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Chapter no 74

A Court of Silver Flames

Satisfaction flashed in Briallyn’s dark eyes, and the three simple spikes of the golden Crown glowed as she lifted a hand.

The storm halted. Cleared away to reveal the pale gray sky before dawn, the last of the stars winking out.

Even nature could be influenced by the Crown.

Horror coiled through Nesta as Cassian’s arms slackened. She launched herself a few steps away, whirling, but knew what she’d find. Cassian stood still as a statue. As if he’d been turned to stone. His eyes, normally so bright and alive, had become glassy. Empty.

Briallyn had willed him that way. Had moved people around like chess pieces to ensure that Nesta arrived here. “Why?” Nesta said.

Briallyn’s thick fur cloak ruffled in the mountain wind. “Your power is too strong—throwing you into this primitive spectacle wore you down.”

You had the Illyrians bring me here?”

“My intent was to grab the maimed one.” Nesta’s blood boiled at the mention of Emerie. “Bellius fed me the information about your friendship and I saw how much she meant to you when we were linked through the Harp and the Crown. I knew that if I captured her, brought her here, you’d follow, law or no law. You’re reckless and conceited enough to think you could save her. But you made it easy for me: you went right to her house in

Windhaven. Spared me the trouble of luring you. I let those witless Illyrians take her and the half-breed as an amusing bonus.”

Nesta didn’t dare look up at Cassian. “All to wear me down?” “Yes. And without your magic—”

Nesta cut in, demanding, “I was worn down days ago. Why hold off until now?”

Briallyn glowered at the interruption. “I was waiting for him.” She nodded toward Cassian, who was bristling with rage—something like loathing and fear now pushing through the cloudiness in his eyes. “Days and days, I waited for him to get close enough for me to use the Crown to ensnare him. I had to use that brash princeling Eris to draw him in.” A soft laugh. “Eris tried to help his soldiers when they surrounded him during his hunt. Help those wretches. He rode right up to them, rather than gallop away as any wise person would. They grabbed him with minimal fuss. Even those infernal hounds of his could do nothing as Koschei winnowed him away.”

Was Eris dead? Or now her slave? Cassian’s face revealed nothing.

But Briallyn smiled at him. “I was getting worried you’d never approach. Poor Eris would have met a very sorry end if that had been the case. His fire wouldn’t have withstood Koschei’s lake, I don’t think.”

She glanced toward Bellius’s corpse. “He’s a hateful brute—just like you, Cassian. Arrogant and brash. He wandered off from his scouting unit to look for fun in my lands. So I showed him my idea of fun.” Her thin lips twisted in a mockery of a smile.

Briallyn chuckled. “I told him to hunt you down, not kill you, but it seems I wasn’t precise enough in my wording. And it’s rather satisfying to watch someone kill, especially with tools you’ve provided for them. I knew the Rite would be so much more entertaining with weapons. I suppose I could have ordered Bellius to stand down, but I was rather enjoying the sight.”

Nesta demanded, “Why are you doing this? Why don’t you want peace?”

“Peace?” Briallyn laughed. “What peace can I have now?” She waved a hand down at herself. “What I want is retribution. What I want is power.

What I want is the Trove. So I made sure you knew it, too. Made sure you became my unwitting partner in collecting the items of power from this godsforsaken territory. And I know there’s only one way you’ll yield them to me. One person for whom you’d do so.” A smile toward Cassian. “Your mate.”

“I don’t have the Trove here.”

“You can summon it. The objects will answer to you, no matter the wards on them. And you will hand them over to me.”

“And then you’ll kill us both?”

“And then I shall Make myself young again. I shall leave you both untouched.”

Nesta scented the lie.

Cassian grunted out, “Don’t.

Briallyn shot him a surprised look, and his mouth shut. He trembled, but remained standing still. Yet the glassiness in his gaze had cleared.

“So,” Briallyn said, “you will trade me the Trove for your mate’s life. You are so thoroughly Fae now, Nesta Archeron. You would allow the world to turn to ash and ruin before you let your mate die.” She frowned with distaste at the bodies around them, the blood. “Summon the Trove, and let us be done with this messy business.”

Nesta couldn’t stop her shaking. To give Briallyn the Trove, if she could even summon it … “No.”

“Then I shall have to try to convince you.”

Briallyn snapped her fingers at Cassian, and Nesta had half a second to turn before he was upon her.

Panic and rage shone in his eyes, but Nesta could do nothing, absolutely nothing, as he barreled into her, knocking her to the ground. Pinning her there, an arm at her throat, the weight of him, once so intimate and loving, now the thing that would hold her here, hurt her—

Pleading filled his face, utter anguish, as he fought the Crown. Fought it and lost.

“It will destroy him, of course, to kill his own mate,” Briallyn said. “You will be dead, and you will die knowing you doom him to a life of misery.”

Cassian’s free arm shook as he pulled the knife he’d killed Bellius with from his belt. Brought it toward her.

“You kill me,” Nesta gasped, “and you don’t get the Trove. You’ll never find it.”

“There are others in your court as delusional as you are. They’ll get it for me one way or another, with the right incentive. Granted, I’ll need your blood to unlock the wards on the Trove. I saw that, too, you know. When you so foolishly held the Harp in the Prison. But I suppose killing you will provide plenty of the blood required.” Briallyn nodded to Cassian. “Get her up.”

Nesta didn’t fight as he hauled her to her feet. Held the knife against her throat. Pleading shone in his eyes. Pleading and fear and—and love.

Love she did not deserve, had never once deserved, but there it was.

Just as it had been there from the instant they’d met.

What was the value of the world, compared to him? To this? “This is growing tiring,” Briallyn said.

Nesta let her mate see the love shining in her face. The sky filled with soft, gentle light.

“Kill,” Briallyn ordered Cassian.

Nesta had loved Cassian since she’d first laid eyes on him. Had loved him even when she did not want to, even when she had been swallowed by despair and fear and hatred. Had loved him and destroyed herself because she didn’t believe she deserved him, because he was all that was good, and brave, and kind, and she loved him, she loved him, she loved him—

Cassian’s arm shook, and Nesta braced herself for the blow, showing him her forgiveness, her unending, unbreakable love for him—

But Cassian roared.

And then the knife twisted in his hand, angling not toward her, but toward his own heart.

Of his own free will.

Against the Crown’s hold, against a gasping Briallyn, he chose to drive the knife into his own heart. Kill, she had said. But had not specified who.

And as the sun broke over the horizon, as Cassian’s knife plunged for his chest, Nesta erupted with the force of the Cauldron.

 

 

There was nothing in Nesta’s head but screaming. Nothing in her heart but love and hatred and fury as she let go of everything inside her and the entire world exploded.

The baying of her magic was a beast with no name. Avalanches cascaded down the cliffs in seas of glittering white. Trees bent and ruptured in the wake of the power that shattered from her. Distant seas drew back from their shores, then raced in waves toward them again. Glasses shook and shattered in Velaris, books tumbled off the shelves in Helion’s thousand libraries, and the remnants of a run-down cottage in the human lands crumbled into a pile of rubble.

But all Nesta saw was Briallyn. All she saw was the slack-jawed crone as Nesta leaped upon her, throwing her frail body to the rocky ground. All she knew was screaming as she clutched Briallyn’s face, the Crown glowing blindingly white, and roared her fury to the mountains, to the stars, to the dark places between them.

Gnarled hands turned young. A lined face became beautiful and lovely.

White hair darkened to raven black.

But Nesta bellowed and bellowed, letting her magic rage, unleashing every ember. Erasing the queen beneath her from existence.

The young hands turned to ash. The pretty face dissolved into nothing.

The dark hair withered into dust.

Until all that was left of the queen was the Crown on the ground.

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