Chapter no 8: Cassian

A Court of Frost and Starlight

A storm was coming.

Right in time for Solstice. It wouldn’t hit for another day or two, but Cassian could smell it on the wind. The others in the Windhaven camp could as well, the usual flurry of activity now a swift, efficient thrum. Houses and tents checked, stews and roasts being prepared, people departing or arriving earlier than expected to outrace it.

Cassian had given the girls the day off because of it. Had ordered all training and exercises, males included, to be postponed until after the storm. Limited patrols would still go out, only by those skilled and eager to test themselves against the sure-to-be-brutal winds and frigid temperatures. Even in a storm, enemies could strike.

If the storm was as great as he sensed it would be, this camp would be buried under snow for a good few days.

Which is why he wound up standing in the small craftsman center of the camp, beyond the tents and handful of permanent houses. Only a few shops occupied either side of the unpaved road, usually just a dirt track in warmer months. A general goods store, which had already posted a sold-out sign, two blacksmiths, a cobbler, a wood-carver, and a clothier.

The wooden building of the clothier was relatively new. At least by Illyrian standards—perhaps ten years old. Above the first-floor store seemed to be living quarters, lamps burning brightly within. And in the glass display window of the store: exactly what he’d come seeking.

A bell above the leaded-glass door tinkled as Cassian entered, tucking his wings in tight even with the broader-than-usual doorway. Warmth hit him, welcome and delicious, and he quickly shut the door behind him.

The slender young female behind the pine counter was already standing still. Watching him.

Cassian noticed the scars on her wings first. The careful, brutal scars down the center tendons.

Nausea roiled in his gut, even as he offered a smile and strode toward the polished counter. Clipped. She’d been clipped.

“I’m looking for Proteus,” he said, meeting the female’s brown eyes. Sharp and shrewd. Taken aback by his presence, but unafraid. Her dark hair was braided simply, offering a clear view of her tan skin and narrow, angular face. Not a face of beauty, but striking. Interesting.

Her eyes did not lower, not in the way Illyrian females had been ordered and trained to do. No, even with the clipping scars that proved traditional ways ran brutally deep in her family, she held his stare.

It reminded him of Nesta, that stare. Frank and unsettling.

“Proteus was my father,” she said, untying her white apron to reveal a simple brown dress before she emerged from behind the counter. Was.

“I’m sorry,” he said.

“He didn’t come home from the war.”

Cassian kept his chin from lowering. “I am even sorrier, then.”

“Why should you be?” An unmoved, uninterested question. She extended a slender hand. “I’m Emerie. This is my shop now.”

A line in the sand. And an unusual one. Cassian shook her hand, unsurprised to find her grip strong and unfaltering.

He’d known Proteus. Had been surprised when the male had joined the ranks during the war. Cassian knew he’d had one daughter and no sons. No close male relatives, either. With his death, the store would have gone to one of them. But for his daughter to step up, to insist this store was hers, and to keep running it … He surveyed the small, tidy space.

Glanced through the front window to the shop across the street, the sold-out sign there.

Stock filled Emerie’s store. As if she’d just gotten a fresh shipment. Or no one had bothered to come in. Ever.

For Proteus to have owned and built this place, in a camp where the idea of shops was one that had only started in the past fifty or so years, meant he’d had a good deal of money. Enough perhaps for Emerie to coast on. But not forever.

“It certainly seems like it’s your shop,” he said at last, turning his attention back to her. Emerie had drifted a few feet away, her back straight, chin upraised.

He’d seen Nesta in that particular pose, too. He called it her I Will Slay My Enemies pose.

Cassian had named about two dozen poses for Nesta at this point. Ranging from I Will Eat Your Eyes for Breakfast to I Don’t Want Cassian to Know I’m Reading Smut. The latter was his particular favorite.

Suppressing his smile, Cassian gestured to the pretty piles of shearling-lined gloves and thick scarves that bedecked the window display. “I’ll take every bit of winter gear you have.”

Her dark brows rose toward her hairline. “Really?”

He fished a hand into the pocket of his leathers to pull out his money pouch and extended it to her. “That should cover it.”

Emerie weighed the small leather pouch in her palm. “I don’t need charity.”

“Then take whatever the cost is for your gloves and boots and scarves and coats out of it and give the rest back to me.”

She made no answer before chucking the pouch on the counter and bustling to the window display. Everything he asked for she gathered onto the counter in neat piles and stacks, even going into the back room behind the counter and emerging with more. Until there wasn’t an empty bit of space on the polished counter, and only the sound of clinking coins filled the shop.

She wordlessly handed him back his pouch. He refrained from mentioning that she was one of the few Illyrians who’d ever accepted his money. Most had spat on it, or thrown it on the ground. Even after Rhys had become High Lord.

Emerie surveyed the piles of winter goods on the counter. “Do you want me to find some bags and boxes?”

He shook his head. “That won’t be necessary.” Again, her dark brows rose.

Cassian reached into his money pouch and set three heavy coins onto the only sliver of empty space he could find on the counter. “For the delivery charges.”

“To whom?” Emerie blurted.

“You live above the shop, don’t you?” A terse nod. “Then I assume you know enough about this camp and who has plenty, and who has nothing. A storm is going to hit in a few days. I’d like you to distribute this amongst those who might feel its impact the hardest.”

She blinked, and he saw her reassessment. Emerie studied the piled goods. “They—a lot of them don’t like me,” she said, more softly than he’d heard.

“They don’t like me, either. You’re in good company.”

A reluctant curl of her lips at that. Not quite a smile. Certainly not with a male she didn’t know.

“Consider it good advertising for this shop,” he went on. “Tell them it was a gift from their High Lord.”

“Why not you?”

He didn’t want to answer that. Not today. “Better to leave me out of it.”

Emerie took his measure for a moment, then nodded. “I’ll make sure this has been delivered to those who need it most by sundown.”

Cassian bowed his head in thanks and headed for the glass door. The door and windows on this building alone had likely cost more than most Illyrians could afford in years.

Proteus had been a wealthy man—a good businessman. And a decent warrior. To have risked this by going to war, he had to have possessed some shred of pride.

But the scars on Emerie’s wings, proof that she’d never taste the wind again …

Half of him wished that Proteus were still alive. If only so he could kill the male himself.

Cassian reached for the brass handle, the metal cold against his palm. “Lord Cassian.”

He peered over a shoulder to where Emerie still stood behind the counter. He didn’t bother to correct her, to say that he did not and would never accept using lord before his name. “Happy Solstice,” she said tersely.

Cassian flashed her a smile. “You, too. Send word if you have any trouble with the deliveries.”

Her narrow chin rose. “I’m sure I won’t need to.”

Fire in those words. Emerie would make the families take them, whether they wanted to or not.

He’d seen that fire before—and the steel. He half wondered what might happen if the two of them ever met. What might come of it.

Cassian shouldered his way out of the shop and into the freezing day, the bell tinkling in his wake. A herald of the storm to come.

Not just the storm that was barreling toward these mountains. But perhaps one that had been brewing here for a long, long time.

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