She followed Azriel to the tallest tower of the Eighth Palace and out onto the balcony that overlooked the sprawling expanse of Eyrdo city where Thayne had rebuilt it after Zhalharaq’s fall. The twinkling lantern lights and home fires that shown through the windows made the tumbling snow that fell in lazy, continuous sheets glitter like crystals.
For long minutes she just stood in the doorway and watched him and tried to tell herself that her heart wasn’t breaking for him. Watched him and tried not to make comparisons to all the other times she’d seen him standing at a balcony railing or a porch railing, missing their Qishir. Tried not to see that this time not a single spark of hope fluttered around him like it used to. There was only darkness and a dejected sort of acceptance that made the air feel like it was on fire.
She watched him and wondered if she looked the same when she thought about Nhulynolyn.
He stood with his hands braced on the railing, back bowed forward as his arms took the majority of his weight. His tattoos glowed brilliantly against the snowy night that back dropped him, seeming to move as though they were alive even when he stood absolutely still. With each breath he took, she could almost see his wings ruffling and shifting against his back but she knew that wasn’t true. He hadn’t released his wings in nearly three hundred years. She didn’t know what to do to soothe the sadness that clung to every inch of him. Didn’t know where to begin to ask what was wrong and how she could help, if she even could.
Because what he needed wasn’t her. He needed Rhyshladlyn. He needed a do over. He needed anything but what he had at that exact moment. And no matter how powerful she’d gotten over the centuries, she wasn’t that powerful. No one but the gods were. And They’d stopped listening to Their children ages ago.
Sighing softly, she crossed the balcony to stand beside him, holding out a mug of coffee with a heavy dose of Ysborogh, figuring plain old mead wouldn’t be enough right now. “Do you want to talk about it?”
He didn’t look at her when he reached out and took the mug she offered, the tattoos on his hands undulating as he curled his long fingers around the warm ceramic and inhaled the steam that rose off it. That was the only sign that he was present here with her, the only sign that the cold touched him at least somewhat.
“I’m surprised you didn’t bring me sweet tea and mead,” his voice was empty, distant, and she swallowed down the fury that threatened to choke her all over again hearing it.
“I want you alert and present, not sleepy,” she answered. His chuckle made her skin jump but she was careful not to make it obvious. For all that the sounds of mirth and pleasure he made anymore were far more terrifying than they had any real right to be, she didn’t begrudge him them. Because at least he could still make them.
It was something she envied him for.
She took a sip of her own coffee and blew out a breath that fogged the air in front of her face as she turned and rested her butt against the railing, staring back at the tower doorway. She didn’t press him to talk, didn’t try to fill the silence even though it hung heavy and thick around them both. He would speak when he was ready. And even if he didn’t speak tonight, he would eventually. By the Cliffs, even if he never spoke of what happened in the Dining Hall, she wouldn’t be bothered. Sometimes there weren’t words to describe what one felt in the moment, the immediate aftermath, or the distant aftermath and that was okay. Bothersome because she felt like she was missing something, felt like there was a deeper issue that none of them knew about but Azriel and Relyt did, and she didn’t like it but if he couldn’t find the words to voice it, so be it.
Of all those in the Court, she trusted him the most, she trusted her best friend. And for now that would be enough.
She didn’t know how long they stood in silence drinking their coffee but it was long enough for her feet to go numb with the cold. It was long enough that she felt like her fingers would break into pieces if she tried to uncurl them from her mug. But she didn’t complain. Not out loud. He needed someone to be here beside him, someone to see what he struggled with. And if that meant she got frostbite on her toes and her fingers were stiff for days? So be it. It’d be worth it.
After all, he’d held her while she broke apart at the seams for years after Rhyshladlyn’s disappearance took Nhulynolyn, too. Held her through the night. Listened to her when she screamed obscenities and cursed their Qishir for being careless. Soothed her when Thae’a’s Weaves weren’t enough to take the edge off the pain in her bones for the loss of her mate. And he’d done all of that while he was hurting just as much if not more so than she was. So she’d do everything she could to return the favor. It was the least she could do.
“I keep getting memory flashes that don’t make sense.”
Muttering a soft curse under her breath when she jumped and nearly splashed hot coffee all over her hands, she turned to look at Azriel’s profile. She watched the way the muscle at the bolt of his jaw twitched and jumped, watched the way his gold right eye with its silver sheen seemed brighter surrounded by the deep night, even with the city lights twinkling far below them. Watched as snow fell on his shoulders and soaked his jacket vest, as it settled in his hair and dusted across his face like white freckles. He looked unflappable, untouchable, as though he were a statue that someone had put clothes on to complete the realness of the sculpting work.
Ever since Rhyshladlyn’s loss, ever since the bells had rung in every Temple around the Worlds, she had watched Azriel change. Though that was probably not the correct word. He’d gotten darker, as though the only light to him had died with their Qishir. And when he’d gotten his tattoos, when he’d stepped out of the inker’s shop bearing his lost qahllyn’qir inked beautifully into his skin with the old Tengú symbols of his beloved Qishir’s name sprawled beneath his collarbones, Bayls had watched him turn into something that wore a Dhaoinic face but held the intensity of a god.
The Worlds had often spoken of how Rhyshladlyn had appeared to be something out of the Old Stories. But in the wake of his loss, Azriel had become something out of the Old Stories. It was the only way he had been able to cope with the loss, the only way he’d been able to help any of them cope with the loss. Because in one single moment, he’d lost his mate, his Qishir, and been forced to step into his place to keep Rhyshladlyn’s Court alive without him. It was a burden she didn’t doubt would have broken weaker Dhaoine. But Azriel hadn’t missed a single beat.
And if one didn’t see him at moments like this? They would never know just how much it had cost him. I wonder if Relyt would stop being a cunt if he saw Azriel right now?
“What do you mean?” She was almost afraid to ask but she had to know. The curiosity burned in her gut and made her almost regret drinking her coffee.
“I ripped his throat out. I don’t know what for besides that I was furious and it had something to do with Rhys,” his voice was soft, just loud enough that she didn’t have to strain to hear him but there was something to it, an undercurrent that made her instincts all but scream danger. “We were arguing and whatever he said, I moved and ripped out his throat in front of the entire camp that surrounded us. In front of the entire Court, really. At least, I think it was the entire Court, I only had eyes for him.”
She stared at him and tried to swallow her heart back to where it belonged but it wouldn’t cooperate. Tried to calm the buzzing in her ears but it only grew louder. Because the truth of his words saturated the air, turned the cold-clean smell of the snow and the stone around them into something like spicy desert wildflowers mixed with lemongrass and sandalwood all while the darkness and dejected acceptance that surrounded him made it burn.
“Are you sure it isn’t a Vision of some sort?” As much as she knew it wasn’t, as much as she didn’t want to ask it, she had to.
“It’s a memory, Bay. One that is strong enough that every time Relyt and I fight now, my hand twitches with the urge to repeat it.” He turned and looked right at her and she flinched at the look in his eyes. “And I know he has the same memory. Because the first time we came to physical blows and every time after that, he is careful to guard his throat. Like he knows that if given the opportunity, if given a reason, I’ll do it again.”
She swallowed as he looked back out over the city below them. He looked like he wanted to say more but he just stared silently ahead, hands still curled around his mug. She only spoke when that statuesque stillness fell back over him because she could feel him sinking into himself. And that’s the last thing she wanted him to do.
“There’s more to it though, isn’t there?”
He nodded but didn’t say anything, just kept staring out at the city while she watched emotions flash across his profile too fast for her to make sense of. After several minutes of continued silence and stillness, just when she assumed he wasn’t going to answer, he downed the remainder of his Ysborogh spiked coffee before turning to face her fully, holding the mug down at his side. She met his gaze as evenly and as steadily as possible. Even though she wanted nothing more than to look away from the intensity of that gaze, even though she wanted nothing more than to run from the darkness that seeped seemingly from every pore on him. But it wasn’t a darkness like what followed Relyt. This was something different, something far worse because where Relyt’s darkness had a singlemindedness to it, Azriel’s didn’t.
“He knows that I let him live the last time,” Azriel answered finally as his gaze flicked back to the cityscape before settling back on her. “And he knows that if it happens again this time I’ll make sure it kills him.”
“Even if killing him would hurt you, even if it would hurt Rhys.” It wasn’t a question but he answered it regardless.
“Yes. Because sometimes love isn’t enough.”