The icy water bit into the soles of her feet.
It was a bite of venom, a bite of a death so permanent that every inch of her roared in defiance.
She was going in, but she would not go gently. She would not go bowed to this Fae king.
The water gripped her ankles with phantom hands, tugging her down.
So she twisted, wrenching her arm free from the guard who held it.
And so she pointed.
One finger—at the king.
Down down down that water wanted to pull her.
But Nesta Archeron still pointed at the King of Hybern.
A death-promise. A target marked.
Hands shoved her into the water’s awaiting claws.
And Nesta Archeron laughed at the fear that crept into the king’s eyes. Just before the water devoured her whole.
In the beginning
And at the end
There was Darkness
And nothing more
She did not feel the cold as she sank into a sea of blackness that had no bottom, no horizon, no surface.
But she felt the burning when it began.
Immortality was not a serene youth.
It was fire.
It was molten ore poured into her veins, boiling up her human blood until it was nothing but steam, forging her brittle bones into fresh steel.
When she opened her mouth to scream, when the pain ripped apart her very self, there was no sound. There was nothing here, in this place, but darkness and agony and power—
She would not take this gently.
She would not let them do this. To her, to Elain.
She would not bow, or yield, or grovel.
They would pay. All of them.
Starting with this place, this thing.
She tore into the darkness with claws and talons and teeth. Rent and cleaved and shredded.
The dark eternity around her shuddered. Bucked. Thrashed.
She laughed as it tried to recoil. Laughed around the mouthful of raw power she ripped from the inky black around her and swallowed whole; laughed at the fistfuls of eternity she shoved into her heart, her veins.
The Cauldron struggled like a bird under a cat’s paw. She refused to relent her grip.
Everything it had stolen from her, from Elain, she would take from it. From Hybern.
So she did.
Down into black eternity, Nesta and the Cauldron twined and fell, burning through the darkness like a newborn star.
Cassian raised his fist to the green-painted door in the dim hallway—and hesitated.
He’d cut down more enemies than he could count or remember, had stood knee-deep in gore on a killing field and kept swinging, had made choices that cost him the lives of good warriors, had been a general and a grunt and an assassin, and yet here he was, lowering his fist. Balking.
The building on the north side of the Sidra was in need of new paint. And new floors, if the creaking boards beneath his boots had been any indication as he’d climbed the two flights. But at least it was clean. It was still grim by Velaris standards, but when the city itself had no slums, that wasn’t saying much. He’d seen and stayed in far worse.
But it didn’t quite explain why she was staying here. Had insisted she live here, when the town house was sitting empty thanks to the river estate’s completion. He could understand why she wouldn’t bother taking up rooms in the House of Wind—it was too far from the city, and she couldn’t fly or winnow in. But Feyre and Rhys gave her a salary. The same, generous one they gave him, and every member of their circle. So Cassian knew she could afford far, far better.
He frowned at the peeling paint on the green door before him. No sounds trickled through the sizable gap between the door and floor; no fresh scents lingered in the hallway. Maybe he’d get lucky and she’d be out. Maybe she was still sleeping under the bar of whatever pleasure hall she’d frequented last night. Though maybe that’d be worse, since he’d have to track her down there, too. And a public scene …
He lifted his fist again, the red of his Siphon flickering in the ancient balls of faelight tucked into the ceiling.
Coward. Grow some damned balls and do your job.
Cassian almost sighed. Thank the Mother—
Clipped, precise footsteps thudded toward the other side of the door. Each more pissed off than the last.
He tucked his wings in tight, squaring his shoulders as he braced his feet slightly farther apart.
She had four locks on her door, and the snap as she unlatched each of them might as well have been the beating of a war-drum. He ran through the list of things he was to say, how Feyre had suggested he say them, but—
The door yanked open, the knob twisting so hard Cassian wondered if she was imagining it was his neck.
Nesta Archeron was already frowning.
But there she was. And she looked like hell.
“What do you want?” She didn’t open the door wider than a hand’s length.
When the hell had he last seen her? The end-of-summer party on that barge in the Sidra last month? She hadn’t looked this bad. Though a night trying to drown oneself in alcohol never left anyone looking particularly good the next morning. Especially when it was—
“It’s seven in the morning,” she hissed, looking him over with that gray-blue stare that was usually kindling to his temper. “Come back later.”
Indeed, she was in a male’s shirt. That definitely didn’t belong to her.
He braced a hand on the threshold and gave her a lazy grin he knew brought out the best in her. “Rough night?”
Rough year, he almost said. Because that beautiful face was indeed still pale, thinner than it’d been before the war, her lips bloodless, and those eyes … Cold and sharp, like a winter morning. No joy, no laughter, in any plane of her exquisite face.
“Come back in the afternoon,” she said, making to slam the door on his hand.
Cassian shoved out a foot before she could break his fingers. Her nostrils flared slightly.
“Feyre wants you at the house.”
“Which one,” Nesta said flatly, frowning at the foot he’d wedged there. “She has three, after all.”
He bit back the retort and the questions. This wasn’t the selected battlefield, and he wasn’t her opponent. No, his job was just to get her to the assigned spot. And then pray that the lovely riverfront home Feyre and Rhys had just moved into wouldn’t be reduced to rubble.
“She’s at the new one.”
“Why didn’t she come get me herself?” He knew that suspicious gleam in her eyes, the slight stiffening in her back. It had his own instincts surging to meet them, to push and push and see what might happen.
“Because she is High Lady of the Night Court, and she’s busy running the territory.”
Fine. Maybe they’d have a skirmish right here, right now.
A nice prelude to the battle ahead.
Nesta angled her head, golden-brown hair sliding over her too-thin shoulder. On anyone else, the movement would have been contemplative. On her, it was a predator sizing up prey.
“And my sister,” she said in that flat voice that refused to yield any sign of emotion, “deemed that meeting her right now was necessary?”
“She knew you’d likely need to clean yourself up, and wanted you to get a head start. You’re expected at eleven.”
He waited for the explosion as she took in the words, did the math.
Her pupils flared. “Do I look like I need four hours to become presentable?”
He took the invitation to survey her: long, bare legs, an elegant sweep of hips, tapered waist—again, too damn thin—and full, inviting breasts that were so at odds with the sharp angles of her bones. On any other female, he might have called the combination mouthwatering. Might have begun courting her from the moment he’d met her.
But from the moment he’d met Nesta, the cold fire in her blue-gray eyes had been a temptation of a different sort. And now that she was High Fae, that inherent dominance, the aggression—and that piss-poor attitude … There was a reason he avoided her as much as possible. Even after the war, things were still too volatile, both within the Night Court’s borders and in the world beyond. And the female before him had always made him feel like he was standing in quicksand.