Amren hadn’t dressed Nesta in cobwebs and stardust, as Mor and I were clothed. And she hadn’t dressed Nesta in her own style of loose pants and a cropped blouse.
She had kept it simple. Brutal.
A dress of impenetrable black flowed to the dark marble floors of the throne room of the Hewn City, tight through the bodice and sleeves, its neckline skimming the base of her pale throat. Nesta’s hair had been swept into a simple style to reveal the panes of her face, the savage clarity of her eyes as she took in the assembled crowd, the towering carved pillars and the scaled beasts twined around them, the mighty dais and the throne atop it … and did not balk.
Indeed, Nesta’s chin only lifted with each step we took toward that dais. One throne, I realized—that mighty throne of those twined, scaly beasts. Rhys realized it, too. Planned for it.
My sister and the others peeled away at the foot of the dais, taking flanking positions at its base. No fear, no joy, no light in their faces. Azriel, at Mor’s side, looked murderously calm as he surveyed those gathered. As he beheld Keir, waiting beside a golden-haired woman who had to be Mor’s mother, sneering at us. Promise them nothing, Mor had warned me.
Rhys held out a hand for me to ascend the dais steps. I kept my head high, back straight, as I gripped his fingers and strode up the few stairs. Toward that solitary throne.
Rhys only winked as he gracefully escorted me right into that throne, the movement as easy and smooth as a dance.
The crowd murmured as I sat, the black stone bitingly cold against my bare thighs.
They outright gasped as Rhys simply perched on the arm of the throne, smirked at me, and said to the Court of Nightmares, “Bow.”
For they had not. And with me seated on that throne …
Their faces were still a mixture of shock and disdain as they all dropped to their knees.
I avoided looking at Nesta while she had no choice but to follow suit.
But I made myself look at Keir, at the female beside him, at anyone who dared meet my gaze. Made myself remember what they had done to Mor, now bowing with a grin on her face, when she was barely more than a child. Some of the court averted their eyes.
“I will interpret the lack of two thrones to be due to the fact that this visit came upon you quickly,” Rhys said with lethal calm. “And I will let you all escape without having your skin flayed from your bones as my mating gift to you. Our loyal subjects,” he added, smiling faintly.
I traced a finger over the scaly coil of one of the beasts that made up the arms of the throne. Our court. Part of it.
And we needed them to fight with us. To agree to it—tonight.
The mouth I’d painted that dark, dark red parted into a lazy smile. Tendrils of power snaked toward the dais, but didn’t dare venture past the first step. Testing me—what power I might have. But not getting close enough to offend Rhysand.
I let them creep closer, sniffing around, as I said to Rhys, to the throne room, “Surely, my love, they would like to stand now.”
Rhys smiled down at me, then at the crowd. “Rise.”
They did. And some of those tendrils of power dared climb up the first step.
Three gasps choked through the murmuring room as I slammed talon-sharp magic down upon those too-curious powers. Dug in deep and hard. A cat with a bird under its paw. Several of them.
“Do you wish to have this back?” I asked quietly to no one in particular.
Near the foot of the dais, Keir was scowling over a shoulder, his silver circlet glinting atop his golden hair. Someone whimpered in the back of the room.
“Don’t you know,” Rhys purred to the crowd, “that it’s not polite to touch a lady without her permission?”
In answer, I sank those dark talons in further, the magic of whoever had
dared try to test me thrashing and buckling. “Play nice,” I crooned to the crowd.
And let go.
Three separate flurries of motion warred for my attention. Someone had winnowed outright, fleeing. Another had fainted. And a third was clinging to whoever stood beside them, trembling. I marked all their faces.
Amren and Nesta approached the foot of the dais. My sister was staring as if she’d never seen me before. I didn’t dare break my mask of bemused coolness. Didn’t dare ask if Nesta’s shields were holding up—if someone had just tried to test her as well. Nesta’s own imperious face yielded nothing.
Amren bowed her head to Rhys, to me. “By your leave, High Lord.”
Rhys waved an idle hand. “Go. Enjoy yourselves.” He jerked his chin to the watching crowd. “Food and music. Now.”
He was obeyed. Instantly.
My sister and Amren vanished before the crowd could begin milling about, striding right through those towering doors and into the gloom. To go play with some of the magical trove kept here—to give Nesta some practice for whenever Amren figured out how to fix the wall.
A few heads turned in their direction—then quickly looked away as Amren noticed them.
Let some of the monster inside show.
We still had not told her of the Bone Carver—of the Prison visit. Something a bit like guilt coiled in my stomach. Though I supposed I had to get used to it as Rhys curled a finger toward Keir and said, “The council room. Ten minutes.”
Keir’s eyes narrowed at the order, the female beside him keeping her head down—the portrait of subservience. What Mor was supposed to have been.
My friend was indeed watching her parents, cold indifference on her face.
Azriel kept a step away, monitoring everything.
I didn’t let myself look too interested—too worried—as Rhys offered me a hand and we rose from the throne. And went to talk of war.
The council chamber of the Hewn City was nearly as large as the throne room. It was carved from the same dark rock, its pillars fashioned after those entangled beasts.
Far below the high, domed ceiling, a mammoth table of black glass split
the room in two like a lightning strike, its corners left long and jagged. Sharp as a razor.
Rhys claimed a seat at the head of the table. I took the one at the opposite end. Azriel and Mor found seats on one side, and Keir settled into the seat on the other.
A chair beside him sat empty.
Rhys leaned back in his dark chair, swirling the wine that had been poured by a stone-faced servant a moment before. It had been an effort not to thank the male who’d filled my goblet.
But here, I did not thank anyone.
Here, I took what was mine, and offered no gratitude or apologies for it. “I know why you’re here,” Keir said without any sort of preamble. “Oh?” Rhys’s eyebrow arched beautifully.
Keir surveyed us, distaste lingering on his handsome face. “Hybern is swarming. Your legions”—a sneer at Azriel, at the Illyrians he represented
—“are gathering.” Keir interlaced his long fingers and set them upon the dark glass. “You mean to ask for my Darkbringers to join your army.”
Rhys sipped from his wine. “Well, at least you’ve spared me the effort of dancing around the subject.”
Keir held his gaze without blinking. “I will confess that I find myself … sympathetic to Hybern’s cause.”
Mor shifted slightly in her seat. Azriel just pinned that icy, all-seeing stare on Keir.
“You would not be the only one,” Rhys countered coolly.
Keir frowned up at the obsidian chandelier, fashioned after a wreath of night-blooming flowers—the center of each a twinkling silver faelight. “There are many similarities between Hybern’s people and my own. Both of us trapped—stagnant.”
“Last I checked,” Mor cut in, “you have been free to do as you wish for centuries. Longer.”
Keir didn’t so much as look at her, earning a flicker of rage from Azriel at the dismissal. “Ah, but are we free here? Not even the entirety of this mountain belongs to us—not with your palace atop it.”
“All of this belongs to me, I’ll remind you,” Rhys said wryly.
“It’s that mentality that allows me to find Hybern’s stifled people to be … kindred spirits.”
“You want the palace upstairs, Keir, then it’s yours.” Rhys crossed his legs.
“I didn’t know you were lusting after it for so long.”
Keir’s answering smile was near-serpentine. “You must need my army rather desperately, Rhysand.” Again, that hateful glance at Azriel. “Are the overgrown bats not up to snuff anymore?”
“Come train with them,” Azriel said softly, “and you’ll learn for yourself.”
In his centuries of miserable existence, Keir had certainly mastered the art of sneering.
And the way he sneered at Azriel … Mor’s teeth flashed in the dim light. It was an effort to keep myself from doing the same.
“I have no doubt,” Rhys said, the portrait of glorious boredom, “that you’ve already decided upon your asking price.”
Keir peered down the table—to me. Looked his fill as I held his stare. “I did.”
My stomach turned at that gaze, the words.
Dark power rumbled through the chamber, setting the onyx chandelier tinkling. “Tread carefully, Keir.”
Keir only smiled at me, then at Rhys. Mor had gone utterly still.
“What would you give me for a shot at this war, Rhysand? You whored yourself to Amarantha—but what about your mate?”
He had not forgotten how we’d treated him. How we’d humiliated him months ago.
And Rhys … there was only eternal, unforgiving death in his face, in the darkness gathering behind his chair. “The bargain our ancestors struck grants you the right to choose how and when your army assists my own. But it does not grant you the right to keep your life, Keir, when I grow tired of your existence.”
As if in answer, invisible claws gouged deep marks in the table, the glass shrieking. I flinched. Keir blanched at the lines now inches from him.
“But I thought you might be … hesitant to assist me,” Rhys went on. I’d never seen him so calm. Not calm—but filled with icy rage.
The sort I sometimes glimpsed in Azriel’s eyes.
Rhys snapped his fingers and said to no one in particular, “Bring him in.” The doors opened on a phantom wind.
I didn’t know where to look as a servant escorted in the tall male figure.
At Mor, whose face went white with dread. At Azriel, who reached for his dagger—Truth-Teller—his every breath alert, focused, but unsurprised. Not a hint of shock.
Or at Eris, heir to the Autumn Court, as he strolled into the room.