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A Court of Silver Flames / (by Sarah J. Maas, 2021) -

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A Court of Silver Flames /    (by Sarah J. Maas, 2021) -

A Court of Silver Flames / (by Sarah J. Maas, 2021) -

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A Court of Silver Flames / (by Sarah J. Maas, 2021) -
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2021
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Sarah J. Maas
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Stina Nielsen
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upper-intermediate
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26:05:43
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64 kbps
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mp3, pdf, doc

A Court of Silver Flames / :

.doc (Word) sarah_j_maas_-_a_court_of_silver_flames.doc [1.8 Mb] (c: 19) .
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: A Court of Silver Flames

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The black water nipping at her thrashing heels was freezing. Not the bite of winter chill, or even the burn of solid ice, but something colder. Deeper. The cold of the gaps between stars, the cold of a world before light. The cold of helltrue hell, she realized as she bucked against the strong hands trying to shove her into that Cauldron. True hell, because that was Elain lying on the stone floor with the red-haired, one-eyed Fae male hovering over her. Because those were pointed ears poking through her sisters sodden gold-brown hair, and an immortal glow radiating from Elains fair skin. True hellworse than the inky depths mere inches from her toes. Put her under, the hard-faced Fae king ordered. And the sound of that voice, the voice of the male who had done this to Elain She knew she was going into the Cauldron. Knew she would lose this fight. Knew no one was coming to save her: not sobbing Feyre, not Feyres gagged former lover, not her devastated new mate. Not Cassian, broken and bleeding on the floor. The warrior was still trying to rise on trembling arms. To reach her. The King of Hybernhe had done this. To Elain. To Cassian. And to her. The icy water bit into the soles of her feet. It was a kiss of venom, a death so permanent that every inch of her roared in defiance. She was going inbut she would not go gently. The water gripped her ankles with phantom talons, tugging her down. She twisted, wrenching her arm free from the guard who held it. And Nesta Archeron pointed. One fingerat the King of Hybern. A death-promise. A target marked. Hands shoved her into the waters waiting claws. Nesta laughed at the fear that crept into the kings eyes just before the water devoured her whole. In the beginning And in the end There was Darkness And nothing more She did not feel the cold as she sank into a sea that had no bottom, no horizon, no surface. But she felt the burning. Immortality was not a serene youth. It was fire. It was molten ore poured into her veins, boiling her human blood until it was nothing but steam, forging her brittle bones until they were fresh steel. And when she opened her mouth to scream, when the pain ripped her very self in two, there was no sound. There was nothing in this place but darkness and agony and power They would pay. All of them. Starting with this Cauldron. Starting now. She tore into the darkness with talons and teeth. Rent and cleaved and shredded. And the dark eternity around her shuddered. Bucked. Thrashed. She laughed as it recoiled. Laughed around the mouthful of raw power she ripped out and swallowed whole; laughed at the fistfuls of eternity she shoved into her heart, her veins. The Cauldron struggled like a bird under a cats paw. She refused to relent. Everything it had stolen from her, from Elain, she would take from it. Wrapped in black eternity, Nesta and the Cauldron twined, burning through the darkness like a newborn star. PART ONE NOVICE CHAPTER 1 Cassian raised his fist to the green door in the dim hallwayand hesitated. Hed cut down more enemies than he cared to tally, had stood knee-deep in gore on countless battlefields and kept swinging, had made choices that cost him the lives of skilled warriors, had been a general and a grunt and an assassin, and yet here he was, lowering his fist. Balking. The building on the north side of the Sidra River was in need of new paint. And new floors, if the creaking boards beneath his boots as hed climbed the two flights had been any indication. But at least it was clean. Definitely grim by Velariss standards, but when the city itself had no slums, that wasnt saying much. Hed seen and stayed in far worse. Hed never understood, though, why Nesta insisted on dwelling here. He got why she wouldnt take up rooms in the House of Windit was too far from the city, and she couldnt fly or winnow in. Which meant dealing with the ten thousand steps up and down. But why live in this dump, when the town house was sitting empty? Since construction had finished on Feyre and Rhyss sprawling home on the river, the town house had been left open to any of their friends who needed or wanted it. He knew for a fact that Feyre had offered Nesta a room thereand had been rejected. He frowned at the doors peeling paint. No sounds trickled through the sizable gap between the door and the floor, wide enough for even the fattest of rats to meander through; no fresh scents lingered in the cramped hallway. Maybe hed get lucky and shed be outperhaps sleeping under the bar of whatever seedy tavern shed frequented last night. Though that might be worse, since hed need to track her down there instead. Cassian lifted his fist again, the red of his Siphon flickering in the ancient faelights tucked into the ceiling. Coward. Grow some damned balls. Cassian knocked once. Twice. Silence. Cassian almost sighed his relief aloud. Thank the fucking Mother Clipped, precise footsteps sounded from the other side of the door. Each more pissed off than the last. He tucked his wings in tight, squaring his shoulders as he braced his feet apart. A traditional fighting stance, beaten into him during his training years, now mere muscle memory. He didnt dare consider why the sound of those footsteps sent his body falling into it. The snap as she unlatched each of her four locks might as well have been the beating of a war-drum. Cassian ran through the list of things he was to say, how Feyre had suggested he say them. The door was yanked open, the knob twisting so hard Cassian wondered if she was imagining it as his neck. Nesta Archeron already wore a scowl. But there she was. She looked like hell. What do you want? She didnt open the door wider than a hands breadth. When had he last seen her? The end-of-summer party on that barge in the Sidra last month? She hadnt looked this bad. Though he supposed a night trying to drown oneself in wine and liquor never left anyone looking particularly good the next morning. Especially at Its seven in the morning, she went on, raking him over with that gray-blue stare that always kindled his temper. She wore a males shirt. Worse, she wore only a males shirt. Cassian propped a hand on the doorjamb and gave her a half grin he knew brought out her claws. Rough night? Rough year, really. Her beautiful face was pale, far thinner than it had been before the war with Hybern, her lips bloodless, and those eyes Cold and sharp, like a winter morning in the mountains. No joy, no laughter, in any plane of it. Of her. She made to shut the door on his hand. He shoved a booted foot into the gap before she could break his fingers. Her nostrils flared slightly. Feyre wants you at the house. Which one? Nesta said, frowning at the foot hed wedged in the door. She has five. He bit back his retort. This wasnt the battlefieldand he wasnt her opponent. His job was to transport her to the assigned spot. And then pray that the lovely home Feyre and Rhys had just moved into wouldnt be reduced to rubble. The new one. Why didnt my sister fetch me herself? He knew that suspicious gleam in her eye, the slight stiffening of her back. His own instincts surged to meet her defiance, to push and push and discover what might happen. Since Winter Solstice, theyd exchanged only a handful of words. Most had been at the barge party last month. Theyd consisted of: Move. Hello, Nes. Move. Gladly. After months and months of nothing, of barely seeing her at all, that had been it. He hadnt even understood why shed shown up to the party, especially when she knew shed be stuck on the water with them for hours. Amren likely deserved the credit for the rare appearance, due to whatever bit of sway the female held over Nesta. But by the end of that night, Nesta had been at the front of the line to get off the boat, arms tight around herself, and Amren had been brooding at the other end of it, nearly shaking with rage and disgust. No one had asked what had happened between them, not even Feyre. The boat had docked, and Nesta had practically run off, and no one had spoken to her since. Until today. Until this conversation, which felt like the longest theyd had since the battles against Hybern. Cassian said at last, Feyre is High Lady. Shes busy running the Night Court. Nesta cocked her head, gold-brown hair sliding over a bony shoulder. On anyone else, the movement would have been contemplative. On her, it was the warning of a predator, sizing up prey. And my sister, she said in that flat voice that refused to yield any sign of emotion, deemed my immediate presence necessary? She knew youd likely need to clean yourself up, and wanted to give you a head start. Youre expected at nine. He waited for the explosion as she did the math. Her eyes flared. Do I look like I need two hours to become presentable? He took the invitation to survey her: long bare legs, an elegant sweep of hips, tapered waisttoo damn thinand full, inviting breasts that were at odds with the new, sharp angles of her body. On any other female, those magnificent breasts might have been enough cause for him to begin courting her the moment he met her. But from the instant hed met Nesta, the cold fire in her eyes had been a temptation of a different sort. And now that she was High Fae, all inherent dominance and aggressionand piss-poor attitudehe avoided her as much as possible. Especially with what had happened during and after the war against Hybern. Shed made her feelings about him more than clear. Cassian said at last, You look like you could use a few big meals, a bath, and some real clothes. Nesta rolled her eyes, but fingered the hem of her shirt. Cassian added, Kick out the sorry bastard, get washed, and Ill bring you some tea. Her brows rose a fraction of an inch. He gave her a crooked smile. You think I cant hear that male in your bedroom, trying to quietly put on his clothes and sneak out the window? As if in answer, a muffled thud came from the bedroom. Nesta hissed. Ill be back in an hour to see how things are proceeding. Cassian put enough bite behind the words that his soldiers would know not to push himtheyd remember that he required seven Siphons to keep his magic under control for good reason. But Nesta did not fly in his legions, did not fight under his command, and certainly did not seem to recall that he was over five hundred years old and Dont bother. Ill be there on time. He pushed off the doorjamb, wings flaring slightly as he backed away a few steps. Thats not what I was asked to do. Im to see you from door to door. Her face tightened. Go perch on a chimney. He sketched a bow, not daring to take his eyes off her. Shed emerged from the Cauldron with gifts. Considerable giftsdark ones. But no one had seen nor felt any sign of them since that last battle with Hybern, since Amren had shattered the Cauldron and Feyre and Rhys had managed to heal it. Elain, too, had revealed no indication of her seers abilities since then. But if Nestas power remained, still capable of leveling battlefields Cassian knew better than to make himself vulnerable to another predator. Do you want your tea with milk or lemon? She slammed the door in his face. Then locked each of those four locks. Whistling to himself and wondering if that poor bastard inside the apartment would indeed flee out the windowmostly to escape herCassian strode down the dim hallway and went to find some food. Hed need the sustenance today. Especially once Nesta learned precisely why her sister had summoned her. Nesta Archeron didnt know the name of the male in her apartment. She ransacked her wine-soaked memory as she returned to the bedroom, dodging piles of books and lumps of clothing, recalling heated glances at the tavern, the wet, hot meeting of their mouths, the sweat coating her as she rode him until pleasure and drink sent her into blessed oblivion, but not his name. The male had already leaned out the window, with Cassian no doubt lurking on the street below to witness his spectacularly pathetic exit, when Nesta reached the dim, cramped bedroom. The brass-poster bed was rumpled, the sheets half-spilled on the creaky, uneven wood floor, and the cracked window banged against the wall on its loose hinges. The male twisted toward her. He was handsome, in the way most High Fae males were handsome. A bit thinner than she liked thempractically a boy compared to the towering mass of muscle that had just filled her doorway. He winced as she padded in, his expression turning pained as he noted what she wore. I Thats Nesta tugged off his shirt, leaving nothing but bare skin in its wake. His eyes widened, but the scent of his fear remainednot fear of her, but of the male hed heard at the front door. As he remembered who her sister was. Who her sisters mate was. Who her sisters friends were. As if any of that meant something. What would his fear smell like if he learned shed used him, slept with him, to keep herself at bay? To settle that writhing darkness that had simmered inside her from the moment shed emerged from the Cauldron? Sex, music, and drink, shed learned this past yearall of it helped. Not entirely, but it kept the power from boiling over. Even if she could still feel it streaming through her blood, coiled tight around her bones. She chucked the white shirt at him. You can use the front door now. He slung the shirt over his head. I Is he still His gaze kept snagging on her breasts, peaked against the chill morning; her bare skin. The apex of her thighs. Good-bye. Nesta entered the rusty, leaky bathroom attached to her bedroom. At least the place had hot running water. Sometimes. Feyre and Elain had tried to convince her to move. Shed always ignored their advice. Just as shed ignore whatever was said today. She knew Feyre planned a scolding. Perhaps something to do with the fact that Nesta had signed last nights outrageous tab at the tavern to her sisters bank account. Nesta snorted, twisting the handle in the bath. It groaned, the metal icy to the touch, and water sputtered, then sprayed into the cracked, stained tub. This was her residence. No servants, no eyes monitoring and judging every move, no company unless she invited them. Or unless prying, swaggering warriors made it their business to stop by. It took five minutes for the water to actually heat enough to start filling the tub. There had been some days in the past year when she hadnt even bothered to take the time. Some days when shed climbed into the icy water, not feeling its bite but that of the Cauldrons dark depths as it devoured her whole. As it ripped away her humanity, her mortality, and made her into this. It had taken her months of battling itthe body-tensing panic that made her very bones tremble to be submerged. But shed forced herself to face it down. Had learned to sit in the icy water, nauseated and shaking, teeth gritted; had refused to move until her body recognized that she was in a tub and not the Cauldron, that she was in her apartment and not the stone castle across the sea, that she was alive, immortal. Even though her father was not. No, her father was ashes in the wind, his existence marked only by a headstone on a hill outside this city. Or so her sisters had told her. I loved you from the first moment I held you in my arms, her father had said to her in those last moments together. Dont you lay your filthy hands on my daughter. Those had been his final words, spat at the King of Hybern. Her father had squandered those final words on that worm of a king. Her father. The man who had never fought for his children, not until the end. When he had come to save themto save the humans and the Fae, yes, but most of all, his daughters. Her. A grand, stupid waste. Unholy dark power flowed through her, and it had not been enough to stop the King of Hybern from snapping his neck. She had hated her father, hated him deeply, and yet he had loved her, for some inexplicable reason. Not enough to try to spare them from poverty or keep them from starving. But somehow it had been enough for him to raise an army on the continent. To sail a ship named for her into battle. She had still hated her father in those last moments. And then his neck had cracked, his eyes not full of fear as he died, but of that foolish love for her. That was what had lingeredthe look in his eyes. The resentment in her heart as he died for her. It had festered, gnawing at her like the power she buried deep, running rampant through her head until no icy baths could numb it away. She could have saved him. It was the King of Hyberns fault. She knew that. But it was hers, too. Just as it was her fault that Elain had been captured by the Cauldron after Nesta spied on it with that scrying, her fault that Hybern had done such terrible things to hunt her and her sister down like a deer. Some days, the sheer dread and panic locked Nestas body up so thoroughly that nothing could get her to breathe. Nothing could stop the awful power from beginning to rise, rise, rise in her. Nothing beyond the music at those taverns, the card games with strangers, the endless bottles of wine, and the sex that made her feel nothingbut offered a moment of release amid the roaring inside her. Nesta finished washing away the sweat and other remnants of last night. The sex hadnt been badshed had better, but also much worse. Even immortality wasnt enough time for some males to master the art of the bedroom. So shed taught herself what she liked. Shed obtained a monthly contraceptive tea from her local apothecary, and then shed brought that first male here. He had no idea that her maidenhead had been intact until hed spied the smeared blood on the sheets. His face had tightened with distastethen a glimmer of fear that she might report an unsatisfactory first bedding to her sister. To her sisters insufferable mate. Nesta hadnt bothered to tell him that she avoided both of them at all costs. Especially the latter. These days, Rhysand seemed content to do the same. After the war with Hybern, Rhysand had offered her jobs. Positions in his court. She didnt want them. They were pity offerings, thin attempts to get her to be a part of Feyres life, to be gainfully employed. But the High Lord had never liked her. Their conversations were coldly civil at best. Shed never told him that the reasons he hated her were the same reasons she lived here. Took cold baths some days. Forgot to eat on others. Couldnt stand the crack and snap of a fireplace. And drowned herself in wine and music and pleasure each night. Every damning thing Rhysand thought about her was trueand shed known it long before he had ever shadowed her doorstep. Any offering Rhysand threw her way was made solely out of love for Feyre. Better to spend her time the way she wished. They kept paying for it, after all. The knock on the door rattled the entire apartment. She glared toward the front room, debating whether to pretend shed left, but Cassian could hear her, smell her. And if he broke down the door, which he was likely to do, shed just have the headache of explaining it to her stingy landlord. So Nesta donned the dress shed left on the floor last night, and then again freed all four locks. Shed installed them the first day shed arrived. Locking them each night was practically a ritual. Even when the nameless male had been here, even out of her mind on wine, shed remembered to lock them all. As if that would keep the monsters of this world at bay. Nesta tugged open the door enough to see Cassians cocky grin, and left it ajar as she stormed away to search for her shoes. He strode in after her, a mug of tea in his handthe cup probably borrowed from the shop at the corner. Or outright given to him, considering how people tended to worship the ground his muddy boots walked on. Hed already been adored in this city before the Hybern conflict. His heroism and sacrificethe feats hed performed on the battlefieldshad won him even more awe after its end. She didnt blame his admirers. Shed experienced the pleasure and sheer terror of watching him on those battlefields. Still woke with sweat coating her at the memories: how she couldnt breathe while shed witnessed him fight, enemies swarming him; how it had felt when the Cauldrons power had surged and shed known it was going to strike where their army was strongesthim. She hadnt been able to save the one thousand Illyrians who had fallen in the moment after shed summoned him to safety. She turned away from that memory, too. Cassian surveyed her apartment and let out a low whistle. Ever thought of hiring a cleaner? Nesta scanned the small living areaa sagging crimson couch, a soot-stained brick hearth, a moth-eaten floral armchair, then the ancient kitchenette, piled with leaning columns of dirty dishes. Where had she thrown her shoes last night? She shifted her search to her bedroom. Some fresh air would be a good start, Cassian added from the other room. The window groaned as he cracked it open. She found her brown shoes in opposite corners of the bedroom. One reeked of spilled wine. Nesta perched on the edge of the mattress to slide them on, tugging at the laces. She didnt bother to look up as Cassians steady steps approached, then halted at the threshold. He sniffed once. Loudly. Id hoped you at least changed the sheets between visitors, but apparently that doesnt bother you. Nesta tied the laces on the first shoe. What business is it of yours? He shrugged, though the tightness on his face didnt reflect such nonchalance. If I can smell a few different males in here, then surely your companions can, too. Hasnt stopped them yet. She tied the other shoe, Cassians hazel eyes tracking the movement. Your tea is getting cold. His teeth flashed. Nesta ignored him and searched the bedroom again. Her coat Your coat is on the ground by the front door, he said. And its going to be brisk out, so bring a scarf. She ignored that, too, but breezed by him, careful to avoid touching him, and found her dark blue overcoat exactly where hed claimed it was. She opened the front door, pointing for him to leave first. Cassian held her gaze as he stalked for her, then reached out an arm And plucked the cerulean-and-cream scarf Elain had given her for her birthday this spring off the hook on the wall. He gripped it in his fist, dangling it like a strangled snake as he brushed past her. Something was eating at him. Usually, Cassian held out a bit longer before yielding to his temper. Perhaps it had to do with whatever Feyre wanted to say up at the house. Nestas gut twisted as she set each lock. She wasnt stupid. She knew there had been unrest since the war had ended, both in these lands and on the continent. Knew that without the barrier of the wall, some Fae territories were pushing the limits on what they could get away with in terms of border claims and how they treated humans. And she knew that those four human queens still squatted in their shared palace, their armies unused and intact. They were monsters, all of them. Theyd killed the golden-haired queen whod betrayed them and sold anotherVassato a sorcerer-lord. It seemed only fitting that the youngest of the four remaining queens had been transformed into a crone by the Cauldron. Made into a long-lived Fae, yes, but aged into a withered shell as punishment for the power Nesta had taken from the Cauldron. How shed ripped it apart while it had torn her mortal body into something new. That wizened queen blamed her. Had wanted to kill her, if Hyberns Ravens had been correct before Bryaxis and Rhysand had destroyed them for infiltrating the House of Winds library. There had been no whisper of that queen in the fourteen months since the war. But if some new threat had arisen The four locks seemed to laugh at her before Nesta followed Cassian out of the building and into the bustling city beyond. The riverfront house was actually an estate, and so new and clean and beautiful that Nesta remembered her shoes were covered in stale wine precisely as she strode through the towering marble archway and into the shining front hall, tastefully decorated in shades of ivory and sand. A mighty staircase bisected the enormous space, a chandelier of handblown glassmade by Velaris artisansdrooping from the carved ceiling above it. The faelights in each nest-shaped orb cast shimmering reflections on the polished pale wood floors, interrupted only by potted ferns, wood furniture also made in Velaris, and an outrageous array of art. She didnt bother to remark on any of it. Plush blue rugs broke up the pristine floors, a long runner flowing along the cavernous halls on either side, and one ran beneath the arch of the stairs, straight to a wall of windows on its other side, which looked out onto the sloping lawn and gleaming river at its feet. Cassian headed to the lefttoward the formal rooms for business, Feyre had informed Nesta during that first and only tour two months ago. Nesta had been half-drunk at the time, and had hated every second of it, each perfect room. Most males bought their wives and mates jewelry for an outrageous Winter Solstice present. Rhys had bought Feyre a palace. Nohed purchased the war-decimated land, and then given his mate free rein to design the residence of their dreams. And somehow, Nesta thought as she silently followed an unnaturally quiet Cassian down the hall toward one of the studies whose doors were cracked open, Feyre and Rhys had managed to make this place seem cozy, welcoming. A behemoth of a building, but still a home. Even the formal furniture seemed designed for comfort and lounging, for long conversations over hearty food. Every piece of art had been picked by Feyre herself, or painted by her, many of them portraits and depictions of themher friends, her new family. There were none of Nesta, naturally. Even their gods-damned father had a portrait on the wall along one side of the grand staircase: him and Elain, smiling and happy, as theyd been before the world went to shit. Sitting on a stone bench amid bushes bursting with pink and blue hydrangea. The formal gardens of their first home, that lovely manor near the sea. Nesta and their mother were nowhere in sight. That was how it had been, after all: Elain and Feyre doted on by their father. Nesta prized and trained by their mother. During that first tour, Nesta had noted the lack of herself here. The lack of their mother. She said nothing, of course, but it was a pointed absence. It was enough to now set her teeth on edge, to make her grab the invisible, internal leash that kept the horrible power within her at bay and pull tight, as Cassian slipped into the study and said to whoever awaited them, Shes here. Nesta braced herself, but Feyre merely chuckled. Youre five minutes early. Im impressed. Seems like a good omen for gambling. We should head to Ritas, Cassian drawled just as Nesta stepped into the wood-paneled room. The study opened into a lush garden courtyard. The space was warm and rich, and she might have admitted she liked the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, the sapphire velvet furniture before the black marble hearth, had she not seen who was sitting inside. Feyre perched on the rolled arm of the couch, clad in a heavy white sweater and dark leggings. Rhys, in his usual black, leaned against the mantel, arms crossed. No wings today. And Amren, in her preferred gray, sat cross-legged in the leather armchair by the roaring hearth, those muted silver eyes sweeping over Nesta with distaste. So much had changed between her and the female. Nesta had seen to thatthe destruction. She didnt let herself think about that argument at the end-of-summer party on the river barge. Or the silence between herself and Amren since then. No more visits to Amrens apartment. No more chats over jigsaw puzzles. Certainly no more lessons in magic. Shed made sure of that last part, too. Feyre, at least, smiled at her. I heard you had quite the night. Nesta glanced between where Cassian had claimed the armchair across from Amren, the empty spot on the couch beside Feyre, and where Rhys stood by the hearth. She kept her spine straight, her chin high, hating that they all eyed her as she opted to sit on the couch beside her sister. Hating that Rhys and Amren noted her filthy shoes, and probably still smelled that male on her despite the bath. You look atrocious, Amren said. Nesta wasnt stupid enough to glare at the whatever Amren was. She was High Fae now, yes, but shed once been something different. Not of this world. Her tongue was still sharp enough to wound. Like Nesta, Amren did not possess court-specific magic related to the High Fae. It didnt make her influence in this court any less mighty. Nestas own High Fae powers had never materializedshe had only what shed taken from the Cauldron, rather than letting it deign to gift her with power, as it had with Elain. She had no idea what shed ripped from the Cauldron while it had stolen her humanity from herbut she knew they were things she did not and would never wish to understand, to master. The very thought had her stomach churning. Though I bet its hard to look good, Amren went on, when youre out until the darkest hours of the night, drinking yourself stupid and fucking anything that comes your way. Feyre whipped her head to the High Lords Second. Rhys seemed inclined to agree with Amren. Cassian kept his mouth shut. Nesta said smoothly, I wasnt aware that my activities were under your jurisdiction. Cassian loosed a murmur that sounded like a warning. To which one of them, she didnt know. Or care. Amrens eyes glowed, a remnant of the power that had once burned inside her. All that was left now. Nesta knew her own power could shine like that, toobut while Amrens had revealed itself to be light and heat, Nesta knew that her silver flame came from a colder, darker place. A place that was oldand yet wholly new. Amren challenged, They are when you spend that much of our gold on wine. Perhaps she had pushed them too far with last nights tab. Nesta looked to Feyre, who winced. So you really did make me come all the way here for a scolding? Feyres eyesmirror images of her ownsoftened slightly. No, its not a scolding. She cut a sharp glance at Rhys, still icily silent against the mantel, and then to Amren, seething in her chair. Think of this as a discussion. Nesta shot to her feet. My life is not your concern, or up for any sort of discussion. Sit down, Rhys snarled. The raw command in that voice, the utter dominance and power Nesta froze, fighting it, hating that Fae part of her that bowed to such things. Cassian leaned forward in his chair, as if hed leap between them. She could have sworn something like pain had etched itself across his face. But Nesta held Rhysands gaze. Threw every ounce of defiance she could into it, even as his order made her knees want to bend, to sit. Rhys said, You are going to stay. You are going to listen. She let out a low laugh. Youre not my High Lord. You dont give me orders. But she knew how powerful he was. Had seen it, felt it. Still trembled to be near him. Rhys scented that fear. One side of his mouth curled up in a cruel smile. You want to go head-to-head, Nesta Archeron? he purred. The High Lord of the Night Court gestured to the sloping lawn beyond the windows. Weve got plenty of space out there for a brawl. Nesta bared her teeth, silently roaring at her body to obey her orders. Shed sooner die than bow to him. To any of them. Rhyss smile grew, well aware of that fact. Thats enough, Feyre snapped at Rhys. I told you to keep out of it. He dragged his star-flecked eyes to his mate, and it was all Nesta could do to keep from collapsing onto the couch as her knees gave out at last. Feyre angled her head, nostrils flaring, and said to Rhysand, You can either leave, or you can stay and keep your mouth shut. Rhys again crossed his arms, but said nothing. You too, Feyre spat to Amren. The female harrumphed and nestled into her chair. Nesta didnt bother to look pleasant as Feyre twisted to face her, taking a proper seat on the couch, the velvet cushions sighing beneath her. Her sister swallowed. We need to make some changes, Nesta, Feyre said hoarsely. You doand we do. Where the hell was Elain? Ill take the blame, Feyre went on, for allowing things to get this far, and this bad. After the war with Hybern, with everything else that was going on, it You I should have been there to help you, but I wasnt, and I am ready to admit that this is partially my fault. That what is your fault? Nesta hissed. You, Cassian said. This bullshit behavior. Hed said that at the Winter Solstice. And just as it had then, her spine locked at the insult, the arrogance Look, Cassian went on, holding up his hands, its not some moral failing, but I understand how youre feeling, Feyre cut in. You know nothing about how Im feeling. Feyre plowed ahead. Its time for some changes. Starting now. Keep your self-righteous do-gooder nonsense out of my life. You dont have a life, Feyre retorted. And Im not going to sit by for another moment and watch you destroy yourself. She put a tattooed hand on her heart, like it meant something. I decided after the war to give you time, but it seems that was wrong. I was wrong. Oh? The word was a dagger thrown between them. Rhys tensed at the sneer, but still said nothing. Youre done, Feyre breathed, voice shaking. This behavior, that apartment, all of ityou are done, Nesta. And where, Nesta said, her tone mercifully icy, am I supposed to go? Feyre looked to Cassian. For once, Cassian wasnt grinning. Youre coming with me, he said. To train. CHAPTER 2 Cassian felt as if hed loosed an arrow at a sleeping firedrake. Nesta, bundled in that worn blue coat, with her stained shoes and her wrinkled gray dress, looked him over and demanded, What? As of this meeting, Feyre clarified, youre moving into the House of Wind. She nodded eastward, toward the palace carved into the mountains at the far end of the city. Rhys and I have decided that each morning, you will train with Cassian in Windhaven, in the Illyrian Mountains. After lunch, for the rest of the afternoon, you will be assigned work in the library beneath the House of Wind. But the apartment, the seedy tavernsall of that is over, Nesta. Nestas fingers curled into fists in her lap. But she said nothing. He should have positioned himself beside her, instead of allowing his High Lady to sit on that couch within arms reach of her. No matter that Feyre already had a shield around herself courtesy of Rhysit had been there at breakfast, too. Part of my ongoing training, Feyre had muttered when Cassian asked about the ironclad defenses, so strong they even masked her scent. Rhys is having Helion teach him about truly impenetrable shields, so of course I have the pleasure of being the test subject. Im supposed to try to break this one to see if Rhys is following Helions instructions correctly. Its a new kind of insanity. But one that had proved fortuitous. Even if they didnt know what Nestas power could do against ordinary magic. Rhys seemed to be thinking the same thing, and Cassian poised himself to jump between the two sisters. His Siphons flared in warning as Rhyss power rumbled. Cassian had no doubt Feyre could defend herself against most opponents, but Nesta He wasnt entirely sure Feyre would hit back, even if Nesta launched that terrible power at her. And he hated that he didnt know if Nesta would sink low enough to do it. That things had become so bad that he even considered the possibility. Im not moving to the House of Wind, Nesta said. And Im not training at that miserable village. Certainly not with him. She threw him a look that was nothing short of venomous. Its not up for negotiation, Amren said, breaking her vow to keep out of the discussion as much as possible for the second time in so many minutes. The eldest of the Archeron sisters had a talent for getting under everyones skin. Yet Nesta and Amren had always shared a bondan understanding. Until their fight on the barge. Like hell it isnt, Nesta challenged, but didnt attempt to stand as Rhyss eyes flickered with cold warning. Your apartment is being packed as we speak, Amren said, picking at a speck of lint on her silk blouse. By the time you return, it will be empty. Your clothes are already being sent to the House, though I doubt they will be suitable for training at Windhaven. A pointed glance at Nestas gray dress, baggier on her than it had once been. Did Nesta notice the faint glimmer of worry in Amrens smoky eyesunderstand how rare it was? More than that, did Nesta understand that this meeting wasnt to condemn her, but instead came from a place of concern? Her simmering stare told him she considered this purely an attack. You cant do this, Nesta said. Im not a member of this court. You seem to have no qualms about spending this courts money, Amren countered. During the war with Hybern, you accepted the position as our human emissary. You never resigned from the role, so formal law still considers you an official member of this court. A wave of her small fingers and a book floated toward Nesta before thumping onto the cushions beside her. That was about the extent of the magic Amren now possessedordinary, unremarkable High Fae magic. Page two hundred thirty-six, if you want to check. Amren had combed through their laws for this? Cassian didnt even know such a rule existedhed accepted the position Rhys had offered him without question, not caring what he was agreeing to, only that he and Rhys and Azriel would be together. That theyd have a home that no one could ever take from them. Until Amarantha. Hed never stop being grateful for it: for the High Lady mere feet from him, who had saved them all from Amaranthas rule, who had returned his brother to him and then brought Rhys out of the darkness that lingered. So here are your options, girl, Amren said, delicate chin rising. Cassian didnt miss the look between Feyre and Rhys: the utter agony in his High Ladys face at the ultimatum he knew was to be presented to Nesta, and the half-restrained rage in Rhyss that his mate was in such pain because of it. Hed already seen that exchanged look once todayhad hoped he wouldnt see it again. Cassian had been eating an early breakfast with them this morning when Rhys had gotten the bill for Nestas night out. When Rhys had read each item aloud. Bottles of rare wine, exotic foods, gambling debts Feyre had stared at her plate until silent tears dripped into her scrambled eggs. Cassian knew thered been previous conversationsfightsabout Nesta. About whether to give her time to heal herself, as theyd all believed would happen at first, or to step in. But as Feyre wept at the table, he knew it was a breaking of some sort. An acceptance of a hope failed. It had required all of Cassians training, every horror hed endured on and off the battlefield, to keep that same crushing sorrow from his own face. Rhys had laid a comforting hand on Feyres, squeezing gently before he looked at Azriel, and then Cassian, and laid out his plan. As if hed had it waiting a long, long while. Elain had walked in halfway through. Shed been toiling in the estate gardens since dawn, and had been solemn as Rhys filled her in. Feyre had been unable to say a word. But Elains gaze remained steady as she listened to Rhys. Then Rhys summoned Amren from her attic apartment across the river. Feyre had insisted that the order come through Amren, not Rhys, to preserve any sort of familial bond between Rhys and her sister. Cassian didnt think there was one to begin with, but Rhys had agreed, moving to kneel at Feyres side, wiping away the remnants of her tears, kissing her temple. Theyd all left the table then, giving their High Lord and Lady privacy. Cassian took to the skies moments later, letting the roaring wind drown out every thought in his head, letting its briskness cool his pounding heart. This meeting, what was to comenone of it would be easy. Amren, theyd agreed, had always been one of the few people who could get through to Nesta. Whom Nesta seemed to fear, if only slightly. Who understood, somehow, what Nesta was, deep down. Shed been the only one Nesta had truly spoken to after the war. It didnt seem like a coincidence that in the past month, since theyd argued on that boat, Nestas behavior had deteriorated further. That she now looked like this. One, Amren said, raising a slender finger, you can move up to the House of Wind, train with Cassian in the mornings, and work in the library in the afternoons. You will not be a prisoner. But there will be no one to fly or winnow you down to the city. If you want to venture into the city proper, by all means, go ahead. That is, if you can brave the ten thousand steps down from the House. Amrens eyes glittered with the challenge. And if you can somehow find two coppers to rub together to buy yourself a drink. But if you follow this plan, we will reevaluate where and how you live in a few months. And my other option? Nesta spat. Mother above, this womanfemale. She was no longer human. Cassian could think of very, very few people who would defy Amren and Rhys. Certainly not in the same room. Certainly not with such venom. You go back to the human lands. Amren had suggested a few days in a dungeon in the Hewn City, but Feyre had simply said that the human world would be more than enough of a prison for someone like Nesta. Someone like Feyre, too. And Elain. All three sisters were now High Fae with considerable powers, though only Feyres were let loose. Even Amren had no idea whether Elains and Nestas powers remained. The Cauldron had granted them unique powers, different from other High Fae: the gift of sight to the former, and the gift of Cassian didnt know what to call Nestas gift. Didnt know whether it was a gift at allor something she had taken. The silver fire, that sense of death looming, the raw power hed witnessed as it blasted into the King of Hybern. Whatever it was, it existed beyond the usual array of High Fae gifts. The human world was behind them. They could never return. Even though all three of them were war heroes, each in their own right, the humans wouldnt care. Would stay far, far away, if they werent provoked to violence. So, yes: Nesta might technically be able to return to the human lands, but she would find no companionship there, no warm welcome or town that would accept her. Wherever she was able to find a place to live, she would be essentially housebound, confined to the grounds of her home for fear of human prejudices. Nesta turned to Feyre, lips pulling back from her teeth. And these are my only options? I Feyre caught herself before she could say the restIm sorryand squared her shoulders. Became the High Lady of the Night Court, even without her black crown, even in Rhyss old sweater. Yes. You have no right. I Nesta erupted. You dragged me into this mess, this horrible place. You are why I am like this, why I am stuck here Feyre flinched. Rhyss rage became palpable, a pulse of night-kissed power that tightened Cassians gut, every warriors instinct beaten into him coming to attention. Thats enough, Feyre breathed. Nesta blinked. Feyre swallowed, but didnt balk. That is enough. Youre moving up to the House, youre going to train and work, and I dont care what vitriol you spew my way. Youre doing it. Elain needs to be able to see me Elain agreed to this hours ago. Shes currently packing your things. Theyll be waiting for you when you arrive. Nesta recoiled. Feyre didnt relent. Elain knows how to contact you. If she wishes to visit you at the House of Wind, she is free to do so. One of us will gladly take her up there. The words hung between them, so heavy and awkward that Cassian said, I promise not to bite. Nestas upper lip curled back as she faced him. I suppose this was your idea It was, he lied with a grin. Were going to have a wonderful time together. Theyd likely kill each other. I want to speak to my sister. Alone, Nesta ordered. Cassian glanced at Rhys, who leveled an assessing stare at Nesta. Cassian had been on the receiving end of that same stare a few times over the centuries and did not envy Nesta one bit. But the High Lord of the Night Court nodded. Well be in the hall. Cassians fist tightened at the implied insult that they didnt trust her enough to go farther than that, despite the shield on Feyre. Even if the rational, warrior-minded part of him agreed. Nestas eyes flared, and he knew shed understood it, too. From the way Feyres jaw tightened, he suspected she wasnt pleased at the subtle jabit wouldnt help convince Nesta that they were doing this to help her. Rhys would be getting the verbal beating he deserved later. Cassian waited until Rhys and Amren rose before following them out. True to his word, Rhys walked three steps down the hall, away from the wood doors spelled against eavesdroppers, and leaned against the wall. Doing the same, Cassian said to Amren, I didnt even know we had laws like that about court membership. We dont. Amren picked at her red-painted nails. He swore under his breath. Rhys smiled wryly. But Cassian frowned toward the shut double doors and prayed Nesta didnt do anything stupid. Nesta held her spine ramrod straight, back aching with the effort. She had never hated anyone so much as she hated all of them now. Save for the King of Hybern, she supposed. Theyd all been discussing her, deeming her unfit and unchecked, and You didnt care before, Nesta said. Why now? Feyre toyed with her silver-and-star-sapphire wedding ring. I told you: it wasnt that I didnt care. Weeveryone, I meanhad multiple conversations about this. About you. We I decided that giving you time and space would be best. And what did Elain have to say about it? Part of her didnt want to know. Feyres mouth tightened. This isnt about Elain. And last I checked, you barely saw her, either. Nesta hadnt realized they were paying such close attention. Shed never explained to Feyrehad never found the words to explainwhy shed put such distance between them all. Elain had been stolen by the Cauldron and saved by Azriel and Feyre. Yet the terror still gripped Nesta, waking and asleep: the memory of how it had felt in those moments after hearing the Cauldrons seductive call and realizing it had been for Elain, not for her or Feyre. How it had felt to find Elains tent empty, to see that blue cloak discarded. Things had only gotten worse from there. You have your lives, and I have mine, shed said to Elain last Winter Solstice. Shed known how deeply it would wound her sister. But she couldnt bear itthe bone-deep horror that lingered. The flashes of that discarded cloak or the Cauldrons chill waters or Cassian crawling toward her or her fathers neck snapping Feyre said carefully, For what its worth, I was hoping youd turn yourself around. I wanted to give you space to do it, since you seem to lash out at everyone who comes close enough, but you didnt even try. Perhaps you can find it in yourself to try a little harder this year. Cassians words from nine months ago still rang fresh in Nestas mind, uttered on an ice-slick street blocks from here. Try? It was all she could think to say. I know thats a foreign word to you. Then her rage had ruptured from her. Why should I have to try to do anything? I was dragged into this world of yours, this court. Then go somewhere else. Shed swallowed her own response: I have nowhere to go. It was the truth. She had no desire to return to the human realm. Had never felt at home there, not really. And this strange, new Fae world She might have accepted her different, altered body, that she was now permanently changed and her humanity gone, but she didnt know where she belonged in this world, either. The thought was one she tried to drown in liquor and music and cards, as often as she used those things to quell that writhing power deep inside. Feyre continued, All you have done is help yourself to our money. Your mates money. Another flash of hurt. Nestas blood sang at the direct blow. Thank you so much for taking time out of your homemaking and shopping to remember me. I built a room in this house for you. I asked you to help me decorate it. You told me to piss off. Why would I ever want to stay in this house? Where she could see precisely how happy they were, where none of them seemed remotely as decimated as shed been by the war. Shed come so close to being a part of itof that circle. Had held their hands as theyd stood together on the morning of the final battle and believed they might all make it. Then shed learned precisely how mercilessly it might be ripped away. What the cost of hope and joy and love truly was. She never wanted to face it again. Never wanted to endure what shed felt in that forest clearing, with the King of Hybern chuckling, blood everywhere. Her power hadnt been enough to save them that day. She supposed shed been punishing it for failing her ever since, keeping it locked up tight inside her. Feyre said, Because youre my sister. Yes, and youre always sacrificing for us, your sad little human family You spent five hundred gold marks last night! Feyre exploded, shooting to her feet to pace in front of the hearth. Do you know how much money that is? Do you know how embarrassed I was when we got the bill this morning and my friendsmy familyhad to hear all about it? Nesta hated that word. The term Feyre used to describe her court. As if things had been so miserable with the Archeron family that Feyre had needed to find another one. Had chosen her own. Nestas nails bit into her palms, the pain overriding that of her tightening chest. Feyre went on, And to hear not just the amount of the bill, but what you spent it on Oh, so its about you saving face It is about how it reflects upon me, upon Rhys, and upon my court when my damned sister spends our money on wine and gambling and does nothing to contribute to this city! If my sister cannot be controlled, then why should we have the right to rule over anyone else? I am not a thing to be controlled by you, Nesta said icily. Everything in her life, from the moment she was born, had been controlled by other people. Things happened to her; anytime she tried to exert control, shed been thwarted at every turnand she hated that even more than the King of Hybern. Thats why youre going to train at Windhaven. You will learn to control yourself. I wont go. Youre going, even if you have to be tied up and hauled there. You will follow Cassians lessons, and you will do whatever work Clotho requires in the library. Nesta blocked out the memoryof the dark depths of that library, the ancient monster that had dwelled there. It had saved them from Hyberns cronies, yes, but She refused to think of it. You will respect her, and the other priestesses in the library, Feyre said, and you will never give them a moments trouble. Any free time is yours to spend as you wish. In the House. Hot rage pumped through her, so loud Nesta could barely hear the real fire before which her sister paced. Was glad of the roaring in her head when the sound of wood cracking as it burned was so much like her fathers breaking neck that she couldnt stand to light a fire in her own home. You had no right to close up my apartment, to take my things What things? A few clothes and some rotten food. Nesta didnt have the chance to wonder how Feyre knew that. Not as her sister said, Im having that entire building condemned. You wouldnt dare. Its done. Rhys already visited the landlord. It will be torn down and rebuilt as a shelter for families still displaced by the war. Nesta tried to master her uneven breathing. One of the few choices shed made for herself, stripped away. Feyre didnt seem to care. Feyre had always been her own master. Always got whatever she wished. And now, it seemed, Feyre would be granted this wish, too. Nesta seethed, I never want to speak to you again. Thats fine. You can talk to Cassian and the priestesses instead. There was no insulting her way out of it. I wont be your prisoner No. You can go wherever you wish. As Amren said, you are free to leave the House. If you can manage those ten thousand steps. Feyres eyes blazed. But Im done paying for you to destroy yourself. Destroy herself. The silence hummed in Nestas ears, rippled across her flames, suffocating them, stilling the unbearable wrath. Utter, frozen silence. Shed learned to live with the silence that had started the moment her father had died, the silence that had begun crushing her when shed gone to his study at their half-wrecked manor days later and found one of his pathetic little wood carvings. Shed wanted to scream and scream, but there had been so many people around. Shed held herself together until the meeting with all those war heroes had ended. Then shed let herself fall. Straight into this silent pit. The others are waiting, Feyre said. Elain should be done by now. I want to talk to her. Shell come visit when shes ready. Nesta held her sisters stare. Feyres eyes gleamed. You think I dont know why youve pushed even Elain away? Nesta didnt want to talk about it. About the fact that it had always been her and Elain. And, somehow, now it had become Feyre and Elain instead. Elain had chosen Feyre and these people, and left her behind. Amren had done the same. Shed made it clear on the barge. Nesta didnt care that during the war with Hybern, her own tentative bond had formed with Feyre, forged over common goals: protect Elain, save the human lands. They were excuses, Nesta had realized, to paper over what now boiled and raged in her heart. Nesta didnt bother replying, and Feyre didnt speak again as she departed. There was nothing to bind them together anymore. CHAPTER 3 Cassian watched Rhysand carefully stir his tea. Hed seen Rhys slice up their enemies with the same cold precision that he was now using with that spoon. They sat in the High Lords study, illuminated by the light of green glass lamps and a heavy iron chandelier. The two-level atrium occupied the northern end of the business wing, as Feyre called it. There was the main floor of the studybedecked in the hand-knotted blue carpets that Feyre had gone to Cesere to select from its artisanswith its two sitting areas, Rhyss desk, and twin long tables near the bookshelves. At the far end of the room, a little dais led into a broad raised alcove flanked by more booksand in its center, a massive, working model of their world, the stars and planets around it, and some other fancy things that had been explained to Cassian once before he deemed them boring and proceeded to ignore them completely. Az, of course, had been fascinated. Rhys had built the model himself centuries ago. It could not only track the sun, but also tell time, and it somehow allowed Rhys to ponder the existence of life beyond their own world and other things Cassian had, again, instantly forgotten. On the mezzanine, accessible by an ornate wrought-iron spiral staircase just to the left when one walked in, were more booksthousands in this space alonea few glass cabinets full of delicate objects that Cassian stayed away from (for fear of breaking them with his bear paws, as Mor described his hands), and several of Feyres paintings. There were plenty of those on the bottom level, too, some in shadow and meant to stay that way, some revealed by the streaming light reflecting off the river at the foot of the sloping lawn. Cassians High Lady had a way of capturing the world that always made him pause. Her paintings sometimes unsettled him. The truths she portrayed werent always pleasant ones. Hed gone to her studio a few times to watch her paint. Surprisingly, she had let him. The first time hed visited, hed found Feyre tense at her easel. She was painting what he realized was an emaciated rib cage, so thin he could count most of the bones. When he spotted a familiar birthmark on the too-thin left arm beside it, he eyed the same mark amid the tattoo on her own extended arm, brush in hand. He merely nodded to her, an acknowledgment that he understood. He had never been as thin as Feyre during his own years of poverty, but he understood the hunger in each brushstroke. The desperation. The hollow, empty feeling that felt like those grays and blues and pale, sickly white. The despair of the black pit behind that torso and arm. Death, hovering close like a crow awaiting carrion. Hed thought about that painting a great deal in the days afterwardhow it had made him feel, how close theyd all come to losing their High Lady before theyd ever met her. Rhys finished stirring his tea and set down his spoon with terrible gentleness. Cassian raised his eyes to the portrait behind his High Lords mammoth desk. The golden faelight orbs in the room were positioned to make it seem alive, glowing. Feyres facea self-portraitseemed to laugh at him. At the mate whose back was to her. So she could watch over him, Rhys said. Cassian prayed that the gods were watching over him as Rhys sipped from his tea and said, Youre ready? He leaned back in his seat. Ive gotten young warriors in line before. Rhyss violet eyes glowed. Nestas not some young buck pushing the boundaries. I can handle her. Rhys stared at his tea. Cassian recognized that face. That serious, unnervingly calm face. You did good work getting the Illyrians back in order this spring, you know. He braced himself. Hed been anticipating this talk since hed spent four months with the Illyrians, soothing the jagged edges amongst the war-bands, making sure the families whod lost fathers and sons and brothers and husbands were taken care of, that they knew he was there to help and to listen, and generally making it very fucking clear that if they rose up against Rhys, there would be hell to pay. The Blood Rite last spring had taken care of the worst of them, including the troublemaker Kallon, whose arrogance hadnt been enough to compensate for his shoddy training when hed been slain just miles from the slopes of Ramiel. That Cassian had heaved a sigh of relief at the news of the young males demise had lingered with him, but the Illyrians had stopped their grumbling soon after. And Cassian had spent the time since then rebuilding their ranks, overseeing the training of promising new warriors and making sure the seasoned ones were still in good enough shape to fight again. Replenishing their depleted numbers had at least given the Illyrians something to focus onand Cassian knew there was little he could add anymore beyond the occasional inspection and council meeting. So the Illyrians were at peaceor as peaceful as a warrior society could be, with their constant training. Which was what Rhys wanted. Not just because a rebellion would be a disaster, but because of this. What he knew Rhys was about to say. I think its time for you to take on bigger responsibilities. Cassian grimaced. There it was. Rhys chuckled. You cant honestly mean to tell me you didnt know the Illyrian situation was a test? Id hoped not, he grumbled, tucking in his wings. Rhys smirked, though he quickly sobered. Nesta is not a test, though. Shes different. I know. Even before shed been Made, hed seen it. And after that terrible day in Hybern Hed never forgotten the Bone Carvers whispered words in the Prison. What if I tell you what the rock and darkness and sea beyond whispered to me, Lord of Bloodshed? How they shuddered in fear, on that island across the sea. How they trembled when she emerged. She took somethingsomething precious. She ripped it out with her teeth. What did you wake that day in Hybern, Prince of Bastards? That final question had chased him from slumber more nights than he cared to admit. Cassian made himself say, We havent seen a hint of her power since the war. For all we know, it vanished with the Cauldrons breaking. Or maybe its dormant, as the Cauldron is now asleep and safely hidden in Cretea with Drakon and Miryam. Her power could rise at any moment. A chill skittered down Cassians spine. He trusted the Seraphim prince and the half-human woman to keep the Cauldron concealed, but there would be nothing they or anyone could do to control its power if awoken. Rhys said, Be on your guard. You sound like youre afraid of her. I am. Cassian blinked. Rhys lifted a brow. Why do you think I sent you to get her this morning? Cassian shook his head, unable to help his laugh. Rhys smiled, lacing his fingers behind his head and leaning back in his seat. You need to get out in the practice ring more, brother, Cassian told him, surveying his friends powerful body. Dont want that mate of yours to find any soft bits. She never finds any soft bits when Im around her, Rhys said, and Cassian laughed again. Is Feyre going to kick your ass for what you said earlier? I already told the servants to clear out for the rest of the day as soon as you take Nesta up to the House. I think the servants hear you fighting plenty. Indeed, Feyre had no hesitation when it came to telling Rhys that hed stepped out of line. Rhys threw him a wicked smile. Its not the fighting I dont want them hearing. Cassian grinned right back, even as something like jealousy tugged on his gut. He didnt begrudge them their happinessnot at all. There were plenty of times when hed see the joy on Rhyss face and have to walk away to keep from weeping, because his brother had waited for that love, earned it. Rhys had gone to the mat again and again to fight for that future with Feyre. For this. But sometimes, Cassian saw that mating ring, and the portrait behind the desk, and this house, and just wanted. The clock chimed ten thirty, and Cassian rose. Enjoy your not-fighting. Cassian. The tone stopped him. Rhyss face was carefully calm. You didnt ask what bigger responsibilities I have in mind for you. I assumed Nesta was big enough, he hedged. Rhys gave him a knowing look. You could be more. Im your general. Isnt that enough? Is it enough for you? Yes, he almost said. But found himself hesitating. Oh, youre certainly hesitating, Rhys said. Cassian tried to snap up his mental shields, but found they were intact. Rhys was smiling like a cat. You still reveal everything on that face of yours, brother, Rhys crooned. But his amusement swiftly faded. Az and I have good reason to believe that the human queens are scheming again. I need you to look into it. Deal with it. What, were doing some role reversal? Az gets to lead the Illyrians now? Dont play stupid, Rhys said coolly. Cassian rolled his eyes. But they both knew Azriel would sooner disband and destroy Illyria than help it. Convincing their brother that the Illyrians were a people worth saving was still a battle amongst the three of them. Rhys went on, Azriel is juggling more than hell admit right now. Im not dumping another responsibility on him. This task of yours will help him. Rhys flashed a challenging smile. And let us all see what youre really made of. You want me to play spy? There are other ways to glean information, Cass, besides peeking through keyholes. Az isnt a courtier. He works from the shadows. But I need someoneI need youstanding in the open. Mor can fill you in on the details. Shell be back from Vallahan at some point today. Im no courtier, either. You know that. The thought made his stomach churn. Scared? Cassian let the Siphons atop the backs of his hands shimmer with inner fire. So Im to deal with these queens as well as train Nesta? Rhys leaned back, his silence confirmation. Cassian strode toward the shut double doors, reining in a string of curses. Were in for a long few months, then. He was almost to the door when Rhys said quietly, You certainly are. Did you keep those fighting leathers from the war? Cassian said to Nesta by way of greeting as he stalked into the entry hall. Youll need them tomorrow. I made sure Elain packed them for her, Feyre replied from her perch on the stairs, not looking at her stiff-backed sister standing at their base. He wondered if his High Lady had noticed the disappearing servants yet. The secret smile in Feyres eyes told him she knew plenty about it. And what was coming for her in a few minutes. Thank the gods he was getting out of here. Hed probably have to fly to the sea itself not to hear Rhys. Or feel his power when he Cassian stopped himself before he could finish the thought. He and his brothers had put a good deal of distance between the stupid youths theyd beenfucking any female who showed interest, often in the same room as each otherand the males they were now. He wanted to keep it that way. Nesta just crossed her arms. Are you winnowing us up to the House? he asked Feyre. As if in answer, Mor said from behind him, I am. She winked at Feyre. Shes got a special meeting with Rhysie. Cassian grinned as Mor strode in from the residential wing. I thought you wouldnt be back until later today. He threw open his arms, folding her against his chest and squeezing tight. Mors waist-length golden hair smelled of cold seas. She squeezed him back. I didnt feel like waiting until the afternoon. Vallahan is already knee-deep in snow. I needed some sunshine. Cassian pulled away to scan her beautiful face, as familiar to him as his own. Her brown eyes were shadowed despite her words. Whats wrong? Feyre rose from her seat, noting the strain as well. Nothing, Mor said, flipping her hair over a shoulder. Liar. Ill tell you all later, Mor conceded, and looked toward Nesta. You should wear the leathers tomorrow. When you train up at Windhaven, youll want them against the cold. Nesta leveled a bored, icy look at Mor. Mor just beamed at her in return. Feyre took that as a good moment to casually step between them, Rhyss shield still hard as steel around her. Never mind that theyd all be real damn close in about a minute. Today well let you get settled at the Houseyou can unpack your things. Get some rest, if you want. Nesta said nothing. Cassian dragged a hand through his hair. Cauldron spare them. Rhys expected him to play politics when he couldnt even navigate this? Mor smirked, as if reading the thought on his face. Congratulations on your promotion. She shook her head. Cassian the courtier. I never thought Id see the day. Feyre snickered. But Nestas eyes slid to him, surprised and wary. He said to her, if only to beat her to it, Still a bastard-born nobody, dont worry. Nestas lips thinned. Feyre said carefully to Nesta, Well talk soon. Nesta again didnt reply. It seemed she had stopped speaking to Feyre at all. But at least she was going willingly. Semi-willingly. Shall we? Mor said, offering up either elbow. Nesta gazed at the floor, her face pale and gaunt, eyes blazing. Feyre met his stare. The look alone conveyed everything she was begging of him. Nesta stepped past her, grabbed Mors forearm, and watched a spot on the wall. Mor cringed at him, but Cassian didnt dare share the look. Nesta might not be gazing at them, but he knew she saw and heard and assessed everything. So he merely took Mors other arm and winked at Feyre before they all vanished into wind and darkness. Mor winnowed them into the sky right above the House of Wind. Before the stomach-dropping plunge could register, Nesta was in Cassians arms, his wings spread, as he flew toward the stone veranda. It had been a long while since shed been held by him, since shed seen the city so small below. He could have flown them both up here, Nesta realized as he alighted and Morrigan vanished from her deadly plummet with a wave. The rules of the House were simple: no one could winnow directly inside thanks to its heavy wards, so it was a choice to either walk up the ten thousand steps, winnow and drop a terrifying distance to the verandalikely breaking bonesor winnow to the edge of the wards with someone who had wings to fly the rest of the way in. But being in Cassians arms Shed rather have risked breaking every bone in her body from the plunge to the veranda. Thankfully, the flight was over in a matter of seconds. Nesta shoved out of his grip the moment her feet hit the worn stones. Cassian let her, folding his wings and lingering by the rail, all of Velaris glittering below and beyond him. Shed spent weeks here last yearduring that terrible period after being turned Fae, begging Elain to demonstrate any sign of wanting to live. Shed barely slept for fear of Elain walking off this veranda, or leaning too far out of one of the countless windows, or simply throwing herself down those ten thousand stairs. Her throat closed at the surge of memories and at the sprawling viewthe glimmering ribbon of the Sidra far below, the red-stoned palace built into the side of the flat-topped mountain itself. Nesta dug her hands into her pockets, wishing shed opted for the warm gloves Feyre had coaxed her to take. Shed refused. Or silently refused, since she had not uttered a word to her sister after theyd left the study. Partially because she was afraid of what would come out. For a long moment, Nesta and Cassian watched each other. The wind ripped at his shoulder-length dark hair, but he might have been standing in a summer field for all the reaction he yielded to the coldso much sharper up here, high above the city. It was all she could do to keep her teeth from clattering their way out of her skull. Cassian finally said, Youll be staying in your old room. As if she had any sort of claim on this place. On anywhere at all. He went on, My rooms a level above that. Why would I need to know that? The words snapped out of her. He began walking toward the glass doors that led into the mountains interior. In case you have a bad dream and need someone to read you a story, he drawled, a half smile dancing on his face. Maybe one of those smutty books you like so much. Her nostrils flared. But she walked through the door he held open for her, nearly sighing at the cozy warmth filling the red stone halls. Her new residence. Sleeping site. It wasnt a home, this place. Just as her apartment hadnt been a home. Neither had her fathers fancy new house, before Hybern had half-destroyed it. And neither had the cottage, or the glorious manor before that. Home was a foreign word. But she knew this level of the House of Wind well: the dining room to the left, and the stairway to her right that would take her down two levels to her floor, and the kitchens a level below that. The library far, far beneath it. She wouldnt have cared where she stayed, except for the convenience of the small, private library also on her level. Which had been the place where shed discovered those smutty books, as Cassian called them. Shed devoured a few dozen of them during those weeks shed first been here, desperate for any lifeline to keep her from falling apart, from bellowing at what had been done to her body, her lifeto Elain. Elain, who would not eat, or speak, or do anything at all. Elain, who had somehow become the adjusted one. In the months leading to and during the war, Nesta had managed. Had stepped into this world, with these people, and started to see ita future. Until shed been hunted by the King of Hybern and the Cauldron. Until shed realized that everyone she cared for would be used to hurt her, break her, trap her. Until that last battle when she couldnt stop one thousand Illyrians from dying, and had instead been able to save only one. Him. She would do it again, if forced to. And knowing that She couldnt bear that truth, either. Cassian aimed for the downward stairs, his every movement brimming with unfaltering arrogance. I dont need an escort to my room. No matter that his rooms were that way, too. I know how to get there. He threw a smirk over a muscled shoulder and strode down the stairs anyway. I just want to make sure you arrive in one piece before I settle in. He nodded to the landing they passed, the open archway that led into the hall with his bedroom. She knew it only because shed had little more to do during those initial weeks as High Fae than wander this palace like a ghost. Cassian added, Az is in the room two doors down from mine. They reached the level of her bedroom and he swaggered along the hall. You probably wont see him, though. Hes here to spy on me? Her words bounced off the red stone. Cassian said tightly, He says hed rather stay up here than at the river house. That made two of them. Why? I dont know. Hes Az. He likes his space. He shrugged, the faelight filtering through the golden sconces gilding the taloned apex of his wings. Hell keep to himself, so most of the time itll be only you and me. She didnt dare reply. Not to all that statement implied. Alonewith Cassian. Here. Cassian stopped in front of a familiar, arched wood door. He leaned against the jamb, hazel eyes monitoring her every step. She knew the House belonged to Rhys. Knew Cassians entire existence was paid for by Rhys, just as the High Lord bankrolled all of his Inner Circle. Knew that the fastest and deepest way to annoy Cassian, hurt him right now would be to strike for that, to make him doubt the work he did and whether he deserved to be here. The instinct crept up, a rising wave, each word selected to slice and wound. Shed always had the gift, if it could be called that. Yet it wasnt a curse, not entirely. It had served her well. He scanned her face as she stopped in front of the bedroom door. Lets hear it, Nes. Dont call me that. She dangled the words like bait. Let him think her vulnerable. But he pushed off the door, wings tucking in. You need a hot meal. I dont want one. Why? Because Im not hungry. It was true. Her appetite had been the first thing to go after that battle. Only instinct and the occasional social requirement to appear like she gave a shit about anything kept her eating. You wont last through an hour of training tomorrow without food in your belly. Im not training at that horrible place. Shed hated Windhaven from the first time shed seen it, cold and bleak and full of humorless, harsh-faced people. The Siphon strapped atop Cassians left hand gleamed, a red band of light twining from the stone to wrap around the door handle. It yanked the iron downward, the door swinging open with a creak, then vanished like smoke. You were given an order, as well as the alternative to following it. You want to go back to the human lands, be my guest. Then go somewhere else. Hed likely have that preening Morrigan dump her over the border like so much baggage. And Nesta would have called the bluff, except she knew what shed face down south. The war had done little to warm human sentiments toward the Fae. She had nowhere to go. Elain, mourn as she might for the life she would have had with Graysen, had found a place, a role here. Tending to the gardens of Feyres veritable palace on the river, helping other residents of Velaris restore their own destroyed gardensshe had purpose, and joy, and friends: those two half-wraiths who worked in Rhysands household. But those things had always come easily to her sister. Had always made Elain special. Had made Nesta fight like hell to keep Elain safe at all costs. The Cauldron had learned that. The King of Hybern had learned it, too. An old, heavy weight tugged her down, oblivion beckoning. Im tired. Her words came out mercifully flat. Take the day to rest, then, Cassian said, his voice a shade quiet. Mor or Rhys will winnow us up to Windhaven after breakfast tomorrow. She said nothing. He went on, Well start easy: two hours of training, then lunch, then youll be brought back here to meet with Clotho. She didnt have the energy to ask further about the training, or the work in the library with its high priestess. She didnt really care. Let Rhysand and Feyre and Amren and Cassian make her do this bullshit. Let them think it could somehow make a lick of difference. Nesta didnt bother to reply before she strode through the archway and into her bedroom. But she felt his stare on her, assessing every step over the threshold, the way her hand gripped the side of the door, the way she flexed her fingers before she slammed it shut. Nesta waited mere feet inside the bedroom, blinking at the glaring light through the wall of windows at its other end. A scuff of boots on stone informed her that hed left. It wasnt until the sound faded completely that she took in the room before her, unchanged since shed last been in it, the connecting door to Elains old suite now sealed shut. The wide space easily accommodated a mammoth four-poster bed against the wall to her left, as well as a small sitting area to her right, complete with a sofa and two chairs. A carved marble fireplace occupied the wall before the sitting area, mercifully dark, and multiple rugs lay scattered throughout, offering reprieve from the chilly stone floors. But that wasnt what shed liked about this room. No, it was what she now faced: the wall of windows that overlooked the city, the river, the flatlands and distant sparkle of sea beyond. All that land, all those people, so far away. As if this palace floated in the clouds. There had been some days up here when the mist had been thick enough to block the view below, swirling so close to the window that shed been able to trail her fingers through it. No tendrils of mist drifted by now, though. The windows revealed nothing but a clear early-autumn day, the sunlight near-blinding. Seconds ticked by. Minutes. A familiar roaring built in her ears. That heavy hollowness tugged her down, as surely as some faerie creature wrapping its bony hands around her ankle and yanking her beneath a dark surface. As surely as she had been shoved under that eternal, icy water in the Cauldron. Nestas body became distant, foreign, as she shut the heavy gray velvet curtains against the light. Shrouding the room in darkness bit by bit. She ignored the three bags and two trunks set beside the dresser as she approached the bed. She barely managed to toe off her shoes before she slid beneath the layers of white down blankets and quilts, closed her eyes, and breathed. And breathed. And breathed. CHAPTER 4 Mor had already commandeered a table at the riverfront caf?, an arm slung across the back of a wrought-iron chair, the other elegantly draped over her crossed knees. Cassian halted a few feet from the maze of tables along the walkway, smiling to himself at the sight of her: head tipped toward the sun, unbound hair gleaming and rippling around her like liquid gold, her full lips curled upward, basking in the light. She never stopped appreciating the sunshine. Even five hundred years after leaving that veritable prison shed called home and the monsters who claimed her as kin, his friendhis sister, honestlystill savored every moment in the sun. As if the first seventeen years of her life, spent in the darkness of the Hewn City, still lurked around her like Azs shadows. Cassian cleared his throat as he approached the table, offering pleasant smiles to the other patrons and people along the walkway who either gawked or waved at him, and by the time he sat, Mor was already smirking, her brown eyes lit with amusement. Dont start, he warned, settling his wings around the chairs back and motioning to the owner of the caf?, who knew him well enough to understand that meant he wanted waterno tea or sweets, both of which Mor had before her. Mor grinned, so beautiful it took his breath away. Cant I enjoy the sight of my friend being fawned over by the public? He rolled his eyes, and murmured his thanks to the owner as a pitcher of water and a glass appeared before him. Mor said when the owner had gone to tend to other tables, I seem to remember a time when you enjoyed that sort of thing, too. I was a young, arrogant idiot. He cringed to recall how hed strutted around after successful battles or missions, believing he deserved the praise of strangers. For too damn long, hed indulged in that bullshit. It had taken walking these same streets after Rhys had been imprisoned by Amaranthaafter Rhys sacrificed so much to shield this city, and seeing the disappointment and fear in so many facesto make Cassian realize what a fool hed been. Mor cleared her throat, as if sensing the direction of his thoughts. She didnt possess Rhyss skill set, but having survived in the Court of Nightmares, shed learned to read the subtlest of expressions. A mere blink, shed once told him, might mean the difference between life and death in that miserable court. Shes settled, then? Cassian knew who she meant. Taking a nap. Mor snorted. Dont. His attention drifting to the glittering Sidra mere feet away. Please dont. Mor sipped her tea, the portrait of elegant innocence. Wed be better off throwing Nesta into the Court of Nightmares. Shed thrive there. Cassian clenched his jaw, both at the insult and the truth. Thats exactly the sort of existence were trying to steer her away from. Mor assessed him with a bob of her thick lashes. It pains you seeing her like this. All of it pains me. He and Mor had always had this kind of relationship: truth at all costs, however harsh. Ever since that first and only time theyd slept together, when hed learned too late that shed hidden from him the terrible repercussions. When hed seen her broken body and known that even if shed lied to him, hed still played a part. Cassian blew out a breath, shaking away the blood-soaked memory still staining his mind five centuries later. It pains me that Nesta has become this. It pains me that she and Feyre are always at each others throats. It pains me that Feyre hurts over it, and I know Nesta does, too. It pains me that He drummed his fingers on the table, then sipped from his water. I really dont want to talk about it. All right. The breeze ruffled the gauzy fabric of Mors twilight-blue dress. He again let himself admire her perfect face. Beyond the disastrous consequences for Mor after their night together, the fallout with Rhys afterward had been awful, and Azriel had been so furious in his own quiet way that Cassian had quelled any further desire for Mor. Had let lust turn into affection, and all romantic feelings turn into familial bonds. But he could still admire her sheer beautyas hed admire any work of art. Even though he knew well that what lay inside Mor was far more lovely and perfect than her exterior. He wondered if she knew that. Drinking again, he said, Tell me what happened in Vallahan. The ancient, mountainous Fae territory across the northern sea had been stirring since before the war with Hybern, and had been both enemy and ally to Prythian in different historical eras. What role Vallahans hot-tempered king and proud people would play in this new world of theirs was yet to be decided, though much of its fate seemed to depend upon Mors now-frequent presence at their court as Rhyss emissary. Indeed, Mors eyes shuttered. They dont want to sign the new treaty. Fuck. Rhys, Feyre, and Amren had spent months working on that treaty, with input from their allies in other courts and territories. Helion, High Lord of the Day Court and Rhyss closest ally, had been the most involved. Helion Spell-Cleaver was unrivaled in sheer, swaggering arrogancehed probably made up the moniker himself. But the male had one thousand libraries at his disposal, and had put them all to good use for the treaty. Ive spent weeks in that blasted court, Mor said, poking at the flaky pastry beside her teacup, freezing my ass off, trying to kiss their cold asses, and their king and queen refused the treaty. I came home on the earlier side today because I knew any more last-minute pushing from me would be unwelcome. My time there was supposed to be a friendly visit, after all. Why wont they sign it? Because those stupid human queens are stirringtheir army still isnt disbanded. The Queen of Vallahan even asked me what the point of a peace treaty would be when another war, this time against the humans, might redraw the territory lines far below the wall. I dont think Vallahan is interested in peace. Or allying with us. So Vallahan wants another war in order to add to their territory? Theyd already seized more than their fair share after the War five hundred years ago. Theyre bored, Mor said, frowning with distaste. And the humans, despite those queens, are far weaker than we are. Pushing into human lands is low-hanging fruit. Montesere and Rask are likely thinking the same thing. Cassian groaned skyward. That had been the fear during the recent war: that those three territories across the sea might ally with Hybern. Had they, there would have been no chance at all of survival. Now, even with Hyberns king dead, its people remained angry. An army might be raised again in Hybern. And if it united with Vallahan, if Montesere and Rask joined with the goal of claiming more territory from the humans You already told Rhys this. It wasnt a question, but Mor nodded. Thats why hes asking you to look into whats going on with the human queens. Im taking a few days off before I head back to Vallahanbut Rhys needs to know where the human queens stand in all of this. So youre supposed to convince Vallahan not to start another war, and Im supposed to convince the human queens not to do so, either? You wont get near the human queens, Mor said frankly. But from what I observed in Vallahan, I know theyre up to something. Planning something. We just cant figure out what, or why the humans would be stupid enough to start a war they cannot win. Theyd need something in their arsenal that could grant them the advantage. Thats what you have to find out. Cassian tapped his booted foot on the stones of the walkway. No pressure. Mor drained her tea. Playing courtier isnt all nice clothes and fancy parties. He scowled. Long moments passed in amiable silence, though Cassian half-heard the wind whispering over the Sidra, the merry chatter of the people around them, the clink of silverware against plates. Content to let him think, Mor returned to her sunning. Cassian straightened. Theres one person who knows those queens inside and out. Who can offer some insight. Mor opened an eye, then slowly sat forward, hair falling around her like a rippling golden river. Oh? Vassa. Cassian hadnt dealt much with the ousted human queenthe only good one out of the surviving group, who had been betrayed by her fellow queens when theyd sold her to a sorcerer-lord whod cursed her to be a firebird by day, woman by night. Shed been lucky: theyd given the other rebellious queen in their midst to the Attor. Who had then impaled her on a lamppost a few bridges away from where Cassian and Mor now sat. Mor nodded. She might be able to help. He leaned his arms on the table. Lucien is living with Vassa. And Jurian. Hes supposed to be our emissary to the human lands. Let him deal with it. Mor took another bite from her pastry. Lucien cant be entirely trusted anymore. Cassian started. What? Even with Elain here, hes become close with Jurian and Vassa. Hes voluntarily living with them these days, and not just as an emissary. As their friend. Cassian went over all hed heard and observed from his encounters with Lucien since the war, trying to contemplate it like Rhys and Mor would. Hes spent months helping them sort out the politics of who rules Prythians slice of the human lands, Cassian said slowly. So Lucien cant be unbiased in reporting to us on Vassa. Mor nodded gravely. Lucien might mean well, but any reports would be skewedeven if he isnt aware of itin their favor. We need someone outside of their little bubble to collect information and report. She finished off her pastry. Which would be you. Fine. That made sense. Why havent we already contacted Vassa about this? Mor waved a hand, though her shadowed eyes belied her casual gesture. Because were just now piecing it all together. But you should definitely speak with her, when you can. As soon as you can, actually. Cassian nodded. He didnt dislike Vassa, though meeting her would also entail talking with Lucien and Jurian. The former hed learned to live with, but the latter It didnt matter that it turned out that Jurian had been fighting on their side. That the human general whod been Amaranthas tortured prisoner for five centuries had played Hybern after being rebirthed by the Cauldron, and had helped Cassian and his family win the war. Cassian still didnt like the man. He rose, leaning to ruffle Mors shining hair. I miss you these days. Shed been away frequently lately, and each time she returned, a shadow he couldnt place dimmed her eyes. You know wed warn you if Keir ever came here. Her asshole of a father still hadnt called in his favor with Rhys: to visit Velaris. Eris bought me time. Her words were laced with acid. Cassian had tried not to believe it, but he knew Eris had done it as a gesture of good faith. Hed invited Rhysand into his mind to see exactly why hed convinced Keir to indefinitely delay his visit to Velaris. Only Eris had that sort of sway with the power-hungry Keir, and whatever Eris had offered Keir in exchange for not coming here was still a mystery. At least to Cassian. Rhys probably knew. From Mors pale face, he wondered if she knew, too. Eris must have sacrificed something big to spare Mor from her fathers visit, which would have likely been timed for a moment that would maximize tormenting her. It doesnt matter to me. Mor waved off the conversation with a flip of her hand. He could tell something else was eating at her. But shed let him in when she was ready. Cassian walked around the table and pressed a kiss to the top of her head. Get some rest. He shot skyward before she could answer. Nesta woke to pure darkness. Darkness that she had not witnessed in years now. Since that ramshackle cottage that had become a prison and a hell. Jolting upright, hands clutching at her chest, she gasped for air. Had it been some fever dream on a winters night? She was still in that cottage, still starving and poor and desperate No. The air in the room was toasty, and she was the lone person in the bed, not clinging to her sisters for warmth, always squabbling over who got the coveted middle place in the bed on the coldest nights, or the edges on the hottest summer ones. And though shed become as bony as shed been during those long winters this body was new, too. Fae. Powerful. Or it had once been. Scrubbing at her face, Nesta slid from the bed. The floors were warmed. Not the icy wooden planks in the cottage. Padding to the window, she drew back the drapes and peered out at the darkened city below. Golden lights shone along the streets, dancing on the twining band of the Sidra. Beyond that, only starlight silvered the lowlands before the cold and empty sea. A scan of the sky revealed nothing regarding how far off dawn might be, and a long moment of listening suggested the household remained asleep. All three of them who occupied it. How long had she slept? Theyd arrived by eleven in the morning, and shed fallen asleep soon after that. Shed consumed absolutely nothing all day. Her stomach grumbled. But she ignored it, leaning her brow against the cool glass of the window. She let the starlight gently brush her head, her face, her neck. Imagined it running its shimmering fingers down her cheek, as her mother had done for her and her alone. My Nesta. Elain shall wed for love and beauty, but you, my cunning little queen You shall wed for conquest. Her mother would thrash in her grave to know that, years later, her Nesta had come dangerously close to marrying a weak-willed woodcutters son who had sat idly by while his father beat his mother. Who had put his hands on her when she called things off between them. Who had then attempted to take what she hadnt offered. Nesta had tried to forget Tomas. She often found herself wishing the Cauldron had ripped those memories away just as it had her humanity, but his face sometimes sullied her dreams. Her waking thoughts. Sometimes, she could still feel his rough hands pawing at her, bruising her. Sometimes, the coppery tang of his blood still coated her tongue. Pulling back from the window, Nesta studied those distant stars again. Half-wondered if they might speak. My Nesta, her mother had always called her, even on her deathbed, so wasted and pale from typhus. My little queen. Nesta had once delighted in the title. Had done her best to fulfill its promise, indulging in a dazzling life that had melted away as soon as the debtors swept in and all her so-called friends had revealed themselves to be nothing more than envious cowards wearing smiling masks. Not one of them had offered to help save the Archeron family from poverty. They had thrown them all, mere children and a crumbling man, to the wolves. So Nesta had become a wolf. Armed herself with invisible teeth and claws, and learned to strike faster, deeper, more lethally. Had relished it. But when the time came to put away the wolf, shed found it had devoured her, too. The stars flickered above the city, as if blinking their agreement. Nesta curled her hands into fists and climbed back into bed. Cauldron damn him, maybe he shouldnt have agreed to bring her here. Cassian lay awake in his behemoth of a bedlarge enough for three Illyrian warriors to sleep side by side, wings and all. Little in the room itself had changed in the past five hundred years. Mor occasionally groused about wanting to redecorate the House of Wind, but he liked this room how it was. Hed awoken at the sound of a door shutting and been instantly alert, heart hammering as he pulled free the knife he kept on the nightstand. Two more were hidden under his mattress, another set above the doorway, and two swords lay beneath the bed and in a dresser drawer, respectively. That was just his collection. The Mother knew what Az had stored in his own room. He supposed that between him, Az, Mor, and Rhys, in the five centuries theyd used the House of Wind, they had filled it with enough weapons to arm a small legion. Theyd hidden and stashed and forgotten about so many of them that there was always a good chance of sitting on a couch and being poked in the ass by something. And a good chance that most of the weapons were now little more than rust in their sheaths. But the ones in this bedroom, those he kept oiled and clean. Ready. The knife gleamed in the starlight, his Siphons fluttering with red light as his power scanned the hall beyond the door. But no threat emerged, no enemy breaching the new wards. Hyberns soldiers had broken through more than a year ago, nearly getting their hands on Feyre and Nesta in the library. He hadnt forgotten itthat terror on Nestas face as shed raced for him, arms outstretched. But the sound in the hall Azriel, hed realized a heartbeat later. That hed heard the door at all told him Az wanted him aware of his return. Hadnt wanted to talk, but had wanted Cassian to know that he was around. Which had left Cassian here, staring at the ceiling, his Siphons slumbering once more and knife again sheathed and set on the nightstand. From the stars position, he knew it was past threedawn was still far off. He should get some sleep. Tomorrow would be hard enough. As if his silent plea had gone out into the world, a smooth male voice purred into his mind. Why are you up so late? Cassian scanned the sky beyond the wall of windows, as if hed see Rhys flying there. I have the same question for you. Rhys chuckled. I told you: I had some apologizing to do with my mate. A long, wicked pause. Were taking a break. Cassian laughed. Let the poor female sleep. She was the one who initiated this round. Pure male satisfaction edged every word. You still didnt answer my question. Why are you snooping on me at this hour? I wanted to make sure all was well. Its not my fault you were already up. Cassian let out a soft groan. Its fine. Nesta went to sleep right after we got here and stayed in bed. Im assuming shes still asleep. You got there before eleven. I know. Its three fifteen in the morning. I know. The silence was pointed enough that Cassian added, Dont butt in. I wouldnt dream of it. Cassian didnt particularly want to have this conversation, not at three in the morning and certainly not twice in one day. Ill check in tomorrow night with an update on the first lesson. Rhyss pause was again too pointed to ignore. But his brother said, Mor will bring you up to Windhaven. Good night, Cass. The dark presence in his mind faded, leaving him hollow and chilled. Tomorrow would be a battlefield unlike any other hed walked onto. Cassian wondered how much of him would be left intact by the end of it. CHAPTER 5 If you dont eat that, youre going to regret it in about thirty minutes. Seated at the long table in the House of Winds dining room, Nesta looked up from the plate of scrambled eggs and steaming bowl of porridge. Sleep still weighed her bones, sharpening her temper as she said, Im not eating this. Cassian dug into his own portionnearly double what lay before her. Its either that or nothing. Nesta kept perfectly still in her chair, keenly aware of every movement in the fighting leathers shed donned. Shed forgotten how it felt to wear pantsthe nakedness of having her thighs and ass on display. Mercifully, Cassian had been too busy reading some report to see her slink in and slide into her seat. She glanced toward the doorway, hoping a servant might appear. Ill eat toast. Youll burn through that in ten minutes and be tired. Cassian nodded toward the porridge. Put some milk in it if you need to make it more palatable. He added before she could demand it, Theres no sugar. She clenched the spoon. As punishment? Again, itll give you energy for a short blast, and then make you crash. He shoveled eggs into his mouth. You need to keep your energy level constant throughout the dayfoods full of sugar or flimsy bread give you a temporary high. Lean meats, whole grains, and fruits and vegetables keep you relatively steady and full. She drummed her nails on the smooth table. Shed sat here several times before with the members of Rhysands court. Today, with only the two of them, it felt obscenely large. Are there any other areas of my daily life that youre going to be presiding over? He shrugged, not pausing his eating. Dont give me a reason to add any more to the list. Arrogant asshole. Cassian nodded toward the food again. Eat. She shoved the spoon into the bowl but didnt lift it. Have it your way, then. He finished his porridge and returned to the eggs. How long will todays session be? The dawn had revealed clear skies, though she knew the Illyrian Mountains had their own weather. Might already be crusted in the first snows. As I said yesterday: the lesson is two hours. Right until lunch. He set his bowl on his plate, piling the silverware within. They vanished a heartbeat later, taken by the magic of the House. Which will be the next time we eat. He glanced pointedly at her food. Nesta leaned back in her chair. One: Im not participating in this lesson. Two: Im not hungry. His hazel eyes guttered. Not eating wont bring your father back. That has nothing to do with this, she hissed. Nothing. He braced his forearms on the table. Were going to cut the bullshit. You think I havent gone through what youre dealing with? You think I havent seen and done and felt all that before? And seen those I love deal with it, too? You arent the first, and you wont be the last. What happened to your father was terrible, Nesta, but She shot to her feet. You dont know anything. She couldnt stop the shaking that overtook her. From rage or something else, she didnt know. She balled her hands into fists. Keep your fucking opinions to yourself. He blinked at the profanity, at what she guessed was the white-hot rage crinkling her face. And then he said, Who taught you to curse? She squeezed her fists harder. You lot. You have the filthiest mouths Ive ever heard. Cassians eyes narrowed with amusement, but his mouth remained a thin line. Ill keep my fucking opinions to myself if you eat. She threw every bit of venom she could muster into her gaze. He only waited. Unmovable as the mountain into which the House had been built. Nesta sat down, grabbed the bowl of porridge, shoved a lumpy spoonful into her mouth, and nearly gagged at the taste. But she forced it down. Then another spoonful. Another. Until the bowl was clean and she started on the eggs. Cassian monitored each bite. And when there was nothing left, she scooped up her plate and bowl and held his stare as she dumped her dishes atop each other, the sound of the rattling silverware filling the room. She again rose, stalking toward him. The doorway beyond him. He stood as well. Nesta could have sworn he wasnt breathing as she passed, close enough that a shift of her elbow would have had it brushing his stomach. She said sweetly, I look forward to your silence. Unable to help the smirk blooming on her mouth, she aimed for the door. But a hand on her arm stopped her. Cassians eyes blazed, the red Siphon tethered on the back of the hand that gripped her fluttering with color. A wicked, taunting smile curved his lips. Glad to see you woke up ready to play, Nesta. His voice dropped to a low rumble. She couldnt help the thundering of her heart at that voice, the challenge in his eyes, the nearness and size of him. Had never been able to help it. Had once let him nuzzle and lick at her throat because of it. Had let him kiss her during the final battle because of it. Barely a kissabout all he could manage in his injured stateand yet it had shattered her entirely. I have no regrets in my life, but this. That we did not have time. That I did not have time with you, Nesta. I will find you again in the next worldthe next life. And we will have that time. I promise. She relived those moments more often than she cared to admit. The press of his fingers as hed cupped her face, the way his mouth had felt and tasted, tinged with blood but still tender. She couldnt bear it. Cassian didnt so much as blink, though his grip on her arm gentled. She willed herself not to swallow. Willed her surging blood to chill to ice. His eyes again narrowed with amusement, but he let go. You have five minutes until we leave. Nesta managed to step away. Youre a brute. He winked. Born and raised. She managed another step. If she refused to leave the House, Cassian or Morrigan or Rhys could just haul her to Windhaven. And if she flat-out refused to do anything, theyd drop her in the human lands without a second thought. The realization was enough to steel her further. Dont ever put your hands on me again. Noted. His eyes still blazed. Her fingers curled once more. She selected her next words like throwing knives. If you think this training nonsense is going to result in you climbing into my bed, youre delusional. She added with a slice of a smile, Id sooner let in a mangy street dog. Oh, its not going to result in me climbing into your bed. Nesta snickered, victory achieved, and had reached the stairs when he crooned, Youll climb into mine. She whirled toward him, foot still suspended midair. Id rather rot. Cassian threw her a mocking smile. Well see. She fumbled for more of those sharp-edged words, for a sneer or a snarl or anything, but his smile grew. You have three minutes to get ready now. Nesta debated chucking the nearest thing at hima vase on a little pedestal beside the doorway. But demonstrating that hed gotten under her skin would be too satisfying for him. So she merely shrugged and walked through the doorway. Slowly. Utterly unaffected by him and his swaggering, insufferable boasts. Climb into his bed, indeed. Those pants were going to kill him. Brutally, thoroughly kill him. Cassian hadnt forgotten the sight of Nesta in Illyrian fighting leathers during the warnot at all. But compared to the memory Mother above. Every word, every language he knew had vanished at the sight of her striding past, straight-backed and unhurried as any noble lady presiding over her household. Cassian knew hed let her win that round, that hed lost the upper hand the moment she threw him that little shrug and continued into the hall, unaware of the view it presented. How it made every thought beyond the most primal eddy out of his mind. Settling himself required the entire three minutes she was downstairs. The Mother knew he had enough to deal with today, both with Nestas lesson and beyond it, without descending into thoughts of peeling those pants off her and worshipping every inch of that spectacular backside. He couldnt afford distractions like that. Not for a million reasons. But fuckwhen had he last had a satisfying roll in the sheets? Certainly not since the war. Maybe since before Feyre had freed them all from Amaranthas grip. Cauldron boil him, it had been the month before Amarantha had fallen, hadnt it? With that female hed met at Ritas. In an alley outside the pleasure hall. Against a brick wall. Quick and dirty and over within minutes, neither he nor the female wanting anything more than swift release. That had been more than two years ago. It had been his hand ever since. He should have scratched that particular itch before deciding that living in the House with Nesta was a good idea. She was hurting and adrift and the last thing she needed was him panting after her. Grabbing her arm like an animal, unable to stop himself from drawing near. She wanted nothing to do with him. Shed said as much at Winter Solstice. Ive made my thoughts clear enough on what I want from you. A whole lot of nothing. It had cracked an intrinsic piece of him, some final resistance and shred of hope that everything theyd endured during the war might amount to something. That when he spilled his heart to her as he lay dying, that when shed covered him with her body and chosen to die alongside him, shed chosen him, too. A stupid fucking hope, and one he should have known better than to harbor. So that Winter Solstice night on the icy streets, when he knew shed only shown up at the town house to get the money Feyre had dangled in exchange for making an appearance, when shed asserted that she wanted nothing to do with him hed thrown the present hed spent months hunting down into the frozen Sidra and then busied himself with quelling the growing dissent amongst the Illyrians. And hed stayed away from her for the intervening nine months. Far, far away. Hed come so close to making a stupid mistake that night, to laying his heart bare for her to rip out of his chest. Hed hardly managed to walk away with some semblance of pride. Over his cold, dead body would she do that to him again. Nesta emerged, her braided hair now coiled across the crown of her head like a woven tiara. He made a point not to look beneath her neck. At the body left on display. She needed to gain back the weight shed lost, and pack on some muscle, but those fucking leathers. Lets go, he said, his voice rough and cold. Thank the Cauldron for that. On the veranda beyond the dining rooms glass doors, Mor landed, as if plunging from the thirty feet above the wards was nothing. For her, Cassian supposed it was. Mor hopped from foot to foot, rubbing her arms and gritting her teeth, and gave him a look that said, You owe me so big for this, asshole. Nesta scowled, but slung on her cloak, each movement graceful and unhurried, then aimed for where Mor waited. Cassian would fly them both out beyond the wards reach, then Mor would winnow them to Windhaven. Where hed somehow find a way to convince Nesta to train. But thankfully, Nesta knew that she had to do the bare minimum today, which meant going to Windhaven. Shed always known how to wage this kind of emotional, mental warfare. Shed have made a fine general. Might still be one, someday. Cassian couldnt tell if it would be a good thing. To turn Nesta into that sort of a weapon. Shed pointed at the King of Hybern in a death-promise before shed been turned High Fae against her will. Months later, shed held up his severed head like a trophy and stared into his dead eyes. And if the Bone Carver had spoken true about her emerging from the Cauldron as something to fear Fuck. He didnt bother with his cloak as he yanked open the glass doors, breathing in a face full of crisp autumn air, and stalked toward Mors opening arms. No ice or snow crusted the mountain hold of Windhaven, but it didnt stop the bitter cold from slamming into Nesta the moment they appeared. Morrigan vanished with a wink at Cassian and a warning glower thrown at Nesta, leaving them assessing the field stretching ahead. A few small stone houses rose to the right, and beyond them stood some new residences made of fresh pine. A villagethat was what this place had become recently. But immediately before them lay the fighting rings, right along the edge of the flat mountaintop, fully stocked with various weapons, weights, and training supplies. Nesta had no idea what any of the impressive varieties were, beyond their basic names: sword, dagger, arrow, shield, spear, bow, brutal-looking round-spiky-ball-on-a-chain On their other side smoldered fire pits, clouds of smoke drifting to a fenced-in array of livestock, sheep and pigs and goats, all shaggy but well fed. And, of course, the Illyrians themselves. Females tended to steaming pots and pans around those firesand all of them halted when Cassian and Nesta appeared. So did the dozens of males in those sparring rings. None smiled. A broad-shouldered, stocky male whom Nesta vaguely recognized sauntered their way, flanked two deep by younger males. They all had their wings tucked in tight, perhaps to walk as a unit, but as they stopped in front of Cassian, those wings spread slightly. Cassian kept his in what Nesta called his casual spreadnot wide, but not tucked in close. The position conveyed the perfect amount of ease and arrogance, readiness and power. The familiar males gaze snagged on her. Whats her business here? Nesta gave him a secretive smile. Witchcraft. She could have sworn Cassian muttered a plea to the Mother before he cut in, I will remind you, Devlon, that Nesta Archeron is our High Ladys sister, and will be treated with respect. The words held enough of a bite that even Nesta glanced at Cassians stone-cold face. She had not heard that unyielding tone since the war. She will be training here. Nesta wanted nothing more than to shove him off the nearby cliff edge. Devlons face curdled. Any weapons she touches must be buried afterward. Leave them in a pile. Nesta blinked. Cassians nostrils flared. We will do no such thing. Devlon sniffed at her, his cronies snickering. Are you bleeding, witch? If you are, you will not be allowed to touch the weapons at all. Nesta made herself pause. Contemplate the best way to knock the bastard down a few pegs. Cassian said with remarkable steadiness, Those are outdated superstitions. She can touch the weapons whether she has her cycle or not. She can, Devlon said, but they will still be buried. Silence fell. Nesta didnt fail to note that Cassians expression had darkened as he stared down Devlon. But he said abruptly, How are the new recruits faring? Devlon opened his mouth, then shut it, irritation flashing there at a fight denied. Fine, he spat, and turned away, his soldiers following. Cassians face tightened with each breath, and Nesta braced herself, a thrill slowly building in her blood, for him to rip into Devlon. But Cassian growled, Lets go, and began walking toward an empty training area. Devlon glared over a shoulder, and Nesta threw him a cool look before striding after Cassian. The Illyrians gaze lingered like a burning brand on her spine. Cassian didnt go for one of the countless weapons racks stationed throughout the training area. He just halted in the farthest ring, hands on his hips, and waited for her. Like hell would she join him. She spied a weatherworn rock near the rack of weapons, its smoothness either from the harsh climate or the untold number of warriors whod taken a seat on it as she did then. Its frigid surface bit into her skin even through the thickness of the leathers. What are you doing? Cassians handsome face was nearly predatory. She crossed her legs at the ankles and arranged the fall of her cape like the train of a gown. I told you: Im not training. Get up. Hed never ordered her like that. Get up, shed sobbed that day before the King of Hybern. Get up. Nesta met his stare. Willed hers to be distant and unruffled. I am officially attending training, Cassian, but you cant make me do a lick of it. She motioned to the mud. Drag me through it, if you want, but I wont lift a finger. The Illyrians stares pelted them like stones. Cassian bristled. Good. Let him see what a waste of life, what an utter wretch, shed become. Get the hell up. His words were a soft snarl. Devlon and his group had returned, attracted by their argument, and gathered beyond the edge of the circle. Cassians hazel eyes remained fixed on her, though. A slight pleading note flickered in them. Get up, a small voice whispered in her head, her bones. Dont humiliate him like this. Dont give these assholes the satisfaction of seeing him made a fool. But her body refused to move. Shed drawn her line, and to yieldto him, to anyone Something like disgust filled his face. Disappointment. Anger. Good. Even as something crumpled inside her, she couldnt stop the relief. Cassian turned away from her, drawing the sword sheathed down his back. And without another word, without a glance, he began his morning exercises. Let him hate her. It was better that way. CHAPTER 6 Each series of steps and movements Cassian went through was beautiful and lethal and precise, and it was all Nesta could do to not gawk. Shed never been able to look away from him. From the moment theyd met, shed developed a keen awareness of his presence in any space, any room. She hadnt been able to stop it, to block it out, no matter how much she suggested otherwise. Go! he had begged her as he lay dying. I cant, shed wept. I cant. She didnt know where the person shed been in that moment had gone. Couldnt find her way back to her. But even as she sat on that rock and stared at the swaying pines covering the mountains, she watched Cassian from the corner of her eye, aware of every graceful movement, the rasp of his steady breathing, the flow of his dark hair in the wind. Hard at work, I see. Morrigans voice drew Nestas gaze from the mountains and the warrior who seemed so much a part of them. The stunning female stood beside her, brown eyes fixed on Cassian, admiration shining in them. There was no sign of Devlon or his followers, as if theyd drifted away long ago. Had it been two hours already? Mor said mildly, He is pretty, isnt he? Nestas spine stiffened at the warmth in her tone. Just ask him. No amusement lit Morrigans face as she shifted her attention down to Nesta. Why arent you out there? Im taking a break. Morrigans gaze swept over Nestas face, noting the lack of sweat or flushed skin, the hair barely out of place. The female said quietly, My vote would have been to dump you right back in the human lands, you know. Oh, I know. Nesta refused to stand, to meet the challenge. Good thing being Feyres sister has its advantages. Morrigans lip curled. Beyond her, Cassian had halted his smooth movements. Dark fire simmered in Morrigans eyes. I knew plenty of people like you once. Her hand drifted to her abdomen. You never deserve the benefit of the doubt that good people like him give you. Nesta was well aware of that. And knew what manner of people Morrigan referred tothose who dwelled in the Court of Nightmares in the Hewn City. Feyre had never told her the full story, but Nesta knew the bare details: the monsters who had tormented and brutalized Morrigan until she was thrown to the wolves. Nesta leaned back on her hands, the cold rock biting through her gloves. She opened her mouth, but Cassian had reached them, breathless and gleaming with sweat. Youre early. I wanted to see how things were coming along. Morrigan pulled her burning gaze from Nesta. Seems like today was a slow start. Cassian raked his fingers through his hair. You could say that. Nesta clenched her jaw hard enough to hurt. Morrigan extended a hand to him, and then threw one toward Nesta without so much as a glance. Shall we? Morrigan was a self-righteous busybody. The thought raged through Nesta as she stood in the subterranean library beneath the House of Wind. A vain, self-righteous busybody. Cassian hadnt spoken to her upon their return. She hadnt waited to see if hed offer lunch, either, before going to her room and taking a bath to warm her bones. When shed emerged, she found that a note had been slipped beneath her door. In tight, bold lettering, it told her to be in the library at one. No threats, no promises to ship her off to the human lands. As if he didnt care whether she obeyed. Well, at least breaking him had been accomplished faster than shed anticipated. Shed ventured to the library not because of any desire to obey his or Rhysands commands, but because the alternative was equally unbearable: sitting in her silent bedroom, nothing but the roaring in her head to fill the quiet. It had been more than a year since shed last been down here. Since those terrifying moments when Hyberns assassins had snuck in, chasing her and Feyre into the dark heart of the library. She peered over the edge of the landings stone railing, straight into the black pit far below. No ancient creature slumbered in that darkness anymore, but the dimness remained. And at its bottom lay the ground where Cassian had landed, reaching for her. There had been such rage on his face at the sight of her terror She sliced off the thought. Pushed back the tremor that went through her, and focused on the female sitting at the desk, nearly hidden by columns of books stacked there. The females hands were wrecked. There was no polite way of describing them beyond that. Bones bent and knobbed, fingers at the wrong angles Feyre had once mentioned that the priestesses in this library had difficult pasts. To say the least. Nesta didnt want to know what had been done to Clotho, the librarys high priestess, to render her thus. To have her tongue cut out and then deliberately healed that way so the damage might never be undone. Males had hurt her, and Hands shoving her down, down, down into freezing water, voices laughing and sneering. A brutish male face grinning as he anticipated the trophy that would be pulled forth She couldnt stop it. Couldnt save Elain, sobbing on the floor. Couldnt save herself. No one was coming to rescue her, and these males would do what they wanted, and her body was not her own, not humannot for much longer Nesta wrenched her thoughts back to the present, blasting back the memory. Her face veiled in the shadows beneath her pale hood, Clotho sat in silence, as if shed seen the thoughts blare through Nesta, as if she knew how often the memory of that day in Hybern woke her. The limpid blue stone crowning the hood of Clothos robe flickered like a Siphon in the dim light as she slid a piece of parchment across the desk. You can begin today by shelving books on Level Three. Take the ramp behind me to reach it. There will be a cart with the books, which are organized alphabetically by author. If there is no author, set them aside and ask for help at the end of your shift. Nesta nodded. When is the end of my shift? Using her wrists and the backs of her hands, Clotho pulled a small clock to herself. Pointed with a bulging knuckle to the six oclock marker. Five hours of work. Nesta could do that. Fine. Clotho considered her again. Like she could see the churning, roaring sea inside her, that refused to leave her alone for so much as a moment, that refused to grant her a second of peace. Nesta lowered her eyes to the desk. Forced herself to release a breath. But with its escape past her lips, that familiar weight swept in. I am worthless and I am nothing, Nesta nearly said. She wasnt sure why the words bubbled up, pressing on her lips to voice them. I hate everything that I am. And I am so, so tired. I am tired of wanting to be anywhere but in my own head. She waited for Clotho to gesture, to do anything to say shed heard the thoughts. The priestess motioned to the library above and below. A silent dismissal. Feet heavy, Nesta made her way to the sloping ramp. The task was menial, but required enough concentration that time slipped away, her mind quieting to a blissful nothing. No one approached Nesta as she hunted down sections and shelves, fingers skimming over the spines of books as she searched for the right place. There were at least three dozen priestesses who worked and researched and healed here, though it was nearly impossible to count them when they all wore the same pale robes and so many kept the hoods over their faces. The ones whod left their hoods down had offered her tentative smiles. This was their sanctuary, gifted to them by Rhysand. No one could enter without their permission. Which meant theyd approved her presence, for whatever reason. Nestas hands were near-withered with dust by the time a bell chimed six silvery peals throughout the cavernous library, ringing from its top levels down to the black pit. Some priestesses rose from where they worked at the desks and chairs on each level; some remained. She found Clotho at the same desk. Did she ever lift her hood? She must, in order to bathe, but did she ever show anyone her face? Im done for the day, Nesta announced. Clotho slid another note across the desk. Thank you for your assistance. We will see you tomorrow. All right. Nesta pocketed the note. But Clotho held up a broken hand. Nesta watched with no shortage of awe as a fountain pen lifted above a piece of paper and began to write. Wear clothes you dont mind getting dusty. Youll wreck that beautiful dress down here. Nesta glanced to the gray gown shed thrown on. All right, she repeated. The pen began moving again, somehow spelled to connect with Clothos thoughts. It was nice to meet you, Nesta. Feyre speaks highly of you. Nesta turned away. No one likes a liar, Priestess. She could have sworn a breath of amusement fluttered from beneath the females hood. Cassian didnt come to dinner. Nesta had stopped in her room only long enough to wash the dust from her hands and face, and then nearly sprinted upstairs, stomach growling. The dining room had been empty. The place setting for one confirmed that she was in for a solitary meal. Shed stared at the sunset-bathed city far below, the sole sounds her rustling dress and creaking chair. Why was she surprised? Shed humiliated him at Windhaven. He was probably with his friends at the river house, ranting at them to find some other way to deal with her. A plate of food appeared, dumped unceremoniously onto the place mat. Even the House hated her. Nesta scowled at the red-stoned room. Wine. None appeared. She lifted the glass before her. Wine. Nothing. She tapped her nails on the tables smooth surface. Were you told to not give me wine? Talking to a house: a new low. But as if in answer, the glass filled with water. Nesta snarled toward the open archway at her back. Funny. She surveyed the food: half a roast chicken seasoned with what smelled like rosemary and thyme; mashed potatoes swimming in butter; and green beans saut?ed with garlic. That silence roared in her head, in the room. She drummed her fingers again. Ridiculous. This whole thing, this high-handed interference was ridiculous. Nesta stood and aimed for the doorway. Keep your wine. Ill get my own. CHAPTER 7 Without the walls magic blocking access to the human lands, Mor winnowed Cassian after sundown directly to the manor that had become home and headquarters to Jurian, Vassa, andapparentlyLucien. Even more than a year later, the ravages of war lay evident around the estate: trees felled, barren patches of earth where greenery had not yet returned, and a general bleak openness that made the gray-stoned house seem like an accidental survivor. In the moonlight, that starkness was even emptier, the remnants of trees silvered, the shadows in the pockmarked earth deeper. Cassian didnt know to whom the home had once belonged, and apparently neither did its new occupants. Feyre had told him that they called themselves the Band of Exiles. Cassian snorted to himself at the thought. Mor didnt linger upon dropping him at the houses arched wooden door, smirking in a way that told him even if he begged her to help, she wouldnt. No, she wanted to see him play courtier, precisely as Rhys had asked. He hadnt planned on starting this mission today, but after that disastrous attempt at a lesson with Nesta, hed needed to do something. Anything. Nesta had known exactly what bullshit she was pulling by refusing to get off that rock. How it would appear to Devlon and the other preening assholes. Shed known, and done it anyway. So as soon as hed dumped Nesta at the House, hed headed to a deserted cliff by the sea where the roar of the surf drowned the raging heat in his bones. Hed stopped by the river house to admit to his failure, but Feyre had only simmered with annoyance at Nestas behavior, and Rhys had given him a wary, amused look. It was Amren who had said, Let her dig her own grave, boy. Then offer her a hand. I thought thats what this past year has been, hed countered. Keep reaching out your hand, had been Amrens only reply. Hed found Mor soon after that, explained that he needed to be transported, and here he was. He raised his fist to the door, but the wooden slab pulled away before he could touch it. Luciens scarred, handsome face appeared, his golden eye whirring. I thought I sensed someone else arriving. Cassian stepped into the house, floorboards creaking beneath his boots. You just got here? No, Lucien said, and Cassian marked the tightness of his shoulders beneath the dark gray jacket he wore, the taut silence emanating from every stone of the house. He marked its layout, in case he needed to fight his way to an exit. Which, given the displeasure that Lucien radiated as he strode for an archway to their left, seemed a distinct possibility. Without turning, Lucien said, Eris is here. Cassian didnt falter. Didnt reach for the knife strapped to his thigh, though it was an effort to block the memory of Mors battered face. The note nailed to her abdomen, her naked body dumped like garbage at the border of the Autumn Court. The fucking bastard had found her there and left her. She had been on deaths threshold and Cassians plans for what hed one day do to him went far beyond the pain inflicted by a knife. Eriss suffering would last weeks. Months. Years. Cassian didnt care that Eris had convinced Keir to delay his visit to Velaris, had apparently done so out of whatever shred of kindness remained in him. Didnt care that Rhys had noted something in Eris that had earned his trust. None of that mattered to Cassian one fucking bit. His attention focused on the red-haired male seated near the roaring fire in the surprisingly fancy parlor. He knew enough to keep tabs on an enemy. Eris lounged in a golden chair, legs crossed, his pale face the portrait of courtly arrogance. Cassians fingers curled. Every time hed seen the prick these past five centuries, hed struggled with it. This blinding rage at the mere sight of him. Eris smiled, well aware of it. Cassian. Luciens gold eye clicked, reading Cassians rage while warning flashed in his remaining russet eye. The male had grown up alongside Eris. Had dealt with Eriss and Berons cruelty. Had his lover slaughtered by his own father. But Lucien had learned to keep his cool. Right. Rhys had asked Cassian to do this. He should think like Rhys, like Mor. Push aside the rage. Cassian gave himself a second to do so, vaguely aware of Vassa saying something. He had noted and half-dismissed the two humans in the room: the brown-haired warriorJurianand the red-haired young queen. If Rhys and Mor were here They wouldnt say a word about anything in front of Eris. Would pretend this was a friendly visit, to check on how the human lands were holding together. Even if Eris was most likely their ally. No, Eris was their ally. Rhys had bargained with him, worked with him. Eris had held up his end at every turn. Rhys trusted him. Mor, despite all that had happened, trusted him. Sort of. So Cassian supposed he should do so as well. His head hurt. So many things to calculate. Hed done it on battlefields, but these mind games and webs of lies Why had Rhys asked him to do this? Hed been direct in dealing with the Illyrians: hed laid out the hell that would be brought down upon them if they rebelled, and shown up to help with whatever they needed. That was in no way comparable to this. Cassian blinked, and registered what Vassa had said: General Cassian. A pleasure. He gave the queen a swift, perfunctory bow. Your Majesty. Jurian coughed, and Cassian glanced to the human warrior. Once human? Partially human? He didnt know. Jurian had been sliced apart by Amarantha, his consciousness somehow trapped within his eye, which shed mounted on a ring and worn for five hundred years. Until his lingering bones had been used by Hybern to resurrect his body and return that essence into this form, the same one that had led armies on those long-ago battlefields during the War. Who was Jurian now? What was he? From his spot on a ridiculous pink sofa by the far wall, Jurian said, It only goes to her head when you call her that. Vassa straightened, her cobalt jacket a sharp contrast to the red-gold of her hair. Of the three redheaded people in this room, Cassian liked her coloring the best: the golden hue of her skin, the large, uptilted blue eyes framed by dark lashes and brows, and the silken red hair, which shed cut to her shoulders since hed last seen her. Vassa said to Jurian, I am a queen, you know. A queen by night, and firebird by day, sold by her fellow human queens to a sorcerer-lord who had enchanted her. Damned her into transforming each dawn into a bird of fire and ash. Cassian had waited until sundown to visit, so as to find her in her human form. He needed her to be able to speak. Jurian crossed an ankle over a knee, his muddy boots dull in the firelight. Last I heard, your kingdom was no longer yours. Are you still a queen? Vassa rolled her eyes, then looked to Lucien, who sank onto the sofa beside Jurian. Like the Fae male had settled similar arguments between them before. But Luciens attention was upon Cassian. Did you come with news or orders? Keenly aware of Eriss presence near the fire, Cassian kept his gaze upon Lucien. We give you orders as our emissary. He nodded to Jurian and Vassa. But when you are with your friends, we only give suggestions. Eris snorted. Cassian ignored him, and asked Lucien, Hows the Spring Court? He had to give Lucien credit: the male was somehow able to move between his three rolesan emissary for the Night Court, ally to Jurian and Vassa, and liaison to Tamlinand still dress immaculately. Luciens face revealed nothing of how Tamlin and his court fared. Its fine. Cassian didnt know why hed expected an update regarding the High Lord of Spring. Lucien only gave those in private to Rhys. Eris snorted again at Cassians fumbling, and, unable to help himself, Cassian at last turned toward him. What are you doing here? Eris didnt so much as shift in his seat. Several dozen of my soldiers were out on patrol in my lands several days ago and have not reported back. We found no sign of battle. Even my hounds couldnt track them beyond their last known location. Cassians brows lowered. He knew he shouldnt let anything show, but Those hounds were the best in Prythian. Canines blessed with magic of their own. Gray and sleek like smoke, they could race fast as the wind, sniff out any prey. They were so highly prized that the Autumn Court forbade them from being given or sold beyond its borders, and so expensive that only its nobility owned them. And they were bred rarely enough that even one was extremely difficult to come by. Eris, Cassian knew, had twelve. None of them could winnow? Cassian asked. No. While the unit is one of my most skilled in combat, none of its soldiers are remarkable in magic or breeding. Breeding was tossed at Cassian with a smirk. Asshole. Vassa said, Eris came to see if I could think of any reason why his soldiers might have gotten into trouble with humans. His hounds detected strange scents at the site of the abduction. Ones that seemed human, but were odd, somehow. Cassian lifted a brow at Eris. You believe a group of humans could kill your soldiers? They cant be that skilled, then. Depends on the human, Jurian said, the males face dark. Vassas was a mirror. Cassian grimaced. Sorry. I Sorry. Some courtier. But Eris shrugged a shoulder. I think plenty of parties are interested in triggering another war, and this would be the start of it. Though perhaps your court did it. I wouldnt put it past Rhysand to winnow my soldiers away and plant some mysterious scents to throw us off. Cassian flashed him a savage grin. Were allies, remember? Eris gave him an identical smile. Always. Cassian couldnt stop himself. Maybe you made your own soldiers vanishif they even vanished at alland are just making this up for the same bullshit reason you just spewed out. Eris chuckled, but Jurian cut in, There have been tensions amongst the humans regarding your kind. But as far as we know, as far as weve heard from Lord Graysens forces, the humans here have kept to the old demarcation lines, and have no interest in starting trouble. Yet was left unsaid. Would asking about the human queens on the continent reveal Rhyss hand? The conversation had shifted toward it, so he could bring it up as idle talk, rather than as the reason hed come here Fuck, his head hurt. What about youryour sisters? He nodded to Vassa. Would they have anything to do with this? Eriss gaze shot to him, and Cassian reined in his curse. Perhaps hed said too much. He wished Mor were here. Even if putting her and Eris in a room together No, hed save her that misery. Vassas cerulean eyes darkened. We were just getting to that, actually. She gestured to Cassian. Youve heard the same rumors we have: theyre stirring again across the sea, and are poised to start trouble. Are they stupid enough to do it is the real question, Jurian said. Theyre anything but stupid, Lucien said, shaking his head. But leaving a human scent at the site is so obvious a clue that it seems unlikely it was one of them. Any move they make is heavily weighed, Vassa said, glancing to the wall of windows overlooking the destroyed lands beyond. Though I cannot think why any of them would capture your soldiers, she said to Eris, who seemed to be monitoring each word out of their mouths. There are other Fae on the continent itself, so why bother to cross the sea to take yours? And why not the Spring Courts? Tamlin wouldnt notice anyone missing at this point. Lucien cringed, and Cassian, while inclined to smirk at the thought of the asshole suffering, found himself frowning. If war was coming, they needed Tamlin and his forces in fighting shape. Needed Tamlin ready. Rhys had been visiting him regularly, making sure hed be both on their side and capable of leading. How Rhys had managed not to kill the High Lord of Spring was something Cassian still couldnt understand. But that was why Rhys was High Lord, and Cassian his blade. He knew if he ever got the name of the human bastard whod put his hands on Nesta, nothing would stop him from finding the man. A conversation hed had with Nesta years ago, when shed still been human, forever lurked in the back of his mind. How shed stiffened at his touch, and hed knownscented and seen the fear in her eyes and knownthat a man had hurt her. Or tried to. Shed never told him the details, but shed confirmed it enough by refusing to share the mans name. Hed often contemplated how hed kill the man, if Nesta gave him the go-ahead. Peeling his skin from his bones would be a good start. His friends would understand the wound it pressed. How far the pain of that ancient wound would push him to go. A razed Illyrian camp was all that remained of the first and last time hed let himself sink to that level of rage. And Rhys had appointed him to play courtier. To put aside the blade and use his words. It was a joke. Eris uncrossed his legs. I suppose this could be to sow tensions amongst us. To make us eye each other with suspicion. Weaken our bonds. Hybern would have done that, Jurian agreed. He might have taught them a thing or two. Before Nesta had beheaded him. But Vassa said, The queens require no teaching. They were well versed in treachery before they ever contacted Hybern. And have dealt with greater monsters than him. Cassian could have sworn flames rippled across her blue eyes. Both Jurian and Lucien stared at her, the formers face utterly unreadable, and the latters pained. Cassian suppressed his jolt. He should have asked someone before coming here how much time remained before Vassa would be forced to return to the continentto the sorcerer-lord at a remote lake who held her leash, and had allowed her to leave only temporarily, as part of a bargain Feyres father had struck. Feyres father and Nestas father. Cassian blocked out the memory of the mans neck being snapped. Of Nestas face as it had happened. And deciding to damn caution to hell, he asked, Which of the queens would do something this bold? Vassas golden face tightened. Briallyn. The once-young, once-human queen who had been turned High Fae by the Cauldron. But in its rage at whatever Nesta had taken from it, the Cauldron had punished Briallyn. She was Made immortal Fae, yesbut she was withered into a crone. Doomed to be old for millennia. Shed made no secret of her hatred for Nesta. Her desire for revenge. If Briallyn made a move against Nesta, hed kill the queen himself. Cassian tried to think over the bellowing beast in his head that tightened every muscle of his body until only bloody violence would appease it. Easy, Lucien said. Cassian snarled. Easy, Lucien repeated, and flame sizzled in his russet eye. The flame, the surprising dominance within it, hit Cassian like a stone to the head, knocking him from his need to kill and kill and kill whatever might threaten They were all staring. Cassian rolled his tensed shoulders, stretching out his wings. Hed revealed too much. Like a stupid brute, hed let them all see too much, learn too much. Send that shadowsinger of yours to track Briallyn, Jurian ordered, his face grave. If shes somehow capable of capturing a unit of Fae soldiers, we need to know how. Swiftly. Spoken like the general Jurian had once been. Cassian said to Vassa, You really think Briallyn would do something like this? Be that blatant? Someone has to be trying to fool us into going after her. Lucien asked, How would she even get here and vanish that quickly? Crossing the sea takes weeks. Shed need to winnow to pull it off. The queens can winnow, Jurian corrected. They did so during the war, remember? But Vassa said, Only when several of us are together. And it is not winnowing as the Fae do, but a different power. Its akin to the way all seven High Lords can combine their powers to perform miracles. Well, fuck. Eris said, I have it on good authority that the other three queens have scattered to the winds. Cassian tucked away the information and the questions it raised. How did Eris know that? Briallyn has been residing alone in their palace for weeks now. Long before my soldiers vanished. So she cant winnow, then, Cassian concluded. And againwould she really be foolish enough to do something like this if the other queens have left? Vassas eyes darkened. Yes. The others departure would serve to remove obstacles to her ambitions. But shed only do this if she had someone of immense power behind her. Perhaps pulling her strings. Even the fire seemed to quiet. Luciens eye clicked. Who? You wonder who is capable of making a unit of Fae soldiers across the sea vanish? Who could give Briallyn the power to winnowor do it for her? Who could aid Briallyn so shed be bold enough to do such a thing? Look to Koschei. Cassian froze as memories clicked into place, as surely as one of Amrens jigsaw puzzles. The sorcerer who imprisoned you is named Koschei? Is he is he the Bone Carvers brother? Everyone gaped at him. Cassian clarified, The Bone Carver mentioned a brother to me once, a fellow true immortal and a death-lord. That was his name. Yes, Vassa breathed. Koschei iswasthe Bone Carvers older brother. Lucien and Jurian looked at her in surprise. But Vassas gaze lay upon him. Fear and hatred filled it, as if speaking the males name were abhorrent. Her voice hoarsened. Koschei is no mere sorcerer. Hes confined to the lake only due to an ancient spell. Because he was outsmarted once. Everything he does is to free himself. Why was he imprisoned? Cassian asked. The story is too long to tell, she hedged. But know that Briallyn and the others sold me to him not through their devices, but his. By words he planted in their courts, whispered on the winds. Hes still at the lake, Lucien said carefully. Lucien had been there, Cassian recalled. Had gone with Nestas father to the lake where Vassa was held captive. Yes, Vassa said, relief in her eyes. But Koschei is as old as the seaolder. Some say he is Death itself, Eris murmured. I do not know if that is true, Vassa said, but they call him Koschei the Deathless, for he has no death awaiting him. He is truly immortal. And would know of anything that might give Briallyn an edge against us. And you think Koschei would do all of this, Cassian pressed, not out of sympathy for the human queens, but with the goal of freeing himself? Certainly. Vassa peered at her hands, fingers flexing. I fear what may happen if he ever gets free of the lake. If he sees this world on the cusp of disaster and knows he could strike, and strike hard, and make himself its master. As he once tried to do, long ago. Those are legends that predate our courts, Eris said. Vassa nodded. It is all I have gleaned from my time enslaved to him. Lucien stared out the windowas if he could see the lake across a sea and a continent. As if he were setting his target. But Cassian had heard enough. He didnt wait for their good-byes before heading for the archway, and the front hall behind it. Hed made it two steps beyond the front door, breathing in the crisp night air, when Eris said behind him, You make a terrible courtier. Cassian turned to find Eris shutting the front door and leaning against it. His face was pale and stony in the moonlight. What do you know? As little as you, Cassian said, offering a truth that he hoped Eris would deem a deception. Eris sniffed the night breeze. Then smiled. She couldnt be bothered to come inside to say hello? How hed detected Mors lingering scent, Cassian didnt know. Perhaps Eris and his smokehounds had more in common than he realized. She didnt know you were here. A lie. Mor had probably sensed it. Hed spare her the pain of coming back here, and have Rhys retrieve him. Hed fly north for a few hoursuntil he was in range of Rhyss powerand then shoot a thought toward him. Eriss long red hair ruffled in the wind. Whatever it is youre doing, whatever it is youre looking into, I want in. Why? And no. Because I need the edge Briallyn has, what Koschei has told her or shown her. To overthrow your father. Because my father has already pledged his forces to Briallyn and the war she wishes to incite. Cassian started. What? Eriss face filled with cool amusement. I wanted to feel out Vassa and Jurian. He didnt mention his brother, oddly enough. But they clearly know little about this. Explain what the fuck you mean by Beron pledging his forces to Briallyn. Its exactly what it sounds like. He caught wind of her ambitions, and went to her palace a month ago to meet with her. I stayed here, but I sent my best soldiers with him. Cassian refrained from sniping about Eris opting out, especially as the last words settled. Those wouldnt happen to be the same soldiers who went missing, would they? Eris nodded gravely. They returned with my father, but they were off. Aloof and strange. They vanished soon afterand my hounds confirmed that the scents at the scene are the same as those on gifts Briallyn sent to curry my fathers favor. You knew it was her this entire time? Cassian motioned to the house and the three people inside it. You didnt think Id just spill all that information, did you? I needed Vassa to confirm that Briallyn could do something like that. Why would Briallyn ally with your father only to abduct your soldiers? Thats what Id like to find out. What does Beron say? He is unaware of it. You know where I stand with my father. And this unholy alliance hes struck with Briallyn will only hurt us. All of us. It will turn into a Fae war for control. So I want to find answers on my ownrather than what my father tries to feed me. Cassian surveyed the male, his grim face. So we take out your father. Eris snorted, and Cassian bristled. I am the only person my father has told of his new allegiance. If the Night Court moves, it will expose me. So your worry about Briallyns alliance with Beron is about what it means for you, rather than the rest of us. I only wish to defend the Autumn Court against its worst enemies. Why would I work with you on this? Because we are indeed allies. Eriss smile became lupine. And because I do not believe your High Lord would wish me to go to other territories and ask them to help with Briallyn and Koschei. To help them remember that all it might take to secure Briallyns alliance would be to hand over a certain Archeron sister. Dont be stupid enough to believe my father hasnt thought of that, too. Cassians rage flashed red before his eyes. Hed revealed that weakness earlier. Let Eris see how much Nesta meant, what hed do to defend her. Fool, he cursed himself. Stupid, useless fool. I could kill you now and not worry about this at all, Cassian mused. Hed enjoyed beating the shit out of the male that night on the ice with Feyre and Lucien. And hed waited centuries to kill him, anyway. Then you would certainly have a war on your hands. My father would go straight to Briallynand Koschei, I supposeand then go to the other discontent territories, and you would be wiped off the proverbial map. Perhaps literally, since the Night Court would be divvied up between the other territories if Rhysand and Feyre die without an heir. Cassian clenched his jaw. So youre to be my ally whether I wish it or not? The brute understands at last. Cassian ignored the barb. Yes. What you know, I want to know. I will notify you of any movement on my fathers part regarding Briallyn. So send out your shadowsinger. And when he returns, find me. Cassian stared at him from under lowered brows. Eriss mouth curled upward, and before he winnowed into the night like a ghost, he said, Stick to fighting battles, General. Leave the ruling to those capable of playing the game. CHAPTER 8 Nesta didnt bother to go to the wine cellar. Or to the kitchen. Theyd be locked. But she knew where the stairs lay. Knew that particular door, at least, would not be locked. Still snarling, Nesta yanked open the heavy oak door and peered down the steep, narrow stairwell. Spiral stairs. Each a foot high. Ten thousand steps, around and around and around. Only the occasional slitted window to offer a breath of air and a glimpse of progress. Ten thousand steps between her and the cityand then a half-mile walk at least from the bottom of the mountain to the nearest tavern. And awaiting, blessed oblivion. Ten thousand steps. She was no longer human. This High Fae body could do it. She could do it. She couldnt do it. The dizziness hit her first. Winding around, over and over, eyes trained downward to avoid a slip that would kill her, caused her head to spin. Her empty stomach churned. But she focused, counting each step. Seventy. Seventy-one. Seventy-two. The city below barely drew any closer through the occasional slitted windows she passed. Her legs started to shake; her knees groaned with the effort of keeping her upright, balancing on the steep drop of each step. Nothing but her own breathing and the sound of her scuffing steps filled the narrow space. All she could see was the endlessly curving, perfect arc of the wall ahead. It never altered, save for those tiny, too-rare windows. Around and around and around and around and around Eighty-six, eighty-seven Down and down and down and down One hundred. She halted, no window in sight, and the walls pushed, the floor kept moving Nesta leaned into the red stone wall, let its coolness sink into her brow. Breathed. Nine thousand nine hundred steps to go. Bracing a hand on the wall, she renewed her descent. Her head spun again. Her legs wobbled. She got in eleven more steps before her knees buckled so suddenly she nearly slid. Only her hand grappling at the uneven wall kept her from wiping out. The stairwell spun and spun and spun, and she shut her eyes against it. Her jagged panting bounced off the stones. And in the stillness, she had no defenses against what her mind whispered. She couldnt shut out her fathers final words to her. I loved you from the first moment I held you in my arms. Please, shed begged the King of Hybern. Please. Hed snapped her fathers neck anyway. Nesta gritted her teeth, blowing out breath after breath. She opened her eyes and stretched out her leg to take another step. It trembled so badly that she didnt dare. She didnt let herself dwell on it, rage about it, as she turned around. Didnt even let herself feel the defeat. Her legs protested, but she forced them upward. Away. Around and around again. Up and up, one hundred and eleven steps. She was nearly crawling by the last thirty, unable to get a breath down, sweat pooling in the bodice of her dress, her hair sticking to her damp neck. What the hell were the benefits of becoming High Fae if she couldnt endure this? The pointed ears, shed learned to like. The infrequent cycle, which Feyre had warned would be painful, had actually been a boon, something Nesta was happy to worry about only twice a year. But what was the point of itof any of itif she couldnt conquer these stairs? She kept her eyes on each step, rather than the twisting wall and the dizzying sensation it brought. This hateful House. This horrible place. She grunted as the oak door at the top of the stairwell became visible at last. Fingers digging into the steps hard enough for the tips to bark in pain, she dragged herself up the last few, slithering on her belly onto the hallway floor. And arrived face-first in front of Cassian, smirking as he leaned against the adjacent wall. Cassian had needed some time before seeing her again. Hed updated Rhys and the others immediately upon returning; theyd received his information with dour, somber faces. By the end of it, Azriel was preparing for some reconnaissance on Briallyn as Amren pondered what powers or resources the queen and Koschei might possess, if they had indeed captured Eriss soldiers so easily. And then Cassian had been slapped with a new order: keep an eye on Eris. Beyond the fact that he approached you, Rhys had said, you are my general. Eris commands Berons forces. Be in communication with him. Cassian had started to object, but Rhys had directed a pointed look at Azriel, and Cassian had caved. Az had too much on his plate already. Cassian could deal with that piece of shit Eris on his own. Eris wants to avoid a war that would expose him, Feyre had guessed. If Beron sides with Briallyn, Eris would be forced to choose between his father and Prythian. The careful balance hes struck by playing both sides would crumble. He wants to act when its convenient for his plans. This threatens that. But no one had been able to decide which was the bigger threat for them: Briallyn and Koschei, or Berons willingness to ally with them. While the Night Court had been trying to make the peace permanent, the bastard had been doing his best to start another war. After an unusually quiet dinner, Cassian had flown back up to the House. And found the oak door to the stairs open, Nestas scent lingering. So hed waited. Counted the minutes. It had been worth it. Seeing her claw her way onto the landing, panting, hair curling with the sweat sliding down her facecompletely worth his generally shit day. Nesta was still sprawled on the hall floor when she hissed, Whoever designed those stairs was a monster. Would you believe that Rhys, Az, and I had to climb up and down them as punishment when we were boys? Her eyes shimmered with tempergood. Better than the vacant ice. Why? Because we were young and stupid and testing boundaries with a High Lord who didnt understand practical jokes regarding public nudity. He nodded toward the stairs. I got so dizzy on the hike down that I puked on Az. He then puked on Rhys, and Rhys puked all over himself. It was the height of summer, and by the time we made the trek back up, the heat was unbearable, we all reeked, and the scent of the vomit on the stairs had become horrific. We all puked again as we walked through it. He could have sworn the corners of her mouth were trying to twitch upward. He didnt hold back his own grin at the memory. Even if theyd still had to hike back down and mop it all up. Cassian asked, What stair did you make it to? One hundred eleven. Nesta didnt rise. Pathetic. Her fingers pushed into the floor, but her body didnt move. This stupid House wouldnt give me wine. I figured that would be the only motivator to make you risk ten thousand stairs. Her fingers dug into the stone floor once more. He threw her a crooked smile, glad for the distraction. You cant get up, can you. Her arms strained, elbows buckling. Go fly into a boulder. Cassian pushed off the wall and reached her in three strides. He wrapped his hands under her arms and hauled her up. She scowled at him the entire time. Glared at him some more when she swayed and he gripped her tighter, keeping her upright. I knew you were out of shape, he observed, stepping away when shed proved she wasnt about to collapse, but a hundred steps? Really? Two hundred, counting the ones up, she grumbled. Still pathetic. She straightened her spine and raised her chin. Keep reaching out your hand. Cassian shrugged, turning toward the hall and the stairwell that would take him up to his rooms. If you get tired of being weak as a mewling kitten, come to training. He glanced over a shoulder. Nesta still panted, her face flushed and furious. And participate. Nesta sat at the breakfast table, grateful shed left her room soon after sunrise to make the trek up to the dining room. It had taken her double the time it normally would, thanks to her stiff, throbbing legs. Getting out of bed had required gritted teeth and a litany of cursing. Everything afterward had only gotten worse. Bending to put her legs into her pants, going to the bathroom, even just heaving open the door. There wasnt one part of her legs that didnt ache. So shed left her room early, not wanting to give Cassian the satisfaction of seeing her limp and grimace into the dining room. The problem, of course, was that now she wasnt entirely certain she could stand. So shed taken a good, long while eating her meal. Was choking down the porridge when Cassian prowled through the dining room doors, took one look at her, and smirked. He knew. Somehow, the swaggering asshole knew. She might have snapped something, but Azriel stalked into the room on his heels. Nesta straightened at the shadowsingers appearance, the darkness clinging to his shoulders as he offered her a grim smile. Azriel was nothing short of beautiful. Even with those scarred hands and the shadows that flowed from him like smoke, shed always found him to be the prettiest of the three males who called themselves brothers. Cassian slid into the chair opposite hers, his food instantly appearing before him, and said with grating cheer, Morning, Nesta. She threw him an equally saccharine smile. Good morning, Cassian. Azriels hazel eyes danced, but he said nothing as he gracefully took his place beside Cassian, a plate of his own food appearing. I havent seen you in a while, Nesta said to him. She couldnt remember the last time, actually. Azriel took a bite of his eggs before replying. Likewise. The shadowsinger nodded toward her clothes. Hows training? Cassian cut him a sharp look. Nesta glanced between them. There was no way Azriel didnt know about yesterday. Cassian had probably gloated about the incident with the stairs, too. She sipped from her tea. Training is fantastic. Absolutely riveting. Azriels mouth curled up at the corner. I hope youre not giving my brother a hard time. She set down her teacup. Is that a threat, Shadowsinger? Cassian took a long drink from his own tea. Drained it to the dregs. Azriel said coolly, I dont need to resort to threats. The shadows coiled around him, snakes ready to strike. Nesta gave him a smile, holding his stare. Neither do I. She leaned back in her chair and said to Cassian, who was frowning at both of them, I want to train with him instead. She could have sworn Cassian went still. Interesting. Azriel coughed into his tea. Cassian drummed his fingers on the table. I think youll find that Az is even less forgiving than I am. With that pretty face? she crooned. I have a hard time believing that. Azriel ducked his head, focusing on his food. You want to train with Az, Cassian said tightly, then go ahead. He appeared thoughtful for a moment, his eyes lighting before he added, Though I doubt that youll survive a lesson with him, when you cant manage to walk down a hundred stairs without being so sore the next morning that youre unable to get out of your chair. She braced her feet on the floor. Hed read every tinge of pain on her face if she stood, but letting him see he was right Azriel studied the two of them as she planted her hands on the table, bit down on her yelp, and stood in a great rush. Cassian shoveled more eggs into his mouth and said around them, Doesnt count when you use your hands to do most of the work. Nesta schooled her face into utter disdain, even as a hiss rose inside her. I bet that isnt what youve been telling yourself at night. Azriels shoulders shook with silent laughter as Cassian set down his fork, his eyes gleaming with challenge. Cassians voice dropped an octave. Is that what those smutty books teach you? That its only at night? It took a heartbeat for the words to settle. And she couldnt stop it, the heat that sprang to her face, her glance at his powerful hands. Even with Azriel now biting his lip to keep from laughing, she couldnt stop herself. Cassian said with a wicked smile, It could be anytimedawns first light, or when Im bathing, or even after a long, hard day of practice. She didnt miss the slight emphasis he put on long, hard. Nesta couldnt stop her toes from curling in her boots. But she said with a slight smile, striding for the doorway, refusing to let one bit of the discomfort in her sore legs show, Sounds like you have a lot of time on your hands, Cassian. Youre in deep shit, Azriel said mildly to him on the chilly veranda as Nesta donned her cloak inside. I know, Cassian muttered. He had no idea how it had happened: how hed gone from mocking Nesta to taunting her with his own bedroom habits. Then imagining her hand wrapped around him, pumping him, until he was a heartbeat away from exploding out of his chair and leaping into the skies. He knew Az had been well aware of the shift in his scent. How his skin had become too tight at the way she said his name, his cock an insistent ache rubbing against the buttons of his pants. He could count on one hand the number of times shed addressed him by name. The thought of that one hand led him back to her hand, squeezing him rough and hard, just the way he liked it Cassian gritted his teeth and breathed in the crisp morning air. Willed it to settle him. Made himself focus on the morning winds sweet song. The wind around Velaris had always been lovely, gentle. Not like the vicious, unforgiving mistress that ruled the peaks of Illyria. Az chuckled, the wind shifting the strands of his dark hair. You two need a chaperone up here? Yes. No. Yes. I thought you were the chaperone. Az threw him a wicked smile. Im not entirely sure Im enough. Cassian flipped him off. Good luck today. Az would leave soon to begin his spying on BriallynFeyre had decided it last night. Though Rhys had asked Cassian to look into the human queens, the subterfuge would fall to Az. Azriels hazel eyes glimmered. He squeezed Cassians shoulder, his hand a warm weight against the chill. Good luck to you, too. Cassian didnt know why hed thought Nesta would enter the sparring ring with him today. She sat her ass right on the same rock as the day before and did not move. By the time Mor had appeared to winnow them to the camp, hed managed to get enough control over himself that hed stopped thinking about what Nestas hands would feel like and started considering what theyd cover today. Hed planned to keep the lesson to an hour, then leave her at Rhyss mothers old house while he did a standard check of the Illyrian war-bands state of rebuilding their ranks. He wouldnt mention that they might be flying into battle soon, depending on what Az learned. He didnt tell Nesta any of this information, either. Especially about Eris. Shed made her contempt of the Fae realms perfectly clear. And hed be damned if he gave her one more verbal weapon to wield against him, since shed likely see right through him and realize he knew all of this political scheming and planning was far beyond his abilities. He also didnt let himself consider whether it was wise to leave her alone up here even for an hour. So were back to this? Cassian asked, ignoring how every single asshole in the camp watched him. Them. Her. Nesta picked at her nails, wisps of her braided hair drifting free in the wind. Shed hunched over her knees, keeping her body as compact as possible. He said, Youd stop being so cold if you got up and moved. She only folded one ankle over another. If you want to sit on that rock and freeze for the next two hours, go ahead. Fine. Fine. Fine. Good one, Nes. He threw her a mocking grin that he knew made her see red, and strode to the center of the practice area. He halted in its heart, allowing his breathing to take over. When she didnt reply, he let himself fall into that calm, steady place within his mind, let his body begin the series of motions hed performed for five centuries straight. The initial steps were to remind his body that it was about to start working. Stretching and breathing, concentrating on everything from his toes to the tips of his wings. Waking everything up. It got harder from there. Cassian yielded to instinct and movement and breath, only dimly aware of the female watching from that rock. Keep reaching out your hand. Cassian was breathless by the time he finished an hour later. Nesta, to his satisfaction, had become rigid with cold. But she hadnt moved. Hadnt even shifted during his exercises. Wiping the sweat from his brow, he noted that her lips had taken on a blue tinge. Unacceptable. He indicated Rhyss mothers house. Go wait in there. I have business to attend to. She didnt move. Cassian rolled his eyes. Either you sit out here for the next hour, or you can go inside and warm up. She wasnt that stubbornwas she? Thankfully, a blast of icy wind hit the camp at that exact moment, and Nesta began moving toward the house. Its interior was indeed warm, with a fire crackling in the sooty hearth that occupied much of the main room. Feyre or Rhys must have woken the house for them. He held the door for Nesta as she walked in, already rubbing her hands. Slowly, Nesta surveyed the space: the kitchen table before the windows, the little sitting area that occupied the other half of the room, the narrow staircase that led to the exposed upstairs hallway and the two bedrooms beyond. One of those rooms had been his since childhoodthe first bedroom, the first night indoors, hed ever experienced. This house was the first true home hed ever had. He knew every scratch and splinter, every dent and burn mark, all of it preserved with magic. There, the gouged-out spot by the base of the railingthat was where hed cracked his head when Rhys had tackled him during one of their countless brawls. There, that stain on the old red couch: that was when hed spilled his ale while the three of them were drunk out of their minds on their first solo night in this house at age sixteenRhyss mother had been off in Velaris for a rare visit to her mateand Cassian had been too stupid drunk to know how to clean it. Even Rhys, swaying with the combination of ale and liquor, had failed to lift the stain, his magic accidentally setting it instead of wiping it away. Theyd rearranged the throw pillows to hide it from his mother when she returned the next morning, but shed spied it immediately. Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that theyd still been drunk, given away by Azs relentless hiccupping. Cassian nodded to the kitchen table. Since youre so good at sitting, why dont you make yourself comfortable? When she didnt answer, he turned to find Nesta standing in front of the hearth, arms tightly crossed, the flickering light dancing in her beautiful hair. She didnt look up at him. Shed always stood with that stillness. Even as a human. It had only amplified when shed become High Fae. Nesta stared at the fire as if it murmured to that burning soul of hers. What are you looking at? he asked. She blinked, seeming to realize he was still there. A log on the fire popped, and she flinched. Not in surprise, he noted, but in dread. Fear. He glanced between her and the fire. Where had she gone, for those few moments? What horror had she been reliving? Her face had blanched. And shadows dimmed her blue-gray eyes. He knew that expression. Had seen it and felt it so many times hed lost track. There are some shops in the village, he offered, suddenly desperate for anything to remove that hollowness from her. If you dont feel like sitting in here, you could visit them. Nesta still said nothing. So he let it drop, and left the house in silence. CHAPTER 9 Nesta stepped into the warmth of the small shop. The bell above the door jangled as she entered. The floors were fresh pine, all polished and gleaming, a matching counter occupying the back, an open door beyond it revealing a rear room. Clothes for both males and females occupied the space, some displayed on dummies, others folded neatly along display tables. A dark-haired female appeared on the other side of the counter, her braided-back hair shining in the lights. Her face was strikingelegant and sharp, contrasting with her full mouth. Her angular eyes and light brown skin suggested a heritage from another region, perhaps a recent ancestor from the Dawn Court. The light in those eyes was direct. Clear. Good morning, the female said, her voice solid and frank. Can I help you? If she recognized Nesta, she didnt let on. Nesta gestured down at her fighting leathers. I was looking for something warmer than this. The cold leaks through. Ah, the female said, glancing toward the door and the empty street beyond. Worried that someone might see her in here? Or waiting for another customer? The warriors are all such proud fools that they never complain about the leathers being cold. They claim they keep them perfectly warm. Theyre decently warm, Nesta confessed, part of her smiling at the way the female had said proud fools. As if she shared Nestas instinct to be unimpressed by the males in the camp. But the cold still hits me. Hmmm. The woman folded back the partition on the counter, entering the showroom proper. She surveyed Nesta from head to toe. I dont sell fighting gear, but I wonder if we could get fleece-lined leathers made. She nodded toward the street. How often do you train? Im not training. Im Nesta struggled for the right words. Honestly, what she was doing was being a wretched asshole. Im watching, she said a shade pathetically. Ah. The females eyes glinted. Brought here against your will? It was none of her business. But Nesta said, Part of my duties to the Night Court. She wanted to see if the female would pry, to see if she really did not know her. If she would judge her for being a miserable waste of life. The female angled her head, her braid slipping over the shoulder of her simple, homespun gown. Her wings twitched, the motion drawing Nestas eye. Scars ran down themunusual for the Fae. Azriel and Lucien were two of the few who bore scars, both from traumas so terrible Nesta had never dared ask for details. For this female to bear them as well My wings were clipped, the female said. My father was a traditional male. He believed females should serve their families and be confined to their homes. I disagreed. He won, in the end. Sharp, short words. Rhyss mother, Feyre had once told her, had nearly been doomed to such a fate. Only the arrival of his father had stopped the clipping from occurring. Shed been revealed as his mate, and endured the miserable union mostly from gratitude for her unharmed wings. No one, it seemed, had been there to save this female. Im sorry. Nesta shifted on her feet. The female waved a slim hand. Its of no consequence now. This shop keeps me busy enough that some days I forget I could ever fly in the first place. No healer can repair them? Her face tightened, and Nesta regretted her question. It is extremely complexall the connecting muscles and nerves and senses. Short of the High Lord of Dawn, Im not certain anyone could handle it. Thesan, Nesta recalled, was a master of healingFeyre bore his power in her veins. Had offered to use it to heal Elain from her stupor after being turned High Fae. Nesta blocked out the memory of that pale face, the empty brown eyes. Anyway, the female said quickly, I can make inquiries to my suppliers about whether the leathers could be made warmer. It might take a few weeks, possibly a month, but Ill send word as soon as I hear. Thats fine. Thank you. A thought clanged through Nesta. I How much will it cost? She had no money. You work for the High Lord, do you not? The female angled her head again. I can send the bill to Velaris. They Nesta didnt want to admit how low shed fallennot to this stranger. I actually dont need the warmer clothes. I thought Rhysand paid you all well. He does, but I am Fine. If the female could be blunt, so could she. Im cut off. Curiosity flooded the females eyes. Why? Nesta stiffened. I dont know you well enough to tell you that. The female shrugged. All right. I can still make inquiries. Get a price for you. If youre cold out there, you shouldnt suffer. She added pointedly, No matter what the High Lord may think. I think hed rather Cassian threw me off the edge of that cliff over there. The female snorted. But she held out a hand toward Nesta. Im Emerie. Nesta took her hand, surprised to find her grip like iron. Nesta Archeron. I know, Emerie said, releasing Nestas hand. You killed the King of Hybern. Yes. There was no denying that fact. And she couldnt bring herself to lie that she wasnt the least bit smug about it. Good. Emeries smile was a thing of dangerous beauty. She said again, Good. There was steel in this female. Not just in her straight spine and chin, but in her eyes. Nesta turned toward the door and waiting cold, unsure what to do with the naked approval of what so many others had regarded either with awe or fear or doubt. Thank you for your help. So strange, to speak polite, normal words. Strange to wish to offer them, and to a stranger no less. Males and females, children darting amongst them, gawked at Nesta as she exited onto the street. A few hurried their children along. She met their stares with cool indifference. Youre right to hide your children from me, she wanted to say. I am the monster you fear. Same task as yesterday? Nesta asked Clotho by way of greeting, still half-chilled from the camp shed departed only ten minutes earlier. Cassian had barely spoken upon returning to Rhysands mothers house, his face taut with whatever hed dealt with at the other Illyrian villages, and Morrigan had been just as sour-faced when shed appeared to winnow them back to the House of Wind. Cassian had dumped Nesta on the landing veranda without so much as a farewell before he pivoted to where Mor dusted herself off. Within seconds, he was carrying the blond beauty into the brisk wind. It shouldnt have bothered herseeing him flying away with another female in his arms. Some small part of her knew it wasnt remotely fair to feel that body-tightening irritation at the sight. She had pushed him away again and again, and he had no reason to believe shed wish it differently. And she knew he had a history with Morrigan, that theyd been lovers long ago. Shed turned from the sight, entering the House through its dining room, where she found a bowl of some sort of pork-and-bean soup waiting. A silent, thoughtful offering. Shed just said to the House, Im not hungry, before striding down to the library. Now she waited as Clotho wrote out an answer and handed over a piece of paper. Nesta read, There are books to be shelved on Level Five. Nesta peered over the railing beside Clothos desk, silently counting. Five was very far down. Not within the first ring of true darkness, but hovering in the dimness above it. Nothing lives down there anymore, right? Bryaxis hasnt come back? Clothos enchanted pen moved. The second note read, Bryaxis never harmed any of us. Why? The pen scratched along the paper. I think Bryaxis took pity on us. We saw our nightmares come true before we came here. It was an effort not to look at Clothos gnarled hands or try to pierce the shadows beneath her hood. The priestess added to the note, I can reassign you to a higher level. No, Nesta said hoarsely. Ill manage. And that was that. An hour later, her leathers covered in dust, Nesta slumped at an empty wooden table, in need of a pause. That same bowl of pork-and-bean soup appeared on the table. She peered at the distant ceiling. I said Im not hungry. A spoon appeared alongside the bowl. And a napkin. This is absolutely none of your business. A glass of water thudded down next to the soup. Nesta crossed her arms, leaning back in the chair. Who are you talking to? The light female voice had Nesta twisting around, stiffening as she found a priestess in the robes of an acolyte standing between the two nearest shelves. Her hood was thrown back, and faelight danced in the rich coppery chestnut of her pin-straight hair. Her large teal eyes were as clear and depthless as the stone usually atop a priestesss hood, and a scattering of freckles lay across her nose and cheeks, as if someone had tossed them with a careless hand. She was youngalmost coltish, with her slender, elegant limbs. High Fae, and yet Nesta couldnt explain the way she sensed that there was something else mixed into her. Some secret beneath the pretty face. Nesta gestured to the soup and water, but they were gone. She scowled at the ceiling, at the House that had the nerve to pester her and then make her look like a lunatic. But she said to the priestess, I wasnt talking to anyone. The priestess hefted the five tomes in her arms. Are you finished for today? Nesta glanced at the cart of books shed left unsorted. No. I was taking a break. Youve only been working for an hour. I didnt realize anyone was timing me. Nesta allowed every bit of unpleasantness to show in her face. Shed already conversed with one stranger today, fulfilling her quota of basic decency. Being kind to a second one was beyond her. The acolyte remained unimpressed. Its not every day we have someone new in our library. She dumped the books onto Nestas cart. These can be shelved. I dont answer to acolytes. The priestess drew up to her full height, which was slightly taller than average for Fae females. A crackling sort of energy buzzed around her, and Nestas power grumbled in answer. Youre here to work, the acolyte said, her voice unruffled. And not only for Clotho. You speak rather informally of your high priestess. Clotho does not enforce rank. She encourages us to use her name. And what is your name? She would certainly be complaining to Clotho about this impertinent acolytes attitude. The priestesss eyes glittered with amusement, as if aware of Nestas plan. Gwyneth Berdara. Unusual, for these Fae to use family names. Even Rhys didnt use one, as far as Nesta knew. But most call me Gwyn. A level above, two priestesses walked by the railing in silence, hooded heads bowed and books in their arms. Nesta could have sworn one of them watched, though. Gwyn tracked the focus of her attention. Thats Roslin and Deirdre. How can you tell? With their hoods on, they appeared nearly identical save for their hands. Their scents, Gwyn said simply, and turned to the books shed left on the cart. Do you plan to shelve these, or do I need to take them elsewhere? Nesta leveled a flat look at her. Living down here, there was a good chance the priestesses didnt know who she was. What shed done. What power she bore. Ill do it, Nesta said through clenched teeth. Gwyn hooked her hair behind her arched ears. Freckles dotted her hands, too, like splattered bits of rust. If marks of trauma lingered, any evidence was hidden by her robe. But Nesta knew well how invisible wounds could be. How they could scar as deeply and badly as any physical breaking. And it was for that reminder alone that Nesta said more gently, Ill do it right now. Perhaps she had a little bit of her decency quota left. Gwyn marked the change. I dont need your pity. The words were sharp, as clear as her teal eyes. It wasnt pity. Ive been here for nearly two years, but I havent become so disconnected from others that I cant tell when someone remembers why I am here and alters their behavior. Gwyns mouth flattened to a line. I dont need to be coddled. Only spoken to like a person. I doubt youll enjoy the way I speak to most people, Nesta said. Gwyn snorted. Try me. Nesta looked at her from under lowered brows again. Get out of my sight. Gwyn grinned, a broad, bright thing that showed most of her teeth and made her eyes sparkle in a way Nesta knew her own never had. Oh, youre good. Gwyn turned back to the stacks. Really good. She vanished into the gloom. Nesta stared after her for a long moment, wondering if shed imagined the whole thing. Two friendly conversations in one day. She had no idea when such a thing had last occurred. Another hooded priestess drifted by, and offered Nesta a bob of the chin in greeting. Quiet settled around her, as if Gwyn had been a summer storm that blew in and evaporated within a moment. Sighing, Nesta gathered the books Gwyn had left on the cart. Hours later, dusty and exhausted and finally hungry, Nesta stood before Clothos desk and said, Same story tomorrow? Clotho wrote, Are you not pleased by your work? I would be if your acolytes didnt boss me around like a servant. Gwyneth mentioned she had run into you earlier. She works for Merrill, my right hand, who is a fiercely demanding scholar. If Gwyneths requests were abrupt, it was due to the pressing nature of the work she does. She wanted me to shelve her books, not find more. Other scholars need them. But I am not in the business of explaining my acolytes behavior. If you did not like Gwyneths request, you should have said so. To her. Nesta bristled. I did. Shes a piece of work. Some might say the same of you. Nesta crossed her arms. Some might. Shed have bet that Clotho was smiling beneath her hood, but the priestess wrote, Gwyneth, like you, has her own history of bravery and survival. I would ask that you give her the benefit of the doubt. Acid that felt an awful lot like regret burned in Nestas veins. She shoved it aside. Noted. And the work is fine. Clotho only wrote, Good night, Nesta. Nesta trudged up the steps, and entered the House proper. The wind seemed to moan through the halls, answered only by her grumbling stomach. The private library was mercifully empty when she strode through the double doors, instantly relaxing at the sight of all those books crammed close, the sunset on the city below, the Sidra a living band of gold. Sitting at the desk before the wall of windows, she said to the House, Im sure you wont do it now, but I would like that soup. Nothing. She sighed up at the ceiling. Fantastic. Her stomach twisted, as if itd devour her organs if she didnt eat soon. She added tightly, Please. The soup appeared, a glass of water beside it. A napkin and silverware followed. A fire roared to life in the hearth, but she said quickly, No fire. No need. It banked to nothing, but the faelights in the room flared brighter. Nesta was reaching for her spoon when a plate of fresh, crusty bread appeared. As if the House were a fussing mother hen. Thank you, she said into the quiet, and dug in. The faelights flickered once, as if to say, Youre welcome. CHAPTER 10 Nesta ate until she couldnt fit another morsel into her body, helping herself to thirds of the soup. The House seemed more than happy to oblige her, and had even offered her a slice of double-chocolate cake to finish. Is this Cassian-approved? She picked up the fork and smiled at the moist, gleaming cake. It certainly isnt, he said from the doorway, and Nesta whirled, scowling. He nodded toward the cake. But eat up. She put down the fork. What do you want? Cassian surveyed the family library. Why are you eating in here? Isnt it obvious? His grin was a slash of white. The only thing thats obvious is that youre talking to yourself. Im talking to the House. Which is a considerable step up from talking to you. It doesnt talk back. Exactly. He snorted. I walked into that one. He stalked across the room, eyeing the cake she still didnt touch. Are you really talking to the House? Dont you talk to it? No. It listens to me, she insisted. Of course it does. Its enchanted. It even brought food down to the library unasked. His brows rose. Why? I dont know how your faerie magic works. Did you do anything to make it act that way? If youre taking a page from Devlons book and asking if I did any witchcraft, the answer is no. Cassian chuckled. Thats not what I meant, but fine. The House likes you. Congratulations. She growled, and he leaned over her to pick up the fork. She went stiff at his closeness, but he said nothing as he took a bite of the cake. He let out a hum of pleasure that traveled along her bones. And then took another bite. Thats supposed to be mine, she groused, peering up at him as he continued to eat. Then take it from me, he said. A simple disarming maneuver would do, considering my center of gravity is off balance and Im distracted by this delicious cake. She glowered at him. He took a third bite. These are the things, Nes, that youd learn in lessons with me. Your threats would be a hell of a lot more impressive if you could back them up. She drummed her fingers on the desk. Eyed the fork in his hands and pictured stabbing him in the thigh with it. You could do that, too, he said, reading the direction of her stare. I could teach you how to turn anything into a weapon. Even a fork. She bared her teeth, but Cassian only set down the fork with grating precision and walked out, leaving her the half-eaten cake. Nesta read the deliciously erotic romance shed found on a shelf of the private library until her eyelids grew so heavy only iron will could hold them open. It was then that she trudged down the hall to her bedroom and collapsed into bed, not bothering to change out of her clothes before she sprawled on the mattress. She woke freezing in the dark of night, roused herself enough to strip off the leathers, and climbed under the sheets, teeth clattering. A moment later, a fire blazed in the hearth. No fire, she ordered, and it vanished again. She could have sworn a tentative curiosity curled around her. Shivering, she waited for the sheets to warm to her body temperature. Long minutes passed, and then the bed heated. Not from her own naked body, but some manner of spell. The very air warmed, too, as if someone had blown a great breath into the space. Her shaking stopped, and she nestled into the warmth. Thank you, she murmured. The Houses only answer was to slide the still-open drapes shut. By the time theyd finished swaying, she was again asleep. Elain had been stolen. By Hybern. By the Cauldron, which had seen Nesta watching it and watched her in turn. Had noted her scrying with bones and stones and made her regret it. She had done this. Brought this upon them. Touching her power, wielding it, had done this, and she would never forgive herself, never Elain would surely be tormented, ripped apart body and soul. A crack cleaved the world. Her father stood before her, neck twisted. Her father, with his soft brown eyes, the love for her still shining in them as their light faded Nesta jolted awake, nausea rippling through her as she grasped at the sheets. Deep in her gut, her soul, something writhed and twined around itself, seeking a way out, seeking a way into the world Nesta shoved it down. Stomped on her power. Slammed every mental door she could on it. Dream, she told it. Dream and memory. Go away. Her power grumbled in her veins, but obeyed. The bed had become hot enough that Nesta kicked off the sheets before rubbing her hands over her sweat-soaked face. She needed a drink. Needed anything to wash this away. She dressed swiftly, not quite feeling her body. Not quite caring what time it was or where she was, thinking only of the obstacle between her and that pleasure hall. The door to the ten thousand steps was already open, the faelights in the hall dimmed to near darkness. Her boots scuffed on the stones as she approached, glancing behind her to make sure no one followed. Hands shaking, she began the descent. Around and around and around. I loved you from the first moment I held you in my arms. Down and down and down. That ancient Cauldron opening an eye to stare at her. To pin her in place. The Cauldron dragging her into itself, into the pit of Creation, taking and taking from her, merciless despite her screaming Around and down, exactly as she had been pulled in by the Cauldron, crushed beneath its terrible power Nausea swelled, her power with it, and her foot slipped. She had only a heartbeat to grab for the wall, but too late. Her knees banged into the steps, her face hitting a second later, and then she was twisting and careening down, blasting into the wall, ricocheting off and tumbling down step after step after step. She flung out a hand blindly, nails biting into stone. Sparks exploded as she cried out and held on. The world stopped moving. Her body halted its plunge. Sprawled across the steps, hand clutching the stone, she panted, great sawing breaths that cut with each inhale. She shut her eyes, savoring the stillness, the utter lack of motion. And in the quiet, pain set in. Barking, bleating pain across every part of her body. The coppery tang of blood filled her mouth. Something wet and warm slid down her neck. A sniff told her it was blood, too. And her fingernails, the ones gripping the stone steps Nesta blinked at her hand. She had seen sparks. Her fingers were embedded in the stone, the rock glowing as if lit with an inner flame. Gasping, she snatched back her hand, and the stone went dark. But the fingerprints remained, four furrows buried in the top of the step, a single hole in the riser where her thumb had pressed. Icy dread sluiced through her. Sent her to her battered legs, knees groaning as she sprinted upward. Away from that handprint, forever etched in stone. So, who won the fight? Cassian asked the next morning as she sat on her rock and watched him go through his exercises. He hadnt asked at breakfast about the black eye and cut chin or how stiffly shed moved. Neither had Mor upon her arrival. That the bruising and cuts remained at all told Nesta how bad the fall had been, but as High Fae, with her improved healing, they were already on the mend. As a human, she supposed, the fall might have killed her. Perhaps this Fae body had its advantages. Being human, being weak in this world of monsters, was a death sentence. Her High Fae body was her best chance at survival. Cassians reticence had only lasted an hour into his routine. He stood in the center of the sparring ring, panting, sweat running down his face and neck. What fight? She examined her mangled nails. Even with the whatever it was shed flung out to catch herself, her nails had cracked. She didnt let herself name what had come from within her, didnt let herself acknowledge it. By dawn, it had been strangled into submission. The one between you and the stairs. Nesta cut him a glare. I dont know what youre talking about. Cassian began moving once more, drawing his sword and running through a series of movements that all seemed designed to hack a person in two. You know: three in the morning, you leave your room to get shitfaced-drunk in town, and youre in such a rush to conquer the steps that you fall down a good thirty of them before you can stop yourself. Had he seen the step? The handprint? She demanded, How do you know that? He shrugged. Are you watching me? Before he could answer, she spat, You were watching and didnt come to help? Cassian shrugged again. You stopped falling. If youd kept at it, someone would have eventually come to catch you before you hit the bottom. She hissed at him. He only grinned and beckoned with a hand. Want to join me? I should push you down those stairs. Cassian sheathed his sword down his back in one elegant movement. Five hundred years of traininghe must have drawn and sheathed that sword so many times it was muscle memory. Well? he demanded, an edge creeping into his voice. If youve got those glorious bruises, you might as well claim it came from training and not a pathetic tumble. He added, How many stairs did you manage this time? Sixty-six. But Nesta said, Im not training. At the edge of the ring, males were watching them again. Theyd been watching Cassian first, partially with awe and partially with what she could only assume was envy. No one moved like he did. No one even came close. But now their stares turned amusedmocking him. Once, last year, she might have gone up to those males and ripped them apart. Might have let a bit of that terrible power within her show so they truly believed she was a witch and would curse them and a thousand generations of their offspring if they insulted Cassian again. Nesta stretched out her legs, leaning her bruised palms on the stone. Enjoy your exercises. Cassian bristled. But he held out his hand again. Please. Shed never heard him say that word. It was a rope thrown between them. Hed meet her halfwaylet her win the power battle, admit defeat, if she would just get off the rock. She told herself to get up, to take that outstretched hand. But she couldnt. Couldnt bring her body to rise. His hazel eyes were bright with pleading in the morning sun, the wind dancing in his dark hair. Like he was made from these mountains, crafted from wind and stone. He was so beautiful. Not in the way that Azriel and Rhys were beautiful, but in an uncut way. Savage and unrelenting. The first time shed seen Cassian, she couldnt take her eyes off him. She felt like shed spent her life surrounded by boys, and then a mana male, she supposedhad suddenly appeared. Everything about him had radiated that confident, arrogant masculinity. It had been heady and overwhelming, and all shed wanted, all shed wanted for so many months, was to touch him, smell him, taste him. Get close to that strength and throw everything she was against it because she knew hed never break, never falter, never balk. But the light in his eyes dimmed as he lowered his hand. She deserved his disappointment. Deserved his resentment and disgust. Even if it carved something vital from her. Tomorrow, then, Cassian said. He didnt speak to her again for the rest of the day. CHAPTER 11 The private librarys doors were locked. Nesta jangled the handle, but it refused to open. She said quietly, Open this door. The House ignored her. She tried the handle again, shoving a shoulder into the door. Open this door. Nothing. She continued slamming her shoulder into the door. Open this door right now. The House declined to obey. She gritted her teeth, panting. Shed had more books than yesterday to shelve, as the priestesses had apparently heard from Gwyn that Nesta was to be their errand girl. So they began dumping their tomes on her cartand a few asked her to retrieve books as well. Nesta had heeded them, if only because finding the requested books took her to new places in the library and occupied her thoughts, but by the time the clock had struck six, she was exhausted and dusty and hungry. Shed ignored the sandwich the House had laid out for her in the afternoon, and this had apparently pissed off the House enough that it now refused to allow her entry into the private library. All I want, Nesta ground out, is a nice, hot meal and a good book. She tried the handle again. Please. Nothing. Nothing at all. Fine. She stormed down the hall. Hunger alone carried her up to the dining room, where she found Cassian mid-meal, Azriel across from him. The shadowsingers face was solemn, his eyes wary. Cassian, his back to her, only stiffened, no doubt alerted either by her scent or the cadence of her steps. She didnt speak as she aimed for a chair halfway down the table. A place setting and spread of food appeared as she reached her seat. She had a feeling that if she took the plate and left, itd vanish from her hands before she reached the door. Nesta maintained her silence as she slid into her chair, picked up her fork, and dug into the fillet of beef and roasted asparagus. Cassian cleared his throat and said to Azriel, How long will you be gone? Im not sure. The shadowsingers eyes bore into her before he added, Vassa was right to suspect something deadly amiss. Things are dangerous enough over there that it would be wiser for me to keep my base here at the House and winnow back and forth. Curiosity bit deep, but Nesta said nothing. Vassashe hadnt seen the enchanted human queen since the war had ended. Since the young woman had tried to speak to her about how wonderful Nestas father had been, how he had been a true father to her, helped her and won her this temporary freedom, and on and on until Nestas bones were screaming to get away, her blood boiling to think that her father had found his courage for someone other than her and her sisters. That hed been the father she had neededbut for someone else. He had let their mother die in his refusal to send his merchant fleet hunting for a cure for her, had fallen into poverty and let them starve, but had decided to fight for this stranger? This nobody queen peddling a sad tale of betrayal and loss? That thing deep in Nesta stirred, but she ignored it, pushed it down as best she could without the distraction of music or sex or wine. She took a sip of her water, letting it cool her throat, her belly, and supposed that would have to be enough. Whatd Rhys say about it? Cassian asked around a mouthful of food. Who do you think insisted I not risk a base over there? Protective bastard. A note of affection rang in Cassians words, though. Silence fell again. Azriel nodded at her. What happened to you? She knew what he meant: the black eye that was finally fading. Her hands and chin had healed, along with the bruising on her body, but the black eye had turned greenish. By tomorrow morning, itd be gone entirely. Nothing, she said without looking at Cassian. She fell down the stairs, Cassian said, not looking at her, either. Azriels silence was pointed before he asked, Did someone push you? Asshole, Cassian growled. Nesta lifted her eyes from her plate enough to note the amusement in Azriels gaze, even though no smile graced his sensuous mouth. Cassian went on, I told her earlier today: if shed bother to train, shed at least have bragging rights for the bruises. Azriel took a calm sip of his water. Why arent you training, Nesta? I dont want to. Why not? Cassian muttered, Dont waste your breath, Az. She glared at him. Im not training in that miserable village. Cassian glared right back. Youve been given an order. You know the consequences. If you dont get off that fucking rock by the end of this week, what happens next is out of my hands. So youll tattle to your precious High Lord? she crooned. Big, tough warrior needs oh-so-powerful Rhysand to fight his battles? Dont you fucking talk about Rhys with that tone, Cassian snarled. Rhys is an asshole, Nesta snapped. He is an arrogant, preening asshole. Azriel sat back in his seat, eyes simmering with anger, but said nothing. Thats bullshit, Cassian spat, the Siphons on the backs of his hands burning like ruby flames. You know that is bullshit, Nesta. I hate him, she seethed. Good. He hates you, too, Cassian shot back. Everyone fucking hates you. Is that what you want? Because congratulations, its happened. Azriel let out a long, long breath. Cassians words pelted her, one after another. Hit her somewhere low and soft, and hit hard. Her fingers curled into claws, scraping along the table as she flung back at him, And I suppose now youll tell me that you are the only person who doesnt hate me, and Im supposed to feel something like gratitude, and agree to train with you. Now I tell you Im done. The words rumbled between them. Nesta blinked, the only sign of surprise shed allow. Azriel tensed, as if surprised as well. But she sliced into Cassian before he could go on. Does that mean youre done panting after me as well? Because what a relief that will be, to know youve finally taken the hint. Cassians muscled chest heaved, his throat working. You want to rip yourself apart, go right ahead. Implode all you like. He stood, meal half-finished. The training was supposed to help you. Not punish you. I dont know why you dont fucking get that. I told you: Im not training in that miserable village. Fine. Cassian stalked out, his pounding steps fading down the hall. Alone with Azriel, Nesta bared her teeth at him. Azriel watched her with that cool quiet, keeping utterly still. Like he saw everything in her head. Her bruised heart. She couldnt bear it. So she stood, only two bites taken from her food, and left the room as well. She returned to the library. The lights blazed as brightly as they had during the day, and a few lingering priestesses wandered the levels. She found her cart, filled again with books needing to be shelved. No one spoke to her, and she spoke to no one as she began to work, with only the roaring silence in her head for company. Amren had been wrong. Keep reaching out your hand was utter bullshit when the person it was extended to could bite hard enough to rip off fingers. Cassian sat on the flat top of the mountain in which the House of Wind had been built, peering down into the open-air training ring beneath him. The stars glinted overhead, and a brisk autumn breeze that whispered of changing leaves and crisp nights flowed past him. Below, Velaris was a golden sparkle, accented along the Sidra with a rainbow of color. He had never failed at anything. Not like this. And hed been so stupidly desperate, so stupidly hopeful, that he hadnt believed shed truly refuse. Until today, when hed seen her on that rock and known shed wanted to get up, but watched her shut down the instinct. Watched her clamp that steel will over herself. Youre not the brooding type. Cassian started, whipping his head to find Feyre sitting beside him. She dangled her feet into the emptiness, her golden-brown hair ruffled by the wind as she peered into the training pit. Did you fly in? Winnowed. Rhys said you were thinking loudly. Feyres mouth quirked to the side. I figured Id see what was happening. A fine skin of power remained wrapped around his High Lady, invisible to the naked eye but glittering with strength. Cassian nodded toward her. Whys Rhysie still got that ironclad shield on you? It was mighty enough to guard all of Velaris. Because hes a pain in the ass, Feyre said, but smiled softly. Hes still learning how it works, and I still havent figured out how to break free of it. But with the queens a renewed threat, and Beron in the mix, especially if Koschei is their puppet master, Rhys is perfectly happy to leave it on. Everything with those queens is a fucking headache, Cassian grumbled. Hopefully, Az will figure out what theyre really up to. Or at least what Briallyn and Koschei are up to. Rhys was still contemplating what to do about Eriss demands. Cassian supposed hed get his orders on that front soon. And would then have to deal with the asshole. General to general. Part of me dreads what Azriel will find, Feyre said, leaning back on her hands. Mors heading off to Vallahan again tomorrow. I worry about that, too. That shell come back with worse news about their intentions. Well deal with it. Spoken like a true general. Cassian knocked Feyres shoulder with his wing, a casual, affectionate gesture. One he never dared make with the females of any Illyrian community. Illyrians were psychotic on a good day about who touched their wings and how, and wing-touching outside of the bedroom, training, or mortal combat was an enormous taboo. But Rhys never cared, and Cassian had needed the contact. Always needed physical contact, hed learned. Probably thanks to a childhood spent with precious little of it. Feyre seemed to understand his need for a reassuring touch, because she said, How bad is it? Bad. It was all he could bring himself to admit. But shes going to the library? She went back to the library tonight. Shes still down there for all I know. Feyre gave a hmm of contemplation, gazing at the city. His High Lady looked so younghe always forgot how young she truly was, considering what shed already faced and achieved in her life. At twenty-one, hed still been drinking and brawling and fucking, unconcerned with anything and anybody except his ambition to be the most skilled of Illyrian warriors since Enalius himself. At twenty-one, Feyre had saved their world, mated, and found true happiness. Feyre asked, Did Nesta say why she wont train? Because she hates me. Feyre snorted. Cassian, Nesta does not hate you. Believe me. She sure as shit acts like it. Feyre shook her head. No, she doesnt. Her words were pained enough that he frowned. She doesnt hate you, either, he said quietly. Feyre shrugged. The gesture made his chest ache. For a while, I thought she didnt. But now I dont know. I dont understand why you two cant just He struggled for the right word. Get along? Be civil? Smile at each other? Feyres laugh was hollow. Its always been that way. Why? I have no idea. I mean, it was always that way with us, and our mother. She only had an interest in Nesta. She ignored me, and saw Elain as barely more than a doll to dress up, but Nesta was hers. Our mother made sure we knew it. Or she just cared so little what we thought or did that she didnt bother to hide it from us. Resentment and long-held pain laced every word. That a mother would do such a thing to her children But when we fell into poverty, when I started hunting, it got worse. Our mother was gone, and our father wasnt exactly present. He wasnt fully there. So it was me and Nesta, always at each others throats. Feyre rubbed her face. Im too exhausted to go over every detail. Its all just a tangled mess. Cassian refrained from observing that both sisters seemed to need each otherthat Nesta perhaps needed Feyre more than she realized. And from mentioning that this mess between the two females hurt him more than he could express. Feyre sighed. Thats my long way of saying that if Nesta hated you I know what it looks like, and she doesnt hate you. She might after what I said to her tonight. Azriel filled me in. Feyre rubbed her face again. I dont know what to do. How to help her. Three days in and Im already at my wits end, he said. They sat in silence, the wind drifting past them. Mist gathered on the Sidra far below, and white plumes of smoke from countless chimneys rose to meet it. Feyre asked, So what do we do? He didnt know. Maybe the library work will be enough to pull her out of this. But even as he spoke the words, they rang false. Feyre apparently agreed. No, in the library she can hide in the silence and amongst the shelves. The library was meant to balance what the training does. He rolled his shoulders. Well, she said shes not training in that miserable village, so were at an impasse. Feyre sighed again. Seems like it. But Cassian paused. Blinked once, and peered down at the training ring before him. What? He snorted, shaking his head. I should have known. A tentative smile bloomed on Feyres mouth, and Cassian leaned in to kiss her cheek. He only got within an inch of her face before his lips met night-kissed steel. Rightthe shield. That level of protection is insane. She smoothed her thick cream sweater. So is Rhys. Cassian sniffed, trying and failing to detect her scent. Hes got your scent shielded, too? Feyre grinned. Its all part of the same shield. Helion wasnt joking about it being impenetrable. And despite everything, Cassian grinned back. Memory washed over him from when hed met her in the dining room several levels below, this girl who would become his High Lady. Shed been so horribly thin then, so dead-eyed and withdrawn that it had taken all his self-control not to fly to the Spring Court and rip Tamlin limb from limb. Cassian shook the thought away, focusing instead on the revelation before him. One last time. Hed try one last time. CHAPTER 12 Nesta stood in the training ring atop the House of Wind and scowled. I thought we were going up to Windhaven. Cassian strode over to the rope ladder laid out on the ground and straightened a rung. Change of plans. No trace of that red-hot anger had remained on his face this morning when shed walked into the breakfast room. Azriel was already gone, and Cassian hadnt said a word about why hed left. Something about the queens, presumably, judging by what shed heard the previous night. When shed finished her porridge, shed looked for any sign of Morrigan, but the female had never appeared. And Cassian had led her here, not speaking on the walk up. Everyone hates you. The words had lingered, like a bell that wouldnt stop ringing. He finally clarified, Mors gone back to Vallahan, and Rhys and Feyre are busy. So theres no one to winnow us to Windhaven. Well be training here today. He gestured to the empty ring. Free of any watching eyes. He added with a sharp grin that made her swallow, Just you and me, Nes. Nesta had said last night she wasnt training at the village. Shed said it multiple times, Cassian had realized. She wasnt training at that miserable village. He should have realized it days ago. He knew her better than that, after all. Nesta might be willing to face down the King of Hybern himself, but she was proud as all hell. Appearing foolish, making herself vulnerableshed rather die. Would rather sit on a freezing rock in the icy wind for hours than look like a fool in front of anyone, especially arrogant warriors predisposed to mock any female who attempted to fight like them. It didnt matter to him where she trained. So long as she began the training. If she refused today, he didnt know what hed do. The morning sun beat down, promising a warm day, and Cassian removed his leather jacket before rolling up a shirtsleeve. Well? he asked, lifting his eyes to her face. I The hesitation made his chest tighten unbearably. But he stomped on that hope, slowly folding his other sleeve. He wondered if she noticed his fingers trembling slightly. Pretend everything is normal. Dont scare her off. There was nowhere for her to plant that beautiful ass here. Hed already moved the lounge chairs that Amrenand sometimes Morliked to use for sunbathing while he and the others trained. When Nesta remained by the doorway, Cassian found himself saying, Ill make a bargain with you. Her eyes flashed. Fae bargains were no idle thing. He knew Feyre had already versed Nesta in them, when her sister had first come here. As a precaution. From Nestas wary gaze, he knew she remembered Feyres warnings well: Fae bargains were bound by magic and marked in ink upon ones body. The ink would not fade until the bargain had been fulfilled. And if the bargain was broken the magic could exact terrible vengeance. Cassian maintained a casual stance. If you do an hour of exercises right now, Ill owe you a favor. I dont need any favors from you. Then name your price. He struggled to calm his racing heart. An hour of training for whatever you want. Thats a fools bargain for you. Her eyes narrowed. I thought you were a general. Arent you supposed to be good at negotiating? His mouth quirked upward. She wasnt fighting him. For you, I have no strategies. She studied him with unflinching focus. Anything I want? Anything. He added wryly, Anything short of you ordering me to fall out of the sky and smash my head on the earth. She didnt smile the way hed hoped. Her eyes turned to chips of ice. You truly believe me capable of such a thing? No, he said without hesitation. Her mouth tightened. Like she didnt believe him. Andthose were purple smudges under her eyes. How long had she worked in the library last night? Demanding to know why shed stayed up so late wouldnt be wise. Hed save that battle for another time. In an hour, perhaps. She surveyed him again, and Cassian willed himself to stand still, to appear open and nonthreatening and not like his very heart was in his bloody, outstretched hands. She said at last, Fine. Lets just say it will be a favor. Of whatever size I wish. It was dangerous to allow this. Deadly. Stupid. But he said, Yes. He extended his hand. One last time. Keep reaching out your hand. A bargain. He met her steely expression with his own. You train with me for an hour, and Ill owe you one favor of whatever size you wish. Agreed. She slid her hand into his and shook firmly. Magic zapped between them, and she gasped, recoiling. Cassian let it thunder into him, like a stampede of galloping horses. He rode it out. Whatever her power was, it had made the bargain more intense. Demanding. He scanned his hands, his bare forearms, seeking any hint of a tattoo beyond the Illyrian ones he bore for luck and glory. Nothing. It had to be somewhere. He peeled off his shirt and scanned the muscled planes of his torso. Nothing. He approached the narrow mirror leaned against one end of the ring, left there for them to study their technique while exercising alone. Stopping before it, Cassian twisted, staring over a shoulder at his tattooed back. There, dead in the center of the Illyrian tattoo snaking down his spine, a new tattoo had appeared. An eight-pointed star, whose compass points radiated in sharp lines across and up the groove of his back, twining with the Illyrian markings long inked there. The eastern and western points of the star shot right onto his wings, black blending into black. A matching one, he knew, would be on Nestas spine. He tried not to think about her bare expanse of skin, now marked in black ink, as he faced her. Nestas eyes werent on the mirror, though. No, theyd fixed on his torso. On his chest, on his abdominal muscles, on his bare arms. Her pulse fluttered in her throat. He didnt dare move, not as her gaze fixed on the vee of muscles that sloped beneath the waist of his pants. Not as her eyes darkened, her lashes bobbing as color crept over her pale skin. His blood heated, skin tightening over bone and muscle, as if it could feel the touch of her blue-gray eyes, as if it were her fingers running over his stomach. Lower. He knew better than to throw out a teasing remark. Rile her, and shed not only refuse to train, bargain or no, but shed stop looking at him like that. Slowly, her eyes trailed up his body, lingering on his carved pectorals and the Illyrian tattoo that swirled over one of them before flowing down his left arm. He might have flexed. Slightly. His voice thick, he managed to say, Ready? Cauldron boil him, he knew the question held more meanings than he cared to unravel. From the glimmer in her eyes, he knew she got it. But she squared her shoulders. All right. I owe you one hour of training. You sure as hell do. Cassian mastered his breathing, shoving aside that roaring desire. He strode to the center of the ring, but opted to keep his shirt off. Because of the warm day. Because his skin was now burning hot. He gestured to the space beside him, and flashed her his broadest grin. Lets see what youve got, Archeron. A bargainwith Cassian. Nesta didnt know how shed allowed herself to agree to it, to let that magic pass between them and mark her, but Everyone hates you. Maybe it was that fact alone that had her agreeing to this insanity. She had no idea what favor shed call in from him, but Fine. This training ring, with its high walls, the sky her only witnesshere, she supposed, she could let him do his worst. No matter that Cassian without a shirt bordered on obscene, even with the collection of scars peppering his golden-brown skin. The one on his left pectoral was especially horrificand one she knew he hadnt received during the war with Hybern. She didnt want to know what had been bad enough to leave a scar on his quick-healing body. Especially when all evidence of the devastating wound hed gotten during the war was gone. Only rippling muscle and skin remained. Honestly, there were so many muscles she couldnt count them all. Muscles on his damned ribs. She didnt know people could have them there. And those ones that flowed into his pants, like a golden arrow pointing to exactly what she wanted Nesta shook the thought out of her head as she approached Cassian in the center of the ring. He grinned like a fiend. She stopped a good three feet away, the morning sun warm on her hair, her cheeks. It was the closest shed stood to him without arguing or bickering in a long time. Cassian rolled his powerful shoulders, his sprawling tattoo shifting with the movement. All right. We start with the basics. Swords? She indicated the rack of weapons against the wall to the left of the archway into the stairwell. His mouth curled upward. You wont be getting to swords yet. You need to learn to control your movements, your balance. Youll develop basic strength and awareness of your body before youll pick up even a wooden practice sword. He glanced at her laced-up boots. Feet and breathing. She blinked. Feet? Your toes especially. He was completely serious. What about my toes? Learning how to grip the ground, to balance your weightit builds a foundation for everything else. Im going to be exercising my toes. He chuckled. You thought itd be swords and arrows on day one? Arrogant ass. You threw my sister into the training ring and did just that. Your sister already possessed a skill set you dont have, and also lacked the luxury of time. Hunting to keep them fed had taught Feyre that skill set. Hunting, while Nesta had stayed home, safe and warm, and let Feyre venture into that forest alone. Those skills Feyre had honed had allowed her to survive against the High Fae and all their terrors, but Feyre only had them because of what shed been forced to do. Because Nesta hadnt been the one to do it. To step up. She found Cassian watching carefully. As if he heard those thoughts, felt their weight on her. Feyre taught me how to use a bow. Only a few lessons, and long ago, but Nesta remembered. It was one of the few times she and Feyre had been allies. Not an Illyrian bow. Cassian gestured to a rack of massive bows and quivers beside the mirror. The bows were nearly as tall as a grown woman. It took me until I was a mature adult to have the strength to even string one of those. Nesta crossed her arms, drumming her fingers on her biceps. So Im going to spend an hour out here, wiggling my toes? Cassians grin bloomed again. Yes. At some point, Nesta began sweating. Her feet ached, her legs turned to jelly. Shed taken off her boots and gone through a few stances with Cassian, focusing on clenching her toes, finding her balance, and generally looking like a fool. At least no one was around to see her standing on one leg while hinging at the hip, the other leg rising behind her. Or using two wooden poles to steady herself while she swung her foot from pole to pole, working her way up each stick. Or doing a basic squatthat it turned out was all wrong, her weight misplaced and back too arched. All basic, stupid things. And all things she failed utterly at. Cassian didnt seem even remotely impressed as she rose from the squat hed made her hold while supporting a wooden stick above her head. Stand straight up, head first. Nesta obeyed. No. He motioned for her to sink back down. Head first. Dont curl your back or lean forward. Shoot straight up. Im doing that. Youre hunching. Push your feet into the ground. Grip with your toes as you bring your head right Yes. She glared as she stood. Cassian just said, Do another good one, then our hours up. She did so, panting hard, knees trembling and thighs bleating in burning pain. When shed finished, she propped herself up with the pole shed lifted over her head. Thats it? Unless you want to bargain with me for a second hour. You really want to owe me two favors? If itll keep you here to finish the lesson, sure. Im not sure I can take any more of these stretches. Then well do some breathing work and then a cooldown. Whats a cooldown? More stretching. He grinned. When she opened her mouth, he explained, Its designed to help bring your body back to a normal pace and limit any soreness youll have later. His tone held no condescension. So she asked, And whats breathing work? Exactly what it sounds like. He put a hand on his stomach, right on those rippling muscles, and took a big, inhaling breath before slowly releasing it. Your power when you fight comes from many places, but your breathing is one of the big ones. He nodded toward the stick in her hands. Thrust it forward like youre skewering someone with a spear. Brows rising, she did so, the motion awkward and inelegant. He only nodded. Now do it again, and as you do, inhale. She did, the motion markedly weaker. And now do it again, but exhale with the thrust. It took her a second or two to orient her breathing, but she obeyed, shoving the stick forward as she blew out a breath. Power rippled down her arms, her body. Nesta blinked at the stick. I could feel the difference. Its all linked. Breath and balance and movement. Bulky muscle like thishe tapped that absurdly contoured stomach of hismeans shit when you dont know how to utilize it. So how do you learn to control your breathing? He smiled again, hazel eyes bright in the sun. Like this. So began another series of movements, all so damned simple when he demonstrated, but nearly impossible to coordinate in her own body when she went to replicate them. But she focused on her breathing, on the power of it, as if her lungs were the bellows of some great forge. The sun arced higher, crossing the training space, dragging the shadows with it. Inhale. Exhale. Breaths accented by a deep lunge, or a squat, or balancing on one leg. All exercises shed done in the first hour, but now revealed anew with the added layer of breathing. Breathing in and out, out and in, body and mind flowing, her concentration unwavering. Cassians commands were firm, but gentle, encouraging without being irksome. Hold it, hold it, hold itand release. Good. Again. Again. Again. There wasnt a part of her body that wasnt sliding with sweat, wasnt one part that wasnt shaking as he bade her lie down on a black mat at the far end of the ring. Cooldown, he said, kneeling and patting the mat. She was too tired to object, practically flinging herself onto it and staring at the sky. The blue bowl arched into forever, the sun stinging against the sweat on her face. Wisps of clouds drifted through the dazzling blue, unconcerned with her entirely. Her mind had become as clear as that sky, the fog and pressing shadows gone. Do you like flying? She didnt know where the question came from. He peered down at her. I love it. The truth rang out in those words. Its freedom and joy and challenge. I met a female shop owner at Windhaven whod had her wings clipped. She turned her head from the sky to look over at him. His face had tightened. Why do Illyrians do that? To control their women, Cassian said with quiet anger. Its an old tradition. Rhys and I tried to stamp it out by making it illegal, but change takes a while amongst the High Fae. For stubborn asses like the Illyrians, it takes even longer. EmerieIm assuming thats who you met, since shes the only female shop ownerwas one who slipped through the cracks. It was during Amaranthas reign, and a lot of shit slipped through the cracks. His eyes turned haunted, not only from what had been done to Emerie by her father, Nesta could tell, but at the memories of those fifty years. The guilt. And perhaps it was to save him from reliving those memories, to banish that unwarranted guilt in his eyes, that she nestled against the mat and said, Cooldown. You sound eager. She met his stare. I She swallowed. Hated herself for balking, and forced herself to say, The breathing makes my head stop being so Horrible. Awful. Miserable. Loud. Ah. Understanding washed over his face. Mine too. For a moment, she held his gaze, watched the wind tug at the strands of his shoulder-length hair. The instinct to touch the sable locks had her pressing her palms to the mat, as if physically restraining herself. Right. Cassian cleared his throat. Cooldown. Shed done well. Really damn well. Nesta finished the cooldown and sprawled on the black mat, as if needing to piece herself together. Rally her strength. Cassian let her, rising to his feet and walking to the water station to the right of the archway. You need to drink as much water as you can, he said, taking two glasses and filling them from the ewer on the small table. He returned to her side, sipping from his own. Nesta remained prone, limbs loose, eyes closed, the sunlight making her hair, her sweaty skin, shine. He couldnt stop the image from rising: of her lying in his bed like this, sated, her body limp with pleasure. He swallowed hard. She cracked open an eye, sitting up slowly, and took the water he extended. Chugged it, realized how thirsty she was, and eased to her feet. He watched as she aimed for the ewer, filling her glass and draining it twice more before she finally set it down. You never told me what you wanted for the second hour of training, he said eventually. She looked over a shoulder. Her skin was rosy in a way he hadnt seen for a long, long time, her eyes bright. The breathing, shed said, had helped her. Settled her. Looking at the slight change on her face, he believed it. What would happen when the high wore off remained to be seen. Small steps, he assured himself. Small, small steps. Nesta said, The second hour was on the house. She didnt smile, didnt so much as wink, but Cassian grinned. Generous of you. She rolled her eyes, but without her usual venom. I have to change before I go to the library. As Nesta entered the archway, the gloom of the stairwell beyond it, Cassian blurted, I didnt mean what I said last nightabout everyone hating you. She halted, her blue-gray eyes frosting. Its true. Its not. He dared one step closer. Youre here because we dont hate you. He cleared his throat, running a hand through his hair. I wanted you to know that. That we dontthat I dont hate you. She weighed whatever the hell lay in his stare. Likely more than was wise to let her see. But she said quietly, And I have never hated you, Cassian. With that, she walked through the doorway into the House, as if she hadnt hit him right in the gut, first with the words, then by using his name. It wasnt until shed vanished down the stairs that he released the breath hed been holding.

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