A Court of Mist and Fury Page 40

“I was scared out of my mind,” Rhys admitted, not a shade of shame to be found. “I’d been learning to wield my powers, but Illyrian magic was a mere fraction of it. And it’s rare amongst them—usually possessed only by the most powerful, pure-bred warriors.” Again, I looked at the slumbering Siphons atop the warriors’ hands. “I tried to use a Siphon during those years,” Rhys said. “And shattered about a dozen before I realized it wasn’t compatible—the stones couldn’t hold it. My power flows and is honed in other ways.”

“So difficult, being such a powerful High Lord,” Mor teased.

Rhys rolled his eyes. “The camp-lord banned me from using my magic. For all our sakes. But I had no idea how to fight when I set foot into that training ring that day. The other boys in my age group knew it, too. Especially one in particular, who took a look at me, and beat me into a bloody mess.”

“You were so clean,” Cassian said, shaking his head. “The pretty half-breed son of the High Lord—how fancy you were in your new training clothes.”

“Cassian,” Azriel told me with that voice like darkness given sound, “resorted to getting new clothes over the years by challenging other boys to fights, with the prize being the clothes off their backs.” There was no pride in the words—not for his people’s brutality. I didn’t blame the shadowsinger, though. To treat anyone that way …

Cassian, however, chuckled. But I was now taking in the broad, strong shoulders, the light in his eyes.

I’d never met anyone else in Prythian who had ever been hungry, desperate—not like I’d been.

Cassian blinked, and the way he looked at me shifted—more assessing, more … sincere. I could have sworn I saw the words in his eyes: You know what it is like. You know the mark it leaves.

“I’d beaten every boy in our age group twice over already,” Cassian went on. “But then Rhys arrived, in his clean clothes, and he smelled … different. Like a true opponent. So I attacked. We both got three lashings apiece for the fight.”

I flinched. Hitting children—

“They do worse, girl,” Amren cut in, “in those camps. Three lashings is practically an encouragement to fight again. When they do something truly bad, bones are broken. Repeatedly. Over weeks.”

I said to Rhys, “Your mother willingly sent you into that?” Soft fire indeed.

“My mother didn’t want me to rely on my power,” Rhysand said. “She knew from the moment she conceived me that I’d be hunted my entire life. Where one strength failed, she wanted others to save me.

“My education was another weapon—which was why she went with me: to tutor me after lessons were done for the day. And when she took me home that first night to our new house at the edge of the camp, she made me read by the window. It was there that I saw Cassian trudging through the mud—toward the few ramshackle tents outside of the camp. I asked her where he was going, and she told me that bastards are given nothing: they find their own shelter, own food. If they survive and get picked to be in a war-band, they’ll be bottom-ranking forever, but receive their own tents and supplies. But until then, he’d stay in the cold.”

“Those mountains,” Azriel added, his face hard as ice, “offer some of the harshest conditions you can imagine.”

I’d spent enough time in frozen woods to get it.

“After my lessons,” Rhys went on, “my mother cleaned my lashings, and as she did, I realized for the first time what it was to be warm, and safe, and cared for. And it didn’t sit well.”

“Apparently not,” Cassian said. “Because in the dead of night, that little prick woke me up in my piss-poor tent and told me to keep my mouth shut and come with him. And maybe the cold made me stupid, but I did. His mother was livid. But I’ll never forget the look on her beautiful face when she saw me and said, ‘There is a bathtub with hot running water. Get in it or you can go back into the cold.’ Being a smart lad, I obeyed. When I got out, she had clean nightclothes and ordered me into bed. I’d spent my life sleeping on the ground—and when I balked, she said she understood because she had felt the same once, and that it would feel as if I was being swallowed up, but the bed was mine for as long as I wanted it.”

“And you were friends after that?”

“No—Cauldron no,” Rhysand said. “We hated each other, and only behaved because if one of us got into trouble or provoked the other, then neither of us ate that night. My mother started tutoring Cassian, but it wasn’t until Azriel arrived a year later that we decided to be allies.”

Cassian’s grin grew as he reached around Amren to clap his friend on the shoulder. Azriel sighed—the sound of the long-suffering. The warmest expression I’d seen him make. “A new bastard in the camp—and an untrained shadowsinger to boot. Not to mention he couldn’t even fly thanks to—”

Mor cut in lazily, “Stay on track, Cassian.”

Indeed, any warmth had vanished from Azriel’s face. But I quieted my own curiosity as Cassian again shrugged, not even bothering to take note of the silence that seemed to leak from the shadowsinger. Mor saw, though—even if Azriel didn’t bother to acknowledge her concerned stare, the hand that she kept looking at as if she’d touch, but thought better of it.

Cassian went on, “Rhys and I made his life a living hell, shadowsinger or no. But Rhys’s mother had known Az’s mother, and took him in. As we grew older, and the other males around us did, too, we realized everyone else hated us enough that we had better odds of survival sticking together.”

“Do you have any gifts?” I asked him. “Like—them?” I jerked my chin to Azriel and Rhys.

“A volatile temper doesn’t count,” Mor said as Cassian opened his mouth.

He gave her that grin I realized likely meant trouble was coming, but said to me, “No. I don’t—not beyond a heaping pile of the killing power. Bastard-born nobody, through and through.” Rhys sat forward like he’d object, but Cassian forged ahead, “Even so, the other males knew that we were different. And not because we were two bastards and a half-breed. We were stronger, faster—like the Cauldron knew we’d been set apart and wanted us to find each other. Rhys’s mother saw it, too. Especially as we reached the age of maturity, and all we wanted to do was fuck and fight.”

“Males are horrible creatures, aren’t they?” Amren said.

“Repulsive,” Mor said, clicking her tongue.

Some surviving, small part of my heart wanted to … laugh at that.

Cassian shrugged. “Rhys’s power grew every day—and everyone, even the camp-lords, knew he could mist everyone if he felt like it. And the two of us … we weren’t far behind.” He tapped his crimson Siphon with a finger. “A bastard Illyrian had never received one of these. Ever. For Az and me to both be appointed them, albeit begrudgingly, had every warrior in every camp across those mountains sizing us up. Only pure-blood pricks get Siphons—born and bred for the killing power. It still keeps them up at night, puzzling over where the hell we got it from.”

“Then the War came,” Azriel took over. Just the way he said the words made me sit up. Listen. “And Rhys’s father visited our camp to see how his son had fared after twenty years.”

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