A Court of Wings and RuinBy: Sarah J. Maas
For Josh and Annie—
A gift. All of it.
Two Years Before the Wall
The buzzing flies and screaming survivors had long since replaced the beating war-drums.
The killing field was now a tangled sprawl of corpses, human and faerie alike, interrupted only by broken wings jutting toward the gray sky or the occasional bulk of a felled horse.
With the heat, despite the heavy cloud cover, the smell would soon be unbearable. Flies already crawled along eyes gazing unblinkingly upward. They didn’t differentiate between mortal and immortal flesh.
I picked my way across the once-grassy plain, marking the banners half-buried in mud and gore. It took most of my lingering strength to keep my wings from dragging over corpse and armor. My own power had been depleted well before the carnage had stopped.
I’d spent the final hours fighting as the mortals beside me had: with sword and fist and brute, unrelenting focus. We’d held the lines against Ravennia’s legions—hour after hour, we’d held the lines, as I had been ordered to do by my father, as I knew I must do. To falter here would have been the killing blow to our already-sundering resistance.
The keep looming at my back was too valuable to be yielded to the Loyalists. Not just for its location in the heart of the continent, but for the supplies it guarded. For the forges that smoldered day and night on its western side, toiling to stock our forces.
The smoke of those forges now blended with the pyres already being kindled behind me as I kept walking, scanning the faces of the dead. I made a note to dispatch any soldiers who could stomach it to claim weapons from either army. We needed them too desperately to bother with honor. Especially since the other side did not bother with it at all.
So still—the battlefield was so still, compared with the slaughter and chaos that had finally halted hours ago. The Loyalist army had retreated rather than surrender, leaving their dead for the crows.
I edged around a fallen bay gelding, the beautiful beast’s eyes still wide with terror, flies crusting his bloodied flank. The rider was twisted beneath it, the man’s head partially severed. Not from a sword blow. No, those brutal gashes were claws.
They wouldn’t yield easily. The kingdoms and territories that wanted their human slaves would not lose this war unless they had no other choice. And even then … We’d learned the hard way, very early on, that they had no regard for the ancient rules and rites of battle. And for the Fae territories that fought beside mortal warriors … We were to be stomped out like vermin.
I waved away a fly that buzzed in my ear, my hand caked with blood both my own and foreign.
I’d always thought death would be some sort of peaceful homecoming—a sweet, sad lullaby to usher me into whatever waited afterward.
I crunched down with an armored boot on the flagpole of a Loyalist standard-bearer, smearing red mud across the tusked boar embroidered on its emerald flag.
I now wondered if the lullaby of death was not a lovely song, but the droning of flies. If flies and maggots were all Death’s handmaidens.
The battlefield stretched toward the horizon in every direction save the keep at my back.
Three days, we had held them off; three days, we had fought and died here.
But we’d held the lines. Again and again, I’d rallied human and faerie, had refused to let the Loyalists break through, even when they’d hammered our vulnerable right flank with fresh troops on the second day.
I’d used my power until it was nothing but smoke in my veins, and then I’d used my Illyrian training until swinging my shield and sword was all I knew, all I could manage against the hordes.
A half-shredded Illyrian wing jutted from a cluster of High Fae corpses, as if it had taken all six of them to bring the warrior down. As if he’d taken them all out with him.
My heartbeat pounded through my battered body as I hauled away the piled corpses.
Reinforcements had arrived at dawn on the third and final day, sent by my father after my plea for aid. I had been too lost in battle-rage to note who they were beyond an Illyrian unit, especially when so many had been wielding Siphons.
But in the hours since they’d saved our asses and turned the tide of the battle, I had not spotted either of my brothers amongst the living. Did not know if Cassian or Azriel had even fought on the plain.
The latter was unlikely, as my father kept him close for spying, but Cassian … Cassian could have been reassigned. I wouldn’t have put it past my father to shift Cassian to a unit most likely to be slaughtered. As this one had been, barely half limping off the battlefield earlier.
My aching, bloodied fingers dug into dented armor and clammy, stiff flesh as I heaved away the last of the High Fae corpses piled atop the fallen Illyrian soldier.
The dark hair, the golden-brown skin … The same as Cassian’s.
But it was not Cassian’s death-gray face that gaped at the sky.
My breath whooshed from me, my lungs still raw from roaring, my lips dry and chapped.
I needed water—badly. But nearby, another set of Illyrian wings poked up from the piled dead.
I stumbled and lurched toward it, letting my mind drift someplace dark and quiet while I righted the twisted neck to peer at the face beneath the simple helm.
I picked my way through the corpses to another Illyrian.
Then another. And another.
Some I knew. Some I didn’t. Still the killing field stretched onward under the sky.
Mile after mile. A kingdom of the rotting dead.
And still I looked.
PRINCESS OF CARRION
The painting was a lie.
A bright, pretty lie, bursting with pale pink blooms and fat beams of sunshine.
I’d begun it yesterday, an idle study of the rose garden lurking beyond the open windows of the studio. Through the tangle of thorns and satiny leaves, the brighter green of the hills rolled away into the distance.
Incessant, unrelenting spring.
If I’d painted this glimpse into the court the way my gut had urged me, it would have been flesh-shredding thorns, flowers that choked off the sunlight for any plants smaller than them, and rolling hills stained red.
But each brushstroke on the wide canvas was calculated; each dab and swirl of blending colors meant to portray not just idyllic spring, but a sunny disposition as well. Not too happy, but gladly, finally healing from horrors I carefully divulged.
I supposed that in the past weeks, I had crafted my demeanor as intricately as one of these paintings. I supposed that if I had also chosen to show myself as I truly wished, I would have been adorned with flesh-shredding talons, and hands that choked the life out of those now in my company. I would have left the gilded halls stained red.
But not yet.
Not yet, I told myself with every brushstroke, with every move I’d made these weeks. Swift revenge helped no one and nothing but my own, roiling rage.
Even if every time I spoke to them, I heard Elain’s sobbing as she was forced into the Cauldron. Even if every time I looked at them, I saw Nesta fling that finger at the King of Hybern in a death-promise. Even if every time I scented them, my nostrils were again full of the tang of Cassian’s blood as it pooled on the dark stones of that bone-castle.
The paintbrush snapped between my fingers.
I’d cleaved it in two, the pale handle damaged beyond repair.
Cursing under my breath, I glanced to the windows, the doors. This place was too full of watching eyes to risk throwing it in the rubbish bin.
I cast my mind around me like a net, trawling for any others near enough to witness, to be spying. I found none.
I held my hands before me, one half of the brush in each palm.
For a moment, I let myself see past the glamour that concealed the tattoo on my right hand and forearm. The markings of my true heart. My true title.
High Lady of the Night Court.
Half a thought had the broken paintbrush going up in flames.
The fire did not burn me, even as it devoured wood and brush and paint.
When it was nothing but smoke and ash, I invited in a wind that swept them from my palms and out the open windows.
For good measure, I summoned a breeze from the garden to snake through the room, wiping away any lingering tendril of smoke, filling it with the musty, suffocating smell of roses.
Perhaps when my task here was done, I’d burn this manor to the ground, too. Starting with those roses.
Two approaching presences tapped against the back of my mind, and I snatched up another brush, dipping it in the closest swirl of paint, and lowered the invisible, dark snares I’d erected around this room to alert me of any visitors.
I was working on the way the sunlight illuminated the delicate veins in a rose petal, trying not to think of how I’d once seen it do the same to Illyrian wings, when the doors opened.
I made a good show of appearing lost in my work, hunching my shoulders a bit, angling my head. And made an even better show of slowly looking over my shoulder, as if the struggle to part myself from the painting was a true effort.
But the battle was the smile I forced to my mouth. To my eyes—the real tell of a smile’s genuine nature. I’d practiced in the mirror. Over and over.
So my eyes easily crinkled as I gave a subdued yet happy smile to Tamlin.
“Sorry to interrupt,” Tamlin said, scanning my face for any sign of the shadows I remembered to occasionally fall prey to, the ones I wielded to keep him at bay when the sun sank beyond those foothills. “But I thought you might want to get ready for the meeting.”