A Court of Dusk and Shadows ❲10❳
Details spilled out at the next family dinner at the House of Wind - or, rather, the lack of details.
“A High Lord, and no one knows how he died?” Cassian said over the roast beef. Face twisted into disbelief as similar emotions were felt around the table and whispered through the shadows. Azriel carefully cut into a roasted potato, a part of him honed in on Elain’s quiet eating, the rest listening to the conversation.
“Perhaps it’s been hidden,” Amren said sweetly. “For a reason.”
“If our spies couldn’t find any information,” Rhys drawled, though the mein of powerful High Lord was mildly offset by bouncing Nyx on his knee while he attempted to scoop up rolling peas onto his fork, unsuccessfully. A nod for Azriel, who ducked his head as his lips threatened to curl. No, his spies couldn’t discover any information beyond what had been offered freely by Eris. The failure twisted inside of him.
“We should be able to find out more when we visit the Autumn Court,” from Feyre, and immediately splutters and outcries filled the room - bemused, she blinked at her mate, and Rhys had the sense to look abashed.
“I hadn’t told them,” he said.
“Told us what?” Mor demanded.
“Eris is throwing a bash to celebrate - well, himself, I suppose,” Feyre said with a shrug. “Or his father’s death. One of the two. He has invited all the courts. It’s to be quite the event, evidently.”
“And you’re going?” Cassian asked with a frown. Gaze darting from Rhys to Feyre. “With Nyx?”
“No,” Rhys spoke. A grim look on his face. “We are not going. Nor is Mor.”
Mor said nothing, but her face had gone pale as she drank from her wine. Azriel frowned, potato forgotten.
“I hope you’re not thinking of asking me,” Nesta said, honing in on her brother-in-law. The table rippled with power as their gazes met. “Eris shouldn’t be reminded of what he doesn’t have. Namely, me. And Cassian shouldn’t go, either - he may not be able to resist assassinating the new High Lord of the Autumn Court.”
“Every day I live with that impulse,” Cassian grinned. “Az, too - I hope you’re not planning on asking him.”
Azriel remained silent, letting a lift of his shoulders, half-hidden in shadows, speak for him.
“I won’t go, either,” Amren said. “Which leaves…”
Elain. All eyes turned to her, and she lifted her head from the bread she’d been buttering with a slight frown. “Me? Go to the Autumn Court?” Her voice was quiet. Terribly, terribly quiet - Azriel clenched his knife, stiffening at this, at everyone rounding on Elain like she was some sort of pretty convenience to keep themselves comfortable.
“Lucien will be there,” Feyre said, glancing at Rhys. Who shrugged. Immediately she turned back to Elain. “You don’t have to agree,” she told her.
“Why wouldn’t I?” Elain took a bite of her bread, chewed, and swallowed, all in the silence of the dining room. “I’ll be in no danger. Beron is gone, and Eris likely wants nothing to do with me.”
If she wasn’t mated to his half-brother, he would, Azriel thought to himself, and stabbed a slice of beef.
“But it’s Eris,” Nesta’s lip curled. “He’s slimy and horrible.”
“I can deal with slimy and horrible,” Elain said quietly. “I always have before.”
More silence. Azriel wasn’t certain where the bulk of the hidden conversation was happening - between Rhys and Feyre, or Feyre and Nesta, or in the glance between Nesta and Cassian. Or Mor and her wine glass.
“I don’t mind going,” Elain went on. Jutting her chin forward, showing just a sliver of the steel that ran through her. The same steel Nesta had, but hidden beneath her manners and loveliness and grace, to be wielded in an entirely different way. Not a sword in the sunlight, but a dagger in the dark. Something swelled inside Azriel - pride, he thought. Pride for this beautiful female and all her heart.
“You don’t have to go,” Feyre said again. Nyx screeched, and banged his tiny hands on the table.
“I’d like to see more of the world,” Elain told her sister, a shy smile lifting her lips. “Even the Autumn Court. Even if - if Lucien is there.”
Azriel noted the faltering in her voice. Shadows whispered to him - only Mor and Feyre and Nesta noticed it as well.
“I’ll go with you,” he found himself saying. Kept his face completely neutral as Elain’s lovely eyes slid to him, hiding everything beneath the surface. Everything that sang between them...hushed. For now. “For protection. If Lucien or Eris do try something…” Azriel trailed off, letting the threat hang in the hair. And he could’ve sworn he saw a flicker of adoration on Elain’s face. Something warm beneath her skin.
“I should go,” Rhys said, sudden as a dropped stone and just as cold.
“No,” Feyre said. “You stay here.”
Awkwardness suffused the room as whatever argument it was passed between their High Lord and Lady - the others seemed to be using their forks and knives louder than usual. Azriel offered Elain a smile across the table, which she returned before sipping from her wine. Then her perfect lips formed a message just for him, silent as a shadow: Thank you.
She knew. She knew how much he hated the Autumn Court for what they’d done to Mor. Knew he’d hated Beron and knew his distrust for Eris ran deeper than the Sidra. She knew - she knew what it meant, that he was willing to go.
It was for her. No other reason. He had to stay with her.
Elain’s willingness was taken as a tentative plan over the coming days - the bash was to be the next full moon, in precisely two weeks. And in the dark of the night when Azriel slipped through her window just to hold her, she whispered in his ear about dance lessons with Mor and finding new clothes with Feyre. If Elain was bothered by this, by being used as a buffer between the Night Court and Autumn Court - she didn’t show it. Azriel could love her for that courage alone.
He kissed his approval and love onto her face, her throat, her breasts, her thighs. He worshipped her with his mouth almost every night, and she drenched herself in perfume in the mornings.
“That’s nice,” Cassian said one afternoon. “That tattoo.”
A particularly nasty sparring bout had left Azriel with torn trousers and a bruised hand. The trousers, unfortunately, were ripped up the thigh, and Cassian was craning his neck to see the black whorls there. Not fully visible, but enough for his brother to wonder. Azriel merely shucked his knives back into their sheaths, still breathing hard.
“Thanks,” he said. Didn’t really mean it.
“Who’d you make the bargain with?”
Azriel didn’t answer. Ignored Cassian’s curiosity as he secured his knives to his side, tucking in his wings against the frigid winter wind. Flurries had been building over the afternoon, but they’d been ignored: training in these conditions was necessary.
“Don’t tell me it was Madja,” Cassian joked. Azriel huffed a laugh, shaking his head.
“I won’t, then.”
Cassian laughed much louder at that, clapping Azriel on the shoulder as they went inside. The darkness of the House of Wind drew them into warmer halls, faelights flickering ahead of them. His brother hadn’t scented Elain on him - he’d been shielding himself well enough with the shadows - and some sense of safety stole across him, in these moments. It was easy to wear the mask he’d always worn, especially if it kept her safe…
That night was the final night before their departure for the Autumn Court, and knowing that privacy would be hard to come for the next week or so, Azriel stayed until dawn with Elain, holding her as she slept and stroking her hair, though rest was too far for him to reach. This was enough: the soft quiet of her bedroom, the comfort of her slight form curled into his arms.
He couldn’t stand between her and everything - not with her willing to hold her head high and proud and walk right into the viper’s den that was the Autumn Court. Couldn’t stand between her and what she chose to do...but he would stand between her and anyone that dared to even think of harming her. Beyond the bargain they’d made with each other, rage roiled in him at the mere thought of Elain in danger. But he kept his fingers soft and steady threading through her loose hair as she hummed in her sleep.
I love you, Azriel thought, fierce and furious as every bone and sinew in his body echoed with the truth of it. I love you, Elain Archeron, and I’ll die before anyone harms a hair on your head.
As if hearing his words, Elain stirred, her cheek against his shoulder as something in her dreams made her smile. Hand on his chest, holding him as he held her - a lump rose in his throat, and he cherished every moment of this. Every second. Because one day, it could crash around them and sweep her away -
When the first rays of dawn pierced the folds of the drapes, Azriel kissed Elain awake - kissed her face until she smiled and sighed and held tightly to him, fingers brushing gently against the membrane of his wings as their legs tangled beneath the blankets.
“Good morning,” he murmured.
“Good morning,” Elain hid a yawn. “Did you sleep well?”
Azriel didn’t answer. Gave her a smile, instead, but her eyes remained worried as she stroked up his wings. To comfort - not to arouse. He was aroused anyway.
“No visions?” he asked. She shook her head, hair sliding over her back and the pillow as she draped herself against his shoulder, all warm contentment and morning beauty as his arm tightened around her shoulder. “Good,” Azriel said. “I’d hate to have to take you to Rhys when I just want to keep you here.”
Elain’s laugh was a lovely warble. “You don’t - '' she started, and then paused, tensing slightly in his embrace. “You don’t think Lucien or - or anything else will smell us?”
“I’ve been hiding mine,” he said, pressing his nose into her hair. “You’ll wear perfume. And...if you don’t object, I can...well, the shadows can shield you.”
“Really?” Her eyes were deliciously molten in the morning, and he gave a lazy grin as he traced her upturned chin.
“Really,” he said fondly.
“Enough that - that we don’t have to be apart while we’re there?”
Azriel hesitated. He couldn’t refuse her - but he had to, had to - if they were discovered, she’d be in danger and he’d sworn to protect her… “No,” he said softly. “I can’t shield us to that extent. But I can promise that when we get back, I’ll be here as often as you want. Whenever you want.”
“Always?” Elain’s gaze sparkled. Held his heart like a fist.
“I’ll need clothes of my own,” he said. “Or...not.”
She laughed at that wicked suggestion, and between the early hour and the way her curls were mussed and her warmth pressed so readily against him, Azriel fought hard to keep his arousal down. But this was not a morning to lather himself all over her: they’d be at the Autumn Court for supper, and watched by sharp eyes.
“Azriel,” Elain said, and wistfulness clouded her eyes. “Please - just...don’t leave me alone with Lucien.”
He lifted a brow, though a feral, snarling satisfaction skittered through him with claws and teeth.
“I only…” Her gaze dropped. “I don’t - I don’t want to have that conversation yet. I’m not ready to...explain.”
“Alright,” Azriel said, and kissed her brow. “I’ll whisk you away any time he tries to corner you.”
“My gallant knight,” Elain smiled.
“My beautiful,” he kissed her nose, “perfect,” her cheek, “kind,” her jaw, “sweet,” her ear, “and delectable lady.”
High Lady, he thought to himself with a flutter in his chest, but he didn’t say it aloud - didn’t know what she would say if he recalled that vision now, when the day was already looming ahead darkly.
“Perhaps Rhys should have come,” she teased him lightly, and he grinned. “He won’t be distracting me across ballrooms.”
“I’m going to choose not to be jealous of that,” Azriel said blandly. “Kiss me, fair lady, and I’ll let you get ready. Cerridwen will be in soon to help you get dressed.” A shadow had whispered that the twins were awake and preparing themselves; it was Nuala that would leave for the Autumn Court early with their things.
Elain’s lips were sweet and soft and easier to get drunk on than wine - he tried to leave twice before he managed it: each time she pulled him back by the shirt with a blazing look in her eyes and he couldn’t resist her. Another taste, another stolen moment. But when Cerridwen knocked on the door he dragged himself from the bed at last, throwing open the drapes to escape out the window.
He glanced back, smiling for Elain as she tied a robe around her waist - her responding smile was brighter than any sun at any hour. If he could, he’d tackle her back into the bed and make love to her until summer solstice -
But he couldn’t, and he didn’t. Azriel leapt into the skies, flaring his wings out wide and made for the House of Wind, and a soapy, scented bath.
A very cold, soapy, scented bath.
⚘ ⚘ ⚘
They winnowed to a courtyard built between the largest trees Azriel had seen in his existence: less a courtyard and more a platform built amongst twined branches and buffed and polished to shine. The overhanging branches were lush and thick in shades of red and gold and orange - like fire, he thought as he dropped Elain’s hand. Shadows scattered to rake in information as quickly as fallen leaves.
Greeting Eris was less of a trial than Azriel expected: the new High Lord was too burdened by what was going on in the Autumn Court to pay them much more than a nod and a strained smile, waving over a servant to show them their rooms. Elain didn’t seem remotely bothered by this dismissal, curls bouncing down her back as she walked the wooden bridges over the expanse of the forest below, taking in the sight.
Azriel followed behind.
Their rooms were not connected, though they shared a balcony: polished mahogany and speckled with the sunlight that made it through the trees - Azriel watched, for a moment, the forest swaying in the breeze, ears pricked for any movement. Far below, Fae looked the size of ants as they went about their business on the forest floor. Gripping the railing, wings in tight, he leaned -
A footstep - he turned, and saw Elain standing in the doorway of her bedroom, smiling as she shed the blue cloak she’d arrived in.
“It isn’t so bad,” she said. “The way everyone talks about this place…”
Her gaze lifted to the leaves and trees, wonder blooming there. Then a deep breath of the crisp, loamy air - Azriel let himself smile at the loveliness in her expression.
“It’s not the land that’s been the problem,” he said in a low voice. A few strides took him to her side, though he didn’t dare take her in his arms. The way Elain stared up at him with her eyes full of welling emotion was enough - he swallowed, gaze flickering to her mouth - then back to her eyes.
“Well, it’s lovely,” she said quietly. “I look forward to seeing more.”
“Nuala is here,” he murmured. “Do you mind if she fills me in before she helps you dress for tonight?”
Elain shook her head. Her hand lifted as if of its own accord, as if to rest on his chest where his heart beat to root herself to him - but the moment hovered, and sighed, and her hand dropped back to hide in the folds of her skirt. Another smile - this was regretful, and she turned back into her bedroom. Azriel watched her go, breathing shallowly through his nose.
Perhaps she was right. Rhys should have come with her - then Azriel wouldn’t be panting after her like a mongrel when one glance at the wrong time would have Lucien lunging for his throat.
Speaking of Lucien…
He didn’t appear until that night, when the great, forested hall of the Autumn Court was full to the brim with music and food and wine and dancing. Azriel watched the festivities with trained, ready eyes: observing Elain as she danced with fae from this court and others, scrutinizing Eris on his wooden throne with gaunt eyes, and others - when Lucien appeared between oak pillars, he was alone, and regarding Elain with a shielded expression.
Lucien would make a good spy, Azriel thought, but it was a sour one.
Elain laughed, a high, clear melody above the music and chatter - Azriel glanced back at her. The golden faelights gilded her skin in rich shades, snagging him on a phantom thread that he could’ve sworn sighed to see her. The rustling, velvet dress in a shade of blue so dark it might have been black: but in the shine of the fire it was like a night sky threaded with gold sheen to match her hair. Feyre had chosen well, Azriel thought, and Nuala’s skill knotting Elain’s curls at the back of her neck...he thought of removing those pins himself, kissing her throat as each curl tumbled over her bare, creamy shoulder -
A careful greeting - not a warm one. But well-meaning. For that, Azriel could turn and incline his head at the seventh son of the Autumn Court, despite his nose curling at the acrid scent of his mating bond: it was sour and discordant and wrong - stronger when the two of them were near each other. Lucien wore a forest-green doublet that made his skin look sallow - or perhaps he’d been unwell. Or…
Lucien sneezed before Azriel could respond.
“My apologies,” he said at once, sniffing.
“Are you allergic to this court?” Azriel asked, unable to keep a wry smile from flickering.
“No,” Lucien’s voice sounded stuffy and thick. “I’m allergic to ginger root. Perhaps someone is wearing perfume.”
Azriel looked away, shadows dancing with satisfaction, remembering the ginger and lily soap he’d used to scrub himself of Elain that morning. As an extra precaution: if Lucien came too close to him and his scent wasn’t reined in, at least the princeling’s senses would be deadened.
“Only you and Elain have come?” Lucien asked next, sniffling again.
“Yes,” Azriel said. Paused, weighing the information he had to the information he wanted...and added in a low voice, “This court does not inspire...kind feelings in many members of my family.”
Lucien grunted, red-rimmed eyes swivelling to Elain on the polished floor, where she was being spun by a kind-looking older fae male with white hair. The delight in her face at the music and dancing was palpable - Azriel might have expected sunbeams glowing from her face the way Feyre did when she was most content. But Elain didn’t need such a power: her loveliness had always shone through her naturally.
“I’m surprised you managed to stomach it,” Lucien said suddenly, tilting his head to give Azriel a cunning, searching look - and Azriel knew he didn’t mean watching Elain dance with other males.
“I drew the short straw,” Azriel hedged in a bored voice. He earned a chuckle from Lucien, at least. Shallow breaths, to keep from sucking in too much of that sour stench. If it was a spell, it was clumsy.
He wondered what Helion would make of it.
But the High Lord of Day did not appear particularly approachable that evening: he’d been lingering by a pillar not unlike Azriel, but his eyes were for a different female. One with strain in her pale face, who flitted from courtier to courtier with a fan clenched in her fingers. A shadow had whispered in his ear earlier of turmoil and distraction felt by her - and Helion. Whether Lucien himself recognized his mother’s unhappiness...perhaps it was being back to this place that was eating at Lucien. But Azriel glared at a shadow that wanted to investigate the princeling next to him - he didn’t even want to know.
“We’ll talk later,” Lucien said suddenly, and stalked forward across the dance floor - the song was ending, and just as it did, he was in front of Elain. Bowing low as color flushed her face, and Azriel hated the hesitation he saw there. Hated more the sight of her slender hand in Lucien’s - a male that didn’t even know how those hands toiled to create things of beauty.
Azriel couldn’t stomach it. So, when the Lady of the Autumn Court passed nearby, he stepped forward and offered himself as a partner for the dance. If she was bothered by his shadows, she did not indicate as she agreed with a slight curtsey.
She’s grateful for the reprieve from placating the lords and courtiers, a shadow murmured.
It was easy to make pleasant conversation, though the lady’s eyes were darkened. And though Helion watched them like a golden-eyed eagle - Azriel didn’t require his shadows to report the scrutiny. It felt as though a beam of pure sunlight was targeted at his back. Not in a comforting way, either.
He was not surprised when Helion cut in halfway through the dance, dark eyes grim but desperate - Azriel passed the lady to her former lover with a short bow, ignoring the tension fraught between them as he wove through the other dancers to his earlier vantage point.
The night wore on, and not exactly for the better: after Lucien, Elain danced with Eris while Azriel’s fingers itched for Truth-Teller concealed at his side. Nearly invisible, a shadow skated across the floor, dodging skirts and shoes to the hem of Elain’s dress, which it disappeared beneath. It was all he could do - and when Eris spun her outward, Elain’s eyes caught on him across the room. Azriel could read her better than a book.
I want you. I’m not in any danger. But I want you.
He’d risk it. For her - he’d always risk it.
Eris was more than willing to give up Elain after their dance: nothing like the repeat of the Nesta situation in the Hewn City. All the better for Eris - he’d end up just as disappointed for pursuing this sister, too, even if she weren’t mated to his half-brother. Azriel gave Eris more a grimace than a smile as Elain’s fingers slid into his, and Eris jerked his head before searching out another female.
This. This was right.
Azriel’s fingers curled around Elain’s as she faced him, her hand resting on his shoulder as his arm slipped behind her, drawing her close. Not too close - they were being watched. But he kept his stiffness hidden in the way his wings were folded in against his body, in his spine - his knuckles brushed against the back of her dress, warm from her skin, and he stared into her brown eyes as the slightest smile lifted her lips. One deep breath coating him in jasmine, chasing away the sordidness of the Autumn Court.
The music began, and he spun her into it.
“How do you find the festivities, my lady?” Azriel asked, his voice low but bored, and he saw amusement flicker in her gaze.
“I am finding them perfectly diverting,” Elain cooed back at him. “I’ve scarcely had time to breathe - it seems as though every male in this room wants to dance with me tonight!”
“Can you fault them for that?” Azriel lifted a brow. Tugged her closer as other couples crowded close, as an excuse. “For wanting the attention of the most beautiful female in the room all to themselves?”
“Oh!” Elain’s flush deepened to a rosy, kissable pink. “You are a horrid tease, sir.” But her eyes danced with delight.
“I’m not teasing,” Azriel murmured. A grave expression on his face, though a smile was tearing itself from him. “I swear I am being honest, my lady.”
“Perhaps your vision is failing,” Elain offered blandly, and he barked out a ragged laugh. “I suppose,” she went on, her voice quieted. “That you are responsible for that thing creeping up my leg?”
“I haven’t any idea what you’re referring to, my lady.”
“You would think,” she murmured, eyes glittering with a thousand gold lights. “After all this time I would recognize one of your shadows when it touches me.”
Azriel’s lips twitched. “Most people don’t recognize them. Even Cassian and Rhys.”
“They tickle,” Elain said. “Like - like a cool breath.”
He kept his astonishment from showing - this was not the time nor place to let too much of himself show. But Elain must have sensed it, for the smile that grew on her face was deliciously smug. He wished he could kiss it.
“My shadows are not well liked, in a general sense,” Azriel said at last.
“I don’t know why,” Elain said. “They’re perfectly friendly.”
“To you.” He paused. And then, “You’re not afraid of them.”
“Why would I be?”
“Because despite your earth-shattering beauty, you are normal. Any normal, sensible person fears the dark.”
“I don’t think Rhys would appreciate that sentiment,” Elain teased lightly.
“His darkness can take many forms,” Azriel said. Squeezed her hand lightly, just to watch the adoration flicker in her face. “Welcoming and warm, speckled with light - or dangerous and cold. These shadows…” One curled around his arm, as if pleased to be the topic of conversation. “Don’t carry the same variety of magic. They’re the shadows found in any dark corner.”
“Darkness doesn’t mean danger,” Elain said - the hollowness in him squeezed.
“No,” he murmured back. “And you’re in no danger from mine.”
“I know.” Trust - utter, complete trust that tore at his insides. “You sent that shadow to remind me of you.”
But Azriel smiled a tight-lipped smile, letting her laugh her lovely laugh to keep the mystery.
“I feel safe when you’re near,” Elain said softly, still smiling.
“I’m glad,” he said back, but his voice was choked. To change the subject - before he tore out his own heart to offer to her right in the middle of the hall, Azriel commented blithely, “You danced with Lucien.”
“I did.” Her tone was careful.
“I survived.” A flush of pink. A smile. Not for her mate - for Azriel. He grinned back.
“You survived Eris, too. You’re more of a warrior than your sisters give you credit for.”
Elain laughed, quiet mirth spun between them like a spell of their own. It was enough that when the music stopped, he could bow and step back as yet another male came forward for her hand - the male didn’t notice the shadow that peeked from beneath her skirt. And though Elain was polite enough to smile and engage him, Azriel saw with no amount of satisfaction the cultivation in her expression. A beautiful, kind female for all to see: a clever, teasing minx with him.
It was enough. To know that part of her was just for him.
68 notes · View notes