A Court of Mist and Fury Page 39

Mor’s voice was a bit raw as she explained to me, her golden combs glinting in the light, “There is not one person in this city who is unaware of what went on outside these borders. Or of the cost.”

I didn’t want to ask what price had been demanded. The pain that laced the heavy silence told me enough.

Yet if they might all live through their pain, might still laugh … I cleared my throat, straightening, and said to Azriel, who, shadows or no, seemed the safest and therefore was probably the least so, “How did you meet?” A harmless question to feel them out, learn who they were. Wasn’t it?

Azriel merely turned to Cassian, who was staring at Rhys with guilt and love on his face, so deep and agonized that some now-splintered instinct had me almost reaching across the table to grip his hand.

But Cassian seemed to process what I’d asked and his friend’s silent request that he tell the story instead, and a grin ghosted across his face. “We all hated each other at first.”

Beside me, the light had winked out of Rhys’s eyes. What I’d asked about Amarantha, what horrors I’d made him remember …

A confession for a confession—I thought he’d done it for my sake. Maybe he had things he needed to voice, couldn’t voice to these people, not without causing them more pain and guilt.

Cassian went on, drawing my attention from the silent High Lord at my right, “We are bastards, you know. Az and I. The Illyrians … We love our people, and our traditions, but they dwell in clans and camps deep in the mountains of the North, and do not like outsiders. Especially High Fae who try to tell them what to do. But they’re just as obsessed with lineage, and have their own princes and lords among them. Az,” he said, pointing a thumb in his direction, his red Siphon catching the light, “was the bastard of one of the local lords. And if you think the bastard son of a lord is hated, then you can’t imagine how hated the bastard is of a war-camp laundress and a warrior she couldn’t or wouldn’t remember.” His casual shrug didn’t match the vicious glint in his hazel eyes. “Az’s father sent him to our camp for training once he and his charming wife realized he was a shadowsinger.”

Shadowsinger. Yes—the title, whatever it meant, seemed to fit.

“Like the daemati,” Rhys said to me, “shadowsingers are rare—coveted by courts and territories across the world for their stealth and predisposition to hear and feel things others can’t.”

Perhaps those shadows were indeed whispering to him, then. Azriel’s cold face yielded nothing.

Cassian said, “The camp lord practically shit himself with excitement the day Az was dumped in our camp. But me … once my mother weaned me and I was able to walk, they flew me to a distant camp, and chucked me into the mud to see if I would live or die.”

“They would have been smarter throwing you off a cliff,” Mor said, snorting.

“Oh, definitely,” Cassian said, that grin going razor-sharp. “Especially because when I was old and strong enough to go back to the camp I’d been born in, I learned those pricks worked my mother until she died.”

Again that silence fell—different this time. The tension and simmering anger of a unit who had endured so much, survived so much … and felt each other’s pain keenly.

“The Illyrians,” Rhys smoothly cut in, that light finally returning to his gaze, “are unparalleled warriors, and are rich with stories and traditions. But they are also brutal and backward, particularly in regard to how they treat their females.”

Azriel’s eyes had gone near-vacant as he stared at the wall of windows behind me.

“They’re barbarians,” Amren said, and neither Illyrian male objected. Mor nodded emphatically, even as she noted Azriel’s posture and bit her lip. “They cripple their females so they can keep them for breeding more flawless warriors.”

Rhys cringed. “My mother was low-born,” he told me, “and worked as a seamstress in one of their many mountain war-camps. When females come of age in the camps—when they have their first bleeding—their wings are … clipped. Just an incision in the right place, left to improperly heal, can cripple you forever. And my mother—she was gentle and wild and loved to fly. So she did everything in her power to keep herself from maturing. She starved herself, gathered illegal herbs—anything to halt the natural course of her body. She turned eighteen and hadn’t yet bled, to the mortification of her parents. But her bleeding finally arrived, and all it took was for her to be in the wrong place, at the wrong time, before a male scented it on her and told the camp’s lord. She tried to flee—took right to the skies. But she was young, and the warriors were faster, and they dragged her back. They were about to tie her to the posts in the center of camp when my father winnowed in for a meeting with the camp’s lord about readying for the War. He saw my mother thrashing and fighting like a wildcat, and …” He swallowed. “The mating bond between them clicked into place. One look at her, and he knew what she was. He misted the guards holding her.”

My brows narrowed. “Misted?”

Cassian let out a wicked chuckle as Rhys floated a lemon wedge that had been garnishing his chicken into the air above the table. With a flick of his finger, it turned to citrus-scented mist.

“Through the blood-rain,” Rhys went on as I shut out the image of what it’d do to a body, what he could do, “my mother looked at him. And the bond fell into place for her. My father took her back to the Night Court that evening and made her his bride. She loved her people, and missed them, but never forgot what they had tried to do to her—what they did to the females among them. She tried for decades to get my father to ban it, but the War was coming, and he wouldn’t risk isolating the Illyrians when he needed them to lead his armies. And to die for him.”

“A real prize, your father,” Mor grumbled.

“At least he liked you,” Rhys countered, then clarified for me, “my father and mother, despite being mates, were wrong for each other. My father was cold and calculating, and could be vicious, as he had been trained to be since birth. My mother was soft and fiery and beloved by everyone she met. She hated him after a time—but never stopped being grateful that he had saved her wings, that he allowed her to fly whenever and wherever she wished. And when I was born, and could summon the Illyrian wings as I pleased … She wanted me to know her people’s culture.”

“She wanted to keep you out of your father’s claws,” Mor said, swirling her wine, her shoulders loosening as Azriel at last blinked, and seemed to shake off whatever memory had frozen him.

“That, too,” Rhys added drily. “When I turned eight, my mother brought me to one of the Illyrian war-camps. To be trained, as all Illyrian males were trained. And like all Illyrian mothers, she shoved me toward the sparring ring on the first day, and walked away without looking back.”

“She abandoned you?” I found myself saying.

“No—never,” Rhys said with a ferocity I’d heard only a few times, one of them being this afternoon. “She was staying at the camp as well. But it is considered an embarrassment for a mother to coddle her son when he goes to train.”

My brows lifted and Cassian laughed. “Backward, like he said,” the warrior told me.

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