“Stop looking so nervous,” Cassian muttered out of the corner of his mouth. “I’m not nervous,” Nesta muttered back, even as she bounced on her feet, trying not to stare toward the open archway as the clock ticked toward
“Just relax.” He straightened his jacket. “You’re the one fidgeting,” she hissed. “Because you’re making me fidget.”
Steps scuffed on the stone beyond the archway, and Nesta’s breath rushed from her in a wave she didn’t realize she was holding back as Gwyn’s coppery-brown hair appeared. In the sunlight, the color of her hair was extraordinary, strands of gold glinting, and her teal eyes were a near-perfect match to the stones the other priestesses wore.
Gwyn beheld them standing in the center of the ring and stopped short. The tang of her fear set Nesta approaching. “Hello.”
Gwyn’s hands were shaking as she took another step into the ring and peered into the open bowl of the sky.
The first time she’d been outside—truly outside—in years.
Cassian, to his credit, moved to the rack of wooden practice weapons that he’d claimed they wouldn’t be using for months, and pretended to adjust them.
Gwyn swallowed. “I, um—I realized on the way up here that I don’t have proper clothes.” She gestured to her pale robes. “I suspect these will not be ideal.”
Cassian said without looking over, “I can teach you in the robes, if you wish. Whatever’s most comfortable.”
Gwyn offered him a tight smile. “I’ll see how today’s lesson goes and then decide. We wear the robes mostly from tradition, not strict rules.” She met Nesta’s gaze again as she smiled. “I forgot how it feels to have the full sun upon my head.” She peered up again. “Forgive me if I spend some time gawking at the sky.”
“Of course,” Nesta said. She hadn’t encountered Gwyn yesterday after seeing that she’d signed up for this morning’s lesson, but she’d been almost afraid to—worried that one accidentally uttered sour remark would make Gwyn reconsider.
Words stalled in Nesta’s throat, but Cassian seemed to anticipate that. “All right. No more chitchat. Nes, show our new friend—Gwyn, is it? I’m Cassian. Nes, show her your feet.”
“Feet?” Gwyn’s copper brows rose. Nesta rolled her eyes. “You’ll see.”
Gwyn grasped the concept of grounding through her feet better than Nesta had, and certainly had no issues with dropping her weight into her right hip and other things Nesta had worked to correct for three weeks. Even with the robes, it was clear that Gwyn was built lithe and lean, accustomed to the casual grace of the Fae that Nesta was only learning.
She’d expected to have to coax her friend, but once Gwyn overcame her initial trepidation, she was a willing participant, and a merry companion. The priestess laughed at her own mistakes, and did not bristle at corrections from Cassian.
By the end of the lesson, though, Gwyn’s robe was damp with sweat, tendrils of hair curling around her flushed face. Cassian ordered them to drink some water before their cooldown.
As Gwyn poured herself a glass, she said, “At the temple in Sangravah, we had a set of ancient movements that we would go through every sunrise. Not for battle training, but for calming the mind. We did cooldowns after those, too, though we called them groundings. The movements took us out of our bodies, in a way. Let us commune with the Mother. The groundings settled us back into the present world.”
“Why did you sign up for this, then?” Nesta drank the glass Gwyn extended. “If you already have mind-calming exercises you’re accustomed to?”
“Because I don’t ever want to feel powerless again,” Gwyn said softly, and all those easy smiles and bright laughs were gone. Only stark, pained honesty shone in her remarkable eyes.
Nesta swallowed, and though instinct told her to pull away, she said quietly, “Me too.”
The bell above the shop door jangled as Nesta entered, brushing off the snowflakes that had stuck to the shoulders of her cloak. Cassian had needed to go up to the Illyrian Mountains after their second lesson with Gwyn, and to her surprise, he had asked Nesta to join him. He’d already cleared it with Clotho that she’d be a few hours late for her work at the library. He hadn’t explained why beyond a casual comment about getting her out of the House and into the fresh air.
But she’d accepted, and hadn’t told him why, either. Cassian hadn’t even seemed curious when she requested he leave her at Windhaven so she could go shopping. Perhaps a spark had gleamed in his eye, as if he’d guessed, but he’d been distant, quiet.
Given that Cassian was up here to meet with Eris, she didn’t blame him. He’d left Nesta by the fountain in the center of the freezing village, making sure she knew that if she needed to warm up, Rhys’s mother’s house was unlocked.
Velaris was still gripped in summer’s hand, autumn just barely tugging it away, but Windhaven had already yielded completely to winter’s embrace. Nesta wasted little time in entering the shop.
“Nesta,” Emerie said by way of greeting, peering over a young-looking male’s broad shoulder and wings from where she stood helping him at the counter. “It’s good to see you.”
Was that relief in her voice? Nesta made sure the door behind her was firmly latched before striding in, the snow on her boots leaving muddy tracks alongside those left by Emerie’s customer.
The male half-turned toward Nesta, revealing a blandly handsome face, dark hair tied back at the nape of his neck, and glassy brown eyes. The asshole was drunk. Asshole seemed to be the correct term, since Emerie’s rigid posture revealed distaste and wariness.
Nesta sauntered up to the counter, giving the male a once-over that she knew usually made people want to throttle her. From the way he stiffened, swaying slightly on his booted feet, she knew it’d worked. “Good morning,” she said cheerfully to Emerie. Another thing males seemed to detest: being ignored by a female.
“Wait your turn, witch,” the male grumbled, turning back to the counter and Emerie.
Emerie crossed her arms. “I think we’re done here, Bellius.”
“We’re done when I say we’re done.” The words were half-slurred.
“I have an appointment,” Nesta said, leveling a cool glance at him. She sniffed at the male. Her nose crinkled. “And you seem to need an appointment with a bath.”
He turned fully to her, muscled shoulders pushing back. Even with the glazed expression, ire boiled in his stare. “Do you know who I am?”
“A drunk fool wasting my time,” Nesta said. Two Siphons—a blue darker than Azriel’s—sat atop the backs of his large hands. “Get out.”
Emerie stilled, as if bracing herself for the retaliation. But she said before the male could reply, “We’ll discuss this later, Bellius.”
“My father sent me to convey a message.”
“Message received,” Emerie said, chin lifting. “And my answer is the same: this store is mine. If he wants one so badly, he can open his own.”
“Hateful bitch,” Bellius bit out, swaying back a step.
Nesta laughed, cold and hollow. Fae and humans had more in common than she’d realized. How many times had she witnessed her father’s debtors
darkening their doorstep to shake him down for money he didn’t have? And then there had been the time when they had gone beyond threats. When they’d left her father’s leg shattered. Any sense of safety shattered with it.
“Get out,” Nesta said again, pointing to the door as Bellius bristled at her fading laughter. “Do yourself a favor and get out.”
Bellius rose to his full height, wings flaring. “Or what?”
Nesta picked at her nails. “I don’t think you want to find out the or what
Bellius opened his mouth, but Emerie said, “Your father now has my answer, Bellius. I suggest you get some water from the fountain before you fly home.”
Bellius only spat onto the floorboards and stalked for the exit, throwing Nesta a hazy glare as he slammed the door behind himself.
In silence, Nesta and Emerie watched him stagger into the snow-swept street and spread his wings. Nesta frowned as he shot into the sky.
“Friend of yours?” Nesta asked, facing Emerie at the counter again.
“My cousin.” Emerie cringed. “His father is my uncle. On my father’s side.” She added before Nesta could ask, “Bellius is a young, arrogant idiot. He’s due to participate in the Blood Rite this spring, and his arrogance has only grown these past months as he anticipates becoming a true warrior. He’s skilled enough that he got placed on a scouting unit to the continent— and just returned to celebrate his accomplishment, apparently.” Emerie wiped at an invisible speck of dirt on the counter. “I didn’t expect him to be drunk midday, though. That’s a new low for him.” Color stained her cheeks. “I’m sorry you had to witness it.”
Nesta shrugged. “Dealing with drunk fools is my specialty.”
Emerie kept fiddling with the imaginary spot on the counter. “Our fathers were two of a kind. They believed children should be harshly disciplined for any infraction. There was little room for mercy or understanding.”
Nesta pursed her lips. “I know the type.” Her mother’s mother had been the same way before she’d died of a deep-rooted cough that had turned into a deadly infection. Nesta had been seven when the stern-faced dame who had insisted on being called Grandmamma had beaten her palms raw with a
ruler for missteps in her dancing lessons. Worthless, clumsy girl. You’re a waste of my time. Maybe this will help you remember to pay attention to my orders.
Nesta had only felt relief when the old beast had died. Elain, who’d been spared the cruelties of Grandmamma’s tutelage, had wept and dutifully laid flowers at her grave—one soon joined by their mother’s stone marker. Feyre had been too young to understand, but Nesta had never bothered to lay flowers for her grandmamma. Not when Nesta bore a scar near her left thumb from one of the woman’s nastier punishments. Nesta had only left flowers for her mother, whose grave she had visited more often than she cared to admit.
She hadn’t once visited her father’s grave outside Velaris.
“Are you all right?” Nesta asked Emerie at last. “Will Bellius return?”
“No,” Emerie said, shaking her head. “I mean, I’m fine. But no—he’s a member of the Ironcrest war-band. Their lands are a few hours’ flight from here. He won’t return anytime soon.” She shrugged. “I get these little visits from my uncle’s family every now and then. Nothing I can’t handle. Though Bellius was a new one. I guess they think he’s adult enough now to bully me.” Nesta opened her mouth, but Emerie offered her another half smile and changed the subject. “You look well. Far healthier than when I saw you … What was it now? Almost three weeks ago.” She gave Nesta an assessing glance. “You never came back.”
“We moved our training to Velaris,” Nesta explained.
“I was about to write to you before Bellius interrupted me. I asked about making leathers with fleece inside.” Emerie leaned her forearms on the immaculate counter. “It can be done, but it’s not cheap.”
“Then it’s beyond my means, but thank you for finding out anyway.” “I could order it and let you pay it off as you’re able.”
It was a generous offer. Far beyond the kindness anyone had ever shown Nesta in the human realm, when her father had been trying to sell his wood carvings for a few pitiful coppers.
Only Feyre had kept them fed and clothed, earning scant amounts for the pelts and meat she hunted. She’d kept them alive. The last time she’d hunted for them, the food had run out the day before. If Feyre hadn’t
returned home with meat that night, they either would have had to starve to death or beg in the village.
Nesta had told herself that day that Tomas would take her in, if necessary. Maybe even Elain, too. But his family had been hateful, with too many mouths to feed already. His father would have refused to feed her, without question. She’d been prepared to offer the only thing she had to barter to Tomas, if it would have kept Elain from starving. Would have sold her body on the street to anyone who’d pay her enough to feed her sister. Her body had meant nothing to her—nothing, she’d told herself as she’d felt her options closing in. Elain meant everything.
But Feyre had come back with that food. And then vanished over the wall.
Three days afterward, Nesta broke it off with Tomas. Enraged, he’d launched himself at her, pinning her against the enormous woodpile stacked along the barn wall. Spiteful whore, he’d growled. You think you’re better than me? Acting like a queen when you haven’t got shit. She’d never forget the sound of her dress tearing, the greed in his eyes as his hands pawed at her skirts, trying to raise them as he fumbled with the buckle on his belt.
Only pure, undiluted terror and survival instinct had saved her. She’d let him get close, let him think her strength had failed, and then clamped her teeth down on his ear. And ripped.
He’d screamed, but he’d loosened his grip on her—just enough that she’d broken free and scrambled through the snow, spitting his blood out of her mouth, and did not stop running until she’d reached the cottage.
And then word had come of their father’s ships: found, with all the wealth intact.
Nesta knew it was a lie. The trunks of jewels and gold had not come from that doomed shipment, but from Tamlin, payment for the human woman he’d stolen away. To help the family he’d doomed to die without Feyre’s hunting.
Nesta shook off the memory. “It’s all right. But thank you.”
Emerie rubbed her long, slender hands together. “It’s freezing, and I’m about to take my lunch break. Would you like to join me?”
Beyond Cassian, no one had invited her to dine in a long time. She’d given them no reason to. But there it was: an honest, simple offer. From someone who had no idea how terrible she was.
Having lunch with Emerie was an indulgence; it was only a matter of time until the female learned more about Nesta. Until she heard every horrible thing, and then the invitations would stop. Had she been any better than Bellius, drunk and simmering with hatred for months? If Emerie knew, she’d kick her out of this shop, too.
But for now, neither rumor nor truth had reached Emerie. “I would like that,” Nesta said, and meant it.
The back room of Emerie’s shop was as immaculate as the front, though crates of extra stock were stacked against one wall. Two windows looked out onto a snow-covered garden, and beyond that, the nearest mountain peak squatted, blocking the gray sky with its rocky bulk.
A small kitchen lay to the right, little more than a hearth and a counter and a small worktable. A few wooden chairs sat around it, and Nesta realized the table was also the dining area. A place setting had been laid there for one person.
“Just you?” Nesta asked as Emerie went to the wood counter and gathered a platter of roast beef and a dish of roasted carrots. She set them on the table before Nesta and grabbed a loaf of bread, along with a bowl of butter.
“Just me.” Emerie opened a cabinet to retrieve a second place setting. “No mate or husband to bother me.”
She spoke a bit tensely, like there was more to it than that, but Nesta said, “Me neither.”
Emerie threw her a wry look. “What about that handsome General Cassian?”
Nesta blocked out the memory of his head between her thighs, his tongue at her entrance, sliding into her. “Not a chance,” Nesta said, but Emerie’s eyes glimmered with knowing.
“Well, it’s nice to meet another female who’s not obsessed with marriage and baby-making,” Emerie said, sitting at the table and gesturing for Nesta to do the same. She’d put some roast beef, carrots, and bread onto Nesta’s plate, and slid the bowl of butter to her. “It’s cold, but it’s meant to be eaten that way. I usually stop for lunch only long enough to feed myself.”
Nesta dug in and grunted. “It’s delicious.” She took another bite. “Did you make this?”
“Who else would? We don’t have any sort of food shops here except the butcher.” Emerie pointed with her fork to the garden beyond the building. “I grow my own vegetables. These carrots came from that garden.”
Nesta took a bite. “They have a lovely flavor.” Butter and thyme and something bright …
“It’s all in the spices. Which are in short supply around here, unfortunately. Illyrians don’t particularly know or care about them.”
“My father used to be a merchant,” Nesta said, a chasm yawning open in her at the words. She cleared her throat. “He traded spices from all over the world. I can still remember the smell in his offices—it was like a thousand different personalities all crammed into one space.”
Feyre had loved to hang about their father’s office, more fascinated in the trade than what Nesta had been taught was acceptable for a wealthy girl. Feyre had always been that way: completely uninterested in the rules that governed their lives, uninterested in becoming a true lady who would help advance their family’s fortunes through an advantageous marriage.
They had rarely agreed on anything. And those visits to their father’s offices had resulted in a simmering resentment between them. Feyre had tried to get her interested, had shown her so many rarities to tempt her. But Nesta had barely listened to her sister’s explanations, mostly eyeing up their father’s business partners for whether their sons might be a good match. Feyre had been disgusted. It had made Nesta even more determined.
“Did you travel with him?”
“No, my two sisters and I remained home. It wasn’t appropriate for us to travel the world.”
“I always forget how similar human ideas of propriety are to the Illyrians’.” Emerie took another bite. “Would you have wanted to see the world, if you could?”
“It was half a world, wasn’t it? With the wall in place.” “Still better than nothing.”
Nesta chuckled. “You’re right.” She considered Emerie’s question. If her father had offered to bring them on one of his ships, to let them see strange and distant shores, would they have gone? Elain had always wanted to visit the continent to study the tulips and other famed flowers, but her imagination had stretched no further. Feyre had talked once about the glorious art in the continent’s museums and private estates. But that was all the western edge of it. Beyond that, the continent was vast. And to the south, another continent sprawled. Would she have gone?
“I would have put up a fight,” Nesta said at last, “but in the end, I’d have yielded to curiosity.”
“Do you still have any family in the human lands?”
“My mother died when I was twelve, and my father … He did not survive the most recent war. Their parents died during my childhood. I have no kin on my father’s side, and my mother had one cousin, who lives on the continent and conveniently forgot about us when we fell on hard times.”
Nesta had written letter after letter when they’d fallen into poverty, begging her cousin Urstin to take them in. They’d gone unanswered, and then the money for postage had run out. Nesta still wondered if their cousin had ever learned what had become of the relatives she’d ignored and left to die.
Nesta asked carefully, “What about your family?” She’d seen and heard enough from Bellius to have a general idea, but she couldn’t help asking.
“Mother died giving birth to me, and my elder brother died in a skirmish between war-bands ten years before I was born. My father died during the war with Hybern.” The words were stiff, cold. “I do not bother with the rest of my kin, though my father’s family makes it a point to try to claim this store and his wealth as their own.”
“They’re not entitled to it, are they?”
“No. Rhysand changed the inheritance laws centuries ago to include females, but my uncles don’t seem to care. They still show up every now and then to bother me like Bellius did. They believe a woman should not run her own business, that I should wed a male in this village and leave the store to them.” She grimaced. “They’re vultures.”
Emerie had finished her lunch and poured some tea for each of them. “It’s a shame that you won’t be coming up here very often. I could use another sensible person to talk to.”
Nesta blinked at the compliment, the bit of truth it revealed about Emerie: she was unhappy in this place. All those questions about traveling
… “Would you ever move away?”
Emerie choked on a laugh. “And go where? At least here I know people. I’ve never left this village. Never even been up to that mountaintop over there.” She gestured to the window, and Nesta made it a point not to look at her wings.
Nesta sipped from her tea. It was a strong brew, with a bit of a bite. She must have made a face because Emerie explained quietly, “Tea is in short supply here—a luxury that I indulge. But to spread it out, I add a little willow bark to it. It also helps with some of my … pains.”
“My wings sometimes hurt. The scars, I mean. Like an old wound.”
Nesta kept her pity tamped down. She finished her tea right as Emerie did, and said, “Thank you for the food.” Rising, she picked up her plate.
“I’ll get it.” Emerie hustled around the table. “Don’t trouble yourself.” She moved with an easy grace, like someone confident in her body.
Nesta drifted to the front of the shop, but then said, at last voicing her reason for visiting, “The training I’m doing with Cassian in the House of Wind is open to anyone—any female, I mean. Females who have experienced … hardship.” Emerie’s wings, her horrible family, were not the same as what Gwyn had endured, but everyone’s traumas wore different masks. “We train each morning, from nine to eleven, though we sometimes run until noon. You’re welcome to come.”
Emerie stiffened. “I have no way of getting there, but I appreciate the offer.”
“Someone could come retrieve you, and bring you back.” Nesta didn’t know who, but if she had to ask Rhys himself, she would.
“It’s a generous offer, but I have my shop to run.” Emerie’s face yielded nothing, as battle-hardened as Azriel’s. “I’m not interested in a warrior’s training. I doubt it would win me patrons in this town to have them know I’m doing such a thing.”
“You don’t seem like a coward.” The words rang between them.
Emerie bit her lip. But Nesta shrugged. “Send word if you wish to join us. The offer stands.”
Cassian hated to admit it, but for a spoiled, soulless asshole, Eris had his uses. Mostly one: the bubble of heat that warmed them against the chill winds wending through the pines of the Illyrian Steppes. Some fire magic to warm their bones.
“The Dread Trove,” Eris mused, surveying the heavy gray sky that threatened snow. “I’ve never heard of such items. Though it does not surprise me.”
“Does your father know of them?” The Steppes weren’t neutral ground, but they were empty enough that Eris had finally deigned to accept Cassian’s request to meet here. After taking days to reply to his message.
“No, thank the Mother,” Eris said, crossing his arms. “He would have told me if he did. But if the Trove has a sentience like you suggested, if it wants to be found … I fear that it might also be reaching out to others as well. Not just Briallyn and Koschei.”
Beron in possession of the Trove would be a disaster. He’d join the ranks of the King of Hybern. Could become something terrible and deathless like Lanthys. “So Briallyn failed to inform Beron about her quest for the Trove when he visited her?”
“Apparently, she doesn’t trust him, either,” Eris said, face full of contemplation. “I’ll need to think on that.”
“Don’t tell him about it,” Cassian warned.
Eris shook his head. “You misunderstand me. I’m not going to tell him a damned thing. But the fact that Briallyn is actively hiding her larger plans from him …” He nodded, more to himself. “Is this why Morrigan is back in Vallahan? To learn if they know about the Trove?”
“Maybe,” Cassian lied. She was still trying to convince them to sign the new treaty. But Eris didn’t need to know that.
“Here I was,” Eris said, “thinking Morrigan was going there so often to hide from me.”
“Don’t flatter yourself. It’s only coincidence.” He wasn’t sure if the lie held.
“Why shouldn’t I flatter myself with such thoughts? You flatter yourself, thinking you’re more than a mongrel bastard.”
Cassian’s Siphons glinted atop his hands, and Eris smirked at the evidence that he’d landed the blow. But Cassian forced himself to say calmly, “That’s all the information I have.”
“You’ve given me a great deal to consider.”
“Make sure you keep it quiet,” Cassian warned again. Eris winked before winnowing away.
Alone in the howling wild, Cassian blew out a breath. Embraced the chill winds, the pine-fresh scent, and willed it to wash away his irritation and discomfort.
But it lingered. For some reason, it lingered.