A flicker of my power had a fire roaring in the hearth, the small downstairs warming swiftly. It was barely a whisper of magic, yet its release eased that near-constant strain of keeping all that I was, all that dark power, in check. I took up a spot against that damned table and crossed my arms. “We’ve dealt with this shit before. We’ll deal with it again.”
Cassian shook his head, the shoulder-length dark hair shining in the watery light leaking through the front windows. “It’s not like it was before. Before, you, me, and Az—we were resented for what we are, who we are. But this time … we sent them to battle. I sent them, Rhys. And now it’s not only the warrior-pricks who are grumbling, but also the females. They believe you and I marched them south as revenge for our own treatment as children; they think we specifically stationed some of the males on the front lines as payback.”
Not good. Not good at all. “We have to handle this carefully, then. Find out where this poison comes from and put an end to it—peacefully,” I clarified when he lifted his brows. “We can’t kill our way out of this one.”
Cassian scratched at his jaw. “No, we can’t.” It wouldn’t be like hunting down those rogue war-bands who’d terrorized any in their path. Not at all.
He surveyed the dim house, the fire crackling in the hearth, where we’d seen my mother cook so many meals during our training. An old, familiar ache filled my chest. This entire house, every inch of it, was full of the past. “A lot of them are coming in for the Solstice,” he went on. “I can stay here, keep an eye on things. Maybe hand out presents to the children, some of the wives. Things that they really need but are too proud to ask for.”
It was a solid idea. But—“It can wait. I want you home for Solstice.”
“I don’t mind—”
“I want you home. In Velaris,” I added when he opened his mouth to spew some Illyrian loyalist bullshit that he still believed, even after they had treated him like less than nothing his entire life. “We’re spending Solstice together. All of us.”
Even if I had to give them a direct order as High Lord to do it.
Cassian angled his head. “What’s eating at you?”
As far as things went, I had little to complain about. Taking my mate to bed on a regular basis wasn’t exactly a pressing issue. Or anyone’s concern but our own.
“Wound a little tight, Rhys?”
Of course he’d seen right through it.
I sighed, frowning at the ancient, soot-speckled ceiling. We’d celebrated the Solstice in this house, too. My mother always had gifts for Azriel and Cassian. For the latter, the initial Solstice we’d shared here had been the first time he’d received any sort of gift, Solstice or not. I could still see the tears Cassian had tried to hide as he’d opened his presents, and the tears in my mother’s eyes as she watched him. “I want to jump ahead to next week.”
“Sure that power of yours can’t do it for you?”
I leveled a dry look at him. Cassian just gave me a cocky grin back.
I never stopped being grateful for them—my friends, my family, who looked at that power of mine and did not balk, did not become scented with fear. Yes, I could scare the shit out of them sometimes, but we all did that to each other. Cassian had terrified me more times than I wanted to admit, one of them being mere months ago.
Twice. Twice, in the span of a matter of weeks, it had happened.
I still saw him being hauled by Azriel off that battlefield, blood spilling down his legs, into the mud, his wound a gaping maw that sliced down the center of his body.
And I still saw him as Feyre had seen him—after she’d let me into her mind to reveal what, exactly, had occurred between her sisters and the King of Hybern. Still saw Cassian, broken and bleeding on the ground, begging Nesta to run.
Cassian had not yet spoken of it. About what had occurred in those moments. About Nesta.
Cassian and my mate’s sister did not speak to each other at all.
Nesta had successfully cloistered herself in some slummy apartment across the Sidra, refusing to interact with any of us save for a few brief visits with Feyre every month.
I’d have to find a way to fix that, too.
I saw how it ate away at Feyre. I still soothed her after she awoke, frantic, from nightmares about that day in Hybern when her sisters had been Made against their will. Nightmares about the moment when Cassian was near death and Nesta was sprawled over him, shielding him from that killing blow, and Elain—Elain—had taken up Azriel’s dagger and killed the King of Hybern instead.
I rubbed my brows between my thumb and forefinger. “It’s rough now. We’re all busy, all trying to hold everything together.” Az, Cassian, and I had yet again postponed our annual five days of hunting up at the cabin this fall. Put off for next year—again. “Come home for Solstice, and we can sit down and figure out a plan for the spring.”
“Sounds like a festive event.”
With my Court of Dreams, it always was.
But I made myself ask, “Is Devlon one of the would-be rebels?”
I prayed it wasn’t true. I resented the male and his backwardness, but he’d been fair with Cassian, Azriel, and me under his watch. Treated us to the same rights as full-blooded Illyrian warriors. Still did that for all the bastard-born under his command. It was his absurd ideas about females that made me want to throttle him. Mist him. But if he had to be replaced, the Mother knew who would take his position.
Cassian shook his head. “I don’t think so. Devlon shuts down any talk like that. But it only makes them more secretive, which makes it harder to find out who’s spreading this bullshit around.”
I nodded, standing. I had a meeting in Cesere with the two priestesses who had survived Hybern’s massacre a year ago regarding how to handle pilgrims who wanted to come from outside our territory. Being late wouldn’t lend any favors to my arguments to delay such a thing until the spring. “Keep an eye on it for the next few days, then come home. I want you there two nights before Solstice. And for the day after.”
A hint of a wicked grin. “I assume our Solstice-day tradition will still be on, then. Despite you now being such a grown-up, mated male.”
I winked at him. “I’d hate for you Illyrian babies to miss me.”
Cassian chuckled. There were indeed some Solstice traditions that never grew tiresome, even after the centuries. I was almost at the door when Cassian said, “Is …” He swallowed.
I spared him the discomfort of trying to mask his interest. “Both sisters will be at the house. Whether they want to or not.”
“Nesta will make things unpleasant if she decides she doesn’t want to be there.”
“She’ll be there,” I said, grinding my teeth, “and she’ll be pleasant. She owes Feyre that much.”
Cassian’s eyes flickered. “How is she?”
I didn’t bother to put any sort of spin on it. “Nesta is Nesta. She does what she wants, even if it kills her sister. I’ve offered her job after job, and she refuses them all.” I sucked on my teeth. “Perhaps you can talk some sense into her over Solstice.”
Cassian’s Siphons gleamed atop his hands. “It’d likely end in violence.”
It indeed would. “Then don’t say a word to her. I don’t care—just keep Feyre out of it. It’s her day, too.”