A Court of Silver Flames, Page 2Sarah J. Maas
“Good-bye.” Nesta entered the rusty, leaky bathroom attached to her bedroom. At least the place had hot running water.
Feyre and Elain had tried to convince her to move. She’d always ignored their advice. Just as she’d ignore whatever was said today. She knew Feyre planned a scolding. Perhaps something to do with the fact that Nesta had signed last night’s outrageous tab at the tavern to her sister’s bank account.
Nesta snorted, twisting the handle in the bath. It groaned, the metal icy to the touch, and water sputtered, then sprayed into the cracked, stained tub.
This was her residence. No servants, no eyes monitoring and judging every move, no company unless she invited them. Or unless prying, swaggering warriors made it their business to stop by.
It took five minutes for the water to actually heat enough to start filling the tub. There had been some days in the past year when she hadn’t even bothered to take the time. Some days when she’d climbed into the icy water, not feeling its bite but that of the Cauldron’s dark depths as it devoured her whole. As it ripped away her humanity, her mortality, and made her into this.
It had taken her months of battling it—the body-tensing panic that made her very bones tremble to be submerged. But she’d forced herself to face it down. Had learned to sit in the icy water, nauseated and shaking, teeth gritted; had refused to move until her body recognized that she was in a tub and not the Cauldron, that she was in her apartment and not the stone castle across the sea, that she was alive, immortal. Even though her father was not.
No, her father was ashes in the wind, his existence marked only by a headstone on a hill outside this city. Or so her sisters had told her.
I loved you from the first moment I held you in my arms, her father had said to her in those last moments together.
Don’t you lay your filthy hands on my daughter. Those had been his final words, spat at the King of Hybern. Her father had squandered those final words on that worm of a king.
Her father. The man who had never fought for his children, not until the end. When he had come to save them—to save the humans and the Fae, yes, but most of all, his daughters. Her.
A grand, stupid waste.
Unholy dark power flowed through her, and it had not been enough to stop the King of Hybern from snapping his neck.
She had hated her father, hated him deeply, and yet he had loved her, for some inexplicable reason. Not enough to try to spare them from poverty or keep them from starving. But somehow it had been enough for him to raise an army on the continent. To sail a ship named for her into battle.
She had still hated her father in those last moments. And then his neck had cracked, his eyes not full of fear as he died, but of that foolish love for her.
That was what had lingered—the look in his eyes. The resentment in her heart as he died for her. It had festered, gnawing at her like the power she buried deep, running rampant through her head until no icy baths could numb it away.
She could have saved him.
It was the King of Hybern’s fault. She knew that. But it was hers, too. Just as it was her fault that Elain had been captured by the Cauldron after Nesta spied on it with that scrying, her fault that Hybern had done such terrible things to hunt her and her sister down like a deer.
Some days, the sheer dread and panic locked Nesta’s body up so thoroughly that nothing could get her to breathe. Nothing could stop the awful power from beginning to rise, rise, rise in her. Nothing beyond the music at those taverns, the card games with strangers, the endless bottles of wine, and the sex that made her feel nothing—but offered a moment of release amid the roaring inside her.
Nesta finished washing away the sweat and other remnants of last night. The sex hadn’t been bad—she’d had better, but also much worse. Even immortality wasn’t enough time for some males to master the art of the bedroom.
So she’d taught herself what she liked. She’d obtained a monthly contraceptive tea from her local apothecary, and then she’d brought that first male here. He had no idea that her maidenhead had been intact until he’d spied the smeared blood on the sheets. His face had tightened with distaste—then a glimmer of fear that she might report an unsatisfactory first bedding to her sister. To her sister’s insufferable mate. Nesta hadn’t bothered to tell him that she avoided both of them at all costs. Especially the latter. These days, Rhysand seemed content to do the same.
After the war with Hybern, Rhysand had offered her jobs. Positions in his court.
She didn’t want them. They were pity offerings, thin attempts to get her to be a part of Feyre’s life, to be gainfully employed. But the High Lord had never liked her. Their conversations were coldly civil at best.
She’d never told him that the reasons he hated her were the same reasons she lived here. Took cold baths some days. Forgot to eat on others. Couldn’t stand the crack and snap of a fireplace. And drowned herself in wine and music and pleasure each night. Every damning thing Rhysand thought about her was true—and she’d known it long before he had ever shadowed her doorstep.
Any offering Rhysand threw her way was made solely out of love for Feyre. Better to spend her time the way she wished. They kept paying for it, after all.
The knock on the door rattled the entire apartment.
She glared toward the front room, debating whether to pretend she’d left, but Cassian could hear her, smell her. And if he broke down the door, which he was likely to do, she’d just have the headache of explaining it to her stingy landlord.
So Nesta donned the dress she’d left on the floor last night, and then again freed all four locks. She’d installed them the first day she’d arrived. Locking them each night was practically a ritual. Even when the nameless male had been here, even out of her mind on wine, she’d remembered to lock them all.
As if that would keep the monsters of this world at bay.
Nesta tugged open the door enough to see Cassian’s cocky grin, and left it ajar as she stormed away to search for her shoes.
He strode in after her, a mug of tea in his hand—the cup probably borrowed from the shop at the corner. Or outright given to him, considering how people tended to worship the ground his muddy boots walked on. He’d already been adored in this city before the Hybern conflict. His heroism and sacrifice—the feats he’d performed on the battlefields—had won him even more awe after its end.
She didn’t blame his admirers. She’d experienced the pleasure and sheer terror of watching him on those battlefields. Still woke with sweat coating her at the memories: how she couldn’t breathe while she’d witnessed him fight, enemies swarming him; how it had felt when the Cauldron’s power had surged and she’d known it was going to strike where their army was strongest—him.
She hadn’t been able to save the one thousand Illyrians who had fallen in the moment after she’d summoned him to safety. She turned away from that memory, too.
Cassian surveyed her apartment and let out a low whistle. “Ever thought of hiring a cleaner?”
Nesta scanned the small living area—a sagging crimson couch, a soot-stained brick hearth, a moth-eaten floral armchair, then the ancient kitchenette, piled with leaning columns of dirty dishes. Where had she thrown her shoes last night? She shifted her search to her bedroom.
“Some fresh air would be a good start,” Cassian added from the other room. The window groaned as he cracked it open.
She found her brown shoes in opposite corners of the bedroom. One reeked of spilled wine.
Nesta perched on the edge of the mattress to slide them on, tugging at the laces. She didn’t bother to look up as Cassian’s steady steps approached, then halted at the threshold.
He sniffed once. Loudly.
“I’d hoped you at least changed the sheets between visitors, but apparently that doesn’t bother you.”
Nesta tied the laces on the first shoe. “What business is it of yours?”
He shrugged, though the tightness on his face didn’t reflect such
nonchalance. “If I can smell a few different males in here, then surely your companions can, too.”
“Hasn’t stopped them yet.” She tied the other shoe, Cassian’s hazel eyes tracking the movement.
“Your tea is getting cold.” His teeth flashed.
Nesta ignored him and searched the bedroom again. Her coat …
“Your coat is on the ground by the front door,” he said. “And it’s going to be brisk out, so bring a scarf.”
She ignored that, too, but breezed by him, careful to avoid touching him, and found her dark blue overcoat exactly where he’d claimed it was. She opened the front door, pointing for him to leave first.
Cassian held her gaze as he stalked for her, then reached out an arm—
And plucked the cerulean-and-cream scarf Elain had given her for her birthday this spring off the hook on the wall. He gripped it in his fist, dangling it like a strangled snake as he brushed past her.
Something was eating at him. Usually, Cassian held out a bit longer before yielding to his temper. Perhaps it had to do with whatever Feyre wanted to say up at the house.
Nesta’s gut twisted as she set each lock.
She wasn’t stupid. She knew there had been unrest since the war had ended, both in these lands and on the continent. Knew that without the barrier of the wall, some Fae territories were pushing the limits on what they could get away with in terms of border claims and how they treated humans. And she knew that those four human queens still squatted in their shared palace, their armies unused and intact.
They were monsters, all of them. They’d killed the golden-haired queen who’d betrayed them and sold another—Vassa—to a sorcerer-lord. It seemed only fitting that the youngest of the four remaining queens had been transformed into a crone by the Cauldron. Made into a long-lived Fae, yes, but aged into a withered shell as punishment for the power Nesta had taken from the Cauldron. How she’d ripped it apart while it had torn her mortal body into something new.
That wizened queen blamed her. Had wanted to kill her, if Hybern’s Ravens had been correct before Bryaxis and Rhysand had destroyed them for infiltrating the House of Wind’s library.
There had been no whisper of that queen in the fourteen months since the war.
But if some new threat had arisen …
The four locks seemed to laugh at her before Nesta followed Cassian out of the building and into the bustling city beyond.
The riverfront “house” was actually an estate, and so new and clean and beautiful that Nesta remembered her shoes were covered in stale wine precisely as she strode through the towering marble archway and into the shining front hall, tastefully decorated in shades of ivory and sand.
A mighty staircase bisected the enormous space, a chandelier of handblown glass—made by Velaris artisans—drooping from the carved ceiling above it. The faelights in each nest-shaped orb cast shimmering reflections on the polished pale wood floors, interrupted only by potted ferns, wood furniture also made in Velaris, and an outrageous array of art. She didn’t bother to remark on any of it. Plush blue rugs broke up the pristine floors, a long runner flowing along the cavernous halls on either side, and one ran beneath the arch of the stairs, straight to a wall of windows on its other side, which looked out onto the sloping lawn and gleaming river at its feet.
Cassian headed to the left—toward the formal rooms for business, Feyre had informed Nesta during that first and only tour two months ago. Nesta had been half-drunk at the time, and had hated every second of it, each perfect room.
Most males bought their wives and mates jewelry for an outrageous Winter Solstice present.
Rhys had bought Feyre a palace.
No—he’d purchased the war-decimated land, and then given his mate free rein to design the residence of their dreams.
And somehow, Nesta thought as she silently followed an unnaturally quiet Cassian down the hall toward one of the studies whose doors were cracked open, Feyre and Rhys had managed to make this place seem cozy, welcoming. A behemoth of a building, but still a home. Even the formal furniture seemed designed for comfort and lounging, for long conversations over hearty food. Every piece of art had been picked by Feyre herself, or painted by her, many of them portraits and depictions of them—her friends, her … new family.
There were none of Nesta, naturally.
Even their gods-damned father had a portrait on the wall along one side of the grand staircase: him and Elain, smiling and happy, as they’d been before the world went to shit. Sitting on a stone bench amid bushes bursting with pink and blue hydrangea. The formal gardens of their first home, that lovely manor near the sea. Nesta and their mother were nowhere in sight.
That was how it had been, after all: Elain and Feyre doted on by their father. Nesta prized and trained by their mother.
During that first tour, Nesta had noted the lack of herself here. The lack of their mother. She said nothing, of course, but it was a pointed absence.
It was enough to now set her teeth on edge, to make her grab the invisible, internal leash that kept the horrible power within her at bay and pull tight, as Cassian slipped into the study and said to whoever awaited them, “She’s here.”
Nesta braced herself, but Feyre merely chuckled. “You’re five minutes early. I’m impressed.”
“Seems like a good omen for gambling. We should head to Rita’s,” Cassian drawled just as Nesta stepped into the wood-paneled room.
The study opened into a lush garden courtyard. The space was warm and rich, and she might have admitted she liked the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, the sapphire velvet furniture before the black marble hearth, had she not seen who was sitting inside.
Feyre perched on the rolled arm of the couch, clad in a heavy white sweater and dark leggings.
Rhys, in his usual black, leaned against the mantel, arms crossed. No wings today.
And Amren, in her preferred gray, sat cross-legged in the leather armchair by the roaring hearth, those muted silver eyes sweeping over Nesta with distaste.
So much had changed between her and the female.
Nesta had seen to that—the destruction. She didn’t let herself think about that argument at the end-of-summer party on the river barge. Or the silence between herself and Amren since then.
No more visits to Amren’s apartment. No more chats over jigsaw puzzles. Certainly no more lessons in magic. She’d made sure of that last part, too.
Feyre, at least, smiled at her. “I heard you had quite the night.”
Nesta glanced between where Cassian had claimed the armchair across from Amren, the empty spot on the couch beside Feyre, and where Rhys stood by the hearth.
She kept her spine straight, her chin high, hating that they all eyed her as she opted to sit on the couch beside her sister. Hating that Rhys and Amren noted her filthy shoes, and probably still smelled that male on her despite the bath.
“You look atrocious,” Amren said.
Nesta wasn’t stupid enough to glare at the … whatever Amren was. She was High Fae now, yes, but she’d once been something different. Not of this world. Her tongue was still sharp enough to wound.
Like Nesta, Amren did not possess court-specific magic related to the High Fae. It didn’t make her influence in this court any less mighty. Nesta’s own High Fae powers had never materialized—she had only what she’d taken from the Cauldron, rather than letting it deign to gift her with power, as it had with Elain. She had no idea what she’d ripped from the Cauldron while it had stolen her humanity from her—but she knew they were things she did not and would never wish to understand, to master. The very thought had her stomach churning.
“Though I bet it’s hard to look good,” Amren went on, “when you’re out until the darkest hours of the night, drinking yourself stupid and fucking anything that comes your way.”
Feyre whipped her head to the High Lord’s Second. Rhys seemed inclined to agree with Amren. Cassian kept his mouth shut. Nesta said smoothly, “I wasn’t aware that my
activities were under your jurisdiction.”
Cassian loosed a murmur that sounded like a warning. To which one of them, she didn’t know. Or care.
Amren’s eyes glowed, a remnant of the power that had once burned inside her. All that was left now. Nesta knew her own power could shine like that, too—but while Amren’s had revealed itself to be light and heat, Nesta knew that her silver flame came from a colder, darker place. A place that was old—and yet wholly new.
Amren challenged, “They are when you spend that much of our gold on wine.”
Perhaps she had pushed them too far with last night’s tab.
Nesta looked to Feyre, who winced. “So you really did make me come all the way here for a scolding?”
Feyre’s eyes—mirror images of her own—softened slightly. “No, it’s not a scolding.” She cut a sharp glance at Rhys, still icily silent against the mantel, and then to Amren, seething in her chair. “Think of this as a discussion.”
Nesta shot to her feet. “My life is not your concern, or up for any sort of discussion.”
“Sit down,” Rhys snarled.
The raw command in that voice, the utter dominance and power …
Nesta froze, fighting it, hating that Fae part of her that bowed to such things. Cassian leaned forward in his chair, as if he’d leap between them. She could have sworn something like pain had etched itself across his face.
But Nesta held Rhysand’s gaze. Threw every ounce of defiance she could into it, even as his order made her knees want to bend, to sit.
Rhys said, “You are going to stay. You are going to listen.”
She let out a low laugh. “You’re not my High Lord. You don’t give me orders.” But she knew how powerful he was. Had seen it, felt it. Still trembled to be near him.
Rhys scented that fear. One side of his mouth curled up in a cruel smile. “You want to go head-to-head, Nesta Archeron?” he purred. The High Lord of the Night Court gestured to the sloping lawn beyond the windows. “We’ve got plenty of space out there for a brawl.”
Nesta bared her teeth, silently roaring at her body to obey her orders. She’d sooner die than bow to him. To any of them.