My sister didn’t have drinking companions. As far as I knew, she went out alone, and made them as the night progressed. And every now and then, one of them went home with her.
I hadn’t asked. Wasn’t even sure when the first time had been.
I also didn’t dare ask Cassian if he knew. They had barely exchanged more than a few words since the war.
And as I entered the light and rolling music of the Wolf’s Den and immediately spotted my sister seated with three males at a round table in the shadowed back, I could almost see the specter of that day against Hybern looming behind her.
Every ounce of weight that Elain had gained it seemed Nesta had lost. Her already proud, angular face had turned more so, her cheekbones sharp enough to slice. Her hair remained up in her usual braided coronet, she wore her preferred gray gown, and she was, as ever, immaculately clean despite the hovel she chose to occupy. Despite the reeking, hot tavern that had seen better years. Centuries.
A queen without a throne. That was what I’d call the painting that swept into my mind.
Nesta’s eyes, the same blue-gray as my own, lifted the moment I shut the wooden door behind me. Nothing flickered across her face beyond vague disdain. The three High Fae males at her table were all fairly well dressed considering the place they patronized.
Likely wealthy young bucks out for the night.
I reined in my scowl as Rhys’s voice filled my head. Mind your own business.
Your sister is handily beating them at cards, by the way.
You love it.
I pressed my lips together, sending a vulgar gesture down the bond as I approached my sister’s table. Rhys’s laughter rumbled against my shields in answer, like star-flecked thunder.
Nesta simply went back to staring at the fan of cards she held, her posture the epitome of glorious boredom. But her companions peered up at me when I stopped at the edge of their stained and scarred wooden table. Half-consumed glasses of amber liquid sweated with moisture, kept chilled through some magic of the tavern’s.
The male across the table—a handsome, rakish-looking High Fae, with hair like spun gold—met my eyes.
His hand of cards slumped to the table as he bowed his head. The others followed suit.
Only my sister, still studying her cards, remained uninterested.
“My lady,” said a thin, dark-haired male, throwing a wary glance toward my sister. “How may we be of assistance?”
Nesta didn’t so much as look up as she adjusted one of her cards. Fine.
I smiled sweetly at her companions. “I hate to interrupt your night out, gentlemen.” Gentlemales, I supposed. A holdover from my human life— one that the third male noted with a hint of a raised, thick brow. “But I would like a word with my sister.”
The dismissal was clear enough.
As one, they rose, cards abandoned, and swiped up their drinks. “We’ll get a refill,” the golden-haired one declared.
I waited until they were at the bar, pointedly not gazing over their shoulders, before I slid into the rickety seat the dark-haired one had vacated.
Slowly, Nesta’s eyes lifted toward mine.
I leaned back in the chair, wood groaning. “So which one was going home with you tonight?”
Nesta snapped her cards together, setting the stack facedown on the table. “I hadn’t decided.”
Icy, flat words. The perfect accompaniment to the expression on her face.
I simply waited. Nesta waited, too.
Still as an animal. Still as death.
I’d once wondered if that was her power. Her curse, granted by the Cauldron.
Nothing I’d seen of it, glimpsed in those moments against Hybern, had seemed like death. Just brute power. But the Bone Carver had whispered of it. And I’d seen it, shining cold and bright in her eyes.
But not for months now.
Not that I’d seen much of her. A minute passed. Then another.
Utter silence, save for the merry music from the four-piece band on the other side of the room.
I could wait. I’d wait here all damn night.
Nesta settled back in her chair, inclined to do the same.
My money’s on your sister. Quiet.
I’m getting cold out here. Illyrian baby.
A dark chuckle, then the bond went silent again.
“Is that mate of yours going to stand in the cold all night?”
I blinked, wondering if she’d somehow sensed the thoughts between us. “Who says he’s here?”
Nesta snorted. “Where one goes, the other follows.”
I refrained from voicing all of the potential retorts that leaped onto my tongue.
Instead, I asked, “Elain invited you to dinner tonight. Why didn’t you come?”
Nesta’s smile was slow, sharp as a blade. “I wanted to hear the musicians play.”
I cast a pointed look to the band. More skilled than the usual tavern set, but not a real excuse. “She wanted you there.” I wanted you there.
Nesta shrugged. “She could have eaten with me here.”
“You know Elain wouldn’t feel comfortable in a place like this.”
She arched a well-groomed brow. “A place like this? What sort of place is that?”
Indeed, some people were turning our way. High Lady—I was High Lady. Insulting this place and the people in it wouldn’t win me any supporters. “Elain is overwhelmed by crowds.”
“She didn’t used to be that way.” Nesta swirled her glass of amber liquid. “She loved balls and parties.”
The words hung unspoken. But you and your court dragged us into this world. Took that joy away from her.
“If you bothered to come by the house, you’d see that she’s readjusting. But balls and parties are one thing. Elain never patronized taverns before this.”
Nesta opened her mouth, no doubt to lead me down a path away from the reason I’d come here. So I cut in before she could. “That’s beside the point.”
Steel-cold eyes held mine. “Can you get to it, then? I’d like to return to my game.”
I debated scattering the cards to the ale-slick ground. “Solstice is the day after tomorrow.”
Nothing. Not a blink.
I interlaced my fingers and set them on the table between us. “What will it take to get you to come?”
“For Elain’s sake or yours?” “Both.”
Another snort. Nesta surveyed the room, everyone carefully not watching us now. I knew without asking that Rhys had slid a sound barrier around us.
Finally, my sister looked back at me. “So you’re bribing me, then?”
I didn’t flinch. “I’m seeing if you’re willing to be reasoned with. If there’s a way to make it worth your while.”
Nesta planted the tip of her pointer finger atop her stack of cards and fanned them out across the table. “It’s not even our holiday. We don’t have holidays.”
“Perhaps you should try it. You might enjoy yourself.” “As I told Elain: you have your lives, and I have mine.”
Again, I cast a pointed glance to the tavern. “Why? Why this insistence on distancing yourself?”
She settled back in her seat, crossing her arms. “Why do I have to be a part of your merry little band?”
“You’re my sister.”
Again, that empty, cold look. I waited.
“I’m not going to your party,” she said.
If Elain hadn’t been able to convince her, I certainly wouldn’t succeed. I didn’t know why I hadn’t realized it before. Before wasting my time. But I tried—one last time. For Elain’s sake. “Father would want you to—”
“Don’t you finish that sentence.”
Despite the sound shield around us, there was nothing to block the view of my sister baring her teeth. The view of her fingers curling into invisible claws.
Nesta’s nose crinkled with undiluted rage as she snarled, “Leave.” A scene. This was about to become a scene in the worst way.
So I rose, hiding my trembling hands by balling them into tight fists at my sides. “Please come,” was all I said before turning back toward the door, the walk between her table and the exit feeling so much longer. All the staring faces I’d have to pass looming.
“My rent,” Nesta said when I’d walked two steps. I paused. “What about your rent?”
She swigged from her glass. “It’s due next week. In case you forgot.” She was completely serious.
I said flatly, “Come to Solstice and I’ll make sure it’s delivered.”
Nesta opened her mouth, but I turned again, staring down every gaping face that peered up at me as I passed.
I felt my sister’s gaze piercing the space between my shoulder blades the entire walk to that front door. And the entire flight home.