“You really do know how to give Solstice presents, Az.”
I turned from the wall of windows in my private study at the House of Wind, Velaris awash in the hues of early morning.
My spymaster and brother remained on the other side of the sprawling oak desk, the maps and documents he’d presented littering the surface. His expression might as well have been stone. Had been that way from the moment he’d knocked on the double doors to the study just after dawn. As if he’d known that sleep had been futile for me last night after Eris’s not-so-subtle warning about Tamlin and his borders.
Feyre hadn’t mentioned it when we’d returned home. Hadn’t seemed ready to discuss it: how to deal with the High Lord of Spring. She’d quickly fallen asleep, leaving me to brood before the fire in the sitting room.
It was little wonder I’d flown up here before sunrise, eager for the biting cold to chase the weight of the sleepless night away from me. My wings were still numb in spots from the flight.
“You wanted information,” Az said mildly. At his side, Truth-Teller’s obsidian hilt seemed to absorb the first rays of the sun.
I rolled my eyes, leaning against the desk and gesturing to what he’d compiled. “You couldn’t have waited until after Solstice for this particular gem?”
One glance at Azriel’s unreadable face and I added, “Don’t bother to answer that.”
A corner of Azriel’s mouth curled up, the shadows about him sliding over his neck like living tattoos, twins to the Illyrian ones marked beneath his leathers.
Shadows different from anything my powers summoned, spoke to. Born in a lightless, airless prison meant to break him.
Instead, he had learned its language.
Though the cobalt Siphons were proof that his Illyrian heritage ran true, even the rich lore of that warrior-people, my warrior-people, did not have an explanation for where the shadowsinger gifts came from. They certainly weren’t connected to the Siphons, to the raw killing power most Illyrians possessed and channeled through the stones to keep from destroying everything in its path. The bearer included.
Drawing my eyes from the stones atop his hands, I frowned at the stack of papers Az had presented moments ago. “Have you told Cassian?”
“I came right here,” Azriel said. “He’ll arrive soon enough, anyway.”
I chewed on my lip as I studied the territory map of Illyria. “It’s more clans than I expected,” I admitted and sent a flock of shadows skittering across the room to soothe the power now stirring, restless, in my veins. “Even in my worst-case calculations.”
“It’s not every member of these clans,” Az said, his grim face undermining his attempt to soften the blow. “This overall number just reflects the places where discontent is spreading, not where the majorities lie.” He pointed with a scarred finger to one of the camps. “There are only two females here who seem to be spewing poison about the war. One a widow, and one a mother to a soldier.”
“Where there’s smoke, there’s fire,” I countered.
Azriel studied the map for a long minute. I gave him the silence, knowing that he’d speak only when he was damn well ready. As boys, Cassian and I had devoted hours to pummeling Az, trying to get him to speak. He’d never once yielded.
“The Illyrians are pieces of shit,” he said too quietly. I opened my mouth and shut it.
Shadows gathered around his wings, trailing off him and onto the thick red rug. “They train and train as warriors, and yet when they don’t come home, their families make us into villains for sending them to war?”
“Their families have lost something irreplaceable,” I said carefully.
Azriel waved a scarred hand, his cobalt Siphon glinting with the movement as his fingers cut through the air. “They’re hypocrites.”
“And what would you have me do, then? Disband the largest army in Prythian?”
Az didn’t answer.
I held his gaze, though. Held that ice-cold stare that still sometimes scared the shit out of me. I’d seen what he’d done to his half brothers centuries ago. Still dreamed of it. The act itself wasn’t what lingered. Every bit of it had been deserved. Every damn bit.
But it was the frozen precipice that Az had plummeted into that sometimes rose from the pit of my memory.
The beginnings of that frost cracked over his eyes now. So I said calmly, yet with little room for argument, “I am not going to disband the Illyrians. There is nowhere for them to go, anyway. And if we try to drag them out of those mountains, they might launch the very assault we’re trying to defuse.”
Az said nothing.
“But perhaps more pressing,” I went on, jabbing a finger on the sprawling continent, “is the fact that the human queens have not returned to their own territories. They linger in that joint palace of theirs. Beyond that, Hybern’s general populace is not too thrilled to have lost this war. And with the wall gone, who knows what other Fae territories might make a grab for human lands?” My jaw tightened at that last one. “This peace is tenuous.”
“I know that,” Az said at last.
“So we might need the Illyrians again before it is over. Need them willing to shed blood.”
Feyre knew. I’d been filling her in on every report and meeting. But this latest one … “We will keep an eye on the dissenters,” I finished, letting Az sense a rumble of the power that prowled inside me, let him feel that I meant every word. “Cassian knows it’s growing amongst the camps and is willing to do whatever it takes to fix it.”
“He doesn’t know just how many there are.”
“And perhaps we should wait to tell him. Until after the holiday.” Az blinked. I explained quietly, “He’s going to have enough to deal with. Let him enjoy the holiday while he can.”
Az and I made a point not to mention Nesta. Not amongst each other, and certainly not in front of Cassian. I didn’t let myself contemplate it, either. Neither did Mor, given her unusual silence on the matter since the war had ended.
“He’ll be pissed at us for keeping it from him.”
“He already suspects much of it, so it’s only confirmation at this point.”
Az ran a thumb down Truth-Teller’s black hilt, the silver runes on the dark scabbard shimmering in the light. “What about the human queens?”
“We continue to watch. You continue to watch.”
“Vassa and Jurian are still with Graysen. Do we loop them in?”
A strange gathering, down in the human lands. With no queen ever having been appointed to the slice of territory at the base of Prythian, only a council of wealthy lords and merchants, Jurian had somehow stepped in to lead. Using Graysen’s family estate as his seat of command.
And Vassa … She had stayed. Her keeper had granted her a reprieve from her curse—the enchantment that turned her into a firebird by day, woman again by night. And bound her to his lake deep in the continent.
I’d never seen such spell work. I’d sent my power over her, Helion too, hunting for any possible threads to unbind it. I found none. It was as if the curse was woven into her very blood.
But Vassa’s freedom would end. Lucien had said as much months ago, and still visited her often enough that I knew nothing in that regard had improved. She would have to return to the lake, to the sorcerer-lord who kept her prisoner, sold to him by the very queens who had again gathered in their joint castle. Formerly Vassa’s castle, too.
“Vassa knows that the Queens of the Realm will be a threat until they are dealt with,” I said at last. Another tidbit that Lucien had told us. Well, Az and me at least. “But unless the queens step out of line, it’s not for us to face. If we sweep in, even to stop them from triggering another war, we’ll be seen as conquerors, not heroes. We need the humans in other territories to trust us, if we can ever hope to achieve lasting peace.”
“Then perhaps Jurian and Vassa should deal with them. While Vassa is free to do so.”
I’d contemplated it. Feyre and I had discussed it long into the night. Several times. “The humans must be given a chance to rule themselves. Decide for themselves. Even our allies.”
“Send Lucien, then. As our human emissary.”
I studied the tenseness in Azriel’s shoulders, the shadows veiling half of him from the sunlight. “Lucien is away right now.”
Az’s brows rose. “Where?”
I winked at him. “You’re my spymaster. Shouldn’t you know?”
Az crossed his arms, face as elegant and cold as the legendary dagger at his side. “I don’t make a point of looking after his movements.”
Not a flicker of emotion. “He is Elain’s mate.” I waited.
“It would be an invasion of her privacy to track him.”
To know when and if Lucien sought her out. What they did together. “You sure about that?” I asked quietly.
Azriel’s Siphons guttered, the stones turning as dark and foreboding as the deepest sea. “Where did Lucien go.”
I straightened at the pure order in the words. But I said, voice slipping into a drawl, “He went to the Spring Court. He’ll be there for Solstice.”
“Tamlin kicked him out the last time.”
“He did. But he invited him for the holiday.” Likely because Tamlin realized he’d be spending it alone in that manor. Or whatever was left of it.
I had no pity where that was concerned.
Not when I could still feel Feyre’s undiluted terror as Tamlin tore through the study. As he locked her in that house.
Lucien had let him do it, too. But I’d made my peace with him. Or tried
With Tamlin, it was more complicated than that. More complicated than
I let myself usually dwell on.
He was still in love with Feyre. I couldn’t blame him for it. Even if it made me want to rip out his throat.
I shoved the thought away. “I’ll discuss Vassa and Jurian with Lucien when he returns. See if he’s up for another visit.” I angled my head. “Do you think he can handle being around Graysen?”
Az’s expressionless face was precisely the reason he’d never lost to us at cards. “Why should I be the judge of that?”
“You mean to tell me that you weren’t bluffing when you said you didn’t track Lucien’s every movement?”
Nothing. Absolutely nothing on that face, on his scent. The shadows, whatever the hell they were, hid too well. Too much. Azriel only said coldly, “If Lucien kills Graysen, then good riddance.”
I was inclined to agree. So was Feyre—and Nesta.
“I’m half tempted to give Nesta hunting rights for Solstice.” “You’re getting her a gift?”
No. Sort of. “I’d think bankrolling her apartment and drinking was gift enough.”
Az ran a hand through his dark hair. “Are we …” Unusual for him to stumble with words. “Are we supposed to get the sisters presents?”
“No,” I said, and meant it. Az seemed to loose a sigh of relief. Seemed to, since all but a breath of air passed from his lips. “I don’t think Nesta gives a shit, and I don’t think Elain expects to receive anything from us. I’d leave the sisters to exchange presents amongst themselves.”
Az nodded distantly.
I drummed my fingers on the map, right over the Spring Court. “I can tell Lucien myself in a day or two. About going to Graysen’s manor.”
Azriel arched a brow. “You mean to visit the Spring Court?”
I wished I could say otherwise. But I instead told him what Eris had implied: that Tamlin either might not care to enforce his borders with the human realm or might be open to letting anyone through them. I doubted I’d get a decent night’s rest until I found out for myself.
When I finished, Az picked at an invisible speck of dust on the leather scales of his gauntlet. The only sign of his annoyance. “I can go with you.”
I shook my head. “It’s better to do this on my own.” “Are you talking about seeing Lucien or Tamlin?” “Both.”
Lucien, I could stomach. Tamlin … Perhaps I didn’t want any witnesses for what might be said. Or done.
“Will you ask Feyre to join you?” One look in Azriel’s hazel eyes and I knew he was well aware of my reasons for going alone.
“I’ll ask her in a few hours,” I said, “but I doubt she will want to come.
And I doubt I will try my best to convince her to change her mind.”
Peace. We had peace within our grasp. And yet there were debts left unpaid that I was not above righting.
Az nodded knowingly. He’d always understood me best—more than the others. Save my mate. Whether it was his gifts that allowed him to do so, or merely the fact that he and I were more similar than most realized, I’d never learned.
But Azriel knew a thing or two about old scores to settle. Imbalances to be righted.
So did most of my inner circle, I supposed.
“No word on Bryaxis, I take it.” I peered toward the marble beneath my boots, as if I could see all the way to the library beneath this mountain and the now-empty lower levels that had once been occupied.
Az studied the floor as well. “Not a whisper. Or a scream, for that matter.”
I chuckled. My brother had a sly, wicked sense of humor. I’d planned to hunt Bryaxis down for months now—to take Feyre and let her track down the entity that, for lack of a better explanation, seemed to be fear itself. But, as with so many of my plans for my mate, running this court and figuring out the world beyond it had gotten in the way.
“Do you want me to hunt it down?” An easy, unruffled question.
I waved a hand, my mating band catching in the morning light. That I hadn’t heard from Feyre yet told me enough: still asleep. And as tempting as it was to wake her just to hear the sound of her voice, I had little desire to have my balls nailed to the wall for disrupting her sleep. “Let Bryaxis enjoy the Solstice as well,” I said.
A rare smile curled Az’s mouth. “Generous of you.”
I inclined my head dramatically, the portrait of regal magnanimity, and dropped into my chair before propping my feet on the desk. “When do you head out for Rosehall?”
“The morning after Solstice,” he supplied, turning toward the glittering sprawl of Velaris. He winced—slightly. “I still need to do some shopping before I go.”
I offered my brother a crooked smile. “Buy her something from me, will you? And put it on my account this time.”
I knew Az wouldn’t, but he nodded all the same.