A Court of Mist and Fury Page 127

Mor stretched out a hand, and a pale cloud swirled from the orb, merging with its light as it drifted past our ankles.

The queens flinched, the guards edging forward with hands on their weapons. But the clouds continued roiling as the truth of it, of Velaris, leaked from the orb, from whatever it dragged up from Mor, from Rhys. From the truth of the world.

And in the gray gloom, a picture appeared.

It was Velaris, as seen from above—as seen by Rhys, flying in. A speck in the coast, but as he dropped down, the city and the river became clearer, vibrant.

Then the image banked and swerved, as if Rhys had flown through his city just this morning. It shot past boats and piers, past the homes and streets and theaters. Past the Rainbow of Velaris, so colorful and lovely in the new spring sun. People, happy and thoughtful, kind and welcoming, waved to him. Moment after moment, images of the Palaces, of the restaurants, of the House of Wind. All of it—all of that secret, wondrous city. My home.

And I could have sworn that there was love in that image. I could not explain how the Veritas conveyed it, but the colors … I understood the colors, and the light, what they conveyed, what the orb somehow picked up from whatever link it had to Rhys’s memories.

The illusion faded, color and light and cloud sucked back into the orb.

“That is Velaris,” Rhys said. “For five thousand years, we have kept it a secret from outsiders. And now you know. That is what I protect with the rumors, the whispers, the fear. Why I fought for your people in the War—only to begin my own supposed reign of terror once I ascended my throne, and ensured everyone heard the legends about it. But if the cost of protecting my city and people is the contempt of the world, then so be it.”

The two queens were gaping at the carpet as if they could still see the city there. Mor cleared her throat. The golden one, as if Mor had barked, started and dropped an ornate lace handkerchief on the ground. She leaned to pick it up, cheeks a bit red.

But the crone raised her eyes to us. “Your trust is … appreciated.”

We waited.

Both of their faces turned grave, unmoved. And I was glad I was sitting as the eldest added at last, “We will consider.”

“There is no time to consider,” Mor countered. “Every day lost is another day that Hybern gets closer to shattering the wall.”

“We will discuss amongst our companions, and inform you at our leisure.”

“Do you not understand the risks you take in doing so?” Rhys said, no hint of condescension. Only—only perhaps shock. “You need this alliance as much as we do.”

The ancient queen shrugged her frail shoulders. “Did you think we would be moved by your letter, your plea?” She jerked her chin to the guard closest, and he reached into his armor to pull out a folded letter. The old woman read, “I write to you not as a High Lord, but as a male in love with a woman who was once human. I write to you to beg you to act quickly. To save her people—to help save my own. I write to you so one day we might know true peace. So I might one day be able to live in a world where the woman I love may visit her family without fear of hatred and reprisal. A better world.” She set down the letter.

Rhys had written that letter weeks ago … before we’d mated. Not a demand for the queens to meet—but a love letter. I reached across the space between us and took his hand, squeezing gently. Rhys’s fingers tightened around my own.

But then the ancient one said, “Who is to say that this is not all some grand manipulation?”

“What?” Mor blurted.

The golden queen nodded her agreement and dared say to Mor, “A great many things have changed since the War. Since your so-called friendships with our ancestors. Perhaps you are not who you say you are. Perhaps the High Lord has crept into our minds to make us believe you are the Morrigan.”

Rhys was silent—we all were. Until Nesta said too softly, ‘This is the talk of madwomen. Of arrogant, stupid fools.”

Elain grabbed for Nesta’s hand to silence her. But Nesta stalked forward a step, face white with rage. “Give them the Book.”

The queens blinked, stiffening.

My sister snapped, “Give them the Book.”

And the eldest queen hissed, “No.”

The word clanged through me.

But Nesta went on, flinging out an arm to encompass us, the room, the world, “There are innocent people here. In these lands. If you will not risk your necks against the forces that threaten us, then grant those people a fighting chance. Give my sister the Book.”

The crone sighed sharply through her nose. “An evacuation may be possible—”

“You would need ten thousand ships,” Nesta said, her voice breaking. “You would need an armada. I have calculated the numbers. And if you are readying for war, you will not send your ships to us. We are stranded here.”

The crone gripped the polished arms of her chair as she leaned forward a bit. “Then I suggest asking one of your winged males to carry you across the sea, girl.”

Nesta’s throat bobbed. “Please.” I didn’t think I’d ever heard that word from her mouth. “Please—do not leave us to face this alone.”

The eldest queen remained unmoved. I had no words in my head.

We had shown them … we had … we had done everything. Even Rhys was silent, his face unreadable.

But then Cassian crossed to Nesta, the guards stiffening as the Illyrian moved through them as if they were stalks of wheat in a field.

He studied Nesta for a long moment. She was still glaring at the queens, her eyes lined with tears—tears of rage and despair, from that fire that burned her so violently from within. When she finally noticed Cassian, she looked up at him.

His voice was rough as he said, “Five hundred years ago, I fought on battlefields not far from this house. I fought beside human and faerie alike, bled beside them. I will stand on that battlefield again, Nesta Archeron, to protect this house—your people. I can think of no better way to end my existence than to defend those who need it most.”

I watched a tear slide down Nesta’s cheek. And I watched as Cassian reached up a hand to wipe it away.

She did not flinch from his touch.

I didn’t know why, but I looked at Mor.

Her eyes were wide. Not with jealousy, or irritation, but … something perhaps like awe.

Nesta swallowed and at last turned away from Cassian. He stared at my sister a moment longer before facing the queens.

Without signal, the two women rose.

Mor demanded, on her feet as well, “Is it a sum you’re after? Name your price, then.”

The golden queen snorted as their guards closed in around them. “We have all the riches we need. We will now return to our palace to deliberate with our sisters.”

“You’re already going to say no,” Mor pushed.

The golden queen smirked. “Perhaps.” She took the crone’s withered hand.

The ancient queen lifted her chin. “We appreciate the gesture of your trust.”

Then they were gone.

Mor swore. And I looked at Rhys, my own heart breaking, about to demand why he hadn’t pushed, why he hadn’t said more—

But his eyes were on the chair where the golden queen had been seated.

Beneath it, somehow hidden by her voluminous skirts while she’d sat, was a box.

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