The drum beats echoed through her bones, sending shudders of fear and exhilaration up and down her spine. Another day. Another clipping.
The tips of her wings dragged over the dirty floor as Aife stepped to the window, watching the gruesome scene unfold. She halted a mere two feet from the murky glass pane, the manacles at her ankles and wrists going taut.
A female was hunched over in the dirt, her wings held open by two stocky males. They were a beautiful shade… Not black, but not brown either. A sort of blue-ish gray, reflecting the clouded skies overhead.
The biggest warrior, an Illyrian with a forehead too wide for his face, shouted the dreaded command. Aife flinched as the sword came down in two quick motions. She heard the female scream before she saw the damage.
Blood bloomed from the two slashes splitting the female’s wings, cutting through the tendon and bone in an irreversible method. The Illyrians holding the wings let them drop, and the scarred female collapsed to the floor.
Breathing hard, Aife backed away, tucking her wings even tighter behind her back. She pressed herself into the grimy corner of the basement, sliding to the floor.
For seventeen years, she’d watched from that Cauldron-forsaken window as they cut down her kind, one by one. Sometimes it was friends, sometimes strangers, but all were female.
No matter how hard she fought against the manacles chaining her to the wall, no matter how much she screamed for the males to stop, Aife was powerless.
The door to the basement slammed open, and her shoulders banged into the wall as she straightened.
“Good morning, dear sister,” Serta purred, his broad shoulders illuminated by the small candle sitting beside her cot.
She tried to make eye contact, but her brother dropped his gaze to the floor. His thin lips, however, were set in a sneer.
“Do you have food for me?” she asked.
Snorting, Serta said, “Father’s cutting you off until you bleed.”
Aife raised her chin, summoning as much dignity as she could. “I can’t control it,” she snarled.
Faster than she could react, Serta grabbed her chin, forcing her to meet his eyes. “Don’t talk back to me,” he hissed, face twisted in fury. “You’re seventeen, well past the age. If you’ve been hiding it from me, Mother help me, I will rip the skin from your bones strip by strip.”
He released her chin, and Aife relaxed - until the back of his hand cracked across her face.
Though she tasted blood, she didn’t so much as cry out, just blinked the reflexive tears away. Slowly, she looked back to Serta, smirking. The color drained from the warrior’s face as he realized his mistake.
“A friend stole a female from you?” Aife clicked her tongue. “Serta, I thought you were stronger than that.”
She sifted through his memories, now open for the taking. “What was her name? Kielli. A fitting name, I suppose.” An image of a tall, slender woman appeared at the front of her mind. “She was beautiful.”
A muscle feathered in Serta’s jaw, and Aife saw the punch before it came, driving into her stomach. Defenseless, she curled into a ball, protecting what she could from her brother’s unending blows.
Agony coursed through her veins, but she took every kick, every blow in mute pain. She would not let her spirit be subdued. Beatings came every day, whether they were from Serta or Father. The most she could do was control when they came, and how she responded.
When Serta stopped, she hesitantly raised her gaze.
Panting, her brother stared at the ground, his massive chest rising and falling with every breath. His head snapped up, though his eyes remained on the floor.
“Tomorrow, you’re getting clipped and mated,” he growled. “There are already suitors lined up to take you.”
Serta ascended the stairs, his spread wings casting shadows along the stone walls, and shut the door behind him, leaving Aife whimpering on the floor.
It was over, then. Her years of smothering the stains with candle wax and soaking her undergarments in water to mask the scent of her blood. Since she’d come of age, they’d stopped cutting her, stopped injuring her in any way that drew blood so they could scent when she transitioned into a woman.
But none of that mattered now. Because tomorrow she would share the fate of the female outside the window, and surrender herself to a male. The only freedom she had would be taken from her.
Crumpled inside and out, Aife took a shuttering breath, a lump growing at the back of her throat. Groaning, she heaved herself off the floor and crawled back to the corner, to the only place in the world where she felt safe.
Aife tucked her knees to her chest, letting her head fall back against the wall. Her dark hair snagged on the talons crowning the apex of her wings, and she pulled it over her shoulder. Slowly, gently, she used her coppery fingers to work through the snarls.
Silent tears trailed down her cheeks as she pulled apart the tangles, shaky sobs breaking from the back of her throat.
She’d never had a chance to live. And now she never would.
When Serta had entered the basement to unshackle her, Aife hadn’t said a word. There was no use in trying to convince him otherwise. He'd made up his mind.
The manacles left angry red bands on her wrists, and when she touched them, rough skin met her fingertips. She'd never seen the skin there so exposed, so fragile. The weight of the chains now gone, her legs and arms felt lighter than ever.
She hadn’t seen Father when Serta had dragged her from the house, his hand fisted in the back of her worn shirt. Although it seemed wrong, somehow, that she would never get to say goodbye, relief flooded her heart.
A male stood at the door, his head down.
“Watch her,” Serta said, shoving his little sister at the warrior. Aife stumbled once on the uneven ground, but caught herself. “She enters your mind through the eyes, so don’t make eye contact.”
Muttering agreement, he clapped a calloused hand around her arm. “You owe me for this,” he told Serta.
Her brother responded by shutting the door.
The sun was so much brighter outside. She hadn’t expected the war camp to be so loud.
Hums of life entered the breeze, mothers calling their children, soldiers bartering for food in the marketplace. Everything she should know about, but didn’t.
As she passed through the crowd, Aife locked eyes with a small child, bracing herself when his past flashed through her mind. Wrestling with his brother, sitting in front of the hearth with his mother, wolfing down his gruel with the other boys, even though it tasted like tree bark. Joy and sorrow and wonder: the life of a boy full of potential.
The warrior dragged her away, and Aife was left with the shell of a warm life echoing in her mind.
It was then she realized they were walking much farther away from the place where she’d seen so many females get clipped. Where was he taking her?
Aife raised her head to the Illyrian.”Hey,” she said softly, trying to channel whatever feminine charm she had.
Distracted, the warrior disobeyed Serta’s words and met Aife’s eyes. It was all she needed.
His past was a mess of missions and orders, but Aife chose to focus on the most recent memories, right before they arrived at her house. A severe looking male entered her mind, and she let her consciousness enter the memory.
“Bring her to me,” he said, his voice like the ominous echoes of the basement. “I want to clip her wings myself.”
Aife blinked back to the present, her lungs shrinking. Serta had said suitors were lined up, but… Nothing could prepare her for the sinking reality that she would be clipped, broken beyond repair.
The male tightened his grip on her arms as they stepped onto a dirt path, leading her up to a rickety shack sitting atop a hill.
No, Aife decided. He expected her to walk willing, to be unable to do anything but accept her fate. Her spirit was supposed to be crushed by her time locked away.
The warrior didn’t expect her to give him hell.
Flaring her wings as wide as she could, Aife beat them once, pushing away from the male’s grasp. Stunned at her outburst, they loosened their grip, and she wrenched herself free.
Already winded, Aife sprinted away from the warrior, her wings dead weight on her back. She’d never used them effectively before and had no idea what to do with them. Flight wasn’t an option
Footsteps pounded the ground behind her, and Aife felt icy fear surround her heart. She’d never run so fast in her life - she’d barely run at all. The male behind her had been training for centuries.
She was doomed, and she knew it.
Something yanked her back towards the shack, back towards the suitor her brother had sent her to. Aife tried to rip herself free, but the warrior growled in her ear.
“Try that again,” he breathed, “and you won’t see morning.”
Aife’s nose wrinkled with distaste. “If it means seeing your face again, I can do without.”
She yelped as he twisted her wing in an awkward angle, to the point where she could almost feel it cracking.
“He said he wanted to do it himself,” she managed, keeping her features cool.
The male, careful not to make eye contact, let a sneer curl his lip. “He’ll thank me later.”
Aife glared at him. She’d spent her whole life begging for mercy, for food, for love. No longer
So she raised her head, her eyes not leaving the warrior. A breeze whipped strands of hair into her face, but her stony features didn’t falter.
“I. Dare. You,” Aife whispered.
The warrior’s brows drew together, his muscles tensing to snap her wingbone.
A commanding voice, the sound of stone on stone, interrupted the scene.
She couldn’t see who it was, but the Illyrian holding her wing obeyed, his hands dropping to his sides. Warily, she backed away, hands raised defensively in front of her.
The warrior inclined his head. “General,” he muttered.
Aife turned, only to be met by the most gorgeous male she’d ever seen. His wings were beautiful, stretching out behind him in a show of power. Seven red stones were imbedded in his suit: two on his hands, two at his shoulders, and three on his chest.
The “General”, as the pale Illyrian had called him, nodded toward Aife. “What were you doing with her?” he demanded, striding to halt a few inches from her captor’s face.
Scrambling to find his voice, the smaller Illyrian brought himself to his full height. “Lord Rhenon requested her, General. Told us she was his mate.”
The General turned to Aife, meeting her eyes willingly, unafraid of her and her gifts. They were a crisp hazel, like that of fallen leaves. His past appeared, a flurry of rage, of sorrow, of blood. She watched him cry over a headstone, laugh over dinner, get his wings shredded down to the bone.
She saw the creatures he’d slain, the males he made company with. One had shadows surrounding his body, and his hands were scarred with burns. The other… Pure power in Fae form. A few females flitted through, but Aife ignored them - they were most likely bedmates.
Aife heard his name called from various memories, sometimes in moments of frenzy, sometimes in moments of jest.
Cassian, Cassian, Cassian.
Someone touched her shoulder, and Aife flinched, leaping away from the contact. She glanced up to find Cassian looking back at her with warm eyes, his mouth tightening at her reaction.
“Get. Away from me,” she ground out, flinging her wings out in what she hoped to be a menacing gesture.
To her surprise, the male listened, backing away with his hands held up. “Okay,” he said softly.
He turned to the pale warrior standing to his side. “Go back to your home,” he spat. Murmuring to himself, the Illyrian scampered away.
Cassian kept his eyes locked with Aife’s, as if saying “I’m not going anywhere”.
“What happened to you?” he asked.
She crossed her arms, her wings stiffening. “Nothing you’d care about.”
The General matched her stance. “What’s your name?”
Aife bit her lip, considering her options. No matter the concern in his features, he was still an Illyrian male. He didn’t care for females, none of them did. And yet…
Raising her head, Aife stepped closer to Cassian, keeping her movements slow and careful. “Look into my eyes and don’t look away until I tell you to,” she said.
Confused, he started, “Why does that-”
“Just do it,” she snapped. “And then I’ll answer your questions.”
Cassian blinked a few times, and then he looked into her eyes, exactly as she’d asked.
One by one, Aife picked through his past, taking extra care in the memories that included Illyrian females.
When she was satisfied, she stepped back and sucked in a breath. “Okay,” she breathed, looking up at Cassian with a newfound respect. “My name is Aife.”
A hint of confusion still shadowed his features, but Cassian gave her a small smile. “Where is your family?” he asked. “Can I walk you back to them?”
Aife felt herself bristle. “No,” she said too quickly. “No, I… I don’t have a family.” She’d rather have no family than go back to that basement.
“Can I… Can I help you with anything?”
“Umm… “ Aife cast a glance back to the warcamp, back to where she’d grown up. But this wasn’t home. It had never been.
“Get me out of here,” she said, turning back to the massive warrior.
Cassian chewed the inside of his cheek, thinking. “Where do you need to go?”
“Anywhere. Anywhere but here.” Aife’s words were rushed, now, the prospect of escaping Serta and Father and Lord Rhenon lifting a weight off her heart. “Take me away from this place, and never, never let me come back.”
Cassian smiled at her, his eyes softening. He looked to the horizon, to the snow-capped mountains around them.
“Can you fly?” he said finally.
Aife shook her head.
“Will you let me carry you?”
The words sent a shiver through her body, but she said, “If you have to.”
Hesitantly, Cassian reached for her, calloused hands outstretched. At her stiffness, he leaned down to meet her eyes. “Are you sure?”
Aife nodded, mouth pursed. Gently, Cassian scooped her into his arms, one hand under her knees, the other looped around her arms and wings.
The tightness in her throat made it hard to breath, and the General took notice. “Do I need to put you down?” he asked softly.
Swallowing down her fear, Aife glanced to Cassian, whose face was set in concentration. She searched his memory for something incriminating, something that labeled him untrustworthy. Every time, she came up empty.
“Don’t drop me,” she said, reaching a hand up to grip his shoulder.
Cassian nodded, wings opening for takeoff. “Never.”
They soared into the air, gusts of wind guiding them through the unknown.
Biting winter wind ruffled Aife’s hair, and she shivered.
Cassian’s warm breath ran over her ear. “Cold?”
Clenching her jaw to keep her teeth from chattering, Aife pressed herself closer to his chest, breathing in his scent of fresh bread and sweet ash. “A little,” she murmured.
Without a word, the warrior tightened his hold around her, drawing her against him. “Better?” he asked.
Aife closed her eyes, the hint of a smile playing on her lips. “Definitely,” she said.
Fatigue washed over her, and she relaxed into Cassian’s arms. She’d exerted so much energy today, and sleep was creeping upon her.
“We’ll be there in a few hours,” Cassian said over the wind. “You should get some rest.”
She took a deep breath, settling against him. “You’re not going to drop me?” she whispered, eyes fluttering closed.
Cassian laughed, and Aife felt it reverberating in his chest. “Aife, I swear on the Mother that I will never drop you.”
She ignored the thrill of the way he said her name, the way his lips formed the sounds “Aye-fee”.
Looking up, Aife found the warrior’s gaze set on the sky before them, his wings two dark stains beating through the clouds. Stubble dotted his chin, and his jaw was a sharp contrast from his neck. She gave a small sigh and burrowed her head deeper into his black shirt.
Surrounded by arms of warmth and the smell of firewood, Aife quickly succumbed to sleep.
Cassian landed softly on the plush snow, his wings flared to slow his descent. The girl in his arms didn’t stir.
Keeping his movements to a minimum, Cassian strode toward the cabin set in a grove of pine trees. It was where he’d been staying for the past week, the place he slept in between his trips to the war camps of the Steppes.
Rhys had asked him to eliminate the female discrimination among the Illyrians once and for all. Cassian had been happy to oblige; especially if it meant getting away from Nesta. That woman was driving him crazy.
He’d come to the conclusion that she didn’t want him. She’d made that perfectly clear with all the doors she slammed in his face and the way she screamed at him when he tried to get to know her. Nesta didn’t care about him.
And that fact hurt more than any torture he’d endured.
Aife shifted in Cassian’s arms, and he glanced down. She looked so fragile now that she was asleep. When he’d first met her, she’d been one of the most intimidating creatures he’d come across. Her face was hard with anger, her golden eyes fierce. Still, even when she’d snarled at him, Cassian had sensed the note of fear in her tone.
The clothes she wore were far too small, too thin, her shirt rising above her navel. He could see a bruise blooming over her abdomen in the sickening shape of a fist. When he’d first spotted the injury it was only because of her obvious uneasiness around males that he didn’t immediately demand to know who had hurt her.
His stomach twisted at the thought of someone striking her. She was a beautiful creature, with fiery eyes and dark hair that complemented her bronze skin. No wonder that camp Lord had taken such a liking to her.
When that scum of a soldier had told him she was mated to Rhenon, Cassian had known immediately it was a lie. He could scent no bonds on her, nothing tying her to the inhabitants of the camp besides family blood. It was the perfect opportunity to get her out of there.
Careful not to wake Aife, Cassian opened the door to the cabin and stepped inside. Like all of Rhys’ properties, the house was already warm, candles lighting themselves as he pushed the door closed with his foot.
He entered the guest room and laid Aife onto the plush comforter, assuring her head was cradled by one of the many pillows. At the loss of contact, Aife’s breathing picked up, her muscles seized, and Cassian scented the sharp tang of fear.
“Hey, hey, hey,” he murmured, intertwining his fingers with hers. “I’m right here.”
Aife gripped his hand, held on like it was the only thing tying her to this world. “Cassian,” she breathed, eyes still closed.
Something in Cassian’s soul clicked into place, the piece he’d been missing for over half a century. Gasping, he released Aife’s slender hand, as if that would make the unfamiliar feeling go away.
Her eyes shot open, irises of gold seeming to glow with power. “What… what is this?” Sitting up, she turned to face him, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear.
And Cassian, General of the armies of the Night Court, brother to the High Lord and the Shadowsinger of Velaris, was too stunned to move.
Swinging her legs off the bed, Aife rose, staring at him with a strange look on her face. She tried to take a step, only for her legs to buckle beneath her.
Cassian caught her before she hit the floor, his hands around her waist. Even when she straightened and found her balance, he didn’t let go.
“I think… I think you’re…” Struggling to keep his excitement under control, he let out a breathy chuckle and said no more, afraid of saying something he’d regret.
Aife searched his face, and Cassian was struck by the intensity of her eyes. It was as if the Mother herself had formed them from the molten metal at the heart of the world.
Stepping closer to him, Aife splayed a hand over his chest. Cassian held his breath as his heartbeat pounded against her palm, studying the confusion pursing her soft lips.
“What is this?” she whispered, her eyes flicking up to his.
Cassian let out a careful breath. “What is what?”
Aife moved her hands to the base of his neck, stretching to account for the drastic height difference. “This… rightness,” she said.
So she felt it, too. The unexplainable comfort she gave him, the warmth blooming in his chest at the sight of her.
Watching for any signs of panic, Cassian pulled Aife in closer and leaned down. His forehead rested against hers, and he felt her breathing hitch.
He clenched and unclenched his jaw, his heart pounding with terror.
“I think you’re my mate,” he said roughly.
Aife went still. Cassian swallowed, hard, as he waited for her answer.
Her words came softer, hushed with disbelief.
“I think so too.”
As if in a dream, Cassian moved his head away from hers, one of his hands running from her waist to cup her cheek. He was relieved to see a smirk kick up the side of her mouth, a twin to his own.
“You have no idea.” Cassian paused, the emotion clouding his thoughts. “You have no idea how long I’ve been waiting for you,” he rasped.
Aife’s golden eyes glimmered, and her next words all but broke his heart. “I didn’t think you existed,” she choked out.
Fighting back his own tears, Cassian hugged her close to his body, breathing in her scent of flame. She nuzzled her face into his neck, shoulders shaking with relief.
Cassian pressed his lips to the side of her head, whispering into her hair. “It’s okay. It’s okay. I’m here.”
Aife’s delicate wings came open, as did Cassian’s. They created a cocoon of darkness, of power and wonder and love. Every emotion he’d ever felt, for Rhys, for Azriel, for Nesta, was trampled by the absolute force of the mating bond. His mating bond.
Pulling back, his mate looked up to him, a stray tear running down her cheek. He brushed it away with the pad of his thumb.
In the darkness of their wings, Aife held his face in her hands, a soft laugh breaking from her lips. “Where have you been all these years?” she asked, stroking his cheek.
“Waiting,” Cassian said. He met her bright eyes, his mate’s eyes, in amazement, in admiration.
Aife watched Cassian’s back as he moved around the kitchen, flitting between the counter and the stove.
Every so often, he’d look over at her with a smile, as if he still couldn’t believe she existed. Aife treasured those small moments more than anything else.
After the mating bond had settled into place, they’d just stayed in each other’s wings for a few minutes, enjoying the other’s company.
Cassian had pulled back, keeping a hand on her waist. “Would you like some food?” he’d whispered, almost afraid that if he spoke louder, he’d scare her away.
She nodded, and he took her hand to lead her to the large kitchen.
Now he was throwing ingredients into a pot, cream and cheese and herbs. The smell alone made Aife’s mouth water.
“I think it’s almost done.” Cassian licked the end of the wooden spoon he’d been working with, seemingly satisfied with his work. “Would you mind grabbing the bowls in that cabinet?”
“Okay.” Aife leaped off the counter with a soft thud and made her way to the cupboard he pointed at. She picked up one bowl, but when she reached for another, her fingers slipped and the white china shattered on the floor.
Aife felt Cassian’s presence at her side, felt him coming for her. Acting on instinct, she dropped to the ground, scrambling into the nearest corner she could find and pressing herself into it, as far from her mistake as she could get.
Her wings acted as a barrier between her and the massive Illyrian, protecting her from the anger that was sure to come.
Breathing hard, Aife heard the tinkling of glass, listened as Cassian swept up the shards of the bowl and threw it away. A few seconds of silence passed, and Aife bit back a nervous whimper.
“Aife.” She recognized Cassian’s strained voice. “I’m not going to hurt you.”
Letting her wings drop, just a bit, Aife looked at Cassian’s face to find it tight with pain. He watched her with those hazel eyes, dark with haunted memories.
“I’m sorry,” she said, wings sagging to the ground. “I didn’t mean to… I know you’re not going to hurt me.”
Cassian shook his head, hair coming free of the leather strap he’d tied around it. “You have nothing to be sorry for.”
He held out his hand, offering his help. Cautiously, Aife took his hand, calloused and rough, and let him haul her up.
“What made you think I was mad?” he asked, voice dropping in concern.
Aife shrugged and wrapped her arms around herself. “I messed up. I’m supposed to be punished.”
A feather muscled in Cassian’s jaw. “That’s not how it works. It was just an accident.”
“Besides, we’re mates.” That word jolted something inside Aife, and she looked to meet Cassian’s eyes. “I can’t hurt you,” he added.
She shuddered. “I wish that were true,” she said quietly. “My parents were mates. But that didn’t stop my father from attacking my mother.
“He always blamed it on alcohol,” she continued, leaning back against the counter. “I never believed him. Sometimes, when they were fighting, I couldn’t scent a drop of liquor on him.”
Cassian listened to her with a furrowed brow, wings twitching. Wordlessly, he took her hand, brought it to his chest, and set his other hand on the small of her back, a few inches beneath her wings.
He locked eyes with her, showing her all his flaws, all his vulnerabilities. “Listen to me, Aife,” he said roughly. “No matter what you do, no matter where you go or what you say, I will never, ever hurt you. Ever.”
Aife sucked in a breath, but he continued. “I am your mate. I am your best friend and your fiercest protector and your greatest confidant. Only in death will I leave you. I will never lay a hand against you, never speak against you, never take you for granted.
“You are my mate, the one destined to share a life with me. You are already the stars in my sky and the treasure of my heart. And, Mother, I wish I could give you more, wish I had the ability to wipe the sorrow from your eyes and the scars from your skin.
“But you can be assured that I will never leave your side.” Cassian pressed her hand harder against his chest so Aife could feel the thunderous heartbeat raging beneath his armor.
“This is what I can give you,” he said. “I will lay my sword at your feet, I will slaughter a thousand armies, I will listen to you, cry with you, laugh with you. Whatever it takes to make you happy.”
Aife found no lie in his eyes, nothing but pure sincerity and… love. Something she thought she would never get to experience.
“Cassian, I am a mess.” She traced nameless shapes into his chest, setting her other hand on his bicep. “I have memories no one should have, a gift only the gods should wield. I carry a wound that will take a long time to heal, and there will be moments where I am afraid of you, no matter how far I push down my fear.”
Aife dragged a hand through her hair, trying to calm her nerves. “But I will never stop fighting for you,” she added, not quite knowing how to reflect the impossibly strong emotions filling her heart, her mind.
A small smile played on Cassian’s lips. “That’s all I need,” he said in a low voice.
He moved to return to the stove, but Aife grabbed his shirt, balled her fist in the fabric. “Wait.”
“What is it?” It was then she realized just how tall Cassian was, how much her mate towered over her.
Aife swallowed back the nerves bubbling in her throat, her gaze flicking from her mate’s eyes to his lips. “Kiss me,” she said before she could stop herself.
Cassian leaned down a bit, his face mere inches from hers. “Are you sure?” he asked, voice tight with restraint.
“Yes,” Aife breathed.
And then his lips were on hers, gentle and careful and loving. His hands were on her waist, pulling her closer to him as if he couldn’t get enough of her.
She curled her fingers in his hair, having to get on her tiptoes to reach him, to press her lips tighter to his.
Cassian noticed this and reached under her legs, swinging her up to perch on his hips.
Properly kissing him now, Aife was astonished by how gingerly he treated her. She’d seen the memories of her brother, seen how harshly his hands had been on females, how much he forced himself upon them. Cassian was unlike any Illyrian she’d seen before.
His hands were respectful, one under her legs to pick her up, the other on her back. His lips were kind, slow and sweet and perfect. There was no rush to his movements, no hunger or thirst he was determined to satisfy. He took his time, letting Aife’s hands run over his shoulders, letting her explore his mouth.
Aife didn’t know how long they kissed, molding and curving around each other like there was nothing else in the world. When Cassian’s breath came in short bursts, his eyes growing wilder, Aife pulled back.
“Stop,” she said quietly, pushing her hands against his chest.
Almost immediately, Cassian froze, his face coming away from hers. “What's wrong?” he asked, panting slightly.
“I don’t want to mate you.” At his crestfallen expression, Aife went on. “If I’m going to help you get rid of the male patriarchy in the Steppes, I don’t want our enemies to scent our bond.” She put her hands on his head, lifting his eyes to hers. “I don’t want them to take advantage of you through me.”
Confusion flickered through his features. “How do you know why I’m here?” he said, a slight frown on his swollen lips.
“I told you I have a gift.” Aife let a sliver of amusement tug at the corner of her mouth. “I’m cursed with the knowledge of others, and I’ve seen your memories. All 537 years of them.”
She was surprised at how freely she told him of her gift, how much she already trusted Cassian. Her mate. No matter how bizarre it seemed, she had to keep reminding herself that she had a mate. A loving one.
Cassian’s face went taut, his eyes wide with fear. Not fear of her, but the horrors she might have seen. “You’re a daemati?” he asked incredulously.
Aife shook her head, twisting a strand of her hair around her finger. “No. My father was a Suriel.”
Cassian sat across from Aife, watching her scarf down the food he’d prepared.
After he made the pasta, an old recipe Mor had given him, she’d insisted on eating on the floor, her legs crossed under her.
Not one to argue, Cassian had joined her, a wing wrapped around her. They faced the window, looking through the glass into the growing darkness of the forest.
“What’s this called again?” Aife asked, stabbing a cluster of noodles with her fork.
Cassian shifted so she leaned back against his chest. “Macaroni and cheese. I apologize if it’s not to your liking; I’m not the best cook.”
Aife tilted her head to the ceiling, straining to meet his eyes. “This is literally the best thing I’ve ever eaten. Next time, will you teach me how?”
“Of course.” He smiled. Swallowing down his last bite, Cassian set the bowl to the side and began to play with his mate’s hair.
Aife stiffened. “What are you doing?” The tremor in her voice made Cassian drop his hands, concern tightening his jaw.
“I’m messing with your hair, angel,” he purred, laying a hand on the plane of her stomach to pull her close to him. He planted a kiss to her temple. “Is that okay?”
The tension in Aife’s shoulders disappeared, and she relaxed against him. “That’s fine. That’s super sweet. Sorry,” she rushed.
Cassian tugged gently on her hair, pulling through the knots. “You don’t have to apologize. I should have asked first.”
His mate went silent, her eyes fixed on the forest before them. Cassian followed her gaze.
Stars shone bright over the tree tops, little specks of light in a blanket of nothingness. The crescent moon was unusually bright, half-hidden by one of the evergreens. A beautiful silence settled over the night, as if Aife and Cassian were the only people in the world.
“I’ve never been this close before.”
The Illyrian glanced to Aife to find her eyes wide with wonder. “Close to what?”
“The sky,” she answered, a hand on his. “I heard about the stars, but I could never see them. The basement window was too small.”
Cassian was glad she couldn’t see his wings, flaring with a barely contained rage. Instead of saying anything, he just settled his head on her shoulder, giving a little huff.
“Tell me about it. Please,” he said, keeping his voice soft.
Aife just shook her head. “You don’t want to know what happened to me.”
Nuzzling his head in her neck, Cassian murmured, “I do, angel, I really do.”
When she didn’t respond, Cassian added, “You know every piece of me now. My childhood, my training, my friends. I want to know everything about you, not just the good parts. And, unlike you, I’m not part Suriel, so that means you have to talk to me.”
Aife gave a little sigh. “You’re not going to like it. Any of it.”
“I don’t need to like it.” Cassian moved his mate so he was meeting her eyes, so she could feel what he felt. “I just need to know. Please.”
Aife opened her mouth to speak, but hesitated. “I don’t want you to pity me, Cas. I don’t want you to look at me and see a broken female.”
Cassian gave a soft laugh and turned so his eyes were locked with hers. “What do you see when you look at me?” he said quietly.
Blinking, Aife gave him a strange look. “What?”
“When you look at me, what do you see?” Cassian repeated.
After a pause, Aife said, “I see a warrior. A leader. I see a friend, I see a brother. I see a young boy living with a mother who is not his own. I see a General, standing proudly on the battlefield. I see a killer. And, most of all, I see someone who finds a way to make everyone feel loved but can’t love himself.”
At her last words, Cassian felt himself stiffen. Whatever doubts he held about her being part Suriel flew out the window to join the stars. Aife pushed herself into his lap, facing him.
“I’m sorry,” she said, resting her forehead against his. “I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable.”
Cassian lifted her hand to his lips, peppering her knuckles with feather-soft kisses. “Don’t apologize, angel,” he said with a half-smile. “Now I know you can see right through me.”
Smiling a little, Aife set her hands on his shoulders and began to trace the red Siphons on each of them. “Still want to hear my story?” she asked.
“It might be long,” she warned, eyes down.
Cassian took a breath, keenly aware of Aife watching his chest rise and fall. “We have all night,” he said, his hand rising to tuck a strand of hair behind her ear. At her wary expression, he added, “There’s nowhere I’d rather be than here, with you.”
Aife laid her head on his shoulder, and Cassian stilled, breath hitched. “Do you love me, Cas?” she whispered into his neck.
One hand at her back and the other playing with the ends of her hair, Cassian answered immediately, “More than anything in the world.”
“Good.” Aife swallowed and sat up, golden eyes intense. “Because the things you’re about to hear are probably some of the most unlovely things this world has to offer.”
Crickets chirped outside, the sound eerie to Cassian’s ears; especially after the horrific stories Aife had unveiled over the course of the night.
His mate was sprawled over his lap, her head resting on his thigh. Hands still running through her hair as gently as he could, Cassian looked to the trees. He stared blankly at the branches, at the bark, trying to wrap his mind around everything he’d been told.
Aife’s story was that of loneliness, of despair. The cruelty she’d become accustomed to was worse than his own, the scars on her body as deep as those in her soul. Cassian had learned where the bruise on her stomach had come from: her brother’s fist.
Biting back a roar of outrage, Cassian settled for huffing a sigh, glaring at the forest as if it might have an answer. He’d flown over that camp for years, flapped freely through the clouds while Aife was chained to a wall, tortured for nothing but her birthright.
Cassian’s gaze was drawn to the thick bands of red skin on her wrists, twins to those on her ankles. She wasn’t there anymore, he reminded himself. Aife was safe.
Still, it didn’t cool the anger burning through his veins.
Aife stirred in his lap, taking a sharp breath as she opened her eyes. At the sight of him, the side of her mouth kicked up. “Hey, Cas,” she murmured, her voice rough with fatigue. “What time is it?”
Cassian smiled. “It’s time for bed,” he said softly. “I’m going to carry you, okay?”
His mate nodded, eyes already fluttering closed. Chuckling quietly to himself, Cassian scooped her up and stood, making his way to the hallway where the guest bedroom was.
As he set her down, Aife’s small hands shot out, grabbing his arm. “Stay,” she said, her tone building in panic. “Don’t leave me. Please don’t leave me.”
“Shhh, angel, calm down. I’m not leaving you,” he assured. “What do you want me to do?”
Keeping her hand in his, Aife stretched herself out on her stomach, wings spread. “Can you hold me?” she murmured.
“I’d love to.” Cassian lowered himself onto the mattress, the bed creaking as he slid his arms around his mate. Letting out a sigh, he moved so he surrounded her, his massive wings cradling hers.
Aife twisted so she faced him, her head tucked against his arm. “I love you,” she said.
She fell asleep before Cassian could respond.
Aife crossed her arms over her chest, burrowing into the sweater her mate had given her.
When he saw how tattered and worn her clothes were, Cassian had made her a pile of clothes he didn’t need. The black sweater carried his scent, as did the pants folded to accommodate her size. He gave her some boots, too, but they were at least three sizes too big. She’d settled for pulling on several pairs of socks.
In front of her was a cliff, formed of jagged rocks. It was easily a mile high,
As the wind tugged on her hair, Aife slowly lifted her wings, letting the air run over them. A thought hit her, slammed into her mind. She wanted to fly.
The cabin door shut behind her, and Cassian strode to her side, wearing a lopsided grin. “Ready to go?”
“Teach me how to fly,” she said, tilting her head back to face him. “Right now.”
Cassian raised an eyebrow. “Right now, as is right now?”
Aife took a few slow steps back, facing her mate and the cabin. “Will you do it?”
A little unsettled by her movements, Cassian said, “Yes. But you have to know that flying is complicated and it takes a long time to master it.”
Shaking her head, Aife bounced a bit on her toes, steeling her nerves. “We don’t have time,” she breathed.
Before Cassian could react, Aife let herself drop off the cliff, diving to dance with death.
The wind stole the breath from her lungs, sent ripples through her clothes. Forcing herself to breathe, to recover from the shock, Aife snapped her wings open, drawing on every memory she’d ever seen of flying.
And then she was airborne.
Shaky at first, but her wingbeats got stronger, her focus grew harder. The world was so small from the sky, the cabin so minuscule. It was just her and the clouds: no chains, nothing holding her back.
Aife felt Cassian’s presence beneath her, there to catch her should she fall. Keeping his wings steady, he flipped around to face her, a wide smile over his lips. “Don’t do that to me,” he panted.
“It worked, didn’t it?” She laughed, spitting out a few pieces of hair that had flown into her face.
Her mate just chuckled, swooping up to fly at her side. “How does it feel?” he asked, still smiling.
Aife beat her wings once, experimenting a little. “It feels like breathing after being trapped underwater.”
She looked over to find him staring at her, almost in awe. “How did you learn so quickly?” he asked.
Reaching her hands out as if to touch the clouds, Aife said, “I studied your memories, the way you fly. And then I sort of copied it.”
Aife let the edge of her wing brush over his, a tender caress. “I didn’t mean to scare you earlier. I knew that you would catch me if I couldn’t do it.”
As if the air was his playground, Cassian rolled so he was flying over her, his wing beats matching hers. “I’ll always catch you, but that doesn’t mean you should fall willingly.”
Flying over the Steppes as one pair of wings, Aife listened as Cassian told her of his experiences in Illyrian war camps. Though she’d already seen the memories, the stories were told differently through her mate’s voice.
She watched the dimples in the sides of his mouth when he smiled, saw the reverence with which he spoke of Rhys and Az. Morrigan’s confidence was unmatched, Aife was told, and Amren’s love of jewelry was like no other.
“What of the High Lord’s mate?” she asked, letting the sleeves of her sweater hang over her fingertips. “And her sisters?”
“Feyre is… uninterested in what I do.” Tension grew in his features. “I mean, she listens to Rhys when he speaks of it, of course, but she’s never offered any help. Not that it’s technically her duty, but I figured that, if females were in danger, she’d at least offer her assistance.”
Aife blew out a breath of frustration. “She has a piece of each of the High Lords, I know that much. How does she use all that power?”
Cassian snorted. “She doesn’t,” he said simply.
Frowning, Aife let her gaze wander the horizon, the sun hidden behind the cloudy sky. After hearing that, the name Feyre Cursebreaker, Savior of Prythian, seemed ill-fitted. What good was a High Lady who didn’t use her gifts to protect her people, whether they lived in the Steppes or in Velaris?
Cassian told her of the shining city, the place he had come to call his home. “I’ll take you there after this is over,” he promised, eyes warm. “You’ll love it.”
Aife smiled. “I look forward to it.”
The camp came into view, the dark buildings a sharp contrast to the snowy ground. Three Illyrian males were already standing outside, their brooding gazes fixed on Cassian.
Keeping his voice low, Cassian said, “You have nothing to be afraid of, angel. I’m not going anywhere.”
“Remember, don’t say anything about our bond,” Aife added, shuddering at the possibility. “I’m your friend to them, and nothing more.”
Cassian smirked, his eyes alight. “Then you need to stop drooling over me every chance you get.”
Scoffing, Aife rolled her eyes. “Keep it in your pants,” she said with a wicked grin.
Now in earshot of the three males, Cassian couldn’t respond.
Slowing his wing beats, he landed steadily before them, his face set with a fierceness Aife hadn’t seen before.
She had to stumble a few steps before she found her balance, her feet skittering through the snow. A ripple of dry chuckles sounded from the camp Lords, and Aife felt an irritated growl rise in her throat.
Cassian didn’t move, didn’t let his gaze shift away from the males. Still, something warm and apologetic tugged at her mind, something so natural yet so strange.
So that was what the mating bond felt like.
Three names popped into her head, the tone of the words carrying the likeness of Cassian. Farron, Mavious, and Samandriel. The camp lords.
“Who’ve you brought with you, General?” Mavious, the tallest of the three, asked, giving a condescending nod toward Aife.
“A friend,” her mate said shortly, indicating there was nothing more to discuss about her presence.
The Illyrian to Mavious’ left, Samandriel, flared his nostrils. “She has your scent.” He raised a suggestive brow.
“Yes, well, that’s what happens when you forget a change of clothes,” Aife drawled, gesturing to the baggy sweater and lack of proper shoes.
She looked up to meet the leader’s eyes, pale as the snow covering his camp. Memories bombarded her thoughts, taking over her consciousness for a split second before they faded to nothingness, morphing to change into her own memories.
Unaware of what mental boundaries she was crossing, the Illyrian said to Cassian, “Never thought you were one to take a female.”
Behind his shoulders, Cassian’s wings twitched. “Let’s get down to business,” he said lowly, glaring at the camp lords.
“Whatever the High Lord’s General wishes.” The leader gave a sweeping bow, then looked back to Cassian. “But do not forget your heritage, boy.”
A wry chuckle. “Boy? I’m two centuries older than you, Mavious.”
The male opened his mouth to retort, but Cassian went on. “Where are the girls? We have a lot to work on.”
Aife noticed Samandriel drop his gaze, chewing the inside of his cheek. “They’re doing chores for their families,” she said, working off the information she’d collected.
Mavious gaped, but she went on. “They haven’t been letting them practice what you’ve been teaching them. And… they’ve been threatening them with clipping.” She finished with a snarl.
Cassian’s face grew harder, his eyes narrowing. “What?” he ground out.
Mavious turned to his companions, and Aife saw his panic grow. “As you know, disrespect is not tolerated in my camp,” he said.
Aife cut in. “And by disrespect, you mean their refusal of your advances? That sort of disrespect?” It was the mocking smile she ended with that had Mavious’ face going red.
“General, get your pet under control,” he sputtered indignantly.
A blast of red shot at the leader’s feet, scorching the ground dangerously close to his boots. Cassian let his hand drop back to his side, the stone on his wrist glowing. “Next time, I won’t miss,” he said, his voice deathly quiet. He moved toward Mavious, wings flared. “Gather the females. We have a lot of work to do.”
Still glaring at the camp lord, Cassian stalked away. Aife made to follow him, but lingered, watching the Illyrian standing off to the side. Farron had been strangely quiet, his ever-watchful eyes giving her everything she needed to know.
“Evalon’s death wasn’t your fault,” Aife said as she strode past him to join her mate.
Farron’s answering stare bored holes into her wings.
Aife watched the females spar from her position beside the bakery.
Tall, short, big, small - all the females of the war camp had gathered in the courtyard to learn from Cassian. At the moment, her mate was crouched beside one of the girls, listening to her animated voice as she described a fight she’d had with a boy.
“And then - and then I knocked him down, just like you said to!” she exclaimed, her hands miming the punches she’d thrown.
Cassian tipped his head back, roaring with laughter. “And what did he say to that?” he asked, his tone rising in pitch.
The girl’s smile faltered, but only a bit. “Papa came out and made me go back inside. But that boy didn’t even try to mess with me again.” She finished with a smug look and placed her hands on her hips.
“Good.” With a smile of approval, Cassian stood up, brushing the dirt from his knees. “Go work with Silva, now. I need to check on the others.”
Nodding, the girl scampered off to join the other children.
Aife smiled to herself, watching her mate return to the main group. Cassian approached the others, correcting their postures with a few gentle words. Only yesterday, she’d seen no life for herself outside of pain and despair. But now she had a mate. A mate that cared for her, listened to her, cooked for her.
The little girl had returned to her playmates, and a thought struck Aife. She’d seen how kindly Cassian had treated the child, how her excited words brought joy to his eyes. Hesitantly, Aife let herself consider a future with her mate.
What if he wanted children? Aife wasn’t sure she could give him any. The damage inflicted on her body had been significant, and Fae pregnancies were complicated. She bit her lip at the thought.
He was an Illyrian. If she couldn’t bear his offspring, what would he do to her? He’d promised not to hurt her, but so had Serta in their younger years. Would Cassian break his word?
Someone touched her arm, and Aife spun, wings unfurling. The golden-haired female released her grip immediately, jumping back. “Sorry,” she chuckled, hands held in plain sight. “Didn’t mean to scare you, there.”
Her accent was strange, a combination of sharp and rolling tones. “I’m Revena,” the female continued, her grin unwavering. “Do you have a partner?”
In a split-second decision, Aife replied, “No. Are you offering?”
“Are you accepting?”
AIfe beamed at the female. “Sure.”
They picked a spot a little ways away from the rest, nestled between a long, stretched out house and the tree line of the forest. Though it was a little more secluded, Aife didn’t feel endangered. Not with Cassian nearby.
“Okay, so we start with our legs spread, like the General said.” Revena’s smile remained as she set herself in a fighting stance.
Aife did the same, but her actions were fluid, her body at ease. She drew on Cassian’s memories, observed and learned from the instructions he’d been taught. Slowly, she opened her eyes.
“Ready?” she asked, amusement lacing her voice. For the first time in a while, Aife felt prepared, felt as though she could take on the world.
Revena giggled, flicking a strand of blonde hair over her shoulder. “Do your worst,” she taunted.
Smirking, Aife advanced, studying Revena’s movements. They were quick, unsure. Exactly what one would expect from a female who had never been given the opportunity to fight.
Unbalanced as she was, Revena lunged and drove her fist forward.
Aife grabbed Revena’s wrist, blocking the blow. With her other hand, Aife pushed Revena’s shoulder to the ground and twisted the female’s arm back, forcing Revena to her knees.
“Okay, okay, okay!” Revena laughed, but she was only half-joking.
Aife waited a moment before she released the female. Mind whirling, she backed away, trying to keep her breathing steady. That move she’d performed had come on instinct, a natural reaction. But… She’d never learned how to fight, though she wanted to. Neither had she learned to fly.
“Are you going to keep gaping at me or would you like to help me up?” Revena’s playful words knocked Aife out of her thoughts.
Apologizing profusely, Aife hauled Revena up, taking time to brush the snow and dirt from her shirt. “I don’t know what came over me, are you okay?”
Giggling to herself, Revena put a hand on Aife’s shoulder. “I’m fine, darling, just fine. You didn’t tell me you were skilled in this sort of thing,” she added, still laughing.
Aife opened her mouth to retort but caught a blur of movement in the corner of her eye. A male was striding towards them, a haughty look in his eyes. From the way he carried himself, Aife guessed he wasn’t there to watch.
Revena had gone still, the joy draining from her features. Wordlessly, Aife stepped in front of her.
“What do you want?” she said dryly, crossing her arms over her chest. While practicing with Revena, the sleeves of Cassian’s sweater had come unrolled and now hung past her fingertips.
The male, a silver-haired Illryian with a clever nose, sneered at Revena. “Trying to fight like the males, Rev? It doesn’t suit you.”
Aife recognized the male. He’d been in Revena’s memories, and not the happy ones.
Growling, she flared her wings, hiding the blonde from the male’s intrusive gaze. “I have an idea,” she said. “How about we race?”
Scoffing, he looked her up and down, his fox-like nose turned up. “Excuse me?”
“I hear you’re the best flier in the Steppes. And I’m challenging you to a race.”
“For what?” he snorted, obviously caught off guard.
“What else? Honor.” At his confusion, Aife added, “Afraid you’ll be bested by a female?”
“Of course not,” he snapped, though his cheeks colored.
Grinning, Aife said, “Good.” She flicked her wings down, finding Revena’s face contorted in horror.
“Go back to the others,” Aife said quietly to her. “I’ll handle this scum and be back before you know it.” She winked at the taller girl, giving her a little shove in the right direction.
When Revena had disappeared around the corner, Aife sighed, turning back to the male. “Here’s the deal. Around Freefall mountain and back. Winner is the first to land on that roof.” She pointed to the long building beside them.
The male’s eyebrows flicked up, a grin spreading over his features. He flared his wings, muscles tensing. “Whenever you’re ready,” he purred.
A snarl slipped from Aife’s lips. Without another word, she sprang off the ground, wings opening. She heard the Illyrian close behind her.
Before he had a chance to catch up, Aife sped forward, flapping her wings harder, faster against the wind. Channeling every memory of flying she’d ever collected, she pushed herself over the trees, unbound hair whipping over her face.
“Nice effort, but not nice enough.” Sure enough, the silvery fox was flying alongside her, his wings cutting smoothly through the air. It was clear he was far more experienced than her, but Aife had something he didn’t.
She let his memories guide her movements, let her wings act on instinct. Rather than the frantic flapping Aife had been doing, she braced her body in such a way that the wind carried her. Since she was far smaller than the male, her speed increased beyond his.
Laughing to herself, Aife kept her gaze on the mountaintop in the distance, a thrill coursing through her veins. She passed the Illyrian, passed the stupid male who had tried to threaten her.
They were approaching the mountain now, neck and neck. Aife gritted her teeth as she swooped around the mountain, beating her wings to gain momentum.
She focused on how the wind curved around her, tilting her wings in such a way that pushed her ahead of her opponent. She was an arrow weaving through the clouds, dangerously sharp.
Turning to the male, Aife saw his breath coming shorter, his face reddening with exertion.
As they neared the building where they would finish, she tucked her wings to her back, adding a burst of speed. Pulling on every memory, every shred of energy, she shot ahead of the male.
The roof drew closer, the rough shingles shining in the sun. At the last second, Aife pulled herself back and braced her legs. She hit the roof with far more force than she’d anticipated, and dropped into a crouch, rolling off the roof.
Before she could fall, a hand grabbed her wrist. Aife looked up to find the silver-haired male hauling her up onto the rooftop. Too exhausted to refuse, she let him help.
Both Illyrians collapsed on their backs beside each other, struggling to catch their breath. It was the male who started laughing to himself, staring up at the clouds. “How did you do that?” he asked between breaths.
Aife blew a strand of hair out of her face. “I have no idea,” she said.
Something was frantically yanking on the back of her mind, and it took her a moment to realize it was the mating bond. Her mating bond.
She pushed a thought along the bond. Cas, I’m okay. On my way to you.
As she got to her feet, the male next to her said, “Hey, where are you going? I want to know who taught you to fly.”
“I taught myself, Tellis.” If the male was surprised that she knew his name, he didn’t show it.
Not bothering to say anything else, she sprang off the roof, taking flight with a few beats of her wings.
The females were still fighting with each other in the main square, now advancing to high kicks. Aife watched a few, picking out the flaws in their actions. One wasn’t locking her knee correctly, another didn’t have enough control to direct their kick. It was amazing how much she’d learned simply by using her mate’s memories.
She caught Cassian’s scent on the wind and followed it, letting the bond guide her.
He was standing in front of Revena, his intense gaze locked on her. “Where was she the last time you saw her?” he was saying in an almost exasperated voice.
“I told you, she was next to the infirmary when I left her,” Revena responded timidly.
Cassian pursed his lips, sighing through his nose. “I checked there, and there was nothing, only another male’s scent. Now I need you to tell me everything you know. Please.”
Aife laughed, snagging his attention. “Don’t interrogate the poor girl, Cas.”
Relief lit up his eyes, and he took a few steps to wrap his arms around her, crushing her against his chest. His scent of warm bread enveloped her, and Cassian rested his chin on her head. “Where were you?” he asked, loosening his grip to look down at her.
“Destroying a male’s fragile pride.” Aife smirked, stepping out of her mate’s embrace to look at Revena, who seemed just as relieved as Cassian. “Sorry about this brute, he’s extremely insecure. Thinks I’ll run away with a more muscled Illyrian,” she said with a wink.
Cassian shook his head, but the corners of his mouth tugged up. “I need to know where you are, especially when I’m dealing with so many other things,” he said. The tone he used wasn’t controlling, more worried.
Experimenting a bit, Aife sent a message down the bond. I can handle myself, but I appreciate the concern.
Something warm stroked the confines of her mind, something comforting. I know you can, but that doesn’t make me any less scared.
So that’s what it was. Her jests about his insecurities had been closer to the truth than she’d realized. It made her pleased to know he was as afraid of losing her as she was of losing him.
“What’d you do to wound the male’s dignity?” Cassian asked, bringing a waterskin to his lips.
It took Aife a moment to understand what he was talking about. “I beat Tellis in a race around Freefall.”
Cassian choked on his drink. Aife stood silently as he coughed up the water and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. He opened his mouth to say something, but Revena beat him to it.
“Tellis?” she repeated, dumbfounded. “You outdid Tellis in a race?”
Aife shrugged. “It wasn’t as hard as you’d think.”
“He’s the fastest Illyrian in all of Prythian,” the female said, as if reminding herself of the fact. Revena stared at Aife with wide eyes, as if she were a god worthy of praise.
Recognizing the slick voice, Aife rolled her eyes as Revena went rigid. Cassian’s annoyance prickled at the back of her mind.
Tellis entered the conversation, staring blatantly at Aife. “What are you?” he asked.
“The female who bested you in a physical competition,” Aife said coolly, checking her nails.
The male’s embarrassment tightened his shoulders, but he went on. “You have to show me how you did that.”
“I’ve already done you a favor.” Aife flashed him a grin, baring her elongated canines. “I showed you that it’s possible. Isn’t that enough?”
Cassian nudged her with the tip of his wing. What are you getting at?
“The reason I won, Tellis, is because I’m female,” she continued, shaking out her wings. “My wings are built differently, my body is slimmer, and I move faster. So, while you might be stronger and tougher, I’m agile and light enough to move through the air rather than simply ride the wind currents.”
Tellis watched as she gestured to the crowd of females before her, giving them a bright smile. “Every female, Illyrian or not, has a well of potential. If you train them properly, you’ll have an army of female warriors capable of decimating a city.”
“We already have male warriors do to that,” Tellis said dryly.
Heaving a sigh, Aife looked at the male. “Male warriors are extremely easy to estimate. Blood, fighting, we get it. But females… They’re masters of manipulation. They can start rumors and blow them out of proportion. They’re seductive and cunning and quick-witted. They can start a war and end it with a few carefully placed words.”
She nodded to the females in the square, fighting amongst each other with shouts of amusement. “You have an immense opportunity in front of you, Tellis.” She stared him down, intensely enough to make the male fidget. “Don’t throw it away,” she finished softly.
Tellis’ expression was furrowed in thought as Aife returned to her mate’s side, brushing gently over their bond.
What are you thinking? she asked.
Cassian’s delight trickled down the bond, warming Aife despite the frigid temperatures. I want to know what I did to deserve you.
Aife had to pull the neck of Cassian’s sweater up to her cheekbones to hide her blush. Her mate just laughed.
Cassian tapped his foot against the floor, his gaze darting from Aife to the camp lords gathered in the meeting room.
After she’d beaten Tellis, news of her existence had spread like a wildfire through the Steppes, rumors of a female who could fly just as well as males - better, even. It was only the start. Soon, every war camp in the region was asking Aife to visit and show them what she could do.
Cassian had seen them as mocking invitations, but Aife was over the moon. “Don’t you understand what this means, Cas?” she said over dinners at the cabin. “I can flip the tides and give the Illyrian females a chance to prove themselves.”
“You’re absolutely positive about this? I want to make sure you’re comfortable putting yourself out there,” he assured.
“I am.” Aife set down her fork, giving Cassian a soft smile. “I don’t want any female to have to go through what I did. If this is what it takes, then so be it.”
For the next few weeks, the two Illyrians had flown throughout the mountains, spreading the word and training the females. And, if the location was close enough to their war camp, Tellis and Revena came along.
Though it’d been a rocky start, the other Illyrians had become crucial to Aife and Cassian’s mission. Tellis used his fame to their advantage, raving about the techniques Aife had mastered as a female, the things she could do that he couldn’t.
Revena had stuck to Aife’s side, snapping at anyone who dared to question her. A new friendship had begun, and Cassian could tell from the vibrance in his mate’s eyes that she was extremely happy. Her comfort was all he needed.
Wherever she went, Aife compelled the people of the war camp, won them over with her charming words and fiery spirit. Today she brought together all the camp lords to finally decide once and for all to abolish the female oppression in the Steppes.
They’d been at this for hours now, going back and forth over the importance of females. For every point the lords brought up, Aife had a sharp response.
“What of the tasks that need to be completed around the camp?” one had inquired.
Aife had answered him with a calm fury. “Split them evenly between the males and the females. Why should one sex bear more of the workload?”
Lord Mavious, the one Cassian had almost injured, only watched her through slitted eyes, his too-long neck stretched high. “And what happens when the females bear children?” he asked, gaze running down Aife’s body to linger on her abdomen.
Cassian’s aggressive growl ripped through the room, making Mavious jerk back in his chair. Aife only smirked. Jealous much? she purred through the bond.
“If they are to become mothers, give them leave for a few years,” she said smoothly. “They raise more warriors for you to train. That ability cannot be carried out by any male.”
With a harrumph of reluctant agreement, Mavious shut his mouth. Cassian didn’t miss the anxious look the lord shot his way.
Aife glanced around the room, as if expecting another question. “Are there any more concerns?” she questioned in a tone that conveyed how tired she truly was.
At the silence, Aife said, “Good. You all have the papers, and everyone has contributed to editing the treaty. I see no reason why each and every one of you shouldn’t sign it,” she finished, eyes glittering with a silent threat.
Devlon, the oldest of the lords, cleared his throat to gain the attention of the room. “We’ll see you tomorrow for the final decision.” He dismissed them with a careful nod.
Cassian turned to hold the door open for his mate, facing the group of war-lords with a set expression of aloofness. Try not to smile Aife taunted as she stepped out into the snow. Before amusement could take hold of his features, Cassian followed her out.
Aife swept her hair over her shoulders, stark against the light snow, and turned to smile at him. “We did it,” she said, almost as if she couldn’t believe it herself.
“No, you did it.” Cassian held her hand gingerly and touched his forehead to hers.
A soft laugh. “You helped,” Aife said, running her fingers over the Siphons on his chest.
Sensing a presence nearby, Cassian pulled away, though he kept a hand on her back. “How’s it going with the commanders?” he asked Tellis as the male approached.
“It’s… getting there.” Tellis grimaced. “This treaty between the war camps should do a lot to sway their perspectives,” he added with a respectful nod toward Aife.
Aife frowned, peering around the snowy forest they stood in. “Where’s Revena? I thought she was coming.”
Tellis’ mouth twitched. “She’s in the nursery. You know of her strange obsession with children.”
“It’s not strange. She wishes to be a Healer. Besides… “ She stepped closer to Tellis, and, though Cassian couldn’t see her expression, he felt her smugness through the bond. “She also wants to be a mother. You might be able to help her with that.”
Muttering curses, Tellis turned away, silver hair bright against the redness of his face.
“That’s right,” Cassian cut in, chuckling. “Our little Tellis has something for Revena.”
“No, I don’t,” Tellis retorted in a voice too high-pitched to be truthful. “Will you two stop saying that?”
Aife shook her head, pleased by his uncomfortable posture. “Until you admit your feelings, not a chance.”
“Admit his feelings for who?” Revena asked from behind the flushed male.
Eyes widening, Tellis whirled around. “Nothing,” he murmured, shooting Aife a look.
Still confused, Revena touched the bun at the top of her head as if ensuring her blonde hair wasn’t coming loose. Aife threw her arms around her friend.
“How are the infants?” she asked.
Revena’s eyes lit up. “Oh, they were adorable! The other Healers taught me how to swaddle them. Cauldron, I wanted to take one home.”
Just make your own. Cassian had to fight the laugh Aife’s thoughts brought on.
“Well, as much as I enjoy this riveting discussion, I’m freezing.” Wrapping her arms around herself, Aife looked to Revena. “Is there a clothing shop in this camp?”
Revena grinned. “In fact there is. Care to go shopping with me?”
Sighing in relief, Aife snagged the money purse from Cassian’s belt. “We’ll be back,” she told the males with a smirk.
When the females, walking arm in arm, left the scene, Tellis turned to Cassian. “Is there something going on with you and Aife I should know about?” he asked with a raised brow.
“Depends. What’s the situation with you and Revena?”
Tellis gave a strained laugh and picked a piece of invisible lint from his flying leathers. “You believe Aife?”
Cassian shrugged. “I’ve never known her to be wrong.”
“Maybe not, but I have no interest in seeking Revena’s hand. Again,” he added.
Intrigued, Cassian opened his mouth to speak when whirlwind of black clouds separated the two males. Rhysand appeared facing Cassian, his arms crossed. His wings were nowhere to be found, his flying leathers replaced by a regal coat.
“Where have you been?” he demanded, ignoring Tellis’ awestruck expression. “You said you’d be back in a few weeks. It’s been three months.”
“It’s been a… surprising journey,” Cassian said carefully. He didn’t want to let it slip that he’d found his mate, especially since he didn’t know if Aife wanted the information out there.
Rhys noticed Tellis for what seemed to be the first time. “Hello,” he murmured, cocking his head. “Since when do you hang around with my General?”
“He’s been helping me,” Cassian snapped, suddenly irritated with his friend. “Look, I’ve been doing what you’ve asked of me. An agreement has been proposed between the war lords, and it looks as though the females will finally be free of their bondage.”
Rhys’ eyes glittered with surprise. “Truly?”
Nodding, Cassian blew out a breath. “Give me a fortnight.”
“Az has been acting cagey whenever we ask him about you,” Rhys went on, eyes narrowing slightly. “Is there something you’re not telling us?”
Of course. Az’s shadows saw and heard everything in Prythian. There was no way his mating bond with Aife could escape his brother’s attention. Still, Cassian appreciated Az’s silence in the matter. Telling the Inner Circle about Aife wasn’t his decision to make.
“It’s none of your business.” Cassian gave his brother a broad smile. “I’ll return to Velaris in a fortnight; that’s all you need to know.”
Mental claws of adamant slid along his consciousness, and Cassian snarled. “Don’t. You. Dare,” he hissed.
Rhys just blinked. “Wasn’t going to,” he said calmly, taking a step back.
Swallowing, Cassian shut his mouth. He hadn’t meant to snap at his friend, but invading his personal thoughts… Rhysand had always been above that. What had changed?
“Feyre has a proposition for you when you return,” the High Lord continued. Though it was slight, Cassian noticed Rhysand’s demeanor change, a sure result of Cassian’s unexpected outburst. “And Amren wants to know if you’ll bring her back snowstone earrings.”
“The dangly ones, I assume.” Cassian looked at his friend, trying to convey some sort of apology without using his words. “What does Feyre need to speak to me about?” he asked.
Dragging a line in the snow with the toe of his boot, Rhys looked up. “Nesta has been less than cooperative with us. Feyre thinks a bit of isolation would do her some good. Specifically, isolation with you.”
The thought of Nesta made Cassian’s stomach twist, and his wings bristled. Feyre’s eldest sister was cruel, heartless. Though she held her head high, Nesta was quick to anger and spoke harshly of things she did not know. She made him feel worthless.
“I’ll think about it,” he said with a dry mouth.
Feyre was supposed to be his friend. Why was she suggesting such a thing? She’d been in a relationship with Tamlin, for Cauldron’s sake. Surely she of all people would recognize the dangers of pursuing a life with Nesta. He couldn’t understand why she would put him in such a compromising situation.
Aife loved him; she’d told him so countless times. If she was angry with him, she let him know. If he was angry with her, she listened to him. But most of all, Aife fought for him. Cassian already couldn’t imagine a life without his mate.
“Good,” Rhys said, straightening the lapels of his jacket. “Tellis, it’s been a pleasure.” He nodded to the male. “And Cassian… I’ll see you in a fortnight, and not a day later.” In a swirl of darkness, the High Lord of the Night Court left.
Tellis’ shoulders dropped, the formal tension gone. “Is something the matter?” he said to Cassian.
“Yes.” Saying nothing else on the subject, Cassian spread his wings. “I’ll see you tomorrow morning,” he said before leaping into the air.
As he flapped over the camp, he sent a message down the bond. Ready to go, angel?
The response came almost immediately. Leaving now.
Indeed, Cassian spotted Aife walking out of the clothing store, carrying bags filled with clothes and the shine of jewelry. He landed in front of them with a barely audible grunt, his gaze focused on Aife.
She broke off conversation with Revena at his presence, but her eyes softened when she saw him. “Cas?” she murmured.
Her gentle words broke him from whatever haze he’d been in. He let a smile curve his lips. “You ready to go home?” he asked, amusement returning to his tone.
“Sure.” Aife whispered something to Revena that made the female laugh. The blonde broke away from the two and waved goodbye, setting off to find Tellis, her ride home.
Looking away from her friend’s retreating figure, Aife put her hand on Cassian’s arm. “Cas, I need you to talk to me,” she said quietly.
The side of his mouth kicked up. “Why can’t you just look at my eyes and figure it out?” he asked, taking the overstuffed bags from her hands.
“I can.” Aife’s mouth tightened. “But I’d rather hear you tell me yourself.”
Cassian pressed a kiss to the crown of her head, breathing in her scent. “Let’s go home,” he said. “Please.”
Aife nodded, her wings unfurling behind her back. “I hope you make that creamy dessert I like,” she added with an amused smirk. “The one with the chocolate and the coffee cream.”
Shifting the shopping bags to one hand, Cassian chuckled, a weight lifting off his chest. Aife always knew how to make him laugh, even in the worst of times.
They both took off, dark wings carrying them towards home.
I’ll make anything you want, angel Cassian promised, his wings beating at the same rhythm as Aife’s.
thanks to everyone for reading my fanfiction!!!! please know that i absolutely LOVE hearing from you all so PLEASE COMMENT!!! it makes my day so much better *^_^*
Aife sighed in contentment, patting her stomach. “You’re going to make me fat if you keep feeding me so much,” she pouted, carrying her plate to the sink.
Scrubbing a pan, Cassian laughed. “That’s the beauty of flying, angel. It takes so much energy, you can eat practically anything.”
“Lucky for me.” She hopped up onto the counter, swinging her legs toward the floor.
The faucet shut off, and Cassian placed the now-washed dish on the drying rack.“What did you buy with Revena?” her mate asked, tugging the leather strap free of his hair.
“Here, let me.” Wordlessly, Cassian stepped closer and turned around, allowing her to untie his hair.
As Aife worked the fabric from his tangles, she told him of the sweaters and pants and shoes Revena had helped her pick out. “I think I found my favorite color,” she finished softly, pressing the leather strap into his palm.
Cassian looked back to her, a smile playing on his lips. “What is it?”
“Green. Pine green. I think it looks good on me.”
“Everything looks good on you,” he said. “But I’m glad you found a color you like.”
Before he could turn away, Aife put her hands on either side of his face. “Cas, I know you. What aren’t you telling me?”
His head dropped, and he braced his hands on either side of her thighs. When he looked up at her, Aife saw the turmoil raging through his mind.
“Azriel knows about you, but the others don’t.” He paused, as if gauging her reaction. “And that makes Rhysand nervous.”
Aife tilted her head a bit, reading his memories. “You think I don’t want other people to know about our bond. You think I don’t want to mate you,” she realized.
Cassian blew out a shaky breath. “Isn’t that what you said at the beginning of all this?”
“I didn’t want to be an extra burden,” Aife explained, laughing a bit in an effort to ease the tension. “Can you imagine what would have happened if you arrived to that first war camp with a new mate? You already had plenty on your mind, but then you’d have to deal with the rumors and the accusations… I didn’t want to put that on you.”
Cassian’s eyes flickered with warmth, and he pecked her lips gently. “You have never been a burden,” he assured, gaze locked with hers. “And we don’t have to tell anyone we’re mates if you don’t want to.”
Aife considered his words. “Cassian, I want to be your mate. I want to meet the Inner Circle, I want to live in Velaris with you. If you’ll have me.”
Placing his hands on her waist, Cassian said lowly, “Do you honestly think I won’t have you?”
Smiling, Aife murmured, “No. But it did add a flare of romance, don’t you think?”
Cassian leaned in, but Aife put her hand to his mouth. “The kitchen isn’t clean yet,” she reminded him.
Groaning, her mate returned to the dirty dishes on the stove. “Such a tease,” he tsked.
“Mhmm.” Aife tapped her fingers on the counter, thinking. “Do you still have feelings for Nesta?” she blurted.
Cassian’s shoulders seized up. “I shouldn’t be surprised,” he said finally. “But it still throws me off guard when you know things about me that I haven’t told you.”
Aife shrunk in on herself, panic closing in around her. “I’m sorry-”
And then Cassian’s hands were on her shoulders, the pressure from his fingers bringing her back to the present. “Angel, angel I’m not mad. It's okay to ask me questions,” he rushed, something like fear flickering in his eyes. “Not mad, okay?”
Swallowing, Aife rubbed her wrist, making sure the chains were still gone. It made her ashamed, remembering how often this happened. Something would come up that made her breathing come short, make her consciousness fade into darkness. One day, she was sure it would consume her entirely.
“I’m okay,” she breathed, dragging a hand through her hair. “Sorry.”
No matter how times Cassian told her not to apologize, Aife couldn’t stop. It seemed natural now.
Cassian blew out a breath of relief, but the concern didn’t leave his eyes. “Why don’t you go change into something cozy?” he suggested. “I’ll finish the dishes and then we can get some sleep.”
Aife tried her best to smile at him. “Okay.” She padded from the kitchen to their shared bedroom, her eyes falling on the massive bags of clothes in the corner.
A great sigh made her wings droop. Might as well sort the clothes now rather than later.
In a matter of minutes, she was on the floor, surrounded by fabrics of different shapes and sizes.Since the weather was only growing colder, Revena had made sure to buy only warm clothes. Aife had picked clothes of only two colors: green and black.
She folded all the green sweaters into a neat pile, all the black pants into another pile. Some were loose-fitting for lounging around the house, some tight for flying. The jewelry she purchased was set on top of the dresser, and the shoes were tucked away in the closet.
For the night, she selected one of her softer sweaters and a pair of leggings. She peeled off Cassian’s clothes, letting his too-big pants fall to the ground. As she unwound the elastic band from around her chest, Aife remembered the unmentionables Revena had suggested she buy.
She’d never worn a bra, never had reason to. Her brother had never bothered to give her any, and Cassian’s clothes were big enough to hide her chest. Curiosity got the better of her, and she decided to try it on.
It took a few minutes to find them, but there they were, hiding at the bottom of the bag. Aife dumped them onto the floor and picked up one of the lacier pieces, a creamy rose color. Holding it against her hand, Aife realized that Revena had been right. It complemented her bronze skin tone well.
Clasping the contraption was the tricky part. By the time it had been attached, her arms were aching, her fingers sore. Why was it so difficult to put on?
Aife strode to the mirror in the connected bathroom to make sure she was wearing it properly. It looked fine to her, and it felt like it fit. What caught her attention, though, were all the marks slashed over her skin.
She’d always known she’d have some scars, but not that many.
They covered her arms like vicious tattoos, raised the skin on her stomach. The most visible one sliced straight through her middle. Aife ran her finger over the scar and winced, remembering the pain that cut had brought. That time, she hadn’t been able to stifle her screams.
Shaking her head as if it would somehow remove the memory, Aife returned to the bedroom and snatched up the sweater. She pulled it over her head and let the sleeves fall past her hands.
It felt strange to slide into pants that fit. The leggings hugged her calves, keeping her warm from the chill outside. She decided they were her favorite thing to wear.
Aife raised a hand to tie back her hair, but hesitated. If she braided it, put it in a ponytail, whatever, it made her uncomfortable. So she let it spill over her shoulders instead, untamed.
A knock sounded at the door, followed by Cassian’s voice. “Are you decent?”
“Morally? No. But I have pants on, if that’s what you’re asking.”
The door swung open, revealing Cassian’s amused smile. His eyes lit up at her outfit. “You look cute,” he said.
Aife crossed her arms. “Maybe because these clothes actually fit me.” She stroked his wing as she walked past, making him stiffen. She smirked. “Your turn to change. Come out to the living room when you’re done.”
As she turned to leave, Cassian said, “I think you forgot a few things.”
She peered around the doorway. “What?”
In response, her mate held up the sheer undergarments she’d left behind, his cheeks tinted pink.
Though Aife felt her own face heat, she winked at Cassian. “I’ll let you put those away.”
A thrum of amusement echoed through the bond. Smiling to herself, Aife walked out to the living room and collapsed facedown on the couch. The sun had set an hour or so ago, and the candles spread throughout the house were the only sources of light. Aife preferred it that way.
She spread her wings as far as they could until one brushed the ceiling, the other scraping the floor. Cassian chuckled behind her.
“What are you doing?”
“What does it look like I’m doing?” she muttered, her voice muffled by the cushions.
Something heavy lowered onto her backside, and Aife groaned. “Get off me you gigantic oaf.”
“Make me,” her mate taunted, settling against the back of the couch.
With a growl, Aife threw her weight into a roll, pushing off the couch. Cassian yelped in surprise as both Illyrians came crashing onto the ground, a tangle of wings and limbs.
Aife took the brunt of the fall, her back digging into the hardwood. She found a shirtless Cassian staring down at her, eyes glinting with a mischievous amusement. Chuckling, he stood and hauled her up.
For the first time, Aife saw the tattoos running down his torso and arms . He’d never revealed them to her. Despite sleeping in the same bed, neither Fae had seen their mate unclothed. They hadn’t had time, what with the impossible task they were trying to accomplish.
She lifted an arm toward the markings, but stopped. Her eyes flicked to Cassian’s, silently asking for permission.
He responded by guiding her hand to his skin, letting her trace the black whorls on his chest, spreading up his shoulders. “I got these when I became a warrior,” he said. “My commanders told me they would grant luck on the battlefield.”
Scoffing, Aife ran her fingers over one that looked suspiciously like a part of the male anatomy. “Who did these?” she asked, stifling a laugh.
Brows furrowed at her reaction, Cassian said, “One of the other young warriors.” He craned his neck around to look at the mark, but it was out of sight. “What is it?”
“Nothing,” she hummed, though her grin told him otherwise.
Frowning, Aife scanned his broad chest again, inspected the sharp lines of muscle cut into his torso. “You’ve been on so many battlefields and injured so many times, but you have no scars?”
“Most Fae heal too quickly to get them,” he explained.
Something ignited in Aife’s mind at that. After every mark he sliced into her, Serta soaked her wounds in a healing tonic that stung and made her skin crawl. But it hadn’t been a tonic at all, she realized - it created the scars.
Aife lifted her sweater up to her breasts, revealing the jagged white line that split her navel in half. Her mate’s breath hitched.
“How do you explain this?” she asked, her voice shaking with every word. “And how do you explain the ones on my legs, and my arms, and… “ She was breathing too shortly now, hot tears burning the backs of her eyes.
And then it wasn’t Cassian who was standing in front of her, it was Serta, it was Father, it was every Illyrian male who had ever hurt her.
Angry, Aife pushed him away, letting her sweater drop back down to her hips. She stumbled toward the front door, wings spread on either side of her in warning. Cassian’s essence entered her mind.
Aife tuned him out and strode into the snow, snapping open her wings. The dropping temperature bit into her skin, but she welcomed the distraction. Anything to keep her from thinking of the male inside the cabin.
Leaping into the air, she took a few steady wingbeats to rise above the forest. Snow was coming down hard, but she couldn’t find the energy to care. All she could think was Get away get away get away.
It was only a few minutes before she landed in a small clearing, surrounded by towering evergreens, breathing hard. Her nose was numb, her hair had turned into a mess of damp tangles. Snowflakes clung to her eyelashes, making each blink heavier than the last.
Exhausted, she fell to her knees, wrapped her arms around her stomach, and watched her breath hang, suspended in the air. A frigid breeze skittered over the underside of her wings, and Aife pulled them tighter against her back.
What was she doing?
A shattering sob broke from the back of her throat, and she covered her mouth with the soft sleeve of her sweater. She had left him - abandoned her mate in that cabin. Cassian promised to fight for her, listen to her, be at her side through the pain. And she’d just left him.
Aife buried her face in her hands and let herself cry. It was too much, everything was too much. She shouldn’t have escaped, but she did. She shouldn’t have a mate, but she had one. The Cauldron had turned her life into a cruel joke, a jumble of contradictions.
Aife sniffed and glanced up to the sky as if the stars would give her an answer. Surprisingly, they remained voiceless. Defeated and aching with fatigue, she shut her eyes.
But somewhere, deep in her mind, a fierceness stirred. That fire she’d clung to in those years of isolation… The flames resurfaced to dry her tears. It shot through her veins, forcing her to open her eyes, to see, to act.
The forest was silent save for the whispering of the wind. Moonlight spilled off the fresh snow, illuminating the shadows hiding among the trees. Aife looked around, accepting the situation with a grim sigh. She was hopelessly lost. In the dead of winter. In the middle of the night.
Kneeling in the snow, among fallen pine needles and dead plants, Aife reached for that bond she’d silenced, praying to any god that listened that her mistake could be undone.
I need you to find me.
Cassian’s response came almost immediately. Where are you?
Somehow, through sheer force of will it seemed, Aife sent him an image of her surroundings. I don’t know. Somewhere cold.
As she sent the message, Aife shivered, clenching her jaw to keep her teeth from chattering. Stupid, stupid… She’d been so stupid.
Not stupid, she realized. Scared.
But that time was over - gone, with the rest of her past.
No one saw the female stagger to her feet. No one watched as she lifted her head high and set her jaw, gold eyes flaring to life.
No one except the Illyrian warrior swooping down from the sky above who embraced his mate with strong arms.
Aife woke up nestled in Cassian’s wings.
His breathing was soft and even, and when she tried to move and give him more space, he pulled her back against his chest. “Morning,” he rasped.
She opened her mouth to respond, but then she couldn’t breathe, couldn’t think about anything except how tightly his arms were wrapped around her waist. She was trapped, confined, she couldn’t get out. Powerless, weak, scared -
Cassian released her, and Aife shot up, gulping down lungfuls of air. “Sorry,” he said softly as she struggled to control her breathing.
After a few minutes, she calmed down, her shoulders relaxing. Cassian propped himself up on one elbow, watching her carefully. Aife reached for his hand and pulled it into her lap.
“Please tell me when you’re going to do something like that,” she said, tracing the creases in his palm. “Because I don’t… I don’t know your intentions.”
Hurt flitted over his features, and Aife dropped her gaze back to his hand. As she continued to dance her fingers over his skin, Cassian spoke.
“What can I do to make this easier for you?” he asked. Aife lifted her head at the sincerity of his words.
She bit her lip, thinking. “I want to accept this bond,” she said, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear. “But when it comes to the sexual stuff, I don’t think I can…” She took a shuddering breath, bracing herself for Cassian’s response. “I don’t think I can handle it right now.”
Her mate’s hazel eyes were warm. “Angel, if you think I’m going to be angry, I’m not.” Cassian lifted his hand from her lap to cradle her head, keeping his movements slow. “Am I mad about what happened to you? Yes, Cauldron yes. Not a day goes by that I wish I had gotten there sooner, that I could have protected you from everything that happened in that camp.
“As for the acceptance of the bond, I’ll wait - of course I’ll wait. Only an absolute idiot would refuse their mate because they’re uncomfortable with sex.”
Aife held his gaze, searching his mind for any lie. She found none.
“I wish I could give you more,” she whispered.
Cassian just shook his head, smiling softly at her. “You’ve already given me more than I could ever ask for.”
At that, Aife pushed herself closer to him, breathing in his scent. Looking up, she found Cassian’s eyes on her. “I love you,” she said.
Cassian nuzzled her neck affectionately. “I love you, too.”
Tentatively, Aife pressed her mouth to his. He kissed her back gently, his fingers running through her hair.
Aife cursed into the kiss and pulled away. Smirking, Cassian said in a silky voice, “Was I that good?”
Springing off the bed, Aife rushed, “The camp lords are meeting in twenty minutes, Cas. We need to go - now .”
As he jolted to attention, she yanked her shirt off and threw it to the floor. As she reached for a sweater, she felt Cassian’s eyes on her, pinning her to the spot. Aife raised an eyebrow. “What?”
“You’re naked,” he said flatly.
“And?” She shucked off her pants, gripping the dresser for balance. “You’ve seen females naked before.”
“Yes, but… ” Cassian swallowed, color rising high in his cheeks. He hastily looked away.
Aife was confused. What had she done wrong? Was one not supposed to change in front of their mate? She’d only been out of captivity for a few months. It was hard to figure out the unspoken rules surrounding Fae.
Finally dressed in a pair of black pants and a tight green sweater, Aife announced, “I’m done.” Cassian turned around, relieved, and she added, “Change quickly. Tellis and Revena are going to be wondering where we are.”
“We’ll just arrive fashionably late,” Cassian said with a wink, the discomfort gone from his posture.
Humming in approval, Aife stepped out of the room, shutting the door to offer her mate some privacy. She stretched out the muscles in her back as she walked, but froze in the doorway of the living room.
Another male was leaning against the far wall, an Illyrian, clad in tall boots and a furrowed brow. He didn’t seem to notice her presence, his vivid violet eyes focused on the wall. Aife recognized him almost immediately.
“Rhysand,” she said smoothly, setting her legs in a way that said I’m not going anywhere .
His head snapped up, and she didn’t miss the shock in his expression. Memories hit her like a wave, fighting and torture and war… and then joy - blissful joy.
“Who are you?” he asked.
“Aife.” She let her wings flare ever so slightly, crossing her arms. “A pleasure, I’m sure.”
The High Lord cocked his head, eyes narrowing. “What are you doing in my house, Aife?”
“My mate brought me here,” she replied. “You might know him.”
Cassian chose that moment to burst into the room, his hair tied in a knot. “Why aren’t your shoes on?” he asked. “I thought you were the one who wanted to rush…” He trailed off at the sight of Rhys, eyeing him with a hurt expression.
“You found your mate.” The words were little more than an awed whisper. “And you didn’t tell me. Me .” His voice shook on the last word, but he maintained his composure.
Cassian looked at him, and Aife could scent the shame. “I wanted to tell you - it killed me to keep it from you.”
A thrum of irritated power rattled Aife’s bones. Rhysand’s lip curled. “Then why hide it? What could you hope to gain?”
“There are things you don’t understand,” Cassian began.
Aife gripped his forearm, cutting him off. “Both of you, stop it.” The males’ glanced to her, almost reluctantly. “We have to go back to Velaris,” she breathed, her eyes not leaving Rhys. “Right now.”
“What about the treaty?” Cassian asked.
She turned to him, mouth tight. “Feyre made another deal.”
Rhys had gone pale, his hands clenched at his sides. “How do you know that?”
Ignoring his question, Aife continued, “But this one’s different, isn’t it? Because it’s not just going to cost her a tattoo.”
“That’s enough,” Rhysand barked, clouds of darkness spilling over the living room.
“Cas, please get our things,” she said quietly. I need to speak to the High Lord - alone.
Giving her one last confused glance, Cassian disappeared down the hallway.
“How far along is she?” Aife said.
Rhysand’s eyes glittered dangerously. “Why can’t I read your mind?” he mused, studying her with a strange look. “Every time I try, I just see a mirror of myself.”
“You’re not answering my question,” she pointed out. “How much time do we have?”
Something broke in his eyes, and Rhysand heaved a defeated sigh that all but shattered Aife’s heart. “Five months,” he said.
She blew out a breath, her wings dropping behind her back. “Who knows?”
“You, apparently,” he scoffed, adjusting the cuffs of his jacket. “And I assume Az, but you never know with him.”
“Are you going to tell them?” At Rhysand’s hesitation, Aife said, “They’re your family - they deserve to know. Cassian deserves to know.”
Rhysand’s eyes snapped up. “If we’re such a close family, why didn’t he tell us about you?” he said lowly.
“That was my decision,” she shot back. “When Cassian found me, I had barely any experience with social interactions, especially those with Illyrians. Why would I want to enter a court filled with Fae I don’t know? Besides, Cassian had a mission to complete. He couldn’t just drop everything and fly home.”
When she finished, Rhys was watching her with the ghost of a smile. “I apologize for my earlier assumptions,” he said softly. “And thank you, for aiding my General in his tasks.”
Aife snorted. “Please. He didn’t need me.”
Something warm flashed over Rhysand’s features. “Believe me, Aife - he most certainly did.”
Winnowing was a strange sensation.
It felt as though Aife’s soul was sucked through a void, breath-taking and terrifying. But, as quickly as she melted away, Rhysand brought her right back.
She staggered away from his grip on her arm, blinking back the numbness. Cassian’s gentle voice entered her consciousness. Are you okay?
When she finally opened her eyes, the city of starlight stared back.
They were standing on a balcony, looking over Velaris. The setting sun illuminated the colorful buildings lining the cobblestone streets. Fae voices buzzed over the sound of the bubbling river, shouts of laughter echoing through the main square.
“Welcome to my court,” Rhysand said. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to find my queen.” With a meaningful look at Cassian, he strode away.
Cassian came to stand by Aife, whose eyes were fixed on the city. “What do you think?” he asked.
Shaking her head, Aife said, “It’s beautiful. I’ve never seen anything like it. And this is where you live?”
“Well, partly.” Cassian gestured to the house the balcony was connected to - a spectacle of open space and grand decor. “This is the House of the Wind. My friends and I live here together. At least we did, until a particular High Lord got mated and moved.”
Aife smiled at him. “I know you miss him. As much as you love Feyre, he’s still your brother.”
Cassian pressed a kiss to her hair, but Aife sensed the stillness in his heart. “I understand we’re meeting everyone for dinner tonight?” she said.
“Yes. They’ll be eager to meet you.”
“And I them.” She twirled a piece of hair around her finger, spreading her wings and closing them just as quickly. “Will Nesta be there?”
Cassian shrugged. “Probably not. She does her own thing.”
Aife just nodded, too tired to pursue the question any longer.
Wings stretched across her vision, blotting out the sun. She glanced up to see the Illyrian male flying towards them - flying towards her .
A whimper cracked from her throat, but she held her ground. Cassian was here; he wouldn’t let anything happen to her.
But even Cassian greeted the male with a broad grin, waiting for him to land before he approached. “Az!” he laughed, clapping his arms around the male.
“Hey, Cassy,” the male said quietly, but Aife saw the joy lighting up his eyes. She took in his past with a mute horror, schooling her features into neutrality.
When the males stepped away from the embrace, Cassian looked to Aife. “Az, this is Aife,” he said almost reverently.
A shadow licked Azriel’s ear as he bowed to her, wings tucked in tight. “I’ve heard a lot about you.”
She offered him a smile, but couldn’t bring herself to move closer. “I’m sure. The Suriel who sired me knew you very well,” she added.
If he was surprised, Azriel hid it well. “He thought very highly of you,” he said.
“He asked you to protect me,” Aife realized, frowning slightly. “But when he died, you couldn’t find me.”
Shock locked her joints, and for a moment she just stared at Azriel. In pain, in anger, she didn’t know. Her father - her real father - had sent him to find her. He hadn’t.
Aife knew from his memories that he wasn’t an evil man… quite the opposite. But that didn’t change the fact that he had known she existed and hadn’t said a word.
She glanced up to his eyes, to the sorrow and regret that lay behind them. Grudges were a waste of life, even immortal ones. She’d seen the way it drained souls, experienced the emptiness unhealed conflict brought.
Azriel’s eyes were on her as Aife whispered, “I forgive you.”
Before he could respond, a female with skin darker than Aife’s stepped onto the balcony, hands clasped behind her back. “Dinner,” she said simply, disappearing back inside.
Giving her a tentative smile, Azriel said, “It’s an honor to meet you, Aife.”
The wing of a certain male brushed over her own, and she turned to find Cassian looking at her, the corner of his mouth kicked up.
Aife looked away from Azriel and took her mate’s outstretched hand. Let’s shall.
Cassian guided her to the dining room, practically skipping with glee.
“Is he always so giddy?” she asked Azriel, smirking.
Azriel snorted, pushing his hair away from his forehead. “You should see him when he’s drunk. Turns into a child.”
Cassian laughed, but Aife felt as though someone had dumped ice water down her back. She’d forgotten how much alcohol could change a person. It turned her loving father into a creature of nightmares.
Don’t worry, angel. I won’t drink that much tonight.
Despite his words, Aife shot Cassian a glare. I’d prefer it if you didn’t drink at all. You don’t exactly have a record of sobriety.
Cassian squeezed her hand gently, his thumb rubbing circles on her skin. Whatever you say.
They turned into the dining room to hear a voice like that of a songbird. “Did you see the new shop in the Rainbow?” the blonde female said, lifting a glass of wine the same shade as her dress to her lips.
“I did,” a shorter female drawled, her voice icy.“Their diamonds are particularly exquisite. Varian has offered to buy me some, but still hasn’t learned how to properly pick out the jewels and seems to have no interest in learning. Males,” she muttered.
Cassian made an indignant sound. “Hey!”
With a squeal of excitement, the red-swathed female set down her wine and jumped onto Cassian, her arms winding around his neck. Cassian seemed to sense Aife’s unease and quickly dropped the female to the floor, smiling widely.
“Where have you been?” the female demanded, placing a hand on her hip.
Aife pulled on Cassian’s memories for reference. So this was Morrigan, cousin to the High Lord and friend of Cassian’s. Not to mention Azriel’s unrequited love.
A coldness appeared at her side, and Aife spun to face the short female, clad in gray. Her eyes, though not as vivid as Rhysand’s, were full of memories of a strange place, a place of monsters and creatures beyond Prythian. Amren - that was her name.
The female eyed her carefully, her nostrils flaring as she took in Aife’s scent. Cassian’s scent, Aife realized, that had probably become a part of her in the weeks they’d spent together.
“So this is who’s been keeping you from us?” Amren inquired, raising a brow at Cassian.
A snarl rose in Aife’s chest, but she held it back. Instead, she cocked her head at the female and smiled, baring her canines. “Hello, Amren,” she said and held out her hand.
With narrowed eyes, the female shook it. “You know of me?”
Aife laughed softly, slipping her hands into the pockets of her pants. “I know everything about you.”
Something grabbed her arm and Aife flinched, cursing herself inwardly. Morrigan immediately drew her hand back, studying her with bright eyes.
Cassian sent a gentle, calming feeling dancing down the bond. “Mor, this is Aife,” he said, looking to Aife with a smile. “My mate.”
A pause rang through the room, louder than anything Aife had ever heard.
And then Mor’s shriek of surprise: “Your what ?!”
Whatever reaction Aife had expected from Morrigan, it wasn’t this.
The five of them sat around the dining table now, the females sitting across from the males. Aife was sandwiched between Amren and Mor, the latter of whom was burning with questions. Cassian and Azriel were catching up, leaving Aife at the mercy of Mor’s never ending energy.
“Where did you grow up?” she inquired, taking yet another sip of her wine.
Aife’s stomach churned at the sharp scent of the alcohol, but she faked a smile. “Crow’s Haven,” she said.
“How old are you?”
Mor’s lips pursed. “You seem older.” Her voice had lost some of its cheerfulness.
Aife settled back against her chair, swirling the water in her glass. “Maybe it’s because I don’t act like a child,” she said with a pointed glance at the two Illyrians who were deep in a hushed conversation.
“I’ll drink to that,” Mor murmured, giving Aife a well-mannered wink.
Rhysand chose that moment to stride into the dining room, his mate behind him. “Sorry we’re late,” he said, seating himself at the head of the table. The High Lady went to the other end, and Aife sipped at her water, preparing herself for another barrage of questions.
“Who’s our guest?” Feyre asked in a smooth tone.
Aife met Feyre’s eyes and immediately spit out her water. Fortunately, she was able to turn her head so it splattered on the floor and not on the High Fae, but it still embarrassed her nonetheless.
Are you okay? Cassian’s words were laced with concern.
I’m fine, I’m fine, just… give me a moment.
Coughing, Aife straightened, face flushed. “I apologize,” she said dragging her hands through her hair and keeping her head down. “My gift is sometimes a curse.”
Across the table, Aife met Cassian’s eyes. The first memories I see are the most recent. And it seems that your rulers are fond of pleasuring each other before dinner.
Cassian cleared his throat, suppressing the deep laugh that rumbled through the bond.
“Feyre, this is Aife,” he managed, shaking his head a bit. “I found her when I was in the Steppes.”
Brows knitted together, Feyre said, “I don’t understand.”
“Aife is his mate,” Amren said shortly.
Shock ran over Feyre’s features, and she looked to Rhysand, gaping. “But what about -“
“Nesta?” Aife offered, finally gaining the courage to meet the High Lady’s eyes.
Feyre shot her a frightened look. “What do you know of Nesta?” she asked in a hushed voice.
“The Cauldron is a cruel thing,” Aife said instead of answering the question. “It can put Fae together and just as easily rip them apart.”
“These butter rolls smell amazing,” Azriel interrupted, selecting one with a scarred hand.
Feyre didn’t seem to hear him and glanced to Cassian. “Why didn’t you tell us?”
Cassian opened his mouth but Aife cut in. “He was afraid you all would like me more than him and he’d get replaced,” she said fluidly, reaching for a sweet roll. “Besides…” She looked up from buttering her roll with a wicked smirk. “I have the bigger wingspan.”
It was Amren who first roared with laughter, followed by the rest of the Inner Court. Azriel’s face went red, Cassian’s eyes were lined with silver when they finally calmed. Even Rhysand and Feyre we’re unable to keep their stony features.
“I like this one,” Amren said. “Can we keep her?”
Rhysand shrugged, propping his chin on his fist. “I see no reason why not.”
With a gleeful laugh, Mor said, “Welcome to the family, Aife.”
It was one of the best things Aife had ever heard.
Cassian was still asleep when Aife left their room.
The whispering curtains in the open windows were enough to mask the whine of the door handle as she eased it open, slipping into the hallway and moving toward the roof.
She could fly, she supposed, but Aife didn’t trust her wings to keep silent. Instead, she turned up the staircase she’d seen in her tour of the House of the Wind and crept up the marble stairs.
Thick wool socks muted her steps, and Cassian’s loose shirt had been tied in a knot against her stomach to keep it from giving away her presence. Aife drew on the shadowsinger’s memories, mimicking the way he moved, like nothing more than a winged shadow.
As she neared the rooftop, their scents hit her. The High Lord and the High Lady - standing on the roof, facing the stars.
There was another reason Aife had decided to take the stairs: she was downwind.
Slowly, she lowered herself against the wall, praying she wasn’t seen.
“I just wish there was a way to go back,” Feyre was saying, voice trembling with every word. “I never, never would have made that stupid deal if it meant - if it meant… “
Rhysand drew her close, stroking her head with a tanned hand. “It’s not your fault, Feyre darling. Keir enjoys deceitful tactics to get what he wants. There has to be a loophole in all of this, I’m sure of it.”
Feyre made a whimpering sound, and Aife felt a lump of guilt settle in her stomach. What fun was sneaking around when the things she saw only served to reinforce her earlier discoveries.
She stood from her crouch and spread her wings. “I apologize for interrupting.” Both Fae whirled to her, eyes shining.
Wiping her face somewhat discreetly, Feyre plastered on a smile. “Did you get lost? The house is massive, and I can lead you back if you -”
“No,” Aife said calmly. “I came to find you two, actually.”
She dared a step forward, noticing the guarded expression with which Rhysand watched her. “I know of your predicament, and I wish to offer my assistance.”
Feyre’s blue eyes narrowed, her full mouth tight. She opened her mouth to speak, but then looked to her mate. It took her a minute, but Aife figured it out. He must be telling Feyre of her Suriel heritage through the bond.
“Just so I understand,” she began, bracing herself for their reactions. “You accepted a gift from what you believed to be a kind witch attending your wedding. She offered you fertility, and you couldn’t refuse - it had been years, and you were still childless. What you didn’t know was that the witch originated from the Hewn City, and it wasn’t a gift after all.”
Feyre nodded weakly, a hand reaching to clasp her mate’s. “Yes.”
Aife let her wings shudder in the cold. “Can I see the tattoo?” she asked.
Feyre made to lift her dress, but Rhysand’s hand shot out to grab her wrist. Aife let out an instinctive snarl before she realized he meant her no harm.
Rhysand gave Aife a quizzical look before telling Feyre, “I don’t know if this is such a good idea.”
With a glare, Feyre pushed his hand away. “I trust her,” she said simply and pulled the hem of her dress to her navel.
There, etched over her womb, was the spindly shape of a dragon. Its eyes were narrowed slits, a sickly green color. The symbol of the Hewn City.
“You’re four months along?” Aife flicked her eyes up to Feyre’s.
Throat bobbing, Feyre said, “Yes.”
“Keir was smart,” Aife mused, gesturing for Feyre to put her dress back down. “The deal is complex. As soon as you give birth, your child becomes his property.”
“So we’ve been told,” Rhysand snapped, violet eyes flashing with fury.
Feyre fiddled with the wedding ring on her pale finger, spinning it around. “What can we do?” she asked.
“Seek out the witch.” Aife tucked a piece of hair behind her ear, eyes going unfocused as she sought a solution in the many memories she’d collected. “Only she can undo what’s been done. But even then, she is under the control of Keir, and he certainly doesn’t want this curse broken.”
As Feyre looked to Rhys, a pang of sympathy rang through Aife. If Keir ever took the heir of the Night Court, there was no knowing what he would do with the child. And if the child was female… Based on what she knew of the ruler of the Court of Nightmares, the girl would be damaged beyond repair.
“Have you told anyone you’re expecting?” Aife asked.
Feyre shook her head, her golden-brown hair gleaming in the moonlight. “No one,” she murmured.
Aife made to return to her room and leave the couple with their thoughts but hesitated. “If you need anything, I’m available,” she said quietly. “And congratulations.”
With a small, hopeful smile, Aife descended the stairs. She didn’t miss the muffled sobs coming from the roof.
She was back.
The basement reeked of blood and bodily fluids, the cot she laid on stained with sweat and tears.
“You’re aren’t allowed to leave.”
Aife looked up to find Serta sneering over her, his eyes glittering with promises of pain. “You left us,” he continued, palming a knife. “Punishment comes to those who disobey.”
The edge of the knife lowered dangerously close to the skin of her forearm, and Aife tried to move away.
Manacles attached themselves to her limbs, tying her to the ground, and she was helpless.
Serta’s threatening laugh brushed over her ear. “I found your friend,” he cooed.
And then Cassian stumbled in, his face swollen and bloodied. His wings, his dark, beautiful wings were bound to his back. He made no effort to fight back as her brother struck him with his fist, over and over and over. Finally, Serta drove the knife meant for Aife into her mate’s chest, and Cassian collapsed.
Aife screamed his name, screamed it until her voice was hoarse. Her mind frantically reached for that bond between them, grasping it in a shaky grip. She had to hold on, had to keep him alive -
Cassian’s unseeing eyes locked with hers, and Aife found his mind empty, void of any memory. His lips moved, forming words that pulsed through Aife’s body. “You could have saved me.”
She couldn’t do anything, could only listen to Serta’s taunts and jeers through violent sobs. A blade slashed through the air - the same blade that had clipped so many females. Except this time, it was slicing through her mate’s wings.
The wings faded away, into ash and dust, and Aife felt a sickening crack resound through her soul.
That bond between them finally snapped.
Aife shot up on the bed, gasping for breath.
As soon as she regained control over her body, she searched for that thread of life in her soul. Finding it, she pulled it, yanking as hard as she could.
Someone’s arm brushed against her wing in response, and Aife turned.
A shirtless Cassian sat up on the bed beside her, the sheets pooling around his waist. He was looking at her with such intensity that she felt her breath catch. “Aife?” he rasped. “Are you okay?”
With a whimper, she threw herself at him and buried her face into his neck. He carefully reciprocated the hug, warm hands pressing against her back.
“I thought… I couldn’t sense you anymore,” she murmured weakly. “For a moment, you were gone.”
Cassian’s stubble scratched her cheek as he whispered, “I’m right here, angel.”
Suddenly feeling very childish, Aife pulled back, wrapping her arms around her stomach. “I know. I know you are.” The words sounded foolish, even to her own ears,
“I have nightmares, too.” Aife glanced up to find his hazel eyes on her, warm and open. “Of the Rite, the battles, the war with Hybern,” he continued.
Aife nodded, mouth tight. “Those must have been horrible for you,” she said.
Cassian gave her a quizzical look. “Of course they were. But no worse than what you’ve experienced.”
Blowing out a breath through her nose, Aife let herself fall back on the pillows. “Why?” she said to no one in particular. “Why did I have to go through all of that to get here? Why would the Mother let me stay in that hellhole for so long?” She yanked the covers up to her neck, curling up under the heavy blanket.
Cassian laid down beside her and wriggled under the sheets, one of his wings spreading over her hip. Aife let one of her wings cover his, settling gently on the dark membrane.
Her mate shuddered, but didn’t move. “I don’t know the Mother’s plan in all this,” he said in answer to her question. “And like you said at dinner last night, the Cauldron can be cruel.”
“No kidding,” Aife muttered, voice muffled through the blankets. Sleep was washing back over her, but panic seized her heart at the thought of leaving Cassian.
She reached toward him, fumbling for his hand beneath the blankets. Her hand brushed against something that made Cassian go rigid. He quickly grabbed her hand, squeezing it gently.
“I thought you weren’t ready for the sexy stuff,” he purred.
Despite herself, Aife’s cheeks flooded with heat. “Sorry. I just wanted to hold your hand.”
Cassian just laughed softly, eyes full of affection. He leaned over to press a kiss to her nose. “Goodnight, my love.”
Smiling to herself, Aife tightened her grip on his hand, simultaneously pulling herself closer to her mate. “Goodnight.”
When the sun rose over head, the two Illyrians were still holding each other, wings draped around their mate.
Aife swatted away Cassian’s hands and redid the knot in the shirt she’d stolen from his closet. “It’s too long if I don’t tie it up,” she said.
Her mate frowned. “But it’s too short if you tie it like that,” he whined.
Mor swept out of the kitchen, rolling her eyes. “Let the girl wear what she wants, Cassy. Territorial males, indeed,” she muttered and bit into a muffin.
Aife laughed, ignoring Cassian’s indignant expression. “Where’d you get that?” she asked, gesturing to Mor’s muffin. “I’m starving.”
Mor laced her arm through Aife’s elbow, smiling. “I’ll show you to the kitchen. Cassian, why don’t you go hang out with the boys?” she suggested with a shooing motion.
Rolling his eyes, Cassian shot Aife a warm smile. I love you.
I love you, too. Have fun.
As he walked away, her mate added, Be sure to fill me in on all the secrets you uncover.
Of course. Aife winked through the bond, and Cassian chuckled back.
Mor dragged her into the kitchen chatting the entire way. “Elain made these fresh this morning. Do you know Elain?” When Aife nodded, she continued, “She’s Feyre’s sister, and she’s an absolute goddess when it comes to baking.”
“I believe it,” Aife said, sniffing the sweet, bready scent wafting through the kitchen.
The older Archeron stood before the stove, her golden-brown hair woven through with flowers. She was humming to herself, the skirts of her rose dress swishing over the floor.
“Elain,” Mor sang, tapping the girl on the shoulder. “This is Aife.”
Elain turned, looking to Aife. Aife absorbed the memories quickly, sifting through them in a skilled manner. The girl opened her mouth, set in a slight smile, but something changed in her eyes.
Her hands, caked in flour, gripped Aife’s shoulders, smearing Cassian’s shirt with white powder. “Two ducklings,” she said, her voice deathly serious. “One must drown for the other to swim, lest both are dragged to a watery grave. Their mother will mourn, their siblings will cry. But one must die. One must die.”
Blinking, Elain released Aife, who stood there in shock. Those parts of Elain’s memories were hazy, abstract visions that she couldn’t access. Maybe if she pushed a little deeper…
The door to the kitchen swung open, and a red-haired male stood their, face twisted with worry. His chest rose and fell rapidly, eyes scanning the room before they fixed on Elain. Aife recognized him immediately. Elain’s mate.
“Are you well?” he asked, stopping a few feet in front of the timid girl.
Mor gripped Aife’s elbow. “We should go,” she whispered, leading her back out of the kitchen.
Before they left, Aife snatched a muffin off the counter. No way was she going to leave without her breakfast.
“That was a prophecy, wasn’t it?” Aife said softly, glancing at Mor.
Chuckling, Mor said, “Of course not. You heard her - it’s a story about ducklings.”
But Aife noticed the tremble in her voice, the way she bit her lip. Mor was scared of the unknown.
And, as much as she tried to deny it, so was Aife.
Aife flew through the streets of Velaris, seeking out the one person who wanted nothing to do with her.
It had been two weeks since Cassian had brought her to the House of the Wind, two weeks since Aife had befriended the Inner Circle. They’d accepted her with open arms, wiping away all of Aife’s anxieties. Now, she couldn’t imagine not knowing them.
Mor had taken her shopping after that first day, filling her wardrobe with all kinds of expensive-looking clothes that Aife was scared to touch, worried she’d break the fabric. But they’d also purchased some practical clothes, like the tight shirt and pants Aife was wearing now.
Azriel had winnowed back to the Steppes to check in on the lords, making sure the treaty had been signed and finalized. To Aife and Cassian’s relief, it had. Cassian had already promised to take Aife to see Revena and Tellis later in the year, closer to summer. As much as Aife enjoyed the females of the Inner Circle, she missed her friend.
Finding the right street, Aife landed silently on the cobblestone and tucked her wings against her back. She wore a knife at her side, one Cassian had given her. He’d begged her to carry some sort of weapon when he heard she wanted to go out by herself, especially in the middle of the night.
Though she’d never trained as a warrior, it had become clear that Aife was a fighter. After beating Cassian in a sparring match, the Inner Circle held a higher respect for their newest member.
When Mor and Aife had returned from shopping, Cassian was there, waiting.
“Feel like sparring?” he asked more, who fervently shook her head.
“I just walked two miles in heels,” she grumbled, yanking off her red stilettos for emphasis. “There’s no way in hell that I’m stepping onto that mat.”
Aife had set down her shopping bags and crossed her arms, mirroring her mate’s cocky smirk. “I’ll do it.”
Chuckling, Cassian said, “As long as you’re sure.”
Narrowing her eyes at him, Aife purred, “Let’s go.”
Standing apart from each other, Aife began to second guess herself. What if this didn’t work? What if Cassian hit her? Would he show her mercy? Why would she need mercy?
Her overthinking had sparked such a fury in her gut that, when Cassian swung, Aife’s instincts took over, formed through the memories of the Night Court’s fiercest warriors.
She moved faster than she’d ever moved before, ducking and dodging like a hare. Her smaller stature made it easier to move around Cassian, and she planted a few good kicks to his stomach that made him groan in pain.
Spurred on by her rage, she drove her fist up, slamming it into Cassian’s jaw and sending him crumpling to the ground. A rattle of dishes had sounded, and Aife looked up. Azriel had dropped his fork and was gaping at her, eyes wide as saucers.
When she calmed down, her fists unclenching, a fear like no other flooded her blood, turning it to ice. “Cas?” she said, crouching before her mate. “Cas, wake up - please wake up.”
Muttering incoherently, Cassian had opened his eyes, and Aife had squeaked in relief. “Where did you learn that?” he asked, and Aife just laughed.
“Does it matter?”
Before they could talk anymore, Feyre had rushed to Aife, smiling wider than Aife had ever seen her smile. “You beat Cassian,” she said in awe.
“Oh, she throttled him,” Rhysand added, smirking at his mate’s side.
Azriel joined the group, leaning down to offer his brother a hand. As he hauled Cassian to his feet, he mused, “You brought down a building, but you can’t win a fight with your mate?”
Amren snorted. “He didn’t even come close.”
Muttering a few choice curses, Cassian declared, “I let her win.”
Of course, no one believed him, and the story had spread throughout Velaris.
Nonetheless, no Fae recognized Aife as she stepped into the tavern, the knife heavy at her waist. She wrinkled her nose in distaste at the sour smell that filled her nose, a combination of alcohol, body odor, and vomit. None were pleasant.
She found her target, sitting alone at the bar. Wordlessly, she swung herself into a seat beside the female.
The bartender looked up from polishing glasses. “What can I getcha?”
“Just a water,” Aife said in a low voice.
Chuckling to himself, the bartender slid the glass across the counter. “‘Ere ya go, miss. One water.”
Despite his cynical tone, Aife smiled and said, “Thank you.”
The bartender gave her a strange look before moving on to the other customers.
Sipping daintily at the murky glass, Aife glanced at the female. She was nothing but skin and bones, now, nothing like the supple female she’d glimpsed in the Inner Circle’s memories.
She glanced around the room, locking eyes with a few of the males. Though a few winked at her, she just glared back. Unlike the female, she wasn’t looking for a bedmate.
When she got what she needed, Aife tapped the female’s shoulder. The female whirled on her with a sharp look, setting her glass of questionable liquid on the counter. “What?” she snarled.
Aife met her eyes, taking in her past. “I understand you’re looking for a male to take home,” she mused, setting down her drink. “If you want help, I’m offering.”
The female cut her eyes at her. “I have no need of your assistance,” she said coldly, then proceeded to drain her beverage in one foul gulp.
Swallowing down her distaste, Aife went on. “The male in the corner booth is especially skilled with his fingers. And the one by the entrance is a screamer, if you’re into those.” She glanced down the hall to find a male leaning against the wall, eyes wild. Anger knitted her brow. “For the sake of the Cauldron, don’t take that one,” she hissed, nodding toward the violent Fae.
The female looked up to where Aife had gestured, then just as quickly returned her gaze to the counter. Aife recognized the look.
“He was with you last night?” Aife murmured in a horrified whisper. When the female remained silent, Aife blew out a breath through her nose and slammed her glass on the counter. The female jerked upright.
“Nesta, this has gone on long enough,” Aife hissed, angry at the male, at the world, at the entire situation. “I’m not going to sit idly by as you take to bed any and every male, regardless of how they treat you.”
Nesta bared her teeth at her. “This is my business, and you have nothing to do with it. Don’t pretend you know me. You think I’m a pity party, don’t you? That I’m doing everything for attention, looking for love in all the wrong places?”
Aife flashed her teeth right back, elongated canines pricking her bottom lip. “I know you, Nesta. More than you realize.”
“Hello, foxy,” a sensuous voice purred, and Aife glanced up to find the male, the predatory, careless male with a hand on Nesta’s bare shoulder. “Feel like taking home an alley cat?”
Nesta gave a sharp nod, but Aife glimpsed the hint of fear in her eyes. “Let’s go,” she said shortly.
As she put down a slip of money, the dregs of her account, Aife knew, Aife grabbed Nesta’s arm. “Don’t do this,” she pleaded.
With a jerk of her hand, Nesta freed herself, plucking an invisible piece of lint off her dress. “I listen to no one,” she growled. “Especially some female looking for her next charity case.”
Nesta and the male disappeared out the door, plunging into the cold of winter. But Aife wasn’t letting her go that easy.
The intentions in the male’s eyes had been nothing but violent, and Aife knew of the pain he caused Nesta, the way he forced himself upon her like she meant nothing, like she was nothing.
Sliding a coin across the counter, Aife leaped from the barstool and made to follow Nesta through the door. When she escaped the tavern, though, Nesta was nowhere in sight.
Growling in irritation, Aife spread her wings and jumped into the air, ignoring the way the winter wind bit at the sensitive membrane. She had to find Nesta - before it was too late.
After a few minutes of frantic searching, Aife caught the female’s scent and followed it to a poorly lit alley. She heard Nesta’s choked whimper, the male’s cruel words. Beneath her skin, blood boiled.
She yanked the knife from its sheath and dived into the alley, wings tucked in tight. It was dark, pitch black, but she had Cassian’s instincts to work with. Relying on her keen senses of smell and hearing, Aife directed a swift kick to the male’s unprotected member.
He howled in pain and outrage, and she heard him collapse on the stone. “No,” she snarled, to Nesta, to herself - she didn’t know. “He deserves more.”
A hand fisted in his shirt, Aife dragged him underneath a lamp post, where she could see his cowardly figure. Twisting the knife in her hand, she drew on the shadowsinger’s darkest memories, the things he did to enemies of the Night Court. And she began to carve.
His screams became a melody, melting and mixing with the shanties sung in the nearby taverns. No one could distinguish his cries of agony to the cries of pleasure coming from the brothels, and Aife thanked the Mother for the blessing.
She left him half alive and returned to the alley, where Nesta’s scent was still strong. There was enough light that Aife could see the female, curled up beside the wall, her gaze fixed on the bleeding, moaning male. When Aife approached, Nesta staggered to her feet, the familiar fire alight in her eyes.
Wordlessly, Aife offered her the knife, handle first.
Nesta took it.
The male’s death was one of the most gruesome and the most beautiful things Aife had ever seen.
After they nailed the body to a brothel which Nesta claimed sold the innocence of female younglings, Nesta let Aife fly her back to the House of the Wind. She didn’t visit Feyre, or Elain, or any of the Inner Circle.
She cried to Aife, poured out everything that she’d felt and experienced after the war on Hybern. And when she was done, when her tears were dried and her worries reassured, Nesta slept beside Aife, clinging to her friend as a youngling clung to a stuffed toy.
When Cassian walked in and saw his mate asleep next to Nesta, his breath caught in his throat. Unsure of what else to do, he retired to the couch in the living room, mind racing.
Aife had done the impossible.
She tamed the wildfire.
Nesta smoothed down her skirts, letting out a breath. The staircase loomed before her, the sounds of the Inner Circle echoing from above. A low laugh that could only be Cassian’s rang through her mind, and she swallowed.
The female ascending the steps turned, her hand braced on the banister. “Are you okay?” Aife asked shortly, but not unkindly.
The Illyrian was smiling softly and tugging at the hem of her cropped sweater. Instead of answering her question, Nesta said, “Why do you wear that if you’re uncomfortable showing your stomach?”
Aife shrugged, releasing her hold on the shirt. “I don’t want to be more of an outcast than I already am,” she admitted.
“No one’s an outcast with these Fae,” Nesta offered a little begrudgingly. “They do their best to make everyone feel comfortable.”
Aife took her hand, the rough scar slashed over her wrist rubbing against Nesta’s skin. “I know. And I’m grateful. But I’d still like to fit in as much as I can.”
“Do you think Azriel knows what we did last night?” Nesta asked, squeezing Aife’s hand.
“He probably knows that a Fae male died intoxicated and in the middle of sexual activities, but I doubt he knows anything more. If he does, I’ll have Cassian change his mind,” she added with a wink.
Nesta blinked. It was strange to hear another female speak of him like that - so easily, yet so adoringly. “You love him,” Nesta breathed.
She’d known when she’d first met Aife that she was Cassian’s. His scent was all over her, though not as strong as a mating bond. It was the reason she’d avoided her at first, the reason she’d pushed her advice aside. Now she was grateful Aife had followed her into that alleyway - grateful she had saved her from such a horrendous fate.
Aife let her wing brush over Nesta’s back. “I do,” she said, almost hesitantly. “I was on my way to have my wings clipped when he found me. He brought me away from my home camp… that’s when the mating bond clicked into place.”
Pushing away the old feelings rising to the surface, Nesta managed, “How long ago was this?”
Aife dragged a hand through her hair. “Two months. I’ve been here for about three weeks now. What about you?”
Nesta stiffened. “What about me?”
“How long has it been since you’ve seen everyone?” Aife pressed.
When Nesta didn’t respond, Aife continued, “That’s why you’re stalling… You’re scared of what they’re going to say. But you don’t have to worry about them.” She put a comforting hand on Nesta’s arm. “Because you are Nesta, and you always come out on top.”
Shock coursed through Nesta’s veins at Aife’s words, at the sincerity coating her voice. Her eyes held Nesta’s, challenging her to object. Nesta didn’t.
The side of Aife’s mouth kicked up. “Come on then.” Still gripping Nesta’s hand, Aife dragged her up the stairs. “I’m starving.”
Nesta’s stomach was twisted in knots by the time they reached the hallway at the top, leading to the dining room. But she followed her friend past the paintings, past the marble columns and open windows. As the noise of the Inner Circle drew closer, she pulled her hand from Aife’s grip.
“I want to walk in alone,” she said sharply, keeping her voice quiet.
If Aife was offended, she didn’t show it. Instead, she nodded. “Understood.”
She stalked around the corner, and a chorus of greetings rose from the breakfast table.
“Morning, love.” Nesta’s heart pounded against her rib cage at Cassian’s hoarse voice. “Sleep well?”
“I did.” Aife’s voice wasn’t smooth with arrogance, like Rhysand’s, but with contentment. It was as if she knew everything there was to know in the world and was comfortable with the immense knowledge.
As casual conversation ensued, Nesta pressed her back against the wall, fingernails digging into her palms. Did she want to do this? Put herself in this position again, with the Fae whose help she’d rejected?
Before she could convince herself otherwise, Nesta moved into the open, quickly scanning the dining room.
Cassian, Azriel, and Aife’s backs were to her, black wings gently folded over their backs. Feyre and Rhysand sat at either head of the table, and Elain sat between Feyre and the red-haired Lucien.
At the sight of her sister, Elain’s mouth spread into a broad smile. Mor’s fork clattered on her plate, eyes wide as she gaped. Amren, at the High Lord’s side, only gave her a condescending look.
Nesta cut her eyes at Lucien, reminding him of the many threats she’d voiced over the years. Lucien’s throat bobbed, but he didn’t balk from her glare. Perhaps he was fiercer than she gave him credit for.
Folding her hands in front of her, Nesta held her head high. “Hello, sister,” she said.
Feyre’s head snapped around, and Nesta saw her shoulders stiffen. “Nesta?”
A flutter of wings, and Aife was smiling knowingly at her. “I saved you a seat,” she said, patting the chair between Feyre and herself.
Nodding, Nesta slid her legs under the table, keeping her gaze fixed on anything but her sister’s questioning blue eyes. A plate made of the finest china appeared before her, and Nesta looked up to find her brother-in-law giving her a faint smile.
“Feel free to eat whatever you like,” he said, swirling the drink in his glass around. “Elain made the pastries, so I’m sure you’ll find those especially delicious.”
“Lucien helped with the croissants,” Elain blurted, a dusting of pink spreading over her cheeks. Nesta suppressed a growl as her sister placed a hand over Lucien’s. “Isn’t that wonderful Nesta?” she asked.
Prepared with a cynical answer, the words died in Nesta’s throat at the admiration shining in Elain’s eyes-the same mirrored in Lucien’s. Her sister deserved happiness, even if Nesta wasn’t thrilled at the notion.
So she kept her expression neutral and ground out, “That’s perfect.”
Aife nudged her with her knee, and Nesta saw the amusement flitting over her bronze skin. Without a word, she dropped a few choice foods on Nesta’s plate, ranging from sausages to pancakes. “Try the gray stuff - it’s delicious,” she suggested, swiping a bit on her finger to lick off.
Reluctantly, Nesta used an engraved spoon to raise a bit to her lips. Aife was right - it was amazing.
While Nesta picked through her food, Feyre said, “When… when did you get here?”
“Last night,” Nesta said in a clipped tone, taking a massive bite of her croissant to keep from having to speak. And, as much as she hated to admit it, it was also tasty. Lucien had done well, though she suspected Elain had performed most of the work.
Azriel spoke next, his voice almost mute. “There was a brutal murder last night in the district where you live.”
“Lived,” Feyre cut in. “She’s staying with us now. If she wishes,” she added hurriedly.
“The male was found nailed to a brothel,” Azriel continued, his gaze fixed on Nesta. “He was naked, his flesh cut to ribbons. It looked as though he’d been in the middle of certain recreational activities before he died from blood loss.”
“Az,” Cassian said in a warning tone. “This is hardly breakfast worthy discussion. Everyone knows that conversations about brutal murders are saved for lunchtime.”
Ignoring his brother’s snide remark, Azriel’s jaw tightened. “You carry his scent,” he said to Nesta.
A snarl ripped from Aife’s throat, and Nesta was surprised to find her friend’s teeth bared at Azriel. “What are you insinuating?” she snapped, the tips of her wings twitching.
“I simply want to know what Nesta saw,” Azriel said calmly, but Nesta didn’t miss the subtle threat to his voice. “She was there-she had to be.”
“It’s extremely rude to call out our guest like that,” Aife said, voice dry. “Especially when including her in such a violent context.”
Az held her sharp look. “Aife, it’s my duty as the High Lord’s spymaster to investigate every illegal act carried out against the citizens of Velaris.”
Aife’s eyes went to Cassian as if he’d said something shocking, but he hadn’t spoken. “Remember, Az… I know everything about everyone.” Aife’s voice had turned softer. “And if you want to hear about what Nesta saw, you can talk to me. Later,” she added with a pointed look at her full plate.
With a few muttered curses, the shadow singer dropped the conversation, and Nesta felt relief flood through her body. She had no interest in speaking of what happened-not now, not ever.
Feyre cleared her throat, and Nesta recognized the act. It was what Feyre did when she came home from a hunt empty-handed, when she’d broken one of the few expensive dishes they owned, when she’d lost the only coins they had to spend for the week. It was the sound that came before an irreplaceable loss.
“Rhys and I actually have some news.” She met her mate’s eyes across the table. He gave her a reassuring smile. Feyre sucked in a steadying breath and said, “I’m expecting.”
Cassian’s fork was hung suspended between his mouth and his plate. “What?”
“Yeah, what?” Mor’s blonde curls were hanging in her eggs, but she didn’t seem to notice, her gaze fixed on Feyre’s bright face.
“How long?” asked Amren, silver eyes gleaming.
Splaying a hand over her abdomen, Feyre said, “Six months.”
Nesta felt her chest cave in, and she couldn’t move her gaze from her sister. A child… her sister was carrying a child. It was as if a fog cleared away, and Nesta recognized the change in Feyre’s scent.
She was pregnant.
Excited shouts of “Congratulations!” and Mor’s complaints of “Why didn’t you tell us sooner?” faded away, and Nesta grasped her sister’s hand under the table. Feyre turned, silver lining her eyes.
“I’m so, so happy for you,” Nesta said quietly. She felt a lump growing at the back of her throat, so she said nothing more.
But Feyre beamed at Nesta, a joyous, choked laugh breaking from her lips. “Thank you,” she murmured.
Nesta’s brow knit. “For what?”
“For being here when I wanted you most.”
At that, Nesta had to turn away to hide the tears threatening to show themselves. A leathery wing came to cover her face, and Aife whispered, “No one can see you.”
“I’m fine,” Nesta growled, pushing away her friend’s offer. But Aife just shook her head.
The joyous sounds of the Inner Circle muffling her words, Aife said, “There will come a time, Nesta, when your mask will fall, and your heart of ice will crack and splinter. And I hope to be the one to bring back your fire.”
Unable to say anything more, Nesta pressed her lips together and watched the excitement bubbling around the table. Mor and Elain were talking to Feyre, while Amren was discussing the possibility of the child having wings with Rhysand. The only Fae who seemed to be unfazed by the news was Aife.
Her gaze was focused on Azriel, the Illyrian who joined in on his friend’s toasts and cheers. It was as if she was puzzling over him, her golden eyes glittering dangerously.
Cassian seemed to be the only one besides Nesta to notice Aife’s behavior, but he didn’t look worried. Rather, he was smirking at her as if sharing an inside joke.
Suddenly feeling very intrusive, Nesta turned away from the pair.
As much as Aife had helped her, she couldn’t help but feel jealousy burn at the pit of her stomach.
Nesta hated herself for it.
Azriel was waiting for her in the library, arms crossed.
Aife’s wings fluttered, and she smiled at him. “I’m guessing this is about Nesta?”
“What do you know?” he said dryly.
Checking her nails, Aife hummed. “She was the victim in the situation, Az. He took advantage of her, and understandably, she fought back.”
The shadows curling around the male’s ears seemed to grow. His voice was sharp as a blade as he said, “His injuries were unnecessarily brutal. Defending herself is one thing - but this male was tortured to death.”
At that, Aife glanced up to meet his dark eyes. Oh, his memories. So dark and violent… Little did he know that it was his techniques she’d used on that male, his hand that had guided Cassian’s knife as she cut into the Fae’s skin.
“She didn’t kill him,” Aife said shortly.
Azriel stared at her expectantly. “Then… who is the murderer?”
Laughing softly, Aife flicked her hair over her shoulder. “Perhaps someone who didn’t enjoy watching a female being debased,” she mused. “Though that doesn’t narrow down your list of suspects, I assume.”
His eyes were dark slits. “Is there something you’re not telling me, Aife?”
“Nothing that comes to mind.” Aife smirked. “Why? Is there something else you want to know?”
“Where were you last night?” His words came hesitantly, as if he was afraid of the answer.
Aife sighed through her nose. “Really? You’re going to go there?
“I don’t even know why you bother searching for that rapist’s killer,” she continued, running her fingers over the bookshelf beside her. “If you ask me, whoever attacked him was doing the citizens of Velaris a favor.”
Scowling, Azriel said, “As the High Lord’s spymaster, it is my duty to protect all inhabitants of the Night Court from danger, no matter who they are or what they’ve done.”
“Then where were you when I was locked up?” Aife snarled softly. “When I was hit and bruised and scarred? Where were you, Az?”
She immediately regretted the words as Azriel took a step back, mouth closing silently. She’d already forgiven him, exiled the grudge before it affected her. Why was she bringing it up?
The intensity in the Illyrian’s eyes guttered. “I cannot go back and undo what I’ve done-or rather, what I didn’t do. But you should know that whatever happened to you is no excuse for committing violent acts against our people.”
Aife held his gaze, jaw tight. “If you’re accusing me of something, just say it,” she said and straightened to her full height. “Otherwise it’s a waste of my time.”
“Where were you last night?” Az repeated.
“Where I needed to be.” Wings spread, she stalked towards the exit.
A whoosh, and Azriel materialized in front of her. “That is not an answer,” he said sharply.
Suppressing a growl, Aife retorted, “It’s all you’re going to get from me,” and stepped around him, heading for the hallway.
“If you’re hiding something from my family, and I mean anything, I will find you.”
At his comment, she spun around with flared wings. “I hope that isn’t a threat,” she said.
“Of course not. Just a warning,” Az answered carefully.
Aife scoffed, then glanced to his hands. The deformed skin stared back, and memories of the shadowsinger spilling into her mind.
“Do your friends know what else your brothers did to you?” she asked. “Because I find it hard to believe you’ve told them of your addiction-especially if you’ve acquired such a position as Velaris’ spymaster.”
His body went rigid, but Aife wasn’t watching anymore. Her attention had been snagged by the broad-shouldered male standing in the doorway.
Cassian gaze darted from Azriel to Aife, to their sharp expressions, and his usual grin faltered. “Is something wrong?” he asked.
Before Azriel could speak, Aife said, “Just a simple misunderstanding, love. And it’s been cleared up, right Az?”
The shadowsinger’s wings twitched, but he plastered on a small smile. “Yes, of course,” he said.
Is it really not a big deal?
Aife turned to her mate and winked. Truly.
“Well, I’ll see you two at dinner,” she said, walking backward towards the open windows. “I’m going downtown to explore.”
Cassian’s brown eyes locked with hers. Stay safe.
“Thanks for speaking with me, Az. Glad we came to an agreement,” she added with a sly smirk.
Before the shadowsinger could respond, Aife flapped away.
The flame danced in the lantern, its warm glow illuminating the grooves in the wooden desk.
Aife rubbed at her eyes, blinking at the parchment as if it could change what she saw. She had lied when she’d told the Illyrians she would see them at dinner; she’d been in Velaris’ extensive library for over half the day, now, studying everything she could on bargains, searching for a way to protect Feyre’s child.
Nothing she’d read had offered an obvious solution. One said to seek out a Suriel, but Aife knew her own race. They would offer nothing more than a Seer, and Elain had already given her take on the situation.
“Ducklings,” Aife muttered. She pulled a pad of paper from the stack beside her and snatched up a pen. Biting her lip, she wrote down the prophecy and read and reread it.
One must drown for the other to swim, lest both are dragged to a watery grave
Their mother will mourn, but she will survive
But one must die
One must die for the other to live
It could be referring to twins, but Rhysand, with his immense power, would sense if his mate carried two children. It could be the child of another, but the vision mentioned one mother, not two. Meaning…
Did the prophecy foreshadow a second child? Did it mean that, if Feyre’s first child was not taken by Keir, her second child would die?
But ducklings didn’t have to mean children. Maybe it had nothing to do with Feyre’s pregnancy. But what other pair of siblings existed in the Inner Court?
Groaning, Aife propped her chin on her hand and blew a piece of hair away from her face. This was getting tiring, and she wanted to eat something. Still, she wouldn’t leave until she had something substantial to present to Rhysand and Feyre.
Footsteps echoed in the shelves behind her, and Aife looked up at Cassian. His face was even more handsome in firelight, his eyes bright and jaw sharp. He smiled down at her, dimples showing in the sides of his mouth.
“What are you doing here, angel?” he asked, leaning down to crouch beside her chair. “It’s almost midnight.”
Aife nodded. “I know. I just have some research Rhysand wanted me to do.”
Her mate peered at the parchments. “‘The Art of Curse Breaking’?” he read, brows raised.
Shrugging, Aife said, “Strange, I know. The title is misleading; there’s nothing in here remotely related to breaking a strong curse, only harmless little charms.”
Cassian let his head fall on her lap, and Aife instinctively reached to untie his dark hair. Smiling softly, Aife asked, “Long day?”
He pressed a kiss to her thigh and muttered affirmation. “One of the camp lords is fighting back against the treaty.”
Aife scoffed. “Of course. Which one?”
Her hands stilled in his hair, and her gasp was involuntary. Cassian seemed to feel her surprise and gently placed a hand on her waist. “It’s not a big deal,” he said, lifting his head off her leg. “I’ll just go back and give him a piece of my mind.”
Aife stood, her mate standing with her. “I’m coming with you,” she said.
As she began to clear her workspace of paper and books, Cassian rushed, “Hold on, love.” She faced him, and he swallowed before continuing. “I want you to stay in Velaris.”
Confusion flitted over her features. “What? Why?”
Cassian met her eyes, and Aife saw how vulnerable he was making himself. “I’d just be more comfortable if you were here, safe with everyone else. You’ve already been dragged into this mess when Rhenon claimed you were his mate. I don’t want to put you in more danger.”
Aife rolled her eyes, making her way out of the library. “Cas, I’m always going to be in danger. No matter where I am.”
Her mate held the door open, and Aife shivered as the cold air blasted into her face. They were standing on the cobblestone street, now. It’s usual visitors were gone, probably huddled away in their warm homes. Cassian was the only other Fae around.
Cassian’s breath came in foggy clouds. “I know that I can’t protect you from everything, I understand that, but I need you to stay here,” he explained.
Aife let her wings snap out, not bothering to hide her glare. “Why are you keeping me from this? I can handle Rhenon, as I have before.”
“Angel, you barely escaped the first time.” Cassian’s words came desperately, now, hazel eyes darkening. “I’m not letting him take you away from me again.”
Aife growled, “He’s not going to take me, I’m a fighter. I’ve faced these lords before, I’ve bested Tellis at flying, I’ve beaten you in sparring - what more do you need to convince you of my capabilities?”
“I’m well aware of what you can do, but I’m not going to let you go?”
“Let me go?” Aife snorted, a wry smile cracking her lips. “You’re not letting me do anything. I’m going.”
Cassian’s wings spread behind his back. “No, you’re not,” he said lowly.
“Yes, I am,” Aife snarled back.
“You’re being ridiculous,” Cassian spat. “You’re supposed to trust me, Aife, you’re supposed to support my decisions-”
“And I do.” Aife huffed, fists balling at her sides. “But you ask too much of me. Holding me back from a fight? Why? You didn’t bother to in those first few months, so why do you care now?”
Cassian went silent, but his eyes were still alive with fury, with challenge. “Stay here,” he said through gritted teeth.
Aife dragged a hand through her hair, studying his memories. “Why?”
When Cassian didn’t respond, Aife let her shoulders drop. “Why are you doing this to me, Cas?” she asked finally, voice softening. “Why don’t you want me to be with you?”
“I want you with me,” Cassian murmured, gaze fixed on the street beneath his feet. “Just not in the Steppes - not with Rhenon.”
“But why?” Aife’s panic grew with every question, her mind racing. “What makes this situation any different than before? Why are you pushing me away? Why won’t you just let me go- ”
“Because I’m scared, alright?” Cassian blurted, his eyes snapping to hers. Aife was shocked by the pure terror alight in his face. “Because I’m afraid of what might happen to you if you go back to his camp. I’m afraid that everything we’ve been through, everything we’ve experienced together, will be wiped away.”
Aife’s mouth went dry, and she realized why he had refused to let her go. He was going back to that camp, the camp where she had been imprisoned.
“You made me promise to never bring you back,” Cassian said and took a step closer to her. “I intend to keep my word.”
Wordlessly, Aife reached for his calloused hand, holding it in her own like a comforting talisman. “Why didn’t… why didn’t you just say that earlier?”
Cassian let out a shuttering breath. “I don’t… I don’t know. I’m sorry.”
“I’ll stay,” Aife said. “But - and this is important - I need you to tell me everything that happens, as it happens. I don’t want to be pushed away.”
Cassian nodded. “Understood.”
“Thank you.” She leaned onto her tiptoes and pecked his lips.
When she pulled away, Cassian pouted, “Is that all I get today?”
Letting out a soft laugh, Aife said, “Your mouth is far away. If you want to kiss me, you’re going to have to stoop to my level and-”
That’s as far as she got before Cassian covered her mouth with his, his low laugh reverberating through his chest. Aife pressed herself closer to him and smiled into the kiss, her wings settling against her back.
She was glad the streets were deserted.
When Aife woke up, Cassian was gone.
Feyre, Nesta, and Elain were in the living room when she emerged, lounging around the couches with books in their laps.
“You slept late,” Nesta commented, eyes not leaving the page.
With a sigh, Aife plopped onto the couch across from her. “Yes, well, Cassian and I had some late night errands to run last night.”
She pretended not to notice the tension that took hold of Nesta’s shoulders. Of course she knew the female was jealous - who wouldn’t be? Aife couldn’t believe it herself, sometimes: that Cassian was her mate, that he was hers to love.
An unexplainable rage directed at Nesta began to build in her chest, but Aife pushed it down. It was an aftereffect of the mating bond, she’d learned. No matter what little interest another Fae had in her mate, she would have to hold back snarls.
Overprotective Illyrian, Cassian purred through the bond. Aife covered her smile with her hand.
I didn’t get to see you before you left. Why didn’t you kiss me goodbye?
A hum skittered through the bond. You needed the rest.
Feyre stood from her seat with a groan, a hand resting over her stomach. She’d recently started showing, and the discomfort had only grown. Rhysand had been reluctant to leave for the Steppes with Cassian, but Feyre had insisted.
Aife had to give the female credit. She couldn’t imagine being in the final stages of pregnancy with her mate miles away.
“Would you like some lunch?” the High Lady asked kindly.
Smiling, Aife looked to Elain. “Did you prepare it?”
“I did,” Elain said.
“Then yes, I would enjoy that.” Elain giggled softly as Aife let Feyre lead her into the kitchen.
Hunger gnawed at the lining of her stomach, and Aife snatched a piece of fruit from the bowl on the counter. “Where’s Mor?”
“She and Amren are shopping for Cassian’s birthday,” Feyre explained, lowering a plate from a cabinet. “He said he wanted a party, so that’s what we’re giving him.”
Aife laughed. “Sounds like him.”
With long, slender hands, Feyre procured a knife and began to slice into a thick loaf of bread. “Would you like some?” she said, lifting a bit to her mouth.
In answer, Aife lifted her apple. “Thank you for the offer, but I’m okay. Not very hungry this morning.”
It was so strange, being able to get food whenever she felt like it. She’d been forcing herself to slow down after she’d spent one week ridding the pantry of its contents. It had left her with a bloated stomach, one that Cassian had rushed to assure her wasn’t noticeable. Nonetheless, she’d abandoned her cropped shirts for a week or so after.
“How does it feel?” At Aife’s questioning look, Feyre added, “Being mated.”
The Illyrian shrugged. “Strange. It’s amazing, don’t get me wrong, but also strange. I’m not used to this… docileness. How gentle you all are with one another.”
Feyre snorted and slathered a generous helping of jam onto her bread. “I wouldn’t say we’re gentle-”
“You love each other. That’s enough.” Aife reached over the table for the bread, tearing off a sizeable chunk and lifting it to her mouth.
She didn’t miss Feyre’s fingers, nervously drumming against the wood. “Have you found anything tangible?” she asked finally. “About my… my baby?”
The mouthful of bread seemed to grow in Aife’s throat, and she had to force herself to swallow. Hesitantly, she opened her mouth to answer, but Nesta strode in, interrupting the expectant atmosphere.
“Aife, you have a visitor,” she said sharply.
Aife put down the remains of her bread, frowning a bit. “Who?”
“A male. Illryian.”
“Tellis,” Aife muttered, and turned to Feyre. “I’m sorry, I need to check in with my friend. I’ll tell you everything you want to know when I get back.”
Feyre just nodded, blue-gray eyes glimmering with a sort of desperation. “Thank you.”
Murmuring a response, Aife moved towards the doorway to find it blocked by Nesta. The female looked down her nose at the Illyrian, and Aife sensed the envy in her eyes. It had come between whatever friendship they’d created, like a dagger between two ribs.
“Move,” Aife said simply.
Her gaze focused on the opposite wall, Nesta sniffed and slid to the side. Aife threw Elain a wave as she left for the drawing room, where Tellis was sure to be.
She wondered what he could want with her, what he needed to tell her. Do you know why Tellis is here? Her mate was sure to have an answer.
Tellis is standing beside me. Cassian’s words were tinged with confusion, maybe even fear. What are you talking about?
That was when Aife scented him. The tang of blood and sweat made her hands tremble, her breath coming shorter. He was here.
But how? What had she done to lead him to her whereabouts?
On the other side of the engraved oak door… That’s where he was. She could go back upstairs, tell Feyre that her guest was unwelcome.
No. That was the act of a coward. It would be as good as holding a sign that read “I am deathly afraid of you”. So she drew her shoulders back, flared her wings wide, and turned the handle.
He turned at her entrance, and Aife almost let her mask of distaste slip. It took every scrap of her self-control to keep her legs from shaking.
“Hello, sister,” Serta purred.
Aife glared at him. “Why are you here?”
He took a step closer, and Aife growled. They looked so alike: the same coffee skin, same slight nose and big eyes. But her brother’s eyes seemed to have grown darker over the past few months, and there were new wrinkles furrowing his brow.
Chuckling, Serta raised an eyebrow. “Can’t I come visit my sister in her new home? Especially since she was so rudely taken from me.”
“I left on my own,” Aife said.
The male scoffed. “Please. The General’s scent is all over you. Even after five months, you’re still as naive as ever.” When she tilted her head slightly, he continued. “You really think he loves you? He’s a century old warrior, bred for nothing but killing. A female barely more than a youngling will never satisfy his needs.”
Aife dug her nails into her palms to keep from strangling her brother. He’d insulted not only her, but Cassian. That was not okay.
“I found my place in the world,” she hissed. “I suggest you leave and do the same.”
Something flashed in Serta’s eyes, and Aife saw the memories that had not been there before. “Keir,” she breathed, struggling to keep her shock under control. “You and father… you’re working with Keir?”
Serta’s pretentious smirk almost made her snap. “He is more powerful than you know, sister. His cunning knows no bounds, and his trickery will be the downfall of the Night Court.”
“Why are you here?” Aife said through gritted teeth. Her hands no longer shook with fear but rage, horrible, vicious rage. “Feyre is close to delivery, Keir must know that. So why has he sent you now?”
She could find it herself, she supposed, but sifting through her brother’s memories would take too much focus than she could spare. As much as she hated to admit it, Serta’s presence fazed her more than she hoped.
Serta steepled his fingers, moving closer to Aife with the haughtiness of a lion cornering its prey. “Do you know why Father locked you up?” he said.
“No.” The answer came immediately, though Aife considered the question. Of course she knew why; her mother had bedded a Suriel. She was a bastard, a disgrace to her family.
“It is not because you’re a half breed,” Serta said. “Though you are an abomination. And it’s not because you’re female.”
He stroked her jaw with a single finger, and Aife was too stunned to move. “It’s because you know too much, and you learn too much. You have the ability to take in all the knowledge in Prythian. That makes you powerful. Too powerful.”
Aife snapped back to herself and smacked his hand away, a snarl rising to her throat. “Why are you telling me this?” she spat. “I can leave, now, and grow to become what you say I will - too powerful. And when I do, I will come for you, and I will make you suffer- ”
“You won’t.” Serta’s knowing smile made her ruthless disposition falter, just a bit. “Because I’ve come to renegotiate the terms of Feyre’s bargain.”
That wasn’t what she’d expected him to say. “Then why aren’t you talking to Feyre?”
Serta laughed, the sound full of threat rather than joy. “A life for a life,” he said. “I told Keir of your gift, and he is fascinated by your powers. So much so that he wants you to serve him and the Court of Nightmares.”
Aife stilled as he raised his hand, an aura of green spilling from his palm. “I’ve been sent to take one Fae to Keir, and one Fae only.” The greenish light illuminated the lines of cheekbones, sharpening the cruel excitement in his smile. “Who will it be sister?” he hissed.
“You - or the High Lady’s unborn child?”
Cassian glanced to Azriel for confirmation. The shadowsinger nodded, and together, the Illyrian’s burst through the door.
The dust cleared, and the room was empty.
Cursing, Cassian sheathed his sword. “Where is that piece of sh-”
“Rhenon is probably fleeing with the rest of the camp,” Azriel cut in. He strode across the room to the small kitchen, inspecting the dirty dishes in the sink. “They left in a hurry.”
Rhysand winnowed between them. “Find anything?” At their somber expressions, the High Lord muttered, “Guess not.”
“They’re gone. All of them.” Cassian stalked outside, kicking away the splintered remains of the door. “A whole camp disappears, and no one seems to know where they went.”
He squinted through the sun, surveying the snowy landscape. The center of the town was set a few kilometers east, down the hill. Rhenon’s house had been the last one to check, and they’d still found no one.
Rhysand came to his side, blue-black hair ruffling in the wind. “I don’t understand it. Where do hundreds of Illyrians go - and how do they get away unnoticed?”
Cassian sighed and rolled out his shoulders. It’d been a long flight from Tellis and Revena’s camp to Rhenon’s - he’d forgotten how brutal the wind currents could be this time of the year. He still enjoyed it, as he always enjoyed flying, but the journey had felt incomplete without Aife at his side.
“Perhaps they’ve gone to another court,” Azriel murmured. “I hear the Autumn Court is hosting immigrants… perhaps Lucien gave them the information.”
“For Cauldron’s sake,” Cassian groaned, brushing a stray piece of hair from his forehead. “Stop blaming everything on the poor male. If your hairdresser cut your hair wrong, you’d say he paid her to do it.”
“He probably would,” Azriel grumbled, but said nothing else.
Cassian examined the camp one last time. There was only the faint sound of birds singing in the trees, no evidence of life to be found. Maybe they should go back to Tellis and check to see if he knew anything.
He opened his mouth to suggest the idea, but Aife’s words rang through his head, as clear and heartfelt as if she was standing next to him.
I love you. More than anything. And I’m sorry.
Something clouded the mating bond, like a fog rolling over to smother a light. He desperately reached through that mist to hold on to that thread tying him to Aife, to keep her tethered to his soul.
He was aware of Rhysand and Azriel’s arms under his shoulders, supporting him even as his legs gave out. They shouted at him, asking if he was okay, but Cassian could spare no effort in answering them.
The bond was being pried from his fingers, slipping slowly away. He poured everything he had, pulling on his Siphons to grip that string and yank on it with all his might.
Then, suddenly, as if nothing had happened, the bond snapped back into place. Cassian sucked in a breath, his eyes flying open as he reeled backward. He swatted away his brothers’ hands as he stumbled to regain his balance, clinging to that bond. Aife? Aife, angel, answer me. Please.
For the first time since he’d met her, Aife didn’t respond.
And then Rhysand was gripping his shoulder, and a void consumed them both. The blackness faded and revealed the living room of the House of the Wind.
The three Archeron sisters stared at the Illyrians, but Cassian could care less. “Where is my mate?” he demanded, almost growling the words.
Feyre made a whimpering sound, and it was then that Cassian saw the tears shining over her cheeks. “Look,” she whispered, and lifted her shirt slightly to bare her swollen stomach.
Cassian didn’t understand what message she was trying to convey, but the sight seemed to have a great affect on Rhysand.
His eyes went wide. “How… what happened?” he breathed, looking from Feyre to her belly as if something would change.
Irritated by the pointless discussion, Cassian whirled on Nesta. “Where’s Aife?” he snapped.
Nesta’s air of elegance didn’t falter. “A visitor came for her, and she went downstairs to greet them.”
With a grunt of thanks, Cassian sped toward the stairwell, practically flying down the stairs and bounding toward the drawing room.
“Aife!” he yelled, gripping the doorframe as he spun into the room. Nothing and no one.
He made to move to the next room when the flutter of a piece of paper caught his eye. It sat on the desk, held down by a pen.
Wings folding against his back, Cassian glanced at the paper and found that it was a note - addressed to him. In Aife’s handwriting.
As your mate, it is my duty to serve and protect the throne. So when a threat arose to put that throne in danger, I had to act.
I wish I could have stayed with you.
I love you.
Something hot crawled beneath his skin, something that seemed to burn through his veins. A familiar prickling grew at the back of his eyes, but Cassian just stuffed the note in his pocket and made his way back upstairs.
Mor and Amren were there now, shopping bags clutched in their hands. “What do you mean you made a bargain?” Mor was saying, her eyes narrowed.
“I couldn’t… I couldn’t bear a child, and a witch-”
“You listened to a witch?” Amren snarled incredulously.
At that, Rhysand bared his teeth at her. “Don’t speak to my mate like that,” he hissed.
The entire room turned to Cassian, eyes turning from angry to relieved. “Did you find her?” Nesta asked.
Slowly, Cassian shook her head. “She’s gone,” he managed roughly. “But she left a note. Said something about a threat to the throne.”
Rhysand took a careful step toward Cassian as one might tip-toe around a sleeping child. “Did she say anything else? Anything about a bargain?”
At that, Cassian jerked his head up, lips curled in a snarl. “Is that really important?” His breath came shallowly, his words taking more effort than before. “My mate is gone - our bond nearly broke. Something happened to her, and it has something to do with whatever you two are hiding.”
Feyre had gone still, and the room seemed to fall into silence.
But Elain still sat on the couch, hugging her knees to her chest. When she spoke the words were haunted, hollow. “Two ducklings, two ducklings. One must die for the other to live. One must die.”
She met Cassian’s eyes, and Cassian thought it was the most horrible look he’d ever received. His breath caught in his chest, painful, empty dread sinking into his bones. Aife, his mate, his beautiful, gentle mate…
“One must die.”
The skin on Aife’s lower stomach still burned, the aftereffects of the tattoo.
The dragon that had once held Feyre’s bargain had been branded over her womb, transferring the payment to her own accounts. What exactly she would have to give, Aife didn’t know.
But she was willing to bet that it wouldn’t be painless.
Serta’s fingers dug into her forearm as he dragged her through the dark chambers of the Hewn City, grumbling greetings to the guards stationed at every corner. When they saw Aife, their eyes snapped down. Aife fought her smirk. It seemed she was more popular than she’d known.
No chains were wrapped around her wrists, and there were no swords held to her throat. She knew she could easily overtake her brother, what with the mastery of fighting she’d absorbed in her time at the House of the Wind. That tattoo, though, was the thing that held her back.
As soon as Serta had let that tattoo absorb into her skin, a sort of rope had been attached to her soul. On the other end lay the will of Keir. And, right now, it was tugging her deeper into the belly of the Hewn City.
Aife clenched her jaw as they neared the heart of the mountain, getting closer to Keir’s metallic scent.
“Keep quiet,” Serta muttered in her ear. “Speak only when spoken to, and do whatever he instructs you.”
“And if I don’t?” Aife challenged.
The cold, unhidden warning in Serta’s eyes made her shut her mouth.
As two guards, dressed in identical black armor, pushed the double doors open, a low, knowing laugh rumbled through the palace.
“Serta!” Keir greeted, straightening on his throne. The room was bare, void of the usual citizens bustling around the king and the members of his court. Grinning, Keir beckoned for Serta. “Come, let me meet your lovely sister.”
There was no reluctance as the Illyrian dragged Aife over the stone floor, thrusting her in an unceremonial heap before the throne.
Aife scrambled to catch her balance, wings flared wide. She swallowed at the way Keir looked at her, at the way his eyes traced the outline of her body, the muscle and curves she’d gained in her time with Cassian.
She bared her fangs at the king. “I assume I’m worth more than eye candy to you.”
Keir laughed at the futility behind her words. “Oh, sweetheart. You are mine to use, and mine to look at.”
Aife’s gaze dropped as she considered his words. When she’d accepted the terms of the deal, Serta had mentioned how she would be under Keir’s control. But that didn’t stop the fear that grew like vines wrapping around her chest, restricting her breathing.
“I have to tell you how moved I was by your compassion,” the king drawled, slumping a bit in his seat. “Not many would give their life for a babe they have yet to meet.”
“Not many would be so cowardly as to use backhanded methods to abduct such a babe,” Aife spat back.
Keir’s gaze moved to Serta, an eyebrow raised. In answer, the Illyrian grabbed her hand and quickly jerked it to the side.
Aife screamed as the bone snapped, agony flaring through her wrist. Keir only smiled and steepled his fingers.
Suddenly, a voice roared to life in her mind. Aife?
Cassian. He must have sensed her pain and used it as a bridge, a way to contact her again. He had found her.
Where are you?
The desperation in his voice was enough to make her bite back sobs, and she cradled her arm to her stomach, careful not to touch her cracked wrist.
For a moment, she considered answering him, considered telling him all that had happened. But then she glanced around the room, at the strange carvings on the walls, and thought better of it.
She’d read about those wards in the library and seen them in Keir’s mind. They were designed to sense and stop any message, mating bond or otherwise, from being sent out, as well as preventing Fae from winnowing in or out of the throne room.
Where are you?
Aife wanted to punch something until her knuckles bled, wanted to scream until her throat was hoarse. Cassian was looking for her, he was trying to talk to her, but she couldn’t answer. Couldn’t do anything but listen to his cries, listening to the way he pleaded for her to respond.
Angel, angel, please. Where will I find you?
Unaware of the conversation in Aife’s mind, Keir shook his head, dark eyes fixated on her. “My, my, you are strong.” It took her a moment to realize he was referring to how muted her pained whimpers were. “Stronger than I might have guessed.”
Aife said nothing, though her mind raced with possibilities. She searched his mind for intentions, looking for what he planned to do with her.
Aife, Aife, Aife, answer me.
“I will do whatever you ask of me, but on one condition,” Aife said.
Keir’s wide smile sent shivers down her bones. “If you believe you have a choice in the matter, you’re sorely mistaken,” he said. “That tattoo on your stomach makes you mine. I can snap my fingers, and you will do whatever I wish.”
He raised his hand, and to Aife’s horror, her body went limp. She hit the ground, hard, and her broken arm shrieked in protest. When she went to shout, though, she found her vocal chords dry, her mouth shut.
“You see?” Aife was keenly aware of Keir’s footsteps as he prowled closer to her, saw his sneering face as he peered down.
“You’re mine,” he hissed, running a finger from the hollow of her throat, along her sternum, down the jagged scar over her navel. “And you will do what I command. Is that understood?”
Aife’s head nodded, though she felt nothing. Her body was no longer hers.
Keir heaved a relieved sigh and brushed his hands together. “Good, then. Glad that’s settled.”
Serta hauled her roughly to her feet, ignoring her wince as he jerked too hard on her injury.
Come back home. Come back to me.
Aife couldn’t focus on Cassian’s words as she regained control over her body, flexing her fingers to assure herself that she was in power.
“Your brother will take you to your chambers,” Keir said as he lowered into his throne. “You’ll be partnered with three other… curiosities.”
Aife frowned. Not a cell?
“I have only one instruction for you,” Keir continued. “Learn from your roommates. Take in everything-I mean everything. And then come back with your newfound knowledge.”
I love you. I love you, Aife. Do you hear me?
Cassian was crying, now-she could sense it. His tears stained her thoughts, sinking deep into her consciousness. His sorrow almost made her mask of calm slip, almost caused her to fall into that despair that tugged at her mind.
It was then that Aife understood what she had to do if she ever wanted to get out of this mess. If she ever wanted to get back to her mate.
So she smiled sweetly at Keir, letting the unease drop from her features. “Of course, my king.”
His answering smirk was like the first beat of a war drum.
Let the games begin.
Cassian didn’t know what to do.
His mate had been taken from him only hours ago, and he was already losing his mind.
After Feyre and Rhysand had told him of the bargain, of the child that would be stolen away to the Hewn City, Cassian had left the House of the Wind. He couldn’t stay with those people, the liars he had once considered friends. Aife was gone because of them and their foolishness.
How could Rhysand, his brother, his comrade, fail to tell him of Feyre’s child? Of the witch that had approached her, of the horrific fate the heir of the Night Court once possessed.
Before Aife took its punishment. Before Aife let herself be stolen away for the good of the Night Court.
Mother, he loved her.
It only made the guilt gnawing at his bones sharper. Cassian should have listened to her when she’d begged to go with him to Rhenon’s camp, to Crow’s Haven. He shouldn’t have left her behind.
If he hadn’t, she would still be safe. He was supposed to carry out his mission, to find the Illyrian’s of Crow’s Haven, and return to Aife. He would wrap his arms around her and squeeze her until she shrieked. Then he would run his fingers through her hair, breathing in her ashy scent…
But none of that would happen, now. Because Keir had beat him to it.
He landed in the war camp with a tight mouth, set in a scowl. The activity in the square, the merchants, the buyers, seemed to pause for a moment to glance at his arrival, then resume.
Cassian heard her voice before he saw her. “Honey, blue is definitely your color. I mean, just look at that beautiful hair!”
Revena tugged at the female’s dark locks for emphasis, and the customer blushed. “I don’t know,” she murmured, eyes running over the cobalt dress Revena held over the table. “I’ll have to speak to my mate.”
“I’ll have it waiting for you when you return,” Revena chirped as the female left. When she noticed Cassian, standing awkwardly at the side of the table, her smile grew wider, if that was even possible. “Hello, General! Is Aife with you?” she added, her gaze darting around the throngs of Illyrians.
Cassian’s Siphons flared with light at her name, at the frustration it stirred. “No,” he said shortly. “Where’s your mate?”
At that, Revena went ramrod-straight. “Did…did he tell you?”
“I can scent it.” He turned to see a fuming, silver-haired male stalking in their direction. “I now I can see it.”
Revena ran around the table to stop Tellis’ advances on Cassian, her nimble fingers pushing his chest back. “Calm down,” she snapped, not unkindly. “He’s our friend.”
Something flickered in Tellis’ eyes, that predator rage guttering. “Right. Right,” he repeated, giving Cassian an apologetic nod. He reached for Revena’s hand and planted a sweet kiss on the back of it. “I’m sorry.”
It became hard for Cassian to form words, and he looked quickly away. How many times had he looked at Aife like that? How many times had he kissed her hands, apologized to her, made her feel safe?
Not enough, he realized. They’d had five months together-five rutting months. He didn’t regret waiting for her, letting her heal before finally accepting the mating bond. But now, that opportunity was gone. She was gone.
And Cassian was terrified.
“Aife was taken by Keir,” he blurted out. His friends’ faces went slack. “He made some sort of bargain with her, and she went with him.”
“What?” Revena managed, eyes wide. “That doesn’t sound like Aife.”
Tellis was watching Cassian warily. “If this is a joke-”
“Do I look like I’m joking?” Cassian snarled, wings flaring. At the surprised yelp of the passers-by, he folded them and muttered a half-hearted apology.
He took a deep, shuddering breath. “Aife-my mate -is gone. And I need your help to get her back.”
Eyes gleaming, Revena took a step forward. “What can we do?”
“Find out what happened at Crow’s Haven,” he said. “Find out where Rhenon took those Illyrians.”
Tellis nodded, but Cassian didn’t notice the anger flashing over his features at the proximity between Revena and Cassian. The General took a step back, and when Revena gave him a questioning look, he jerked his chin toward Tellis.
“I’m happy for you two,” he lied. He plastered on a smile he convinced himself was genuine. “Aife would be, too,” he added softly.
“Thank you,” Though his words were kind, Tellis’ somber expression mirrored Cassian’s.
Revena flicked a strand of blonde hair over her shoulder. “We’ll pack tonight and leave in the morning.” She went to hug Cassian, then thought better of it. “Where are you going?”
“To the Spring Court.” A smile tugged at the corner of his mouth. “I need to speak to the High Lord.”
Letting out a dry chuckle, Revena said, “Tamlin? The Fae whose female you helped steal away?”
Cassian shrugged. “I assume he must have learned everything he could about bargain-breaking when Feyre had left Under the Mountain with Rhysand’s tattoo. Maybe he’ll have something to tell me.”
“And if he doesn’t?” Tellis asked, eyebrows raised.
A slow, self-assured smirk curved Cassian’s mouth. “I’ve been itching to pummel someone into the ground. If it can’t be Keir, maybe Tamlin will oblige me.”
And though he was sure he imagined it, a gentle hum of approval resounded in his mind.
Azriel paced up and down the roof of the House of the Wind, rubbing his chin.
Cassian had left hours ago-not even his shadows and all their mysteries had revealed his whereabouts. Rhysand and Feyre had retired to their river home, the latter on the brink of tears. Azriel didn’t blame her. Aife had only been with them a few months, but she’d already left an impression on each and every member of the Inner Circle.
“Did you know?” Mor asked. The shadowsinger turned to find her arms crossed, her red-painted lips downturned. “About the bargain?”
Azriel nodded. “I did.”
Amren’s answering snarl did nothing to soothe his conscience. “It seems we were the only ones kept in the dark,” she pointed out sharply. Her pale fingers ran over the blood rubies at her neck, gleaming in the moonlight.
I find it hard to believe you’ve told them of your addiction.
Aife’s words clawed at his mind, making his thoughts swim. She knew then… of the powder he kept beneath his floorboards. Of how he scoured the mortal lands for the plant, always under the ruse of gathering information.
His brothers had left him with more than scars.
When the pain became too much, when his cries could no longer be silenced, they would offer him a strange white powder. “Painkillers,” they said. “It makes everything go away.”
And Azriel, the naive youngling he had been, believed them.
It wasn’t long before he was hooked on the substance, before he couldn’t survive a day without it. After his shadows began to respond and his brothers recognized the power for what it was, they used it against him.
If he struck out at them, they would withhold the dose. But if he behaved, if he let them have their way, he received his reward. And the need, the pull towards the substance, had only grown.
For centuries, he’d buried his secret, taking extra care to cloak the scent of the powder and hide the little wooden box among his shadows. Rhysand hadn’t caught on - neither had Cassian or Mor. No one knew where he went after dinner, no one saw him inhale the substance and relieve the need burning through his veins.
But somehow, Aife had.
Not even High Fae should be allowed that ability, to know everything about a person in a single glance. No creature in existence could have the mental capacity to take in so many memories at once and sort through the pieces so quickly.
Cassian and Aife…. Azriel shuddered at the Cauldron’s choice in mates. It had been right to put the two Fae together, but the shadowsinger let himself imagine the prospect of the mates turning on the Inner Circle-turning on anyone, for that matter.
With his brother’s incredible strength and unnatural killing power alongside Aife’s limitless knowledge and cunning…
They could rip apart Prythian from the inside out, and no one would see it coming.
“We must retrieve her,” Amren demanded, that biting tone ever-present. “I’ve lost a member of my court to an enemy before-I don’t plan on doing it again.”
Azriel gave her a hard, thoughtful look. “What if…” He looked to Mor. “What if we don’t get her?”
Mor gaped, hurt flashing through her eyes. “You suggest we leave her there? With Keir, that… that monster?” When Az didn’t respond, she continued, “Don’t you know what he’s capable of? What he did to me?”
“Of course,” Az said tightly. “But I don’t think those are Keir’s intentions.”
Amren whirled on him, teeth snapping. “Then what exactly are his intentions, since you seem to know so much?”
Az ignored her snarl. “He doesn’t need her body, he needs her power. Her ability to take in information and use it to her advantage. You remember her sparring match with Cassian?”
Snorting, Amren said, “Who could forget? She drove him into the ground.”
“Exactly. No fighting background, no training. She knew what to do simply from studying his memories. Our memories,” he added.
“So? I’d call that resourcefulness,” said Mor with a raised brow.
Azriel fought his amusement. “I’d call it dangerous.”
Clicking her tongue, Mor swirled the wine around her glass. “Az, if the Inner Circle chose their members based on how dangerous they are, none of us would make the cut.”
“She threatened me.” At that, Mor shut her mouth, and Amren’s eyes turned to slits. “Said she’d reveal the contents of my mind if I investigated that debaser’s murder.”
“Cauldron,” Amren said under her breath. “She didn’t…”
“I looked into it. The torture techniques used against him were similar to those I use.”
Mor rolled her eyes. “Are you saying you murdered the male?”
Azriel folded his arms and said, “No, but she had my memories. She could have adopted the style and used it to-”
“That’s quite a stretch,” Amren cut in. “And even if she did do it, why should we be worried? Rhysand killed the former High Lord of Spring for justice. I find it acceptable for Aife to defend Nesta from such a disgusting, perverted pig.”
Azriel sighed. Maybe he shouldn’t have said anything at all. It was clear he wouldn’t sway these females. “I’m just uncomfortable with how little I know of her.”
“What information did she threaten to speak of?” Mor said after a moment.
Mor frowned. “Then it seems Aife isn’t the only one we know so little about.”
Amren agreed with a nod of her head, studying Azriel curiously. “Anything you want to tell us?” she asked.
Before Azriel could respond, Rhysand winnowed onto the scene. His hair, impeccably styled, was strange when paired to his rumpled pajama set.
“I need you all to-”
Mor cleared her throat. At Rhysand’s quizzical look, she glanced at his clothes. “Might want to make yourself presentable, cousin.”
In an instant, Rhysand was wearing his usual regal attire of a dark jacket, pants, and boots. “Happy?” he asked shortly.
“What’s the problem?” Azriel drew himself to his full height. It wasn’t normal for Rhysand to be so flustered, especially in the dead of night.
Rhysand’s lips were a tight line as he said, “I just received word. There’s been a breach at the Spring Court. The sentinels reported an Illyrian warrior flying over the boundary.”
“Cassian,” Mor groaned, rubbing her temples. She took a large gulp of wine, draining her glass.
Azriel shook his head, muttering, “That idiot.”
“What is he doing?” Amren’s steel gaze was fixed on her High Lord.
Rhysand gave a helpless shrug. “No clue. My best guess is that he’s looking for a punching bag.”
“Why would he do that?” Mor said.
After a beat of silence, Rhysand said, “To have your mate taken away from you… It messes with your head. Clouds your senses, makes you want to smother every ounce of happiness in the world.”
“Then why is he going to the Spring Court?” Amren asked dryly.
Azriel surprised himself when he said, “It’s his problem.”
His friends turned to him incredulously, but he didn’t falter. “Cassian was the one who left us. He can get himself out of whatever mess he causes.”
“I sure hope so,” Amren muttered, a hand on her chin. “Or we’re all in for it.”
Rhysand sighed, adjusting the cuffs of his sleeve. “This is only going to increase the tension between our court and Tamlin’s,” he mused, and Azriel heard the tinge of fatherly disappointment as he spoke of Cassian’s blunder.
Sucking in a breath, Mor studied the bottom of her wine glass as if she couldn’t believe it was empty. “What about Aife?” She glanced up to her cousin, the vehement anger in her eyes unhidden. “Have you come up with a way to bring her back?”
Azriel followed her gaze to find Rhysand picking a piece of lint off his shoulder. “I looked into the terms of the bargain,” he said slowly, carefully. “And it’s… complicated, to say the least. The witch seems to have disappeared from the face of the world, and Keir… he was thorough. Too thorough. There’s nothing I can do at the moment, not without more information.”
Mor’s face was twisted with rage as she spat, “You are the most powerful High Lord in Prythian’s history. Surely there is something you can do to break this deal, to fix this mistake that your mate made.” She jabbed a finger into his chest.
Though it pained him, Azriel was reminded of why he loved her.
“Aife is paying a horrible debt that was never hers to pay,” she snarled, cheeks reddening. “It’s only because of her sacrifice that you and Feyre can start a family-one that she’ll never be able to have. And you dare-you dare- to speak of Cassian as if he is the one in the wrong?”
A thick silence followed, one that Azriel chose not to break. He instead looked to the sky, to the pale moon half-hidden in the night.
He sent a prayer to the Mother, asking for Cassian’s safety.
Safety seemed such a futile thing to wish for. Azriel knew it never lasted.
Aife, locked away in the clutches of Keir, was proof.
Serta had been uncharacteristically quiet as they stalked through the Hewn City, and Aife had had enough.
“What is it?” she snapped, turning to face him.
Serta’s wings flared, and he pushed her forward with a grunt of disapproval. The people roaming the streets parted for him, and Aife couldn’t help but snarl. “You can read minds, so why should I have to tell you?” he said.
Rolling her eyes, Aife let him shove her along. “I’ve told you before: it’s not your mind, it’s your past I can see.”
Her brother said nothing, only tightened his grip on her arm. Aife kept her eyes ahead.
They were walking on what seemed to be a street, if such things could be built underground. Tall shops and apartment complexes bordered either side of her, made of the dark rock of the mountain itself.
She couldn’t help but gawk at the terrible beauty of it, the jagged edges and severe architecture. Velaris was full of colors and simplistic styles, but the Hewn City… The chapels had spires of obsidian, gargoyles of vicious-looking creatures with fangs the length of Aife’s fingers. The shops had engravings of dragons and monsters along the sides, and the apartments held a sort of eeriness that inexplicably drew Aife closer.
“Why did Rhenon bring the Illyrians here?” she asked, keeping her voice low as if the camp lord was lurking nearby. “Why did you all leave Crow’s Haven?”
“Haven’t you learned to shut your mouth?” Serta snarled. He moved faster, now, leading her down a dark alleyway.
Aife squinted through the gloom as Serta turned a doorknob in the wall that hadn’t been there a second before. “Come on,” he snorted. Aife followed him through the door.
Three Fae turned as she stepped into the room: one female and two males. Aife had stepped into a ballroom, it seemed. High ceilings covered with murals, gold edging along the pure white walls. It looked like a space for royalty, not “curiosities” as Keir had so kindly referred to them.
“New meat,” one of the Fae said. Her hair, black and long, was slick with grease, and her mouth curved into a wicked grin as she eyed Aife with a sort of hunger only satisfied by violence. Rylin, her name was. Her memories were by far the most interesting.
Aife crossed her arms, uncomfortable. She saw how the others murmured agreement to the female’s words, noticed how they flanked their leader. She’d be the one to watch out for, Aife decided. If she was to live out the rest of her life with these Fae, she would have to make herself likable.
So she glanced away from the bloody memories and up to her brother. “Thank you,” she smiled, taking his face in her hands.
Serta froze, and Aife took the opportunity to hiss, “I wish I could make this slower.”
With a jerk of her hands, she snapped his neck.
It was a clean break; Cassian’s memories had guided her, and they’d proven themselves to be useful. Aife was satisfied by the sight of her brother, the one who had abused her, tortured her, for so many years, fall, lifeless, to the ground. She smirked.
“Well, that was easy,” she mused, looking up to find the three Fae’s eyes pinned on her. Amusement flashed over their faces as they looked between Aife and her brother.
A male stepped forward, his canary yellow skin stretched in a smile. Aife found his name was Maxis. “Keir found you?” he asked.
“Of course Keir found her,” another, Jaimes, snapped, snow white eyes flashing. “Otherwise she wouldn’t be here.”
The talk silenced as the leader stepped forward, hair shining in the candlelight. She wasn’t grinning anymore. “And why did he bring you to us?”
Aife looked around the room once more, painting a mask of boredom. “I’m to become one of you. A ‘Demon’ as you call it, though that seems a bit of a stretch. What demon lets themselves be imprisoned?”
The group, she’d observed, was made up of Fae who had bargained away their freedom. But they weren’t just any Fae.
As far as Aife could tell, Keir had picked up the most bloodthirsty, ruthless criminals from the reaches of the Night Court. There were no Illyrians that Aife could see, but other races were there. She recognized two of them, a Lockart and a Baum. The leader, though… she was High Fae. Well, partly.
“We do whatever our king commands,” Rylin answered shortly. “No questions. And we expect you to do the same.”
Aife hummed to herself, keeping an air of aloofness. “You all probably feel pretty weird about this, yeah?” She chuckled, running her hands through her hair. “First new member in decades.”
Jaimes snorted, shaking his cobalt hair. “Don’t flatter yourself, sweetheart. You’re new. That means you have to get through initiation first.”
Aife only blinked. “I’ve already killed your guard. Easily,” she added, gesturing to the dead Illyrian at her feet. “Surely that is proof enough that I’m as much of a killer as everyone else in the room.”
Rylin nodded towards Aife, and Maxis approached. He reached for her, but Aife bared her fangs.
“Touch me and I will rip out your lungs,” she said, voice quiet. Too quiet.
Maxis’ self-assured posture wavered, and he looked to Rylin. Aife sneered at the authority the female held.
Rylin waved her hand, and Maxis hesitantly stepped back. “Fighting between members is strictly forbidden.”
“Do I look like I care?” Aife was fuming now, and her wings twitched behind her back. “I’m here to repay Keir for what he did for me-nothing more. So don’t come near me, and I’ll consider sparing your life. Understood?”
Rylin’s violet eyes flashed, and Aife saw the shadows forming at her fisted hands. “Speak to me like that again,” she spat, “and I will not hesitate to turn my blade on you.”
Without a word, Aife whipped Cassian’s knife from her belt. “Be careful, princess,” she purred. At Rylin’s blanched face, she laughed. “That’s right. I know who you are. I know what bargain you made, the heartbreak you caused.
“How does it feel, I wonder, knowing that your brother mourns your death in vain. You’ve been sitting under this mountain for centuries, serving as the king’s personal lapdog. Even when he was held hostage by Amarantha, you did nothing. The sad thing is, Rylin, you actually had a choice, but you put yourself before your family. So you’ll get no respect from me.”
Rylin went rigid, and Aife was wickedly pleased by the fear in her eyes.
Holding Rylin’s stare, she sheathed her knife. Aife looked to Maxis. “Show me a decent bed.”
When Maxis looked to Rylin for permission, Aife rolled her eyes. “Fine,” she snapped. “I’ll do it myself.”
She stalked past the three Fae, head held high. As she found a hallway and walked down it, opening random doors until she found a bedroom, her fingers went to the hilt of Cassian’s blade. As if she could sense his presence in the metal, as if she could turn to her mate for comfort, even if it was nothing but a fleeting thought. With a sigh, she let go.
Cassian would be shaken to the core, Aife knew, if he found out Rhysand’s little sister was alive and had been for centuries.
Thank you guys so much for your kudos and sweet comments! They absolutely make my day!!! <3<3<3
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When Cassian arrived, the Spring Court Manor was silent.
He stepped over the threshold, eyes roving the lack of decor in the entryway. There were no flowers, no paintings-nothing but bland furniture and bare walls. Even the usual scent of roses was nowhere to be found.
“Tamlin?” he called, avoiding a pile of shattered glass spread over the floor. The house was a torn-apart mess, the painted plaster full of fist-shaped holes and long slash marks. Feyre’s absence had done a number on Tamlin, it seemed.
A bored, almost depressed voice sounded from down the hall. “I am a High Lord, not a dog to be summoned.”
Muttering incredulous curses, Cassian rounded the corner and came to face the burly male stretched over a chaise.
His hair looked like it hadn’t been brushed in days, and his green silk shirt was littered with unpressed wrinkles. A glass of suspiciously brown liquid hung from his hand, and Tamlin swirled the drink once before raising an eyebrow at Cassian.
“What does Rhysand need now?” he groaned and let his head fall backward. Cassian recognized the drunken slur to his words, the way his body wilted over the chair.
He snarled and crossed his arms. “Do your subjects know how their king has degraded to a lazy drunk?”
Tamlin didn’t even bat an eye. “I’m sad,” he drawled. “Your friend took Feyre away. I don’t like him very much.”
“Trust me, he feels the same about you.”
With an unexpected roar, Tamlin leaped from the chaise and hurled his drink into the fireplace. The flames leaped, and it took them a moment to die back down.
Tamlin turned on Cassian with furious eyes. “Have you come to mock me, you unintelligent brute?”
Cassian gave him a hard look. Though Tamlin deserved this isolation, the Illyrian felt a twinge of sympathy for the male. “I’ve come to ask your help,” he said softly.
“Strange.” Tamlin tugged at the hem of his shirt as if noticing his disheveled state for the first time. “You never come to see me.”
Cassian shrugged and said, “You’ve never invited me. Do you need some help with…” he gestured to the sloppy arrangement of the room, “...anything?”
“Or everything,” Tamlin suggested. “Because my life isn’t very happy, is it?” The High Lord stumbled, then keeled over a vase sitting on a nearby table.
As he retched into the ceramic, Cassian pinched the bridge of his nose. What have I gotten myself into…
He found himself reaching for the mating bond, sending a gentle caress to Aife. She had yet to respond to him, but he’d filled her in on everything that was happening, no matter the insignificance. That was one of her last requests before she was taken, and he planned on fulfilling it.
Tamlin stood shakily and wiped his mouth on his sleeve. “Oh, you’re still here,” he grumbled. He cleared his throat and set his hands on his hips. “Well, what do you want?”
“I was wondering if you had any information on bargains. Specifically how to break them,” Cassian added.
The High Lord of Spring sneered at him. “Got yourself in a rut, Lesser?” Cassian hid a bristle at the affectionate nickname Tamlin used for both he and Azriel. “Finally find a mate only to have her snatched up by a bargain?” Tamlin barked a wry laugh. “That’s rich. At least now you know how it feels.”
It took every ounce of Cassian’s self-control not to pounce on the High Lord and his pretentious attitude. Rhysand would not be pleased.
“Feyre wasn’t your mate,” Cassian reminded. Tamlin flinched as if he’d been hit. “And I’d be careful how you speak of the High Lady.”
Tamlin snorted. “High Lady indeed,” he muttered.
Biting back a growl, Cassian let his wings flare wide. “So, what can you tell me?”
“We’ll have to go to the library, and that will involve spending more time with me,” Tamlin sang, an uncharacteristically manic smile on his lips.
Cassian watched as Tamlin stalked toward the liquor cabinet at the other side of the room. Tamlin poured himself a fresh glass of clear liquid that Cassian knew wasn’t water.
At his stare, Tamlin said, “Want one?”
“Just bring the whole bottle,” Cassian muttered, already dreading the coming hours.
Aife was awakened by a pulling sensation in her gut.
Groaning, she sat up on the bed she’d found and looked around the room. It was very simple and very white. Just a bed and a set of drawers. Aife went to open them and inspect the contents when the yanking became sharper, worse than her usual cramps.
“Mother,” she hissed, letting herself succumb to the knife in her stomach.
Blinded by pain, Aife couldn’t control herself, only watch helplessly as her body responded to orders that were not her own. She could barely keep her eyes open by the time she stumbled into the throne room.
The vice grip released her, and Aife sucked in a shaky breath. She ignored the sharp looks the other Demons gave her, already standing at attention in their brightly colored clothes.
Aife didn’t remember changing, but when she glanced down, she found she was wearing a hot pink dress with cuffs at the ends of the long, billowing sleeves and a plunging neckline that reached to her navel. Her thin skirts came to brush her ankles, and the sheer fabric showed every inch of her skin. Jaimes was eyeing her with a smirk, and it took all her self control not to shudder.
She schooled her features in a glare and turned to Keir, reminding herself to breathe evenly.
Keir sighed in satisfaction. “Ah, a new recruit. I do enjoy how oblivious they are, don’t you, Rylin?”
“Don’t know why we need her,” Rylin grunted, cutting her eyes at Aife.
The Illyrian crossed her arms and remained silent.
“You’ll see.” Keir straightened in his chair. “I need blood rubies. Loads of them.”
Aife rolled her eyes. Why did she need to be there? She knew everything Keir was about to tell them-how they were to sneak into the Summer Court as emissaries of the Day Court and take a fourth of Tarquin’s treasury of blood rubies. It would crack the alliance between the courts, leaving Helion to deal with the aftermath.
Though Aife hated to admit it, it was a terribly awful scheme.
As if seeing her boredom, Keir jerked his chin at Aife. “Approach the throne,” he demanded, his voice void of any sort of warmth.
Holding his gaze, Aife obliged him and let a smirk play over her lips. If she was going to be objected to his wishes, at least she could look somewhat amused.
“You’ll need a weapon,” he mused, stroking the patches of facial hair on his upper lip-Aife couldn’t bear to call it a mustache.
Aife laughed, the noise more like the edge of a knife than the tinkling of bells. “My wit will be sufficient, but thank you for the offer,” she said.
Something flashed in Keir’s dark eyes. “It wasn’t a question.”
He flicked his wrist, and a guard strode from the shadows, a broadsword in hand. Aife watched as he set it on the arm of Keir’s throne.
“This,” Keir ran a finger down the blade, etched with markings, “is Siafft.”
“Shapeshifter,” Aife translated, remembering the old languages Rhys studied in his youth.
The side of Keir’s mouth kicked up, and he held the sword out to her. “Tap the gem in the hilt three times.”
Warily, Aife took the sword in her hands, marveling at its beauty. A meter in length, at least, and gleaming as if bathed in starlight. She did as Keir asked and tapped the amber jewel once, twice, three times.
A flash of light blinded her, the weight in her hand lessened, and Aife blinked down at the golden diadem sitting in her palm, that amber stone embedded in its center.
“Put it on,” Keir urged. Before he could use that horrid tattoo and force her, Aife obeyed. As she glared at the king, Aife set the tiara on her head.
A queen, she told herself as she stalked away from the throne to rejoin the Demons, pink skirts swishing. A fighter, she reminded herself as Rylin laid a reluctant hand on her arm, prepared to winnow them out of the Hewn City.
My Demon came Keir’s unwelcome words as Aife was consumed by blackness.
The Summer Court was so much different than the Night.
While the Night Court had a soft sort of glow about it, the Summer seemed to blind its inhabitants with the sharpness of the sun. It glared off the marble buildings, shone over the ocean shimmering in the distance. The wicked shadows of Aife’s wings cast onto the cobblestone, so much stranger than the flowing robes of those walking around them.
They faced the palace, Keir’s Demons, watching the High Lord descend the pale steps to greet what he believed to be emissaries of the Day Court. “My friends,” he said, arms outstretched. “Welcome.”
By some unknown force, Aife knew to incline her head, to smile as brightly as one could without appearing insane. A glance to her companions revealed they had done the same.
“Greets, Lord Tarquin.” Aife stepped forward with the air of royalty, the diadem on her head reflecting onto the stone. “The Day Court thanks you for your gracious hospitality.”
Tarquin simply said, “Of course.” His skin was the same shade as her own-dark as the earth itself-and his hair had been fashioned around a crown of what appeared to be waves. It complimented him very well.
Aife shook out her sleeves and turned to Rylin with wide eyes. When Rylin said nothing, Aife shrugged as if to say I don’t know what I’m doing.
The princess rolled her eyes, but she composed herself quickly. “We were told we’d be given a tour of the grounds,” she said in a sweet voice that didn’t match her jagged memories.
The High Lord clasped his hands together. “Of course, of course,” he assured. Aife detected a bead of sweat forming at his temple. “Let me have my guards assist you.”
Jaimes stepped forward, his dark blue hair ruffling in the salty breeze. “My lord, we mean no imposition of your own. Would you be offended if we simply showed ourselves around?” At Tarquin’s concern, he chuckled to himself. “If you believe us to be criminals, you’re free to assign guards to accompany us. We mean you and your court no harm.”
Wrong Aife thought, wrong wrong wrong.
She tried to voice her warning or at least let her concern show on her face, but that grip on her soul had tightened. Everything about her felt tight, coiled, ready to burst. That window of things she had been granted access to-smiling, nodding, speaking as an emissary of Day-was so restricted, so narrowed.
And her mating bond… Cassian’s voice seemed farther away, now. Since she’d never fully accepted the bond, it wasn’t as strong as it could have been. Aife kicked herself for that now.
I’m in Summer she threw blindly down the bond, hoping her mate would somehow decipher her message through the distance. Keir didn’t know of her bond, so he’d never closed it off. Aife was determined to keep it hidden.
Tarquin was speaking to them, she realized. “And I hope the next time you visit, Lord Helion will oblige my invitations.”
Aife winked at him. “I’ll be sure to let him know,” she said in a silky voice that was not her own.
As she strode past the young lord, her sure pace not matching her jumbled emotions, another’s presence entered her mind.
It’s strange at first. Rylin’s tone was heavy, even inside the confines of Aife’s thoughts. She was daemati, of course; Aife expected nothing less from Rhysand’s sister. Keir can do whatever he wishes with you, and you’re powerless to stop it.
How have you survived for centuries in this prison? Aife asked as they entered the palace, jasmine curtains swishing in their wake.
Rylin’s voice went silent. Aife could only watch as they made their way to the palace gardens, passing the guards in their coppery uniforms.
To her horror, Aife giggled as she passed an especially tall one, a girlish squeal that was nothing but flirtatious. “I should visit more often,” she purred, tapping the guard’s metal breastplate.
The poor male, who Aife found was named Cirrus, seized up. “Is there something I can do for you, lady?” he asked.
A smirk played over Aife’s lips. “Maybe later, honey.” Casting the slightest glance behind her, she noticed the other Demons had disappeared. She was alone with a body that didn’t respond to her.
That body let the hand on his armor travel farther down. Aife’s stomach roiled, but she said, “The cove. Half an hour. Don’t keep me waiting.”
With a wink that sent the male’s cheeks aflame, she walked away, swaying her hips in such a way that she could scent his excitement. She was going to throw up.
Before she could, though, someone had grasped her wrist and tugged her around the corner. Aife might have yelped when the talon on her wing caught on the corner of the wall, but Keir’s control held her tongue.
“We found the treasury,” Rylin hissed in a hushed tone. “Keir has you keeping the guard company.”
If you let him touch me, I will never forgive you. She didn’t bother to hide her fear. With her daemati powers, Rylin could probably sense it anyway.
Though her features were calm, Aife saw the anger raging beneath Rylin’s eyes. I am as powerless as you. I can do nothing.
Aife was still smirking Keir’s wicked smirk when she screamed in her mind, banging on the barriers holding her back. Her blood roared in her ears as she strained to free herself from the bonds.
Why had she so quickly accepted Serta’s offer-why was she putting herself through this again? Maybe she wasn’t in a basement, but a new kind of chain had wrapped around her soul. That loss of control terrified her more than her brother ever had.
She reminded herself why she was doing this: for Cassian, for Feyre, for Rhysand-for the good of the Night Court.
But that selfish part of her wished she could take it all back.
Cassian, she called again, hoping her desperation was enough to alert him of her location. Get me out of this.
The bond was still silent, and Aife’s heart shrank.
Rylin gave her hand a gentle squeeze, though her face was hard. I know. I know was all she said before melting into the shadows.
Summoning every bit of energy she could, Aife forced her thoughts to calm as she left the shadowed alcove for the palace gardens. The shrubs were laden with flowers of all shades: roses, lilies, poppies. The thought of a certain male presenting her with flowers entered her consciousness.
Cassian had just landed on the roof after a long flight with his Illyrian brothers. Oblivious to the bulge under his jacket, Aife had thrown herself at her mate in a crushing embrace.
“I missed you,” she murmured into his neck, inhaling in his woody scent.
His stubble scratching her cheek, Cassian pressed a kiss to the spot beneath her ear. “I missed you too, angel.”
After a moment of tenderness, he set her down. Aife frowned at the loss of contact before noticing Cassian’s crestfallen expression. “What?” she asked.
With a sheepish smile, he withdrew a bouquet of crumpled flowers from inside his coat. They were black roses, she realized, only found in a grove deep within the mountains of the Steppes. A few broken petals fluttered to the ground.
Despite herself, Aife smiled. She took the bouquet from a flustered Cassian and held it to her chest. “I love them,” she said, running her palm over the soft petals.
Cassian scratched the back of his neck, still watching her. “Sorry they’re ruined-”
He was interrupted when Aife grabbed his shirt collar and pressed her mouth to his. Cassian melted against her, hands falling to her waist.
“Thank you,” she whispered, twisting a piece of his hair around her finger.
Cassian’s answering grin made butterflies appear in her stomach. “Anytime, angel.”
With skillful hands, he helped her cut the stems of the roses, retrieved a vase from the tallest cabinet and showed her how to properly water them. The black roses had sat on her desk for a full month before they finally wilted away.
There were no black roses in Tarquin’s gardens.
Rhysand woke up to his mate’s fingers digging into his shoulder, shaking him.
“What is it, darling?” he muttered, blinking the sleep from his eyes. They’d only settled down for a quick morning nap-how was the sky outside their window was already orange?
Feyre was already sitting up, a pile of pillows against her back. His mate’s blue eyes were wide, freckles creasing her brow. “It’s time,” she whispered, fear coating her words.
And then Rhysand scented it. The readiness in her body. He cast a worried glance to her swollen stomach. “Are… are you sure?” he asked.
Feyre nodded. “Call for Madja-” She groaned, hands pressing into her sides. “Please,” she whimpered.
Swallowing down his concern, Rhysand kissed her temple. He brushed her hair away from her face, locking his eyes with hers. “It’s going to be alright,” he murmured, sending comforting words and caresses through the bond.
His mate nodded, sucking in a steadying breath. Before he could winnow away, she reached for his hand and interlaced her fingers with his. She pulled him to her face and, when his lips met hers, said, “You’re going to be a great father, Rhys.”
“I know,” he lied. Winnowing away from his pained mate was one of the hardest things he’d ever had to do.
Feyre laid there a minute until Rhysand returned, the Healer at his side.
Madja rushed to Feyre, eyes narrowed in focus. “How long?”
“They started a few minutes ago,” Feyre managed before another wave of agony laced through her core.
She clamped her jaw shut, muffling the screams, but Rhysand noticed. Of course he did.
“Why is it happening so quickly?” he demanded as Madja shucked the comforter off the bed, nimble hands moving to remove Feyre’s pants.
“I don’t know, Your Highness.” It was then that Feyre saw the horror wash over both the Healer’s and High Lord’s faces as they crossed over her bare pelvis.
Clenching the sheets in her fist, Feyre ground out, “What is it?” She snarled when neither Fae deigned to answer her. “So help me, Rhys-”
“Blood. A lot of it.” Madja’s words were clipped. She turned to Rhys. “Get help, any Healer you can find.”
With one final, scared look at Feyre, the High Lord of the Night Court disappeared into the shadows.
Tears pricked at the backs of her eyes, and Feyre let out a sob. “I need Mor, I need Amren,” she said, fighting to keep her voice steady.
Madja didn’t respond.
Drawing on whatever power she had, Feyre sent a message to Mor, to Amren, to Azriel, to Elain, to Nesta, to Lucien, even to Cassian.
Come to the House of the Wind, she begged them, fueling all of her fear into her power. She needed all of them to be there when the baby came. Her baby. But if it was serious, if it was as bad as Madja seemed to think it…
Her mate’s voice resounded in her mind. It’s okay, love, it’s okay. Everything’s going to be okay.
No, no it wasn’t okay. If she lost her child, the child Aife had imprisoned herself for, Feyre would never forgive herself. Not in a million years, not in a thousand lives. Cassian would hate her, the entire court would ridicule her.
You know that’s not true, Rhysand said in a sincere tone. Now please, please darling, calm down.
“You’re in good hands, Your Majesty.” Madja’s words snapped her back to her senses. “I need you to work with me.”
Ignoring the pain, Feyre nodded. “What do you need me to do?” she panted.
Rhysand reappeared with three other Fae, clad in the same simple outfit as Madja. One with fair skin carried a wooden bowl to Feyre’s side, mouth pressed in a tight line. “Drink this,” he instructed, holding the liquid to her lips.
Feyre obeyed, letting the Healer tilt the foul-smelling drink down her throat. She let her head fall back against the pillows, trying to adjust to the tingling sensation shooting through her body.
“Rhys,” she murmured, vision fogging.
The mattress dipped beneath her, the scent of citrus and sea clogging her nostrils. “I’m here, darling.” His warm mouth ran over her cheek.
Feyre nuzzled into the touch. “Don’t leave me.”
“Of course not,” he said. Rhysand’s soft voice seemed to be the only tether she had to reality, from not descending into a spiral of despair.
As the Healers crowded around her, examining her with concerned expressions, Feyre forced herself to cling to Rhys-not his body, but his essence, the bond tying them to one another.
She prayed that it would be enough to pull them out of this terrifying situation.
Tamlin slammed a book on the table, and Cassian just about jumped out of his skin.
“Nothing in there,” the male hiccuped and reached for another volume on the stack he and Cassian had accumulated.
Cassian rubbed his temples, muttering curses as he scanned the pages before him. His lack of sleep was beginning to mess with his mind, scrambling the words in the books.
So far, he’d learned nothing of importance. The few instances in which curses broke involved the relinquishing of the deal-maker. Though he wished it wasn’t true, Cassian knew Keir would never release Aife’s bargain. He could always get Az to use Truthteller to convince him…
That would only increase the tension between the two courts, but at this point, Cassian was running out of ideas.
Tamlin took a swig of his liquor and wiped his mouth on the sleeve of his green tunic. “What if we just left her there?” he said.
Cassian’s growl was instinctual. “I am not leaving my mate with the ruler of the Court of Nightmares.”
“Hypocrite,” Tamlin muttered, brushing his hair away from his face. “You and your friends took Feyre away because you were convinced she could fight for herself.”
“So?” snorted Cassian.
Though his eyes were glazed over, Tamlin’s words were sure. “So now when your female is in danger, you want to fight her battles? Fix her messes?”
Cassian chewed the inside of his cheek. “It’s not like that.”
With the grace of a High Lord, Tamlin settled into the chair across from Cassian. “Enlighten me,” he said with a mocking flick of his wrist.
The chair creaked as the Illyrian leaned back and crossed his arms. “I’m not fighting for Aife, I’m fighting with her. There’s a difference.” At Tamlin’s raised brow, he continued. “We both want to get her out of this deal, so we’re both working to do it.”
“She was the one to agree to Keir’s offer,” Tamlin pointed out. “How could you know what she wants?”
Cassian just stared at Tamlin, shocked at his stupidity. “You really are oblivious when it comes to females.”
The High Lord’s cheeks reddened. “I beg your pardon?” he snarled.
“You heard me.” Cassian stood and flared his wings, working out the cramps that had developed over the night. “There are oppressed females throughout the Spring Court, and you don’t even notice.”
Tamlin only rolled his eyes. “This is your first time in the Spring Court in decades. You don’t know the state of my citizens.”
“No. But Aife did.”
At that, Tamlin got to his feet and drained his glass. “You speak of her like she’s already dead,” he spat.
Cassian’s blood turned to fire, and he moved to snarl in Tamlin’s face. “Watch. Your. Mouth.”
Though Cassian could scent Tamlin’s fear, the High Lord didn’t so much as move. “I know what it’s like to have your female taken to a dark court known for its cruelty,” he said. “And you helped take her from me. But I’ve looked past that and offered you my help, so you would be kind enough not to threaten me.”
Reluctantly, Cassian stepped back. His eyes dropped to the books on the table, the empty glasses. “Do you have any ideas?” he asked.
Tamlin frowned. “We still have a few more stacks of books-”
“I know, but those things are ancient. I’m asking you.”
Claws punched from his knuckles, but not from anger. No, Tamlin just tapped them thoughtfully against the table, following the natural grooves in the wood.
“There’s a Suriel in my forest,” he mused. “It might help us.”
Cassian nodded, eager to do something rather than sit around. “I assume you have a spare cloak somewhere in this massive house.”
Tamlin waved his hand, and a cloak materialized, slung over his arm. He gave Cassian a wide grin, something Cassian hadn’t seen in a long time.
So he grinned back.
“How long does this usually take?” Cassian asked, crossing his arms.
Tamlin frowned at the snare they’d set up, the crimson cloak rippling in the winter wind. “Not sure. I haven’t done this in ages.”
The Illyrian grunted his understanding, peering around the clearing from his hiding place in the bushes. They’d been out here for half an hour, now, with no sign of the Suriel. Cassian was getting impatient.
He turned to Tamlin. “Did you bring any-”
Tamlin clapped his hand over Cassian’s mouth, holding a finger to his own lips in a shushing gesture. At the flare of Cassian’s wings, Tamlin jerked his chin to the clearing. The Illyrian followed his gaze.
There, prodding the hem of the cloak with a bony finger, hunched the Suriel. It’s wide, empty eyes roved over the fabric.
Come on, come on. Cassian watched as it finally grabbed for the cloak.
A snap echoed through the forest, and the Suriel let out an inhuman yelp as the snare pulled its feet towards the sky, suspending it over the fallen leaves.
Cassian whooped as he leaped out of the hedges, that Illyrian triumph taking over his movements. From the corner of his eye, he saw Tamlin shaking his head incredulously.
The Suriel just blinked up at him, eyes focused on his face. “What do you require?” it asked in a slithery voice.
Cassian gathered himself enough to speak. “My mate’s bargain. I need it to be broken.”
The creature might have laughed, but what came out was a hollow, roaring, animalistic sound. “The Soul-Seeker. I heard the rumors, but… I should have known.”
“Aife is a strange sort of creature,” it hummed. “Not of this world, but not from another.”
At Cassian’s clear confusion, it continued. “Like your friend Amren, Suriels do not come from Prythian. When the worlds ripped open, courtesy of a certain Fire-Bringer, a few curious members of our kind traveled here. They made their mark on Prythian and still do. But your mate is part Fae, and part Other. She isn’t supposed to exist, but she does.”
“What does any of this have to do with the bargain?” Cassian demanded.
The Suriel shrugged. “Aife achieves the impossible. She was given a prophecy a few weeks ago and managed to obliterate it.”
Cassian searched his mind for any mention of a prophecy but found none. Had his High Lord and High Lady chosen to hide this from him, too?
“When the fate of the world was put into place, Aife wasn’t considered,” the creature explained. “Nesta was intended to be your mate, but Aife’s presence alone changed that.”
Cassian’s eyes narrowed. Nesta was his mate? But how? “What are you saying?”
The Suriel smiled at him, its needle-sharp teeth showing. “Oh, this is good. The tension, the doubt… I can scent the drama already.”
“Is Aife my mate?” he growled.
“Yes,” hissed the Suriel. “But, for a time, Nesta was your mate. Aife changed your fate, as she did for the heirs of the Night Court. She can change everything .”
Tamlin stepped to Cassian’s side, brow furrowed. “How can she do that? Destroy a prophecy, change the mating bond itself, one of the rawest aspects of Fae?”
The Suriel chuckled again, and a chill skittered down Cassian’s spine. “Even I don’t know. And I don’t believe she does either.” It seemed to recognize Cassian’s dread, his fear as he thought to all the times Aife had said she loved him, all the memories they shared. Had it all been a big lie?
“She’s too young to be doing it knowingly,” the Suriel assured. “It has to be some sort of subconscious instinct. Then again, the Soul-Seeker does what the Soul-Seeker wishes.”
Cassian took a shaky breath, his gaze snapping up to the Suriel. “Then why hasn’t she broken from this bargain herself?” he asked.
“She doesn’t know the power she holds,” the creatures said. “I assume she’s been holding herself back, perhaps only allowing herself to look at the souls of others without changing them. You seemed to be the only exception when she altered your soul to match her own.”
This wasn’t happening. This couldn’t be happening. Aife was powerful, but not that powerful.
The Suriel’s mouth stretched into a wide smile. “She forgets what she is,” it purred. “If you want the bargain broken, all you need to do is remind her. She’ll do the rest.”
“How?” he asked. “Our bond is weak.”
“Find her, Lord of Bloodshed. Find your Soul-Seeker and let her unleash herself upon her enemies.”
It was then that an impossible voice rang through his mind. I’m in Summer. Aife.
The Suriel seemed to read his mind, eyes flashing with curiosity. “Go,” it said.
Tamlin glanced to Cassian, his mouth downturned. “If she is as powerful as this creature claims, it doesn’t matter if she’s your mate. She must be returned to whatever world she’s come from or she will rip Prythian apart.”
Cassian’s wings twitched, and he snapped them open. “That may be,” he said quietly. “But she is my mate. I would rather rip the world apart myself than lose her.”
He leaped into the sky to find Aife and bring her home. In that moment, it didn’t matter to him if she had altered his soul, it didn’t matter that she’d drastically changed his fate.
Cassian loved her, so much that it scared him.
Aife was in the cove five minutes before the guard was scheduled to arrive.
It was a humble little place, a cave formed from the tide and rock of the shore. Though hidden away from everything, she had a clear view of the palace, especially the guard towers at either side. Neither had noticed when she entered the cove, and she hoped to keep it that way.
She shed her silk gown, reducing it to a vibrant pink puddle at her feet. Acting on some unknown instinct, Aife reached toward the back of the cove and found a pile of folded clothes. Illyrian fighting leathers.
Working quickly, she slipped the gear on and snapped the buckles in place. The guard’s footsteps resounded through the cove’s entrance, and Aife willed her fear to be pushed down as far as possible.
“Hello?” the guard called. Aife scented his arousal, and her lip curled in a snarl. Males and their primitive ways…
Whether she gave her consent or not, he probably planned to take her. He didn’t care if she was injured or worried. None of them did.
It was then that Aife realized the control she had over the situation. Keir wasn’t holding her back anymore, didn’t care how she acted now. He wanted the same thing she did.
He wanted the male dead.
As the male stalked deeper into the gave, Aife whipped the diadem off her head and pressed her finger to the amber jewel. Brightness flashed through the cove, illuminating the male’s shock.
And then Siafft was in her hand, its hilt more of a comfort than a weight. Aife spread her wings in a dominant gesture. “What a shame,” she tsked, reveling in the fear coating his scent. “I would have expected more from a palace guard.”
She felt his mouth open in the dark, felt him struggle for a response, but chose not to let him answer.
Aife slashed out, some unknown force guiding her blade. A choked, gurgling noise sounded, followed by a soft thud. The Illyrian couldn’t bring herself to care as she stooped to grab her discarded dress and tuck it into her belt.
No evidence, Keir’s voice sounded. For the first time, Aife agreed.
Perhaps she’d been wrong to push this violent nature away. Perhaps she should embrace it, feel the song with which her sword sang, the beautiful destruction it caused. Even Rylin’s memories, in her centuries of service to Keir, weren’t all bad.
To her surprise, Aife laughed as she left the cove, laughed as she took flight. She flew above the clouds, heading for the treasury her Demon companions had discovered.
Blood dripped off Siafft’s tip, ribbons of scarlet dancing through the air. Aife was surprised by the euphoria the guard’s demise had brought on.
Maybe she’d underestimated the power of a good, just kill.
The guard assigned to guard the treasury at this hour was the same who lay dead in the cove. Aife smirked to herself as she landed in front of the golden vault, cracked so slightly, one wouldn’t notice unless they carefully examined it.
At the sight of the skillfully picked lock, she realized it must have been the yellow-skinned Maxis. His memories had revealed him as a past thief, so he was the most likely culprit.
“Miss me?” she purred as she slid through the entryway to join the Demons.
Rylin turned, a half-filled sack of what Aife assumed to be blood rubies clutched in her hand. She raised an eyebrow at Aife’s confident tone. “The guard?”
In answer, Aife lifted her bloodstained blade. Rylin nodded curtly.
Jaimes chucked a balled-up canvas bag at her. “Hurry,” he snapped, pale eyes flashing.
Glaring at him, Aife tapped Siafft’s hilt and placed the newly transformed diadem atop her unbound hair. She made her way to where they stood, surrounding a trunk of jewels.
She scooped the gleaming rubies in great heaps into her bag, moving as quickly and quietly as she could. Though the guards weren’t due back for another couple minutes, Keir didn’t want to risk any lagging.
Shaking her head, Aife blinked a few times. How did she know what Keir wanted, as he ordered it? The bargain she’d made with Serta must have indeed been complex.
A scuffle came from the hallway, and the confused shouts of guards spilled into the treasury. Maxis swore under his breath and shook the black hair from his eyes. “Mother above, can we ever catch a break?”
Rylin opened her mouth to speak, but Aife beat her to it. “I’ll buy us some time, you three finish gathering the rubies and get out of here. I’ll fly back if I have to.”
The three gave her tight, reluctant nods. Make as little damage as you can, Rylin warned. We’ll wait for you in the garden.
Jaimes looked as though he wanted to say something, but didn’t so much as move away from the trunk.
The guard’s voices grew louder, and Aife reached for Siafft, quickly changing it back into a sword. She dropped her sack and stalked down the hallway of the treasury, following the scent of the guards.
She turned a corner, and there they stood, their armor gleaming in the torchlight. Siafft held at her side, Aife flared her wings and flashed her fangs in warning.
Tarquin’s guards didn’t stand a chance.
After what seemed like years, Cassian entered the airspace of the Summer Court.
He headed straight for the capital, preparing himself for the tongue-lashing Rhysand was sure to give him. Wincing at the thought of the building he’d toppled, Cassian landed a few blocks short of the palace. There would be no benefit to revealing his presence to Tarquin.
Wings tucked in tight, he strode for the palace, shouldering the pedestrians aside with mutters of “Excuse me”. Though he couldn’t scent his mate, he had a nagging sensation that she was still here.
He’d sent messages back, asking where she was, but there was no answer. Cassian wasn’t worried, though. He’d find her.
As he ascended the palace steps, headed for the throne room which could be entered by all, not just royalty, a guard called for him. “Sir, wait!”
Cassian groaned. Not even inside, and he was already caught. Rhysand was going to kill him.
Before the guard could see anything but his leathery wings, Cassian sprinted down a hallway, ignoring the guard’s indignant shouts. He had to get to Aife first, that was his main priority. He’d deal with the politics later.
He spun down another corridor, feet flying. Shouts echoed behind him, but Cassian didn’t dare look back. Because, after over a day of searching, he’d found Aife’s scent.
It was tinged with blood and sweat, and it came from far down the corridor. He picked up speed but skidded to a halt. A guard had rounded the corner, his face red with exertion, and was facing Cassian with wild eyes.
Panicking, the Illyrian slammed open the nearest door and threw himself inside, fumbling with the lock. He’d just let himself breathe when Tarquin spoke from the opposite side of the room.
“I told you not to return to my court,” the High Lord said coldly, eyes icy as he stared Cassian down.
But Cassian didn’t balk from his gaze. “My mate is in your palace somewhere, and I’m just here to find her. I’ll be out of your court in an instant.”
For emphasis, he unlocked the door and let the guard pounding at the wood stumble through. “Your Majesty,” the guard breathed at the sight of Tarquin. “I’m so sorry to disturb you, but the emissaries have gone missing.”
Tarquin looked undisturbed, calmly picking at his nails. “I’m aware. They’re in the treasury, now, about to be surrounded by my most elite warriors.”
The guard’s dark eyes blew wide. “How did you know-”
“I’ve had other courts try to steal from me before.” He cast a pointed look at Cassian. “I’ve learned to think two steps ahead.”
Biting back a sharp retort, Cassian said, “Have you seen a new female enter the palace? Dark skin, dark hair, small stature… “
Tarquin’s eyes glittered with understanding. “One of the Day emissaries. I did think it strange that they had an Illyrian in their midst.”
Cassian felt he couldn’t breathe, couldn’t think. “Where?” was all he said.
“About to be captured by my guards.” Tarquin’s look was nothing but smug. “Would you care to join me? I look forward to seeing the look on their faces.”
Schooling his face into neutrality, Cassian nodded and followed Tarquin out of the study.
It had to be Keir who was making Aife do this. She was many things, but she was not a thief. His heart leaped in excitement as her scent grew stronger, thinking of how he wanted to hold her in his arms, protect her from everything and everyone who ever threatened her again. After he finished ripping off Keir’s limbs one by one.
All he had to do was let her look at his eyes, make her see his memories. She’d hear the Suriel’s words and remember who she was and what she was capable of. Everything would go back to normal.
But when he finally saw her, saw his beautiful mate who he’d been searching for, all his hope went out the window.
Aife slashed a golden sword through the air, dark wings spread behind her. With every movement she made, another of Tarquin’s guards fell. Every strangled cry seemed to spur her on, moving impossibly faster than before.
It was the fire in her eyes, the smirk curving her lips, that made his heart drop.
“Get back, Your Highness,” he snapped, grabbing Tarquin’s arm and pushing him behind his wings.
Face pale, Tarquin made no move to disobey as Cassian drew a blade from his belt, eyes focused on Aife face.
“Stop this,” he bellowed as she sprang onto another male. Just as she drew her arm back to stab through the guard’s armor, Cassian jumped to defend him.
Their blades met in a clash of steel on steel, and he heard Aife’s vicious growl of annoyance rip through the air. He kept his eyes on her face, even when she danced away.
“Look at me, angel,” he pleaded. Aife only ran her fingers through her tangled hair, pulling a few strands from her mouth.
Her head lifted, though her eyes remained on the bodies littered at her feet. “I am not your angel,” she snarled, lifting her sword in front of her. “I am Keir’s Demon. And I have no loyalty to you.”
When Cassian opened his mouth to respond, she attacked. He barely had time to raise his sword before she was upon him. Aife’s style was quicker than when they’d last fought, more agile, and it took no small effort from Cassian to keep her from striking him.
“I don’t want to hurt you,” he breathed as she feigned left. He almost fell for it and barely dodged her right slash.
Aife spun away and held her sword in front of her, chest rising and falling rapidly. Despite her panting, Aife’s golden eyes, focused on his wings, were nothing short of wicked.
“Hello, Tarquin,” she purred, looking up at him through her lashes. “Fancy meeting you here.”
“It’s my palace,” Tarquin reminded her tightly, a hand on the knife at his waist. Cassian could see the barely contained rage on his face.
Aife grinned. “Is it? Hadn’t noticed.”
Without another word, she spun on her heel and ran in the opposite direction, hair streaking behind her. Cursing, Cassian followed, Tarquin at his heels.
When the hallway hit a dead end, Cassian frowned. “Where’d she go?” he snapped, spinning around.
He turned to face Tarquin, who looked just as lost as he did. “I don’t know,” the High Lord said sharply, looking around.
Too late, Cassian saw the shadow on the ceiling, watched helplessly as Aife dropped onto the male. “Tarquin!” he shouted.
The High Lord could only whip out his knife before Aife was upon him, dark wings outstretched. He collapsed underneath her, muscles going taunt as he strained to escape her hold.
The female barked a dry laugh. “You cannot stop us,” she snarled, her sword dangerously close to Tarquin’s fragile neck. “The Court of Nightmares will rise again.”
And then Cassian was knocking her to the ground, hands flying to hold back her sword hand. He was bigger than her, heavier than her, and she was easily pinned beneath him. Her sword clattered to the floor.
“Look at me,” Cassian said through gritted teeth, leaning down close to her face.
Aife closed her eyes, muscles tensed. She snapped her teeth at him, bared her canines, writhed against his grip.
“Look at me!” he roared, his voice cracking on the last word. Why wouldn’t she look at him? What had happened to her in the day they’d been apart?
To his horror, Aife stopped moving, let herself go limp in his arms. Though her eyes were still closed, she began to weep.
“Please please please, let me go,” she begged, tears staining her cheeks. “If you love me, you would let me go. I didn’t mean to… I didn’t mean for any of this to happen.”
She tilted her head to the side, her eyes snapping open. “Tarquin,” she whispered, “If you cared for any females, if you cared for Cressida, for Feyre, make him let me go. He’s hurting me,” she cried.
The sound was so heartbreaking, so utterly wretched, that Cassian released her. He climbed off of her carefully, cautiously, sword still in his hand.
“Aife, look at me,” he said softly, watching as she shakily sat up, sniffing. Even Tarquin’s features had softened with concern, though he held his pitiful knife toward her.
The female stood, her arms wrapped around her stomach, wings drooping. She glanced up-not to Cassian, but to Tarquin. She gave him a small smile.
“I’m sorry,” she admitted and paused. A wild look entered her eyes. “ that you’re such a gullible High Lord.”
Cassian reached for her, but faster than wind, Aife scooped up her sword, spread her wings, and launched herself through the stained glass window in the wall behind her.
Scrambling to find his own wings, Cassian flew after her, sword outstretched. Aife, what are you doing? He sent down the bond, hoping that someway, somehow, she would hear him.
As she swooped down the streets, Cassian raised his hands. Mother help me.
He sent blast after blast of red energy to block her path, Siphons sparking with power. With a quick, nimble beat of her wings, Aife avoided every shield.
Until Cassian created a sphere of power. Until Aife was trapped in that unavoidable killing energy.
He let himself breathe easily, let his wing beats slow as he approached the female thrashing against the red magic.
It was then that Feyre’s plea for help entered his mind. Come to the House of the Wind, she said, the pain and desperation clear in her voice.
Cassian was too focused on her message that he let his shield down-just for a second. But it was all Aife needed.
With the strength of a warrior, she shattered the red cage holding her captive, snapped her wings open, and flew away. Cassian shouted for her, begged her to return to him. She disappeared before he even gained enough momentum to fly after her.
Exhausted, Cassian let himself collapse on a roof of one of the nearby buildings, panting heavily. It had been so hard to summon his magic, so draining to fly. Why?
He put a hand on his hip and felt an unfamiliar bulge in the pocket of his pants. Curious, he pulled out whatever was inside. His stomach plunged, and he dropped the blue-ish rock immediately.
Faebane. Aife had slipped Faebane in his pocket without him noticing.
Utterly defeated, Cassian forced himself to his feet and flared his wings. His allegiance belonged firstly to his High Lord and High Lady. And Feyre had called him.
Battling the despair sinking his heart, Cassian took to the skies, clutching to the hope that, one day, Aife would come back to him.
Even if it took a thousand years, Cassian wouldn’t give up on getting his mate back. No matter what it took.
Feyre screamed as another wave of pain racked her body, piercing her center.
“Something’s wrong,” she panted, arching her back against the bed.
Her mate’s face might have been chiseled from stone, his eyes glazed over as he beheld the scene. Madja’s arms were bloodied from the elbow down, her voice clipped as she called for her tools, for assistance.
Feyre groaned, fists clenching and unclenching the sheets. Her power, whatever dregs she had left, reached for the life inside, searching for the baby’s new mind.
She found nothing.
“Rhys,” she moaned, blinking up at her mate through tears. “Rhys, he’s not…” Another agonizing contraction cut her off, and Feyre shrieked.
Rhysand leaned down onto the bed, ignoring the crimson stains on the fabric. He pressed his face into Feyre’s palm, eyes gleaming.
His lips formed the words, “I love you,” but no sound came. A tear dropped down his lovely cheekbones, and Feyre brushed it away with a tattooed hand. Fear, raw and undiluted, sunk into her bones.
Madja’s voice was firm when she said, “It’s time to push, my lady.”
Mustering all the strength she could, Feyre obeyed.
Morrigan let out a frustrating string of curse words, tugging at her hair as she paced through the living room.
“What could possibly be taking so long,” she growled.
Lucien’s arm tightened around Elain’s shoulders, and Azriel felt a pang of jealousy. Though Elain had long ago chosen to accept the bond, accept her mate, Azriel still felt that emptiness echoing through his bones.
He let his shadows curl around his ears. What’s going on in there? He asked them.
Your brother returns, the darkness hissed.
A thud sounded behind him, coming from the balcony. Azriel turned to face a weary Cassian, face drawn and mouth tight. “Where’s Feyre?” he asked, voice hoarse.
Azriel took in his rumpled appearance. He wore the same clothes from yesterday, his hair appeared to be in the same loose knot, and shadows hung under his eyes.
“You look like you’ve been dragged across the Steppes by your wings,” he commented.
Cassian didn’t respond. At his distraught countenance, Azriel stepped forward to embrace his brother, clapping him on the back. “Did you find her?” he said, quiet enough that the others didn’t hear.
“I did,” Cassian began but was interrupted when Rhysand winnowed into the room. Azriel immediately knew something was wrong from the shakiness of the High Lord’s power, the way the clouds of blackness took a moment too long to dissipate.
Amren straightened, perceptive eyes pinning Rhysand to the spot. “Feyre?” she asked.
Rhysand nodded, his glazed over eyes scanning the room. “Alive.”
At the unspoken question, the male cleared his throat and lifted his chin. Azriel watched it wobble.
“Stillborn.” The word was a strangled noise at the back of Rhysand’s throat.
Mor rushed forward in time to catch him as the High Lord of the Night Court fell to his knees and sobbed.
And Cassian, strong, brave Cassian who never let his mask of confidence slip, let out a cry of utter, unbridled misery. Azriel braced an arm under his shoulders to support him, shock coursing through his veins.
Both of his brothers wept, their keening a song of sorrow that made Azriel’s heartache. The reality of the situation finally sunk into the Shadowsinger.
The future that Feyre and Rhysand, that all of them had fought for, bled for, even died for… It was no more.
So Azriel joined his brothers, tears fall freely down his face. Elain sniffed beside him, and Lucien leaned forward to wipe her tears. Azriel couldn’t find it in him to be envious.
But Nesta only stood from the couch with a disdainful sniff, turned on her heel, and left.
Aife returned to a feast, spread over the table in the main room of her quarters.
She ran a finger over the plates and cutlery at the four places on the table, frowning at the finery. It didn’t seem to fit the cutthroat nature of the Demons.
Footsteps sounded, and Aife glanced up to Jaimes, standing in the doorway. His cobalt hair had been combed to one side, his sheer tunic of the Day Court discarded for a simple red shirt and pants.
He smirked at her, obsidian eyes alight with mischief. “You’ve adjusted quickly,” he said.
Her thoughts went to the diadem still sitting atop her hair, hints of blood at its edges. She’d cut down those males like they were nothing, outflown Cassian with the speed of a thousand currents. Though she didn’t show it, pride bloomed in her chest.
“I don’t spook easily.” She reached for a buttery dinner roll, its warmth seeping into her fingers, frozen from the frigid air. “Who makes this?”
“I did,” Jaimes announced before plopping ungracefully into a chair. He drew a thick piece of meat onto his plate.
Rylin’s raven hair was disheveled when she sat opposite Aife, her lips swollen. Aife’s nose scrunched in distaste at the scent of arousal.
Jaimes reaction wasn’t as subtle. “Mother above, Ry, could you and Maxis at least clean yourself before dinner?” he snapped, waving a hand in front of his nose.
Pouring herself a glass of wine, Rylin said, “Please. You’ve smelled worse, especially living in that pigsty you call a bedroom.”
Maxis promptly entered the room and smacked Jaimes upside the head. He yelped, rubbing his hair as Maxis lowered into a chair. “The Cauldron was that for?”
“Being a pest,” Maxis responded with a wolfish grin.
Aife was serving herself from the dish of roasted potatoes when Rylin asked, “What’d you think of the mission, Aife?”
She blinked up at the female. “It went well.”
“What kept you from joining us in the garden?” Rylin pushed. “We heard that you had some trouble.”
Aife picked over her food, the tines of her fork whining as she scraped it against the white china. “Nothing I couldn’t handle. Keir underestimated Tarquin-he was prepared for our heist.”
Something flickered through Jaimes' eyes. “What of the Illyrian male? We saw him running through the palace,” he added at Rylin and Maxis’ questioning looks.
Aife frowned at the memories that pounded at the back of her mind. He’s your mate, not your enemy. You shouldn’t have stolen from Tarquin, shouldn’t have killed those guards. They had families, lives-
An unknown force smothered the thoughts, winking out the sliver of light shining into her mind. Her mouth quirked upwards. “I have history with the Night Court,” she said. It was the truth. “It seems they tracked me down.”
Rylin bristled at the mention of the Night Court. A beat passed, and she glanced to Maxis. Aife read the look. It was the same one Cassian had given her so many times before.
“Not in front of my chicken,” Jaimes groaned. He glanced to Aife. “Thank the Cauldron I’m not mated. These two are disgusting.”
Maxis stuck his tongue out. “Green isn’t a good color on you, Jaim.”
Scoffing, Jaimes just cut at his chicken.
Rylin was studying Aife with a guarded expression. After a few moments, Aife snarled, “What?”
“You carry the scent of someone I knew once,” she mused. “Do you have more than a history with the Night Court?”
She opened her mouth to say that the General was her mate when the words died in her throat. What was she thinking? She’d sworn to herself she wouldn’t reveal the significance he held over her, that bond she still held in the deepest confines of her mind.
It’d been a day, and Aife was already a killer, a thief, and now she was about to betray the male she loved.
What had happened to her?
“I spent quite a lot of time with the High Lord’s General,” she managed, choking back the truth that threatened to spill out of her.
They don’t know I’m daemati.
Aife looked up to meet Rylin’s violet eyes, making it so their connection wasn’t just mental. I know. You hide it well. So why reveal it to me?
“For the last time, Max, chicken is better than pork,” Jaimes snapped.
Rylin’s gaze shifted to her lover as he shot back a retort, broad shoulders tightening. You’re Cassian’s mate she said simply.
And that somehow makes me more trustworthy? Aife couldn’t help the biting tone she took, even inside her head.
Rylin stared at her from across the table. It’s not what you are. It’s what Cassian thinks of you. In Summer, he came after you-not to fight you, but to fight for you.
Aife tried to agree, but that vicious hatred burned through her mind, coating her words. He is nothing to me.
Sadness danced over Rylin’s features, as if she were looking on a critically ill friend. Don’t let Keir change you, too she whispered.
Aife clung to her words as the darkness again spread through her thoughts, that bargain on her soul like a thorn of anger.
Jaimes tipped his head back and laughed, snagging the attention of both females. “You wouldn’t know a good rotisserie if it slapped you across the face,” he taunted.
“No, because I spend my time in the training room rather than the kitchen,” Maxis fired back.
Jaimes glanced to Maxis’ round belly, sticking out over his waistband. “Doesn’t look like it.”
Rylin roared with laughter at the look on Maxis’ face. It had gone red, and Aife wouldn’t have been surprised if it had started steaming.
The male put his hand into the dish of potatoes and hurled them at Jaimes, who let out a string of colorful curses as the food splattered over her face. “You piece of… “
He launched himself at Maxis, knocking the plates a dishes to the floor. Aife let out a shout of gleeful outrage as the two males hit the ground, a clash of limbs and fists.
Rylin met Aife’s eyes over the table, their faces a mirror of amused grins and bright eyes. In that moment, among the chaos, the darkness, the despair, Aife felt that fire inside her flare to life. As if sensing the change, Rylin winked at her.
Maybe, just maybe, they had a chance. A chance, not to survive, but to live-to be free of Keir’s bargain.
Aife let herself reach for that hope, hidden among her twisted thoughts.
Before her soul was plunged back into darkness.