Spring dawned on Velaris. Nesta welcomed the sun into her bones, her heart, letting it warm her.
They had made it through the winter with no movement from Briallyn or Beron, no armies unleashing. But Cassian warned that many armies did not attack in the winter, and Briallyn might have been amassing them in secret. Azriel was forbidden from getting within a few miles of her, thanks to the threat of the Crown, and any reports had to be verified by multiple sources. In short: they knew nothing, and could only wait.
The mood hadn’t been helped by a rare red star blasting across the sky one day—an ill omen, Nesta had heard the priestesses muttering. Cassian reported that even Rhys had been rattled by it, seeming unusually contemplative afterward. But Nesta suspected that the omen wasn’t the only thing contributing to Rhys’s solemnity. Feyre was only two months from giving birth, and they still knew nothing about how to save her.
She channeled that growing worry into her training with the priestesses. Azriel and Cassian devised more training simulations, and they moved through them as a unit, thought and battled as a unit.
Nesta sometimes wondered if they would ever see battle. If these priestesses would ever be willing to leave here to fight, to face violence that might summon the devouring demons of their pasts. Did she wish to move
beyond simulations to actual combat? What would it do to her, to see her friends killing or being killed?
It was a final test, she supposed. One they might not ever be taking.
Perhaps the Blood Rite, which Cassian had told her was only a few days away, had started as just that: a way to introduce young Illyrian warriors to killing in a contained environment, a stepping-stone to the full mercilessness of battle.
But Nesta’s first foray into merciless battle came in the form of a letter. An impatient, demanding letter that requested her presence immediately. And Cassian’s.
Eris was waiting for Nesta and Cassian when they arrived in a forest clearing nestled in the Middle. But Nesta didn’t bother to do more than glance at the High Lord’s son—not with the sight rising above the trees. The sacred mountain—the mountain under which Feyre, Rhys, and all the other High Lords had been trapped by Amarantha. It rose like a wave on the horizon, bleak and barren and somehow thrumming with presence.
“Have you never seen it?” Eris asked by way of greeting, tracking her stare.
“No.” She looked away from the unnerving peak. “Why is it sacred to you?”
Eris shrugged, and Nesta knew Cassian monitored his every breath. “There are three of them, you know. Sister peaks. This one, the mountain called the Prison, and the one the Illyrian brutes call Ramiel. All bald, barren mountains at odds with those around them.”
“We didn’t come for a history lesson,” Cassian muttered. Nesta cut him a look. “I asked. I want to know.”
Cassian snorted, and jerked his chin to Eris in a silent order to go on.
“We don’t know why they exist, but do you not find it strange that two out of the three have underground palaces carved into them?”
“I’d hardly call the Prison a palace,” Cassian cut in. “Just ask the inmates.”
Eris gave him a mocking smile, but continued, “Unsurprisingly, the Illyrians were never curious enough to see what secrets lie beneath Ramiel. If it, too, was carved up like the others by ancient hands.”
“I thought Amarantha made the court Under the Mountain herself,” Nesta said.
“Oh, she decorated it and made us act like a sorry imitation of your Court of Nightmares, but the tunnels and halls were carved long before. By who, we don’t know.”
“That’s all the history I can take,” Cassian said, earning a withering glare from Eris. Nesta followed suit. Cassian only gave her an amused wink before continuing, “Your letter seemed to imply that your father was making a move. Out with it.”
“My father went to the continent again last week. He came back seeming normal, without the glassy-eyed aloofness my soldiers displayed. He did not invite me to accompany him, or explain what he discussed with Briallyn. I can only assume the fallout is approaching, though, and wanted to warn you. It was not something I could risk putting in writing. But for now … for now, it seems as if the world is holding its breath.”
“For what?” Nesta asked. “For you to find the Harp.”
Nesta blinked. And realized too late, too slowly, that they had not told Eris they’d found it. And her blink had given it away.
Eris demanded, “You have it?”
“Does it make a difference?” Cassian said casually.
“The Night Court possesses two objects of the Trove. I’d say yes.” Eris straightened. “Is that what all these delays have been about? Biding your time so you can learn the Trove’s secrets and use the power for your own gains?”
“That’s absurd,” Nesta snapped. “What do we have to gain?”
Red flame sizzled in Eris’s eyes. “What did the King of Hybern have to gain by attaining the Cauldron and invading our lands?”
“We have no interest in conquest, Eris,” Cassian said, crossing his arms. “You know that. And we’re not going to use the Trove.”
Eris barked a laugh. Nesta could see that he didn’t believe them—that he was so used to the twisted politics and scheming of his court that even when the simple, easy truth was offered, he could not see it. “I find myself not entirely comfortable with your court possessing two items in the
Trove.” His gaze shifted to Nesta. “Especially when you have so many other weapons in your arsenal.”
Nesta stiffened, but Cassian didn’t so much as shift on his feet. “Rhys has his own plans, Eris. You can’t be foolish enough to think we’d tell you all of them, but I can assure you they don’t involve using the Trove.”
Nesta tried not to gape at the cool, amused voice that had come out of Cassian. A courtier’s voice. As if he’d been listening to her and Rhysand, and had perfectly replicated that combination of boredom and cruelty. Nesta couldn’t help the thrill that shot down her spine. She wanted him to use that voice in the bedroom. Wanted him to whisper like that in her ear while he— “So you claim,” Eris said. “I suppose you’re going after the Crown
now.” His hair shone like embers in the dappled light.
Cassian smirked. “We’ll tell you when you need to know. And we’ll try not to forget this time.”
Eris picked at a piece of lint on his jacket. At his side hung the dagger Rhys and Feyre had gifted him, simple and plain compared to the finery on him. Her dagger. “You’d be truly stupid to go after Briallyn directly.”
“Leave the heroics to the brutes, Eris,” Cassian said. “Wouldn’t want to risk cutting up those pretty hands.”
Eris’s fingers curled slightly on his biceps. Nesta reined in her smile.
Cassian’s words had found their mark.
“And what will you do when you have all three objects in the Trove?” Eris’s brows flattened. “You can’t destroy them; and I doubt hiding them would work. Considering the danger that gathers around us, I don’t see why you wouldn’t use them.”
Nesta kept silent, content to let Cassian take the lead.
Cassian let out a soft laugh, and Nesta’s blood again sang at the mastery of it. He’d toy with Eris a bit longer. Indeed, Cassian asked coolly, “And what are you going to do to stop us?”
Eris only said, “If you fail in retrieving the Crown, you risk Briallyn using it upon you. She could turn you on each other. Make you do unspeakable things. Even reveal to her where the other two objects are. And you’d have no choice but to tell her everything.” He worried about them
revealing their alliance—for his own sake. “You threaten to expose us. Do
not pursue the Crown.”
“We’ll see,” Cassian said, the portrait of unruffled calm. Nesta nearly snickered as he nodded toward the dagger at Eris’s side. “We have our own ways to protect ourselves against the Crown.” Nesta hid her surprise. The weapons she Made shielded against the Trove? No one had told her such a thing.
Eris glowered. “Has this been the plan the whole time? To string me along, make me an enemy of my father, then use the Trove against all of us?”
“You made yourself an enemy of your father,” Cassian said, smiling faintly. “When he finds out, I wonder if he’ll let your hounds rip you to shreds, or if he’ll do it himself.”
Eris paled slightly. “Don’t you mean if he finds out?”
Cassian said nothing. Kept his face neutral. Nesta stifled her smugness and did the same.
Eris observed them. For the first time since Nesta had known the male, uncertainty banked the fire in his gaze.
And then he turned toward the other subject in his letter, facing Nesta before he asked, “And my offer for you?” Not one ounce of affection or longing laced his words.
Nesta lifted her chin, smirking at last. “I suppose once we have the Crown in our hands, the Night Court won’t need you after all. Neither will I.”
She could have sworn Cassian was repressing a laugh, but she kept her gaze on Eris, who went rigid, rippling with rage. “I do not appreciate being toyed with, Nesta Archeron. My offer was sincere. Stay with the Night Court and you risk your ruin.”
Cassian cut in smoothly, “Try to fuck us over, Eris, and you risk yours.”
Eris’s upper lip curled. “Do whatever you want.” He straightened, as if shaking off any emotion, face going cold and cruel again. “It’s your lives you gamble with, not mine.” He chuckled, nodding to Cassian. “So what if the world loses another brute to war? Good riddance.”
Cassian smiled slowly. “Thanks for your well-wishes, Eris.”
And with that, Cassian swept Nesta into his arms and shot into the sky, the trees passing in a green blur, the sacred mountain lurking at their backs.
Nesta peered into his face as they flew northward, and found Cassian grinning.
“You did well,” she said, brushing a hand down his neck.
“I pretended I was you,” he admitted. “I think I got the I Will Slay My Enemies look down, didn’t I?”
Nesta laughed, leaning her head against his chest. “You did.”
They flew for hours, content to be alone, soaring over the land. They flew and flew, Cassian tireless and unfaltering, and Nesta let herself revel in the feeling of his arms. In just being with him. And even though the cold sank into her skin, by the time the lights of Velaris appeared on the darkening horizon, she was sorry to see them.
But he brought them to the city proper, landing on one of the bridges spanning the Sidra. “I thought we’d walk for a little,” he said, interlacing his fingers with hers.
After so long in the empty skies, the people all around them seemed to press in. But Nesta nodded, falling into step beside him, savoring his calluses against her own, the rub of the thread that kept his Siphon in place atop his hand, the warmth that leaked from him.
“What do you think Eris will do?” They hadn’t spoken of it during the flight.
“Sulk, then come up with his next way to insult me,” Cassian said, and Nesta laughed. He gave her a sidelong glance. “You liked seeing me play courtier?”
Nesta’s mouth quirked upward. “I wouldn’t want you to be that way forever, but it was … enticing. It gave me some ideas.”
His eyes glowed, and though they were within view of the entire city, he laid a hand against her cheek. Brushed a kiss to her mouth. “It gave me some ideas as well, Nes.” He pressed against her, and she understood his meaning entirely.
She laughed and pulled away, aiming for the end of the bridge. “People are watching.”
“I don’t care.” He fell into step beside her again, slinging an arm over her shoulder for emphasis. “I have nothing to hide with you. I want them to know we share a bed.” He kissed her temple, tucking her into his side as they walked through the bustling city.
Such a simple, lovely claim, and yet … She found herself asking, “Does it undermine my image as a warrior to be with you?”
“No. Does it undermine Feyre’s when she’s seen with Rhys?”
Her stomach tightened. Her heartbeat pulsed in her arms, her gut. “It’s different for them,” she made herself say as they reached the end of the bridge and turned to walk along the quay flanking the river.
Cassian asked carefully, “Why?”
Nesta kept her focus on the glittering river, vibrant with the hues of sunset. “Because they’re mates.”
At his utter silence, she knew what he’d say. Halted again, bracing for
Cassian’s face was a void. Completely empty as he said, “And we’re
Nesta said nothing.
He huffed a laugh. “Because they’re mates and you don’t want us to be.”
“That word means nothing to me, Cassian,” she said, voice thick as she tried to keep the people who strode past from overhearing. “It means something to all of you, but for most of my life, husband and wife was as good as it got. Mate is just a word.”
When she only began walking along the river again, he asked, “Why are you frightened?”
“I’m not frightened.”
“What spooked you? Just being seen publicly with me like this?”
Yes. Having him kiss her and realizing that soon she’d have to return to this world humming around them, and leave the House, and she didn’t
know what she would do then. What it would mean for them. If she would plunge back into that dark place she’d occupied before.
Drag him down with her. “Nesta. Talk to me.”
She met his stare, but wouldn’t open her mouth.
Cassian’s eyes blazed. “Say it.” She refused. “Say it, Nesta.” “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Ask me why I vanished for nearly a week after Solstice. Why I suddenly had to do an inspection right after a holiday.”
Nesta kept her mouth shut.
“It was because I woke up the next morning and all I wanted to do was fuck you for a week straight. And I knew what that meant, what had happened, even though you didn’t, and I didn’t want to scare you. You weren’t ready for the truth—not yet.”
Her mouth went dry.
“Say it,” Cassian snarled. People gave them a wide berth. Some outright turned back toward the direction they’d come from.
His face shuttered with rage even as his voice became calm. “Say it.”
She couldn’t. Not before he’d ordered her to, and certainly not now. She wouldn’t let him win like that.
“Say what I’ve guessed from the moment we met,” he breathed. “What I knew the first time I kissed you. What became unbreakable between us on Solstice night.”
“I am your mate, for fuck’s sake!” Cassian shouted, loud enough for people across the river to hear. “You are my mate! Why are you still fighting it?”
She let the truth, voiced at last, wash over her.
“You promised me forever on Solstice,” he said, voice breaking. “Why is one word somehow throwing you off that?”
“Because with that one word, the last scrap of my humanity goes away!” She didn’t care who saw them, who heard. “With that one stupid word, I am no longer human in any way. I’m one of you!”
He blinked. “I thought you wanted to be one of us.” “I don’t know what I want. I didn’t have a choice.”
“Well, I didn’t have a choice in being shackled to you, either.” The declaration slammed into her. Shackled.
He sucked in a breath. “That was an incredibly poor choice of words.” “But the truth, right?”
“No. I was angry—it’s not true.”
“Why? Your friends saw me for what I was. What I am. The mating bond made you stupidly blind to it. How many times did they warn you away from me, Cassian?” She barked a cold laugh.
Words beckoned, sharp as knives, begging for her to grab one and plunge it into his chest. Make him hurt as much as that one word hurt her. Make him bleed.
But if she did that, if she ripped into him … She couldn’t. Wouldn’t let herself do it.
He pleaded, “I didn’t mean it like—” “I’m calling in my favor,” she said.
He went still, brows bunching. And then his eyes widened. “Whatever you’re—”
“I want you to leave. Go up to the House of Wind for the night. Do not speak to me until I come talk to you, or until a week has passed. Whichever comes first. I don’t care.”
Until she’d mastered herself enough to not hurt him, to stop feeling the old urge to strike and maim before she could be wounded.
Cassian lurched toward her, but winced, back arching. Like the bargain tattoo on his back had burned him.
“Go away,” she ordered.
His throat worked, eyes bulging. Fighting the power of the bargain with his every breath.
But then he whirled, wingbeats booming as he leaped into the skies above the river.
Nesta remained on the quay as her spine tingled, and she knew her tattoo had vanished.
Emerie was at her kitchen table when Nesta appeared at the back door. Mor had winnowed her here without a question, without so much as a glance of disapproval. Nesta had been beyond caring about it, though. Was only grateful the female had appeared—likely sent by Cassian. She didn’t care about that, either.
Nesta made it two steps into Emerie’s shop before she collapsed and cried.
She barely noticed what happened. How Emerie helped her into a chair, how the words tumbled out, explaining what she and Cassian had said, what she’d done to him.
A knock sounded on the door an hour later, and Nesta stopped crying when she saw who stood there.
Gwyn threw her arms around Nesta. “I heard you might need us.” Nesta was so stunned to see the priestess that she returned the hug.
Mor, a step behind, gave her a concerned nod, and then winnowed away.
Emerie was the one to say to Gwyn, “I can’t believe you left the library.”
Gwyn stroked Nesta’s head. “Some things are more important than fear.” She cleared her throat. “But please don’t remind me too much. I’m so nervous I really might vomit.”
Even Nesta smiled at that.
Her two friends fussed over her, sitting at the kitchen table and drinking hot cocoa—a belated Solstice gift to Emerie from Nesta, pilfered from the House’s larder. They ate dinner, and then dessert, and discussed their latest reads. They spoke about everything and nothing long into the night.
Only when Nesta’s eyes burned with exhaustion, her body a limp weight, did they go upstairs. There were three bedrooms above the shop, all pristine and simple, and Nesta changed into the nightgown Emerie offered without a second thought.
She’d talk to him tomorrow. Sleep now, safe with her friends around her, and talk to him tomorrow.
She’d explain everything—why she’d balked, why it frightened her, this next step into the unknown. The life beyond it. She’d apologize for using their bargain to send him away, and not stop apologizing until he smiled again.
Perhaps the future did not need to be so planned—she could just take it one day at a time. As long as she had Cassian at her side, her friends with her, she could do it. Face it. They wouldn’t let her fall back into that pit. Cassian would never let her fall again.
But if she did fall … he’d be waiting for her at the top again. Hand outstretched. She didn’t deserve it, but she’d endeavor to be worthy of him.
Nesta fell asleep with that thought ringing, a weight lifted from her chest.
Tomorrow, she’d tell Cassian everything. Tomorrow, her life would begin.
A male scent filled her room. It wasn’t Cassian. And it wasn’t Rhys or Azriel.
It was full of hate, and Nesta lurched upward just as a rough laugh sounded. Down the hall, Gwyn screamed—then fell silent.
In the dark, she could make out nothing, and she fumbled for the power within her, for the knife next to the bed—
Something cold and wet pressed into her face. It burned her nostrils, flaying open her mind. Darkness swept in, and she was gone.