A court of frost and sta.., p.19
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       A Court of Frost and Starlight, p.19
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         Part #3.10 of A Court of Thorns and Roses series by Sarah J. Maas
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  But this front space … Empty. Save for the tapestry I’d hung on one wall, the black of the Void mesmerizing. And a reminder. As much of a reminder as the impossible iridescence of Hope, glittering throughout. To work through loss, no matter how overwhelming. To create.

  And then there were the ten easels and stools set in a circle in the middle of the gallery floor.

  Waiting.

  “Will they come?” I murmured to Ressina.

  The faerie shifted on her feet, the only sign of her worry. “They said they would.”

  In the month that we’d been working together, she’d become a good friend. A dear friend. Ressina’s eye for design was impeccable, good enough that I’d asked her to help me plan the river-house. That’s what I was calling it. Since river-manor … No. House it would be, even if it was the largest home in this city. Not from any preening, but simply from practicality. From the size of our court, our family. A family that would perhaps keep growing.

  But that was later. For now …

  A minute passed by. Then two.

  “Come on,” Ressina muttered.

  “Perhaps they had the wrong time?”

  But as I said it, they emerged. Ressina and I held our breath as the pack of them rounded the corner, aiming for the studio.

  Ten children, High Fae and faerie, and some of their parents.

  Some of them—since others were no longer alive.

  I kept a warm smile on my face, even as my heart thundered with each child that passed through our door, wary and unsure, clustering near the easels. My palms sweated as the parents gathered with them, their faces less guarded, but still hesitant. Hesitant, yet hopeful.

  Not just for themselves, but the children they’d brought with them.

  We hadn’t advertised broadly. Ressina had reached out to some friends and acquaintances, and requested they ask around. If there were children in this city who might need a place to express the horrors that had happened during the war. If there were children who might not be able to talk about what they’d endured, but could perhaps paint or draw or sculpt it. Perhaps they wouldn’t do any of those things, but the act of creating something … it could be a balm to them.

  As it was for me.

  As it was for the weaver, and Ressina, and so many of the artists in this city.

  Once word had gotten out, inquiries had poured in. Not just from parents or guardians, but from potential instructors. Artists in the Rainbow who were eager to help—to teach classes.

  I’d instruct one a day, depending on what was required of me as High Lady. Ressina would do another. And a rotating schedule of other teachers to teach the third and fourth classes of the day. Including the weaver, Aranea, herself.

  Because the response from parents and family had been overwhelming.

  How soon do classes start? was the most frequent question. The close second being How much does it cost?

  Nothing. Nothing, we told them. It was free. No child or family would ever pay for classes here—or the supplies.

  The room filled, and Ressina and I swapped a quick, relieved look. A nervous look, too.

  And when I faced the families gathered, the room open and sunny around us, I smiled once more and began.

  CHAPTER

  28

  Feyre

  He was waiting for me an hour and a half later.

  As the last of the children flitted out, some laughing, some still solemn and hollow-eyed, he held the door open for them and their families. They all gawked, bowing their heads, and Rhys offered them a wide, easy smile in return.

  I loved that smile. Loved that casual grace as he strode into the gallery, no sign of his wings today, and surveyed the still-drying paintings. Surveyed the paint splattered on my face and sweater and boots. “Rough day at the office?”

  I pushed back a strand of my hair. Knowing it was likely streaked with blue paint. Since my fingers were covered in it. “You should see Ressina.”

  Indeed, she’d gone into the back moments ago to wash off a face full of red paint. Courtesy of one of the children, who’d deemed it a good idea to form a bubble of all the paint to see what color it would turn, and then float it across the room. Where it collided with her face.

  Rhys laughed when I showed him down the bond. “Excellent use of their budding powers, at least.”

  I grinned, surveying one of the paintings beside him. “That’s what I said. Ressina didn’t find it so funny.”

  Though she had. Smiling had been a little difficult, though, when so many of the children had both visible and unseen scars.

  Rhys and I studied a painting by a young faerie whose parents had been killed in the attack. “We didn’t give them any detailed prompts,” I said as Rhys’s eyes roved around the painting. “We only told them to paint a memory. This is what she came up with.”

  It was hard to look at. The two figures in it. The red paint. The figures in the sky, their vicious teeth and reaching claws.

  “They don’t take their paintings home?”

  “These will dry first, but I asked her if she wanted me to keep this somewhere special. She said to throw it out.”

  Rhys’s eyes danced with worry.

  I said quietly, “I want to keep it. To put in my future office. So we don’t forget.”

  What had happened, what we were working for. Exactly why Aranea’s tapestry of the Night Court insignia hung on the wall here.

  He kissed my cheek in answer and moved to the next painting. He laughed. “Explain this one.”

  “This boy was immensely disappointed in his Solstice presents. Especially since it didn’t include a puppy. So his ‘memory’ is one he hopes to make in the future—of him and his ‘dog.’ With his parents in a doghouse instead, while he and the dog live in the proper house.”

  “Mother help his parents.”

  “He was the one who made the bubble.”

  He laughed again. “Mother help you.”

  I nudged him, laughing now. “Walk me home for lunch?”

  He sketched a bow. “It would be my honor, lady.”

  I rolled my eyes, shouting to Ressina that I’d be back in an hour. She called that I should take my time. The next class didn’t come until two. We’d decided to both be at these initial classes, so the parents and guardians got to know us. And the children as well. It would be two full weeks of this before we got through the entire roster of classes.

  Rhys helped me with my coat, stealing a kiss before we walked out into the sunny, frigid day. The Rainbow bustled around us, artists and shoppers nodding and waving our way as we strode for the town house.

  I linked my arm through his, nestling into his warmth. “It’s strange,” I murmured.

  Rhys angled his head. “What is?”

  I smiled. At him, at the Rainbow, at the city. “This feeling, this excitement to wake up every day. To see you, and to work, and to just be here.”

  Nearly a year ago, I’d told him the opposite. Wished for the opposite. His face softened, as if he, too, remembered it. And understood.

  I went on, “I know there’s much to do. I know there are things we’ll have to face. A few sooner than later.” Some of the stars in his eyes banked at that. “I know there’s the Illyrians, and the human queens, and the humans themselves, and all of it. But despite them …” I couldn’t finish. Couldn’t find the right words. Or speak them without falling apart in public.

  So I leaned into him, into that unfailing strength, and said down the bond, You make me so very happy. My life is happy, and I will never stop being grateful that you are in it.

  I looked up to find him not at all ashamed to have tears slipping down his cheeks in public. I brushed a few away before the chill wind could freeze them, and Rhys whispered in my ear, “I will never stop being grateful to have you in my life, either, Feyre darling. And no matter what lies ahead”—a small, joyous smile at that—“we will face it together. Enjoy every moment of it together.”

  I leaned into him
again, his arm tightening around my shoulders. Around the top of the arm inked with the tattoo we both bore, the promise between us. To never part, not until the end.

  And even after that.

  I love you, I said down the bond.

  What’s not to love?

  Before I could elbow him, Rhys kissed me again, breathless and swift. To the stars who listen, Feyre.

  I brushed a hand over his cheek to wipe away the last of his tears, his skin warm and soft, and we turned down the street that would lead us home. Toward our future—and all that waited within it.

  To the dreams that are answered, Rhys.

  The black water at her thrashing heels was freezing.

  Not the bite of winter chill, or even the burn of solid ice, but something colder. Deeper.

  It was the cold of the gaps between stars, the cold of a world before light.

  The cold of hell—true hell, she realized, as she bucked and kicked against the strong hands trying to shove her into that Cauldron.

  True hell, because that was Elain lying on the floor, the red-haired, one-eyed Fae male hovering over her. Because those were pointed ears poking through the sodden gold-brown hair, and that was an immortal glow resting upon Elain’s fair skin.

  True hell, worse than the inky depths that waited mere inches from her toes.

  Put her in, the hard-faced king ordered.

  And the sound of that voice, the male who had done this to Elain …

  She knew that she was going into the Cauldron. Knew she would lose this fight.

  Knew no one was coming to save her, not sobbing Feyre, not Feyre’s gagged former lover, not her devastated new mate. Not Cassian, broken and bleeding on the floor, still trying to rise on trembling arms.

  The king—he had done this. To Elain. To Cassian.

  And to her.

  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—

  Not gently.

  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.

  Starting now.

  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 knocked.

  Once. Twice.

  Silence.

  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.

 
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