charging up there, grab her back, fill his arms up with her, press her against his aching heart, then winnow away, and run, and run.

His possessive instincts were screaming at him to do just that, to stick his blade or fist in Rhys’s smug stupid face, sweep Elain up and spirit her away, lock her up somewhere safe, as if there were safe places in this world, as if he could really ever protect her, from her own sweet innocent heart most of all.

She chose to go.

That knocked the wind from him, made his stomach roil and his lungs squeeze. She’d chosen to go, had chosen to leave him. She’d looked in his eyes, listened to his pleas, held his hand and kissed him, then walked away. She’d made her choice, and she’d chosen to go.

Why couldn’t I convince her to stay with me? What did I do wrong?

Seizing her, dragging her back, wouldn’t solve anything. Locking her up tight wouldn’t make her want to stay, would only encourage her spirit to drift far, far away.

Like what Feyre suffered. Like how she longed to escape.

He couldn’t do that to his mate. He couldn’t look Elain in the eyes, those sweet wide eyes that trusted him, and tell her no, she mustn’t wander where her sister went, no she mustn’t be interested in the world, no she couldn’t do any meaningful things. He wouldn’t be like his brute of a father, or his well-meaning misguided beast of a friend, and Elain wouldn’t be like his mother or Feyre, beaten down to a thin, pale specter of the bright spirit she’d been.

Elain wasn’t his, not like that. Her life was not his to consume like a sweet dessert, or mold like a sculpture to admire and display. She was wild, she was free, she was like this garden — she had to grow, to seek the sun, on whatever ground she trod on. He’d just hoped she would let him wander with her, breathe in her intoxicating scent of honey and flowers, hold her soft curvy sweetness close against him, worship her in the short time she had to live.

For Elain was not immortal, didn’t have centuries. She had now, days and years, hopefully decades, but that was all. Or she’d have less, for she’d heal slowly if injured, and some wounds could not be healed at all. The thought of Elain tormented, rubbed raw by the cruelties of the world made him furious, stoked the fire in his blood that needed to destroy, devour and burn.

Perhaps she would be happy after a fashion, guarded in her sister’s care. Perhaps Lucien would burn to ash, instead.

Another roar split the air, a crackling, painful, pitiless sound, and Lucien scrambled up, flinging an arm over his face as glass rained down from the second floor into the garden, pelting the flower beds like sharp, merciless rain.

Then he was grabbed, pulled back stumbling towards the roses, and rough voices hissed in his ear, “You must go! You must flee. He blames you, you know!”

Lucien whirled around, barely glimpsing the grave faces of the sentries, grimly set against the destruction of their home. “I can’t, I’ve got to face him,” he told them, clasping each of their arms, reassuring them or himself, he didn’t know. “Get the others. I’ll distract him.”

“Don’t,” they begged him, Bron and Hart, voices tumbling over one another in a torrent of pleas and warnings. “You’ll be killed, you’ll be shredded, you’ll be whipped and torn apart.”

Just like always, Lucien didn’t say. It’s all I’m good for, all I deserve.

“We’ll get her back.” Hart was clenching his fists, face reddened in anger. “Those bastards can’t keep her from us. We don’t care if it is the Night Court. We’ll go with you, just say the word.”

“She’s ours,” Bron added. “She belongs here.”

“Your loyalty to the Lady Feyre is admirable,” Lucien assured them, hastily swiping at his slick tears with his sleeve.

The two sentries exchanged a puzzled look. “Not the Cursebreaker. All respect for her sacrifice, but she doesn’t belong here,” Bron said, his voice hushed, his dark eyes darting around warily. “She doesn’t love this land or its lord, that’s clear. It’s our Lady Elain we’ve got to rescue.”

Hart nodded vigorously, his meaty hand tightening around Lucien’s elbow. “You can’t let them have her. You’ve got to fight. She’s not just yours, you know. Not yours alone. She belongs to Spring.” A soft warm breeze caressed their faces, as though the land itself agreed.

Lucien’s heart protested. He’d never been one to pretend, or sugarcoat things. He knew exactly how final a lost love could be, how one could be permanently parted from one’s soul, cut down and buried. She is not mine. I’m hers to cherish, or throw away.

But Spring — Spring had claimed Elain, her wildness and sweetness, her spark, her love of life and growing things.

Lucien’s mechanical eye was clicking so rapidly that he was dizzy. “If I do go, it could be deadly. You don’t have to volunteer.” He patted both of their shoulders. “I won’t lead you into torture and imprisonment.”

“We’ll get her back, whatever it takes,” Hart said stubbornly.

Lucien’s ruined, empty heart twinged. “I thank you both. If I need you, I’ll let you know.”

“Oh, you’ll need us,” Bron warned, jerking his head towards the manor, where the first floor windows were shattering one by one in great shrieking gasps, as though the house itself were being slowly tortured. More faeries were rushing out, scattering into the gardens and forests, but a few slowed down and turned their faces to Lucien, silently pleading with him — whether asking him to save them, or himself, he wasn’t sure.

Lucien straightened his shoulders, and set his jaw, and willed his stupid eye to stop clicking. Then he strode toward the manor, each step resounding louder than the last, until he broke into a run.

A flash of yellow and green flew out the door and exploded in his vision, slamming him backwards, and Lucien’s breath tore from his lungs as he clanged against the stones. He flung out his power, flame and light and any strength he might have had, but he was wrestled, and trapped, and he cried out against the claws that raked down his arms and chest, please not my face, please not my eye.

“You,” the whirlwind of fangs and sharpness howled, “you lost her —“

“Tam,” Lucien wailed, coughing and kicking, fighting to get air in. “Please.

“Don’t bother begging,” the beast-lord growled, talons clamping around Lucien’s arms, “this is all your fault.”

“Tam, don’t,” Lucien cried, not knowing whether he was begging, or giving an order, but he threw all his power into his voice, since his limbs were bleeding and trapped. “Let me help you. Tam, you need me. Don’t kill me. Let me up.”

The beast-lord’s fangs snapped near his neck, his green eyes blazing with hot rage. “Why should I spare you?”

“I can sense Elain. I can tell if she’s hurt,” Lucien stammered. “Or scared. Or if anything’s amiss.” He yanked and tugged, struggling to break free. “I’m your only link to what’s going on up there. Tam, let me up, now.

“You can’t feel her, only your own treacherous mate,” Tamlin growled, but the claws were loosening, the fangs retracting, and then the beast was flung on the ground beside Lucien, quietly weeping. “My wife. My Feyre. She left me.”

“I know,” Lucien said hoarsely, and the stones trembled as Tamlin shifted, the beast shuddering into the tall blond male, bloody and disheveled and raw.

“Leave, Lucien, before I fully lose control,” Tamlin said dully, in that tone he’d often used Under the Mountain, the flat, numb, blank voice of surrender.

“You can’t lose control, you’re a High Lord,” Lucien pleaded with him, shoving up on his elbows, then twisting to turn over, push up onto his knees. “Your sorrows aren’t yours alone.”

“Alone, I’m alone,” Tamlin whispered.

“No, Tam,” Lucien said brokenly, reaching out a trembling hand for his friend. “You’re not. I’m here.”

Tamlin’s green eyes were glazed over, as if his mind had tunneled backwards, retreated to some deep place inside him. “You’re not her.”

And you’re not my mate, Lucien thought, but he said nothing. Tamlin’s love for Feyre was a jealous thing with claws, and would not tolerate comparisons. 

“Thought I’d have more time,” Tamlin murmured, laying his head back on the grass, his long unbound hair tangling amongst the pale green blades. “Thought we’d get through it together.”

Lucien closed his eyes, clutching at his ribs, searching for Elain, and although there were twinges of sadness, there was no fear, no terror. He allowed himself some shred of hope, that she would be cared for, that she would be spared the Night Court’s wickedness. He tried not to think about Rhys invading her mind, manipulating her senses, drugging her drinks as he’d done to Feyre, his own mate, Under the Mountain. Would he truly know if Elain was in danger, if Rhys could slip into her thoughts like a stone through water?

I’ll have to trust Feyre.

Feyre was far more powerful than he’d realized, if she was Rhys’s mate. If she had summoned Rhys, as he had claimed, that meant she had daemati powers of her own. Would she know how to shield her sister? Would she be able to fight Rhys off, or his courtiers? Or would she wither and shrink, forced under another mountain?

Helion was not afraid of Rhys at all, he tried to tell himself. They were downright friendly. The High Lord of Day — his father, by the fucking Cauldron — had tried to reassure him, saying that he’d trust his own mate with Rhys, if it came to that. It had given Lucien some shadow of hope, at least.

But he didn’t see Rhys here at the manor. He doesn’t understand what Rhys would do to hurt Tamlin, how much bad blood is between them.

“We have to be strong. Steady. Keep Spring ready to welcome them home,” Lucien said haltingly, carefully, watching Tamlin for signs that he might erupt in fury again. Knowing full well that this was not home to Feyre at all.

If she doesn’t return, I might never see Elain again.

Tamlin rolled up off the ground, breathing hard. “I’m going to do more than that. He will not steal my wife and get away with it.”

“Tam,” Lucien croaked, shoving up onto unsteady feet. “We’ve got a war to fight, we can’t afford one with Rhys as well.”

“We’re in one, whether we can afford it or not,” Tamlin spat contemptuously. “This bargain specifies one week a month. If he keeps her longer than that, he won’t live to regret it.” And he stalked back towards the manor, kicking up dirt in his wake.

Lucien followed him, each step sounding hollow on the stones, like he was being led towards his own execution. No. No. I’ve got to stop this, before it happens. If Tamlin moved against the Night Court, and Elain was there, caught in the crossfire —

I’ve got to do something. I’ve got to warn them.

But how could he get a message into Night Court territory?

“Bron? Hart,” he called, and both males came running.

Lucien turned to them with grim determination. “Have you ever been south of the Wall?”

Chapter Text

Elain paced the large airy room, careful not to venture too close to the windows, where the wide expanse of sky and the city yawned far below. What is it with faeries and high places? After the Dawn palace, and the moonstone palace, and now this House of Wind, she’d had quite enough of the clouds and the empty air, and decided she would be happy to keep her feet planted firmly on the ground.

For she was trapped up here, in this fortress in the mountain, cut off from the world. She couldn’t feel the real earth beneath her feet, was too far away from the bustling life and activity below. The sandstone mountain was barren, aloof, hollowed out, and Elain felt that she would become the same, if she languished here too long.

But Feyre had assured her that it was temporary, only while she attended her sparring lesson with the general on the roof, and then they would venture out into the city, walk along the riverfront, go into the art shops or whatever else they might want to do. Feyre loved Velaris, its people, its sparkling river, its art and music and shops and culture, and Elain supposed she could love it too, if only it had a bit more nature, a bit more quiet, and if only it didn’t get so dark and cold.

And if only she wasn’t trapped up here, alone.

“You could train with me,” Feyre had offered. “Cassian’s an excellent teacher.”

“Me, a warrior?” Elain had asked incredulously, trying not to wrinkle her nose. The idea of handling weapons, and punching, and shedding blood, was frankly disturbing to her.

“Not necessarily. But learning to defend yourself is always a good thing,” Feyre had pointed out.

That made sense, Elain supposed. Without Lucien to protect her, she wasn’t sure who to rely on.  She’d never felt unsafe back in Prythian before, had never thought any faerie might harm her. I was naive. I was wrong. Perhaps learning to hurt and kill would keep her safe, though she wondered if it would endanger her soul.

She’d considered it, weighed her options, but then Cassian had come swaggering in, cracking jokes and slamming furniture and barking, “Come on, Cursebreaker, let’s see what you’ve got,” and Elain had quickly decided that she should stay where she was. Whether it was because Cassian startled her, or because she didn’t want to see what damage Feyre could do, she wasn’t sure.

So Elain curled up by the fireplace in the sitting room, steam from her cup of tea curling in the air, a book propped open on her lap, though her mind was far too sluggish to read, and her heart too heavy and sad to care. She wondered where Lucien was right now, whether he was patrolling the manor grounds, or writing his letters, whether he was strolling the gardens or at the dining table. Perhaps he was preparing for war, cleaning weapons, instructing the sentries, perhaps training for the fight, as Feyre was. Or perhaps he was in his own room, alone, staring at a fireplace, like Elain was doing now.

What would Lucien make of this place, this court, with its hidden city and palaces in the clouds? Would he feel as trapped as she did, just as bored without fields and forests to run through, suspended in mid-air, unable to get down?

She stood up and stretched, her body restless, and wandered from the sitting room, abandoning her book and her tea, seeking a distraction, or a way down to the earth that didn’t involve a steep spiraling staircase miles off the ground. She wandered through a dining room and a corridor of bedchambers, past what looked like a formal meeting space, and by luck or by magic, she found another stairwell.

This one led down gently into the mountain, into darkness, and Elain paused at the entrance, wondering if she was supposed to find it, or if taking it would upset her hosts. It reminded her of visiting Grandmama as a young girl, playing hide and seek with Nesta, sneaking into rooms and closets that were off-limits, never knowing what treasures she might find there, or what scolding she would get if she disturbed anything.

I’m not a girl, and I’m not hiding.

Besides, Elain reflected, she was not a prisoner, but a guest. This was not her court, and no one ruled her. Why was she allowing them to dictate where she went? She had chosen to come here of her own free will, and she would choose to descend this staircase, to follow her instincts, to seek the heart of the mountain and whatever secrets lay within it.

So she took step after halting step, until she found herself deep within the mountain, at the entrance to a great dark cavern. The passageway was wide, hewn of the carved red stone of the mountain, and black glossy doors with lines of silver snaking through them stood ahead.

I knew there were treasures down here. Elain wondered if it was an underground palace, or some secret trove, until the doors swung open of their own accord, and a hooded figure greeted her from the other side. Elain recognized the pale blue robes, the jeweled stone on the forehead, and locked up for a moment. No. That silly, snobbish creature couldn’t be here, she’s back in Spring.

This figure was stooped, where Ianthe had been tall and proud, but a calm beauty radiated around her, as though she were wrapped in wisdom itself. Elain stifled her gasp as a pale hand of broken, scarred, twisted fingers emerged from a sleeve, directing a paper and pen that were floating in midair.

The paper drifted towards Elain, and she accepted it with shaking fingers. Welcome. I am Clotho. Do you wish to enter?

“Thank you, that would be lovely,” Elain stammered, curtseying respectfully. “Only… what is this place?”

The paper lifted gracefully from her fingers and drifted inches away, and the pen floated towards it, embellishing the surface with Clotho’s response.

This is the Library, and our sanctuary.

“How wonderful,” Elain said, gazing behind the priestess to the cavernous hall beyond. It was softly lit, though the bottom was veiled in darkness, and her eyes flicked from level to level, at the wealth of books, long full shelves of them, and she thought that it really was a beautiful place, though it could do with a bit more light, and some plants or flowering vines as decoration.

As if summoned, another priestess popped up next to Clotho, her own hood thrown back, revealing a shock of copper-brown hair. She was youthful and pretty, with teal eyes and a smattering of freckles, and somehow she reminded Elain of Lucien, both in her coloring and her wry smiling manner.

This is Gwyn, the pen scrawled out. She can show you around.

“Hello,” Elain said brightly, curtseying again.

“No need for all that,” Gwyn laughed, though she inclined her own head in return. Then she peered closer, examining Elain, and said, “Why, you’re a human!”

“Yes,” Elain said, touching her ears self-consciously.

“It’s no big deal. I’m a quarter river nymph,” Gwyn said confidentially, gesturing towards the pathway down into the stacks. Elain followed, gaping at the elegant columns carved right from the mountain rock. “Don’t let anyone make you feel less because you aren’t High Fae.”

“No one has,” Elain assured her. “Well, except for one rude priestess I met back in Spring.”

“Spring?” Gwyn’s bright blue eyes widened in curiosity. “You’re far from home.”

“Yes,” Elain said, a bit sadly.

Yes, Spring is home. How had she not realized it before? Spring was her home, more than the Nolan estate had ever been, certainly more than the grand house their father had purchased on regaining his fortune. Spring was her home, with its gardens, its wild places, and its people — Her breath caught, sadness flooding her.

Its people. One in particular.

Elain pasted on a smile, determined not to let her sorrow or homesickness spoil this new experience. “I’m visiting for a while.”

“How does a mortal come to live in Prythian anyway?” Gwyn asked. “I thought you were all meant to live south of the Wall?”

“Oh, it’s a strange story, actually,” Elain said, letting her hand run over the books as they walked, admiring their leather covers, the gold embossing, the ancient elegance.

“I love a strange story,” Gwyn grinned at her.

“Well, I was married,” Elain said, wincing a bit at the thought of Graysen, how he must have raged once he realized she was gone. She hadn’t given one thought to him since she’d departed, hadn’t missed him at all. And I thought he was my true love. “My husband and his family hated faeries. Most humans do, you know,” she added apologetically.

“I know,” Gwyn said. “I’ve read histories.”

“Indeed. Well, there’s a hole in the Wall not far from my village, and one day a faerie came through,” Elain went on. Gwyn motioned to two comfortable seats on a balcony overlooking the lower floors, and Elain gratefully sank into one, glad for the reprieve from walking for a while, as she found the hard polished stone floors jarring on her feet and ankles. “They caught him and chained him, and kept him a prisoner.”

Gwyn settled into the other chair, her chin propped on her hand. “And?” she prompted excitedly.

“Everyone thinks that faeries are wicked,” Elain said. “But this one wasn’t. He was good and kind. And clever, and handsome.”

“Handsome?” Gwyn drawled, grinning mischievously.

Elain flushed, but nodded. “Very.”

“And so he swept you away,” Gwyn guessed, “like in a romance novel.”

“Almost,” Elain admitted. “I actually helped him escape, because they were going to sell him to some wicked queens, who were going to give him to Hybern, I think.”

At the mention of Hybern, Gwyn stiffened, her eyes dropping to her hands. “Oh! I’m sorry,” Elain exclaimed, reaching out to grasp her hand.

“It’s all right,” Gwyn said quietly. “Hybern — hurt me. Killed my sister.”

“That’s dreadful,” Elain whispered, biting her lip, wishing she hadn’t mentioned it. She thought it would be terribly intrusive to ask questions, but didn’t want to seem uninterested, or give the impression that Gwyn had something to be ashamed of. So she said, “I don’t suppose you like to talk about it much, especially to strangers.”

Gwyn looked back up at her, her jaw set determinedly. “Everyone who lives here has survived something.” She gestured around the library, at the quiet rustling of papers, of priestesses on various floors gliding from bookshelf to bookshelf, or whispering in soft voices. More than a few of them were peering at Elain, and she tried to smile kindly, to show that she respected them and their healing space. “And you don’t have to be a stranger, if you don’t want to be.”

Elain nodded in agreement, suddenly feeling like everything she wanted to say was crammed into her throat.

Gwyn went on, “But you’re right. Many of us don’t like to talk about our histories. Some of us don’t talk at all. This space is ours, to heal and grow in our own time, in our own ways.”

“That’s wonderful,” Elain said. “I’m sure Lucien didn’t know about this place, when he warned me about the Night Court. He was convinced it was all terrible and wicked.”

There was a rustling noise behind them, and Elain turned to find that another priestess was standing there, several books in her hands. No, not a priestess, she realized — the female’s robes were not pale blue, but a forest green, and no hood covered her long, glossy red hair, twisted into a simple braid at her back. Elain thought she might be a bit older, though all faeries looked young and beautiful to her, and this one was no exception. “Excuse me. Hello,” the female said quietly, in a low, melodious voice.

“Hello,” Elain said, inclining her head respectfully.

The female stepped forward a few paces, and her warm russet eyes met Elain’s gaze forthrightly. “Forgive me, I couldn’t help but overhear your conversation.”

“Quite all right, we were probably noisy,” Gwyn said cheerfully.

“Did you say you were from the Spring Court?” the older female asked Elain.

Elain nodded.

“And you know the faeries there.”

Elain flushed. “Only a little. I know the High Lord, and his emissary, and some of the sentries and maids and gardeners.”

“His emissary,” the female said, in a tone that Elain thought sounded wistful.

“Lucien,” Elain breathed, his name lingering in the air. She wondered if speaking his name might summon him, somehow, even from this great distance, even though Feyre’s High Lord had specifically forbidden him from coming here. The thought pained her, made her miss him even more than she had already.

But she forced herself to keep talking. “Do you know him?”

The female beamed, though she looked sad as well. “I do indeed. He is my son.”

Chapter Text

Leaves crunched underfoot as Lucien ran, crackling brown and dusty as he beat a path through the forest floor. He was being far too loud, not stealthy, not sneaky at all. His boots were leaving muddy footprints, the trees had torn strips of his jacket to flutter like flags pointing his way. The prowling beast crashing through these woods would surely find him, sooner or later. Probably sooner, if the scrabbling and roaring sounds ringing in his ears were any indication.

How long has it been? Two days and nights, or three, he couldn’t recall. It seemed years ago he’d eaten the last of the food swiped from the kitchen larder, another lifetime since he’d come across drinkable water. Even if I found some, I can’t risk stopping to drink it. 

His pants were ripped at the knees, his jacket hopelessly torn, and the forest blocked his way at every turn, whipping his shoulders with spindly branches, twisting his ankles in its roots, as though scolding him for being an ungrateful brat, for deserting, for betraying the only family he had.

They betrayed me first.

They always betrayed him first. And they were always shocked when he returned the favor.

They need me alive. It was almost a comforting thought.

Until he remembered what they needed him for.

Lucien’s legs ached, but the thought of it spurred them into a burst of speed. He would not go quietly, would not just surrender. But he could not risk using his fire here — he would burn this dry ruined husk of a forest to ashes.

Something’s badly wrong with Spring.

Even at the height of Amarantha’s power, when her stolen power ravaged the land and her creatures roamed freely, the forests had stayed green, always fresh and new. But the gardeners had noticed it first, and then the farmers had confirmed it. Letters from all over Spring had come pouring in, desperate, confused, frightened warnings, begging the High Lord’s assistance against this new blight that was everywhere. Fields were withering overnight, flowers drooping and rotting on the stalks, and one good rain would wash all the topsoil away, they warned, if the grasses failed to regrow.

Lucien was too exhausted, too worn out, to grapple with the implications. But he feared for the folk, for the land, for himself. But he couldn’t bring himself to fear for Tamlin, not just now, when —

A roar came spiraling through the trees, swaying the skeletal branches, rustling the few remaining leaves clinging stubbornly to their stalks, and Lucien winnowed into the canopy, snatching at the tree trunk before he could tumble, letting his palms sink into the sap oozing from it, not caring that its twigs and needles were pricking his skin.

An evergreen. He didn’t know such trees even grew in Spring.

Maybe they didn’t.

Lucien was hopeless with plants and trees, had tried and failed to make sense of the instructions in Willow’s journals, had ended up watering Elain’s prized herb patch with his tears instead of the hose. For he was sure it would all die without her, and she was gone, so far gone he could barely feel the bond anymore. It was as though a veil had dropped between them, some impenetrable magic, and he despaired at what it surely meant, that he was losing Elain forever. What little he could feel was sad, though calm, and he could only hope that she wasn’t suffering some secret horror, and that she wouldn’t feel it if he did.

Rustling in the undergrowth yanked his awareness back to his predicament, and he winnowed again, wincing as he slammed into another tree trunk, a birch this time, and he hugged it like he would his long-suffering mother, grateful for its still-green leaves that would hide his miserable aching body, give him a temporary reprieve.

Tamlin would find him. He was resigned to that. The High Lord was the consummate hunter, his senses and reflexes better than anyone’s. But Tamlin had not been himself since Feyre left, had lost his last vestiges of sanity and calm. He’d prowled as a beast day and night, had been utterly withdrawn, had left the manor and the court beyond for Lucien to manage badly, though his feeble efforts were better than having no High Lord at all.

Lucien had never wanted to rule, had never coveted a court of his own. It was why Eris never saw him as a threat, or so he’d thought.

Eris and Mother… his heart clenched. Perhaps they were safe, hidden already. Perhaps Lucien was  the only Vanserra on the run through a dying forest, after all.

He’d considered fleeing to Day, begging Helion to give him sanctuary, but had quickly dismissed the notion. He didn’t know Helion, not really, and couldn’t trust anyone who considered Rhys a friend. And Lucien couldn’t run interference, execute his plans, from Day Court territory. He had to keep Tamlin chasing him, steer him away from the Wall and the Summer Court border.

This had better work, or we’re all in danger.

In the distance, the drums were starting to pound, the dull thuds reverberating through the earth, gently rumbling against the trees. Lucien steeled himself against the magic, even as it pulsed through his blood, gripped at his bones. No. I won’t be part of it. I won’t let it pull me down.

Lucien feared for Bron and Hart and their journey, and for the acolytes who’d approached him in the garden as he wept over Elain’s herbs. He’d scattered them in opposite directions, sent them all into peril, and though they went willingly, he couldn’t bear more deaths on his conscience.

It should have been me, going to Summer. Should have been me, crossing the Wall. He knew he couldn’t do both, that it was all ridiculous. Yet here he was, trying to coordinate both plans while also dodging Tamlin’s claws.

At least the Suriel’s exact words to Feyre made sense now — even if Feyre’s interpretation of them had been wrong.

When the drums sound, expect the fox’s message from south of the Wall.

Feyre had taken it literally, but Lucien knew that prophecies didn’t work that way. They had twist and turns, dead ends and reversals, but always had a way of coming true in the end. It is my message, even if I’m not the one carrying it.

Tamlin’s roar shook the trees, momentarily drowning out the drumbeat, and Lucien winnowed again.

He slipped, clutching at the nearest tree, ignoring the splinters and rough scrapes on his elbows and thighs. He held on, breathing hard, shutting out the pounding of the drums, swallowing back the bile that rose to his throat when he thought about what they wanted him to do tonight. He wouldn’t give in, no matter what they did to him. He’d resisted all of Ianthe’s disgusting advances, shuddered off her icy fingers on his skin, ignored or sneered at her ridiculous come-ons.

I’m a mated male, he always protested.

Oh, I know, darling, but your mate’s not here. She doesn’t have to know, the bitch always replied.

The truth was, even if not for Elain, he would still find Ianthe despicable, phony, rotten inside. How anyone looked at her and thought of pleasure was quite beyond him. How Tamlin could trust her, he would never understand.

Lucien,” Tamlin bellowed, far too close, his voice gravelly and low and furious.

Lucien looked around wildly, seeking his next hiding place, but he was in a thinner, more exposed part of the woods, where the leaves had all fallen or died on the branch. He’d known all along it would come to this, had known he’d likely be caught too soon, that he wouldn’t be escaping the Rite. But he would fight for every breath of free air, for every inch of ground. He would make Tamlin wrestle him, go down in a fury of teeth and claws.

I could never look Elain in the eyes again if I just surrendered.

But of course there was no escape. There never was. Lucien had always been destined to be trapped somewhere — whether in Autumn, under Beron’s boot, or in Amarantha’s chains Under the Mountain, or here in Tamlin and Ianthe’s clutches.

“Come out, old friend,” Tamlin shouted, in the voice of the beast-lord, too furious to be tempting.

I could have fled to Summer. Cresseida would have hidden me.

But he couldn’t bring war to Cresseida’s doorstep, not after she’d worked so hard to defend Adriata all those years. And if the message he received was any indication, Cresseida was about to have problems of her own. I just hope the acolytes get to her in time.

He’d been startled as hell to be approached by the three young priestesses, barely more than younglings, hurrying toward him in the garden. We bear a message, passed down to us from our sisters in Autumn, who heard it from Winter, who heard it from Night, Day and Dawn.

Lucien had looked into each of their faces, bright and youthful and innocent, and detected no guile or deception in them, no sign they’d yet been corrupted by Ianthe’s influence. And it seemed that they had hastened directly to him, not stopping to consult their High Priestess. So he’d beckoned them to the stone bench where he’d once found Elain curled up sleeping, and listened.

He could barely make sense of the message itself, which seemed to have started as a simple rhyme about cold Night and green Spring, but had been embellished and tacked onto awkwardly with each listener. His heart leaped when he thought of cold Night, for it could only be Elain who would seek to contact him this way, and his soul was soothed to hear any words that had passed her lips, however tangled up with the words of messengers and priestesses.

But when he thought of the rest of the rhyme, of Summer mourning its lost book, he knew he’d been right to take Rhys at his word. He would steal the Book of Breathings, hoard it for who knew what purpose, perhaps seek to spearhead the war effort for some scheme of his own. Helion might be right, and Rhys might be trustworthy, after a fashion — or the last fifty years had shown exactly who Rhys really was. He must have forbidden Elain from writing to me. That proved he couldn’t be trusted.

Lucien had planned to visit Tarquin and Cresseida himself, fondly reminisce with the Princess of Adriata about the time Varian had tossed him in the ocean, or the night they’d all snuck out of the palace during a party to fish off the pier, then discuss the Book logically, friend to friend, and he would offer assurances of a navy in exchange for it.

But Lucien could not go to Summer, not with the drums of Calanmai thundering in his heart, or the fury of the High Lord of Spring roaring in his ears. He’d asked the acolytes if they would go, or ask their friends. Perhaps Alis, who was from Summer to begin with. Anyone who could sneak away. Anyone who wouldn’t be missed.

Lucien could feel Tamlin’s hot panting breaths, the talons ripping at the ground, stirring the leaves. He winnowed again — but no. He hadn’t moved this time. His magic was depleted. Three days of constant running and winnowing will do that, he supposed.

He climbed down from the tree, scuffed, filthy, desperate, wanting to control his descent, instead of being yanked from the branches like an overripe fruit and splattered just as hard.

No sooner had his boots scuffed the leaves than Tamlin was on him, wrestling him to the ground. Lucien squeezed his eyes shut as he sprawled into the leaves, not getting even one kick or punch before the beast’s paws were on him, claws raking down his shoulder blades, the beast-lord’s snarling voice warning him Don’t move, don’t you dare.

That’s the trouble — I always dare.

The air heated, shimmering with golden light, and then it was the Tamlin he knew digging a knee into his back, the familiar hands of the faerie warrior gripping his wrists. Tamlin was just as lethal in this form as in the other, but Lucien twisted anyway, struggling, knowing he should reserve some strength, but finding that he didn’t care.

I’d rather die here than face what’s in that cave.

Then Tamlin’s magic fizzed around him, locking his muscles, snatching even his voice, everything except his mechanical eye going still and frozen, yielding to a High Lord’s will. “You were a fool if you thought this would work,” Tamlin snarled.

Lucien couldn’t respond as he was hoisted unceremoniously off the ground, flung over Tamlin’s broad shoulder like a sack of flour. He couldn’t so much as flick a finger as Tamlin winnowed, materializing on a familiar field, oddly deserted despite the drums and the magic suffusing the air.

Tamlin flung him on the ground, and Lucien lay there, taking breaths, waiting for the clank of chains, or the blow that would knock him out entirely.

“It has to be this way,” Tamlin told him, his green eyes sparkling with regret. “Ianthe said —“

“Don’t speak her name,” Lucien growled, relieved to find he could speak again. “I won’t touch her. I won’t let the magic enter me at all.”

“You’re not going to have a choice,” Tamlin murmured, crouching down next to him. “Don’t you want the land to thrive? To prosper and be strong?”

“Don’t you? I’m not the High Lord, this isn’t my place, it’s yours” Lucien insisted, but he knew it was pointless. They’d had this exact argument over days at the manor, right up until the moment the acolytes had left for Summer, and Bron and Hart departed for the Wall.

But Tamlin sighed, shifting to sit down next to Lucien. “Surely you’ve felt it.”

“Felt what?” Lucien asked.

“The magic has left me,” Tamlin admitted, his voice a rough, sorrowful whisper. “It’s gone.”

Lucien’s mechanical eye whirred and clicked, zooming in on Tamlin’s pinched, worried expression. “Gone? Like when she stole it?” After all that happened, Tamlin still could not bear the sound of Amarantha’s name.

“No,” Tamlin sighed, raking a taloned hand through his hair. “Not stolen. I have the magic I’ve always had, enough to shape-shift, to glamour, to hold.” He gave Lucien an apologetic look, though he did not bring himself to actually apologize, or release his grip on Lucien’s exhausted muscles. “But my connection to the land is broken. You must have seen it.”

Lucien had. He’d seen the bare trees, the rotting leaves, had heard all about how Spring was dying. “But — why?”

“Grief, I think,” Tamlin said sadly. “I felt the breaking as soon as I returned from Dawn, without — her —“ and he broke off, a sob choking off his words. He swallowed hard, then glared at Lucien. “You must make it right.”

“I can’t,” Lucien said hoarsely. “I’m not powerful enough.”

“You are. You’re a High Lord’s son. Helion’s heir, if not heir to Autumn,” Tamlin declared. “You will replenish the magic, and Spring will be restored.”

Lucien thrashed against Tamlin’s magic — just Tamlin’s magic, not all Spring’s — but he’d winnowed too many times, had slept too little, and he couldn’t manage to break free. “No, Tam,” he croaked. “You’ve got to do it, not me.”

Tamlin’s brows furrowed. “But Ianthe said —“

“I don’t care what Ianthe said,” Lucien hissed. Of course she would find a way to spin this to her advantage. “You won’t save anything by forcing me to — do that — with her.” He couldn’t even bring himself to utter the words. “Find someone else. Someone willing.”

Tamlin wavered, his eyes flicking nervously around the cave. But then he drew himself up. “I’m sorry, old friend.”

They always betray me first.

Lucien glared up at him, his muscles aching and burning as he fought the bonds of Tamlin’s magic. “I won’t do it.”

Tamlin’s face was stony, ice-cold. “You will.”

His magic sizzled, burning on Lucien’s tongue, and the world went dark.

Chapter Text

“Oh dear!” Elain giggled, reaching for the pot of tea, refilling her own cup and then offering it to Áine, who waved a delicate pale hand, gently declining. “I’m sure Eris was furious.”

“He was. It took three hours to round up all the puppies. Some of them had got as far as the next estate,” Áine chuckled, her lips curling up in amusement. “He was cross with Lucien for weeks afterwards.”

Elain blew gently on the steaming hot tea. “Was Lucien punished?”

Áine’s beautiful face paled, making her freckles stand out. “When Beron found out… yes.” Her hands fluttered into her lap, and Elain sensed that she should not pry further, that it was best not to ask. But her heart squeezed for Lucien, for his lovely mother, for everyone caught in the grip of that awful High Lord.

How lucky I was with my own father, she thought, recalling Papa’s gentle manner, his stories around the fireplace, how he worshipped their mother and could deny them nothing in his power to give. They’d had hard years, when poor Papa’s knees and heart were shattered, when his mind was clouded with illness or grief, and he could barely remember that he needed a cane when he walked.

Elain’s papa been healed, cured of his ailments in mind and body, but there was surely no cure for what ailed Beron Vanserra. His illness was in his very soul, in choosing over and over again to be wicked and cruel, until whatever heart remained in his chest withered into evil.

“But let us talk of happier things. This is a place of healing, after all,” Áine was saying, gesturing around them to the grand library. “Did you find what you were seeking?”

“Oh yes! Gwyn helped me,” Elain said eagerly. “There’s a whole section here about healing plants and plant magic, more than I could read in a lifetime. She said I should come up with specific questions, and she can help me research, but I confess I don’t even know what to ask, not being magical myself —“

Áine began to laugh softly.

“What?” Elain asked, a startled smile springing to her lips.

Áine said, “Not magical? Are you certain?” When Elain just gaped at her, not understanding the joke, the older female nudged the vase of roses on the table towards her. “You brought this to the Library two days ago, and it was barely one bud swimming in water.”

Elain looked. The one bud had become many, each blooming into a delightful red and pink curved blossom, long-stemmed and fragrant, dripping with petals. “Well, it’s Prythian,” she said sensibly. “All plants here are magical, aren’t they?”

Áine raised a reddish eyebrow. “I’m no master gardener, but I’ve never seen a flower do that before, not even the few times I visited Spring in my youth. Have you ever noticed that plants grow quickly when you’re around them?”

Elain scrunched her nose, trying to think. “One time I fell asleep in the garden, and Lucien couldn’t find me for hours. The vines had grown over me while I slept. I just assumed they were fast growing.” Her eyes widened, her heart started to pound, as she considered the implications. “Are you suggesting I did that somehow?”

“Why not? Some humans have magic, you know. Many libraries were destroyed back in the old days, to prevent humans from getting their hands on the magic knowledge within them,” Áine said. “You could research it, in any case.” She leaned forward and grasped Elain’s hand, her skin smooth and warm against Elain’s. “The Cauldron matched you with my son, a High Lord’s heir. I would be surprised if you weren’t powerful in your own right.”

Elain flushed pleasantly, considering this. Her conversations with Lucien’s mother and Gwyn over the past few days had been illuminating, in many ways, but she had been startled to learn that the Cauldron, that supposedly wicked magical relic that would be used against them in war, wove magic between souls, made them mates.

Elain had been shocked to find herself discussing such personal topics with two faeries she’d only just met, but the young priestess was so friendly, so accepting, and Lucien’s mother was warm and caring, and she found herself spilling all sorts of personal details that she’d never have told the Miss Carlisles, or even Feyre and Nesta.

“Is there magic that can make you feel someone else’s feelings?” she’d asked them on one such occasion, feeling a bit silly. It sounded so ludicrous, so farfetched, that she’d expected both Áine and Gwyn to gently chuckle at her human silliness.

But they’d only regarded her with curiosity, and understanding. “Where do you feel it?” Áine had asked, her own hand sliding towards her ribs, pressing on her soft blue velvet dress.

“Just there. Where your hand is,” Elain had answered, moving her own hand to the spot, closing her eyes and concentrating. Lucien felt so far away, so distant, like a wall had slammed down between them, and she was only getting faint echoes of his presence now. It was one reason she could never love Velaris, despite its bustling activity, its sparkling beauty.

“Do you think?” Gwyn had asked Áine, her excitement bubbling.

“Does he feel you?” Áine had asked, quickly adding, “If you don’t want to answer —“

“Oh, it’s all right,” Elain had said. “Yes, I’m sure he does. That’s what he said to me, just before we parted. If they frighten you, if they hurt you, I’ll feel it, too.”

“Then you are,” Gwyn had crowed. “I knew it.”

“Are what?” Elain had asked.

“Mates, of course,” Gwyn had cried, clapping her hands excitedly. “How lovely!” She’d looked at Elain curiously, seeing the confusion that must have been plain on her face. “Mating bonds are so rare, you know. Every faerie wants one.”

Áine came to the rescue. “A mating bond connects two souls, my dear.” A cloud of sadness seemed to settle over her, but she had quickly shaken it off. “We faeries believe that the Cauldron creates the magical connection. It’s very sacred.”

“And romantic,” Gwyn had added, winking at Elain.

“Like… getting married?” Elain had asked, and flushed a bright pink. This is Lucien’s mother you’re asking.

“Much stronger than that,” Áine had said, her eyes suddenly blazing.

Fate and magic brought them together. That was what Lucien had said about Feyre and her High Lord of the Night Court. But if he and Elain were mates, too… He must have known.

The revelation had been profoundly comforting. Feyre had been separated from her mate, for a time, but had found her way to him, even though she was already married to someone else. And Elain supposed she was the same — her marriage to Graysen had been doomed from the start, if she was destined to be Lucien’s mate. 

Elain sipped her tea, regarding Áine in comfortable silence. She had come to the Library to escape her own doomed marriage, had survived so much hardship and pain over so many centuries. Elain blurted, “How did you find the strength?”

“Hmm?” Áine asked, looking up from the book she’d been browsing.

“Surviving all that time. All that awfulness,” Elain said. “What kept you going?”

“My children,” Áine said, patting her belly, as if remembering how it felt to bear her babies inside it. “When you’re a parent, your life is not just your own. Your children are pieces of your heart, set loose in the world. And,” she added quietly, her hand sliding up to her ribs, “I have a mating bond too. I could not accept it as I would have liked. But we saw each other when we could. Even a short time with him made the rest of it bearable.”

“Helion,” Elain said quietly.

“You’ve met him?” Áine asked.

“He was at the summit,” Elain said.

“Ah, of course.” Áine looked worried. “It was meant to stay a secret, our mating bond. And Lucien’s parentage.” She shook her head. “My poor Eris. I fear he’ll get the brunt of it.”

Elain had rather thought Eris to be unpleasant and rude, but thought it would be impolite to say so. But Áine smiled ruefully at her. “Eris is forced to walk a difficult path, being his father’s heir. He gives a certain impression, I know. He may even believe it himself. But as his mother, I know differently.”

Elain wondered whether her own mother knew so much about her, about Feyre and Nesta. She was about to ask another question, about Eris and Lucien as children, when she felt a violent, awful squeezing in her ribs.

Lucien. He’s in pain, he’s in danger —

“My dear, are you all right?” Áine burst out, alarmed at Elain’s yelp of pain.

“Something’s happened,” Elain gasped, jolting up from the table. “I must go find my sister.” She squeezed Áine’s hands. “I’ll send word when I can.”

And she turned and fled from the Library, racing back up the stairs, panting, sweating, determined to find Feyre immediately.

* * * *

A high-pitched yelp, and then a thump, jolted Lucien to sudden alertness. He blinked rapidly, remembering only bits and pieces of the past few days — there had been a chase, and a scuffle, and then Tamlin had brought him to the cave —

The cave. It’s Calanmai. Gods, I’ve got to get out of here.

He tried to scramble up from the floor, then cursed when shackles bit into his wrists, stymying his attempt. He yanked experimentally, wincing at the bite of the hard stone against his skin, a prickling, unpleasant chill spreading up his arms. He’d gotten himself out of shackles before, but these were not iron, or any metal at all, and when he reached for his fire, he felt only an unnatural emptiness.

Shit. They’re suppressing my powers.

He blinked rapidly, trying to clear the haze of Tamlin’s sleeping magic, trying to get a sense of what time it was, or where the noise was coming from, but then there were footsteps, heavy, solid, several sets of boots on the cave floor, and Lucien slumped, lying still again, determined to resist any way he could. They needed his active participation to complete the Rite, after all.

I’d rather be slaughtered.

The drums were still pounding, heating his blood, but he felt none of the usual excitement or desire, only a cold, awful dread. Tamlin had dragged him here, had shackled him, just like those silly humans had once done. At least they thought they were defending themselves. He’s got no excuse for this, none at all.

The steps got closer, thundering close to him, then circling around behind him, as though checking the cave for occupants, then approached him again, stopping so close that Lucien twitched, worried he’d be trod upon. He almost demanded to know what was going on, for it was clear that this was not Tamlin or Ianthe, that these were intruders. But he thought better of it, deciding that it wasn’t worth the risk.

Maybe they’re here to kill Tamlin, and will leave me alone. It was a comforting thought, and that bothered him, felt disloyal.

They always betray me first.

An unfamiliar male voice, cold as death, cut through the warm night air. “It’s clear.”

“Fuck, he looks terrible,” a second male voice drawled. “She’s not going to be happy.”

If they mean Ianthe — Lucien struggled, swinging his legs around, realizing that he wouldn’t get far, shackled and depleted of magic, but he had to do something. I won’t let her touch me, I can’t, I can’t.

A firm, broad hand weighed down upon the back of his head, and another pressed his shoulder, pinning him back down. A moment later, a soft black piece of fabric was pulled over his eyes, and he considered crying out, but then a third voice, a female, was in front of him, hissing, “Don’t say a word.”

Lucien went silent and still. That’s not Ianthe.

Despite the implied threat, he couldn’t help but feel relieved. He had no idea who these intruders were, or what they wanted with him, but he decided he didn’t care. Anything was better than submitting to Ianthe’s disgusting touches.

Strong hands were pulling at him, yanking him onto unsteady feet. He was clumsy and slow, still groggy from Tamlin’s magic, exhausted from lack of sleep and meals, depleted of strength, and he stumbled, wincing under the blindfold as he was grabbed roughly and hoisted upwards, a strong arm supporting his back and another banded under his knees.

“If Tamlin sees us,” the first male voice said, “there’s going to be trouble.”

“Then let’s get the fuck out of here,” the second male grunted, shifting Lucien higher.

Lucien felt the air shift and whirl around him. I’m being winnowed.

“Please —“ he rasped.

“Don’t,” the first voice said. Cold, flat. “Save it for when we get there.”

“Where,” Lucien wondered aloud, but they were already winnowing him again. And then again. He clenched his jaw, willed himself to go still, knowing full well that wrenching away wouldn’t be wise, not when he was shackled and helpless, with no control over where he might land or who might discover his useless carcass afterward.

“Where are we taking him?” asked the male carrying Lucien. “Dungeon?”

“She’ll lose it,” the female said worriedly.

“But Rhys —“ the first male protested.

Rhys. By the fucking Cauldron, they’re from the Night Court.

Lucien’s mind raced. Did they discover the plot to warn Cresseida and Tarquin? Or did Feyre get my message, after all? Were they trying to rescue him, or kill him? Where was Elain?

If they’re taking me to the dungeon —

Lucien began to thrash, and his captor tightened his grip, swearing low and vicious. “Can’t you put him to sleep or something?”

“Stop that,” the female snapped at Lucien, tugging the blindfold down from his eyes. Lucien blinked, his mechanical eye zooming frantically, taking in the unfamiliar face of a blond female, glaring at him with an impatient expression. “Hold still. Look at me.”

Lucien obeyed, and she said sternly, “Better.”

“Please,” Lucien whispered, sensing that this was his one chance to talk to them. “Elain.”

“We can’t risk it,” the first male said warningly. “Rhys would be furious.”

The female blinked, as if considering, and Lucien plowed ahead. “I don’t care what you do with me. Just, is Elain all right? Just tell me that.”

“I don’t know,” the male holding him said. “He seems harmless enough.” Lucien risked glancing up, getting his first look at the broad, brutal warrior, and was suddenly glad he hadn’t struggled harder. The male looked like he could crush Lucien with his bare hands.

“He is not harmless,” seethed the other male. Lucien didn’t risk turning to look at him, but he sounded colder, harder, like Death’s messenger.

The female asked, “What are your intentions towards Elain?”

Lucien’s heart squeezed. “She’s my mate.”

They were all silent for a moment, and then the female nodded. “I sense no deception,” she said to her companions, then turned her unflinching gaze back to Lucien. “You cooperate, cause no trouble, and you’ll get to see your mate. One wrong move, and we toss you into a cell in the Hewn City.”

Lucien nodded, sensing an opportunity when he saw one. “I don’t want trouble. I have no quarrel with you.” Just your High Lord. Where was Rhys, anyway?

“This is dangerous,” the cold male insisted. In the corner of Lucien’s eye, there was a flash of blue light.

But the female shook her head at him. “He was Feyre’s friend. And he won’t risk anything, not if his mate is with us.”

“But she’s in — that place,” came the reply, that blue light glowing again.

What place? Lucien didn’t dare ask, not when they were debating what to do with him. Don’t be combative. Play docile, innocent. He wouldn’t repeat the mistakes he’d made with the humans.

“Just put the blindfold back on him, then, and let’s get the fuck out of here. It’s freezing,” grumbled the warrior.

Lucien did not struggle, did not so much as blink his eyes, as the blindfold was lowered over his face again, as the air around him shook as he was winnowed again. He didn’t care where he was going, as long as Elain was there.

Chapter Text

The door banged open, and Elain scrambled out of bed. Please be them.

It wasn’t her usual bed in the townhouse, but a guest bedroom in the House of Wind. Not that it mattered. She’d found it impossible to sleep, had gotten no rest. Her body was an itching, restless thing, unable to get comfortable in the sheets, her stomach twisted into knots, her ribs empty and aching from where she should have felt Lucien — the mating bond, that’s what it was, how she’d been able to sense Lucien’s feelings all this time. So why couldn’t she feel him now?

Something’s happened, something terrible. If they didn’t make it in time —

She’d raced back up to the House from the Library to find that Feyre was gone, along with Rhys and the silver-eyed one, Amren, gone to the Summer Court, to steal that relic, she was certain. They hadn’t told her about the mission, knowing how she’d feel about it, though as far as they knew, she was tucked away here in Velaris with no way to contact Lucien. Little do they know.

She desperately hoped that her message hadn’t gotten him into trouble, that he hadn’t gone running off to Summer and fought with her sister’s frightening, powerful High Lord. She’d thought he was too smart for that, but if they’d captured him, if he was hurt —

So she’d panicked, screaming and racing from room to empty room until the spymaster had found her, and she’d thrown herself down weeping, in a heap on the floor.

“Elain!” Azriel had exclaimed, leaning down to gently lift her, tentatively sliding his hands around her waist and back, setting her down onto a plush couch. “What’s the matter?” His shadows were swirling around him, though they kept well back from her. “If you tell me, we can help you.”

“Oh, I don’t think anyone can,” she’d sobbed, though she’d already decided that they could help her, and would be helping her. So she’d sobbed harder, making sure to display exactly how frightened and upset she was. Though her feelings were genuine, she also needed to convince them of the urgency of the situation. “Something terrible has happened, and I’m trapped here, and I can’t do anything about it. I need my sister.”

Several of the shadows skittered away from Azriel and out of the room — calling for backup, she guessed — but Azriel stayed focused on her, hovering near the couch, not quite touching her or sitting down next to her, but peering at her with quiet concern. “Feyre is visiting another Court, and it may take some time for her to get back. But if you would allow us, we could help, too.”

“Do you think so?” Elain had peered up at him, swiping at her tears, allowing herself to look a bit hopeful. “I don’t want to cause trouble.”

“It would be no trouble. You are our guest. We are meant to be looking out for you,” Azriel had said gallantly. “We don’t want you to feel that you’re trapped here.”

“That’s so kind, you’ve all taken such good care of me.” She hadn’t been lying or exaggerating about that — everyone really had been making an effort to make her comfortable, put her at ease. She was the sister of their beloved Feyre, whom they all seemed to admire and treat as an equal, for she was the High Lord’s mate, and they admired how Feyre had fought Under the Mountain. The fact that Elain was mortal, and couldn’t fight or use magical powers, made them wary, so they’d made sure she was safe, taking her around the city with an escort or to the House of Wind to relax while Feyre trained her fighting skills.

They had no idea what Elain was really doing, of course — sneaking down the stairs to the Library every day, engaging in training of a different sort, learning about plants and healing and nature magic, and spending her days with the young priestess and Lucien’s mother. And now was not the time to tell them, not when she needed them to trust her.

So she’d told the spymaster that she had a mate at the Spring Court, that she could feel he was in danger, and she simply had to get back there, had to go now, before it was too late. Azriel had been kind, but apologetic, saying that they couldn’t possibly bring her to Spring, that it was so far away, that their two courts were enemies, that any incursion by the Night Court would be seen as an act of war.

So Elain had gotten angry. “Spring is my home, and Lucien is my mate,” she’d shouted. “Stealing me from him is an act of war, as well!”

Azriel had just blinked, his brutal face unchanging. If he reacted, felt any emotions, he kept them well hidden. “You chose to come here with your sister.”

“And now I’m choosing to leave!” Elain had insisted. “Unless you plan to keep me a prisoner?”

At that moment, Mor and Cassian had arrived — the rest of the Inner Circle that hadn’t left for Summer. “No one is a prisoner. You are welcome to go wherever you wish,” Mor had announced, glaring at the two males who looked ready to argue with her. But when she’d looked at Elain, her beautiful face was open, kind. “But if you sense danger in Spring, it may not be wise for you to return.”

“I have to go,” Elain had said stubbornly. “I have to help him.”

“Rhys will kill us,” Cassian had murmured. “If Feyre doesn’t.”

“If Lucien dies —“ Elain couldn’t finish the sentence. The prospect of it was so awful that her eyes had filled with tears.

Mor had looked at the two warriors. Calculating. Contemplating. “I can’t try to contact Rhys now, it’ll ruin their mission.” A nervous glance at Elain, who wasn’t supposed to know what that mission was, though she’d already guessed. “And they didn’t say how long it would take.”

“Then I’m going now,” Elain had announced. “Even if I have to walk all the way.” And she’d stood up on shaky legs from the couch, as if she intended to start taking steps.

“Mor,” Cassian had said warningly. “We can’t let her do that.”

“Do you have a better idea?” Mor had hissed back.

Elain put on her most stern, determined expression. “Either you go and get him, or I will!”

Please work. Please work.

And it had. The three warriors had exchanged glances, engaging in some silent argument, and then they’d departed, promising Elain to let her know as soon as they returned.

So Elain dashed from the guest bedroom, flinging the door open so hard that it banged against the wall, and ran down the corridor as fast as her weak mortal legs could carry her. Mor was striding purposefully from window to window, waving a hand to draw the shades and block out the city view, while Azriel inspected the ceiling and walls, and Cassian —

Elain cried out, and ran toward him.

For that was Lucien in Cassian’s arms, filthy and bloodied and blindfolded, and lying far too still, and she still couldn’t feel anything from him, even though he was right there. No, he can’t be gone, not when they’ve rescued him, not when he’s here.

Cassian carefully lowered Lucien to the floor, and Elain pounced, shrieking his name, throwing her arms around him, weeping with relief to find that he was moving and breathing. Alive. He felt solid and real in her arms, though he was shaking and cold, far colder than she’d ever felt him before, and she still couldn’t feel him through the mating bond. “What’s happened to you?” she gasped.

“I’m all right,” Lucien panted, though he clearly wasn’t.

She pulled back, frowning, tugging at the blindfold, surprised when Cassian’s hands shot out to stop her. “Don’t do that yet,” he said, kindly but stern. “We have to secure the room.”

Elain protested, “Why?”

“Don’t,” Lucien murmured, leaning his head forward onto her shoulder. Poor thing, he’s exhausted. “I promised them I wouldn’t be trouble.”

“I didn’t,” Elain snapped, but cradled his head in her hands, stroking his tangled hair. She would be as much trouble as she needed to be, and then some, if these faeries thought they could have it all their own way, if they were happy to leave Lucien blindfolded lying on the floor.

Then she saw the claw marks raking down his back, and the strange stone shackles clamped around his wrists, and a fury rose up in her that made her vision go red. “Who did this to you?”

If these faeries hurt him, when I sent them to help —

Lucien sighed, hesitating, as if reluctant to tell her. “It was Tamlin.”

“I’ll kill him,” Elain snarled, shocking herself, but she meant it. She would grow claws and rip him to shreds. No one hurts my mate.

Even with the blindfold on, she could see the pain on Lucien’s face. “He was misled,” he said, as if that excused it. After how faithfully Lucien served him, after all Lucien’s done for him, this is how Tamlin repays him?

“I don’t care,” Elain said. “It was wrong when my husband did it, and he thought you were dangerous.”

She shifted Lucien carefully, supporting his shoulder and torso, easing him down so that he could lay on his side, his head in her lap. She tugged at the shackles, wincing at how heavy and stubborn they felt in her hands, and she demanded, “Help me get these off him. Now.

Cassian drew forward, as if he would obey, but Azriel objected, “Don’t. We need to get Rhys’s approval.”

“Is he a prisoner?” Elain barked at them.

“Not exactly —“ Mor hedged.

“Then take these off,” Elain said firmly.

Cassian crouched next to her, reaching out to touch the strange glowing blue stone shackles. “Shit. Mor! These are Hybern’s,” he called out, recoiling his hand. “I’d know that stone anywhere. How did Tamlin even get these?”

“I’ll tell you everything,” Lucien said, his voice pained. “Need to — heal first.”

Mor was in front of him, examining the shackles as well. “You’re right, Cass. They’re suppressing his power, including healing. We’ve got to take them off.” Then a look passed between them, and they both glanced at Azriel, who had his arms folded, as close to looking openly angry as Elain had ever seen. Mor stood up and walked to him, put a tentative hand on his arm. “Az, we can’t leave him like that.”

“We don’t know why they locked him up. He could be dangerous,” Azriel pointed out.

“For the Rite. Calanmai,” Lucien said, his voice wobbling.

Calanmai. Elain struggled to remember what that was, then decided she didn’t care. She tugged the cloth binding Lucien’s eyes, sighing with relief when both of his eyes met hers, the golden one unfurling and opening wide. “There you are,” she whispered, stroking his cheek, letting her fingers trace down his scars. He’s survived worse than this. He’ll be all right.

“Are you telling me,” Mor thundered, “they were going to make you —“ She broke off, fists clenching, then strode back to Lucien and started yanking at the shackles. “Don’t say it, Az, your objection is noted. I’ll deal with Rhys when he returns,” she threw out over her shoulder, not needing to turn around to see that Azriel had moved forward, one hand on a weapon sheathed at his thigh.

The shackles opened with a crack, and Elain stifled her gasp as Lucien’s skin warmed, as he began to glow softly golden, as his arms reached for her, but it was his love and relief pouring through the bond that forcefully struck her, as if a great floodgate had opened, letting the connection flow between them. Lucien shuddered, as though he were feeling the same thing, and he grabbed her waist, curling himself around her, though he stayed draped on the floor, as though he were exhausted from the effort. “Thank you,” he said quietly, looking up at Mor.

Mor looked at him for a long moment. “Thought you’d look more like Eris.”

“We’re half brothers,” Lucien said, breathing more deeply, his healing kicking in now that the shackles were off. “My father’s not Beron.”

“Thank fuck for that,” Cassian said. He studied Lucien for a moment, then grinned. “So you’re a bastard too, eh?”

“And proud of it,” Lucien said, lifting his head enough to grin back.

But Elain winced again to see all the bruises and scratches on him, even though they were already starting to fade. She pulled carefully at his shredded shirt, soaked through with blood.“He needs a healer.”

Azriel nodded briskly and turned for the door. “The wards are secure,” he said, then disappeared.

“You’ll have to forgive him, he’s cautious,” Mor said.

Lucien waved his hand weakly. “It’s all right. Your High Lord and I have a history. I’m affiliated with an enemy court, or I was until moments ago. I’d be cautious of me too.”

Elain set her lips in a tight line. “Lucien has just as much right to be cautious of all of you.”

Cassian laughed. “You’re not wrong about that.” He tugged a chair from somewhere and plopped down, folding his arms. “Because one wrong move, and your ass is in a cell, and Azriel will take pleasure in carving all your secrets out of you.”

Cass,” Mor warned.

“Just laying it out there,” Cassian shrugged.

“Appreciate the honesty,” Lucien grumbled. His fingers clutched at Elain, and she pulled him closer, savoring the opportunity to finally touch him again. “Hope they didn’t talk to you like this.”

“Not at all,” Elain assured him. “They were nothing but kind. A little overprotective. I was only left unsupervised for a few hours each morning.” Then she leaned down, brushing stray locks of hair away from his exquisite pointed ears, and murmured, “But I managed. I’ll tell you all about it later.”

“And they think I’m the sneaky one,” Lucien said, turning his face up to her, giving her a tired smile that still managed to look radiant. So beautiful, even when he’s injured.

Mor cleared her throat, and Lucien shifted to look at her, groaning softly with the effort. “Az is bringing a healer. After she leaves, we’re going to give you a room to stay in until Rhys gets back.” Her gaze shifted to Elain. “We’re not going to talk about anything related to Night Court territory.”

No mentioning Velaris, she didn’t have to say.

Elain nodded. She wouldn’t jeopardize Lucien’s safety that way.

She hated that Lucien was being treated with such suspicion, but figured it would have been the same if one of these Night Court faeries had come to stay at Tamlin’s manor.

Tamlin. She felt murderous when she thought about him. She’d thought him to be kind enough, if easily angered. He was awkward and stilted, but clearly loved her sister, and had seemed to rely on Lucien for everything. What could have possessed him to treat his friend and emissary so miserably?

“I’m going to stay here too,” she announced, and was relieved when neither Mor nor Cassian objected. Not that she was going to take no for an answer.

And tomorrow, I can show Lucien the Library, and he can see his mother —

Her thoughts were interrupted by the door banging open again. But it was not Azriel or the healer.

“Little fox,” Rhys drawled, stepping forward so that he towered over them. “Just the person I wanted to talk to.”

Feyre appeared beside him, looking furious.

“Feyre! You’re all right,” Lucien said.

“No, I’m not,” she spat. “You ruined our mission to Summer.”

Chapter Text

Lucien tried to get up to his feet, to put himself between Elain and the angry faeries glaring down at him, but Rhys lifted a finger, and he froze in place, held down with the force of Rhys’s dark power. Damn these High Lords and their heavy-handed magic.

“You knew,” Feyre said accusingly. “You knew we’d be there, and you warned them.” She was bedraggled and wet, with bits of seaweed in her disheveled hair, like she’d wrestled with a vengeful mermaid. Lucien could only stare at her, awed all over again at the power radiating from her. Rhys’s mate, the consort of a High Lord. Of course she’s powerful as hell.

To his dismay, Elain scrambled up to stand, blocking him with her body, staring down Rhys and Feyre like they were disobedient younglings and not two of the most dangerous faeries in Prythian. “Don’t yell at him. He’s injured.”

“You think he’s injured now?” Cassian snorted, at the same time that Rhys said coldly, “I’m going to do a lot more than yell at him.”

“You might not want to be here for this, Elain,” Feyre said, almost kindly.

Elain stood firm. “You will not hurt him.

Lucien looked on in horror, desperately clawing against Rhys’s darkness, trying to marshal his own power to break free, at least long enough to get Elain out of danger. He’d known he was taking a risk on his own behalf, had known he’d provoke Rhys’s ire, but if Elain got hurt because of his actions — “Don’t. Please,” he begged, his voice coming out weak and shredded. It hurt to force his vocal cords to work, but he focused all of his magic there, wrestling back control long enough to get words out. “Elain. I couldn’t bear it if they harmed you.”

“She will not be harmed,” Rhys snarled, his composure fraying. “You, on the other hand —“

Do not threaten my mate,” Elain snapped, her voice harsh. Commanding.

Her voice vibrated through Lucien, tugging at him, thrilling and terrifying him all at once, and a quick glance around the room with his mechanical eye, which even Rhys’s power could not hold still, told him that it was having a similar effect on the others. They were all gaping at Elain, at the sweet, lovely human with a voice that could strike like a spring thunderstorm. When did that happen? Lucien was flabbergasted, and awed by it.

Feyre recovered first. “Your what?” she blurted.

That was when Elain’s words sunk in. My mate. My mate.

A ferocious, jealous happiness thrilled through Lucien, cutting through his haze of panic and exhaustion. He no longer cared about what Tamlin had done to him, what Rhys might do, or any of it. My mate, my brave beautiful mate, she knows, she’s defending me, his heart sang to him. Even though he wished she was nowhere near this situation, that he’d never brought her to Prythian, he couldn’t help but admire her for it.

The blond female, who’d somehow known his brother well enough to compare their appearances, stepped forward. “It’s true, Rhys. Both of them told me separately, and they’re both being honest.”

“For a change,” Rhys murmured, but his expression had gone contemplative, calculating, the raw fury abating from him. Lucien didn’t relax one fraction, for Rhys was even more dangerous this way. He was probably cooking up some cunning plot, some way to spin this to his advantage. Rhys turned to Feyre. “You didn’t know, did you.”

“I didn’t,” Feyre admitted, her steely eyes softening as she looked at her sister. “But it makes sense, actually. How he happened to find his way to your manor, inspired you to leave your husband. I thought you were unusually attached to him.”

Rhys’s grip on Lucien’s muscles eased, and he stumbled up to his feet, staggering towards Elain, drawing his arms around her and pulling her back. No way was he going to let her block him with her own body, take blows that were meant for him. She had no idea what Rhys really was, what horrors he could unleash with his power. “Elain, please,” he said into her ear, for she wouldn’t budge from staring down Rhys for a moment. “All I wanted was to see you again. Make sure you were all right. They can do what they want to me, as long as you’re safe —“

“And what about me?” Elain retorted, finally turning towards him. Lucien’s knees wobbled as he took in her fierce expression, her lovely cheeks flushed with anger, her eyebrows drawn down. Even her hair seemed to whip around angrily. It was both adorable and terrifying. “All I wanted was to save you from danger, and you’re wounded, and Tamlin chained you, and now they’re threatening you. I’m not going to just leave you to them.”

“Tamlin chained you?” Feyre repeated angrily, her fists clenching.

“Is that what he’s doing here?” Rhys said to Cassian. “Tamlin locked him up, and you stole him?”

Cassian nodded, clearly nervous.

But Rhys began to laugh. “Well done! I do so relish pissing Tamlin off.” He inclined his head to Lucien. “You wily fox, cheating death again. I don’t know how you manage it.”

“I don’t,” Lucien said. “I had nothing to do with this.”

“It was Elain,” Mor spoke up. “She sensed he was in trouble, threatened to walk back to Spring if we didn’t go get him.”

Rhys regarded Elain with a bemused expression. “You are his mate, you clever female. You’re as much of a fox as Lucien is. You knew exactly what to say to them, didn’t you? You had us all fooled, seemed so sweet and innocent.” He slid his hands smoothly into his pockets, and Lucien inwardly cringed at it — for he’d seen that gesture plenty of times before, and it always meant trouble. “How fortunate for me that you’re both here under my wards, shielded from the sight of anyone who might know what to do with you. Tamlin will never find you here, no matter how hard he looks for you.”

“Good,” Lucien said vehemently, surprising even himself. It felt terribly disloyal to want Rhys to hide him from Tamlin, made him profoundly uncomfortable. But he couldn’t focus on that, not after all that had happened. They always betray me first, he reminded himself.

Elain grabbed his hand, twining her fingers with his, and he savored every inch of contact. “We are not prisoners,” she said stubbornly.

“That’s a matter of perspective,” Rhys shrugged. “You might look at this arrangement as protection, against whatever harebrained scheme Tamlin’s cooked up with Hybern, and work with me to stop him before he dooms our entire realm, and the human one as well.” He nudged the stone shackles that had been abandoned on the floor, clearly recognizing them. “Or you might refuse my hospitality, try to escape.” His violet eyes flashed in challenge. “It won’t work, of course. Unlike Tamlin, I don’t need chains to keep you from straying.”

Mor laid a slender hand on his shoulder, saying softly, “That is still Feyre’s sister, and if you hurt her mate, the effects on her —“

“I know that,” Rhys said calmly. “And so does he.”

Lucien swallowed hard, but waited, clinging to Elain’s hand like a lifeline.

Rhys turned to Lucien, a cruel smile twisting his lips. “It’s quite simple, little Lucien. You’ve got secrets, mostly Tamlin’s, but I suspect you know plenty about Autumn that’s still valid. You’re going to give me everything you know, without question or hesitation. You’re going to earn your reprieve every single day, cooperate with enthusiasm. And in return, I won’t kill you, or keep you from your mate. I think that’s more than fair, considering how you sabotaged our mission. How did you know about that, anyway?”

Lucien maintained a carefully neutral expression. He had not agreed to anything yet, and was not about to tattle on his mate to Rhys. Instead, he deflected. “Why wouldn’t Tarquin and Cresseida suspect you? You all but announced your intentions at the summit.”

“They knew we were coming,” Feyre broke in, tapping her foot impatiently. “I should have been able to slip through their defenses undetected.”

“Maybe your magic needs practice,” Elain said tartly.

Rhys’s gaze had turned back to her. “You are not a daemati, and you have not sent any correspondence. But somehow, you contacted Lucien. Told him enough of our plans that he could prevent us from carrying them out.”

Feyre’s angry expression slipped into shock and dismay. “Elain — you betrayed us?”

You betrayed us. Me and Lucien,” Elain said, unrepentant. “You didn’t even let me write to him, tell him I was all right.”

“Don’t change the subject,” Rhys said irritably. “Tarquin sent his security forces after us. He had the Book in his hands when they brought us into the throne room. You two tipped him off, though I don’t know how you did it.” He examined Elain intently, and Lucien fought the urge to throw himself in front of her. It wouldn’t make a difference if I did. I’ve got to be strategic, out-think him somehow.

But again, Elain surprised him. “Why do you get to claim the Book for yourself?”

“Because Amren is the only one who can translate it,” Rhys said testily.

“Where is the tiny ancient one, anyway?” Cassian asked.

“Drying off at her apartment. Tarquin attacked us with the ocean,” Feyre said, running a hand through her own wet hair, frowning at the piece of slimy seaweed that she retrieved from it.

Lucien shook his head. “Adriata is a coastal city, and its harbor is vulnerable. All they wanted was a navy to defend against any Hybern invasion. You could have negotiated with them, or sent me to do it.”

“No, little fox. You’re not going anywhere,” Rhys said. He gestured to the ceiling, the walls. “This building is warded, and spelled, and warded some more. If you try to leave for Summer, or anywhere else, I’ll know.”

Like I’d leave Elain. Lucien squeezed her hand, and she squeezed back.

“What of the other half of the Book?” Mor asked. “It’s in the mortal lands.”

Feyre said, “We got a message about that. It didn’t make much sense, though.” She turned to Elain. “It was addressed to you, actually. Who are Tom and Marlow?”

Chapter Text

Don’t panic. Be sensible. You can’t falter now.

Being a sentry was not for the faint-hearted, the delicate, or the easily spooked. The past fifty years had taught them all that. One had to be prepared for any manner of danger, whether Attor, or naga, or Bogge. Then there were the High Lord’s rages, like the one they could hear just now, shaking the trees and rumbling the ground. A sentry had to have a clear head, a steady hand, and nerves of the strongest iron, for he could be called on to rush into danger, take up arms against wielders of powerful magic, or even slip through the Wall.

Bron slid one hand into his pocket, feeling for the parchment, satisfying himself that the message he carried was intact. Then he snuck through the understory, footsteps light, but couldn’t help the crunching of brittle leaves under his boots.

Spring must not fade, must not die.

Bron clenched his jaw, and quickened his steps, following Hart single-file through the dense underbrush. Hart was the superior tracker, had a keen sense of direction, while Bron was quicker with a blade and a bow and could defend both of their backs. Not that either of them would last long if the High Lord should give chase, but there was little chance of that, not when poor Lucien had blundered north, drawing Tamlin’s focus away.

Bron kept going, determined to see the mission through. No point whining about his lot, or complaining. Dear Andras hadn’t said one word against his fate, nor had any of their other brothers who’d sacrificed themselves, and gladly. A sentry’s life was service, and sacrifice, no matter what the circumstances, and there was nothing for it but to put one foot in front of the other. There was work to be done.

“It’ll all come to naught, all this bellowing,” Hart murmured, cocking his head to the side, then gesturing left. “The High Lord’s lost his senses.”

“That’s treasonous,” Bron warned, though of course he agreed. The High Lord hadn’t been right since Under the Mountain, had developed an obsession for the Cursebreaker that was all-consuming, bordering on unnatural. He relented, sighing, “It’s all in the emissary’s letter.”

Hart paused, fingertips brushing at a bare tree trunk, worryingly brittle, as though the land had dried out despite the usual frequent rains. “D’ya reckon the humanfolk will shoot us on sight?”

“Not with this,” Bron said hopefully, drawing out the lady Elain’s silk handkerchief from his pocket and dangling it gingerly between two fingers. “The emissary thinks it’ll be recognized.”

“They’re just as likely to think we killed her, and stole it,” Hart grumbled.

“Then we’d better talk quickly,” Bron said, always the pragmatist. There was no point in being anything else.

For Bron loved Spring, the land and its folk that he guarded with his immortal soul. They were gentle and peaceful, lovers of natural beauty and outdoor life and growing things. Spring folk were light and innocent in a world of cruelty and darkness. They were grateful for the giving rains, the soft radiant sunshine, joyful, delighting in good food and wine and Mother-given pleasures of the body. Bron knew that the other courts looked down on them as bumpkins, as simple, but he decided that was rather a compliment.

Other, fancier, haughtier courts could keep their sparkles and their gems and their metal. Those things were dead things, wrenched from the earth at great cost, pounded and burned and twisted into beauty, but it would always be false, artificial. A rock could reflect light if it were glossed and polished, he supposed, but it could never change, never grow, never achieve a life of its own. The High Lord’s family had fallen prey to such glitter, substituting green stones for real green life, gold and silver for the life-giving light of the sun. What could be more beautiful than life itself, from cultivating growth when before there was nothing?

But Spring folk were not naive, not weak. They had lost much, seen horrors, sacrificed life and limb and innocence to the depredations of Hybern. It had broken some, scarred others. But they would begin anew, as they always had. A plant will seek the light, no matter how deep the darkness in which it grows. His wise old Nana had said that, and much more, before her time came.

Bron tripped, and Hart’s hand shot out to steady him. They were old friends, grown up together since their youngling days, themselves and poor sweet Willow. He and Hart had been through it all together, had wept together over Willow’s slaughter, and now were crossing the Wall together, in a final act of bravery — or stupidity, time would tell.

Hart’s hand tightened on his arm, and he hissed, “There. Between the trees. See it?”

Bron looked, and clapped a hand over his mouth, stifling his gasp, as a wave of glittering magic fluttered through the forest in all directions, all emanating from the creature shimmering golden in the clearing.

“Put your arrows down. All your weapons,” he whispered urgently to Hart, who complied without question. Bron lifted his own bow and quiver from his back, lowering it to the ground with trembling fingers, then undid his baldric of knives, letting them clatter far too loudly, and he winced as the creature’s head whipped toward them.

Hart grabbed for the nearest tree, steadying himself. “What is it?”

“I’ve heard tales,” Bron said in a hushed, reverent tone. “But I can’t be certain —“

The creature rustled in the leaves, taking graceful steps, and both Bron and Hart instinctively lowered to their knees, showing it they meant no harm or disrespect. Bron risked looking up at it, ready to avert his eyes, but found himself transfixed by its beauty, its magic.

You were right, Nana, he thought, wishing the old female could have been here to see this.

The creature was in the guise of a deer, a golden doe, but much larger than the beasts of this forest. It shook its golden-horned head, the symbol of the bright sun glinting on its forehead, the bright moon on its furred chest, bright stars glittering on its dappled back, iridescent wings reflecting many colors like stained glass.

“Ceryneia. The celestial one,” Bron said, recognizing the golden doe from his grandmother’s old stories. He’d dismissed the old tales, as brash younglings often did, thinking they knew better than to trust the addled reasoning of their elders. But Nana had often mentioned the Hind of the Forest. Not the High Lord, she was sure to mention, but the spirit of the forest itself.

“She is killed yearly on Calanmai, sacrificing her blood for the fertility of the land,” Nana had told him, sprinkling in her stories like seasoning as he stirred the stew, or dunked shirts into the washbasin. “Some say it is a stag. Ha! Imagine using a male for a fertility rite, when it’s the females who conceive and bear the younglings! Look closely next time.”

But Bron had never looked closely, for he was always quite busy on Calanmai, with either guarding or pleasure, sometimes both at once. Now, faced with Ceryneia herself, he regretted it. His mind cast about frantically for all that Nana had said about her.

Her steps till the soil, her antlers are the branches of trees, her eyes are the fiery spark of life in each new growing thing. She walks the forests, runs through the fields, warms the cool hard ground into fertility. She tramples life’s enemies under her hooves, protects land and seed and all the wild creatures.  

He addressed the creature, bowing his head. “We mean no harm. We wish to pass through the Wall, to save this territory.”

The warm wide eyes of the doe, the color of rich soil, stared back at him, looking him over as though judging his worthiness, and then his breath caught as it sprang into motion, blazing a trail through the brittle trunks and stumps of the dying trees.

“Follow her,” Hart whispered, “she knows the way.”

They scooped up their weapons and ran, even their strong legs no match for the swift-winged deer, but Bron imagined that the forest itself parted for them, guided them, spirited them along the path. A gentle breeze wafted after them, moving them along, encouraging them to keep going.

She wants to help us. She would not have revealed herself otherwise.

Bron ran, scrambling and cursing, then slammed into a frigid, clawing wall of magic. “This is it,” he panted, reaching out for Hart, who was doubled over, breathing hard. “We made it.” He turned toward the doe, bowing deeply. “Thank you.”

The creature shimmered, then took off through the forest, away from the Wall’s entrance.

Hart grimaced as he inched towards the Wall, holding out his hands gingerly, feeling around for the opening. Suddenly he stumbled forward. “Here.”

Bron strode over to him, frowning at the empty air. The forest just past Hart looked identical to the one they stood in, but there was an invisible barrier there, forbidding, oily and wretched, stirring up an intense desire to go back, stay away — all except the one spot where Hart was standing. The air felt clearer, more open, as though a small path had been cleared.

“Ready?” Hart asked, then plunged ahead.

Bron followed, hoping like hell that they would arrive in the right spot, that it wouldn’t be far to Lady Elain’s village, that they could deliver the message and get back to Prythian and —

He drew up short. So did Hart.

Two human males were standing in the forest, blinking at them. One was taller and bulkier, but both had the weathered, rough-hewn look of solid folk who worked with their hands for a living. One had wide eyes, lifted eyebrows, in surprise but not fear, while the other glowered at them suspiciously. “Yer fae folk,” he said.

Bron exchanged a look with Hart, who nodded tensely. Bron knew they had seconds, mere moments to convince these fellows that they had good intentions. “Aye, lad, you’re right enough. The Lady Elain sent us,” he said, a bit breathlessly.

At the mention of Lady Elain, both males instantly brightened, looking relieved, so Bron plowed ahead. “We bear a message. We could give it to you, and be on our way, if you’d rather us go. But our instructions were to give it personally.”

It would be better for them to deliver the message personally, rather than rely on the humans to give it, even if it meant risking entering the human village, getting further from the Wall and from safety. Watch out for ash arrows, Lucien had advised them, and he tried not to wince as his gaze slid down the male’s dirt-stained tunic and the quiver of arrows that lay over one shoulder.

“I’m Hart. This is Bron,” Hart said tentatively. “We’re sentries.”

“I’m Tom. This is Marlow. So are we,” the friendlier male said, gesturing into the forest, away from the Wall. “Cover yer pointy ears, an’ follow us. The Lady Nesta wants a word.”

Chapter Text

“Oh, Daisy, come quick!”

Daisy looked up with alarm, nearly letting her half-finished baby booties slip clean off the needles. She clutched at the yarn with clumsy fingers, shocked at the wild look in the older maid’s eyes. Cathy was never flustered, and yet the woman was twisting her apron with impatience, her face flushed red with exertion, as though she’d run a great distance.

“Fie, yer startled me,” Daisy exclaimed, carefully placing her knitting aside, moving quickly to Cathy with outstretched hands. “What’s got yer bootlaces in a bunch?”

“Faeries, that’s what,” Cathy said crossly, but there was a wild gleam in her eye, an excitement that Daisy felt rippling right through her. “And they’ve brought news!”

Daisy gripped Cathy’s hands, breathing hard. Faeries. There hadn’t been faeries in these parts in some time, not since that fireling had escaped the Nolans and started all the uproar —

“Come on, girl, I’m not getting any younger,” Cathy said breathlessly, tugging Daisy towards the corridor.

Daisy clutched her belly with one hand as they raced through the downstairs rooms, Cathy impatiently yanking on her hand. There was a buzz of excitement spreading throughout the servants’ quarters, folk popping their heads out of rooms, murmuring in low voices, and some running this way and that. Daisy let Cathy pull her along, her stomach sizzling with excitement and dread in equal measure.

Daisy didn’t know what to hope for. Their Elain had vanished so suddenly, right through a locked door, as though she’d never been in their midst at all. There’d been no footprints, no way to track where she’d gone. Where they’d gone, for it was near certain that the faerie had taken her, spirited her off just like in the old stories.

Some of the folk whispered at it, that the lady had been enchanted by that wicked creature. But Daisy had been glad of it, for the fool of a lording had been properly furious, spitting mad, howling, hurling threats, threatening to whip every sentry that had been on duty that night, or have all their heads.

The talk in the village had turned sour, the whispers about her dear Elain most unkind. Daisy herself had heard them, had nodded and shrugged as one of her station ought to do. It was not a maid’s place to disagree with fine ladies, even if they were all pigheaded and wrong. She’d only informed the Lady Nesta, as a good servant ought, and the lady had merely snapped, “That’s none of your concern,” though Daisy knew it was the village talk that annoyed her new mistress, and not Daisy’s meddling in it.

The further our Elain is from all this, the better.

She and the others had been most careful not to mention it much around the Archeron folk, lest they get wrong ideas about them being faerie sympathizers. For it was only for the lady Elain’s sake that they’d gotten involved at all, and her faerie had really been so gentle and so kind, not the sort to be stealing ladies from their husbands.

She wanted to go. Daisy was certain of it, though she was careful who she said it to.

When they finally got to the dining table, and she saw the Lady Elain’s handkerchief lying neatly folded, Daisy suddenly burst into tears.

“There there, child,” Cathy soothed, her voice stern even as she patted Daisy’s shoulder.

“It’s hers, all right,” Daisy said, swiping awkwardly at her tears. “Th’very one she up an’ gave me. Said she had others. She was too good.”

“Aye, she is too good,” said a low, soothing voice, and Daisy’s head whipped around to take in a cluster of folk near the table, and she gasped when she saw that it was two new men, faerie men, both dressed in handsome green and gold uniforms like they were straight from some royal queen’s palace. Folk hovered around them, some open and friendly, some with arms folded, like they were reserving judgment.

The faerie that had spoken to her was the shorter of the two, with glossy black hair and a gentle expression, and Daisy couldn’t help but stare. “Oh, beggin’ yer pardon,” she said bashfully. 

The faerie bowed gallantly to the women, saying, “No pardon necessary. I can see you knew her well.” When she just kept starting, no response coming to her lips, he went on. “I am Hart, and this is Bron.”

Cathy pinched the flesh of Daisy’s arm. “Close your mouth, love,” she whispered kindly.

“Oh hush,” Daisy snapped, her cheeks flushing, but quickly snapped her lips together, and shoved the loose hair from her face for good measure. These faerie folk are used to glamour and grace, she supposed, though they didn’t seem to mind being in the midst of human-folk at all.

The faerie she’d noticed was sturdy and strong, not a lord if his uniform was any judge, but she was struck by his gentle, steady grace. Like Duncan might’ve been, if he’d been born faerie and not mortal man. She swallowed hard, shoving those thoughts away. She couldn’t think of Duncan now — it was still too raw.

“It’s so rare to see your kind about,” Cathy said, when Daisy still couldn’t manage to make her vocal cords work. We’re talking to faeries. It was still too much for her to comprehend. “You’ll have to excuse the folk here if they’re curious about you. But you are most welcome here.”

They weren’t — not by everyone, at any rate — but Cathy proclaimed it confidently, as though daring anyone to disagree. A few of the younger, more militantly anti-faerie servants grumbled a bit, but no one spoke up or challenged her.

“Your Tom and Marlow were kind enough to escort us here from the Wall,” the faerie said, smiling kindly.

“Twasn’t from kindness,” Marlow muttered, but he looked just as eager as any of them, regarding both faeries with a cautiously hopeful expression. “They know our Lady well,” he explained to the assembled crowd, which was growing larger by the second. “And our fireling.”

“We bear a message,” Hart said, his voice loud and clear, as though it bothered him not a bit to be addressing a room full of mortals. Good folk are good folk, Daisy supposed, whether fae or mortal-born. “For your Lady Nesta, but for you all as well. Your Lady Elain is safe in Prythian.”

A general chorus of sighs and gasps greeted this news, and Daisy felt a shudder of relief. Safe, not like poor Clare. She’d heard about the poor Beddor girl’s fate from her new mistress, and had fervently wished she’d had a god to pray to so she might pray for poor Miss Elain not to suffer the same fate.

“Tom’s gone t’fetch Lady Archeron from the village,” Marlow said. “S’pose yer hungry?”

“Starving,” said the taller faerie — Bron, Daisy remembered. “We came here in quite a hurry.”

“The dinner’s been cleared from the main table by now, I’m sure. Mary’s meant to be bringing it down to us,” Cathy said. “I’ll go see what’s keeping her.” And she winked at Daisy before slipping out of the room, leaving Daisy standing awkwardly by the table, eyeing the silk handkerchief like it might come to life. The very one she tried giving me, and I refused it. Imagine that! She wanted to box her own ears for her stupidity.

“Yer better sit, Daisy,” Marlow said, suddenly noticing her, his eyes sliding to her pregnant belly, which was just a small bulge under her apron, growing bigger as the weeks went by. All I have left of my Duncan now.

“Allow me,” Hart said, stepping easily around the table and pulling out a chair for her. She gratefully slid into it, ears burning. Marlow stepped back, though he hovered for a moment before sliding out of the room.

When the faerie didn’t immediately step away, but lingered at her elbow, she suddenly blurted, “Name’s Daisy.”

“A pleasure to meet you, Daisy.” Hart extended a hand to shake, and Daisy took it without thinking.

I just gave my name to a faerie.

I’m touching a faerie.

Daisy stared at his hand, calloused with work and the handling of weapons, and her own, red and raw from her daily scrubbings and scourings. She didn’t know what she’d expected, but it was warm and pleasant.

“Did you know the lady well?” Hart asked, sliding into the chair beside her, nodding with thanks when a glass of water was plunked down in front of him. He smoothly slid it to Daisy, evidently deciding she needed it more than he did.

“I was her maid,” Daisy said, snatching at the cup to take a long sip. Maid didn’t seem to cover it, for she’d felt like she really knew dear Elain, had been familiar in a strange sort of way, had helped her sneak into her faerie’s cell when the Nolan lordling had been so unreasonable. Daisy hadn’t realized how familiar they’d gotten until she’d gone over to the Lady Nesta, like all the folk had, and found that her new mistress was very proper and scrupulous, and wasn’t one to gossip with the servants, much less offer them her silk cloths on a whim.

But Lady Nesta had taken them in — taken them all in, no questions asked — and had told Graysen, that posh brat, to leave them all alone. Daisy would always be grateful for that, even if it had been too late for poor Duncan.

Mary bustled in, the dinner tray in her hands, and there was a flurry as plates were heaped with food, the faeries getting their share. If anyone had qualms about bread with a faerie, they had the sense not to say so.

“And yourself, how’s it yer know the lady?” Daisy asked the faerie, eager for any scrap of information.

“I’m a sentry,” Hart said. “I escorted her on walks, patrolled the manor. She’s quite gifted as a gardener, you know.”

Daisy didn’t know, but she nodded anyway, not doubting that her Elain would be good at caring for anything living. She couldn’t recall the lady ever having the chance to tend a garden at the Nolan estate, but supposed that fine ladies weren’t supposed to sully their hands in dirt anyway. Different rules among faeries, she supposed, and felt envious of it.

“I had a sister who cultivated magical plants,” Hart said sadly. “She was slain — that’s a story for another time. But your lady Elain is the only one who’s been able to get those plants to grow since Willow’s gone. She is special, I’m sure of it.” He leaned forward, giving Daisy a close view of his deep brown eyes, his kind smile, and said confidentially, “Forgive me for asking, but you would know. Are you sure she’s a mortal?”

“Oh, sir, hush!” Daisy hissed, looking around nervously. There were others milling about, and she didn’t fancy anyone overhearing such talk. But she answered honestly, “Them Archerons are mortals, just like us all.”

Hart nodded, leaning back, giving a broad smile to the folk eyeing him, not minding the suspicious glances mixed in among the hopeful ones. “Just thought I’d check.” He looked like he wanted to say more, but just then there was a commotion in the corridor, and then Tom’s head was poking in the doorway.

“Th’ Lady Nesta’s ready for yer,” he announced. “Yer wanted upstairs.”

Hart pushed back from the table, straightening his jacket. Daisy got up with him, awkwardly, still getting used to her growing belly. “She’s a good’un,” she told Hart. “A bit severe, but don’ let it fool yer. She took us all in when the troubles started.”

“Troubles?” Hart asked, but then Tom motioned impatiently, and he said, “Perhaps you’ll tell me later.” He inclined his head to her, then slipped towards the door with a fluid grace that only a faerie could muster.

Daisy watched him go, then yelped when Cathy sidled up to her again, poking her in the ribs. “They’re handsome, aren’t they.”

“Oh pish,” Daisy said crossly, though she quite agreed.

“Well? Are we going to go listen?” Cathy said, raising an eyebrow.

“Don’t let Mrs. Laurent hear you,” Mary said from behind them.

“Mrs. Laurent can save her breath,” Cathy said haughtily. “She’s got naught to complain about, if our work is done.”

The Archeron’s longtime housekeeper had been less than thrilled at the influx of new workers, particularly as it was rumored — correctly — that the lady of the Nolan estate had been overly familiar with her workers, and had cultivated bad habits in them. If there had been any other objections involving faeries, those had quickly been quashed, never to be spoken of again.

Daisy looked in the direction the faeries had gone. “He said our Elain was special,” she said wonderingly.

“So she is,” Mary said emphatically. “Now let’s go hear what mischief she’s gotten up to across the Wall.”

* * * *

Nesta stared out the window without really seeing the manicured lawn, the gardeners bustling about, the manor folk going about their daily tasks. The estate was well-ordered, ran like clockwork, but visitors rarely braved the short walk these days, ever since all that unpleasantness with those Nolans, so there was little for her to do but stare out the window, and think.

Good riddance to them.

The nerve of that Graysen, darkening her door to slander her sister and all her family. She’d told him where to go, and how he could get there, and the prick had refused to budge until her sentries stepped in, physically blocking his way, and getting wounded for their trouble.

I should have slapped him harder, for what he did to poor Duncan. Her poor maid had been inconsolable afterwards, until several of the Nolans’ sentries had shown up, offering their services in Duncan’s place and vowing to take care of his wife with their wages. Nesta would cover it, of course, or her father’s trade earnings would. Or the faerie gold Feyre’s lord had given her.

Take it out of that. The faeries should pay for what they’ve done.

That fireling. She’d known all along he was trouble, that he would have his way in the end despite the Nolans’ clumsy attempts to keep him a prisoner. Wasn’t that always the way with faeries? They came for one’s sisters, stirring up trouble in the process. The serving folk from the Nolans were all fooled, maybe even glamoured, but Nesta had always been able to see through such tricks. She would never have let him carry Elain away.

Except she had, hadn’t she?

I should have stuck that ash wood in his eye, after all.

Prythian was too dangerous, especially for mortals, for Nesta to feel at all easy. Those faeries were beasts, unnaturally strong and cruel and fierce, and they’d devour poor Elain, her innocence first, and then her body and mind. All faeries were dangerous, even the civilized ones. Especially the civilized ones, for at least the beasts showed their claws and teeth. And poor Elain was so easily fooled, so naive, so trusting, that Nesta feared what a meal they’d make of her, in the end.

There was a cough in the doorway, and Nesta suppressed the urge to jolt upright, to whirl around in surprise at the intrusion. But she merely tilted her head from the window, exhibiting the careful control that the lady of the manor must display. In the doorway she found two of her sentries, recent arrivals who’d left the Nolans on account of their warmongering after the faerie had thrown the whole place into confusion. “Yes?”

“My lady,” said the taller one, “we’ve got guests.”

Nesta merely nodded, waiting for them to go on. No one respectable had come to visit her since the night the Nolans had come here, waving their torches and spewing their nonsense, and she was more than prepared to turn any Children of the Blessed away.

The shorter man drew up stiffly. “They’ve got news of the Lady Elain.”

“What?” Nesta exclaimed, then calmed herself, steeling her spine, turning fully to her sentries, imperiously demanding, “Who are they?”

“Two faeries, missus,” said the shorter man, his grimace at the word faeries making it obvious that he shared her views on the wicked creatures.

“Apologies, my Lady, I went t’ the village to fetch yer, but yer return’d already,” said the taller man. “They’re downstairs awaiting, if yer wish t’see ‘em.”

Nesta thought for a long moment. She did not want to receive fae in her parlor, wanted no part of them in her house, but if they knew of Elain — if they’d come bearing news — “What do they want,” she finally said.

“They’re bearin’ a letter. From that fireling,” said the shorter man. “Beggin’ yer assistance. They said they’d explain it.”

Nesta sighed, twisting her hand in her dress, then realized she was parroting Elain’s nervous habit and quickly let the fabric settle back against her petticoat. “Have either of you dealt with faeries before?”

They both nodded solemnly, giving each other a look before the shorter one responded. “Aye, missus. I worked for the Beddors.”

Nesta nodded solemnly, acknowledging his loss.

“I had words wi’ that fireling, too, believe you me,” the man went on, his face reddening at the memory. “I don’ trust the fae. But he asked us” — here he motioned to his companion, who stepped forward in agreement — “to look out for yer sister, keep her secret. An’ he used his magic to lock the door fer us, aid our escape.”

“He coulda killed us easy wit’ his power,” the taller one added. “Iron don’t bind them, after all. Coulda burned the manor down. We’re lucky he was a good’un.”

Nesta mulled this over. She’d seen the faerie use fire, had been startled out of her wits by it, though she would never let him see that weakness in her. “Then these new fae are trustworthy?”

“Beggin yer pardon, missus, we thinks so,” the taller man said. “We’d never risk yer safety, yer know that.”

“Send them in, then,” Nesta said.

But what she thought was, None of us are truly safe here.

Chapter Text

“Well?” the lady said, her voice a shattering of ice more frigid than Kallias himself could have produced.

Hart perched awkwardly on the couch, hoping Bron would answer, but his friend was just as cowed into silence as he was. Give her the letter. Say something.

The lady sat before them, spine ramrod straight, head poised with such stillness and grace that Hart had glanced more than a few times at her ears, just to make certain she wasn’t faerie, after all. Don’t be silly, this is the Cursebreaker’s sister. They’re human, or she could not have broken the bitch queen’s curse.

But there was something about the Archerons. Now that he’d met all three of them, he was certain of it. He’d dared to ask that shy, pretty maid, who’d gotten adorably offended on the Lady Elain’s behalf, and then he’d remembered too late that being a faerie sympathizer meant trouble in these parts. 

Just being here is putting them all in danger.

But Hart straightened. He was in danger, too. They all were, should Hybern attack. Under the Mountain would seem like a summer solstice party in comparison to the horrors that would be unleashed, especially on these human lands, all these fine folk no more than chattel to that wicked king. Or food for his beasts.

“It’s Hybern, my lady,” he blurted, finally finding his voice. Bron gave him a grateful nod. “A faerie kingdom across the sea. They mean to attack this land, all our lands, and we’ve got to stop them.”

The lady’s hand gripped the arm of her chair more tightly, almost imperceptibly, before releasing back into its neutral position. Her eyes held no fear, no warmth either, just cold indignation. Hart felt as though he were in the presence of another queen — not a wicked one, as Amarantha had been, but a pitiless one, who hated weakness and cowardice and lies.

Don’t lie to her, not even a little. That had been Lucien’s advice. Be forthright. Don’t try to avoid making her angry, for you’ll do that just by being there, and it can’t be helped. Don’t look to her for kindness, but to the folk that serve her. Some of them will know and love Elain. That’s where your help will come from.

I’m a sentry, not a diplomat, Hart had protested, but then relented, knowing how much danger Lucien was in, how much danger they were all in if their message could not get through.

“That name is not known to me. But your fireling mentioned a king across the sea,” the lady acknowledged, though each word was clipped, as though she jealously guarded every word and loathed sharing it with faerie ears.

“That’s the one,” Hart agreed, nudging Bron with his elbow. Speak, man, I can’t do this alone.

“Have you prepared?” Bron asked, finally finding his voice, though it was shaky, uncertain. “Have you ash weapons?”

“Are you worried for my safety?” the lady spat. “Or your own?”

Bron threw Hart a worried look, but he faced the lady as courageously as he could, determined to complete the mission regardless of her desire to stick ash into his flesh. “Your folk all depend on you,” he said mildly. “You’ve defenseless people here. Children. Unborn babes.” He thought of that pretty maid again, that telltale bulge under her apron. He couldn’t think about Willow or her unborn babe now, had to focus on saving who he could. 

The lady’s steely gaze softened just a fraction. “We will not have a repeat of the Beddors here,” she said, her voice dark with promise. “The general assured me that all my folk would be spared.”

“The general?” Bron asked nervously.

“The queens’ man. Jurian,” the lady said. “He came here, seeking your fireling.”

Hart gaped at that. “Jurian was here?” he asked, his heart pounding in terror. Hybern knows of this place. They could be watching us right now — “Then, lady, you must flee. All of you. At once.”

“I will not,” the lady said imperiously, rising from her seat in a fluid, graceful motion that had Hart glancing towards her ears again. Not pointy. She’s not fae. “I did not flee when that fool Graysen came here, killing my sentry and demanding my sister’s return. And I will not flee now. You faeries have taken enough. You shall not have my home, too.”

“They’ll have your heads,” Bron burst out, cringing and shrinking back when she whirled on him.

“Tis true,” Hart put in, hoping to diffuse the situation. “Hybern is cruel. Merciless, especially towards mortals. They… “ He lowered his voice, suddenly realizing that all the serving folk were probably listening in, and he didn’t want to incite a panic. “They’ll take slaves.”

“You all do that,” the lady snapped, unfazed.

Bron and Hart both reeled in shock. “No, lady. Not for five centuries,” Bron protested.

“My sister was taken,” the lady shot back. “To pay a debt to your High Lord. Is that not slavery, of a sick sort?”

Hart cast around for the right words, conscious that whatever he said now could make or break their entire mission. “Beggin’ your pardon, my lady, you were told a lie,” he said. “There was never any debt, except the one we owe her. The wolf she killed was our Andras, who volunteered. Lady Feyre was brought to Prythian to break the curse on us.”

“Well, it’s broken. Why does your High Lord keep her?”

“He doesn’t,” Bron assured her. “Lady Feyre decides where she comes and goes. She’s not with our High Lord anymore, but with another court.”

Hart watched the lady anxiously, hoping she wouldn’t get upset. She doesn’t know what the Night Court is, she won’t see it as a threat.

The lady’s eyes flashed, something like triumph glittering in them. “So you’ve decided to be honest with me. That is good. For I received a letter from her, telling me as much.”

Bron asked, “So she is well, then?”

The lady cocked her head to the side. “Were you concerned?”

Bron swallowed hard. “It’s just that — our courts were not on the best of terms. Our High Lord is quite upset that his wife has left. He means to act on it, and we were hoping you could get a message out —“

The lady laughed, a bitter, hollow sound. “You’re asking me to get involved in their marriage squabble? I already did that with one sister, and a man ended up dead because of it.”

“Our High Lord could start a war,” Hart said. “One that will affect both sides of the Wall.”

The lady snorted, a startlingly unladylike sound coming from such a poised, graceful creature. “Surely she is not so important. She is a human among faeries, her life so much shorter than yours. Whoever she chooses to share her bed with will move on soon enough.”

Bron elbowed Hart this time. By the Cauldron, she doesn’t know.

“Feyre Cursebreaker died and was reborn,” Hart said.

“I know,” she snapped.

“Reborn as fae,” Hart went on.

“What?” the lady screeched, storming toward him, hands clenched into fists. Hart eyed her hands, relieved to see no ash weapons clutched in them. “Repeat that. Now.”

“Reborn as fae,” he stammered, looking up into her furious face with as much calm as he could muster.

“Tis true,” Bron piped up, his voice high and thin. Don’t kill us, he could have added.

The lady reeled, stepping back swiftly, as though being turned fae might be contagious. “A kernel of their life force,” she sputtered, more to herself. “Is that what he meant?”

“My lady —“ Hart began.

“Get out,” she barked, her eyes narrowing dangerously on them.

“But —“ Bron squeaked.

Out,” she commanded, and they both jumped up and retreated hastily, with her voice thundering behind them, “And don’t come back. I’ll have nothing to do with any more fae.”

Hart reached the corridor and stumbled into the hallway, drawing up short when he was confronted with a group of serving folk clustered in the corridor, evidently listening in. Bron bumped into him from behind, swearing.

“Yer ‘right?” the pretty maid asked. Daisy, her name was.

“Not really,” Hart admitted, reaching behind him to grab Bron’s arm, tugging them both further down the hallway, out of earshot of the fuming lady of the manor.

“What’s all this about the lady’s sister?” an older female demanded to know. She was frowning, but there was no bite in her tone, just urgency.

Bron took a deep breath. “You must all swear to guard the lady’s secrecy.”

“We already have, fae,” Tom said impatiently. “Out wi’ it.”

“You all served the Lady Elain?” Hart asked, and they all nodded. “Then you know that there are three sisters in the family. We serve your lady and her sister, the Lady Feyre.”

“The fairy child,” the older woman said, ignoring the glares that came her way.

“The very one,” Bron said. “For she was turned fae by our High Lords, to bring her back from death.”

“Yer what?” Daisy yelped. “Bring her back?”

“That feller mentioned as such,” Marlow muttered. “But yer fireling says yer don’t got such magic.”

“He doesn’t. We don’t. Only all seven High Lords together,” Hart explained, hoping his feeble attempts were making any sense to these folk. “Or the Cauldron, that magical object our enemies have.” He took a deep breath, then went on, “We were supposed to get a message to one of those lords, and to Lady Feyre and Lady Elain with him. But I’m afraid your mistress is not inclined to cooperate.”

“We don’t blame her for being upset,” Bron added quickly, in case the criticism of the Lady Nesta might upset them. “She doesn’t want no more trouble.”

“What’s the message?” the older woman demanded.

Hart hesitated, but he remembered Lucien’s advice. Don’t look to her for kindness, but to the folk that serve her. That’s where your help will come from.

“We fear that our High Lord will declare war on the lands to the north,” Hart explained. “And with the threat from across the sea, we can’t afford that. And,” he added, dropping his voice, “there is a magical relic we seek from your mortal queens.”

“No queens rule here,” Marlow grumbled. “We’ve a council.”

“Nevertheless, they have something we need,” Hart said. “The human general, Jurian, came to the old manor, then here. Do you think him trustworthy?”

“Slipp’ry feller,” Tom said with distaste.

“He may be. But he’s our best hope of getting what we need,” Bron said. “But the High Lord should decide, not us. We’re just serving folk, like yourselves.”

“Aye,” Marlow said, then reached into his pocket, drawing out a piece of paper that Hart could immediately see was shimmering with magic. “Us folk must stick together.”

“Is that —“ Bron yelped.

“This here disappears messages,” said the kindly serving girl who had brought their dinner down. “The lady received it several nights ago, but threw it away immediately, saying she wanted no part of any magic.”

Daisy’s eyes sparkled. “I may’ve snatched it,” she said proudly. “Tis magic, in’t it?”

“You did well,” Hart said gratefully, grabbing and squeezing her hand. “You’ve saved us all, Daisy. We can send the message ourselves, if you’re all willing.”

“Will any pen do?” the older female asked, fishing around in her apron pocket. “Give it here, I’ll write it.”

Bron tugged on Hart’s sleeve. “Will they know it’s not from the Lady Nesta?” he asked worriedly. “What if they dismiss the message?”

“Address it to the Lady Elain,” the serving maid suggested. “She’ll know our names, the blessed creature.”

“I’ll sign it Tom and Marlow. The fireling will know them too, if he’s reading it,” the older female said, taking the pen and leaning the paper up against the wall. “Now let’s be quick.”

Hart nodded, thinking about exactly how to phrase what they were going to send. But before he could make any suggestions, he felt a tug on his hand, and looked down. Daisy was still holding his hand, smiling shyly.

“I never saved no one ‘afore,” she said, a pretty blush spreading across her cheeks. “Did yer mean that?”

“I did,” Hart assured her. “You’ve give us hope.”

“Enough chatter, what do I write?” the older female exclaimed, waving the pen impatiently.

Hart nodded, took a deep breath, and began.

Chapter Text

“It’ll heal all right. It’s nothing that I can’t work with. But I’ve got to get this shirt off. I’m going to have to cut the fabric,” Madja said.

“That’s fine. Do whatever you need to do,” Lucien said lightly, his voice slightly muffled by the pillow. He was stretched out on his side in the guest bedroom where Elain had tried and failed to sleep. His long hair was corralled into a loose braid, pulled up and away from his back, and Elain stared at it, willing herself not to look lower, at the awful brownish red stains and scratches in his shirt where Tamlin had clawed him and drawn blood.

I’ll make that asshole pay for hurting Lucien. Ianthe, too.

Elain had been assured that the healer was the very best, that Madja had patched up far worse injuries than what Lucien had, but she still clasped her hands together anxiously, hoping that his wounds would heal quickly, that he could rest without pain.

Madja produced a pair of scissors from her worn leather bag and sliced down the shirt in one swift motion, then gingerly reached for the blood-soaked edges and peeled the fabric away.

Elain shrieked.

Feyre dashed in, followed closely by Rhys. “Elain! What’s wrong — oh,” she exclaimed, drawing up short, getting an eyeful of the horror that had greeted Elain.

“These are older,” Madja said, ghosting her hand over the crisscrossing welts that marred every inch of Lucien’s back. He looked like he’d been whipped raw, flayed alive, then left for dead. How did he even survive this?

Elain leaned forward, bracing herself on the bed, and gripped the comforter, bunching it in her fingers. She willed herself not to vomit, not to freak out. Lucien doesn’t need that now.

“Elain?” Lucien said nervously, starting to push himself up onto his elbow to twist around and look at her. “What’s the matter?”

“What’s the matter? You’re really asking?” she snapped, letting the comforter go and standing back up. Then she burst into tears.

“No. Please,” Lucien called to her, his brow crinkling, his voice strained. “Come here, Elain. You’ll see I’m okay. Don’t cry for me, I can’t take it.” He extended his arm, hand outstretched, and she moved to the other side of the bed so that she could sit next to him He reached up to brush her tears away, murmuring, “I’m all right. Really.”

“I didn’t really get a chance to explain anything,” Feyre murmured to Rhys, who had come to stand beside her, hands in his pockets. The casual indifference of it made Elain want to slap him. How can he look like that when Lucien is lying here injured? Callous bastard.

“Best not to attempt it,” Lucien said tightly, his golden eye clicking rapidly.

“Try,” Elain snarled, furiously swiping at her eyes and cheeks, determined not let Rhys see her shedding tears.

“It looks bad, I know. But it’s fully healed now,” Lucien said soothingly, his warm broad hand wrapping around hers. She looked back down at him, at his soft reassuring smile, and she wanted to scream. He shouldn’t be comforting me, not when he’s the one who keeps getting ripped open.

“Who did that? How did it happen?” she asked, more calmly.

Lucien squeezed her hand. “I was whipped Under the Mountain for helping Feyre, that’s all.”

That’s all?” Elain exclaimed angrily.

Lucien shrugged one shoulder.  “It was either that or I’d be killed outright.”

Killed?” Elain cried, then clapped a hand over her mouth.

“I’d do it again gladly,” Lucien insisted, his eyes drifting from her to where Rhys was hovering. A look passed between them, some silent communication that Elain didn’t quite understand. She knew that there was a history between them, that they had been enemies, but when it came to Feyre, perhaps they were on the same side, after all.

“A lot of things happened Under the Mountain,” Feyre spoke up. “We all suffered, in our different ways.” She took a deep, shuddery breath. “But we’re out. We’re free.”

“I can’t do anything about those older wounds,” Madja said apologetically. “But the recent gashes should heal completely, if I start treating them right away. If you’re ready?”

Lucien nodded. “Ready.” His eyes met Elain’s, and he said, “Stay with me?”

“Of course,” Elain said, her cheeks heating with shame. I didn’t stay with him. She would never make that mistake again.

“Thank you, Madja,” Rhys said smoothly, retreating into the hallway, guiding Feyre along with him. “If you need anything, let us know.”

Madja started applying salve to Lucien’s gashes, slathering the wounds with a thick gooey paste that smelled faintly of mint. Elain almost asked her what it was — forget those dusty library books, I bet this healer knows everything about medicinal plants and healing magic — but she wouldn’t disturb the healer’s concentration. She stayed on the bed next to Lucien, smoothing out his hair from his face, letting him squeeze her hand when the pain got to be too much.

Soon enough, Madja stood up, patting Elain’s shoulder. “His natural healing is very good. He just needs rest,” she said kindly, glancing back down at the bed, where Lucien was resting more or less comfortably. “No direct pressure on his back for about half an hour. Then he can wash off the salve, and it all should have closed over. Call me if it doesn’t.”

“Thank you,” Elain said shakily.

“You’re the best, Madja,” Lucien said, twisting his neck so that he could look at the healer, then lay back down and closed his eyes. The healer slipped out, shutting the door softly behind her.

Elain perched on the bed next to Lucien, watching him as he rested. His brow had smoothed out, his jaw unclenched. He looked almost happy, despite the horror he had experienced.

“Can I get you anything?” she asked.

“I’m fine,” he mumbled, a bit sleepily.

“You’re not,” she scowled, though he did look better.

“Lie down with me, and I will be.” He opened his eyes and managed to smile.

“Rogue,” she scolded him, but she was smiling, too. “I don’t want to hurt you.”

He patted the empty space in between them. “You won’t. I trust you.”

Elain sighed, kicking her flats off and shimmying onto the bed beside him, bracing herself on one side so that she could face him. “You trust me?” she asked softly, peering into his face. “Maybe you shouldn’t.”

Lucien’s hand lifted a loose curl from where it had draped over her shoulder. “Don’t say that.”

“It’s true,” she said, taking a shuddery breath. “I left you to come here, and look what happened.”

Lucien propped himself up on his elbow, using his free hand to smooth more of her hair away. “None of this is your fault. I won’t have you taking the blame for it.” His hand rested on her shoulder, warm and comforting.

“You were scared for me. You were sad,” she said forlornly. “Even before Tamlin hurt you, you were miserable. I could feel it.”

“I didn’t want you to feel it,” he said. His fingers rubbed pleasantly over her shoulder, moving down her bare arm, trailing a tingly warmth. “I was afraid you’d suffer when I did. But I suppose it’s what saved me, in the end.”

“I shouldn’t have left you in the first place,” Elain sighed. “I thought I had to come here, to help Feyre. But it didn’t turn out like that at all. I’m just in the way here, and this place — “ She paused, struggling to explain herself. “It feels wrong.”

Lucien was quiet, listening.

“It’s lifeless here,” Elain said finally. “Not the people — they’re all lively enough. Happy, even. But the land itself, I feel nothing from it. No spark, no richness. Not like Spring.”

Lucien’s handsome face had taken on a pained expression. “When I brought you to Prythian, I never wanted you to come here. But I’m glad you didn’t come home with me, after all. Spring is in bad shape, and Tamlin — “ He shook his head rapidly, shuddering at some awful memory. “He’s gone out of his mind. I don’t know when it will be safe to return.”

“Rhys won’t let us leave, anyway,” Elain said sourly.

“Don’t concern yourself with that. I’ll find a way,” Lucien assured her. His golden eye clicked, roving around the room. “He wasn’t kidding about the security. The wards around this place are something else.” His russet eye, still fixed on her, sparkled with humor. “Nothing I can’t get through. But they don’t need to know that.”

Despite her sorrow, Elain giggled. “You’re sneaky.”

Lucien winked at her. “Thank you.”

His easy humor, his wry smile, made Elain happy and warm. But she couldn’t quite shake off the melancholy, especially thinking about Spring and how it was in trouble. “I don’t feel right here,” she said. “This isn’t home. I’ve tried growing things, and it’s not the same.”

“Growing things?” Lucien asked, raising an eyebrow. “Underground?”

Elain suddenly remembered that Lucien had seen nothing of Night Court territory, had no idea where he was. “We’re in the air,” she said, careful not to get too specific. They don’t want him to know about Velaris. And while she would tell Lucien anything, to hell with what Rhys or anyone said, she wouldn’t put him in any more danger. “This is a fortress.”

“A fortress?” he yelped. “That’s where they’ve been keeping you? You came here willingly, to help your sister. They shouldn’t have locked you up.”

“It’s not like that,” she assured him hastily, feeling a bit ungrateful. Velaris really was beautiful, and they’d taken such pains to make her comfortable. “They’ve been very nice to me. I wish they wouldn’t be so suspicious of you. I’m not supposed to tell you about where we are, even though it really is lovely.”

“Fair enough,” Lucien said. “They don’t trust me. It’s mutual. And I did sabotage their mission, after all.”

“We both did,” she reminded him. Now it was her turn to wink conspiratorially at him.

“Clever Elain,” Lucien chortled, “how did you get the priestesses to help you?”

“I made a friend. Gwyn. She’s a priestess. I’ll introduce you,” Elain said. Then she remembered who else lived in the Library, and her smile grew wider. “In fact, I’ve got a surprise for you, downstairs.”

“Oh?” Lucien leaned forward a little, interest sparkling in his eyes.

“Tomorrow. Or whenever we’re left alone,” Elain promised. Áine must be sleeping by now, anyway.

“If I were them, I wouldn’t let me out of their sight,” Lucien said. “They’ve already underestimated me.”

“People always seem to be doing that. To both of us,” Elain sighed.

Lucien’s grin was wicked. “Good. Then they won’t get in our way.”

“Scoundrel,” Elain laughed, playfully poking him with her finger.

“That’s me,” Lucien agreed, snatching at her finger with his hand, then bringing it to his lips and kissing it. “But you keep saving me, anyway. This is twice now, you know. Twice that you’ve rescued me.”

“You seem determined to keep getting captured,” Elain teased him, but the thought made her angry. “I don’t like that you’re treated so badly.”

“Well,” Lucien said, flushing a bit. “I do seem to have a talent for pissing people off. Eris would say that I’m reckless.”

“Eris provoked a brawl at the summit,” Elain reminded him. She almost added that she’d heard all manner of stories about them as younglings, that she knew full well how thoroughly Eris had had the bravery and goodness tortured out of him by his awful father. But she checked herself. Don’t spoil the surprise.

“True enough. Helion riled him up. That’s rare,” Lucien said. A fleeting pained expression crossed his face, and Elain felt the accompanying pang of anxiety through their bond. Worried about his mother.

“She’s all right,” Elain said. “I know it.”

Lucien’s eyes roved over her face. “You seem so certain of it.”

“I am certain,” she insisted. Don’t ask me why.

“Eris and I would both endure a hundred whippings if it spared our mother,” Lucien said softly. “She doesn’t deserve any of it.” He stroked Elain’s cheek, his fingertips deliciously rough against her skin. “I hope you get a chance to get to know her someday. You’d love her.”

Elain bit her lip, and nodded. She couldn’t say anything else without rousing his suspicions. So she changed the subject. “Has it been half an hour yet?”

“No idea,” Lucien confessed. “But it really does feel better now. I’ve got to get cleaned up, I’m sure I’m an awful fright.”

“I’ve seen you worse,” Elain said, cringing at the memory of that first night she’d visited him in his cell at the manor, how he’d been bloody and bruised, with the ash bolt sticking out of him.

“I made a terrible first impression,” he said, shifting awkwardly on the bed, managing to sit up without too much trouble. “I must have been frightening.”

“You were beautiful,” Elain blurted.

Lucien’s glowing smile warmed her from the inside out. “No, you were beautiful. Still are.” He pulled his ruined shirt the rest of the way off, and Elain quickly forced her eyes back up to his face.

“You still look rather uncivilized, even by human standards,” she added, relieved when he laughed.

“I’ll go fix that,” he said, pushing up to stand, heading towards the bathing chamber, then frowning as his legs wobbled a little. “I’m all right,” he assured Elain quickly, seeing her look of alarm. “Just haven’t slept in a few days, is all.”

“Here, I’ll help you,” she said, jumping up from the bed.

“You don’t have to,” he protested, but when she narrowed her eyes at him, he relented. “All right, all right. Cauldron, you’re terrifying,” he joked, accepting her offered hand, though he didn’t lean on her nearly as much as she thought he should.

Elain opened the door to the bathing chamber. “Good,” she said, and pulled him inside.

Chapter Text

Lucien carefully lowered himself into the bath, hissing at the first splash of water on his ravaged skin. The healer’s salve had done its work, augmenting his natural quick healing so that he barely noticed that gashes on his back, though he was still careful not to lean too heavily against the edge of the tub, not until he’d settled low in the water, so that he could lean more on his neck than his healing wounds. He sighed as the blissful warmth of the bath swept over him, seeping into his muscles, relaxing away all the terror and anguish of the past several days.

I’m here with Elain. She’s safe. I’m safe.

Elain’s sweet honeyed voice floated out to him. “Are you in the tub yet? I’m coming in.”

“I’m really fine,” he protested, embarrassed that he’d needed her help at all, doubly so that she thought he needed her to babysit him in the tub. His muscles had felt like jelly when he’d tried to stand — whether due to some lingering effect of two High Lords paralyzing him in as many days, or the punishing chase through Spring, or simple lack of sleep, he wasn’t sure. It seemed that he was destined to always show up at Elain’s doorstep chained and bloody, though after the outpouring of caring he’d felt from her through the bond, he honestly couldn’t complain.

And watching her stand up to Rhys — it was so sexy, it was almost foreplay.

“If I leave you in there, you’ll fall asleep in the tub, and then I’ll have to haul you out, wet and naked,” Elain insisted, her voice suddenly echoing across the tiled walls as she entered the bathing chamber.

“Would that be so bad?” Lucien asked saucily, craning his neck backwards to make eye contact with her in the mirror.

Elain’s cheeks were flushed, whether from the innuendo or the steam from the bathwater, he couldn’t say. She said nothing, but slid the footstool over to the edge of the tub, then settled herself onto it, leaning back against the porcelain, directly behind him.

“You said tonight was Calanmai. I know you’ve told me what that is, but I’ve forgotten,” she said, reaching up and snag a stray lock of his hair, tugging on it gently.

“It’s the fertility rite,” he said, suddenly thankful that she was facing away from him. “It replenishes the magic in the land.”

Elain tugged at his hair again, sending a little jolt of pleasure right to his cock. Cauldron, she is going to kill me with this. “How? What happens?”

“Well,” he said, trying to be matter of fact. “First, Tamlin kills the sacred stag.”

“Kills?” Elain squawked.

He barked a nervous laugh at the vehemence of her reaction. “According to tradition, the stag gives its life to nourish the land with its blood.”

“That’s wrong. It’s got to be,” Elain sputtered. He imagined that she had an earnest, outraged expression on her face, had folded her arms in indignation, and he bit down on his lip, suppressing his chuckle. Human Feyre had been scandalized by Calanmai, too, though not by the killing part of it. “How can killing make things grow?”

He saw the logic in that, but shrugged, “I don’t make the rules, Elain.”

“Maybe you should,” she snapped.

Not in all the hells. “Maybe you should,” he said pointedly.

Elain tapped her foot on the floor. “So he kills a deer. Then what?”

“Well.” Lucien fumbled around for the proper words. “There are drums, and refreshments, and lots of folk gathered around the sacred cave. There’s dancing and frolicking” — he winced at the silly, inadequate choice of words, thankful that Elain couldn’t see his cheeks heating — “and eligible maidens form a receiving line, waiting for the hunt to finish. The High Lord chooses a partner from among them, and.” Then he paused, hoping Elain would interrupt with some indignant criticism.

But she didn’t. Instead, she twisted around on the footstool, so that suddenly she was hovering over him, her lovely face peering down into his. “And?” she asked softly.

Lucien stared up at her, at her deep sparkling eyes. “And… they enjoy each other,” he said, his mouth suddenly going dry.

“How?” she whispered, reaching for a washcloth and gently swiping at the side of his neck, then his collarbones. “How do they enjoy each other?”

“Exactly like you’d imagine,” Lucien hedged. Warm water cascaded down his skin, tickling and caressing, and he sighed, savoring the pleasant sensations. Tamlin can attack me anytime, if it means Elain cleaning me up afterwards.

Elain gently pushed him to lean forward so she could get at his back. Her hand pressed into the back of his neck as she gently wiped at the salve on his back, the minty smell wafting into the air, mingling with the steam, as she washed it away. “What do I imagine?” she murmured, wringing the washcloth out so that the water streamed down his back, and he hissed at how damn good it felt. “Is this what I imagine?”

Then the washcloth was gone, and Elain’s fingers were on his skin instead, sliding his hair aside. Lucien’s breath caught. “Elain, you don’t have to —”

“Shh,” she said. “I’m imagining.

She pulled at his braid, loosening the cord keeping it contained, then raked her fingers through it, coaxing the strands to spill loose, then cupping water into her hands and pouring it carefully, tilting his head back, then grabbing a bottle of something vaguely floral smelling and slathering it onto her fingers, then plunging her hands into his hair, her nails grazing his scalp.

Lucien closed his eyes, surrendering to Elain’s hands and the warm water and the floral shampoo mingling with her own delectable scent. Maybe Rhys killed me, after all, and I’m in heaven. 

“There,” she murmured, running a hand through the clean strands of his hair, tugging lightly. Then she brushed the strands out of the way, then ran a finger along his ear until she reached the tip. Her other hand ran down his neck, then to his shoulder. Her touch was so slow, so deliberate, so sensual, that he felt his blood fizzing inside his veins.

“Elain,” he groaned.

“Are you imagining anything, Lucien?” she said sweetly, suddenly pressed in close behind him.

Oh gods, am I ever. “Yes,” he said huskily, gripping the edges of the tub. His hands were itching to grab her and haul her into the water with him, clothes and all. He needed her closer, needed her delicious softness pressed up against him, needed her mouth on his —

“Your back is healed,” Elain said, pressing her hand flat against him, where his wound had been.

“I feel better than ever,” he said, arching his back, pressing into her hand, dipping his head back so he could look up at her. “You’re magic, Elain.”

She leaned in closer, her hair falling all around both their faces, her fingers coming up to his jaw, then pressed the softest, sweetest kiss to his lips. “Good. Then get out of the tub.”

Lucien gaped up at her, utterly entranced. He would do anything she asked, anything at all. And yet — “It’s Calanmai everywhere in Prythian, you know,” he murmured against her lips. “Not just Spring.”

“And?” Elain asked, her hands running from his jaw up to his ears, and back, making him shiver.

“I just don’t want you to regret anything,” he said, twisting around in the tub so that he could look into her eyes, hoping she could feel his desire for her, his love. Needing her to understand.

“Why would I?” Elain asked, her eyes sliding down to his bare chest, then back up to his face.

“The magic could be affecting us, pushing us to go further than you’re ready for,” he said. “It enters our bodies — makes us feel things.”

“Don’t you want to feel things?” Elain asked, drawing her arms around his neck and kissing him again, her lips opening, letting him taste her sweetness.

Lucien groaned, hanging on to the tub for dear life. “I already feel things,” he ground out. Gods, so many things. “I want to do anything you want to do, but I want it to be because it’s what you want, not because of magic.”

“This is what I want” she told him, her hand firm on the back of his neck. “I want you.

Lucien’s restraint snapped. He leaped from the tub, hastily drying himself with a blast of power, and grabbed for Elain, yanking her flush against him, kissing her passionately. His senses exploded, flooding him, the feel and taste and scent of her driving him wild.

She really is magic.

He scooped her up into his arms and strode from the bathing chamber, the cooler air of the bedroom quickly warming around them, and lowered Elain to the bed, grinning absurdly when she grabbed for his shoulders, pulling him down next to her. He flicked a finger out at the wards shimmering on the ceiling and walls, rethreading them so that they would keep out intruders, and muffle the sound for good measure. For when I make her cry out in pleasure, he thought wickedly.

“Lucien,” Elain gasped, pressing herself close, kissing him deeply, the silky fabric of her dress teasing against his bare skin. She got onto her knees, grabbing at the material bunching around her hips and stomach, ordering, “Take this off me.”

Lucien obeyed, hooking the fabric between his thumbs and forefingers and smoothly sliding it up and over her head, then tossing it out of the way. Then he paused and admired his mate, taking in the sight of Elain’s full breasts, her sweet curves, her sexy softness laid bare for him, barely covered by her lacy underthings that let her creamy skin and rosy nipples peek through. “Beautiful,” he breathed.

“Touch me,” she demanded.

Lucien reached up for her hand, wrapping it around his other wrist. “Show me where.”

Elain’s eyes darkened as she gripped his wrist, placing his hand on her right breast. “Here,” she breathed, then guided it lower, over the soft curve of her stomach and her rounded hip, “and here.” Then lower still, dipping in between her thighs, sliding her undergarment down and out of the way, to the wetness at her core. “And here.”

Lucien’s fingers curled, finding where to apply just the right amount of pressure, and she gasped, her hand tightening around his wrist. “There.

Lucien teased and circled that spot, palming her breast through the lacy bra with his other hand, then slipped his hand down to her waist so that he could draw her closer, take her nipple into his mouth instead. Elain made little gasps and cries that told him how much she was enjoying herself, and her hands moved to his hair, gripping tightly.

He lifted his head to look at her. “Is this good —“

“Gods, don’t stop,” she cried, shoving his head back down.

Your wish is my command.

He reached around with his free hand to unclasp and remove her bra, then pressed his tongue to her bare nipple, making her arch into him. He kept up his pace at her center, and she gasped, “Lucien — oh —“ He captured her mouth in a deep kiss, feeling her shudder around his hand as she climaxed. 

Elain pulled back, the most delicious look of surprised pleasure gracing her beautiful face. “It’s never felt like that before,” she exclaimed.

He grinned wickedly. “Lay back, and I’ll use my mouth this time.”

“You’ll what?” Her cheeks flushed a pleasant rosy pink.

Didn’t your husband ever — Lucien almost asked her, then answered his own question. Of course he didn’t. Lucien wouldn’t spoil the moment by bringing up that stupid lordling brat, so instead he caressed her arms, her hands and fingers, murmuring, “Would you like to try?”

Her eyes gleamed as she looked into his face. Then her gaze traveled down his body, towards his insistent erection. “What about you?”

“Don’t worry, that’s not going anywhere,” he said. “If you decide you want to.”

“Won’t it hurt you if you don’t finish?” she asked, adorably wrinkling her forehead.

Is that what that asshole told her? “I can take care of it,” he assured her. “We’re doing whatever you want, and no more. We can stop whenever —”

“I don’t want to stop,” she said, pressing her fingers into his chest, trailing tingles and heat downwards as her hands started to move. “I want to feel everything.” She shoved him backwards, tossing her underwear aside and straddling his hips, and he groaned as her wet core slid against his bare cock. “But I want you to feel good, too.”

“I feel good. I feel amazing,” he gasped, gripping her hips. It felt too good, and he wanted to last, bring her to orgasm a few more times, let her stretch. “There are many things we can do before we —“

But Elain had other ideas. “There’ll be time for other things. I want you now,” she demanded, gripping his cock firmly, drawing a moan from him.

“Let me use my fingers first,” he insisted, “get you ready. I-I don’t want it to hurt you.”

Elain blinked. “Graysen said it’s okay if it hurts, it just means I’m stretching. I’ll get through it—”

Lucien growled at that. “It’s not okay with me.” He propped himself up, kissing her firmly. “I don’t want you getting through anything. Whatever you feel should be exactly what you want to feel.”

“Then make me feel good,” Elain said, grabbing his hand and pressing it to her center. “Use your fingers, Lucien.”

Lucien did not have to be told twice. He found her clit first, massaging and circling until he had her writhing and moaning, then said, “Ready?”

Her hand tightened around his wrist, a silent yes. He slid the first finger in. “Gods, you feel so fucking good.” She was so tight, so wet, that he could well imagine how amazing she would feel clenching around his cock.

Elain bucked against his hand, then moaned as his finger rubbed against a spot deep inside her. “More,” she gasped.

Lucien added another finger, and she gripped his shoulders, her nails digging into his flesh. He hoped they would leave marks, so that just once he could have a scar on his skin from pleasure and not torment.

“Lucien,” she hissed, “I need more.

He continued his movements, adding another finger, and she cried out, throwing her head back as she moved on him. He let his fingers heat up slightly, using his other hand to keep stimulating her, and grinned wickedly as Elain climaxed again, panting and crying out his name.

“Now you,” she ordered, grabbing his cock.

“Yes,” he gasped, moaning as her hot hand slid up and down, sending jolts of pleasure through him. He gripped at the bedsheets, willing himself to stay in control. If she keeps this up much longer, I’m going to fall apart.

Now,” Elain said, guiding him toward her, kissing him deeply. “I want to feel you.”

Lucien pressed in gently, watching her, wanting to ensure that he was stretching her slowly. “How’s that,” he asked breathlessly.

More,” she demanded. “I want all of you.” And she pressed forward, making him curse as her delicious heat enveloped more and more of him.

“It’s all yours. I’m all yours,” he said, sliding further in. Elain moved her hips, and he groaned as their bodies pressed closer.

“Say that again,” she demanded, bucking her hips in a silent demand that he start moving.

“I’m yours,” Lucien gasped, sliding out and then back in, drawing a cry from her. He stilled, wanting to be sure she was crying out from pleasure and not discomfort, but then she gripped him tighter, slamming back onto him, making him cry out this time.

“Mine,” Elain declared, starting to move faster. He followed her lead, savoring each new sound she made, each moan and cry.

“And you’re mine,” he growled, losing himself in the rhythm of their movements, reaching up to caress her breast as she moved on him, his other hand steady on her hip, reveling in the soft curves of her gorgeous body, in the sight of her taking her pleasure on top of him.

“I’m close,” she panted, picking up the pace, and Lucien reached for her clit, letting her grind into his hand as she moved on him. Elain cried out, clenching around him as she climaxed, and he erupted in pleasure, going over the edge with her.

Elain,” he cried, shuddering at the intense wave of pleasure that rolled through him. She was still clenching around him, drawing his orgasm out, and he sat up and grabbed for her, wrapping her up in his arms and kissing her, gasping at the way the mating bond pulsed and tightened between them, shimmering golden, sparkling and dancing.

“Is that — magic?” Elain gasped.

“Yes,” Lucien breathed, stunned by the sheer beauty of it, wreathing his fingers in her hair, kissing her again. “Can you see it?”

“I can see it. I can feel it,” she said wonderingly, pressing a hand to her ribs.

“You’re my mate,” he whispered, sliding out of her, then pulling her onto his lap, cradling her tight against his chest. “You’re mine. And I’m yours.”

She smiled up at him, running a delicate fingertip down his scars. “Mine.”

Lucien was content to sit like that, memorizing the heft and feel of her in his arms, until she tilted her head up to him and asked, “What were those other things you said you wanted to do?”

Chapter Text

Feyre balled her hands up into fists, fire sprouting from them. “I’ll kill him.”

“Easy,” Cassian said nervously, eyeing the flames. “Fuck, you’re terrifying.”

“Jurian’s going to find that out the hard way, if he messes with my sister,” Feyre growled, meeting Rhys’s eyes from across the table. Some silent communication passed between them, probably dirty and flirtatious, if Cassian knew his brother, and if their obnoxiously aroused scents were any judge. Feyre’s fire extinguished, though the look she was giving Rhys could have set him on fire instead.

Mor cleared her throat, seeming to notice it too. “Anyway, we should talk about what to do about that. We can’t just sit back and wait for Hybern to attack the estate.”

Rhys blinked rapidly, as if clearing the desire-filled haze that had been fogging his mind. Cassian smirked, knowing full well what his brother and Feyre had gotten up to last night — damn showoff, rattling the mountains like that — and figured that the next days and weeks were going to be a bitch to navigate, especially if Feyre accepted the mating bond. He didn’t relish the thought of having to deal with Rhys while he was fighting the mating frenzy.

“I don’t know what we can do, if your sister doesn’t want any faerie involvement,” Azriel said to Feyre, his shadows pulsing around him, whether due to annoyance at Rhys and Feyre’s antics, or frustration over Nesta and Hybern, Cassian couldn’t tell. “Tamlin’s folk were right to warn her to evacuate, but it sounds like she won’t listen.”

“That’s Nesta,” Feyre said exasperatedly.

“That’s idiocy,” Amren snapped, swirling her glass around. Cassian tried not to look too closely at it, knowing that the red liquid was not juice, or even wine.

Instead, he focused back on Feyre, on his brother’s fierce, magnificent mate. He’d admired her before he even met her, from Rhys’s descriptions of her bravery and daring Under the Mountain, how she’d dispatched that monstrous wyrm and tossed the bone at Amarantha, and Feyre in the flesh fully lived up to his expectations.

But her sister Nesta sounded even more fierce and steely, stubborn as hell, and he was itching to fly down to the human lands and see her for himself. “We should post guards,” he suggested. “I could see to it.”

Az gave him a look, as if he knew full well Cassian's real motivations, but Mor rolled her eyes dramatically. “Don’t be daft. She doesn’t want us anywhere near her manor.”

“She doesn’t have a choice. She has no idea what Hybern could unleash,” Amren said.

“She does, actually,” Feyre said quietly, scraping her fork back and forth across her plate, producing an unpleasant screech that made Cassian’s wings rustle. “Hybern attacked another manor in our village, thinking I was there.”

Rhys’s calm mask slipped, and a look of pure pain and sorrow flashed across his face. Feyre reached for his hand and squeezed it. Cassian had a feeling that he didn’t want to know the full story. Rhys’s guilty expression told him enough.

He put his fork down, suddenly not hungry anymore. After seeing the carnage from the last war, what Hybern’s hordes did to innocents —

“Fuck if I’m going to let that happen,” he burst out. Just thinking about it made him want to shatter the window and fly out, aim straight for that estate, and carry Nesta out kicking and screaming. And the thought of that got his blood racing.

“Jurian apparently promised her they wouldn’t be harmed,” Az said, picking up the letter and examining it again.

“That’s suspicious as hell. We can’t trust him,” Mor scoffed.

“We’ve got to go talk to her in person,” Feyre said. “It’s the only way she’ll listen.”

Thank the Mother. “When do we leave?” Cassian asked, starting to stand up.

Rhys eyed him appraisingly. “Cauldron, you’re jumpy. We need a plan first. We can’t just go barging across the Wall.”

Like fuck we can’t. “Fine,” Cassian grumbled, picking his fork back up, suddenly ravenous again.

“You said she doesn’t want faeries near the manor. She might not receive you,” Amren pointed out. “This could backfire, make her even less cooperative.”

“She’ll listen to Elain,” Feyre suggested. “Elain’s not a faerie. And they were always close, even during the hardest times.”

“You want to involve Elain in this?” Azriel asked, concerned. “She’s an innocent.”

Rhys snorted. “That’s what you think. You’re forgetting that she and her mate sabotaged our mission. Without any of us realizing. Or either of them so much as setting foot in Summer.”

“Yet they’re up at the House, sleeping late in comfort, not in a dungeon,” Amren drawled.

Feyre snarled, “That is my sister you’re talking about.”

“No one’s going to hurt your sister. Either sister,” Cassian said quickly, and gave Amren a mocking grin. He rather hoped she would snap back, give him an excuse to get out some of his pent-up aggression, but she only rolled her eyes and sipped her drink.

Rhys violet eyes glittered. “We do have Elain to thank for your sister’s serving folk helping us. And her fireling, as the letter calls him.” He smirked at that, but then grew serious again. “As much as I despise it, we need both of them. The folk are loyal to them, and Feyre darling is right. Nesta will only listen to her human sister.”

“So when do we leave?” Cassian asked, tapping his fingers on the table.

“We need to talk to Elain and Lucien, come up with a strategy,” Rhys said. What’s your hurry? he added, his voice questioning in Cassian’s mind.

Just can’t stand the thought of Hybern getting their fucking claws in Feyre’s sister, Cassian answered.

“Can we trust Lucien?” Azriel questioned.

“He seemed sincere enough last night,” Mor said. She looked at Rhys. “What’s your quarrel with him, anyway?”

“Besides that he’s loyal to Tamlin?” Rhys scoffed.

“I was loyal to Tamlin,” Feyre said, with sudden vehemence. “I married Tamlin. I died for Tamlin.”

An oppressive, uncomfortable silence fell across the table.

“You left Tamlin,” Mor finally managed to say.

“So did Lucien,” Feyre said.

“He didn’t leave. We took him,” Cassian argued, though he had the feeling that the male would have chosen to leave of his own accord, if he hadn’t been shackled.

Rhys shifted uncomfortably in his chair. “Lucien did offer to accompany Feyre when she came here. All of this unpleasantness could have been avoided, had I not refused.”

“Of course you refused. He was a security risk,” Azriel said flatly. “Still is.”

“Not while we have his mate,” Amren declared. “He won’t risk being parted from her.”

Mor and Rhys exchanged a look that Cassian couldn’t interpret. But Rhys only shook his head, then turned back to the table. “If we want Elain and Lucien to convince the humans to trust us, we can’t be heavy-handed.”

“Lucien risked his life for me,” Feyre pointed out. “Suffered for me. Those welts on his back…I knew it was bad, but seeing the evidence of it was something else.” She shuddered, as if recalling some awful sight. “He said he’d do it again gladly. I think we need to give him a chance. All of us.”

Rhys nodded. “Lucien could be our secret weapon, if we’re smart about it.”

“Emphasis on secret,” Amren said. “From the sound of things, Tamlin’s already on the warpath because you left, girl. If Tamlin finds out we’ve got his fireling too —“

No one’s finding out,” Rhys said gravely. “Lucien being here is our secret, and ours alone.”

* * * *

“Come on, they’ll be worried,” Elain whispered, tugging at Lucien’s hand, drawing him towards the bedroom door. “I’m usually there first thing in the morning.”

“Who’s they? Where are we going?” he asked, squeezing her hand, his calloused fingertips deliciously rough against her skin. Elain shivered pleasantly at the memories of those fingertips exploring every inch of her last night and again this morning, wrenching so much pleasure out of her that she thought she might burst open. She’d meant to suggest that Lucien sleep, that he surely needed to rest after his ordeal, but they’d both been insatiable for each other, whether due to the magic of Calanmai, or the anxiety and sorrow of their separation finally easing, she couldn’t tell.

“You’ll see,” Elain said mysteriously, then frowned when the door wouldn’t budge.

She’d finally cuddled up to sleep just before dawn, cradled in Lucien’s arms, and had awoken to him still holding her this morning, so warm and safe and wonderful that she’d considered just not getting out of bed at all. For all their hosts knew, they were securely locked in the room together, expected to stay put except summoned, and it seemed like the perfect excuse to pounce on Lucien again, or tease and stroke him until he pounced on her. 

But then she’d remembered that she’d left Áine downstairs in a frantic hurry, and that Lucien was anxious for his mother’s safety, and decided that pouncing would have to wait until afterwards. So she’d slid out of bed and washed up, then found a new dress waiting for her in the closet, along with fine new clothes for Lucien that looked to be just his size, and a tray of breakfast on the desk in the corner, all due to some magic of the House of Wind that she didn’t understand.

“Thank you,” she’d whispered, knowing that the House wasn’t a creature, but feeling like she ought to recognize its efforts anyway.

Lucien had stirred then, smiling radiantly at her. “Good morning, mate.

It seemed ludicrous, that one little word could send such tingles coursing through her, could stir that deep well of love and connection inside her. It was all she could do to stay upright. “Get up, I’ve got a surprise for you,” she’d said, adding, “Mate,” grinning at the way that Lucien’s whole body seemed to glow and shimmer. She would say it again and again, just to see him look like that.

Once they’d both dressed and were suitably put together, Elain was eager to get going, but she gestured towards the breakfast tray. “Should we eat first? It looks delicious.” She’d looked down at the eggs and pancakes, the ripe strawberries, and motioned to Lucien’s mouth, playfully adding, “I could feed you.”

Lucien was by her side in an instant, his russet eye blazing, while his golden one unfurled as wide as it would go. His voice was reverent as he explained, “If you offer me food, and I eat it, that means you’re accepting the mating bond, Elain.”

“I thought I already did,” she’d pouted, grabbing a strawberry and aiming it at him.

“This makes it permanent,” he’d said. “If that’s what you want —“

She’d grabbed his jaw with her free hand, then angled the food toward him. “Eat this. Now.”

Lucien took a bite, then another, his eyes never leaving her face, until his lips were covered in red juice, and the fruit was gone.

Then he was kissing her, tasting of strawberries and sweetness, and her whole scheme to take him to his mother had to wait. The act of feeding him had triggered some special magic that made her body ache for him, that made her want to shove him back down on the bed and yank off all the clothes he’d just put on.

Some small, prim, human part of her objected that it was all rather wild and strange, but she firmly decided that she didn’t care. Her mate was a faerie, and those silly human hangups didn’t apply north of the Wall. I’m as good as faerie now. I might even have magic of my own.

“Come here, let me feed you,” he’d begged her, after he’d brought her to release and then again.

“Will that trigger any more magic?” Elain had asked.

“No, I just want you to enjoy these delicious strawberries,” he’d chuckled, but there was a gleam in his eye. “Though I do find it rather unfair that I can’t claim you this way.” And he brought her the fruit, feeding it to her with those skilled, wicked fingers of his.

It was the most satisfying breakfast she’d ever had.

After getting cleaned up a second time, Elain could finally put her plan into action. Now she stood by impatiently while Lucien pressed his hands to the door, which had refused to budge no matter how she yanked on it, until a glimmering mass of golden threads shimmered into view. “Quite the impressive tangle,” Lucien chuckled. “No wonder they left us alone.”

“What are they?” Elain asked, wrinkling her brow.

“Warding spells,” Lucien replied. He ripped at the golden threads, creating a jagged tear in the golden fabric, then grimaced at his handiwork. “I need lessons from Helion. It will be obvious to Rhys that I tampered with these.”

“If he tries to hurt you, I’ll tamper with him,” Elain said darkly.

But Lucien gripped her shoulders, his metal eye clicking rapidly. “Rhys might just be the most powerful faerie that’s ever lived. He has powers beyond any other High Lord, frightening, unnatural abilities that I hope you never have to see in action.” He took a shuddery breath. “If he  threatens or hurts you, I’ll try to kill him, and that won’t end well, but I’ll do it anyway. So if we can avoid conflict with him, I’d prefer it.”

Elain drew her arms around his neck and kissed him, trying to reassure him. “The week I was here as a guest, I heard a lot of talking,” she said conspiratorially, letting him pull her through the glimmering wards, slipping into the quiet corridors of the House of Wind. “Did you know the spymaster’s brothers burned him alive when they were children, and his father kept him in a dungeon?”

Lucien winced sympathetically. “I thought my father and brothers were awful.”

Elain looked carefully down each corridor, ensuring that they had a clear path. “And Mor? Her father severely abused and injured her.” She shook her head, remembering her horror at hearing the story of how Mor had escaped the Court of Nightmares. “My point is, Rhys left all those awful people alive. Mor’s father still rules as his steward, all these centuries later. If they can get away with those terrible crimes against Rhys’s own family members, surely you might be forgiven for ripping a few spells.”

Lucien was stunned. “I’ve seen Rhys kill so many times, and heard him threaten the utterly innocent — I just assumed he’d strike without hesitation.”

“I can’t claim to understand it,” Elain shrugged. “And if I didn’t know how it feels to be mates, I’d have no idea why my sister chose him, either.”

Lucien’s arm drew around her, and she leaned into his warmth, accepting the sweet kiss that he pressed to her forehead. “That pesky mating magic, binding sweet lovely females to us awful faerie monsters.”

“See, you did lure me, after all,” Elain joked, but then grabbed his face, kissing him soundly, when she saw his worried expression. “You’re not a monster, or the magic wouldn’t have given you to me. Anyway, you showed up at my manor. I think I lured you.”

“You did. The moment I crossed the Wall, I was drawn to you, like a fish being reeled in on a line. And then when I saw you, even in the midst of all that chaos — I never had a chance.” Lucien chuckled. “And thank the Cauldron for that.”

Elain kissed him again, but quickly pulled away, realizing that they would never get anywhere if she let things go any further. They were both insatiable — from the frenzy, he’d called it, that magical state that drove the newly mated to consummate their bond almost non-stop. The thought was so enticing that she almost dragged Lucien right back to the bedroom. Later.

“We’d better hurry,” she said, tugging him along. “The stairwell’s just here.”

Lucien paused, looking around, his metal eye clicking softly, then said, “Does Rhys know that you have been going downstairs?”

Elain shrugged. “No one ever told me I couldn’t.” She smiled, then beckoned. “Your surprise awaits.”

Lucien kissed her. “Lead the way.”

Elain nodded, then threaded her fingers through his. And together, they descended the stairs.

Chapter Text

Gwyn settled the last book onto the pile, sighing with relief. Yesterday’s tasks were finally done, and she might still have time to deliver the books before it was noticed that she’d failed to deliver them yesterday. Maybe Merrill won’t yell at me, if they’re all there when she arrives. Even with Áine’s help, she still struggled to fulfill all of Merrill’s requests, and she worried that she’d be scolded if Merrill knew that she was receiving help at all.

Áine offered. Who am I to say no?

Gwyn couldn’t help but smile as she thought of sweet Áine, who never failed to be helpful, warm and comforting, despite being a High Lord’s consort. She could have been imperious and cruel, had every right to demand special treatment, yet she was content to mingle with the priestesses, and humbly offered to assist wherever she could.

Gwyn had few memories of her own dear mother, had been cared for and protected by Catrin as long as she could remember, but she imagined that her mother had been the same sort of beautiful soul that Áine was — nurturing, quick to laugh, and fiercely strong in that quiet, patient way that females often were. It wasn’t fair that Áine had had to flee her awful husband, leave her children behind and hide herself away, and Gwyn wondered why the magic always seemed to favor the worst sort of males, who used their power to torture and destroy.

Gwyn pushed her cart, humming to herself, wondering if Elain would come down today. She’d left in an awful hurry, had seemed worried, even afraid, and Gwyn hoped that it wasn’t due to some trouble with the message they’d sent. She’d taken a risk by getting involved, even more so by involving her few priestess-sisters remaining at Sangravah, but she’d do anything to fight Hybern, even if it meant breaking a few rules. I owe Catrin that much.

She paused at the door to Merrill’s office, listening, then cracked the door open and slipped inside. She placed the books carefully on the desk, where Merrill would expect them, resisting the temptation to read the manuscript left open — Merrill’s latest project, a history of the Valkyries, a tribe of female warriors. Imagine being so powerful, so skilled, that you are able to defend yourself and others.

That led Gwyn’s thoughts too close to the darkness, too close to the wound that she could never fully heal, so she quickly retreated, shutting the office door, and took deep breaths as she spiraled back up the passageway. The Library was quiet, settled, its dim lights twinkling in the corners of her vision, and she began to sing as she passed the bookshelves, winding her way to her usual table, where she might share a pot of tea with Áine, or sit in comfort and read on her own.

But then a bright light poured into the usually dark and cavernous hall, as though the ceiling had been opened and the sun’s rays let in. It felt warm and golden, like long ago memories of running through fields while she laughed with her sister, and Gwyn gasped in pleased surprise, blinking rapidly to help her eyes adjust. Then she gripped her long robes in one hand so that she wouldn’t trip, and broke into a run.

The light settled as she got closer, from near-blinding white to a soft yellow-orange, and Gwyn could see that it emanated not from the ceiling or a bank of windows, but from three faeries, all wreathed in the golden glow, and Gwyn squealed and picked up the pace when she realized that she recognized two of them, and could guess who the third one was very well.

“Oh, Elain!” she cried, clapping her hands together. “You’ve brought him at last!”

Elain nodded eagerly, stepping towards Gwyn, grasping her hands. “You’ll never believe what’s happened,” she gushed, her sweet face radiant and smiling.

But Gwyn could guess perfectly well, as she gazed at the handsome dark-skinned male with the fiery hair. He was just as Elain had described him, down to his glittering golden eye and rugged scars, and he had his arms wrapped around Áine, who was clutching him and softly sobbing.

“This is your mate,” Gwyn said wonderingly.

Elain bit her bottom lip, gazing back at the male, her eyes raking over him in a way that Gwyn had only read about in romance novels. “We’re really mates now,” she whispered confidentially, her face flushing with some secret memory. Gwyn’s novels had given her ideas about that, too, and she giggled at the thought of it.

But Áine was pulling back, clasping her son’s face in her hands, exclaiming, “Oh, Sunshine, it’s been so long. I wasn’t sure when I’d see you again. How did you get here?”

Elain’s mate was chuckling. “I was going to ask you the same question. After what happened at the summit, I was so afraid.”

Áine smiled. “Eris arranged everything, even bargained with the High Lord. He was sworn to secrecy, so don’t blame him for not telling you.”

“For once, I don’t blame him at all.” The male drew an arm around her shoulders. “You’ll have to tell me all about it.”

“Come in,” Gwyn suggested, stepping forward. “You can sit down inside, have refreshments.”

The male inclined his head respectfully to her. “You must be Gwyn. Elain was just telling me about you.” He turned back to his mother, wryly remarking, “She did not tell me about you.

“Sneaky,” Áine laughed, grasping for Elain’s hand and then pulling her into a hug. “This was a lovely surprise, for both of us.”

“It’s better than any mating present,” Elain’s mate said, turning Elain’s face to his and giving her a chaste but somehow very suggestive kiss. Gwyn averted her eyes, even as Áine cried, “Mating present? Oh, Lucien, have you two accepted the bond?”

“We have, Mother.” Lucien’s smile was radiant. “Don’t worry, we can still have a ceremony.” His metal eye made a strange clicking sound. “Whenever the time is right, of course.” He looked around, suddenly seeming to notice their surroundings. “What is this place?”

“Come in, and we’ll show you,” Gwyn said excitedly, bouncing on her toes.

Lucien acquiesced, holding out his arms to escort both Elain and Áine, as if leading them out onto the dance floor of a fancy ballroom, and Gwyn led the way, selecting a large table on an upper floor, arranging for a pot of Áine’s favorite cinnamon tea and sweet rolls, which Lucien pronounced almost as flavorful as the ones from Autumn.

“So when is the last time you two saw each other?” Gwyn asked, when they were all seated.

Áine patted her son’s head, her fingers lingering near his jagged scars. “Under the Mountain. But I’m afraid we didn’t get to really talk or interact much.”

“Beron made sure she was well guarded,” Lucien said, with a hint of bitterness in his tone. “Either by himself, or one of my brothers.” He smiled sadly, taking his mother’s hand. “I know that was hard for you, seeing me go through all that and not being able to do anything about it.”

“It was awful. Knowing you were suffering, in pain, and to not even be able to sit at your bedside…” Áine shuddered. “I was only able to help the Cursebreaker that one time. Beron was… not happy with me, when he realized what I’d done. Or with Eris, for allowing it.”

Gwyn frowned at the thought of a son having that sort of authority over his mother. Autumn sounds like an awful place, if females are treated like that.

Elain must have thought the same, for she declared, “It was like that in the human realm too. Men had all the power.”

Lucien asked, “Even the places ruled by queens?”

That piqued Gwyn’s interest. “Queens? Not Kings?”

“Queens,” Elain confirmed. “Six of them. Just as wicked and selfish as kings would have been.” She took a sip of her tea, then daintily set it down. “The queens themselves have plenty of rights, but they haven’t ensured that the rest of us women are as free to do what we like. Who puts these wicked people in power? Why can’t it be someone kind and generous?”

Gwyn had never thought about it like that, but she supposed that the kind and generous would struggle to stay in power, that they would eventually turn ruthless and wicked, or be overthrown by someone who was. That was the way of things. Even good High Lords like Rhysand had their blind spots, she supposed.

Áine said, “In Prythian, the magic chooses the next High Lord. The heir gains powers and strength as he grows.” She patted Lucien’s hand fondly. “Your beautiful glow, for example. So much like your father.”

Lucien shifted uncomfortably. “I don’t want Helion’s court.”

Áine’s voice was gentle. “Hopefully Helion will be around for a long, long time, and you won’t have to worry about it. But the power is there, whether you want it or not.”

Lucien said firmly, “I don’t want to rule over anyone except myself.”

Gwyn couldn’t help but quip, “That makes you more qualified to rule than anyone we’ve got now.” She felt a bit disloyal for saying so — the High Lord and his court had been nothing but kind to her — but she didn’t appreciate how they’d tried to keep her friend from so much as writing a letter to her mate. It seemed so heavy-handed, so cruel to keep them apart like that, especially since Elain was mortal. Who knew how much time she and Lucien would have together? She watched Lucien carefully, feeling a great sense of pity for him. How would he cope after his mate passed away, from illness or old age?

Lucien must have felt her eyes upon him, for he turned to her then, but his expression was open and friendly. “How about you? You’re from Autumn.”

Gwyn burst out laughing. “I’m no High Lord. I’m not even fully High Fae.”

Áine shifted uncomfortably, and Lucien’s eyes dropped to his hands. But then they swept back up to her, the metal one clicking rapidly. “So much the better.”

Gwyn sensed that she had stumbled onto a fraught topic, and she started to stammer an apology. But Lucien waved his hand. “As far as I’m concerned, we ‘high’ fae are not higher or superior in any way. If anything, we are lower, for all the harm we’ve done.”

“Surely not you,” Gwyn said.

A look of pure pain passed across Lucien’s features. “I’ve done plenty.”

His mother stated sternly, “That was not your fault.” She gave Gwyn a significant look that Gwyn took to mean I’ll explain later.

Elain pulled Lucien close and turned his face so she could kiss his cheek, pressing her lips to his scars, and Gwyn hastily turned towards Áine, wanting to give them privacy. “I definitely see the resemblance,” she said.

Áine’s look was one of pure motherly pride, even as she said, “He looks so much like his father.” She sighed. “That didn't exactly serve him well, growing up in Autumn.”

When Gwyn turned back to Lucien, he was gazing around at the Library, wonder and surprise on his face. “I had no idea the Night Court had places like this.”

“See? It’s not all terror and wickedness,” Elain said.

Gwyn was surprised at that, but Áine explained, “All of this is hidden from the outside world. The other courts only know about the Hewn City and Illyria, and not much about even that.”

Gwyn scrunched her eyebrows. “Why the secrecy?” But she answered her own question, remembering Sangravah, the children, Catrin. “To protect us from outside enemies, like Hybern, I suppose.”

Lucien nodded gravely. “Rhys is right to be cautious. Amarantha would have delighted in burning this place to ashes, had she known about it.” He chuckled ruefully. “I’m pretty sure I’m not supposed to know about it.”

“And you would be right about that,” a dark, rich voice cut in.

Gwyn whirled around, startled, then hastily bowed her head. “High Lord.”

Chapter Text

Lucien gripped the edge of the table, determined not to panic. He would not show weakness, not cower, not beg or plead. Rhys wouldn’t disturb this place of sanctuary for the priestesses, not even to revenge himself on me.

But Lucien’s teeth were on edge, his whole body taut, ready to lash out if Rhys threatened his mate, or his mother or Gwyn. He knew it was pointless, that Rhys could mist him or shatter his mind in half a moment, but he’d fight anyway, spend his last moments of life defending those who mattered most to him.

Rhys seemed to know it, too, for he smoothly said, “Come walk with me, little fox,” like they were going for a friendly stroll, like he wasn’t going to thrash Lucien as soon as they were alone.

Elain’s hand gripped his tightly, her fingernails digging into his skin. “Don’t,” she whispered, her eyes wide.

“Elain. I have to,” Lucien said consolingly, caressing her face with his free hand. “It isn’t right to put the rest of you at risk —“

Elain’s grip on him tightened. It was surprisingly strong, especially for a human, and he couldn’t help but shiver at the tingly sensations that shot through him, to be wanted and held like that. He breathed her scent in deeply, savoring the warmth and closeness of her that he didn’t want to think about losing forever, assuring her, “I’ll be all right,” although they both knew he might not be.

“Gwyn, why don’t I help you with that project you were working on?” his mother said nervously, gesturing to the young priestess, who for all the world looked like the Vanserra daughter she’d never had. It was a mystery Lucien had wanted to unravel, though now it looked like he’d never have the chance.

My mother. How he’d nearly burst with happiness to see her again, to find her whole and safe, and in the Night Court of all the Cauldron-damned places. Beron would never find her here, would never even think to look for. Being torn apart by Rhys was almost worth it, to know that his mother was somewhere safe, and that Eris had bargained to ensure it. I’d thank him, if I thought I’d live long enough to see him again.

But Lucien had gotten to see his mother one last time, really see her, not exchange furtive glances across rooms or try to dodge his asshole family to sneak an unguarded moment with her. He would have to take comfort in that.

She and Elain can console each other after I’m gone. That thought was almost a comfort, as well.

Gwyn stood up awkwardly, her heavy robe catching on the edge of the chair, toppling it with a loud thunk. Lucien’s cheeks burned with shame, knowing Gwyn had suffered some horror in order to end up living here, and he hated that he was the cause of her distress, that she felt like she was in danger again because of his stupid actions. He cringed even further as priestesses all over the Library looked up from their books, a few ducking instinctively behind the stacks, others whispering to each other or just gaping at the sight of the High Lord confronting someone who’d displeased him.

Rhys slid his hands into his pockets, coolly observing as Gwyn hastily righted the chair, gathering the fabric of her robes into a pale freckled hand, then cocked his head to the side as his gaze shifted from Gwyn to Áine, then back to Gwyn again. “Interesting,” he murmured. Gwyn only curtsied to him, then moved briskly from the table, then waited for Áine to join her. Neither female spoke to the High Lord.

Lucien’s heart twisted to see that his mother had bowed her head, had shrunk into herself, the way he’d so often seen her do with Beron. She had learned to survive by making herself small, unthreatening, suppress any hint of power that might threaten Beron’s fragile ego, or any anger or defiance that challenged him. It made Lucien furious — at Beron, for the horrors he’d inflicted on the wife he should have loved and cherished, at himself for putting her in this awkward and potentially dangerous position, and at Rhys, for inspiring fear in her, even if he did rescue her to begin with. 

Lucien still hadn’t quite figured out how all that had happened, why Rhys had even done it. He hadn’t hesitated to threaten her to get under Lucien’s skin, had thrown her sorrow and disappointment in Lucien’s face on multiple occasions. Rhys had no love for the Autumn Court, either, and it seemed a bad idea to mess with Beron right when Prythian was trying to unite for the war effort. So why take the risk of taking in Áine, and bargaining with Eris?

Who knows why Rhys does anything? He was so secretive, so unfathomable. It was what made him such a difficult opponent.

Elain must have noticed Áine’s reaction, too, for she proclaimed, loudly enough for the whole Library to hear, “Don’t worry, Áine. Rhys is kind and good. He would not hurt your son.”

Rhys’s eyes flashed, as though he was ready to argue the point, but now every priestess’s eye was fixed on the High Lord, as though they were all waiting for him to confirm or deny it. Lucien had never seen Rhys look unruffled or uncomfortable, even in tense situations Under the Mountain that certainly would have called for it. But with all of these gentle survivors staring at him, waiting for his reaction, the High Lord’s impenetrable calm seemed to slip, and he looked chagrined, even a little guilty.

Your mate is really pushing it, Rhys’s frustrated voice echoed in his mind, and Lucien tried not to jump at the intrusiveness of it.

Like your mate would be any different, Lucien shot back, staring at Elain, at her gentle beauty turned into something cunning, defiant and fierce. If he hadn’t already been desperately in love with her, he would have fallen irrevocably for her, right then and there.

My mate would have called me a prick, probably thrown something at me.

And you’d enjoy every second of it, Lucien thought, then winced when he remembered that Rhys could hear him.

A wry grin tugged at one corner of Rhys’s mouth, confirming the truth of it, even as he answered with utmost solemnity, “I merely wish to consult Lucien about a diplomatic matter.”

Lucien’s mother looked visibly relieved, though she did not dare raise her eyes again. Lucien’s fists clenched, but he tried to sound nonchalant as he said, “I’m assuming this is about my message?”

“Indeed it is,” Rhys said. He glanced at Elain, and Lucien clamped down hard on the urge to throttle him, like any male who dared look at his mate. Don’t be feral. He’s mated to her sister. “Perhaps Elain should join us as well.”

Gwyn got a strange guilty look on her face, and Lucien suddenly realized why. She thinks we’re talking about that other message, the one about the Summer Court mission.

He had no idea how to reassure Gwyn, or hint to her to put on a neutral expression, without drawing Rhys’s attention to her. Even thinking about it in front of Rhys was dangerous. Mercifully, his mother came to the rescue, tugging discreetly on Gwyn’s sleeve. The priestess jolted, then composed herself quickly, plastering on a neutral expression. It was suspicious as hell, but if Rhys noticed, he didn’t say so.

Elain stood up, resting a hand possessively on Lucien’s shoulder. He tried not to react, though every instinct inside him was screaming at him to scoop her up in his arms and get her away from Rhys, from anyone that could threaten or interrupt them, and then once they were alone, get her on a bed and —

Stop. This isn’t helping.

But Elain’s hand curled more tightly around him, as though she knew exactly what he was struggling not to think about. And Rhys smirked at him, as though he knew it, too.

He’s probably going to keep me in meetings for hours, just to make me suffer.

Elain was ahead of him again, declaring, “Yes, we are both eager to assist you, High Lord. We’ll be available right after dinner.”

She was so utterly calm and composed, perfectly playing her part with faintly bemused boredom, like any good faerie diplomat would. Even a Vanserra couldn’t do better.

Lucien bit down hard on his lower lip to keep from laughing at the flummoxed expression on Rhys’s face. Elain’s smile was stubbornly sincere, and Lucien wanted to kiss those smiling lips until she was smiling for him instead.

The High Lord recovered quickly, purring, “I appreciate both of your cooperation. But as this is a matter of some urgency, I must insist that we meet as soon as possible. The lives of many innocents are at stake.”

Gwyn gasped, “Are we in danger?” then immediately clapped a hand over her mouth, as though she could trap the words and shove them back down her throat.

Rhys opened his mouth, as if to reassure her, but then he looked down at the table, at their tea cups and sweet rolls and the little vase of flowers in water, and said, “Are those flowers moving?”

They all looked down, and Lucien stiffened when he saw that leafy tendrils from the cut roses were snaking across the table, winding around utensils and the handles of their teacups. One tendril had even wrapped itself around his wrist and forearm, and he suppressed the urge to burn it away, or rip himself free, sensing that he shouldn’t injure the plant, that it was somehow important.

It was so odd, so unlike magic he’d seen used in any court, and yet it felt oddly familiar. Where have I seen plants do this before?

Elain exclaimed, “Oh!” and grabbed for him, the tendrils instantly uncurling and peeling away from his arm as soon as her fingers brushed them.

“Interesting,” Rhys murmured, and Lucien resisted the urge to burn him away instead. He didn’t like the idea of Rhys finding Elain interesting in any way.

But it was interesting, all the same.

I told Elain she was magic — I was more right than I knew. His heart swelled, even as he worried about the fact that Rhys knew about it.

Áine was next to Elain, saying softly, “Just as I told you. You do have magic.”

Lucien felt oddly jealous then, though he wasn’t sure of whom. He loved the thought of his mother and Elain getting to know each other, keeping each other company, becoming real friends — yet hated the fact that he hadn’t been here to enjoy it.

Don’t be selfish. They might never see each other again because you’re here, spoiling it all.

“But how?” Elain asked, her voice somewhere between a whisper and a wail.

“It isn’t unheard of for humans to possess magic,” Rhys assured her, his annoyance at her seemingly forgotten for the moment. “We should speak to Amren about it.”

We? Lucien caught his indignant retort between his teeth. Instead, he said smoothly, “Perhaps it would be best if Elain rests for a little while, and settles her magic, before our meeting.”

Rhys’s violet eyes flashed, but he said, “Fair enough.”

Lucien stood up, drawing a protective arm around Elain’s waist, feeling her trembling confusion. “Thank you for the lovely refreshments,” he said to Gwyn, then leaned down to kiss his mother’s cheek. It was the kind of casual affectionate gesture he’d been denied for so long, and he couldn’t help the pang of sadness that he felt, especially because he wasn’t sure when he’d see her again.

Áine’s eyes were shining with unshed tears, even as she smiled with a genuine radiance that warmed the room. “I’ll see you soon, Sunshine.”

Elain threaded her fingers through Lucien’s, leaning her head on his arm as they walked towards the Library exit.

Sunshine? Rhys’s voice chortled in his mind. She calls you that?

It’s been my nickname since childhood, Lucien answered irritably.

And you never guessed Helion was your father, despite that obvious clue? I had thought you were more clever than that, little fox.

Lucien dared ask, Are you planning to tell Helion she’s here?

We’ll have to discuss that. I definitely will be telling Helion how you shredded my wards, however. Do that again, and I shall have to chain you.

Lucien did not have to turn around, but knew that he’d see Rhys’s smirking face behind him if he did. So he responded cheekily, Just leave me where my mate can find me, and I won’t complain.

Then he guided Elain up the stairs, Rhys’s filthy chuckle chasing after them.

* * * *

Elain snuggled closer into Lucien, savoring his comfortable heat, his strong arms holding her. They’d been enjoying each other most of the afternoon, and she was deliciously exhausted, her body wrung out from pleasure. She’d had no idea sex could feel like this, that it could not only not hurt but feel amazing, and Lucien seemed to know just the right places to put his hands and mouth, while she felt clumsy and inexperienced by comparison. But he insisted that she made him feel better than anyone else ever had, and she felt such love and satisfaction from him through their bond that she decided to believe him.

She knew it couldn’t last forever, that this reprieve would end, and they’d have to face Rhys and Feyre and their Inner Circle again. Elain had been determined not to let Rhys bully Lucien, even if it was his court and he was an all powerful High Lord. She didn’t see how that gave him the right to keep Lucien locked up when he’d done nothing to deserve it, or deny him access to his mother, any more than Tamlin had the right to keep Feyre cooped up in the manor, or throw furniture when something displeased him.

Elain could have laughed out loud, remembering what a timid little thing she’d been back at the Nolan estate, when Graysen had tried to forbid her from going to rooms in her very own home. I thought I had to be obedient towards him, just because he was my husband. Elain was determined never to let anyone, even a High Lord, have that kind of power over her mind again.

What would Graysen think if he knew I had magic? He’d probably curse her for a witch, or accuse her of having faerie blood. It made her even more grateful than ever that she’d chosen to cross the Wall.

She sighed and ran her fingers up and down Lucien’s chest, the thin shirt he had thrown on doing nothing to hide his muscular body, like that day at the pool of starlight, when she’d enjoyed gazing every inch of him through his wet clothing. He was more muscular than Graysen, more toned and much stronger, but still lithe and graceful, and Elain couldn’t get enough of feeling him pressed up against her.

“Hello, sweetheart,” Lucien murmured, his eyelids fluttering open. He’s exhausted. In their euphoria at being mated, and the frenzy, she’d forgotten that he’d spent the past three days running for his life, then wounded and shackled, then hauled here and nearly wounded and shackled all over again. “What time is it?”

“Late. I think we missed lunch,” Elain said, then giggled when a platter of sandwiches and cookies materialized on the bedside table. She grabbed the nearest sandwich, a concoction of turkey slices and crunchy lettuce, and held it out to him, and he leaned forward and took an obnoxiously large bite, making a big show of chewing it. It reminded her again of their outing to pool of starlight, where he’d quickly passed off the sandwich she’d tried to give him, and all the other times he could have pushed things along and had chosen to be patient.

“Now you,” Lucien urged, nudging the sandwich back in her direction. “Using magic requires nourishment, you know.” His golden eye clicked. “I do wish Rhys hadn’t seen that. He’s likely to want to exploit it in some way.”

Elain shrugged. “He’s not so bad as all that, is he?”

Lucien whooshed out a breath. “After what I saw today, Elain? I just don’t know.” He took another bite of the turkey sandwich, chewing as he thought it over. “He’s cruel, but not heartless. That Library is something else, with all those survivors…” He grimaced. “Putting the last fifty years aside is going to be a challenge. But I’ll do it, if it means safety for my mother.”

“And winning the War,” Elain reminded him, remembering the bits and pieces of prophecy that Feyre had shared at the summit from that mysterious Suriel creature.

“And winning the War,” Lucien agreed, gently curving a hand around the back of her head, guiding her to take a bite of the sandwich. “Rhys is going to ask something of us. He isn’t keeping me around because of some bargain with Eris.”

“Should we go snoop around and try to find out?” Elain suggested slyly.

His russet eye gleamed, but the golden one clicked nervously. “I don’t want to piss him off any more than what he already is. You may be Feyre’s sister, and he’s been lenient because of that, but I don’t want to test the limits.”

“And Eris says you’re reckless,” she teased him. “That sounds downright responsible.”

“Don’t worry, I’m sure I’ll be back to impulsively angering High Lords and getting myself chased out of every court in Prythian soon enough.” Lucien was giving her a roguish grin, but she saw the pain behind it, and leaned in to kiss him. He responded eagerly, but when he spoke again, he still sounded sad. “You’re mated to the most notorious faerie in Prythian, other than Rhysand and maybe Feyre. I don’t want to drag you down with me.”

“Stop that,” Elain said sternly. “No one is dragging you anywhere.”

Then Rhys was outside the door, crooning, “I’m going to drag you both out of there, if you insist on keeping us waiting any longer.” There was a distant shout from the other room, and he called out, “Relax, Feyre darling. I’m just letting them know the meeting’s starting.”

Lucien rolled his eyes at Elain. “How many minutes do you need to get ready?”

She looked down at herself — she was dressed only in a tiny nightdress. “Ten minutes?”

He nodded, then said louder, “Thanks, Rhys. We’ll be out in twenty.”

Elain swatted at him. “What was that about not angering High Lords?”

Lucien shifted on the bed, giving her a beautiful view down the front of his shirt to his broad chest, and she curled her fingers so that she wouldn’t use up all twenty minutes satisfying that insatiable urge that the frenzy had inspired in her. “Old habits die hard?” he shrugged, then laughed. “Rhys warned me not to shred the wards again, so I rethreaded them extra tight so that even he can’t get in.” Then he grabbed her and kissed her, twining his fingers in her hair.

“We’re meant to be getting ready,” she hissed, but she grabbed his shoulders and shoved him back down on the bed anyway.

“We are,” Lucien insisted, sliding his hands along her skin, leaving trails of tingling warmth in their wake. “I’m helping you get undressed.”

Elain yanked at his shirt, returning the favor, and as she straddled Lucien, she whispered, “You should have told him longer.”

Chapter Text

“Ready?” Lucien asked, holding out his hand to his mate. She took it without hesitation, and that simple act of trust, of connection, almost derailed his concentration. He resisted the urge to just sweep her into his arms, to forget all about Spring and the human lands and the mission looming before them.

But they’d dallied too long, tempted the Cauldron with their delays. Lucien worried about Bron and Hart, waiting for them on the wrong side of the Wall, and he worried about Spring, withering and dying with each passing day.

And he worried about Eris — that one surprised him. Eris had always been so crafty and controlled, so studiously avoidant of danger, that his current predicament was wholly unfamiliar. Lucien was the one who always had to flee, the one who said too much, wore his heart too much on his sleeve, but Eris had gotten himself nearly strangled by Helion, had bargained with Rhys on behalf of their mother. Was Eris on the run, or weathering some cruel torture? Lucien might have asked Tamlin to help him, in some other lifetime where Tamlin was sane.

Going back to Spring is far too risky.

It would only be a few stolen moments, winnowing Elain into the garden, and then they would winnow right to the Wall, pass through the same way he’d brought Elain in. 

Elain squeezed his hand, evidently sensing his trepidation. “I’m ready for anything,” she promised, and as he looked into those deep beautiful eyes, he could almost believe it, almost take comfort in her newfound boldness. He’d been startled as hell to find that the Night Court agreed with her in some strange way, that she’d developed a strong spine and a thicker skin,.

And magic — Elain had magic. He was at a total loss as to how to explain it.

Still, Lucien knew full well that magic and courage wouldn’t be enough, not against what they were facing. Their path was fraught with dangers, each more insurmountable than the last. Tamlin was still to be reckoned with, his fury all the more palpable because Lucien had defied him, escaped him with the help of Night Court warriors. That alone would make Tamlin angry, if not murderous. The fact that Tamlin had chased him down and shackled him to begin with — Lucien shuddered, shoving that travesty out of his mind. He feared it wouldn’t be the last time Tamlin tried to get his powers back by force and trickery, especially with that snake Ianthe sinking her poisonous fangs in, muddling Tamlin’s thinking, dangling promises before him that even the Mother Herself couldn’t keep.

Then there was Hybern, that vile threat always looming. It had been far too quiet since the summit, with Rhys’s spies reporting no activity along the Wall that they could detect, but Lucien knew it couldn’t be that simple. Amarantha had been an amateur, clumsy and easily distracted, and it had been an embarrassment that they had all fallen prey to her, a symbol of how petty and dissolute Prythian had become. Lucien would never forgive Rhys for helping her to quash all those rebellions, any number of which could have succeeded, especially if Mor and Cassian and Azriel, and especially Amren, had been allowed to lead them. But Rhys had kept the best warriors in Prythian locked up, tucked away in a safe magical bubble, in a shining city by the sea that no one even knew existed. 

Don’t think about that now, not when you’ve made a truce with the Night Court, when you need them to win this war, when you’re just starting to trust each other.

Lucien had been startled beyond words when he and Elain had emerged from their bedroom and he’d gotten a look out the uncovered windows, Rhys evidently deciding that he would be trusted enough to know about Velaris, if he was to work with them, after all. It was a gesture of goodwill that Lucien hadn’t expected, probably hadn’t earned, and he’d been shocked into a long silence as he took in the sweep of the glittering city, the music and laughter bubbling up from far below, the colors and lights and life tucked into the arms of the mountains, sheltering Velaris along with its system of wards, which Lucien could clearly see shimmering over the city like a dome.

“These defenses are good,” he’d said, after he’d gotten done exclaiming about the city’s beauty, to Rhys’s smug satisfaction. “But if Hybern has the Cauldron, they still might not be enough.”

Rhys had exchanged a significant look with Amren, that frightening creature of death and violence, whose mere presence had Lucien on edge, even before her silver glare settled on him. He’d never have mouthed off to Rhys as he had, for all those years, if he’d known that Amren was Rhys’s enforcer. But she only gave him a blood-red smile, which chilled him even more than her glare had done, and asked him to point out any weaknesses in the wards that he saw.

The rest of Rhys’s circle more or less tolerated him, the spymaster still more suspicious than the others, though they seemed to like Elain well enough. And they adored Feyre, clearly saw her as one of their own, which both unsettled and relieved him. Tamlin had been wrong to think her fragile, he reflected, or to think she needed more rest and comfort, while his own instincts to help her develop her magic, and get her out in the open air, had been nearer to the mark. But as much as he was loath to admit it, this was what she needed, a challenge, and like-minded friends, and the presence of her mate, though it disturbed Lucien that her mate was Rhys, out of any powerful faerie that it could have been.

The Cauldron works in mysterious ways. 

The Cauldron. There was still that to contend with, knowing that it was in the hands of the worst possible enemy. The King of Hybern was far more patient, more focused and more wicked, than Amarantha could ever have aspired to be. He was a formidable enough opponent not to show his hand, would not be so easily goaded into making strategic mistakes, or foolish bargains, as Amarantha had been.

And if he knew about the Archeron estate, about Elain and her sisters — Lucien’s fingers tightened around Elain’s slender hand. He would die before he allowed the King to harm any of them. Even Nesta, who resented and distrusted him.

It would be no easy matter to budge Nesta from her resistance, for she was an Archeron too, fierce and uncompromising, even more determined to resist faerie influence than Feyre had been. He could only hope that Elain would be able to talk sense into her, get her to agree to faerie sentries, if not evacuating entirely north of the Wall. She would have to accept Rhys’s hospitality, which he knew would rankle her, but Lucien couldn’t offer her a better alternative, with Spring in disarray and Autumn off-limits to him, and the other courts preparing for invasion. The idea of Nesta in the Night Court, her steely resolve pitted against Rhys and his courtiers, was almost terrifying enough to be humorous.

“You’re nervous,” Elain said, her beautiful brow creasing with concern. For me, she’s concerned for me. Lucien quickly straightened, determined not to cause her one more moment’s unease. He had done far too much of that recently, caused her far too much worry and pain. And although she had handled herself with strength and cunning, he hated that he’d been the one to make that necessary.

“I am. I can’t help it. I don’t know what we’ll find in Spring, and I hope your sister sees reason,” he said, pressing a kiss to her brow, then straightening out the furrowed line with his finger.

Elain pulled her arms around his waist, pressing her soft warmth against him, and he couldn’t help but melt into her touch, letting her comfort him. “She will. Even Rhys said you’re clever enough to convince her. What did he call you? Little fox?” She reached up and tucked a strand of hair behind his ear, making his skin tingle pleasantly. “How did he come up with that nickname?”

Lucien grimaced at the memory of that stupid masquerade ball, and the sour aftermath of it. “Amarantha tricked us into wearing masks to a party, in my honor no less, then froze them on our faces.” Though he’d been humiliated at the time, shunned by more than a few pissed off Spring Court citizens, Lucien reflected that it had all turned out for the best, in the end. Amarantha had been absurdly pleased with herself, but had utterly failed to realize that she’d sown the seeds of her own destruction, laying the groundwork for the loophole that would break the curse, and unleash Tamlin on her, in the end.

Elain kissed him, resting her hand on his scars, as though she could unravel them, pull them right off his skin. And although nothing could ever take those scars away, no amount of magic strong enough to heal them, he could have sworn that some phantom ache eased under his skin, that the scars pulled less tightly. “You all suffered so much,” she said softly. “Lost so many.”

Lucien’s heart squeezed, especially as she went on, “Can we stop in the garden, when we winnow to Spring? I want to check on Willow’s flowers.”

“If they are still growing,” Lucien hedged. “I hope I tended them all right, while you were here.”

Elain’s arms tightened around him. “We’ll salvage what we can.”

That should be Prythian’s motto, Lucien thought bitterly. He only hoped there would be something left to salvage, after all was said and done.

He took a deep breath, then kissed Elain one last time before winnowing them away.

* * * * 

Elain shrieked, then burst into tears.

The fields, the gardens, the trees and flowers — it was all utterly ruined.

She ran from patch to patch, from stump to stump, plunging her hands into one dry tangle of weeds and then another, the tears falling hot and furious down her cheeks. Where once had been stately trees, and color and shimmering beauty, and life and growing things, now were knotted vines choking life from the flowers, yellowing and browning leaves crackling into dust when her fingers so much as brushed them.

When she’d left Spring, this had all been a riot of bloom and color, and now it was a wasting pile of debris.

“Gone,” she sobbed, hugging herself, sinking into the mound of dirt that had once been a row of rosebushes, “it’s all gone.”

Lucien was behind her, murmuring soft comforting words that could do nothing to ease the hollow ache building in her heart. She had left this place beautiful, alive and growing, and had returned to find a dry, rotten husk, all the life and magic sucked from it. Elain shed useless tears that spilled on the dusty ground, not even penetrating into the soil, and scrabbled at the earth with her fingers, failing to find any of the rich soil or deep roots that had nourished life here for so many centuries.

“Why?” she managed to get out, taking gasping breaths, struggling to get air in through the torrent of tears.

“I don’t know,” Lucien said, his voice low, strained and sorrowful. “But it was already dying when I left.” He came up behind her, enfolding her in his strong comforting embrace, and she leaned into him, pressing her back into his muscled chest, accepting the kisses he pressed to her cheek, then her lips. “I don’t know what could have caused such utter destruction. But the magic is gone.”

“It isn’t,” Elain said fiercely, absolutely refusing to accept it. The magic had to be here, or somewhere, for she still felt the connection, the sense that this was where she belonged, despite the wreck and ruin, despite the withering death surrounding them.

“We should go,” Lucien murmured, but Elain couldn’t bear it. She had to find life here, or some small ember of it, had to salvage some hope. So she let Lucien help her to her feet, brushing the sandy soil from her dress, then strode purposefully along the garden path, turning the corner towards the manor.

“Elain, I wouldn’t,” Lucien hissed to her, anxiety coating his words. “If Tamlin’s home —“

Elain snarled, “If Tamlin’s here, I’ll kill him myself.”

She knew it was nonsensical, that she was just a weak mortal and Tamlin one of the most powerful faeries in Prythian, even without the extra magic that made him a High Lord. Even had he no powers at all, she couldn’t hope to have any chance against a muscled, experienced warrior, when she barely had the strength to lift a sword, and no training in how to use one. But Elain charged forward anyway, as though she would summon Tamlin from the broken down manor, make him answer for all the hurt he’d caused Lucien, all the destruction he’d failed to prevent.

But then she drew up short, a sprig of green tantalizing in the corner of her vision, and she let out a happy cry when she saw that the patches of garden that she’d tended were still flowering, that the soil around them was still deep and rich, that Willow’s purple flowers were still fragrant and blooming. “Oh! Lucien, look,” she trilled, rushing to them, her tears beginning to flow again, but this time from joy and relief, not sorrow.

“What — how —“ Lucien was stammering, tentatively stepping behind her, as though he were afraid he might kill the few living plants that remained, or spook them into wilting. So she grabbed his hand, drawing him closer, and they both smiled with relief as the plants opened their leaves and flowers toward them, as if in silent greeting.

“They like you,” Elain giggled, and it was true, for the surviving plants seemed to bask in the radiance of Lucien’s presence, opening their leaves wide, as much as they unfurled and straightened in response to Elain’s gentle prodding and touches. “I knew the magic couldn’t be gone completely.”

“I don’t understand,” Lucien whispered, his golden eye clicking rapidly, while his russet eye widened with surprise and confusion. He settled onto the stone bench where she’d once fallen asleep, surveying the gardens more broadly. “There’s a path of new growth here,” he said in wonder. “Right where you walked.”

Then he looked down, and yelped, seeing that the vines that had lain fallow beneath the bench were growing again, threading around his ankle and leg. “I remember you,” he said teasingly, reaching down to unwind them, then yelped again when the vines curled around his wrists as well. “A little help here?” he called to her.

Elain burst out laughing, despite herself, despite the tears that were still welling up in her eyes, and she strode to him, pressing her hands into the vines to get them to release him. “Naughty things,” she scolded. “Don’t trap my mate.”

The vines unfurled immediately, though they made a quiet hissing noise, as though they were protesting. Elain didn’t understand it, though she was sure some book back at the Library could have explained it. If I ever return to Velaris, I’ll ask Gwyn to help me research it.

Elain thought for a moment, then carefully reached down and plucked a few tendrils loose from the vines, then tucked them into the pocket of her dress. “I can regrow the clippings,” she explained to Lucien. “And I should take some seeds as well. In case we can’t come back for a while.”

Lucien nodded solemnly, standing up and moving away from the bench, as though fearing that the vines might try to grab him again. “Hurry,” he urged gently. “We’re tempting fate every moment we linger.” Then he moved further down the garden path, his fiery hair glinting in the suddenly strong sunlight. “I’ll help you, if you give me instructions.”

So Elain showed him how to look for the seed pods, how to carefully take clippings from plants without causing damage, and they worked quickly, taking samples of as many of the surviving garden residents as they could scavenge. Lucien listened eagerly, and though he had no instinct for handling the plants as Elain did, he was a quick enough learner, and something essential inside her settled at the thought that they could regrow Spring, or some small sampling of it, that at least some spark of life and magic would remain.

But as the sun sank towards the horizon, Lucien began to get anxious again, and she knew that they were lingering too long. Elain was reluctant to leave, even knowing that they risked danger by remaining, for this land still felt like home to her, devastated though it was. She wished she had enough growing magic to renew it all, that she could revive it to its full sacred glory, but supposed that as a mortal, she was lucky to have any thin shard of magic at all.

“This will have to do,” she told Lucien, who nodded his agreement. He was glowing softly in the waning light, the sunset framing him in oranges and reds that complimented his coloring perfectly, as though Autumn itself were settling upon the gardens of Spring, bathing the plants in its earthy glow, blanketing them for the night that would fall.

“Think Nesta will have dinner prepared?” Lucien asked, and Elain suddenly realized she was ravenous.

“Nesta is an excellent host,” Elain assured him, though she could not guarantee that her sister would be willing to let a faerie inside the chateau at all. So she added, “And don’t worry, the serving folk will take you in the back entrance, if Nesta won’t let you in the front door.”

The thought of Lucien, a High Lord’s son, emissary to the most important faeries in Prythian, sneaking through the servants’ quarters made Elain chuckle heartily. And Lucien took her hand, chuckling along with her.

“Let’s go then. The Wall awaits.”

And beyond the Wall, their destiny. But whether it was safety, or more danger that awaited them, Elain wasn’t sure.

Chapter Text

Graysen tugged his cloak more tightly around himself, gritting his teeth against the wet weather, shielding himself against the curious stares and hushed whispers that trailed after him like the raindrops that pelted his neck and shoulders. He should have been used to this by now, to the malicious gossip and snide remarks that pricked at his ears, snarled low by the beggars dangling their empty bowls from filthy fingers, tossed out of carriages by haughty folk who’d always been jealous. He should have ignored the curses hissed at him, insults lobbed at his face or at his back, should have held his head higher, let it roll off his shoulders. On his better days he could do just that, stride through the village with purpose, as though his life weren’t in shambles, as though he could still command respect.

But not today. He’d bared his teeth at the grubby children rolling their ball along the muddy walkway, laughing at him as they ran past, flinging filth at him in their playful zeal, not considering him worthy of an apology or basic respect. He’d snapped at the old maid who’d charged him extra for eggs, who’d almost refused his coin for fear of some faerie taint on it. And he’d spat in the ashes of the Beddor manor, for they’d brought bad luck on him and the whole village, tempting those faeries to cross the Wall in the first place.

He didn’t care who saw. He didn’t care who commented. Everyone had something to say, and no fear of saying it, now that the Nolan name was irreparably sullied.

Faerie sympathizer.

That was the slander, the byword in the village. Of course he wasn’t, and all these assholes should have known it. He was the furthest thing from a faerie sympathizer — he was a faerie killer, had slaughtered the beasts wherever he could find them, had taken it as his duty to protect the territory, long before a certain redheaded devil had darkened his doorstep, tainted his folk. He’d listened to his lord father, the venerable old fool, and kept one faerie alive, and that singular moment of weakness had led irrevocably to ruin.

He’d rescued this ungrateful village more times than he could count, driving out dangerous mercenaries and other shady folk from the market squares, consulting with the queens’ general on defending the territory, planting groves of ash wood. But when he’d needed help to get his wife back, no one had offered, had turned on him instead.

The common village folk weren’t sympathetic to Elain either, never using her name, always referring to that faerie-loving whore. Salacious rumors ran wild about her debauchery, how she’d merrily traipsed off to Prythian to spread her legs for all the faerie males who wanted to feast on her succulent human flesh. The old crones even cackled that Elain must be faerie herself, that the Archerons had fae blood, that they hid their pointed ears under their hair, that such beauty and grace such as they possessed was unnatural in a humanborn woman. Anyone who thought otherwise kept such opinions to themselves, lest they be labeled with the same epithets, run out of town, or ostracized and despised, as Graysen was.

Graysen rounded the corner, noting with grim satisfaction how the road instantly cleared of folk as soon as he stepped foot on it. No one would risk speaking to him, or being seen with him, which meant he at least had the path to himself. He kicked at the ground, pebbles and stones skittering out of his way, as though the very earth was recoiling from him.

She left you for a faerie, the wind whispered to him.

“She was taken,” he insisted, though he couldn’t quite manage to believe it.

If Elain had gone willingly, she’d been bewitched by that evil faerie. Lured by its magic, enchanted, glamoured. For she was obedient and sweet, unable to resist the urge to please, and the faerie must have seen that, and taken advantage. It had been full of guile, biding its time, insinuating itself into Elain’s good graces by appearing wounded and pathetic. Had the faerie even been truly injured, or had it gotten itself captured just to get access? Graysen would put nothing past faeries. There was no deception beneath them, no wickedness they wouldn’t stoop to, and the thought of his sweet wife and how they must be torturing her, or devouring her mind, soul and body — 

He spat on the roadside. He couldn’t afford to entertain such thoughts in public, not when the bile from his stomach threatened to rise up and overflow. He wouldn’t be seen retching like a common drunk, so the town could titter about his horrible stench and soiled clothes. He would not go about looking beggarly, however far their financial situation had fallen. Graysen alone was holding the manor together, and if he couldn’t redeem the family name, they would end up in the poorhouse, or a broken down cottage like Elain’s family had once done.

I should have known she was unsuitable from that fact alone.

Only a faerie-touched family would have such a complete reversal of fortune. The old dotard of a father had been a cripple, soft in mind as much as he was bent over in body, but suddenly he’d been blindingly lucky in investments, and healed so thoroughly that he was sharper and more spry than ever. Graysen had never thought to be suspicious before, so entranced was he by Elain’s charming soul, and her considerable dowry.

Maybe I was the glamoured one, after all.

Graysen’s own stupid father had not left the estate in weeks, so broken was he by Elain’s defection — or kidnapping, they still argued about which it was — and Graysen had found it impossible to hold things together, to hang onto staff, or to find lines of credit with which to pay them. His own most loyal guards and servants had all defected, throwing in their lot with the Archeron witch, who still denied knowing either of her sisters’ whereabouts, and who’d slapped him for his insolence, an insult he intended to repay at his earliest opportunity. She probably was a faerie sympathizer, had probably put her sister up to it, led Elain astray with her own uppity snobbishness, her brazen disregard for the top men of the town, or anything but her own wanton, stubborn independence.

His remaining coppers jingled in his pockets as he walked, leaving muddy footprints up the road towards the estate. Far too few coppers, if he was being honest, and he didn’t know when more would be forthcoming. The prospect of gold from the faerie sale, which would have solved all his money problems and bought the prestige of a peerage, had vanished in a puff of magic, along with that wicked creature who’d stolen his wife, and along with her, his reputation.

A lone hooded figure approached from the other direction, and Graysen steeled himself, preparing for the inevitable confrontation. It was one of those blasted Children of the Blessed, those moon-eyed acolytes that worshipped faeries like they were gods and not the devils they actually were. And indeed, the figure intoned, in a gentle feminine sing-song voice, “May the faeries bless and keep you.”

Graysen had half a mind to whip this wretched ingrate, to punch some sense into that empty head, explain exactly what happened when you trusted a faerie to inhabit your home. For all he knew, this was Elain, returned from her debauchery to spread faerie lies and wickedness throughout the land. So he spat, “Don’t come to me with your venom, bitch. I’ve lost good folk to your faeries. Be gone, or I’ll get you gone.”

“Dear me,” said the figure, taking more steps towards him, pale slender hands adjusting her hood, which still obscured her features. But her voice was clear and lilting, like she was under some magical spell, the silver bells at her wrist tinkling delightfully, as though they were singing. “You are bitter.”

“Course I’m fucking bitter,” Graysen snapped, rage coating his words. “You’d be bitter too, if a faerie beast ran off with your wife.”

“Your wife resides in Prythian?” asked the figure, stepping daintily down the path, unhurried despite the misty rain spitting down on them, like she was going for a leisurely stroll as she preached her poison to all the unsuspecting young folk, who, like Elain, might have such weak minds as to believe the lies that were clearly being told. “What was her name?”

“You don’t need to know that,” Graysen said warily, hoping like hell that this woman didn’t have news of Elain, hadn’t sought him out to reassure him that she was safe in Prythian, or to inform him that she’d perished there. He wasn’t sure which news would be worse to hear.

Graysen did miss Elain, though he was under no illusions that he could have back the easy comfort and domestic happiness they’d had before. Even if he could find her now and retrieve her, coax or drag her back to the manor, he’d have to keep her locked away, laden with iron and ash, constantly watched lest she slip back into her glamoured state.

Graysen would have to monitor who talked to Elain, who brought her meals and helped her bathe, for she might corrupt them, or they too could be stolen away. That cursed fireling could appear and disappear at will, come to snatch her in the night, hell, in the daytime, it was so fucking brazen. The beast probably thought it owned her, claimed her, and could come to collect her like a favorite toy it had decided to play with. His life would be a never-ending parade of humiliation, being cuckolded by faerie scum while his reputation and fortune were utterly ruined.

It would have been better if she died. Then he could at least mourn her properly, take another wife in due time. But this — this was a living hell, a never ending parade of embarrassment and pain.

“I know the one you speak of,” the acolyte said brightly. “Elain —“

“Don’t speak of her,” Graysen warned, his voice rough with feeling. “She is dead to me.”

“Beloved of a certain High Lord’s son, a prince of the Autumn Court. A fireling,” the acolyte went on, ignoring the interruption. “She’s made quite an impression, inserted herself quite expertly into the politics of Prythian, reached far above where any human might expect herself to be.”

So she did go willingly.

The scant dinner he’d scarfed down at the tavern turned to ash in his stomach. Elain was making a mockery of him, of everything he’d wanted to build together with her. She’d left him for that fireling, had debased herself with that cursed beast, and was now flaunting herself amongst the faeries, as though born to them. Was it not enough to be the lady of the Nolan estate? Did she think she was she going to rule Prythian with her fire lord beast? Graysen hadn’t taken Elain for a social climber, but she’d insinuated herself right into their nobility, if this witness could be believed.

Graysen snarled, “And why should I trust you? You worship them too.”

“You shouldn’t trust me at all,” the acolyte declared, “though I speak the truth.”

Graysen blinked at that, confused.

But the acolyte went on, “You are simple, but you’ll do fine.”

He had no idea what that meant, and didn’t intend to find out. “If you’re thinking to use me for one of your faeries’ schemes, you can forget it,” he retorted. “I won’t be a pawn or a tool in your game. Those faeries are evil, and I’ll kill any on sight that I find on this side of the Wall, or the other side too, when I’ve got my army raised.”

“Oh, that is adorable,” the acolyte crooned, clasping her hands together, as though amused. “Like your paltry weapons would have any effect on the fae, you pompous little human? You don’t have the good sense to defer to your betters. You think to slaughter faeries, as though you’re the superior creature. How delightful.”

Graysen gaped at her, flummoxed at this strange talk, very unlike how those simpleton Children of the Blessed usually spoke, and she went on, “She must have thought she’d struck gold, received a gift from the Cauldron itself. She saw the opportunity, and took it, and left you poor pathetic thing to go pursue greatness. I don’t suppose I can really blame her.”

“What the fuck,” Graysen growled, “are you talking about?”

The acolyte just laughed, and that act of disrespect rattled Graysen to his core. How dare this fucking bitch laugh in his face? He’d lost it all over those fucking faeries, and now she was spouting some incoherent nonsense to him, and laughing about it? It made him furious enough to lash out, yanking the hood from the infuriating acolyte, and his fist hovered in the air, ready to punch her laughing, smug, faerie worshipping face.

“I really wouldn’t do that,” came a low voice at his ear, a firm hand on his shoulder, but Graysen barely registered that he’d been grabbed, for he was staring in shock at the acolyte, her hood thrown back.

Underneath that heavy blue hood was a beautiful blond woman, her pale skin clear and glowing despite the dull overcast sky. She was young, her eyes sparkling, but it was the turquoise stone on her forehead that drew his attention, shimmering with some strange inner light — magic — that made his jaw drop. It illuminated a set of tattoos across her forehead, representing the phases of the moon, and reflected in her bright blue eyes, and the earrings on her ears — on her pointed ears

Graysen stared at her silently, overcome with hatred and revulsion. She was a faerie, a fucking faerie right here in his village, and he’d been standing here on the road like an idiot, talking to it, where anyone could see —

He howled with rage, then flailed, trying to punch at kick at the ghastly thing.

“Are they all like this?” the faerie asked with sour distaste, making eye contact with whoever was wrestling Graysen.

“I’m afraid so,” the voice in his ear sighed, and then Graysen went still, impossibly, immovably still, as though every muscle in his body was locked up tight. “Unthinking brutes, the lot of them. I don’t understand Uncle’s attachment to them.”

Graysen’s mind was screaming at him to go, get free, warn everyone, shove an ash dagger in the blond bitch’s eye, but he could scarcely breathe, couldn’t move at all. It felt like his very blood was being dragged through his body, responding to some unnatural force pressing down on him, splitting him open, pinning down his will, his very soul, his memories of who and what he was —

“They can be charming, in their way, I suppose. Like a pet,” the blond faerie was saying. “Though I’ve had quite enough of their females, after all the trouble that bitch has caused.”

Graysen blinked at the blond faerie standing before him, wondering who she was. Where she’d gotten her pretty blue gem. It was so sparkly, like the sea. He cocked his head to the side, examining it. “Do you like this?” she asked him, her lips forming a sweet smile that Graysen found himself staring at. Some distant voice in his mind that he didn’t recognize was screaming at him, telling him to run, escape, warn some people of something or other. What was the rush? He wanted to see the stone up close, run his fingers over it.

“Would you like to help me with something?” the faerie asked him, and he nodded dumbly, finding that his voice was quite taken away, though it eased up strangely when he agreed with the faeries, like he was being rewarded. “That’s a good fellow.”

He would help, he decided. He couldn’t remember why he was out in the rain, where he’d been headed, but he was sure it wasn’t nearly as important as what this pretty lady wanted. He vaguely remembered that the other humans in his village didn’t think so, that they were angry with him for some reason, but he would show them. He would show them all. He was a good fellow.

“Yes,” he agreed hoarsely.

“That’s a good little human,” the male faerie behind him said smoothly, leaning in close to him. “You’d be doing us such a lovely favor. You can fix everything that’s troubling you, make a fresh start.”

“What — is it?” Graysen managed to ask, sensing that he didn’t need to talk, that these faeries already knew what he would say, but he wanted to fix everything. Make a fresh start. Yes, that’s what he needed. That must have been why he was on the road in the first place.

“We’re looking for the one who harmed you, stole your wife. Help us find him, get your revenge,” the blond said, her blue jewel sparkling in his vision.

“How?” Graysen croaked.

“It’s so very simple,” said the voice in his ear, in his mind. “Show us where Nesta Archeron lives.”

Chapter Text

Lucien peered out through the bay windows at the gloomy afternoon without really processing the view. It always seemed dark and gray in the mortal lands, even when the sun was shining on him, but the weather today seemed especially grim, sour and foreboding, flinging hard droplets of rain that did nothing to nourish the soil. He’d never noticed such things before, until Elain had begun pointing them out to him, remarking on the thin weeds scraping out a meager life along the dusty roads, or the poisonous vines snaking around the trees.

“Plants look docile, but they have secrets,” she’d said, waggling her fingers at a patch of bright green plants that looked suspiciously healthy and strong. “Since they can’t run or fight back, they develop other defenses. Thorns and prickles, and poison.”

“Like ash wood, I suppose,” he’d answered, grimacing, his hand ghosting over the healed-over spot where he’d been shot with an ash bolt. My faerie ancestors must have done something truly awful to ash trees, to inspire them to poison us.

“Exactly,” Elain had replied, her own lovely face crinkling, perhaps at the memory of him, bloodied and beaten, chained like a farmyard animal in her husband’s basement. She’d been so frightened of faeries that she’d been hesitant to even be in a room with him, much less touch him, but her instinct to care for him, the mating bond between them, had been stronger than her trepidation, as well as her deference to her husband’s will. Lucien could have wept, thinking about how meek Elain once had been, how timid and obedient, how docile. Just like her plants. Except she’d developed her own defenses, too, hadn’t she?

Look at her now. Even Rhys himself can’t intimidate her. Lucien’s chest had ached, not from ash poison this time, but from love and admiration.

“How do you know which ones are poisonous?” he’d asked, looking down at the plants Elain had indicated.

“You learn what to look for. Some are more obvious than others. This one, we have rhymes about. Leaves of three, let them be.” Elain had looked at him shyly, as though she expected him to say that such talk was just silly human superstition. But he had learned to trust Elain, and her knowledge of plants, which was a sort of magic he’d never seen and didn’t understand, and he sensed that this was somehow important, that knowledge like this could doom them or save them, though he didn’t yet know how or why. And as they’d walked further, Lucien had noticed just how much of the poisonous stuff there was, like a warning sprouting roots in his mind.

Danger lurks here. He was no daemati, but he could feel it. All he wanted was to scoop Elain up close to his chest, winnow back to the Wall and plunge through, back to Prythian where he could trust his magic, where at least the dangers were all ones he knew.

But they had no other choice, no other alternative to get Nesta and her human-folk away from Hybern. So Lucien had kept on with Elain along the near-empty roads, wondering at the unnatural silence, the almost total lack of travelers, the pall that seemed to loom over this territory, the gathering clouds before the storm. It raised his hackles, put him on edge, and he’d scanned the horizon over and over as they walked, half-expecting the Attor to swoop down on them, or a troop of Hybern soldiers to come trudging up the road. And as they approached the Archeron estate, Lucien breathed a sigh of temporary relief that it still stood, that it wasn’t ashes and cinders like the Beddors' manor was.

Familiar faces had come running out to greet them then, the red-cheeked maid Daisy, and Hart striding beside her, then Bron and the kitchen-folk and the gardeners, and a heartily exclaiming Tom and a sullen Marlow, and Lucien and Elain were soon engulfed in a wave of crying and exclaiming folk streaming out of the manor, with much hand-shaking and hugging and slapping of backs. Then they’d been bundled into the estate through the servant doors, stuffed with tea and cakes and whatever else the folk could scrounge up from the kitchens on short notice, but Lucien had hung back, content to watch as Elain was fawned over, her folk eager to hear about her adventures in Prythian.

He could have listened to her for hours as she expounded on Spring, on magical soil that produced the most delicious edible flowers, and on ethereal Dawn with its peregrines and high palaces, and the mysterious Night Court with its craggy dark mountains. Even to her human friends Elain was careful not to mention Velaris, but she spoke of great cities and libraries, and how there were other courts she had yet to visit, but one day would, if the Mother wills it, a saying she’d apparently picked up from her priestess friend. “But I’ve got to get home to Spring, and fix that up first, for there is a great blight there,” she ended her tale sadly.

Lucien’s heart was too full, his head spinning. Home to Elain was Prythian, not here with these folk, not even with her human sister. Home was Spring, and she wanted to get back there. Lucien had long been a wanderer, an exile, a vagabond, but he vowed that he would find his home wherever she was, would follow her anywhere she went.

Bron had come to sit beside him, filling him in on all that hadn’t fit into their letter, but Hart was seated amongst the human-folk, Daisy settled happily at his side. Lovers, or they soon will be, Lucien suspected, and he would have rejoiced to see it, a budding romance between human and faerie, except that his stomach clenched to see how Daisy patted her belly, growing thick with her unborn child. It was a reminder, if he needed one, that there was too much at stake for their mission to fail, too much death and sorrow that would rain down upon these innocents if the Wall came down, or if they didn’t evacuate the manor in time, and Lucien didn’t want more deaths on his conscience.

We’re not a moment too soon.

Eventually Lucien had cleared his throat, interrupting the reunion, to ask the folk to prepare themselves and as much of their belongings as they could carry, while Elain went to find Nesta, to hopefully talk sense into her, though Lucien didn’t know what he’d do if Nesta stayed obstinate. He was under no illusions that Nesta would willingly let any faerie touch her, much less winnow her anywhere, and he was anxious to get her gone before backup arrived, in the form of Rhys’s winged warriors, for he sensed the sight of them would spook the humans.

“What’s out there?” a gruff voice asked, and Lucien turned to see that it was Marlow.

“Nothing, I hope,” Lucien said. But he couldn’t make promises, and they both knew it. Marlow, of all these folk, had seen the horror and destruction that Hybern could unleash. Lucien didn’t have to ask what carnage he’d seen in the ruin of the Beddors’ manor. “Have you ash weapons?”

“Aye, arrows an’ daggers,” Marlow said.

“Good. You should all carry something, even if it’s a single arrow,” Lucien said. “It may not come to that, but we must be ready.”

Marlow nodded, then stiffened. “Th’ master’s comin’ up the path.”

Lucien’s eyes shot to the road, and he groaned inwardly to see that it was Elain’s stupid husband, charging up the road like he was going to bang on the door and cause a scene, maybe even try to grab Elain and drag her away. “We were spotted, then,” he said, his heart starting to pound. “There’s not a moment to waste.” He ran towards the stairs, calling out, “Lock everything — doors, windows. Don’t let anyone in.”

The servants’ quarters broke out into shouting and running, Marlow giving orders, chairs scraping against the wood floor, but Lucien heard nothing over the blood roaring in his ears as he winnowed to the main floor, to Elain, who was standing in the doorway, looking at a very confused and disheveled Graysen standing there.

“Don’t!” he cried, lunging for her, pulling her behind him, away from Graysen.

“He just wants to talk to me,” she said placatingly, tugging on his arm, as though Lucien might be angry. She thinks I’m jealous. If he hadn’t been terrified, Lucien would have laughed at that notion.

“He can have nothing to say to you,” Nesta fumed, stomping towards them, as if she might tell Graysen off, then suddenly seemed to register that Lucien was standing there. “You,” Nesta screeched, rearing back and slapping him.

Lucien made no move to defend himself, but let her palm sting cold and hard against his cheek. I deserved that, he thought.

“Nesta!” Elain exclaimed, whirling on her sister.

But Lucien was pulling Elain into his chest, the ache in his ribs easing only slightly now that he had her back in his arms. Danger, his mind was screaming, hold her, protect her. “I don’t like this,” he said worriedly, shoving Graysen away from the door and slamming it shut behind him. “The timing is a little too convenient.”

“You should go, then,” Nesta snapped, lifting her hand as though she might go for Lucien again.

But Elain laid a gentle hand on her arm. “Like I told you, we should all leave together.” Nesta glowered at her, her eyebrows knitting together, but she said nothing more.

Lucien turned to Graysen, but then noted the male’s glassy smile, his unnaturally stiff movements, and a cold dread seeped through Lucien as he pondered what it could mean. For his part, Graysen was staring worshipfully at Elain, murmuring, “You’re a pretty lady. Which sister are you?”

Elain peered at him, scrunching her face up with concern, then looked up at Lucien. “He doesn’t seem to know me anymore.”

“Something’s wrong with him,” Nesta said with distaste, and took a step back, as though whatever Graysen had might be contagious.

“Very wrong,” Lucien agreed, suspicious that Graysen had failed to recognize any of them, or even register that there was a faerie in their midst, much less the one that had left with his wife. Lucien would have expected a fistfight, if not an ash dagger to the chest, or at least shouting and accusations, not this… weirdness. “Did you hit your head recently?” he asked Graysen gently.

Graysen blinked at him, confused, then grinned stupidly. “Hello, Lucien.”

Lucien jolted. He shouldn’t have known my name. How did he —

Then the answer clicked into place. The glassy expression, the strange talk, the way he’d known who Lucien was but not which sister was which…

Daemati. And not Rhys or Feyre, but someone else who knew him by name.

His voice came out as a strangled gasp. “We’d better lock the door.” When the sisters just stared at him, confused, he shouted it as a command. “Lock the door!

Nesta lunged into action, bolting the door shut. Lucien knew full well that locks wouldn’t be enough, but he needed a moment to think, form a plan. “This is bad,” he whispered, knowing full well that whatever Graysen heard, his enemy was hearing too. “Hybern knows I’m here.”

“How?” Elain asked, but then her eyes fell on Graysen, and her face went slack. “Did they do something to him?”

“It’s the only explanation. I never gave him my name, but somehow he knew it.” Graysen lurched, as though he might open the door back up, but Lucien shoved him back.“Did you meet anyone new recently?” he asked, thinking frantically “Who are you working for?”

“She was pretty,” Graysen said dreamily, reaching up a limp hand to indicate his forehead. “She had a shiny jewel.”

“Was she a faerie?” Lucien pressed, his voice rising, even though he was trying desperately to stay calm. A shiny jewel? Not — A unpleasant shiver ran down his spine.

“I’m a good fellow,” Graysen said stoutly. “I’m helping.”

“You’re stalling us, is what you’re doing,” Nesta said accusingly.

Cauldron damn it, she’s right.

“We’ve got to go. Now,” Lucien exclaimed. “Gather everyone. If anyone looks like this” — here he indicated poor confused Graysen — “it means they’re being mind controlled.”

Nesta cursed, then spun around and marched away, barking orders to her people, and Lucien breathed a small sigh of relief to remember that she, at least, could resist glamours. If anyone could keep their wits about them, it was Nesta.

Lucien turned to Elain then, taking her shoulders in his hands.“I’ll have to winnow us all directly to the Wall. Do you remember the way through?”

“I do, but why —“ Elain broke off, staring up at him accusingly. “You want me to go without you?”

“I’ll need to make several trips,” Lucien explained, motioning frantically as Bron and Hart came bursting upstairs, the manor folk in a ragged line behind them. Several of the humans looked confused and blank, just as Graysen had, and he prayed that the effect was temporary, that they’d be released once they were away from the threat, or that Rhys or Feyre could do something to help them. First I’ve got to get them out of here.

He double checked his own mental shields, praying he could hold out long enough. If they grabbed him, turned his powers to their own purposes…

I’m a danger to all these folk. Even to Elain, if they sunk their mind-claws in deep enough.

“Nesta!” he cried out, and the elder Archeron came stalking towards him. He tugged her aside, tearing his eyes away from Elain’s trembling lips and the fat tears starting to roll down her cheeks, and plucked an ash arrow from Marlow’s quiver, wincing at the prickly awful feel of it against his skin. He pressed it into her hands, then met her steely gaze.

“If I’m turned,” he said, trying to force calm back into his voice, “if they try to use me —“ He broke off, relieved when she nodded solemnly, taking his meaning. “Right here,” he added, fingering his jugular. “As hard as you can.”

Then there was a crash, and a high pitched shriek, and Lucien flung himself in front of Nesta and Elain, baring his teeth. No human could have made that sound.

Lucien!” Elain screamed.

“Stay behind me!” he shouted, then roared, throwing out a blast of fire in the direction of the crash, not taking the time to see whether he’d hit his mark. “Is this everyone?”

“Aye, it’s everyone,” Bron called back. His sword was drawn, and he was scanning the space nervously, ready to leap at any threat that showed itself. Hart did the same, as did the human sentries, but Lucien knew that was no good against a Hybern attack, even without daemati involved.

I’ve got to get them out of here. And it’s got to be now.

“I’m going to use my magic now. Everybody grab a hand!” he cried out. “And hold on tight!”

Then Lucien dug deep into his well of magic, and winnowed the entire group out of the manor, landing them in the forest by the Wall.

“Go,” Lucien urged the humans, motioning towards Bron and Hart, who led them towards the invisible barrier, Hart carefully supporting Daisy as she went through, followed by the servants and sentries. There were a few grumblings, a few murmured questions, but the folk went, trusting Prythian to accept them. The Wall’s magic was still and silent, pulsing around Lucien but seemingly content to let the human-folk go where they would.

Elain lingered by Lucien’s side, seemingly unfazed by the fire dancing in his palm, ready to wield at any attacker. But Nesta said, “What are we going to do with that one?”

Graysen was slumped standing against a tree trunk, his eyes closed. “We have friends that can help him,” Lucien said hopefully.

But then Graysen jolted, his eyes snapping open, and he glared at them, suddenly fully alert. “You’ve returned, you fucking prick,” he sneered at Lucien. “You faerie beast.”

“Stop that, Graysen,” Elain said crossly.

“You bitch,” Graysen snarled at her. “Faerie loving whore. You’ve ruined me, spoiled everything.”

“Now is really not the time,” Lucien grumbled, shoving Graysen towards the Wall.

But Graysen balked. “Are you fucking insane? I’m not going into Prythian. I don’t want to live with fucking faeries —“

“Stop talking,” Nesta said sternly. “You’re making a scene.”

Graysen howled with rage, and lunged for Elain, who shrieked and threw herself against Lucien. “She’s mine, and you took her from me,” he shouted.

I’m going to have to knock him out.

Lucien gritted out, “Stand back, Nesta, I’m going to —“

But before he could finish his sentence, or subdue Graysen, there was a crash above them in the trees, and Lucien dove out of the way, sheltering Elain underneath him, hoping Nesta had gotten clear as well.

A great awful flapping of wings descended on them, and Graysen went down screaming in a frenzy of blood and teeth and claws.

No. Gods, no. Not like this —

“Go, Elain,” Lucien whispered frantically, trying to shove her forward. “Get Nesta. Crawl away. Hide.” When Elain clung to him stubbornly, he pushed her harder, his fingers itching to hold onto her even as he desperately wanted her to get away. “Go. Please.

But then a gray clawed hand clamped down on Lucien’s shoulder, shoving him back down into the dirt, trapping Elain underneath him. Lucien bit the inside of his cheek, suppressing his cry of pain, and wrapped himself tightly around his mate, but she was staring up past him, shaking in terror.

“What do we have here?” the Attor’s low, scraping voice hissed. “Lucien Vanserra, at last. And who’s your little human friend?”

“No one,” Lucien said calmly, though his heart was thundering. “Just a bit of fun.”

The Attor laughed, vicious and cruel. “Well said, little fox. But your appetites are not like ours. You’re far too soft. Perhaps I’ll taste her instead. She looks sweet and delicious.”

Lucien whirled around, blasting the Attor in the face with the full force of his fire, swearing when a strange white light burst out of his hands, searing the Attor’s leathery wings, producing an awful, acrid stench. “Run, Elain!” he screamed, readying another blast, wincing as the Attor’s claws swiped at him, narrowly missing his good eye, getting only the edge of his shoulder. He ignored the pain slicing through him and let another volley fly, slamming the Attor full in the face, wrenching a shriek from the ghastly monster, but it still didn’t go down.

Weapons, I need weapons —

But then the Attor reared, howling and shrieking and gurgling, then collapsing forward onto its face.

Lucien fell back, his mouth hanging open, watching the Attor’s blood spurting out onto the soil of the forest floor. For that was Nesta on the Attor’s back, plunging her ash arrow right where Lucien had shown her, snarling, “Don’t you touch my sister.”

The Attor’s eyes were wide, its silver fangs snapping but no sound coming out, and Nesta plunged the arrow in further, her steely eyes flashing, making sure it was truly gone.

Elain grabbed for Lucien, sobbing into his bloodied shirt, and then Nesta was next to them, hugging Elain tightly as well. Elain felt sorrowful, and frightened, and Lucien kissed her forehead, her hair, comforting her as best as his feeble efforts could. She’d never seen anyone killed before, he reckoned, had never witnessed violence so up close and awful. And the Attor had been the stuff of nightmares, even for hardened faeries, even for warriors. Lucien had had nightmares about it often enough.

But the Attor was gone, at the hands of a human. Lucien could scarcely believe it.

Something to tell Feyre about, when we get back.

But then a voice above them drawled, “Well, he’s not going to like this at all.”

Chapter Text

Elain squeezed her eyes shut against the horror of it all, Graysen’s panicked scream still ringing in her ears, that awful monster, and Nesta —

She clung to Lucien, the one solid, safe thing amid the terror, her tears watering both their faces as she pressed in close. Her arms shook, but she held him, needing the comfort of his warmth, the shelter of his embrace. She’d been foolish, naive, to think she had any chance at all, when there were monsters with silver fangs who could tear through human flesh like ripples through water, when even a person’s mind could be ripped away, leaving them worse than slaughtered.

She’d always known Nesta was strong, that Nesta could resist any faerie magic, and Nesta was climbing off of that foul creature now, her hand bloodied up to the elbow with silvery blood that steamed and hissed against the long sleeve of her dress. But Nesta was glaring past them, at the source of the voice in the clearing, snapping, “Begone, or I’ll put an arrow in you next.”

The voice — low, slithery, sandpapery, like a cold-blooded monster given faerie form — gave a low chuckle. “You are a feisty one. Perhaps we’ve underestimated mortals, after all.”

Nesta bared her teeth. “Last mistake you’ll ever make.”

But Lucien was whispering in Elain’s ear, “I’m going to create a diversion. You’ve got to get across the Wall, and get Nesta to go with you.”

“No,” Elain said stubbornly, digging her nails into him when he tried to loosen his hold.

“Elain, my love, please.” Lucien’s arms trembled around her. “I couldn’t protect Jesminda. I watched her die, I can’t bear it if —“ His voice broke off, and he swallowed hard, then tried again. “Please. It’s me they want. You have to go.”

“Is this the one?” the awful hissing voice was asking. “The fireling?”

“Oh yes,” crooned a lilting voice, deceptively lovely, in a high pitched singsong, and Elain gasped. She knew that voice.

Lucien tensed. “Mother spare me.”

Elain breathed hard. “I will not let her have you.”

Nesta’s gaze was darting between the faeries approaching them, as though deciding which one she would strike first. “Stay back from my sister.

But a third person stepped out of the forest, the human general that Elain remembered from the manor. What’s he doing with these awful faeries? I thought he was trying to help Graysen fight against them? “You got lucky with the Attor,” Jurian said mildly, eyeing the scene with distaste. Elain couldn’t look, couldn’t bring herself to take in the full carnage of what that beast had done to poor Graysen. He had been awful to her, had said such nasty things, but he didn’t deserve to die, especially not like that, not by the claws of that vile creature. “You won’t get that lucky again.”

Nesta whirled on him accusingly. “You lying bastard. You told me that we would all be left alone.”

But the human general sidestepped her swipe easily. “I told you to hand over the fireling. And you didn’t. If you’d listened, all this could have been avoided,” he scolded, grabbing Nesta’s wrist almost casually, then twisting it behind her back. Nesta hissed and kicked at him, but then went still, as though realizing that she couldn’t win.

Or that awful faerie is controlling her mind. Elain watched, chilled to her marrow.

“Come, Lucien,” Ianthe said, and Elain twisted to see that she was approaching them now, hands outstretched. She wanted to rip off those priestess’s robes, that stupid stone that Ianthe didn’t deserve to wear, for Elain had met real priestesses in the Library that were truly pious and good, and now recognized Ianthe for the fraud that she was, using the robes and the invoking stone to play at holiness, when her very soul was rotten. “You don’t belong with these mortals, but with me. Let’s leave all this unpleasantness behind us.”

Lucien was outwardly still and calm, but Elain could feel how his heart was racing, how his thoughts were a jumble of fury and panic, how his love for her and his need to keep her safe were weighing upon him. He was thinking frantically, she knew, trying to find some clever way out of this situation.

But there wasn’t one. Elain could see it plainly. Even Lucien’s powers might not be enough to fight a wicked faerie who could control their minds, freeze their muscles. And if Jurian was on his side, they would have to fight him, too, divide their efforts. They would all be captured, taken to that awful island, where who knew what tortures awaited them. She’d heard about such terrible things at the summit, but had thought she was safe, had thought it could never happen again.

Elain and Nesta were just mortals, little more than chattel to these wicked folk, to be slaughtered like beasts or worked as slaves, if they weren’t given to the soldiers to violate. And Ianthe would fulfill her designs for Lucien, like she’d failed to do on Calanmai.

She didn’t want to think about the fate of the world beyond the three of them, how the King would use the Cauldron, shatter the Wall, do to all her people what had been done to the Beddors, unleash his monsters, rip and shred all of humanity as Graysen had been — She swallowed hard, desperate not to vomit.

Jurian was looking at the two faeries matter of factly, as though this whole travesty was all in a day’s work, his tone indifferent as he asked, “We don’t need these girls, do we?”

“My uncle will want the sweeter one for his test. But not the harpy who killed the Attor. She must pay for that,” the faerie male hissed. Elain glanced at him and shuddered at his creepy black eyes, his stringy hair and pale face that looked almost translucent.

“She’s a mortal. That’s not punishment enough?” Ianthe trilled. She held out her hands to Lucien again, and he shrank back. “You can stop pretending to care about them, you know.”

Lucien was still for a moment, then leaped up and fired a blast of light at the male faerie, who cursed and shielded, but not before his jacket sleeve and hair were singed. “Go,” Lucien gritted out to Elain, who scrambled to her feet, trying to take advantage of the distraction.

But their opponent narrowed his eyes on Lucien, who suddenly went rigid, as though all his muscles had locked up tight, and Elain suddenly realized that she was held still, too, unable to so much as blink. She could only watch with sickening dread as the faerie brushed ash off his sleeve, and huffed a sigh. “How tedious of you to think that would work on me. Jurian, the shackles.”

Jurian released Nesta, who had also gone still as a statue, and strode forward. He reached into his pocket, pulling out a set of bluish stone shackles that pricked unpleasantly at even Elain’s untrained human senses, while Lucien tried his best to recoil from them, but he was firmly held by the wicked faerie’s magic, and couldn’t.

“We could just kill them all, and be done with it,” Jurian said casually. If Elain had been able to move, she would have spit in his eye.

Ianthe looked irritated at that suggestion, like she might object on moral grounds, but when she spoke, there was no hint of decency, no shred of compassion. “Lucien is mine.”

No, he isn’t, you fucking bitch, Elain seethed silently.

Jurian stepped close to Lucien, who seemed frozen in place, unable to offer resistance as his arms were wrenched behind his back, and the stone chains clamped around his wrists. He seemed to register it only distantly, barely reacting, while Elain’s mind screamed in protest, but her voice felt thick and sluggish, so that only the barest whimper came out. Lucien’s golden eye shuttered closed, then unfurled again, snagging on Elain and resting there, while his fiery russet eye blazed at her, as though trying to reassure her, somehow. And although Elain had expected him to feel angry, or hopeless, or something, all she felt through the bond was a quiet, settled, focused calm.

If that bastard is controlling him, she thought angrily, but then there was a gentle tug on the bond, Lucien reaching out to her as only he could. Elain didn’t know how mating bonds worked, if a mind manipulator could tug on one or make a person do it, but this felt like Lucien, and Lucien alone.

He’s the one chained, and he’s trying to reassure me, she thought with a jolt. How did Lucien find the strength? How could he keep getting hurt, getting captured, facing danger, and carry on every day like he wasn’t beaten down by it?

“Careful, don’t damage him,” Ianthe said, curling a possessive hand around Lucien’s arm. “I want him fiery.” And she gave him a lascivious grin that had Lucien’s mechanical eye shuttering closed again, a ripple of disgust along with it.

Let him go, Elain screamed at her, though she couldn’t make her mouth move. Get your filthy hands off him.

There was a tickle at the edge of her consciousness, a gentle soothing voice whispering to her. You don’t really like faeries anyway. He was never meant for you.

But the mating bond pulsed strongly in Elain’s chest, insisting otherwise, grounding her when her conscious mind wanted to follow the voice and float away.

Lucien is my mate, she told herself firmly. He is not Ianthe’s, but mine.

The male faerie chuckled, as though reacting to that, and Elain realized with horror that it had been his presence in her mind. He’d heard everything she was thinking — could still hear it now. She felt laid bare, like she’d been stripped naked and paraded about in front of these awful people for their amusement, and spitefully imagined an iron gate slamming down around her mind, blocking him from entering. She knew it was probably useless, that such an old and wicked creature would be able to penetrate any barrier a mere human might throw around herself, but she had to at least try.

But the faerie had eased off digging in his claws in, perhaps growing bored of her simple human perceptions, and was drawling, “Dear Ianthe, my uncle will have plenty to say when you ask him to break your beloved’s mating bond with this little human here.”

“Mating bond?” Ianthe screeched, genuine horror flashing across her features, before she mastered herself and flicked her hair back, as though she could flick Lucien’s love for Elain away as well. “Surely not. Humans aren’t blessed by the Cauldron with mates. Such a thing has never happened. You must be mistaken —”

The faerie waved a hand, silencing her abruptly. “Do not forget who I am. You will address the Crown Prince of Hybern with respect.” He turned back to Elain, raising an eyebrow at her. “They are mates, or near enough, but we can use that to our advantage. Your fireling will cooperate, so that his mate will not be harmed.”

Suddenly Elain screamed in pain as a searing hot flash tore through her, and she crumpled to the ground, writhing as though she could get it out of her body that way. Nesta screamed her name, and Lucien jolted, lurching towards her, while Ianthe stood by with a cruel smile on her face.

The prince waved a hand, and Elain’s pain abruptly ceased, and she lay for long moments, panting, until Jurian pulled her back to her feet. “That was unnecessary,” he told the prince flatly.

“Was it?” The prince’s eyes were on Lucien, who was quivering in Ianthe’s grip, tears silently rolling down his cheeks. “He’ll offer no more resistance. Even if he somehow gets his shackles off, he won’t use his magic against us.” He jerked his head towards Elain. “We’ll take her with us, unharmed as long as they both cooperate. My uncle will have a suitable candidate in her, at any rate.”

“Not her,” Ianthe said bluntly. “She doesn’t deserve it.”

“The others we’ve tried were all too weak, as Jurian can attest,” the prince said. “Two of the mortal queens perished outright, while Briallyn…” He shuddered. “The Cauldron was not kind to her.”

The Cauldron. That magical relic they were trying to fight, and that mysterious giver of mating bonds. Elain shivered a little at what it could do to a mortal, what might make even this awful prince shudder. What would the Cauldron want with her? Would it be kind? She had no quarrel with it, was grateful to it in fact, for it had given Lucien to her, and she to him.

I’ll tell it so, if I ever have the chance. I’ll thank it, ask it what it wants in return.

Jurian spoke up then. “There is another benefit to keeping the girl unharmed. Rhysand will be lured in to rescue her, for she is his mate’s sister.”

The prince nodded. “Another objective accomplished, then.” Ianthe pouted, and Elain resisted the childish urge to stick her tongue out. “Bind her.”

Jurian grunted in acknowledgement, producing a thin length of rope from another pocket and winding it around her wrists, cinching them carefully together in front of her. She reflexively tugged at the ropes, hating how they itched and dug into her skin, but Jurian tugged tighter, stilling her movements, pinching her wrists hard enough to restrict circulation until she stopped struggling. “Hold still now. There’s a good girl,” he muttered.

Elain’s eyes found Lucien’s, and she blinked at him, to show him that she was all right, for she could feel his raw anguish pouring through the bond, his traumatic memories of seeing his beloved killed mingling with his fear for Elain now.

And Nesta —

Where was Nesta?

Elain carefully averted her gaze to the ground, shoving her sister out of her mind, as though she had no sister at all. If the prince was reading her thoughts, he might realize that Nesta was gone. But she couldn’t totally suppress her relief, for Nesta was gone, gone as though she’d never been there, and Jurian hadn’t said a word about it. Elain avoided thinking about that too, at what game Jurian might be playing, and focused entirely on the plants at her feet, those deceptively docile things that could prick and poison if one tried to pluck them.

Leaves of three, let them be.

Elain focused on the plants, on coaxing them forward, bidding them to grow. If she could use them somehow, trip their captors, or strangle them — 

But the ivy was stubborn, and slow growing, less responsive to her than the plants in Prythian had been. She remembered there were clippings in her pockets, and seeds that they’d gathered from Spring, but that would take time to grow, time she didn’t have.

“Let’s go,” Jurian said abruptly, his eyes now scanning the sky above the treetops. “If I know Rhysand, his warriors will come looking for his missing folk soon enough.”

“Where’s the witch?” the prince asked suddenly, looking around for Nesta. Elain froze, praying to the Cauldron and the Mother that Nesta was long gone, that she’d slipped through the Wall.

Jurian waved a careless hand. “The beasts will get her soon enough.”

The prince looked like he might press the point, but then seemed to grow bored with the whole notion of Nesta. “Quite right, Jurian. She doesn’t deserve to step foot on our shores, after the crime she committed, nor does she deserve the honor of me killing her personally. We won’t linger in this wasteland, not when Uncle is waiting.”

Elain’s hope soared, despite her efforts to keep her feelings locked down. If Nesta had escaped, she could get help, warn Feyre and the others, get a rescue mission organized. But then she thought better of that impulse. Rhysand will be lured in, they’d said hopefully, like they wanted Rhys and the Night Court to attempt a rescue, after all. She desperately hoped that Nesta would be able to explain all that, before they were all captured, for who would rescue them then? Hybern could win this War without even having to fight.

It was a sobering thought, and she must have looked suitably upset by it, for the prince said, “You need not fear, for you were a good girl, and followed orders. Keep doing that, and hope your mate does the same, and you might survive a while longer. The King has need of a mortal like yourself, and we wouldn’t want to disappoint him, now, would we?”

Elain forcefully bit her lip to keep her venomous thoughts at bay, and nodded meekly instead.

Ianthe pressed herself against Lucien’s front, seeming not at all to mind that she was embracing an unwilling, shackled male. “Let’s go, darling. This is going to be fun,” she said brightly.

Jurian’s large hand slid around Elain’s upper arm, and then they were taking steps, the gruff general leading her forward, away from Lucien, towards the awful prince who’d made her feel such agony. She kept her eyes lowered, needing time to form a strategy. This male was a prince, used to groveling and fear, and had a hatred of mortals like herself such that even looking directly at him could be taken as insolence. He seemed to like obedience and a bit of groveling, but she had to be careful, appear docile, sincere. If she was to survive, she would have to play things right, avoid triggering her captors’ rage or attracting their attention, until she could figure out a plan.

And she would figure out a plan.

She would save Lucien, and herself, or die trying.

Chapter Text

“There,” Cassian whispered, pointing into a copse of trees, sucking in a deep breath as though to steady his nerves, a hand pressed just below the siphon on his chest. “She’s there.”

They had been searching and searching, taking shifts to scour the human lands and the ruins of Spring. Azriel’s shadows had been the first to sense that Nesta was nearby, but every time a search party got anywhere close, Nesta would run. She was startlingly fast and light on her feet, and fiercely determined to survive, for she had to be exhausted, and frightened, and dehydrated and starving by now. They couldn’t risk calling to her, in case she was being followed by someone less friendly than themselves, and when Feyre had tried speaking to her mind to mind, she’d been met only with an impenetrable wall of iron. She’d warned Rhys not to try.

They’d finally decided that Feyre would do best on her own, but Cassian had insisted on accompanying her — to protect her back, he claimed, but Feyre sensed that he was anxious to find Nesta, for reasons that she could only speculate about.

And good thing she’d agreed to it, for now it seemed that Cassian would be the one to succeed in finding Nesta, after all.

Feyre was looking where Cassian was pointing, but saw nothing, just the ruined husk of the verdant land that Spring had once been. She didn’t have time or energy to feel sorrow over that, or to wonder what had so tainted the magic in the land, but focused on Nesta, reached out with her mind, and yes 

“Thank the Mother,” Feyre cried, shoving into the undergrowth, heedless of who might hear them. They’d had no sign of Hybern, or of Tamlin, which was probably a blessing, and she needed Nesta to recognize her voice, loud and clear. Her knees scraped on the rocky ground, but she didn’t register it, not when she’d finally found her sister. “Nesta! It’s me, Feyre!”

Nesta whirled around, her face flushed with fury as though she might lash out, thinking them an enemy, but then her expression softened the slightest fraction when she saw who it was. “They took Elain,” she said angrily, by way of greeting. “I’ll kill them all.”

Feyre nodded breathlessly, then flung her arms around her sister, who felt stiff and unyielding pressed against her, but she didn’t care. She’d been worried sick, was still worried sick for Elain, of all the people for Hybern to capture, why did it have to be my sweet, gentle sister?, but Nesta’s escape was an unexpected gift, and she embraced her sister wholeheartedly.

“We’ll get Elain back,” she promised, pulling back to check Nesta for injuries. Nesta was disheveled from running, bits of dried leaf and soil clumps stuck to her in random places, and scratched and bloodied, one sleeve withered into scraggly bits of fabric with —

“Is that Attor blood?” Cassian burst out, shoving in to crouch close to Feyre so that he could get a better look at Nesta’s sleeve.

Nesta’s steely gray eyes flicked to him, then back to Feyre. And then back to Cassian, who was taking in the sight of her, his expression shifting from anxious concern into admiring surprise. “I killed it,” she said flatly, as though the Attor were a bug she had squashed with her shoe.

Cassian grinned at her, seeming to take her measure. “I bet you did.”

Nesta eyed him skeptically, as though trying to puzzle out who and what he was, her gaze lingering on his large wings, on the long talons at their tips. Feyre suddenly remembered a moment, Under the Mountain, when Rhys had shown her his wings for the first time, how she had thought in her anxious haze that they looked like the Attor’s. She wouldn’t blame Nesta if her sister recoiled, thinking that she’d killed one monster only to end up in the clutches of another. And though Nesta didn’t seem afraid of Cassian one bit, Feyre couldn’t afford the possibility that they might butt heads, not when Elain and Lucien’s lives were at stake.

So she went with simple and direct introductions, hoping Cassian had the sense to let her take the lead in the conversation. “Nesta, this is Cassian. He’s a friend.”

Nesta seemed to accept this pronouncement, as she pushed up to her feet, her movements graceful and strong despite her hours in the forest alone, and Feyre found herself gazing at her sister’s human ears, just to be sure they weren’t pointy, after all. “They took Elain and her fireling,” Nesta spat, looking around intently, as though she might go hunt for them right now.

It didn’t matter that she was exhausted, hadn’t eaten in possibly days. She cared for Elain more than for herself, would do anything for her sister. It must have killed her to have to leave Elain behind. Feyre rather wondered why Nesta had slipped away, why she hadn’t gotten herself captured along with them.

“Who took them?” Cassian asked.

Nesta’s jaw was set tight, and for a moment Feyre thought she might ignore Cassian completely. After what she’s just been through, it’s no wonder she’s distrustful of strangers. Not that Nesta had ever been anything else.

But at length, Nesta said, “There were two faeries. A mean bastard calling himself a Crown Prince of Hybern, and a creepy lady in a blue robe.”

So it was Hybern, then. It really couldn’t have been anyone else, the way they’d so thoroughly wrecked the manor. It had been a relief, and a surprise, to find that there were no bodies there, giving Feyre hope that they’d all gotten out in time. But there had been no footsteps leading out from the manor except for the intruders’. Lucien must have winnowed them all. She said a silent prayer to the Mother for him, feeling guilty that she hadn’t spent more time with him once they’d rescued him from Spring.

Recalling that incident, how they’d had to rescue Lucien, startled her into fully processing what Nesta had said. A creepy lady in a blue robe. She knew only one faerie who fit that description. 

“Ianthe?” Feyre asked, a wave of revulsion rolling through her at the thought of what Ianthe might be doing to her friend right now, now that she’d sunk her claws into him.

“Yes. They used that name,” Nesta said, wrinkling her nose with distaste. “You know her?”

“Unfortunately,” Feyre said, rolling her eyes, both at Ianthe’s insufferable existence, and her own naïve trust in the priestess. She’d been so despondent after Under the Mountain, so vulnerable and in need of a supportive listener, and with Lucien gone to the human lands, Ianthe had taken full advantage, posing as her friend. She was a good actress, too, since she’d apparently fooled Tamlin completely, and Feyre had trusted her as much as she trusted anyone.

Only Lucien had seemed wary of her, and Feyre now recalled just how many times Ianthe had seductively brushed against him, or angled to sit by him at meals, or cornered him in corridors, and how uncomfortable and flustered it always made him.

A hot rush of guilt flooded through her, that it had taken Elain’s arrival at the manor to keep Ianthe away from Lucien. She had been too lost in her own struggles to notice, and if Tamlin had seen it, he hadn’t done anything about it, either.

Tamlin — how does he fit into all this?

“What about a blond male with green eyes?” she asked, hoping against hope that Tamlin hadn’t been involved. She’d left him behind, him and his bad temper and overprotective suffocating rules, but hadn’t thought him actually wicked until he’d chased down Lucien on Calanmai. Even so, she’d thought Tamlin hated Hybern and the slavery it practiced, though with Ianthe whispering poison in his ear, and his desperation to get his powers back, he’d apparently been willing to attack his most loyal friend, use Hybern’s shackles on him. 

Had he gotten those shackles himself, or had Ianthe provided them? Hadn’t Tamlin questioned where they’d come from? Did he question anything Ianthe did, or goaded him into?

Don’t let him off the hook. He is a High Lord, even if his powers are diminished. He could have turned her out of the manor at any time, or refused her suggestions.

“If you’re asking if your High Lord was there, no, he wasn’t,” Nesta said, her furrowed brows indicating exactly what she thought of Tamlin. Nesta had never forgiven or forgotten how he’d broken into their cottage, screaming that they were murderers. I should have known right then who Tamlin was, yet I fell in love with him anyway. “If he had been, I would have stuck an ash arrow in him, too.”

“Good,” Cassian exclaimed. “He deserves to be in the lowest of hells, after what he did to Rhys’s family.”

Nesta blinked, not understanding the reference, so Feyre explained, “Rhys is my mate.”

“Oh, yes. Your other High Lord. I understand you have two now,” Nesta said disdainfully. “Those two messengers were trying to get me to interfere in your marriage spat, just like what happened with Elain’s stupid oaf of a husband. Does anyone keep marriage vows sacred anymore?”

This was hardly the time or place to explain herself to her sister, much less speak for Elain, and Cassian looked peeved, like he might jump in to defend her, which would only start an argument he couldn’t win. So Feyre quickly said, a bit clipped, “It’s complicated when there are mating bonds involved.”

“I don’t know what that is. And I don’t care,” Nesta declared, “except that if either of your husbands are worth a damn thing, they’ll help us get Elain back.”

“Of course Rhys will help,” Cassian said defensively. “We all will.”

Nesta gazed at him coolly, assessing, and he went on eagerly, “We’ve all fought against Hybern before, you know. Not far from here, actually. I remember your village, and what Hybern did to it. I swore I would never let that happen again, and I meant it.”

“That war was five hundred years ago, and the humans defeated the faeries,” Nesta said in disbelief. “Are you telling me you’re that old? And you fought on the human side?”

“I am. I did,” Cassian said solemnly, a hand on his heart, “and I’ll do it again.”

Nesta considered Cassian with something like respect in her gaze, though she still looked skeptical.

“It took me a while to trust faeries,” Feyre said, hoping it was reassuring. “They’re not all like that prince and Ianthe, I promise.”

“I saw. Those messengers from Spring were kind folk. And the fireling tried to save us,” Nesta conceded.

“Lucien is a good male,” Cassian said, which was a concession in itself. Feyre hadn’t blamed her new Inner Circle for being distrustful of Lucien at first, given his friendship with Tamlin and Eris being his half-brother, but had hoped they would warm up to him once they learned how he’d helped her Under the Mountain, how he’d tried to keep her safe during those fraught months she lived at Spring as a human, and the even more fraught months afterwards. 

Yet despite rescuing him, despite trusting him enough to show him Velaris, they’d maintained their dislike of him right up until he’d left with Elain, for reasons she hadn’t had time to ask them about. Maybe he was just too different from them, too likely to question their perspectives, or disagree with their methods.

At least they liked Elain well enough, made allowances for her being new to Prythian, and mortal. She wondered if they’d extend the same consideration for Nesta.

“The human general gave me this.” Nesta reached into the bodice of her dress and pulled out a small lead box, then held it out to Feyre. “I don’t know what it is, but he snuck it into my hands, so it must be important.”

“Fucking hell.” Cassian stared at the box. “Is that —“

It was. Feyre could feel it, even before she opened the lid with the steadiest fingers she could muster. The Book of Breathings, the mortal half of it, lay before her, its metal rings and symbol-encrusted cover glinting dully. “How did he get this?”

Nesta shrugged. “He was pretending to be on their side. I couldn’t ask him.”

It didn’t matter. They had the Book, both halves of it now, for Tarquin and Cresseida had received Lucien’s letter, sent just before he left for the human realm, assuring them of a navy to defend Adriata, and reparations for the ancient relics that Feyre and Amren had destroyed during their attempt to steal the Book. And Kallias, of all people, had vouched for Rhys, assuring them that Rhys might not be a good male, not exactly, but he was at least trustworthy, at least where fighting Hybern was concerned. Helion’s assurance had sealed the deal, for he pledged warriors to aid the defense of Adriata, and scholars and architects to ensure that the still-unrepaired neighborhoods would be built back to be more structurally sound.

“Buildings so strong, even an Illyrian can’t knock them down,” Helion had exclaimed, elbowing Cassian, who had laughed heartily, despite his indignation at having to answer for a youthful indiscretion he’d committed centuries ago.

So now both halves of the Book were in their possession, and Amren could get to work translating them, just as the Suriel’s prophecy had directed. But what the Suriel hadn’t mentioned was that Hybern would grab Feyre’s sister and friend, and would probably expect the Night Court to mount a rescue attempt.

“Do you know where my people are? They crossed the Wall ahead of me,” Nesta was asking.

“If they were with Bron and Hart, they must have headed to the Spring Court manor,” Feyre said hopefully. “We’ll offer them sanctuary at the Night Court, of course.” She looked at Cassian, who nodded agreement, though his eyes never left Nesta, not for a moment. “I can winnow myself, but I’m not sure about taking two others. I’m still working up to that.”

“If you mean that shadow travel business, you can forget it. I’m walking,” Nesta declared.

“It’s too dangerous. I’ll fly you,” Cassian said, holding out his arms to her.

The withering look Nesta gave him in response almost had Feyre bursting out laughing, and she bit her lip as she fought to keep her expression neutral.

Cassian, to his credit, didn’t flinch. “Come on, Nes. I don’t bite. Unless I’m asked,” he said, winking conspiratorially.

Nesta said dryly, “I didn’t know you were that kind of bat.”

He threw his head back and laughed. “Guess I walked right into that.”

“Yes, you did,” Feyre said, patting his shoulder. “Don’t worry, Nesta. Cassian flew me here earlier. It really is safe.”

Nesta looked like she might argue the point, might quibble with Feyre’s definition of what safe was, but then Cassian said earnestly, “We need to get your sister. This is the quickest way to do it.”

That got Nesta moving. She stepped towards Cassian tentatively, fists clenched at her sides, and Cassian took a step towards her in response, slowly and carefully positioning an arm around her back that hovered for long, tense moments in the air before making contact.

Nesta closed her eyes, accepting the touch, and Cassian angled his wings back, keeping them in clear view for her, as he bent to slide his other arm under her legs. Nesta’s eyes flew open, and she stared up at him, her expression sharp but unreadable. She was trusting him with her very body, trusting him to touch her, take her up in the air.

Cassian seemed to sense exactly what a big leap that was, for he gave her a reassuring smile as he hefted her up. “I’ll make it as smooth a flight as I can,” he said.

But Nesta pulled her arms around his neck, bracing herself. “Don’t hold back. My sister is in danger.”

Cassian nodded, his hazel eyes flashing, and shot up into the air. If Nesta shrieked, in surprise or terror, it was lost to the roar of the wind and the furious beating of Cassian’s wings.

Feyre breathed out, finally assured that Nesta would be taken care of. She winnowed, pulling back that dark curtain that linked every part of the world to every other part in some way that she would never understand, and materialized on the front steps of the manor that had once, almost, been home.

There were startled shouts from the windows, and Feyre braced herself, wondering if she would have to shield. But then a human female leaned out and called, “Oi! Yer Elain’s sister, aren’t yer?”

“Yes,” Feyre called back, relieved when Hart’s familiar face popped into the window next to the human’s. “I’m the youngest.”

“The faerie child?” An older female, dressed in maid’s clothing but with the diction of a fine lady, leaned out of another window. “I’ve heard stories of you, as a wee one.”

“Beggin’ yer pardon, missus, but where is the Lady Elain?” a gruff male asked.

Feyre sighed heavily, hating to have to be the bearer of bad news. “My sister and her mate were captured.”

There were gasps and exclamations at that, and much crying and lamentation, mostly for Elain’s sake but a fair amount for Lucien’s too, for he had earned the humans’ trust, had armed them and warned them, sent them messengers, and had saved them all by shadow-traveling them to the Wall. But more than that, they also had seen how much he loved Elain, and how hard he’d tried to protect her, which was more important to them than even their own safety.

Feyre was awed by it, at how much loyalty they had for Elain, what lengths they were willing to risk themselves for her, and wondered if it wasn’t some sort of power that her sister had, a power of quite a different sort than the many powers Feyre called her own.

Feyre found herself bundled into the manor to be served dandelion tea and stale bread, which was all that could be gathered about the grounds or found in Tamlin’s larders. She sipped the tea without tasting it, hoping it would settle her uneasy stomach, and explained, as quickly and succinctly as she could, how she’d come to be in Prythian, why the manor was in such terrible shape, who the King of Hybern was and what he might want with his captives. Bron and Hart occasionally chimed in to explain details she’d forgotten, or assure the folk that the story was all true when they seemed incredulous.

Cassian landed on the doorstep with Nesta then, and new introductions had to be made. The humans knew Nesta, and how anti-faerie she’d been, so they accepted Cassian’s presence with fewer suspicious glares or shrieks of terror than Feyre might have expected. They peered curiously at Cassian’s wings, and he accepted their stares good-naturedly. Feyre wondered if the humans of hundreds of years ago had been the same, if the sight of Illyrian wings had provoked terror in them, or relief.

“The High Lord’s nowhere to be found, my lady,” Bron murmured to her, pulling her aside. “We haven’t seen him since we fled south of the Wall, and that was days ago. And —“ He lowered his voice, glancing around to be sure the human-folk weren’t listening. “The magic’s quite gone from the land, like it’s withdrawn. Only small sections of the gardens still bear life.”

Feyre found this incredibly odd, though she didn’t know the first thing about gardening or farming, and not much more about Tamlin’s magic had worked. But Bron went on, “The plants your sister tended, they’re all thriving. It’s her land, now, not his no more. And if we don’t get her back —“

He broke off, swiping gruffly at his eyes, then continued. “It won’t just be a tragedy to us, the folk that love her. It’ll mean the end of Spring itself, forever.

Chapter Text

Elain swayed on her feet, dizzy and exhausted, but Jurian’s firm hands braced against her arm and back, steadying her, even as he prodded her along down the corridor. “Where are you taking me?” she asked him, frowning up at the bare ugly walls of the castle, the torches eking black acrid smoke that couldn’t fully hide the stench of the monsters that roamed freely through the halls. So many monsters as Elain had never seen and never could have conjured in her worst waking nightmares — leathery gray things with teeth and claws, like that Attor that had slashed poor Graysen to ribbons, and black beasts with scales, creatures with red eyes and others with black soulless ones, creatures that leered and snapped their teeth at her as she was hurried past, going by in a blur of pungent filth and leering glares.

“Don’t talk. Head down,” Jurian barked, and Elain obeyed, focusing on her muddy blood-specked shoes, Jurian’s large boots, the stretches of bare beige floor that for all the world looked like the bones of some ancient giant. Distant screams, high pitched and frantic, echoed down some far hallway, then abruptly ceased, like some wretched prisoner had been put out of their misery, and several of the creatures veered straight toward the source of the sound, as though summoned by a dinner bell.

What is this awful place? It was too grotesque to be real. She had seen beautiful palaces, and cozy manors and townhouses in Prythian, but this — this was a den of horrors. 

Was she was trapped in a vision sent into her mind by that evil prince, testing her resolve, or just toying with her weak mortal mind? Elain had seen the confusion on Graysen’s face, could easily see how simple it was to confuse human senses. But she tugged on the mating bond, and Lucien was there, warm and loving, if sorrowful and frightened. Real, then. This is real. She didn’t know whether to be relieved, or more frightened than ever.

The sensitive skin of her wrists chafed and bled into the ropes binding her, no matter how careful she tried to be, how hard she tried not to jostle or strain. It was impossible to steady herself without her arms for balance, and she lurched, tripping over the long hem of her dress, and a trickle of blood trailed down her right arm where the rope bit into her. Don’t cry. Be brave, she told herself firmly, but a sick helpless dread was coiling up inside her, and tears spilled out before she could blink them back.

Jurian cursed and yanked at her arm, making her stumble, and then they were in a small dimly lit chamber, and he was firmly shutting the door. “You’ve a death wish, girl,” he said gruffly, threading a handkerchief out from his pocket and swiping at her face with it. “They can smell your tears.”

Elain winced as the cloth scratched across her cheek and nose, capturing her tears, and snapped at Jurian, “If I die here, it’s your fault, you know.”

Jurian chuckled darkly, stuffing the handkerchief back into his pocket. “You don’t know the half of what I’ve done, little girl. A sweet thing like you, you can’t even imagine.” His calloused fingers curled around her arm again, and he leaned in as he reached past her to snag the door. “Don’t bother telling me I’m going to Hell. I’m already in it, just like I deserve. Been in it for centuries.

Elain struggled to remember what Jurian’s story was, what had been said about him at the summit, or around Tamlin’s or Rhys’s dinner table. It had been horrid, the talk of his body being hacked up, his soul trapped in only an eye and a finger. She’d thought it was a joke at first, some outlandish tale designed to poke fun at the ignorant human, who would believe silly tales no matter how ridiculous.

But Lucien had confirmed it, so it had to be true. Jurian was centuries old, and had spent most of his time constantly awake, and in torment. Elain blurted out, “How do you stand it?”

Jurian’s hand froze on the door handle, as though he were jolted by the question, but then he softly huffed, saying, “The question is, sweetheart, whether you can stand it. The King’s got plans for you, and if you ever want to see your fireling again, you’ve got to survive them.”

Elain’s blood iced over in horror. What does that mean? She couldn’t imagine how wicked and awful the King must be, to keep such monsters around, to seek war and destruction. He would be even worse than that wicked prince, for the cruelest and most ruthless would always rule. Being kind and merciful would be an unforgivable weakness in a place like this.

She straightened her spine. She had to survive. She had to save herself, and Lucien, and prevent this war, or this wickedness would spread over all Prythian, and the human realm too. “Tell me what I must do.”

Jurian let the door handle go, turning to face her fully. Elain forced herself to look at Jurian’s hardened face, into those eyes that had seen far too much. The dim candlelight flickered across his features, the firm set of his jaw, and she thought he might not answer her question at all, until he asked quietly, “Do you know who you are, Elain?”

What sort of odd question is that? “Of course,” she answered, furrowing her brows at him.

“You don’t,” Jurian said. “You can’t. Not yet.” He lifted up a hand, waggling one finger at her. “This body you’re in, it’s a sack of meat. It can be sliced open, torn apart, pulverized to bits. Broken apart and remade entirely.”

“By the Cauldron?” Elain said.

“By the Cauldron,” Jurian said, his eyes glowing softly. “I didn’t even believe in the damn thing, until I was in it.” He shuddered. “I didn’t know who I was. What I was. I didn’t know anything.” He seemed to grasp at words for long moments, and Elain watched him with growing unease. “When you are in the Cauldron, you see beyond the veil of this world, the scrap of it that we can perceive with our human senses. And it can kill you, if you are not strong enough.”

Elain breathed, “Why are you telling me this?”

“You asked what you must do,” Jurian said, his tone taking on an irritated edge. “I’m telling you.”

Elain resisted the urge to tug at her bindings, to wrench away from him and flee. “I don’t understand,” she said plaintively.

Jurian made a noise that was half-sigh, half chuckle. “Neither do I. Probably never will.” Then he wrapped his hand more firmly around her arm, while reaching for the door handle with his other hand. “I don’t know how the magic works. But I do know what I’m fighting for. I won’t let anything distract me from that mission.” His fingers tightened, jolting her forward. “Even the fate of innocents like you.”

Elain understood then. It was both an apology, and a warning.

Jurian steered her back out into the corridor, and as they descended further into the Hybern castle, Elain didn’t dare speak again.

* * * *

Hello, lovely fawn.

Elain blinked, shifting uncomfortably on the hard straw pallets that passed for a bed. She’d finally fallen asleep, after long hours of staring up at the low ceiling in the darkness, her scratchy ropes replaced by strange glowing chains of amethyst attached to the cell wall that clanked unpleasantly whenever she shifting, trying in vain to get comfortable. She didn’t fully understand why any of it was necessary, why they though a simple mortal girl like herself would need to be chained at all.

The chains aren’t for me, she realized. They’re to stop anyone who might come to my rescue.

She couldn’t hope for Lucien to aid her, much as he would want to. They had him chained far more securely, she figured, far better guarded. And they’d threatened to harm her if he gave them trouble, had tortured him with the sight of her writhing in pain. His anguish at seeing her like that had been agonizing, had lingered long after the prince had taken her physical pain away. The fact that she was lying here now, in relative comfort despite her predicament, told her that Lucien had been careful, had not triggered their captors’ displeasure. His end of the bond was quiet now, and she hoped he was sleeping, that he’d found at least that temporary escape from this horror, that he wasn’t being hurt or violated, that he wouldn’t have to endure awful things because of his desire to protect her.

Her sisters would come for them, and Rhysand and his warriors, but Elain worried that it was all a trap. Nesta, especially, would have to be careful, for though she was fierce, though she had killed the Attor, she was only mortal. Elain shuddered to think at what the King or his cronies had in store for her friends, her family, but she suspected that these strange crystal chains were laden with some unnatural magic, some treacherous power that her mortal senses couldn’t register.

Soon, darling, you will understand.

“Who’s there?” Elain asked, startled into full wakefulness by the sweet disembodied voice speaking to her again. Where have I heard that voice before?

Shh, sweet thing. You will know me soon enough.

Elain twisted, rattling the chain on her right wrist, wincing when the stone slipped over the rope burn, making her skin prickle. The voice was coming from inside her mind, or through the walls, and she prayed it wasn’t that evil prince, or some other mind reader, toying with her or probing her thoughts.

“It’s stirring,” a gruff male voice chortled outside her cell, and Elain went very still.

The cell door creaked open, and muffled footsteps sounded on the floor, getting closer. “Mac, you rogue. It’s probably filthy.”

You’re filthy, Elain thought angrily, but held herself motionless, trying not to so much as breathe hard. There were several of them in the cell with her, all breathing far too loudly, hovering over her, and they couldn’t be up to anything good.

“I just want to see what all the fuss is about.” A hand wrapped around a clump of Elain’s loose hair and tugged, forcing her to turn towards the males — guards, she realized, all dressed in the same bone and gray uniforms and leering down at her with ugly black eyes — and the one gripping her hair chuckled. “Oh, she is lovely.”

Another male leaned down, his hot pungent breath wafting unpleasantly across Elain’s too-thin dress. “Smells of flowers,” he leered, his mouth twisting into a smirk.

“That’s human fear you’re smelling, Donnal,” another guard snorted.

“Delicious,” Donnal said, gripping Elain’s chin in his meaty hand. “Think she’ll taste as good as she smells?”

Elain wrenched her face away and scooted back, though the grip on her hair yanked painfully, and the chains wouldn’t let her get far. She kicked ineffectually, making all the guards chuckle, and her face flushed hot with frustration and embarrassment that she was so helpless, that her efforts to fend them off were amusing.

“You’re not supposed to hurt me,” she told them, “the Crown Prince said so.”

“We could make it feel good,” said one of the guards, pinching her waist through her dress, grinning wickedly when she gasped and jerked away. “If it hurts, it’s because you fought back. Not that we mind, we like a little spirit now and again.”

“Spirit? I want her to scream,” Donnal sneered. She breathed hard as his hand slid up the inside of her arm, as another guard gripped her leg through the fabric of her dress, and the one gripping her hair wrapped it around his hand, getting more leverage. “Can you scream, little human?” he sneered. “Music to our ears.”

“Fuck — you,” Elain hissed at him, making them all laugh again.

“You will, bitch,” he snarled, twisting her hair, yanking her head back, exposing her throat and shoving his hand against it, making her gasp for air. “And you’ll like it. Mortal trash like you, you should feel lucky.”

Elain squeezed her eyes shut, trying to block out the hands roaming over her, desperately thinking of happier things, of Lucien and how she loved him, of Willow’s flowers, of magical soil and pools of starlight, fields of wildflowers and a sky full of stars. If the guards taunted her, or told her the filthy things they were going to do to her pathetic mortal body, she chose not to hear them.

This body you’re in, it’s a sack of meat, Jurian had told her. She could leave it behind, go far away, could escape in spirit —

“Let’s see if she’s wet for us,” one of the guards chortled, yanking at the hem of her dress, and Elain screamed, kicking him full in the face, slapping at another male who’d reached for her chest. He growled and slapped her cheek, making her ears ring, and she bit the inside of her lip to keep from crying out again.

Cauldron spare me — Help me. Please —

One of the guards reached towards the wall, pulling her chains taut, pinning her wrists above her head, and was reaching down to the chains on her ankles when an ear splitting growl shook the room, making all the guards jump up, then grab for their daggers.

Elain did scream then, her terror overwhelming her, as an enormous beast pounced on Donnal, shredding him open from his neck to his waist with a swipe of long talons, then whirled on the others, who were all shouting and cursing, stabbing at the beast as though their weapons would work against such a huge and powerful creature. Elain struggled to scramble away, to cover herself, do something, but was pinned tightly in place, and could only watch in horror as the creature ripped open the next guard, and the next one, until the floor of her cell was slick and red, the coppery stench of blood filling the room.

She shrieked again as the beast loomed over her, its long fangs dripping splatters of blood onto her dress, its spiraling horns glinting in the dim light. “Please don’t kill me,” she begged it, wrenching at the chains, feeling like a deer caught in a hunter’s snare, her wrists and arms aching as she strained against the bindings holding her still.

A set of piercing green eyes fixed upon her, regarding her in solemn silence, and Elain abruptly stopped shaking as she realized that she recognized them.

The beast reached up with one huge paw, and swiped at the chains, loosening them enough that Elain could bring her hands down, tug the fabric of her dress back into place, slide her hair back from where it was stuck to her sweaty face. She pulled gingerly up to sit, tired from struggling, her skin bruised from the rough hands of the guards grabbing and pinching at her, and breathed for long moments, her pounding heart slowly easing into a steadier, calmer rhythm.

I’m all right, she told herself, and told Lucien, whose anxious sorrow and fury were rippling through her, and she imagined that he was breathing with her, wherever he was, that he was with her despite the chains and prison walls keeping them apart.

Then she turned back to the great beast perched nearby, to Tamlin, who regarded her with a watchful silence she tried not to find unsettling. “I don’t suppose you can get these off me?” she asked, knowing the answer even before he shook his head.

For when she looked more closely, she could see the faint glimmer of an amethyst chain wound tightly around Tamlin’s neck, sticking out awkwardly amongst the fur. “You’re a prisoner too,” she said, extending a hand to it, examining the links of the collar with her fingertips. “You’re trapped in your beast form.”

Tamlin just watched her stoically, though there was an echo of shame and despair in his eyes. Can he speak to me? She doubted it, for he had not tried to speak to her at all. She was certain that Tamlin knew things about this castle that would surely help her, and that whoever had collared him would have thought of that, worked some spell into the chains that would lock his voice away.

Elain sighed, leaning back against the cool damp stones of the dungeon, ignoring the rough edges scratching against her back. “I was very angry with you, after what you did,” she told him, sternly but not unkindly. “But I thank you for saving me.”

Tamlin’s eyes lowered, his head bending forward, and he hunched downwards so that he was settled on the floor amongst the filth and gore of the dead guards. As though he were communicating his remorse to her, showing her that he deserved nothing better.

I asked the Cauldron for help, and it sent him.

“You will have a chance to make it right,” she found herself saying. “I’ll make sure of it.”

Tamlin’s eyes shot back up to her, perhaps in surprise. As if asking how she could promise him anything, how she knew she would even survive.

But Elain watched him calmly, a certainty settling within her. The Cauldron helped me. It will help me again.

Just then, Jurian appeared in the doorway, a troop of sentries at his back. “There you are, Tamlin. The King wants you in the throne room. Go lick yourself clean.”

Tamlin looked at him for long moments, then rose up onto all fours and trundled out, the guards in the doorway hastily parting for him, and he left without looking at Elain again, trailing bloody footprints as he walked away.

Jurian stepped into the cell and looked down, eyeing the floor with distaste, and then taking in her disheveled state. “Do I want to know what happened here?”

“You can guess,” Elain said tartly.

Jurian rolled his eyes, then strode to Elain, unlocking the chains from the wall, freeing her ankles, but snapped the cuffs on her wrists together in front of her, locking them tightly. Elain didn’t wait for him to tug at her, or lead her out like a farmyard animal or a prisoner, but stood up and walked, ignoring the muck she was stepping in, keeping her gaze firmly fixed ahead of her.

Jurian followed her to the cell door, where the guards were looking at her with leering interest, until he said, “I suggest none of you lot touch her, or look at her wrong, if you don’t want to end up like your comrades here.” The guards paled, and looked away.

Then Jurian nodded to her. “Ready?”

Elain held her head high, answering in a clear voice. “Yes, I am.”

He looked at her for a long moment. “Maybe.”

Then he started walking forward, and Elain went with him, going out from the dungeons, and towards her destiny.

Chapter Text

Lucien looked so peaceful, laid out on the couch where he’d fallen asleep, the tightly wound braids of his red lustrous hair spilling out across his back and shoulders. He’d succumbed at last, after he’d resisted sleeping for days, adamantly insisting that he wasn’t tired, when any fool could see that he was exhausted, that his eyelids kept fluttering closed and his head nodding to one side, only for him to jerk up back to startled alertness, look down at himself as though startled to find his own body still there. 

It was adorable, really, how fastidious he was, how he kept pulling at his sleeves and pants legs to cover every inch of himself, buttoning the fancy tunics she’d finally convinced him to wear up to his throat, tying his belt so securely that one would practically need a dagger to cut it off him. He’d always been impeccably dressed, like all the Vanserras, but Lucien managed to make silk and embroidery look masculine, polished and yet rustic. She’d pestered the court tailors into fashioning him the most flattering suits in the most sumptuous of fabrics, in the richest colors and velvety soft, which would feel simply divine against the skin.

It was a vast improvement from the filthy, blood-splattered clothes he’d petulantly refused to take off, until she’d gently reminded him that he had promised to be cooperative, and he’d immediately relented, barely waiting until she’d unlocked his bracelets before grabbing the offered garments and rushing off to the bathing chamber with them. She’d called after him that she could help him out of his clothes any time, but he hadn’t seemed to take her meaning, strange since he was usually so quick and clever. Even when she’d kept the bathing chamber locked, ensuring he couldn’t barricade himself in there, he always disappeared into some dark corner of their spacious apartments, changing his clothing with such lightning speed that she’d turn around to find that he was already completely dressed again, as though he were bundling himself against the winter frost, even though she kept their rooms warm and toasty for him.

Maybe it was that he missed his inner fire, his Autumn magic — an unfortunate necessity, until he could be fully trusted. Ianthe was looking forward to the day when she could unlock the bracelets, unleash his fire, feel him burning hot against her, inside her. She was hungry for it, almost wild for it now that she finally had him all to herself, when there were no pesky High Lords sending him off on emissary business, no meddling human girls snagging his attention. Lucien was hers, and she couldn’t wait to fully enjoy him.

But she’d seen the wisdom in being cautious, as the King had insisted, and had followed the protocol they’d agreed on, for it wouldn’t do to have Lucien lunging for a sentry’s dagger in a moment of panic, or igniting the bed-linens or curtains, or leaping out of windows. Then they would have to punish him, and the poor thing had already been whipped and scarred, and she wouldn’t want his handsome face or muscled body marred any further. Better to keep him securely held, for his own protection.

She always soothed him with comforting touches when she had to bind him, letting her fingers trail down his arms before she grasped his wrists and clicked the bracelets together, or threaded the loose amethyst chains between the shackles to give him more freedom of movement. Hold still for me, love, she’d whisper in his ear, and he’d obey so stoically, never complaining or flinching. Gone were the unseemly theatrics of that day in the forest, when he’d flailed and wrestled and sobbed, the poor creature. She’d known all along that he could be reasonable, that being around that human bitch had been what wrecked his self-control, muddled his judgment. The sooner we get rid of her, the better.

Ianthe sighed and moved to the dinner table, absent-mindedly snagging a morsel of leftover cake with her fingertips. Lucien had not touched his chicken again, nor the bread, nor the apple tart baked with fruit fresh from the castle gardens. He’d said he wasn’t hungry, which she found strange given that he was robust, firm and strong and athletic, surely needing more nourishment than endless cups of extra-strong coffee and plates of plain vegetables that didn’t grow natively in Hybern’s rocky soil. His attachment to Prythian and its cuisine was charming, if inconvenient, even more so because that nosy Jurian insisted on bringing up all of Lucien’s food personally. It was an excuse to needle her, or throw around his borrowed authority granted to him by virtue of being Cauldron-made. She couldn’t wait for the day that the King stopped entertaining that human trash in his halls and tossed Jurian back into the stables with the other animals, where he belonged.

At least humans are put in their proper place here, sooner or later. Not like in Prythian, where they were treated as prized pets, or even full members of society.

It had been a shock to see how thoroughly Tamlin had been corrupted, thinking himself in love with his human huntress, who should have been put down for her crime of slaughtering a faerie rather than rewarded for it. Amarantha had had the right idea by locking her away, treating her like the criminal she was, bringing her out occasionally to entertain them, though why she’d allowed Rhysand such free access to the little slave, Ianthe would never understand. But then, Amarantha had put her trust in Rhysand, which Ianthe had learned the hard way was a losing proposition. Ianthe would take great pleasure in breaking his hands, among the many other body parts Rhysand deserved to have broken, once he was lured to Hybern, along with his snarling beasts whose wings would make the perfect decorations for the throne room.

And Feyre Cursebreaker — perhaps the King could reverse the effects of what the High Lords had done to her, restore her to her natural human form. Her being Made was a perversion, an affront to all that was holy. How recklessly the High Lords had tampered with the Mother’s sacred gift of life, granting a faerie body to a half-feral creature, but not the faculties and spirituality of their kind, not a faerie soul. They could not grant that most precious of things, though they might aspire to it. It was pure arrogance, so typical of the High Lords, those gleeful oppressors, those usurpers of the proper order, and Feyre Cursebreaker had suffered for their hubris, struggling to handle her superior senses, her heightened strength and magic. 

What had they expected to happen? For a human to ascend to their level, wield their powers without vast consequences, was presumption beyond belief. Humans were never meant to wield magic, nor even sense it, and Feyre’s suffering was a fitting punishment, though Ianthe supposed that the blame really lay with the High Lords who should have known better. Feyre had reformed her wilder ways under Ianthe’s gentle direction, had been properly grateful for the attention from her betters, but then had lost sight of her humbler origins, had transgressed against nature by thinking herself their social and spiritual equal, in seeking to influence the course of events, to rule, rather than simply being grateful for her stolen chance to live among them. And Tamlin, that poor deluded soul, had encouraged and emboldened her, to his own detriment and downfall. How much Tamlin’s majesty had been diminished, wallowing with human filth, to the point where his magic had abandoned him.

Ianthe’s lips curled into a smirk, recalling Tamlin’s outraged protestations as he’d been seized by the King’s daemati, restrained on his knees and collared like the simple farmyard beast he’d become. She rather hoped the King would make a collection of all the High Lords, work them in the stables to earn their keep, or display them as a zoo attraction. That had been Amarantha’s mistake, she supposed, relying on stolen magic and scheming to control them, rather than simply leashing them to kneel at her feet, or shipping them off to Hybern for safekeeping. Amarantha had thought to set herself up as ruler of Prythian, had failed to show the King proper deference, and had lost access to his wealth of knowledge as a result of it. Ianthe would play the game much better, would ensure that when she took over, she would ensure that she had access to the King’s full repertoire of magic.

It should have been my magic in the first place.

Ianthe had always been devout, always eager to receive the Mother’s blessings. Even as a youngling, she’d always been careful to recite her prayers, always praising the Mother and showing her piety. But she’d never received a lick of magic, despite how often she’d fasted or chanted, no matter how loudly she sang with the choir, no matter how many services and vigils she attended. It was as though the Mother didn’t like her, found her devotions an affront rather than the gift that they were, and the more Ianthe tried, the more it seemed the blessings were withheld from her. It was a humiliation that she’d been passed over so obviously, developing nothing while her fellow priestesses cultivated healing magic, or received other gifts, and she’d had to have a common shopkeeper enchant her Invoking Stone just so that it would glow like all of her sisters’. 

Yet she’d continued to give her testimony, say the incantations, praise the Mother with diligence, even if she had to embellish the extent of her meager powers, just because the Mother had never deigned to show her the proper favor. She was born to lead, just as all her family were, and that knowledge spurred her onwards when a weaker female might have faltered. Uglier, poorer, less worthy girls would not supersede her, would not usurp her rightful title as High Priestess, just because they’d been so lucky as to snag the Mother’s attention.

For Ianthe had magic of a different sort, once she’d come of age. She’d blossomed into a true beauty, attracting males with ease. Perhaps that was her gift from the Mother — her grace, her persuasive abilities, her seductive appeal, her ability to charm males into doing her bidding. She’d picked up many techniques at the Hewn City, had worked all the way up to the High Lord himself, but had found him cruel and vicious, a most disappointing ending to a promising beginning.

Rhysand had acted lascivious, flaunting his sexual prowess in public, even accepting lewd favors in full view of his Court from females who were more sexually uninhibited and submissive than beautiful, but had turned prudish and uptight at Ianthe’s invitation. She’d had much time to think over his reluctance, had determined that it was her position as priestess that had made him balk. Perhaps he feared the Mother, had transgressed with his vile behavior, and would not dare commit the sacrilege of taking a holy priestess as his consort. Ianthe supposed she had dodged an arrow, especially now that she was favored by an even more powerful ruler, if not as his bedmate, then as his honored advisor.

Lucien groaned and shifted, the deceptively delicate chain that stretched from his left wrist to the bedpost tinkling softly, and Ianthe stepped back towards the bed, hovering over his handsome form, admiring the view. He was a prize indeed, her spoil of war, and she was eager to find out all the ways he could please her. He would be grateful in time, she knew, once he came to understand the inevitable defeat of Prythian, the inexorable rise of the priestesses with Ianthe as their Supreme Mother. He would thank her for sparing him the danger and horror of the battlefield, her mercy in setting him up in comfort and luxury, how she’d positioned him to wield influence as her consort, once he proved himself sufficiently loyal to her. A smile graced her lips as she thought of all the ways he might give thanks, worship at her altar.

Lucien twisted abruptly, then jolted upright, the chain snapping taut as he lurched, as though he might tear from the room. Ianthe took several hasty steps back as he leaped to the floor, his head whipping about wildly, his fingers balling up into fists, then patting his pockets as though searching for his confiscated daggers. He tried to lunge forward and stumbled, cursing as the chain yanked him back, his expression contorting in agony, his metal eye clicking rapidly.

Ianthe stepped forward, eager to comfort him, and Lucien whirled towards her, snarling and baring teeth. “What have you done?

“Darling,” she exclaimed, reaching out a tentative hand to caress his shoulder. “Whatever do you mean —“

Elain,” Lucien cried out, violently shrugging Ianthe’s hand away, collapsing back to sit on the bed, clutching at his ribcage with his free hand, continuing to yank fruitlessly at his chained wrist. “She’s — oh gods.”

Ianthe took a deep breath, startled as she was by his rare display of pique, and said placatingly, “Perhaps you’ve just had an unpleasant dream?”

Lucien glared up at her, his mechanical eye shuttering. “You promised she wouldn’t be harmed.”

Dagdan promised,” Ianthe reminded him, her temper rising. How dare he throw another female’s name in her face, much less that silly human slut that dared to claim him as her mate? He was a purebred male with an illustrious heritage, meant for a highborn faerie female like herself, not another lowly human whelp with delusions of grandeur. But then she saw how furious he was, how panicked, and took a more conciliatory tone. “Darling, I’m sure your little human will be just fine. The King has bestowed a great honor upon her, after all.”

“What honor,” Lucien said warily, taking deep rasping breaths, struggling to master himself.

“Poor darling, you’ve gotten yourself all worked up,” Ianthe crooned, thinking how sexy he looked with his jaw set like that, all that pent-up passion that she could help him release. She leaned in, taking in his spice and heat, for even with his magic suppressed, he was fiery and delicious, and murmured, “Let me help you relax.”

Lucien scrambled back on the bed, or tried to, but the chain snapped taut again, pinning him in place so that Ianthe could crawl towards him, hiking up her long, heavy skirts so that she could straddle his thighs, pressing herself close. Her hands came to his face, caressing his jaw, a bit rough with stubble, for he couldn’t be allowed razors yet. It made him look rugged, though she preferred him smooth-shaven, and she thought about the too-small bathing chamber, how she might have to put him in the bathtub so that she could shave him. 

The thought of Lucien undressed, head tipped back, baring his throat to the blade she wielded, wrists firmly shackled behind him of course, sent a thrill of arousal through her, had her scooting closer to him, pressing herself down onto him. Lucien held himself impossibly still, his left hand dangling uselessly from the end of the chain, while his right hand stayed balled up in a fist at his side. She wondered that he wasn’t as aroused as she was, what sort of unnatural self-control he must have to inhibit his erection, and purred, “Don’t hold back, Lucien sweetheart, you can express all your feelings with me.”

“You don’t want me to do that,” he gritted out, his russet eye staring at the wall, carefully averted from her, while the mechanical one stayed immovably shut.

Ianthe chuckled, sliding her hands down his neck, towards his buttoned-up shirt that was suddenly hiding far too much of him. “Whyever not, my love?” Her fingertips fumbled with the metal buttons, which seemed rather large for their buttonholes, and when she took a closer look, she noted with consternation that they were of shoddy workmanship, all blobby and misshapen, and rather wondered that he’d gotten the buttons fastened at all. “These buttons won’t do at all,” she finally pouted. “I’ll have to cut it off you.”

She reluctantly shoved off of him, smiling to herself when he sighed softly. The poor male, starved for proper affection. He’s disappointed at the loss of me, even temporarily. “I’ll be right back,” she told him, then remembered the King’s rule about open blades. “Give me your hand.”

A muscle feathered in Lucien’s jaw, and she said quietly, “Now darling, don’t be difficult. Your little human is rather breakable.”

Lucien’s russet eye blazed at her. “Why should I trust that you’re keeping her safe,” he replied, his voice rough like he’d swallowed broken glass.

Ianthe smiled brightly at him. “What choice do you have?”

Lucien huffed softly, and Ianthe slid forward again, capturing his right hand and clasping it in both of hers, caressing his fingers. “The King will be pleased with you, just as I am,” she told him, keeping their connection with one of her hands, fishing in her pocket with the other, until she felt the cold metal of the amethyst chain coiled up there. She withdrew it, marveling again at its lightness, its versatility, for it could extend itself to any length she required, be as delicate as a necklace or as thick and heavy as a horseshoe, and Lucien gave the smallest shudder as she clicked it against the shackle on his right wrist, then threaded it towards the other bedpost, stretching his arm out along with it.

With his wrists chained securely to the bedposts, Lucien was obliged to lay back, and Ianthe drank in the sight of him, laid out for her. He was so utterly perfect in this position, so sexy and inviting. Why had she kept him sitting in chairs, or left him to wander the rooms, when she could have had him like this all along? I’ll definitely have to keep him like this from now on.

“That’s much better,” she said, a bit breathlessly, tugging at his too-tight belt, thinking she would just cut off all his clothing, leave him bare.

“I’m a mated male,” Lucien said plaintively.

As though his silly human mate was of any consequence. She would die at the King’s hands, in another of his failed experiments. It was hubris of the King to think that he could fashion the perfect Made creature, fit to wield the Dread Trove on Hybern’s behalf. The very idea of that mousy little Elain Archeron fulfilling that glorious destiny was downright ridiculous.

No, the insignificant human would soon be gone, and Lucien would be free, no more scruples or worries to interfere with their mutual enjoyment of each other.

Ianthe opened her mouth to answer, then decided that words didn’t matter, and leaned forward to kiss him instead, give him a little taste before she retrieved the dagger and removed all these inconvenient layers of fabric between them.

Lucien turned his head at the last moment, whipping her face with his braids, and Ianthe hissed in displeasure, yanking at his hair to force his face back towards hers. He would not deny her this, wouldn’t dare —

A loud banging on the door snagged her focus.

She was tempted to ignore it, to teach Lucien a lesson, when Jurian’s voice came, muffled but insistent, through the door. “It’s time.”

Ianthe groaned, but leaned close to Lucien anyway, determined that she would not let the moment go. He was breathing hard, straining against the shackles, and she clamped her thighs around his torso, holding his head with both her hands to keep him still. Why does he have to be so gods-damned difficult?

Jurian banged on the door again. “You’re not going to keep the King waiting, are you?”

Of course not. The King had no patience, and was apt to take out his displeasure in rather inventive ways, as poor Tamlin had learned far too late. Ianthe, at least, could be assured that she could never be trapped as a beast, even if the King did put one of his amethyst collars around her neck — for it fed off magic, and she had never had any. She had never before thought that that shameful truth might keep her safe, rather than leave her vulnerable.

“Come on, Priestess.” Jurian sounded exasperated, not that she cared. “Get yourself going. And bring the fireling. The King wants to meet him.”

Chapter Text

Azriel held still as his shadows winnowed him, enveloping him in darkness, then deposited him safely on the damp mossy stones of the Hybern dungeons, carefully concealing him in the darkest of dark corners. It was a dank, gloomy cell, reeking of fear and shrieking terror, covered in the blood and filth of a recent battle, a beast’s viciously clawed paw prints leading off into the distance. He waited, and listened, feeling the wards prickle around him, seeking but never quite finding him, his shadows concealing him from the spells that would drink down his killing power and trap and shred him with it, or siphon it into the King’s overeager hands.

Go, he told his shadows, and they unfurled and flung themselves away, not needing to be reminded of the mission, dissolving into mist and leaving him alone in the deserted corridor.

Then Azriel followed the footprints, which splattered onto the stairwell and through a warren of low hallways. He tracked like a hunter, patient and methodical and silent, taking care not to make his presence known. He and his brothers would battle Hybern’s hordes soon enough, but they would surprise them with an ambush, not poke the belly of the beast into alertness, give Hybern time to mount a defense. Nor would Azriel tempt the darker denizens of this island, the lost souls that only his shadows could speak to.

It was said that the bones of this castle still held its dark spirit, that the miserable giant who’d given his body to trap his own daughter, then succumbed to slaughter by his own ungrateful grandson who’d been born despite his efforts. His venomous blood had poisoned the soil and the stones of this island, who would one day wake and shake the foundations in his rage, rain down scorching death from his great evil eye. Balor slumbered uneasily, but had not woken, though his dreams were rattled by each use of the Cauldron.

There were other dark spirits here too, Azriel’s shadows had told him, the souls of the forgotten prisoners, the dishonored dead, the tortured innocents and the cruelly fashioned monsters, who’d been wielded as weapons from the day they were born. His shadows could listen to their murmurings through the stones, but Azriel felt only an unsettled silence, a watchful waiting, and a deep thrum of power from some upper floor.

The Cauldron.

It could only be that most blessed and wicked well of magic, whose waters could be life-giving or poisonous. Old tales told that three drops of its waters could grant all the world’s wisdom, turn one all-knowing and all-Seeing, bestow the ability to change shape at will. But its brew could sour and poison the unsuspecting, who were greedy or unlucky enough to sample the leftover waters. Three mortal queens had been condemned to their fates thus far, two drowned outright, one merely shriveled and weakened. 

Yet the King of Hybern still sought to grab the Cauldron’s power, still sought the perfect vessel to be Made, to become a pliant servant who could wield the Dread Trove’s weapons. His failures with willing volunteers had forced him to seek less obvious candidates. If they didn’t rescue Elain in time, she could meet the fate of the others like her, lost to the oblivion of the Cauldron’s icy darkness.

She could be strong enough to survive it.  

But they couldn’t take that gamble.

Azriel slipped into the side-chamber off the throne room, nearly shouting aloud, in both relief and horror. He beheld Elain there, alive and whole, but her hands were bound in front of her, her arm snagged by a gruff High Fae soldier with a sneering, sour expression. Elain ignored him, staring straight ahead with great fortitude, her lower lip only occasionally quivering, putting on the bravest and calmest face she could muster. Next to them stood a majestic furred beast with spiraling horns that Azriel immediately recognized as Tamlin, and he suddenly understood the blood and footprints.

If Tamlin’s here, he could help us —

But Azriel quickly thought better of that, for Tamlin was collared with the same strange amethyst chains that sizzled and sparkled against Elain’s skin, though no guard was brave or stupid enough to hold the other end of the leash dangling from the great beast’s neck. Tamlin was still a High Lord, even restrained in his beast form, and an aura of power fizzed around him despite the chains that seemed to be keeping him from shifting back. Azriel could feel the magical drain, his own skin prickling when he moved closer, his siphons faintly glowing, as though his power were being needled out of him, and he clamped down hard on it, yanking it back.

We’ve got to get those chains off, if we’re going to rescue them.

Azriel’s shadows rushed back to him, swirling in an anxious flutter, whispering that the fireling he sought was in the throne room, held on his knees before the King.

Azriel didn’t want to leave Elain, trusting in Tamlin to keep her safe, although that was precisely what it seemed he was doing. But he needed to hear what the King’s plans were, for Lucien and the Cauldron and Prythian.

Take me in there. Hide me.

And his shadows did, engulfing him in their cool mysterious darkness again, depositing him in the back of the throne room, behind a blue-hooded female who was huffing angrily to several guards that her fireling was being presented, and she was entitled to join him. That must be Ianthe, Azriel thought with a shudder, before his shadows confirmed it.

“—must be some mistake,” Lucien was saying, and Azriel shifted through the shadows again, finding a spot where he could see the dais clearly. The King lounged on his throne of bleached bone fragments, one ankle over a knee, casual despite the Cauldron placed ceremoniously before him. The King radiated death, his hungry, soulless black eyes roaming over Lucien and the soldiers and monsters and courtiers gathered about, like he was contemplating all their deaths by slow torture. Azriel could well believe that this cruel male was a distant descendant of the giant whose blood poisoned this land, though perhaps not from the grandson who’d had the courage to slay him.

Azriel was relieved to see Lucien himself looked unharmed, if a bit disheveled by Vanserra standards. He was gazing at the King with a calm, unruffled demeanor, despite Jurian looming behind him, one hand firmly gripping a mass of his braids, and Lucien’s own hands shackled tightly behind him. “Beron would never involve himself in human affairs,” he was saying. “He finds them… beneath his attention.”

The King of Hybern chuckled, placing his foot back on the floor and sitting up straighter. “So they are, little Vanserra. Beron has it quite right. I always found him the most sensible of all the High Lords. But my reports are reliable, for I have them straight from the source. Briallyn?” He gestured, and a tiny, frail, withered crone of a human female hobbled forward. Lucien didn’t flinch or look away, though his metal eye clicked as it took her in. “Kindly inform our guest what you informed me.”

The crone opened her mouth to speak, though it was a moment before her creaky voice could be heard. The Cauldron’s victim, Azriel’s shadows informed him. Punished for her hubris, but spared through her own strength of will. “The High Lord of Autumn approached me for an alliance. It was granted.” Her gaze rested on the King of Hybern, then to the dark-eyed prince hovering nearby.  A daemati, Azriel’s shadows warned him. “So that I could learn his secrets, and report back to my King, of course.”

“Of course,” the King said smoothly, waving a hand of large, thick fingers. He turned back to Lucien, leaning forward, elbows on his knees, steepling his fingers. “Do you deny it?”

“Why would I, if it’s true?” Lucien said amiably, utterly unruffled. “I will admit it is a surprise. But then, I have not had the habit of residing in my father’s court, so I suppose my information is lacking.”

The King’s eyes flicked to the prince, who gave a subtle nod of his head. “You speak the truth. Odd for a Vanserra,” the King remarked, bemused. “But tell me, how did you become mixed up in the Night Court’s business?”

“I was taken, blindfolded and shackled,” Lucien said. “Kept in one of their fortresses.”

He lies by telling the truth, Azriel’s shadows observed to him, and he almost grinned at it.

“How inhospitable of them,” the King said dryly. “How badly do they want you back, do you think? Should I be worried?” The wards around the room all sizzled to life, and Azriel moved hastily, barely avoiding the prickling, roving spell-work, before the magic settled back down again. “They must know it is pointless, trying to assault me in my own castle. I can defend against every sort of magic in Prythian, even such magic as Rhysand possesses.”

Lucien shrugged, as though he had no opinion on the matter, was not desperate to be rescued, or even more desperate for his mate to be rescued. Azriel wondered if the stone shackles he were blocked the mating bond as well as all his magic, if he had any idea Elain was just in the next room, or if he’d guessed what the King had in store for her.

Azriel didn’t have time to find out, for at that moment, the door to the throne room swung open with a mighty bang, and he cursed as Nesta Archeron came storming inside, pointing a finger straight at the King of Hybern.

What have you done with my sister?

* * * *

“Fucking hell,” Jurian growled, his hand tightening in Lucien’s hair, radiating pain through Lucien’s scalp. But it was nothing compared to the spike of panic that Lucien felt, watching the very mortal, very unarmed human woman come marching into the King of Hybern’s fucking throne room like she owned the place.

Dagdan hissed in displeasure. “Sire, this is the harpy who killed the Attor.”

“And you left her alive?” the King tossed over his shoulder, then glared at Jurian. Lucien’s skin crawled, though the King’s eyes were fixed on the soldier keeping him restrained on the floor, and not on Lucien himself. “I suppose I shall have to remedy that.”

“You’ll do nothing of the kind. You’ll give me my sister back, and keep your filthy paws off all of us,” Nesta snapped.

Lucien reeled, even as he forced himself to keep his expression calm, unconcerned, as though he didn’t know who Nesta was or what the significance was of her being here. Was this part of their plan? What is she even doing here?

His mechanical eye roved around the room of its own volition, taking in the shocked faces of the soldiers, the sneers of the High Fae courtiers, the snarls of the monsters that would snap Nesta’s mortal frame like a twig as soon as look at her, if the King commanded it.

But the King did not command it. He eyed Nesta with a predatory interest, his creepy black eyes roving over her in a way that made Lucien want to punch his regal nose out of joint. “What’s your name, witch?”

“Don’t tell him,” Lucien blurted, then winced when Jurian’s hand tightened in his hair again.

The King’s beady eyes darted to him. “What’s her name, fireling?”

Lucien went silent and still.

Jurian made a show of yanking his head back, holding his dagger to Lucien’s throat. “The King asked you a question.”

Lucien felt the tip of Jurian’s dagger teasing at the edge of his skin, knew he would have to bleed at least a little to really sell it, so he tipped his head back further, letting the point dig in, ignoring the tiny pinprick, the rush of warm blood from it. But he said nothing, for names had power, power he was determined to keep out of the King of Hybern’s hands.

“Her name,” the King said. “Now.” His gaze flicked towards the closed door to his left. “Or you won’t like what happens.”

Lucien knew who was on the other side of that door, had known it before he was even dragged in. He’d felt Elain’s stoic determination to be calm, to take control of her situation, despite her fear, despite the awful panic that had come tearing through the bond just before. Something had happened to reassure her, to give her the strength to put on a brave face, and Lucien let her resolve strengthen him too. He had to count on the fact that there was a plan for Elain, one that didn’t involve the King killing her in the throne room to punish his disobedience. Still, he couldn’t totally avoid the panic that gripped him at the mere thought that harm would come to Elain, to torture him for information, or make her pay for his reckless actions.

Dagdan strode from his seat on the dais towards him. “I’ll get it out of him, Uncle.”

Like fuck you will. Lucien Lucien gritted his teeth and rooted in place, locking down his mind as tightly he could. He would not betray Nesta to the King, any more than he would betray Feyre to Amarantha. Dagdan might shatter him, turn him into a simpering simpleton as Graysen had been, but he would not consciously betray Elain or her family despite that, for the mating bond was stronger than any magic except what came straight from the Cauldron itself.

And faebane, he supposed, twisting his wrists in the shackles, carefully locking down his thoughts about that, especially as the ancient daemati bore down on him, smiling grimly.

Lucien braced himself. Whatever happens, protect her.

But Lucien was spared the horror of having his mind seized, at least for the moment, for the room plunged into a deep unnatural darkness, and a great cacophony of screaming and sword-clashing broke out, as Rhys and his warriors came charging in. Dagdan moved swiftly, flinging himself at the intruders, and Jurian’s hands were on Lucien, dragging him to his feet, then shoving him back into the wall.

Lucien went pliant, in no position to resist at the moment, his mechanical eye rapidly adjusting to the darkness. Hordes of monstrous creatures poured into the hall, attor-like screeching things and beasts with scaled armor, and the room lit up vibrantly in red and blue as Rhys’s warriors unleashed their killing power, while Rhys himself seemed locked in a strange dance with Dagdan, the two daemati standing stock still in the midst of the chaos, engaged in some strange mental battle that Lucien was glad not to witness.

Lucien tugged experimentally at the shackles, but Jurian hissed, “Not yet.

So Lucien tamped down on his reactions, forcing himself to hold still and breathe, to look at Jurian rather than the carnage behind him. He tried not to cry out when the King’s foul magic pulsed through the room, when all the wards rippled ferociously to life, seizing at him, driving him to his knees, muffling the shrieks and howls and curses to a dull roar, as though a blanket had been dropped on him, smothering all his magic and awareness.

The King was up on his feet, hands outstretched, grinning at the scene laid out before him. Rhys was still on his feet, barely, surrounded by soldiers who were taking glee in driving ash-tipped daggers into his wings, and Feyre was being yanked away from him, two soldiers gripping her arms tightly while two more wrangled an amethyst collar around her neck. Azriel was down, felled by an ash bolt to the chest, and Cassian was struggling to lift him, even as soldiers were wrestling him into shackles as well.

Nesta was screaming, beating on the backs of the soldiers and cursing them all, and Jurian left Lucien half-collapsed on the floor to go scoop her up, ignoring her flailing and kicking, saying something low and urgent to her that she chose not to hear, or else didn’t understand. Lucien breathed hard, fighting at the biting cold emptiness slicing through him, tugging frantically on the bond to Elain like a lifeline, almost weeping with relief when he could feel her tug back.

“Which one of you killed my nephew?” the King asked idly, weaving one of his gold rings around and around his finger, examining each of the captured Night Court warriors in turn, looking down at the bloody scene with disdain. Dagdan was sprawled out on the filthy floor, surrounded by the bodies of High Fae soldiers and nastier creatures, his neck sliced open garishly.

“I did,” Nesta spat, kicking Jurian resoundingly in the shins, causing him to curse and almost drop her. “He deserved it.”

“Hmm. Perhaps,” the King mused. “He’s been plotting to overthrow me, ever since I exiled his sister. But you, a measly human?” His black eyes glittered, perhaps realizing what everyone else had figured out, that Nesta Archeron was no measly anything. “Hold her in reserve, in case the other one doesn’t work out,” he said to Jurian, who set Nesta down, narrowly dodging another kick aimed rather above his shins, and began to tie her with the same sort of rope he’d used on Elain.

“You’ll regret the day you touched my sisters,” Feyre shouted at him, trying to yank herself away from the soldiers keeping her pinned between them.

The King jerked his head towards the door. “Get this filth out of my sight. We don’t have time for this distraction.”

Lucien could only watch as they were dragged out, limping, wings drooping, or kicking and cursing the King to the lowest hells, then sagged once the door slammed shut behind them.

“Now,” said the King, “where were we?”

Chapter Text

“Bring him,” the King said, and then hands were gripping Lucien’s aching arms, yanking him roughly to his feet, his boots snagging and tripping him as he was hauled forward. He swallowed hard, willing his roiling stomach to settle, his heart to stop pounding, but his body rebelled against the onslaught of the King’s overpowering, disgusting magic. It was ancient, and venomous, a slithering poison that crawled over Lucien’s skin, clawed into his flesh, shredding him of his power, his hope, no matter how he resisted.

“Strong,” the King remarked, “for a seventh son.” He smiled, the gesture twisting his ruddy face into a garish horror. He was so close now, Lucien could see through the glamour, his mechanical eye clicking rapidly as he took in the King’s true form, a ghoulish monstrosity swirled in dark magic, like some nightmare sprung from the depths of hell. “Is your mate as strong as you, little fireling?”

Lucien clamped down hard, catching his angry retort between his teeth. He could not afford to slip up now, not with Elain’s life in the balance, and their best hopes of rescue dragged off to the dungeons. He breathed deep and focused, coaxing his magic to curl up inside him, seeking to corral it out of reach of the King’s greedy clutches.

“Let’s find out,” the King said, and the door to the throne room opened on a silent wind, and Elain, oh gods, there was Elain, shining and beautiful, a vision Lucien could have drowned in. His eyes riveted on her lovely face, her warm brown eyes pooling with love and tears, and he whispered her name like a prayer, wishing he could run to her, snatch her up and whisk her far, far away.

But he was trapped, helpless to stop this nightmare, and he cursed himself soundly as he took in the tearstained flush of her cheeks, the lip she was biting to keep it from quivering, the bruise dusting her jawline, her tangled hair, as though some bastard brute had grabbed and twisted it. Her dress was torn in several places, bloodied at the sleeves, and she was chained, her delicate wrists wrapped in those awful magic-devouring chains that could lay low even a High Lord’s power.

If Lucien had had the tears to cry, he would have wept at the sight of her, relief and terror and sorrow warring inside him. He knew he should be stronger, should be stoic, pretend indifference as Tamlin had Under the Mountain, find some clever way around this situation. But his cleverness had gotten them here in the first place, and had his hands been free, he might have grabbed a dagger and plunged it into his own gut, for it would hurt less than the throbbing, aching despair he was in now.

Lucien cursed himself for ever crossing the Wall, for tempting trouble into Elain’s village, for involving her or her folk in this nightmare. He should have let the humans slaughter him, shove him full of ash bolts, or sell him off to the mortal queens, rather than subject Elain to one moment of this horror.

“Lucien?” Elain said, her voice high and plaintive, her loving concern for him bursting through his despair with that one sweet utterance, and if that wasn’t the most agonizing part of all.

“How charming. For a human, she is lovely,” the King drawled.

Lucien snapped, “Her being human has nothing to do with it.” There would never be anyone as beautiful as Elain -- human, faerie, or goddess. He hated the thought of the King even looking at her, much less enacting some evil scheme, and his instincts all screamed at him to immolate this whole fucking castle, blast the King with his hottest fire, burn and burn until every monster in Hybern was ashes and dust. His arms shook in his shackles, desperate to fling themselves outwards, stab and punch and fight.

But he could do nothing. Nothing. He was useless.

I’m always useless.

“Nonsense, little lordling. Her being human has everything to do with it,” the King said, his creepy soulless eyes roving over Elain’s curves appreciatively. 

A low growl escaped from Lucien, and the King whirled on him, lifted a finger. Lucien could only gasp out a weak “Fuck — you,” before he was slammed to the ground, pain barking through his nose and teeth. He went limp, not even able to struggle, for the King’s magic had twisted around him like a vice, shoving itself like a gag between his teeth, strangling the air out of his throat. He lay for long moments, struggling for air, while Elain’s panicked shriek rang endlessly in his ears.

“You’re lucky you’re spoken for, boy,” the King growled. “Or I would take far more than your eye for your disrespect.” The soldiers stepped forward, peeling Lucien off the floor, wrestling him back onto his knees. Warm slickness dripped from his forehead, his nose, and he swallowed down the coppery taste, realizing that the shackles he wore ought to prevent his healing. He closed his eyes, forcing calm into his muscles, coaxing whatever power he had left into his palms and fingertips, trying to keep it out of the King’s reach. “If your lord father could only see you now, what would he think? A proud Vanserra, bloodied and broken?”

Lucien spat blood on the floor. That was all that Beron Vanserra deserved, and Lucien was no Vanserra, anyway. He kept his thoughts about that locked down, for although the leering Crown Prince had met a glorious end at the hands of Nesta Archeron, Lucien was unsure whether there might be other daemati in the King’s employ.

The King clucked, “That was distasteful. Let’s hope you have more sense than your mate does, girl, especially if you’d like to save him.”

Lucien wanted to curse both the King and himself. Whatever the King wanted her to do, he was certain she mustn’t do it, particularly not to save Lucien’s unworthy hide. But the King extended a hand, and the guards who’d dared put their cursed paws on Elain nudged her forward. “Your destiny awaits.”

Gods, please, don’t.

Elain looked at Lucien then, her desperate sorrow curling around him like a heavy blanket, but then she held her head higher and looked right at the King, meeting his predatory gaze with a dignified expression. Lucien’s knees trembled as she asked, “What must I do?”

The King stretched out a hand to the Cauldron, that unfathomable relic of creation and destruction, its presence so stifling and thick with enchantment that Lucien had avoided even looking at it. But now he took it in fully, cringing before its overwhelming magic, the low thrum of power that rattled his bones. How the King could stand to be so close to it, Lucien couldn’t imagine, for it was all he could do to keep straight and still.

But Elain beheld the Cauldron with a calm determination that he wondered at. Perhaps being human was shielding her, he thought, grasping onto that scrap of hope like a lifeline, that she would be spared the full horror of what was happening by virtue of her muted senses. He opened his mouth to warn her, cry out for her to beware, but the King’s grip on his voice strangled the words in his throat, and he could only watch as Elain stepped closer.

“It’s so very simple,” the King was saying smoothly. “You need only immerse in its waters —“

Lucien screamed soundlessly as a flash of fur and claws leaped onto the dais, roaring and swiping, and he fell back, cursing as he landed awkwardly, his bound hands allowing him no purchase. He was grabbed, hauled away from the rampaging beast, from Tamlin, and his voice abruptly released as the King pivoted, firing blasts of magic that Lucien could only pray wouldn’t harm Elain.

If I do something, it’s got to be now.

Lucien dug deep into his magic, scraping dry every last drop he could muster, grabbing at any shred of power and frantically calculating where to aim it. He couldn’t hope to grapple with the Cauldron itself, and despaired of pitting himself against the King, distracted though he was. Even if the King were killed, what of all the soldiers and monsters, all the wards tangled and shimmering everywhere Lucien looked?

He thought of Feyre, dragged away by soldiers, of Rhys and his warriors felled by the King’s stifling magic, of Nesta kicking and screaming in Jurian’s arms, and wondered what dark dungeon they’d been stashed in, what the King meant to do with them once he’d had his way with Elain. If he could loosen the King’s hold on them all, if they could access their magic —

Tamlin was flung forward, crashing heavily onto the dais, emitting a shriek so piercing and plaintive that Lucien cried out along with him.

“Get up,” he gasped, “get up, Tamlin.”

The great beast rolled over and sprang upwards, its fierce eyes meeting Lucien’s in some silent understanding, and then Tamlin threw himself straight at the King, and Lucien balled up his fists against the shackles, which should have held his magic but didn’t, and he roared out his anguish and rage as he flung out his power in every direction, careening backwards from the sheer force of it. Every ward in his vision sizzled and snapped, his mechanical eye clicking and zooming rapidly as each golden thread grabbed for his attention, and he squeezed his eyes shut against the dizzying onslaught, reaching for the bond to Elain, the only magic left inside him.

I hope that’s what Jurian wanted.

They’d never been able to openly discuss it, not with Ianthe hovering over him like a spider toying with its wriggling prey, but Jurian had had this, or something like it, in mind, Lucien was almost certain of it. It was the only explanation for why Lucien’s bonds never sapped his magic, why his food was miraculously free of faebane.

Lucien didn’t have time to think on it further, for Tamlin was slammed back down at the King’s feet, whimpering, bleeding heavily, the chain around his neck yanked tight by several soldiers’ hands. The King was tsking at him, scolding, “Now, Tamlin, that really wasn’t wise.”

Tamlin took slow, rasping breaths, his ribcage rising and falling hard with each one, like he was struggling to get air in. “Should I just kill him? Put him out of his misery?” the King mused aloud. “Or leave him like this, to suffer the full consequences of his foolish actions?”

Lucien didn’t know what to pray for. Tamlin’s piercing green eyes were clouding over, his breaths coming slower, and the soldiers on the dais were kicking and stomping on him with impunity, one or two going so far as to brandish their blades. He winced as each of them took a turn, as Tamlin stopped making sounds, blood pooling in his fur.

But the King extended a hand towards Elain, who was watching the scene with tears rolling freely down her face, though the guards’ grip on her arms, and those infernal shackles on her wrists, prevented her from wiping them away. “Come, my dear. No more of that. He’s just a beast, after all.”

“He isn’t,” Elain said stubbornly, and the guards hissed, gripping her more roughly. Lucien clenched his fists, wishing he’d used his magic to blast those males instead, who’d dared put their hands on his mate.

The King smiled indulgently. “Such spirit. You’re stronger than you look, my dear.” He stood up, moving towards the Cauldron. “You will achieve the highest honor that a human such as yourself can attain, to immerse yourself in these magical waters. If you are strong enough, you will —“

“Yes,” Elain said, her eyes firmly fixed on the Cauldron, as though she were answering some unspoken question.

The King frowned, confused by this interruption. “Yes?”

Elain stepped forward. “It is waiting.”

“Well. Well, of course,” the King said, recovering his poise, and Lucien shuddered as Elain took another step towards him, as the King’s large hand curled around Elain’s shoulder.

Don’t touch her, don’t look at her, don’t do this. Gods, don’t do this, if it kills her —

“Don’t,” was all Lucien could manage to grit out.

Elain’s large brown eyes rested on him. “It’s all right, Lucien.”

“It isn’t,” he said pleadingly, twisting uselessly in the shackles. There was nothing right about this. He had done this, put her in harm’s way, handed her over to these most awful of faeries, to be shredded and drowned in the Cauldron —

“Don’t be afraid,” Elain told him.

Elain,” he wailed, trying to wrench away from the guards, get closer to her, do something. “Please.” He threw a pleading look at the King. “Put me in there instead.”

“Don’t be foolish,” the King snapped at him.

Lucien was shaking like a leaf. He’d been foolish all his life, and now Elain would pay the ultimate price for it. “At least unchain her,” he begged.

The King raised an eyebrow at that. “You’re not going to give me any trouble, are you, my dear?”

Elain looked at him, and smiled. “I am only a humble human, Sire.”

It was not a proper answer, but the King’s lips curled into an unpleasant grin regardless. “At least you know your place.” He gripped the chains around her wrists, twisting until they clattered open, falling to the floor. Lucien grimaced as the King led Elain forward, placing her in front of the Cauldron, which Lucien could now see was filled with dark, churning water.

Don’t, don’t, please, don’t —

Elain trailed her fingertips across the water, which went still and placid, then briefly closed her eyes.

“Pick her up,” the King commanded.

“Wait,” Lucien blurted. “Elain —“

But the soldiers were hoisting Elain up, lifting her in their blood-stained hands, lowering her into the Cauldron’s dark waters.

“Elain,” he cried out hoarsely, his heart shattering as Elain went under.

Long agonizing moments passed, and nothing happened. The room had gone quiet, watchful, waiting, and Lucien’s heart threatened to burst out of his chest, so hard was it pounding. She could be drowning, she could be dying —

Lucien lunged forward, slipping on the bloody floor, landing awkwardly on his shoulder and left arm, kicking frantically at the soldiers who scrambled to restrain him. He barely registered their hands seizing him, dragging him away from the Cauldron, from Elain, who was disappeared and gone, somewhere deep inside it. He barely noticed as they bound him tighter, snapped the collar around his neck, then handed the chain to someone who’d come to stand beside him.

Not someone. Ianthe.

“Come, darling,” she said, tugging at the chain, like he was a puppy on a leash.

“No,” he howled, jerking away, the collar digging hard into his neck, making him wheeze. Good. He didn’t care if it snapped his neck. It was a way out, at least.

Ianthe seemed to guess the direction of his thoughts, or at least think better of her chances of pitting her strength against his, for she let the chain slacken.

Cauldron damn me, I can’t even die.

Lucien curled forward, letting his sobs overtake him. “Elain,” he cried, his good eye flooding with useless tears, his mechanical eye clicking and shuttering closed.

I promised to protect her.

I couldn’t protect her.

He was useless, worse than useless.

Lucien took deep, ragged breaths, though he didn’t know why he bothered. He deserved to die — no, he deserved worse than that. Death would be too quick an escape.

No, he deserved this torture. He would spend every moment, from now until the end of his miserable life, taunted with Elain’s absence, with the knowledge that he’d failed her, that he’d handed his mate and all Prythian to Hybern. He deserved to spend long years tied to Ianthe’s bed, subject to her sick whims and depredations, and he deserved to be paraded through this monstrous palace, led in chains, displayed for the coward and fool that he was. He hoped the soldiers would kick and stab him, as they’d done to Tamlin, then heal him just enough so they could do it again.

“Elain,” he whispered brokenly, “Elain.

After what seemed like hours, the King cleared his throat. “Well, that’s that. Another disappointment.” He strode back to his throne, saying, “Ianthe, why don’t you take him and —“

Suddenly Lucien jolted, his whole body flooding hot and tingly, and he jerked his head up to see that the Cauldron had tipped over, its icy waters spilling out across the floor.

Lucien’s heart stuttered as he struggled to take in what he was seeing — a bright glowing light, so intense that he had to avert his gaze, but then he was staring back at it, entranced by the sheer power pouring forth, and he forgot all his sorrow and anguish and shame as the light surrounded him, warmed him, soothed his exhausted aching heart. He didn’t know if it was the Mother Herself, or some figment of his own wild imagination, or a dream, and he didn’t care.

There might have been shouting, or whispers or silence, but Lucien heard nothing, saw nothing except for the light and the being within it. His mind grasped uselessly at any explanation, anything familiar. He felt tugged forward, beckoned toward the light, and he strained to obey, frowning in confusion when he was held fast.

Chains. I’m in chains. He’d quite forgotten.

Next to him, Tamlin shifted and groaned, and if Lucien had been able to look, he might have seen the male struggle to sit up, his long matted blond hair tangled and tinged with blood.

He might have seen the King of Hybern backing away slowly, hands raised in a defensive pose.

He might have seen how the soldiers with any sense were already running, while a few stalwarts brandished ash arrows that were sprouting roots and leaves, thickening into saplings before their eyes.

He might have looked down at his own shackled arms, at the vines snaking out of his pocket where he always kept the seeds Elain had given him for safekeeping, sprouting leaves, weaving themselves around his chains, squeezing and popping the links one by one.

But Lucien could not look anywhere except the light, at the being who was stepping forward, radiating power.